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   Chapter 21 No.21

The Emigrant Trail By Geraldine Bonner Characters: 27657

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Their claim was rich and they buckled down to work, the old man constructing a rocker after a model of his own, and Courant digging in the pits. Everything was with them, rivals were few, the ground uncrowded, the season dry. It was the American River before the Forty-niners swarmed along its edges, and there was gold in its sands, sunk in a sediment below its muddy deposit, caked in cracks through the rocks round which its currents had swept for undisturbed ages.

They worked feverishly, the threat of the winter rains urging them on. The girl helped, leaving her kettle settled firm on a bed of embers while the water heated for dish washing, to join them on the shore, heaped with their earth piles. She kept the rocker in motion while the old man dipped up the water in a tin ladle and sent it running over the sifting bed of sand and pebbles. The heavier labor of digging was Courant's. Before September was over the shore was honeycombed with his excavations, driven down to the rock bed. The diminishing stream shrunk with each day and he stood in it knee high, the sun beating on his head, his clothes pasted to his skin by perspiration, and the thud of his pick falling with regular stroke on the monotonous rattle of the rocker.

Sometimes she was tired and they ordered her to leave them and rest in the shade of the camp. She loitered about under the spread of the pine boughs, cleaning and tidying up, and patching the ragged remnants of their clothes. Often, as she sat propped against the trunk, her sewing fell to her lap and she looked out with shining, spell-bound eyes. The men were shapes of dark importance against the glancing veil of water, the soaked sands and the low brushwood yellowing in the autumn's soft, transforming breath. Far away the film of whitened summits dreamed against the blue. In the midwash of air, aloft and dreaming, too, the hawk's winged form poised, its shadow moving below it across the sea of tree tops.

She would sit thus, motionless and idle, as the long afternoon wore away, and deep-colored veils of twilight gathered in the ca?on. She told the men the continuous sounds of their toil made her drowsy. But her stillness was the outward sign of an inner concentration. If delight in rest had replaced her old bodily energy, her mind had gained a new activity. She wondered a little at it, not yet at the heart of her own mystery. Her thoughts reached forward into the future, busied themselves with details of the next twelve months, dwelt anxiously on questions of finance. The nest-building instinct was astir in her and she pondered on the house they were to build, how they must arrange something for a table, and maybe fashion armchairs of barrels and red flannel. Finally, in a last voluptuous flight of ecstasy, she saw herself riding into Sacramento with a sack of dust and abandoning herself to an orgie of bartering.

One afternoon three men, two Mexicans and an Australian sailor from a ship in San Francisco cove, stopped at the camp for food. The Australian was a loquacious fellow, with faculties sharpened by glimpses of life in many ports. He told them of the two emigrant convoys he had just seen arrive in Sacramento, worn and wasted by the last forced marches over the mountains. Susan, who had been busy over her cooking, according him scant attention, at his description of the trains, suddenly lifted intent eyes and leaned toward him:

"Did you see a man among them, a young man, tall and thin, with black hair and beard?"

"All the men were tall and thin, or any ways thin," said the sailor, laughing. "How tall was he?"

"Six feet," she replied, her face devoid of any answering smile, "with high shoulders and walking with a stoop. He had a fine, handsome face, and long black hair to his shoulders and gray eyes."

"Have you lost your sweetheart?" said the man, who did not know the relations of the party.

"No," she said gravely, "my friend."

Courant explained:

"She's my wife. The man she's speaking of was a member of our company that we lost on the desert. We thought Indians had got him and hoped he'd get away and join with a later westbound train. His name was David."

The sailor shook his head.

"Ain't seen no one answering to that name, nor to that description. There wasn't a handsome-featured one in the lot, nor a David. But if you're expecting him along, why don't you take her in and let her look 'em over? They told me at the Fort the trains was mostly all in or ought to be. Any time now the snow on the summit will be too deep for 'em. If they get caught up there they can't be got out, so they're coming over hot foot and are dumped down round Hock Farm. Not much to see, but if you're looking for a friend it's worth trying."

That night Courant was again wakeful. Susan's face, as she had questioned the sailor, floated before him on the darkness. With it came the thought of the dead man. In the silence David called upon him from the sepulcher beneath the rock, sent a message through the night which said that, though he was hidden from mortal vision, the memory of him was still alive, imbued with an unquenchable vitality. His unwinking eyes, with the rock crumbs sifting on them, looked at those of his triumphant enemy and spoke through their dusted films. In the moment of death they had said nothing to him, now they shone-not angrily accusing as they had been in life-but stern with a vindictive purpose.

