Poems & Short Stories: 4,435
Forum Members: 67,986
Forum Posts: 1,216,101
And over 2 million unique readers monthly!
Up from the valley below came the throb of war drums, the faint rattle of shots, and the distant cries of painted horsemen charging. From my vantage-point on the ridge I had an unobstructed view of the encampment, a great circle of tepees and tents three miles in circumference, cradled in a sag of the timberless hills. The sounds came softly through the still Dakota air, and my eye took in every sharp-drawn detail of the scene--ponies grazing along the creek bottom, children playing beneath the blue smoke of camp-fires, the dense crowd ringed about a medicine pole in their center, intent on a war-dance.
Five thousand Sioux were here in all their martial splendor. They were painted and decked and trapped for war, living again their days of plenty, telling anew their tales of might, and repeating on a mimic scale their greatest battles. Five days the feasting had continued; five mornings had I been awakened at dawn to see a thousand ochered, feathered horsemen come thundering down upon the camp, their horses running flat, their rifles popping, while the valley rocked to their battle-cries and to the answering clamor of the army which rode forth to meet them. Five sultry days had I spent wandering unnoticed, ungreeted, and disdained, an alien in a hostile land, tolerated but unwelcome. Five evenings had I witnessed the tents begin to glow and the campfires kindle until the valley became hooped about as if by a million giant fireflies. Five nights had I strayed, like a lost soul, through an unreal wilderness, harkening to the drone of stories told in an unfamiliar tongue, to the minor-keyed dirges of an unknown race, to the thumping of countless moccasined feet in the measures of queer dances. The odors of a savage people had begun to pall on me, and the sound of a strange language to annoy; I longed for another white man, for a word in my own tongue.
It was the annual "Give-away" celebration, when all the tribe assembles to make presents, to race, to tell stories, and to recount the legends of their prowess. They had come from all quarters of the reservation, bringing their trunks, their children, and their dogs. Of the last named more had come, by far, than would go back, for this was a week of feasting, and every day the air was heavy with the smell of singeing hair, and the curs that had been spared gnawed at an ever-increasing pile of bones.
I had seen old hags strangle dogs by pulling on opposite ends of a slip-noose, or choke them by laying a tent-pole on their throats and standing on the ends; I had seen others knock them down with billets of wood, drag them kicking to the fires, and then knock them down again when they crawled out of the flames. All in all, I had acquired much information regarding the carnival appetites of the noble red man, learning that he is poetic only in the abstract.
It was drawing on toward sunset, so I slipped into my camera strap and descended the slope. I paused, however, while still some distance away from my tent, for next to it another had been erected during my absence. It was a tiny affair with a rug in front of it, and upon the rug stood a steamer-chair.
"Hello, inside!" I shouted, then ran forward, straddling papooses and shouldering squaws out of my way.
"Hello!" came an answer, and out through the flap was thrust the head of my friend, the Government doctor.
"Gee! I'm glad to see you!" I said as I shook his hand. "I'm as lonesome as a deaf mute at a song recital."
"I figured you would be," said the doctor, "so I came out to see the finish of the feast and to visit with you. I brought some bread from the Agency."
"Hoorah! White bread and white conversation! I'm hungry for both."
"What's the matter? Won't the Indians talk to you?"
"I guess they would if they could, but they can't. I haven't found one among the whole five thousand who can understand a word I say. Your Government schools have gone back in the betting with me, Doc. You must keep your graduates under lock and key."
"They can all speak English if they want to--that is, the younger ones. Some few of the old people are too proud to try, but the others can talk as well as we can, until they forget."
"Do you mean to say these people have been fooling me? I don't believe it," said I. "There's one that can't talk English, and I'll make a bet on it." I indicated a passing brave with an eagle-feather head-dress which reached far down his naked legs. He was a magnificent animal; he was young and lithe, and as tall and straight as a sapling. "I've tried him twice, and he simply doesn't understand."
My friend called to the warrior: "Hey, Tom! Come here a minute." The Indian came, and the doctor continued, "When do you hold the horse-races, Thomas?"
"To-morrow, at four o'clock, unless it rains," said the fellow. He spoke in an odd, halting dialect, but his words were perfectly understandable.
"Are you going to ride?"
"No; my race-horse is sick."
As the ocher-daubed figure vanished into the dusk the old man turned to me, saying, "College man."
"Yes. B.A. He's a graduate."
