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   Chapter 18 No.18

The Emigrant Trail By Geraldine Bonner Characters: 18293

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


She woke when the sun shot its first rays into her eyes. David lay near by, breathing lightly, his face like a pale carven mask against the blanket's folds. Down below in the camp the fire burned low, its flame looking ineffectual and tawdry in the flushed splendor of the sunrise. Daddy John was astir, moving about among the animals and pausing to rub Julia's nose and hearten her up with hopeful words.

Susan mounted to a ledge and scanned the distance. Her figure caught the old man's eye and he hailed her for news. Nothing yet, she signaled back, then far on the plain's rose-brown limit saw a dust blur and gave a cry that brought him running and carried him in nimble ascent to her side. His old eyes could see nothing. She had to point the direction with a finger that shook.

"There, there. It's moving-far away, as if a drop of water had been spilled on a picture and made a tiny blot."

They watched till a horseman grew from the nebulous spot. Then they climbed down and ran to the camp, got out the breakfast things and threw brush on the fire, speaking nothing but the essential word, for hope and fear racked them. When he was within hail Daddy John ran to meet him, but she stayed where she was, her hands making useless darts among the pans, moistening her lips that they might frame speech easily when he came. With down-bent head she heard his voice hoarse from a dust-dried throat: he had found the trail and near it a spring, the cask he carried was full, it would last them for twelve hours. But the way was heavy and the animals were too spent for a day's march in such heat. They would not start till evening and would journey through the night.

She heard his feet brushing toward her through the sage, and smelled the dust and sweat upon him as he drew up beside her. She was forced to raise her eyes and murmur a greeting. It was short and cold, and Daddy John marveled at the ways of women, who welcomed a man from such labors as if he had been to the creek and brought up a pail of water. His face, gaunt and grooved with lines, made her heart swell with the pity she had so freely given David, and the passion that had never been his. There was no maternal softness in her now. The man beside her was no helpless creature claiming her aid, but a conqueror upon whom she leaned and in whom she gloried.

After he had eaten he drew a saddle back into the rock's shade, spread a blanket and threw himself on it. Almost before he had composed his body in comfort he was asleep, one arm thrown over his head, his sinewy neck outstretched, his chest rising and falling in even breaths.

At noon Daddy John in broaching the cask discovered the deficit in the water supply. She came upon the old man with the half-filled coffee-pot in his hand staring down at its contents with a puzzled face. She stood watching him, guilty as a thievish child, the color mounting to her forehead. He looked up and in his eyes she read the shock of his suspicions. Delicacy kept him silent, and as he rinsed the water round in the pot his own face reddened in a blush for the girl he had thought strong in honor and self-denial as he was.

"I took it," she said slowly.

He had to make allowances, not only to her, but to himself. He felt that he must reassure her, keep her from feeling shame for the first underhand act he had ever known her commit. So he spoke with all the cheeriness he could command:

"I guess you needed it pretty bad. Turning out as it has I'm glad you done it."

She saw he thought she had taken it for herself, and experienced relief in the consciousness of unjust punishment.

"You were asleep," she said, "and I came down and took it twice."

He did not look at her for he could not bear to see her humiliation. It was his affair to lighten her self-reproach.

"Well, that was all right. You're the only woman among us, and you've got to be kept up."

"I-I-couldn't stand it any longer," she faltered now, wanting to justify herself. "It was too much to bear."

"Don't say no more," he said tenderly. "Ain't you only a little girl put up against things that 'ud break the spirit of a strong man?"

The pathos of his efforts to excuse her shook her guarded self-control. She suddenly put her face against his shoulder in a lonely dreariness. He made a backward gesture with his head that he might toss off his hat and lay his cheek on her hair.

"There, there," he muttered comfortingly. "Don't go worrying about that. You ain't done no harm. It's just as natural for you to have taken it as for you to go to sleep when you're tired. And there's not a soul but you and me'll ever know it, and we'll forget by to-night."

His simple words, reminiscent of gentler days, when tragic problems lay beyond the confines of imagination, loosed the tension of her mood, and she clasped her arms about him, trembling and shaken. He patted her with his free hand, the coffee-pot in the other, thinking her agitation merely an expression of fatigue, with no more knowledge of its complex provocation than he had of the mighty throes that had once shaken the blighted land on which they stood.

David was better, much better, he declared, and proved it by helping clear the camp and pack the wagon for the night march. He was kneeling by Daddy John, who was folding the blankets, when he said suddenly:

"If I hadn't got water I think I'd have died last night."

The old man, stopped in his folding to turn a hardening face on him.

"Water?" he said. "How'd you get it?"

"Susan did. I told her I couldn't stand it, and she went down twice to the wagon and brought it to me. I was at the end of my rope."

Daddy John said nothing. His ideas were readjusting themselves to a new point of view. When they were established his Missy was back upon her pedestal, a taller one than ever before, and David was once and for all in the dust at its feet.

