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   Chapter 12 No.12

The Emigrant Trail By Geraldine Bonner Characters: 22622

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The cross, drowsy bustle of the camp's uprising was suddenly broken by a piercing cry. It came from Bella, who, standing by the mess chest, was revealed to her astonished companions with a buffalo skull in her hands, uttering as dolorous sounds as ever were emitted by that animal in the agony of its death throes. Her words were unintelligible, but on taking the skull from her the cause of her disturbance was made known. Upon the frontal bone were a few words scrawled in pencil-Lucy's farewell.

It came upon them like a thunderbolt, and they took it in different ways-amazed silence, curses, angry questionings. The skull passed from hand to hand till Courant dropped it and kicked it to one side where Leff went after it, lifted it by the horns and stood spelling out the words with a grin. The children, at first rejoicing in the new excitement, soon recognized the note of dole, lifted up their voices and filled the air with cries for Lucy upon whom, in times at tribulation, they had come to look. Glen broke into savage anger, called down curses on his sister-in-law, applying to her certain terms of a scriptural simplicity till the doctor asked him to go afield and vent his passion in the seclusion of the sage. Bella, sunk in heavy, uncorseted despair upon the mess chest, gripped her children to her knees as though an army of ravishers menaced the house of McMurdo. Her words flowed with her tears, both together in a choked and bitter flood of wrath, sorrow, and self-pity. She bewailed Lucy, not only as a vanished relative but as a necessary member of the McMurdo escort. And doubts of Zavier's lawful intentions shook her from the abandon of her grief, to furious invective against the red man of all places and tribes whereso'er he be.

"The dirty French-Indian," she wailed, "to take her off where he knows fast enough there's no way of marrying her."

Courant tried to console her by telling her there was a good chance of the fugitives meeting a Catholic missionary, but that, instead of assuaging, intensified her woe.

"A Catholic!" she cried, raising a drenched face from her apron. "And ain't that just as bad? My parents and hers were decent Presbyterians. Does their daughter have to stand up before a priest? Why don't you say a Mormon elder at once?"

The McMurdos' condition of grief and rage was so violent, that the doctor suggested following the runaways. Bella rose in glad assent to this. Catch Lucy and bring her back! She was cheered at the thought and shouted it to Glen, who had gone off in a sulky passion and stood by his oxen swearing to himself and kicking their hoofs. The men talked it over. They could lay off for a day and Courant, who knew the trails, could lead the search party. He was much against it, and Daddy John was with him. Too much time had been lost. Zavier was an experienced mountain man and his horses were good. Besides, what was the use of bringing them back? They'd chosen each other, they'd taken their own course. It wasn't such a bad lookout for Lucy. Zavier was a first-rate fellow and he'd treat her well. What was the sense of interfering? Bella was furious, and shouted,

"The sense is to get her back here and keep her where it's civilized, since she don't seem to know enough to keep there herself."

Daddy John, who had been listening, flashed out:

"It don't seem to me so d-d civilized to half kill her with work."

Then Bella wept and Glen swore, and the men had pulled up the picket stakes, cinched their girths tight and started off in Indian file toward the distant spurs of the hills.

Susan had said little. If it did not violate her conscience to keep silent, it did to pretend a surprise that was not hers. She sat at her tent door most of the day watching for the return of the search party. She was getting supper when she looked up and saw them, gave a low exclamation, and ran to the outskirts of the camp. Here she stood watching, heard Daddy John lounge up behind her and, turning, caught his hand.

"Is she there?" she said in an eager whisper.

"I can't see her."

They both scrutinized the figures, small as toy horsemen, loping over the leathern distance.

"Ain't there only four?" he said. "You can see better'n I."

"Yes," she cried. "Four. I can count them. She isn't there. Oh, I'm glad!"

The old man looked surprised:

"Glad! Why?"

"I don't know. Oh, don't tell, Daddy John, but I wanted her to get away. I don't know why, I suppose it's very wicked. But-but-it seemed so-so-as if she was a slave-so unfair to drag her away from her own life and make her lead some one else's."

Lucy gone, lost as by shipwreck in the gulfs and windings of the mountains, was a fact that had to be accepted. The train moved on, for on the Emigrant Trail there was no leisure for fruitless repining. Only immediate happenings could fill the minds of wanderers struggling across the world, their energies matched against its primal forces.

The way was growing harder, the animals less vigorous, and the strain of the journey beginning to tell. Tempers that had been easy in the long, bright days on the Platte now were showing sharp edges. Leff had become surly, Glen quarrelsome. One evening Susan saw him strike Bob a blow so savage that the child fell screaming in pain and terror. Bella rushed to her first born, gathered him in her arms and turned a crimsoned face of battle on her spouse. For a moment the storm was furious, and Susan was afraid that the blow would be repeated on the mother. She tried to pacify the enraged woman, and David and the doctor coaxed Glen away. The child had struck against an edge of stone and was bleeding, and after supper the father rocked him to sleep crooning over him in remorseful tenderness. But the incident left an ugly impression.

