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   Chapter 15 No.15

The Emigrant Trail By Geraldine Bonner Characters: 19708

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

They were camped on the edges of that harsh land which lay between the Great Salt Lake and the Sierra. Behind them the still, heavy reach of water stretched, reflecting in mirrored clearness the mountains crowding on its southern rim. Before them the sage reached out to dim infinities of distance. The Humboldt ran nearby, sunk in a stony bed, its banks matted with growths of alder and willow. The afternoon was drawing to the magical sunset hour. Susan, lying by the door of her tent, could see below the growing western blaze the bowl of the earth filling with the first, liquid oozings of twilight.

A week ago they had left the Fort. To her it had been a blank space of time, upon which no outer interest had intruded. She had presented an invulnerable surface to all that went on about her, the men's care, the day's incidents, the setting of the way. Cold-eyed and dumb she had moved with them, an inanimate idol, unresponsive to the observances of their worship, aloof from them in somber uncommunicated musings.

The men respected her sorrow, did her work for her, and let her alone. To them she was set apart in the sanctuary of her mourning, and that her grief should express itself by hours of drooping silence was a thing they accepted without striving to understand. Once or twice David tried to speak to her of her father, but it seemed to rouse in her an irritated and despairing pain. She begged him to desist and got away from him as quickly as she could, climbing into the wagon and lying on the sacks, with bright, unwinking eyes fastened on Daddy John's back. But she did not rest stunned under an unexpected blow as they thought. She was acutely alive, bewildered, but with senses keen, as if the world had taken a dizzying revolution and she had come up panting and clutching among the fragments of what had been her life.

If there had been some one to whom she could have turned, relieving herself by confession, she might have found solace and set her feet in safer ways. But among the three men she was virtually alone, guarding her secret with that most stubborn of all silences, a girl's in the first wakening of sex. She had a superstitious hope that she could regain peace and self-respect by an act of reparation, and at such moments turned with expiatory passion to the thought of David. She would go to California, live as her father had wished, marry her betrothed, and be as good a wife to him as man could have. And for a space these thoughts brought her ease, consoled her as a compensating act of martyrdom.

She shunned Courant, rarely addressing him, keeping her horse to the rear of the train where the wagon hood hid him from her. But when his foot fell on the dust beside her, or he dropped back for a word with Daddy John, a stealthy, observant quietude held her frame. She turned her eyes from him as from an unholy sight, but it was useless, for her mental vision called up his figure, painted in yellow and red upon the background of the sage. She knew the expression of the lithe body as it leaned from the saddle, the gnarled hand from which the rein hung loose, the eyes, diamond hard and clear, living sparks set in leathery skin wrinkled against the glare of the waste. She did not lie to herself any more. No delusions could live in this land stripped of all conciliatory deception.

The night before they left the Fort the men had had a consultation. Sitting apart by the tent she had watched them, David and Daddy John between her and the fire, Courant beyond it. His face, red lit between the hanging locks of hair, his quick eyes, shifting from one man to the other, was keen with a furtive anxiety. At a point in the murmured interview, he had looked beyond them to the darkened spot where she sat. Then Daddy John and David had come to her and told her that if she wished they would turn back, take her home to Rochester, and stay there with her always. There was money enough they said. The doctor had left seven thousand dollars in his chest, and David had three to add to it. It would be ample to live on till the men could set to work and earn a maintenance for them. No word was spoken of her marriage, but it lay in the offing of their argument as the happy finale that the long toil of the return journey and the combination of resources were to prelude.

The thought of going back had never occurred to her, and shocked her into abrupt refusal. It would be an impossible adaptation to outgrown conditions. She could not conjure up the idea of herself refitted into the broken frame of her girlhood. She told them she would go on, there was nothing now to go back for. Their only course was to keep to the original plan, emigrate to California and settle there. They returned to the fire and told Courant. She could see him with eager gaze listening. Then he smiled and, rising to his feet, sent a bold, exultant glance through the darkness to her. She drew her shawl over her head to shut it out, for she was afraid.

