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   Chapter 11 No.11

The Emigrant Trail By Geraldine Bonner Characters: 17624

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The last fording of the river had been made, and from the summit of the Red Buttes they looked down on the long level, specked with sage and flecked with alkaline incrustings, that lay between them and the Sweetwater. Across the horizon the Wind River mountains stretched a chain of majestic, snowy shapes. Desolation ringed them round, the swimming distances fusing with the pallor of ever-receding horizons, the white road losing itself in the blotting of sage, red elevations rising lonely in extending circles of stillness. The air was so clear that a tiny noise broke it, crystal-sharp like the ring of a smitten glass. And the sense of isolation was intensified as there was no sound from anywhere, only a brooding, primordial silence that seemed to have remained unbroken since the first floods drained away.

Below in the plain the white dots of an encampment showed like a growth of mushrooms. Near this, as they crawled down upon it, the enormous form of Independence Rock detached itself from the faded browns and grays to develop into a sleeping leviathan, lost from its herd and fallen exhausted in a sterile land.

Courant was curious about the encampment, and after the night halt rode forward to inspect it. He returned in the small hours reporting it a train of Mormons stopped for sickness. A boy of fifteen had broken his leg ten days before and was now in a desperate condition. The train had kept camp hoping for his recovery, or for the advent of help in one of the caravans that overhauled them. Courant thought the boy beyond hope, but in the gray of the dawn the doctor mounted, and with Susan, David, and Courant, rode off with his case of instruments strapped to his saddle.

The sun was well up when they reached the Mormon camp. Scattered about a spring mouth in the litter of a three days' halt, its flocks and herds spread wide around it, it was hushed in a sullen dejection. The boy was a likely lad for the new Zion, and his mother, one of the wives of an elder, had forgotten her stern training, and fallen to a common despair. Long-haired men lolled in tent doors cleaning their rifles, and women moved between the wagons and the fires, or sat in rims of shade sewing and talking low. Children were everywhere, their spirits undimmed by disaster, their voices calling from the sage, little, light, half-naked figures circling and bending in games that babies played when men lived in cliffs and caves. At sight of the mounted figures they fled, wild as rabbits, scurrying behind tent flaps and women's skirts, to peep out in bright-eyed curiosity at the strangers.

The mother met them and almost dragged the doctor from his horse. She was a toil-worn woman of middle age, a Mater Dolorosa now in her hour of anguish. She led them to where the boy lay in a clearing in the sage. The brush was so high that a blanket had been fastened to the tops of the tallest blushes, and under its roof he was stretched, gray-faced and with sharpened nose. The broken leg had been bound between rough splints of board, and he had traveled a week in the wagons in uncomplaining agony. Now, spent and silent, he awaited death, looking at the newcomers with the slow, indifferent glance of those whose ties with life are loosening. But the mother, in the ruthless unbearableness of her pain, wanted something done, anything. An Irishman in the company, who had served six months as a helper in a New York hospital, had told her he could amputate the leg, as he had seen the operation performed. Now she clamored for a doctor-a real doctor-to do it.

He tried to persuade her of its uselessness, covering the leg in which gangrene was far advanced, and telling her death was at hand. But her despair insisted on action, her own suffering made her remorseless. The clamor of their arguing voices surrounded the moribund figure lying motionless with listless eyes as though already half initiated into new and profound mysteries. Once, his mother's voice rising strident, he asked her to let him rest in peace, he had suffered enough.

Unable to endure the scene Susan left them and joined a woman whom she found sewing in the shade of a wagon. The woman seemed unmoved, chatting as she stitched on the happenings of the journey and the accident that had caused the delay. Here presently David joined them, his face pallid, his lips loose and quivering. Nothing could be done with the mother. She had insisted on the operation, and the Irishman had undertaken it. The doctor and Courant would stay by them; Courant was to hold the leg. He, David, couldn't stand it. It was like an execution-barbarous-with a hunting knife and a saw.

In a half hour Courant came walking round the back of the wagon and threw himself on the ground beside them. The leg had been amputated and the boy was dying. Intense silence fell on the camp, only the laughter and voices of the children rising clear on the thin air. Then a wail arose, a penetrating, fearful cry, Rachel mourning for her child. Courant raised his head and said with an unemotional air of relief, "he's dead." The Mormon woman dropped her sewing, gave a low exclamation, and sat listening with bitten lip. Susan leaned against the wagon wheel full of horror and feeling sick, her eyes on David, who, drawing up his knees, pressed his forehead on them. He rested thus, his face hidden, while the keening of the mother, the cries of an animal in pain, fell through the hot brightness of the morning like the dropping of agonized tears down blooming cheeks.

When they ceased and the quiet had resettled, the Mormon woman rose and put away her sewing.

"I don't seem to have no more ambition to work," she said and walked away.

"She's another of his wives," said Courant.

"She and the woman whose son is dead, wives of the same man?"

He nodded.

