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Category: The Price of the Prairie, A Story of Kansas
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And how can man die better Than facing fearful odds For the ashes of his fathers And the temples of his gods? --Macaulay

There was only one church bell in Springvale for many years. It called to prayers, or other public service. It sounded the alarm of fire, and tolled for the dead. It was our school-bell and wedding-bell. It clanged in terror when the Cheyennes raided eastward in '67, and it pealed out solemnly for the death of Abraham Lincoln. It chimed on Christmas Eve and rang in each New Year. Its two sad notes that were tolled for the years of the little Judson baby had hardly ceased their vibrations when it broke forth into a ringing, joyous resonance for the finding of O'mie alive.

 

O'mie was taken to our home. No other woman's hands were so strong and gentle as the hands of Candace Baronet. Everybody felt that O'mie could be trusted nowhere else. It was hard for Cam and Dollie at first, but when Dollie found she might cook every meal and send it up to my aunt, she was more reconciled; while Cam came and went, doing a multitude of kindly acts. This was long before the days of telephones, and a hundred steps were needed for every one taken to-day.

In the weeks that followed, O'mie hung between life and death. With all the care and love given him, his strength wasted away. He had been cruelly beaten, and cuts and bruises showed how terrible had been his fight for freedom.

At first he talked deliriously, but in the weakness that followed he lay motionless hour on hour. And with the fever burning out his candle of life, we waited the end. How heavy-hearted we were in those days! It seemed as though all Springvale claimed the orphan boy. And daily, morning and evening, a messenger from Red Range came for word of him, bearing always offers of whatever help we would accept from the kind-hearted neighborhood.

Father Le Claire had come into our home with the bringing of O'mie, and gentle as a woman's were his ministrations. One evening, when the end of earthly life seemed near for O'mie, the priest took me by the arm, and we went down to the "Rockport" point together. The bushes were growing very rank about my old playground and trysting place. I saw Marjie daily, for she came and went about our house with quiet usefulness. But our hands and hearts were full of the day's sad burden, and we hardly spoke to each other. Marjie's nights were spent mostly with poor Mrs. Judson, whose grief was wearing deep grooves into the young mother face.

To-night Le Claire and I sat down on the rock and breathed deeply of the fresh June air. Below us, for many a mile, the Neosho lay like a broad belt of silver in the deepening shadows of the valley, while all the West Prairie was aflame with the sunset lights. The world was never more beautiful, and the spirit of the Plains seemed reaching out glad hands to us who were so strong and full of life. All day we had watched beside the Irish boy. His weakened pulse-beat showed how steadily his strength was ebbing. He had fallen asleep now, and we dared not think what the waking might be for us.

"Philip, when O'mie is gone, I shall leave Springvale," the priest began. "I think that Jean Pahusca has at last decided to go to the Osages. He probably will never be here again. But if he should come--" Le Claire paused as if the words pained him--"remember you cannot trust him. I have no tie that binds me to you. I shall go to the West. I feel sure the Plains Indians need me now more than the Osages and the Kaws."

I listened silently, not caring to question why either O'mie or Jean should bind him anywhere. The former was all but lost to me already. Of the latter I did not care to think.

"And before I go, I want to tell you something I know of O'mie," Le Claire went on.

I had wondered often at the strange sort of understanding I knew existed between himself and O'mie. I began to listen more intently now, and for the first time since leaving the Hermit's Cave I thought of the knife with the script lettering. I shrank from questioning him or showing him the thing. I had something of my father's patience in letting events tell me what I wanted to know. So I asked no questions, but let him speak.

"O'mie comes by natural right into a dislike, even hatred, of the red race. It may be I know something more of him than anyone else in Springvale knows. His story is a romance and a tragedy, stranger than fiction. In the years to come, when hate shall give place to love in our nation, when the world is won to the church, a younger generation will find it hard to picture the life their forefathers lived."

The priest's brow darkened and his lips were compressed, as if he found it hard to speak what he would say.

