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   Chapter 6 No.6

The Emigrant Trail By Geraldine Bonner Characters: 16545

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The next morning the rain was pouring. The train rolled out without picturesque circumstance, the men cursing, the oxen, with great heads swinging under the yokes, plodding doggedly through lakes fretted with the downpour. Breakfast was a farce; nobody's fire would burn and the women were wet through before they had the coffee pots out. One or two provident parties had stoves fitted up in their wagons with a joint of pipe coming out through holes in the canvas. From these, wafts of smoke issued with jaunty assurance, to be beaten down by the rain, which swept them fiercely out of the landscape.

There was no perspective, the distance invisible, nearer outlines blurred. The world was a uniform tint, walls of gray marching in a slant across a foreground embroidered with pools. Water ran, or dripped, or stood everywhere. The river, its surface roughened by the spit of angry drops, ran swollen among its islands, plumed shapes seen mistily through the veil. The road emerged in oases of mud from long, inundated spaces. Down the gullies in the hills, following the beaten buffalo tracks, streams percolated through the grass of the bottom, feeling their way to the river.

Notwithstanding the weather a goodly company of mounted men rode at the head of the train. They were wet to the skin and quite indifferent to it. They had already come to regard the vagaries of the weather as matters of no import. Mosquitoes and Indians were all they feared. On such nights many of them slept in the open under a tarpaulin, and when the water grew deep about them scooped out a drainage canal with a hand that sleep made heavy.

When the disorder of the camping ground was still in sight, Susan, with the desire of social intercourse strong upon her, climbed into the wagon of her new friends. They were practical, thrifty people, and were as comfortable as they could be under a roof of soaked canvas in a heavily weighted prairie schooner that every now and then bumped to the bottom of a chuck hole. The married sister sat on a pile of sacks disposed in a form that made a comfortable seat. A blanket was spread behind her, and thus enthroned she knitted at a stocking of gray yarn. Seen in the daylight she was young, fresh-skinned, and not uncomely. Placidity seemed to be the dominating note of her personality. It found physical expression in the bland parting of her hair, drawn back from her smooth brow, her large plump hands with their deliberate movements and dimples where more turbulent souls had knuckles, and her quiet eyes, which turned upon anyone who addressed her a long ruminating look before she answered. She had an air of almost oracular profundity but she was merely in the quiescent state of the woman whose faculties and strength are concentrated upon the coming child. Her sister called her Bella and the people in the train addressed her as Mrs. McMurdo.

Lucy was beside her also knitting a stocking, and the husband, Glen McMurdo, sat in the front driving, his legs in the rain, his upper half leaning back under the shelter of the roof. He looked sleepy, gave a grunt of greeting to Susan, and then lapsed against the saddle propped behind him, his hat pulled low on his forehead hiding his eyes. In this position, without moving or evincing any sign of life, he now and then appeared to be roused to the obligations of his position and shouted a drowsy "Gee Haw," at the oxen.

He did not interfere with the women and they broke into the talk of their sex, how they cooked, which of their clothes had worn best, what was the right way of jerking buffalo meat. And then on to personal matters: where they came from, what they were at home, whither they were bound. The two sisters were Scotch girls, had come from Scotland twenty years ago when Lucy was a baby. Their home was Cooperstown where Glen was a carpenter. He had heard wonderful stories of California, how there were no carpenters there and people were flocking in, so he'd decided to emigrate.

"And once he'd got his mind set on it, he had to start," said his wife. "Couldn't wait for anything but must be off then and there. That's the way men are."

"It's a hard trip for you," said Susan, wondering at Mrs. McMurdo's serenity.

"Well, I suppose it is," said Bella, as if she did not really think it was, but was too lazy to disagree. "I hope I'll last till we get to Fort Bridger."

"What's at Fort Bridger?"

"It's a big place with lots of trains coming and going and there'll probably be a doctor among them. And they say it's a good place for the animals-plenty of grass-so it'll be all right if I'm laid up for long. But I have my children very easily."

It seemed to the doctor's daughter a desperate outlook and she eyed, with a combination of pity and awe, the untroubled Bella reclining on the throne of sacks. The wagon gave a creaking lurch and Bella nearly lost count of her stitches which made her frown as she was turning the heel. The lurch woke her husband who pushed back his hat, shouted "Gee Haw" at the oxen, and then said to his wife:

"You got to cut my hair, Bella. These long tags hanging down round my ears worry me."

"Yes, dear, as soon as the weather's fine. I'll borrow a bowl from Mrs. Peeble's mother so that it'll be cut evenly all the way round."

