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   Chapter 20 No.20

The Emigrant Trail By Geraldine Bonner Characters: 21528

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


In the light of a clear September sun they stood and looked down on it-the Promised Land.

For days they had been creeping up through defiles in the mountain wall, crawling along ledges with murmurous seas of pine below and the snow lying crisp in the hollows. On the western slope the great bulwark dropped from granite heights to wooded ridges along the spines of which the road wound. Through breaks in the pine's close ranks they saw blue, vaporous distances, and on the far side of aerial chasms the swell of other mountains, clothed to their summits, shape undulating beyond shape.

Then on this bright September afternoon a sun-filled pallor of empty space shone between the tree trunks, and they had hurried to the summit of a knoll and seen it spread beneath them-California!

The long spurs, broken apart by ravines, wound downward to where a flat stretch of valley ran out to a luminous horizon. It was a yellow floor, dotted with the dark domes of trees and veined with a line of water. The trail, a red thread, was plain along the naked ridges, and then lost itself in the dusk of forests. Right and left summit and slope swelled and dropped, sun-tipped, shadow filled. Slants of light, rifts of shade, touched the crowded pine tops to gold, darkened them to sweeps of unstirred olive. The air, softly clear, was impregnated with a powerful aromatic scent, the strong, rich odor of the earth and its teeming growths. It lay placid and indolent before the way-worn trio, a new world waiting for their conquering feet.

The girl, with a deep sigh, dropped her head upon her husband's shoulder and closed her eyes. She weakened with the sudden promise of rest. It was in the air, soft as a caress, in the mild, beneficent sun, in the stillness which had nothing of the desert's sinister quiet. Courant put his arm about her, and looking into her face, saw it drawn and pinched, all beauty gone. Her closed eyelids were dark and seamed with fine folds, the cheek bones showed under her skin, tanned to a dry brown, its rich bloom withered. Round her forehead and ears her hair hung in ragged locks, its black gloss hidden under the trail's red dust. Even her youth had left her, she seemed double her age. It was as if he looked at the woman she would be twenty years from now.

Something in the sight of her, unbeautiful, enfeebled, her high spirit dimmed, stirred in him a new, strange tenderness. His arm tightened about her, his look lost its jealous ardor and wandering over her blighted face, melted to a passionate concern. The appeal of her beauty gave place to a stronger, more gripping appeal, never felt by him before. She was no longer the creature he owned and ruled, no longer the girl he had broken to an abject submission, but the woman he loved. Uplifted in the sudden realization he felt the world widen around him and saw himself another man. Then through the wonder of the revelation came the thought of what he had done to win her. It astonished him as a dart of pain would have done. Why had he remembered it? Why at this rich moment should the past send out this eerie reminder? He pushed it from him, and bending toward her murmured a lover's phrase.

She opened her eyes and they met an expression in his that she had felt the need of, hoped and waited for, an answer to what she had offered and he had not seen or wanted. It was completion, arrival at the goal, so longed for and despaired of, and she turned her face against his shoulder, her happiness too sacred even for his eyes. He did not understand the action, thought her spirit languished and, pointing outward, cried in his mounting gladness:

"Look-that's where our home will be."

She lifted her head and followed the directing finger. The old man stood beside them also gazing down.

"It's a grand sight," he said. "But it's as yellow as the desert. Must be almighty dry."

"There's plenty of water," said Courant. "Rivers come out of these mountains and go down there into the plain. And they carry the gold, the gold that's going to make us rich."

He pressed her shoulder with his encircling arm and she answered dreamily:

"We are rich enough."

He thought she alluded to the Doctor's money that was hidden in the wagon.

"But we'll be richer. We've got here before the rest of 'em. We're the first comers and it's ours. You'll be queen here, Susan. I'll make you one." His glance ranged over the splendid prospect, eager with the man's desire to fight and win for his own. She thought little of what he said, lost in her perfect content.

"When we've got the gold we'll take up land and I'll build a house for you, a good house, my wife won't live in a tent. It'll be of logs, strong and water tight, and as soon as they bring things in-and the ships will be coming soon-we'll furnish it well. And that'll be only the beginning."

"Where will we build it?" she said, catching his enthusiasm and straining her eyes as if then and there to pick out the spot.

"By the river under a pine."

"With a place for Daddy John," she cried, stretching a hand toward the old man. "He must be there too."

