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Title: The Covered Wagon
Author: Hough, Emerson, 1857-1923
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Covered Wagon" ***

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[Illustration]


[Illustration]


[Illustration: EMERSON HOUGH, THE AUTHOR, DRIVING A COVERED WAGON.]



THE

COVERED WAGON

BY

EMERSON HOUGH


AUTHOR OF

HEART'S DESIRE, ETC.

ILLUSTRATED WITH SCENES FROM THE PHOTOPLAY

A PARAMOUNT PICTURE

NEW YORK GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS

Made in the United States of America


1922



CONTENTS

CHAPTER

I.--YOUTH MARCHES

II.--THE EDGE OF THE WORLD

III.--THE RENDEZVOUS

IV.--FEVER OF NEW FORTUNES

V.--THE BLACK SPANIARD

VI.--ISSUE JOINED

VII.--THE JUMP-OFF

VIII.--MAN AGAINST MAN

IX.--THE BRUTE

X.--OLE MISSOURY

XI.--WHEN ALL THE WORLD WAS YOUNG

XII.--THE DEAD MEN'S TALE

XIII.--WILD FIRE

XIV.--THE KISS

XV.--THE DIVISION

XVI.--THE PLAINS

XVII.--THE GREAT ENCAMPMENT

XVIII.--ARROW AND PLOW

XIX.--BANION OF DONIPHAN'S

XX.--THE BUFFALO

XXI.--THE QUICKSANDS

XXII.--A SECRET OF TWO

XXIII.--AN ARMISTICE

XXIV.--THE ROAD WEST

XXV.--OLD LARAMIE

XXVI.--THE FIRST GOLD

XXVII.--TWO WHO LOVED

XXVIII.--WHEN A MAID MARRIES

XXIX.--THE BROKEN WEDDING

XXX.--THE DANCE IN THE DESERT

XXXI.--HOW, COLA!

XXXII.--THE FIGHT AT THE FORD

XXXIII.--THE FAMILIES ARE COMING

XXXIV.--A MATTER OF FRIENDSHIP

XXXV.--GEE--WHOA--HAW!

XXXVI.--TWO LOVE LETTERS

XXXVII.--JIM BRIDGER FORGETS

XXXVIII.--WHEN THE ROCKIES FELL

XXXIX.--THE CROSSING

XL.--OREGON! OREGON!

XLI.--THE SECRETS OF THE SIERRAS

XLII.--KIT CARSON RIDES

XLIII.--THE KILLER KILLED

XLIV.--YET IF LOVE LACK

XLV.--THE LIGHT OF THE WHOLE WORLD



_The_

COVERED WAGON



CHAPTER I

YOUTH MARCHES


"Look at 'em come, Jesse! More and more! Must be forty or fifty
families."

Molly Wingate, middle-aged, portly, dark browed and strong, stood at the
door of the rude tent which for the time made her home. She was pointing
down the road which lay like an écru ribbon thrown down across the
prairie grass, bordered beyond by the timber-grown bluffs of the
Missouri.

Jesse Wingate allowed his team of harness-marked horses to continue
their eager drinking at the watering hole of the little stream near
which the camp was pitched until, their thirst quenched, they began
burying their muzzles and blowing into the water in sensuous enjoyment.
He stood, a strong and tall man of perhaps forty-five years, of keen
blue eye and short, close-matted, tawny beard. His garb was the loose
dress of the outlying settler of the Western lands three-quarters of a
century ago. A farmer he must have been back home.

Could this encampment, on the very front of the American civilization,
now be called a home? Beyond the prairie road could be seen a double
furrow of jet-black glistening sod, framing the green grass and its
spangling flowers, first browsing of the plow on virgin soil. It might
have been the opening of a farm. But if so, why the crude bivouac? Why
the gear of travelers? Why the massed arklike wagons, the scores of
morning fires lifting lazy blue wreaths of smoke against the morning
mists?

The truth was that Jesse Wingate, earlier and impatient on the front,
out of the very suppression of energy, had been trying his plow in the
first white furrows beyond the Missouri in the great year of 1848. Four
hundred other near-by plows alike were avid for the soil of Oregon; as
witness this long line of newcomers, late at the frontier rendezvous.

"It's the Liberty wagons from down river," said the campmaster at
length. "Missouri movers and settlers from lower Illinois. It's time. We
can't lie here much longer waiting for Missouri or Illinois, either. The
grass is up."

"Well, we'd have to wait for Molly to end her spring term, teaching in
Clay School, in Liberty," rejoined his wife, "else why'd we send her
there to graduate? Twelve dollars a month, cash money, ain't to be
sneezed at."

"No; nor is two thousand miles of trail between here and Oregon, before
snow, to be sneezed at, either. If Molly ain't with those wagons I'll
send Jed over for her to-day. If I'm going to be captain I can't hold
the people here on the river any longer, with May already begun."

"She'll be here to-day," asserted his wife. "She said she would.
Besides, I think that's her riding a little one side the road now. Not
that I know who all is with her. One young man--two. Well"--with
maternal pride--"Molly ain't never lacked for beaus!

"But look at the wagons come!" she added. "All the country's going West
this spring, it certainly seems like."

It was the spring gathering of the west-bound wagon-trains, stretching
from old Independence to Westport Landing, the spot where that very year
the new name of Kansas City was heard among the emigrants as the place
of the jump-off. It was now an hour by sun, as these Western people
would have said, and the low-lying valley mists had not yet fully risen,
so that the atmosphere for a great picture did not lack.

It was a great picture, a stirring panorama of an earlier day, which now
unfolded. Slow, swaying, stately, the ox teams came on, as though
impelled by and not compelling the fleet of white canvas sails. The
teams did not hasten, did not abate their speed, but moved in an
unagitated advance that gave the massed column something irresistibly
epochal in look.

The train, foreshortened to the watchers at the rendezvous, had a
well-spaced formation--twenty wagons, thirty, forty, forty-seven--as
Jesse Wingate mentally counted them. There were outriders; there were
clumps of driven cattle. Along the flanks walked tall men, who flung
over the low-headed cattle an admonitory lash whose keen report
presently could be heard, still faint and far off. A dull dust cloud
arose, softening the outlines of the prairie ships. The broad gestures
of arm and trunk, the monotonous soothing of commands to the
sophisticated kine as yet remained vague, so that still it was properly
a picture done on a vast canvas--that of the frontier in '48; a picture
of might, of inevitableness. Even the sober souls of these waiters rose
to it, felt some thrill they themselves had never analyzed.

A boy of twenty, tall, blond, tousled, rode up from the grove back of
the encampment of the Wingate family.

"You, Jed?" said his father. "Ride on out and see if Molly's there."

"Sure she is!" commented the youth, finding a plug in the pocket of his
jeans. "That's her. Two fellers, like usual."

"Sam Woodhull, of course," said the mother, still hand over eye. "He
hung around all winter, telling how him and Colonel Doniphan whipped all
Mexico and won the war. If Molly ain't in a wagon of her own, it ain't
his fault, anyways! I'll rest assured it's account of Molly's going out
to Oregon that he's going too! Well!" And again, "Well!"

"Who's the other fellow, though?" demanded Jed. "I can't place him this
far."

Jesse Wingate handed over his team to his son and stepped out into the
open road, moved his hat in an impatient signal, half of welcome, half
of command. It apparently was observed.

To their surprise, it was the unidentified rider who now set spur to his
horse and came on at a gallop ahead of the train. He rode carelessly
well, a born horseman. In no more than a few minutes he could be seen as
rather a gallant figure of the border cavalier--a border just then more
martial than it had been before '46 and the days of "Fifty-Four Forty or
Fight."

A shrewed man might have guessed this young man--he was no more than
twenty-eight--to have got some military air on a border opposite to that
of Oregon; the far Southwest, where Taylor and Scott and the less known
Doniphan and many another fighting man had been adding certain thousands
of leagues to the soil of this republic. He rode a compact,
short-coupled, cat-hammed steed, coal black and with a dashing forelock
reaching almost to his red nostrils--a horse never reared on the fat
Missouri corn lands. Neither did this heavy embossed saddle with its
silver concho decorations then seem familiar so far north; nor yet the
thin braided-leather bridle with its hair frontlet band and its mighty
bit; nor again the great spurs with jingling rowel bells. This rider's
mount and trappings spoke the far and new Southwest, just then coming
into our national ken.

The young man himself, however, was upon the face of his appearance
nothing of the swashbuckler. True, in his close-cut leather trousers,
his neat boots, his tidy gloves, his rather jaunty broad black hat of
felted beaver, he made a somewhat raffish figure of a man as he rode up,
weight on his under thigh, sidewise, and hand on his horse's quarters,
carelessly; but his clean cut, unsmiling features, his direct and grave
look out of dark eyes, spoke him a gentleman of his day and place, and
no mere spectacular pretender assuming a virtue though he had it not.

He swung easily out of saddle, his right hand on the tall, broad Spanish
horn as easily as though rising from a chair at presence of a lady, and
removed his beaver to this frontier woman before he accosted her
husband. His bridle he flung down over his horse's head, which seemingly
anchored the animal, spite of its loud whinnying challenge to these
near-by stolid creatures which showed harness rubs and not whitened
saddle hairs.

"Good morning, madam," said he in a pleasant, quiet voice. "Good
morning, sir. You are Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Wingate, I believe. Your
daughter yonder told me so."

"That's my name," said Jesse Wingate, eyeing the newcomer suspiciously,
but advancing with ungloved hand. "You're from the Liberty train?"

"Yes, sir. My name is Banion--William Banion. You may not know me. My
family were Kentuckians before my father came out to Franklin. I started
up in the law at old Liberty town yonder not so long ago, but I've been
away a great deal."

"The law, eh?" Jesse Wingate again looked disapproval of the young man's
rather pronouncedly neat turnout. "Then you're not going West?"

"Oh, yes, I am, if you please, sir. I've done little else all my life.
Two years ago I marched with all the others, with Doniphan, for Mexico.
Well, the war's over, and the treaty's likely signed. I thought it high
time to march back home. But you know how it is--the long trail's in my
blood now. I can't settle down."

Wingate nodded. The young man smilingly went on:

"I want to see how it is in Oregon. What with new titles and the
like--and a lot of fighting men cast in together out yonder, too--there
ought to be as much law out there as here, don't you think? So I'm going
to seek my fortune in the Far West. It's too close and tame in here now.
I'm"--he smiled just a bit more obviously and deprecatingly--"I'm
leading yonder _caballad_ of our neighbors, with a bunch of Illinois and
Indiana wagons. They call me Col. William Banion. It is not right--I was
no more than Will Banion, major under Doniphan. I am not that now."

A change, a shadow came over his face. He shook it off as though it were
tangible.

"So I'm at your service, sir. They tell me you've been elected captain
of the Oregon train. I wanted to throw in with you if I might, sir. I
know we're late--we should have been in last night. I rode in to explain
that. May we pull in just beside you, on this water?"

Molly Wingate, on whom the distinguished address of the stranger, his
easy manner and his courtesy had not failed to leave their impression,
answered before her husband.

"You certainly can, Major Banion."

"Mister Banion, please."

"Well then, Mister Banion. The water and grass is free. The day's young.
Drive in and light down. You said you saw our daughter, Molly--I know
you did, for that's her now."

The young man colored under his bronze of tan, suddenly shy.

"I did," said he. "The fact is, I met her earlier this spring at Clay
Seminary, where she taught. She told me you-all were moving West this
spring--said this was her last day. She asked if she might ride out
with our wagons to the rendezvous. Well--"

"That's a fine horse you got there," interrupted young Jed Wingate.
"Spanish?"

"Yes, sir."

"Wild?"

"Oh, no, not now; only of rather good spirit. Ride him if you like.
Gallop back, if you'd like to try him, and tell my people to come on and
park in here. I'd like a word or so with Mr. Wingate."

With a certain difficulty, yet insistent, Jed swung into the deep
saddle, sitting the restive, rearing horse well enough withal, and soon
was off at a fast pace down the trail. They saw him pull up at the head
of the caravan and motion, wide armed, to the riders, the train not
halting at all.

He joined the two equestrian figures on ahead, the girl and the young
man whom his mother had named as Sam Woodhull. They could see him
shaking hands, then doing a curvet or so to show off his newly borrowed
mount.

"He takes well to riding, your son," said the newcomer approvingly.

"He's been crazy to get West," assented the father. "Wants to get among
the buffalo."

"We all do," said Will Banion. "None left in Kentucky this generation
back; none now in Missouri. The Plains!" His eye gleamed.

"That's Sam Woodhull along," resumed Molly Wingate. "He was with
Doniphan."

"Yes."

Banion spoke so shortly that the good dame, owner of a sought-for
daughter, looked at him keenly.

"He lived at Liberty, too. I've known Molly to write of him."

"Yes?" suddenly and with vigor. "She knows him then?"

"Why, yes."

"So do I," said Banion simply. "He was in our regiment--captain and
adjutant, paymaster and quartermaster-chief, too, sometimes. The Army
Regulations never meant much with Doniphan's column. We did as we
liked--and did the best we could, even with paymasters and
quartermasters!"

He colored suddenly, and checked, sensitive to a possible charge of
jealousy before this keen-eyed mother of a girl whose beauty had been
the talk of the settlement now for more than a year.

The rumors of the charm of Molly Wingate--Little Molly, as her father
always called her to distinguish her from her mother--now soon were to
have actual and undeniable verification to the eye of any skeptic who
mayhap had doubted mere rumors of a woman's beauty. The three advance
figures--the girl, Woodhull, her brother Jed--broke away and raced over
the remaining few hundred yards, coming up abreast, laughing in the glee
of youth exhilarated by the feel of good horseflesh under knee and the
breath of a vital morning air.

As they flung off Will Banion scarce gave a look to his own excited
steed. He was first with a hand to Molly Wingate as she sprang lightly
down, anticipating her other cavalier, Woodhull, who frowned, none too
well pleased, as he dismounted.

Molly Wingate ran up and caught her mother in her strong young arms,
kissing her roundly, her eyes shining, her cheeks flushed in the
excitement of the hour, the additional excitement of the presence of
these young men. She must kiss someone.

Yes, the rumors were true, and more than true. The young school-teacher
could well carry her title as the belle of old Liberty town here on the
far frontier. A lovely lass of eighteen years or so, she was, blue of
eye and of abundant red-brown hair of that tint which ever has turned
the eyes and heads of men. Her mouth, smiling to show white, even teeth,
was wide enough for comfort in a kiss, and turned up strongly at the
corners, so that her face seemed always sunny and carefree, were it not
for the recurrent grave, almost somber look of the wide-set eyes in
moments of repose.

Above the middle height of woman's stature, she had none of the lank
irregularity of the typical frontier woman of the early ague lands; but
was round and well developed. Above the open collar of her brown riding
costume stood the flawless column of a fair and tall white throat. New
ripened into womanhood, wholly fit for love, gay of youth and its racing
veins, what wonder Molly Wingate could have chosen not from two but
twenty suitors of the best in all that countryside? Her conquests had
been many since the time when, as a young girl, and fulfilling her
parents' desire to educate their daughter, she had come all the way from
the Sangamon country of Illinois to the best school then existent so far
west--Clay Seminary, of quaint old Liberty.

The touch of dignity gained of the ancient traditions of the South,
never lost in two generations west of the Appalachians, remained about
the young girl now, so that she rather might have classed above her
parents. They, moving from Kentucky into Indiana, from Indiana into
Illinois, and now on to Oregon, never in all their toiling days had
forgotten their reverence for the gentlemen and ladies who once were
their ancestors east of the Blue Ridge. They valued education--felt that
it belonged to them, at least through their children.

Education, betterment, progress, advance--those things perhaps lay in
the vague ambitions of twice two hundred men who now lay in camp at the
border of our unknown empire. They were all Americans--second, third,
fourth generation Americans. Wild, uncouth, rude, unlettered, many or
most of them, none the less there stood among them now and again some
tall flower of that culture for which they ever hungered; for which
they fought; for which they now adventured yet again.

Surely American also were these two young men whose eyes now
unconsciously followed Molly Wingate in hot craving even of a morning
thus far breakfastless, for the young leader had ordered his wagons on
to the rendezvous before crack of day. Of the two, young Woodhull,
planter and man of means, mentioned by Molly's mother as open suitor,
himself at first sight had not seemed so ill a figure, either. Tall,
sinewy, well clad for the place and day, even more foppish than Banion
in boot and glove, he would have passed well among the damsels of any
courthouse day. The saddle and bridle of his mount also were a trace to
the elegant, and the horse itself, a classy chestnut that showed Blue
Grass blood, even then had cost a pretty penny somewhere, that was sure.

Sam Woodhull, now moving with a half dozen wagons of his own out to
Oregon, was reputed well to do; reputed also to be well skilled at
cards, at weapons and at women. Townsmen accorded him first place with
Molly Wingate, the beauty from east of the river, until Will Banion came
back from the wars. Since then had been another manner of war, that as
ancient as male and female.

That Banion had known Woodhull in the field in Mexico he already had let
slip. What had been the cause of his sudden pulling up of his starting
tongue? Would he have spoken too much of that acquaintance? Perhaps a
closer look at the loose lips, the high cheeks, the narrow, close-set
eyes of young Woodhull, his rather assertive air, his slight,
indefinable swagger, his slouch in standing, might have confirmed some
skeptic disposed to analysis who would have guessed him less than strong
of soul and character. For the most part, such skeptics lacked.

By this time the last belated unit of the Oregon caravan was at hand.
The feature of the dusty drivers could be seen. Unlike Wingate, the
newly chosen master of the train, who had horses and mules about him,
the young leader, Banion, captained only ox teams. They came now, slow
footed, steady, low headed, irresistible, indomitable, the same
locomotive power that carried the hordes of Asia into Eastern Europe
long ago. And as in the days of that invasion the conquerors carried
their households, their flocks and herds with them, so now did these
half-savage Saxon folk have with them their all.

Lean boys, brown, barefooted girls flanked the trail with driven stock.
Chickens clucked in coops at wagon side. Uncounted children thrust out
tousled heads from the openings of the canvas covers. Dogs beneath,
jostling the tar buckets, barked in hostile salutation. Women in slatted
sunbonnets turned impassive gaze from the high front seats, back of
which, swung to the bows by leather loops, hung the inevitable family
rifle in each wagon. And now, at the tail gate of every wagon, lashed
fast for its last long journey, hung also the family plow.

It was '48, and the grass was up. On to Oregon! The ark of our covenant
with progress was passing out. Almost it might have been said to have
held every living thing, like that other ark of old.

Banion hastened to one side, where a grassy level beyond the little
stream still offered stance. He raised a hand in gesture to the right. A
sudden note of command came into his voice, lingering from late military
days.

"By the right and left flank--wheel! March!"

With obvious training, the wagons broke apart, alternating right and
left, until two long columns were formed. Each of these advanced,
curving out, then drawing in, until a long ellipse, closed at front and
rear, was formed methodically and without break or flaw. It was the
barricade of the Plains, the moving fortresses of our soldiers of
fortune, going West, across the Plains, across the Rockies, across the
deserts that lay beyond. They did not know all these dangers, but they
thus were ready for any that might come.

"Look, mother!" Molly Wingate pointed with kindling eye to the wagon
maneuver. "We trained them all day yesterday, and long before. Perfect!"

Her gaze mayhap sought the tall figure of the young commander, chosen by
older men above his fellow townsman, Sam Woodhull, as captain of the
Liberty train. But he now had other duties in his own wagon group.

Ceased now the straining creak of gear and came rattle of yokes as the
pins were loosed. Cattle guards appeared and drove the work animals
apart to graze. Women clambered down from wagon seats. Sober-faced
children gathered their little arms full of wood for the belated
breakfast fires; boys came down for water at the stream.

The west-bound paused at the Missouri, as once they had paused at the
Don.

A voice arose, of some young man back among the wagons busy at his work,
paraphrasing an ante-bellum air:

  _Oh, then, Susannah,
  Don't you cry fer me!
  I'm goin' out to Oregon,
  With my banjo on my knee!_



CHAPTER II

THE EDGE OF THE WORLD


More than two thousand men, women and children waited on the Missouri
for the green fully to tinge the grasses of the prairies farther west.
The waning town of Independence had quadrupled its population in thirty
days. Boats discharged their customary western cargo at the newer
landing on the river, not far above that town; but it all was not
enough. Men of upper Missouri and lower Iowa had driven in herds of
oxen, horses, mules; but there were not enough of these. Rumors came
that a hundred wagons would take the Platte this year via the Council
Bluffs, higher up the Missouri; others would join on from St. Jo and
Leavenworth.

March had come, when the wild turkey gobbled and strutted resplendent in
the forest lands. April had passed, and the wild fowl had gone north.
May, and the upland plovers now were nesting all across the prairies.
But daily had more wagons come, and neighbors had waited for neighbors,
tardy at the great rendezvous. The encampment, scattered up and down the
river front, had become more and more congested. Men began to know one
another, families became acquainted, the gradual sifting and shifting in
social values began. Knots and groups began to talk of some sort of
accepted government for the common good.

They now were at the edge of the law. Organized society did not exist
this side of the provisional government of Oregon, devised as a _modus
vivendi_ during the joint occupancy of that vast region with Great
Britain--an arrangement terminated not longer than two years before.
There must be some sort of law and leadership between the Missouri and
the Columbia. Amid much bickering of petty politics, Jesse Wingate had
some four days ago been chosen for the thankless task of train captain.
Though that office had small authority and less means of enforcing its
commands, none the less the train leader must be a man of courage,
resource and decision. Those of the earlier arrivals who passed by his
well-organized camp of forty-odd wagons from the Sangamon country of
Illinois said that Wingate seemed to know the business of the trail. His
affairs ran smoothly, he was well equipped and seemed a man of means.
Some said he had three thousand in gold at the bottom of his cargo.
Moreover--and this appeared important among the Northern element, at
that time predominant in the rendezvous--he was not a Calhoun Secesh, or
even a Benton Democrat, but an out and out, antislavery, free-soil man.
And the provisional constitution of Oregon, devised by thinking men of
two great nations, had said that Oregon should be free soil forever.

Already there were mutterings in 1848 of the coming conflict which a
certain lank young lawyer of Springfield, in the Sangamon
country--Lincoln, his name was--two years ago among his personal friends
had predicted as inevitable. In a personnel made up of bold souls from
both sides the Ohio, politics could not be avoided even on the trail;
nor were these men the sort to avoid politics. Sometimes at their camp
fire, after the caravan election, Wingate and his wife, their son Jed,
would compare notes, in a day when personal politics and national
geography meant more than they do to-day.

"Listen, son," Wingate one time concluded. "All that talk of a railroad
across this country to Oregon is silly, of course. But it's all going to
be one country. The talk is that the treaty with Mexico must give us a,
slice of land from Texas to the Pacific, and a big one; all of it was
taken for the sake of slavery. Not so Oregon--that's free forever. This
talk of splitting this country, North and South, don't go with me. The
Alleghanies didn't divide it. Burr couldn't divide it. The Mississippi
hasn't divided it, or the Missouri, so rest assured the Ohio can't. No,
nor the Rockies can't! A railroad? No, of course not. But all the same,
a practical wagon road from free soil to free soil--I reckon that was my
platform, like enough. It made me captain."

"No, 'twasn't that, Jesse," said his wife. "That ain't what put you in
for train captain. It was your blamed impatience. Some of them lower
Ioway men, them that first nominated you in the train meeting--town
meeting--what you call it, they seen where you'd been plowing along here
just to keep your hand in. One of them says to me, 'Plowing, hey? Can't
wait? Well, that's what we're going out for, ain't it--to plow?' says
he. 'That's the clean quill,' says he. So they 'lected you, Jesse. And
the Lord ha' mercy on your soul!"

Now the arrival of so large a new contingent as this of the Liberty
train under young Banion made some sort of post-election ratification
necessary, so that Wingate felt it incumbent to call the head men of the
late comers into consultation if for no better than reasons of courtesy.
He dispatched his son Jed to the Banion park to ask the attendance of
Banion, Woodhull and such of his associates as he liked to bring, at any
suiting hour. Word came back that the Liberty men would join the Wingate
conference around eleven of that morning, at which time the hour of the
jump-off could be set.



CHAPTER III

THE RENDEZVOUS


As to the start of the great wagon train, little time, indeed, remained.
For days, in some instances for weeks, the units of the train had lain
here on the border, and the men were growing restless. Some had come a
thousand miles and now were keen to start out for more than two thousand
miles additional. The grass was up. The men from Illinois, Indiana,
Ohio, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas fretted on the leash.

All along the crooked river front, on both sides from Independence to
the river landing at Westport, the great spring caravan lay encamped, or
housed in town. Now, on the last days of the rendezvous, a sort of
hysteria seized the multitude. The sound of rifle fire was like that of
a battle--every man was sighting-in his rifle. Singing and shouting went
on everywhere. Someone fresh from the Mexican War had brought a drum,
another a bugle. Without instructions, these began to sound their
summons and continued all day long, at such times as the performers
could spare from drink.

The Indians of the friendly tribes--Otos, Kaws, Osages--come in to
trade, looked on in wonder at the revelings of the whites. The
straggling street of each of the near-by river towns was full of massed
wagons. The treble line of white tops, end to end, lay like a vast
serpent, curving, ahead to the West. Rivalry for the head of the column
began. The sounds of the bugle set a thousand uncoördinated wheels
spasmodically in motion. Organization, system were as yet unknown in
this rude and dominant democracy. Need was therefore for this final
meeting in the interest of law, order and authority. Already some wagons
had broken camp and moved on out into the main traveled road, which lay
plain enough on westward, among the groves and glades of the valley of
the Kaw. Each man wanted to be first to Oregon, no man wished to take
the dust of his neighbor's wagon.

Wingate brought up all these matters at the train meeting of some three
score men which assembled under the trees of his own encampment at
eleven of the last morning. Most of the men he knew. Banion
unobtrusively took a seat well to the rear of those who squatted on
their heels or lolled full length on the grass.

After the fashion of the immemorial American town meeting, the beginning
of all our government, Wingate called the meeting to order and stated
its purposes. He then set forth his own ideas of the best manner for
handling the trail work.

His plan, as he explained, was one long earlier perfected in the convoys
of the old Santa Fé Trail. The wagons were to travel in close order.
Four parallel columns, separated by not too great spaces, were to be
maintained as much as possible, more especially toward nightfall. Of
these, the outer two were to draw in together when camp was made, the
other two to angle out, wagon lapping wagon, front and rear, thus making
an oblong corral of the wagons, into which, through a gap, the work oxen
were to be driven every night after they had fed. The tents and fires
were to be outside of the corral unless in case of an Indian alarm, when
the corral would represent a fortress.

The transport animals were to be hobbled each night. A guard, posted
entirely around the corral and camp, was to be put out each night. Each
man and each boy above fourteen was to be subject to guard duty under
the ancient common law of the Plains, and from this duty no man might
hope excuse unless actually too ill to walk; nor could any man offer to
procure any substitute for himself. The watches were to be set as eight,
each to stand guard one-fourth part of alternate nights, so that each
man would get every other night undisturbed.

There were to be lieutenants, one for each of the four parallel
divisions of the train; also eight sergeants of the guard, each of whom
was to select and handle the men of the watch under him. No wagon might
change its own place in the train after the start, dust or no dust.

When Wingate ended his exposition and looked around for approval it was
obvious that many of these regulations met with disfavor at the start.
The democracy of the train was one in which each man wanted his own way.
Leaning head to head, speaking low, men grumbled at all this fuss and
feathers and Army stuff. Some of these were friends and backers in the
late election. Nettled by their silence, or by their murmured comments,
Wingate arose again.

"Well, you have heard my plan, men," said he. "The Santa Fé men worked
it up, and used it for years, as you all know. They always got through.
If there's anyone here knows a better way, and one that's got more
experience back of it, I'd like to have him get up and say so."

Silence for a time greeted this also. The Northern men, Wingate's
partisans, looked uncomfortably one to the other. It was young Woodhull,
of the Liberty contingent, who rose at length.

"What Cap'n Wingate has said sounds all right to me," said he. "He's a
new friend of mine--I never saw him till two-three hours ago--but I know
about him. What he says about the Santa Fé fashion I know for true. As
some of you know, I was out that way, up the Arkansas, with Doniphan,
for the Stars and Stripes. Talk about wagon travel--you got to have a
regular system or you have everything in a mess. This here, now, is a
lot like so many volunteers enlisting for war. There's always a sort of
preliminary election of officers; sort of shaking down and shaping up.
I wasn't here when Cap'n Wingate was elected--our wagons were some
late--but speaking for our men, I'd move to ratify his choosing, and
that means to ratify his regulations. I'm wondering if I don't get a
second for that?"

Some of the bewhiskered men who sat about him stirred, but cast their
eyes toward their own captain, young Banion, whose function as their
spokesman had thus been usurped by his defeated rival, Woodhull. Perhaps
few of them suspected the _argumentum ad hominem_--or rather _ad
feminam_--in Woodhull's speech.

Banion alone knew this favor-currying when he saw it, and knew well
enough the real reason. It was Molly! Rivals indeed they were, these
two, and in more ways than one. But Banion held his peace until one
quiet father of a family spoke up.

"I reckon our own train captain, that we elected in case we didn't throw
in with the big train, had ought to say what he thinks about it all."

Will Banion now rose composedly and bowed to the leader.

"I'm glad to second Mr. Woodhull's motion to throw our vote and our
train for Captain Wingate and the big train," said he. "We'll ratify his
captaincy, won't we?"

The nods of his associates now showed assent, and Wingate needed no more
confirmation.

"In general, too, I would ratify Captain Wingate's scheme. But might I
make a few suggestions?"

"Surely--go on." Wingate half rose.

"Well then, I'd like to point out that we've got twice as far to go as
the Santa Fé traders, and over a very different country--more dangerous,
less known, harder to travel. We've many times more wagons than any
Santa Fé train ever had, and we've hundreds of loose cattle along. That
means a sweeping off of the grass at every stop, and grass we've got to
have or the train stops.

"Besides our own call on grass, I know there'll be five thousand Mormons
at least on the trail ahead of us this spring--they've crossed the river
from here to the Bluffs, and they're out on the Platte right now. We
take what grass they leave us.

"What I'm trying to get at, captain, is this: We might have to break
into smaller detachments now and again. We could not possibly always
keep alignment in four columns."

"And then we'd be open to any Indian attack," interrupted Woodhull.

"We might have to fight some of the time, yes," rejoined Banion; "but
we'll have to travel all the time, and we'll have to graze our stock all
the time. On that one basic condition our safety rests--grass and plenty
of it. We're on a long journey.

"You see, gentlemen," he added, smiling, "I was with Doniphan also. We
learned a good many things. For instance, I'd rather see each horse on
a thirty-foot picket rope, anchored safe each night, than to trust to
any hobbles. A homesick horse can travel miles, hobbled, in a night.
Horses are a lot of trouble.

"Now, I see that about a fourth of our people, including Captain
Wingate, have horses and mules and not ox transport. I wish they all
could trade for oxen before they start. Oxen last longer and fare
better. They are easier to herd. They can be used for food in the hard
first year out in Oregon. The Indians don't steal oxen--they like
buffalo better--but they'll take any chance to run off horses or even
mules. If they do, that means your women and children are on foot. You
know the story of the Donner party, two years ago--on foot, in the snow.
They died, and worse than died, just this side of California."

Men of Iowa, of Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, began to nod to one another,
approving the words of this young man.

"He talks sense," said a voice aloud.

"Well, I'm talking a whole lot, I know," said Banion gravely, "but this
is the time and place for our talking. I'm for throwing in with the
Wingate train, as I've said. But will Captain Wingate let me add even
just a few words more?

"For instance, I would suggest that we ought to have a record of all our
personnel. Each man ought to be required to give his own name and late
residence, and the names of all in his party. He should be obliged to
show that his wagon is in good condition, with spare bolts, yokes,
tires, bows and axles, and extra shoes for the stock. Each wagon ought
to be required to carry anyhow half a side of rawhide, and the usual
tools of the farm and the trail, as well as proper weapons and abundance
of ammunition.

"No man ought to be allowed to start with this caravan with less
supplies, for each mouth of his wagon, than one hundred pounds of flour.
One hundred and fifty or even two hundred would be much better--there is
loss and shrinkage. At least half as much of bacon, twenty pounds of
coffee, fifty of sugar would not be too much in my own belief. About
double the pro rata of the Santa Fé caravans is little enough, and those
whose transport power will let them carry more supplies ought to start
full loaded, for no man can tell the actual duration of this journey, or
what food may be needed before we get across. One may have to help
another."

Even Wingate joined in the outspoken approval of this, and Banion,
encouraged, went on:

"Some other things, men, since you have asked each man to speak freely.
We're not hunters, but home makers. Each family, I suppose, has a plow
and seed for the first crop. We ought, too, to find out all our
blacksmiths, for I promise you we'll need them. We ought to have a half
dozen forges and as many anvils, and a lot of irons for the wagons.

"I suppose, too, you've located all your doctors; also all your
preachers--you needn't camp them all together. Personally I believe in
Sunday rest and Sunday services. We're taking church and state and home
and law along with us, day by day, men, and we're not just trappers and
adventurers. The fur trade's gone.

"I even think we ought to find out our musicians--it's good to have a
bugler, if you can. And at night, when the people are tired and
disheartened, music is good to help them pull together."

The bearded men who listened nodded yet again.

"About schools, now--the other trains that went out, the Applegates in
1843, the Donners of 1846, each train, I believe, had regular schools
along, with hours each day.

"Do you think I'm right about all this? I'm sure I don't want Captain
Wingate to be offended. I'm not dividing his power. I'm only trying to
stiffen it."

