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   Chapter 13 No.13

The Emigrant Trail By Geraldine Bonner Characters: 19742

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


South Pass, that had been pictured in their thoughts as a cleft between snow-crusted summits, was a wide, gentle incline with low hills sweeping up on either side. From here the waters ran westward, following the sun. Pacific Spring seeped into the ground in an oasis of green whence whispering threads felt their way into the tawny silence and subdued by its weight lost heart and sank into the unrecording earth.

Here they found the New York Company and a Mormon train filling up their water casks and growing neighborly in talk of Sublette's cut off and the route by the Big and Little Sandy. A man was a man even if he was a Mormon, and in a country so intent on its own destiny, so rapt in the calm of contemplation, he took his place as a human unit on whom his creed hung like an unnoticed tag.

They filled their casks, visited in the two camps, and then moved on. Plain opened out of plain in endless rotation, rings of sun-scorched earth brushed up about the horizon in a low ridge like the raised rim on a plate. In the distance the thin skein of a water course drew an intricate pattern that made them think of the thread of slime left by a wandering snail. In depressions where the soil was webbed with cracks, a livid scurf broke out as if the face of the earth were scarred with the traces of inextinguishable foulness. An even subdual of tint marked it all. White had been mixed on the palette whence the colors were drawn. The sky was opaque with it; it had thickened the red-browns and yellows to ocher and pale shades of putty. Nothing moved and there were no sounds, only the wheeling sun changed the course of the shadows. In the morning they slanted from the hills behind, eagerly stretching after the train, straining to overtake and hold it, a living plaything in this abandoned land. At midday a blot of black lay at the root of every sage brush. At evening each filigreed ridge, each solitary cone rising detached in the sealike circle of its loneliness, showed a slant of amethyst at its base, growing longer and finer, tapering prodigiously, and turning purple as the earth turned orange.

There was little speech in the moving caravan. With each day their words grew fewer, their laughter and light talk dwindled. Gradual changes had crept into the spirit of the party. Accumulations of habit and custom that had collected upon them in the dense life of towns were dropping away. As the surface refinements of language were dying, so their faces had lost a certain facile play of expression. Delicate nuances of feeling no longer showed, for they no longer existed. Smiles had grown rarer, and harder characteristics were molding their features into sterner lines. The acquired deceptiveness of the world of men was leaving them. Ugly things that they once would have hidden cropped out unchecked by pride or fear of censure. They did not care. There was no standard, there was no public opinion. Life was resolving itself into a few great needs that drove out all lesser and more delicate desires. Beings of a ruder make were usurping their bodies. The primitive man in them was rising to meet the primitive world.

In the young girl the process of elimination was as rapid if not as radical as in the case of the men. She was unconsciously ridding herself of all that hampered and made her unfit. From the soft feminine tissue, intricacies of mood and fancy were being obliterated. Rudimentary instincts were developing, positive and barbaric as a child's. In the old days she had been dainty about her food. Now she cooked it in blackened pans and ate with the hunger of the men. Sleep, that once had been an irksome and unwelcome break between the pleasures of well-ordered days, was a craving that she satisfied, unwashed, often half-clad. In Rochester she had spent thought and time upon her looks, had stood before her mirror matching ribbons to her complexion, wound and curled her hair in becoming ways. Now her hands, hardened and callous as a boy's, were coarse-skinned with broken nails, sometimes dirty, and her hair hung rough from the confining teeth of a comb and a few bent pins. When in flashes of retrospect she saw her old self, this pampered self of crisp fresh frocks and thoughts moving demurely in the narrow circle of her experience, it did not seem as if it could be the same Susan Gillespie.

All that made up the little parcel of her personality seemed gone. In those days she had liked this and wanted that and forgotten and wanted something else. Rainy weather had sent its ashen sheen over her spirit, and her gladness had risen to meet the sun. She remembered the sudden sweeps of depression that had clouded her horizon when she had drooped in an unintelligible and not entirely disagreeable melancholy, and the contrasting bursts of gayety when she laughed at anything and loved everybody. Hours of flitting fancies flying this way and that, hovering over chance incidents that were big by contrast with the surrounding uneventfulness, the idleness of dropped hands and dreaming eyes, the charmed peerings into the future-all were gone. Life had seized her in a mighty grip, shaken her free of it all, and set her down where she felt only a few imperious sensations, hunger, fatigue, fear of danger, love of her father, and- She pulled her thoughts to obedience with a sharp jerk and added-love of David and hatred of Courant.

