Read CHAPTER XVII - ANOTHER MOUND ON THE BLUFF of The Biography of a Prairie Girl , free online book, by Eleanor Gates, on ReadCentral.com.

COTTONWOOD leaves from the wind-break, splashed with red from the wounds of the frost, tarried at the window-panes to tap gently, or went hurrying past the farm-house with the north wind that was whining dolorously under the wet gables, to find their way through the branches of the ash-trees in front.  The crows strutted across the stubbled wheat, spouting to one another over their finds.  The dead pea-vines in the vegetable garden screwed about till they loosened their roots, and then scampered up the furrowed potato-field as the guardian of their gathered fruit flounced his empty sleeves and ample coat-tails at them.  A family of robins that had dallied too long in the north whirred over the corn-field, where the shocks were standing in long, regular lines, and called down a last crisp good-by to the russet, plume-topped tents of autumn’s invading army.

But all the bleakness without, that November morning, could not equal the bitterness within, though the iron tea-kettle was singing cheerily enough over the hot coal fire in the sitting-room stove, and the collies, to show their lazy appreciation of cozy quarters, were thumping their tails contentedly against the rag carpet.  For, with the eldest and the youngest brothers elk-hunting beyond Fort Mandan, and the biggest miles away at Yankton with a load of hogs, the little girl, half dazed with anxiety, was watching, alone save for the neighbor woman, beside the canopied bed.

Her mother’s illness had come with alarming suddenness.  The afternoon before she had been apparently as well as usual, and when the little girl went into her room for the night, was humming to herself as she chopped up turnips for the cows.  But the neighbor woman, arriving later in quest of a start of yeast, found her lying still and speechless in the entry, where she had been stricken at her work.  Brandy had revived her, and she had begun to recover her strength.  Yet it was plain to the neighbor woman and the little girl, no matter how much the sufferer strove to make light of her fainting, that help was needed.

Throughout the forenoon the little girl begged hard for permission to go to the station for the new doctor.  Her mother, seeing through the windows how sunless and blustery it was outside, entreated her to wait until the next day, when the biggest brother would be home.  But the neighbor woman, who dreaded a second attack, at last joined her arguments to the little girl’s, dwelling upon the uncertainty of the brother’s return; and shortly after dinner the mother consented.

“If there were only some one else to send,” she whispered as the little girl bent over her for a parting embrace.  “It is cold and stormy.”

“It’s getting colder every minute,” was the answer.  “If I go at all, I must go now.  I’ll take the sorrel and ride fast.  And I’ll be back before you know it.”  She kissed her mother tenderly and hastened from the house.

When she led her horse out of the barn and mounted at a nail-keg near the tool-house, she saw that her start had been delayed too long and that she was threatened with a drenching.  The air was rapidly growing more chill, and northward the sky was streaked in long, slanting lines with a downfall that was advancing toward the farm.  She gave no thought to deferring her trip, however, but sprang into the saddle, and instead of taking the road leading through the corn-shocks, started across the fields toward the carnelian bluff.

To her dismay, her short cut resulted only in a loss of time.  When she passed through the cottonwoods to the barley-field beyond, the ground, still soaked from the recent rain, became so soft that the sorrel sank to his knees at every step.  He began to plunge excitedly, and she guided him to the left, away from the timothy meadow, to a firmer foothold on the edge of the corn-field.  It brought her out upon the prairie at the western base of the hill.

As she crossed the southern slope, setting her horse into a run with her whip, she chanced to glance up toward the summit, and her eyes met an unfamiliar object.  The next moment, despite her solicitude for her mother, the oncoming storm and the long road ahead, she reined him in so abruptly that he sat back upon his haunches, and then urged him up the incline to where, in place of the usual pile of stones, was a low, dark mound of earth with a pipestone cross at its head.

Halted beside the mound, her curiosity changed to sudden awe; for, leaning from her horse, she read aloud a word that imparted painful knowledge carefully kept from her for almost fourteen years,-a word that was chiseled deep into the polished face of the cross: 

FATHER

Looking down thus, for the first time, at the uncovered grave, no feeling of grief succeeded her surprise and wonder.  But instantly the thought came that it was here, in happy ignorance of the meaning of the pile, that every spring and summer she had sat to watch the big brothers at work in the fields, the gophers, the birds, the herd in the slough below; to think over her baby problems and sorrows; or to build castles from a beloved book.  She read the chiseled word again, softly and reverently, then backed the sorrel away and once more rode on rapidly, making for the railroad and sitting her horse with the tense erectness of a trooper on parade.