Woodhull arose, a sneer on his face, but a hand pushed him down. A tall
Missourian stood before him.

"Right ye air, Will!" said he. "Ye've an old head, an' we kin trust hit.
Ef hit wasn't Cap'n Wingate is more older than you, an' already done
elected, I'd be for choosin' ye fer cap'n o' this here hull train right
now. Seein' hit's the way hit is, I move we vote to do what Will Banion
has said is fitten. An' I move we-uns throw in with the big train, with
Jess Wingate for cap'n. An' I move we allow one more day to git in
supplies an' fixin's, an' trade hosses an' mules an' oxens, an' then we
start day atter to-morrow mornin' when the bugle blows. Then hooray fer
Oregon!"

There were cheers and a general rising, as though after finished
business, which greeted this. Jesse Wingate, somewhat crestfallen and
chagrined over the forward ways of this young man, of whom he never had
heard till that very morning, put a perfunctory motion or so, asked
loyalty and allegiance, and so forth.

But what they remembered was that he appointed as his wagon-column
captains Sam Woodhull, of Missouri; Caleb Price, an Ohio man of
substance; Simon Hall, an Indiana merchant, and a farmer by name of
Kelsey, from Kentucky. To Will Banion the trainmaster assigned the most
difficult and thankless task of the train, the captaincy of the cow
column; that is to say, the leadership of the boys and men whose
families were obliged to drive the loose stock of the train.

There were sullen mutterings over this in the Liberty column. Men
whispered they would not follow Woodhull. As for Banion, he made no
complaint, but smiled and shook hands with Wingate and all his
lieutenants and declared his own loyalty and that of his men; then left
for his own little adventure of a half dozen wagons which he was
freighting out to Laramie--bacon, flour and sugar, for the most part;
each wagon driven by a neighbor or a neighbor's son. Among these already
arose open murmurs of discontent over the way their own contingent had
been treated. Banion had to mend a potential split before the first
wheel had rolled westward up the Kaw.

The men of the meeting passed back among their neighbors and families,
and spoke with more seriousness than hitherto. The rifle firing ended,
the hilarity lessened that afternoon. In the old times the keel-boatmen
bound west started out singing. The pack-train men of the fur trade went
shouting and shooting, and the confident hilarity of the Santa Fé wagon
caravans was a proverb. But now, here in the great Oregon train, matters
were quite otherwise. There were women and children along. An unsmiling
gravity marked them all. When the dusky velvet of the prairie night
settled on almost the last day of the rendezvous it brought a general
feeling of anxiety, dread, uneasiness, fear. Now, indeed, and at last,
all these realized what was the thing that they had undertaken.

To add yet more to the natural apprehensions of men and women embarking
on so stupendous an adventure, all manner of rumors now continually
passed from one company to another. It was said that five thousand
Mormons, armed to the teeth, had crossed the river at St. Joseph and
were lying in wait on the Platte, determined to take revenge for the
persecutions they had suffered in Missouri and Illinois. Another story
said that the Kaw Indians, hitherto friendly, had banded together for
robbery and were only waiting for the train to appear. A still more
popular story had it that a party of several Englishmen had hurried
ahead on the trail to excite all the savages to waylay and destroy the
caravans, thus to wreak the vengeance of England upon the Yankees for
the loss of Oregon. Much unrest arose over reports, hard to trace, to
the effect that it was all a mistake about Oregon; that in reality it
was a truly horrible country, unfit for human occupancy, and sure to
prove the grave of any lucky enough to survive the horrors of the trail,
which never yet had been truthfully reported. Some returned travelers
from the West beyond the Rockies, who were hanging about the landing at
the river, made it all worse by relating what purported to be actual
experiences.

"If you ever get through to Oregon," they said, "you'll be ten years
older than you are now. Your hair will be white, but not by age."

The Great Dipper showed clear and close that night, as if one might
almost pick off by hand the familiar stars of the traveler's
constellation. Overhead countless brilliant points of lesser light
enameled the night mantle, matching the many camp fires of the great
gathering. The wind blew soft and low. Night on the prairie is always
solemn, and to-night the tense anxiety, the strained anticipation of
more than two thousand souls invoked a brooding melancholy which it
seemed even the stars must feel.

A dog, ominous, lifted his voice in a long, mournful howl which made
mothers put out their hands to their babes. In answer a coyote in the
grass raised a high, quavering cry, wild and desolate, the voice of the
Far West.



CHAPTER IV

FEVER OF NEW FORTUNES


The notes of a bugle, high and clear, sang reveille at dawn. Now came
hurried activities of those who had delayed. The streets of the two
frontier settlements were packed with ox teams, horses, wagons, cattle
driven through. The frontier stores were stripped of their last
supplies. One more day, and then on to Oregon!

Wingate broke his own camp early in the morning and moved out to the
open country west of the landing, making a last bivouac at what would be
the head of the train. He had asked his four lieutenants to join him
there. Hall, Price, and Kelsey headed in with straggling wagons to form
the nucleuses of their columns; but the morning wore on and the
Missourians, now under Woodhull, had not yet broken park. Wingate waited
moodily.

Now at the edge of affairs human apprehensions began to assert
themselves, especially among the womenfolk. Even stout Molly Wingate
gave way to doubt and fears. Her husband caught her, apron to eyes,
sitting on the wagon tongue at ten in the morning, with her pots and
pans unpacked.

"What?" he exclaimed. "You're not weakening? Haven't you as much
courage as those Mormon women on ahead? Some of them pushing carts, I've
heard."

"They've done it for religion, Jess. Oregon ain't no religion for me."

"Yet it has music for a man's ears, Molly."

"Hush! I've heard it all for the last two years. What happened to the
Donners two years back? And four years ago it was the Applegates left
home in old Missouri to move to Oregon. Who will ever know where their
bones are laid? Look at our land we left--rich--black and rich as any in
the world. What corn, what wheat--why, everything grew well in
Illinois!"

"Yes, and cholera below us wiping out the people, and the trouble over
slave-holding working up the river more and more, and the sun blazing in
the summer, while in the wintertime we froze!"

"Well, as for food, we never saw any part of Kentucky with half so much
grass. We had no turkeys at all there, and where we left you could kill
one any gobbling time. The pigeons roosted not four miles from us. In
the woods along the river even a woman could kill coons and squirrels,
all we'd need--no need for us to eat rabbits like the Mormons. Our
chicken yard was fifty miles across. The young ones'd be flying by
roasting-ear time--and in fall the sloughs was black with ducks and
geese. Enough and to spare we had; and our land opening; and Molly
teaching the school, with twelve dollars a month cash for it, and Ted
learning his blacksmith trade before he was eighteen. How could we ask
more? What better will we do in Oregon?"

"You always throw the wet blanket on Oregon, Molly."

"It is so far!"

"How do we know it is far? We know men and women have crossed, and we
know the land is rich. Wheat grows fifty bushels to the acre, the trees
are big as the spires on meeting houses, the fish run by millions in the
streams. Yet the winters have little snow. A man can live there and not
slave out a life.

"Besides"--and the frontier now spoke in him--"this country is too old,
too long settled. My father killed his elk and his buffalo, too, in
Kentucky; but that was before my day. I want the buffalo. I crave to see
the Plains, Molly. What real American does not?"

Mrs. Wingate threw her apron over her face.

"The Oregon fever has witched you, Jesse!" she exclaimed between dry
sobs.

Wingate was silent for a time.

"Corn ought to grow in Oregon," he said at last.

"Yes, but does it?"

"I never heard it didn't. The soil is rich, and you can file on six
hundred and forty acres. There's your donation claim, four times bigger
than any land you can file on here. We sold out at ten dollars an
acre--more'n our land really was worth, or ever is going to be worth.
It's just the speculators says any different. Let 'em have it, and us
move on. That's the way money's made, and always has been made, all
across the United States."

"Huh! You talk like a land speculator your own self!"

"Well, if it ain't the movers make a country, what does? If we don't
settle Oregon, how long'll we hold it? The preachers went through to
Oregon with horses. Like as not even the Applegates got their wagons
across. Like enough they got through. I want to see the country before
it gets too late for a good chance, Molly. First thing you know
buffalo'll be getting scarce out West, too, like deer was getting
scarcer on the Sangamon. We ought to give our children as good a chance
as we had ourselves."

"As good a chance! Haven't they had as good a chance as we ever had?
Didn't our land more'n thribble, from a dollar and a quarter? It may
thribble again, time they're old as we are now."

"That's a long time to wait."

"It's a long time to live a life-time, but everybody's got to live it."

She stood, looking at him.

"Look at all the good land right in here! Here we got walnut and hickory
and oak--worlds of it. We got sassafras and pawpaw and hazel brush. We
get all the hickory nuts and pecans we like any fall. The wild plums is
better'n any in Kentucky; and as for grapes, they're big as your thumb,
and thousands, on the river. Wait till you see the plum and grape jell I
could make this fall!"

"Women--always thinking of jell!"

"But we got every herb here we need--boneset and sassafras and Injun
physic and bark for the fever. There ain't nothing you can name we ain't
got right here, or on the Sangamon, yet you talk of taking care of our
children. Huh! We've moved five times since we was married. Now just as
we got into a good country, where a woman could dry corn and put up
jell, and where a man could raise some hogs, why, you wanted to move
again--plumb out to Oregon! I tell you, Jesse Wingate, hogs is a blame
sight better to tie to than buffalo! You talk like you had to settle
Oregon!"

"Well, haven't I got to? Somehow it seems a man ain't making up his own
mind when he moves West Pap moved twice in Kentucky, once in Tennessee,
and then over to Missouri, after you and me was married and moved up
into Indiana, before we moved over into Illinois. He said to me--and I
know it for the truth--he couldn't hardly tell who it was or what it was
hitched up the team. But first thing he knew, there the old wagon stood,
front of the house, cover all on, plow hanging on behind, tar bucket
under the wagon, and dog and all. All he had to do, pap said, was just
to climb up on the front seat and speak to the team. My maw, she climb
up on the seat with him. Then they moved--on West. You know, Molly. My
maw, she climb up on the front seat--"

His wife suddenly turned to him, the tears still in her eyes.

"Yes, and Jesse Wingate, and you know it, your wife's as good a woman as
your maw! When the wagon was a-standing, cover on, and you on the front
seat, I climb up by you, Jess, same as I always have and always will.
Haven't I always? You know that. But it's harder on women, moving is.
They care more for a house that's rain tight in a storm."

"I know you did, Molly," said her husband soberly.

"I suppose I can pack my jells in a box and put in the wagon, anyways."
She was drying her eyes.

"Why, yes, I reckon so. And then a few sacks of dried corn will go
mighty well on the road."

"One thing"--she turned on him in wifely fury--"you shan't keep me from
taking my bureau and my six chairs all the way across! No, nor my garden
seeds, all I saved. No, nor yet my rose roots that I'm taking along. We
got to have a home, Jess--we got to have a home! There's Jed and Molly
coming on."

"Where's Molly now?" suddenly asked her husband. "She'd ought to be
helping you right now."

"Oh, back at the camp, I s'pose--her and Jed, too. I told her to pick a
mess of dandelion greens and bring over. Larking around with them young
fellows, like enough. Huh! She'll have less time. If Jed has to ride
herd, Molly's got to take care of that team of big mules, and drive 'em
all day in the light wagon too. I reckon if she does that, and teaches
night school right along, she won't be feeling so gay."

"They tell me folks has got married going across," she added, "not to
mention buried. One book we had said, up on the Platte, two years back,
there was a wedding and a birth and a burying in one train, all inside
of one hour, and all inside of one mile. That's Oregon!"

"Well, I reckon it's life, ain't it?" rejoined her husband. "One thing,
I'm not keen to have Molly pay too much notice to that young fellow
Banion--him they said was a leader of the Liberty wagons. Huh, he ain't
leader now!"

"You like Sam Woodhull better for Molly, Jess?"

"Some ways. He falls in along with my ideas. He ain't so apt to make
trouble on the road. He sided in with me right along at the last
meeting."

"He done that? Well, his father was a sheriff once, and his uncle, Judge
Henry D. Showalter, he got into Congress. Politics! But some folks said
the Banions was the best family. Kentucky, they was. Well, comes to
siding in, Jess, I reckon it's Molly herself'll count more in that than
either o' them or either o' us. She's eighteen past. Another year and
she'll be an old maid. If there's a wedding going across--"

"There won't be," said her husband shortly. "If there is it won't be her
and no William Banion, I'm saying that."



CHAPTER V

THE BLACK SPANIARD


Meantime the younger persons referred to in the frank discussion of
Wingate and his wife were occupying themselves in their own fashion
their last day in camp. Molly, her basket full of dandelion leaves, was
reluctant to leave the shade of the grove by the stream, and Jed had
business with the team of great mules that Molly was to drive on the
trail.

As for the Liberty train, its oval remained unbroken, the men and women
sitting in the shade of the wagons. Their outfitting had been done so
carefully that little now remained for attention on the last day, but
the substantial men of the contingent seemed far from eager to be on
their way. Groups here and there spoke in monosyllables, sullenly. They
wanted to join the great train, had voted to do so; but the cavalier
deposing of their chosen man Banion--who before them all at the meeting
had shown himself fit to lead--and the cool appointment of Woodhull in
his place had on reflection seemed to them quite too high-handed a
proposition. They said so now.

"Where's Woodhull now?" demanded the bearded man who had championed
Banion. "I see Will out rounding up his cows, but Sam Woodhull ain't
turned a hand to hooking up to pull in west o' town with the others."

"That's easy," smiled another. "Sam Woodhull is where he's always going
to be--hanging around the Wingate girl. He's over at their camp now."

"Well, I dunno's I blame him so much for that, neither. And he kin stay
there fer all o' me. Fer one, I won't foller no Woodhull, least o' all
Sam Woodhull, soldier or no soldier. I'll pull out when I git ready, and
to-morrow mornin' is soon enough fer me. We kin jine on then, if so's we
like."

Someone turned on his elbow, nodded over shoulder. They heard hoof
beats. Banion came up, fresh from his new work on the herd. He asked for
Woodhull, and learning his whereabouts trotted across the intervening
glade.

"That's shore a hoss he rides," said one man.

"An' a shore man a-ridin' of him," nodded another. "He may ride front o'
the train an' not back o' hit, even yet."

Molly Wingate sat on the grass in the little grove, curling a chain of
dandelion stems. Near by Sam Woodhull, in his best, lay on the sward
regarding her avidly, a dull fire in his dark eyes. He was so enamored
of the girl as to be almost unfit for aught else. For weeks he had kept
close to her. Not that Molly seemed over-much to notice or encourage
him. Only, woman fashion, she ill liked to send away any attentive
male. Just now she was uneasy. She guessed that if it were not for the
presence of her brother Jed near by this man would declare himself
unmistakably.

If the safety of numbers made her main concern, perhaps that was what
made Molly Wingate's eye light up when she heard the hoofs of Will
Banion's horse splashing in the little stream. She sprang to her feet,
waving a hand gayly.

"Oh, so there you are!" she exclaimed. "I was wondering if you'd be over
before Jed and I left for the prairie. Father and mother have moved on
out west of town. We're all ready for the jump-off. Are you?"

"Yes, to-morrow by sun," said Banion, swinging out of saddle and
forgetting any errand he might have had. "Then it's on to Oregon!"

He nodded to Woodhull, who little more than noticed him. Molly advanced
to where Banion's horse stood, nodding and pawing restively as was his
wont. She stroked his nose, patted his sweat-soaked neck.

"What a pretty horse you have, major," she said. "What's his name?"

"I call him Pronto," smiled Banion. "That means sudden."

"He fits the name. May I ride him?"

"What? You ride him?"

"Yes, surely. I'd love to. I can ride anything. That funny saddle would
do--see how big and high the horn is, good as the fork of a lady's
saddle."

"Yes, but the stirrup!"

"I'd put my foot in between the flaps above the stirrup. Help me up,
sir?"

"I'd rather not."

Molly pouted.

"Stingy!"

"But no woman ever rode that horse--not many men but me. I don't know
what he'd do."

"Only one way to find out."

Jed, approaching, joined the conversation.

"I rid him," said he. "He's a goer all right, but he ain't mean."

"I don't know whether he would be bad or not with a lady," Banion still
argued. "These Spanish horses are always wild. They never do get over
it. You've got to be a rider."

"You think I'm not a rider? I'll ride him now to show you! I'm not
afraid of horses."

"That's right," broke in Sam Woodhull. "But, Miss Molly, I wouldn't
tackle that horse if I was you. Take mine."

"But I will! I've not been horseback for a month. We've all got to ride
or drive or walk a thousand miles. I can ride him, man saddle and all.
Help me up, sir?"

Banion walked to the horse, which flung a head against him, rubbing a
soft muzzle up and down.

"He seems gentle," said he. "I've pretty well topped him off this
morning. If you're sure--"

"Help me up, one of you?"

It was Woodhull who sprang to her, caught her up under the arms and
lifted her fully gracious weight to the saddle. Her left foot by fortune
found the cleft in the stirrup fender, her right leg swung around the
tall horn, hastily concealed by a clutch at her skirt even as she
grasped the heavy knotted reins. It was then too late. She must ride.

Banion caught at a cheek strap as he saw Woodhull's act, and the horse
was the safer for an instant. But in terror or anger at his unusual
burden, with flapping skirt and no grip on his flanks, the animal reared
and broke away from them all. An instant and he was plunging across the
stream for the open glade, his head low.

He did not yet essay the short, stiff-legged action of the typical
bucker, but made long, reaching, low-headed plunges, seeking his own
freedom in that way, perhaps half in some equine wonder of his own. None
the less the wrenching of the girl's back, the leverage on her flexed
knee, unprotected, were unmistakable.

The horse reared again and yet again, high, striking out as she checked
him. He was getting in a fury now, for his rider still was in place.
Then with one savage sidewise shake of his head after another he plunged
this way and that, rail-fencing it for the open prairie. It looked like
a bolt, which with a horse of his spirit and stamina meant but one
thing, no matter how long delayed.

It all happened in a flash. Banion caught at the rein too late, ran
after--too slow, of course. The girl was silent, shaken, but still
riding. No footman could aid her now.

With a leap, Banion was in the saddle of Woodhull's horse, which had
been left at hand, its bridle down. He drove in the spurs and headed
across the flat at the top speed of the fast and racy chestnut--no
match, perhaps, for the black Spaniard, were the latter once extended,
but favored now by the angle of the two.

Molly had not uttered a word or cry, either to her mount or in appeal
for aid. In sooth she was too frightened to do so. But she heard the
rush of hoofs and the high call of Banion's voice back of her:

"Ho, Pronto! Pronto! _Vien' aqui!_"

Something of a marvel it was, and showing companionship of man and horse
on the trail; but suddenly the mad black ceased his plunging. Turning,
he trotted whinnying as though for aid, obedient to his master's
command, "Come here!" An instant and Banion had the cheek strap. Another
and he was off, with Molly Wingate, in a white dead faint, in his arms.

By now others had seen the affair from their places in the wagon park.
Men and women came hurrying. Banion laid the girl down, sought to raise
her head, drove back the two horses, ran with his hat to the stream for
water. By that time Woodhull had joined him, in advance of the people
from the park.

"What do you mean, you damned fool, you, by riding my horse off without
my consent!" he broke out. "If she ain't dead--that damned wild
horse--you had the gall--"

Will Banion's self-restraint at last was gone. He made one answer,
voicing all his acquaintance with Sam Woodhull, all his opinion of him,
all his future attitude in regard to him.

He dropped his hat to the ground, caught off one wet glove, and with a
long back-handed sweep struck the cuff of it full and hard across Sam
Woodhull's face.



CHAPTER VI

ISSUE JOINED


There were dragoon revolvers in the holsters at Woodhull's saddle. He
made a rush for a weapon--indeed, the crack of the blow had been so
sharp that the nearest men thought a shot had been fired--but swift as
was his leap, it was not swift enough. The long, lean hand of the
bearded Missourian gripped his wrist even as he caught at a pistol grip.
He turned a livid face to gaze into a cold and small blue eye.

"No, ye don't, Sam!" said the other, who was first of those who came up
running.

Even as a lank woman stooped to raise the head of Molly Wingate the
sinewy arm back of the hand whirled Woodhull around so that he faced
Banion, who had not made a move.

"Will ain't got no weapon, an' ye know it," went on the same cool voice.
"What ye mean--a murder, besides that?"

He nodded toward the girl. By now the crowd surged between the two men,
voices rose.

"He struck me!" broke out Woodhull. "Let me go! He struck me!"

"I know he did," said the intervener. "I heard it. I don't know why.
But whether it was over the girl or not, we ain't goin' to see this
other feller shot down till we know more about hit. Ye can meet--"

"Of course, any time."

Banion was drawing on his glove. The woman had lifted Molly,
straightened her clothing.

"All blood!" said one. "That saddle horn! What made her ride that
critter?"

The Spanish horse stood facing them now, ears forward, his eyes showing
through his forelock not so much in anger as in curiosity. The men
hustled the two antagonists apart.

"Listen, Sam," went on the tall Missourian, still with his grip on
Woodhull's wrist. "We'll see ye both fair. Ye've got to fight now, in
course--that's the law, an' I ain't learned it in the fur trade o' the
Rockies fer nothin', ner have you people here in the settlements. But
I'll tell ye one thing, Sam Woodhull, ef ye make one move afore we-uns
tell ye how an' when to make hit, I'll drop ye, shore's my name's Bill
Jackson. Ye got to wait, both on ye. We're startin' out, an' we kain't
start out like a mob. Take yer time."

"Any time, any way," said Banion simply. "No man can abuse me."

"How'd you gentlemen prefer fer to fight?" inquired the man who had
described himself as Bill Jackson, one of the fur brigaders of the
Rocky Mountain Company; a man with a reputation of his own in Plains
and mountain adventures of hunting, trading and scouting. "Hit's yore
ch'ice o' weapons, I reckon, Will. I reckon he challenged you-all."

"I don't care. He'd have no chance on an even break with me, with any
sort of weapon, and he knows that."

Jackson cast free his man and ruminated over a chew of plug.

"Hit's over a gal," said he at length, judicially. "Hit ain't usual; but
seein' as a gal don't pick atween men because one's a quicker shot than
another, but because he's maybe stronger, or something like that, why,
how'd knuckle and skull suit you two roosters, best man win and us to
see hit fair? Hit's one of ye fer the gal, like enough. But not right
now. Wait till we're on the trail and clean o' the law. I heern there's
a sheriff round yere some'rs."

"I'll fight him any way he likes, or any way you say," said Banion.
"It's not my seeking. I only slapped him because he abused me for doing
what he ought to have done. Yes, I rode his horse. If I hadn't that girl
would have been killed. It's not his fault she wasn't. I didn't want her
to ride that horse."

"I don't reckon hit's so much a matter about a hoss as hit is about a
gal," remarked Bill Jackson sagely. "Ye'll hatter fight. Well then,
seein' as hit's about a gal, knuckle an' skull, is that right?"

He cast a glance around this group of other fighting men of a border
day. They nodded gravely, but with glittering eyes.

"Well then, gentlemen"--and now he stood free of Woodhull--"ye both give
word ye'll make no break till we tell ye? I'll say, two-three days out?"

"Suits me," said Woodhull savagely. "I'll break his neck for him."

"Any time that suits the gentleman to break my neck will please me,"
said Will Banion indifferently. "Say when, friends. Just now I've got to
look after my cows. It seems to me our wagon master might very well look
after his wagons."

"That sounds!" commented Jackson. "That sounds! Sam, git on about yer
business, er ye kain't travel in the Liberty train nohow! An' don't ye
make no break, in the dark especial, fer we kin track ye anywhere's.
Ye'll fight fair fer once--an' ye'll fight!"

By now the group massed about these scenes had begun to relax, to
spread. Women had Molly in hand as her eyes opened. Jed came up at a run
with the mule team and the light wagon from the grove, and they got the
girl into the seat with him, neither of them fully cognizant of what had
gone on in the group of tight-mouthed men who now broke apart and
sauntered silently back, each to his own wagon.



CHAPTER VII

THE JUMP-OFF


With the first thin line of pink the coyotes hanging on the flanks of
the great encampment raised their immemorial salutation to the dawn.
Their clamorings were stilled by a new and sterner voice--the notes of
the bugle summoning sleepers of the last night to the duties of the
first day. Down the line from watch to watch passed the Plains command,
"Catch up! Catch up!" It was morning of the jump-off.

Little fires began at the wagon messes or family bivouacs. Men, boys,
barefooted girls went out into the dew-wet grass to round up the
transport stock. A vast confusion, a medley of unskilled endeavor marked
the hour. But after an hour's wait, adjusted to the situation, the next
order passed down the line:

"Roll out! Roll out!"

And now the march to Oregon was at last begun! The first dust cut by an
ox hoof was set in motion by the whip crack of a barefooted boy in jeans
who had no dream that he one day would rank high in the councils of his
state, at the edge of an ocean which no prairie boy ever had envisioned.

The compass finger of the trail, leading out from the timber groves,
pointed into a sea of green along the valley of the Kaw. The grass, not
yet tall enough fully to ripple as it would a half month later, stood
waving over the black-burned ground which the semicivilized Indians had
left the fall before. Flowers dotted it, sometimes white like bits of
old ivory on the vast rug of spindrift--the pink verbena, the wild
indigo, the larkspur and the wild geranium--all woven into a wondrous
spangled carpet. At times also appeared the shy buds of the sweet wild
rose, loveliest flower of the prairie. Tall rosinweeds began to thrust
up rankly, banks of sunflowers prepared to fling their yellow banners
miles wide. The opulent, inviting land lay in a ceaseless succession of
easy undulations, stretching away illimitably to far horizons, "in such
exchanging pictures of grace and charm as raised the admiration of even
these simple folk to a pitch bordering upon exaltation."

Here lay the West, barbaric, abounding, beautiful. Surely it could mean
no harm to any man.

The men lacked experience in column travel, the animals were unruly. The
train formation--clumsily trying to conform to the orders of Wingate to
travel in four parallel columns--soon lost order. At times the wagons
halted to re-form. The leaders galloped back and forth, exhorting,
adjuring and restoring little by little a certain system. But they dealt
with independent men. On ahead the landscape seemed so wholly free of
danger that to most of these the road to the Far West offered no more
than a pleasure jaunt. Wingate and his immediate aids were well worn
when at mid afternoon they halted, fifteen miles out from Westport.

"What in hell you pulling up so soon for?" demanded Sam Woodhull
surlily, riding up from his own column, far at the rear, and accosting
the train leader. "We can go five miles further, anyhow, and maybe ten.
We'll never get across in this way."

"This is the very way we will get across," rejoined Wingate. "While I'm
captain I'll say when to start and stop. But I've been counting on you,
Woodhull, to throw in with me and help me get things shook down."

"Well, hit looks to me ye're purty brash as usual," commented another
voice. Bill Jackson came and stood at the captain's side. He had not
been far from Woodhull all day long. "Ye're a nacherl damned fool, Sam
Woodhull," said he. "Who 'lected ye fer train captain, an' when was it
did? If ye don't like the way this train's run go on ahead an' make a
train o' yer own, ef that's way ye feel. Pull on out to-night. What ye
say, Cap?"

"I can't really keep any man from going back or going ahead," replied
Wingate. "But I've counted on Woodhull to hold those Liberty wagons
together. Any plainsman knows that a little party takes big risks."

"Since when did you come a plainsman?" scoffed the malcontent, for once
forgetting his policy of favor-currying with Wingate in his own surly
discontent. He had not been able to speak to Molly all day.

"Well, if he ain't a plainsman yit he will be, and I'm one right now,
Sam Woodhull." Jackson stood squarely in front of his superior. "I say
he's talkin' sense to a man that ain't got no sense. I was with Doniphan
too. We found ways, huh?"

His straight gaze outfronted the other, who turned and rode back. But
that very night eight men, covertly instigated or encouraged by
Woodhull, their leader, came to the headquarters fire with a joint
complaint. They demanded places at the head of the column, else would
mutiny and go on ahead together. They said good mule teams ought not to
take the dust of ox wagons.

"What do you say, men?" asked the train captain of his aids helplessly.
"I'm in favor of letting them go front."

The others nodded silently, looking at one another significantly.
Already cliques and factions were beginning.

Woodhull, however, had too much at stake to risk any open friction with
the captain of the train. His own seat at the officers' fire was dear to
him, for it brought him close to the Wingate wagons, and in sight--if
nothing else--of Molly Wingate. That young lady did not speak to him all
day, but drew close the tilt of her own wagon early after the evening
meal and denied herself to all.

As for Banion, he was miles back, in camp with his own wagons, which
Woodhull had abandoned, and on duty that night with the cattle guard--a
herdsman and not a leader of men now. He himself was moody enough when
he tied his cape behind his saddle and rode his black horse out into the
shadows. He had no knowledge of the fact that the old mountain man,
Jackson, wrapped in his blanket, that night instituted a solitary watch
all his own.

The hundreds of camp fires of the scattered train, stretched out over
five miles of grove and glade at the end of the first undisciplined day,
lowered, glowed and faded. They were one day out to Oregon, and weary
withal. Soon the individual encampments were silent save for the champ
or cough of tethered animals, or the whining howl of coyotes, prowling
in. At the Missouri encampment, last of the train, and that heading the
great cattle drove, the hardy frontier settlers, as was their wont, soon
followed the sun to rest.

The night wore on, incredibly slow to the novice watch for the first
time now drafted under the prairie law. The sky was faint pink and the
shadows lighter when suddenly the dark was streaked by a flash of fire
and the silence broken by the crack of a border rifle. Then again and
again came the heavier bark of a dragoon revolver, of the sort just then
becoming known along the Western marches.

The camp went into confusion. Will Banion, just riding in to take his
own belated turn in his blankets, almost ran over the tall form of Bill
Jackson, rifle in hand.

"What was it, man?" demanded Banion. "You shooting at a mule?"

"No, a man," whispered the other. "He ran this way. Reckon I must have
missed. It's hard to draw down inter a hindsight in the dark, an' I jest
chanced hit with the pistol. He was runnin' hard."

"Who was he--some thief?"

"Like enough. He was crawlin' up towards yore wagon, I halted him an' he
run."

"You don't know who he was?"

"No. I'll see his tracks, come day. Go on to bed. I'll set out a whiles,
boy."

When dawn came, before he had broken his long vigil, Jackson was bending
over footmarks in the moister portions of the soil.

"Tall man, young an' tracked clean," he muttered to himself. "Fancy
boots, with rather little heels. Shame I done missed him!"

But he said nothing to Banion or anyone else. It was the twentieth time
Bill Jackson, one of Sublette's men and a nephew of one of his partners,
had crossed the Plains, and the lone hand pleased him best. He
instituted his own government for the most part, and had thrown in with
this train because that best suited his book, since the old pack trains
of the fur trade were now no more. For himself, he planned settlement
in Eastern Oregon, a country he once had glimpsed in long-gone beaver
days, a dozen years ago. The Eastern settlements had held him long
enough, the Army life had been too dull, even with Doniphan.

"I must be gittin' old," he muttered to himself as he turned to a
breakfast fire. "Missed--at seventy yard!"



CHAPTER VIII

MAN AGAINST MAN


There were more than two thousand souls in the great caravan which
reached over miles of springy turf and fat creek lands. There were more
than a thousand children, more than a hundred babes in arm, more than
fifty marriageable maids pursued by avid swains. There were bold souls
and weak, strong teams and weak, heavy loads and light loads, neighbor
groups and coteries of kindred blood or kindred spirits.

The rank and file had reasons enough for shifting. There were a score of
Helens driving wagons--reasons in plenty for the futility of all
attempts to enforce an arbitrary rule of march. Human equations, human
elements would shake themselves down into place, willy-nilly. The great
caravan therefore was scantily less than a rabble for the first three or
four days out. The four columns were abandoned the first half day. The
loosely knit organization rolled on in a broken-crested wave, ten,
fifteen, twenty miles a day, the horse-and-mule men now at the front.
Far to the rear, heading only the cow column, came the lank men of
Liberty, trudging alongside their swaying ox teams, with many a
monotonous "Gee-whoa-haw! Git along thar, ye Buck an' Star!" So soon
they passed the fork where the road to Oregon left the trail to Santa
Fé; topped the divide that held them back from the greater valley of the
Kaw.

[Illustration: _A Paramount Picture._

_The Covered Wagon._

MOLLY COAXES SAM WOODHULL TO LET HER RIDE BANION'S HORSE.]

Noon of the fifth day brought them to the swollen flood of the latter
stream, at the crossing known as Papin's Ferry. Here the semicivilized
Indians and traders had a single rude ferryboat, a scow operated in part
by setting poles, in part by the power of the stream against a cable.
The noncommittal Indians would give no counsel as to fording. They had
ferry hire to gain. Word passed that there were other fords a few miles
higher up. A general indecision existed, and now the train began to pile
up on the south bank of the river.

Late in the afternoon the scout, Jackson, came riding back to the herd
where Banion was at work, jerking up his horse in no pleased frame of
mind.

"Will," said he, "leave the boys ride now an' come on up ahead. We need
ye."

"What's up?" demanded Banion. "Anything worse?"

"Yes. The old fool's had a row over the ferryboat. Hit'd take two weeks
to git us all over that way, anyhow. He's declared fer fordin' the hull
outfit, lock, stock an' barrel. To save a few dollars, he's a goin' to
lose a lot o' loads an' drownd a lot o' womern an' babies--that's what
he's goin' to do. Some o' us called a halt an' stood out fer a council.
We want you to come on up.

"Woodhull's there," he added. "He sides with the old man, o' course. He
rid on the same seat with that gal all day till now. Lord knows what he
done or said. Ain't hit nigh about time now, Major?"

