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   Chapter 22 No.22

The Emigrant Trail By Geraldine Bonner Characters: 28926

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The stretch of the river where the McMurdos had settled was richer than Courant's location. Had Glen been as mighty a man with the pick, even in the short season left to him, he might have accumulated a goodly store. But he was a slack worker. His training as a carpenter made him useful, finding expression in an improvement on Daddy John's rocker, so they overlooked his inclination to lie off in the sun with his ragged hat pulled over his eyes. In Courant's camp Bella was regarded as the best man of the two. To her multiform duties she added that of assistant in the diggings, squatting beside her husband in the mud, keeping the rocker going, and when Glen was worked out, not above taking a hand at the shovel. Her camp showed a comfortable neatness, and the children's nakedness was covered with garments fashioned by the firelight from old flour sacks.

There was no crisp coming of autumn. A yellowing of the leafage along the river's edge was all that denoted the season's change. Nature seemed loth to lay a desecrating hand on the region's tranquil beauty. They had been told at the Fort that they might look for the first rains in November. When October was upon them they left the pits and set to work felling trees for two log huts.

Susan saw her home rising on the knoll, a square of logs, log roofed, with a door of woven saplings over which canvas was nailed. They built a chimney of stones rounded by the water's action, and for a hearth found a slab of granite which they sunk in the earth before the fireplace. The bunk was a frame of young pines with canvas stretched across, and cushioned with spruce boughs and buffalo robes. She watched as they nailed up shelves of small, split trunks and sawed the larger ones into sections for seats. The bottom of the wagon came out and, poised on four log supports, made the table.

Her housewife's instincts rose jubilant as the shell took form, and she sang to herself as she stitched her flour sacks together for towels. No princess decked her palace with a blither spirit. All the little treasures that had not been jettisoned in the last stern march across the desert came from their hiding places for the adornment of the first home of her married life. The square of mirror stood on the shelf near the door where the light could fall on it, and the French gilt clock that had been her mother's ticked beside it. The men laughed as she set out on the table the silver mug of her baby days and a two-handled tankard bearing on its side a worn coat of arms, a heritage from the adventurous Poutrincourt, a drop of whose blood had given boldness and courage to hers.

It was her home-very different from the home she had dreamed of-but so was her life different from the life she and her father had planned together in the dead days of the trail. She delighted in it, gloated over it. Long before the day of installation she moved in her primitive furnishings, disposed the few pans with an eye to their effect as other brides arrange their silver and crystal, hung her flour-sack towels on the pegs with as careful a hand as though they had been tapestries, and folded her clothes neat and seemly in her father's chest. Then came a night when the air was sharp, and they kindled the first fire in the wide chimney mouth. It leaped exultant, revealing the mud-filled cracks, playing on the pans, and licking the bosses of the old tankard. The hearthstone shone red with its light, and they sat drawn back on the seats of pine looking into its roaring depths-housed, sheltered, cozily content. When Glen and Bella retired to their tent a new romance seemed to have budded in the girl's heart. It was her bridal night-beneath a roof, beside a hearth, with a door to close against the world, and shut her away with her lover.

In these days she had many secret conferrings with Bella. They kept their heads together and whispered, and Bella crooned and fussed over her and pushed the men into the background in a masterful, aggressive manner. Susan knew now what had waked the nest-building instinct. The knowledge came with a thrilling, frightened joy. She sat apart adjusting herself to the new outlook, sometimes fearful, then uplifted in a rapt, still elation. All the charm she had once held over the hearts of men was gone. Glen told Bella she was getting stupid, even Daddy John wondered at her dull, self-centered air. She would not have cared what they had said or thought of her. Her interest in men as creatures to snare and beguile was gone with her lost maidenhood. All that she had of charm and beauty she hoarded, stored up and jealously guarded, for her husband and her child.

"It'll be best for you to go down to the town," Bella had said to her, reveling discreetly in her position as high priestess of these mysteries, "there'll be doctors in Sacramento, some kind of doctors."

