Read CHAPTER XXVIII of The Watchers of the Plains A Tale of the Western Prairies , free online book, by Ridgwell Cullum, on ReadCentral.com.

A LAST ADVENTURE

It was not without a guilty feeling that Rosebud rode out of the stockade. She knew that she was deceiving Seth. She knew that she had lied to him deliberately. Worse, she had played upon his feelings with intent to deceive him. But her motive was good, and she tried to draw consolation from the knowledge.

Her argument was worthy of her. It was impulsive, and would not stand the test of logical inspection. She had thought long before putting her plan into execution; at least, long for her. She told herself that no deceit was unpardonable which had an honest, sound motive. In fact it was not deceit at all, only subterfuge.

Her argument was something after this fashion. She had been the chief source of trouble. Therefore she owed something to the general welfare. Seth was harassed with his responsibilities, and the chances were terribly against him and those under his charge. There was something she could do, something which might turn the tide in their favor, might save the situation. What if to carry it out she must act a lie? Who would blame her if she were successful? If it failed it would not matter to her who blamed.

She was a child no longer, but a strong woman whose devotion to those she loved rose boundless over every other feeling. It was this very devotion that urged her and shut out every scruple, every qualm of conscience, at the manner in which she had gained her ends.

Thus she passed out into the dark, starlit world, with its strange glare of fire.

Once clear of the farm she heaved a deep sigh. The tension had relaxed now that she felt herself to be doing at last. Cooped within the stockade, her plans still waiting to be set in motion, she had felt nigh to choking with nervousness. Her anxiety to be gone had been overwhelming. Perhaps none knew better than she what the task of cajoling Seth meant, for he was not an easy man when duty was uppermost in his mind. But that was all done with now; she was out at last.

The freedom of her horse’s gait felt good under her. There was confidence, exhilaration to be drawn from each springing stride. And, too, there was a new and delightful sense of responsibility in the heavy lolling of the revolver holsters upon her hips. But above all there was the supreme feeling that she was endeavoring to help those she had left behind.

Her tears had dried before she mounted to the back of the animal to which she was now pinning her faith. The parting kiss she had imprinted upon the man’s thin cheek had inspired her. Life meant nothing to her without him. Her fortune was nothing to her, no one was anything to her compared with him. He stood out over everything else in her thoughts.

She heard the rumbling of the wheels of Joe Smith’s wagons, but gave no heed to them. Instead, she rode straight on to the south, purposely avoiding the newcomers she was ostensibly going to meet. In a few minutes she drew rein at Wanaha’s log hut.

She was not without some doubts when she saw that the place was in darkness. But her apprehensions were quickly dissipated. Her first summons brought the squaw to the door, where her tall, dark figure stood out in the gentle starlight.

As was her custom Rosebud handed the woman the reins to hook upon the wall. She was constrained to do without her usual greeting, for she knew that, here too, she must deceive to gain her ends. It would be madness to tell the half-tamed savage her real intentions. Wanaha’s love for her was great, but well she knew that blood is thicker than water, and a savage’s blood more particularly so than anybody’s else.

Once inside the hut Wanaha was the first to speak.

“You come? On this night?” she questioned, choosing her English words with her usual care.

The girl permitted no unnecessary delay in plunging into the object of her visit.

“Yes, yes, my Wana,” she replied, drawing the tall woman to her, so that, in the dim starlight, they sat together on the edge of the bed. Her action was one of tender affection. Wanaha submitted, well pleased that her white friend had allowed nothing of the doings of her people to come between them. “Yes, I come to you for help. I come to you because I want to remove the cause of all the trouble between your people and mine. Do you know the source of the trouble? I’ll tell you. I am!”

Rosebud looked fixedly in the great dark eyes, so soft yet so radiant in the starlight.

“I know. It is my brother. He want you. He fight for you. Kill, slay. It matter not so he have you.”

The woman nodded gravely. The girl’s heart bounded, for she saw that her task was to be an easy one.

“Yes, so it is. I have thought much about this thing. I should never have come back to the farm. It was bad.”

Again Wanaha nodded.

“And that is why I come to you. I love my friends. There is some one I love, like you love your Nevil, and I want to save him. They will all be killed if I stay, for your brother is mighty a great warrior. So I am going away.”

Rosebud’s allusion to the squaw’s love for her husband was tactful. She was completely won. The girl, who was clasping one of Wanaha’s hands, felt a warm, responsive pressure of sympathy, and she knew.

“Yes, now I want you to help me,” she hurried on. “To go as I am now, a white girl in white girl’s clothing, would be madness. I know your people. I should never escape their all-seeing eyes. I must go like one of your people.”

“You would be a squaw?” A wonderful smile was in the great black eyes as Wanaha put the question.

“Yes.”

“Yes, I see. Wana sees.” A rising excitement seemed to stir the squaw. She came closer to her white friend and spoke quickly, stumbling over her English in a manner she would never have permitted in cooler moments. “An’ in these way you mak’ yourself go. You fly, you run; so my brother, the great chief, no more you find. Yes? Then him say, ‘him gone.’ We no more use him fight. We go by tepee quick. An’ there is great peace. Is that how?”

“That is it,” cried Rosebud, in her eagerness flinging her arms about the squaw’s neck. “We must be quick. Seth will miss me from the farm, and then there’ll be a to-do, and he will come hunting for me. Lend me your clothes, a blanket, and an Indian saddle. Quick, my Wana! you’ll help me, won’t you? Oh, make haste and say, and set my doubts at rest!”

The tide of the girl’s appeal had its effect. The squaw rose swiftly, silently. She moved off and presently came back with a bundle of beaded buckskin clothing.

