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   Chapter 10 No.10

The Emigrant Trail By Geraldine Bonner Characters: 22897

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

The next morning Susan could not help stealing inquiring looks at Lucy. Surely the participant in such a nocturnal adventure must bear some signs of it upon her face. Lucy had suddenly become a disturbing and incomprehensible problem. In trying to readjust her conception of the practical and energetic girl, Susan found herself confronted with the artifices of a world-old, feminine duplicity that she had never before encountered, and knew no more of than she did of the tumult that had possession of poor Lucy's tormented soul. Here was the heroine of a midnight rendezvous going about her work with her habitual nervous capability, dressing the children, preparing the breakfast, seeing that Bella was comfortably disposed on her mattress in the wagon. She had not a glance for Zavier. Could a girl steal out to meet and kiss a man in the moonlight and the next morning look at him with a limpid, undrooping eye as devoid of consciousness as the eye of a preoccupied cat?

The standards of the doctor's daughter were comparative and their range limited. All she had to measure by was herself. Her imagination in trying to compass such a situation with Susan Gillespie as the heroine, could picture nothing as her portion but complete abasement and, of course, a confession to her father. And how dreadful that would have been! She could feel humiliation stealing on her at the thought of the doctor's frowning displeasure. But Lucy had evidently told no one. Why had she not? Why had she pretended not to like Zavier? Why? Why? Susan found her thoughts trailing off into a perspective of questions that brought up against a wall of incomprehension above which Lucy's clear eyes looked at her with baffling secretiveness.

It was a warm morning, and the two girls sat in the doctor's wagon. Lucy was knitting one of the everlasting stockings. In the heat she had unfastened the neck of her blouse and turned the edges in, a triangle of snowy skin visible below her sunburned throat. She looked thin, her arms showing no curve from wrist to elbow, the lines of her body delicately angular under the skimpy dress of faded lilac cotton. The sun blazing through the canvas cast a tempered yellow light over her that toned harmoniously with the brown coating of freckles and the copper burnish of her hair. Her hands, vibrating over her work with little hovering movements like birds about to light, now and then flashing out a needle which she stabbed into her coiffure, were large-boned and dexterous, the strong, unresting hands of the frontierswoman.

Susan was lazy, leaning back on the up-piled sacks, watching the quick, competent movements and the darts of light that leaped along the needles. Before they had entered the wagon she had decided to speak to Lucy of what she had overseen. In the first place she felt guilty and wanted to confess. Besides that the need to give advice was strong upon her, and the natural desire to interfere in a matter of the heart was another impelling impulse. So she had determined to speak for conscience, for friendship, for duty, and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility, for curiosity.

But it was a hard subject to approach, and she was uncomfortable. Diplomacy had not been one of the gifts the fairies gave her when they gathered at her cradle. Looking at the quivering needles she tried to think of a good beginning, and like most direct and candid people concluded there was no better one than that of the initial fact, before the complicating intrusion of inference:

"I woke up in the middle of the night last night."

Lucy knit unmoved.

"The moonlight was as bright as day. Out beyond the shadow where my tent was I could see the weeds and little bunches of grass."

"How could you see them when you were in your tent?" This without stopping her work or raising her head.

Susan, feeling more uncomfortable than ever, answered, her voice instinctively dropping, "I got up and looked out of my tent."

She kept her eyes on the busy hands and saw that the speed of their movements slackened.

"Got up and looked out? What did you do that for?"

The time for revelation had come. Susan was a little breathless.

"I heard people whispering," she said.

The hands came to a stop. But the knitter continued to hold them in the same position, a suspended, waiting expectancy in their attitude.

"Whispering?" she said. "Who was it?"

"Oh, Lucy, you know."

There was a pause. Then Lucy dropped her knitting and, raising her head, looked at the anxious face opposite. Her eyes were quiet and steady, but their look was changed from its usual frankness by a new defiance, hard and wary.

"No, I don't know. How should I?"

"Why, why"-Susan now was not only breathless but pleading-"it was you."

"Who was me?"

"The woman-Lucy don't look at me like that, as if you didn't understand. I saw you, you and Zavier, wrapped in the blanket. You walked out into the moonlight and I saw."

Lucy's gaze continued unfaltering and growing harder. Under the freckles she paled, but she stood her ground.

"What do you mean? Saw me and Zavier? Where?"

"Under the trees first and then you went out into the moonlight with the blanket wrapped round your shoulders."

"You didn't see me," the hardness was now in her voice. "It was some one else."

A feeling of alarm rose in the other girl. It was not the lie alone, it was the force behind it, the force that made it possible, that gave the teller will to hold her glance steady and deny the truth. A scaring sense of desperate powers in Lucy that were carrying her outside the familiar and established, seized her friend. It was all different from her expectations. Her personal repugnance and fastidiousness were swept aside in the menace of larger things. She leaned forward and clasped Lucy's knee.