"Impossible!" I declared. "Why, he talks like a foreigner, or as if he were just learning our language."
"Exactly. In another three years he'll be an Indian again, through and through. Oh, the reservation is full of fellows like Tom." The doctor heaved a sigh of genuine discouragement. "It's a melancholy acknowledgment to make, but our work seems to count for almost nothing. It's their blood."
"Perhaps they forget the higher education," said I; "but how about the Agency school, where you teach them to farm and to sew and to cook, as well as to read and to write? Surely they don't forget that?"
"I've heard a graduating class read theses, sing cantatas, and deliver sounding orations; then I've seen those same young fellows, three months later, squatting in tepees and eating with their fingers. It's a common thing for our 'sweet girl graduates' to lay off their white commencement-day dress, their high-heeled shoes and their pretty hats, for the shawl and the moccasin. We teach them to make sponge-cake and to eat with a fork, but they prefer dog-soup and a horn spoon. Of course there are exceptions, but most of them forget much faster than they learn."
"Our Eastern ideas of Mr. Lo are somewhat out of line with the facts," I acknowledged. "He's sort of a hero with us. I remember several successful plays with romantic Indians in the lead."
"I know!" My friend laughed shortly. "I saw some of them. If you like, however, I'll tell you how it really happens. I know a story."
When we had finished supper the doctor told me the story of Running Elk. The night was heavy with unusual odors and burdened by weird music; the whisper of a lively multitude came to us, punctuated at intervals by distant shouts or shots or laughter. On either hand the campfires stretched away like twinkling stars, converging steadily until the horns joined each other away out yonder in the darkness. It was a suitable setting for an epic tale of the Sioux.
"I've grown gray in this service," the old man began, "and the longer I live the less time I waste in trying to understand the difference between the Indian race and ours. I've about reached the conclusion that it's due to some subtle chemical ingredient in the blood. One race is lively and progressive, the other is sluggish and atavistic. The white man is ever developing, he's always advancing, always expanding; the red man is marking time or walking backward. It is only a matter of time until he will vanish utterly. He's different from the negro. The negro enlarges, up to a certain limit, then he stops. Some people claim, I believe, that his skull is sutured in such a manner as to check his brain development when his bones finally harden and set. The idea sounds reasonable; if true, there will never be a serious conflict between the blacks and the whites. But the red man differs from both. To begin with, his is not a subject race by birth. Physically he is as perfect as either; Nature has endowed him with an intellect quite as keen as the white man's, and with an open articulation of the skull which permits the growth of his brain. Somewhere, nevertheless, she has cunningly concealed a flaw, a flaw which I have labored thirty years to find.
"I have a theory--you know all old men have theories--that it is a physical thing, as tangible as that osseous constriction of the cranium which holds the negro in subjection, and that if I could lay my finger on it I could raise the Indian to his ancient mastery and to a dignified place among the nations; I could change them from a vanishing people into a race of rulers, of lawgivers, of creators. At least that used to be my dream.
"Some years ago I felt that I was well on my way to success, for I found a youth who offered every promise of great manhood. I studied him until I knew his every trait and his every strength--he didn't seem to have any weaknesses. I raised him according to my own ideas; he became a tall, straight fellow, handsome as a bronze statue of a god. Physically he was perfect, and he had a mind as fine as his body. He had the best blood of his nation in him, being the son of a war chief, and he was called Thomas Running Elk. I educated him at the Agency school under my own personal supervision, and on every occasion I studied him. I spent hours in shaping his mind and in bending him away from the manners and the habits of his tribe. I taught him to think like a white man. He responded like a growing vine; he became the pride of the reservation--a reserved but an eager youth, with an understanding and a wit beyond that of most white boys of his age. Search him as rigorously as I might, I couldn't find a single flaw. I believed I was about to prove my theory.
"Running Elk romped through our school, and he couldn't learn fast enough; when he had finished I sent him East to college, and, in order to wean him utterly away from the past, instead of sending him to an Indian school I arranged for him to enter one of the big Eastern universities, where no Indian had ever been, where constant association with the flower of our race would by its own force raise him to a higher level. Well, it worked. He led his classes as a stag leads a herd. He was a silent, dignified, shadowy figure; his fellow-students considered him unapproachable, nevertheless they admired and they liked him. In all things he excelled; but he was best, perhaps, in athletics, and for this I took the credit--a Jovian satisfaction in my work.
