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   Chapter 9 No.9

The Emigrant Trail By Geraldine Bonner Characters: 20101

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Everybody was glad Zavier had come. He brought a spirit of good cheer into the party which had begun to feel the pressure of the long march behind them, and the still heavier burden that was to come. His gayety was irrepressible, his high spirits unflagging. When the others rode silent in the lifeless hours of the afternoon or drooped in the midday heats, Zavier, a dust-clouded outline on his shaggy pony, lifted up his voice in song. Then the chanted melody of French verses issued from the dust cloud, rising above the rattling of the beaver traps and the creaking of the slow wheels.

He had one especial favorite that he was wont to sing when he rode between the two girls. It recounted the adventures of trois cavalières, and had so many verses that Zavier assured them neither he nor any other man had ever arrived at the end of them. Should he go to California with them and sing a verse each day, he thought there would still be some left over to give away when he got there. Susan learned the first two stanzas, and Lucy picked up the air and a few words. When the shadows began to slant and the crisp breath of the mountains came cool on their faces, they sang, first Zavier and Susan, then Lucy joining in in a faint, uncertain treble, and finally from the front of the train the strange man, not turning his head, sitting straight and square, and booming out the burden in his deep baritone:

"Dans mon chemin j'ai recontré

Trois cavalières bien montées,

L'on, ton laridon danée

L'on, ton laridon dai.

"Trois cavalières bien montées

L'une a cheval, l'autre a pied

L'on, ton, laridon danée

L'on ton laridon dai."

Zavier furnished another diversion in the monotony of the days, injected into the weary routine, a coloring drop of romance, for, as he himself would have said, he was diablement épris with Lucy. This was regarded as one of the best of Zavier's jokes. He himself laughed at it, and his extravagant compliments and gallantries were well within the pale of the burlesque. Lucy laughed at them, too. The only one that took the matter seriously was Bella. She was not entirely pleased.

"Talk about it's being just a joke," she said to Susan in the bedtime hour of confidences. "You can joke too much about some things. Zavier's a man just the same as the others, and Lucy's a nice-looking girl when she gets rested up and the freckles go off. But he's an Indian if he does speak French, and make good money with his beaver trapping."

"He's not all Indian," Susan said soothingly. "He's half white. There are only a few Indian things about him, his dark skin and something high and flat about his cheek bones and the way he turns in his toes when he walks."

"Indian enough," Bella fumed. "And nobody knows anything about his father. We're respectable people and don't want a man with no name hanging round. I've no doubt he was born in a lodge or under a pine tree. What right's that kind of man to come ogling after a decent white girl whose father and mother were married in the Presbyterian Church?"

Susan did not take it so much to heart. What was the good when Lucy obviously didn't care? As for Zavier, she felt sorry for him, for those keen observing faculties of hers had told her that the voyageur's raillery hid a real feeling. Poor Zavier was in love. Susan was pensive in the contemplation of his hopeless passion. He was to leave the train near South Pass and go back into the mountains, and there, alone, camp on the streams that drained the Powder River country. In all probability he would never see one of them again. His trapping did not take him West to the great deserts, and he hated the civilization where man became a luxurious animal of many needs. Like the buffalo and the red man he was restricted to the wild lands that sloped away on either side of the continent's mighty spine. His case was sad, and Susan held forth on the subject to Lucy, whom she thought callous and unkind.

"It's terrible to think you'll never see him again," she said, looking for signs of compassion. "Don't you feel sorry?"

Lucy looked down. She had been complaining to her friend of Zavier's follies of devotion.

"There are lots of other men in the world," she said indifferently.

Susan fired up. If not yet the authorized owner of a man, she felt her responsibilities as a coming proprietor. The woman's passion for interference in matters of sentiment was developing in her.

"Lucy, you're the most hard-hearted girl! Poor Zavier, who's going off into the mountains and may be killed by the Indians. Don't you feel any pity for him? And he's in love with you-truly in love. I've watched him and I know."

She could not refrain from letting a hint of superior wisdom, of an advantage over the unengaged Lucy, give solemnity to her tone.

Lucy's face flushed.

