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   Chapter 14 No.14

The Emigrant Trail By Geraldine Bonner Characters: 25383

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


It was Sunday afternoon, and the doctor and his daughter were sitting by a group of alders on the banks of the little river called Ham's Fork. On the uplands above, the shadows were lengthening, and at intervals a light air caught up swirls of dust and carried them careening away in staggering spirals.

The doctor was tired and lay stretched on the ground. He looked bloodless and wan, the grizzled beard not able to hide the thinness of his face. The healthful vigor he had found on the prairie had left him, each day's march claiming a dole from his hoarded store of strength. He knew-no one else-that he had never recovered the vitality expended at the time of Bella's illness. The call then had been too strenuous, the depleted reservoir had filled slowly, and now the demands of unremitting toil were draining it of what was left. He said nothing of this, but thought much in his feverish nights, and in the long afternoons when his knees felt weak against the horse's sides. As the silence of each member of the little train was a veil over secret trouble, his had hidden the darkest, the most sinister.

Susan, sitting beside him, watching him with an anxious eye, noted the languor of his long, dry hands, the network of lines, etched deep on the loose skin of his cheeks. Of late she had been shut in with her own preoccupations, but never too close for the old love and the old habit to force a way through. She had seen a lessening of energy and spirit, asked about it, and received the accustomed answers that came with the quick, brisk cheeriness that now had to be whipped up. She had never seen his dauntless belief in life shaken. Faith and a debonair courage were his message. They were still there, but the effort of the unbroken spirit to maintain them against the body's weakness was suddenly revealed to her and the pathos of it caught at her throat. She leaned forward and passed her hand over his hair, her eyes on his face in a long gaze of almost solemn tenderness.

"You're worn out," she said.

"Not a bit of it," he answered stoutly. "You're the most uncomplimentary person I know. I was just thinking what a hardy pioneer I'd become, and that's the way you dash me to the ground."

She looked at the silvery meshes through which her fingers were laced.

"It's quite white and there were lots of brown hairs left when we started."

"That's the Emigrant Trail," he smothered a sigh, and his trouble found words: "It's not for old men, Missy."

"Old!" scornfully; "you're fifty-three. That's only thirty-two years older than I am. When I'm fifty-three you'll be eighty-five. Then we'll begin to talk about your being old."

"My little Susan fifty-three!" He moved his head so that he could command her face and dwell upon its blended bloom of olive and clear rose, "With wrinkles here and here," an indicating finger helped him, "and gray hairs all round here, and thick eyebrows, and-" he dropped the hand and his smile softened to reminiscence, "It was only yesterday you were a baby, a little, fat, crowing thing all creases and dimples. Your mother and I used to think everything about you so wonderful that we each secretly believed-and we'd tell each other so when nobody was round-that there had been other babies in the world, but never before one like ours. I don't know but what I think that yet."

"Silly old doctor-man!" she murmured.

"And now my baby's a woman with all of life before her. From where you are it seems as if it was never going to end, but when you get where I am and begin to look back, you see that it's just a little journey over before you've got used to the road and struck your gait. We ought to have more time. The first half's just learning and the second's where we put the learning into practice. And we're busy over that when we have to go. It's too short."

"Our life's going to be long. Out in California we're going to come into a sort of second childhood, be perennials like those larkspurs I had in the garden at home."

They were silent, thinking of the garden behind the old house in Rochester with walks outlined by shells and edged by long flower beds. The girl looked back on it with a detached interest as an unregretted feature of a past existence in which she had once played her part and that was cut from the present by a chasm never to be bridged. The man held it cherishingly as one of many lovely memories that stretched from this river bank in a strange land back through the years, a link in the long chain.

"Wasn't it pretty!" she said dreamily, "with the line of hollyhocks against the red brick wall, and the big, bushy pine tree in the corner. Everything was bright except that tree."

His eyes narrowed in wistful retrospect:

"It was as if all the shadows in the garden had concentrated there-huddled together in one place so that the rest could be full of color and sunshine. And when Daddy John and I wanted to cut it down you wouldn't let us, cried and stamped, and so, of course, we gave it up. I actually believe you had a sentiment about that tree."

