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   Chapter 2 No.2

The Emigrant Trail By Geraldine Bonner Characters: 17785

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The days were very hot. Brilliant, dewless mornings, blinding middays, afternoons held breathless in the remorseless torrent of light. The caravan crawled along the river's edge at a footspace, the early shadows shooting far ahead of it, then dwindling to a blot beneath each moving body, then slanting out behind. There was speech in the morning which died as the day advanced, all thought sinking into torpor in the monotonous glare. In the late afternoon the sun, slipping down the sky, peered through each wagon's puckered canvas opening smiting the drivers into lethargy. Propped against the roof supports, hats drawn low over their brows they slept, the riders pacing on ahead stooped and silent on their sweating horses. There was no sound but the creaking of the wheels, and the low whisperings of the river into which, now and then, an undermined length of sand dropped with a splash.

But in the evening life returned. When the dusk stole out of the hill rifts and the river flowed thick gold from bank to bank, when the bluffs grew black against the sunset fires, the little party shook off its apathy and animation revived. Coolness came with the twilight, sharpening into coldness as the West burned from scarlet and gold to a clear rose. The fire, a mound of buffalo chips into which glowing tunnels wormed, was good. Overcoats and blankets were shaken out and the fragrance of tobacco was on the air. The recrudescence of ideas and the need to interchange them came on the wanderers. Hemmed in by Nature's immensity, unconsciously oppressed by it, they felt the want of each other, of speech, of sympathy, and crouched about the fire telling anecdotes of their life "back home," that sounded trivial but drew them closer in the bond of a nostalgic wistfulness.

One night they heard a drum beat. It came out of the distance faint but distinct, throbbing across the darkness like a frightened heart terrified by its own loneliness. The hand of man was impelling it, an unseen hand, only telling of its presence by the thin tattoo it sent through the silence. Words died and they sat rigid in the sudden alarm that comes upon men in the wilderness. The doctor clutched his daughter's arm, Daddy John reached for his rifle. Then, abruptly as it had come, it stopped and they broke into suggestions-emigrants on the road beyond them, an Indian war drum on the opposite bank.

But they were startled, their apprehensions roused. They sat uneasy, and half an hour later the pad of horses' hoofs and approaching voices made each man grip his gun and leap to his feet. They sent a hail through the darkness and an answering voice came back:

"It's all right. Friends."

The figures that advanced into the firelight were those of four men with a shadowy train of pack mules extending behind them. In fringed and greasy buckskins, with long hair and swarthy faces, their feet noiseless in moccasins, they were so much of the wild, that it needed the words, "Trappers from Laramie," to reassure the doctor and make Leff put down his rifle.

The leader, a lean giant, bearded to the cheek bones and with lank locks of hair falling from a coon-skin cap, gave his introduction briefly. They were a party of trappers en route from Fort Laramie to St. Louis with the winter's catch of skins. In skirted, leather hunting shirt and leggings, knife and pistols in the belt and powder horn, bullet mold, screw and awl hanging from a strap across his chest, he was the typical "mountain man." While he made his greetings, with as easy an assurance as though he had dropped in upon a party of friends, his companions picketed the animals which moved on the outskirts of the light in a spectral band of drooping forms.

The three other men, were an ancient trapper with a white froth of hair framing a face, brown and wrinkled as a nut, a Mexican, Indian-dark, who crouched in his serape, rolled a cigarette and then fell asleep, and a French Canadian voyageur in a coat made of blanketing and with a scarlet handkerchief tied smooth over his head. He had a round ruddy face, and when he smiled, which he did all the time, his teeth gleamed square and white from the curly blackness of his beard. He got out his pans and buffalo meat, and was dropping pieces of hardtack into the spitting tallow when Susan addressed him in his own tongue, the patois of the province of Quebec. He gave a joyous child's laugh and a rattling fire of French followed, and then he must pick out for her the daintiest morsel and gallantly present it on a tin plate, wiped clean on the grass.

They ate first and then smoked and over the pipes engaged in the bartering which was part of the plainsman's business. The strangers were short of tobacco and the doctor's party wanted buffalo skins. Fresh meat and bacon changed hands. David threw in a measure of corn meal and the old man-they called him Joe-bid for it with a hind quarter of antelope. Then, business over, they talked of themselves, their work, the season's catch, and the life far away across the mountains where the beaver streams are.

They had come from the distant Northwest, threaded with ice-cold rivers and where lakes, sunk between rocky bulwarks, mirrored the whitened peaks. There the three Tetons raised their giant heads and the hollows were spread with a grassy carpet that ran up the slopes like a stretched green cloth. There had once been the trapper's paradise where the annual "rendezvous" was held and the men of the mountains gathered from creek and river and spent a year's earnings in a wild week. But the streams were almost empty now and the great days over. There was a market but no furs. Old Joe could tell what it had once been like, old Joe who years ago had been one of General Ashley's men.

The old man took his pipe out of his mouth and shook his head.

