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   Chapter 19 No.19

The Emigrant Trail By Geraldine Bonner Characters: 23577

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


A slowly lightening sky, beneath it the transparent sapphire of the desert wakening to the dawn, and cutting the blue expanse the line of the new trail. A long butte, a bristling outline on the paling north, ran out from a crumpled clustering of hills, and the road bent to meet it. The air came from it touched with a cooling freshness, and as they pressed toward it they saw the small, swift shine of water, a little pool, grass-ringed, with silver threads creeping to the sands.

They drank and then slept, sinking to oblivion as they dropped on the ground, not waiting to undo their blankets or pick out comfortable spots. The sun, lifting a bright eye above the earth's rim, shot its long beams over their motionless figures, "bundles of life," alone in a lifeless world.

David alone could not rest. Withdrawn from the others he lay in the shadow of the wagon, watching small points in the distance with a glance that saw nothing. All sense of pain and weakness had left him. Physically he felt strangely light and free of sensation. With his brain endowed with an abnormal activity he suffered an agony of spirit so poignant that there were moments when he drew back and looked at himself wondering how he endured it. He was suddenly broken away from everything cherished and desirable in life. The bare and heart-rending earth about him was as the expression of his ruined hopes. And after these submergences in despair a tide of questions carried him to livelier torment: Why had she done it? What had changed her? When had she ceased to care?

All his deadened manhood revived. He wanted her, he owned her, she was his. Sick and unable to fight for her she had been stolen from him, and he writhed in spasms of self pity at the thought of the cruelty of it. How could he, disabled, broken by unaccustomed hardships, cope with the iron-fibered man whose body and spirit were at one with these harsh settings? He was unfitted for it, for the heroic struggle, for the battle man to man for a woman as men had fought in the world's dawn into which they had retraced their steps. He could not make himself over, become another being to appeal to a sense in her he had never touched. He could only plead with her, beg mercy of her, and he saw that these were not the means that won women grown half savage in correspondence with a savage environment.

Then came moments of exhaustion when he could not believe it. Closing his eyes he called up the placid life that was to have been his and Susan's, and could not think but that it still must be. Like a child he clung to his hope, to the belief that something would intervene and give her back to him; not he, he was unable to, but something that stood for justice and mercy. All his life he had abided by the law, walked uprightly, done his best. Was he to be smitten now through no fault of his own? It was all a horrible dream, and presently there would be an awakening with Susan beside him as she had been in the first calm weeks of their betrothal. The sweetness of those days returned to him with the intolerable pang of a fair time, long past and never to come again. He threw his head back as if in a paroxysm of pain. It could not be and yet in his heart he knew it was true. In the grip of his torment he thought of the God that watching over Israel slumbered not nor slept. With his eyes on the implacable sky he tried to pray, tried to drag down from the empty gulf of air the help that would bring back his lost happiness.

At Susan's first waking movement he started and turned his head toward her. She saw him, averted her face, and began the preparations for the meal. He lay watching her and he knew that her avoidance of his glance was intentional. He also saw that her manner of preoccupied bustle was affected. She was pale, her face set in hard lines. When she spoke once to Daddy John her voice was unlike itself, hoarse and throaty, its mellow music gone.

They gathered and took their places in silence, save for the old man, who tried to talk, but meeting no response gave it up. Between the three others not a word was exchanged. A stifling oppression lay on them, and they did not dare to look at one another. The girl found it impossible to swallow and taking a piece of biscuit from her mouth threw it into the sand.

The air was sultry, light whisps of mist lying low over the plain. The weight of these vaporous films seemed to rest on them heavy as the weight of water, and before the meal was finished, Susan, overborne by a growing dread and premonition of tragedy, rose and left her place, disappearing round a buttress of the rock. Courant stopped eating and looked after her, his head slowly moving as his eye followed her. To anyone watching it would have been easy to read this pursuing glance, the look of the hunter on his quarry. David saw it and rose to his knees. A rifle lay within arm's reach, and for one furious moment he felt an impulse to snatch it and kill the man. But a rush of inhibiting instinct checked him. Had death or violence menaced her he could have done it, but without the incentive of the immediate horror he could never rise so far beyond himself.

Susan climbed the rock's side to a plateau on its western face. The sun beat on her like a furnace mouth. Here and there black filigrees of shade shrank to the bases of splintered ledges. Below the plain lay outflung in the stupor of midday. On its verge the mountains stretched, a bright blue, shadowless film. A mirage trembled to the south, a glassy vision, crystal clear amid the chalky streakings and the rings of parched and blanching sinks. Across the prospect the faint, unfamiliar mist hung as if, in the torrid temperature, the earth was steaming.