He took it and stood linked to the embracing pair by the girl's warm grasp.

"I'll stick by the tent," he said; "no four walls for me."

"And you two," she looked from one to the other, "will wash for the gold and I'll take care of you. I'll keep everything clean and comfortable. It'll be a cozy little home-our log house under the pine."

She laughed, the first time in many weeks, and the clear sound rang joyously.

"And when we've got all the dust we want," Courant went on, his spirit expanding on the music of her laughter, "we'll go down to the coast. They'll have a town there soon for the shipping. We'll grow up with it, build it into a city, and as it gets richer so will we. It's going to be a new empire, out here by the Pacific, with the gold rivers back of it and the ocean in front. And it's going to be ours."

She looked over the foreground of hill and vale to the shimmering sweep of the rich still land. Her imagination, wakened by his words, passed from the log house to the busy rush of a city where the sea shone between the masts of ships. It was a glowing future they were to march on together, with no cloud to mar it now that she had seen the new look in his eyes.

A few days later they were in the Sacramento Valley camped near the walls of Sutter's Fort. The plain, clad with a drab grass, stretched to where the low-lying Sacramento slipped between oozy banks. Here were the beginnings of a town, shacks and tents dumped down in a helter skelter of slovenly hurry. Beyond, the American river crept from the mountains and threaded the parched land. Between the valley and the white sky-line of the Sierra, the foot hills swelled, indented with ravines and swathed in the matted robe of the chaparral.

While renewing their supplies at the fort they camped under a live oak. It was a mighty growth, its domed outline fretted with the fineness of horny leaves, its vast boughs outflung in contorted curves. The river sucked about its roots. Outside its shade the plain grew dryer under unclouded suns, huge trees casting black blots of shadow in which the Fort's cattle gathered. Sometimes vaqueros came from the gates in the adobe walls, riding light and with the long spiral leap of the lasso rising from an upraised hand. Sometimes groups of half-naked Indians trailed through the glare, winding a way to the spot of color that was their camp.

To the girl it was all wonderful, the beauty, the peace, the cessation of labor. When the men were at the Fort she lay beneath the great tree watching the faint, white chain of the mountains, or the tawny valley burning to orange in the long afternoons. For once she was idle, come at last to the end of all her journeyings. Only the present, the tranquil, perfect present, existed. What did not touch upon it, fit in and have some purpose in her life with the man of whom she was a part, was waste matter. She who had once been unable to endure the thought of separation from her father could now look back on his death and say, "How I suffered then," and know no reminiscent pang. She would have wondered at herself if, in the happiness in which she was lapped, she could have drawn her mind from its contemplation to wonder at anything. There was no world beyond the camp, no interest in what did not focus on Courant, no people except those who added to his trials or his welfare. The men spent much of their time at the Fort, conferring with others en route to the river bed below Sutter's mill. When they came back to the camp there was lively talk under the old tree. The silence of the trail was at an end. The pendulum swung far, and now they were garrulous, carried away by the fever of speculation. The evening came and found them with scattered stores and uncleaned camp, their voices loud against the low whisperings of leaves and water.

Courant returned from these absences aglow with fortified purpose. Reestablished contact with the world brightened and humanized him, acting with an eroding effect on a surface hardened by years of lawless roving. In his voluntary exile he had not looked for or wanted the company of his fellows. Now he began to soften under it, shift his viewpoint from that of the all-sufficing individual to that of the bonded mass from which he had so long been an alien. The girl's influence had revivified a side almost atrophied by disuse. Men's were aiding it. As her sympathies narrowed under the obsession of her happiness, his expanded, awaked by a reversion to forgotten conditions.

One night, lying beside her under the tent's roof, he found himself wakeful. It was starless and still, the song of the river fusing in a continuous flow of low sound with the secret, self-communings of the tree. The girl's light breathing was at his ear, a reminder of his ownership and its responsibilities. In the idleness of the unoccupied mind he mused on the future they were to share till death should come between. It was pleasant thinking, or so it began. Then, gradually, something in the darkness and the lowered vitality of night caused it to lose its joy, become suffused by a curious, doubting uneasiness. He lay without moving, given up to the strange feeling, not knowing what induced it or from whence it came. It grew in poignancy, clearer and stronger, till it led him like a clew to the body of David.