“You wear these, they my own. I get him for you. See. You put on, I go get saddle. The blanket here. So. Nevil, my Nevil, from home. Wana not know where. But maybe he come quick an’ find you an’ then ”

Wana did not finish expressing her fears. She seemed suddenly to remember of whom she was speaking, and that there was disloyalty in what she was saying.

But Rosebud was paying little heed. She was already changing her clothes. She knew the value of time just then, and she had been forced to waste much already. While she was completing the transformation, the squaw went out and changed her saddle and bridle for an Indian blanket and surcingle with stirrups attached to it, and a plaited, gaudy rope bridle and spade bit.

When she came back the white girl had completed her toilet, even to the moccasins and buckskin chapps. Even the undemonstrative Wanaha exclaimed at the metamorphosis.

She saw before her in the dim starlight the most delightful picture of a squaw. Rosebud’s wealth of golden hair was hidden beneath the folds of the colored blanket, and only her fair white face with its dazzling eyes, bright now with excitement, shone out and destroyed the illusion.

“You are much beautiful,” the Indian declared in amazement. Then she stood gazing until Rosebud’s practical voice roused her.

“Food, my Wana.”

“I give bread and meat. It in bags on the horse. So. Now you go?”

“Yes, dear Wana. I must go.”

Rosebud reached her arms up to the tall woman’s neck, and drawing her dark face down to her own, kissed her. Though she loved this dark princess she knew that her kiss was the kiss of Judas. Then she passed out, and, mounting her horse, rode away.

Within five minutes of her going, and while Wanaha was still standing in the doorway looking after her, a party of warriors, headed by Little Black Fox himself, rode up to the house. The chief had come in search of Nevil Steyne. He angrily demanded the white man’s whereabouts of the woman who was his sister.

The ensuing scene was one of ferocious rage on the part of the headstrong man, and fear, hidden under an exterior of calm debate, on the part of Wanaha. She knew her brother, and in her mind tried to account for her husband’s absence. After the warriors had departed she passed a night of gloomy foreboding.

All unconscious of her narrow escape, Rosebud headed away to the northeast. She had no elaborate scheme of route. With the instinct of her prairie training she knew her direction. She would make her destination as the crow flies, chancing everything, every danger, so that she could make the best time; no personal considerations entered into her calculations.

She could see the reflections of the camp-fires in the sky in every direction, but, with a reckless courage, she cared nothing for this. A more calculating mind might well have shrunk from the dangers they suggested. To her they meant no more than obstacles which must be confronted and overcome. She knew nothing of strategy in warfare; of cover there was none in the direction she was taking.

Like the line of great soldiers from whom she was descended she understood riding straight only. Let the fences and pitfalls come, let them be what they might, she would not swerve. Whatever the emergency, she was prepared to confront it, and, like a thorough sportswoman but a bad general, to take her chance, relying only on her good horse and the darkness, and the proverbial luck of the reckless.

Though this was her general idea she did all she could to help. A featherweight, she still strove to ride lighter. Then she had her firearms, and she steeled her heart to their use. After all she came from splendid fighting stock.

She allowed herself no thought of failure. She must not fail, she told herself. They were waiting for help in the stockade behind her; patient, strong, a man of lion heart, who knew defeat only when the last shot was fired, the last blow struck, and he was left helpless to defend himself and those others, he was waiting. Her thoughts inspired her with the courage of a brave woman whose lover is in grave peril, than which there is no greater courage in the world.

Now the moment of her peril drew near. Every raking stride of her willing horse cut the brief seconds shorter and shorter. The lurid reflections of the camp-fires in the sky had given place to the starlike glow of the fires themselves, and every yard of the distance covered showed them larger and plainer against the sky-line.

She was riding straight for the middle course of the black space dividing two of the fires ahead. There was little to choose in any direction, so complete was the circle around the farm, but she had been quick to see that that little lay here.

She measured the distance she had to go with her eye. It was not far, and instinctively she reined her horse up to give him breathing for the great effort to come; an effort which she knew was to be very real indeed. Approaching steadily she made her preparations. Freeing her right arm from her blanket she drew one of her revolvers and saw that it was fully loaded. Then she closely scrutinized the fires. She could make out the general outline of two vast camps away to the right and left of her. The fires were in the midst, and right to the limits of the lurid light, she could see the dim outlines of innumerable tepees, and crowds of moving figures. It was a sight to put fear into the heart of a daring man, then how much more so into the heart of a frail woman?

The black stretch before her seemed devoid of tepees, but she was not sure. Of one thing she felt convinced, even if the camps were confined to the fires there was no likelihood of these wide intervals being left unguarded.

Her horse refreshed, she put him into a strong gallop, and in a few minutes had entered the danger zone. Almost on the instant her surmise proved correct. The air directly ahead of her split with a fierce yell. She knew it. It was the Sioux war-cry. The supreme moment had come. It must be now or never. Clinching her moccasined heels into her horse’s barrel she sent him racing headlong. And as he rushed forward she gripped her revolver ready for immediate use.

An Indian mounted on a pony suddenly loomed ahead of her. Such was her pace that he seemed to rush out of the darkness upon her. Yet his pony had not moved. There was a clatter of speeding hoofs on either side, and she knew that the alarm had been taken up, and the bloodthirsty warriors from the camps were in pursuit.

The man ahead appeared only for an instant. Her revolver was covering him, the terrific speed of her horse helped her aim. She saw the sights of her weapon; she saw the man. The hammer fell. There was a cry, and the biting report of the revolver died away in the darkness. She had passed the spot where the man had been. Horse and rider had vanished. She had no thought for anything now. She was conscious of only one thing, the din of pursuit.

Thrusting the revolver back into its holster she offered up a silent prayer to heaven. Then she leaned over her horse’s neck to relieve him of her weight, and, with the yelling horde hard upon her heels, gave herself up to the race.