They were passing up the Sweetwater, a mountain stream of busy importance with a current that was snow-cold and snow-pure. It wound its hurrying way between rock walls, and then relaxed in lazy coils through meadows where the grass was thick and juicy and the air musical with the cool sound of water. These were the pleasant places. Where the rocks crowded close about the stream the road left it and sought the plain again, splinding away into the arid desolation. The wheels ground over myriads of crickets that caked in the loose soil. There was nothing to break the eye-sweep but the cones of rusted buttes, the nearer ones showing every crease and shadow thread, the farther floating detached in the faint, opal shimmer of the mirage.

One afternoon, in a deep-grassed meadow they came upon an encamped train outflung on the stream bank in wearied disarray. It was from Ohio, bound for California, and Glen and Bella decided to join it. This was what the doctor's party had been hoping for, as the slow pace of the McMurdo oxen held them back. Bella was well and the doctor could conscientiously leave her. It was time to part.

Early in the morning the two trains rolled out under a heavy drizzle. Rain fell within the wagons even as it did without, Susan weeping among the sacks behind Daddy John and Bella with her children whimpering against her sides, stopping in her knitting to wipe away her tears with the long strip of stocking leg. They were to meet again in California-that everyone said. But California looked a long way off, and now.-For some reason or other it did not gleam so magically bright at the limit of their vision. Their minds had grown tired of dwelling on it and sank down wearied to each day's hard setting.

By midday the doctor's wagons had left the others far behind. The rain fell ceaselessly, a cold and penetrating flood. The crowding crowns and crests about them loomed through the blur, pale and slowly whitening with falling snow. Beyond, the greater masses veiled themselves in cloud. The road skirted the river, creeping through a series of gorges with black walls down which the moisture spread in a ripple-edged, glassy glaze. Twice masses of fallen rock blocked the way, and the horses had to be unhitched and the wagons dragged into the stream bed. It was heavy work, and when they camped, ferociously hungry, no fire could be kindled, and there was nothing for it but to eat the hard-tack damp and bacon raw. Leff cursed and threw his piece away. He had been unusually morose and ill-humored for the last week, and once, when obliged to do sentry duty on a wet night, had flown into a passion and threatened to leave them. No one would have been sorry. Under the stress of mountain faring, the farm boy was not developing well.

In the afternoon the rain increased to a deluge. The steady beat on the wagon hoods filled the interior with a hollow drumming vibration. Against the dimmed perspective the flanks of the horses undulated under a sleek coating of moisture. Back of the train, the horsemen rode, heads lowered against the vicious slant, shadowy forms like drooping, dispirited ghosts. The road wound into a gorge where the walls rose straight, the black and silver of the river curbed between them in glossy outspreadings and crisp, bubbling flashes. The place was full of echoes, held there and buffeted from wall to wall as if flying back and forth in a distracted effort to escape.

David was driving in the lead, Susan under cover beside him. The morning's work had exhausted him and he felt ill, so she had promised to stay with him. She sat close at his back, a blanket drawn over her knees against the intruding wet, peering out at the darkling cleft. The wagon, creaking like a ship at sea, threw her this way and that. Once, as she struck against him he heard her low laugh at his ear.

"It's like a little earthquake," she said, steadying herself with a grab at his coat.

"There must have been a big earthquake here once," he answered. "Look at the rocks. They've been split as if a great force came up from underneath and burst them open."

She craned her head forward to see and he looked back at her. Her face was close to his shoulder, glowing with the dampness. It shone against the shadowed interior rosily fresh as a child's. Her eyes, clear black and white, were the one sharp note in its downy softness. He could see the clean upspringing of her dark lashes, the little whisps of hair against her temple and ear. He could not look away from her. The grinding and slipping of the horses' hoofs did not reach his senses, held captive in a passionate observation.

"You don't curl your hair any more?" he said, and the intimacy of this personal query added to his entrancement.

She glanced quickly at him and broke into shamefaced laughter. A sudden lurch threw her against him and she clutched his arm.

"Oh, David," she said, gurgling at the memory. "Did you know that? I curled it for three nights on bits of paper that I tore out of the back of father's diary. And now I don't care what it looks like. See how I've changed!"

And she leaned against him, holding the arm and laughing at her past frivolity. His eyes slid back to the horses, but he did not see them. With a slight, listening smile he gave himself up to the intoxication of the moment, feeling the pressure of her body soft against his arm.

