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   Chapter 7 No.7

The Emigrant Trail By Geraldine Bonner Characters: 13879

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


By noon the next day the doctor's train had left the New York Company far behind. Looking back they could see it in gradual stages of diminishment-a white serpent with a bristling head of scattered horsemen, then a white worm, its head a collection of dark particles, then a white thread with a head too insignificant to be deciphered. Finally it was gone, absorbed into the detailless distance where the river coiled through the green.

Twenty-four hours later they reached the Forks of the Platte. Here the trail crossed the South Fork, slanted over the plateau that lay between the two branches, and gained the North Fork. Up this it passed, looping round the creviced backs of mighty bluffs, and bearing northwestward to Fort Laramie. The easy faring of the grassed bottom was over. The turn to the North Fork was the turn to the mountains. The slow stream with its fleet of islands would lose its dreamy deliberateness and become a narrowed rushing current, sweeping round the bases of sandstone walls as the pioneers followed it up and on toward the whitened crests of the Wind River Mountains, where the snows never melted and the lakes lay in the hollows green as jade.

It was afternoon when they reached the ford. The hills had sunk away to low up-sweepings of gray soil, no longer hiding the plain which lay yellow against a cobalt sky. As the wagons rolled up on creaking wheels the distance began to darken with the buffalo. The prospect was like a bright-colored map over which a black liquid has been spilled, here in drops, there in creeping streams. Long files flowed from the rifts between the dwarfed bluffs, unbroken herds swept in a wave over the low barrier, advanced to the river, crusted its surface, passed across, and surged up the opposite bank. Finally all sides showed the moving mass, blackening the plateau, lining the water's edge in an endless undulation of backs and heads, foaming down the faces of the sand slopes. Where the train moved they divided giving it right of way, streaming by, bulls, cows, and calves intent on their own business, the earth tremulous under their tread. Through breaks in their ranks the blue and purple of the hills shone startlingly vivid and beyond the prairie lay like a fawn-colored sea across which dark shadows trailed.

The ford was nearly a mile wide, a shallow current, in some places only a glaze, but with shifting sands stirring beneath it. Through the thin, glass-like spread of water the backs of sand bars emerged, smooth as the bodies of recumbent monsters. On the far side the plateau stretched, lilac with the lupine flowers, the broken rear line of the herd receding across it.

The doctor, feeling the way, was to ride in the lead, his wagon following with Susan and Daddy John on the driver's seat. It seemed an easy matter, the water chuckling round the wheels, the mules not wet above the knees. Half way across, grown unduly confident, the doctor turned in his saddle to address his daughter when his horse walked into a quicksand and unseated him. It took them half an hour to drag it out, Susan imploring that her father come back to the wagon and change his clothes. He only laughed at her which made her angry. With frowning brows she saw him mount again, and a dripping, white-haired figure, set out debonairly for the opposite bank.

The sun was low, the night chill coming on when they reached it. Their wet clothes were cold upon them and the camp pitching was hurried. Susan bending over her fire, blowing at it with expanded cheeks and, between her puffs, scolding at her father, first, for having got wet, then for having stayed wet, and now for being still wet, was to David just as charming as any of the other and milder apotheoses of the Susan he had come to know so well. It merely added a new tang, a fresh spice of variety, to a personality a less ravished observer might have thought unattractively masterful for a woman.

Her fire kindled, the camp in shape, she lay down by the little blaze with her head under a lupine plant. Her wrath had simmered to appeasement by the retirement of the doctor into his wagon, and David, glimpsing at her, saw that her eyes, a thread of observation between black-fringed lids, dwelt musingly on the sky. She looked as if she might be dreaming a maiden's dream of love. He hazarded a tentative remark. Her eyes moved, touched him indifferently, and passed back to the sky, and an unformed murmur, interrogation, acquiescence, casual response, anything he pleased to think it, escaped her lips. He watched her as he could when she was not looking at him. A loosened strand of her hair lay among the lupine roots, one of her hands rested, brown and upcurled, on a tiny weed its weight had broken. She turned her head with a nestling movement, drew a deep, soft breath and her eyelids drooped.

"David," she said in a drowsy voice, "I'm going to sleep. Wake me at supper time."

He became rigidly quiet. When she had sunk deep into sleep, only her breast moving with the ebb and flow of her quiet breath, he crept nearer and drew a blanket over her, careful not to touch her. He looked at the unconscious face for a moment, then softly dropped the blanket and stole back to his place ready to turn at the first foot fall and lift a silencing hand.

It was one of the beautiful moments that had come to him in his wooing. He sat in still reverie, feeling the dear responsibilities of his ownership. That she might sleep, sweet and soft, he would work as no man ever worked before. To guard, to comfort, to protect her-that would be his life. He turned and looked at her, his sensitive face softening like a woman's watching the sleep of her child. Susan, all unconscious, with her rich young body showing in faint curves under the defining blanket, and her hair lying loose among the roots of the lupine bush, was so devoid of that imperious quality that marked her when awake, was so completely a tender feminine thing, with peaceful eyelids and innocent lips, that it seemed a desecration to look upon her in such a moment of abandonment. Love might transform her into this-in her waking hours when her body and heart had yielded themselves to their master.

David turned away. The sacred thought that some day he would be the owner of this complex creation of flesh and spirit, so rich, so fine, with depths unknown to his groping intelligence, made a rush of supplication, a prayer to be worthy, rise in his heart. He looked at the sunset through half-shut eyes, sending his desire up to that unknown God, who, in these wild solitudes, seemed leaning down to listen:

"Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep."

The sun, falling to the horizon like a spinning copper disk, was as a sign of promise and help. The beauty of the hour stretched into the future. His glance, shifting to the distance, saw the scattered dots of the disappearing buffalo, t

he shadows sloping across the sand hills, and the long expanse of lupines blotting into a thick foam of lilac blue.