She sat down on a shelf of rock not feeling the burning sunshine or the heat that the baked ledges threw back upon her. The life within her was so intense that no impressions from the outside could enter, even her eyes took in no image of the prospect they dwelt on. Courant's kiss had brought her to a place toward which, she now realized, she had been moving for a long time, advancing upon it, unknowing, but impelled like a somnambulist willed toward a given goal. What was to happen she did not know. She felt a dread so heavy that it crushed all else from her mind. They had reached a crisis where everything had stopped, a dark and baleful focus to which all that had gone before had been slowly converging. The whole journey had been leading to this climax of suspended breath and fearful, inner waiting.

She heard the scraping of ascending feet, and when she saw David stared at him, her eyes unblinking in stony expectancy. He came and stood before her, and she knew that at last he had guessed, and felt no fear, no resistance against the explanation that must come. He suddenly had lost all significance, was hardly a human organism, or if a human organism, one that had no relation to her. Neither spoke for some minutes. He was afraid, and she waited, knowing what he was going to say, wishing it was said, and the hampering persistence of his claim was ended.

At length he said tremulously:

"Susan, I saw you last night. What did you do it for? What am I to think?"

That he had had proof of her disloyalty relieved her. There would be less to say in this settling of accounts.

"Well," she answered, looking into his eyes. "You saw!"

He cried desperately, "I saw him kiss you. You let him. What did it mean?"

"Why do you ask? If you saw you know."

"I don't know. I want to know. Tell me, explain to me." He paused, and then cried with a pitiful note of pleading, "Tell me it wasn't so. Tell me I made a mistake."

He was willing, anxious, for her to lie. Against the evidence of his own senses he would have made himself believe her, drugged his pain with her falsehoods. What remnant of consideration she had vanished.

"You made no mistake," she answered. "It was as you saw."

"I don't believe it. I can't. You wouldn't have done it. It's I you're promised to. Haven't I your word? Haven't you been kind as an angel to me when the others would have let me die out here like a dog? What did you do it for if you didn't care?"

"I was sorry," and then with cold, measured slowness, "and I felt guilty."

"That's it-you felt guilty. It's not your doing. You've been led away. While I've been sick that devil's been poisoning you against me. He's tried to steal you from me. But you're not the girl to let him do that. You'll come back to me-the man that you belong to, that's loved you since the day we started."

To her at this naked hour, where nothing lived but the truth, the thought that he would take her back with the other man's kisses on her lips, made her unsparing. She drew back from him, stiffening in shocked repugnance, and speaking with the same chill deliberation.

"I'll never come back to you. It's all over, that love with you. I didn't know. I didn't feel. I was a child with no sense of what she was doing. Now everything's different. It's he I must go with and be with as long as I live."

The hideousness of the discovery had been made the night before. Had her words been his first intimation they might have shocked him into stupefied dumbness and made him seem the hero who meets his fate with closed lips. But hours long he had brooded and knew her severance from him had taken place. With the mad insistance of a thought whirling on in fevered repetition he had told himself that he must win her back, urge, struggle, plead, till he had got her where she was before or lose her forever.

"You can't. You can't do it. It's a temporary thing. It's the desert and the wildness and because he could ride and get water and find the trail. In California it will be different. Out there it'll be the same as it used to be back in the States. You'll think of this as something unreal that never happened and your feeling for him-it'll all go. When we get where it's civilized you'll be like you were when we started. You couldn't have loved a savage like that then. Well, you won't when you get where you belong. It's horrible. It's unnatural."

She shook her head, glanced at him and glanced away. The sweat was pouring off his face and his lips quivered like a weeping child's.

"Oh, David," she said with a deep breath like a groan, "this is natural for me. The other was not."

"You don't know what you're saying. And how about your promise? You gave that of your own free will. Was it a thing you give and take back whenever you please? What would your father think of your breaking your word-throwing me off for a man no better than a half-blood Indian? Is that your honor?" Then he was suddenly fearful that he had said too much and hurt his case, and he dropped to a wild pleading: "Oh, Susan, you can't, you can't. You haven't got the heart to treat me so."

She looked down not answering, but her silence gave no indication of a softened response. He seemed to throw himself upon its hardness in hopeless desperation.

"Send him away. He needn't go on with us. Tell him to go back to the Fort."

"Where would we be now without him?" she said and smiled grimly at the thought of their recent perils with the leader absent.

"We're on the main trail. We don't need him now. I heard him say yesterday to Daddy John we'd be in Humboldt in three or four days. We can go on without him, there's no more danger."

She smiled again, a slight flicker of one corner of her mouth. The dangers were over and Courant could be safely dispensed with.

"He'll go on with us," she said.

"It's not necessary. We don't want him. I'll guide. I'll help. If he was gone I'd be all right again. Daddy John and I are enough. If I can get you back as you wer

e before, we'll be happy again, and I can get you back if he goes."