Courant began to have a fearful understanding of their meaning. Though dead to the rest of the world, David would maintain an intense and secret life in his murderer's conscience. He had never fought such a subtle and implacable foe, and he lay thinking of how he could create conditions that would give him escape, push the phantom from him, make him forget, and be as he had been when no one had disputed his sovereignty over himself. He tried to think that time would mitigate this haunting discomfort. His sense of guilt, his fear of his wife, would die when the novelty of once again being one with the crowd had worn away. It was not possible that he, defiant of man and God, could languish under this dread of a midnight visitation or a discovery that never would be made. It was the reentering into the communal life that had upset his poise-or was it the influence of the woman, the softly pervasive, enervating influence? He came up against this thought with a dizzying impact and felt himself droop and sicken as one who is faced with a task for which his strength is inadequate.

He turned stealthily and lay on his back, his face beaded with sweat. The girl beside him waked and sat up casting a side glance at him. By the starlight, slanting in through the raised tent door, she saw his opened eyes and, leaning toward him, a black shape against the faintly blue triangle, said:

"Low, are you awake?"

He answered without moving, glad to hear her speak, to know that sleep had left her and her voice might conjure away his black imaginings.

"Why aren't you sleeping?" she asked. "You must be half dead after such work as you did today."

"I was thinking-" then hastily, for he was afraid that she might sense his mood and ply him with sympathetic queries: "Sometimes people are too tired to sleep. I am, and so I was lying here just thinking of nothing."

His fears were unnecessary. She was as healthily oblivious of his disturbance as he was morbidly conscious of it. She sat still, her hands clasped round her knees, about which the blanket draped blackly.

"I was thinking, too," she said.

"Of what?"

"Of what that man was saying of David."

There was a silence. He lay motionless, his trouble coming back upon him. He wished that he might dare to impose upon her a silence on that one subject. David, given a place in her mind, would sit at every feast, walk beside them, lie between them in their marriage bed.

"Why do you think of him?" he asked.

"Because-" her tone showed surprise. "It's natural, isn't it? Don't you? I'm sure you do. I do often, much oftener than you think. I'm always hoping that he'll come."

"You never loved him," he said, in a voice from which all spring was gone.

"No, but he was my friend, and I would like to keep him so for always. I think of his kindness, his gentleness, all the good part of him before the trail broke him down. And, I think, too, how cruel I was to him."

The darkness hid her face, but her voice told that she, too, had her little load of guilt where David was concerned.

The man moved uneasily.

"That's foolishness. You only told the truth. If it was cruel, that's not your affair."

"He loved me. A woman doesn't forget that."

"That's over and done with. He's probably here somewhere, come through with a train that's scattered. And, anyway, you can't do any good by thinking about him."

This time the false reassurances came with the pang that the dead man was rousing in tardy retribution.

"I should like to know it," she said wistfully, "to feel sure. It's the only thing that mars our happiness. If I knew he was safe and well somewhere there'd be nothing in the world for me but perfect joy."

Her egotism of satisfied body and spirit jarred upon him. The passion she had evoked had found no peace in its fulfillment. She had got what he had hoped for. All that he had anticipated was destroyed by the unexpected intrusion of a part of himself that had lain dead till she had quickened it, and quickening it she had killed his joy. In a flash of divination he saw that, if she persisted in her worry over David, she would rouse in him an antagonism that would eventually drive him from her. He spoke with irritation:

"Put him out of your mind. Don't worry about him. You can't do any good, and it spoils our love."

After a pause, she said with a hesitating attempt at cajolery:

"Let me and Daddy John drive into the valley and try and get news of him. We need supplies and we'll be gone only two or three days. We can inquire at the Fort and maybe go on to Sacramento, and if he's been there we'll hear of it. If we could only hear, just hear, he was safe, it would be such a relief. It would take away this dreary feeling of anxiety, and guilt too, Low. For I feel guilty when I think of how we left him."

"Where was the guilt? You've no right to say that. You understood we had to go. I could take no risks with you and the old man."

"Yes," she said, slowly, tempering her agreement with a self-soothing reluctance, "but even so, it seemed terrible. I often tell myself we couldn't have done anything else, but--"

Her voice dropped to silence and she sat staring out at the quiet night, her head blurred with the filaments of loosened hair.