All at once, a little way out on the prairie, a terror seized her, and she began to lash the sorrel with all her might.  The black hillock behind, with its graven head-mark, had borne to her heart a new fear that perhaps her mother, too, would soon sleep upon the hillside.  She put the thought of her father away, and centered her efforts on reaching the station and the doctor.  As she galloped at breakneck speed, the damp wind swept her face, cutting it sharply, and whipped out her horse’s mane and tail till they fluttered on a level with the saddle.

At the track she ceased striking the sorrel and let him fall into a slow, steady canter.  The downpour was near now, sweeping south in the strong grasp of a squall to cross her path.  She could see that its front was a sheet not of rain, but of driving hail that rebounded high from the dry grass.  She crouched in her seat and pulled her hat far down to shield her face.

Before the sorrel made another quarter of a mile, the hailstones had passed the ties and were kicking up the soft dirt of the embankment like a volley of shrapnel.  When they moved their fire forward to the wagon-road, they almost hurled the little girl from her saddle.  She cried out in agony as the icy bullets cleft the air and pounded her cruelly on head and shoulders.  A stone the size of a wild duck’s egg split the skin of her rein-hand, and she dropped the bridle and let the sorrel go at random.  Squealing shrilly whenever a missile reached his tender ears, he stayed in the road, but stopped running, and whirled in a circle to avoid his punishment.  The little girl, though she flinched under the shower, remained on his back grittily and waited until the fall thinned and suddenly ended.

Wounded from head to foot, she continued her journey over a road deep with hail.  When the station came in sight, she stopped to wipe the blood from a hurt on her cheek and to wind her handkerchief around her injured hand.  Then she raced through town and left her message at the doctor’s door.

The doctor hitched up his buggy and, accompanied by his wife, set off for the farm behind the little girl, who at times rode anxiously far in the lead, and, again, drew up and trotted beside the vehicle to ask him to travel faster.  But when the farm-house was neared, she could not bear to lag any longer, and gave the sorrel the bit.  As she passed the carnelian bluff, she skirted it well, though she could not see the mound or the cross.  It had grown dark and they were shrouded in stormy shadows.  But she kept her eyes continually in that direction, and talked to the horse to quiet a nervous throbbing in her breast that she did not admit to herself.  At the barn she unbuckled the saddle and the bridle outside the door, let the sorrel trot in alone, and ran toward the kitchen.

When the doctor completed his diagnosis that night, he told the little girl’s mother only what she had long known:  that she might live to see her daughter a grown woman and her sons old men; that she might pass away before the end of another week, or another day.  The little girl was not in the room to hear him, and on returning later to the canopied bed, neither her mother nor the neighbor woman repeated his words.  He was gone again, leaving only a few pellets to check a possible sinking-spell.  For there was nothing else that could be done at the farm-house-except wait and hope.

But, as if she divined by instinct what there was to fear, the little girl stoutly refused to leave her mother that night and seek rest.  After prevailing upon the neighbor woman to lie down on the lounge close by, she sat on the carpet beside the bed, weary but unswerving, and reached up every little while to touch a hand, or rose to listen to the spasmodic beating of the tortured heart.

At midnight her mother awoke and asked for nourishment.  Having eaten and drunk, she motioned the little girl to a seat on the edge of the bed and began to talk, slowly at the beginning but more hurriedly toward the last, as if she were freeing herself of something long ago thought out and long delayed in the saying.

“I’ve been thinking of the fields and hedges of dear old England,” she whispered.  “I can see them so plainly to-night.  I have just been there in my dreams, I think; and I have come back to tell you how beautiful they are.  Of course the plains are beautiful, too,-beautiful but lonely.  England is dotted with homes, and there are trees everywhere, and flowers so many months of the year.  Oh, one never could feel lonely there.”

She turned her face away and seemed to be asleep.  But presently she came back to the little girl and took her hand with a smile.

