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   Chapter 8 No.8

The Emigrant Trail By Geraldine Bonner Characters: 20086

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Fort Laramie stood where the eastern roots of the mountains start in toothed reef and low, premonitory sweep from the level of the plains. Broken chains and spurs edged up toward it. Far beyond, in a faint aerial distance, the soaring solidity of vast ranges hung on the horizon, cloudy crests painted on the sky. Laramie Peak loomed closer, a bold, bare point, gold in the morning, purple at twilight. And the Black Hills, rock-ribbed and somber, dwarf pines clutching their lodges, rose in frowning ramparts to the North and West.

It was a naked country, bleak and bitter. In winter it slept under a snow blanket, the lights of the fort encircled by the binding, breathless cold. Then the wandering men that trapped and traded with the Indians came seeking shelter behind the white walls, where the furs were stacked in storerooms, and the bourgeois' table was hospitable with jerked meat and meal cakes. When the streams began to stir under the ice, and a thin green showed along the bottoms, it opened its gates and the men of the mountains went forth with their traps rattling at the saddle horn. Later, when the spring was in waking bloom, and each evening the light stayed longer on Laramie Peak, the Indians came in migrating villages moving to the summer hunting grounds, and in painted war parties, for there was a season when the red man, like the Hebrew kings, went forth to battle.

It was midsummer now, the chalk-white walls of the fort were bathed in a scorching sunshine, and the nomads of the wilderness met and picked up dropped threads in its courtyard. It stood up warlike on a rise of ground with the brown swiftness of a stream hurrying below it. Once the factors had tried to cultivate the land, but had given it up, as the Indians carried off the maize and corn as it ripened. So the short-haired grass grew to the stockade. At this season the surrounding plain was thick with grazing animals, the fort's own supply, the ponies of the Indians, and the cattle of the emigrants. Encampments were on every side, clustering close under the walls, whence a cannon poked its nose protectingly from the bastion above the gate. There was no need to make the ring of wagons here. White man and red camped together, the canvas peaks of the tents showing beside the frames of lodge poles, covered with dried skins. The pale face treated his red brother to coffee and rice cakes, and the red brother offered in return a feast of boiled dog.

Just now the fort was a scene of ceaseless animation. Its courtyard was a kaleidoscopic whirl of color, shifting as the sun shifted and the shadow of the walls offered shade. Indians with bodies bare above the dropped blankets, moved stately or squatted on their heels watching the emigrants as they bartered for supplies. Trappers in fringed and beaded leather played cards with the plainsmen in shady corners or lounged in the cool arch of the gateway looking aslant at the emigrant girls. Their squaws, patches of color against the walls, sat docile, with the swarthy, half-breed children playing about their feet. There were French Canadians, bearded like pirates, full of good humor, filling the air with their patois, and a few Mexicans, who passed the days sprawled on serapes and smoking sleepily. Over all the bourgeois ruled, kindly or crabbedly, according to his make, but always absolutely the monarch of a little principality.

The doctor's train had reached the fort by slow stages, and now lay camped outside the walls. Bella's condition had been serious, and they had crawled up the valley of the North Platte at a snail's pace. The gradual change in the country told them of their advance-the intrusion of giant bluffs along the river's edge, the disappearance of the many lovely flower forms, the first glimpses of parched areas dotted with sage. From the top of Scotts Bluffs they saw the mountains, and stood, a way-worn company, looking at those faint and formidable shapes that blocked their path to the Promised Land. It was a sight to daunt the most high-hearted, and they stared, dropping ejaculations that told of the first decline of spirit. Only the sick woman said nothing. Her languid eye swept the prospect indifferently, her spark of life burning too feebly to permit of any useless expenditure. It was the strange man who encouraged them. They would pass the mountains without effort, the ascent was gradual, South Pass a plain.

The strange man had stayed with them, and all being well, would go on to Fort Bridger, probably to California, in their company. It was good news. He was what they needed, versed in the lore of the wilderness, conversant with an environment of which they were ignorant. The train had not passed Ash Hollow when he fell into command, chose the camping grounds, went ahead in search of springs, and hunted with Daddy John, bringing back enough game to keep them supplied with fresh meat. They began to rely upon him, to defer to him, to feel a new security when they saw his light, lean-flanked figure at the head of the caravan.