For the first time that savage act came back to him with a surge of repudiation, of scared denial. He had a realizing sense of how it would look to other men-the men he had met at the Fort. Distinctly, as if their mental attitude were substituted for his, he saw it as they wo

uld see it, as the world he was about to enter would see it. His heart began to thump with something like terror and the palms of his hands grew moist. Turning stealthily that he might not wake her, he stared at the triangle of paler darkness that showed through the tent's raised flap. He had no fear that Susan would find out. Even if she did, he knew her securely his, till the end of time, her thoughts to take their color from him, her fears to be lulled at his wish. But the others-the active, busy, practical throng into which he would be absorbed. His action, in the heat of a brutal passion, had made him an outsider from the close-drawn ranks of his fellows. He had been able to do without them, defied their laws, scorned their truckling to public opinion-but now?

The girl turned in her sleep, pressing her head against his shoulder and murmuring drowsily. He edged away from her, flinching from the contact, feeling a grievance against her. She was the link between him and them. Hers was the influence that was sapping the foundations of his independence. She was drawing him back to the place of lost liberty outside which he had roamed in barbarous content. His love was riveting bonds upon him, making his spirit as water. He felt a revolt, a resistance against her power, which was gently impelling him toward home, hearth, neighbors-the life in which he felt his place was gone.

The next day the strange mood seemed an ugly dream. It was not he who had lain wakeful and questioned his right to bend Fate to his own demands. He rode beside his wife at the head of the train as they rolled out in the bright, dry morning on the road to the river. There were men behind them, and in front the dust rose thick on the rear of pack trains. They filed across the valley, watching the foot hills come nearer and the muffling robe of the chaparral separate into checkered shadings where the manzanita glittered and the faint, bluish domes of small pines rose above the woven greenery.

Men were already before them, scattered along the river's bars, waist high in the pits. Here and there a tent showed white, but a blanket under a tree, a pile of pans by a blackened heap of fire marked most of the camps. Some of the gold-hunters had not waited to undo their packs which lay as they had been dropped, and the owners, squatting by the stream's lip, bent over their pans round which the water sprayed in a silver fringe. There were hails and inquiries, answering cries of good or ill luck. Many did not raise their eyes, too absorbed by the hope of fortune to waste one golden moment.

These were the vanguard, the forerunners of next year's thousands, scratching the surface of the lower bars. The sound of their voices was soon left behind and the river ran free of them. Pack trains dropped from the line, spreading themselves along the rim of earth between the trail and the shrunken current. Courant's party moved on, going higher, veiled in a cloud of brick-colored dust. The hills swept up into bolder lines, the pines mounted in sentinel files crowding out the lighter leafage. At each turn the vista showed a loftier uprise, crest peering above crest, and far beyond, high and snow-touched, the summits of the Sierra. The shadows slanted cool from wall to wall, the air was fresh and scented with the forest's resinous breath. Across the tree tops, dense as the matted texture of moss, the winged shadows of hawks floated, and paused, and floated again.

Here on a knoll under a great pine they pitched the tent. At its base the river ran, dwindled to a languid current, the bared mud banks waiting for their picks. The walls of the ca?on drew close, a drop of naked granite opposite, and on the slopes beyond were dark-aisled depths, golden-moted, and stirred to pensive melodies. The girl started to help, then kicked aside the up-piled blankets, dropped the skillets into the mess chest, and cried:

"Oh, I can't, I want to look and listen. Keep still-" The men stopped their work, and the music of the murmurous boughs and the gliding water filled the silence. She turned her head, sniffing the forest's scents, her glance lighting on the blue shoulders of distant hills.

"And look at the river, yellow, yellow with gold! I can't work now, I want to see it all-and feel it too," and she ran to the water's edge where she sat down on a rock and gazed up and down the ca?on.

When the camp was ready Courant joined her. The rock was wide enough for two and he sat beside her.

"So you like it, Missy?" he said, sending a side-long glance at her flushed face.

"Like it!" though there was plenty of room she edged nearer to him, "I'm wondering if it really is so beautiful or if I just think it so after the trail."

"You'll be content to stay here with me till we've made our pile?"

She looked at him and nodded, then slipped her fingers between his and whispered, though there was no one by to hear, "I'd be content to stay anywhere with you."

He was growing accustomed to this sort of reply. Deprived of it he would have noticed the omission, but it had of late become so common a feature in the conversation he felt no necessity to answer in kind. He glanced at the pine trunks about them and said:

"If the claim's good, we'll cut some of those and build a cabin. You'll see how comfortable I can make you, the way they do on the frontier."