"News of his victories on track and field and gridiron came to me regularly, for his professors were interested in my experiment. As for the boy himself, he never wrote; it was not his nature. Nor did he communicate with his people. He had cut himself off from them, and I think he looked down upon them. At intervals his father came to the Agency to inquire about Running Elk, for I did not allow my protege to return even during vacations. That was a part of my plan. At my stories of his son's victories the father made no comment; he merely listened quietly, then folded his blanket about him and slipped away. The old fellow was a good deal of a philosopher; he showed neither resentment nor pleasure, but once or twice I caught him smiling oddly at my enthusiasm. I know now what was in his mind.
"It was in Running Elk's senior year that a great thing came to him, a thing I had counted upon from the start. He fell in love. A girl entered his life. But this girl didn't enter as I had expected, and when the news reached me I was completely taken aback. She was a girl I had dandled on my knees as a child, the only daughter of an old friend. Moreover, instead of Running Elk being drawn to her, as I had planned, she fell desperately in love with him.
"I guess the gods were offended at my presumption and determined by one hair's-breadth shift to destroy the balance of my whole structure. They're a jealous lot, the gods. I didn't understand, at that time, how great must have been the amusement which I offered them.
"You've heard of old Henry Harman? Yes, the railroad king. It was his daughter Alicia. No wonder you look incredulous.
"In order to understand the story you'll have to know something about old Henry. You'll have to believe in heredity. Henry is a self-made man. He came into the Middle West as a poor boy, and by force of indomitable pluck, ability, and doggedness he became a captain of industry. We were born on neighboring farms, and while I, after a lifetime of work, have won nothing except an underpaid Government job, Henry has become rich and mighty. He had that indefinable, unacquirable faculty for making money, and he became a commanding figure in the financial world. He's dominant, he's self-centered, he's one-purposed; he's a rough-hewn block of a man, and his unbounded wealth, his power, and his contact with the world have never smoothed nor rounded him. He's just about the same now as when he was a section boss on his own railroad. His daughter Alicia is another Henry Harman, feminized. Her mother was a pampered child, born to ease and enslaved to her own whims. No desire of hers, however extravagant, ever went ungratified, and right up to the hour of her death old Henry never said no to her--partly out of a spirit of amusement, I dare say, and partly because she was the only unbridled extravagance he had ever yielded to in all his life. Well, having sowed the wind, he reaped the whirlwind in Alicia. She combined the distinguishing traits of both parents, and she grew up more effectively spoiled than her mother.
"When I got a panicky letter from one of Running Elk's professors coupling her name vaguely with that of my Indian, I wavered in my determination to see this experiment out; but the analyst is unsentimental, and a fellow who sets out to untangle the skein of nature must pay the price, so I waited.
"That fall I was called to Washington on department business--we were fighting for a new appropriation--and while there I went to the theater one night. I was extremely harassed, and my mind was filled with Indian matters, so I went out alone to seek an evening's relief, not caring whither my feet took me.
"The play was one of those you spoke of; it told the story of a young Indian college man in love with a white girl. Whether or not it was well written I don't know; but it seemed as if the hand of destiny had led me to it, for the hero's plight was so similar to the situation of Running Elk that it seemed almost uncanny, and I wondered if this play might afford me some solution of his difficulty.
"You will remember that the Indian in the play is a great football hero, and a sort of demi-god to his fellows. He begins to consider himself one of them--their equal--and he falls in love with the sister of his chum. But when this fact is made known his friends turn against him and try to show him the barrier of blood. At the finish a messenger comes bearing word that his father is dead and that he has been made chief in the old man's place. He is told that his people need him, and although the girl offers to go with him and make her life his, he renounces her for his duty to the tribe.
"Well, it was all right up to that point, but the end didn't help me in shaping the future of Running Elk, for his father was hale, hearty, and contented, and promised to hang on in that condition as long as we gave him his allowance of beef on Issue Day.
"That night when I got back to the hotel I found a long-distance call from old Henry Harman. He had wired me here at the Agency, and, finding I was in Washington, he had called me from New York. He didn't tell me much over the 'phone, except that he wanted to see me at once on a matter of importance. My work was about finished, so I took the train in the morning and went straight to his office. When I arrived I found the old fellow badly rattled. There is a certain kind of worry which comes from handling affairs of importance. Men like Henry Harman thrive upon it; but there's another kind which searches out the joints in their coats of mail and makes women of them. That's what Henry was suffering from.