"I suppose I had, though I don't know exactly what you mean by a sentiment. I loved it because I'd once had such a perfect time up there among the branches. The top had been cut off and a ring of boughs was left round the place, and it made the most comfortable seat, almost like a cradle. One day you went to New York and when you came back you brought me a box of candy. Do you remember it-burnt almonds and chocolate drops with a dog painted on the cover? Well, I wanted to get them at their very best, enjoy them as much as I could, so I climbed to the seat in the top of the pine and ate them there. I can remember distinctly how lovely it was. They tasted better than any candies I've ever had before or since, and I leaned back on the boughs, rocking and eating and looking at the clouds and feeling the wind swaying the trunk. I can shut my eyes and feel again the sense of being entirely happy, sort of limp and forgetful and so contented. I don't know whether it was only the candies, or a combination of things that were just right that day and never combined the same way again. For I tried it often afterwards, with cake and fruit tart and other candies, but it was no good. But I couldn't have the tree cut down, for there was always a hope that I might get the combination right and have that perfectly delightful time once more."

The doctor's laughter echoed between the banks, and hers fell in with it, though she had told her story with the utmost sedateness.

"Was there ever such a materialist?" he chuckled. "It all rose from a box of New York candy, and I thought it was sentiment. Twenty-one years old and the same baby, only not quite so fat."

"Well, it was the truth," she said defensively. "I suppose if I'd left the candy out it would have sounded better."

"Don't leave the candy out. It was the candy and the truth that made it all Susan's."

She picked up a stone and threw it in the river, then as she watched its splash: "Doesn't it seem long ago when we were in Rochester?"

"We left there in April and this is June."

"Yes, a short time in weeks, but some way or other it seems like ages. When I think of it I feel as if it was at the other side of the world, and I'd grown years and years older since we left. If I go on this way I'll be fully fifty-three when we get to California."

"What's made you feel so old?"

"I don't exactly know. I don't think it's because we've gone over so much space, but that has something to do with it. It seems as if the change was more in me."

"How have you changed?"

She gathered up the loose stones near her and dropped them from palm to palm, frowning a little in an effort to find words to clothe her vague thought.

"I don't know that either, or I can't express it. I liked things there that I don't care for any more. They were such babyish things and amounted to nothing, but they seemed important then. Now nothing seems important but things that are-the things that would be on a desert island. And in getting to think that way, in getting so far from what you once were, a person seems to squeeze a good many years into a few weeks." She looked sideways at him, the stones dropping from a slanting palm. "Do you understand me?"

He nodded:

"'When I was a child I thought as a child-now I have put away childish things.' Is that it?"

"Yes, exactly."

"Then you wouldn't like to go back to the old life?"

She scattered the stones with an impatient gesture:

"I couldn't. I'd hate it. I wouldn't squeeze back into the same shape. I'd be all cramped and crowded up. You see every day out here I've been growing wider and wider," she stretched her arms to their length, "widening out to fit these huge, enormous places."

"The new life will be wide enough for you. You'll grow like a tree, a beautiful, tall, straight tree that has plenty of room for its branches to spread and plenty of sun and air to nourish it. There'll be no crowding or cramping out there. It's good to know you'll be happy in California. In the beginning I had fears."

She picked up a stone and with its pointed edge drew lines on the dust which seemed to interest her, for she followed them with intent eyes, not answering. He waited for a moment, then said with an undernote of pleading in his voice, "You think you will be happy, dearie?"

"I-I-don't-know," she stammered. "Nobody can tell. We're not there yet."

"I can tell." He raised himself on his elbow to watch her face. She knew that he expected to see the maiden's bashful happiness upon it, and the difference between his fond imaginings and the actual facts sickened her with an intolerable sense of deception. She could never tell him, never strike out of him his glad conviction of her contentment.

"We're going back to the Golden Age, you and I, and David. We'll live as we want, not the way other people want us to. When we get to California we'll build a house somewhere by a river and we'll plant our seeds and have vines growing over it and a garden in the front, and Daddy John will break Julia's spirit and harness her to the plow. Then when the house gets too small-houses have a way of doing that-I'll build a little cabin by the edge of the river, and you and David will have the house to yourselves where the old, white-headed doctor won't be in the way."