Here there was an interruption, a breathless, baby voice at the wheel, and Glen leaned down and dragged up his son Bob, wet, wriggling, and muddy. The little fellow, four years old, had on a homespun shirt and drawers, both dripping. His hair was a wet mop, hanging in rat tails to his eyes. Under its thatch his face, pink and smiling, was as fresh as a dew-washed rose. Tightly gripped in a dirty paw were two wild flowers, and it was to give these to his mother that he had come.

He staggered toward her, the wagon gave a jolt, and he fell, clasping her knees and filling the air with the sweetness of his laughter. Then holding to her arm and shoulder, he drew himself higher and pressed the flowers close against her nose.

"Is it a bu'full smell?" he inquired, watching her face with eyes of bright inquiry.

"Beautiful," she said, trying to see the knitting.

"Aren't you glad I brought them?" still anxiously inquiring.

"Very"-she pushed them away. "You're soaked. Take off your things."

And little Bob, still holding his flowers, was stripped to his skin.

"Now lie down," said his mother. "I'm turning the heel."

He obeyed, but turbulently, and with much pretense, making believe to fall and rolling on the sacks, a naked cherub writhing with laughter. Finally, his mother had to stop her heel-turning to seize him by one leg, drag him toward her, roll him up in the end of the blanket and with a silencing slap say, "There, lie still." This quieted him. He lay subdued save for a waving hand in which the flowers were still imbedded and with which he made passes at the two girls, murmuring with the thick utterance of rising sleep "Bu'full flowers." And in a moment he slept, curled against his mother, his face angelic beneath the wet hair.

When Susan came to the giving of her personal data-the few facts necessary to locate and introduce her-her engagement was the item of most interest. A love story even on the plains, with the rain dribbling in through the cracks of the canvas, possessed the old, deathless charm. The doctor and his philanthropies, on which she would have liked to dilate, were given the perfunctory attention that politeness demanded. By himself the good man is dull, he has to have a woman on his arm to carry weight. David, the lover, and Susan, the object of his love, were the hero and heroine of the story. Even the married woman forgot the turning of the heel and fastened her mild gaze on the young girl.

"And such a handsome fellow," she said. "I said to Lucy-she'll tell you if I didn't-that there wasn't a man to compare with him in our train. And so gallant and polite. Last night, when I was heating the water to wash the children, he carried the pails for me. None of the men with us do that. They'd never think of offering to carry our buckets."

Her husband who had appeared to be asleep said:

"Why should they?" and then shouted "Gee Haw" and made a futile kick toward the nearest ox

.

Nobody paid any attention to him and Lucy said:

"Yes, he's very fine looking. And you'd never met till you started on the trail? Isn't that romantic?"

Susan was gratified. To hear David thus commended by other women increased his value. If it did not make her love him more, it made her feel the pride of ownership in a desirable possession. There was complacence in her voice as she cited his other gifts.

"He's very learned. He's read all kinds of books. My father says it's wonderful how much he's read. And he can recite poetry, verses and verses, Byron and Milton and Shakespeare. He often recites to me when we're riding together."

This acquirement of the lover's did not elicit any enthusiasm from Bella.

"Well, did you ever!" she murmured absently, counting stitches under her breath and then pulling a needle out of the heel, "Reciting poetry on horseback!"

But it impressed Lucy, who, still in the virgin state with fancy free to range, was evidently inclined to romance:

"When you have a little log house in California and live in it with him he'll recite poetry to you in the evening after the work's done. Won't that be lovely?"

Susan made no response. Instead she swallowed silently, looking out on the rain. The picture of herself and David, alone in a log cabin somewhere on the other side of the world, caused a sudden return of yesterday's dejection. It rushed back upon her in a flood under which her heart declined into bottomless depths. She felt as if actually sinking into some dark abyss of loneliness and that she must clutch at her father and Daddy John to stay her fall.

"We won't be alone," with a note of protest making her voice plaintive. "My father and Daddy John will be there. I couldn't be separated from them. I'd never get over missing them. They've been with me always."

Bella did not notice the tone, or maybe saw beyond it.

"You won't miss them when you're married," she said with her benign content. "Your husband will be enough."

Lucy, with romance instead of a husband, agreed to this, and arranged the programme for the future as she would have had it:

"They'll probably live near you in tents. And you'll see them often; ride over every few days. But you'll want your own log house just for yourselves."