"'Oh, Doc, I'm in an awful hole!' he exclaimed. 'You're the only man who can pull me out. It's about Alicia and that damned savage of yours.'
"'I knew that was it,' said I.
"'If you've heard about it clear out there,' Harman declared, with a catch in his voice, 'it's even worse than I thought.' He strode up and down his office for a few moments; then he sank heavily into his chair and commenced to pound his mahogany desk, declaring, angrily:
"'I won't be defied by my own flesh and blood! I won't! That's all there is to it. I'm master of my own family. Why, the thing's fantastic, absurd, and yet it's terrible! Heavens! I can't believe it!'
"'Have you talked with Alicia?'
"'Not with her, to her. She's like a mule. I never saw such a will in a woman. I--I've fought her until I'm weak. Where she got her temper I don't know.' He collapsed feebly and I was forced to smile, for there's only one thing stubborn enough to overcome a Harman's resistance, and that is a Harman's desire.
"'Then it isn't a girlish whim?' I ventured.
"'Whim! Look at me!' He held out his trembling hands. 'She's licked me, Doc. She's going to marry that--that--' He choked and muttered, unintelligibly: 'I've reasoned, I've pleaded, I've commanded. She merely smiles and shrugs and says I'm probably right, in the abstract. Then she informs me that abstract problems go to pieces once in a while. She says this--this--Galloping Moose, this yelping ghost-dancer of yours, is the only real man she ever met.'
"'What does he have to say?'
"'Humph!' grunted Harman. 'I offered to buy him off, but he threatened to serve me up with dumplings and wear my scalp in his belt. Such insolence! Alicia wouldn't speak to me for a week.'
"'You made a mistake there,' said I. 'Running Elk is a Sioux. As for Alicia, she's thoroughly spoiled. She's never been denied any single thing in all her life, and she has your disposition. It's a difficult situation.'
"'Difficult! It's scandalous--hideous!'
"'How old is Alicia?'
"'Nineteen. Oh, I've worn out that argument! She says she'll wait. You know she has her own money, from her mother.'
"'Does Running Elk come to your house?'
"At this my old friend roared so fiercely that I hastened to say: 'I'll see the boy at once. I have more influence with him than anybody else.'
"'I hope you can show him how impossible, how criminal, it is to ruin my girl's life.' Harman said this seriously. 'Yes, and mine, too, for that matter. Suppose the yellow newspapers got hold of this!' He shuddered. 'Doc, I love that girl so well that I'd kill her with my own hands rather than see her disgraced, ridiculed--'
"'Tut, tut!' said I. 'That's pride--just plain, selfish pride.'
"'I don't care a damn what it is, I'd do it. I earned my way in the world, but she's got blue blood in her and she was born to a position; she goes everywhere. When she comes out she'll be able to marry into the best circles in America. She could marry a duke, if she wanted to. I'd buy her one if she said the word. Naturally, I can't stand for this dirty, low-browed Injun.'
"'He's not dirty,' I declared, 'and he's not as low-browed as some foreigner you'd be glad to pick out for her.'
"'Well, he's an Injun,' retorted Harman, 'and that's enough. We've both seen 'em tried; they all drop back where they started from. You know that as well as I do.'
"'I don't know it,' said I, thinking of my theories. 'I've been using him to make an experiment, but--the experiment has gotten away from me. I dare say you're right. I wanted him to meet and to know white girls, but I didn't want him to marry one--certainly not a girl like Alicia. No, we must put a stop to this affair. I'll see him right away.'
"'To-morrow is Thanksgiving,' said Henry. 'Wait over and go up with us and see the football game.'
"'Are you going?'
"Harman grimaced. 'Alicia made me promise. I'd rather take her than let her go with friends--there's no telling what she might do.'
"'Why let her go at all?' I objected.
"The old fellow laughed mirthlessly. 'Why let her? Running Elk plays full-back! How stop her? We'll pick you up at your hotel in the morning and drive you up in the car. It's the big game of the year. You'll probably enjoy it. I won't!'
