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   Chapter 17 No.17

The Emigrant Trail By Geraldine Bonner Characters: 29693

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


In the even dawn light the strangers left. It was hail and farewell in desert meetings. They trotted off into the ghostlike stillness of the plain which for a space threw back their hoof beats, and then closed round them. The departure of the westward band was not so prompt. With unbound packs and unharnessed animals, they stood, a dismayed group, gathered round a center of disturbance. David was ill. The exertions of the day before had drained his last reserve of strength. He could hardly stand, complained of pain, and a fever painted his drawn face with a dry flush. Under their concerned looks, he climbed on his horse, swayed there weakly, then slid off and dropped on the ground.

"I'm too sick to go on," he said in the final collapse of misery. "You can leave me here to die."

He lay flat, looking up at the sky, his long hair raying like a mourning halo from the outline of his skull, his arms outspread as if his soul had submitted to its crucifixion and his body was in agreement. That he was ill was beyond question. The men had their suspicions that he, like the horses, had drunk of the alkaline spring.

Susan was for remaining where they were till he recovered, the others wanted to go on. He gave no ear to their debate, interrupting it once to announce his intention of dying where he lay. This called forth a look of compassion from the girl, a movement of exasperation from the mountain man. Daddy John merely spat and lifted his hat to the faint dawn air. It was finally agreed that David should be placed in the wagon, his belongings packed on his horse, while the sick animal must follow as best it could.

During the morning's march no one spoke. They might have been a picture moving across a picture for all the animation they showed. The exaltation of the evening before had died down to a spark, alight and warming still, but pitifully shrunk from last night's high-flaming buoyancy. It was hard to keep up hopes in these distressful hours. California had again receded. The desert and the mountains were yet to pass. The immediate moment hemmed them in so closely that it was an effort to look through it and feel the thrill of joys that lay so far beyond. It was better to focus their attention on the lone promontories that cut the distance and gradually grew from flat surfaces applied on the plain to solid shapes, thick-based and shadow cloven.

They made their noon camp at a spring, bubbling from a rim of white-rooted grass. David refused to take anything but water, groaning as he sat up in the wagon and stretching a hot hand for the cup that Susan brought. The men paid no attention to him. They showed more concern for the sick horse, which when not incapacitated did its part with good will, giving the full measure of its strength. That they refrained from open anger and upbraiding was the only concession they made to the conventions they had learned in easier times. Whether David cared or not he said nothing, lying fever-flushed, his wandering glance held to attention when Susan's face appeared at the canvas opening. He hung upon her presence, querulously exacting in his unfamiliar pain.

Making ready for the start their eyes swept a prospect that showed no spot of green, and they filled their casks neck high and rolled out into the dazzling shimmer of the afternoon. The desert was widening, the hills receding, shrinking away to a crenelated edge that fretted a horizon drawn as straight as a ruled line. The plain unrolled more spacious and grimmer, not a growth in sight save sage, not a trickle of water or leaf murmur, even the mirage had vanished leaving the distance bare and mottled with a leprous white. At intervals, outstretched like a pointing finger, the toothed summit of a ridge projected, its base uplifted in clear, mirrored reflection.

The second half of the day was as unbroken by speech or incident as the morning. They had nothing to say, as dry of thought as they were despoiled of energy. The shadows were beginning to lengthen when they came to a fork in the trail. One branch bore straight westward, the other slanted toward the south, and both showed signs of recent travel. Following them to the distance was like following the tracks of creeping things traced on a sandy shore. Neither led to anything-sage, dust, the up-standing combs of rocky reefs were all the searching eye could see till sight lost itself in the earth's curve. The girl and the two men stood in the van of the train consulting. The region was new to Courant, but they left it to him, and he decided for the southern route.