These two latter facts stood out sentinel-wise in the foreground. In the long hours on horseback she went over them like a lesson she was trying to learn. She reviewed David's good points, dwelt on them, held them up for her admiration, and told herself no girl had ever had a finer or more gallant lover. She was convinced of it and was quite ready to convince anybody who denied it. Only when her mental vision-pressed on by some inward urge of obscure self-distrust-carried her forward to that future with David in the cabin in California, something in her shrank and failed. Her thought leaped back as from an abhorrent contact, and her body, caught by some mysterious internal qualm, felt limp and faintly sickened.

She dwelt even more persistently on Courant's hatefulness, impressed upon herself his faults. He was hard and she had seen him brutal, a man without feeling, as he had shown when the Mormon boy died, a harsh and remorseless leader urging them on, grudging them even their seventh day rest, deaf to their protests, lashing them forward with contempt of their weakness. This was above and apart from his manner to her. That she tried to feel was a small, personal matter, but, nevertheless, it stung, did not cease to sting, and left an unhealed sore to rankle in her pride. He did not care to hide that he held her cheaply, as a useless futile thing. Once she had heard him say to Daddy John, "It's the women in the train that make the trouble. They're always in the way." And she was the only woman. She would like to see him conquered, beaten, some of his heady confidence stricken out of him, and when he was humbled have stood by and smiled at his humiliation.

So she passed over the empty land under the empty sky, a particle of matter carrying its problem with it.

It was late afternoon when they encamped by the Big Sandy. The march had been distressful, bitter in their mouths with the clinging clouds of powdered alkali, their heads bowed under the glaring ball of the sun. All day the circling rim of sky line had weaved up and down, undulating in the uncertainty of the mirage, the sage had blotted into indistinct seas that swam before their strained vision. When the river cleft showed in black tracings across the distance, they stiffened and took heart, coolness and water were ahead. It was all they had hope or desire for just then. At the edge of the clay bluff, they dipped and poured down a corrugated gully, the dust sizzling beneath the braked wheels, the animals, the smell of water in their nostrils, past control. The impetus of the descent carried them into the chill, purling current. Man and beast plunged in, laved in it, drank it, and then lay by it resting, spent and inert.

They camped where a grove of alders twinkled in answer to the swift, telegraphic flashes of the stream. Under these the doctor pitched his tents, the hammering of the pegs driving through the sounds of man's occupation into the quietude that lapped them like sleeping tides. The others hung about the center of things where wagons and mess chests, pans and fires, made the nucleus of the human habitation.

Susan, sitting on a box, with a treasure of dead branches at her feet, waited yet a space before setting them in the fire form. She was sunk in the apathy of the body surrendered to restoring processes. The men's voices entered the channels of her ears and got no farther. Her vision acknowledged the figure of Leff nearby sewing up a rent in his coat, but her brain refused to accept the impression. Her eye held him in a heavy vacuity, watched with a trancelike fixity his careful stitches and the armlong stretch of the drawn thread.

Had she shifted it a fraction, it would have encountered David squatting on the bank washing himself. His long back, the red shirt drawn taut across its bowed outline, showed the course of his spine in small regular excrescences. The water that he raised in his hands and rinsed over his face and neck made a pleasant, clean sound, that her ear noted with the other sounds. Somewhere behind her Daddy John and Courant made a noise with skillets and picket pins and spoke a little, a sentence mutteringly dropped and monosyllabically answered.

David turned a streaming face over his shoulder, blinking through the water. The group he looked at was as idyllically peaceful as wayfarers might be after the heat and burden of the day. Rest, fellowship, a healthy simplicity of food

and housing were all in the picture either visibly or by implication.