"Don't say that. I saw you. Lucy, don't say I didn't. Don't bother to tell me a lie. What did it mean? Why did you meet him? What are you doing?"

Lucy jerked her knee away. Her hands were trembling. She took up the knitting, tried to direct the needles, but they shook and she dropped them. She made a sharp movement with her head in an effort to avert her face, but the light was merciless, there was no shade to hide in.

"Oh, don't bother me," she said angrily. "It's not your affair."

Susan's dread rose higher. In a flash of vision she had a glimpse into the storm-driven depths. It was as if a child brought up in a garden had unexpectedly looked into a darkling mountain abyss.

"What are you going to do?" she almost whispered. "You mustn't. You must stop. I thought you didn't care about him. You only laughed and everybody thought it was a joke. Don't go on that way. Something dreadful will happen."

Lucy did not answer. With her back pressed against the roof arch and her hands clinched in her lap-she sat rigid, looking down. She seemed gripped in a pain that stiffened her body and made her face pinched and haggard. Under the light cotton covering her breast rose and fell. She was an embodiment of tortured indecision.

Susan urged: "Let me tell my father and he'll send Zavier away."

Lucy raised her eyes and tried to laugh. The unnatural sound fell with a metallic harshness on the silence. Her mouth quivered, and putting an unsteady hand against it, she said brokenly,

"Oh, Missy, don't torment me. I feel bad enough already."

There was a longer pause. Susan broke it in a low voice:

"Then you're going to marry him?"

"No," loudly, "no. What a question!"

She made a grab at her knitting and started feverishly to work, the needles clicking, stitches dropping, the stocking leg trembling as it hung.

"Why, he's an Indian," she cried suddenly in a high, derisive key.

"But"-the questioner had lost her moment of vision and was once again floundering between ignorance and intuition-"Why did you kiss him then?"

"I didn't. He kissed me."

"You let him. Isn't that the same thing?"

"No, no. You're so silly. You don't know anything." She gave a hysterical laugh and the bonds of her pride broke in a smothered cry: "I couldn't help it. I didn't want to. I didn't mean to. I didn't mean to go out and meet him and I went. I-" she gathered up the stocking and, needles and all, buried her face in it. It was the only thing she could find to hide behind. "I'm so miserable," she sobbed. "You don't know. It's such a terrible thing first feeling one way and then the other. I'm so mixed up I don't know what I feel. I wish I was dead."

There was a sound of men's voices outside, and the wagon came to a jolting halt. Daddy John, on the driver's seat, silhouetted against the circle of sky, slipped the whip into its ring of leather and turned toward the girls. Lucy threw herself backward and lay with her face on the sacks, stifling her tears.

"What are you two girls jawing about in there?" he asked, squinting blindly from the sun dazzle into the clear, amber light of the canvas cavern.

"We're just telling stories and things," said Susan.

The old man peered at Lucy's recumbent figure.

"Ain't she well?" he queried. "Thought I heard crying."

"Her head aches, it's so hot."

"Let her stay there. We'll do her cooking for her. Just stay where you are, Lucy, and don't worrit about your work."

But the voices outside demanded her. It was the noon halt and Lucy was an important factor in the machinery of the train. Glen's call for her was mingled with the fresh treble of Bob's and Bella's at a farther distance, rose in a plaintive, bovine lowing. She stretched a hand sideways and gripped Susan's skirt.

"I can't go," she gasped in a strangled whisper. "I can't seem to get a hold on myself. Ask Zavier to build the fire and cook. He'll do it, and Courant will help him. And tell the others I'm sick."

Lucy's headache lasted all through the dinner hour, and when the train started she still lay in the back of the doctor's wagon. For once she seemed indifferent to the comfort of her relatives. The clamor that rose about their disorderly fire and unsavory meal came to her ears through the canvas walls, and she remained deaf and unconcerned. When Susan crept in beside her and laid a cool cheek on hers, and asked her if she wanted anything, she said no, she wanted to rest that was all. Daddy John turned his head in profile and said:

"Let her alone, Missy. She's all tuckered out. They've put too much work on her sence her sister took sick. You let her lie there and I'll keep an eye to her."

Then he turned away and spat, as was his wont when thoughtful. He had seen much of the world, and in his way was a wise old man, but he did not guess the secret springs of Lucy's trouble. Women on the trail should be taken care of as his Missy was. Glen McMurdo was the kind of man who let the women take care of him, and between him and the children and the sick woman they'd half killed the girl with work. Daddy John had his opinion of Glen, but like most of his opinions he kept it to himself.