"I come to you, Philip, because your experience here has made you a man who were only a boy yesterday; because you love O'mie; because you have been able to keep a quiet tongue; and most of all, because you are John Baronet's son, and heir, I believe, to his wisdom. Most of O'mie's story is known to your father. He found it out just before he went to the war. It is a tragical one. The boy was stolen by a band of Indians when he was hardly more than a baby. It was a common trick of the savages then; it may be again as our frontier creeps westward."

The priest paused and looked steadily out over the Neosho Valley, darkening in the twilight.

"You know how you felt when O'mie was lost. Can you imagine what his mother felt when she found her boy was stolen? Her husband was away on a trapping tour, had been away for a long time, and she was alone. In a very frenzy, she started out on the prairie to follow the Indians. She suffered terrible hardship, but Providence brought her at last to the Osage Mission, whose doors are always open to the distressed. And here she found a refuge. A strange thing happened then. While Patrick O'Meara, O'mie's father, was far from home, word had reached him that his wife was dead. Coming down the Arkansas River, O'Meara chanced to fall in with some Mexicans who had a battle with a band of Indians at Pawnee Rock. With these Indians was a little white boy, whom O'Meara rescued. It was his own son, although he did not know it, and he brought the little one to the Mission on the Neosho.

"Philip, it is vouchsafed to some of us to know a bit of heaven here on earth. Such a thing came to Patrick O'Meara when he found his wife alive, and the baby boy was restored to her. They were happy together for a little while. But Mrs. O'Meara never recovered from her hardships on the prairie, and her husband was killed by the Comanches a month after her death. Little O'mie, dying up there now, was left an orphan at the Mission. You have heard Mrs. Gentry tell of his coming here. Your father is the only one here who knows anything of O'mie's history. If he never comes back, you must take his place."

The purple shadows of twilight were folding down upon the landscape. In the soft light the priest's face looked dark and set.

"Why not tell me now what father knows?" I asked.

"I cannot tell you that now, Philip. Some day I may tell you another story. But it does not concern you or O'mie. What I want you to do is what your father will do if he comes home. If he should not come, he has written in his will what you must do. I need not tell you to keep this to yourself."

"Father Le Claire, can you tell me anything about Jean Pahusca, and where he is now?"

He rose hastily.

"We must not stay here." Then, kindly, he took my hand. "Yes, some day, but not now, not to-night." There was a choking in his voice, and I thought of O'mie.

We stood up and let the cool evening air ripple against our faces. The Neosho Valley was black now. Only here and there did we catch the glitter of the river. The twilight afterglow was still pink, but the sweep of the prairie was only a purple blur swathed in gray mist. Out of this purple softness, as we parted the bushes, we saw Marjie hurrying toward us.

"Phil, Phil!" she cried, "O'mie's taken a change for the better. He's been asleep for three hours, and now he is awake. He knew Aunt Candace and he asked for you. The doctor says he has a chance to live. Oh, Phil!" and Marjie burst into tears.

Le Claire took her hand and, putting it through my arm, he said, gently as my father might have done, "You are both too young for such a strain as this. Oh, this civil war! It robs you of your childhood. Too soon, too soon, you are men and women. Philip, take Marjory home. Don't hurry." He smiled as he spoke. "It will do you good to leave O'mie out of mind for a little while."

Then he hurried off to the sick room, leaving us together. It seemed years since that quiet April sunset when we gathered the pink flowers out in the draw, and I crowned Marjie my queen. It was now late June, and the first little yellow leaves were on the cottonwoods, telling that midsummer was near.

"Marjie," I said, putting the hand she had withdrawn through my arm again, "the moon is just coming up. Let's go out on the prairie a little while. Those black shadows down there distress me. I must have some rest from darkness."

We walked slowly out on Cliff Street and into the open prairie, which the great summer moon was flooding with its soft radiance. No other light is ever so regal as the full moon above the prairie, where no black shadows can checker and blot out and hem in its limitless glory. Marjie and I were young and full of vigor, but the steady drain on mind and heart, and the days and nights of broken rest, were not without effect. And yet to-night, with hope once more for O'mie's life, with a sense of lifted care, and with the high tide of the year pouring out its riches round about us, the peace of the prairies fell like a benediction on us, as we loitered about the grassy spaces, quiet and very happy.