"I'll stay here," Susan answered. "You're here and my husband and Daddy John. I'd die if I was sent off among strangers. I can't live except with the people I'm fond of. I'm not afraid."

And the older woman decided that maybe she was right. She could see enough to know that this girl of a higher stock and culture, plucked from a home of sheltered ease to be cast down in the rude life of the pioneer, was only a woman like all the rest, having no existence outside her own small world.

So the bright, monotonous days filed by, always sunny, always warm, till it seemed as if they were to go on thus forever, glide into a winter which was still spring. An excursion to Sacramento, a big day's clean up, were their excitements. They taught little Bob to help at the rocker, and the women sat by the cabin door sewing, long periods of silence broken by moments of desultory talk. Susan had grown much quieter. She would sit with idle hands watching the shifting lights and the remoter hills turning from the afternoon's blue to the rich purple of twilight. Bella said she was lazy, and urged industry and the need of speed in the preparation of the new wardrobe. She laughed indolently and said, time enough later on. She had grown indifferent about her looks-her hair hanging elfish round her ears, her blouse unfastened at the throat, the new boots Low had brought her from Sacramento unworn in the cabin corner, her feet clothed in the ragged moccasins he had taught her to make.

In the evening she sat on a blanket on the cabin floor, blinking sleepily at the flames. Internally she brimmed with a level content. Life was coming to the flood with her, her being gathering itself for its ultimate expression. All the curiosity and interest she had once turned out to the multiple forms and claims of the world were now concentrated on the two lives between which hers stood. She was the primitive woman, a mechanism of elemental instincts, moving up an incline of progressive passions. The love of her father had filled her youth, and that had given way to the love of her mate, which in time would dim before the love of her child. Outside these phases of a governing prepossession-filial, conjugal, maternal-she knew nothing, felt nothing, and could see nothing.

Low, at first, had brooded over her with an almost ferocious tenderness. Had she demanded a removal to the town he would have given way. He would have acceded to anything she asked, but she asked nothing. As the time passed her demands of him, even to his help in small matters of the household, grew less. A slight, inscrutable change had come over her: she was less responsive, often held him with an eye whose blankness told of inner imaginings, when he spoke made no answer, concentrated in her reverie. When he watched her withdrawn in these dreams, or in a sudden attack of industry, fashioning small garments from her hoarded store of best clothes, he felt an alienation in her, and he realized with a start of alarmed divination that the child would take a part of what had been his, steal from him something of that blind devotion in the eternal possession of which he had thought to find solace.

It was a shock that roused him to a scared scrutiny of the future. He put questions to her for the purpose of drawing out her ideas, and her answers showed that all her thoughts and plans were gathering round the welfare of her baby. Her desire for its good was to end her unresisting subservience to him. She was thinking already of better things. Ambitions were awakened that would carry her out of the solitudes, where he felt himself at rest, back to the world where she would struggle to make a place for the child she had never wanted for herself.

"We'll take him to San Francisco soon"-it was always "him" in her speculations-"We can't keep him here."

"Why not?" he asked. "Look at Bella's children. Could anything be healthier and happier?"

"Bella's children are different. Bella's different. She doesn't know anything better, she doesn't care. To have them well fed and healthy is enough for her. We're not like that. Our child's going to have everything."

"You're content enough here by yourself and you're a different sort to Bella."

"For myself!" she gave a shrug. "I don't care any more than Bella does. But for my child-my son-I want everything. Want him a gentleman like his ancestors, French and American"-she gave his arm a propitiating squeeze for she knew he disliked this kind of talk-"want him to be educated like my father, and know everything, and have a profession."

"You're looking far ahead."

"Years and years ahead," and then with deprecating eyes and irrepressible laughter, "Now don't say I'm foolish, but sometimes I think of him getting married and the kind of girl I'll choose for him-not stupid like me, but one who's good and beautiful and knows all about literature and geography and science. The finest girl in the world, and I'll find her for him."