They rested now on the lip of the desert, gathering their forces for the last lap of the march. There had been no abatement in the pressure of their pace, and Courant had told them it must be kept up. He had heard the story of the Donner party two years before, and the first of September must see them across the Sierra. In the evenings he conferred with Daddy John on these matters and kept a vigilant watch on the animals upon whose condition the success of the journey depended.

David was not included in these consultations. Both men now realized that he was useless when it came to the rigors of the trail. Of late he had felt a physical and spiritual impairment, that showed in a slighted observance of his share of the labor. He had never learned to cord his pack, and day after day it turned under his horse's belly, discharging its cargo on the ground. The men, growling with irritation, finally took the work from him, not from any pitying consideration, but to prevent further delay.

He was, in fact, coming to that Valley of Desolation where the body faints and only the spirit's dauntlessness can keep it up and doing. What dauntlessness his spirit once had was gone. He moved wearily, automatically doing his work and doing it ill. The very movements of his hands, slack and fumbling, were an exasperation to the other men, setting their strength to a herculean measure, and giving of it without begrudgment. David saw their anger and did not care. Fatigue made him indifferent, ate into his pride, brought down his self-respect. He plodded on doggedly, the alkali acrid on his lips and burning in his eyeballs, thinking of California, not as the haven of love and dreams, but as a place where there was coolness, water, and rest. When in the dawn he staggered up to the call of "Catch up," and felt for the buckle of his saddle girth, he had a vision of a place under trees by a river where he could sleep and wake and turn to sleep again, and go on repeating the performance all day with no one to shout at him if he was stupid and forgot things.

Never having had the fine physical endowment of the others all the fires of his being were dying down to smoldering ashes. His love for Susan faded, if not from his heart, from his eyes and lips. She was as dear to him as ever, but now with a devitalized, undemanding affection in which there was something of a child's fretful dependence. He rode beside her not looking at her, contented that she should be there, but with the thought of marriage buried out of sight under the weight of his weariness. It did not figure at all in his mind, which, when roused from apathy, reached forward into the future to gloat upon the dream of sleep. She was grateful for his silence, and they rode side by side, detached from one another, moving in separated worlds of sensation.

This evening he came across to where she sat, dragging a blanket in an indolent hand. He dropped it beside her and threw himself upon it with a sigh. He was too empty of thought to speak, and lay outstretched, looking at the plain where dusk gathered in shadowless softness. In contrast with his, her state was one of inner tension, strained to the breaking point. Torturings of conscience, fears of herself, the unaccustomed bitterness of condemnation, melted her, and she was ripe for confession. A few understanding words and she would have poured her trouble out to him, less in hope of sympathy than in a craving for relief. The widening gulf would have been bridged and he would have gained the closest hold upon her he had yet had. But if she were more a woman than ever before, dependent, asking for aid, he was less a man, wanting himself to rest on her and have his discomforts made bearable by her consolations.

She looked at him tentatively. His eyes were closed, the lids curiously dark, and fringed with long lashes like a girl's.

"Are you asleep?" she asked.

"No," he answered without raising them. "Only tired."

She considered for a moment, then said:

"Have you ever told a lie?"

"A lie? I don't know. I guess so. Everybody tells lies sometime or other."

"Not little lies. Serious ones, sinful ones, to people you love."

"No. I never told that kind. That's a pretty low-down thing to do."

"Mightn't a person do it-to-to-escape from something they didn't want, something they suddenly-at that particular moment-dreaded and shrank from?"

"Why couldn't they speak out, say they didn't want to do it? Why did they have to lie?"

"Perhaps they didn't have time to think, and didn't want to hurt the person who asked it. And-and-if they were willing to do the thing later, sometime in the future, wouldn't that make up for it?"

"I can't tell. I don't know enough about it. I don't understand what you mean." He turned, trying to make himself more comfortable. "Lo

rd, how hard this ground is! I believe it's solid iron underneath."