Then the care for others turned our feet homeward. I must relieve Aunt Candace to-night by O'mie's side, and Marjie must be with her mother. The moonlight tempted us to linger a little longer as we passed by "Rockport," and we parted the bushes and stood on our old playground rock.

"Marjie, the moonlight makes a picture of you always," I said gently.

She did not answer, but gazed out across the valley, above whose dark greenery the silvery mists lay fold on fold. When she turned her face to mine, something in her eyes called up in me that inspiration that had come to be a part of my thought of her, that sense of a woman's worth and of her right to tenderest guardianship.

"Marjie"--I put both arms around her and drew her to me--"the best thing in the world is a good girl, and you are the best girl in the world." I held her close. It was no longer a boy's admiration, but a man's love that filled my soul that night. Marjie drew gently away.

"We must go now, Phil, indeed we must. Mother needs me."

Oh, I could wait her time. I took her arm and led her out to the street. The bushes closed behind us, and we went our way together. It was well we could not look back upon the rock. We had hardly left it when two figures climbed up from the ledge below and stood where we had been--two for whom the night had no charm and the prairie and valley had no beauty, a low-browed, black-eyed girl with a heart full of jealousy, and a tall, graceful, picturesquely handsome young Indian. They had joined forces, just as I had once felt they would sometime do. As I came whistling up the street on my way home I paused by the bushes, half inclined to go beyond them again. I was happy in every fiber of my being. But duty prodded me sharply to move on. I believe now that Jean Pahusca would have choked the life out of me had I met him face to face that moonlit night. Heaven turns our paths away from many an unknown peril, and we credit it all to our own choice of ways.

       *       *       *       *       *

Slowly but steadily O'mie came back to us. So far had he gone down the valley of the shadow, he groped with difficulty up toward the light again. He slept much, but it was life-giving sleep, and he was not overcome by delirium after that turning point in his illness. I think I never fully knew my father's sister till in those weeks beside the sickbed. It was not the medicine, nor the careful touch, it was herself--her wholesome, hopeful, trustful spirit--that seemed to enter into the very life of the sick one, and build him to health. I had rarely known illness, I who had muscles like iron, and the frame of a giant. My father was a man of wonderful vigor. It was not until O'mie was brought to our house that I understood why he should have been trusted to no one else.

We longed to know his story. The town had settled into its old groove. The victories of Gettysburg and Vicksburg had thrilled us, as the loss at Chancellorsville had depressed our spirits; and the war was our constant theme. And then the coming and going of traders and strangers on the old trail, the undercurrent of anxiety lest another conspiracy should gather, the Quantrill raid at Lawrence, all helped to keep us from lethargy. We had had our surprise, however. Strangers had to give an account of themselves to the home guard now. But we were softened toward our own townspeople. They were very discreet, and we must meet and do business with them daily. For the sake of young Tell and Jim, we who knew would say nothing. Jean came into town at rare intervals, meeting the priest down in the chapel. Attending to his own affairs, walking always like a very king, or riding as only a Plains Indian can ride, he came and went unmolested. I never could understand that strange power he had of commanding our respect. He seldom saw Marjie, and her face blanched at the mention of his name. I do not know when he last appeared in our town that summer. Nobody could keep track of his movements. But I do know that after the priest's departure, his disappearance was noted, and the daylight never saw him in Springvale again. What the dark hours of the night could have told is another story.

With O'mie out of danger, Le Claire left us. His duties, he told us, lay far to the west. He might go to the Kiowas or the Cheyennes. In any event, it would be long before he came again.

"I need not ask you, Philip, to take good care of O'mie. He could not have better care. You will guard his interests. Until you know more than you do now, you will say nothing to him or any one else of what I have told you."

He looked steadily into my eyes, and I understood him.

"I think Jean Pahusca will never trouble you, nor even come here now. I have my reasons for thinking so. But, Philip, if you should know of his being here, keep on your guard. He is a man of more than savage nature. What he loves, he will die for. What he hates, he will kill. Cam Gentry is right. The worst blood of the Kiowas and of the French nationality fills his veins. Be careful."

