The Desert and The Sown by Mary Hallock Foote
X. The White Peril
Mrs. Bogardus received many letters, chiefly on business, and these she answered with manlike brevity, in a strong, provincial hand. They took up much of her time, and mercifully, for it was now the last week in November and the young men did not return.
The range cattle had been driven down into the valleys, deer-tracks multiplied by lonely mountain fords; War Eagle and his brethren of the Owyhees were taking council under their winter blankets. The nights were still, the mornings rimy with hoarfrost. Fogs arose from the river and cut off the bases of the mountains, converting the valley before sunrise into the likeness of a polar sea.
"You have let your fire go out," said the colonel briskly. He had invaded the sitting-room at an unaccustomed hour, finding the lady at her letters as usual. She turned and held her pen poised above her paper as she looked at him.
"You did not come to see about the fire?" she said.
"No; I have had letters from the north. Would you step into my study a moment?"
Moya was in her father's room when they entered. She had been weeping, but at sight of Paul's mother she rose and stood picking at the handkerchief she held, without raising her eyes.
"Don't be alarmed at Moya's face," said the colonel stoutly. "Paul was all right at last accounts. We will have a merry Christmas yet."
"This is not from Paul!" Mrs. Bogardus fixed her eyes upon a letter which she held at arm's length, feeling for her glasses. "It's not for me--'Miss Bogardus.'"
"Ah, well. I saw it was postmarked Lemhi--Fort Lemhi, you know. Sit down, madam. Suppose I give you Mr. Winslow's report first--Lieutenant Winslow. You heard of his going to Lemhi?"
"She doesn't know," whispered Moya.
"True. Well, two weeks ago I gave Mr. Winslow a hunter's leave, as we call it in the army, to beat up the trail of those boys. I thought it was time we heard from them, but it wasn't worth while to raise a hue and cry. He started out with a few picked men from Lemhi, the Indian Reservation, you know. I couldn't have sent a better man; the thing hasn't got into the local papers even. My object, of course, has been to save unnecessary alarm. Mr. Winslow has just got back to Challis. He rounded up the Bowen youths and the cook and the helper, in bad shape, all of them, but able to tell a story. The details we shall get later, but I have Mr. Winslow's report to me. It is short and probably correct."
"Was Paul not with them?" his mother questioned in a hard, dry voice. "Where is he then?"
"He is in camp, madam, in charge of the wounded."
"Dear father! if you would speak plain!" Moya whispered nervously.
"Certainly. There is nothing whatever to hide. We know now that on their last day's hunt they met with an accident which resulted in a division of the party. A fall of snow had covered the ice on the trails, and the guide's horse fell and rolled on him--nature of his injuries not described. This happened a day's journey from their camp at Ten-Mile cabin, and the retreat with the wounded man was slow and of course difficult over such a trail. They put together a sort of horse-litter made of pine poles and carried him on that, slung between two mules tandem. A beastly business, winding and twisting over fallen timber, hugging the canon wall, near a thousand feet down--'Impassable' the trail is marked, on the government military maps. This first day's march was so discouraging that at Ten Mile they called a council, and the packer spoke up like a man. He disposed of his own case in this way. If he were to live, they could send back help to fetch him out. If not, no help would be needed. The snows were upon them; there was danger in every hour's delay. It was insane to sacrifice four sound men for one, badly hurt, with not many hours perhaps to suffer."
A murmur from the mother announced her appreciation of the packer's argument.
"It was no more than a man should do; but as to taking him at his word, why, that's another question." The colonel paused and gustily cleared his throat. "They were up against it right then and there, and the party split upon it. Three of them went on,--for help, as they put it,--and Paul stayed behind with the wounded man."
"Paul stayed--alone?" Mrs. Bogardus uttered with hoarse emphasis. "Was not that a very strange way to divide? Among them all, I should think they might have brought the man out with them."
"Their story is that his injuries were such that he could not have borne the pain of the journey. Rather an unusual case," the colonel added dryly. "In my experience, a wounded man will stand anything sooner than be left on the field."