He did not speak, gripped by his internal torment, aggravated now by torment from without. He wondered, if he told her the truth, would she understand and help him to peace. But he knew that such knowledge would set her in a new attitude toward him, an attitude of secret judgment, of distracted pity, of an agonized partisanship built on loyalty and the despairing passion of the disillusioned. He could never tell her, for he could never support the loss of her devoted belief, which was now the food of his life.

"Can I go?" she said, turning to look at him, smiling confidently as one who knows the formal demand unnecessary.

"If you want," he answered.

"Then we'll start to-morrow," she said, and, leaning down, kissed him.

He was unresponsive to the touch of her lips, lay inert as she nestled down into soft-breathing, child-like sleep. He watched the tent opening pale into a glimmering triangle wondering what their life would be with the specter of David standing in the path, an angel with a flaming sword barring the way to Paradise.

Two days later she and Daddy John, sitting on the front seat of the wagon, saw the low drab outlines of the Fort rising from the plain. Under their tree was a new encampment, one tent with the hood of a wagon behind it, and oxen grazing in the sun. As they drew near they could see the crouched forms of two children, the light filtering through the leafage on the silky flax of their heads. They were occupied over a game, evidently a serious business, its floor of operations the smooth ground worn bare about the camp fire. One of them lay flat with a careful hand patting the dust into mounds, the other squatted near by watching, a slant of white hair falling across a rounded cheek. They did not heed the creak of the wagon wheels, but as a woman's voice called from the tent, raised their heads listening, but not answering, evidently deeming silence the best safeguard against interruption.

Susan laid a clutching hand on Daddy John's arm.

"It's the children," she cried in a choked voice. "Stop, stop!" and before he could rein the mules to order she was out and running toward them, calling their names.

They made a clamor of welcome, Bob running to her and making delighted leaps up at her face, the little girl standing aloof for the first bashful moment, then sidling nearer with mouth upheld for kisses. Bella heard them and came to the tent door, gave a great cry, and ran to them. There were tears on her cheeks as she clasped Susan, held her oft and clutched her again, with panted ejaculations of "Deary me!" and "Oh, Lord, Missy, is it you?"

It was like a meeting on the other side of the grave. They babbled their news, both talking at once, not stopping to finish sentences, or wait for the answer to questions of the marches they had not shared. Over the clamor they looked at each other with faces that smiled and quivered, the tie between them strengthened by the separation when each had longed for the other, closer in understanding by the younger's added experience, both

now women.

Glen was at the Fort and Daddy John rolled off to meet him there. The novelty of the moment over, the children returned sedately to their play, and the women sat together under the canopy of the tree. Bella's adventures had been few and tame, Susan's was the great story. She was not discursive about her marriage. She was still shy on the subject and sensitively aware of the disappointment that Bella was too artlessly amazed to conceal. She passed over it quickly, pretending that she did not hear Bella's astonished:

"But why did you get married at Humboldt? Why didn't you wait till you got here?"

It was the loss of David that she made the point of her narrative, anxiously impressing on her listener their need of going on. She stole quick looks at Bella, watchful for the first shade of disapprobation, with all Low's arguments ready to sweep it aside. But Bella, with maternal instincts in place of a comprehensive humanity, agreed that Low had done right. Nature, in the beginning, combined with the needs of the trail, had given her a viewpoint where expediency counted for more than altruism. She with two children and a helpless man would have gone on and left anyone to his fate. She did not say this, but Susan, with intelligence sharpened by a jealous passion, felt that there was no need to defend her husband's action. As for the rest of the world-deep in her heart she had already decided it should never know.

"You couldn't have done anything else," said Bella. "I've learned that when you're doing that sort of thing, you can't have the same feelings you can back in the States, with everything handy and comfortable. You can be fair, but you got to fight for your own. They got to come first."

She had neither seen nor heard anything of David. No rumor of a man held captive by the Indians had reached their train. She tried not to let Susan see that she believed the worst. But her melancholy headshake and murmured "Poor David-and him such a kind, whole-hearted man" was as an obituary on the dead.

"Well," she said in pensive comment when Susan had got to the end of her history, "you can't get through a journey like that without some one coming to grief. It's not in human nature. But your father-that grand man! And then the young feller that would have made you such a good husband-" Susan moved warningly-"Not but what I'm sure you've got as good a one as it is. And we've got to take what we can get in this world," she added, spoiling it all by the philosophical acceptance of what she evidently regarded as a make-shift adjusting to Nature's needs.