Brave little O'mie struggled valiantly for health again. He was patient and uncomplaining, but the days ran into weeks before his strength began to increase. Only one want was not supplied: he longed for the priest.

"You're all so good, it's mighty little in me to say it, an' Dr. Hemingway's gold, twenty-four karat gold; but me hair's red, an' me rale name's O'Meara, an' naturally I long for the praist, although I'm a proper Presbyterian."

"How about Brother Dodd?" I inquired.

"All the love in his heart fur me put in the shell of a mustard seed would rattle round loike a walnut in a tin bushel box, begorra," the sick boy declared.

It was long before he could talk much and we did not ask a question we could avoid, but waited his own time to know how he had been taken from us and how he had found himself a prisoner in that cavern whence we had barely cheated Death of its pitiful victim. As he could bear it he told us, at length, of his part in the night the town was marked for doom. Propped up on his pillows, his face to the open east window, his thin, white hands folded, he talked quietly as of a thing in which he had had little part.

"Ye see, Phil, the Almighty made us all different, so He could know us, an' use us when He wanted some partic'lar thing that some partic'lar one could do. When folks puts on a uniform in their dress or their thinkin', they belong to one av two classes--them as is goin' to the devil like convicts an' narrow churchmen, or them as is goin' after 'em hard to bring 'em into line again, like soldiers an' sisters av charity; an' they just have to act as one man. But mainly we're singular number. The Lord didn't give me size."

He looked up at my broad shoulders. I had carried him in my arms from his bed to the east window day after day.

"I must do me own stunt in me own way. You know mebby, how I tagged thim strangers till, if they'd had the chance at me they'd have fixed me. Specially that Dick Yeager, the biggest av the two who come to the tavern."

"The chance! Didn't they have their full swing at you?"

"Well, no, not regular an' proper," he replied.

I wondered if the cruelty he had suffered might not have injured his brain and impaired his memory.

"You know I peeked through that hole up in the shop that Conlow seems to have left fur such as me. Honorable business, av coorse. But Tell and Jim, they was hid behind the stack av wagon wheels in the dark corner--just as honorable an' high-spirited as meself, on their social level. I was a high-grader up on that ladder. Well, annyhow, I peeked an' eavesdropped, as near as I could get to the eaves av the shop, an' I tould Father Le Claire all I could foind out. An' then he put it on me to do my work. 'You can be spared,' he says. 'If it's life and death, ye'll choose the better part.' Phil, it was laid on all av us to choose that night."

His thin, blue-veined hand sought mine where he lay reclining against the pillows. I took it in my big right hand, the hand that could hold Jean Pahusca with a grip of iron.

"There was only one big enough an' brainy enough an' brave enough to lead the crowd to save this town an' that was Philip Baronet. There was only one who could advise him well an' that was Cam Gentry. Poor old Cam, too near-sighted to tell a cow from a catfish tin feet away. Without you, Cam and the boys couldn't have done a thing.

"Can ye picture what would be down there now? I guess not, fur you'd not be making pictures now, You'd be a picture yourself, the kind they put on the carbolic acid bottle an' mark 'pizen.'"

O'mie paused and looked out dreamily across the valley to the east plains beyond them.

"I can't tell how fast things wint through me moind that night. You did some thinkin' yourself, an' you know. 'I can't do Phil's part if I stay here,' I raisoned, 'an' bedad, I don't belave he can do my part. Bein' little counts sometimes. It's laid on me to be the sacrifice, an' I'll kape me promise an' choose the better part. I'll cut an' run.'"

He looked up at my questioning face with a twinkle in his eye.

"'There's only one to save this town. That's Phil's stunt,' I says; 'an' there's only one to save Marjie. That's my stunt.'"

I caught my breath, for my heart stood still, and I felt I must strangle.

"Do you mean to say, Thomas O'Meara--?" I could get no fuither.

"I mane, either you or me's got to tell this. If you know it better'n I do, go ahead." And then more gently he went on: "Yes, I mane to say, kape still, dear; I'm not very strong yet. If I'd gone up to Cliff Street afther you to come to her, she'd be gone. If Jean got hands on her an' she struggled or screamed, as she'd be like to do, bein' a sensible girl, he had that murderous little short knife, an' he'd swore solemn he'd have her or her scalp. He's not got her, nor her scalp, nor that knife nather now. I kept that much from doin' harm. I dunno where the cruel thing wint to, but it wint, all right.