"It's nigh about time," said Will Banion quietly.

They rode side by side, past more than a mile of the covered wagons, now
almost end to end, the columns continually closing up. At the bank of
the river, at the ferry head, they found a group of fifty men. The ranks
opened as Banion and Jackson approached, but Banion made no attempt to
join a council to which he had not been bidden.

A half dozen civilized Indians of the Kaws, owners or operators of the
ferry, sat in a stolid line across the head of the scow at its landing
stage, looking neither to the right nor the left and awaiting the white
men's pleasure. Banion rode down to them.

"How deep?" he asked.

They understood but would not answer.

"Out of the way!" he cried, and rode straight at them. They scattered.
He spurred his horse, the black Spaniard, over the stage and on the deck
of the scow, drove him its full length, snorting; set the spurs hard at
the farther end and plunged deliberately off into the swift, muddy
stream.

The horse sank out of sight below the roily surface. They saw the rider
go down to his armpits; saw him swing off saddle, upstream. The gallant
horse headed for the center of the heavy current, but his master soon
turned him downstream and inshore. A hundred yards down they landed on a
bar and scrambled up the bank.

Banion rode to the circle and sat dripping. He had brought not speech
but action, not theory but facts, and he had not spoken a word.

His eyes covered the council rapidly, resting on the figure of Sam
Woodhull, squatting on his heels. As though to answer the challenge of
his gaze, the latter rose.

"Gentlemen," said he, "I'm not, myself, governed by any mere spirit of
bravado. It's swimming water, yes--any fool knows that, outside of yon
one. What I do say is that we can't afford to waste time here fooling
with that boat. We've got to swim it. I agree with you, Wingate. This
river's been forded by the trains for years, and I don't see as we need
be any more chicken-hearted than those others that went through last
year and earlier. This is the old fur-trader crossing, the Mormons
crossed here, and so can we."

Silence met his words. The older men looked at the swollen stream,
turned to the horseman who had proved it.

"What does Major Banion say?" spoke up a voice.

"Nothing!" was Banion's reply. "I'm not in your council, am I?"

"You are, as much as any man here," spoke up Caleb Price, and Hall and
Kelsey added yea to that. "Get down. Come in."

Banion threw his rein to Jackson and stepped into the ring, bowing to
Jesse Wingate, who sat as presiding officer.

"Of course we want to hear what Mr. Banion has to say," said he. "He's
proved part of the question right now. I've always heard it's fording,
part way, at Papin's Ferry. It don't look it now."

"The river's high, Mr. Wingate," said Banion. "If you ask me, I'd rather
ferry than ford. I'd send the women and children over by this boat. We
can make some more out of the wagon boxes. If they leak we can cover
them with hides. The sawmill at the mission has some lumber. Let's knock
together another boat or two. I'd rather be safe than sorry, gentlemen;
and believe me, she's heavy water yonder."

"I've never seed the Kaw so full," asserted Jackson, "an' I've crossed
her twenty times in spring flood. Do what ye like, you-all--ole
Missoury's goin' to take her slow an' keerful."

"Half of you Liberty men are a bunch of damned cowards!" sneered
Woodhull.

There was silence. An icy voice broke it.

"I take it, that means me?" said Will Banion.

"It does mean you, if you want to take it that way," rejoined his enemy.
"I don't believe in one or two timid men holding up a whole train."

"Never mind about holding up the train--we're not stopping any man from
crossing right now. What I have in mind now is to ask you, do you
classify me as a coward just because I counsel prudence here?"

"You're the one is holding back."

"Answer me! Do you call that to me?"

"I do answer you, and I do call it to you then!" flared Woodhull.

"I tell you, you're a liar, and you know it, Sam Woodhull! And if it
pleases your friends and mine, I'd like to have the order now made on
unfinished business."

Not all present knew what this meant, for only a few knew of the affair
at the rendezvous, the Missourians having held their counsel in the
broken and extended train, where men might travel for days and not meet.
But Woodhull knew, and sprang to his feet, hand on revolver. Banion's
hand was likewise employed at his wet saddle holster, to which he
sprang, and perhaps then one man would have been killed but for Bill
Jackson, who spurred between.

"Make one move an' I drop ye!" he called to Woodhull. "Ye've give yer
promise."

"All right then, I'll keep it," growled Woodhull.

"Ye'd better! Now listen! Do ye see that tall cottingwood tree a half
mile down--the one with the flat umbreller top, like a cypress? Ye kin?
Well, in half a hour be thar with three o' yore friends, no more. I'll
be thar with my man an' three o' his, no more, an' I'll be one o' them
three. I allow our meanin' is to see hit fa'r. An' I allow that what
has been unfinished business ain't goin' to be unfinished come sundown.

"Does this suit ye, Will?"

"It's our promise. Officers didn't usually fight that way, but you said
it must be so, and we both agreed. I agree now."

"You other folks all stay back," said Bill Jackson grimly. "This here is
a little matter that us Missourians is goin' to settle in our own way
an' in our own camp. Hit ain't none o' you-uns' business. Hit's plenty
o' ourn."

Men started to their feet over all the river front. The Indians rose,
walked down the bank covertly.

"Fight!"

The word passed quickly. It was a day of personal encounters. This was
an assemblage in large part of fighting men. But some sense of decency
led the partisans to hurry away, out of sight and hearing of the
womenfolk.

The bell-top cottonwood stood in a little space which had been a dueling
ground for thirty years. The grass was firm and even for a distance of
fifty yards in any direction, and the light at that hour favored neither
man.

For Banion, who was prompt, Jackson brought with him two men. One of
them was a planter by name of Dillon, the other none less than stout
Caleb Price, one of Wingate's chosen captains.

"I'll not see this made a thing of politics," said he. "I'm Northern,
but I like the way that young man has acted. He hasn't had a fair deal
from the officers of this train. He's going to have a fair deal now."

"We allow he will," said Dillon grimly.

He was fully armed, and so were all the seconds. For Woodhull showed the
Kentuckian, Kelsey, young Jed Wingate--the latter by Woodhull's own
urgent request--and the other train captain, Hall. So in its way the
personal quarrel of these two hotheads did in a way involve the entire
train.

"Strip yore man," commanded the tall mountaineer. "We're ready. It's go
till one hollers enough; fa'r stand up, heel an' toe, no buttin' er
gougin'. Fust man ter break them rules gits shot. Is that yore
understandin', gentlemen.

"How we get it, yes," assented Kelsey.

"See you enforce it then, fer we're a-goin' to," concluded Jackson.

He stepped back. From the opposite sides the two antagonists stepped
forward. There was no ring, there was no timekeeper, no single umpire.
There were no rounds, no duration set. It was man to man, for cause the
most ancient and most bitter of all causes--sex.



CHAPTER IX

THE BRUTE


Between the two stalwart men who fronted one another, stripped to
trousers and shoes, there was not so much to choose. Woodhull perhaps
had the better of it by a few pounds in weight, and forsooth looked less
slouchy out of his clothes than in them. His was the long and sinewy
type of muscle. He was in hard condition.

Banion, two years younger than his rival, himself was round and slender,
thin of flank, a trace squarer and fuller of shoulder. His arms showed
easily rippling bands of muscles, his body was hard in the natural vigor
of youth and life in the open air. His eye was fixed all the time on his
man. He did not speak or turn aside, but walked on in.

There were no preliminaries, there was no delay. In a flash the Saxon
ordeal of combat was joined. The two fighters met in a rush.

At the center of the fighting space they hung, body to body, in a
whirling _melée_. Neither had much skill in real boxing, and such
fashion of fight was unknown in that region, the offensive being the
main thing and defense remaining incidental. The thud of fist on face,
the discoloration that rose under the savage blows, the blood that
oozed and scattered, proved that the fighting blood of both these mad
creatures was up, so that they felt no pain, even as they knew no fear.

In their first fly, as witnesses would have termed it, there was no
advantage to either, and both came out well marked. In the combat of the
time and place there were no rules, no periods, no resting times. Once
they were dispatched to it, the fight was the affair of the fighters,
with no more than a very limited number of restrictions as to fouls.

They met and broke, bloody, gasping, once, twice, a dozen times. Banion
was fighting slowly, carefully.

"I'll make it free, if you dare!" panted Woodhull at length.

They broke apart once more by mutual need of breath. He meant he would
bar nothing; he would go back to the days of Boone and Kenton and Girty,
when hair, eye, any part of the body was fair aim.

"You can't dare me!" rejoined Will Banion. "It's as my seconds say."

Young Jed Wingate, suddenly pale, stood by and raised no protest.
Kelsey's face was stony calm. The small eye of Hall narrowed, but he too
held to the etiquette of non-interference in this matter of man and man,
though what had passed here was a deadly thing. Mutilation, death might
now ensue, and not mere defeat. But they all waited for the other side.

"Air ye game to hit, Will?" demanded Jackson at length.

"I don't fear him, anyway he comes," replied Will Banion. "I don't like
it, but all of this was forced on me."

"The hell it was!" exclaimed Kelsey. "I heard ye call my man a liar."

"An' he called my man a coward!" cut in Jackson.

"He is a coward," sneered Woodhull, panting, "or he'd not flicker now.
He's afraid I'll take his eye out, damn him!"

Will Banion turned to his friends.

"Are we gentlemen at all?" said he. "Shall we go back a hundred years?"

"If your man's afraid, we claim the fight!" exclaimed Kelsey. "Breast
yore bird!"

"So be it then!" said Will Banion. "Don't mind me, Jackson! I don't fear
him and I think I can beat him. It's free! I bar nothing, nor can he!
Get back!"

Woodhull rushed first in the next assault, confident of his skill in
rough-and-tumble. He felt at his throat the horizontal arm of his enemy.
He caught away the wrist in his own hand, but sustained a heavy blow at
the side of his head. The defense of his adversary angered him to blind
rage. He forgot everything but contact, rushed, closed and caught his
antagonist in the brawny grip of his arms. The battle at once resolved
itself into the wrestling and battering match of the frontier. And it
was free! Each might kill or maim if so he could.

The wrestling grips of the frontiersmen were few and primitive,
efficient when applied by masters; and no schoolboy but studied all the
holds as matter of religion, in a time when physical prowess was the
most admirable quality a man might have.

Each fighter tried the forward jerk and trip which sometimes would do
with an opponent not much skilled; but this primer work got results for
neither. Banion evaded and swung into a hip lock, so swift that Woodhull
left the ground. But his instinct gave him hold with one hand at his
enemy's collar. He spread wide his feet and cast his weight aside, so
that he came standing, after all. He well knew that a man must keep his
feet. Woe to him who fell when it all was free! His own riposte was a
snakelike glide close into his antagonist's arms, a swift thrust of his
leg between the other's--the grapevine, which sometimes served if done
swiftly.

It was done swiftly, but it did not serve. The other spread his legs,
leaned against him, and in a flash came back in the dreaded crotch lock
of the frontier, which some men boasted no one could escape at their
hands. Woodhull was flung fair, but he broke wide and rose and rushed
back and joined again, grappling; so that they stood once more body to
body, panting, red, savage as any animals that fight, and more cruel.
The seconds all were on their feet, scarce breathing.

They pushed in sheer test, and each found the other's stark strength.
Yet Banion's breath still came even, his eye betokened no anxiety of the
issue. Both were bloody now, clothing and all. Then in a flash the
scales turned against the challenger _a l'outrance_.

Banion caught his antagonist by the wrist, and swift as a flash stooped,
turning his own back and drawing the arm of his enemy over his own
shoulder, slightly turned, so that the elbow joint was in peril and so
that the pain must be intense. It was one of the jiu jitsu holds,
discovered independently perhaps at that instant; certainly a new hold
for the wrestling school of the frontier.

Woodhull's seconds saw the look of pain come on his face, saw him wince,
saw him writhe, saw him rise on his toes. Then, with a sudden squatting
heave, Banion cast him full length in front of him, upon his back!
Before he had time to move he was upon him, pinning him down. A growl
came from six observers.

In an ordinary fall a man might have turned, might have escaped. But
Woodhull had planned his own undoing when he had called it free. Eyeless
men, usually old men, in this day brought up talk of the ancient and
horrible warfare of a past generation, when destruction of the adversary
was the one purpose and any means called fair when it was free.

But the seconds of both men raised no hand when they saw the balls of
Will Banion's thumbs pressed against the upper orbit edge of his enemy's
eyes.

"Do you say enough?" panted the victor.

A groan from the helpless man beneath.

"Am I the best man? Can I whip you?" demanded the voice above him, in
the formula prescribed.

"Go on--do it! Pull out his eye!" commanded Bill Jackson savagely. "He
called it free to you! But don't wait!"

But the victor sprang free, stood, dashed the blood from his own eyes,
wavered on his feet.

The hands of his fallen foe were across his eyes. But even as his men
ran in, stooped and drew them away the conqueror exclaimed:

"I'll not! I tell you I won't maim you, free or no free! Get up!"

So Woodhull knew his eyes were spared, whatever might be the pain of the
sore nerves along the socket bone.

He rose to his knees, to his feet, his face ghastly in his own sudden
sense of defeat, the worse for his victor's magnanimity, if such it
might be called. Humiliation was worse than pain. He staggered, sobbing.

"I won't take nothing for a gift from you!"

But now the men stood between them, like and like. Young Jed Wingate
pushed back his man.

"It's done!" said he. "You shan't fight no more with the man that let
you up. You're whipped, and by your own word it'd have been worse!"

He himself handed Will Banion his coat.

"Go get a pail of water," he said to Kelsey, and the latter departed.

Banion stepped apart, battered and pale beneath his own wounds.

"I didn't want to fight him this way," said he. "I left him his eyes so
he can see me again. If so he wants, I'll meet him any way. I hope he
won't rue back."

"You fool!" said old Bill Jackson, drawing Banion to one side. "Do ye
know what ye're a-sayin'? Whiles he was a-layin' thar I seen the bottoms
o' his boots. Right fancy they was, with smallish heels! That skunk'll
kill ye in the dark, Will. Ye'd orto hev put out'n both his two eyes!"

A sudden sound made them all turn. Came crackling of down brush, the
scream of a woman's voice. At the side of the great tree stood a figure
that had no right there. They turned mute.

It was Molly Wingate who faced them all now, turning from one bloody,
naked figure to the other. She saw Sam Woodhull standing, his hands
still at his face; caught some sense out of Jackson's words, overheard
as she came into the clearing.

"You!" she blazed at Will Banion. "You'd put out a man's eyes! You
brute!"



CHAPTER X

OLE MISSOURY


Molly Wingate looked from one to the other of the group of silent,
shamefaced men. Puzzled, she turned again to the victor in the savage
combat.

"You!"

Will Banion caught up his clothing, turned away.

"You are right!" said he. "I have been a brute! Good-by!"

An instant later Molly found herself alone with the exception of her
brother.

"You, Jed, what was this?" she demanded.

Jed took a deep and heartfelt chew of plug.

"Well, it was a little argument between them two," he said finally.
"Like enough a little jealousy, like, you know--over place in the train,
or something. This here was for men. You'd no business here."

"But it was a shame!"

"I reckon so."

"Who started this?"

"Both of them. All we was here for was to see fair. Men got to fight
sometimes."

"But not like animals, not worse than savages!"

"Well, it was right savage, some of the time, sis."

"They said--about eyes--oh!"

The girl shivered, her hands at her own eyes.

"Yes, they called it free. Anybody else, Sam Woodhull'd be sorry enough
right now. T'other man throwed him clean and had him down, but he let
him up. He didn't never hurt Sam's eyes, only pinched his head a little.
He had a right, but didn't. It had to be settled and it was settled,
fair and more'n fair, by him."

"But, Jed"--the eternal female now--"then, which one really whipped?"

"Will Banion did, ain't I told you? You insulted him, and he's gone.
Having come in here where you wasn't no ways wanted, I reckon the best
thing you can do is to go back to your own wagon and stay there. What
with riding horses you hadn't ought, and seeing fights when you don't
know a damned thing about nothing, I reckon you've made trouble about
enough. Come on!"

"Price," said Bill Jackson to the grave and silent man who walked with
him toward the wagon train beyond the duelling ground, "this settles
hit. Us Missoury wagons won't go on under no sech man as Sam Woodhull.
We didn't no ways eleck him--he was app'inted. Mostly, elected is
better'n app'inted. An' I seen afore now, no man can hold his place on
the trail unless'n he's fatten. We'll eleck Will Banion our cap'n, an'
you fellers kin go to hell. What us fellers started out to do was to go
to Oregon."

"But that'll mean the train's split!"

"Shore hit will! Hit is split right now. But thar's enough o' the
Liberty wagons to go through without no help. We kin whup all the rest
o' this train, give we need ter, let alone a few Injuns now an' then.

"To-night," he concluded, "we'll head up the river, an' leave you
fellers the boat an' all o' Papin's Ferry to git acrost the way you
want. Thar hain't no manner o' man, outfit, river er redskin that Ole
Missoury kain't lick, take 'em as they come, them to name the holts an'
the rules. We done showed you-all that. We're goin' to show you some
more. So good-by." He held out his hand. "Ye helped see far, an' ye're a
far man, an' we'll miss ye. Ef ye git in need o' help come to us. Ole
Missoury won't need no help."

"Well, Woodhull's one of you Missourians," remarked Price.

"Yes, but he ain't bred true. Major Banion is. Hit was me that made him
fight knuckle an' skull an' not with weapons. He didn't want to, but I
had a reason. I'm content an' soothe jest the way she lies. Ef Will
never sees the gal agin she ain't wuth the seem'.

"Ye'll find Col. William Banion at the head o' his own train. He's
fitten, an' he's fout an' proved hit"



CHAPTER XI

WHEN ALL THE WORLD WAS YOUNG


Molly Wingate kneeled by her cooking fire the following morning, her
husband meantime awaiting the morning meal impatiently. All along the
medley of crowded wagons rose confused sounds of activity at a hundred
similar firesides.

"Where's Little Molly?" demanded Wingate. "We got to be up and coming."

"Her and Jed is off after the cattle. Well, you heard the news last
night. You've got to get someone else to run the herd. If each family
drives its own loose stock everything'll be all mixed up. The Liberty
outfit pulled on by at dawn. Well, anyways they left us the sawmill and
the boat.

"Sam Woodhull, he's anxious to get on ahead of the Missourians," she
added. "He says he'll take the boat anyhow, and not pay them Kaws any
such hold-up price like they ask."

"All I got to say is, I wish we were across," grumbled Wingate, stooping
to the bacon spider.

"Huh! So do I--me and my bureau and my hens. Yes, after you've fussed
around a while you men'll maybe come to the same conclusion your head
cowguard had; you'll be making more boats and doing less swimming. I'm
sorry he quit us."

"It's the girl," said her husband sententiously.

"Yes. But"--smiling grimly--"one furse don't make a parting."

"She's same as promised Sam Woodhull, Molly, and you know that."

"Before he got whipped by Colonel Banion."

"Colonel! Fine business for an officer! Woodhull told me he tripped and
this other man was on top of him and nigh gouged out his two eyes. And
he told me other things too. Banion's a traitor, to split the train. We
can spare all such."

"Can we?" rejoined his wife. "I sort of thought--"

"Never mind what you thought. He's one of the unruly, servigerous sort;
can't take orders, and a trouble maker always. We'll show that outfit.
I've ordered three more scows built and the seams calked in the wagon
boxes."

Surely enough, the Banion plan of crossing, after all, was carried out,
and although the river dropped a foot meantime, the attempt to ford _en
masse_ was abandoned. Little by little the wagon parks gathered on the
north bank, each family assorting its own goods and joining in the
general _sauve qui peut_.

Nothing was seen of the Missouri column, but rumor said they were
ferrying slowly, with one boat and their doubled wagon boxes, over which
they had nailed hides. Woodhull was keen to get on north ahead of this
body. He had personal reasons for that. None too well pleased at the
smiles with which his explanations of his bruised face were received, he
made a sudden resolution to take a band of his own immediate neighbors
and adherents and get on ahead of the Missourians. He based his
decision, as he announced it, on the necessity of a scouting party to
locate grass and water.

Most of the men who joined him were single men, of the more restless
sort. There were no family wagons with them. They declared their
intention of traveling fast and light until they got among the buffalo.
This party left in advance of the main caravan, which had not yet
completed the crossing of the Kaw.

"Roll out! Ro-o-o-ll out!" came the mournful command at last, once more
down the line.

It fell on the ears of some who were unwilling to obey. The caravan was
disintegrating at the start. The gloom cast by the long delay at the
ford had now resolved itself in certain instances into fear amounting
half to panic. Some companies of neighbors said the entire train should
wait for the military escort; others declared they would not go further
west, but would turn back and settle here, where the soil was so good.
Still others said they all should lie here, with good grass and water,
until further word came from the Platte Valley train and until they had
more fully decided what to do. In spite of all the officers could do,
the general advance was strung out over two or three miles. The rapid
loss in order, these premature divisions of the train, augured ill
enough.

The natural discomforts of the trail now also began to have their
effect. A plague of green-headed flies and flying ants assailed them by
day, and at night the mosquitoes made an affliction well-nigh
insufferable. The women and children could not sleep, the horses groaned
all night under the clouds of tormentors which gathered on them. Early
as it was, the sun at times blazed with intolerable fervor, or again the
heat broke in savage storms of thunder, hail and rain. All the elements,
all the circumstances seemed in league to warn them back before it was
too late, for indeed they were not yet more than on the threshold of the
Plains.

The spring rains left the ground soft in places, so that in creek
valleys stretches of corduroy sometimes had to be laid down. The high
waters made even the lesser fords difficult and dangerous, and all knew
that between them and the Platte ran several strong and capricious
rivers, making in general to the southeast and necessarily transected by
the great road to Oregon.

They still were in the eastern part of what is now the state of Kansas,
one of the most beautiful and exuberantly rich portions of the country,
as all early travelers declared. The land lay in a succession of
timber-lined valleys and open prairie ridges. Groves of walnut, oak,
hickory, elm, ash at first were frequent, slowly changing, farther
west, to larger proportions of poplar, willow and cottonwood. The white
dogwood passed to make room for scattering thickets of wild plum. Wild
tulips, yellow or of broken colors; the campanula, the wild honeysuckle,
lupines--not yet quite in bloom--the sweetbrier and increasing
quantities of the wild rose gave life to the always changing scene. Wild
game of every sort was unspeakably abundant--deer and turkey in every
bottom, thousands of grouse on the hills, vast flocks of snipe and
plover, even numbers of the green parrakeets then so numerous along that
latitude. The streams abounded in game fish. All Nature was easy and
generous.

Men and women grumbled at leaving so rich and beautiful a land lying
waste. None had seen a country more supremely attractive. Emotions of
tenderness, of sadness, also came to many. Nostalgia was not yet shaken
off. This strained condition of nerves, combined with the trail
hardships, produced the physical irritation which is inevitable in all
amateur pioneer work. Confusions, discordances, arising over the most
trifling circumstances, grew into petulance, incivility, wrangling and
intrigue, as happened in so many other earlier caravans. In the
Babel-like excitement of the morning catch-up, amid the bellowing and
running of the cattle evading the yoke, more selfishness, less friendly
accommodation now appeared, and men met without speaking, even this
early on the road.

The idea of four parallel columns had long since been discarded. They
broke formation, and at times the long caravan, covering the depressions
and eminences of the prairie, wound along in mile-long detachments, each
of which hourly grew more surly and more independent. Overdriven oxen
now began to drop. By the time the prairies proper were reached more
than a score of oxen had died. They were repeating trail history as
recorded by the travelers of that day.

Personal and family problems also made divisions more natural. Many
suffered from ague; fevers were very common. An old woman past seventy
died one night and was buried by the wayside the next day. Ten days
after the start twins were born to parents moving out to Oregon. There
were numbers of young children, many of them in arms, who became ill.
For one or other cause, wagons continually were dropping out. It was
difficult for some wagons to keep up, the unseasoned oxen showing
distress under loads too heavy for their draft. It was by no means a
solid and compact army, after all, this west-bound wave of the first men
with plows. All these things sat heavily on the soul of Jesse Wingate,
who daily grew more morose and grim.

As the train advanced bands of antelope began to appear. The striped
prairie gophers gave place to the villages of countless barking prairie
dogs, curious to the eyes of the newcomers. At night the howling and
snarling of gray wolves now made regular additions to the coyote chorus
and the voices of the owls and whippoorwills. Little by little, day by
day, civilization was passing, the need for organization daily became
more urgent. Yet the original caravan had split practically into three
divisions within a hundred and fifty miles from the jump-off, although
the bulk of the train hung to Wingate's company and began to shake down,
at least into a sort of tolerance.

Granted good weather, as other travelers had written, it was indeed
impossible to evade the sense of exhilaration in the bold, free life. At
evening encampment the scene was one worthy of any artist of all the
world. The oblong of the wagon park, the white tents, the many fires,
made a spectacle of marvelous charm and power. Perhaps within sight, at
one time, under guard for the evening feed on the fresh young grass,
there would be two thousand head of cattle. In the wagon village men,
women and children would be engaged as though at home. There was little
idleness in the train, and indeed there was much gravity and devoutness
in the personnel. At one fireside the young men might be roaring "Old
Grimes is dead, that good old man," or "Oh, then, Susannah"; but quite
as likely close at hand some family group would be heard in sacred
hymns. A strange envisagement it all made, in a strange environment, a
new atmosphere, here on the threshold of the wilderness.[1]

[Footnote 1: To get the local descriptions, the color, atmosphere,
"feel" of a day and a country so long gone by, any writer of to-day must
go to writers of another day. The Author would acknowledge free use of
the works of Palmer, Bryant, Kelly and others who give us journals of
the great transcontinental trail.]



CHAPTER XII

THE DEAD MEN'S TALE


The wilderness, close at hand, soon was to make itself felt. Wingate's
outriders moved out before noon of one day, intending to locate camp at
the ford of the Big Vermilion. Four miles in advance they unexpectedly
met the scout of the Missouri column, Bill Jackson, who had passed the
Wingate train by a cut-off of his own on a solitary ride ahead for sake
of information. He was at a gallop now, and what he said sent them all
back at full speed to the head of the Wingate column.

Jackson riding ahead, came up with his hand raised for a halt.

"My God, Cap'n, stop the train!" he called. "Hit won't do for the womern
and children to see what's on ahead yan!"

"What's up--where?" demanded Wingate.

"On three mile, on the water where they camped night afore last. Thar
they air ten men, an' the rest's gone. Woodhull's wagons, but he ain't
thar. Wagons burned, mules standing with arrers in them, rest all dead
but a few. Hit's the Pawnees!"

The column leaders all galloped forward, seeing first what later most
of the entire train saw--the abominable phenomena of Indian warfare on
the Plains.

Scattered over a quarter of a mile, where the wagons had stood not
grouped and perhaps not guarded, lay heaps of wreckage beside heaps of
ashes. One by one the corpses were picked out, here, there, over more
than a mile of ground. They had fought, yes, but fought each his own
losing individual battle after what had been a night surprise.

The swollen and blackened features of the dead men stared up, mutilated
as savages alone mark the fallen. Two were staked out, hand and foot,
and ashes lay near them, upon them. Arrows stood up between the ribs of
the dead men, driven through and down into the ground. A dozen mules, as
Jackson had said, drooped with low heads and hanging ears, arrow shafts
standing out of their paunches, waiting for death to end their agony.

"Finish them, Jackson."

Wingate handed the hunter his own revolver, signaling for Kelsey and
Hall to do the same. The methodical cracking of the hand arms began to
end the suffering of the animals.

They searched for scraps of clothing to cover the faces of the dead, the
bodies of some dead. They motioned the women and children back when the
head of the train came up. Jackson beckoned the leaders to the side of
one wagon, partially burned.

"Look," said he, pointing.

A long stick, once a whipstock, rose from the front of the wagon bed. It
had been sharpened and thrust under the wrist skin of a human hand--a
dried hand, not of a white man, but a red. A half-corroded bracelet of
copper still clung to the wrist.

"If I read signs right, that's why!" commented Bill Jackson.

"But how do you explain it?" queried Hall. "Why should they do that? And
how could they, in so close a fight?"

"They couldn't," said Jackson. "That hand's a day an' a half older than
these killings. Hit's Sam Woodhull's wagon. Well, the Pawnees like
enough counted 'coup on the man that swung that hand up for a sign, even
if hit wasn't one o' their own people."

"Listen, men," he concluded, "hit was Woodhull's fault. We met some
friendlies--Kaws--from the mission, an' they was mournin'. A half dozen
o' them follered Woodhull out above the ferry when he pulled out. They
told him he hadn't paid them for their boat, asked him for more
presents. He got mad, so they say, an' shot down one o' them an' stuck
up his hand--fer a warnin', so he said.

"The Kaws didn't do this killin'. This band of Pawnees was away down
below their range. The Kaws said they was comin' fer a peace council, to
git the Kaws an' Otoes to raise against us whites, comin' put so many,
with plows and womernfolks--they savvy. Well, the Kaws has showed the
Pawnees. The Pawnees has showed us."

"Yes," said the deep voice of Caleb Price, property owner and head of a
family; "they've showed us that Sam Woodhull was not fit to trust.
There's one man that is."

"Do you want him along with your wagons?" demanded Jackson. He turned to
Wingate.

"Well," said the train captain after a time, "we are striking the Indian
country now."

"Shall I bring up our wagons an' jine ye all here at the ford this
evenin'?"

"I can't keep you from coming on up the road if you want to. I'll not
ask you."

"All right! We'll not park with ye then. But we'll be on the same water.
Hit's my own fault we split. We wouldn't take orders from Sam Woodhull,
an' we never will."

He nodded to the blackened ruins, to the grim dead hand pointing to the
sky, left where it was by the superstitious blood avengers.

Wingate turned away and led the wagon train a half mile up the stream,
pitching camp above the ford where the massacre had occurred. The duties
of the clergy and the appointed sextons were completed. Silence and
sadness fell on the encampment.

Jackson, the scout of the Missouri column, still lingered for some sort
of word with Molly Wingate. Some odds and ends of brush lay about. Of
the latter Molly began casting a handful on the fire and covering it
against the wind with her shawl, which at times she quickly removed. As
a result the confined smoke arose at more or less well defined
intervals, in separate puffs or clouds.

"Ef ye want to know how to give the smoke signal right an' proper, Miss
Molly," said he at length, quietly, "I'll larn ye how."

The girl looked up at him.

"Well, I don't know much about it."

"This way: Hit takes two to do hit best. You catch holt two corners o'
the shawl now. Hist it on a stick in the middle. Draw it down all over
the fire. Let her simmer under some green stuff. Now! Lift her clean
off, sideways, so's not ter break the smoke ball. See 'em go up? That's
how."

He looked at the girl keenly under his bushy gray brows.

"That's the Injun signal fer 'Enemy in the country.' S'pose you ever
wanted to signal, say to white folks, 'Friend in the country,' you might
remember--three short puffs an' one long one. That might bring up a
friend. Sech a signal can be seed a long ways."

Molly flushed to the eyes.

"What do you mean?"

"Nothin' at all, any more'n you do."

Jackson rose and left her.



CHAPTER XIII

WILD FIRE


The afternoon wore on, much occupied with duties connected with the sad
scenes of the: tragedy. No word came of Woodhull, or of two others who
could not be identified as among the victims at the death camp. No word,
either, came from the Missourians, and so cowed or dulled were most of
the men of the caravan that they did not venture far, even to undertake
trailing out after the survivors of the massacre. In sheer indecision
the great aggregation of wagons, piled up along the stream, lay
apathetic, and no order came for the advance.

Jed and his cow guards were obliged to drive the cattle back into the
ridges for better grazing, for the valley and adjacent country, which
had not been burned over by the Indians the preceding fall, held a lower
matting of heavy dry grass through which the green grass of springtime
appeared only in sparser and more smothered growth. As many of the
cattle and horses even now showed evil results from injudicious driving
on the trail, it was at length decided to make a full day's stop so that
they might feed up.

Molly Wingate, now assured that the Pawnees no longer were in the
vicinity, ventured out for pasturage with her team of mules, which she
had kept tethered close to her own wagon. She now rapidly was becoming a
good frontierswoman and thoughtful of her locomotive power. Taking the
direction of the cattle herd, she drove from camp a mile or two,
resolving to hobble and watch her mules while they grazed close to the
cattle guards.

She was alone. Around her, untouched by any civilization, lay a wild,
free world. The ceaseless wind of the prairie swept old and new grass
into a continuous undulating surface, silver crested, a wave always
passing, never past. The sky was unspeakably fresh and blue, with its
light clouds, darker edged toward the far horizon of the unbounded,
unbroken expanse of alternating levels and low hills. Across the broken
ridges passed the teeming bird life of the land. The Eskimo plover in
vast bands circled and sought their nesting places. Came also the sweep
of cinnamon wings as the giant sickle-billed curlews wheeled in vast
aerial phalanx, with their eager cries, "Curlee! Curlee! Curlee!"--the
wildest cry of the old prairies. Again, from some unknown,
undiscoverable place, came the liquid, baffling, mysterious note of the
nesting upland plover, sweet and clean as pure white honey.

Now and again a band of antelope swept ghostlike across a ridge. A great
gray wolf stood contemptuously near on a hillock, gazing speculatively
at the strange new creature, the white woman, new come in his lands. It
was the wilderness, rude, bold, yet sweet.

Who shall say what thoughts the flowered wilderness of spring carried
to the soul of a young woman beautiful and ripe for love, her heart as
sweet and melting as that of the hidden plover telling her mate of
happiness? Surely a strange spell, born of youth and all this free world
of things beginning, fell on the soul of Molly Wingate. She sat and
dreamed, her hands idle, her arms empty, her beating pulses full, her
heart full of a maid's imaginings.