"The times is dead," he said, with the regret of great days gone, softened by age which softens all things. "There ain't anything in it now. When Ashley and the Sublettes and Campbell ran the big companies it was a fine trade. The rivers was swarmin' with beaver and if the Indians 'ud let us alone every man of us 'ud come down to rendezvous with each mule carrying two hundred pound of skins. Them was the times."

The quick, laughing patter of the voyageur's French broke in on his voice, but old Joe, casting a dim eye back over the splendid past, was too preoccupied to mind.

"I've knowed the time when the Powder River country and the rivers that ran into Jackson's Hole was as thick with beaver as the buffalo range is now with buffalo. We'd follow up a new stream and where the ground was marshy we'd know the beaver was there, for they'd throw dams across till the water'd soak each side, squeezin' through the willow roots. Then we'd cut a tree and scoop out a canoe, and when the shadders began to stretch go nosin' along the bank, keen and cold and the sun settin' red and not a sound but the dip of the paddle. We'd set the traps-seven to a man-and at sun-up out again in the canoe, clear and still in the gray of the morning, and find a beaver in every trap."

"Nothin' but buffalo now to count on," said the other man. "And what's in that?"

David said timidly, as became so extravagant a suggestion, that a mountain man he had met in Independence told him he thought the buffalo would be eventually exterminated. The trappers looked at one another, and exchanged satiric smiles. Even the Canadian stopped in his chatter with Susan to exclaim in amaze: "Sacré Tonnerre!"

Old Joe gave a lazy cast of his eye at David.

"Why, boy," he said, "if they'd been killin' them varmints since Bunker Hill they couldn't do no more with 'em than you could with your little popgun out here on the plains. The Indians has druv 'em from the West and the white man's druv 'em from the East and it don't make no difference. I knowed Captain Bonneville and he's told me how he stood on the top of Scotts Bluffs and seen the country black with 'em-millions of 'em. That's twenty-five years ago and he ain't seen no more than I have on these plains not two seasons back. Out as far as your eye could reach, crawlin' with buffalo, till you couldn't see cow nor bull, but just a black mass of 'em, solid to the horizon."

David felt abashed and the doctor came to his rescue with a question about Captain Bonneville and Joe forgot his scorn of foolish young men in reminiscences of that hardy pathfinder.

The old trapper seemed to have known everyone of note in the history of the plains and the fur trade, or if he didn't know them he said he did which was just as good. Lying on a buffalo skin, the firelight gilding the bony ridges of his face, a stub of black pipe gripped between his broken teeth, he told stories of the men who had found civilization too cramped and taken to the wilderness. Some had lived and died there, others c

ome back, old and broken, to rest in a corner of the towns they had known as frontier settlements. Here they could look out to the West they loved, strain their dim eyes over the prairie, where the farmer's plow was tracing its furrow, to the Medicine Way of The Pale Face that led across the plains and up the long bright river and over the mountains to the place of the trapper's rendezvous.

He had known Jim Beckwourth, the mulatto who was chief of the Crows, fought their battles and lived in their villages with a Crow wife. Joe described him as "a powerful liar," but a man without fear. Under his leadership the Crows had become a great nation and the frontiersmen laid it to his door that no Crow had ever attacked a white man except in self-defense. Some said he was still living in California. Joe remembered him well-a tall man, strong and fleet-footed as an Indian, with mighty muscles and a skin like bronze. He always wore round his neck a charm of a perforated bullet set between two glass beads hanging from a thread of sinew.

He had known Rose, another white chief of the Crows, an educated man who kept his past secret and of whom it was said that the lonely places and the Indian trails were safer for him than the populous ways of towns. The old man had been one of the garrison in Fort Union when the terrible Alexander Harvey had killed Isidore, the Mexican, and standing in the courtyard cried to the assembled men: "I, Alexander Harvey, have killed the Spaniard. If there are any of his friends who want to take it up let them come on"; and not a man in the fort dared to go. He had been with Jim Bridger, when, on a wager, he went down Bear River in a skin boat and came out on the waters of the Great Salt Lake.

Susan, who had stopped her talk with the voyageur to listen to this minstrel of the plains, now said:

"Aren't you lonely in those quiet places where there's no one else?"

The old man nodded, a gravely assenting eye on hers:

"Powerful lonely, sometimes. There ain't a mountain man that ain't felt it, some of 'em often, others of 'em once and so scairt that time they won't take the risk again. It comes down suddint, like a darkness-then everything round that was so good and fine, the sound of the pines and the bubble of the spring and the wind blowing over the grass, seems like they'd set you crazy. You'd give a year's peltries for the sound of a man's voice. Just like when some one's dead that you set a heap on and you feel you'd give most everything you got to see 'em again for a minute. There ain't nothin' you wouldn't promise if by doin' it you could hear a feller hail you-just one shout-as he comes ridin' up the trail."

"That was how Jim Cockrell felt when he prayed for the dog," said the tall man.

"Did he get the dog?"

He nodded.

