Read CHAPTER XII - THE PROFESSOR’S “FIND” of The Biography of a Prairie Girl , free online book, by Eleanor Gates, on

A NIMBUS of mystery clung to the professor the first two days of his stay.  His arrival, late one afternoon, in the sewing-machine man’s buggy, was as unexplained as it was unexpected; and when he was shown to the little girl’s room, which she hospitably relinquished, he volunteered neither his name nor his place of residence.  The following morning he left the house, carrying a small paper box and a black hand-bag, and crossed the fields to the prairie, where he ran about, his spare figure stooped, as if he were picking something, while his left hand held an instrument that flashed in the sun.  On his return at noon, his box and bag were closed, and only a green stain on his fingers gave any suggestion of what he had been doing.  He spent the remainder of the day quietly in his room.

The big brothers made various conjectures about him.  The eldest declared that he was searching for minerals; the biggest thought him a government agent on a secret mission; while the youngest, to the terror of the little girl, who had not recovered from her adventure of a month before with Black Cloud, hinted at a dark purpose and openly asserted that it was dangerous to have the professor in the house.  But, since their mother would not permit any questioning, their curiosity was not satisfied nor their fears allayed until the professor, unasked, revealed his identity.

Then it was ridiculously simple.  He was a professor in the botanical department of an Eastern university, and had come West to obtain floral specimens.  The paper box held his fresh finds; the bag, a telescope with which to distinguish plants not easily accessible, and a microscope to study those close at hand.  In his trunk were heavy blank books filled with dried leaves, pressed blossoms, and scientific notes.

When the little girl heard that he taught in one of those colleges, remote and wonderful, of which she dreamed, her suspicions were straightway transformed into reverence.  She listened eagerly to his every word, watched him, agape with interest, as he wrote at the sitting-room table, and hung at his heels, happy and fascinated, when he walked up and down, smoking a cigar, under the ash trees in the twilight.

On the other hand, the big brothers respected him less than ever.  To them flower-hunting, as an occupation, seemed trivial and effeminate.  Flowers, though they were well enough in their proper places,-the front garden or the grass,-were usually a nuisance that crept through the crops and choked their growth, until descended upon and tediously jerked up, one after another, by the roots.  And a man who could give his entire time not only to the collection of nosegays but to the gathering of weeds, could not have the esteem of the big brothers.  All three, whenever they spoke of him, raised their shoulders contemptuously, after the manner of “Frenchy.”

It was not long, however, before their attitude changed.  The professor was so gentle and courteous, yet so firm and convincing, and so full of knowledge concerning things about them of which they were entirely ignorant, that they soon came to view him seriously.  The eldest and the youngest brothers even took turns at driving him on long trips in the buckboard, and the biggest loaned him a pair of rubber boots so that he could hunt in swamps and wet meadows for bristly buttercups and crowfoot.

After she found out that he was a professor, the little girl always accompanied him on his jaunts.  Before that, the herd being in the care of the Swede boy, she spent the days either in skilfully outlining on a wide board, by means of a carpenter’s pencil and an overturned milk-pan, cart-wheels for the box of the little red wagon, or in playing “Pilgrim’s Progress,” seated on an empty grain-sack which Bruno, snarling with delight, dragged by his teeth along the reservation road from the Slough of Despond to the gates of the Celestial City.  She also helped her mother prepare for the coming Fourth of July celebration at the station.

But she gave up everything to go with the professor while he scoured the prairie to the north, east, and south, and burdened herself willingly with the lunch-bucket and his umbrella.  From dawn till noon, for a whole fortnight, she trotted beside him, straining her eyes to catch sight of some plant he had not yet seen, and tearing here and there to pluck posies for his bouquet.  When, however, there remained to be searched only a wide strip bordering the Vermillion, she remained at home.

The professor carried forward his work along the river enthusiastically, planning to finish by the eve of the celebration, so that he could accompany the family to the station on the morning of the Fourth, and there take the afternoon local going east.  He tramped up and down the bluffs, finding many a rare shrub in high, sunny spots or low, sheltered nooks, and returning to the farm-house only when he was laden with spoil.  But it was on his very last excursion that he discovered something really remarkable.

He visited a point far up the valley, where the banks were precipitous and came close together.  At their base lay narrow reaches of sand between which, even at its lowest, the river hurried; and when it was swelled by heavy rains or melting snow, it rushed through boisterously and spat high to right and left against the walls.

The western side, with its southern exposure, was the greener.  Box-elders belted its foot, growing at a sharp angle to the side.  Above the elders an aspen thrust out its slender trunk, and, still higher, grass and weeds protruded.  Where the cliff was of solid rock, trailing wild-bean drooped across and softened it.  But the professor, after sweeping it carefully with his glass and finding no new specimens upon it, resolved not to waste his time and labor, and turned his attention opposite.