He stretched and curled on the blanket, elongating his body in a mighty yawn which subsided into the solaced note of a groan. "There, that's better. I ache all over to-night."

She made no answer, looking at the prospect from morose brows. More at ease he returned to the subject and asked, "Who's been telling lies?"

"I," she answered.

He gave a short laugh, that drew from her a look of quick protest. He was lying on his side, one arm crooked under his head, his eyes on her in a languid glance where incredulity shone through amusement.

"Your father told me once you were the most truthful woman he'd ever known, and I agree with him."

"It was to my father I lied," she answered.

She began to tremble, for part at least of the story was on her lips. She clasped her shaking hands round her knees, and, not looking at him, said "David," and then stopped, stifled by the difficulties and the longing to speak.

David answered by laughing outright, a pleasant sound, not guiltless of a suggestion of sleep, a laugh of good nature that refuses to abdicate. It brushed her back into herself as if he had taken her by the shoulders, pushed her into her prison, and slammed the door.

"That's all imagination," he said. "When some one we love dies we're always thinking things like that-that we neglected them, or slighted them, or told them what wasn't true. They stand out in our memories bigger than all the good things we did. Don't you worry about any lies you ever told your father. You've got nothing to accuse yourself of where he's concerned-or anybody else, either."

Her heart, that had throbbed wildly as she thought to begin her confession, sunk back to a forlorn beat. He noticed her dejected air, and said comfortingly:

"Don't be downhearted, Missy. It's been terribly hard for you, but you'll feel better when we get to California, and can live like Christians again."

"California!" Her intonation told of the changed mind with which she now looked forward to the Promised Land.

His consolatory intentions died before his own sense of grievance at the toil yet before them.

"Good Lord, it does seem far-farther than it did in the beginning. I used to be thinking of it all the time then, and how I'd get to work the first moment we arrived. And now I don't care what it's like or think of what I'm going to do. All I want to get there for is to stop this eternal traveling and rest."

She, too, craved rest, but of the spirit. Her outlook was blacker than his, for it offered none and drew together to a point where her tribulations focused in a final act of self-immolation. There was a pause, and he said, drowsiness now plain in his voice:

"But we'll be there some day unless we die on the road, and then we can take it easy. The first thing I'm going to do is to get a mattress to sleep on. No more blankets on the ground for me. Do you ever think what it'll be like to sleep in a room again under a roof, a good, waterproof roof, that the sun and the rain can't come through? The way I feel now that's my idea of Paradise."

She murmured a low response, her thoughts far from the flesh pots of his wearied longing.

"I think just at this moment," he went on dreamily, "I'd rather have a good sleep and a good meal than anything else in the world. I often dream of 'em, and then Daddy John's kicking me and it's morning and I got to crawl out of the blanket and light the fire. I don't know whether I feel worse at that time or in the evening when we're making the last lap for the camping ground." His voice dropped as if exhausted before the memory of these unendurable moments, then came again with a note of cheer: "Thank God, Courant's with us or I don't believe we'd ever get there."

She had no reply to make to this. Neither spoke for a space, and then she cautiously stole a glance at him and was relieved to see that he was asleep. Careful to be noiseless she rose, took up a tin water pail and walked to the river.

The Humboldt rushed through a deep-cut bed, nosing its way between strewings of rock. Up the banks alders and willows grew thick, thrusting roots, hungry for the lean deposits of soil, into cracks and over stony ledges. By the edge the current crisped about a flat rock, and Susan, kneeling on this, dipped in her pail. The water slipped in in a silvery gush which, suddenly seething and bubbling, churned in the hollowed tin, nearly wrenching it from her. She leaned forward, dragging it awkwardly toward her, clutching at an alder stem with her free hand. Her head was bent, but she raised it with a jerk when she heard Courant's voice call, "Wait, I'll do it for you."