For the rest of the afternoon they followed it. The day deepened to evening and they bore across a flaming level, striped with gigantic shadows. Looking forward they saw a lake of gold that lapped the roots of rose and lilac hills. The road swept downward to a crimsoned butte, cleft apart, and holding in its knees a gleam of water. The animals, smelling it, broke for it, tearing the wagon over sand hummocks and crackling twigs. It was a feeble upwelling, exhausted by a single draught. Each beast, desperately nosing in its coolness, drained it, and there was a long wait ere the tiny depression filled again. Finally, it was dried of its last drop, and the reluctant ooze stopped. The animals, their thirst half slaked, drooped about it, looking with mournful inquiry at the disturbed faces of their masters.

It was a bad sign. The men knew there were waterless tracts in the desert that the emigrant must skirt. They mounted to the summit of the butte and scanned their surroundings. The world shone a radiant floor out of which each sage brush rose a floating, feathered tuft, but of gleam or trickle of water there was none. When they came down David lay beside the spring his eyes on its basin, now a muddied hole, the rim patterned with hoof prints. When he heard them coming he rose on his elbow awaiting them with a haggard glance, then seeing their blank looks sank back groaning. To Susan's command that a cask be broached, Courant gave a sullen consent. She drew off the first cupful and gave it to the sick man, his lean hands straining for it, his fingers fumbling in a search for the handle. The leader, after watching her for a moment, turned away and swung off, muttering. David dropped back on the ground, his eyes closed, his body curved about the damp depression.

The evening burned to night, the encampment growing black against the scarlet sky. The brush fire sent a line of smoke straight up, a long milky thread, that slowly disentangled itself and mounted to a final outspreading. Each member of the group was still, the girl lying a dark oblong under her blanket, her face upturned to the stars which blossomed slowly in the huge, unclouded heaven. At the root of the butte, hidden against its shadowy base, the mountain man lay motionless, but his eyes were open and they rested on her, not closing or straying.

When no one saw him he kept this stealthy watch. In the daytime, with the others about, he still was careful to preserve his brusque indifference, to avoid her, to hide his passion with a jealous subtlety. But beneath the imposed bonds it grew with each day, stronger and more savage as the way waxed fiercer. It was not an obsession of occasional moments, it was always with him. As pilot her image moved across the waste before him. When he fell back for words with Daddy John, he was listening through the old man's speech, for the fall of her horse's hoofs. Her voice made his heart stop, the rustle of her garments dried his throat. When his lowered eyes saw her hand on the plate's edge, he grew rigid, unable to eat. If she brushed by him in the bustle of camp pitching, his hands lost their strength and he was sick with the sense of her. Love, courtship, marriage, were words that no longer had any meaning for him. All the tenderness and humanity he had felt for her in the days of her father's sickness were gone. They were burned away, as the water and the grass were. When he saw her solicitude for David, his contempt for the weak man hardened into hatred. He told himself that he hated them both, and he told himself he would crush and kill them both before David should get her. The desire to keep her from David was stronger than the desire to have her for himself. He did not think or care what he felt. She was the prey to be won by cunning or daring, whose taste or wishes had no place in the struggle. He no longer looked ahead, thought, or reasoned. The elemental in him was developing to fit a scene in which only the elemental survived.

They broke camp at four the next morning. For the last few days the heat had been unbearable, and they decided to start while the air was still cool and prolong the noon halt. The landscape grew barer. There were open areas where the soil was soft and sifted from the wheels like sand, and dried stretches where the alkali lay in a caked, white crust. In one place the earth humped into long, wavelike swells each crest topped with a fringe of brush, fine and feathery as petrified spray. At mid-day there was no water in sight. Courant, standing on his saddle, saw no promise of it, nothing but the level distance streaked with white mountain rims, and far to the south a patch of yellow-bare sand, he said, as he pointed a horny finger to where it lay.

They camped in the glare and opened the casks. After the meal they tried to rest, but the sun was merciless. The girl crawled under the wagon and lay there on the dust, sleeping with one arm thrown across her face. The two men sat near by, their hats drawn low over their brows. There was not a sound. The silence seemed transmuted to a slowly thickening essence solidifying round them. It pressed upon them till speech was as impossible as it would be under water. A broken group in the landscape's immensity, they were like a new expression of its somber vitality, motionless yet full of life, in consonance with its bare and brutal verity.