Susan stirred, and he woke from his musings with a start. She sat up, the blanket falling from her shoulders, and looking at him with sleep-filled eyes, smiled the sweet, meaningless smile of a half-awakened child. Her consciousness had not yet fully returned, and her glance, curiously clear and liquid, rested on his without intelligence. The woman in her was never more apparent, her seduction never more potent. Her will dormant, her bounding energies at low ebb, she looked a thing to nestle, soft and yielding, against a man's heart.

"Have I slept long?" she said stretching, and then, "Isn't it cold."

"Come near the fire," he answered. "I've built it up while you were asleep."

She came, trailing the blanket in a languid hand, and sat beside him. He drew it up about her shoulders and looked into her face. Meeting his eyes she broke into low laughter, and leaning nearer to him murmured in words only half articulated:

"Oh, David, I'm so sleepy."

He took her hand, and it stayed unresisting against his palm. She laughed again, and then yawned, lifting her shoulders with a supple movement that shook off the blanket.

"It takes such a long time to wake up," she murmured apologetically.

David made no answer, and for a space they sat silent looking at the sunset. As the mists of sleep dispersed she became aware of his hand pressure, and the contentment that marked her awakening was marred. But she felt in a kindly mood and did not withdraw her hand. Instead, she wanted to please him, to be as she thought he would like her to be, so she made a gallant effort and said:

"What a wonderful sunset-all yellow to the middle of the sky."

He nodded, looking at the flaming west. She went on:

"And there are little bits of gold cloud floating over it, like the melted lead that you pour through a key on all Hallowe'en."

He again made no answer, and leaning nearer to spy into his face, she asked na?vely:

"Don't you think it beautiful?"

He turned upon her sharply, and she drew back discomposed by his look.

"Let me kiss you," he said, his voice a little husky.

He was her betrothed and had never kissed her but once in the moonlight. It was his right, and after all, conquering the inevitable repugnance, it did not take long. Caught thus in a yielding mood she resolved to submit. She had a comforting sense that it was a rite to which in time one became accustomed. With a determination to perform her part graciously she lowered her eyelids and presented a dusky cheek. As his shoulder touched hers she felt that he trembled and was instantly seized with the antipathy that his emotion woke in her. But it was too late to withdraw. His arms closed round her and he crushed her against his chest. When she felt their strength and the beating of his heart against the unstirred calm of her own, her good resolutions were swept away in a surge of abhorrence. She struggled for freedom, repelling him with violent, pushing hands, and exclaiming breathlessly:

"Don't, David! Stop! I won't have it! Don't!"

He instantly released her, and she shrunk away, brushing off the bosom of her blouse as if he had left dust there. Her face was flushed and frowning.

"Don't. You mustn't," she repeated, with heated reproof. "I don't want you to."

David smiled a sheepish smile, looking foolish, and not knowing what to say. At the sight of his crestfallen expression she averted her eyes, sorry that she had hurt him but not sufficiently sorry to risk a repetition of the unpleasant experience. He, too, turned his glance from her, biting his lip to hide the insincerity of his smile, irritated at her unmanageableness, and in his heart valuing her more highly that she was so hard to win. Both were exceedingly conscious, and with deepened color sat gazing in opposite directions like children who have had a quarrel.

A step behind them broke upon their embarrassment, saving them from the necessity of speech. Daddy John's voice came with it:

"Missy, do you know if the keg of whisky was moved? It ain't where I put it."

She turned with a lightning quickness.

"Whisky! Who wants whisky?"

Daddy John looked uncomfortable.

"Well, the doctor's took sort of cold, got a shiver on him like the ague, and he thought a nip o' whisky'd warm him up."

She jumped to her feet.

"There!" flinging out the word with the rage of a disregarded prophet, "a chill! I knew it!"

In a moment all the self-engrossment of her bashfulness was gone. Her mind had turned on another subject with such speed and completeness that David's kiss and her anger might have taken place in another world in a previous age. Her faculties leaped to the sudden call like a liberated spring, and her orders burst on Daddy John:

"In the back of the wagon, under the corn meal. It was moved when we crossed the Big Blue. Take out the extra blankets and the medicine chest. That's in the front corner, near my clothes, under the seat. A chill-out here in the wilderness!"

David turned to soothe her:

"Don't be worried. A chill's natural enough after such a wetting."

She shot a quick, hard glance at him, and he felt ignominiously repulsed. In its preoccupation her face had no recognition of him, not only as a lover but as a human being. Her eyes, under low-drawn brows, stared for a second into his with the unseeing intentness of inward thought. Her struggles to avoid his kiss were not half so chilling. Further solacing words died on his lips.

"It's the worst possible thing that could happen to him. Everybody knows that"-then she looked after Daddy John. "Get the whisky at once," she called. "I'll find the medicines."

"Can't I help?" the young man implored.

Without answering she started for the wagon, and midway between it and the fire paused to cry back over her shoulder:

"Heat water, or if you can find stones heat them. We must get him warm."

And she ran on.

David looked about for the stones. The "we" consoled him a little, but he felt as if he were excluded into outer darkness, and at a moment when she should have turned to him for the aid he yearned to give. He could not get over the suddenness of it, and watched them forlornly, gazing enviously at their conferences over the medicine chest, once straightening himself from his search for stones to call longingly:

"Can't I do something for you over there?"

"Have you the stones?" she answered without raising her head, and he went back to his task.

In distress she had turned from the outside world, broken every lien of interest with it, and gone back to her own. The little circle in which her life had always moved snapped tight upon her, leaving the lover outside, as completely shut out from her and her concerns as if he had been a stranger camped by her fire.

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