He smiled for the joy of his picture, and she turned her head from him, seeing the prospect through clouded eyes.

"You'll never go out of my house," she said in a low voice.

"Other spirits will come into it and fill it up."

A wish that anything might stop the slow advance to this roseate future choked her. She sat with averted face wrestling with her sick distaste, and heard him say:

"You don't know how happy you're going to be, my little Missy."

She could find no answer, and he went on: "You have everything for it, health and youth and a pure heart and David for your mate."

She had to speak now and said with urgence, trying to encourage herself, since no one else could do it for her,

"But that's all in the future, a long time from now."

"Not so very long. We ought to be in California in five or six weeks."

To have the dreaded reality suddenly brought so close, set at the limit of a few short weeks, grimly waiting at a definite point in the distance, made her repugnance break loose in alarmed words.

"Longer than that," she cried. "The desert's the hardest place, and we'll go slow, very slow, there."

"You sound as if you wanted to go slow," he answered, his smile indulgently quizzical, as completely shut away from her, in his man's ignorance, as though no bond of love and blood held them together.

"No, no, of course not," she faltered. "But I'm not at all sure we'll get through it so easily. I'm making allowance for delays. There are always delays."

"Yes, there may be delays, but we'll hope to be one of the lucky trains and get through on time."

She swallowed dryly, her heart gone down too far to be plucked up by futile contradition [Transcriber's note: contradiction?]. He mused a moment, seeking the best method of broaching a subject that had been growing in his mind for the past week. Frankness seemed the most simple, and he said:

"I've something to suggest to you. I've been thinking of it since we left the Pass. Bridger is a large post. They say there are trains there from all over the West and people of all sorts, and quite often there are missionaries."

"Missionaries?" in a faint voice.

"Yes, coming in and going out to the tribes of the Northwest. Suppose we found one there

when we arrived?"

He stopped, watching her.

"Well?" her eyes slanted sideways in a fixity of attention.

"Would you marry David? Then we could all go on together."

Her breath left her and she turned a frightened face on him.

"Why?" she gasped. "What for?"

He laid his hand on hers and said quietly:

"Because, as you say, the hardest part of the journey is yet to come, and I am-well-not a strong man any more. The trip hasn't done for me what I hoped. If by some mischance-if anything should happen to me-then I'd know you'd be taken care of, protected and watched over by some one who could be trusted, whose right it was to do that."

"Oh, no. Oh, no," she cried in a piercing note of protest. "I couldn't, I couldn't."

She made as if to rise, then sank back, drawn down by his grasping hand. He thought her reluctance natural, a girl's shrinking at the sudden intrusion of marriage into the pretty comedy of courtship.

"Susan, I would like it," he pleaded.

"No," she tried to pull her hand away, as if wishing to draw every particle of self together and shut it all within her own protecting shell.

"Why not?"

"It's-it's-I don't want to be married out here in the wilds. I want to wait and marry as other girls do, and have a real wedding and a house to go to. I should hate it. I couldn't. It's like a squaw. You oughtn't to ask it."

Her terror lent her an unaccustomed subtlety. She eluded the main issue, seizing on objections that did not betray her, but that were reasonable, what might have been expected by the most unsuspicious of men:

"And as for your being afraid of falling sick in these dreadful places, isn't that all the more reason why I should be free to give all my time and thought to you? If you don't feel so strong, then marrying is the last thing I'd think of doing. I'm going to be with you all the time, closer than I ever was before. No man's going to come between us. Marry David and push you off into the background when you're not well and want me most-that's perfectly ridiculous."

She meant all she said. It was the truth, but it was the truth reinforced, given a fourfold strength by her own unwillingness. The thought that she had successfully defeated him, pushed the marriage away into an indefinite future, relieved her so that the dread usually evoked by his ill health was swept aside. She turned on him a face, once again bright, all clouds withdrawn, softened into dimpling reassurance.

"What an idea!" she said. "Men have no sense."

"Very well, spoiled girl. I suppose we'll have to put it off till we get to California."

She dropped back full length on the ground, and in the expansion of her relief laid her cheek against the hand that clasped hers.