"And there's a younger one, about sixteen. She was up there helping with water and rags-a strong, nervy girl. She had whisky all ready in a tin cup to give to the mother. When she saw it was all up with him she went round collecting stones to cover the grave with and keep the wolves off."

"Before he was dead?"

"Yes. They've got to move on at once. They can't lose any more time. When we were arguing with that half-crazy woman, I could see the girl picking up the stones and wiping off her tears with her apron."

"What dreadful people," she breathed.

"Dreadful? What's dreadful in having some sense? Too bad about the boy. He set his teeth and didn't make a sound when that fool of an Irishman was sawing at him as if he was a log. I never saw such grit. If they've got many like him they'll be a great people some day."

David gave a gasping moan, his arms relaxed, and he fell limply backward on the ground. They sprang toward him and Susan seeing his peaked white face, the eyes half open, thought he was dead, and dropped beside him, a crouched and staring shape of terror.

"What is it? What's the matter?" she cried, raising wild eyes to Courant.

"Nothing at all," said that unmoved person, squatting down on his heels and thrusting his hand inside David's shirt. "Only a faint. Why, where's your nerve? You're nearly as white as he is."

His eyes were full of curiosity as he looked across the outstretched figure at her frightened face.

"I-I-thought for a moment he was dead," she faltered.

"And so you were going to follow his example and die on his body?" He got up. "Stay here and I'll go and get some water." As he turned away he paused and, looking back, said, "Why didn't you do the fainting? That's more your business than his," gave a sardonic grin and walked off.

Susan raised the unconscious head and held it to her bosom. Alone, with no eye looking, she pressed her lips on his forehead. Courant's callousness roused a fierce, perverse tenderness in her. He might sneer at David's lack of force, but she understood. She crooned over him, moved his hair back with caressing fingers, pressing him against herself as if the strength of her hold would assure her of the love she did not feel and wanted to believe in. Her arms were close round him, his head on her shoulder when Courant came back with a dipper of water.

"Get away," he said, standing over them. "I don't want to wet you."

But she curled round her lover, her body like a protecting shield between him and danger.

"Leave go of him," said Courant impatiently. "Do you think I'm going to hurt him with a cup full of water?"

"Let me alone," she answered sullenly. "He'll be all right in a minute."

"You can be any kind of a fool you like, but you can't make me one. Come, move." He set the dipper on the ground.

He leaned gently over her and grasped her wrists. The power of his grip amazed her; she was like a mouse in the paws of a lion. Her pun

y strength matched against his was conquered in a moment of futile resistance.

"Don't be a fool," he said softly in her ear. "Don't act like a silly baby," and the iron hands unclasped her arms and drew her back till David's head slid from her knees to the ground.

"There! We're all right now." He let her go, snatched up the dipper and sent a splash of water into David's face.

"Poor David," he said. "This'll spoil his good looks."

"Stop," she almost screamed. "I'd rather have him lie in a faint for an hour than have you speak so about him."

Without noticing her, he threw another jet of water and David stirred, drew a deep breath and opened his eyes. They touched the sky, the wagon, the nearby sage, and then Susan's face. There they rested, recognition slowly suffusing them.

"What happened?" he said in a husky voice.

"Fainted, that was all," said Courant.

David closed his eyes.

"Oh, yes, I remember now."

Susan bent over him.

"You frightened me so!"

"I'm sorry, Missy, but it made me sick-the leg and those awful cries."

Courant emptied the dipper on the ground.

"I'll see if they've got any whisky. You'll have to get your grit up, David, for the rest of the trail," and he left them.

A half hour later the cry of "Roll out" sounded, and the Mormon camp broke. The rattling of chains and ox yokes, and the cursing of men ruptured the stillness that had gathered round the moment of death. Life was a matter of more immediate importance. Tents were struck, the pots and pans thrown into the wagons, the children collected, the stock driven in. With ponderous strain and movement the great train formed and took the road. As it drew away the circle of its bivouac showed in trampled sage and grass bitten to the roots. In the clearing where the boy had lain was the earth of a new-made grave, a piece of wood thrust in at the head, the mound covered with stones gathered by the elder's young wife. The mountain tragedy was over.

By the fire that evening Zavier employed himself scraping the dust from a buffalo skull. He wiped the frontal bone clean and white, and when asked why he was expending so much care on a useless relic, shrugged his shoulders and laughed. Then he explained with a jerk of his head in the direction of the vanished Mormons that they used buffalo skulls to write their letters on. In the great emigration of the year before their route was marked by the skulls set up in prominent places and bearing messages for the trains behind.

"And are you going to write a letter on that one?" Susan asked.

"No; I do not write English good, and French very bad. But maybe some one else will use it," and he laughed boyishly and laid the skull by the fire.

In the depth of the night Susan was wakened by a hand on her shoulder that shook her from a dreamless sleep. She started up with a cry and felt another hand, small and cold on her mouth, and heard a whispering voice at her ear,

"Hush. Don't make a sound. It's Lucy."