Courant left them to reconnoiter, and at mid afternoon came back to announce that farther on the trail bent to an outcropping of red rock where he thought there might be water. It was the hottest hour of the day. The animals strained at their harness with lolling tongues and white-rimmed eyeballs, their sweat making tracks on the dust. To lighten the wagon Daddy John walked beside it, plodding on in his broken moccasins, now and then chirruping to Julia. The girl rode behind him, her blouse open at the neck, her hair clinging in a black veining to her bedewed temples. Several times he turned back to look at her as the only other female of the party to be encouraged. When she caught his eye she nodded as though acknowledging the salutation of a passerby, her dumbness an instinctive hoarding of physical force.

The red rock came in sight, a nicked edge across the distance. As they approached, it drew up from the plain in a series of crumpled points like the comb of a rooster. The detail of the intervening space was lost in the first crepuscular softness, and they saw nothing but a stretch of darkening purple from which rose the scalloped crest painted in strange colors. Courant trotted forward crying a word of hope, and they pricked after him to where the low bulwark loomed above the plain's swimming mystery.

When they reached it he was standing at the edge of a caverned indentation. Dead grasses dropped against the walls, withered weeds thickened toward the apex in a tangled carpet. There had once been water there, but it was gone, dried, or sunk to some hidden channel in the rock's heart. They stood staring at the scorched herbage and the basin where the earth was cracked apart in its last gasping throes of thirst.

David's voice broke the silence. He had climbed to the front seat, and his face, gilded with the sunlight, looked like the face of a dead man painted yellow.

"Is there water?" he said, then saw the dead grass and dried basin, and met the blank looks of his companions.

Susan's laconic "The spring's dry," was not necessary. He fell forward on the seat with a moan, his head propped in his hands, his fingers buried in his hair. Courant sent a look of furious contempt over his abject figure, then gave a laugh that fell on the silence bitter as a curse. Daddy John without a word moved off and began unhitching the mules. Even in Susan pity was, for the moment, choked by a swell of disgust. Had she not had the other men to measure him by, had she not within her own sturdy frame felt the spirit still strong for conflict, she might still have known only the woman's sympathy for the feebler creature. But they were a trio steeled and braced for invincible effort, and this weakling, without the body and the spirit for the enterprise, was an alien among them.

She went to the back of the wagon and opened the mess chest. As she picked out the supper things she began to repent. The lean, bent figure and sunken head kept recurring to her. She saw him not as David but as a suffering outsider, and for a second, motionless, with a blackened skillet in her hand, had a faint, clairvoyant understanding of his soul's desolation amid the close-knit unity of their endeavor. She dropped the tin and went back to the front of the wagon. He was climbing out, hanging tremulous to the roof support, a haggard spectacle, with wearied eyes and skin drawn into fine puckerings across the temples. Pity came back in a remorseful wave, and she ran to him and lifted his arm to her shoulder. It clasped her hard and they walked to where at the rock's base the sage grew high. Here she laid a blanket for him and spread another on the top of the bushes, fastening it to the tallest ones till it stretched, a sheltering canopy, over him. She tried to cheer him with assurances that water would be found at the next halting place. He was listless at first, seeming not to listen, then the life in her voice roused his sluggish faculties, his cheeks took color, and his dull glance lit on point after point in its passage to her face, like the needle flickering toward the pole.

"If I could get water enough to drink, I'd be all right," he said. "The pains are gone."

"They must find it soon," she answered, lifting the weight of his fallen courage, heavy as his body might have been to her arms. "This is a traveled road. There must be a spring somewhere along it."

And she continued prying up the despairing spirit till the man began to respond, showing returning hope in the eagerness with which he hung on her words. When he lay sinking into drowsy quiet, she stole away from him to where the camp was spread about the unlit pyre of Daddy John's sage brush. It was too early for supper, and the old man, with the accouterments of the hunt slung upon his person and h

is rifle in his hand, was about to go afield after jack rabbit.