This time Susan did not answer, for she was afraid to trust her voice. She pretended a sudden interest in the prospect while the unbearable picture rose before her mind-she and David alone, while her father and Daddy John were somewhere else in tents, somewhere away from her, out of reach of her hands and her kisses, not there to laugh with her and tease her and tell her she was a tyrant, only David loving her in an unintelligible, discomforting way and wanting to read poetry and admire sunsets. The misery of it gripped down into her soul. It was as the thought of being marooned on a lone sand bar to a free buccaneer. They never could leave her so; they never could have the heart to do it. And anger against David, the cause of it, swelled in her. It was he who had done it all, trying to steal her away from the dear, familiar ways and the people with whom she had been so happy.

Lucy looked at her with curious eyes, in which there was admiration and a touch of envy.

"You must be awfully happy?" she said.

"Awfully," answered Susan, swallowing and looking at the rain.

When she went back to her own wagon she found a consultation in progress. Daddy John, streaming from every fold, had just returned from the head of the caravan, where he had been riding with the pilot. From him he had heard that the New York Company on good roads, in fair weather, made twenty miles a day, and that in the mountains, where the fodder was scarce and the trail hard, would fall to a slower pace. The doctor's party, the cow long since sacrificed to the exigencies of speed, had been making from twenty-five to thirty. Even with a drop from this in the barer regions ahead of them they could look forward to reaching California a month or six weeks before the New York Company.

There was nothing to be gained by staying with them, and, so far, the small two-wagon caravan had moved with a speed and absence of accident, which gave its members confidence in their luck and generalship. It was agreed that they should leave the big train the next morning and move on as rapidly as they could, stopping at Fort Laramie to repair the wagons which the heat had warped, shoe the horses, and lay in the supplies they needed.

Susan heard it with regret. The comfort of dropping back into the feminine atmosphere, where obvious things did not need explanation, and all sorts of important communications were made by mental telepathy, was hard to relinquish. She would once again have to adjust herself to the dull male perceptions which saw and heard nothing that was not visible and audible. She would have to shut herself in with her own problems, getting no support or sympathy unless she asked for it, and then, before its sources could be tapped, she would have to explain why she wanted it and demonstrate that she was a deserving object.

And it was hard to break the budding friendship with Lucy and Bella, for friendships were not long making on the Emigrant Trail. One day's companionship in the creaking prairie schooner had made the three women more intimate than a year of city visiting would have done. They made promises of meeting again in California. Neither party knew its exact point of destination-somewhere on that strip of prismatic color, not too crowded and not too wild but that wanderers of the same blood and birth might always find each other.

In the evening the two girls sat in Susan's tent enjoying a last exchange of low-toned talk. The rain had stopped. The thick, bluish wool of clouds that stretched from horizon to horizon was here and there rent apart, showing strips of lemon-colored sky. The ground was soaked, the footprints round the wagons filled with water, the ruts brimming with it. There was a glow of low fires round the camp, for the mosquitoes were bad and the brown smudge of smoldering buffalo chips kept them away.

Susan gave the guest the seat of honor-her saddle spread with a blanket-and herself sat on a pile of skins. The tent had been pitched on a rise of ground and already the water was draining off. Through the looped entrance they could see the regular lights of the fires, spotted on the twilight like the lamps of huge, sedentary glow worms, and the figures of men recumbent near where the slow smoke spirals wound languidly up. Above the sweet, moist odor of the rain, the tang of the burning dung rose, pungent and biting.

Here as the evening deepened they comfortably gossiped, their voices dropping lower as the camp sunk to rest. They exchanged vows of the friendship that was to be renewed in California, and then, drawing closer together, watching the fires die down to sulky red sparks and the sentinel's figure coming and going on its lonely beat, came to an exchange of opinions on love and marriage.

Susan was supposed to know most, her proprietorship of David giving her words the value of experience, but Lucy had most to say. Her tongue loosened by the hour and a pair of listening ears, she revealed herself as much preoccupied with all matters of sentiment, and it was only natural that a love story of her own should be confessed. It was back in Cooperstown, and he had been an apprentice of Glen's. She hadn't cared for him at all, judging by excerpts from the scenes of his courtship he had been treated with unmitigated harshness. But her words and tones-still entirely scornful with half a continent between her and the adorer-gave evidence of a regret, of self-accusing, uneasy doubt, as of one who looks back on lost opportunities. The listener's ear was caught by it, indicating a state of mind so different from her own.

"Then you did like him?"

"I didn't like him at all. I couldn't bear him."

"But you seem sorry you didn't marry him."

"Well- No, I'm not sorry. But"-it was the hour for truth, the still indifference of the night made a lie seem too trivial for the effort of telling-"I don't know out here in the wilds whether I'll ever get anyone else."

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