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The Souvenir of Western Women/The Dawn of the Sea Wind (a story)

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SPECIMEN LUMBER TREE OF THE OREGON-WASHINGTON FORESTS
COURTESY OF PACIFIC MONTHLY

The Dawn of the Sea Wind

By MIRIAM VAN WATERS.

"DO you live in Nehalem?" There was no answer.

"I have never seen you with the Nehalem tribe; do you live in the hills?" The girl was silent, motionless.

Her great dark eyes stared at me, stared until they read my innermost soul. What they read there I do not know, but her lips curled in scorn. In the depths of her dark eyes I could read that a barrier lay between us. 1 could feel the freedom of unbounded, untrammeled generations. I could see the vast forests, the starlit water courses, the long shafts of moonlight shimmering through the trees. I could feel the strength of the great plains and the long, barren sandhills. I could hear the roar of mighty waterfalls. I could feel the latent force of the passionate love and hate which surged through the girl's blood—the passion of the primitive.

And in contrast to it all there arose before me the crowded cities, the sordid lives of thousands, huddled together in misery and squalor—the poor, petty passion which loves by contract and hates by law, and then the clanking of the chains of conventionality shut out the sight and the sound of everything else. The barrier was too strong, the very blood in my veins forbade me to grasp the primitive sweetness. J^nd so we stared.

When the girl took her eyes from my face it was to look upon a poor wizened atom of humanity which lay in her arms. And something sweeter than the scorn played about her lips.

The baby's face was pathetically thin. It seemed as old and wrinklcd as the buckskin wrapped around it. But the child did not cry—a faint little gasp came now and then from the baby lips.

"The baby is sick. You should get it some medicine at the company's store."

Then the girl spoke.

"At the company's store—yes, I have been. They not give. I have not money. They—they struck me when I asked again and again."

"How long—how long has the child been sick?"

"A moon, and now she dies. She is starving. I am starving." The words came brokenly in the soft Chinook.

"I have food—medicine," I said. "Will you come? You need no money." The words stuck in my throat. Even the Chinook could not cover their harshness.

For an instant her eyes flashed with the inborn hate; then the mother love overcame and she followed me.

Once she turned white and staggered. She would have fallen had I not been so near, and when I lifted the tiny bundle from her arms she sighed with relief as though the baby's slight weight had burdened her.

At last we reached my cabin. Not another living soul was within ten miles of us. Behind and on either side stretched the forests; in front lay the bay. My skill in medicine is not great, but the intuition which the Fates give us in a great emergency came to our aid. And finally the child slept.

The sunlight was fading. Killamah, the girl, sat beside me on the doorstep. The sleepy twitter of many birds—the solitary yelp of a distant coyote — the swish of the water as it lapped against the shore—merged into the sweet twilight and Killamah spoke.

"Will Sea Wind get—get well?"

"I cannot tell, dear; perhaps. I wish it more than anything in the world. And are you stronger now?"

"I am well. "You are young, Killamah, and—alone?" "Yes,"

"And is Sea Wind your child?"

"Yes."

"Has she a father, Killamah?"

The girl's dark eyes turned full upon me. "Yes."

For an instant her lips quivered, then she dropped her head in my lap.

I stroked the thick, dark hair. "Tell me, little one."

The musical voice was infinitely sadder and more beautiful than anything I had ever heard. Sometimes it faltered; sometimes the force of it thrilled me.

"Margaret Hill, you understand. You have a child?"

"No, Killamah." "Then you have loved? You not speak—Margaret Hill, you turn your head away. Are you angry?"

Ah, poor little one, and had she loved—too?

"No, Killamah, I am not angry. Go on."

"No person has ever heard, and you—you, Margaret Hill—you would not tell?"

"No, dear."

"Killamah is not an Indian. Her mother was half-breed, her father a Nehalem. Sixteen times since the birth of Killamah the wild geese have come to the marsh and have flown northward. When I was a child my father taught me to shoot and to paddle. He showed me how to trap the great bear and to steal softly, softly up to the deer, Killamah was his only child—she was wild and free. She knew no ways of a house. In the summer nights she slept under the starlights, and she killed and ate and gathered berries when she was hungry. She swam in the deep, cool streams in the forest when the sun was hot, and no one asked where Killamah had been.

"And then—then the mother went out over the trail, out over Necarnie — for provisions, she said, but my father had plenty. She went to a city — Astoria you call it. And then when she came back my father drove her away. She went back to the man. He was white.

"And my father and Killamah hunted and fished. But the big fire burned the forest, and he had to work for the company. He worked in the mill. There was a woman there—she cooked their food. She was white — ugh!—white, with fair hair and little blue eyes. She was fat and red — ugh!—and her voice it was harsh like the marsh crane. And one day she made my father marry her. She told my father that she would cook for him and earn money—and—and he married her.