How long she sat alone, miles apart, an unnoticed figure, she herself
could not have said--surely the sun was past zenith--when, moved by some
vague feeling of her own, she noticed the uneasiness of her feeding
charges.

The mules, hobbled and side-lined as Jed had shown her, turned face to
the wind, down the valley, standing for a time studious and uncertain
rather than alarmed. Then, their great ears pointed, they became uneasy;
stirred, stamped, came back again to their position, gazing steadily in
the one direction.

The ancient desert instinct of the wild ass, brought down through
thwarted generations, never had been lost to them. They had
foreknowledge of danger long before horses or human beings could suspect
it.

Danger? What was it? Something, surely. Molly sprang to her feet. A band
of antelope, running, had paused a hundred yards away, gazing back.
Danger--yes; but what?

The girl ran to the crest of the nearest hillock and looked back. Even
as she did so, it seemed that she caught touch of the great wave of
apprehension spreading swiftly over the land.

Far off, low lying like a pale blue cloud, was a faint line of something
that seemed to alter in look, to move, to rise and fall, to
advance--down the wind. She never had seen it, but knew what it must
be--the prairie fire! The lack of fall burning had left it fuel even
now.

Vast numbers of prairie grouse came by, hurtling through the silence,
alighting, strutting with high heads, fearlessly close. Gray creatures
came hopping, halting or running fully extended--the prairie hares,
fleeing far ahead. Band after band of antelope came on, running easily,
but looking back. A heavy line of large birds, black to the eye, beat on
laboriously, alighted, and ran onward with incredible speed--the wild
turkeys, fleeing the terror. Came also broken bands of white-tailed
deer, easy, elastic, bounding irregularly, looking back at the
miles-wide cloud, which now and then spun up, black as ink toward the
sky, but always flattened and came onward with the wind.

Danger? Yes! Worse than Indians, for yonder were the cattle; there lay
the parked train, two hundred wagons, with the household goods that
meant their life savings and their future hope in far-off Oregon. Women
were there, and children--women with babes that could not walk. True,
the water lay close, but it was narrow and deep and offered no salvation
against the terror now coming on the wings of the wind.

That the prairie fire would find in this strip fuel to carry it even at
this green season of the grass the wily Pawnees had known. This was
cheaper than assault by arms. They would wither and scatter the white
nation here! Worse than plumed warriors was yonder broken undulating
line of the prairie fire.

Instinct told the white girl, gave her the same terror as that which
inspired all these fleeing creatures. But what could she do? This was an
elemental, gigantic wrath, and she but a frightened girl. She guessed
rather than reasoned what it would mean when yonder line came closer,
when it would sweep down, roaring, over the wagon train.

The mules began to bray, to plunge, too wise to undertake flight. She
would at least save them. She would mount one and ride with the alarm
for the camp.

The wise animals let her come close, did not plunge, knew that she meant
help, allowed her trembling hands to loose one end of the hobble straps,
but no more. As soon as each mule got its feet it whirled and was away.
No chance to hold one of them now, and if she had mounted a hobbled
animal it had meant nothing. But she saw them go toward the stream,
toward the camp. She must run that way herself.

It was so far! There was a faint smell of smoke and a mysterious low
humming in the air. Was it too late?

A swift, absurd, wholly useless memory came to her from the preceding
day. Yes, it would be no more than a prayer, but she would send it out
blindly into the air.... Some instinct--yes, quite likely.

Molly ran to her abandoned wagonette, pushed in under the white tilt
where her pallet bed lay rolled, her little personal plunder stored
about. Fumbling, she found her sulphur matches. She would build her
signal fire. It was, at least, all that she could do. It might at least
alarm the camp.

Trembling, she looked about her, tore her hands breaking off little
faggots of tall dry weed stems, a very few bits of wild thorn and
fragments of a plum thicket in the nearest shallow coulee. She ran to
her hillock, stooped and broke a dozen matches, knowing too little of
fire-making in the wind. But at last she caught a wisp of dry grass, a
few dry stems--others, the bits of wild plum branches. She shielded her
tiny blaze with her frock, looking back over her shoulder, where the
black curtain was rising taller. Now and then, even in the blaze of full
day, a red, dull gleam rose and passed swiftly. The entire country was
afire. Fuel? Yes; and a wind.

The humming in the air grew, the scent of fire came plainly. The plover
rose around their nests and circled, crying piteously. The scattered
hares became a great body of moving gray, like camouflage blots on the
still undulating waves of green and silver, passing but not yet
past--soon now to pass.

The girl, her hands arrested, her arms out, in her terror, stood trying
to remember. Yes, it was three short puffs and a long pillar. She caught
her shawl from her shoulder, stooped, spread it with both hands, drove
in her stiffest bough for a partial support, cast in under the edge,
timidly, green grass enough to make smoke, she hoped.

An instant and she sprang up, drawing the shawl swiftly aside, the next
moment jealously cutting through the smoke with a side sweep of the
covering.

It worked! The cut-off column rose, bent over in a little detached
cloud. Again, with a quick flirt, eager eyed, and again the detached
irregular ball! A third time--Molly rose, and now cast on dry grass and
green grass till a tall and moving pillar of cloud by day arose.

At least she had made her prayer. She could do no more. With vague
craving for any manner of refuge, she crawled to her wagon seat and
covered her eyes. She knew that the wagon train was warned--they now
would need but little warning, for the menace was written all across the
world.

She sat she knew not how long, but until she became conscious of a
roaring in the air. The line of fire had come astonishingly soon, she
reasoned. But she forgot that. All the vanguard and the full army of
wild creatures had passed by now. She alone, the white woman, most
helpless of the great creatures, stood before the terror.

She sprang out of the wagon and looked about her. The smoke crest,
black, red-shot, was coming close. The grass here would carry it.
Perhaps yonder on the flint ridge where the cover was short--why had she
not thought of that long ago? It was half a mile, and no sure haven
then.

She ran, her shawl drawn about her head--ran with long, free stride, her
limbs envigored by fear, her full-bosomed body heaving chokingly. The
smoke was now in the air, and up the unshorn valley came the fire
remorselessly, licking up the under lying layer of sun-cured grass which
a winter's snow had matted down.

She could never reach the ridge now. Her overburdened lungs functioned
but little. The world went black, with many points of red. Everywhere
was the odor and feel of smoke. She fell and gasped, and knew little,
cared little what might come. The elemental terror at last had caught
its prey--soft, young, beautiful prey, this huddled form, a bit of brown
and gray, edged with white of wind-blown skirt. It would be a sweet
morsel for the flames.

Along the knife-edged flint ridge which Molly had tried to reach there
came the pounding of hoofs, heavier than any of these that had passed.
The cattle were stampeding directly down wind and before the fire.
Dully, Molly heard the lowing, heard the far shouts of human voices.
Then, it seemed to her, she heard a rush of other hoofs coming toward
her. Yes, something was pounding down the slope toward her wagon,
toward her. Buffalo, she thought, not knowing the buffalo were gone from
that region.

But it was not the buffalo, nor yet the frightened herd, nor yet her
mules. Out of the smoke curtain broke a rider, his horse flat; a black
horse with flying frontlet--she knew what horse. She knew what man rode
him, too, black with smoke as he was now. He swept close to the wagon
and was off. Something flickered there, with smoke above it, beyond the
wagon by some yards. Then he was in saddle and racing again, his eyes
and teeth white in the black mask of his face.

She heard no call and no command. But an arm reached down to hers, swept
up--and she was going onward, the horn of a saddle under her, her body
held to that of the rider, swung sidewise. The horse was guided not down
but across the wind.

Twice and three times, silent, he flung her off and was down, kindling
his little back fires--the only defense against a wildfire. He breathed
thickly, making sounds of rage.

"Will they never start?" he broke out at last. "The fools--the fools!"

But by now it was too late. A sudden accession in the force of the wind
increased the speed of the fire. The little line near Molly's wagon
spared it, but caught strength. Could she have seen through the veils of
smoke she would have seen a half dozen fires this side the line of the
great fire. But fire is fire.

Again he was in saddle and had her against his thigh, his body, flung
any way so she came with the horse. And now the horse swerved, till he
drove in the steel again and again, heading him not away from the fire
but straight into it!

Molly felt a rush of hot air; surging, actual flame singed the ends of
her hair. She felt his hand again and again sweep over her skirts,
wiping out the fire as it caught. It was blackly hot, stifling--and then
it was past!

Before her lay a wide black world. Her wagon stood, even its white top
spared by miracle of the back fire. But beyond came one more line of
smoke and flame. The black horse neighed now in the agony of his hot
hoofs. His rider swung him to a lower level, where under the tough cover
had lain moist ground, on which uncovered water now glistened. He flung
her into the mire of it, pulled up his horse there and himself lay down,
full length, his blackened face in the moist mud above which still
smoked stubbles of the flame-shorn grass. He had not spoken to her, nor
she to him. His eyes rested on the singed ends of her blown hair, her
charred garments, in a frowning sympathy which found no speech. At
length he brought the reins of his horse to her, flirting up the singed
ends of the long mane, further proof of their narrow escape.

"I must try once more," he said. "The main fire might catch the wagon."

He made off afoot. She saw him start a dozen nucleuses of fires; saw
them advance till they halted at the edge of the burned ground, beyond
the wagon, so that it stood safe in a vast black island. He came to her,
drove his scorched boots deep as he could into the mud and sat looking
up the valley toward the emigrant train. An additional curtain of smoke
showed that the men there now were setting out back fires of their own.
He heard her voice at last:

"It is the second time you have saved me--saved my life, I think. Why
did you come?"

He turned to her as she sat in the edge of the wallow, her face streaked
with smoke, her garments half burned off her limbs. She now saw his
hands, which he was thrusting out on the mud to cool them, and sympathy
was in her gaze also.

"I don't know why I came," said he. "Didn't you signal for me? Jackson
told me you could."

"No, I had no hope. I meant no one. It was only a prayer."

"It carried ten miles. We were all back-firing. It caught in the
sloughs--all the strips of old grass. I thought of your camp, of you. At
least your signal told me where to ride."

At length he waved his hand.

"They're safe over there," said he. "Think of the children!"

"Yes, and you gave me my one chance. Why?"

"I don't know. I suppose it was because I am a brute!" The bitterness
of his voice was plain.

"Come, we must go to the wagons," said Molly at length, and would have
risen.

"No, not yet. The burned ground must cool before we can walk on it. I
would not even take my horse out on it again." He lifted a foot of the
black Spaniard, whose muzzle quivered whimperingly. "All right, old
boy!" he said, and stroked the head thrust down to him. "It might have
been worse."

His voice was so gentle that Molly Wingate felt a vague sort of
jealousy. He might have taken her scorched hand in his, might at least
have had some thought for her welfare. He did speak at last as to that.

"What's in your wagon?" he asked. "We had better go there to wait. Have
you anything along--oil, flour, anything to use on burns? You're burned.
It hurts me to see a woman suffer."

"Are not you burned too?"

"Yes."

"It pains you?"

"Oh, yes, of course."

He rose and led the way over the damper ground to the wagon, which stood
smoke-stained but not charred, thanks to his own resourcefulness.

Molly climbed up to the seat, and rummaging about found a jar of butter,
a handful of flour.

"Come up on the seat," said she. "This is better medicine than nothing."

He climbed up and sat beside her. She frowned again as she now saw how
badly scorched his hands were, his neck, his face. His eyebrows, caught
by one wisp of flame, were rolled up at the ends, whitened. One cheek
was a dull red.

Gently, without asking his consent, she began to coat his burned skin as
best she might with her makeshift of alleviation. His hand trembled
under hers.

"Now," she said, "hold still. I must fix your hand some more."

She still bent over, gently, delicately touching his flesh with hers.
And then all in one mad, unpremeditated instant it was done!

His hand caught hers, regardless of the pain to either. His arm went
about her, his lips would have sought hers.

It was done! Now he might repent.

A mad way of wooing, inopportune, fatal as any method he possibly could
have found, moreover a cruel, unseemly thing to do, here and with her
situated thus. But it was done.

Till now he had never given her grounds for more than guessing. Yet now
here was this!

He came to his senses as she thrust him away; saw her cheeks whiten, her
eyes grow wide.

"Oh!" she said. "Oh! Oh! Oh!"

"Oh!" whispered Will Banion to himself, hoarsely.

He held his two scorched hands each side her face as she drew back,
sought to look into her eyes, so that she might believe either his hope,
his despair or his contrition.

But she turned her eyes away. Only he could hear her outraged
protest--"Oh! Oh! Oh!"



CHAPTER XIV

THE KISS


"It was the wind!" Will Banion exclaimed. "It was the sky, the earth! It
was the fire! I don't know what it was! I swear it was not I who did it!
Don't forgive me, but don't blame me. Molly! Molly!

"It had to be sometime," he went on, since she still drew away from him.
"What chance have I had to ask you before now? It's little I have to
offer but my love."

"What do you mean? It will never be at any time!" said Molly Wingate
slowly, her hand touching his no more.

"What do you yourself mean?" He turned to her in agony of soul. "You
will not let me repent? You will not give me some sort of chance?"

"No," she said coldly. "You have had chance enough to be a gentleman--as
much as you had when you were in Mexico with other women. But Major
William Banion falsified the regimental accounts. I know that too. I
didn't--I couldn't believe it--till now."

He remained dumb under this. She went on mercilessly.

"Oh, yes, Captain Woodhull told us. Yes, he showed us the very
vouchers. My father believed it of you, but I didn't. Now I do. Oh,
fine! And you an officer of our Army!"

She blazed out at him now, her temper rising.

"Chance? What more chance did you need? No wonder you couldn't love a
girl--any other way than this. It would have to be sometime, you say.
What do you mean? That I'd ever marry a thief?"

Still he could not speak. The fire marks showed livid against a paling
cheek.

"Yes, I know you saved me--twice, this time at much risk," resumed the
girl. "Did you want pay so soon? You'd--you'd--"

"Oh! Oh! Oh!"

It was his voice that now broke in. He could not speak at all beyond the
exclamation under torture.

"I didn't believe that story about you," she added after a long time.
"But you are not what you looked, not what I thought you were. So what
you say must be sometime is never going to be at all."

"Did he tell you that about me?" demanded Will Banion savagely.
"Woodhull--did he say that?"

"I have told you, yes. My father knew. No wonder he didn't trust you.
How could he?"

She moved now as though to leave the wagon, but he raised a hand.

"Wait!" said he. "Look yonder! You'd not have time now to reach camp."

In the high country a great prairie fire usually or quite often was
followed by a heavy rainstorm. What Banion now indicated was the
approach of yet another of the epic phenomena of the prairies, as rapid,
as colossal and as merciless as the fire itself.

On the western horizon a low dark bank of clouds lay for miles, piled,
serrated, steadily rising opposite to the course of the wind that had
driven the fire. Along it more and more visibly played almost incessant
sheet lightning, broken with ripping zigzag flames. A hush had fallen
close at hand, for now even the frightened breeze of evening had fled.
Now and then, at first doubtful, then unmistakable and continuous, came
the mutter and rumble and at length the steady roll of thunder.

They lay full in the course of one of the tremendous storms of the high
country, and as the cloud bank rose and came on swiftly, spreading its
flanking wings so that nothing might escape, the spectacle was
terrifying almost as much as that of the fire, for, unprotected, as they
were, they could make no counter battle against the storm.

The air grew supercharged with electricity. It dripped, literally, from
the barrel of Banion's pistol when he took it from its holster to carry
it to the wagon. He fastened the reins of his horse to a wheel and
hastened with other work. A pair of trail ropes lay in the wagon. He
netted them over the wagon top and lashed the ends to the wheels to make
the top securer, working rapidly, eyes on the advancing storm.

There came a puff, then a gust of wind. The sky blackened. The storm
caught the wagon train first. There was no interval at all between the
rip of the lightning and the crash of thunder as it rolled down on the
clustered wagons. The electricity at times came not in a sheet or a
ragged bolt, but in a ball of fire, low down, close to the ground,
exploding with giant detonations.

Then came the rain, with a blanketing rush of level wind, sweeping away
the last vestige of the wastrel fires of the emigrant encampment. An
instant and every human being in the train, most of them ill defended by
their clothing, was drenched by the icy flood. One moment and the
battering of hail made climax of it all. The groaning animals plunged
and fell at their picket ropes, or broke and fled into the open. The
remaining cattle caught terror, and since there was no corral, most of
the cows and oxen stampeded down the wind.

The canvas of the covered wagons made ill defense. Many of them were
stripped off, others leaked like sieves. Mothers sat huddled in their
calicoes, bending over their tow-shirted young, some of them babes in
arms. The single jeans garments of the boys gave them no comfort. Under
the wagons and carts, wrapped in blankets or patched quilts whose colors
dripped, they crawled and sat as the air grew strangely chill. Only
wreckage remained when they saw the storm muttering its way across the
prairies, having done what it could in its elemental wrath to bar the
road to the white man.

As for Banion and Molly, they sat it out in the light wagon, the girl
wrapped in blankets, Banion much of the time out in the storm, swinging
on the ropes to keep the wagon from overturning. He had no apparent
fear. His calm assuaged her own new terrors. In spite of her bitter
arraignment, she was glad that he was here, though he hardly spoke to
her at all.

"Look!" he exclaimed at last, drawing back the flap of the wagon cover.
"Look at the rainbow!"

Over the cloud banks of the rain-wet sky there indeed now was flung the
bow of promise. But this titanic land did all things gigantically. This
was no mere prismatic arch bridging the clouds. The colors all were
there, yes, and of an unspeakable brilliance and individual distinctness
in the scale; but they lay like a vast painted mist, a mural of some
celestial artist flung _en masse_ against the curtain of the night. The
entire clouded sky, miles on untold miles, was afire. All the opals of
the universe were melted and cast into a tremendous picture painted by
the Great Spirit of the Plains.

"Oh, wonderful!" exclaimed the girl. "It might be the celestial city in
the desert, promised by the Mormon prophet!"

"It may be so to them. May it be so to us. Blessed be the name of the
Lord God of Hosts!" said Will Banion.

She looked at him suddenly, strangely. What sort of man was he, after
all, so full of strange contradictions--a savage, a criminal, yet
reverent and devout?

"Come," he said, "we can get back now, and you must go. They will think
you are lost."

He stepped to the saddle of his shivering horse and drew off the poncho,
which he had spread above the animal instead of using it himself. He was
wet to the bone. With apology he cast the waterproof over Molly's
shoulders, since she now had discarded her blankets. He led the way, his
horse following them.

They walked in silence in the deep twilight which began to creep across
the blackened land. All through the storm he had scarcely spoken to her,
and he spoke but rarely now. He was no more than guide. But as she
approached safety Molly Wingate began to reflect how much she really
owed this man. He had been a pillar of strength, elementally fit to
combat all the elements, else she had perished.

"Wait!"

She had halted at the point of the last hill which lay between them and
the wagons. They could hear the wailing of the children close at hand.
He turned inquiringly. She handed back the poncho.

"I am all right now. You're wet, you're tired, you're burned to pieces.
Won't you come on in?"

"Not to-night!"

But still she hesitated. In her mind there were going on certain
processes she could not have predicted an hour earlier.

"I ought to thank you," she said. "I do thank you."

His utter silence made it hard for her. He could see her hesitation,
which made it hard for him, coveting sight of her always, loath to leave
her.

Now a sudden wave of something, a directness and frankness born in some
way in this new world apart from civilization, like a wind-blown flame,
irresponsible and irresistible, swept over Molly Wingate's soul as
swiftly, as unpremeditatedly as it had over his. She was a young woman
fit for love, disposed for love, at the age for love. Now, to her
horror, the clasp of this man's arm, even when repelled in memory,
returned, remained in memory! She was frightened that it still
remained--frightened at her own great curiousness.

"About--that"--he knew what she meant--"I don't want you to think
anything but the truth of me. If you have deceived people, I don't want
to deceive you."

"What do you mean?" He was a man of not very many words.

"About--that!"

"You said it could never be."

"No. If it could, I would not be stopping here now to say so much."

He stepped closer, frowning.

"What is it you are saying then--that a man's a worse brute when he goes
mad, as I did?"

"I expect not," said Molly Wingate queerly. "It is very far, out here.
It's some other world, I believe. And I suppose men have kissed girls. I
suppose no girl ever was married who was not ever kissed."

"What are you saying?"

"I said I wanted you to know the truth about a woman--about me. That's
just because it's not ever going to be between us. It can't be, because
of that other matter in Mexico. If it had not been for that, I suppose
after a time I wouldn't have minded what you did back there. I might
have kissed you. It must be terrible to feel as you feel now, so
ashamed. But after all--"

"It was criminal!" he broke out. "But even criminals are loved by women.
They follow them to jail, to the gallows. They don't mind what the man
is--they love him, they forgive him. They stand by him to the very end!"

"Yes, I suppose many a girl loves a man she knows she never can marry.
Usually she marries someone else. But kissing! That's terrible!"

"Yes. But you will not let me make it splendid and not terrible. You say
it never can be--that means we've got to part. Well, how can I forget?"

"I don't suppose you can. I don't suppose that--that I can!"

"What are you going to say? Don't! Oh, please don't!"

But she still went on, strangely, not in the least understanding her
own swift change of mood, her own intent with him, _vis-à-vis_, here in
the wilderness.

"While we were walking down here just now," said she, "somehow it all
began to seem not so wrong. It only seemed to stay wrong for you to have
deceived me about yourself--what you really were--when you were in the
Army. I could maybe forgive you up to that far, for you did--for men
are--well, men. But about that other--you knew all the time we
couldn't--couldn't ever--I'd never marry a thief."

The great and wistful regret of her voice was a thing not to be escaped.
She stood, a very splendid figure, clean and marvelous of heart as she
was begrimed and bedraggled of body now, her great vital force not
abated by what she had gone through. She spread her hands just apart and
looked at him in what she herself felt was to be the last meeting of
their lives; in which she could afford to reveal all her soul for once
to a man, and then go about a woman's business of living a life fed on
the husks of love given her by some other man.

He knew that he had seen one more miracle. But, chastened now, he could,
he must, keep down his own eager arms. He heard her speak once more, her
voice like some melancholy bell of vespers of a golden evening.

"Oh, Will Banion, how could you take away a girl's heart and leave her
miserable all her life?"

The cry literally broke from her. It seemed in her own ears the sudden
voice of some other woman speaking--some unaccountable, strange woman
whom she never had seen or known in all her life.

"Your--heart?" he whispered, now close to her in the dusk. "You were
not--you did not--you--"

But he choked. She nodded, not brazenly or crudely or coarsely, not even
bravely, but in utter simplicity. For the time she was wholly free of
woman coquetry. It was as though the elements had left her also
elemental. Her words now were of the earth, the air, the fire, the
floods of life.

"Yes," she said, "I will tell you now, because of what you have done for
me. If you gave me life, why shouldn't I give you love--if so I could?"

"Love? Give me love?"

"Yes! I believe I was going to love you, until now, although I had
promised him--you know--Captain Woodhull. Oh, you see, I understand a
little of what it was to you--what made you--" She spoke disconnectedly.
"I believe--I believe I'd not have cared. I believe I could follow a man
to the gallows. Now I will not, because you didn't tell me you were a
thief. I can't trust you. But I'll kiss you once for good-by. I'm sorry.
I'm so sorry."

Being a man, he never fathomed her mind at all. But being a man, slowly,
gently, he took her in his arms, drew her tight. Long, long it was till
their lips met--and long then. But he heard her whisper "Good-by," saw
her frank tears, felt her slowly, a little by a little, draw away from
him.

"Good-by," she said. "Good-by. I would not dare, any more, ever again.
Oh, Will Banion, why did you take away my heart? I had but one!"

"It is mine!" he cried savagely. "No other man in all the world shall
ever have it! Molly!"

But she now was gone.

He did not know how long he stood alone, his head bowed on his saddle.
The raucous howl of a great gray wolf near by spelled out the lonesome
tragedy of his future life for him.

Quaint and sweet philosopher, and bold as she but now had been in one
great and final imparting of her real self, Molly Wingate was only a
wet, weary and bedraggled maid when at length she entered the desolate
encampment which stood for home. She found her mother sitting on a box
under a crude awning, and cast herself on her knees, her head on that
ample bosom that she had known as haven in her childhood. She wept now
like a little child.

"It's bad!" said stout Mrs. Wingate, not knowing. "But you're back and
alive. It looks like we're wrecked and everything lost, and we come nigh
about getting all burned up, but you're back alive to your ma! Now,
now!"

That night Molly turned on a sodden pallet which she had made down
beside her mother in the great wagon. But she slept ill. Over and over
to her lips rose the same question:

"Oh, Will Banion, Will Banion, why did you take away my heart?"



CHAPTER XV

THE DIVISION


The great wagon train of 1848 lay banked along the Vermilion in utter
and abject confusion. Organization there now was none. But for Banion's
work with the back fires the entire train would have been wiped out. The
effects of the storm were not so capable of evasion. Sodden, wretched,
miserable, chilled, their goods impaired, their cattle stampeded, all
sense of gregarious self-reliance gone, two hundred wagons were no more
than two hundred individual units of discontent and despair. So far as
could be prophesied on facts apparent, the journey out to Oregon had
ended in disaster almost before it was well begun.

Bearded men at smoking fires looked at one another in silence, or would
not look at all. Elan, morale, esprit de corps were gone utterly.

Stout Caleb Price walked down the wagon lines, passing fourscore men
shaking in their native agues, not yet conquered. Women, pale, gaunt,
grim, looked at him from limp sunbonnets whose stays had been half
dissolved. Children whimpered. Even the dogs, curled nose to tail under
the wagons, growled surlily. But Caleb Price found at last the wagon of
the bugler who had been at the wars and shook him out.

"Sound, man!" said Caleb Price. "Play up Oh, Susannah! Then sound the
Assembly. We've got to have a meeting."

They did have a meeting. Jesse Wingate scented mutiny and remained away.

"There's no use talking, men," said Caleb Price, "no use trying to fool
ourselves. We're almost done, the way things are. I like Jess Wingate as
well as any man I ever knew, but Jess Wingate's not the man. What shall
we do?"

He turned to Hall, but Hall shook his head; to Kelsey, but Kelsey only
laughed.

"I could get a dozen wagons through, maybe," said he. "Here's two
hundred. Woodhull's the man, but Woodhull's gone--lost, I reckon, or
maybe killed and lying out somewhere on these prairies. You take it,
Cale."

Price considered for a time.

"No," said he at length. "It's no time for one of us to take on what may
be done better by someone else, because our women and children are at
stake. The very best man's none too good for this job, and the more
experience he has the better. The man who thinks fastest and clearest at
the right time is the man we want, and the man we'd follow--the only
man. Who'll he be?"

"Oh, I'll admit Banion had the best idea of crossing the Kaw," said
Kelsey. "He got his own people over, too, somehow."

"Yes, and they're together now ten miles below us. And Molly
Wingate--she was caught out with her team by the fire--says it was
Banion who started the back-fire. That saved his train and ours. Ideas
that come too late are no good. We need some man with the right ideas at
the right time."

"You think it's Banion?" Hall spoke.

"I do think it's Banion. I don't see how it can be anyone else."

"Woodhull'd never stand for it."

"He isn't here."

"Wingate won't."

"He'll have to."

The chief of mutineers, a grave and bearded man, waited for a time.

"This is a meeting of the train," said he. "In our government the
majority rules. Is there any motion on this?"

Silence. Then rose Hall of Ohio, slowly, a solid man, with three wagons
of his own.

"I've been against the Missouri outfit," said he. "They're a wild bunch,
with no order or discipline to them. They're not all free-soilers, even
if they're going out to Oregon. But if one man can handle them, he can
handle us. An Army man with a Western experience--who'll it be unless it
is their man? So. Mister Chairman, I move for a committee of three,
yourself to be one, to ride down and ask the Missourians to join on
again, all under Major Banion."

"I'll have to second that," said a voice. Price saw a dozen nods.
"You've heard it, men," said he. "All in favor rise up."

They stood, with not many exceptions--rough-clad, hard-headed,
hard-handed men of the nation's vanguard. Price looked them over
soberly.

"You see the vote, men," said he. "I wish Jess had come, but he didn't.
Who'll be the man to ride down? Wingate?"

"He wouldn't go," said Kelsey. "He's got something against Banion; says
he's not right on his war record--something--"

"He's right on his train record this far," commented Price. "We're not
electing a Sabbath-school superintendent now, but a train captain who'll
make these wagons cover twelve miles a day, average.

"Hall, you and Kelsey saddle up and ride down with me. We'll see what we
can do. One thing sure, something has got to be done, or we might as
well turn back. For one, I'm not used to that."

They did saddle and ride--to find the Missouri column coming up with
intention of pitching below, at the very scene of the massacre, which
was on the usual Big Vermilion ford, steep-banked on either side, but
with hard bottom.

Ahead of the train rode two men at a walk, the scout Jackson, and the
man they sought. They spied him as the man on the black Spanish horse,
found him a pale and tired young man, who apparently had slept as ill as
they themselves. But in straight and manful fashion they told him their
errand.

The pale face of Will Banion flushed, even with the livid scorch marks
got in the prairie fire the day before. He considered.

"Gentlemen," he said after a time, "you don't know what you are asking
of me. It would be painful for me to take that work on now."

"It's painful for us to see our property lost and our families set
afoot," rejoined Caleb Price. "It's not pleasant for me to do this. But
it's no question, Major Banion, what you or I find painful or pleasant.
The question is on the women and children. You know; that very well."

"I do know it--yes. But you have other men. Where's Woodhull?"

"We don't know. We think the Pawnees got him among the others."

"Jackson"--Banion turned to his companion--"we've got to make a
look-around for him. He's probably across the river somewhere."

"Like enough," rejoined the scout. "But the first thing is for all us
folks to git acrost the river too. Let him go to hell."

"We want you, Major," said Hall quietly, and even Kelsey nodded.

"What shall I do, Jackson?" demanded Banion.

"Fly inter hit, Will," replied that worthy. "Leastways, take hit on
long enough so's to git them acrost an' help git their cattle together.
Ye couldn't git Wingate to work under ye no ways. But mebbe-so we can
show 'em fer a day er so how Old Missoury gits acrost a country.
Uh-huh?"

Again Banion considered, pondering many things of which none of these
knew anything at all. At length he drew aside with the men of the main
train.

"Park our wagons here, Bill," he said. "See that they are well parked,
too. Get out your guards. I'll go up and see what we can do. We'll all
cross here. Have your men get all the trail ropes out and lay in a lot
of dry cottonwood logs. We'll have to raft some of the stuff over. See
if there's any wild grapevines along the bottoms. They'll help hold the
logs. So long."

He turned, and with the instinct of authority rode just a half length
ahead of the others on the return.

Jesse Wingate, a sullen and discredited Achilles, held to his tent, and
Molly did as much, her stout-hearted and just-minded mother being the
main source of Wingate news. Banion kept as far away from them as
possible, but had Jed sent for.

"Jed," said he, "first thing, you get your boys together and go after
the cattle. Most of them went downstream with the wind. The hobbled
stuff didn't come back down the trail and must be below there too. The
cows wouldn't swim the big river on a run. If there's rough country,
with any shelter, they'd like enough begin to mill--it might be five
miles, ten--I can't guess. You go find out.

"Now, you others, first thing, get your families all out in the sun.
Spread out the bedclothes and get them dried. Build fires and cook your
best right away--have the people eat. Get that bugle going and play
something fast--Sweet Hour of Prayer is for evening, not now. Give 'em
Reveille, and then the cavalry charge. Play Susannah.

"I'm going to ride the edge of the burning to look for loose stock. You
others get a meal into these people--coffee, quinine, more coffee. Then
hook up all the teams you can and move down to the ford. We'll be on the
Platte and among the buffalo in a week or ten days. Nothing can stop us.
All you need is just a little more coffee and a little more system, and
then a good deal more of both.

"Now's a fine time for this train to shake into place," he added. "You,
Price, take your men and go down the lines. Tell your kinfolk and
families and friends and neighbors to make bands and hang together. Let
'em draw cuts for place if they like, but stick where they go. We can't
tell how the grass will be on ahead, and we may have to break the train
into sections on the Platte; but we'll break it ourselves, and not see
it fall apart or fight apart. So?"

He wheeled and went away at a trot. All he had given them was the one
thing they lacked.

The Wingate wagons came in groups and halted at the river bank, where
the work of rafting and wagon boating went methodically forward. Scores
of individual craft, tipsy and risky, two or three logs lashed together,
angled across and landed far below. Horsemen swam across with lines and
larger rafts were steadied fore and aft with ropes snubbed around tree
trunks on either bank. Once started, the resourceful pioneer found a
dozen ways to skin his cat, as one man phrased it, and presently the
falling waters permitted swimming and fording the stock. It all seemed
ridiculously simple and ridiculously cheerful.

Toward evening a great jangling of bells and shouting of young captains
announced the coming of a great band of the stampeded livestock--cattle,
mules and horses mixed. Afar came the voice of Jed Wingate singing, "Oh,
then Susannah," and urging Susannah to have no concern.

But Banion, aloof and morose, made his bed that night apart even from
his own train. He had not seen Wingate--did not see him till the next
day, noon, when he rode up and saluted the former leader, who sat on his
own wagon seat and not in saddle.

"My people are all across, Mr. Wingate," he said, and the last of your
wagons will be over by dark and straightened out. I'm parked a mile
ahead."

"You are parked? I thought you were elected--by my late friends--to lead
this whole train."

He spoke bitterly and with a certain contempt that made Banion color.

"No. We can travel apart, though close. Do you want to go ahead, or
shall I?"

"As you like. The country's free."