Though almost bare, for it faced the north, the eastern precipice still was promising.  No trees interrupted its rise, and the stones that, midway, coincided with it were uncovered.  Low down were scattered clumps of wild black currant and clusters of coral-berry.  But above the stones, bending temptingly forward into plain view, was a cactus which the professor had long sought.

He determined to scale the wall and secure the plant.  Dropping the paper box and the hand-bag, he toiled from the sand to a first narrow ledge, from there to the currant bushes, and thence higher, by relying for a foothold upon snake holes and crevices.  Once having gained the flat stones, the climb was over.  He had only to put out his hand and gather the cactus.

But its stalk remained unbroken.  For his eye, traveling over the rock to which he was clinging, made out a figure and some letters cut deep into its red-gray surface.  He looked at them with interest, then with mingled pleasure and doubt, and lastly with wonder.  And he trembled as, with one hand, he finally drew a small blank-book from an inner coat pocket and began to copy.  He realized at once that, though it did not relate to floral science, he had ended by making a most notable find.

Having finished, and put away his pencil and book, he studied the figure and letters carefully for a few moments, and then descended slowly to the sand.  All thoughts of growing things had faded from his mind; in their stead came crowding others that pictured possible fame.  He sat down to rest and think beside the box and the hand-bag, and stayed there, bowed over, his spectacles in his hands, his eyes roving thoughtfully, until the sun was so low that the little canyon was in gloom.

At suppertime he announced his discovery to the big brothers and their mother.  They received the news with amazement.  The week previous he had declared that the plains were once covered by a vast ocean, and had proved his assertion by showing them sea-shells at the top of the carnelian bluff.  So they expressed their intention of visiting the cliffs, never doubting his second and almost incredible statement that, long before the Indians came to inhabit the surrounding country, it had been the home of a superior race of Latin origin.

The little girl was at the table and heard the professor’s story; and she showed some agitation as she listened with downcast eyes.  She knew more about the red-gray rock and its scribblings than she cared to tell before the big brothers, for she had spent one whole happy afternoon in the canyon with the colonel’s son, watching him as he scrambled up the south bank, with the agility and sure-footedness of a goat, and hung for an hour in mid-air by one hand.  So, while she ate her bread and smear-case, she made up her mind to follow the professor after the meal was over and unburden herself.

But no chance to see him alone was afforded her.  He disappeared to pack his trunk while she was doing the dishes, and did not emerge again during the evening.  She squatted under his window for a while in the dark, hoping that he would look out, and gave up her watch only when she heard him snoring.  Then she, too, went to bed, where she lay turning and twisting until after midnight.  Dropping off, at last, she dreamed that she and the colonel’s son had been court-martialed by the professor and were to be shot at the celebration.

Breakfast was eaten at three o’clock next morning, and at sun-up the light wagon and the buckboard were ready for the drive to the station.  Every one had been so busy since rising that the professor’s discovery was not mentioned.  In fact, the big brothers and their mother had forgotten it; the little girl thought of it many times, however, and hoped each moment that she could speak privately to the professor.  And he, as he took his seat in the buckboard, remembered it and smiled contentedly, never suspecting that the youngest brother, riding beside him, had secretly planned to file at once a claim on the quarter-section that included the little canyon so that the red-gray rock should be lawfully his.

Arrived at the station, all became occupied with the celebration.  While the big brothers took care of the horses, their mother and the little girl changed their dresses at the hotel.  The professor hunted up the grand marshal, held a whispered conversation with him, and was assigned a place in the procession.  For the scientist purposed that the day should be more than one of national commemoration to the townspeople:  it should be one of local rejoicing.

This was the first public holiday ever observed at the station, for it was still very young.  Two years before, when the railroad crept up to it and passed it, it consisted of a lonely box-car standing in the center of a broad, level tract flecked with anémones.  The next week, thanks to a sudden boom, the box-car gave place to a board depot, with other pine structures springing up all about, and to long lines of white stakes that marked the avenues, streets, and alleys of a future city.  Now it consisted of half a hundred houses and stores surrounded by as many shanties and dugouts.

The streets were gay with color.  Everywhere festoons of red, white, and blue swung in the morning breeze, and flags flapped from improvised poles.  Horses with ribbons braided into their manes and tails dashed about, carrying riders who were importantly arranging for the procession, and who wore broad sashes of tricolored bunting.

The crowds added further to the brightness of the scene.  Soldiers in uniform, frontiersmen in red shirts and leather breeches, farmers and men of the town, dressed in their best, and Indians in every imaginable style of raiment, filled the saloons and shooting galleries, where they kept the glasses clinking and the bells a-jangle.  Women and children, in light dresses and flower-trimmed hats, lined the scanty sidewalks and the store porches, with a fringe of squaws and Indian babies seated in the weeds beside the way or on the steps at their feet.