"Miss Harman seemed glad to see me on the following day. She must have known that I was in her father's confidence, but she was too well schooled to show it. As we rode out in the big limousine I undertook to study her, but the reading of women isn't my game. All I could see was a beautiful, spirited, imperious girl with the Harman eyes and chin. She surprised me by mentioning Running Elk of her own free will; she wasn't the least bit embarrassed, and, although her father's face whitened, she preserved her quiet dignity, and I realized that she was in no wise ashamed of her infatuation. I didn't wonder that the old gentleman chose to accompany her to this game, although he must have known that the sight of Running Elk would pain him like a branding-iron.
"It was the first great gridiron battle I had ever seen, and so I was unprepared for the spectacle. The enthusiasm of that immense crowd astonished me, and in spite of the fact that I had come as a tired old man, it got into my veins until my heart pounded and my pulses leaped. The songs, the shouts, the bellows of that multitude were intensely thrilling, for youth was in them. I grew young again, and I was half ashamed of myself until I saw other people of my own age who had also become boys and girls for the day. And the seriousness of it! Why, it was painful! Not one of those countless thousands was a disinterested spectator; they were all intensely partisan, and you'd have thought life or death hung on the victory.
"Not one, did I say? There was one who held himself aloof from all the enthusiasm. Old Henry sat like a lump of granite, and out of regard for him I tried to restrain myself.
"We had a box, close to the side lines, with the elite of the East on either hand--people whose names I had read. They bowed and smiled and waved to our little party, and I felt quite important.
"You've probably seen similar games, so there's no need of my describing this one, even if I could. It was my first experience, however, and it impressed me greatly. When the teams appeared I recognized Running Elk at a distance. So did the hordes of madmen behind us, and I began to understand for the first time what it was that the old man in the seat next to mine was combating.
"A dancing dervish in front of the grandstand said something through a megaphone, then he waved a cane, whereupon a tremendous barking, 'Rah! Rah! Rah!' broke out. It ended with my Sioux boy's name, and I wished the old chief back in Dakota were there to see his son and to witness the honor done him by the whites.
"Quite as impressive to me as this demonstration was the death-like silence which settled over that tremendous throng when the teams scattered out in readiness. The other side kicked off, and the ball sailed high and far. As it settled in its downward flight, I saw a lithe, tall shadow of a man racing toward it, and I recognized my boy. I'd lost his position for the moment, but I knew that hungry, predatory stride which devoured the yards as if he were a thing of the wind. He was off with the ball in the hollow of his arm, right back into the heart of his enemies, dodging, darting, leaping, twisting, always advancing. They tore his interference away from him, but, nevertheless, he penetrated their ranks and none of them could lay hands upon him. He was running free when tackled; his assailant launched himself with such savage violence that the sound of their impact came to us distinctly. As he fell I heard Alicia Harman gasp. Then the crowd gave tongue.
"From that time on to the finish of the game my eyes seldom left Running Elk, and then only long enough to shoot covert glances at my companions.
"Although the skill of my young Sioux overtopped that of all the other contestants, the opposing team played as one man; they were like a wonderful, well-oiled piece of machinery, and--they scored. All through the first half our side struggled to retaliate, but at the intermission they had not succeeded.
"So far Running Elk hadn't noticed our presence, but when the teams returned for the second half he saw us. He didn't even know that I was in the East; in fact, he hadn't laid eyes on me for more than three years. The sight of me there in the box with Alicia and her father must have been an unpleasant shock to him; my face must have seemed an evil omen; nevertheless, he waved his hand at me and smiled--one of his rare, reserved smiles. I couldn't help marveling at the fellow's physical beauty.
"I had been secretly hoping that his side would be defeated, so that Miss Harman might see him for once as a loser; but the knowledge of our presence seemed to electrify him, and by the spark of his own magnetism he fired his fellows until they commenced to play like madmen; I have no doubt they were precisely that. His spirit was like some galvanic current, and he directed them with a master mind. He was a natural-born strategist, of course, for through him ran the blood of the craftiest race of all the earth, the blood of a people who have always fought against odds, to whom a forlorn hope is an assurance of victory. On this day the son of a Sioux chief led the men of that great university with the same skill that Hannibal led his Carthaginian cohorts up to the gates of Rome. He led them with the cunning of Chief Joseph, the greatest warrior of his people. He was indefatigable, irresistible, magnificent--and he himself tied the score.