"He's half an Indian," she said with an edge on her voice. "Doesn't everyone in the train keep saying that every ten minutes? Do you want me to fall in love with a man like that?"

"Why no, of course not. You couldn't. That's the sad part of it. He seems as much like other men as those trappers in the fort who were all white. Just because he had a Crow mother it seems unjust that he should be so sort of on the outside of everything. But of course you couldn't marry him. Nobody ever heard of a girl marrying a half-breed."

Lucy bent over the piece of deer meat that she was cutting apart. They were preparing supper at the flaring end of a hot day, when the wagons had crawled through a loose alkaline soil and over myriads of crickets that crushed sickeningly under the wheels. Both girls were tired, their throats parched, their hair as dry as hemp, and Lucy was irritable, her face unsmiling, her movement quick and nervous.

"What's it matter what a man's parents are if he's kind to you?" she said, cutting viciously into the meat. "It's a lot to have some one fill the kettles for you and help you get the firewood, and when you're tired tell you to go back in the wagon and go to sleep. Nobody does that for me but Zavier."

It was the first time she had shown any appreciation of her swain's attentions. She expressed the normal, feminine point of view that her friend had been looking for, and as soon as she heard it Susan adroitly vaulted to the other side:

"But, Lucy, you can't marry him!"

"Who says I'm going to?" snapped Lucy. "Do I have to marry every Indian that makes eyes at me? All the men in the fort were doing it. They hadn't a look for anyone else."

Susan took this with reservations. A good many of the men in the fort had made eyes at her. It was rather grasping of Lucy to take it all to herself, and in her surprise at the extent of her friend's claims she was silent.

"As for me," Lucy went on, "I'm dead sick of this journey. I wish we could stop or go back or do something. But we've got to keep on and on to the end of nowhere. It seems as if we were going forever in these tiresome old wagons or on horses that get lame every other day, and then you have to walk. I don't mind living in a tent. I like it. But I hate always going on, never having a minute to rest, getting up in the morning when I'm only half awake, and having to cook at night when I'm so tired I'd just like to lie down on the ground without taking my clothes off and go to sleep there. I wish I'd never come. I wish I'd married the man in Cooperstown that I wouldn't have wiped my feet on then."

She slapped the frying pan on the fire and threw the meat into it. Her voice and lips were trembling. With a quick, backward bend she stooped to pick up a fork, and Susan saw her face puckered and quivering like a child's about to cry.

"Oh, Lucy," she cried in a burst of sympathy. "I didn't know you felt like that," and she tried to clasp the lithe uncorseted waist that flinched from her touch. Lucy's elbow, thrown suddenly out, kept her at a distance, and she fell back repulsed, but with consolations still ready to be offered.

"Let me alone," said Lucy, her face averted. "I'm that tired I don't know what I'm saying. Go and get the children for supper, and don't let them stand round staring at me or they'll be asking questions."

She snatched the coffee pot and shook it upside down, driblets of coffee running out. With her other hand she brushed the tears off her cheeks.

"Don't stand there as if you never saw a girl cry before," she said, savagely. "I don't do it often, and it isn't such a wonderful sight. Get the children, and if you tell anyone that I feel this way I'll murder you."

The children were at some distance lying on the ground. Such unpromising materials as dust and sage brush had not quenched their inventive power or hampered their imaginations. They played with as an absorbed an industry here as in their own garden at home. They had scraped the earth into mounded shapes marked with the print of baby fingers and furrowed with paths. One led to a central mound crowned with a wild sunflower blossom. Up the path to this Bob conducted twigs of sage, murmuring the adventures that attended their progress. When they reached the sunflower house he laid them carefully against its sides, continuing the unseen happenings that befell them on their entrance. The little girl lay beside him, her cheek resting on an outflung arm, her eyes fixed wistfully on the personally conducted party. Her creative genius had not risen to the heights of his, and her fat little hands were awkward and had pushed the sunflower from its perch. So she had been excluded from active participation, and now looked on, acquiescing in her exclusion, a patient and humble spectator.

"Look," Bob cried as he saw Susan approaching. "I've builded a house and a garden, and these are the people," holding up one of the sage twigs, "they walk fru the garden an' then go into the house and have coffee and buf'lo meat."