But at ten o’clock both men and women came into the open, for the procession had formed across the track in the rear of the depot and was advancing.  Excitement was high.  Crackers were popping on all sides, horses were prancing wildly, frightened by the unusual clatter, and people were laughing and shouting to one another as they craned to catch a first glimpse of the oncoming cortege.

A silence fell suddenly as the grand marshal rounded the depot, leading the way north to the grove where the exercises were to be held.  Behind and flanking him rode his aides, and in their rear walked the band, a few in a prescribed dress of red caps, blue coats, and white trousers, others lacking in one or more details of it, but jauntily wearing substitutes in the shape of straw hats and store clothes.  About them trailed a gang of small boys, an inevitable though uninvited part of every procession, and, after, rumbled heavy floats representing events in the history of America,-General and Mrs. Washington at Mount Vernon, Pocahontas rescuing Captain John Smith, Lincoln freeing the Slaves, and Columbus greeting the Redmen.  Following was a company of cavalry from the reservation, with the colonel and his son at their head, and a band of Indians, naked but for their breech-cloths, and in war-plumes and paint, that whooped and brandished their bows and arrows as they bolted from side to side.

But the crowning feature of the parade came next.  It was a hay-rack wound over every inch of its wide, open frame with the national colors, drawn by four white horses, and bearing the Goddess of Liberty, Columbia, Dakota, and a score of girls who represented the States and Territories, and who wore filmy white frocks, red garlands on their hair, blue girdles about their waists, and ribbons lettered in gilt across their breasts.

To the family, as to many, the passing of the rack was a proud moment, for the little girl rode upon it.  Like her companions, she was hatless, and she shone out from among them as she stood directly behind the goddess, because her hair, a two years’ growth-she was now nine and a half years old-rippled luxuriantly about her face.

Her place in the rack had been assigned her as a special honor.  It was found, when the girls assembled to receive their garlands and colors, that there were not enough of them to represent fully the map of the United States.  So the little girl, being the last to arrive, was given three ribbons bearing the names of California, Texas, and Minnesota.

As the hay-wagon rolled by the family, the compliment paid the little girl did not escape their eyes.  The cattleman, too, observed it, and proudly expressed himself to the biggest brother.  “Say!” he whispered, “don’t she cover a lot o’ terrytory!”

The little girl was aware of the attention she was attracting, and she kept a graceful poise, looking neither to one side nor the other.  Each girl on the rack held something in her hands that suggested the wealth of the particular State she symbolized.  So the little girl wore, just under her collar, the picture of a fat beef as an appropriate emblem of Texas, while in one hand she carried a gilded stone to recall California’s riches, and, in the other, through the instigation of the grand marshal, who had once been jailed at St. Paul, she held aloft a wad of cotton batting to emphasize the annual snowfall of the rival State to the east.

The end of the procession consisted of decorated buggies-in which sat the orator of the day, a local poet, the school-teacher at the station, the minister, the professor, and a dozen prominent citizens-and a rabble of horribles and plug-uglies that rent the air with yells; as it went by, it bore the admiring crowd in its train.  When the grand stand was reached, the people quickly filled the board benches which had been put up for them, while the principals in the festivities settled themselves picturesquely upon the platform.

It was after twelve o’clock, so the program opened at once.  The professor, sitting well in the foreground, fidgeted inwardly and hoped that the train on which he was to depart would not arrive before he had had his opportunity.  But he sat smiling, nevertheless, throughout the opening prayer by the minister, the address of the day and the reading of the Declaration of Independence by the orator, the verses of the poet, the teacher’s song, and four band pieces.  On his lap were two large squares of white pasteboard which he fingered nervously, and every two or three minutes he took note of the time.

When his turn came at last, it was with calm dignity, as becomes a scholar, that he rose and stepped forward to the edge of the stand, where the orator, in ringing tones, introduced him as “our distinguished guest.”  Then, amid a hush, partly of curiosity, the professor began his speech.

Up to this time the little girl had been but a mildly interested onlooker.  She was seated, with the other States, just behind the row of prominent citizens, listening less to the exercises than to the buzz about her, and refraining from talking only when the band rendered a number.  The colonel’s son was down in front and facing her, so she divided her time, when she was silent, between him and her mother.  In the excitement of the hour she had totally forgotten the professor.

But now, with him at the speaker’s table, she suddenly recalled the evening before, her sleepless night, and her worry.  And she quaked as she leaned forward to hear what he was saying, and bent her looks in fear upon the colonel’s son.