When the men came back Glen had heard all about the gold in the river and was athirst to get there. Work at his trade could wait, and, anyway, he had been in Sacramento and found, while his services were in demand on every side, the materials wherewith he was to help raise a weatherproof city were not to be had. Men were content to live in tents and cloth shacks until the day of lumber and sawmills dawned, and why wait for this millennium when the river called from its golden sands?

No one had news of David. Daddy John had questioned the captains of two recently arrived convoys, but learned nothing. The men thought it likely he was dead. They agreed as to the possibility of the Indian abduction and his future reappearance. Such things had happened. But it was too late now to do anything. No search party could be sent out at this season when at any day the mountain trails might be neck high in snow. There was nothing to do but wait till the spring.

Susan listened with lowered brows. It was heavy news. She did not know how she had hoped till she heard that all hope must lie in abeyance for at least six months. It was a long time to be patient. She was selfishly desirous to have her anxieties at rest, for, as she had told her husband, they were the only cloud on her happiness, and she wanted that happiness complete. It was not necessary for her peace to see David again. To know he was safe somewhere would have satisfied her.

The fifth day after leaving the camp they sighted the pitted shores of their own diggings. Sitting in the McMurdos' wagon they had speculated gayly on Low's surprise. Susan, on the seat beside Glen, had been joyously full of the anticipation of it, wondered what he would say, and then fell to imagining it with closed lips and dancing eyes. When the road reached the last concealing buttress she climbed down and mounted beside Daddy John, whose wagon was some distance in advance.

"It's going to be a surprise for Low," she said in the voice of a mischievous child. "You mustn't say anything. Let me tell him."

The old man, squinting sideways at her, gave his wry smile. It was good to see his Missy this way again, in bloom like a refreshed flower.

"Look," she cried, as her husband's figure came into view kneeling by the rocker. "There he is, and he doesn't see us. Stop!"

Courant heard their wheels and, turning, started to his feet and came forward, the light in his face leaping to hers. She sprang down and ran toward him, her arms out. Daddy John, slashing the wayside bushes with his whip, looked reflectively at the bending twigs while the embrace lasted. The McMurdos' curiosity was not restrained by any such inconvenient delicacy. They peeped from under the wagon hood, grinning appreciatively, Bella the while maintaining a silent fight with the children, who struggled for an exit. None of them could hear what the girl said, but they saw Courant suddenly look with a changed face, its light extinguished, at the second wagon.

"He don't seem so terrible glad to see us," said Glen. "I guess he wanted to keep the place for himself."

Bella noted the look and snorted.

"He's a cross-grained thing," she said; "I don't see what got into her to marry him when she could have had David."

"She can't have him when he ain't round to be had," her husband answered. "Low's better than a man that's either a prisoner with the Indians or dead somewhere. David was a good boy, but I don't seem to see he'd be much use to her now."

Bella sniffed again, and let the squirming children go to get what good they could out of the unpromising moment of the surprise.

What Low had said to Susan was an angry,

"Why did you bring them?"

She fell back from him not so crestfallen at his words as at his dark frown of disapproval.

"Why, I wanted them," she faltered, bewildered by his obvious displeasure at what she thought would be welcome news, "and I thought you would."

"I'd rather you hadn't. Aren't we enough by ourselves?"

"Yes, of course. But they're our friends. We traveled with them for days and weeks, and it's made them like relations. I was so glad to see them I cried when I saw Bella. Oh, do try and seem more as if you liked it. They're here and I've brought them."

He slouched forward to greet them. She was relieved to see that he made an effort to banish his annoyance and put some warmth of welcome into his voice. But the subtlety with which he could conceal his emotions when it behooved him had deserted him, and Bella and Glen saw the husband did not stand toward them as the wife did.

It was Susan who infused into the meeting a fevered and fictitious friendliness, chattering over the pauses that threatened to fall upon it, leaving them a reunited company only in name. She presently swept Bella to the camp, continuing her nervous prattle as she showed her the tent and the spring behind it, and told of the log house they were to raise before the rains came. Bella was placated. After all, it was a lovely spot, good for the children, and if Glen could do as well on a lower bend of the river as they had done here, it looked as if they had at last found the Promised Land.

After supper they sat by Daddy John's fire, which shot an eddying column of sparks into the plumed darkness of the pine. It was like old times only-with a glance outward toward the water and the star-strewn sky-so much more-what was the word? Not quiet; they could never forget the desert silence. "Homelike," Susan suggested, and they decided that was the right word.

