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   Chapter 5 No.5

The Emigrant Trail By Geraldine Bonner Characters: 11077

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Late the same day Leff, who had been riding on the bluffs, came down to report a large train a few miles ahead of them. It was undoubtedly the long-looked-for New York Company.

The news was as a tonic to their slackened energies. A cheering excitement ran through the train. There was stir and loud talking. Its contagion lifted Susan's spirits and with her father she rode on in advance, straining her eyes against the glare of the glittering river. Men and women, who daily crowded by them unnoted on city streets, now loomed in the perspective as objective points of avid interest. No party Susan had ever been to called forth such hopeful anticipation. To see her fellows, to talk with women over trivial things, to demand and give out the human sympathies she wanted and that had lain withering within herself, drew her from the gloom under which she had lain weeping in the back of Daddy John's wagon.

They were nearing the Forks of the Platte where the air was dryly transparent and sound carried far. While yet the encamped train was a congeries of broken white dots on the river's edge, they could hear the bark of a dog and then singing, a thin thread of melody sent aloft by a woman's voice.

It was like a handclasp across space. Drawing nearer the sounds of men and life reached forward to meet them-laughter, the neighing of horses, the high, broken cry of a child. They felt as if they were returning to a home they had left and that sometimes, in the stillness of the night or when vision lost itself in the vague distances, they still longed for.

The train had shaped itself into its night form, the circular coil in which it slept, like a thick, pale serpent resting after the day's labors. The white arched prairie schooners were drawn up in a ring, the defensive bulwark of the plains. The wheels, linked together by the yoke chains, formed a barrier against Indian attacks. Outside this interlocked rampart was a girdle of fires, that gleamed through the twilight like a chain of jewels flung round the night's bivouac. It shone bright on the darkness of the grass, a cordon of flame that some kindly magician had drawn about the resting place of the tired camp.

With the night pressing on its edges it was a tiny nucleus of life dropped down between the immemorial plains and the ancient river. Home was here in the pitched tents, a hearthstone in the flame lapping on the singed grass, humanity in the loud welcome that rose to meet the newcomers. The doctor had known but one member of the Company, its organizer, a farmer from the Mohawk Valley. But the men, dropping their ox yokes and water pails, crowded forward, laughing deep-mouthed greetings from the bush of their beards, and extending hands as hard as the road they had traveled.

The women were cooking. Like goddesses of the waste places they stood around the fires, a line of half-defined shapes. Films of smoke blew across them, obscured and revealed them, and round about them savory odors rose. Fat spit in the pans, coffee bubbled in blackened pots, and strips of buffalo meat impaled on sticks sent a dribble of flame to the heat. The light was strong on their faces, lifted in greeting, lips smiling, eyes full of friendly curiosity. But they did not move from their posts for they were women and the men and the children were waiting to be fed.

Most of them were middle-aged, or the trail had made them look middle-aged. A few were very old. Susan saw a face carved with seventy years of wrinkles mumbling in the framing folds of a shawl. Nearby, sitting on the dropped tongue of a wagon, a girl of perhaps sixteen, sat ruminant, nursing a baby. Children were everywhere, helping, fighting, rolling on the grass. Babies lay on spread blankets with older babies sitting by to watch. It was the woman's hour. The day's march was over, but the intimate domestic toil was at its height. The home makers were concentrated upon their share of the activities-cooking food, making the shelter habitable, putting their young to bed.

Separated from Susan by a pile of scarlet embers stood a young girl, a large spoon in her hand. The light shot upward along the front of her body, painting with an even red glow her breast, her chin, the under side of her nose and finally transforming into a coppery cloud the bright confusion of her hair. She smiled across the fire and said:

"I'm glad you've come. We've been watching for you ever since we struck the Platte. There aren't any girls in the train. I and my sister are the youngest except Mrs. Peebles over there," with a nod in the direction of the girl on the wagon tongue, "and she's married."

The woman beside her, who had been too busy over the bacon pan to raise her head, now straightened herself, presenting to Susan's eye a face more buxom and mature but so like that of the speaker that it was evident they were sisters. A band of gold gleamed on her wedding finger and her short skirt and loose calico jacket made no attempt to hide the fact that another baby was soon to be added to the already well-supplied train. She smiled a placid greeting and her eye, lazily sweeping Susan, showed a healthy curiosity tempered by the self-engrossed indifference of the married woman to whom the outsider, even in the heart of the wilderness, is forever the outsider.

"Lucy'll be real glad to have a friend," she said. "She's lonesome. Turn the bacon, Lucy, it makes my back ache to bend"; and as the sister bowed over the frying pan, "move, children, you're in the way."

