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   Chapter 4 No.4

The Emigrant Trail By Geraldine Bonner Characters: 13307

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The dawn was gray when Susan woke the next morning. It was cold and she cowered under her blankets, watching the walls of the tent grow light, and the splinter between the flaps turn from white to yellow. She came to consciousness quickly, waking to an unaccustomed depression.

At first it had no central point of cause, but was reasonless and all-permeating like the depression that comes from an unlocated physical ill. Her body lay limp under the blankets as her mind lay limp under the unfamiliar cloud. Then the memory of last night took form, her gloom suddenly concentrated on a reason, and she sunk beneath it, staring fixedly at the crack of growing light. When she heard the camp stirring and sat up, her heart felt so heavy that she pressed on it with her finger tips as if half expecting they might encounter a strange, new hardness through the soft envelope of her body.

She did not know that this lowering of her crest, hitherto held so high and carried so proudly, was the first move of her surrender. Her liberty was over, she was almost in the snare. The strong feminine principle in her impelled her like an inexorable fate toward marriage and the man. The children that were to be, urged her toward their creator. And the unconquered maidenhood that was still hers, recoiled with trembling reluctance from its demanded death. Love had not yet come to lead her into a new and wonderful world. She only felt the sense of strangeness and fear, of leaving the familiar ways to enter new ones that led through shadows to the unknown.

When she rode out beside her father in the red splendors of the morning, a new gravity marked her. Already the first suggestion of the woman-like the first breath of the season's change-was on her face. The humility of the great abdication was in her eyes.

David left them together and rode away to the bluffs. She followed his figure with a clouded glance as she told her father her news. Her depression lessened when he turned upon her with a radiant face.

"If you had searched the world over you couldn't have found a man to please me better. Seeing David this way, day by day, I've come to know him through and through and he's true, straight down to the core."

"Of course he is," she answered, tilting her chin with the old sauciness that this morning looked a little forlorn. "I wouldn't have liked him if he hadn't been."

"Oh, Missy, you're such a wise little woman."

She glanced at him quickly, recognizing the tone, and to-day, with her new heavy heart, dreading it.

"Now, father, don't laugh at me. This is all very serious."

"Serious! It's the most serious thing that ever happened in the world, in our world. And if I was smiling-I'll lay a wager I wasn't laughing-it was because I'm so happy. You don't know what this means to me. I've wanted it so much that I've been afraid it wasn't coming off. And then I thought it must, for it's my girl's happiness and David's and back of theirs mine."

"Well, then, if you're happy, I'm happy."

This time his smile was not bantering, only loving and tender. He did not dream that her spirit might not be as glad as his looking from the height of middle-age to a secured future. He had been a man of a single love, ignorant save of that one woman, and she so worshiped and wondered at that there had been no time to understand her. Insulated in the circle of his own experience he did not guess that to an unawakened girl the engagement morn might be dark with clouds.

"Love and youth," he said dreamily, "oh, Susan, it's so beautiful! It's Eden come again when God walked in the garden. And it's so short. Eheu Fugaces! You've just begun to realize how wonderful it is, just said to yourself 'This is life-this is what I was born for,' when it's over. And then you begin to understand, to look back, and see that it was not what you were born for. It was only the beginning that was to give you strength for the rest-the prairie all trees and flowers, with the sunlight and the breeze on the grass."

"It sounds like this journey, like the Emigrant Trail."

"That's what I was thinking. The beautiful start gives you courage for the mountains. The memory of it carries you over the rough places, gives you life in your heart when you come to the desert where it's all parched and bare. And you and your companion go on, fighting against the hardships, bound closer and closer by the struggle. You learn to give up, to think of the other one, and then you say, 'This is what I was born for,' and you know you're getting near the truth. To have some one to go through the fight for, to do the hard work for-that's the reality after the vision and the dream."

The doctor, thinking of the vanished years of his married life, and his daughter, of the unknown ones coming, were not looking at the subject from the same points of view.

"I don't think you make it sound very pleasant," she said, from returning waves of melancholy. "It's nothing but hardships and danger."

"California's at the end of it, dearie, and they say that's the most beautiful country in the world."

"It will be a strange country," she said wistfully, not thinking alone of California.

"Not for long."

"Do you think we'll ever feel at home in it?"

The question came in a faint voice. Why did California, once the goal of her dreams, now seem an alien land in which she always would be a stranger?

"We're bringing our home with us-carrying some of it on our backs like snails and the rest in our hearts like all pioneers. Soon it will cease being strange, when there are children in it. Where there's a camp fire and a blanket and a child, that's home, Missy."

He leaned toward her and laid his hand on hers as it rested on the pommel.

"You'll be so happy in it," he said softly.

A sudden surge of feeling, more poignant than anything she had yet felt, sent a pricking of tears to her eyes. She turned her face away, longing in sudden misery for some one to whom she could speak plainly, some one who once had felt as she did now. For the first time she wished that there was another woman in the train. Her instinct told her that men could not understand. Unable to bear her father's glad assurance she said a hasty word about going back and telling Daddy John and wheeled her horse toward the prairie schooner behind them.

Daddy John welcomed her by pushing up against the roof prop and giving her two thirds of the driver's seat. With her hands clipped between her knees she eyed him sideways.

"What do you think's going to happen?" she said, trying to compose her spirits by teasing him.

"It's goin

g to rain," he answered.

This was not helpful or suggestive of future sympathy, but at any rate, it was not emotional.

"Now, Daddy John, don't be silly. Would I get off my horse and climb up beside you to ask you about the weather?"

