VII. Marking Time
 

There was impatience at the garrison for news that the hunters had started. Every day's delay at Challis meant an abridgment of the bridegroom's leave, and the wedding was now but a fortnight away. It began to seem preposterous that he should go at all, and the colonel was annoyed with himself for his enthusiasm over the plan in the first place. Mrs. Bogardus's watchfulness of dates told the story of her thoughts, but she said nothing.

"Mamsie is restless," said Christine, putting an arm around her mother's solid waist and giving her a tight little hug apropos of nothing. "I believe it's another case of 'mail-time fever.' The colonel says it comes on with Moya every afternoon about First Sergeant's call. But Moya is cunning. She goes off and pretends she isn't listening for the bugle."

"'First Sergeant or Second,' it's all one to me," said Mrs. Bogardus. "I never know one call from another, except when the gun goes off."

"Mamsie! 'When the gun goes off!' What a civilian way of talking. You are not getting on at all with your military training. Now let me give you some useful information. In two seconds the bugle will call the first sergeant--of each company--to the adjutant's office, and there he'll get the mail for his men. The orderly trumpeter will bring it to the houses on the line, and the colonel's orderly--beautiful creature! There he goes! How I wish we could take him home with us and have him in our front hall. Fancy the feelings of the maids! And the rage on the noble brow of Parkins--awful Parkins. I should like to give his pride a bump."

Mother and daughter were pacing the colonel's veranda, behind a partial screen of rose vines--October vines fast shedding their leaves. Every breeze shook a handful down, which the women's skirts swept with them as they walked. Mrs. Bogardus turned and clasped Christine's arm above the elbow; through the thin sleeve she could feel its cool roundness. It was a soft, small, unmuscular arm, that had never borne its own burdens, to say nothing of a share in the burdens of others.

"Get your jacket," said the mother. "There is a chill in the air."

"There is no chill in me," laughed Christine. "You know, mamsie, you aren't a girl. I should simply die in those awful things that you wear. Did you ever know such a hot house as the colonel keeps!"

"The rooms are small, and the colonel is--impulsive," Mrs. Bogardus added with a smile.

"There is something very like him about his fire-making. I should know by the way he puts on wood that he never would have "--Mrs. Bogardus checked herself.

"A large bank account?" Christine supplied, with her quick wit, which was not of a highly sensitive order.

"He has a large heart," said her mother.

"And plenty of room for it, bless him! The slope of his chest is like the roof of a house. The only time I envy Moya is when she lays her head down on it and tries to meet her arms around him as if he were a tree, and he strokes her hair as if his hand was a bough! If ever I marry a soldier he shall be a colonel with a white mustache and a burnt-sienna complexion, and a sword-belt that measures--what is the colonel's waist-measure, do you suppose?"

Mrs. Bogardus listened to this nonsense with the smile of a silent woman who has borne a child that can talk. Moya had often noticed how uncritical she was of Christine's "unruly member."

"It isn't polite to speak of waist-measures to middle-aged persons like your mother and the colonel," she said placidly. "You like it very much out here?"

"Fascinating! Never had such a good time in my whole life."

"And you like the West altogether? Would you like to live here?"

"Oh, if it came to living, I should want to be sure there was a way out."

"There generally is a way out of most things. But it costs something." Mrs. Bogardus was so concise in her speech as at times to be almost oracular.

"Army people are sure of their way out," said Christine, "and I guess they find it costs something."

"Why do they buy so many books, I wonder? If I moved as often as they do, I'd have only paper covers and leave them behind."

"You are not a reader, mummy. You're a business woman. You look at everything from the practical side."

"And if I didn't, who would?" Mrs. Bogardus spoke with earnestness. "We can't all be dreamers like Paul or privileged persons like you. There has to be one in every family to say the things no one likes to hear and do the things nobody likes to do."

"We are the rich repiners and you are the household drudge!" Christine shouted, laughing at her own wit.

"Hush, hush!" her mother smiled. "Don't make so much noise."

"I should like to know who's to be the drudge in Paul's privileged family. It doesn't strike me it's going to be Moya. And Paul only drudges for people he doesn't know."

"Moya is a girl you can expect anything of. She is a wonderful mixture of opposites. She has the Irish quickness, and yet she has learned to obey. She has had the freedom and the discipline of these little lordly army posts. She is one of the few girls of her age who does not measure everything from her own point of view."

"Is that a dig at me, ma'am?"

At that moment Moya came out upon the porch.

She was very striking with the high color and brilliant eyes that mail-time fever breeds. Christine looked at her with freshly aroused curiosity, moved by her mother's unwonted burst of praise. The faintest tinge of jealousy made her feel naughty. As Moya went down the board walk, the colonel's orderly came springing up the steps to meet her with the mail-bag. He saluted and turned off at an angle down the embankment not to present his back to the ladies.