Susan admired it and then looked at the baby, who was pensively surveying her brother's creation.

"And did the baby play, too?" sh

e asked.

"Oh, no, she couldn't. She doesn't know nuffing, she's too small," with the scorn of one year's superiority.

The baby raised her solemn eyes to the young girl and made no attempt to vindicate herself. Her expression was that of subdued humility, of one who admits her short-comings. She rose and thrust a soft hand into Susan's, and maintained her silence as they walked toward the camp. The only object that seemed to have power to rouse her from her dejected reverie were the broken sage stalks in the trail. At each of these she halted, hanging from Susan's sustaining grasp, and stubbed her toe accurately and carefully against the protruding root.

They would have been silent that evening if it had not been for Zavier. His mood was less merry than usual, but a stream of frontier anecdote and story flowed from him, that held them listening with charmed attention. His foreign speech interlarded with French words added to the picturesqueness of his narratives, and he himself sitting crosslegged on his blanket, his hair hanging dense to his shoulders, his supple body leaning forward in the tension of a thrilling climax, was a fitting minstrel for these lays of the wild.

His final story was that of Antoine Godin, one of the classics of mountain history. Godin was the son of an Iroquois hunter who had been brutally murdered by the Blackfeet. He had become a trapper of the Sublette brothers, then mighty men of the fur trade, and in the expedition of Milton Sublette against the Blackfeet in 1832 joined the troop. When the two bands met, Godin volunteered to hold a conference with the Blackfeet chief. He chose as his companion an Indian of the Flathead tribe, once a powerful nation, but almost exterminated by wars with the Blackfeet. From the massed ranks of his warriors the chief rode out for the parley, a pipe of peace in his hand. As Godin and the Flathead started to meet him, the former asked the Indian if his piece was charged, and when the Flathead answered in the affirmative told him to cock it and ride alongside.

Midway between the two bands they met. Godin clasped the chief's hand, and as he did so told the Flathead to fire. The Indian levelled his gun, fired, and the Blackfeet chief rolled off his horse. Godin snatched off his blanket and in a rain of bullets fled to the Sublette camp.

"And so," said the voyageur with a note of exultation in his voice, "Godin got revenge on those men who had killed his father."

For a moment his listeners were silent, suffering from a sense of bewilderment, not so much at the story, as at Zavier's evident approval of Godin's act.

It was Susan who first said in a low tone, "What an awful thing to do!" This loosened Bella's tongue, who lying in the opening of her tent had been listening and now felt emboldened to express her opinion, especially as Glen, stretched on his face nearby, had emitted a snort of indignation.

"Well, of all the wicked things I've heard since I came out here that's the worst."

Zavier shot a glance at them in which for one unguarded moment, race antagonism gleamed.

"Why is it wicked?" he said gently.

David answered heatedly, the words bursting out:

"Why, the treachery of it, the meanness. The chief carried the pipe of peace. That's like our flag of truce. You never heard of any civilized man shooting another under the flag of truce."

Zavier looked stolid. It was impossible to tell whether he comprehended their point of view and pretended ignorance, or whether he was so restricted to his own that he could see no other.

"The Blackfeet had killed his father," he answered. "They were treacherous too. Should he wait to be murdered? It was his chance and he took it."

Sounds of dissent broke out round the circle. All the eyes were trained on him, some with a wide, expectant fixity, others bright with combative fire. Even Glen sat up, scratching his head, and remarking sotto voce to his wife:

"Ain't I always said he was an Indian?"

"But the Blackfeet chief wasn't the man who killed his father," said the doctor.

"No, he was chief of the tribe who did."

"But why kill an innocent man who probably had nothing to do with it?"

"It was for vengeance," said Zavier with unmoved patience and careful English. "Vengeance for his father's death."

Several pairs of eyes sought the ground giving up the problem. Others continued to gaze at him either with wonder, or hopeful of extracting from his face some clew to his involved and incomprehensible moral attitude. They suddenly felt as if he had confessed himself of an alien species, a creature as remote from them and their ideals as a dweller in the moon.