"I don't know what you'd do, Missy, you've got that wild out here on the plains-just like a little buffalo calf."

He glimpsed obliquely at her, his old face full of whimsical tenderness. She smiled bravely and he saw above the smile, her eyes, untouched by it. He instantly became grave.

"Well, what's goin' to happen?" he asked soberly.

"I'm going to be married."

He raised his eyebrows and gave a whistle.

"That is somethin'! And which is it?"

"What a question! David, of course. Who else could it be?"

"Well, he's the best," he spoke slowly, with considering phlegm. "He's a first-rate boy as far as he goes."

"I don't think that's a very nice way to speak of him. Can't you say something better?"

The old man looked over the mules' backs for a moment of inward cogitation. He was not surprised at the news but he was surprised at something in his Missy's manner, a lack of the joyfulness, that he, too, had thought an attribute of all intending brides.

"He's a good boy," he said thoughtfully. "No one can say he ain't. But some way or other, I'd rather have had a bigger man for you, Missy."

"Bigger!" she exclaimed indignantly. "He's nearly six feet. And girls don't pick out their husbands because of their height."

"I ain't meant it that way. Bigger in what's in him-can get hold o' more, got a bigger reach."

"I don't know what you mean. If you're trying to say he's not got a big mind you're all wrong. He knows more than anybody I ever met except father. He's read hundreds and hundreds of books."

"That's it-too many books. Books is good enough but they ain't the right sort 'er meat for a feller that's got to hit out for himself in a new country. They're all right in the city where you got the butcher and the police and a kerosene lamp to read 'em by. David 'ud be a fine boy in the town just as his books is suitable in the town. But this ain't the town. And the men that are the right kind out here ain't particularly set on books. I'd 'a' chose a harder feller for you, Missy, that could have stood up to anything and didn't have no soft feelings to hamper him."

"Rubbish," she snapped. "Why don't you encourage me?"

Her tone drew his eyes, sharp as a squirrel's and charged with quick concern. Her face was partly turned away. The curve of her cheek was devoid of its usual dusky color, her fingers played on her under lip as if it were a little flute.

"What do you want to be encouraged for?" he said low, as if afraid of being overheard.

She did not move her head, but looked at the bluffs.

"I don't know," she answered, then hearing her-voice hoarse cleared her throat. "It's all-so-so-sort of new. I-I-feel-I don't know just how-I think it's homesick."

Her voice broke in a bursting sob. Her control gone, her pride fell with it. Wheeling on the seat she cast upon him a look of despairing appeal.

"Oh, Daddy John," was all she could gasp, and then bent her head so that her hat might hide the shame of her tears.

He looked at her for a nonplused moment, at her brown arms bent over her shaken bosom, at the shield of her broken hat. He was thoroughly discomfited for he had not the least idea what was the matter. Then he shifted the reins to his left hand and edging near her laid his right on her knee.

"Don't you want to marry him?" he said gently.

"It isn't that, it's something else."

"What else? You can say anything you like to me. Ain't I carried you when you were a baby?"

"I don't know what it is." Her voice came cut by sobbing breaths. "I don't understand. It's like being terribly lonesome."

The old frontiersman had no remedy ready for this complaint. He, too, did not understand.

"Don't you marry him if you don't like him," he said. "If you want to tell him so and you're afraid, I'll do it for you."

"I do like him. It's not that."

"Well, then, what's making you cry?"

"Something else, something way down deep that makes everything seem so far away and strange."

He leaned forward and spat over the wheel, then subsided against the roof prop.

"Are you well?" he said, his imagination exhausted.

"Yes, very."

Daddy John looked at the backs of the mules. The off leader was a capricious female by name Julia who required more management and coaxing than the other five put together, and whom he loved beyond them all. In his bewildered anxiety the thought passed through his mind that all creatures of the feminine gender, animal or human, were governed by laws inscrutable to the male, who might never aspire to comprehension and could only strive to please and placate.

A footfall struck on his ear and, thrusting his head beyond the canvas hood, he saw Leff loafing up from the rear.

"Saw her come in here," thought the old man, drawing his head in, "and wants to hang round and snoop."

Since the Indian episode he despised Leff. His contempt was unveiled, for the country lout who had shown himself a coward had dared to raise his eyes to the one star in Daddy John's firmament. He would not have hidden his dislike if he could. Leff was of the outer world to which he relegated all men who showed fear or lied.

He turned to Susan:

"Go back in the wagon and lie down. Here comes Leff and I don't want him to see you."

The young girl thought no better of Leff than he did. The thought of being viewed in her abandonment by the despised youth made her scramble into the back of the wagon where she lay concealed on a pile of sacks. In the forward opening where the canvas was drawn in a circle round a segment of sky, Daddy John's figure fitted like a picture in a circular frame. As a step paused at the wheel she saw him lean forward and heard his rough tones.

"Yes, she's here, asleep in the back of the wagon."

Then Leff's voice, surprised:

"Asleep? Why, it ain't an hour since we started."

"Well, can't she go to sleep in the morning if she wants? Don't you go to sleep every Sunday under the wagon?"

"Yes, but that's afternoon."

"Mebbe, but everybody's not as slow as you at getting at what they want."

This appeared to put Susan's retirement in a light that gave rise to pondering. There was a pause, then came the young man's heavy footsteps slouching back to his wagon. Daddy John settled down on the seat.

"I'm almighty glad it weren't him, Missy," he said, over his shoulder. "I'd 'a' known then why you cried."

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