He was on the opposite bank, the trees he had broken through swishing together behind him. She lowered her head without answering, her face suddenly charged with color. Seized by an overmastering desire to escape him, she dragged at the pail, which, caught in the force of the current, leaped and swayed in her hand. She took a hurried upward glimpse, hopeful of his delayed progress, and saw him jump from the bank to a stone in mid-stream. His moccasined feet clung to its slippery surface, and for a moment he oscillated unsteadily, then gained his balance and, laughing, looked at her. For a breathing space each rested motionless, she with strained, outstretched arm, he on the rock, a film of water covering his feet. It was a moment of physical mastery without conscious thought. To each the personality of the other was so perturbing, that without words or touch, the heart beats of both grew harder, and their glances held in a gaze fixed and gleaming. The woman gained her self-possession first, and with it an animal instinct to fly from him, swiftly through the bushes.

But her flight was delayed. A stick, whirling in the current, caught between the pail's rim and handle and ground against her fingers. With an angry cry she loosed her hold, and the bucket went careening into midstream. That she had come back to harmony with her surroundings was attested by the wail of chagrin with which she greeted the accident. It was the last pail she had left. She watched Courant wade into the water after it, and forgot to run in her anxiety to see if he would get it. "Oh, good!" came from her in a gasp as he caught the handle. But when he came splashing back and set it on the rock beside her, it suddenly lost its importance, and as suddenly she became a prey to low-voiced, down-looking discomfort. A muttered "thank you," was all the words she had for him, and she got to her feet with looks directed to the arrangement of her skirt.

He stood knee-high in the water watching her, glad of her down-drooped lids, for he could dwell on the bloom that deepened under his eye.

"You haven't learned the force of running water yet," he said. "It can be very strong sometimes, so strong that a little woman's hand like yours has no power against it."

"It was because the stick caught in the handle," she muttered, bending for the pail. "It hurt my fingers."

"You've never guessed that I was called 'Running Water,' have you?"

"You?" she paused with look arrested in sudden interest. "Who calls you that?"

"Everybody-you. L'eau courante means running water, doesn't it? That's what you call me."

In the surprise of the revelation she forgot her unease and looked at him, repeating slowly, "L'eau courante, running water. Why, of course. But it's like an Indian's name."

"It is an Indian's name. The Blackfeet gave it to me because they said I could run so fast. They were after me once and a man makes the best time he can then. It was a fine race and I won it, and after that they called me, 'The man that goes like Running Water.' The voyageurs and coureurs des bois put it into their lingo and it stuck."

"But your real name?" she asked, the pail forgotten.

"Just a common French one, Duchesney, Napoleon Duchesney, if you want to know both ends of it. It was my father's. He was called after the emperor whom my grandfather knew years ago in France. He and Napoleon were students together in the military school at Brienne. In the Revolution they confiscated his lands, and he came out to Louisiana and never wanted to go back." He splashed to the stone and took up the bucket.

She stood absorbed in the discovery, her child's mind busy over this new conception of him as a man whose birth and station had evidently been so different to the present conditions of his life. When she spoke her mental attitude was na?vely displayed.

"Why didn't you tell before?"

He shrugged.

"What was there to tell? The mountain men don't always use their own names."

The bucket, swayed by the movement, threw a jet of water on her foot. He moved back from her and said, "I like the Indian name best."

"It is pretty," and in a lower key, as though trying its sound, she repeated softly, "L'eau Courante, Running Water."

"It's something clear and strong, sometimes shallow and then again deeper than you can guess. And when there's anything in the way, it gathers all its strength and sweeps over it. It's a mighty force. You have to be stronger than it is-and more cunning too-to stop it in the way it wants to go."

Above their heads the sky glowed in red bars, but down in the stream's hollow the dusk had come, cool and gray. She was suddenly aware of it, noticed the diminished light, and the thickening purplish tones that had robbed the trees and rocks of color. Her warm vitality was invaded by chill that crept inward and touched her spirit with an eerie dread. She turned quickly and ran through the bushes calling back to him, "I must hurry and get supper. They'll be waiting. Bring the pail."

Courant followed slowly, watching her as she climbed the bank.

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