"And until we get the house built," she cried, beginning to laugh.

"And the garden laid out and planted, I suppose?"

"Of course. And the vines growing over the front porch."

"Why not over the second story? We'll have a second story by that time."

"Over the whole house, up to the chimneys."

They both laughed, a cheerful bass and a gay treble, sweeping out across the unquiet water.

"It's going to be the Golden Age," she said, in the joy of her respite pressing her lips on the hand she held. "A cottage covered with vines to the roof and you and I and Daddy John inside it."

"And David, don't forget David."

"Of course, David," she assented lightly, for David's occupancy was removed to a comfortable distance.

After supper she and David climbed to the top of the bank to see the sunset. The breeze had dropped, the dust devils died with it. The silence of evening lay like a cool hand on the heated earth. Dusk was softening the hard, bright colors, wiping out the sharpness of stretching shadows the baked reflection of sun on clay. The West blazed above the mountains, but the rest of the sky was a thick, pure blue. Against it to the South, a single peak rose, snow-enameled on a turquoise background.

Susan felt at peace with the moment and her own soul. She radiated the good humor of one who has faced peril and escaped. Having postponed the event that was to make her David's forever, she felt bound to offer recompense. Her conscience went through one of those processes by which the consciences of women seek ease through atonement, prompting them to actions of a baleful kindliness. Contrition made her tender to the man she did not love. The thought that she had been unfair added a cruel sweetness to her manner.

He lay on the edge of the bluff beside her, not saying much, for it was happiness to feel her within touch of his hand, amiable and gentle as she had been of late. It would have taken an eye shrewder than David's to have seen into the secret springs of her conduct. He only knew that she had been kinder, friendlier, less withdrawn into the sanctuary of her virgin coldness, round which in the beginning he had hovered. His heart was high, swelled by the promise of her beaming looks and ready smiles. At last, in this drama of slow winning she was drawing closer, shyly melting, her whims and perversities mellowing to the rich, sweet yielding of the ultimate surrender.

"We ought to be at Fort Bridger now in a few days," he said. "Courant says if all goes well we can make it by Thursday and of course he knows."

"Courant!" she exclaimed with the familiar note of scorn. "He knows a little of everything, doesn't he?"

"Why don't you like him, Missy? He's a fine man for the trail."

"Yes, I dare say he is. But that's not everything."

"Why don't you like him? Come, tell the truth."

They had spoken before of her dislike of Courant. She had revealed it more frankly to David than to anyone else. It was one of the subjects over which she could become animated in the weariest hour. She liked to talk to her betrothed about it, to impress it upon him, warming to an eloquence that allayed her own unrest.

"I don't know why I don't like him. You can't always tell why you like or dislike a person. It's just something that comes and you don't know why."

"But it seems so childish and unfair. I don't like my girl to be unfair. Has he ever done anything or said anything to you that offended you?"

She gave a petulant movement: "No, but he thinks so much of himself, and he's hard and has no feeling, and- Oh, I don't know-it's just that I don't like him."

David laughed:

"It's all prejudice. You can't give any real reason."

"Of course I can't. Those things don't always have reasons. You're always asking for reasons and I never have any to give you."

"I'll have to teach you to have them."

She looked slantwise at him smiling. "I'm afraid that will be a great undertaking. I'm very stupid about learning things. You ask father and Daddy John what a terrible task it was getting me educated. The only person that didn't bother about it was this one"-she laid a finger on her chest- "She never cared in the least."

"Well I'll begin a second education. When we get settled I'll teach you to reason."

"Begin now." She folded her hands demurely in her lap and lifting her head back laughed: "Here I am waiting to learn."

"No. We want more time. I'll wait till we're married."

Her laughter diminished to a smile that lay on her lips, looking stiff and uncomfortable below the fixity of her eyes.

"That's such a long way off," she said faintly.

"Not so very long."

"Oh, California's hundreds of miles away yet. And then when we get there we've got to find a place to settle, and till the land, and lay out the garden and build a house, quite a nice house; I don't want to live in a cabin. Father and I have just been talking about it. Why it's months and months off yet."