"It's a bad business this," he said in answer to the worry she dared not express. "The animals can't hold out much longer."

"What are we to do? There's only a little water left in one of the casks."

"Low's goin' to strike across for the other trail. He's goin' after supper, and he says he'll ride all night till he gets it. He thinks if he goes due that way," pointing northward, "he can strike it sooner than by goin' back."

They looked in the direction he pointed. Each bush was sending a phenomenally long shadow from its intersection with the ground. There was no butte or hummock to break the expanse between them and the faint, far silhouette of mountains. Her heart sank, a sinking that fatigue and dread of thirst had never given her.

"He may lose us," she said.

The old man jerked his head toward the rock.

"He'll steer by that, and I'll keep the fire going till morning."

"But how can he ride all night? He must be half dead now."

"A man like him don't die easy. It's not the muscle and the bones, it's the grit. He says it's him that made the mistake and it's him that's goin' to get us back on the right road."

"What will he do for water?"

"Take an empty cask behind the saddle and trust to God."

"But there's water in one of our casks yet."

"Yes, he knows it, but he's goin' to leave that for us. And we got to hang on to it, Missy. Do you understand that?"

She nodded, frowning and biting her underlip.

"Are you feelin' bad?" said the old man uneasily.

"Not a bit," she answered. "Don't worry about me."

He laid a hand on her shoulder and looked into her face with eyes that said more than his tongue could.

"You're as good a man as any of us. When we get to California we'll have fun laughing over this."

He gave the shoulder a shake, then drew back and picked up his rifle.

"I'll get you a rabbit for supper if I can," he said with his cackling laugh. "That's about the best I can do."

He left her trailing off into the reddened reaches of the sage, and she went back to the rock, thinking that in some overlooked hollow, water might linger. She passed the mouth of the dead spring, then skirted the spot where David lay, a motionless shape under the canopy of the blanket. A few paces beyond him a buttress extended and, rounding it, she found a triangular opening inclosed on three sides by walls, their summits orange with the last sunlight. There had once been water here for the grasses, and thin-leafed plants grew rank about the rock's base, then outlined in sere decay what had evidently been the path of a streamlet. She knelt among them, thrusting her hands between their rustling stalks, jerking them up and casting them away, the friable soil spattering from their roots.

The heat was torrid, the noon ardors still imprisoned between the slanting walls. Presently she sat back on her heels, and with an earthy hand pushed the moist hair from her forehead. The movement brought her head up, and her wandering eyes, roving in morose inspection, turned to the cleft's opening. Courant was standing there, watching her. His hands hung loose at his sides, his head was drooped forward, his chin lowered toward his throat. The position lent to his gaze a suggestion of animal ruminance and concentration.

"Why don't you get David to do that?" he said slowly.

The air in the little cleft seemed to her suddenly heavy and hard to breathe. She caught it into her lungs with a quick inhalation. Dropping her eyes to the weeds she said sharply, "David's sick. He can't do anything. You know that."

"He that ought to be out in the desert there looking for water's lying asleep under a blanket. That's your man."

He did not move or divert his gaze. There was something singularly sinister in the fixed and gleaming look and the rigidity of his watching face. She plucked at a weed, saw her hand's trembling and to hide it struck her palms together shaking off the dust. The sound filled the silent place. To her ears it was hardly louder than the terrified beating of her heart.

"That's the man you've chosen," he went on. "A feller that gives out when the road's hard, who hasn't enough backbone to stand a few days' heat and thirst. A poor, useless rag."

He spoke in a low voice, very slowly, each word dropping distinct and separate. His lowering expression, his steady gaze, his deliberate speech, spoke of mental forces in abeyance. It was another man, not the Courant she knew.

She tried to quell her tremors by simulating indignation. If her breathing shook her breast into an agitation he could see, the look she kept on him was bold and defiant.

"Don't speak of him that way," she cried scrambling to her feet. "Keep what you think to yourself."

"And what do you think?" he said and moved forward toward her.