"That's what he said anyway. He was took with just such a lonesome spell once when he was trapping in the Mandans country. He was a pious critter, great on prayer and communing with the Lord. And he felt-I've heard him tell about it-just as if he'd go wild if he didn't get something for company. What he wanted was a dog and you might just as well want an angel out there with nothin' but the Indian villages breakin' the dazzle of the snow and you as far away from them as you could get. But that didn't stop Jim. He just got down and prayed, and then he waited and prayed some more and 'ud look around for the dog, as certain he'd come as that the sun 'ud set. Bimeby he fell asleep and when he woke there was the dog, a little brown varmint, curled up beside him on the blanket. Jim used to say an angel brought it. I'm not contradictin', but--"

"Wal," said old Joe, "he most certainly come back into the fort with a dog. I was there and seen him."

Leff snickered, even the doctor's voice showed the incredulous note when he asked:

"Where could it have come from?"

The tall man shrugged.

"Don't ask me. All I know is that Jim Cockrell swore to it and I've heard him tell it drunk and sober and always the same way. He held out for the angel. I'm not saying anything against that, but whatever it was it must have had a pretty powerful pull to get a dog out to a trapper in the dead o' winter."

They wondered over the story, offering explanations, and as they talked the fire died low and the moon, a hemisphere clean-halved as though sliced by a sword, rose serene from a cloud bank. Its coming silenced them and for a space they watched the headlands of the solemn landscape blackening against the sky, and the river breaking into silvery disquiet. Separating the current, which girdled it with a sparkling belt, was the dark blue of an island, thick plumed with trees, a black and mysterious oblong. Old Joe pointed to it with his pipe.

"Brady's Island," he said. "Ask Hy to tell you about that. He knew Brady."

The tall man looked thoughtfully at the crested shape.

"That's it," he said. "That's where Brady was murdered."

And then he told the story:

"It was quite a while back in the 30's, and the free trappers and mountain men brought their pelts down in bull boats and mackinaws to St. Louis. There were a bunch of men workin' down the river and when they got to Brady's Island, that's out there in the stream, the water was so shallow the boats wouldn't float, so they camped on the island. Brady was one of 'em, a cross-tempered man, and he and another feller'd been pick-in' at each other day by day since leavin' the mountains. They'd got so they couldn't get on at all. Men do that sometimes on the trail, get to hate the sight and sound of each other. You can't tell why.

"One day the others went after buffalo and left Brady and the man that hated him alone on the island. When the hunters come home at night Brady was dead by the camp fire, shot through the head and lyin' stiff in his blood. The other one had a slick story to tell how Brady cleanin' his gun, discharged it by accident and the bullet struck up and killed him. They didn't believe it, but it weren't their business. So they buried Brady there on the island and the next day each man shouldered his pack and struck out to foot it to the Missouri.

"It was somethin' of a walk and the ones that couldn't keep up the stride fell behind. They was all strung out along the river bank and some of 'em turned off for ways they thought was shorter, and first thing you know the party was scattered, and the man that hated Brady was left alone, lopin' along on a side trail that slanted across the prairie to the country of the Loup Fork Pawnees.

"That was the last they saw of him and it was a long time-news traveled slow on the plains in them days-before anybody heard of him for he never come to St. Louis to tell. Some weeks later a party of trappers passin' near the Pawnee villages on the Loup Fork was hailed by some Indians and told they had a paleface sick in the chief's tent. The trappers went there and in the tent found a white man, clear headed, but dyin' fast.

"It was the man that killed Brady. Lyin' there on the buffalo skin, he told them all about it-how he done it and the lie he fixed up. Death was comin', and the way he'd hated so he couldn't keep his hand from murder was all one now. He wanted to get it off his mind and sorter square himself. When he'd struck out alone he went on for a spell, killin' enough game and always hopin' for the sight of the river. Then one day he caught his gun in a willow tree and it went off, sending the charge into his thigh and breaking the bone. He was stunned for a while and then tried to move on, tried to crawl. He crawled for six days and at the end of the sixth found a place with water and knowed he'd come to the end of his rope. He tore a strip off his blanket and tied it to the barrel of his rifle and stuck it end up. The Pawnees found him there and treated him kind, as them Indians will do sometimes. They took him to their village and cared for him, but it was too late. He wanted to see a white man and tell and then die peaceful, and that's what he done. While the trappers was with him he died and they buried him there decent outside the village."

The speaker's voice ceased and in the silence the others turned to look at the black shape of the island riding the gleaming waters like a funeral barge. In its dark isolation, cut off from the land by the quiet current, it seemed a fitting theater for the grim tragedy. They gazed at it, chilled into dumbness, thinking of the murderer moving to freedom under the protection of his lie, then overtaken, and in his anguish, alone in the silence, meeting the question of his conscience.

Once more the words came back to David: "Behold, He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep."

Susan pressed against her father, awed and cold, and from old Joe, stretched in his blanket, came a deep and peaceful snore.

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