"And do ye mane to say, Philip Baronet, that ye thought I'd lost me nerve an' was crude enough to fall in wid a nest av thim Copperheads an' let 'em do me to me ruin? Or did you think His Excellency, the Reverend Dodd was right, an' I'd cut for cover till the fuss was over? Well, honestly now, I'm not that kind av an Irishman."

My mind was in a tumult as I listened. I wondered how O'mie could be so calm when I durst not trust myself to speak.

"So I run home, thinkin' ivery jump, an' I grabbed the little girl's waterproof cloak. Your lady friends' wraps comes in handy sometimes. Don't niver despise 'em, Phil, nor the ladies nather. You woman-hater!" O'mie's laugh was like old times and very good to hear.

"I flung that thing round me, hood on me brown curls, an' all, an' then I flew. I made the ground just three times in thim four blocks and a half to Judson's. You know how the kangaroo looks in the geography picture av Australia, illustratin' the fauna an' flora, with a tall, thin tree beyont, showin' lack of vegetation in that tropic, an' a little quilly cus they call a ornithorynchus, its mouth like Jim Conlow's? Well, no kangaroo'd had enough self-respect to follow me that night. I caught Marjie just in time, an' I puts off before her toward her home. At the corner I quit kangarooin' an' walks quick an' a little timid-like, just Marjie to a dimple. If you'd been there, you'd wanted to put some more pink flowers round where they'd do the most good."

I squeezed his hand.

"Quit that, you ugly bear. That's a lady's hand yet a whoile an' can't stand too much pressure.

"It was to save her loife, Phil." O'mie spoke solemnly now. "You could save the town. I couldn't. I could save her. You couldn't. In a minute, there in the dark by the gate, Jean Pahusca grabs me round me dainty waist. His horse was ready by him an' he swung me into the saddle, not harsh, but graceful like, an' gintle. I never said a word, but gave a awful gasp like I hadn't no words, appreciative enough. 'I'm saving' you, Star-face,' he says. 'The Copperheads will burn your mother's house an' the Kiowas will come and steal Star-face--' an' he held me close as if he would protect me--he got over that later--an' I properly fainted. That's the only way the abducted princess can do in the novel--just faint. It saves hearin' what you don't want to know. An' me size just suited the case. Don't never take on airs, you big hulkin' fellow. No graceful prince is iver goin' to haul you over the saddle-bow thinkin' you're the choice av his heart. It saved Marjie, an' it got Jean clear av town before he found his mistake, which wa'n't bad for Springvale. Down by Fingal's Creek I come to, an' we had a rumpus. Bein' a dainty girl, I naturally objected to goin' into that swirlin' water, though I didn't object to Jean's goin'--to eternity. In the muss I lost me cloak--the badge av me business there. I never could do nothin' wid thim cussed hooks an' eyes on a collar an' the thing wasn't anchored securely at me throat. It was awful then. I can't remember it all. But it was dark, and Jean had found me out, and the waters was deep and swift. The horse got away on the bank an' slid back, I think. It must have been then it galloped up to town; but findin' Jean didn't follow, it came back to him. I didn't know annything fur some toime. I'd got too much av Fingal's Creek mixed into me constitution an' by-laws to kape my thoughts from floatin' too. I'll never know rightly whin I rode an' whin I was dragged, an' whin I walked. It was a runnin' fight av infantry and cavalry, such as the Neosho may never see again, betwixt the two av us."

Blind, trustful fool that I had been, thinking after all Le Claire's warnings that Jean had been a good, loyal, chivalrous Indian, protecting Marjie from harm.

"And to think we have thought all this time there were a dozen Rebels making away with you, and never dreamed you had deliberately put yourself into the hands of the strongest and worst enemy you could have!"

"It was to save a woman, Phil," O'mie said simply. "He could only kill me. He wouldn't have been that good to her. You'd done the same yoursilf to save anny woman, aven a stranger to you. Wait an' see."