"You'll never get me back," she answered, and rising moved away from him, aloof and hostile in the deepest of all aversions, the woman to the unloved and urgent suitor. He followed her and caught at her dress.

"Don't go. Don't leave me this way. I can't believe it. I can't stand it. If I hadn't grown into thinking you were going to be my wife maybe I could. But it's just unbearable when I'd got used to looking upon you as mine, almost as good as married to me. You can't do it. You can't make me suffer this way."

His complete abandonment filled her with pain, the first relenting she had had. She could not look at him and longed to escape. She tried to draw her dress from his hands, saying:

"Oh, David, don't say any more. There's no good. It's over. It's ended. I can't help it. It's something stronger than I am."

He saw the repugnance in her face and loosened his hold, dropping back from her.

"It's the end of my life," he said in a muffled voice.

"I feel as if it was the end of the world," she answered, and going to the pathway disappeared over its edge.

She walked back skirting the rock's bulk till she found a break in its side, a small gorge shadowed by high walls. The cleft penetrated deep, its mouth open to the sky, its apex a chamber over which the cloven walls slanted like hands with finger tips touching in prayer. It was dark in this interior space, the floor mottled with gleaming sun-spots. Across the wider opening, unroofed to the pale blue of the zenith, the first slow shade was stretching, a creeping gray coolness, encroaching on the burning ground. Here she threw herself down, looking out through the entrance at the desert shimmering through the heat haze. The mist wreaths were dissolving, every line and color glassily clear. Her eyes rested vacantly on it, her body inert, her heart as heavy as a stone.

David made no movement to follow her. He had clung to his hope with the desperation of a weak nature, but it was ended now. No interference, no miracle, could restore her to him. He saw-he had to see-that she was lost to him as completely as if death had claimed her. More completely, for death would have made her a stranger. Now it was the Susan he had loved who had looked at him with eyes not even indifferent but charged with a hard hostility. She was the same and yet how different! Hopeless!-Hopeless! He wondered if the word had ever before voiced so abject a despair.

He turned to the back of the plateau and saw the faint semblance of a path leading upward to higher levels, a trail worn by the feet of other emigrants who had climbed to scan with longing eyes the weary way to the land of their desire. As he walked up it and the prospect widened on his sight, its message came, clearer with every mounting step. Thus forever would he look out on a blasted world uncheered by sound or color. The stillness that lapped him round was as the stillness of his own dead heart. The mirage quivered brilliant in the distance, and he paused, a solitary shape against the exhausted sky, to think that his dream of love had had no more reality. Beautiful and alluring it had floated in his mind, an illusion without truth or substance.

He reached the higher elevation, barren and iron hard, the stone hot to his feet. On three sides the desert swept out to the horizon, held in its awful silence. Across it, a white seam, the Emigrant Trail wound, splindling away into the west, a line of tortuous curves, a loop, a straight streak, and then a tiny thread always pressing on to that wonderful land which he had once seen as a glowing rim on the world's remotest verge. It typified the dauntless effort of man, never flagging, never broken, persisting to its goal. He had not been able to thus persist, the spirit had not reached far enough to know its aim and grasp it. He knew his weakness, his incapacity to cope with the larger odds of life, a watcher not an actor in the battle, and understanding that his failure had come from his own inadequacy he wished that he might die.

On one side the eminence broke away in a sheer fall to the earth below. At its base a scattering of sundered bowlders and fragments lay, veiled by a growth of small, bushy shrubs to which a spring gave nourishment. Behind this the long spine of the rock tapered back to the parent ridge that ran, a bristling rampart, east and west. He sat down on the edge of the precipice watching the trail. He had no idea how long he remained thus. A shadow falling across him brought him back to life. He turned and saw Courant standing a few feet from him.

Without speech or movement they eyed one another. In his heart each hated the other, but in David the hate had come suddenly, the hysteric growth of a night's anguish. The mountain man's was tempered by a process of slow-firing to a steely inflexibility. He hated David that he had ever been his rival, that he had ever thought to lay claim to the woman who was his, that he had ever aspired to her, touched her, desired her. He hated him when he saw that, all unconsciously, he had still a power to hold her from the way her passion led. And back of all was the ancient hatred, the heritage from ages lost in the beginnings of the race, man's of man in the struggle for a woman.

David rose from his crouching posture to his knees. The other, all his savage instincts primed for onslaught, saw menace in the movement, and stood braced and ready. Like Susan he understood that David had guessed the secret. He could judge him only by his own measure, and he knew the settling of the score had come. There was no right or justice in his claim, only the right of the stronger to win what he wanted, but that to him was the supreme right.