"It's not free for some things, Mr. Wingate," rejoined the younger man
hotly. "You can lead or not, as you like; but I'll not train up with a
man who thinks of me as you do. After this think what you like, but
don't speak any more."

"What do you mean by that?"

"You know very well. You've believed another man's word about my
personal character. It's gone far enough and too far."

"The other man is not here. He can't face you."

"No, not now. But if he's on earth he'll face me sometime."

Unable to control himself further, Banion wheeled and galloped away to
his own train.

"You ask if we're to join in with the Yankees," he flared out to
Jackson. "No! We'll camp apart and train apart. I won't go on with
them."

"Well," said the scout, "I didn't never think we would, er believe ye
could; not till they git in trouble agin--er till a certain light wagon
an' mules throws in with us, huh?"

"You'll say no more of that, Jackson! But one thing: you and I have got
to ride and see if we can get any trace of Woodhull."

"Like looking for a needle in a haystack, an' a damn bad needle at
that," was the old man's comment.



CHAPTER XVI

THE PLAINS


"On to the Platte! The buffalo!" New cheer seemed to come to the hearts
of the emigrants now, and they forgot bickering. The main train ground
grimly ahead, getting back, if not all its egotism, at least more and
more of its self-reliance. By courtesy, Wingate still rode ahead, though
orders came now from a joint council of his leaders, since Banion would
not take charge.

The great road to Oregon was even now not a trail but a road, deep cut
into the soil, though no wheeled traffic had marked it until within the
past five years. A score of paralled paths it might be at times, of
tentative location along a hillside or a marshy level; but it was for
the most part a deep-cut, unmistakable road from which it had been
impossible to wander. At times it lay worn into the sod a half foot, a
foot in depth. Sometimes it followed the ancient buffalo trails to
water--the first roads of the Far West, quickly seized on by hunters and
engineers--or again it transected these, hanging to the ridges after
frontier road fashion, heading out for the proved fords of the greater
streams. Always the wheel marks of those who had gone ahead in previous
years, the continuing thread of the trail itself, worn in by trader and
trapper and Mormon and Oregon or California man, gave hope and cheer to
these who followed with the plow.

Stretching out, closing up, almost inch by inch, like some giant
measuring worm in its slow progress, the train held on through a vast
and stately landscape, which some travelers had called the Eden of
America, such effect was given by the series of altering scenes. Small
imagination, indeed, was needed to picture here a long-established
civilization, although there was not a habitation. They were beyond
organized society and beyond the law.

Game became more abundant, wild turkeys still appeared in the timbered
creek bottoms. Many elk were seen, more deer and very many antelope,
packed in northward by the fires. A number of panthers and giant gray
wolves beyond counting kept the hunters always excited. The wild
abundance of an unexhausted Nature offered at every hand. The
sufficiency of life brought daily growth in the self-reliance which had
left them for a time.

The wide timberlands, the broken low hills of the green prairie at
length began to give place to a steadily rising inclined plane. The soil
became less black and heavy, with more sandy ridges. The oak and
hickory, stout trees of their forefathers, passed, and the cottonwoods
appeared. After they had crossed the ford of the Big Blue--a hundred
yards of racing water--they passed what is now the line between Kansas
and Nebraska, and followed up the Little Blue, beyond whose ford the
trail left these quieter river valleys and headed out over a high
table-land in a keen straight flight over the great valley of the
Platte, the highway to the Rockies.

Now the soil was sandier; the grass changed yet again. They had rolled
under wheel by now more than one hundred different varieties of wild
grasses. The vegetation began to show the growing altitude. The cactus
was seen now and then. On the far horizon the wavering mysteries of the
mirage appeared, marvelous in deceptiveness, mystical, alluring, the
very spirits of the Far West, appearing to move before their eyes in
giant pantomime. They were passing from the Prairies to the Plains.

Shouts and cheers arose as the word passed back that the sand hills
known as the Coasts of the Platte were in sight. Some mothers told their
children they were now almost to Oregon. The whips cracked more loudly,
the tired teams, tongues lolling, quickened their pace as they struck
the down-grade gap leading through the sand ridges.

Two thousand Americans, some of them illiterate and ignorant, all of
them strong, taking with them law, order, society, the church, the
school, anew were staging the great drama of human life, act and scene
and episode, as though upon some great moving platform drawn by
invisible cables beyond the vast proscenium of the hills.



CHAPTER XVII

THE GREAT ENCAMPMENT


As the long columns of the great wagon train broke through the screening
sand hills there was disclosed a vast and splendid panorama. The valley
of the Platte lay miles wide, green in the full covering of spring. A
crooked and broken thread of timber growth appeared, marking the moister
soil and outlining the general course of the shallow stream, whose giant
cottonwoods were dwarfed now by the distances. In between, and for miles
up and down the flat expanse, there rose the blue smokes of countless
camp fires, each showing the location of some white-topped ship of the
Plains. Black specks, grouped here and there, proved the presence of the
livestock under herd.

Over all shone a pleasant sun. Now and again the dark shadow of a moving
cloud passed over the flat valley, softening its high lights for the
time. At times, as the sun shone full and strong, the faint loom of the
mirage added the last touch of mysticism, the figures of the wagons
rising high, multiplied many-fold, with giant creatures passing between,
so that the whole seemed, indeed, some wild phantasmagoria of the
desert.

"Look!" exclaimed Wingate, pulling up his horse. "Look, Caleb, the
Northern train is in and waiting for us! A hundred wagons! They're
camped over the whole bend."

The sight of this vast re-enforcement brought heart to every man, woman
and child in all the advancing train. Now, indeed, Oregon was sure.
There would be, all told, four hundred--five hundred--above six hundred
wagons. Nothing could withstand them. They were the same as arrived!

As the great trains blended before the final emparkment men and women
who had never met before shook hands, talked excitedly, embraced, even
wept, such was their joy in meeting their own kind. Soon the vast valley
at the foot of the Grand Island of the Platte--ninety miles in length it
then was--became one vast bivouac whose parallel had not been seen in
all the world.

Even so, the Missouri column held back, an hour or two later on the
trail. Banion, silent and morose, still rode ahead, but all the flavor
of his adventure out to Oregon had left him--indeed, the very savor of
life itself. He looked at his arms, empty; touched his lips, where once
her kiss had been, so infinitely and ineradicably sweet. Why should he
go on to Oregon now?

As they came down through the gap in the Coasts, looking out over the
Grand Island and the great encampment, Jackson pulled up his horse.

"Look! Someone comin' out!"

Banion sat his horse awaiting the arrival of the rider, who soon cut
down the intervening distance until he could well be noted. A tall,
spare man he was, middle-aged, of long lank hair and gray stubbled
beard, and eyes overhung by bushy brows. He rode an Indian pad saddle,
without stirrups, and was clad in the old costume of the hunter of the
Far West--fringed shirt and leggings of buckskin. Moccasins made his
foot-covering, though he wore a low, wide hat. As he came on at speed,
guiding his wiry mount with a braided rope looped around the lower jaw,
he easily might have been mistaken for a savage himself had he not come
alone and from such company as that ahead. He jerked up his horse close
at hand and sat looking at the newcomers, with no salutation beyond a
short "How!"

Banion met him.

"We're the Westport train. Do you come from the Bluffs? Are you for
Oregon?"

"Yes. I seen ye comin'. Thought I'd projeck some. Who's that back of
ye?" He extended an imperative skinny finger toward Jackson. "If it
hain't Bill Jackson hit's his ghost!"

"The same to you, Jim. How!"

The two shook hands without dismounting. Jackson turned grinning to
Banion.

"Major," said he, "this is Jim Bridger, the oldest scout in the Rockies,
an' that knows more West than ary man this side the Missoury. I never
thought to see him agin, sartain not this far east."

"Ner me," retorted the other, shaking hands with one man after another.

"Jim Bridger? That's a name we know," said Banion. "I've heard of you
back in Kentucky."

"Whar I come from, gentlemen--whar I come from more'n forty year ago,
near's I can figger. Leastways I was borned in Virginny an' must of
crossed Kentucky sometime. I kain't tell right how old I am, but I
rek'lect perfect when they turned the water inter the Missoury River."
He looked at them solemnly.

"I come back East to the new place, Kansas City. It didn't cut no
mustard, an' I drifted to the Bluffs. This train was pullin' west, an' I
hired on for guide. I've got a few wagons o' my own--iron, flour an'
bacon for my post beyant the Rockies--ef we don't all git our ha'r
lifted afore then!

"We're in between the Sioux and the Pawnees now," he went on. "They're
huntin' the bufflers not ten mile ahead. But when I tell these pilgrims,
they laugh at me. The hull Sioux nation is on the spring hunt right now.
I'll not have it said Jim Bridger led a wagon train into a massacree. If
ye'll let me, I'm for leavin' 'em an' trainin' with you-all, especial
since you got anyhow one good man along. I've knowed Bill Jackson many a
year at the Rendyvous afore the fur trade petered. Damn the pilgrims!
The hull world's broke loose this spring. There's five thousand Mormons
on ahead, praisin' God every jump an' eatin' the grass below the roots.
Womern an' children--so many of 'em, so many! I kain't talk about hit!
Women don't belong out here! An' now here you come bringin' a thousand
more!

"There's a woman an' a baby layin' dead in oar camp now," he concluded.
"Died last night. The pilgrims is tryin' to make coffins fer 'em out'n
cottonwood logs."

"Lucky for all!" Jackson interrupted the garrulity of the other. "We
buried men in blankets on the Vermilion a few days back. The Pawnees got
a small camp o' our own folks."

"Yes, I know all about that."

"What's that?" cut in Banion. "How do you know?"

"Well, we've got the survivors--three o' them, countin' Woodhull, their
captain."

"How did they get here?"

"They came in with a small outfit o' Mormons that was north o' the
Vermilion. They'd come out on the St. Jo road. They told me--"

"Is Woodhull here--can you find him?"

"Shore! Ye want to see him?"

"Yes."

"He told me all about hit--"

"We know all about it, perhaps better than you do--after he's told you
all about it."

Bridger looked at him, curious.

"Well, anyhow, hit's over," said he. "One of the men had a Pawnee arrer
in his laig. Reckon hit hurt. I know, fer I carried a Blackfoot
arrerhead under my shoulder blade fer sever'l years.

"But come on down and help me make these pilgrims set guards. Do-ee
mind, now, the hull Sioux nation's just in ahead o' us, other side the
river! Yet these people didn't want to ford to the south side the
Platte; they wanted to stick north o' the river. Ef we had, we'd have
our ha'r dryin' by now. I tell ye, the tribes is out to stop the wagon
trains this spring. They say too many womern and children is comin', an'
that shows we want to take their land away fer keeps.

"From now on to Oregon--look out! The Cayuses cleaned out the Whitman
mission last spring in Oregon. Even the Shoshones is dancin'. The Crows
is out, the Cheyennes is marchin', the Bannocks is east o' the Pass, an'
ye kain't tell when ter expeck the Blackfoots an' Grow Vaws. Never was
gladder to see a man than I am to see Bill Jackson."

"Stretch out!"

Banion gave the order. The Missouri wagons came on, filed through the
gap in order and with military exactness wheeled into a perfect park at
one side the main caravan.

As the outer columns swung in, the inner spread out till the lapped
wagons made a great oblong, Bridger watching them. Quickly the animals
were outspanned, the picket ropes put down and the loose horses driven
off to feed while the cattle were close herded. He nodded his approval.

"Who's yer train boss, Bill?" he demanded. "That's good work."

"Major Banion, of Doniphan's column in the war."

"Will he fight?"

"Try him!"

News travels fast along a wagon train. Word passed now that there was a
big Sioux village not far ahead, on the other side of the river, and
that the caravan should be ready for a night attack. Men and women from
the earlier train came into the Westport camp and the leaders formulated
plans. More than four hundred families ate in sight of one another fires
that evening.

Again on the still air of the Plains that night rose the bugle summons,
by now become familiar. In groups the wagon folk began to assemble at
the council fire. They got instructions which left them serious. The
camp fell into semi-silence. Each family returned to its own wagon. Out
in the dark, flung around in a wide circle, a double watch stood guard.
Wingate and his aids, Banion, Jackson, Bridger, the pick of the hardier
men, went out for all the night. It was to Banion, Bridger and Jackson
that most attention now was paid. Banion could not yet locate Woodhull
in the train.

The scouts crept out ahead of the last picket line, for though an
attack in mass probably would not come before dawn, if the Sioux really
should cross the river, some horse stealing or an attempted stampede
might be expected before midnight or soon after.

The night wore on. The fires of willow twigs and _bois des vaches_ fell
into pale coals, into ashes. The chill of the Plains came, so that the
sleepers in the great wagon corral drew their blankets closer about them
as they lay.

It was approaching midnight when the silence was ripped apart by the
keen crack of a rifle--another and yet another.

Then, in a ripple of red detonation, the rifle fire ran along the upper
front of the entire encampment.

"Turn out! Turn out, men!" called the high, clear voice of Banion,
riding back. "Barricade! Fill in the wheels!"



CHAPTER XVIII

ARROW AND PLOW


The night attack on the great emigrant encampment was a thing which had
been preparing for years. The increasing number of the white men, the
lessening numbers of the buffalo, meant inevitable combat with all the
tribes sooner or later.

Now the spring hunt of the northern Plains tribes was on. Five hundred
lodges of the Sioux stood in one village on the north side of the
Platte. The scaffolds were red with meat, everywhere the women were
dressing hides and the camp was full of happiness. For a month the great
Sioux nation had prospered, according to its lights. Two hundred stolen
horses were under the wild herdsmen, and any who liked the meat of the
spotted buffalo might kill it close to camp from the scores taken out of
the first caravans up the Platte that year--the Mormons and other early
trailers whom the Sioux despised because their horses were so few.

But the Sioux, fat with _boudins_ and _dépouille_ and marrowbones, had
waited long for the great Western train which should have appeared on
the north side of the Platte, the emigrant road from the Council Bluffs.
For some days now they had known the reason, as Jim Bridger had
explained--the wagons had forded the river below the Big Island. The
white men's medicine was strong.

The Sioux did not know of the great rendezvous at the forks of the Great
Medicine Road. Their watchmen, stationed daily at the eminences along
the river bluffs of the north shore, brought back scoffing word of the
carelessness of the whites. When they got ready they, too, would ford
the river and take them in. They had not heeded the warning sent down
the trail that no more whites should come into this country of the
tribes. It was to be war.

And now the smoke signals said yet more whites were coming in from the
south! The head men rode out to meet their watchmen. News came back that
the entire white nation now had come into the valley from the south and
joined the first train.

Here then was the chance to kill off the entire white nation, their
women and their children, so there would be none left to come from
toward the rising sun! Yes, this would end the race of the whites
without doubt or question, because they all were here. After killing
these it would be easy to send word west to the Arapahoes and Gros
Ventres and Cheyennes, the Crows, the Blackfeet, the Shoshones, the
Utes, to follow west on the Medicine Road and wipe out all who had gone
on West that year and the year before. Then the Plains and the mountains
would all belong to the red men again.

The chiefs knew that the hour just before dawn is when an enemy's heart
is like water, when his eyes are heavy, so they did not order the
advance at once. But a band of the young men who always fought together,
one of the inner secret societies or clans of the tribe, could not wait
so long. First come, first served. Daylight would be time to look over
the children and to keep those not desired for killing, and to select
and distribute the young women of the white nation. But the night would
be best for taking the elk-dogs and the spotted buffalo.

Accordingly a band from this clan swam and forded the wide river,
crossed the island, and in the early evening came downstream back of a
shielding fringe of cottonwoods. Their scouts saw with amazement the
village of tepees that moved on wheels. They heard the bugle, saw the
white nation gather at the medicine fire, heard them chant their great
medicine song; then saw them disperse; saw the fires fall low.

They laughed. The white nation was strong, but they did not put out
guards at night! For a week the Sioux had watched them, and they knew
about that. It would be easy to run off all the herd and to kill a few
whites even now, beginning the sport before the big battle of to-morrow,
which was to wipe out the white nation altogether.

But when at length, as the handle of the Great Dipper reached the point
agreed, the line of the Sioux clansmen crawled away from the fringe of
trees and out into the cover of a little slough that made toward the
village of tepees on wheels, a quarter of a mile in front of the village
men arose out of the ground and shot into them. Five of their warriors
fell. Tall men in the dark came out and counted coup on them, took off
their war bonnets; took off even more below the bonnets. And there was a
warrior who rode this way and that, on a great black horse, and who had
a strange war cry not heard before, and who seemed to have no fear. So
said the clan leader when he told the story of the repulse.

Taken aback, the attacking party found cover. But the Sioux would charge
three times. So they scattered and crawled in again over a half circle.
They found the wall of tepees solid; found that the white nation knew
more of war than they had thought. They sped arrow after arrow, ball
after ball, against the circle of the white tepees, but they did not
break, and inside no one moved or cried out in terror; whereas outside,
in the grass, men rose up and fired into them and did not run back, but
came forward. Some had short rifles in their hands that did not need to
be loaded, but kept on shooting. And none of the white nation ran away.
And the elk-dogs with long ears, and the spotted buffalo, were no longer
outside the village in the grass, but inside the village. What men could
fight a nation whose warriors were so unfair as all this came to?

The tribesmen drew back to the cottonwoods a half mile.

"My heart is weak," said their clan leader. "I believe they are going
to shoot us all. They have killed twenty of us now, and we have not
taken a scalp."

"I was close," said a young boy whom they called Bull Gets Up or The
Sitting Bull. "I was close, and I heard the spotted buffalo running
about inside the village; I heard the children. To-morrow we can run
them away."

"But to-night what man knows the gate into their village? They have got
a new chief to-day. They are many as the grass leaves. Their medicine is
strong. I believe they are going to kill us all if we stay here." Thus
the partisan.

So they did not stay there, but went away. And at dawn Banion and
Bridger and Jackson and each of the column captains--others also--came
into the corral carrying war bonnets, shields and bows; and some had
things which had been once below war bonnets. The young men of this clan
always fought on foot or on horse in full regalia of their secret order,
day or night. The emigrants had plenty of this savage war gear now.

"We've beat them off," said Bridger, "an' maybe they won't ring us now.
Get the cookin' done, Cap'n Banion, an' let's roll out. But for your
wagon park they'd have cleaned us."

The whites had by no means escaped scathless. A dozen arrows stood sunk
into the sides of the wagons inside the park, hundreds had thudded into
the outer sides, nearest the enemy. One shaft was driven into the hard
wood of a plow beam. Eight oxen staggered, legs wide apart, shafts fast
in their bodies; four lay dead; two horses also; as many mules.

This was not all. As the fighting men approached the wagons they saw a
group of stern-faced women weeping around something which lay covered by
a blanket on the ground. Molly Wingate stooped, drew it back to show
them. Even Bridger winced.

An arrow, driven by a buffalo bow, had glanced on the spokes of a wheel,
risen in its flight and sped entirely across the inclosure of the
corral. It had slipped through the canvas cover of a wagon on the
opposite side as so much paper and caught fair a woman who was lying
there, a nursing baby in her arms, shielding it, as she thought, with
her body. But the missile had cut through one of her arms, pierced the
head of the child and sunk into the bosom of the mother deep enough to
kill her also. The two lay now, the shaft transfixing both; and they
were buried there; and they lie there still, somewhere near the Grand
Island, in one of a thousand unknown and unmarked graves along the Great
Medicine Road. Under the ashes of a fire they left this grave, and drove
six hundred wagons over it, and the Indians never knew.

The leaders stood beside the dead woman, hats in hand. This was part of
the price of empire--the life of a young woman, a bride of a year.

The wagons all broke camp and went on in a vast caravan, the
Missourians now at the front. Noon, and the train did not halt. Banion
urged the teamsters. Bridger and Jackson were watching the many signal
smokes.

"I'm afeard o' the next bend," said Jackson at length.

The fear was justified. Early in the afternoon they saw the outriders
turn and come back to the train at full run. Behind them, riding out
from the concealment of a clump of cottonwoods on the near side of the
scattering river channels, there appeared rank after rank of the Sioux,
more than two thousand warriors bedecked in all the savage finery of
their war dress. They were after their revenge. They had left their
village and, paralleling the white men's advance, had forded on ahead.

They came out now, five hundred, eight hundred, a thousand, two thousand
strong, and the ground shook under the thunder of the hoofs. They were
after their revenge, eager to inflict the final blow upon the white
nation.

The spot was not ill chosen for their tactics. The alkali plain of the
valley swung wide and flat, and the trail crossed it midway, far back
from the water and not quite to the flanking sand hills. While a few
dashed at the cattle, waving their blankets, the main body, with
workman-like precision, strung out and swung wide, circling the train
and riding in to arrow range.

The quick orders of Banion and his scouts were obeyed as fully as time
allowed. At a gallop, horse and ox transport alike were driven into a
hurried park and some at least of the herd animals inclosed. The
riflemen flanked the train on the danger side and fired continually at
the long string of running horses, whose riders had flung themselves
off-side so that only a heel showed above a pony's back, a face under
his neck. Even at this range a half dozen ponies stumbled, figures
crawled off for cover. The emigrants were stark men with rifles. But the
circle went on until, at the running range selected, the crude wagon
park was entirely surrounded by a thin racing ring of steel and fire
stretched out over two or three miles.

The Sioux had guns also, and though they rested most on the bow, their
chance rifle fire was dangerous. As for the arrows, even from this
disadvantageous station these peerless bowmen sent them up in a high arc
so that they fell inside the inclosure and took their toll. Three men,
two women lay wounded at the first ride, and the animals were plunging.

The war chief led his warriors in the circle once more, chanting his own
song to the continuous chorus of savage ululations. The entire fighting
force of the Sioux village was in the circle.

The ring ran closer. The Sioux were inside seventy-five yards, the dust
streaming, the hideously painted faces of the riders showing through,
red, saffron, yellow, as one after another warrior twanged a bow under
his horse's neck as he ran.

But this was easy range for the steady rifles of men who kneeled and
fired with careful aim. Even the six-shooters, then new to the Sioux,
could work. Pony after pony fell, until the line showed gaps; whereas
now the wagon corral showed no gap at all, while through the wheels, and
over the tongue spaces, from every crevice of the gray towering wall
came the fire of more and more men. The medicine of the white men was
strong.

Three times the ring passed, and that was all. The third circuit was
wide and ragged. The riders dared not come close enough to carry off
their dead and wounded. Then the attack dwindled, the savages scattering
and breaking back to the cover of the stream.

"Now, men, come on!" called out Banion. "Ride them down! Give them a
trimming they'll remember! Come on, boys!"

Within a half hour fifty more Sioux were down, dead or very soon to die.
Of the living not one remained in sight.

"They wanted hit, an' they got hit!" exclaimed Bridger, when at length
he rode back, four war bonnets across his saddle and scalps at his
cantle. He raised his voice in a fierce yell of triumph, not much other
than savage himself, dismounted and disdainfully cast his trophies
across a wagon tongue.

"I've et horse an' mule an' dog," said he, "an' wolf, wil'cat an'
skunk, an' perrairy dog an' snake an' most ever'thing else that wears a
hide, but I never could eat Sioux. But to-morrer we'll have ribs in
camp. I've seed the buffler, an' we own this side the river now."

Molly Wingate sat on a bed roll near by, knitting as calmly as though at
home, but filled with wrath.

"Them nasty, dirty critters!" she exclaimed. "I wish't the boys had
killed them all. Even in daylight they don't stand up and fight fair
like men. I lost a whole churnin' yesterday. Besides, they killed my
best cow this mornin', that's what they done. And lookit this thing!"

She held up an Indian arrow, its strap-iron head bent over at right
angles. "They shot this into our plow beam. Looks like they got a spite
at our plow."

"Ma'am, they have got a spite at hit," said the old scout, seating
himself on the ground near by. "They're scared o' hit. I've seed a bunch
o' Sioux out at Laramie with a plow some Mormon left around when he
died. They'd walk around and around that thing by the hour, talkin' low
to theirselves. They couldn't figger hit out no ways a-tall.

"That season they sent a runner down to the Pawnees to make a peace
talk, an' to find out what this yere thing was the whites had brung out.
Pawnees sent to the Otoes, an' the Otoes told them. They said hit was
the white man's big medicine, an' that hit buried all the buffler under
the ground wherever hit come, so no buffler ever could git out again.
Nacherl, when the runners come back an' told what that thing really was,
all the Injuns, every tribe, said if the white man was goin' to bury the
buffler the white man had got to stay back.

"Us trappers an' traders got along purty well with the Injuns--they
could get things they wanted at the posts or the Rendyvous, an' that was
all right. They had pelts to sell. But now these movers didn't buy
nothin' an' didn't sell nothin'. They just went on through, a-carryin'
this thing for buryin' the buffler. From now on the Injuns is goin' to
fight the whites. Ye kain't blame 'em, ma'am; they only see their
finish.

"Five years ago nigh a thousand whites drops down in Oregon. Next year
come fifteen hundred, an' in '45 twicet that many, an' so it has went,
doublin, an' doublin'. Six or seven thousand whites go up the Platte
this season, an' a right smart sprinklin' o' them'll git through to
Oregon. Them 'at does'll carry plows.

"Ma'am, if the brave that sunk a arrer in yore plow beam didn't kill
yore plow hit warn't because he didn't want to. Hit's the truth--the
plow does bury the buffler, an' fer keeps! Ye kain't kill a plow, ner
neither kin yer scare hit away. Hit's the holdin'est thing ther is,
ma'am--hit never does let go."

"How long'll we wait here?" the older woman demanded.

"Anyhow fer two-three days, ma'am. Thar's a lot has got to sort put
stuff an' throw hit away here. One man has drug a pair o' millstones
all the way to here from Ohio. He allowed to get rich startin' a
gris'mill out in Oregon. An' then ther's chairs an' tables, an' God
knows what--"

"Well, anyhow," broke in Mrs. Wingate truculently, "no difference what
you men say, I ain't going to leave my bureau, nor my table, nor my
chairs! I'm going to keep my two churns and my feather bed too. We've
had butter all the way so far, and I mean to have it all the way--and
eggs. I mean to sleep at nights, too, if the pesky muskeeters'll let me.
They most have et me up. And I'd give a dollar for a drink of real water
now. It's all right to settle this water overnight, but that don't take
the sody out of it.

"Besides," she went on, "I got four quarts o' seed wheat in one of them
bureau drawers, and six cuttings of my best rose-bush I'm taking out to
plant in Oregon. And I got three pairs of Jed's socks in another bureau
drawer. It's flat on its back, bottom of the load. I ain't going to dig
it out for no man."

"Well, hang on to them socks, ma'am. I've wintered many a time without
none--only grass in my moccasins. There's outfits in this train that's
low on flour an' side meat right now, let alone socks. We got to cure
some meat. There's a million buffler just south in the breaks wantin' to
move on north, but scared of us an' the Injuns. We'd orto make a good
hunt inside o' ten mile to-morrer. We'll git enough meat to take us a
week to jerk hit all, or else Jim Bridger's a liar--which no one never
has said yit, ma'am."

"Flowers?" he added. "You takin' flowers acrost? Flowers--do they go
with the plow, too, as well as weeds? Well, well! Wimminfolks shore air
a strange race o' people, hain't that the truth? Buryin' the buffler an'
plantin' flowers on his grave!

"But speakin' o' buryin' things," he suddenly resumed, "an' speakin' o'
plows, 'minds me o' what's delayin' us all right now. Hit's a fool
thing, too--buryin' Injuns!"

"As which, Mr. Bridger? What you mean?" inquired Molly Wingate, looking
over her spectacles.

"This new man, Banion, that come in with the Missouri wagons--he taken
hit on hisself to say, atter the fight was over, we orto stop an' bury
all them Injuns! Well, I been on the Plains an' in the Rockies all my
life, an' I never yit, before now, seed a Injun buried. Hit's
onnatcherl. But this here man he, now, orders a ditch plowed an' them
Injuns hauled in an' planted. Hit's wastin' time. That's what's keepin'
him an' yore folks an' sever'l others. Yore husband an' yore son is both
out yan with him. Hit beats hell, ma'am, these new-fangled ways!"

"So that's where they are? I wanted them to fetch me something to make a
fire."

"I kain't do that, ma'am. Mostly my squaws--"

"Your what? Do you mean to tell me you got squaws, you old heathen?"

"Not many, ma'am--only two. Times is hard sence beaver went down. I
kain't tell ye how hard this here depressin' has set on us folks out
here."

"Two squaws! My laws! Two--what's their names?" This last with feminine
curiosity.

"Well now, ma'am, I call one on 'em Blast Yore Hide--she's a Ute. The
other is younger an' pertier. She's a Shoshone. I call her Dang Yore
Eyes. Both them women is powerful fond o' me, ma'am. They both are right
proud o' their names, too, because they air white names, ye see. Now
when time comes fer a fire, Blast Yore Hide an' Dang Yore Eyes, they
fight hit out between 'em which gits the wood. I don't study none over
that, ma'am."

Molly Wingate rose so ruffled that, like an angered hen, she seemed
twice her size.

"You old heathen!" she exclaimed. "You old murderin' lazy heathen man!
How dare you talk like that to me?"

"As what, ma'am? I hain't said nothin' out'n the way, have I? O' course,
ef ye don't want to git the fire stuff, thar's yer darter--she's young
an' strong. Yes, an' perty as a picter besides, though like enough
triflin', like her maw. Where's she at now?"

"None of your business where."

"I could find her."

"Oh, you could! How?"

"I'd find that young feller Sam Woodhull that come in from below,
renegadin' away from his train with that party o' Mormons--him that had
his camp jumped by the Pawnees. I got a eye fer a womern, ma'am, but
so's he--more'n fer Injuns, I'd say. I seed him with yore darter right
constant, but I seemed to miss him in the ride. Whar was he at?"

"I don't know as it's none of your business, anyways."

"No? Well, I was just wonderin', ma'am, because I heerd Cap'n Banion ast
that same question o' yore husband, Cap'n Wingate, an' Cap'n Wingate
done said jest what ye said yerself--that hit wasn't none o' his
business. Which makes things look shore hopeful an' pleasant in this
yere train o' pilgrims, this bright and pleasant summer day, huh?"

Grinning amicably, the incorrigible old mountaineer rose and went his
way, and left the irate goodwife to gather her apron full of plains fuel
for herself.



CHAPTER XIX

BANION OF DONIPHAN'S


Molly Wingate was grumbing over her fire when at length her husband and
son returned to their wagon. Jed was vastly proud over a bullet crease
he had got in a shoulder. After his mother's alarm had taken the form of
first aid he was all for showing his battle scars to a certain damsel in
Caleb Price's wagon. Wingate remained dour and silent as was now his
wont, and cursing his luck that he had had no horse to carry him up in
the late pursuit of the Sioux. He also was bitter over the delay in
making a burial trench.

"Some ways, Jess," commented his spouse, "I'd a'most guess you ain't got
much use for Will Banion."

"Why should I have? Hasn't he done all he could to shoulder me out of my
place as captain of this train? And wasn't I elected at Westport before
we started?"

"Mostly, a man has to stay elected, Jess."

"Well, I'm going to! I had it out with that young man right now. I told
him I knew why he wanted in our train--it was Molly."

"What did he say?"

"What could he say? He admitted it. And he had the gall to say I'd see
it his way some day. Huh! That's a long day off, before I do. Well, at
least he said he was going back to his own men, and they'd fall behind
again. That suits me."

"Did he say anything about finding Sam Woodhull?"

"Yes. He said that would take its time, too."

"Didn't say he wouldn't?"

"No, I don't know as he did."

"Didn't act scared of it?"

"He didn't say much about it."

"Sam does."

"I reckon--and why shouldn't he? He'll play evens some day, of course.
But now, Molly," he went on, with heat, "what's the use talking? We both
know that Molly's made up her mind. She loves Sam and don't love this
other man any more than I do. He's only a drift-about back from the war,
and wandering out to Oregon. He'll maybe not have a cent when he gets
there. He's got one horse and his clothes, and one or two wagons, maybe
not paid for. Sam's got five wagons of goods to start a store with, and
three thousand gold--so he says--as much as we have. The families are
equal, and that's always a good thing. This man Banion can't offer Molly
nothing, but Sam Woodhull can give her her place right from the start,
out in Oregon. We got to think of all them things.

"And I've got to think of a lot of other things, too. It's our girl.
It's all right to say a man can go out to Oregon and live down his
past, but it's a lot better not to have no past to live down. You know
what Major Banion done, and how he left the Army--even if it wasn't why,
it was how, and that's bad enough. Sam Woodhull has told us both all
about Banion's record. If he'd steal in Mexico he'd steal in Oregon."

"You didn't ever get so far along as to talk about that!"

"We certainly did--right now, him and me, not half an hour ago, while we
was riding back."

"I shouldn't have thought he'd of stood it," said his wife, "him sort of
fiery-like."

"Well, it did gravel him. He got white, but wouldn't talk. Asked if Sam
Woodhull had the proof, and I told him he had. That was when he said
he'd go back to his own wagons. I could see he was avoiding Sam. But I
don't see how, away out here, and no law nor nothing, we're ever going
to keep the two apart."

"They wasn't."

"No. They did have it out, like schoolboys behind a barn. Do you suppose
that'll ever do for a man of spirit like Sam Woodhull? No, there's other
ways. And as I said, it's a far ways from the law out here, and getting
farther every day, and wilder and wilder every day. It's only putting it
off, Molly, but on the whole I was glad when Banion said he'd give up
looking for Sam Woodhull this morning and go on back to his own men."

"Did he say he'd give it up?"

"Yes, he did. He said if I'd wait I'd see different. Said he could
wait--said he was good at waiting."

"But he didn't say he'd give it up?"