"There's no one like Susan," the lover went on, now with returning forces, anxious to give the mead of praise where it was due. "She tried to talk me out of it, and then when she saw I couldn't stand it she just went quietly off and got it."

"I guess you could have held out till the morning if you'd put your mind to it," said the old man dryly, rising with the blankets.

For the moment he despised David almost as bitterly as Courant did. It was not alone the weakness so frankly admitted; it was that his action had made Daddy John harbor secret censure of the being dearest to him. The old man could have spat upon him. He moved away for fear of the words that trembled on his tongue. And another and deeper pain tormented him-that his darling should so love this feeble creature that she could steal for him and take the blame of his misdeeds. This was the man to whom she had given her heart! He found himself wishing that David had never come back from his search for the lost horses. Then the other man, the real man that was her fitting mate, could have won her.

At sunset the train was ready. Every article that could be dispensed with was left, a rich find for the Indians whose watch fires winked from the hills. To the cry of "Roll out," and the snap of the long whip, the wagon lurched into motion, the thirst-racked animals straining doggedly as it crunched over sage stalks and dragged through powdery hummocks. The old man walked by the wheel, the long lash of his whip thrown afar, flashing in the upper light and descending in a lick of flame on the mules' gray flanks. With each blow fell a phrase of encouragement, the words of a friend who wounds and wounding himself suffers. David rode at the rear with Susan. The two men had told him he must ride if he died for it, and met his offended answer that he intended to do so with sullen silence. In advance, Courant's figure brushed between the bushes, his hair a moving patch of copper color in the last light.

Darkness quickly gathered round them. The bowl of sky became an intense Prussian blue that the earth reflected. In this clear, deep color the wagon hood showed a pallid arch, and the shapes of man and beast were defined in shadowless black. In the west a band of lemon-color lingered, and above the stars began to prick through, great scintillant sparks, that looked, for all their size, much farther away than the stars of the peopled places. Their light seemed caught and held in aerial gulfs above the earth, making the heavens clear, while the night clung close and undisturbed to the plain's face. Once from afar the cry of an animal arose, a long, swelling howl, but around the train all was still save for the crackling of the crushed sage stalks, and the pad of hoofs.

It was near midnight when Susan's voice summoned Daddy John. The wagon halted, and she beckoned him with a summoning arm. He ran to her, circling the bushes with a youth's alertness, and stretched up to hear her as she bent from the saddle. David must go in the wagon, he was unable to ride longer. The old man swept him with a look of inspection. The starlight showed a drooping figure, the face hidden by the shadow of his hat brim. The mules were at t

he limit of their strength, and the old man demurred, swearing under his breath and biting his nails.

"You've got to take him," she said, "if it kills them. He would have fallen off a minute ago if I hadn't put my arm around him."

"Come on, then," he answered with a surly look at David. "Come on and ride, while the rest of us get along the best way we can."

"He can't help it," she urged in an angry whisper. "You talk as if he was doing it on purpose."

David slid off his horse and made for the wagon with reeling steps. The other man followed muttering.

"Help him," she called. "Don't you see he can hardly stand?"

At the wagon wheel Daddy John hoisted him in with vigorous and ungentle hands. Crawling into the back the sick man fell prone with a groan. Courant, who had heard them and turned to watch, came riding up.

"What is it?" he said sharply. "The mules given out?"

"Not they," snorted Daddy John, at once all belligerent loyalty to Julia and her mates, "it's this d-d cry baby again," and he picked up the reins exclaiming in tones of fond urgence:

"Come now, off again. Keep up your hearts There's water and grass ahead. Up there, Julia, honey!"

The long team, crouching in the effort to start the wagon, heaved it forward, and the old man, leaping over the broken sage, kept the pace beside them. Courant, a few feet in advance, said over his shoulder:

"What's wrong with him now?"

"Oh, played out, I guess. She," with a backward jerk of his head, "won't have it any other way. No good telling her it's nerve not body that he ain't got."

The mountain man looked back toward the pathway between the slashed and broken bushes. He could see Susan's solitary figure, David's horse following.

"What's she mind for?" he said.

"Because she's a woman and they're made that way. She's more set on that chump than she'd be on the finest man you could bring her if you hunted the world over for him."

They fared on in silence, the soft soil muffling their steps. The wagon lurched on a hummock and David groaned.

"Are you meaning she cares for him?" asked Courant.

"All her might," answered the old man. "Ain't she goin' to marry the varmint?"

It was an hour for understanding, no matter how bitter. Daddy John's own dejection made him unsparing. He offered his next words as confirmation of a condition that he thought would kill all hope in the heart of the leader.

"Last night he made her get him water-the store we had left if you hadn't found any. Twict in the night while I was asleep she took and gave it to him. Then when I found it out she let me think she took it for herself," he spat despondently. "She the same as lied for him. I don't want to hear no more after that."