He didn't laugh, instead he looked sulkily thoughtful:

"And where will we get the money to do all this?"

"We'll make it. We have a good deal now. Daddy John told me the other day he thought we had nearly ten thousand dollars in dust beside what my father left. That will be plenty to begin on, and you can go into business down on the coast. They told Daddy John at the Fort there would be hundreds and thousands of people coming in next spring. They'll build towns, make Sacramento and San Francisco big places with lots going on. We can settle in whichever seems the most thriving and get back into the kind of life where we belong."

It was her old song, the swan song of his hopes. He felt a loneliness more bitter than he had ever before conceived of. In the jarring tumult of a growing city he saw himself marked in his own eyes, aloof in the street and the market place, a stranger by his own fireside. In his fear he swore that he would thwart her, keep her in the wild places, crush her maternal ambitions and force her to share his chosen life, the life of the outcast. He knew that it would mean conflict, the subduing of a woman nerved by a mother's passion. And as he worked in the ditches he thought about it, arranging the process by which he would gradually break her to his will, beat down her aspirations till she was reduced to the abject docility of a squaw. Then he would hold her forever under his hand and eye, broken as a dog to his word, content to wander with him on those lonely paths where he would tread out the measure of his days.

Toward the end of November the rains came. First in hesitant showers, then in steadier downpourings, finally, as December advanced, in torrential fury. Veils of water descended upon them, swept round their knoll till it stood marooned amid yellow eddies. The river rose boisterous, swirled into the pits, ate its way across the honey-combed reach of mud and fingered along the bottom of their hillock. They had never seen such rain. The pines bowed and wailed under its assault, and the slopes were musical with the voices of liberated streams. Moss and mud had to be pressed into the cabin's cracks, and when they sat by the fire in the evening their voices fell before the angry lashings on the roof and the groaning of the tormented forest.

Daddy John and Courant tried to work but gave it up, and the younger man, harassed by the secession of the toil that kept his body wearied and gave him sleep, went abroad on the hills, roaming free in the dripping darkness. Bella saw cause for surprise that he should absent himself willingly from their company. She grumbled about it to Glen, and noted Susan's acquiescence with the amaze of the woman who holds absolute sway over her man. One night Courant came back, drenched and staggering, on his shoulders a small bear that he had shot on the heights above. The fresh bear meat placated Bella, but she shook her head over the mountain man's morose caprices, and in the bedtime hour made dismal prophecies as to the outcome of her friend's strange marriage.

The bear hunt had evil consequences that she did not foresee. It left Courant, the iron man, stricken by an ailment marked by shiverings, when he sat crouched over the fire, and fevered burnings when their combined entreaties could not keep him from the open door and the cool, wet air. When the clouds broke and the landscape emerged from its mourning, dappled with transparent tints, every twig and leaf washed clean, his malady grew worse and he lay on the bed of spruce boughs tossing in a sickness none of them understood.

They were uneasy, came in and out with disturbed looks and murmured inquiries. He refused to answer them, but on one splendid morning, blaring life like a trumpet call, he told them he was better and was going back to work. He got down to the river bank, fumbled over his spade, and then Daddy John had to help him back to the cabin. With gray face and filmed eyes he lay on the bunk while they stood round him, and the children came peeping fearfully through the doorway. They were thoroughly frightened, Bella standing by with her chin caught in her hand and her eyes fastened on him, and Susan on the ground beside him, trying to say heartening phrases with lips that were stiff. The men did not know what to do. They pushed the children from the door roughly, as if it were their desire to hurt and abuse them. In some obscure way it seemed to relieve their feelings.

The rains came back more heavily than ever. For three days the heavens descended in a downpour

that made the river a roaring torrent and isled the two log houses on their hillocks. The walls of the cabin trickled with water. The buffets of the wind ripped the canvas covering from the door, and Susan and Daddy John had to take a buffalo robe from the bed and nail it over the rent. They kept the place warm with the fire, but the earth floor was damp to their feet, and the tinkle of drops falling from the roof into the standing pans came clear through the outside tumult.