"I don't know as he did in so many words."

"He won't," said Molly Wingate.



CHAPTER XX

THE BUFFALO


The emigrants had now arrived at the eastern edge of the great region of
free and abundant meat. They now might count on at least six or seven
hundred miles of buffalo to subsist them on their way to Oregon. The cry
of "Buffalo! Buffalo!" went joyously down the lines of wagons, and every
man who could muster a horse and a gun made ready for that chase which
above all others meant most, whether in excitement or in profit.

Of these hundreds of hunters, few had any experience on the Plains. It
was arranged by the head men that the hunt should be strung out over
several miles, the Missourians farthest down the river, the others to
the westward, so that all might expect a fairer chance in an enterprise
of so much general importance.

Banion and Jackson, in accordance with the former's promise to Wingate,
had retired to their own train shortly after the fight with the Sioux.
The Wingate train leaders therefore looked to Bridger as their safest
counsel in the matter of getting meat. That worthy headed a band of the
best equipped men and played his own part in full character. A wild
figure he made as he rode, hatless, naked to the waist, his legs in
Indian leggings and his feet in moccasins. His mount, a compact cayuse
from west of the Rockies, bore no saddle beyond a folded blanket cinched
on with a rawhide band.

For weapons Bridger carried no firearms at all, but bore a short buffalo
bow of the Pawnees--double-curved, sinew-backed, made of the resilient
_bois d'arc_, beloved bow wood of all the Plains tribes. A thick sheaf
of arrows, newly sharpened, swung in the beaver quiver at his back.
Lean, swart, lank of hair, he had small look of the white man left about
him as he rode now, guiding his horse with a jaw rope of twisted hair
and playing his bow with a half dozen arrows held along it with the
fingers of his left hand.

"For buffler the bow's the best," said he. "I'll show ye before long."

They had not too far to go. At that time the short-grass country of the
Platte Valley was the great center of the bison herds. The wallows lay
in thousands, the white alkali showing in circles which almost touched
edge to edge. The influx of emigrants had for the time driven the herds
back from their ancient fords and watering places, to which their
deep-cut trails led down, worn ineradicably into the soil. It was along
one of the great buffalo trails that they now rode, breasting the line
of hills that edged the Platte to the south.

When they topped the flanking ridge a marvelous example of wild
abundance greeted them. Bands of elk, yet more numerous bands of
antelope, countless curious gray wolves, more than one grizzly bear made
away before them, although by orders left unpursued. Of the feathered
game they had now forgot all thought. The buffalo alone was of interest.
The wild guide rode silent, save for a low Indian chant he hummed, his
voice at times rising high, as though importunate.

"Ye got to pray to the Great Speret when-all ye hunt, men," he
explained. "An' ye got to have someone that can call the buffler, as the
Injuns calls that when they hunt on foot. I kin call 'em, too, good as
ary Injun. Why shouldn't I?

"Thar now!" he exclaimed within the next quarter of an hour. "What did
Jim Bridger tell ye? Lookee yonder! Do-ee say Jim Bridger can't make
buffler medicine? Do-ee see 'em over yan ridge--thousands?"

The others felt their nerves jump as they topped the ridge and saw fully
the vast concourse of giant black-topped, beard-fronted creatures which
covered the plateau in a body a mile and more across--a sight which
never failed to thrill any who saw it.

It was a rolling carpet of brown, like the prairie's endless wave of
green. Dust clouds of combat rose here and there. A low muttering rumble
of hoarse dull bellowing came audible even at that distance. The
spectacle was to the novice not only thrilling--it was terrifying.

The general movement of the great pack was toward the valley; closest to
them a smaller body of some hundreds that stood, stupidly staring, not
yet getting the wind of their assailants.

Suddenly rose the high-pitched yell of the scout, sounding the charge.
Snorting, swerving, the horses of the others followed his, terror
smitten but driven in by men most of whom at least knew how to ride.

Smoothly as a bird in flight, Bridger's trained buffalo horse closed the
gap between him and a plunging bunch of the buffalo. The white savage
proved himself peer of any savage of the world. His teeth bared as he
threw his body into the bow with a short, savage jab of the left arm as
he loosed the sinew cord. One after another feather showed, clinging to
a heaving flank; one after another muzzle dripped red with the white
foam of running; then one after another great animal began to slow; to
stand braced, legs apart; soon to begin slowly kneeling down. The living
swept ahead, the dying lay in the wake.

The insatiate killer clung on, riding deep into the surging sea of
rolling humps. At times, in savage sureness and cruelty, he did not ride
abreast and drive the arrow into the lungs, but shot from the rear,
quartering, into the thin hide back of the ribs, so that the shaft
ranged forward into the intestines of the victim. If it did not bury,
but hung free as the animal kicked at it convulsively, he rode up, and
with his hand pushed the shaft deeper, feeling for the life, as the
Indians called it, with short jabs of the imbedded missile. Master of an
old trade he was, and stimulated by the proofs of his skill, his
followers emulated him with their own weapons. The report of firearms,
muffled by the rolling thunder of hoofs, was almost continuous so long
as the horses could keep touch with the herd.

Bridger paused only when his arrows were out, and grumbled to himself
that he had no more, so could count only a dozen fallen buffalo for his
product. That others, wounded, carried off arrows, he called bad luck
and bad shooting. When he trotted back on his reeking horse, his quiver
dancing empty, he saw other black spots than his own on the short grass.
His followers had picked up the art not so ill. There was meat in sight
now, certainly--as well as a half dozen unhorsed riders and three or
four wounded buffalo disposed to fight.

The old hunter showed his men how to butcher the buffalo, pulling them
on their bellies, if they had not died thus, and splitting the hide down
the back, to make a receptacle for the meat as it was dissected; showed
them how to take out the tongue beneath the jaw, after slitting open the
lower jaw. He besought them not to throw away the back fat, the hump,
the boss ribs or the intestinal _boudins_; in short, gave them their
essential buffalo-hunting lessons. Then he turned for camp, he himself
having no relish for squaw's work, as he called it, and well assured the
wagons would now have abundance.

Banion and Jackson, with their followers, held their hunt some miles
below the scene of Bridger's chase, and had no greater difficulty in
getting among the herds.

"How're ye ridin', Will?" asked Jackson before they mounted for the
start from camp.

Banion slapped the black stallion on the neck.

"Not his first hunt!" said he.

"I don't mean yore hoss, but yore shootin' irons. Whar's yore guns?"

"I'll risk it with the dragoon revolvers," replied Banion, indicating
his holsters. "Not the first time for them, either."

"No? Well, maybe-so they'll do; but fer me, I want a hunk o' lead. Fer
approachin' a buffler, still-huntin', the rifle's good, fer ye got time
an' kin hold close. Plenty o' our men'll hunt thataway to-day, an' git
meat; but fer me, give me a hunk o' lead. See here now, I got only a
shotgun, cap an' ball, fourteen gauge, she is, an' many a hide she's
stretched. I kerry my bullets in my mouth an' don't use no patchin'--ye
hain't got time, when ye're runnin' in the herd. I let go a charge o'
powder out'n my horn, clos't as I kin guess hit, spit in a bullet, and
roll her home on top the powder with a jar o' the butt on top my saddle
horn. That sots her down, an' she holds good enough to stay in till I
ram the muzzle inter ha'r an' let go. She's the same as meat on the
fire."

"Well," laughed Banion, "you've another case of _de gustibus_, I
suppose."

"You're another, an' I call it back!" exclaimed the old man so
truculently that his friend hastened to explain.

"Well, I speak Blackfoot, Crow, Bannack, Grow Vaw, Snake an' Ute,"
grumbled the scout, "but I never run acrost no Latins out here. I
allowed maybe-so ye was allowin' I couldn't kill buffler with Ole Sal.
That's what I keep her fer--just buffler. I'll show ye afore long."

And even as Bridger had promised for his favorite weapon, he did prove
beyond cavil the efficiency of Old Sal. Time after time the roar or the
double roar of his fusee was heard, audible even over the thunder of the
hoofs; and quite usually the hunk of lead, driven into heart or lights,
low down, soon brought down the game, stumbling in its stride. The old
halfbreed style of loading, too, was rapid enough to give Jackson as
many buffalo as Bridger's bow had claimed before his horse fell back and
the dust cloud lessened in the distance.

The great speed and bottom of Banion's horse, as well as the beast's
savage courage and hunting instinct, kept him in longer touch with the
running game. Banion was in no haste. From the sound of firing he knew
his men would have meat. Once in the surge of the running herd, the
rolling backs, low heads and lolling tongues, shaggy frontlets and
gleaming eyes all about him, he dropped the reins on Pronto's neck and
began his own work carefully, riding close and holding low, always ready
for the sudden swerve of the horse away from the shot to avoid the usual
rush of the buffalo when struck. Since he took few chances, his shot
rarely failed. In a mile or so, using pains, he had exhausted all but
two shots, one in each weapon, and of course no man could load the old
cap-and-ball revolver while in the middle of a buffalo run. Now, out of
sheer pride in his own skill with small arms, he resolved upon
attempting a feat of which he once had heard but never had seen.

Jackson, at a considerable distance to the rear, saw his leader riding
back of two bulls which he had cut off and which were making frantic
efforts to overtake the herd. After a time they drew close together,
running parallel and at top speed. At the distance, what Jackson saw was
a swift rush of the black horse between the two bulls. For an instant
the three seemed to run neck and neck. Then the rider's arms seemed
extended, each on its side. Two puffs of blue smoke stained the gray
dust. The black horse sprang straight ahead, not swerving to either
side. Two stumbling forms slowed, staggered and presently fell. Then the
dust passed, and he saw the rider trot back, glancing here and there
over the broad rolling plain at the work of himself and his men.

"I seed ye do hit, boy!" exclaimed the grizzled old hunter when they
met. "I seed ye plain, an' ef I hadn't, an' ye'd said ye'd did hit, I'd
of said ye was a liar."

"Oh, the double?" Banion colored, not ill pleased at praise from Sir
Hubert, praise indeed. "Well, I'd heard it could be done."

"Once is enough. Let 'em call ye a liar atter this! Ef ary one o' them
bulls had hit ye ye'd have had no hoss; an' ary one was due to hit ye,
or drive ye against the other, an' then he would. That's a trap I hain't
ridin' inter noways, not me!"

He looked at his own battered piece a trifle ruefully.

"Well, Ole Sal," said he, "'pears like you an' me ain't newfangled
enough for these times, not none! When I git to Oregon, ef I ever do,
I'm a goin' to stay thar. Times back, five year ago, no one dreamed o'
wagons, let alone plows. Fust thing, they'll be makin' plows with
wheels, an' rifles that's six-shooters too!"

He laughed loud and long at his own conceit.

"Well, anyways," said he, "we got meat. We've licked one red nation an'
got enough meat to feed the white nation, all in a couple o' days. Not
so bad--not so bad."

And that night, in the two separate encampments, the white nation, in
bivouac, on its battle ground, sat around the fires of _bois des vaches_
till near morning, roasting boss ribs, breaking marrowbones, laughing,
singing, boasting, shaking high their weapons of war, men making love to
their women--the Americans, most terrible and most successful of all
savages in history.

But from one encampment two faces were missing until late--Banion and
Jackson of the Missourians. Sam Woodhull, erstwhile column captain of
the great train, of late more properly to be called unattached, also was
absent. It was supposed by their friends that these men might be out
late, superintending the butchering, or that at worst they were
benighted far out and would find their way to camp the next morning.

Neither of these guesses was correct. Any guess, to be correct, must
have included in one solution the missing men of both encampments, who
had hunted miles apart.



CHAPTER XXI

THE QUICKSANDS


As Banion and Jackson ended their part in the buffalo running and gave
instructions to the wagon men who followed to care for the meat, they
found themselves at a distance of several miles from their starting
point. They were deep into a high rolling plateau where the going was
more difficult than in the level sunken valley of the Platte. Concluding
that it would be easier to ride the two sides of the triangle than the
one over which they had come out, they headed for the valley at a sharp
angle. As they rode, the keen eye of Jackson caught sight of a black
object apparently struggling on the ground at the bottom of a little
swale which made down in a long ribbon of green.

"Look-ee yan!" he exclaimed. "Some feller's lost his buffler, I expect.
Let's ride down an' put him out'n his misery afore the wolves does."

They swung off and rode for a time toward the strange object. Banion
pulled up.

"That's no buffalo! That's a man and his horse! He's bogged down!"

"You're right, Will, an' bogged bad! I've knew that light-green slough
grass to cover the wurst sort o' quicksand. She runs black sand under
the mud, God knows how deep. Ye kain't run a buffler inter hit--he
knows. Come on!"

They spurred down a half mile of gentle slope, hard and firm under foot,
and halted at the edge of one of the strange man-traps which sometimes
were found in the undrained Plains--a slough of tall, coarse, waving
grass which undoubtedly got its moisture from some lower stratum.

In places a small expanse of glistening black mud appeared, although for
the most part the mask of innocent-looking grass covered all signs of
danger. It was, in effect, the dreaded quicksand, the octopus of the
Plains, which covered from view more than one victim and left no
discoverable trace.

The rider had attempted to cross a narrow neck of the slough. His mount
had begun to sink and flounder, had been urged forward until the danger
was obvious. Then, too late, the rider had flung off and turned back,
sinking until his feet and legs were gripped by the layer of deep soft
sand below. It was one of the rarest but most terrible accidents of the
savage wilderness.

Blackened by the mud which lay on the surface, his hat half buried, his
arms beating convulsively as he threw himself forward again and again,
the victim must in all likelihood soon have exhausted himself. The chill
of night on the high Plains soon would have done the rest, and by good
fortune he might have died before meeting his entombment. His horse ere
this had accepted fate, and ceasing to struggle lay almost buried, his
head and neck supported by a trembling bit of floating grass roots.

"Steady, friend!" called out Banion as he ran to the edge. "Don't fight
it! Spread out your arms and lie still! We'll get you out!"

"Quick! My lariat, Jackson, and yours!" he added.

The scout was already freeing the saddle ropes. The two horses stood,
reins down, snorting at the terror before them, whose menace they now
could sense.

"Take the horse!" called Banion. "I'll get the man!"

He was coiling the thin, braided hide _reata_, soft as a glove and
strong as steel, which always hung at the Spanish saddle.

He cast, and cast again--yet again, the loop at forty feet gone to
nothing. The very silence of the victim nerved him to haste, and he
stepped in knee deep, finding only mud, the trickle of black sands being
farther out. The rope sped once more, and fell within reach--was caught.
A sob or groan came, the first sound. Even then from the imprisoned
animal beyond him came that terrifying sound, the scream of a horse in
mortal terror. Jackson's rope fell short.

"Get the rope under your arms!" called Banion to the blackened, sodden
figure before him. Slowly, feebly, his order was obeyed. With much
effort the victim got the loop below one arm, across a shoulder, and
then paused.

"Your rope, quick, Bill!"

Jackson hurried and they joined the ends of the two ropes.

"Not my horse--he's wild. Dally on to your own saddle, Bill, and go slow
or you'll tear his head off."

The scout's pony, held by the head and backed slowly, squatted to its
haunches, snorting, but heaving strongly The head of the victim was
drawn oddly toward his shoulder by the loop, but slowly, silently, his
hands clutching at the rope, his body began to rise, to slip forward.

Banion, deep as he dared, at last caught him by the collar, turned up
his face. He was safe. Jackson heard the rescuer's deep exclamation, but
was busy.

"Cast free, Will, cast free quick, and I'll try for the horse!"

He did try, with the lengthened rope, cast after cast, paying little
attention to the work of Banion, who dragged out his man and bent over
him as he lay motionless on the safe edge of the treacherous sunken
sands which still half buried him.

"No use!" exclaimed the older man. He ran to his saddle and got his
deadly double barrel, then stepped as close as possible to the sinking
animal as he could. There came a roar. The head of the horse dropped
flat, began to sink. "Pore critter!" muttered the old man, capping his
reloaded gun. He now hastened to aid Banion.

The latter turned a set face toward him and pointed. The rescued man had
opened his eyes. He reached now convulsively for a tuft of grass,
paused, stared.

"Hit's Sam Woodhull!" ejaculated the scout. Then, suddenly, "Git away,
Will--move back!"

Banion looked over his shoulder as he stood, his own hands and arms, his
clothing, black with mire. The old man's gray eye was like a strange
gem, gleaming at the far end of the deadly double tube, which was
leveled direct at the prostrate man's forehead.

"No!" Banion's call was quick and imperative. He flung up a hand,
stepped between. "No! You'd kill him--now?"

With a curse Jackson flung his gun from him, began to recoil the muddied
ropes. At length, without a word, he came to Banion's side. He reached
down, caught an arm and helped Banion drag the man out on the grass. He
caught off a handful of herbage and thrust it out to Woodhull, who
remained silent before what seemed his certain fate.

"Wipe off yore face, you skunk!" said the scout. Then he seated himself,
morosely, hands before knees.

"Will Banion," said he, "ye're a fool--a nacherl-borned, congenual,
ingrain damned fool! Ye're flyin' in the face o' Proverdence, which
planted this critter right here fer us ter leave where no one'd ever be
the wiser, an' where he couldn't never do no more devilment. Ye idjit,
leave me kill him, ef ye're too chicken-hearted yoreself! Or leave us
throw him back in again!"

Banion would not speak at first, though his eyes never left Woodhull's
streaked, ghastly face.

"By God!" said he slowly, at length, "if we hadn't joined Scott and
climbed Chapultepec together, I'd kill you like a dog, right here! Shall
I give you one more chance to square things for me? You know what I
mean! Will you promise?"

"Promise?" broke in Jackson. "Ye damned fool, would ye believe ary
promise he made, even now? I tell-ee, boy, he'll murder ye the fust
chanct he gits! He's tried hit one night afore. Leave me cut his throat,
Will! Ye'll never be safe ontel I do. Leave me cut his throat er kill
him with a rock. Hit's only right."

Banion shook his head.

"No," he said slowly, "I couldn't, and you must not."

"Do you promise?" he repeated to the helpless man. "Get up--stand up! Do
you promise--will you swear?"

"Swear? Hell!" Jackson also rose as Woodhull staggered to his feet. "Ye
knew this man orto kill ye, an' ye sneaked hit, didn't ye? Whar's yer
gun?"

"There!" Woodhull nodded to the bog, over which no object now showed.
"I'm helpless! I'll promise! I'll swear!"

"Then we'll not sound the No-quarter charge that you and I have heard
the Spanish trumpets blow. You will remember the shoulder of a man who
fought with you? You'll do what you can now--at any cost?"

"What cost?" demanded Woodhull thickly.

Banion's own white teeth showed as he smiled.

"What difference?" said he. "What odds?"

"That's hit!" Again Jackson cut in, inexorable. "Hit's no difference to
him what he sw'ars, yit he'd bargain even now. Hit's about the gal!"

"Hush!" said Banion sternly. "Not another word!"

"Figure on what it means to you." He turned to Woodhull. "I know what it
means to me. I've got to have my own last chance, Woodhull, and I'm
saving you for that only. Is your last chance now as good as mine? This
isn't mercy--I'm trading now. You know what I mean."

Woodhull had freed his face of the mud as well as he could. He walked
away, stooped at a trickle of water to wash himself. Jackson quietly
rose and kicked the shotgun back farther from the edge. Woodhull now was
near to Banion's horse, which, after his fashion, always came and stood
close to his master. The butts of the two dragoon revolvers showed in
their holsters at the saddle. When he rose from the muddy margin,
shaking his hands as to dry them, he walked toward the horse. With a
sudden leap, without a word, he sprang beyond the horse, with a swift
clutch at both revolvers, all done with a catlike quickness not to have
been predicted. He stood clear of the plunging horse, both weapons
leveled, covering his two rescuers.

"Evener now!" His teeth bared. "Promise _me_!"

Jackson's deep curse was his answer. Banion rose, his arms folded.

"You're a liar and a coward, Sam!" said he. "Shoot, if you've got the
nerve!"

Incredible, yet the man was a natural murderer. His eye narrowed. There
came a swift motion, a double empty click!

"Try again, Sam!" said Banion, taunting him. "Bad luck--you landed on an
empty!"

He did try again. Swift as an adder, his hands flung first one and then
the other weapon into action.

Click after click, no more; Jackson sat dumb, expecting death.

"They're all empty, Sam," said Banion at last as the murderer cast down
the revolvers and stood with spread hands. "For the first time, I didn't
reload. I didn't think I'd need them."

"You can't blame me!" broke out Woodhull. "You said it was no quarter!
Isn't a prisoner justified in trying to escape?"

"You've not escaped," said Banion, coldly now. "Rope him, Jackson."

The thin, soft hide cord fell around the man's neck, tightened.

"Now," shrilled Jackson, "I'll give ye a dog's death!"

He sprang to the side of the black Spaniard, who by training had settled
back, tightening the rope.



CHAPTER XXII

A SECRET OF TWO


Catching the intention of the maddened man, now bent only on swift
revenge, Banion sprang to the head of his horse, flinging out an arm to
keep Jackson out of the saddle. The horse, frightened at the stubborn
struggle between the two, sprang away. Woodhull was pulled flat by the
rope about his neck, nor could he loosen it now with his hands, for the
horse kept steadily away. Any instant and he might be off in a mad
flight, dragging the man to his death.

"Ho! Pronto--_Vien aqui_!"

Banion's command again quieted the animal. His ears forward, he came up,
whickering his own query as to what really was asked of him.

Banion caught the bridle rein once more and eased the rope. Jackson by
now had his shotgun and was shouting, crazed with anger. Woodhull's life
chance was not worth a bawbee.

It was his enemy who saved it once again, for inscrutable but unaltered
reasons of his own.

"Drop that, Jackson!" called Banion. "Do as I tell you! This man's
mine!"

Cursing himself, his friend, their captive, the horse, his gun and all
animate and inanimate Nature in his blood rage, the old man, livid in
wrath, stalked away at length. "I'll kill him sometime, ef ye don't
yerself!" he screamed, his beard trembling. "Ye damned fool!"

"Get up, Woodhull!" commanded Banion. "You've tried once more to kill
me. Of course, I'll not take any oath or promise from you now. You don't
understand such things. The blood of a gentleman isn't anywhere in your
strain. But I'll give you one more chance--give myself that chance too.
There's only one thing you understand. That's fear. Yet I've seen you on
a firing line, and you started with Doniphan's men. We didn't know we
had a coward with us. But you are a coward.

"Now I leave you to your fear! You know what I want--more than life it
is to me; but your life is all I have to offer for it. I'm going to wait
till then.

"Come on, now! You'll have to walk. Jackson won't let you have his
horse. My own never carried a woman but once, and he's never carried a
coward at all. Jackson shall not have the rope. I'll not let him kill
you."

"What do you mean?" demanded the prisoner, not without his effrontery.

The blood came back to Banion's face, his control breaking.

"I mean for you to walk, trot, gallop, damn you! If you don't you'll
strangle here instead of somewhere else in time."

He swung up, and Jackson sullenly followed.

"Give me that gun," ordered Banion, and took the shotgun and slung it
in the pommel loop of his own saddle.

The gentle amble of the black stallion kept the prisoner at a trot. At
times Banion checked, never looking at the man following, his hands at
the rope, panting.

"Ye'll try him in the camp council, Will?" began Jackson once more.
"Anyways that? He's a murderer. He tried to kill us both, an' he will
yit. Boy, ye rid with Doniphan, an' don't know the _ley refugio_ Hasn't
the prisoner tried to escape? Ain't that old as Mayheeco Veeayho? Take
this skunk in on a good rope like that? Boy, ye're crazy!"

"Almost," nodded Banion. "Almost. Come on. It's late."

It was late when they rode down into the valley of the Platte. Below
them twinkled hundreds of little fires of the white nation, feasting.
Above, myriad stars shone in a sky unbelievably clear. On every hand
rose the roaring howls of the great gray wolves, also feasting now; the
lesser chorus of yapping coyotes. The savage night of the Plains was on.
Through it passed three savage figures, one a staggering, stumbling man
with a rope around his neck.

They came into the guard circle, into the dog circle of the encampment;
but when challenged answered, and were not stopped.

"Here, Jackson," said Banion at length, "take the rope. I'm going to our
camp. I'll not go into this train. Take this pistol--it's loaded now.
Let off the _reata_, walk close to this man. If he runs, kill him. Find
Molly Wingate. Tell her Will Banion has sent her husband to her--once
more. It's the last time."

He was gone in the dark. Bill Jackson, having first meticulously
exhausted the entire vituperative resources of the English, the Spanish
and all the Indian languages he knew, finally poked the muzzle of the
pistol into Woodhull's back.

"Git, damn ye!" he commanded. "Center, guide! Forrerd, march! Ye--"

He improvised now, all known terms of contempt having been heretofore
employed.

Threading the way past many feast fires, he did find the Wingate wagons
at length, did find Molly Wingate. But there his memory failed him. With
a skinny hand at Sam Woodhull's collar, he flung him forward.

"Here, Miss Molly," said he, "this thing is somethin' Major Banion sont
in ter ye by me. We find hit stuck in the mud. He said ye're welcome."

But neither he nor Molly really knew why that other man had spared Sam
Woodhull's life, or what it was he awaited in return for Sam Woodhull's
life.

All that Jackson could do he did. As he turned in the dark he implanted
a heartfelt kick which sent Sam Woodhull on his knees before Molly
Wingate as she stood in wondering silence.

Then arose sudden clamorings of those who had seen part of this--seen an
armed man assault another, unarmed and defenseless, at their very
firesides. Men came running up. Jesse Wingate came out from the side of
his wagon.

"What's all this?" he demanded. "Woodhull, what's up? What's wrong
here?"



CHAPTER XXIII

AN ARMISTICE


To the challenge of Wingate and his men Jackson made answer with a
high-pitched fighting yell. Sweeping his pistol muzzle across and back
again over the front of the closing line, he sprang into saddle and
wheeled away.

"Hit means we've brung ye back a murderer. Git yer own rope--ye kain't
have mine! If ye-all want trouble with Old Missoury over this, er
anything else, come runnin' in the mornin'. Ye'll find us sp'ilin' fer a
fight!"

He was off in the darkness.

Men clustered around the draggled man, one of their, own men, recently
one in authority. Their indignation rose, well grounded on the growing
feeling between the two segments of the train. When Woodhull had told
his own story, in his own way, some were for raiding the Missouri
detachment forthwith. Soberer counsel prevailed. In the morning Price,
Hall and Kelsey rode over to the Missouri encampment and asked for their
leader. Banion met them while the work of breaking camp went on, the
cattle herd being already driven in and held at the rear by lank,
youthful riders, themselves sp'lin' fer a fight.

"Major Banion," began Caleb Price, "we've come over to get some sort of
understanding between your men and ours. It looks like trouble. I don't
want trouble."

"Nor do I," rejoined Banion. "We started out for Oregon as friends. It
seems to me that should remain our purpose. No little things should
alter that."

"Precisely. But little things have altered it. I don't propose to pass
on any quarrel between you and one of our people--a man from your own
town, your own regiment. But that has now reached a point where it might
mean open war between two parts of our train. That would mean ruin.
That's wrong."

"Yes," replied Banion, "surely it is. You see, to avoid that, I was just
ordering my people to pull out. I doubt if we could go on together now.
I don't want war with any friends. I reckon we can take care of any
enemies. Will this please you?"

Caleb Price held out his hand.

"Major, I don't know the truth of any of the things I've heard, and I
think those are matters that may be settled later on. But I am obliged
to say that many of our people trust you and your leadership more than
they do our own. I don't like to see you leave."

"Well, then we won't leave. We'll hold back and follow you. Isn't that
fair?"

"It is more than fair, for you can go faster now than we can, like
enough. But will you promise me one thing, sir?"

"What is it?"

"If we get in trouble and send back for you, will you come?"

"Yes, we'll come. But pull on out now, at once. My men want to travel.
We've got our meat slung on lines along the wagons to cure as we move.
We'll wait till noon for you."

"It is fair." Price turned to his associates. "Ride back, Kelsey, and
tell Wingate we all think we should break camp at once.

"You see," he added to Banion, "he wouldn't even ride over with us. I
regret this break between you and him. Can't it be mended?"

A sudden spasm passed across Will Banion's browned face.

"It cannot," said he, "at least not here and now. But the women and
children shall have no risk on that account. If we can ever help, we'll
come."

The two again shook hands, and the Wingate lieutenants rode away, so
ratifying a formal division of the train.

"What do you make of all this, Hall?" asked sober-going Caleb Price at
last. "What's the real trouble? Is it about the girl?"

"Oh, yes; but maybe more. You heard what Woodhull said. Even if Banion
denied it, it would be one man's word against the other's. Well, it's
wide out here, and no law."

"They'll fight?"

"Will two roosters that has been breasted?"



CHAPTER XXIV

THE ROAD WEST


Came now once more the notes of the bugle in signal for the assembly.
Word passed down the scattered Wingate lines, "Catch up! Catch up!"

Riders went out to the day guards with orders to round up the cattle.
Dark lines of the driven stock began to dribble in from the edge of the
valley. One by one the corralled vehicles broke park, swung front or
rear, until the columns again held on the beaten road up the valley in
answer to the command, "Roll out! Roll out!" The Missourians, long
aligned and ready, fell in far behind and pitched camp early. There were
two trains, not one.

Now, hour after hour and day by day, the toil of the trail through sand
flats and dog towns, deadly in its monotony, held them all in apathy.
The lightheartedness of the start in early spring was gone. By this time
the spare spaces in the wagons were kept filled with meat, for always
there were buffalo now. Lines along the sides of the wagons held loads
of rudely made jerky--pieces of meat slightly salted and exposed to the
clear dry air to finish curing.

But as the people fed full there began a curious sloughing off of the
social compact, a change in personal attitude. A dozen wagons, short of
supplies or guided by faint hearts, had their fill of the Far West and
sullenly started back east. Three dozen broke train and pulled out
independently for the West, ahead of Wingate, mule and horse transport
again rebelling against being held back by the ox teams. More and more
community cleavages began to define. The curse of flies by day, of
mosquitoes by night added increasing miseries for the travelers. The hot
midday sun wore sore on them. Restless high spirits, grief over personal
losses, fear of the future, alike combined to lessen the solidarity of
the great train; but still it inched along on its way to Oregon, putting
behind mile after mile of the great valley of the Platte.

The grass now lay yellow in the blaze of the sun, the sandy dust was
inches deep in the great road, cut by thousands of wheels. Flotsam and
jetsam, wreckage, showed more and more. Skeletons of cattle, bodies not
yet skeletons, aroused no more than a casual look. Furniture lay cast
aside, even broken wagons, their wheels fallen apart, showing intimate
disaster. The actual hardships of the great trek thrust themselves into
evidence on every hand, at every hour. Often was passed a little cross,
half buried in the sand, or the tail gate of a wagon served as head
board for some ragged epitaph of some ragged man.

It was decided to cross the South Fork at the upper ford, so called.
Here was pause again for the Wingate train. The shallow and fickle
stream, fed by the June rise in the mountains, now offered a score of
channels, all treacherous. A long line of oxen, now wading and now
swimming, dragging a long rope to which a chain was rigged--the latter
to pull the wagon forward when the animals got footing on ahead--made a
constant sight for hours at a time. One wagon after another was snaked
through rapidly as possible. Once bogged down in a fast channel, the
fluent sand so rapidly filled in the spokes that the settling wagon was
held as though in a giant vise. It was new country, new work for them
all; but they were Americans of the frontier.

The men were in the water all day long, for four days, swimming, wading,
digging. Perhaps the first plow furrow west of the Kaw was cast when
some plows eased down the precipitous bank which fronted one of the
fording places. Beyond that lay no mark of any plow for more than a
thousand miles.

They now had passed the Plains, as first they crossed the Prairie. The
thin tongue of land between the two forks, known as the Highlands of the
Platte, made vestibule to the mountains. The scenery began to change, to
become rugged, semi-mountainous. They noted and held in sight for a day
the Courthouse Rock, the Chimney Rock, long known to the fur traders,
and opened up wide vistas of desert architecture new to their
experiences.

They were now amid great and varied abundance of game. A thousand
buffalo, five, ten, might be in sight at one time, and the ambition of
every man to kill his buffalo long since had been gratified.
Black-tailed deer and antelope were common, and even the mysterious
bighorn sheep of which some of them had read. Each tributary stream now
had its delicious mountain trout. The fires at night had abundance of
the best of food, cooked for the most part over the native fuel of the
_bois des vaches_.

The grass showed yet shorter, proving the late presence of the toiling
Mormon caravan on ahead. The weather of late June was hot, the glare of
the road blinding. The wagons began to fall apart in the dry, absorbent
air of the high country. And always skeletons lay along the trail. An ox
abandoned by its owners as too footsore for further travel might better
have been shot than abandoned. The gray wolves would surely pull it down
before another day. Continuously such tragedies of the wilderness went
on before their wearying eyes.

Breaking down from the highlands through the Ash Hollow gap, the train
felt its way to the level of the North Fork of the great river which had
led them for so long. Here some trapper once had built a cabin--the
first work of the sort in six hundred miles--and by some strange concert
this deserted cabin had years earlier been constituted a post office of
the desert. Hundreds of letters, bundles of papers were addressed to
people all over the world, east and west. No government recognized this
office, no postage was employed in it. Only, in the hope that someone
passing east or west would carry on the inclosures without price, folk
here sent out their souls into the invisible.

"How far'll we be out, at Laramie?" demanded Molly Wingate of the train
scout, Bridger, whom Banion had sent on to Wingate in spite of his
protest.

"Nigh onto six hundred an' sixty-seven mile they call hit, ma'am, from
Independence to Laramie, an' we'll be two months a-makin' hit, which
everges around ten mile a day."