“Years ago,” she went on, “when I was a hearty, happy girl, only two or three years older than you are now, pet lamb, your father and I came West and took up this farm.  Hardly anybody lived here in those days.  They were a few squatters; but they either trapped in the winter and went away during the summer, or hunted and farmed in the summer and left in the fall.  So life was very quiet, quieter even than it is now, except that there were Indians here by the hundreds.  They stole from us by night and shot our stock, and would have murdered us only that they could get more out of us by letting us live.  They came by in processions, put up their wigwams in our very yard, and ate up everything we had in the house.  We dared not see the wrong they did.  I was often alone when they came, and I always wondered if that would not be the last of me and my little boys.

“But, though here and there men and women and even little babies were tomahawked, we were never harmed, for some reason; and, as the years went by, people began to come and settle near us.  Then the post was established, and we could go to church once a summer.  I went with the boys, because some one always had to remain home to watch the farm.  That is why I never visited a town the first ten years after we settled here.  Then you came,-just a few days-before-we lost-your-father.”

The little girl smoothed back her mother’s hair lovingly.  The time had come to tell of her discovery on the bluff.  “I’ve seen it,” she said in a low voice.

Her mother understood.  “We wanted you to find it out by yourself,” she answered.  “The boys took away the stones and put up the cross the night before they left.”  She sighed and then went on: 

“I have been thinking about you to-night-about your future-in recalling my years here on the plains.  I am no longer young, pet lamb; I was never very strong.  I may not always be with you.”  Her voice broke a little.  She tightened her grasp of the little girl’s fingers.

“I do not worry about the boys.  They will marry and settle down among our good neighbors.  But you, my little girl, what will you do?  Not stay, I hope, hoeing and herding and working your life out in the kitchen, with nothing to brighten the days.  I cannot bear to think of that.  I lived on here after your father was taken because I feared the responsibility of raising my boys in a great, strange city; and I dreaded the thought of leaving your father’s grave.  But now I often wonder if I have acted for the best.  Selfish in my grief and loss, have I not deprived the boys of the advantages they should have had?  For you, it is not yet too late.

“Whether I am taken from you or not, I want you to leave the prairie and spend the rest of your life where you can enjoy the best things that life offers-music and pictures and travel, and the friendship of cultivated people.  In twenty years-perhaps less, for the plains are changing swiftly-all these level, fertile miles will be covered with homes.  Every quarter-section will hold a house, and there will be chimneys in sight in every direction.  Churches and better schools will follow.  The roads will be planted with trees.  There will be fences about the fields, and no Indians to thieve and kill.  And this valley, the ‘Jim,’ or the Missouri, will not be the edge of civilization, for the frontier will have moved far to the west.

“And yet, though I can see it all coming, I am not willing for you to wait for it and spend your young womanhood here.  One woman in a family is enough to sacrifice to the suffering and drudgery of frontier life.  So I want you to go East, to go where the sweetest and best influences can reach you.  The prairie has given you health.  It has never given you happiness.  Your life, like that of every other child on the plains, has had few joys and many little tragedies.  They say the city child ages fast; but do they ever think of the wearing sameness and starving of heart that puts years on the country child?  Ah! those who are born and bred on the edge of things give more than the work of their hands to the country’s building.”

They sat in silence a long time, their hands clasped.  Then the little girl kissed her mother softly.  “I want to go, mother,” she said, with shining eyes.  “I want to go away to school, and you must go with me.”

Her mother did not answer for a moment.

“‘I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee,’” she breathed at last.  And not till long afterward, when tears had worn the first keen edge from her grief, did the little girl know the full meaning of the promise.

“Pull back the curtains from the eastern windows,” said her mother; “I want to see the sky.  Is the night clear?”

“The stars are out, mother.”

“Ah, I love the stars!”

“Are they the same ones that I’ll see when-when-I’m away from here?”

“The very same, pet lamb.”

“You and I will watch them and think of that, mother.”

The neighbor woman turned on the lounge, and they fell into silence again.  The little girl remained standing at a window, her face pressed close to the glass.