David's sick fury shot up into living flame. He judged Susan innocent, a tool in ruthless hands. He saw the destroyer of their lives, a devil who had worked subtly for his despoilment. The air grew dark and in the center of the darkness, his hate concentrated on the watching face, and an impulse, the strongest of his life, nerved him with the force to kill. For once he broke beyond himself, rose outside the restrictions that had held him cowering within his sensitive shell. His rage had the vehemence of a distracted woman's, and he threw himself upon his enemy, inadequate now as always, but at last unaware and unconscious.

They clutched and rocked together. From the moment of the grapple it was unequal-a sick and wounded creature struggling in arms that were as iron bands about his puny frame. But as a furious child fights for a moment successfully with its enraged elder, he tore and beat at his opponent, striking blindly at the face he loathed, writhing in the grip that bent his body and sent the air in sobbing gasps from his lungs. Their trampling was muffled on the stone, their shadows leaped in contorted waverings out from their feet and back again. Broken and twisted in Courant's arms, David felt no pain only the blind hate, saw the livid plain heaving about him, the white ball of the sun, and twisting through the reeling distance the pale thread of the Emigrant Trail, glancing across his ensanguined vision like a shuttle weaving through a blood-red loom.

They staggered to the edge of the plateau and there hung. It was only for a moment, a last moment of strained and swaying balance. Courant felt the body against his weaken, wrenched himself free, and with a driving blow sent it outward over the precipice. It fell with the arms flung wide, the head dropped backward, and from the open mouth a cry broke, a shrill and dreadful sound that struck sharp on the plain's abstracted silence, spread and quivered across its surface like widening rings on the waters of a pool. The mountain man threw himself on the edge and looked down. The figure lay limp among the bushes thirty feet below. He watched it, his body still as a panther's crouched for a spring. He saw one of the hands twitch, a loosened sliver of slate slide from the wall, and cannoning on projections, leap down and bury itself in the outflung hair. The face looking up at him with half-shut eyes that did not wink as the rock dust sifted into them, was terrible, but he felt no sensation save a grim curiosity.

He stole down a narrow gulley and crept with stealthy feet and steadying hands toward the still shape. The shadows were cool down there, and as he touched the face its warmth shocked him. It should have been cold to have matched its look and the hush of the place. He thrust his hand inside the shirt and felt at the heart. No throb rose under his palm, and he sent it sliding over the upper part of the body, limp now, but which he knew would soon be stiffening. The man was dead.

Courant straightened himself and sent a rapid glance about him. The bushes among which the body lay were close matted in a thick screen. Through their roots the small trickle of the spring percolated, stealing its way to the parched sands outside. It made a continuous murmuring, as if nature was lifting a voice of low, insistent protest against the desecration of her peace.

The man standing with stilled breath and rigid muscles listened for other sounds. Reassured that there were none, his look swept right and left for a spot wherein to hide the thing that lay at his feet. At its base the rock wall slanted outward leaving a hollow beneath its eave where the thin veneer of water gleamed from the shadows. He took the dead man under the arms and dragged him to it, careful of branches that might snap under his foot, pausing to let the echoes of rolling stones die away-a figure of fierce vitality with the long, limp body hanging from his hands. At the rock he crouched and thrust his burden under the wall's protecting cope, the trickle of the water dying into a sudden, scared silence. Stepping back he brushed the bushes into shape, hiding their breakage, and bent to gather the scattered leaves and crush them into crevices. When it was done the place showed no sign of the intruder, only the whispering of the streamlet told that its course was changed and it was feeling for a new channel.

Then he crept softly out to the plain's edge where the sunlight lay long and bright. It touched his face and showed it white, with lips close set and eyes gleaming like crystals. He skirted the rock, making a soft, quick way to where the camp lay. Here the animals stood, heads drooped as they cropped the herbage round the spring. Daddy John sat in the shade of the wagon, tranquilly cleaning a gun. The mountain man's passage was so soundless that he did not hear it. The animals raised slow eyes to the moving figure, then dropped them indifferently. He passed them, his step growing lighter, changing as he withdrew from the old man's line of vision, to a long, rapid glide. His blood-shot eyes nursed the extending buttresses, and as he came round them, with craned neck and body reaching forward, they sent a glance into each recess that leaped round it like a flame.

Susan had remained in the same place. She made no note of the passage of time, but the sky between the walls was growing deeper in color, the shadows lengthening along the ground. She was lying on her side looking out through the rift's opening when Courant stood there. He made an instant's pause, a moment when his breath caught deep, and, seeing him, she started to her knees with a blanching face. As he came upon her she held out her hands, crying in uprising notes of terror, "No! No! No!" But he gathered her in his arms, stilled her cries with his kisses, and bending low carried her back into the darkened cavern over which the rocks closed like hands uplifted in prayer.

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