"In spite of myself I joined madly in the cheering; but the boy didn't let down. Now that his enemies recognized the source of their peril, they focused upon him all their fury. They tried to destroy him. They fell upon him like animals; they worried and they harried and they battered him until I felt sick for him and for the girl beside me, who had grown so faint and pale. But his body was of my making; I had spent careful years on it, and although they wore themselves out, they could not break Running Elk. He remained a fleeting, an elusive thing, with the vigor of a wild horse. He tackled their runners with the ferocity of a wolf.
"It was a grand exhibition of coolness and courage, for he was everywhere, always alert and always ready--and it was he who won the game.
"There came some sort of a fumble, too fast for the eye to follow, and then the ball rolled out of the scrimmage. Before we knew what had happened, Running Elk was away with it, a scattered field ahead of him.
"I dare say you have heard about that run, for it occurred in the last three minutes of play, and is famous in football annals to this day, so I'm told. It was a spectacular performance, apparently devised by fate to make more difficult the labors of old Henry and me. Every living soul on those high-banked bleachers was on his feet at the finish, a senseless, screaming demon. I saw Alicia straining forward, her face like chalk, her very lips blanched, her whole high-strung body aquiver. Her eyes were distended, and in them I saw a look which told me that this was no mere girlish whim, that this was more than the animal call of youth and sex. Running Elk had become a fetish to her.
"The father must likewise have recognized this, for as we passed out he stammered into my ear:
"'You see, Doc, the girl's mad. It's awful--awful. I don't know what to do.'
"We had become momentarily separated from her, and therefore I urged him: 'Get her away, quick, no matter how or where. Use force if you have to, but get her out of this crowd, this atmosphere, and keep her away. I'll see him to-night.'
"The old fellow nodded. 'I--I'll kidnap her and take her to Europe,' he mumbled. 'God! It's awful!'
"I didn't go back to the city with the Harmans; but I told Alicia good-by at the running-board of the machine. I don't think she heard me.
"Running Elk was glad to see me, and I spent that evening with him. He asked all about his people; he told me of his progress, and he spoke lightly of his victory that day. But sound him as I would, I could elicit no mention of Alicia Harman's name. He wasn't much of a talker, anyhow, so at last I was forced to bring up the subject myself. At my first word the silence of his forefathers fell upon him, and all he did was listen. I told him forcibly that any thoughts of her were ridiculous and impossible.
"'Why?' said he, after I had finished.
"I told him a thousand reasons why; I recounted them cruelly, unfeelingly, but he made no sign. As a matter of fact, I don't think he understood them any more than he understood the affair itself. He appeared to be blinded, confused by the splendor of what had come to him. Alicia was so glorious, so different, so mysterious to him, that he had lost all sense of perspective and of proportion. Recognizing this, I descended to material things which I knew he could grasp.
"'I paid for your education,' said I, 'and it is almost over with. In a few months you'll be turned out to make your own living, and then you'll encounter this race prejudice I speak of in a way to effect your stomach and your body. You're a poor man, Running Elk, and you've got to earn your way. Your blood will bar you from a good many means of doing it, and when your color begins to affect your earning capacity you'll have all you can do to take care of yourself. Life isn't played on a gridiron, and the first thing you've got to do is to make a man of yourself. You've got no right to fill your head with dreams, with insane fancies of this sort.'
"'Yes, sir!' said he, and that was about all I could get out of him. His reticence was very annoying.
"I didn't see him again, for I came West the next day, and the weeks stretched into months without word of him or of the others.
"Shortly before he was due to return I was taken sick--the one big illness of my life, which came near ending me, which made me into the creaking old ruin that I am. They sent me away to another climate, where I got worse, then they shifted me about like a bale of goods, airing me here and there. For a year and a half I hung over the edge, one ailment running into another, but finally I straightened out a bit and tottered back into Washington to resume operations.
"For six months I hung around headquarters, busied on department matters. I had lost all track of things out here, meanwhile, for the agent had been changed shortly after I left, and no one had taken the trouble to keep me posted; but eventually I showed up on the reservation again, reaching here on the first of July, three days before the annual celebration of the people.
"Many changes had occurred in my two years' absence, and there was no one to bring me gossip, hence I heard little during the first day or two while I was picking up the loose ends of my work. One thing I did find out, however--namely, that Running Elk had come straight home from college, and was still on the reserve. I determined to look him up during the festival.
"But on the morning of the Fourth I got the surprise of my life. The stage from the railroad brought two women, two strange women, who came straight to my office--Alicia Harman and her French maid.