She pressed his fingers for answer and he went on:

"When the winter comes we can move farther down. Up here we may get snow. But there'll be time between now and then to put up something warm and waterproof."

"Why should we move down? With a good cabin we can be comfortable here. The snow won't be heavy this far up. They told Daddy John all about it at the Fort. And you and he can ride in there sometimes when we want things."

These simple words gratified him more than she guessed. It was as if she had seen into the secret springs of his thought and said what he was fearful she would not say. That was why-in a spirit of testing a granted boon to prove its genuineness-he asked with tentative questioning:

"You won't be lonely? There are no people here."

She made the bride's answer and his contentment increased, for again it was what he would have wished her to say. When he answered he spoke almost sheepishly, with something of uneasy confession in his look:

"I'd like to live in places like this always. I feel choked and stifled where there are walls shutting out the air and streets full of people. Even in the Fort I felt like a trapped animal. I want to be where there's room to move about and nobody bothering with different kinds of ideas. It's only in the open, in places without men, that I'm myself."

For the first time he had dared to give expression to the mood of the wakeful night. Though it was dim in the busy brightness of the present-a black spot on the luster of cheerful days-he dreaded that it might come again with its scaring suggestions. With a nerve that had never known a tremor at any menace from man, he was frightened of a thought, a temporary mental state. In speaking thus to her, he recognized her as a help-meet to whom he could make a shamed admission of weakness and fear no condemnation or diminution of love. This time, however, she made the wrong reply:

"But we'll go down to the coast after a while, if our claim's good and we get enough dust out of it. I think of it often. It will be so nice to live in a house again, and have some one to do the cooking, and wear pretty clothes. It will be such fun living where there are people and going about among them, going to parties and maybe having parties of our own."

He withdrew his hand from hers and pushed the hair back from his forehead. Though he said nothing she was conscious of a drop in his mood. She bent forward to peer into his face and queried with bright, observing eyes:

"You don't seem to like the thought of it."

"Oh, it's not me," he answered. "I was just wondering at the queer way women talk. A few minutes ago you said you'd be content anywhere with me. Now you say you think it would be such fun living in a city and going to parties."

"With you, too," she laughed, pressing against his shoulder. "I don't want to go to the parties alone."

"Well, I guess if you ever go it'll have to be alone," he said roughly.

She understood now that she had said something that annoyed him, and not knowing how she had come to do it, felt aggrieved and sought to justify herself:

"But we can't live here always. If we make money we'll want to go back some day where there are people, and comforts and things going on. We'll want friends, everybody has friends. You don't mean for us always to stay far away from everything in these wild, uncivilized places?"

"Why not?" he said, not looking at her, noting her rueful tone and resenting it.

"But we're not that kind of people. You're not a real mountain man. You're not like Zavier or the men at Fort Laramie. You're Napoleon Duchesney just as I'm Susan Gillespie. Your people in St. Louis and New Orleans were ladies and gentlemen. It was just a wild freak that made you run off into the mountains. You don't want to go on living that way. That part of your life's over. The rest will be with me."

"And you'll want the cities and the parties?"

"I'll want to live the way Mrs. Duchesney should live, and you'll want to, too." He did not answer, and she gave his arm a little shake and said, "Won't you?"

"I'm more Low Courant than I am Napoleon Duchesney," was his answer.

"Well, maybe so, but whichever you are, you've got a wife now and that makes a great difference."

She tried to infuse some of her old coquetry into the words, but the eyes, looking sideways at him, were troubled, for she did not yet see where she had erred.

"I guess it does," he said low, more as if speaking to himself than her.

This time she said nothing, feeling dashed and repulsed. They continued to sit close together on the rock, the man lost in morose reverie, the girl afraid to move or touch him lest he should show further annoyance.

The voice of Daddy John calling them to supper came to both with relief. They walked to the camp side by side, Low with head drooped, the girl at his elbow stealing furtive looks at him. As they approached the fire she slid her hand inside his arm and, glancing down, he saw the timid questioning of her face and was immediately contrite. He laid his hand on hers and smiled, and she caught her breath in a deep sigh and felt happiness come rushing back. Whatever it was she had said that displeased him she would be careful not to say it again, for she had already learned that the lion in love is still the lion.

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