Susan had no desire for talk that afternoon. She wanted to be alone to muse on things. As the train took the road for the second stage, she drew her horse back among the sage and let the file of wagons pass her. She saw hope gleaming in Leff's eye, and killed it with a stony glance, then called to her father that she was going to ride behind. David was hunting in the hills with Courant, Zavier driving

in his stead. The little caravan passed her with the dust hovering dense around it and the slouching forms of the pack horses hanging fringe-like in its rear.

They were nearing the end of their passage by the river, shrunk to a clear, wild stream which they came upon and lost as the trail bore westward. Their route lay through an interminable sequence of plains held together by channels of communication that filtered through the gaps in hills. The road was crossed by small streams, chuckling at the bottom of gullies, the sides of which were cracked open like pale, parched lips gasping for air. The limpid transparency of the prospect was blotted by the caravan's moving dust cloud. Beyond this the plain stretched, empty as the sky, a brown butte rising here and there.

Susan heard hoof beats behind her and turned. Courant was riding toward her, his rifle across his saddle. She made a motion of recognition with her hand and turned away thinking how well he matched the surroundings, his buckskins melting into the fawn-colored shading of the earth, his red hair and bronzed face toning with the umber buttes and rustlike stains across the distance. He was of a piece with it, even in its suggestion of an unfeeling, confidant hardness.

He joined her and they paced forward. It was the first time he had ever sought any conversation with her and she was conscious and secretly shy. Heretofore it had been his wont to speak little to her, to sweep an indifferent eye over her which seemed to include her in the unimportant baggage that went to the making of the train. Now, though his manner was brusque, he spoke simply and not discourteously of the hunt in the hills. He had got nothing, but David had killed a black-tailed deer, and possessed by the passion of the chase, was following the tracks of a second. The girl flushed with pleasure.

"David's a very good shot," she said complacently, not at all sure of her statement, for David did not excel in the role of Nimrod. "He kept us supplied with buffalo meat all the way up the Platte."

This was a falsehood. Daddy John and Leff had been the hunters of the party. But Susan did not care. Courant had never said a word in her hearing derogatory to David, but she had her suspicions that the romantic nature of her betrothed was not of the stuff the mountain man respected.

"First rate," he said heartily. "I didn't know it. I thought he generally rode with you or drove the wagon."

To an outsider the tone would have seemed all that was frank and open. But Susan read irony into it. She sat her horse a little squarer and allowed the muse to still further possess her:

"David can shoot anything, an antelope even. He constantly brought them in when we were on the Platte. It was quite easy for him. Daddy John, who's been in all sorts of wild places, says he's never seen a better shot."

A slight uneasiness disturbed the proud flow of her imagination at the thought that Daddy John, questioned on this point, might show a tendency to contradict her testimony. But it didn't matter. The joy of proving David's superiority compensated. And she was setting Courant in his place which had a separate and even rarer charm.

His answer showed no consciousness of the humbling process:

"You think a lot of David, don't you?"

Susan felt her color rising. This time she not only sat squarer in her saddle, but raised her shoulders and chin a trifle.

"Yes. I am engaged to be married to him."

"When will you be married?" said the uncrushable man.

She inclined her head from its haughty pose just so far that she could command his face from an austere eye. Words were ready to go with the quelling glance, but they died unspoken. The man was regarding her with grave, respectful attention. It is difficult to suddenly smite a proud crest when the owner of the crest shows no consciousness of its elevation.

"When we get to California," she said shortly.

"Not till then? Oh, I supposed you were going to marry him at Bridger or along the road if we happened to meet a missionary."

The suggestion amazed, almost appalled her. It pierced through her foolish little play of pride like a stab, jabbing down to her secret, sentient core. Her anger grew stronger, but she told herself she was talking to one of an inferior, untutored order, and it was her part to hold herself in hand.

"We will be married when we get to California," she said, seeing to it that her profile was calm and carried high. "Sometime after we get there and have a home and are settled."

"That's a long time off."

"I suppose so-a year or two."

"A year or two!" he laughed with a careless jovial note. "Oh, you belong to the old towns back there," with a jerk of his head toward the rear. "In the wilderness we don't have such long courtships."

"We? Who are we?"

"The mountain men, the trappers, the voyageurs."

"Yes," she said, her tone flashing into sudden scorn, "they marry squaws."

At this the man threw back his head and burst into a laugh, so deep, so rich, so exuberantly joyous, that it fell upon the plain's grim silence with the incongruous contrast of sunshine on the dust of a dungeon. She sat upright with her anger boiling toward expression. Before she realized it he had leaned forward and laid his hand on the pommel of her saddle, his face still red and wrinkled with laughter.

"That's all right, little lady, but you don't know quite all about us."

"I know enough," she answered.

"Before you get to California you'll know more. There's a mountain man and a voyageur now in the train. Do you think Zavier and I have squaw wives?"