She made no answer, and it was very silent in the cleft. As he came nearer the grasses crackling under his soft tread were the only sound. She saw that his face was pale under the tan, the nostrils slightly dilated. Stepping with a careful lightness, his movements suggested a carefully maintained adjustment, a being quivering in a breathless balance. She backed away till she stood pressed against the rock. She felt her thoughts scattering and made an effort to hold them as though grasping at tangible, escaping things.

He stopped close to her, and neither spoke for a moment, eye hard on eye, then hers shifted and dropped.

"You think about him as I do," said the man.

"No," she answered, "no," but her voice showed uncertainty.

"Why don't you tell the truth? Why do you lie?"

"No," this time the word was hardly audible, and she tried to impress it by shaking her head.

He made a step toward her and seized one of her hands. She tried to tear it away and flattened herself against the rock, panting, her face gone white as the alkaline patches of the desert.

"You don't love him. You never did."

She shook her head again, gasping. "Let me out of here. Let go of me."

"You liar," he whispered. "You love me."

She could not answer, her knees shaking, the place blurring on her sight. Through a sick dizziness she saw nothing but his altered face. He reached for the other hand, spread flat against the stone, and as she felt his grasp upon it, her words came in broken pleading:

"Yes, yes, it's true. I do. But I've promised. Let me go."

"Then come to me," he said huskily and tried to wrench her forward into his arms.

She held herself rigid, braced against the wall, and tearing one hand free, raised it, palm out, between his face and hers.

"No, no! My father-I promised him. I can't tell David now. I will later. Don't hold me. Let me go."

The voice of Daddy John came clear from outside. "Missy! Hullo, Missy! Where are you?"

She sent up the old man's name in a quavering cry and the mountain man dropped her arm and stepped back.

She ran past him, and at the mouth of the opening, stopped and leaned on a ledge, getting her breath and trying to control her trembling. Daddy John was coming through the sage, a jack rabbit held up in one hand.

"Here's your supper," he cried jubilant. "Ain't I told you I'd get it?"

She moved forward to meet him, walking slowly. When he saw her face, concern supplanted his triumph.

"We got to get you out of this," he said. "You're as peaked as one of them frontier women in sunbonnets," and he tried to hook a compassionate hand in her arm. But she edged away from him, fearful that he would feel her trembling, and answered:

"It's the heat. It seems to draw the strength all out of me."

"The rabbit'll put some of it back. I'll go and get things started. You sit by David and rest up," and he skurried away to the camp.

She went to David, lying now with opened eyes and hands clasped beneath his head. When her shadow fell across him he turned a brightened face on her.

"I'm better," he said. "If I could get some water I think I'd soon be all right."

She stood looking down on him with a clouded, almost sullen, expression.

"Did you sleep long?" she asked for something to say.

"I don't know how long. A little while ago I woke up and looked for you, but you weren't anywhere round, so I just lay here and looked out across to the mountains and began to think of California. I haven't thought about it for a long while."

She sat down by him and listened as he told her his thoughts. With a renewal of strength the old dreams had come back-the cabin by the river, the garden seeds to be planted, and now added to them was the gold they were to find. She hearkened with unresponsive apathy. The repugnance to this mutually shared future which had once made her recoil from it was a trivial thing to the abhorrence of it that was now hers. Dislikes had become loathings, a girl's whims, a woman's passions. As David babbled on she kept her eyes averted, for she knew that in them her final withdrawal shone coldly. Her thoughts kept reverting to the scene in the cleft, and when she tore them from it and forced them back on him, her conscience awoke and gnawed. She could no more tell this man, returning to life and love of her, than she could kill him as he lay there defenseless and trusting.

At supper they measured out the water, half a cup for each. There still remained a few inches in the cask. This was to be hoarded against the next day. If Courant on his night journey could not strike the upper trail and a spring they would have to retrace their steps, and by this route, with the animals exhausted and their own strength diminished, the first water was a twelve hours' march off. Susan and Courant were silent, avoiding each other's eyes, torpid to the outward observation. But the old man was unusually garrulous, evidently attempting to raise their lowered spirits. He had much to say about California and the gold there, speculated on their chances of fortune, and then carried his speculations on to the joys of wealth and a future in which Susan was to say with the Biblical millionaire, "Now soul take thine ease." She rewarded him with a quick smile, then tipped her cup till the bottom faced the sky, and let the last drop run into her mouth.