The reins which hung loose suddenly jerked through his fingers and the mare fell crashi

ng to her knees. She was down before he knew it, head forward, and then with a quivering subsidence, prone in a tangle of torn harness. He urged her up with a jerked rein, she made a struggling effort, but fell back, and a groan, singularly human in its pain, burst from her. The wagon behind pounded almost on them, the mules crowding against each other. Daddy John's voice rising in a cracked hail. Courant and Leff came up from the rear, splashing through the river.

"What's happened?" said the former.

"It's Bess," said David, his face pallid with contrition. "I hope to God she's not hurt. Up, Bess, there! Up on your feet, old girl!"

At her master's voice the docile brute made a second attempt to rise, but again sank down, her sides panting, her head strained up.

Leff leaped off his horse.

"Damn her, I'll make her get up," he said, and gave her a violent kick on the ribs. The mare rolled an agonized eye upon him, and with a sudden burst of fury he rained kick after kick on her face.

David gave a strange sound, a pinched, thin cry, as if wrung from him by unbearable suffering, and leaped over the wheel. He struck Leff on the chest, a blow so savage and unexpected that it sent him staggering back into the stream, where, his feet slipping among the stones, he fell sprawling.

"Do that again and I'll kill you," David cried, and moving to the horse stood over it with legs spread and fists clinched for battle.

Leff scrambled to his knees, his face ominous, and Courant, who had been looking at the mare, apparently indifferent to the quarrel, now slipped to the ground.

"Let that hound alone," he said. "I'm afraid it's all up with Bess."

David turned and knelt beside her, touching her with hands so tremulous he could hardly direct them. His breath came in gasps, he was shaken and blinded with passion, high-pitched and nerve-wracking as a woman's.

Leff rose, volleying curses.

"Here you," Courant shifted a hard eye on him, "get out. Get on your horse and go," then turning to Bess, "Damn bad luck if we got to lose her."

Leff stood irresolute, his curses dying away in smothered mutterings. His skin was gray, a trickle of blood ran down from a cut on his neck, his face showed an animal ferocity, dark and lowering as the front of an angry bull. With a slow lift of his head he looked at Susan, who was still in the wagon. She met the glance stonily with eyes in which her dislike had suddenly crystallized into open abhorrence. She gave a jerk of her head toward his horse, a movement of contemptuous command, and obeying it he mounted and rode away.

She joined the two men, who were examining Bess, now stretched motionless and uttering pitiful sounds. David had the head, bruised and torn by Leff's kicks, on his knees, while Courant with expert hands searched for her hurt. It was not hard to find. The left foreleg had been broken at the knee, splinters of bone penetrating the skin. There was nothing to do with Bess but shoot her, and Courant went back for his pistols, while Daddy John and the doctor came up to listen with long faces. It was the first serious loss of the trip.

Later in the day the rain stopped and the clouds that had sagged low with its weight, began to dissolve into vaporous lightness, float airily and disperse. The train debouched from the gorge into one of the circular meadows and here found Leff lying on a high spot on the ground, his horse cropping the grass near him. He made no remark, and as they came to a halt and began the work of camping, he continued to lie without moving or speaking, his eyes fixed on the mountains.

These slowly unveiled themselves, showing in patches of brilliant color through rents in the mist which drew off lingeringly, leaving filaments caught delicately in the heights. The sky broke blue behind them, and clarified by the rain, the shadows brimmed high in the clefts. The low sun shot its beams across the meadow, leaving it untouched, and glittering on the remote, immaculate summits.

In exhaustion the camp lay resting, tents unpitched, the animals nosing over the grass. David and Daddy John slept a dead sleep rolled in blankets on the teeming ground. Courant built a fire, called Susan to it, and bade her dry her wet skirts. He lay near it, not noticing her, his glance ranging the distance. The line of whitened peaks began to take on a golden glaze, and the shadows in the hollow mounted till the camp seemed to be at the bottom of a lake in which a tide of some gray, transparent essence was rising.

"That's where Lucy's gone," he said suddenly without moving his head.

Susan's eyes followed his.

"Poor Lucy!" she sighed.

"Why is she poor?"

"Why?" indignantly. "What a question!"

"But why do you call her poor? Is it because she has no money?"

"Of course not. Who was thinking of money? I meant she was unfortunate to run away to such a life with a half-breed."

"She's gone out into the mountains with her lover. I don't call that unfortunate, and I'll bet you she doesn't. She was brave enough to take her life when it came. She was a gallant girl, that Lucy."

"I suppose that's what you'd think."

And in scorn of more words she gave her attention to her skirt, spreading its sodden folds to the heat. Courant clasped his hands behind his head and gazed ruminantly before him.

"Do you know how she'll live, that 'poor Lucy'?"

"Like a squaw."

He was unshaken by her contempt, did not seem to notice it.