"But it's most to Oregon, hain't it?"

"Most to Oregon? Ma'am, it's nigh three hundred mile beyond Laramie to
the South Pass, an' the South Pass hain't half-way to Oregon. Why,
ma'am, we ain't well begun!"



CHAPTER XXV

OLD LARAMIE


An old gray man in buckskins sat on the ground in the shade of the adobe
stockade at old Fort Laramie, his knees high in front of him, his eyes
fixed on the ground. His hair fell over his shoulders in long curls
which had once been brown. His pointed beard fell on his breast. He sat
silent and motionless, save that constantly he twisted a curl around a
forefinger, over and over again. It was his way. He was a long-hair, a
man of another day. He had seen the world change in six short years,
since the first wagon crossed yonder ridges, where now showed yet one
more wagon train approaching.

He paid no attention to the debris and discard of this new day which lay
all about him as he sat and dreamed of the days of trap and packet. Near
at hand were pieces of furniture leaning against the walls, not bought
or sold, but abandoned as useless here at Laramie. Wagon wheels,
tireless, their fellies falling apart, lay on the ground, and other
ruins of great wagons, dried and disjointed now.

Dust lay on the ground. The grass near by was all cropped short. Far
off, a village of the Cheyennes, come to trade, and sullen over the fact
that little now could be had for robes or peltries, grazed their ponies
aside from the white man's road. Six hundred lodges of the Sioux were on
the tributary river a few miles distant. The old West was making a last
gallant stand at Laramie.

Inside the gate a mob of white men, some silent and businesslike, many
drunken and boisterous, pushed here and there for access to the trading
shelves, long since almost bare of goods. Six thousand emigrants passed
that year.

It was the Fourth of July in Old Laramie, and men in jeans and wool and
buckskin were celebrating. Old Laramie had seen life--all of life, since
the fur days of La Ramée in 1821. Having now superciliously sold out to
these pilgrims, reserving only alcohol enough for its own consumption,
Old Laramie was willing to let the world wag, and content to twiddle a
man curl around a finger.

But yet another detachment of the great army following the hegira of the
Mormons was now approaching Laramie. In the warm sun of mid-morning, its
worn wheels rattling, its cattle limping and with lolling tongues, this
caravan forded and swung wide into corral below the crowded tepees of
the sullen tribesmen.

[Illustration: _A Paramount Picture.

The Covered Wagon_.

JUST BEFORE THE START OF THE WAGON TRAIN.]

Ahead of it now dashed a horseman, swinging his rifle over his head and
uttering Indian yells. He pulled up at the very door of the old adobe
guard tower with its mounted swivel guns; swung off, pushed on into the
honeycomb of the inner structure.

The famous border fortress was built around a square, the living
quarters on one side, the trading rooms on another. Few Indians were
admitted at one time, other than the Indian wives of the _engagés_, the
officials of the fur company or of the attached white or halfbreed
hunters. Above some of the inner buildings were sleeping lofts. The
inner open space served as a general meeting ground. Indolent but on
guard, Old Laramie held her watch, a rear guard of the passing West in
its wild days before the plow.

All residents here knew Jim Bridger. He sought out the man in charge.

"How, Bordeaux?" he began. "Whar's the bourgeois, Papin?"

"Down river--h'east h'after goods."

The trader, hands on his little counter, nodded to his shelves.

"Nada!" he said in his polyglot speech. "Hi'll not got a damned thing
lef'. How many loads you'll got for your h'own post, Jeem?"

"Eight wagons. Iron, flour and bacon."

"Hi'll pay ye double here what you'll kin git retail there, Jeem, and
take it h'all h'off your hand. This h'emigrant, she'll beat the fur."

"I'll give ye half," said Bridger. "Thar's people here needs supplies
that ain't halfway acrost. But what's the news, Bordeaux? Air the Crows
down?"

"H'on the Sweetwater, h'awaitin' for the peelgrim. Hi'll heard of your
beeg fight on the Platte. Plenty beeg fight on ahead, too, maybe-so.
You'll bust h'up the trade, Jeem. My Sioux, she's scare to come h'on the
post h'an' trade. He'll stay h'on the veelage, her."

"Every dog to his own yard. Is that all the news?"

"Five thousand Mormons, he'll gone by h'aready. H'womans pullin' the
han'cart, _sacre Enfant_! News--you'll h'ought to know the news. You'll
been h'on the settlement six mont'!"

"Hit seemed six year. The hull white nation's movin'. So. That all?"

"Well, go h'ask Keet. He's come h'up South Fork yesterdays. Maybe-so
_quelq' cho' des nouvelles_ h'out West. I dunno, me."

"Kit--Kit Carson, you mean? What's Kit doing here?"

"_Oui._ I dunno, me."

He nodded to a door. Bridger pushed past him. In an inner room a party
of border men were playing cards at a table. Among these was a slight,
sandy-haired man of middle age and mild, blue eye. It was indeed Carson,
the redoubtable scout and guide, a better man even than Bridger in the
work of the wilderness.

"How are you, Jim?" he said quietly, reaching up a hand as he sat.
"Haven't seen you for five years. What are you doing here?"

He rose now and put down his cards. The game broke up. Others gathered
around Bridger and greeted him. It was some time before the two
mountain men got apart from the others.

"What brung ye north, Kit?" demanded Bridger at length. "You was in
Californy in '47, with the General."

"Yes, I was in California this spring. The treaty's been signed with
Mexico. We get the country from the Rio Grande west, including
California. I'm carrying dispatches to General Kearny at Leavenworth.
There's talk about taking over Laramie for an Army post. The tribes are
up in arms. The trade's over, Jim."

"What I know, an' have been sayin'! Let's have a drink, Kit, fer old
times."

Laughing, Carson turned his pockets inside out. As he did so something
heavy fell from his pocket to the floor. In courtesy as much as
curiosity Bridger stooped first to pick it up. As he rose he saw
Carson's face change as he held out his hand.

"What's this stone, Kit--yer medicine?"

But Bridger's own face altered suddenly as he now guessed the truth. He
looked about him suddenly, his mouth tight. Kit Carson rose and they
passed from the room.

"Only one thing heavy as that, Mister Kit!" said Bridger fiercely.
"Where'd you git hit? My gran'pap had some o' that. Hit come from North
Carliny years ago. I know what hit is--hit's gold! Kit Carson, damn ye,
hit's the gold!"

"Shut your mouth, you fool!" said Carson. "Yes, it's gold. But do you
want me to be a liar to my General? That's part of my dispatches."

"Hit" come from Californy?"

"Curse me, yes, California! I was ordered to get the news to the Army
first. You're loose-tongued, Jim. Can you keep this?"

"Like a grave, Kit."

"Then here!"

Carson felt inside his shirt and pulled out a meager and ill-printed
sheet which told the most epochal news that this or any country has
known--the midwinter discovery of gold at Sutter's Mills.

A flag was flying over Laramie stockade, and this flag the mountain men
saw fit to salute with many libations, hearing now that it was to fly
forever over California as over Oregon. Crowding the stockade inclosure
full was a motley throng--border men in buckskins, _engagés_ swart as
Indians, French breeds, full-blood Cheyennes and Sioux of the northern
hills, all mingling with the curious emigrants who had come in from the
wagon camps. Plump Indian girls, many of them very comely, some of them
wives of the trappers who still hung about Laramie, ogled the newcomers,
laughing, giggling together as young women of any color do, their black
hair sleek with oil, their cheeks red with vermilion, their wrists heavy
with brass or copper or pinchbeck circlets, their small moccasined feet
peeping beneath gaudy calico given them by their white lords. Older
squaws, envious but perforce resigned, muttered as their own
stern-faced stolid red masters ordered them to keep close. Of the
full-bloods, whether Sioux or Cheyennes, only those drunk were other
than sullenly silent and resentful as they watched the white man's orgy
at Old Laramie on the Fourth of July of 1848.

Far flung along the pleasant valley lay a vast picture possible in no
other land or day. The scattered covered wagons, the bands of cattle and
horses, the white tents rising now in scores, the blue of many fires,
all proved that now the white man had come to fly his flag over a new
frontier.

Bridger stood, chanting an Indian song. A group of men came out, all
excited with patriotic drink. A tall man in moccasins led, his fringed
shirt open over a naked breast, his young squaw following him.

"Let me see one o' them damned things!" he was exclaiming. "That's why I
left home fifty year ago. Pap wanted to make me plow! I ain't seed one
since, but I'll bet a pony I kin run her right now! Go git yer plow
things, boys, an' fotch on ary sort of cow critter suits ye, I'll bet I
kin hook 'em up an' plow with 'em, too, right yere!"

The old gray man at the gate sat and twisted his long curls.

The sweet wind of the foothills blew aslant the smokes of a thousand
fires. Over the vast landscape passed many moving figures. Young Indian
men, mostly Sioux, some Cheyennes, a few Gros Ventres of the Prairie,
all peaceable under the tacit truce of the trading post, rode out from
their villages to their pony herds. From the post came the occasional
note of an inharmonic drum, struck without rhythm by a hand gone lax.
The singers no longer knew they sang. The border feast had lasted long.
Keg after keg had been broached. The Indian drums were going. Came the
sound of monotonous chants, broken with staccato yells as the border
dance, two races still mingling, went on with aboriginal excesses on
either side. On the slopes as dusk came twinkled countless tepee fires.
Dogs barked mournfully a-distant. The heavy half roar of the buffalo
wolves, superciliously confident, echoed from the broken country.

Now and again a tall Indian, naked save where he clutched his robe to
him unconsciously, came staggering to his tepee, his face distorted,
yelling obscene words and not knowing what he said. Patient, his
youngest squaw stood by his tepee, his spear held aloft to mark his door
plate, waiting for her lord to come. Wolfish dogs lay along the tepee
edges, noses in tails, eyeing the master cautiously. A grumbling old
woman mended the fire at her own side of the room, nearest the door,
spreading smooth robes where the man's medicine hung at the willow
tripod, his slatted lazyback near by. In due time all would know whether
at the game of "hands," while the feast went on, the little elusive bone
had won or lost for him. Perhaps he had lost his horses, his robes, his
weapons--his squaws. The white man's medicine was strong, and there was
much of it on his feasting day.

From the stockade a band of mounted Indians, brave in new finery, decked
with eagle bonnets and gaudy in beaded shirts and leggings, rode out
into the slopes, chanting maudlin songs. They were led by the most
beautiful young woman of the tribe, carrying a wand topped by a gilded
ball, and ornamented with bells, feathers, natural flowers. As the wild
pageant passed the proud savages paid no attention to the white men.

The old gray man at the gate sat and twisted his long curls.

And none of them knew the news from California.



CHAPTER XXVI

THE FIRST GOLD


The purple mantle of the mountain twilight was dropping on the hills
when Bridger and Carson rode out together from the Laramie stockade to
the Wingate encampment in the valley. The extraordinary capacity of
Bridger in matters alcoholic left him still in fair possession of his
faculties; but some new purpose, born of the exaltation of alcohol, now;
held his mind.

"Let me see that little dingus ye had, Kit," said he--"that piece o'
gold."

Carson handed it to him.

"Ye got any more o' hit, Kit?"

"Plenty! You can have it if you'll promise not to tell where it came
from, Jim."

"If I do, Jim Bridger's a liar, Kit!"

He slipped the nugget into his pocket. They rode to the head of the
train, where Bridger found Wingate and his aids, and presented his
friend. They all, of course, knew of Fremont's famous scout, then at the
height of his reputation, and greeted him with enthusiasm. As they
gathered around him Bridger slipped away. Searching among the wagons, he
at last found Molly Wingate and beckoned her aside with portentous
injunctions of secrecy.

In point of fact, a sudden maudlin inspiration had seized Jim Bridger,
so that a promise to Kit Carson seemed infinitely less important than a
promise to this girl, whom, indeed, with an old man's inept infatuation,
he had worshiped afar after the fashion of white men long gone from
society of their kind. Liquor now made him bold. Suddenly he reached out
a hand and placed in Molly's palm the first nugget of California gold
that ever had come thus far eastward. Physically heavy it was; of what
tremendous import none then could have known.

"I'll give ye this!" he said. "An' I know whar's plenty more."

She dropped the nugget because of the sudden weight in her hand; picked
it up.

"Gold!" she whispered, for there is no mistaking gold.

"Yes, gold!"

"Where did you get it?"

She was looking over her shoulder instinctively.

"Listen! Ye'll never tell? Ye mustn't! I swore to Kit Carson, that give
hit to me, I'd never tell no one. But I'll set you ahead o' any livin'
bein', so maybe some day ye'll remember old Jim Bridger.

"Yes, hit's gold! Kit Carson brung it from Sutter's Fort, on the
Sacramenty, in Californy. They've got it thar in wagonloads. Kit's on
his way east now to tell the Army!"

"Everyone will know!"

"Yes, but not now! Ef ye breathe this to a soul, thar won't be two
wagons left together in the train. Thar'll be bones o' womern from here
to Californy!"

Wide-eyed, the girl stood, weighing the nugget in her hands.

"Keep hit, Miss Molly," said Bridger simply. "I don't want hit no more.
I only got hit fer a bracelet fer ye, or something. Good-by. I've got to
leave the train with my own wagons afore long an' head fer my fort.
Ye'll maybe see me--old Jim Bridger--when ye come through.

"Yes, Miss Molly, I ain't as old as I look, and I got a fort o' my own
beyant the Green River. This year, what I'll take in for my cargo, what
I'll make cash money fer work fer the immygrints, I'll salt down anyways
ten thousand; next year maybe twicet that, or even more. I sartainly
will do a good trade with them Mormons."

"I suppose," said the girl, patient with what she knew was alcoholic
garrulity.

"An' out there's the purtiest spot west o' the Rockies, My valley is
ever'thing a man er a womern can ask or want. And me, I'm a permanent
man in these yere parts. It's me, Jim Bridger, that fust diskivered the
Great Salt Lake. It's me, Jim Bridger, fust went through Colter's Hell
up in the Yellowstone. Ain't a foot o' the Rockies I don't know. I
eena-most built the Rocky Mountains, me." He spread out his hands. "And
I've got to be eena'most all Injun myself."

"I suppose." The girl's light laugh cut him.

"But never so much as not to rever'nce the white woman, Miss Molly.
Ye're all like angels to us wild men out yere. We--we never have forgot.
And so I give ye this, the fust gold from Californy. There may be more.
I don't know."

"But you're going to leave us? What are you going to do?" A sudden
kindness was in the girl's voice.

"I'm a-goin' out to Fort Bridger, that's what I'm a-goin' to do; an'
when I git thar I'm a-goin' to lick hell out o' both my squaws, that's
what I'm a-goin' to do! One's named Blast Yore Hide, an' t'other Dang
Yore Eyes. Which, ef ye ask me, is two names right an' fitten, way I
feel now."

All at once Jim Bridger was all Indian again. He turned and stalked
a-way. She heard his voice rising in his Indian chant as she turned back
to her own wagon fire.

But now shouts were arising, cries coming up the line. A general
movement was taking place toward the lower end of the camp, where a high
quavering call rose again and again.

"There's news!" said Carson to Jesse Wingate quietly. "That's old Bill
Jackson's war cry, unless I am mistaken. Is he with you?"

"He was," said Wingate bitterly. "He and his friends broke away from the
train and have been flocking by themselves since then."

Three men rode up to the Wingate wagon, and two flung off. Jackson was
there, yes, and Jed Wingate, his son. The third man still sat his
horse. Wingate straightened.

"Mr. Banion! So you see fit to come into my camp?" For the time he had
no answer.

"How are you, Bill?" said Kit Carson quietly, as he now stepped forward
from the shadows. The older man gave him a swift glance.

"Kit! You here--why?" he demanded. "I've not seed ye, Kit, sence the
last Rendyvous on the Green. Ye've been with the Army on the coast?"

"Yes. Going east now."

"Allus ridin' back and forerd acrost the hull country. I'd hate to keep
ye in buckskin breeches, Kit. But ye're carryin' news?"

"Yes," said Carson. "Dispatches about new Army posts--to General Kearny.
Some other word for him, and some papers to the Adjutant General of the
Army. Besides, some letters from Lieutenant Beale in Mexico, about war
matters and the treaty, like enough. You know, we'll get all the
southern country to the Coast?"

"An' welcome ef we didn't! Not a beaver to the thousand miles, Kit. I'm
goin' to Oregon--goin' to settle in the Nez Percé country, whar there's
horses an' beaver."

"But wait a bit afore you an' me gits too busy talkin'. Ye see, I'm with
Major Banion, yan, an' the Missoury train. We're in camp ten mile below.
We wouldn't mix with these people no more--only one way--but I reckon
the Major's got some business o' his own that brung him up. I rid with
him. We met the boy an' ast him to bring us in. We wasn't sure how
friendly our friends is feelin' towards him an' me."

He grinned grimly. As he spoke they both heard a woman's shrilling, half
greeting, half terror. Wingate turned in time to see his daughter fall
to the ground in a sheer faint.

Will Banion slipped from his saddle and hurried forward.



CHAPTER XXVII

TWO WHO LOVED


Jesse Wingate made a swift instinctive motion toward the revolver which
swung at his hip. But Jed sprang between him and Banion.

"No! Hold on, Pap--stop!" cried Jed. "It's all right. I brought him in.

"As a prisoner?"

"I am no man's prisoner, Captain Wingate," said Banion's deep voice.

His eyes were fixed beyond the man to whom he spoke. He saw Molly, to
whom her mother now ran, to take the white face in her own hands.
Wingate looked from one to the other.

"Why do you come here? What do I owe you that you should bring more
trouble, as you always have? And what do you owe me?"

"I owe you nothing!" said Banion. "You owe me nothing at all. I have not
traveled in your train, and I shall not travel in it. I tell you once
more, you're wrong in your beliefs; but till I can prove that I'll not
risk any argument about it."

"Then why do you come to my camp now?"

"You should know."

"I do know. It's Molly!"

"It's Molly, yes. Here's a letter from her. I found it in the cabin at
Ash Hollow. Your friend Woodhull could have killed me--we passed him
just now. Jed could have killed me--you can now; it's easy. But that
wouldn't change me. Perhaps it wouldn't change her."

"You come here to face me down?"

"No, sir. I know you for a brave man, at least. I don't believe I'm a
coward--I never asked. But I came to see Molly, because here she's asked
it. I don't know why. Do you want to shoot me like a coyote?"

"No. But I ask you, what do I owe you?"

"Nothing. But can we trade? If I promise to leave you with my train?"

"You want to steal my girl!"

"No! I want to earn her--some day."

The old Roman before him was a man of quick and strong decisions. The
very courage of the young man had its appeal.

"At least you'll eat," said he. "I'd not turn even a black Secesh away
hungry--not even a man with your record in the Army."

"No, I'll not eat with you."

"Wait then! I'll send the girl pretty soon, if you are here by her
invitation. I'll see she never invites you again."

Wingate walked toward his wagon. Banion kept out of the light circle and
found his horse. He stood, leaning his head on his arms in the saddle,
waiting, until after what seemed an age she slipped out of the darkness,
almost into his arms, standing pale, her fingers lacing and
unlacing--the girl who had kissed him once--to say good-by.

"Will Banion!" she whispered. "Yes, I sent for you. I felt you'd find
the letter."

"Yes, Molly." It was long before he would look at her. "You're the
same," said he. "Only you've grown more beautiful every day. It's hard
to leave you--awfully hard. I couldn't, if I saw you often."

He reached out again and took her in his arms, softly, kissed her
tenderly on each cheek, whispered things that lovers do say. But for his
arms she would have dropped again, she was so weak. She fought him off
feebly.

"No! No! It is not right! No! No!"

"You're not going to be with us any more?" she said at last.

He shook his head. They both looked at his horse, his rifle, swung in
its sling strap at the saddle horn. She shook her head also.

"Is this the real good-by, Will?" Her lips trembled.

"It must be. I have given my word to your father. But why did you send
for me? Only to torture me? I must keep my word to hold my train apart.
I've promised my men to stick with them."

"Yes, you mustn't break your word. And it was fine just to see you a
minute, Will; just to tell you--oh, to say I love you, Will! But I
didn't think that was why I sent. I sent to warn you--against him. It
seems always to come to the same thing."

She was trying not to sob. The man was in but little better case. The
stars did not want them to part. All the somber wilderness world
whispered for them to love and not to part at all. But after a time they
knew that they again had parted, or now were able to do so.

"Listen, Will," said the girl at last, putting back a lock of her fallen
hair. "I'll have to tell you. We'll meet in Oregon? I'll be married
then. I've promised. Oh, God help me! I think I'm the wickedest woman in
all the world, and the most unhappy. Oh, Will Banion, I--I love a thief!
Even as you are, I love you! I guess that's why I sent for you, after
all.

"Go find the scout--Jim Bridger!" she broke out suddenly. "He's going on
ahead. Go on to his fort with him--he'll have wagons and horses. He
knows the way. Go with Bridger, Will! Don't go to Oregon! I'm afraid for
you. Go to California--and forget me! Tell Bridger--"

"Why, where is it?" she exclaimed.

She was feeling in the pocket of her apron, and it was empty.

"I've lost it!" she repeated. "I lose everything!"

"What was it, Molly?"

She leaned her lips to his ear.

"It was gold!"

He stood, the magic name of that metal which shows the color in the
shade electrifying even his ignorance of the truth.

"Gold?"

She told him then, breaking her own promise magnificently, as a woman
will.

"Go, ride with Bridger," she went on. "Don't tell him you ever knew me.
He'll not be apt to speak of me. But they found it, in California, the
middle of last winter--gold! Gold! Carson's here in our camp--Kit
Carson. He's the first man to bring it to the Valley of the Platte. He
was sworn to keep it secret; so was Bridger, and so am I. Not to Oregon,
Will--California! You can live down your past. If we die, God bless the
man I do love. That's you, Will! And I'm going to marry--him. Ten days!
On the trail! And he'll kill you, Will! Oh, keep away!"

She paused, breathless from her torrent of incoherent words, jealous of
the passing moments. It was vague, it was desperate, it was crude. But
they were in a world vague, desperate and crude.

"I've promised my men I'd not leave them," he said at last. "A promise
is a promise."

"Then God help us both! But one thing--when I'm married, that's the end
between us. So good-by."

He leaned his head back on his saddle for a time, his tired horse
turning back its head. He put out his hand blindly; but it was the
muzzle of his horse that had touched his shoulder. The girl was gone.

The Indian drums at Laramie thudded through the dark. The great wolf in
the breaks lifted his hoarse, raucous roar once more. The wilderness was
afoot or bedding down, according to its like.



CHAPTER XXVIII

WHEN A MAID MARRIES


Carson, Bridger and Jackson, now reunited after years, must pour
additional libations to Auld Lang Syne at Laramie, so soon were off
together. The movers sat around their thrifty cooking fires outside the
wagon corral. Wingate and his wife were talking heatedly, she in her
nervousness not knowing that she fumbled over and over in her fingers
the heavy bit of rock which Molly had picked up and which was in her
handkerchief when it was requisitioned by her mother to bathe her face
just now. After a time she tossed the nugget aside into the grass. It
was trodden by a hundred feet ere long.

But gold will not die. In three weeks a prowling Gros Ventre squaw found
it and carried it to the trader, Bordeaux, asking, "Shoog?"

"Non, non!" replied the Laramie trader. "Pas de shoog!" But he looked
curiously at the thing, so heavy.

"How, cola!" wheedled the squaw. "Shoog!" She made the sign for sugar,
her finger from her palm to her lips. Bordeaux tossed the thing into the
tin can on the shelf and gave her what sugar would cover a spoon.

"Where?" He asked her, his fingers loosely shaken, meaning, "Where did
you get it?"

The Gros Ventre lied to him like a lady, and told him, on the South
Fork, on the Creek of Bitter Cherries--near where Denver now is; and
where placers once were. That was hundreds of miles away. The Gros
Ventre woman had been there once in her wanderings and had seen some
heavy metal.

Years later, after Fort Laramie was taken over by the Government,
Bordeaux as sutler sold much flour and bacon to men hurrying down the
South Fork to the early Colorado diggings. Meantime in his cups he often
had told the mythical tale of the Gros Ventre woman--long after
California, Idaho, Nevada, Montana were all afire. But one of his
halfbreed children very presently had commandeered the tin cup and its
contents, so that to this day no man knows whether the child swallowed
the nugget or threw it into the Laramie River or the Platte River or the
sagebrush. Some depose that an emigrant bought it of the baby; but no
one knows.

What all men do know is that gold does not die; nay, nor the news of it.
And this news now, like a multiplying germ, was in the wagon train that
had started out for Oregon.

As for Molly, she asked no questions at all about the lost nugget, but
hurried to her own bed, supperless, pale and weeping. She told her
father nothing of the nature of her meeting with Will Banion, then nor
at any time for many weeks.

"Molly, come here, I want to talk to you."

Wingate beckoned to his daughter the second morning after Banion's
visit.

The order for the advance was given. The men had brought in the cattle
and the yoking up was well forward. The rattle of pots and pans was
dying down. Dogs had taken their places on flank or at the wagon rear,
women were climbing up to the seats, children clinging to pieces of
dried meat. The train was waiting for the word.

The girl followed him calmly, high-headed.

"Molly, see here," he began. "We're all ready to move on. I don't know
where Will Banion went, but I want you to know, as I told him, that he
can't travel in our train."

"He'll not ask to, father. He's promised to stick to his own men."

"He's left you at last! That's good. Now I want you to drop him from
your thoughts. Hear that, and heed it. I tell you once more, you're not
treating Sam Woodhull right."

She made him no answer.

"You're still young, Molly," he went on. "Once you're settled you'll
find Oregon all right. Time you were marrying. You'll be twenty and an
old maid first thing you know. Sam will make you a good husband. Heed
what I say."

But she did not heed, though she made no reply to him. Her eye,
"scornful, threatening and young," looked yonder where she knew her
lover was; not was it in her soul ever to return from following after
him. The name of her intended husband left her cold as ice.

"Roll out! Roll out! Ro-o-o-ll ou-t!"

The call went down the line once more. The pistolry of the wagon whips
made answer, the drone of the drivers rose as the sore-necked oxen bowed
their heads again, with less strength even for the lightened loads.

The old man who sat by the gate at Fort Laramie, twisting a curl around
his finger, saw the plain clearing now, as the great train swung out and
up the river trail. He perhaps knew that Jim Bridger, with his own
freight wagons, going light and fast with mules, was on west, ahead of
the main caravan. But he did not know the news Jim Bridger carried, the
same news that Carson was carrying east. The three old mountain men, for
a few hours meeting after years, now were passing far apart, never to
meet again. Their chance encountering meant much to hundreds of men and
women then on the road to Oregon; to untold thousands yet to come.

As for one Samuel Woodhull, late column captain, it was to be admitted
that for some time he had been conscious of certain buffetings of fate.
But as all thoroughbred animals are thin-skinned, so are all the
short-bred pachydermatous, whereby they endure and mayhap arrive at the
manger well as the next. True, even Woodhull's vanity and self-content
had everything asked of them in view of his late series of mishaps; but
by now he had somewhat chirked up under rest and good food, and was once
more the dandy and hail fellow. He felt assured that very presently
bygones would be bygones. Moreover--so he reasoned--if he, Sam Woodhull,
won the spoils, what matter who had won any sort of victory? He knew, as
all these others knew and as all the world knows, that a beautiful woman
is above all things _spolia opima_ of war. Well, in ten days he was to
marry Molly Wingate, the most beautiful woman of the train and the belle
of more than one community. Could he not afford to laugh best, in spite
of all events, even if some of them had not been to his own liking?

But the girl's open indifference was least of all to his liking. It
enraged his vain, choleric nature to its inner core. Already he planned
dominance; but willing to wait and to endure for ten days, meantime he
employed innocence, reticence, dignity, attentiveness, so that he seemed
a suitor misunderstood, misrepresented, unjustly used--to whose patient
soul none the less presently must arrive justice and exoneration, after
which all would be happier even than a marriage bell. After the wedding
bells he, Samuel Woodhull, would show who was master.

Possessed once more of horse, arms and personal equipment, and having
told his own story of persecution to good effect throughout the train,
Woodhull had been allowed to resume a nominal command over a part of the
Wingate wagons. The real control lay in the triumvirate who once had
usurped power, and who might do so again.

Wingate himself really had not much more than nominal control of the
general company, although he continued to give what Caleb Price called
the easy orders. His wagons, now largely changed to ox transport, still
traveled at the head of the train, Molly continuing to drive her own
light wagon and Jed remaining on the cow column.

The advance hardly had left Fort Laramie hidden by the rolling ridges
before Woodhull rode up to Molly's wagon and made excuse to pass his
horse to a boy while he himself climbed up on the seat with his fiancée.

She made room for him in silence, her eyes straight ahead. The wagon
cover made good screen behind, the herdsmen were far in the rear, and
from the wagons ahead none could see them. Yet when, after a moment, her
affianced husband dropped an arm about her waist the girl flung it off
impatiently.

"Don't!" she exclaimed. "I detest love-making in public. We see enough
of it that can't be hid. It's getting worse, more open, the farther we
get out."

"The train knows we are to be married at the halfway stop, Molly. Then
you'll change wagons and will not need to drive."

"Wait till then."

"I count the hours. Don't you, dearest?"

She turned a pallid face to him at last, resentful of his endearments.

"Yes, I do," she said. But he did not know what she meant, or why she
was so pale.

"I think we'll settle in Portland," he went on. "The travelers' stories
say that place, at the head of navigation on the Willamette, has as good
a chance as Oregon City, at the Falls. I'll practice law. The goods I am
taking out will net us a good sum, I'm hoping. Oh, you'll see the day
when you'll not regret that I held you to your promise! I'm not playing
this Oregon game to lose it."

"Do you play any game to lose it?"

"No! Better to have than to explain have not--that's one of my mottoes."

"No matter how?"

"Why do you ask?"

"I was only wondering."

"About what?"

"About men--and the differences."

"My dear, as a school-teacher you have learned to use a map, a
blackboard. Do you look on us men as ponderable, measurable,
computable?"

"A girl ought to if she's going to marry."

"Well, haven't you?"

"Have I?"

She still was staring straight ahead, cold, making no silent call for a
lover's arms or arts. Her silence was so long that at length even his
thick hide was pierced.

"Molly!" he broke out. "Listen to me! Do you want the engagement broken?
Do you want to be released?"

"What would they all think?"

"Not the question. Answer me!"

"No, I don't want it broken. I want it over with. Isn't that fair?"

"Is it?"

"Didn't you say you wanted me on any terms?"

"Surely!"

"Don't you now?"

"Yes, I do, and I'm going to have you, too!"

His eye, covetous, turned to the ripe young beauty of the maid beside
him. He was willing to pay any price.

"Then it all seems settled."

"All but one part. You've never really and actually told me you loved
me."

A wry smile.

"I'm planning to do that after I marry you. I suppose that's the
tendency of a woman? Of course, it can't be true that only one man will
do for a woman to marry, or one woman for a man? If anything went wrong
on that basis--why, marrying would stop? That would be foolish,
wouldn't it? I suppose women do adjust? Don't you think so?"

His face grew hard under this cool reasoning.

"Am I to understand that you are marrying me as a second choice, and so
that you can forget some other man?"

"Couldn't you leave a girl a secret if she had one? Couldn't you be
happier if you did? Couldn't you take your chance and see if there's
anything under the notion about more than one man and more than one
woman in the world? Love? Why, what is love? Something to marry on? They
say it passes. They tell me that marriage is more adjustable, means more
interests than love; that the woman who marries with her eyes open is
apt to be the happiest in the long run. Well, then you said you wanted
me on any terms. Does not that include open eyes?"

"You're making a hard bargain--the hardest a man can be obliged to
take."

"It was not of my seeking."

"You said you loved me--at first."

"No. Only a girl's in love with love--at first. I've not really lied to
you. I'm trying to be honest before marriage. Don't fear I'll not be
afterward. There's much in that, don't you think? Maybe there's
something, too, in a woman's ability to adjust and compromise? I don't
know. We ought to be as happy as the average married couple, don't you
think? None of them are happy for so very long, they say. They say love
doesn't last long. I hope not. One thing, I believe marriage is easier
to beat than love is."

"How old are you, really, Molly?"

"I am just over nineteen, sir."

"You are wise for that; you are old."

"Yes--since we started for Oregon."

He sat in sullen silence for a long time, all the venom of his nature
gathering, all his savage jealousy.

"You mean since you met that renegade, traitor and thief, Will Banion!
Tell me, isn't that it?"

"Yes, that's true. I'm older now. I know more."

"And you'll marry me without love. You love him without marriage? Is
that it?"

"I'll never marry a thief."

"But you love one?"

"I thought I loved you."

"But you do love him, that man!"

Now at last she turned to him, gazing straight through the mist of her
tears.

"Sam, if you really loved me, would you ask that? Wouldn't you just try
to be so gentle and good that there'd no longer be any place in my heart
for any other sort of love, so I'd learn to think that our love was the
only sort in the world? Wouldn't you take your chance and make good on
it, believing that it must be in nature that a woman can love more than
one man, or love men in more than one way? Isn't marriage broader and
with more chance for both? If you love me and not just yourself alone,
can't you take your chance as I am taking mine? And after all, doesn't
a woman give the odds? If you do love, me--"

"If I do, then my business is to try to make you forget Will Banion."

"There is no other way you could. He may die. I promise you I'll never
see him after I'm married.

"And I'll promise you another thing"--her strained nerves now were
speaking truth for her--"if by any means I ever learn--if I ever
believe--that Major Banion is not what I now think him, I'll go on my
knees to him. I'll know marriage was wrong and love was right all the
time."