He did not answer. She had spoken this way to him before, wafting the subject away with evasive words. After a pause he said slowly: "Why need we wait so long?"

"We must. I'm not going to begin my married life the way the emigrant women do. I want to live decently and be comfortable."

He broke a sprig off a sage bush and began to pluck it apart. She had receded to her defenses and peeped nervously at him from behind them.

"Fort Bridger," he said, his eyes on the twig, "is a big place, a sort of rendezvous for all kinds of people."

She stared at him, her face alert with apprehension, ready to dart into her citadel and lower the drawbridge.

"Sometimes there are missionaries stopping there."

"Missionaries?" she exclaimed in a high key. "I hate missionaries!"

This was a surprising statement. David knew the doctor to be a supporter and believer in the Indian missions, and had often heard his daughter acquiesce in his opinions.

"Why do you hate them?"

"I don't know. There's another thing you want a reason for. It's getting cold up here-let's go down by the fire."

She gathered herself together to rise, but he turned quickly upon her, and his face, while it made her shrink, also arrested her. She had come to dread that expression, persuasion hardened into desperate pleading. It woke in her a shocked repugnance, as though something had been revealed to her that she had no right to see. She felt shame for him, that he must beg where a man should conquer and subdue.

"Wait a moment," he said. "Why can't one of those missionaries marry us there?"

She had scrambled to her knees, and snatched at her skirt preparatory to the jump to her feet.

"No," she said vehemently. "No. What's the matter with you all talking about marriages and missionaries when we're in the middle of the wilds?"

"Susan," he cried, catching at her dress, "just listen a moment. I could take care of you then, take care of you properly. You'd be my own, to look after and work for. It's seemed to me lately you loved me enough. I wouldn't have suggested such a thing if you were as you were in the beginning. But you seem to care now. You seem as if-as if-it wouldn't be so hard for you to live with me and let me love you."

She jerked her skirt away and leaped to her feet crying again, "No, David, no. Not for a minute."

He rose too, very pale, the piece of sage in his hand shaking. They looked at each other, the yellow light clear on both faces. Hers was hard and combative, as if his suggestion had outraged her and she was ready to fight it. Its expression sent a shaft of terror to his soul, for with all his unselfishness he was selfish in his man's longing for her, hungered for her till his hunger had made him blind. Now in a flash of clairvoyance he saw truly, and feeling the joy of life slipping from him, faltered:

"Have I made a mistake? Don't you care?"

It was her opportunity, she was master of her fate. But her promise was still a thing that held, the moment had not come when she saw nothing but her own desire, and to gain it would have sacrificed all that stood between. His stricken look, his expression of nerving himself for a blow, pierced her, and her words rushed out in a burst of contrition.

"Of course, of course, I do. Don't doubt me. Don't. But- Oh, David, don't torment me. Don't ask anything like that now. I can't, I can't. I'm not ready-not yet."

Her voice broke and she put her hand to her mouth to hide its trembling. Over it, her eyes, suddenly brimming with tears, looked imploringly into his.

It was a heart-tearing sight to the lover. He forgot himself and, without knowing what he did, opened his arms to inclose her in an embrace of pity and remorse.

"Oh, dearest, I'll never ask it till you're willing to come to me," he cried, and saw her back away, with upheld shoulders raised in defense against his hands.

"I won't touch you," he said, quickly dropping his arms. "Don't draw back from me. If you don't want it I'll never lay a finger on you."

The rigidity of her attitude relaxed. She turned away her head and wiped her tears on the end of the kerchief knotted round her neck. He stood watching her, struggling with passion and foreboding, reassured and yet with the memory of the seeing moment, chill at his heart.

Presently she shot a timid glance at him, and met his eyes resting questioningly upon her. Her face was tear stained, a slight, frightened smile on the lips.

"I'm sorry," she whispered.

"Susan, do you truly care for me?"

"Yes," she said, looking down. "Yes-but-let me wait a little while longer."

"As long as you like. I'll never ask you to marry me till you say you're willing."

She held out her hand shyly, as if fearing a repulse. He took it, and feeling it relinquished to his with trust and confidence, swore that never again would he disturb her, never demand of her till she was ready to give.

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