"I cannot understand it," Mrs. Bogardus repeated, in a voice of indignant pain. "Such a strange division! One man left alone--to nurse, and hunt, and cook, and keep up fires! Suppose the guide should die!"
"Paul was not left, you know," the colonel said emphatically. "He stayed. And I should be thankful in your place, madam, that my son was the man who made that choice. But setting conduct aside, for we are not prepared to judge, it is merely a matter of time our getting in there, now that we know where he is."
"How much time?" Mrs. Bogardus opened her ashen lips to say.
The colonel's face fell. "Mr. Winslow reports heavy snows for the past week,--soft, clogging snow,--too deep to wade through and too soft to bear. A little later, when the cold has formed a crust, our men can get in on snowshoes. There is nothing for it but patience, Mrs. Bogardus, and faith in the boy's endurance. The pluck that made him stay behind will help him to hold out."
Moya gave a hurt sob; the colonel stepped to the desk and stood there a moment turning over his papers. Behind his back the mother sent a glance to Moya expressive of despair.
"Do you know what happened to his father? Did he ever tell you?" she whispered.
Moya assented; she could not speak.
"Twice, twice in a lifetime!" said the older woman.
With a gesture, Moya protested against this wild prophecy; but as Paul's mother left the room she rushed upon her father, crying: "Tell me the truth! What do you think of it? Did you ever hear of such a dastardly thing?"
"It was a rout," said the colonel coolly. "They were in full flight before the enemy."
"What enemy? They deserted a wounded comrade, and a servant at that!"
"The enemy was panic,--panic, my dear. In these woods I've seen strong men go half beside themselves with fear of something--the Lord knows what! Then, add the winter and what they had seen and heard of that. Anyway, you can afford to be easy on the other boys. The honors of the day are with Paul--and the old packer, though it's all in the day's work to him."
"And you are satisfied with Paul, father?"
"He didn't desert his command to save his own skin." The colonel smiled grimly.
"When the men of the Fourth discovered those other fellows they had literally sat down in the snow to die. Not a man of them knew how to pack a mule. Their meat pack slipped, going along one of those high trails, and scared the mule, and in trying to kick himself free the beast fell off the trail--mule and meat both gone. They got tired of carrying their stuff and made a raft to float it down the river, and lost that! Paul has been much better off in camp than he would have been with them. So cheer up, my girl, and think how you'd like to have your bridegroom out on an Indian campaign!"
"Ah, but that would be orders! It's the uselessness that hurts. There was nothing to do or to gain. He didn't want to go. Oh, daddy dear, I made fun of his shooting,--I did! I laughed at his way with firearms. Wretched fool and snob that I was! As if I cared! I thought of what other people would say. You remember,--he went shooting up the gulch with Mr. Lane, and when he hit but didn't kill he wouldn't--couldn't put the birds out of pain. Jephson had to do it for him, and he told it in barracks and the men laughed."
"How did you know that! And what does it all amount to! Blame yourself all you like, dear, if it does you any good, but don't make him out a fool! There's not much that comes to us straight in this world--not even orders, you'll find. But we have to take it straight and leave the muddles and the blunders as they are. That's the brave man's courage and the brave woman's. Orders are mixed, but duty is clear. And the boy out there in the woods has found his duty and done it like a man. That should be enough for any soldier's daughter."
An hour passed in suspense. Moya was disappointed in her expectation of sharing in whatever the letter from Fort Lemhi might contain. Christine was in bed with a headache, her mother dully gave out, with no apparent expectation that any one would accept this excuse for the girl's complete withdrawal. The letter, she told Moya, was from Banks Bowen. "There was nothing in it of consequence--to us," she added, and Moya took the words to mean "you and me" to the unhappy exclusion of Christine.
Mrs. Bogardus's face had settled into lines of anxiety printed years before, as the creases in an old garment, smoothed and laid away, will reappear with fresh wear. Her plan was to go back to New York with Christine, who was plainly unfit to bear a long siege of suspense. There she could leave the girl with friends and learn what particulars could be gathered from the Bowens, who would have arrived. She would then return alone and wait for news at the garrison. That night, with Moya's help, she completed her packing, and on the following day the wedding party broke up.