As she waited there, the whole east began gradually to spring into flame.  The sky blazed as ruddily as if a great fire were just beyond the horizon and racing to leap it and sweep across upon the farm.  A broad fan of light, roseate at its pivot and radiating in shafts of yellow and red, was rising and paling the stars with its shining edge.  Wider and wider it grew, until from north to south, and almost as far up as the zenith, were thrust its shining sticks.  Then out of the cold mist floating over the distant Sioux showed a copper segment of the moon, which rose into sight and careened slowly heavenward, lighting up the wide plains, glimmering on the placid water of the sloughs, and shining full into the face of the dreaming little girl.

ONLY the neighbor woman was at the farm-house next day to comfort the little girl and help her through the sad hours.  There was no sign of the pig-wagon all morning, and as the afternoon passed slowly away the little girl ceased to strain her eyes along the road leading to the school-house, and never left her mother’s side.  It was the neighbor woman who, not daring to leave the room even to do the chores about the barn and coops, looked south every few moments with the hope that the biggest brother would return before it was too late.

As the day drew toward its close the sun, which had been lurking sulkily behind the clouds, came out brightly and shone into the sitting-room, where its beams lay across the foot of the canopied bed like a warm coverlet.  The room was robbed of its gloom, and the little girl’s mother opened her eyes and looked about her, long and thoughtfully, as one gazes upon a loved scene that is drifting from sight.

The walls were hung with spatter-work that the biggest brother had done, and with photographs and magazine pictures in splint frames.  Over the front door was tacked the first yarn motto that the little girl had ever worked.  It was faded, but her mother, though her eyes were dimming, could read the uneven line:  “God Bless Our Home.”  The new cane-seated chairs were set about against the walls, and a bright blue cover hid the round, oak center-table.  The eldest brother’s violin lay in its case on the organ that had come into the house the month before when the wheat was sold.  Up on the clock-shelf was a Dresden shepherd in stately pose before his dainty shepherdess.  The curtains on the windows hung white and soft to the carpet.

Presently the mother asked to be raised on her pillow, and the neighbor woman and the little girl turned the bed so that she could look out of the windows at the setting sun.

The western heavens rioted in a fuller beauty that afternoon than had the eastern half at moon-rise the night before.  As the sun sank behind the clouds piled high upon the horizon, it colored them in gorgeous array and threw them out in wonderful shapes and sharp relief against a clearing sky.  Castles towered on one side, vast turrets standing forth above their walls; on the other, banks of tinted vapor formed a huge cloud-seat.

The little girl, calm, though her heart was torn with pain, looked out with her mother upon the dying glories.  She had often before in her life seen that changing panorama which, thrown up one moment, melted into nothingness the next.  At night she had learned to kneel with her face that way,-to the great billows that always seemed to her a seat in the sky, that were always something more than mere vapor.  She could pray better when, long after sundown, they hung above the horizon, robbed of their colors but still glorious.  And there had grown up in her mind the comforting thought that on those very billows was God’s throne, and from them, at sunset, He looked down upon that part of the earth that was sinking into the night, and blessed it and told it farewell.  She even thought she could see His face in the heavens sometimes,-His flowing white robes, and the amethyst stool upon which He rested his feet.

As the sun dropped behind the prairie, the cloud-throne loomed forth against the blue more vividly than ever.  The little girl kept her eyes dumbly upon it, watching the crimson and gold slowly fade to royal purple where the King sat.

“Remember what I said, pet lamb,” her mother whispered.  She could not see, yet she was still holding the little girl’s hands firmly.  “Remember what I told you to do.”

The little girl could not answer; she could only bow her head in reply.  Tearless, she waited beside the bed, where, for the second time, Life was striving with Death,-and was to lose.  There was no sound in the room until there came a last whisper, “Pray.”

The little girl slipped down from the edge of the bed to the carpet and knelt toward the west.  A collie trotted up to her and licked her cheek.  She put him gently aside.  She was trying to think of something to say in behalf of her mother to Him who, even now, was taking His farewell look.  At last a thought came to her, and her lips moved to speak aloud the only petition she could think of: 

“O God,” she pleaded, raising her eyes to where the seat, marvelous in purple and burning gold, loomed high over the prairie against the sky, “please be good to my mother.”

And as she knelt there, strong in her faith and brave in her grief, a messenger came down from the western cloud-throne-a messenger of peace from the God of the little girl.