"Well, I was fairly knocked endwise; but Alicia was as well-poised and as self-contained as on that Thanksgiving morning in New York when she and old Henry had picked me up in their automobile--a trifle more stunning and a bit more determined, perhaps. Oh, she was a splendid creature in the first glory of her womanhood, a perfectly groomed and an utterly spoiled young goddess. She greeted me graciously, with that queenly air of all great ladies.
"'Where is your father?' I asked, as she laid off her dust-coat.
"'He's in New York,' said she. 'I'm traveling alone.'
"'And where have you been all this time?'
"'In Europe, mainly; Rome, Naples, Cairo, India, St. Petersburg, London--all about, in fact. Father took me abroad the day after Thanksgiving--you remember? And he has kept me there. But I came of age two weeks ago.'
"'Two weeks!' I ejaculated.
"'Yes, I took the first ship after my birthday. I've been traveling pretty constantly ever since. This is a long way from the world out here, isn't it?' She looked around curiously.
"'From your world, yes,' said I, and when she offered nothing further I grew embarrassed. I started to speak; then, noting the maid, I hesitated; but Alicia shook her head faintly.
"'Lisette doesn't understand a word of English,' said she.
"'Why have you come out here, Alicia?' I inquired. I was far more ill at ease than she.
"'Do you need to ask?' She eyed me defiantly. 'I respected father's wishes when I was in my minority. I traveled and studied and did all the tiresome things he commanded me to do--as long as he had the right to command. But when I became my own mistress I--took my full freedom. He made his life to suit himself; I intend to make mine to suit myself. I'm sorry I can't please him, but we don't seem to see things the same way, and I dare say he has accepted the inevitable.'
"'Then you consider this--this move you evidently contemplate as inevitable?'
"She lifted her dainty brows. 'Inevitable isn't a good word. I wish a certain thing; I have wished it from the first; I have never ceased for an instant to wish it; I feel that I must have it; therefore, to all intents and purposes, it is inevtable. Anyhow, I'm going to have it.'
"'You have--er--been in communication with--'
"'Never! Father forbade it.'
"'Then how did you know he is here?'
"'He wrote me when he left college. He said he was coming home. I've heard nothing since. He is here, isn't he?'
"'So I believe. I haven't seen him yet; you know I've been away myself.'
"'Will you take me to him?'
"'Have you really weighed this thing?' I remonstrated. 'Do you realize what it means?'
"'Please don't.' She smiled wearily. 'So many people have tried to argue me out of my desires. I shall not spoil my life, believe me; it is too good a thing to ruin. That is precisely why I'm here.'
"'If you insist.' I gave in reluctantly. 'Of course I'll put myself at your service. We'll look for him to-morrow.' All sorts of wild expedients to thwart a meeting were scurrying through my mind.
"'We'll go to-day,' said she.
"'At once! If you're too busy I'll ask somebody else--'
"'Very well!' said I. 'We'll drive out to the encampment.' And I sent for my buckboard.
"I was delayed in spite of myself until nearly sundown, and meanwhile Alicia Harman waited in my office, pacing the floor with ill-concealed impatience. Before starting I ventured one more remonstrance, for I was filled with misgivings, and the more I saw of this girl the more fantastic and unnatural this affair seemed. But the unbridled impulses of her parents were bearing fruit, and no one could say her nay. She afforded the most illuminating study in heredity that I have ever witnessed.
"We didn't say much during our fifteen-mile drive, for I was worried and Alicia was oddly torn between apprehension and exultation. We had left the French maid behind. I don't know that any woman ever went to her lover under stranger circumstances or in greater perturbation of spirit than did this girl, behind whom lay a generation of selfishness and unrestraint.
"It was well along in the evening when we came over the ridge and saw the encampment below us. You can imagine the fairy picture it made with its myriad of winking fires, with the soft effulgence of a thousand glowing tents, and with the wonderful magic of the night over it all. As we drew nearer, the unusual sounds of a strange merrymaking came to us--the soft thudding of drums, the weird melody of the dances, the stir and the confusion of crowded animal life. In the daylight it would have been sufficiently picturesque, but under the wizard hand of the darkness it became ten times more so.
"When I finally tied my horses and led the girl into the heart of it I think she became a bit frightened, for these Indians were the Sioux of a bygone day. They were barbaric in dress and in demeanor.