The professor, having bowed to all sides and cleared his throat, launched into the subject of his discovery, prefacing it with a reference to the carnelian bluff.

“It shows by the deposit on its summit,” he said, “that at one time, centuries ago, a boundless sea, that roared when the winds swept by or lapped and slept in a calm, covered the bosom of this prairie.  Beneath the arrowheads and hatchets that mark it as a natural watch-tower of the redmen, lies, deep-hidden, a layer of sea-shells, proof that this plain was once an ocean bed.”

He paused a moment at this point to allow the full significance of his words to impress itself upon the assemblage before him.  Then he continued.

“But I have discovered the proof of a far greater marvel concerning this prairie-land of yours.  A sea tumbled over it, as I have said; yes, but, more wonderful still, in ages past-I cannot say how many-a race, intellectually superior to the Indian, dwelt here.  As borne out by the inerasable markings I have discovered, this race was undoubtedly a branch or part of a people that we have hitherto believed never visited the continent until Columbus’s time.”

The teacher, the poet, and the minister opened their eyes with interest as his statement fell upon their ears.  But no thrill of surprise swept the crowd, and the professor, after a pause, coughed and went on.

“I intend to submit my discovery to the scientific world.  As proof of it I have two drawings which I shall show you.  They consist of copies of inscriptions found by me on the Vermillion.  This is one of them.”

He displayed the larger pasteboard square and a titter ran through the crowd.  To her alarm, the little girl noticed that the colonel’s son did not laugh.  Instead, he opened his mouth and stared wildly.  Another instant and the square was turned toward her.  She gave a cry when she saw the figure drawn upon it.

“Notice,” said the professor, “how large and Caesarean is the head.  It is the crude outline of a man whose arms are outstretched as if in appeal to or in adoration of some god.  The attitude is full of dignity and strength.  It is unquestionably an ancient graffito.”

He turned to the table and lifted the second square.  “I have been working for years in scientific fields,” he began once more, “accepting what small honors came my way, grateful that I have been able to name two new species of flowers.  Now, I have chanced upon something in the boundless stretches of the plains that promises reward as well as fame.  Heretofore, no scientific men, strictly speaking, have searched the prairies for archaeological traces.  Hunters, travelers, soldiers, priests, and statesmen have gone across, their eyes bent on different phases of the country.  And so it was for me, an humble student, to uncover the undreamed-of.”

He turned once more to those behind him, holding up the second pasteboard.  The little girl shrank in her seat as the three accusing letters, written large upon it, fell beneath her apprehensive gaze: 

The professor looked hurriedly at his watch, seized his hat and the drawings, and made a parting bow.  “I leave on the coming train,” he said regretfully; “I see that it is now almost due.  I promise you that I shall return in the near future.  Until then, farewell.”

The crowd parted respectfully to let him pass as he hastened down the steps of the grand stand and away.  The little girl looked after him undecidedly.  Then, a quartet having moved between her and the colonel’s son, she cast aside the gilded rock and the cotton batting and threaded the assemblage on the run.

The two had the short, dusty road to themselves, and they traveled it rapidly.  The professor, with a rod’s start, kept well ahead of the little girl, and came into the depot on time, his hat in his hand.  She, breathless, arrived a moment later, just as the engine slowed down.

The professor had heard no one behind him, for all noise had been drowned by his own rush.  So, without looking back, he sprang toward the last coach and swung himself on by the rail of the farther steps, his drawings under one arm, his hands encumbered with the box and bag which he had picked up in the waiting-room.  Suddenly a voice caused him to turn.

“Professor!” cried the little girl.  She was puffing so hard that she could not continue.

“Bless my heart!” said the professor, descending to the lowest step and catching her by the hand.

“Oh, professor!” she cried again.

“Yes?  Yes?” he said inquiringly.  The train was starting and there was no time to be lost.  She ran beside it for a few steps.

“I did that!” The little girl pointed at the pasteboard under his arm.  She fell back.  The cars were moving rapidly now, and she was too tired to pursue them.

“You!” gasped the professor, clapping one hand to the drawings; "you!

“Well-well-not me, but a boy,” she added chokingly.

The professor put his hands to his head, and the squares, escaping his arm, were blown from the steps and fluttered upon the graveled embankment.  The little girl saw them fall and ran forward to secure them.  He did not see her.  He was sitting on the top step of the fast-receding train, his face covered as if to shut out a fearful sight, his coat-sleeves pressing his ears as if to deaden a shout of ridicule.

The little girl looked after him, holding the pasteboards in her hands.  “I’m sorry,” she said out loud, “that nobody made these a long time ago.  But they couldn’t, ’cause they’re my ’nitials.”

Then she walked back toward the grand stand, where the band, with small boys encircling it, was rendering the final number of the program,-a resounding “America.”