The night was falling when Courant rode out. She passed him as he was mounting, the canteen strapped to the back of his saddle. "Good-by, and good luck," she said in a low voice as she brushed by. His "good-by" came back to her instilled with a new meaning. The reserve between them was gone. Separated as the poles, they had suddenly entered within the circle of an intimacy that had snapped round them and shut them in. Her surroundings fell into far perspective, losing their menace. She did not care where she was or how she fared. An indifference to all that had seemed unbearable, uplifted her. It was like an emergence from cramped confines to wide, inspiring spaces. He and she were there-the rest was nothing.

Sitting beside David she could see the rider's figure grow small, as it receded across the plain. The night had come and the great level brooded solemn under the light of the first, serene stars. In the middle of the camp Daddy John's fire flared, the central point of illumination in a ring of fluctuant yellow. Touched and lost by its waverings the old man's figure came and went, absorbed in outer darkness, then revealed his arms extended round sheaves of brush. David turned and lay on his side looking at her. Her knees were drawn up, her hands clasped round her ankles. With the ragged detail of her dress obscured, the line of her profile and throat sharp in clear silhouette against the saffron glow, she was like a statue carved in black marble. He could not see what her glance followed, only felt the consolation of her presence, the one thing to which he could turn and meet a human response.

He was feverish again, his thirst returned in an insatiable craving. Moving restlessly he flung out a hand toward her and said querulously:

"How long will Low be gone?"

"Till the morning unless he finds water by the way."

Silence fell on him and her eyes strained through the darkness for the last glimpse of the rider. He sighed deeply, the hot hand stirring till it lay spread, with separated fingers on the hem of her dress. He moved each finger, their brushing on the cloth the only sound.

"Are you in pain?" she asked and shrunk before the coldness of her voice.

"No, but I am dying with thirst."

She made no answer, resting in her graven quietness. The night had closed upon the rider's figure, but she watched where it had been. Over a blackened peak a large star soared up like a bright eye spying on the waste. Suddenly the hand clinched and he struck down at the earth with it.

"I can't go without water till the morning."

"Try to sleep," she said. "We must stand it the best way we can."

"I can't sleep."

He moaned and turned over on his face and lying thus rolled from side to side as if in anguish that movement assuaged. For the first time she looked at him, turning upon him a glance of questioning anxiety. She could see his narrow, angular shape, the legs twisted, the arms bent for a pillow, upon which his head moved in restless pain.

"David, we've got to wait."

"The night through? Stay this way till morning? I'll be dead. I wish I was now."

She looked away from him seized by temptation that rose from contrition not pity.

"If you cared for me you could get it. Low's certain to find a spring."

"Very well. I will," she said and rose to her feet.

She moved softly to the camp the darkness hiding her. Daddy John was taking a cat nap by the fire, a barrier of garnered sage behind him. She knew his sleep was light and stole with a tiptoe tread to the back of the wagon where the water cask stood. She drew off a cupful, then, her eye alert on the old man, crept back to David. When he saw her coming he sat up with a sharp breath of satisfaction, and she knelt beside him and held the cup to his lips. He drained it and sank back in a collapse of relief, muttering thanks that she hushed, fearful of the old man. Then she again took her seat beside him. She saw Daddy John get up and pile the fire high, and watched its leaping flame throw out tongues toward the stars.

Midnight was past when David woke and again begged for water. This time she went for it without urging. When he had settled into rest she continued her watch peaceful at the thought that she had given him what was hers and Courant's. Reparation of a sort had been made. Her mind could fly without hindrance into the wilderness with the lonely horseman. It was a luxury like dearly bought freedom, and she sat on lost in it, abandoned to a reverie as deep and solemn as the night.

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