"He had waited long for vengeance," Zavier further explained, moving his glittering glance about the circle, "and if he could not find the right man, he must take such man as he could. The chief is the biggest man, and he comes where Godin has him. 'My father is avenged at last,' he says, and bang!"-Zavier levelled an imaginary engine of destruction at the shadows-"it is done and Godin gets the blanket."

The silence that greeted this was one of hopelessness; the blanket had added the final complication. It was impossible to make Zavier see, and this new development in what had seemed a boyish and light-hearted being, full to the brim with the milk of human kindness, was a thing to sink before in puzzled speechlessness. Courant tried to explain:

"You can't see it Zavier's way because it's a different way from yours. It comes out of the past when there weren't any laws, or you had to make 'em yourself. You've come from where the courthouse and the police take care of you, and if a feller kills your father, sees to it that he's caught and strung up. It's not your business to do it, and so you've got to thinking that the man that takes it into his own hands is a desperate kind of criminal. Out here in those days you wiped out such scores yourself or no one did. It seems to you that Godin did a pretty low down thing, but he thought he was doing the right thing for him. He'd had a wrong done him and he'd got to square it. And it didn't matter to him that the chief wasn't the man. Kill an Indian and it's the tribe's business to settle the account. The Blackfeet killed his father and it was Godin's business to kill a Blackfeet whenever he got the chance. I guess when he saw the chief riding out to meet him what he felt most was, that it was the best chance he'd ever get."

The faces turned toward Courant-a white man like themselves! So deep was their disapproving astonishment that nobody could say anything. For a space they could only stare at him as though he, too, were suddenly dropping veils that had hidden unsuspected, baleful depths.

Then argument broke out and the clamor of voices was loud on the night. Courant bore the brunt of the attack, Zavier's ideas being scanty, his mode of procedure a persistent, reiteration of his original proposition. Interruptions were furnished in a sudden, cracked laugh from Daddy John, and phrases of dissent or approval from Glen and Bella stretching their ears from the front of the tent. Only Lucy said nothing, her head wrapped in a shawl, her face down-drooped and pale.

Late that night Susan was waked by whispering sounds which wound stealthily through her sleep feeling for her consciousness. At first she lay with her eyes shut, breathing softly, till the sounds percolated through the stupor of her fatigue and she woke, disentangling them from dreams. She threw back her blankets and sat alert thinking of Indians.

The moon was full, silver tides lapping in below the tent's rim. She stole to the flap listening, then drew it softly open. Her tent had been pitched beneath a group of trees which made a splash of shadow broken with mottlings of moonlight. In the depths of this shadow she discerned two figures, the white flecks and slivers sliding along the dark oblong of their shapes as they strayed with loitering steps or stood whispering. The straight edge of their outline, the unbroken solidity of their bulk, told her they were wrapped in the same blanket, a custom in the Indian lover's courtship. Their backs were toward her, the two heads rising from the blanket's folds, showing as a rounded pyramidal finish. As she looked they paced beyond the shadow into the full unobscured light, and she saw that the higher head was dark, the other fair, crowned with a circlet of shining hair.

Her heart gave an astounded leap. Her first instinct was to draw back, her second to stand where she was, seemly traditions overwhelmed in amazement. The whispering ceased, the heads inclined to each other, the light one drooping backward, the dark one leaning toward it, till they rested together for a long, still moment. Then they separated, the woman drawing herself from the blanket and with a whispered word stealing away, a furtive figure flitting through light and shade to the McMurdo tents. The man turned and walked to the fire, and Susan saw it was Zavier. He threw on a brand and in its leaping ray stood motionless, looking at the flame, a slight, fixed smile on his lips.

She crept back to her bed and lay there with her heart throbbing and her eyes on the edges of moonlight that slipped in over the trampled sage leaves. Zavier was on sentry duty that night, and she could hear the padding of his step as he moved back and forth through the sleeping camp. On the dark walls of the tent the vision she had seen kept repeating itself, and as it returned upon her mental sight, new questions surged into her mind. A veil had been raised, and she had caught a glimpse of something in life, a new factor in the world, she had never known of. The first faint comprehension of it, the first stir of sympathy with it, crept toward her understanding and tried to force an entrance. She pushed it out, feeling frightened, feeling as if it were an intruder, that once admitted would grow dominant and masterful, and she would never be her own again.

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