The night when the storm was at its fiercest the girl begged the old man to stay with her. Courant had fallen into a state of lethargy from which it was hard to rouse him. Her anxiety gave place to anguish, and Daddy John was ready for the worst when she shook him into wakefulness, her voice at his ear:

"You must go somewhere and get a doctor. I'm afraid."

He blinked at her without answering, wondering where he could find a doctor and not wanting to speak till he had a hope to offer. She read his thoughts and cried as she snatched his hat and coat from a peg:

"There must be one somewhere. Go to the Fort, and if there's none there go to Sacramento. I'd go with you but I'm afraid to leave him."

Daddy John went. She stood in the doorway and saw him lead the horse from the brush shed and, with his head low against the downpour, vault into the saddle. The moaning of the disturbed trees mingled with the triumphant roar of the river. There was a shouted good-by, and she heard the clatter of the hoofs for a moment sharp and distinct, then swallowed in the storm's high clamor.

In three days he was back with a ship's doctor, an Englishman, who described himself as just arrived from Australia. Daddy John had searched the valley, and finally run his quarry to earth at the Porter Ranch, one of a motley crew waiting to swarm inland to the rivers. The man, a ruddy animal with some rudimentary knowledge of his profession, pronounced the ailment "mountain fever." He looked over the doctor's medicine chest with an air of wisdom and at Susan with subdued gallantry.

"Better get the wife down to Sacramento," he said to Daddy John. "The man's not going to last and you can't keep her up here."

"Is he going to die?" said the old man.

The doctor pursed his lips.

"He oughtn't to. He's a Hercules. But the strongest of 'em go this way with the work and exposure. Think they can do anything and don't last as well sometimes as the weak ones."

"Work and exposure oughtn't to hurt him. He's bred upon it. Why should he cave in and the others of us keep up?"

"Can't say. But he's all burned out-hollow. There's no rebound. He's half gone now. Doesn't seem to have the spirit that you'd expect in such a body."

"Would it do any good to get him out of here, down to the valley or the coast?"

"It might-change of air sometimes knocks out these fevers. You could try the coast or Hock Farm. But if you want my opinion I don't think there's much use."

Then on the first fine day the doctor rode away with some of their dust in his saddlebags, spying on the foaming river for good spots to locate when the rains should cease and he, with the rest of the world, could try his luck.

His visit had done no good, had given no heart to the anguished woman or roused no flicker of life in the failing man. Through the weakness of his wasting faculties Courant realized the approach of death and welcomed it. In his forest roamings, before his illness struck him, he had thought of it as the one way out. Then it had come to him vaguely terrible as a specter in dreams. Now bereft of the sustaining power of his strength the burden of the days to come had grown insupportable. To live without telling her, to live beside her and remain a partial stranger, to live divorcing her from all she would desire, had been the only course he saw, and in it he recognized nothing but misery. Death was the solution for both, and he relinquished himself to it with less grief at parting from her than relief at the withdrawal from an existence that would destroy their mutual dream. What remained to him of his mighty forces went to keep his lips shut on the secret she must never know. Even as his brain grew clouded, and his senses feeble, he retained the resolution to leave her her belief in him. This would be his legacy. His last gift of love would be the memory of an undimmed happiness.

But Susan, unknowing, fought on. The doctor had not got back to the Porter Ranch before she began arranging to move Low to Sacramento and from there to the Coast. He would get better care, they would find more competent doctors, the change of air would strengthen him. She had it out with Bella, refusing to listen to the older woman's objections, pushing aside all references to her own health. Bella was distracted. "For," as she said afterwards to Glen, "what's the sense of having her go? She can't do anything for him, and it's like as not the three of them'll die instead of one."

