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The Emigrant Trail By Geraldine Bonner Characters: 7637

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The Emigrant Trail struck the Platte at Grand Island. From the bluffs that walled in the river valley the pioneers could look down on the great waterway, a wide, thin current, hardly more than a glistening veil, stretched over the sandy bottom. Sometimes the veil was split by islands, its transparent tissue passing between them in sparkling strands as if it were sewn with silver threads. These separated streams slipped along so quietly, so without noise or hurry, they seemed to share in the large unconcern of the landscape. It was a still, unpeopled, spacious landscape, where there was no work and no time and the morning and the evening made the day.

Many years ago the Frenchmen had given the river its name, Platte, because of its lack of depths. There were places where a man could walk across it and not be wet above the middle; and, to make up for this, there were quicksands stirring beneath it where the same man would sink in above his waist, above his shoulders, above his head. The islands that broke its languid currents were close grown with small trees, riding low in the water like little ships freighted deep with greenery. Toward evening, looking to the West, with the dazzle of the sun on the water, they were a fairy fleet drifting on the silver tide of dreams.

The wide, slow stream ran in the middle of a wide, flat valley. Then came a line of broken hills, yellowish and sandy, cleft apart by sharp indentations, and dry, winding arroyos, down which the buffalo trooped, thirsty, to the river. When the sun sloped westward, shadows lay clear in the hollows, violet and amethyst and sapphire blue, transparent washes of color as pure as the rays of the prism. The hills rolled back in a turbulence of cone and bluff and then subsided, fell away as if all disturbance must cease before the infinite, subduing calm of The Great Plains.

Magic words, invoking the romance of the unconquered West, of the earth's virgin spaces, of the buffalo and the Indian. In their idle silence, treeless, waterless, clothed as with a dry pale hair with the feathered yellow grasses, they looked as if the monstrous creatures of dead epochs might still haunt them, might still sun their horny sides among the sand hills, and wallow in the shallows of the river. It was a bit of the early world, as yet beyond the limit of the young nation's energies, the earth as man knew it when his eye was focused for far horizons, when his soul did not shrink before vast solitudes.

Against this sweeping background the Indian loomed, ruler of a kingdom whose borders faded into the sky. He stood, a blanketed figure, watching the flight of birds across the blue; he rode, a painted savage, where the cloud shadows blotted the plain, and the smoke of his lodge rose over the curve of the earth. Here tribe had fought with tribe, old scores had been wiped out till the grass was damp with blood, wars of extermination had raged. Here the migrating villages made a moving streak of color like a bright patch on a map where there were no boundaries, no mountains, and but one gleaming thread of water. In the quietness of evening the pointed tops of the tepees showed dark against the sky, the blur of smoke tarnishing the glow in the West. When the darkness came the stars shone on this spot of life in the wilderness, circled with the howling of wolves.

The buffalo, driven from the East by the white man's advance and from the West by the red man's pursuit, had congregated in these pasture lands. The herds numbered thousands upon thousands, diminishing in the distance to black dots on the fawn-colored face of the prairie. Twice a day they went to the river to drink. Solemnly, in Indian file, they passed down the trails among the sand hills, worn into gutters by their continuous hoofs. From the wall

of the bluffs they emerged into the bottom, line after line, moving slowly to the water. Then to the river edge the valley was black with them, a mass of huge, primordial forms, from which came bellowings and a faint, sharp smell of musk.

The valley was the highway to the West-the far West, the West of the great fur companies. It led from the Missouri, whose turbid current was the boundary between the frontier and the wild, to the second great barrier, the mountains which blocked the entrance to the unknown distance, where the lakes were salt and there were deserts rimed with alkali. It stretched a straight, plain path, from the river behind it to the peaked white summits in front.

Along it had come a march of men, first a scattered few, then a broken line, then a phalanx-the winners of the West.

They were bold men, hard men, men who held life lightly and knew no fear. In the van were the trappers and fur traders with their beaver traps and their long-barreled rifles. They went far up into the mountains where the rivers rose snow-chilled and the beavers built their dams. There were mountain men in fringed and beaded buckskins, long haired, gaunt and weather scarred; men whose pasts were unknown and unasked, who trapped and hunted and lived in the lodges with their squaws. There were black-eyed Canadian voyageurs in otter-skin caps and coats made of blankets, hardy as Indian ponies, gay and light of heart, who poled the keel boats up the rivers to the chanting of old French songs. There were swarthy half-breeds, still of tongue, stolid and eagle-featured, wearing their blankets as the Indians did, noiseless in their moccasins as the lynx creeping on its prey.

And then came the emigrants, the first white-covered wagons, the first white women, looking out from the shade of their sunbonnets. The squaw wives wondered at their pale faces and bright hair. They came at intervals, a few wagons crawling down the valley and then the long, bare road with the buffaloes crossing it to the river and the occasional red spark of a trapper's camp fire. In '43 came the first great emigration, when 1,000 people went to Oregon. The Indians, awed and uneasy, watched the white line of wagon tops. "Were there so many pale faces as this in the Great Father's country?" one of the chiefs asked.

Four years later the Mormons emigrated. It was like the moving of a nation, an exodus of angry fanatics, sullen, determined men burning with rage at the murder of their prophet, cursing his enemies and quoting his texts. The faces of women and children peered from the wagons, the dust of moving flocks and herds rose like a column at the end of the caravan. Their camps at night were like the camps of the patriarchs, many women to work for each man, thousands of cattle grazing in the grass. From the hills above the Indians watched the red circle of their fires and in the gray dawn saw the tents struck and the trains "roll out." There were more people from the Great Father's country, more people each year, till the great year, '49, when the cry of gold went forth across the land like a trumpet call.

Then the faces on the Emigrant Trail were as the faces on the populous streets of cities. The trains of wagons were unbroken, one behind the other, straight to the sunset. A cloud of dust moved with them, showed their coming far away as they wheeled downward at Grand Island, hid their departure as they doubled up for the fording of the Platte. All the faces were set westward, all the eyes were strained to that distant goal where the rivers flowed over golden beds and the flakes lay yellow in the prospector's pan.

The Indians watched them, cold at the heart, for the people in the Great Father's Country were numerous as the sands of the sea, terrible as an army with banners.

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