With the knowledge that Zavier was just then so far from contemplating union with a squaw, she could not say the contemptuous "yes" that was on her tongue. As for the strange man-she shot a glance at him and met the gray eyes still twinkling with amusement. "Savage!" she thought, "I've no doubt he has"-and she secretly felt a great desire to know. What she said was, "I've never thought of it, and I haven't the least curiosity about it."

They rode on in silence, then he said,

"What's made you mad?"

"Mad? I'm not mad."

"Not at all?"

"No. Why should I be?"

"That's what I want to know. You don't like me, little lady, is that it?"

"I neither like nor dislike you. I don't think of you."

She immediately regretted the words. She was so completely a woman, so dowered with the instinct of attraction, that she realized they were not the words of indifference.

"My thoughts are full of other people," she said hastily, trying to amend the mistake, and that was spoiled by a rush of color that suddenly dyed her face.

She looked over the horse's head, her anger now turned upon herself. The man made no answer, but she knew that he was watching her. They paced on for a silent moment then he said:

"Why are you blushing?"

"I am not," she cried, feeling the color deepening.

"You've told two lies," he answered. "You said you weren't angry, and you're mad all through, and now you say you're not blushing, and your face is as pink as one of those little flat roses that grow on the prairie. It's all right to get mad and blush, but I'd like to know why you do it. I made you mad someway or other, I don't know how. Have I made you blush, too?" he leaned nearer trying to look at her. "How'd I do that?"

She had a sidelong glimpse of his face, quizzical, astonished, full of piqued interest. She struggled with the mortification of a petted child, suddenly confronted by a stranger who finds its caprices only ridiculous and displeasing. Under the new sting of humiliation she writhed, burning to retaliate and make him see the height of her pedestal.

"Yes, I have told two lies," she said. "I was angry and I am blushing, and it's because I'm in a rage with you."

The last touch was given when she saw that his surprise contained the bitter and disconcerting element of amusement.

"Isn't that just what I said, and you denied it?" he exclaimed. "Now why are you in a rage with me?"

"Because-because-well, if you're too stupid to know why, or are just pretending, I won't explain. I don't intend to ride with you any more. Please don't try and keep up with me."

She gave her reins a shake and her horse started on a brisk canter. As she sped away she listened for his following hoof beats, for she made no doubt he would pursue her, explain his conduct, and ask her pardon. The request not to keep up with her he would, of course, set aside. David would have obeyed it, but this man of the mountains, at once domineering and stupid, would take no command from any woman. She kept her ear trained for the rhythmic beat in the distance and decided when she heard it she would increase her speed and not let him catch her till she was up with the train. Then she would coldly listen to his words of apology and have the satisfaction of seeing him look small, and probably not know what to say.

Only it didn't happen that way. He made no attempt to follow. As she galloped across the plain he drew his horse to a walk, his face dark and frowning. Her scorn and blush had left his blood hot. Her last words had fired his anger. He had known her antagonism, seen it in her face on the night when Bella was sick, felt its sting when she turned from him to laugh with the others. And it had stirred him to a secret irritation. For he told himself she was only a baby, but a pretty baby, on whose brown and rosy face and merry slits of eyes a man might like to look. Now he gazed after her swearing softly through his beard and holding his horse to its slowest step. As her figure receded he kept his eyes upon it. They were long-sighted eyes, used to great distances, and they watched, intent and steady, to see if she would turn her head.

"Damn her," he said, when the dust of the train absorbed her. "Does she think she's the only woman in the world?"

After supper that evening Susan called David over to sit on the edge of her blanket. This was a rare favor. He came hurrying, all alight with smiles, cast himself down beside her and twined his fingers in her warm grasp. She answered his hungry glance with a sidelong look, glowingly tender, and David drew the hand against his cheek. Nobody was near except Daddy John and Courant, smoking pipes on the other side of the fire.

"Do you love me?" he whispered, that lover's text for every sermon which the unloving find so irksome to answer, almost to bear.

But now she smiled and whispered,

"Of course, silly David."

"Ah, Susan, you're awakening," he breathed in a shaken undertone.

She again let the soft look touch his face, sweet as a caress. From the other side of the fire Courant saw it, and through the film of pipe smoke, watched. David thought no one was looking, leaned nearer, and kissed her cheek. She gave a furtive glance at the man opposite, saw the watching eyes, and with a quick breath like a runner, turned her face to her lover and let him kiss her lips.

She looked back at the fire, quiet, unflurried, then slowly raised her lids. Courant had moved his pipe and the obscuring film of smoke was gone. Across the red patch of embers his eyes gazed steadily at her with the familiar gleam of derision. Her tenderness died as a flame under a souse of water, and an upwelling of feeling that was almost hatred, rose in her against the strange man.

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