He choked up. “She’s my girl,” he said. “Yes, all my boys in the Army love her—there isn’t one of them that wouldn’t be proud to marry her on any terms she would lay down. And there isn’t a man in the Army, married or single, that wouldn’t challenge you if you breathed a word of what has gone between you and her.”
I looked at him and made no motion. It seemed to me go unspeakably sad, so incredible, that one should be so unbelievably underestimated.
“Now, finally,” resumed Colonel Meriwether, after a time, ceasing his walking up and down, “I must close up what remains between you and me. My daughter said to me that you wanted to see me on some business matter. Of course you had some reason for coming out here.”
“That was my only reason for coming,” I rejoined. “I wanted to see you upon an important business matter. I was sent here by the last message my father gave any one—by the last words he spoke in his life. He told me I should come to you.”
“Well, well, if you have any favor to ask of me, out with it, and let us end it all at one sitting.”
“Sir,” I said, “I would see you damned in hell before I would ask a crust or a cup of water of you, though I were starving and burning. I have heard enough.”
“Orderly!” he called out. “Show this man to the gate.”
It was at last borne in upon me that I must leave without any word from Ellen. She was hedged about by all the stern and cold machinery of an Army Post, out of whose calculations I was left as much as though I belonged to a different world. I cannot express what this meant for me. For weeks now, for months, indeed, we two had been together each hour of the day. I had come to expect her greeting in the morning, to turn to her a thousand times in the day with some query or answer. I had made no plan from which she was absent. I had come to accept myself, with her, as fit part of an appointed and happy scheme. Now, in a twinkling, all that had been subverted. I was robbed of her exquisite dependence upon me, of those tender defects of nature that rendered her most dear. I was to miss now her fineness, her weakness and trustfulness, which had been a continual delight. I could no longer see her eyes nor touch her hands, nor sit silent at her feet, dreaming of days to come. Her voice was gone from my listening ears. Always I waited to hear her footstep, but it came no longer, rustling in the grasses. It seemed to me that by some hard decree I had been deprived of all my senses; for not one was left which did not crave and cry aloud for her.
It was thus that I, dulled, bereft; I, having lived, now dead; I, late free, now bound again, turned away sullenly, and began my journey back to the life I had known before I met her.
As I passed East by the Denver stage, I met hurrying throngs always coming westward, a wavelike migration of population now even denser than it had been the preceding spring. It was as Colonel Meriwether said, the wagons almost touched from the Platte to the Rockies. They came on, a vast, continuous stream of hope, confidence and youth. I, who stemmed that current, alone was unlike it in all ways.