She gripped at the figure, felt the clasp of trembling arms, and a cheek chill with the night cold, against her own.

"Lucy," she gasped, "what's the matter?"

"I want to speak to you. Be quiet."

"Has anything happened? Is some one sick?"

"No. It's not that. I'm going."

"Going? Going where-" She was not yet fully awake, filaments of sleep clouded her clearness.

"Into the mountains with Zavier."

The filaments were brushed away in a rough sweep. But her brain refused to accept the message. In the dark, she clutched at the body against her, felt the beat of pulses distinct through the clothing, the trembling of the hands going down through her flesh and muscle to her heart.

"What do you mean? Where?"

"I don't know, into the mountains somewhere."

"With Zavier? Why?"

"Because he wants me to and I must."

"But- Oh, Lucy-" she struggled from the blanket to her knees-"Oh, Lucy!"

Her voice rose high and the hand felt for her mouth. She caught it and held it off, her head bent back straining her eyes for the face above her.

"Running away with him?"

"Yes. I couldn't go without telling you. I had to say good-by."

"Going with him forever, not coming back?"

"No, never!"

"But where-where to?"

"I don't know. In the mountains somewhere. There's a trail here he knows. It branches off to the north and goes up to the places where they get the skins."

"I don't believe you."

"It's true. The horses are waiting outside."

"Lucy, you've gone crazy. Don't-don't"- She clung to the hand she held, grasped upward at the arm. Both were cold and resistant. Her pleading struck back from the hardness of the mind made up, the irrevocable resolution.

"But he's not your husband."

Even at this moment, keyed to an act of lawlessness that in the sheltered past would have been as impossible as murder, the great tradition held fast. Lucy's answer came with a sudden flare of shocked repudiation:

"He will be. There are priests and missionaries up there among the Indians. The first one we meet will marry us. It's all right. He loves me and he's promised."

Nothing of her wild courage came to the other girl, no echo of the call of life and passion. It was a dark and dreadful fate, and Susan strained her closer as if to hold her back from it.

"It's been fixed for two days. We had to wait till we got here and crossed the trail. We're going right into the mountains and it's summer, and there's plenty of game."

"The Indians?"

"We'll be in the Crow's country, and Zavier's mother was a Crow."

The words proved the completeness of her estrangement-the acceptance of the alien race as no longer alien.

"Oh, Lucy, don't, don't. Wait till we get to Fort Bridger and marry him there. Make him come to California with us. Don't do such an awful thing-run away into the mountains with a half-breed."

"I don't care what he is. There's no one else for me but him. He's my man and I'll go with him wherever he wants to take me."

"Wait and tell Bella."

"She wouldn't let me go. There'd be nothing but fighting and misery. When you've made up your mind to do a thing you've got to do it yourself, not go by what other people think."

There was a silence and they hung upon each other. Then Lucy put her face against her friend's and kissed her.

"Good-by," she whispered, loosening her arms.

"I can't let you go. I won't. It'll kill you."

"I must. He's waiting."

She struggled from the embrace, pulling away the clasping hands noiselessly, but with purpose. There was something of coldness, of the semblance but not the soul of affection, in the determined softness with which she sought release. She stole to the tent flap and peered out. Her thoughts were already outside, flown to the shape hiding in the shadow like birds darting from a cage. She did not turn at Susan's strangled whisper.

"We'll never see you again, Bella, nor I, nor the children."

"Perhaps, some day, in California. He's there. I must go."

"Lucy!" She leaped after her. In the tent opening they once more clasped each other.

"I can't let you go," Susan moaned.

But Lucy's kiss had not the fervor of hers. The strength of her being had gone to her lover. Friendship, home, family, all other claims hung loose about her, the broken trappings of her maidenhood. The great primal tie had claimed her.

A black figure against the pallor of the night, she turned for a last word.

"If you tell them and they come after us, Zavier'll fight them. He'll fight if he kills them. They'll know to-morrow. Good-by," and she was gone, a noiseless shadow, flitting toward the denser group of shadow where her heart was.

Susan, crouched at the tent flap, saw her melt into the waiting blackness, and then heard the muffled hoof beats growing thinner and fainter as the silence absorbed them.

She sat thus till the dawn came. Once or twice she started up to give the alarm, but fell back. Under the tumult of her thoughts a conviction lay that Lucy must follow her own wild way. In the welter of confused emotion it was all that was clear. It may have come from that sense of Lucy's detachment, that consciousness of cords and feelers stretching out to a new life which commanded and held closer than the old had ever done. All she knew was that Lucy was obeying some instinct that was law to her, that was true for her to obey. If they caught her and brought her back it would twist her life into a broken form. Was it love? Was that what had drawn her over all obstacles, away from the established joys and comforts, drawn her like a magnet to such a desperate course? With wide eyes the girl saw the whiteness of the dawn, and sat gripped in her resolution of silence, fearful at the thought of what that mighty force must be.

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