One morning, as the doctor rode silently beside him, he broke into a low-toned singing. His voice was a mellow baritone, and the words he sung, each verse ending with a plaintive burden, were French:

"Il y a longtemps que je t'ai aimé jamais je ne t'oublierai."

Long ago the doctor had heard his wife sing the same words, and he turned with a start:

"Where did you learn that song?"

"From some voyageur over yonder," nodding toward the mountains. "It's one of their songs."

"You have an excellent accent, better than the Canadians."

The stranger laughed and addressed his companion in pure and fluent French.

"Then you're a Frenchman?" said the elder man, surprised.

"Not I, but my people were. They came from New Orleans and went up the river and settled in St. Louis. My grandfather couldn't speak a sentence in English when he first went there."

When the doctor told his daughter this he was a little triumphant. They had talked over Courant and his antecedents, and had some argument about them, the doctor maintaining that the strange man was a gentleman, Susan quite sure that he was not. Dr. Gillespie used the word in its old-fashioned sense, as a term having reference as much to birth and breeding as to manners and certain, ineradicable instincts. The gentleman adventurer was not unknown on the plains. Sometimes he had fled from a dark past, sometimes taken to the wild because the restraints of civilization pressed too hard upon the elbows of his liberty.

"He's evidently of French Creole blood," said the doctor. "Many of those people who came up from New Orleans and settled in St. Louis were of high family and station."

"Then why should he be out here, dressed like an Indian and wandering round with all sorts of waifs and strays? I believe he's just the same kind of person as old Joe, only younger. Or, if he does come from educated people, there's something wrong about him, and he's had to come out here and hide."

"Oh, what a suspicious little Missy! Nothing would make me believe that. He may be rough, but he's not crooked. Those steady, straight-looking eyes never belonged to any but an honest man. No, my dear, there's no discreditable past behind him, and he's a gentleman."

"Rubbish!" she said pettishly. "You'll be saying Leff's a gentleman next."

From which it will be seen that Low Courant had not been communicative about himself. Such broken scraps of information as he had dropped, when pieced together made a scanty narrative. His grandfather had been one of the early French settlers of St. Louis, and his father a prosperous fur trader there. But why he had cut loose from them he did not vouchsafe to explain. Though he was still young-thirty perhaps-it was evident that he had wandered far and for many years. He knew the Indian trails of the distant Northwest, and spoke the language of the Black Feet and Crows. He had passed a winter in the old Spanish town of Santa Fé, and from there joined a regiment of United States troops and done his share of fighting in the Mexican War. Now the wanderlust was on him, he was going to California.

"Maybe to settle," he told the doctor. "If I don't wake up some morning and feel the need to move once more."

When they reached the fort he was hailed joyously by the bourgeois himself. The men clustered about him, and there were loud-voiced greetings and much questioning, a rumor having filtered to his old stamping ground that he had been killed in the siege of the Alamo. The doctor told the bourgeois that Courant was to go with his train to California, and the apple-cheeked factor grinned and raised his eyebrows:

"Vous avez de la chance! He's a good guide. Even Kit Carson, who conducted the General Fremont, is no better."

The general satisfaction did not extend to Susan. The faint thrill of antagonism that the man had roused in her persisted. She knew he was a gain to the party, and said nothing. She was growing rapidly in this new, toughening life, and could set her own small prejudices aside in the wider view that each day's experience was teaching her. The presence of such a man would lighten the burden of work and responsibility that lay on her father, and whatever was beneficial to the doctor was accepted by his daughter. But she did not like Low Courant. Had anyone asked her why she could have given no reason. He took little notice of any of the women, treating them alike with a brusque indifference that was not discourteous, but seemed to lump them as necessary but useless units in an important whole.

The train was the focus of his interest. The acceleration of its speed, the condition of the cattle, the combination of lightness and completeness in its make-up were the matters that occupied him. In the evening hour of rest these were the subjects he talked of, and she noticed that Daddy John was the person to whom he talked most. With averted eyes, her head bent to David's murmurings, she was really li

stening to the older men. Her admiration was reluctantly evoked by the stranger's dominance and vigor of will, his devotion to the work he had undertaken. She felt her own insignificance and David's also, and chafed under the unfamiliar sensation.