"She hated Killamah. She beat Killamah, and cut her hair, and made her cook, and take care of the baby. And Killamah ran away. Then my father was sick—he wasted away, and Killamah went back to him. My father died.

"The woman beat Killamah—because there was not food for me and her baby too. And she put this here with a hot iron when she was angry."

I shuddered. There was a long white scar on her breast.

"And Killamah ran away again. It was winter and the Great Whiteness was deep—deep. I went to the mill people. They had known my father. They laughed at me. They yelled, 'Get out of here—you half-breed. Go to your Injuns—they'll help you. "The Indians of Nehalem lived on the other side of the Great Canyon. I knew not the Indians. They had disowned ray father, because he had married my mother. But Killamah went to them. Sometimes she crawled like the great bear, on her hands and knees. Sometimes she walked. Killamah's moccasins were cut—when Killamah stepped, there was red on the Great Whiteness. For three days Killamah crawled and walked, and then she saw the Indians. They were poor—the women were cold and sick, and there was little food. But Killamah wa,iited just one buckskin to wrap around her and die.

"They set the dogs on her and cried 'Shame!—a half-breed! She is half-white! Go back to your white people! Go back to the company—mongrel, cur, half-breed! "Killamah didn't hear it all—she crawled away and lay on the Great Whiteness—the cold wind was freezing—the hungry wolves—and the big, still night—"

The girl trembled as I put my arm around her. Then, after a silence, she went on:

"When Killamah was nearly dead she opened her eyes—and there was some one kneeling beside her. Ah!—Margaret Hill—he was so strong and beautiful. He was a Nehalem. He was dark and deep-chested like my father. And he lifted me, like a baby in his strong arms—and we glided along on his great snow shoes. Then, Margaret Hill, he took me to a cabin — far, far up in the hills.

"Killamah wasn't beautiful then, but he loved her. And my father's people—his people—said they would kill him if he came back. And his father, the great chief, told none to speak his name, or they, too, would die as he had—to them. But Sea Cliff only laughed at them. He would take me in his arms and say, 'Killamah, little one, my people are the Sea. They storm, and beat their tempests against the Sea Cliff, but the Sea Cliff stands silent and stern and unmoved. And Killamah is the dancing waterfall, which dashes over the cold rock and makes it beautiful—beautiful. "The Great Whiteness melted, and went back to the river and to the sea. And when the summer came, and the violets grew in front of the cabin, the Sea Wind was borne to us. Softly, gently, she came, and Sea Cliff and Killamah were happy."

The girl had raised her head and was sitting upright, her face turned toward the evening sky. A long shaft of amber twilight fell full on her face, on the low broad forehead and the eyes with their dark lashes; on the beautifully moulded chin and the curved lips, which could express the depths and heights of her passion. The night wind blew the short skirt in graceful folds about the lithe, young limbs. The buckskin mackinaw, the bared feet and ankles, the long coil of dark hair, stamped themselves indelibly upon my memory. At last she turned her face away. The tears which she could not shed were in her voice.

"Margaret Hill—the great fire came again, and burned the cabin and the forest—and—Sea Cliff'."

"Yes, Killamah."

"I cannot go—go on."

"And Sea Cliff died?"

"No."

"Did—did he go away, little one?"

"No." I could scarcely hear the faint whisper. At last: "He—he worked in the mill, and a—a log fell on him. They sent him away from me—to the hospital—you call it. A moon ago, and he has not come back. The Sea Wind dies, and Sea Cliff is alone—alone. Killamah cannot go to him— she knows not where—she has no money. It may be that Sea Cliff has weakened and fallen, and the Sea rages over him. Killamah does not know.' There was a long, long silence. The twilight deepened. The girl at my side did not move.

Then suddenly she jumped to her feet—her chin uplifted, her eyes strained towards the bay. There was a faint sound which suggested the rhythm of a paddle—a quick step sounded on the shore.

A tall, dark youth, with flashing eyes and quivering lips, thrust me aside and strained the girl to his heart—"Killamah—Opitsah."

The sweetest word in all the Chinook is "Opitsah"—sweetheart.

I strolled oft' toward the bay and bowed my head. The starlit water, the sweet incense of the firs, the wind, the magic of the night had never failed before, but I could not raise my head.

And, finally, when I went back through the trees Killamah and Sea Cliff still sat on the doorstep.

"And did the little one think Sea Cliff would not come back? But he is here, Killamah. The Sea Cliff did not fall though the Sea beat against it—and the Sea Wind, opitsah, will come back to us, as she came before, Killamah."