This was directed to two children who lay on the grass by the fire, with blinking eyes, already half asleep. As they did not immediately obey she assisted them with a large foot, clad in a man's shoe. The movement though peremptory was not rough. It had something of the quality of the mother tiger's admonishing pats to her cubs, a certain gentleness showing through force. The foot propelled the children into a murmurous drowsy heap. One of them, a little girl with a shock of white hair and a bunch of faded flowers wilting in her tight baby grasp, looked at her mother with eyes glazed with sleep, a deep look as though her soul was gazing back from the mysteries of unconsciousness.

"Now lie there till you get your supper," said the mother, having by gradual pressure pried them out of the way. "And you," to Susan, "better bring your things over and camp here and use our fire. We've nearly finished with it."

In the desolation of the morning Susan had wished for a member of her own sex, not to confide in but to feel that there was some one near, who, if she did know, could understand. Now here were two. Their fresh, simple faces on which an artless interest was so na?vely displayed, their pleasant voices, not cultured as hers was but women's voices for all that, gave her spirits a lift. Her depression quite dropped away, the awful lonely feeling, all the more whelming because nobody could understand it, departed from her. She ran back to the camp singing and for the first time that day looked at David, whose presence she had shunned, with her old, brilliant smile.

An hour later and the big camp rested, relaxed in the fading twilight that lay a yellow thread of separation between the day's high colors and the dewless darkness of the night. It was like a scene from the migrations of the ancient peoples when man wandered with a woman, a tent, and a herd. The barrier of the wagons, with its girdle of fire sparks, incased a grassy oval green as a lawn. Here they sat in little groups, collecting in tent openings as they were wont to collect on summer nights at front gates and piazza steps. The crooning of women putting babies to sleep fell in with the babblings of the river. The men smoked in silence. Nature had taught them something of her large reticence in their day-long companionship. Some few lounged across the grass to have speech of the pilot, a grizzled mountain man, who had been one of the Sublette's trappers, and had wise words to say of the day's travel and the promise of the weather. But most of them lay on the grass by the tents where they could see the stars through their pipe smoke and hear the talk of their wives and the breathing of the children curled in the blankets.

A youth brought an accordion from his stores and, sitting cross-legged on the ground, began to play. He played "Annie Laurie," and a woman's voice, her head a black outline against the west, sang the words. Then there was a clamor of applause, sounding thin and futile in the evening's suave quietness, and the player began a Scotch reel in the production of which the accordion uttered asthmatic gasps as though unable to keep up with its own proud pace. The tune was sufficiently good to inspire a couple of dancers. The young girl called Lucy rose with a partner-her brother-in-law some one told Susan-and facing one another, hand on hip, heads high, they began to foot it lightly over the blackening grass.

Seen thus Lucy was handsome, a tall, long-limbed sapling of a girl, with a flaming crest of copper-colored hair and movements as lithe and supple as a cat's. She danced buoyantly, without losing breath, advancing and retreating with mincing steps, her face grave as though the performance had its own dignity and was not to be taken lightly. Her partner, a tanned and long-haired man, took his part in a livelier spirit, laughing at her, bending his body grotesquely and growing red with his caperings. Meanwhile from the tent door the wife looked on and Susan heard her say to the doctor with whom she had been conferring:

"And when will it be my turn to dance the reel again? There wasn't a girl in the town could dance it with me."

Her voice was weighted with the wistfulness of the woman whose endless patience battles with her unwillingness to be laid by.

Susan saw David's fingers feeling in the grass for her hand. She gave it, felt the hard stress of his grip, and conquered her desire to draw the hand away. All her coquetry was gone. She was cold and subdued. The passionate hunger of his gaze made her feel uncomfortable. She endured it for a space and then said with an edge of irritation on her voice:

"What are you staring at me for? Is there something on my face?"

He breathed in a roughened voice:

"No, I love you."

Her discomfort increased. Tumult and coldness make uncongenial neighbors. The man, all passion, and the woman, who has no answering spark, grope toward each other through devious and unillumined ways.

He whispered again:

"I love you so. You don't understand."

She did not and looked at him inquiringly, hoping to learn something from his face. His eyes, meeting hers, were full of tears. It surprised her so that she stared speechlessly at him, her head thrown back, her lips parted.

He looked down, ashamed of his emotion, murmuring:

"You don't understand. It's so sacred. Some day you will."

She did not speak to him again, but she let him hold her hand because she thought she ought to and because she was sorry.

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