"Throw me the soap, Leff," he called, "I forgot it."

The soap lay on the top of a meal sack, a yellow square, placed there by David on his way to the water. It shone between Susan and Leff, standing forth as a survival of a pampered past. Susan's eye shifted toward it, fastened on it, waiting for Leff's hand to come and bear it away. But the hand executed no such expected maneuver. It planted the needle deliberately, pushed it through, drew it out with its long tail of thread. Surprise began to dispel her lethargy. Her eye left the soap, traveled at a more sprightly speed back to Leff, lit on his face with a questioning intelligence.

David called again.

"Hurry up. I want to light the fire."

Leff took another considered stitch.

"I don't know where it is," he answered without looking up.

The questioning of Susan's glance became accusative.

"It's there beside you on the meal sack," she said. "Throw it to him."

Leff raised his head and looked at her. His eyes were curiously pale and wide. She could see the white round the fixed pupil.

"Do it yourself," he answered, his tone the lowest that could reach her. "Do it or go to Hell."

She rested without movement, her mouth falling slightly open. For the moment there was a stoppage of all feeling but amazement, which invaded her till she seemed to hold nothing else. David's voice came from a far distance, as if she had floated away from him and it was a cord jerking her back to her accustomed place.

"Hurry up," it called. "It's right there beside you."

Leff threw down his sewing and leaped to his feet. Leaning against the bank behind him was his gun, newly cleaned and primed.

"Get it yourself and be d-d to you!" he roared.

The machinery of action stopped as though by the breaking of a spring. Their watches ticked off a few seconds of mind paralysis in which there was no expectancy or motive power, all action inhibited. Sight was all they used for those seconds. Leff spoke first, the only one among them whose thinking process had not been snapped:

"If you keep on shouting for me to do your errands, I'll show you"-he snatched up the gun and brought it to his shoulder with a lightning movement-"I'll send you where you can't order me round-you and this d-d --- here."

The inhibition was lifted and the three men rushed toward him. Daddy John struck up the gun barrel with a tent pole. The charge passed over David's head, spat in the water beyond, the report crackling sharp in the narrow ravine. David staggered, the projection of smoke reaching out toward him, his hands raised to ward it off, not knowing whether he was hurt or not.

"That's a great thing to do," he cried, dazed, and stubbing his foot on a stone stumbled to his knees.

The two others fell on Leff. Susan saw the gun ground into the dust under their trampling feet and Leff go down on top of it. Daddy John's tent pole battered at him, and Courant on him, a writhing body, grappled and wrung at his throat. The doctor came running from the trees, the hammer in his hand, and Susan grabbed at the descending pole, screaming:

"You're killing him. Father, stop them. They'll murder him."

The sight of his Missy clinging to the pole brought the old man to his senses, but it took David and the doctor to drag Courant away. For a moment they were a knot of struggling bodies, from which oaths and sobbing breaths broke. Upright he shook them off and backed toward the bank, leaving them looking at him, all expectant. He growled a few broken words, his face white under the tan, the whole man shaken by a passion so transforming that they forgot the supine figure and stood alert, ready to spring upon him. He made a movement of his head toward Leff.

"Why didn't you let me kill him?" he said huskily.

It broke the tension. Their eyes dropped to Leff, who lay motionless and unconscious, blood on his lips, a slip of white showing under his eyelids. The doctor dropped on his knees beside him and opened his shirt. Daddy John gave him an investigating push with the tent pole, and David eyed him with an impersonal, humane concern. Only Susan's glance remained on Courant, unfaltering as the beam of a fixed star.

His savage excitement was on the ebb. He pulled his hunting shirt into place and felt along his belt for his knife, while his broad breast rose like a wave coming to its breakage then dropped as the wave drops into its hollow. The hand he put to his throat to unfasten the band of his shirt shook, it had difficulty in manipulating the button, and he ran his tongue along his dried lips. She watched every movement, to the outward eye like a child fascinated by an unusual and terrifying spectacle. But her gaze carried deeper than the perturbed envelope. She looked through to the man beneath, felt an exultation in his might, knew herself kindred with him, fed by the same wild strain.