The night after leaving Ash Hollow, as they sat by the fire, David at her side, the doctor had told Courant of the betrothal. His glance passed quickly over the two conscious faces, he gave a short nod of comprehension, and turning to Daddy John, inquired about the condition of the mules' shoes. Susan reddened. She saw something of disparagement, of the slightest gleam of mockery, in that short look, which touched both faces and then turned from them as from the faces of children playing at a game. Yes, she disliked him, disliked his manner to Lucy and herself, which set them aside as beings of a lower order, that had to go with them and be taken care of like the stock, only much less important and necessary. Even to Bella he was off-hand and unsympathetic, unmoved by her weakness, as he had been by her sufferings the night he came. Susan had an idea that he thought Bella's illness a misfortune, not so much for Bella as for the welfare of the train.

They had been at the fort now for four days and were ready to move on. The wagons were repaired, the mules and horses shod, and Bella was mending, though still unable to walk. The doctor had promised to keep beside the McMurdos till she was well, then his company would forge ahead.

In the heat of the afternoon, comfortable in a rim of shade in the courtyard, the men were arranging for the start the next morning. The sun beat fiercely on the square opening roofed by the blue of the sky and cut by the black shadow of walls. In the cooling shade the motley company lay sprawling on the ground or propped against the doors of the store rooms. The open space was brilliant with the blankets of Indians, the bare limbs of brown children, and the bright serapes of the Mexicans, who were too lazy to move out of the sun. In a corner the squaws played a game with polished cherry stones which they tossed in a shallow, saucerlike basket and let drop on the ground.

Susan, half asleep on a buffalo skin, watched them idly. The game reminded her of the jack-stones of her childhood. Then her eye slanted to where Lucy stood by the gate talking with a trapper called Zavier Leroux. The sun made Lucy's splendid hair shine like a flaming nimbus, and the dark men of the mountains and the plain watched her with immovable looks. She was laughing, her head drooped sideways. Above the collar of her blouse a strip of neck, untouched by tan, showed in a milk-white band. Conscious of the admiring observation, she instinctively relaxed her muscles into lines of flowing grace, and lowered her eyes till her lashes shone in golden points against her freckled cheeks. With entire innocence she spread her little lure, following an elemental instinct, that, in the normal surroundings of her present life, released from artificial restraints, was growing stronger.

Her companion was a voyageur, a half-breed, with coarse black hair hanging from a scarlet handkerchief bound smooth over his head. He was of a sinewy, muscular build, his coppery skin, hard black eyes, and high cheek bones showing the blood of his mother, a Crow squaw. His father, long forgotten in the obscurity of mountain history, had evidently bequeathed him the French Canadian's good-humored gayety. Zavier was a light-hearted and merry fellow, and where he came laughter sprang up. He spoke English well, and could sing French songs that were brought to his father's country by the adventurers who crossed the seas with Jacques Cartier.

The bourgeois, who was aloft on the bastion sweeping the distance with a field glass, suddenly threw an announcement down on the courtyard:

"Red Feather's village is coming and an emigrant train."

The space between the four walls immediately seethed into a whirlpool of excitement. It eddied there for a moment, then poured through the gateway into the long drainlike entrance passage and spread over the grass outside.

Down the face of the opposite hill, separated from the fort by a narrow river, came the Indian village, streaming forward in a broken torrent. Over its barbaric brightness, beads and glass caught the sun, and the nervous fluttering of eagle feathers that fringed the upheld lances played above its shifting pattern of brown and scarlet. It descended the slope in a broken rush, spreading out fanwise, scattered, disorderly, horse and foot together. On the river bank it paused, the web of color thickening, then rolled over the edge and plunged in. The current, beaten into sudden whiteness, eddied round the legs of horses, the throats of swimming dogs, and pressed up to the edges of the travaux where frightened children sat among litters of puppies. Ponies bestrode by naked boys struck up showers of spray, squaws with lifted blankets waded stolidly in, mounted warriors, feathers quivering in their inky hair, indifferently splashing them. Here a dog, caught by the current, was seized by a sinewy hand; there a horse, struggling under the weight of a travaux packed with puppies and old women, was grasped by a lusty brave and dragged to shore. The water round them frothing into silvery turmoil, the air above rent with their cries, they climbed the bank and made for the camping ground near the fort.