"Did you see that! He never raised his eyes. They are like priests. You can't make them look at you." Moya looked at Christine in amazement. The man himself might have heard her. It was not the first time this privileged guest had rubbed against garrison customs in certain directions hardly worth mentioning. Moya hesitated. Then she laughed a little, and said: "Only a raw recruity would look at an officer's daughter, or any lady of the line."

"Oh, you horrid little aristocrat! Well, I look at them, when they are as pretty as that one, and I forgive them if they look at me."

Moya turned and hovered over the contents of the mail-bag. In the exercise of one of her prerogatives, it was her habit to sort its contents before delivering it at the official door.

"All, all for you!" she offered a huge packet of letters, smiling, to Mrs. Bogardus. It was faced with one on top in Paul's handwriting. "All but one," she added, and proceeded to open her own much fatter one in the same hand. She stood reading it in the hall.

Mrs. Bogardus presently followed and remained beside her. "Could I speak to your father a moment?" she asked.

"Certainly, I will call him," said Moya.

"Wait: I hear him now." The study door opened and Colonel Middleton joined them. Mrs. Bogardus leading the way into the sitting-room, the colonel followed her, and Moya, not having been invited, lingered in the hall.

"Well, have the hunters started yet?" the colonel inquired in his breezy voice, which made you want to open the doors and windows to give it room." Be seated! Be seated! I hope you have got a long letter to read me."

Mrs. Bogardus stood reflecting. "The day this letter was mailed they got off--only two days ago," she said. "Could I reach them, Colonel, with a telegram?"

"Two days ago," the colonel considered. "They must have made Yankee Fork by yesterday. Today they are deep in the woods. No; I should say a man on horseback would be your surest telegram. Is it anything important?"

"Colonel, I wish we could call them back! They have gone off, it seems to me, in a most crazy way--against the judgment of every one who knows. The guide, this man whom they waited for, refused, it appears, to go out again with another party so late in the fall. But the Bowens were determined. They insisted on making arrangements with another man. Then, when 'Packer John,' they call him, heard of this, he went to Paul and urged him, if he could not prevent the others from going, to give up the trip himself. The Bowens were very much annoyed at his interference, and with Paul for listening to him. And Paul, rather than make things unpleasant, gave in. You know how young men are! What silly grounds are enough for the most serious decisions when it is a question of pride or good faith. The Bowens had bought their outfit on Paul's assurance that he would go. He felt he could not leave them in the lurch. On that, the guide suddenly changed his mind and said he would go with them sooner than see them fall into worse hands. They were, in a way, committed to the other man, so they took him along as cook--the whole thing done in haste, you see, and unpleasant feelings all around. Do you call that a good start for a pleasure trip?"

"It's very much the way with young troops when they start out--everything wrong end foremost, everybody mad with everybody else. A day in the saddle will set their little tempers all right."

"That isn't the point," Mrs. Bogardus persisted gloomily. As she spoke, the two girls came into the room and stood listening.

"What is the point, then?" Christine demanded. "Moya has no news; all those pages and pages, and nothing for anybody or about anybody!"

"'Such an intolerable deal of sack to such a poor pennyworth of bread,'" the colonel quoted, smiling at Moya's bloated envelope.

"But what do you think?" Mrs. Bogardus recalled him. "Don't you think it's a mistake all around?"

"Not at all, if they have a good man. This flat-footed fellow, John, will take command, as he should. There is no danger in the woods at any season unless the party gets rattled and goes to pieces for want of a head."

"Father!" exclaimed Moya. "You know there is danger. Often, things have happened!"

"Why, what could happen?" asked Christine, with wide eyes.

"Many things very interesting could happen," the colonel boasted cheerfully. "That is the object of the trip. You want things to happen. It is the emergency that makes the man--sifts him, and takes the chaff out of him."

"Take the chaff out of Banks Bowen," Moya imprudently struck in, "and what would you have left?" She had met Banks Bowen in New York.

"Tut, tut!" said the colonel. "Silence, or a good word for the absent--same as the"--The colonel stopped short.

"You are so scornful about the other men, now you have chosen one!" Christine's face turned red.

"Why, Chrissy! You would not compare your brother to those men! Papa, I beg your pardon; this is only for argument."

"I don't compare him; but that's not to say all the other men are chaff!" Christine joined constrainedly in the laugh that followed her speech.

"You need not go fancying things, Moya," she cried, in answer to a quizzical look. "As if I hadn't known the Bowen boys since I was so high!"

"You might know them from the cradle to the grave, my dear young lady, and not know them as Paul will, after a week in the woods with them."

The colonel had missed the drift of the girls' discussion. He was considering, privately, whether he had not better send a special messenger on the young men's trail. His assurances to the women left a wide margin for personal doubt as to the prudence of the trip. Aside from the lateness of the start, it was, undoubtedly, an ill-assorted company for the woods. There was a wide margin also for suspense, as all mail facilities ceased at Challis.