The mountain man rode with downdrooped head. Daddy John, who did not know what he did, might well come to such conclusions. He knew the secret of the girl's contradictory actions. He looked into her perturbed spirit and saw how desperately she clung to the letter of her obligation, while she repudiated the spirit. Understanding her solicitude for David, he knew that it was strengthened by the consciousness of her disloyalty. But he felt no tenderness for these distracted feminine waverings. It exhilarated him to think that while she held to the betrothed of her father's choice and the bond of her given word, her hold would loosen at his wish. As he had felt toward enemies that he had conquered-crushed and subjected by his will-he felt toward her. It was a crowning joy to know that he could make her break her promise, turn her from her course of desperate fidelity, and make her his own, not against her inclination, but against her pity, her honor, her conscience.

The spoor left by his horse the night before was clear in the starlight. He told Daddy John to follow it and drew up beside the track to let the wagon pass him. Motionless he watched the girl's approaching figure, and saw her rein her horse to a standstill.

"Come on," he said softly. "I want to speak to you."

She touched the horse and it started toward him. As she came nearer he could see the troubled shine of her eyes.

"Why are you afraid?" he said, as he fell into place beside her. "We're friends now."

She made no answer, her head bent till her face was hidden by her hat. He laid his hand on her rein and brought the animal to a halt.

"Let the wagon get on ahead," he whispered. "We'll follow at a distance."

The whisper, so low that the silence was unbroken by it, came to her, a clear sound carrying with it a thrill of understanding. She trembled and-his arm against hers as his hand held her rein-he felt the subdued vibration like the quivering of a frightened animal. The wagon lumbered away with the sifting dust gushing from the wheels. A stirred cloud rose upon its wake and they could feel it thick and stifling in their nostrils. She watched the receding arch cut down the back by the crack in the closed canvas, while he watched her. The sound of crushed twigs and straining wheels lessened, the stillness gathered between these noises of laboring life and the two mounted figures. As it settled each could hear the other's breathing and feel a mutual throb, as though the same leaping artery fed them both. In the blue night encircled by the waste, they were as still as vessels balanced to a hair in which passion brimmed to the edge.

"Come on," she said huskily, and twitched her reins from his hold.

The horses started, walking slowly. A strip of mangled sage lay in front, back of them the heavens hung, a star-strewn curtain. It seemed to the man and woman that they were the only living things in the world, its people, its sounds, its interests, were in some undescried distance where life progressed with languid pulses. How long the silence lasted neither knew. He broke it with a whisper:

"Why did you get David the water last night?"

Her answer came so low he had to bend to hear it.

"He wanted it. I had to."

"Why do you give him all he asks for? David is nothing to you."

This time no answer came, and he stretched his hand and clasped the pommel of her saddle. The horses, feeling the pull of the powerful arm, drew together. His knee pressed on the shoulder of her pony, and feeling him almost against her she bent sideways, flinching from the contact.

"Why do you shrink from me, Missy?"

"I'm afraid," she whispered.

They paced on for a moment in silence. When he tried to speak his lips were stiff, and he moistened them to murmur:

"Of what?"

She shrunk still further and raised a hand between them. He snatched at it, pulling it down, saying hoarsely:

"Of me?"

"Of something-I don't know what. Of something terrible and strange."

She tried to strike at her horse with the reins, but the man's hand dropped like a hawk on the pommel and drew the tired animal back to the foot pace.

"If you love me there's no need of fear," he said, then waited, the sound of her terrified breathing like the beating of waves in his ears, and murmured lower than before, "And you love me. I know it."

Her face showed in dark profile against the deep sky. He stared at it, then suddenly set his teeth and gave the pommel a violent jerk that made the horse stagger and grind against its companion. The creaking of the wagon came faint from a wake of shadowy trail.

"You've done it for weeks. Before you knew. Before you lied to your father when he tried to make you marry David."

She dropped the reins and clinched her hands against her breast, a movement of repression and also of pleading to anything that would protect her, any force that would give her strength to fight, not the man alone, but herself. But the will was not within her. The desert grew dim, the faint sounds from the wagon faded. Like a charmed bird, staring straight before it, mute and enthralled, she rocked lightly to left and right, and then swayed toward him.

The horse, feeling the dropped rein, stopped, jerking its neck forward in the luxury of rest, its companion coming to a standstill beside it. Courant raised himself in his saddle and gathered her in an embrace that crushed her against his bony frame, then pressed against her face with his, till he pushed it upward and could see it, white, with closed eyes, on his shoulder. He bent till his long hair mingled with hers and laid his lips on her mouth with the clutch of a bee on a flower.

They stood a compact silhouette, clear in the luminous starlight. The crack in the canvas that covered the wagon back widened and the eye that had been watching them, stared bright and wide, as if all the life of the feeble body had concentrated in that one organ of sense. The hands, damp and trembling, drew the canvas edges closer, but left space enough for the eye to dwell on this vision of a shattered world. It continued to gaze as Susan slid from the encircling arms, dropped from her horse, and came running forward, stumbling on the fallen bushes, as she ran panting out the old servant's name. Then it went back to the mountain man, a black shape in the loneliness of the night.

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