There was no reasoning with Susan. The old willfulness was strengthened to a blind determination. She plodded back through the rain to Daddy John and laid the matter before him. As of old he did not dispute with her, only stipulated that he be permitted to go on ahead, make arrangements, and then come back for her. He, too, felt there was no hope, but unlike the others he felt the best hope for his Missy was in letting her do all she could for her husband.

In the evening, sitting by the fire, they talked it over-the stage down the river, the stop at the Fort, then on to Sacramento, and the long journey to the seaport settlement of San Francisco. The sick man seemed asleep, and their voices unconsciously rose, suddenly dropping to silence as he stirred and spoke:

"Are you talking of moving me? Don't. I've had twelve years of it. Let me rest now."

Susan went to him and sat at his feet.

"But we must get you well," she said, trying to smile. "They'll want you in the pits. You must be back there working with them by the spring."

He looked at her with a wide, cold gaze, and said:

"The spring. We're all waiting for the spring. Everything's going to happen then."

A silence fell. The wife sat with drooped head, unable to speak. Daddy John looked into the fire. To them both the Angel of Death seemed to have paused outside the door, and in the stillness they waited for his knock. Only Courant was indifferent, staring at the wall with eyes full of an unfathomable unconcern.

The next day Daddy John left. He was to find the accommodations, get together such comforts as could be had, and return for them. He took a sack of dust and the fleetest horse, and calculated to be back inside two days. As he clattered away he turned for a last look at her, standing in the sunshine, her hand over her eyes. Man or devil would not stop him, he thought, as he buckled to his task, and his seventy years sat as light as a boy's twenty, the one passion of his heart beating life through him.

Two days later, at sundown, he came back. She heard the ringing of hoofs along the trail and ran forward to meet him, catching the bridle as the horse, a white lather of sweat, came to a panting halt. She did not notice the lined exhaustion of the old man's face, had no care for anything but his news.

"I've got everything fixed," he cried, and then slid off holding to the saddle for he was stiff and spent. "The place is ready and I've found a doctor and got him nailed. It'll be all clean and shipshape for you. How's Low?"

An answer was unnecessary. He could see there were no good tidings.

"Weaker a little," she said. "But if it's fine we can start to-morrow."

He thought of the road he had traveled and felt they were in God's hands. Then he stretched a gnarled and tremulous claw and laid it on her shoulder.

"And there's other news, Missy. Great news. I'm thinking that it may help you."

There was no news that could help her but news of Low. She was so fixed in her preoccupation that her eye was void of interest, as his, bright and expectant, held it:

"I seen David."

He was rewarded. Her face flashed into excitement and she grabbed at him with a wild hand:

"David! Where?"

"In Sacramento. I seen him and talked to him."

"Oh, Daddy John, how wonderful! Was he well?"

"Well and hearty, same as he used to be. Plumped up considerable."

"How had he got there?"

"A train behind us picked him up, found him lyin' by the spring where he'd crawled lookin' for us."

"Then, it wasn't Indians? Had he got lost?"

"That's what I says to him first-off-'Well, gol darn yer, what happened to yer?' and before he answers me he says quick, 'How's Susan?' It ain't no use settin' on bad news that's bound to come out so I give it to him straight that you and Low was married at Humboldt. And he took it very quiet, whitened up a bit, and says no words for a spell, walkin' off a few steps. Then he turns back and says, 'Is she happy?'"

Memory broke through the shell of absorption and gave voice to a forgotten sense of guilt:

"Oh, poor David! He always thought of me first."