His glance moved, touched the unconscious man at his feet, then lifting met hers. Eye held eye. In each a spark leaped, ran to meet its opposing spark and flashed into union.

When she looked down again the group of figures was dim. Their talk came vaguely to her, like the talk of men in a dream. David was explaining. Daddy John made a grimace at him which was a caution to silence. The doctor had not heard and was not to hear the epithet that had been applied to his daughter.

"He's sun mad," the old man said. "Half crazy. I've seen 'em go that way before. How'll he get through the desert I'm asking you?"

There were some contusions on the head that looked bad, the doctor said, but nothing seemed to be broken. He'd been half strangled; they'd have to get him into the wagon.

"Leave him at Fort Bridger," came Courant's voice through the haze. "Leave him there to rot."

The doctor answered in the cold tones of authority:

"We'll take him with us as we agreed in the beginning. Because he happens not to be able to stand it, it's not for us to abandon him. It's a physical matter-sun and hard work and irritated nerves. Take a hand and help me lift him into the wagon."

They hoisted him in and disposed him on a bed of buffalo robes spread on sacks. He groaned once or twice, then settled on the softness of the skins, gazing at them with blood-shot eyes of hate. When the doctor offered him medicine, he struck the tin, sending its contents flying. However serious his hurts were they had evidently not mitigated the ferocity of his mood.

For the three succeeding days he remained in the wagon, stiff with bruises and refusing to speak. Daddy John was detailed to take him his meals, and the doctor dressed his wounds and tried to find the cause of his murderous outburst. But Leff was obdurate. He would express no regret for his action, and would give no reason for it. Once when the questioner asked him if he hated David, he said "Yes." But to the succeeding, "Why did he?" he offered no explanation, said he "didn't know why."

"Hate never came without a reason," said the physician, curious and puzzled. "Has David wronged you in any way?"

"What's that to you?" answered the farm boy. "I can hate him if I like, can't I?"

"Not in my train."

"Well there are other trains where the men aren't all fools, and the women--"

He stopped. The doctor's eye held him with a warning gleam.

"I don't know what's the matter with that boy," he said afterwards in the evening conference. "I can't get at him."

"Sun mad," Daddy John insisted.

Courant gave a grunt that conveyed disdain of a question of such small import.

David couldn't account for it at all.

Susan said nothing.

At Green River the Oregon Trail broke from the parent road and slanted off to the northwest. Here the Oregon companies mended their wagons and braced their yokes for the long pull across the broken teeth of mountains to Fort Hall, and from there onward to the new country of great rivers and virgin forests. A large train was starting as the doctor's wagons came down the slope. There was some talk, and a little bartering between the two companies, but time was precious, and the head of the Oregon caravan had begun to roll out when the California party were raising their tents on the river bank.

It was a sere and sterile prospect. Drab hills rolled in lazy waves toward the river where they reared themselves into bolder forms, a line of ramparts guarding the precious thread of water. The sleek, greenish current ate at the roots of lofty bluffs, striped by bands of umber and orange, and topped with out-croppings of rock as though a vanished race had crowned them with now crumbling fortresses. At their feet, sucking life from the stream, a fringe of alder and willows decked the sallow landscape with a trimming of green.

Here the doctor's party camped for the night, rising in the morning to find a new defection in their ranks. Leff had gone. Nailed to the mess chest was a slip of paper on which he had traced a few words announcing his happiness to be rid of them, his general dislike of one and all, and his intention to catch up the departed train and go to the Oregon country. This was just what they wanted, the desired had been accomplished without their intervention. But when they discovered that, beside his own saddle horse, he had taken David's, their gladness suffered a check. It was a bad situation, for it left the young man with but one horse, the faithful Ben. There was nothing for it but to abandon the wagon, and give David the doctor's extra mount for a pack animal. With silent pangs the student saw his books thrown on the banks of the river while his keg of whisky, sugar and coffee were stored among the Gillespies' effects. Then they started, a much diminished train-one wagon, a girl, and three mounted men.

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