How easily forgotten things come back when we least expect them. There came to me, as O'mie spoke, the memory of my dream the night after Jean had sought Marjie's life out on the Red Range prairie. The night after I talked with my father of love and of my mother. That night two women whom I had never seen before were in my dreams, and I had struggled to save them from peril as though they were of my own flesh and blood.

"You will do it," O'mie went on. "You were doing more. Who was it wint down along the creek side av town where the very worst pro-slavery fellows is always coiled and ready to spring, wint in the dark to wake up folks that lived betwixt them on either side, who was ready to light on 'em at a minute's notice? Who wint upstairs above thim as was gettin' ready to burn 'em in their beds, an' walked quiet and cool where one wrong step meant to be throttled in the dark? Don't talk to me av courage."

"But, O'mie, it was all chance with us. You went where danger was certain."

"It was my part, Phil, an' I ain't no shirker just because I'm not tin feet tall an' don't have to be weighed on Judson's stock scales." O'mie rested awhile on the pillows. Then he continued his story.

"They was more or less border raidin' betwixt Jean an' me till we got beyont the high cliff above the Hermit's Cave. When I came to after one of his fists had bumped me head he was urgin' his pony to what it didn't want. The river was roarin' below somewhere an' it was black as the grave's insides. It was way up there that in a minute's lull in the hostilities, I caught the faint refrain:

  'Does the star-spangled banner yit wave, O'er the land av the free and the home av the brave?'

"I didn't see your lights. They was tin thousand star-spangled banners wavin' before me eyes ivery second. But that strain av song put new courage into me soul though I had no notion what it really meant. I was half dead an' wantin' to go the other half quick, an' it was like a drame, till that song sent a sort of life-givin' pulse through me. The next minute we were goin' over an' over an' over, betwane rocks, an' hanging to trees, down, down, down, wid that murderous river roarin' hungry below us. Jean jumpin' from place to place an' me clingin' to him an' hittin' iverything that could be hit at ivery jump. An' then come darkness over me again. There was a light somewhere when I come to. I was free an' I made a quick spring. I got that knife, an' like a flash I slid the blade down a crack somewhere. An' then he tied me solid, an' standin' over me he says slow an' cruel: 'You--may--stay--here--till--you--starve--to--death. Nobody--can--get--to--you--but--me--an'--I'm--niver--comin'--back. I hate you.' An' his eyes were just loike that noight whin I found him with thim faded pink flowers out on the prairie."

"O'mie, dear, you are the greatest hero I ever heard of. You poor, beaten, tortured sacrifice."

I put my arm around his shoulder and my tears fell on his red hair.

"I didn't do no more than ivery true American will do--fight an' die to protect his home; or if not his'n, some other man's. Whin the day av choosin' comes we can't do no more 'n to take our places. We all do it. Whin Jean put it on me to lay there helpless an' die o' thirst, I know'd I could do it. Same as you know'd you'd outwit that gang ready to burn an' kill, that I'd run from. I just looked straight up at Jean--the light was gettin' dim--an' I says, 'You--may--go--plum--to--the--divil, --but--you--can't--hurt--that--part--av--me--that's--never--hungry--nor --thirsty.' When you git face to face wid a thing like that," O'mie spoke reverently, "somehow the everlastin' arms, Dr. Hemingway's preaches of, is strong underneath you. The light wint out, an' Jean in his still way had slid off, an' I was alone. Alone wid me achin' and me bonds, an' wid a burnin' longin' fur water, wid a wish to go quick if I must go; but most av all--don't never furgit it, Phil, whin the thing overtakes you aven in your strength--most av all, above all sufferin' and natural longin' to live--there comes the reality av the words your Aunt Candace taught us years ago in the little school:

"'Though I walk through the valley av the shadow av death, I will fear no evil.'

"I called for you, Phil, in my misery, as' I know'd somehow you'd hear me. An' you did come."

His thin hand closed over mine, and we sat long in silence--two boys whom the hand of Providence was leading into strange, hard lines, shaping us each for the work the years of our manhood were waiting to bring to us.

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