"They'll go by ways that wind deep into the mountains. It's wonderful there, peaks and peaks and peaks, and down the gorges and up over the passes, the trails go that only the trappers and the Indians know. They'll pass lakes as smooth as glass and green as this hollow we're in. You never saw such lakes, everything's reflected in them like a mirror. And after a while they'll come to the beaver streams and Zavier'll set his traps. At night they'll sleep under the stars, great big stars. Did you ever see the stars at night through the branches of the pine trees? They look like lanterns. It'll seem to be silent, but the night will be full of noises, the sounds that come in those wild places, a wolf howling in the distance, the little secret bubbling of the spring, and the wind in the pine trees. That's a sad sound, as if it was coming through a dream."

The girl stirred and forgot her skirt. The solemn beauty that his words conjured up called her from her petty irritation. She looked at the mountains, her face full of a wistful disquiet.

"And it'll seem as if there was no one else but them in the world. Two lovers and no one else, between the sunrise and the sunset. There won't be anybody else to matter, or to look for, or to think about. Just those two alone, all day by the river where the traps are set and at night under the blanket in the dark of the trees."

Susan said nothing. For some inexplicable reason her spirits sank and she felt a bleak loneliness. A sense of insignificance fell heavily upon her, bearing down her high sufficiency, making her feel that she was a purposeless spectator on the outside of life. She struggled against it, struggled back toward cheer and self-assertion, and in her effort to get back, found herself seeking news of less picturesque moments in Lucy's lot.

"But the winter," she said in a small voice like a pleading child's, "the winter won't be like that?"

"When the winter comes Zavier'll build a hut. He'll make it out of small trees, long and thin, bent round with their tops stuck in the ground, and he'll thatch it with skins, and spread buffalo robes on the floor of it. There'll be a hole for the smoke to get out, and near the door'll be his graining block and stretching frame to cure his skins. On a tree nearby he'll hang his traps, and there'll be a brace of elkhorns fastened to another tree that they'll use for a rack to hang the meat and maybe their clothes on. They'll have some coffee and sugar and salt. That's all they'll need in the way of eatables, for he'll shoot all the game they want, les aliments du pays, as the fur men call it. It'll be cold, and maybe for months they'll see no one. But what will it matter? They'll have each other, snug and warm way off there in the heart of the mountains, with the big peaks looking down at them. Isn't that a good life for a man and a woman?"

She did not answer, but sat as if contemplating the picture with fixed, far-seeing gaze. He raised himself on his elbow and looked at her.

"Could you do that, little lady?" he said.

"No," she answered, beating down rebellious inner whisperings.

"Wouldn't you follow David that way?"

"David wouldn't ask it. No civilized man would."

"No, David wouldn't," he said quietly.

She glanced quickly at him. Did she hear the note of mockery which she sensed whenever he alluded to her lover? She was ready at once to take up arms for David, but the face opposite was devoid of any expression save an intent, expectant interest. She dropped her eyes to her dress, perturbed by the closeness of her escape from a foolish exhibition which would have made her ridiculous. She always felt with Courant that she would be swept aside as a trivial thing if she lost her dignity. He watched her and she grew nervous, plucking at her skirt with an uncertain hand.

"I wonder if you could?" he said after a pause.

"Of course not," she snapped.

"Aren't you enough of a woman?"

"I'm not enough of a fool."

"Aren't all women in love fools-anyway for a while?"

She made no answer, and presently he said, his voice lowered:

"Not enough of a woman to know how to love a man. Doesn't even for a moment understand it. It's 'poor Susan.'"

Fury seized her, for she had not guessed where he was leading her, and now saw herself not only shorn of her dignity but shorn of her woman's prerogative of being able to experience a mad and unreasonable passion.

"You're a liar," she burst out before she knew what words were coming.

"Then you think you could?" he asked without the slightest show of surprise at her violence, apparently only curious.

"Don't I?" she cried, ready to proclaim that she would follow David to destruction and death.

"I don't know," he answered. "I've been wondering."

"What business have you got to wonder about me?"

"None-but," he leaned toward her, "you can't stop me doing that, little lady; that's one of the things you can't control."

For a moment they eyed each other, glance held glance in a smoldering challenge. The quizzical patronage had gone from his, the gleam of a subdued defiance taken its place. Hers was defiant too, but it was openly so, a surface thing that she had raised like a defense in haste and tremor to hide weakness.

David moved in his blanket, yawned and threw out a languid hand. She leaped to her feet and ran to him.

"David, are you better?" she cried, kneeling beside him. "Are you better, dear?"

He opened his eyes, blinking, saw the beloved face, and smiled.

"All right," he said sleepily. "I was only tired."

She lifted one of the limp hands and pressed it to her cheek.

"I've been so worried about you," she purred. "I couldn't put my mind on anything else. I haven't known what I was saying, I've been so worried."

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