"You feel as if you could stay here and not want to move on," Bella opined.

Glen thought perhaps you felt that way because you knew you'd come to the end and couldn't move much farther.

But the others argued him down. They all agreed there was something in the sun maybe, or the mellow warmth of the air, or the richness of wooded slope and plain, that made them feel they had found a place where they could stay, not for a few days' rest, but forever. Susan had hit upon the word "homelike," the spot on earth that seemed to you the one best fitted for a home.

The talk swung back to days on the trail and finally brought up on David. They rehearsed the tragic story, conned over the details that had begun to form into narrative sequence as in the time-worn lay of a minstrel. Bella and Glen asked all the old questions that had once been asked by Susan and Daddy John, and heard the same answers, leaning to catch them while the firelight played on the strained attention of their faces. With the night pressing close around them, and the melancholy, sea-like song sweeping low from the forest, a chill crept upon them, and their lost comrade became invested with the unreality of a spirit. Dead in that bleak and God-forgotten land, or captive in some Indian stronghold, he loomed a tragic phantom remote from them and their homely interests like a historical figure round which legend has begun to accumulate.

The awed silence that had fallen was broken by Courant rising and walking away toward the diggings. This brought their somber pondering to an end. Bella and Glen picked up the sleeping children and went to their tent, and Susan, peering beyond the light, saw her man sitting on a stone, dark against the broken silver of the stream. She stole down to him and laid her hand on his shoulder. He started as if her touch scared him, then saw who it was and turned away with a gruff murmur. The sound was not encouraging, but the wife, already so completely part of him that his moods were communicated to her through the hidden subways of instinct, understood that he was in some unconfessed trouble.

"What's the matter, Low?" she asked, bending to see his face.

He turned it toward her, met the penetrating inquiry of her look, and realized his dependence on her, feeling his weakness but not caring just then that he should be weak.

"Nothing," he answered. "Why do they harp so on David?"

"Don't you like them to?" she asked in some surprise.

He took a splinter from the stone and threw it into the water, a small silvery disturbance marking its fall.

"There's nothing more to be said. It's all useless talk. We can do no more than we've done."

"Shall I tell them you don't like the subject, not to speak of it again?"

He glanced at her with sudden suspicion:

"No, no, of course not. They've a right to say anything they please. But it's a waste of time, there's nothing but guessing now. What's the use of guessing and wondering all through the winter. Are they going to keep on that way till the spring?"

"I'll tell them not to," she said as a simple solution of the difficulty. "I'll tell them it worries you."

"Don't," he said sharply. "Do you hear? Don't. Do you want to act like a fool and make me angry with you?"

He got up and moved away, leaving her staring blankly at his back. He had been rough to her often, but never before spoken with this note of peremptory, peevish displeasure. She felt an obscure sense of trouble, a premonition of disaster. She went to him and, standing close, put her hand inside his arm.

"Low," she pleaded, "what's wrong with you? You were angry that they came. Now you're angry at what they say. I don't understand. Tell me the reason of it. If there's something that I don't know let me hear it, and I'll try and straighten things out."

For a tempted moment he longed to tell her, to gain ease by letting her share his burden. The hand upon his arm was a symbol of her hold upon him that no action of his could ever loose. If he could admit her within the circle of his isolation he would have enough. He would lose the baleful consciousness of forever walking apart, separated from his kind, a spiritual Ishmaelite. She had strength enough. For the moment he felt that she was the stronger of the two, able to bear more than he, able to fortify him and give him courage for the future. He had a right to claim such a dole of her love, and once the knowledge hers, they two would stand, banished from the rest of the world, knit together by the bond of their mutual knowledge.

The temptation clutched him and his breast contracted in the rising struggle. His pain clamored for relief, his weakness for support. The lion man, broken and tamed by the first pure passion of his life, would have cast the weight of his sin upon the girl he had thought to bear through life like a pampered mistress.

With the words on his lips he looked at her. She met the look with a smile that she tried to make brave, but that was only a surface grimace, her spirit's disturbance plain beneath it. There was pathos in its courage and its failure. He averted his eyes, shook his arm free of her hand, and, moving toward the water, said:

"Go back to the tent and go to bed."

"What are you going to do?" she called after him, her voice sounding plaintive. Its wistful note gave him strength:

"Walk for a while. I'm not tired. I'll be back in an hour," and he walked away, down the edge of the current, past the pits and into the darkness.

She watched him, not understanding, vaguely alarmed, then turned and went back to the tent.

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