Among the first came a young squaw. Her white doeskin dress was as clean as snow, barbarically splendid with cut fringes and work of bead and porcupine quills. Her mien was sedate, and she swayed to her horse lightly and flexibly as a boy, holding aloft a lance edged with a flutter of feathers, and bearing a round shield of painted skins. Beside her rode the old chief, his blanket falling away from his withered body, his face expressionless and graven deep with wrinkles.

"That's Red Feather and his favorite squaw," said the voice of Courant at Susan's elbow.

She made no answer, staring at the Indian girl, who was handsome and young, younger than she.

"And look," came the voice again, "there are the emigrants."

A long column of wagons had crested the summit and was rolling down the slope. They were in single file, hood behind hood, the drivers, bearded as cave men, walking by the oxen. The line moved steadily, without sound or hurry, as if directed by a single intelligence possessed of a single idea. It was not a congeries of separated particles, but a connected whole. As it wound down the face of the hill, it suggested a vast Silurian monster, each wagon top a vertebra, crawling forward with definite purpose.

"That's the way they're coming," said the voice of the strange man. "Slow but steady, an endless line of them."

"Who?" said Susan, answering him for the first time.

"The white men. They're creeping along out of their country into this, pushing the frontier forward every year, and going on ahead of it with their tents and their cattle and their women. Watch the way that train comes after Red Feather's village. That was all scattered and broken, going every way like a lot of glass beads rolling down the hill. This comes slow, but it's steady and sure as fate."

She thought for a moment, watching the emigrants, and then said:

"It moves like soldiers."

"Conquerors. That's what they are. They're going to roll over everything-crush them out."

"Over the Indians?"

"That's it. Drive 'em away into the cracks of the mountains, wipe them out the way the trappers are wiping out the beaver."

"Cruel!" she said hotly. "I don't believe it."

"Cruel?" he gave her a look of half-contemptuous amusement. "Maybe so, but why should you blame them for that? Aren't you cruel when you kill an antelope or a deer for supper? They're not doing you any harm, but you just happen to be hungry. Well, those fellers are hungry-land hungry-and they've come for the Indian's land. The whole world's cruel. You know it, but you don't like to think so, so you say it isn't. You're just lying because you're afraid of the truth."

She looked angrily at him and met the gray eyes. In the center of each iris was a dot of pupil so clearly defined and hard that they looked to Susan like the heads of black pins. "That's exactly what he'd say," she thought; "he's no better than a savage." What she said was:

"I don't agree with you at all."

"I don't expect you to," he answered, and making an ironical bow turned on his heel and swung off.

The next morning, in the pallor of the dawn, they started, rolling out into a gray country with the keen-edged cold of early day in the air, and Laramie Peak, gold tipped, before them. As the sky brightened and the prospect began to take on warmer hues, they looked ahead toward the profiles of the mountains and thought of the journey to come. At this hour of low vitality it seemed enormous, and they paced forward a silent, lifeless caravan, the hoof beats sounding hollow on the beaten track.

Then from behind them came a sound of singing, a man's voice caroling in the dawn. Both girls wheeled and saw Zavier Leroux ambling after them on his rough-haired pony, the pack horse behind. He waved his hand and shouted across the silence:

"I come to go with you as far as South Pass," and then he broke out again into his singing. It was the song Courant had sung, and as he heard it he lifted up his voice at the head of the train, and the two strains blending, the old French chanson swept out over the barren land:

"A la claire fontaine!

M'en allant promener

J'ai trouvé l'eau si belle

Que je me suis baigné!"

Susan waved a beckoning hand to the voyageur, then turned to Lucy and said joyously:

"What fun to have Zavier! He'll keep us laughing all the time. Aren't you glad he's coming?"

Lucy gave an unenthusiastic "Yes." After the first glance backward she had bent over her horse smoothing its mane her face suddenly dyed with a flood of red.

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