"I guided her through the tangle of tepees, through glaring fire-lit circles and through black voids where we stumbled and had to feel our way. We were jostled and elbowed by fierce warriors and by sullen squaws. At every group I asked for Running Elk, but he was merely one of five thousand and nobody knew his whereabouts.
"The people have ever been jealous of their customs, and as a result we were frequently greeted by cold looks and sudden silences. Recognizing this open resentment, my companion let down a thick automobile veil which effectually hid her face. Her dust-coat was long and loose and served further to conceal her identity.
"At one time we came upon a sight I would gladly have spared her--the spectacle of some wrinkled hags strangling a dog by the light of a fire. The girl at my side stifled a cry at the apparition.
"'What are they doing?' she gasped.
"'Preparing the feast,' I told her.
"'They do,' said I. 'Come!' I tried to force her onward, but she would not stir until the sacrifice had been dragged to the flames, where other carcasses were singeing among the pots and kettles. From every side came the smell of cooking meat, mingled with the odor of burning hair and flesh. I could hear Miss Harman panting as we went on.
"We circled half the great hoop before we came upon the trail of our man, and were directed to a near-by tepee, upon the glowing walls of which many heads were outlined in silhouette, and from which came the monotonous voice of a story-teller.
"I don't know what hopes the girl had been nursing; she must have looked upon these people not as kindred of Running Elk, but rather as his servants, his slaves. Realizing that her quest was nearly ended, her strength forsook her and she dropped behind me. The entrance to the tepee was congested by those who could not find space inside, but they rose silently, upon recognizing me, and made room. I lifted the flap and peered within, clearing a view for Miss Harman.
"We beheld a circle of half-naked braves in full war regalia, squatting haunch to haunch, listening to a story-teller. In front of them was a confusion of blackened pails and steaming vessels, into which they dipped with their naked fingers. Their faces were streaked with paint, their lips were greasy with traces of the dish, the air of the place was reeking from their breaths. My eyes were slower than Alicia's, and so I did not distinguish our quarry at first, although a slow sigh at my ear and a convulsive clutch at my arm told me that he was there.
"And then I, too, saw Running Elk. It was he who was talking, to whom the others listened. What a change two years had wrought! His voice was harsh and guttural, his face, through the painted daubs and streaks, was coarser and duller than when I had seen him. His very body was more thin and shrunken.
"He finished his tale while we stared at him; the circle broke into commendatory grunts, and he smiled in childlike satisfaction at the impression he had made. He leaned forward and, scrutinizing the litter of sooty pots, plunged his hand into the nearest one.
"Miss Harman stumbled back into the crowd and her place was taken by a squaw.
"'Running Elk,' I called, over the heads of those next the entrance, and, seeing my face against the night, he arose and came out, stepping over the others.
"'How do you do?' I said. 'You haven't forgotten me, have you?'
"He towered head and shoulders above me, his feather head-dress adding to his stature. The beaded patterns of his war-harness stood out dimly in the half-light.
"'No, no! I will never forget you, doctor. You--you have been sick.' The change in his speech was even more noticeable when he turned his tongue to English. He halted over his words and he mouthed them hesitatingly.
"'Yes, pretty sick. And you, what are you doing?'
"'I do what the rest do,' said he. 'Nothing! I have some horses and a few head of cattle, that is all.'
"'Are you satisfied?' I demanded, sharply. He eyed me darkly for an instant, then he answered, slowly:
"'I am an Indian. I am satisfied.'
"'Then education didn't do you any good, after all?' I was offended, disappointed; I must have spoken gruffly.
"This time he paused a long while before he replied.
"'I had dreams,' said he, 'many dreams, and they were splendid; but you told me that dreams were out of place in a Sioux, so I forgot them, along with all the things I had learned. It is better so.'
"Alicia Harman called me in a voice which I did not recognize, so I shook hands with Running Elk and turned away. He bowed his head and slunk back through the tepee door, back into the heart of his people, back into the past, and with him went my experiment. Since then I have never meddled with the gods nor given them cause to laugh at me."
The doctor arose and stretched himself, then he entered his tent for a match. The melancholy pulse of the drums and the minor-keyed chant which issued out of the night sounded like a dirge sung by a dying people.
"What became of Running Elk?" I inquired.
The old man answered from within. "That was he I asked about the horse-races. He's the man you couldn't understand, who wouldn't talk to you. He's nearly an Indian again. Alicia Harman married a duke."
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.