"I told him you was. That you and Low was almighty sot on each other and that Low was sick. And he was quiet for another spell, and I could see his thoughts was troublesome. So to get his mind off it I asked him how it all happened. He didn't answer for a bit, standin' thinkin' with his eyes lookin' out same as he used to look at the sunsets before he got broke down. And then he tells me it was a fall, that he clum up to the top of the rock and thinks he got a touch o' sun up there. For first thing he knew he was all dizzy and staggerin' round, goin' this side and that, till he got to the edge where the rock broke off and over he went. He come to himself lying under a ledge alongside some bushes, with a spring tricklin' over him. He guessed he rolled there and that's why we couldn't find him. He don't know how long it was, or how long it took him to crawl round to the camp-maybe a day, he thinks, for he was 'bout two thirds dead. But he got there and saw we was gone. The Indians hadn't come down on the place, and he seen the writing on the rock and found the cache. The food and the water kep' him alive, and after a bit a big train come along, the finest train he even seen-eighteen wagons and an old Ashley man for pilot. They was almighty good to him; the women nursed him like Christians, and he rid in the wagons and come back slow to his strength. The reason we didn't hear of him before was because they come by a southern route that took 'em weeks longer, moving slow for the cattle. They was fine people, he says, and he's thick with one of the men who's a lawyer, and him and David's goin' to the coast to set up a law business there."

The flicker of outside interest was dying. "Thank Heaven," she said on a rising breath, then cast a look at the cabin and added quickly:

"I'll go and tell Low. Maybe it'll cheer him up. He was always so worried about David. You tell Bella and then come to the cabin and see how you think he is."

There was light in the cabin, a leaping radiance from the logs on the hearth, and a thin, pale twilight from the uncovered doorway. She paused there for a moment, making her step light and composing her features into serener lines. The gaunt form under the blanket was motionless. The face, sunk away to skin clinging on sharp-set bones, was turned in profile. He might have been sleeping but for the glint of light between the eyelids. She was accustomed to seeing him thus, to sitting beside the inanimate shape, her hand curled round his, her eyes on the face that took no note of her impassioned scrutiny. Would her tidings of David rouse him? She left herself no time to wonder, hungrily expectant.

"Low," she said, bending over him, "Daddy John's been to Sacramento and has brought back wonderful news."

He turned his head with an effort and looked at her. His glance was vacant as if he had only half heard, as if her words had caught the outer edges of his senses and penetrated no farther.

"He has seen David."

Into the dull eyes a slow light dawned, struggling through their apathy till they became the eyes of a live man, hanging on hers, charged with a staring intelligence. He made an attempt to move, lifted a wavering hand and groped for her shoulder.

"David!" he whispered.

The news had touched an inner nerve that thrilled to it. She crouched on the edge of the bunk, her heart beating thickly:

"David, alive and well."

The fumbling hand gripped on her shoulder. She felt the fingers pressing in stronger than she had dreamed they could be. It pulled her down toward him, the eyes fixed on hers, searching her face, glaring fearfully from blackened hollows, riveted in a desperate questioning.

"What happened to him?" came the husky whisper.

"He fell from the rock; thinks he had a sunstroke up there and then lost his balance and fell over and rolled under a ledge. And after a few days a train came by and found him."

"Is that what he said?"

Her answering voice began to tremble, for the animation of his look grew wilder and stranger. It was as if all the life in his body was burning in those hungry eyes. The hand on her shoulder clutched like a talon, the muscles informed with an unnatural force. Was it the end coming with a last influx of strength and fire? Her tears began to fall upon his face, and she saw it through them, ravaged and fearful, with new life struggling under the ghastliness of dissolution. There was an awfulness in this rekindling of the spirit where death had set its stamp that broke her fortitude, and she forgot the legend of her courage and cried in her agony:

"Oh, Low, don't die, don't die! I can't bear it. Stay with me!"

The hand left her shoulder and fumblingly touched her face, feeling blindly over its tear-washed surface.

"I'm not going to die," came the feeble whisper. "I can live now."

Half an hour later when Daddy John came in he found her sitting on the side of the bunk, a hunched, dim figure against the firelight. She held up a warning hand, and the old man tiptoed to her side and leaned over her to look. Courant was sleeping, his head thrown back, his chest rising in even breaths. Daddy John gazed for a moment, then bent till his cheek was almost against hers.

"Pick up your heart, Missy," he whispered. "He looks to me better."

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