"Fine, my dear! Much happiness! But unfortunately for Major Banion's
passing romance, the official records of a military court-martial and a
dishonorable discharge from the Army are facts which none of us can
doubt or deny."

"Yes, that's how it is. So that's why."

"What do you really mean then, Molly--you say, that's why?"

"That's why I'm going to marry you, Sam. Nine days from to-day, at the
Independence Rock, if we are alive. And from now till then, and always,
I'm going to be honest, and I'm going to pray God to give you power to
make me forget every other man in all the world except my--my--" But she
could not say the word "husband."

"Your husband!"

He said it for her, and perhaps then reached his zenith in
approximately unselfish devotion, and in good resolves at least.

The sun shone blinding hot. The white dust rose in clouds. The plague of
flies increased. The rattle and creak of wheel, the monotone of the
drivers, the cough of dust-afflicted kine made the only sounds for a
long time.

"You can't kiss me, Molly?"

He spoke not in dominance but in diffidence. The girl awed him.

"No, not till after, Sam; and I think I'd rather be left alone from now
till then. After--Oh, be good to me, Sam! I'm trying to be honest as a
woman can. If I were not that I'd not be worth marrying at all."

Without suggestion or agreement on his part she drew tighter the reins
on her mules. He sprang down over the wheel. The sun and the dust had
their way again; the monotony of life, its drab discontent, its
yearnings and its sense of failure once more resumed sway in part or all
of the morose caravan. They all sought new fortunes, each of these. One
day each must learn that, travel far as he likes, a man takes himself
with him for better or for worse.



CHAPTER XXIX

THE BROKEN WEDDING


Banion allowed the main caravan two days' start before he moved beyond
Fort Laramie. Every reason bade him to cut entirely apart from that
portion of the company. He talked with every man he knew who had any
knowledge of the country on ahead, read all he could find, studied such
maps as then existed, and kept an open ear for advice of old-time men
who in hard experience had learned how to get across a country.

Two things troubled him: The possibility of grass exhaustion near the
trail and the menace of the Indians. Squaw men in from the north and
west said that the Arapahoes were hunting on the Sweetwater, and sure to
make trouble; that the Blackfeet were planning war; that the Bannacks
were east of the Pass; that even the Crows were far down below their
normal range and certain to harass the trains. These stories, not
counting the hostility of the Sioux and Cheyennes of the Platte country,
made it appear that there was a tacit suspense of intertribal hostility,
and a general and joint uprising against the migrating whites.

These facts Banion did not hesitate to make plain to all his men; but,
descendants of pioneers, with blood of the wilderness in their veins,
and each tempted by adventure as much as by gain, they laughed long and
loud at the thought of danger from all the Indians of the Rockies. Had
they not beaten the Sioux? Could they not in turn humble the pride of
any other tribe? Had not their fathers worked with rifle lashed to the
plow beam? Indians? Let them come!

Founding his own future on this resolute spirit of his men, Banion next
looked to the order of his own personal affairs. He found prices so high
at Fort Laramie, and the stock of all manner of goods so low, that he
felt it needless to carry his own trading wagons all the way to Oregon,
when a profit of 400 per cent lay ready not a third of the way across
and less the further risk and cost. He accordingly cut down his own
stocks to one wagon, and sold off wagons and oxen as well, until he
found himself possessed of considerably more funds than when he had
started out.

He really cared little for these matters. What need had he for a fortune
or a future now? He was poorer than any jeans-clad ox driver with a
sunbonnet on the seat beside him and tow-headed children on the flour
and bacon sacks, with small belongings beyond the plow lashed at the
tail gate, the ax leaning in the front corner of the box and the rifle
swinging in its loops at the wagon bows. They were all beginning life
again. He was done with it.

The entire caravan now had passed in turn the Prairies and the Plains.
In the vestibule of the mountains they had arrived in the most splendid
out-of-doors country the world has ever offered. The climate was
superb, the scenery was a constant succession of changing beauties new
to the eyes of all. Game was at hand in such lavish abundance as none of
them had dreamed possible. The buffalo ranged always within touch, great
bands of elk now appeared, antelope always were in sight. The streams
abounded in noble game fish, and the lesser life of the open was
threaded across continually by the presence of the great predatory
animals--the grizzly, the gray wolf, even an occasional mountain lion.
The guarding of the cattle herds now required continual exertion, and if
any weak or crippled draft animal fell out its bones were clean within
the hour. The feeling of the wilderness now was distinct enough for the
most adventurous. They fed fat, and daily grew more like savages in look
and practice.

Wingate's wagons kept well apace with the average schedule of a dozen
miles a day, at times spurting to fifteen or twenty miles, and made the
leap over the heights of land between the North Platte and the
Sweetwater, which latter stream, often winding among defiles as well as
pleasant meadows, was to lead them to the summit of the Rockies at the
South Pass, beyond which they set foot on the soil of Oregon, reaching
thence to the Pacific. Before them now lay the entry mark of the
Sweetwater Valley, that strange oblong upthrust of rock, rising high
above the surrounding plain, known for two thousand miles as
Independence Rock.

At this point, more than eight hundred miles out from the Missouri, a
custom of unknown age seemed to have decreed a pause. The great rock was
an unmistakable landmark, and time out of mind had been a register of
the wilderness. It carried hundreds of names, including every prominent
one ever known in the days of fur trade or the new day of the wagon
trains. It became known as a resting place; indeed, many rested there
forever, and never saw the soil of Oregon. Many an emigrant woman, sick
well-nigh to death, held out so that she might be buried among the many
other graves that clustered there. So, she felt, she had the final
company of her kind. And to those weak or faint of heart the news that
this was not halfway across often smote with despair and death, and
they, too, laid themselves down here by the road to Oregon.

But here also were many scenes of cheer. By this time the new life of
the trail had been taken on, rude and simple. Frolics were promised when
the wagons should reach the Rock. Neighbors made reunions there.
Weddings, as well as burials, were postponed till the train got to
Independence Rock.

Here then, a sad-faced girl, true to her promise and true to some
strange philosophy of her own devising, was to become the wife of a
suitor whose persistency had brought him little comfort beyond the
wedding date. All the train knew that Molly Wingate Was to be married
there to Sam Woodhull, now restored to trust and authority. Some said
it was a good match, others shook their heads, liking well to see a maid
either blush or smile in such case as Molly's whereas she did neither.

At all events, Mrs. Wingate was two days baking cakes at the train
stops. Friends got together little presents for the bride. Jed, Molly's
brother, himself a fiddler of parts, organized an orchestra of a dozen
pieces. The Rev. Henry Doak, a Baptist divine of much nuptial diligence
en route, made ready his best coat. They came into camp. In the open
spaces of the valley hundreds of wagons were scattered, each to send
representatives to Molly Wingate's wedding. Some insisted that the
ceremony should be performed on the top of the Rock itself, so that no
touch of romance should lack.

Then approached the very hour--ten of the night, after duties of the day
were done. A canopy was spread for the ceremony. A central camp fire set
the place for the wedding feast. Within a half hour the bride would
emerge from the secrecy of her wagon to meet at the canopy under the
Rock the impatient groom, already clad in his best, already giving
largess to the riotous musicians, who now attuned instruments, now broke
out into rude jests or pertinent song.

But Molly Wingate did not appear, nor her father, nor her mother. A hush
fell on the rude assemblage. The minister of the gospel departed to the
Wingate encampment to learn the cause of the delay. He found Jesse
Wingate irate to open wrath, the girl's mother stony calm, the girl
herself white but resolute.

"She insists on seeing the marriage license, Mr. Doak," began Jesse
Wingate. "As though we could have one! As though she should care more
for that than her parents!"

"Quite so," rejoined the reverend man. "That is something I have taken
up with the happy groom. I have with all the couples I have joined in
wedlock on the trail. Of course, being a lawyer, Mr. Woodhull knows that
even if they stood before the meeting and acknowledged themselves man
and wife it would be a lawful marriage before God and man. Of course,
also we all know that since we left the Missouri River we have been in
unorganized territory, with no courts and no form of government, no
society as we understand it at home. Very well. Shall loving hearts be
kept asunder for those reasons? Shall the natural course of life be
thwarted until we get to Oregon? Why, sir, that is absurd! We do not
even know much of the government of Oregon itself, except that it is
provisional."

The face of Molly Wingate appeared at the drawn curtains of her
transient home. She stepped from her wagon and came forward. Beautiful,
but not radiant, she was; cold and calm, but not blushing and uncertain.
Her wedding gown was all in white, true enough to tradition, though but
of delaine, pressed new from its packing trunk by her mother's hands.
Her bodice, long and deep in front and at back, was plain entirely,
save for a treasure of lace from her mother's trunk and her mother's
wedding long ago. Her hands had no gloves, but white short-fingered
mitts, also cherished remnants of days of schoolgirl belledom, did
service. Over white stockings, below the long and full-bodied skirt,
showed the crossed bands of long elastic tapes tied in an ankle bow to
hold in place her little slippers of black high-finished leather. Had
they seen her, all had said that Molly Wingate was the sweetest and the
most richly clad bride of any on all the long, long trail across the
land that had no law. And all she lacked for her wedding costume was the
bride's bouquet, which her mother now held out to her, gathered with
care that day of the mountain flowers--blue harebells, forget-me-nots of
varied blues and the blossom of the gentian, bold and blue in the
sunlight, though at night infolded and abashed, its petals turning in
and waiting for the sun again to warm them.

Molly Wingate, stout and stern, full bosomed, wet eyed, held out her one
little present to her girl, her ewe lamb, whom she was now surrendering.
But no hand of the bride was extended for the bride's bouquet. The voice
of the bride was not low and diffident, but high pitched, insistent.

"Provisional? Provisional? What is it you are saying, sir? Are you
asking me to be married in a provisional wedding? Am I to give all I
have provisionally? Is my oath provisional, or his?"

"Now, now, my dear!" began the minister.

Her father broke out into a half-stifled oath.

"What do you mean?"

Her mother's face went pale under its red bronze.

"I mean this," broke out the girl, still in the strained high tones that
betokened her mental state: "I'll marry no man in any halfway fashion!
Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't I think? How could I have forgotten?
Law, organization, society, convention, form, custom--haven't I got even
those things to back me? No? Then I've nothing! It was--it was those
things--form, custom--that I was going to have to support me. I've got
nothing else. Gone--they're gone, too! And you ask me to marry
him--provisionally--provisionally! Oh, my God! what awful thing was
this? I wasn't even to have that solid thing to rest on, back of me,
after it all was over!"

They stood looking at her for a time, trying to catch and weigh her real
intent, to estimate what it might mean as to her actions.

"Like images, you are!" she went on hysterically, her physical craving
for one man, her physical loathing of another, driving her well-nigh
mad. "You wouldn't protect your own daughter!"--to her stupefied
parents. "Must I think for you at this hour of my life? How near--oh,
how near! But not now--not this way! No! No!"

"What do you mean, Molly?" demanded her father sternly. "Come now,
we'll have no woman tantrums at this stage! This goes on! They're
waiting! He's waiting!"

"Let him wait!" cried the girl in sudden resolution. All her soul was in
the cry, all her outraged, self-punished heart. Her philosophy fell from
her swiftly at the crucial moment when she was to face the kiss, the
embrace of another man. The great inarticulate voice of her woman nature
suddenly sounded, imperative, terrifying, in her own ears--"Oh, Will
Banion, Will Banion, why did you take away my heart?" And now she had
been on the point of doing this thing! An act of God had intervened.

Jesse Wingate nodded to the minister. They drew apart. The holy man
nodded assent, hurried away--the girl sensed on what errand.

"No use!" she said. "I'll not!"

Stronger and stronger in her soul surged the yearning for the dominance
of one man, not this man yonder--a yearning too strong now for her to
resist.

"But Molly, daughter," her mother's voice said to her, "girls has--girls
does. And like he said, it's the promise, it's the agreement they both
make, with witnesses."

"Yes, of course," her father chimed in. "It's the consent in the
contract when you stand before them all."

"I'll not stand before them. I don't consent! There is no agreement!"

Suddenly the girl reached out and caught from her mother the pitiful
little bride's bouquet.

"Look!" she laughed. "Look at these!"

One by one, rapidly, she tore out and flung down the folded gentian
flowers.

"Closed, closed! When the night came, they closed! They couldn't! They
couldn't! I'll not--I can't!"

She had the hand's clasp of mountain blossoms stripped down to a few
small flowers of varied blooms. They heard the coming of the groom, half
running. A silence fell over all the great encampment. The girl's father
made a half step forward, even as her mother sank down, cowering, her
hands at her face.

Then, without a word, with no plan or purpose, Molly Wingate turned,
sprang away from them and fled out into a night that was black indeed.

Truly she had but one thought, and that in negation only. Yonder came to
claim her a man suddenly odious to her senses. It could not be. His
kiss, his arms--if these were of this present time and place, then no
place in all the world, even the world of savage blackness that lay
about, could be so bad as this. At the test her philosophy had forsaken
her, reason now almost as well, and sheer terrified flight remained her
one reaction.

She was gone, a white ghost in her wedding gown, her little slippers
stumbling over the stones, her breath coming sobbingly as she ran. They
followed her. Back of them, at the great fire whose illumination
deepened the shadows here, rose a murmur, a rising of curious people, a
pressing forward to the Wingate station. But of these none knew the
truth, and it was curiosity that now sought answer for the delay in the
anticipated divertisement.

Molly Wingate ran for some moments, to some distance--she knew of
neither. Then suddenly all her ghastly nightmare of terror found climax
in a world of demons. Voices of the damned rose around her. There came a
sudden shock, a blow. Before she could understand, before she could
determine the shadowy form that rose before her in the dark, she fell
forward like the stricken creature.



CHAPTER XXX

THE DANCE IN THE DESERT


There was no wedding that night at the Independence Rock. The Arapahoes
saw to that. But there were burials the day following, six of them--two
women, a child, three men. The night attack had caught the company
wholly off guard, and the bright fire gave good illumination for shaft
and ball.

"Put out the fires! Corral! Corral!"

Voices of command arose. The wedding guests rushed for the shelter of
their own wagons. Men caught up their weapons and a steady fire at the
unseen foe held the latter at bay after the first attack.

Indeed, a sort of panic seized the savages. A warrior ran back
exclaiming that he had seen a spirit, all in white, not running away
from the attack, but toward them as they lay in cover. He had shot an
arrow at the spirit, which then had vanished. It would be better to fall
back and take no more like chances.

For this reason the family of Molly Wingate, pursuing her closely as
they could, found her at last, lying face down in the grass, her arms
outspread, her white wedding gown red with blood. An arrow, its shaft
cracked by her fall, was imbedded in her shoulder, driven deep by the
savage bowman who had fired in fear at an object he did not recognize.
So they found her, still alive, still unmutilated, still no prisoner.
They carried the girl back to her mother, who reached out her arms and
laid her child down behind the barricaded wagon wheels.

"Bring me a candle, you!" she called to the nearest man. It chanced to
be Sam Woodhull.

Soon a woman came with a light.

"Go away now!" the mother commanded the disappointed man.

He passed into the dark. The old woman opened the bodice over the girl's
heart, stripped away the stained lace that had served in three weddings
on two sides of the Appalachians, and so got to the wound.

"It's in to the bone," she said. "It won't come out. Get me my scissors
out of my bag. It's hanging right 'side the seat, our wagon."

"Ain't there no doctor?" she demanded, her own heart weakening now. But
none could tell. A few women grouped around her.

"It won't come out of that little hole it went in," said stout Molly
Wingate, not quite sobbing. "I got to cut it wider."

Silence held them as she finished the shreds of the ashen shaft and
pressed to one side the stub of it. So with what tools she knew best she
cut into the fabric of her own weaving, out of her own blood and bone;
cut mayhap in steady snippings at her own heart, pulling and wrenching
until the flesh, now growing purple, was raised above the girl's white
breast. Both arms, in their white sleeves, lay on the trodden grass
motionless, and had not shock and strain left the victim unconscious the
pain must now have done so.

The sinew wrappings held the strap-iron head, wetted as they now were
with blood. The sighing surgeon caught the base of the arrowhead in
thumb and finger. There was no stanching of the blood. She wrenched it
free at last, and the blood gushed from a jagged hole which would have
meant death in any other air or in any patient but the vital young.

Now they disrobed the bride that was no bride, even as the rifle fire
died away in the darkness. Women brought frontier drafts of herbs held
sovereign, and laid her upon the couch that was not to have been hers
alone.

She opened her eyes, moaning, held out her arms to her mother, not to
any husband; and her mother, bloody, unnerved, weeping, caught her to
her bosom.

"My lamb! My little lamb! Oh, dear me! Oh, dear me!"

The wailing of others for their dead arose. The camp dogs kept up a
continual barking, but there was no other sound. The guards now lay out
in the dark. A figure came creeping toward the bridal tent.

"Is she alive? May I come in? Speak to me, Molly!"

"Go on away, Sam!" answered the voice of the older woman. "You can't
come in."

"But is she alive? Tell me!" His voice was at the door which he could
not pass.

"Yes, more's the pity!" he heard the same voice say.

But from the girl who should then have been his, to have and to hold, he
heard no sound at all, nor could he know her frightened gaze into her
mother's face, her tight clutch on her mother's hand.

This was no place for delay. They made graves for the dead, pallets for
the wounded. At sunrise the train moved on, grim, grave, dignified and
silent in its very suffering. There was no time for reprisal or revenge.
The one idea as to safety was to move forward in hope of shaking off
pursuit.

But all that morning and all that day the mounted Arapahoes harassed
them. At many bends of the Sweetwater they paused and made sorties; but
the savages fell back, later to close in, sometimes under cover so near
that their tauntings could be heard.

Wingate, Woodhull, Price, Hall, Kelsey stationed themselves along the
line of flankers, and as the country became flatter and more open they
had better control of the pursuers, so that by nightfall the latter
began to fall back.

The end of the second day of forced marching found them at the Three
Crossings of the Sweetwater, deep in a cheerless alkaline desert, and on
one of the most depressing reaches of the entire journey. That night
such gloom fell on their council as had not yet been known.

"The Watkins boy died to-day," said Hall, joining his colleagues at the
guarded fire. "His leg was black where it was broke. They're going to
bury him just ahead, in the trail. It's not best to leave headboards
here."

Wingate had fallen into a sort of apathy. For a time Woodhull did not
speak to him after he also came in.

"How is she, Mr. Wingate?" he asked at last. "She'll live?"

"I don't know," replied the other. "Fever. No one can tell. We found a
doctor in one of the Iowa wagons. He don't know."

Woodhull sat silent for a time, exclaimed at last, "But she will--she
must! This shames me! We'll be married yet."

"Better wait to see if she lives or dies," said Jesse Wingate
succinctly.

"I know what I wish," said Caleb Price at last as he stared moodily at
the coals, "and I know it mighty well--I wish the other wagons were up.
Yes, and--"

He did not finish. A nod or so was all the answer he got. A general
apprehension held them all.

"If Bridger hadn't gone on ahead, damn him!" exclaimed Kelsey at last.

"Or if Carson hadn't refused to come along, instead of going on east,"
assented Hall. "What made him so keen?"

Kelsey spoke morosely.

"Said he had papers to get through. Maybe Kit Carson'll sometime carry
news of our being wiped out somewhere."

"Or if we had Bill Jackson to trail for us," ventured the first speaker
again. "If we could send back word--"

"We can't, so what's the use?" interrupted Price. "We were all together,
and had our chance--once."

But buried as they were in their gloomy doubts, regrets, fears, they got
through that night and the next in safety. They dared not hunt, though
the buffalo and antelope were in swarms, and though they knew they now
were near the western limit of the buffalo range. They urged on, mile
after mile. The sick and the wounded must endure as they might.

Finally they topped the gentle incline which marked the heights of land
between the Sweetwater and the tributaries of the Green, and knew they
had reached the South Pass, called halfway to Oregon. There was no
timber here. The pass itself was no winding cañon, but only a flat,
broad valley. Bolder views they had seen, but none of greater interest.

Now they would set foot on Oregon, passing from one great series of
waterways to another and even vaster, leading down to the western
sea--the unknown South Sea marked as the limits of their possessions by
the gallants of King Charles when, generations earlier, and careless of
all these intervening generations of toil and danger, they had paused
at the summit of Rockfish Gap in the Appalachians and waved a gay hand
each toward the unknown continent that lay they knew not how far to the
westward.

But these, now arrived halfway of half that continent, made no merriment
in their turn. Their wounded and their sick were with them. The blazing
sun tried them sore. Before them also lay they knew not what.

And now, coming in from the northeast in a vast braided tracing of
travois poles and trampling hoofs, lay a trail which fear told them was
that of yet another war party waiting for the white-topped wagons. It
led on across the Pass. It could not be more than two days old.

"It's the Crows!" exclaimed Sam Woodhull, studying the broad trail.
"They've got their women and children with them."

"We have ours with us," said Caleb Price simply.

Every man who heard him looked back at the lines of gaunt cattle, at the
dust-stained canvas coverings that housed their families. They were far
afield from home or safety.

"Call Wingate. Let's decide what to do," exclaimed Price again. "We'll
have to vote."

They voted to go on, fault of any better plan. Some said Bridger's post
was not far ahead. A general impatience, fretful, querulous, manifested
itself. Ignorant, many of these wanted to hurry on to Oregon, which for
most meant the Williamette Valley, in touch with the sea, marked as the
usual end of the great trek. Few knew that they now stood on the soil of
the Oregon country. The maps and journals of Molly Wingate were no more
forthcoming, for Molly Wingate no more taught the evening school, but
lay delirious under the hothouse canvas cover that intensified the rays
of the blazing sun. It was life or death, but by now life-and-death
issue had become no unusual experience.

It was August, midsummer, and only half the journey done. The heat was
blinding, blistering. For days now, in the dry sage country, from the
ford of the North Fork of the Platte, along the Sweetwater and down the
Sandy, the white alkali dust had sifted in and over everything. Lips
cracked open, hands and arms either were raw or black with tan. The
wagons were ready to drop apart. A dull silence had fallen on the
people; but fatuously following the great Indian trail they made camp at
last at the ford of the Green River, the third day's march down the
Pacific Slope. No three days of all the slow trail had been harder to
endure than these.

"Play for them, Jed," counseled Caleb Price, when that hardy youth,
leaving his shrunken herd, came in for his lunch that day at the ford.

"Yes, but keep that fiddle in the shade, Jed, or the sun certainly will
pop it open."

Jed's mother, her apron full of broken bits of sagebrush, turned to see
that her admonishment was heeded before she began her midday coffee
fire. As for Jed himself, with a wide grin he crouched down at the side
of the wagon and leaned against a wheel as he struck up a lively air,
roaring joyously to his accompaniment:

  _Git out o' the way, old Dan Tucker,
  You're too late to git yore supper!_

Unmindful of the sullen apathy of men and women, the wailing of children
stifling under the wagon tops, the moans of the sick and wounded in
their ghastly discomfort, Jed sang with his cracked lips as he swung
from one jig to the next, the voice of the violin reaching all the
wagons of the shortened train.

"Choose yore pardners!" rang his voice in the joyous jesting of youth.
And--marvel and miracle--then and there, those lean brown folk did take
up the jest, and laughingly gathered on the sun-seared sands. They
formed sets and danced--danced a dance of the indomitable, at high noon,
the heat blinding, the sand hot under feet not all of which were shod.
Molly Wingate, herself fifty and full-bodied, cast down her firewood,
caught up her skirt with either hand and made good an old-time jig to
the tune of the violin and the roaring accompaniment of many voices and
of patted hands. She paused at length, dropping her calico from between
her fingers, and hastened to a certain wagon side as she wiped her face
with her apron.

"Didn't you hear it, Molly?" she demanded, parting the curtain and
looking in.

"Yes, I did. I wanted--I almost wanted to join. Mother, I almost wanted
to hope again. Am I to live? Where are we now?"

"By a right pretty river, child, and eena'most to Oregon. Come, kiss
your mother, Molly. Let's try."

Whereupon, having issued her orders and set everyone to work at
something after her practical fashion, the first lady of the train went
frizzling her shaved buffalo meat with milk in the frying pan; grumbling
that milk now was almost at the vanishing point, and that now they
wouldn't see another buffalo; but always getting forward with her meal.
This she at last amiably announced.

"Well, come an' git it, people, or I'll throw it to the dogs."

Flat on the sand, on blankets or odds and ends of hide, the emigrants
sat and ate, with the thermometer--had they had one--perhaps a hundred
and ten in the sun. The men were silent for the most part, with now and
then a word about the ford, which they thought it would be wise to make
at once, before the river perchance might rise, and while it still would
not swim the cattle.

"We can't wait for anyone, not even the Crows," said Wingate, rising and
ending the mealtime talk. "Let's get across."

Methodically they began the blocking up of the wagon bodies to the
measurement established by a wet pole.

"Thank the Lord," said Wingate, "they'll just clear now if the bottom
is hard all the way."

One by one the teams were urged into the ticklish crossing. The line of
wagons was almost all at the farther side when all at once the rear
guard came back, spurring.

"Corral! Corral!" he called.

He plunged into the stream as the last driver urged his wagon up the
bank. A rapid dust cloud was approaching down the valley.

"Indians!" called out a dozen voices. "Corral, men! For God's sake,
quick--corral!"

They had not much time or means to make defense, but with training now
become second nature they circled and threw the dusty caravan into the
wonted barricade, tongue to tail gate. The oxen could not all be driven
within, the loose stock was scattered, the horses were not on picket
lines at that time of day; but driving what stock they could, the boy
herders came in at a run when they saw the wagons parking.

There was no time to spare. The dust cloud swept on rapidly. It could
not spell peace, for no men would urge their horses at such pace under
such a sun save for one purpose--to overtake this party at the ford.

"It's Bill Jackson!" exclaimed Caleb Price, rifle in hand, at the
river's edge. "Look out, men! Don't shoot! Wait! There's fifty Indians
back of him, but that's Jackson ahead. Now what's wrong?"

The riddle was not solved even when the scout of the Missouri train,
crowded ahead by the steady rush of the shouting and laughing savages,
raised his voice as though in warning and shouted some word,
unintelligible, which made them hold their fire.

The wild cavalcade dashed into the stream, crowding their prisoner--he
was no less--before them, bent bows back of him, guns ready.

They were stalwart, naked men, wide of jaw, great of chest, not a woman
or child among them, all painted and full armed.

"My God, men!" called Wingate, hastening under cover. "Don't let them
in! Don't let them in! It's the Crows!"



CHAPTER XXXI

HOW, COLA!


"How, cola!" exclaimed the leader of the band of Indians, crowding up to
the gap in the corral where a part of the stock had just been driven in.
He grinned maliciously and made the sign for "Sioux"--the edge of the
hand across the throat.

But men, rifles crosswise, barred him back, while others were hurrying,
strengthening the barricade. A half dozen rifles, thrust out through
wheels or leveled across wagon togues, now covered the front rank of the
Crows; but the savages, some forty or fifty in number, only sat their
horses laughing. This was sport to them. They had no doubt at all that
they would have their will of this party of the whites as soon as they
got ready, and they planned further strategy. To drive a prisoner into
camp before killing him was humorous from their point of view, and
practical withal, like driving a buffalo close to the village before
shooting it.

But the white men were not deceived by the trading-post salutation.

"He's a liar!" called out the voice of Jackson. "They're not
Sioux--they're Crows, an' out for war! Don't let 'em in, boys! For
God's sake, keep 'em out!"

It was a brave man's deed. The wonder was his words were not his last,
for though the Crows did not understand all his speech, they knew well
enough what he meant. One brave near him struck him across the mouth
with the heavy wooden stock of his Indian whip, so that his lips gushed
blood. A half dozen arrows turned toward him, trembling on the strings.
But the voice of their partisan rose in command. He preferred a parley,
hoping a chance might offer to get inside the wagon ring. The loose
stock he counted safe booty any time they liked. He did not relish the
look of the rifle muzzles at a range of twenty feet. The riders were now
piled in almost against the wheels.

"Swap!" exclaimed the Crow leader ingratiatingly, and held out his hand.
"How, cola!"

"Don't believe him! Don't trust him, men!"

Again Jackson's voice rose. As the savages drew apart from him, to hold
him in even better bow range, one young brave, hideously barred in
vermilion and yellow, all the time with an arrow at the prisoner's back,
the men in the wagon corral now saw that Jackson's hands were tied
behind his back, so that he was helpless. But still he sat his own
horse, and still he had a chance left to take.

"Look out!" he called high and clear. "Get away from the hole! I'm
comin' in!"

Before anyone fully caught his meaning he swung his horse with his legs,
lifted him with his heels and made one straight, desperate plunge for
the gap, jostling aside the nearest two or three of his oppressors.

It was a desperate man's one hope--no hope at all, indeed, for the odds
were fifty to one against him. Swift as was his movement, and unprepared
as his tormentors were for it, just as the horse rose to his leap over
the wagon tongue, and as the rider flung himself low on his neck to
escape what he knew would come, a bow twanged back of him. They all
heard the zhut! of the arrow as it struck. Then, in a stumbling heap,
horse and rider fell, rolled over, as a sleet of arrows followed
through.

Jackson rolled to one side, rose to his knees. Molly Wingate chanced to
be near. Her scissors, carefully guarded always, because priceless, hung
at her neck. Swiftly she began to saw at the thong which held Jackson's
wrists, bedded almost to the bone and twisted with a stick. She severed
the cord somehow and the man staggered up. Then they saw the arrow
standing out at both sides of his shoulder, driven through the muscles
with the hasty snap of the painted bowman's shot.

"Cut it--break it!" he demanded of her; for all the men now were at the
edge, and there was no one else to aid. And staunch Molly Wingate, her
eyes staring again in horror, took the bloody stem and tried to break it
off, in her second case of like surgery that week. But the shaft was
flexible, tough and would not break.

"A knife--quick! Cut it off above the feather!"

He himself caught the front of the shaft and pushed it back, close to
the head. By chance she saw Jed's knife at his belt as he kneeled, and
drew it. Clumsily but steadily she slashed into the shaft, weakened it,
broke it, pushed the point forward. Jackson himself unhesitatingly
pulled it through, a gush of blood following on either side the
shoulder. There was no time to notice that. Crippled as he was, the man
only looked for weapons. A pistol lay on the ground and he caught it up.

But for the packs and bales that had been thrown against the wheels, the
inmates of the corral would all have fallen under the rain of arrows
that now slatted and thudded in. But they kept low, and the Indians were
so close against the wagons that they could not see under the bodies or
through the wheels. The chocks had not yet been taken out from under the
boxes, so that they stood high. Against such a barricade cavalry was
helpless. There was no warrior who wanted to follow Jackson's example of
getting inside.

For an instant there came no order to fire. The men were reaching into
the wagons to unsling their rifles from the riding loops fastened to the
bows. It all was a trample and a tumult and a whirl of dust under
thudding hoofs outside and in, a phase which could last no more than an
instant. Came the thin crack of a squirrel rifle from the far corner of
the wagon park. The Crow partisan sat his horse just a moment, the
expression on his face frozen there, his mouth slowly closing. Then he
slid off his horse close to the gap, now; piled high with goods and
gear.

A boy's high quaver rose.

"You can't say nothing this time! You didn't shoot at all now!"

An emigrant boy was jeering at his father.

But by that time no one knew or cared who shot. The fight was on. Every
rifle was emptied in the next instant, and at that range almost every
shot was fatal or disabling. In sudden panic at the powder flare in
their faces, the Crows broke and scattered, with no time to drag away
their wounded.

The fight, or this phase of it, was over almost before it was begun. It
all was one more repetition of border history. Almost never did the
Indians make a successful attack on a trading post, rarely on an
emigrant train in full corral. The cunning of the Crow partisan in
driving in a prisoner as a fence had brought him close, yes--too close.
But the line was not yet broken.

Firing with a steady aim, the emigrants added to the toll they took. The
Crows bent low and flogged their horses. Only in the distant willow
thickets did they pause. They even left their dead.

There were no wounded, or not for long. Jackson, the pistol in his hand,
his face gray with rage and pain, stepped outside the corral. The Crow
chief, shot through the chest, turned over, looked up dully.

"How, cola!" said his late prisoner, baring his teeth.

And what he did with this brave he did with all the others of the
wounded able to move a hand. The debt to savage treachery was paid,
savagely enough, when he turned back to the wagons, and such was the
rage of all at this last assault that no voice was raised to stay his
hand.

"There's nothing like tobacker," asserted Jackson coolly when he had
reëntered the corral and it came to the question of caring for his arrow
wound. "Jest tie on a good chaw o' tobacker on each side o' that hole
an' 'twon't be long afore she's all right. I'm glad it went plumb
through. I've knowed a arrerhead to pull off an' stay in when the sinew
wroppin's got loose from soakin'.

"Look at them wrists," he added, holding up his hands. "They twisted
that rawhide clean to the bone, damn their skins! Pertendin' to be
friends! They put me in front sos't you'd let 'em ride up clost--that's
the Crow way, to come right inter camp if they can, git in close an'
play friends. But, believe me, this ain't but the beginnin'. They'll be
back, an' plenty with 'em. Them Crows ain't west of the Pass fer only
one thing, an' that's this wagon train."

They gathered around him now, plying him with questions. Sam Woodhull
was among those who came, and him Jackson watched narrowly every moment,
his own weapon handy, as he now described the events that had brought
him hither.

"Our train come inter the Sweetwater two days back o' you all," he said.
"We seed you'd had a fight but had went on. We knowed some was hurt,
fer we picked up some womern fixin's--tattin', hit were--with blood on
hit. And we found buryin's, the dirt different color."

They told him now of the first fight, of their losses, of the wounded;
told him of the near escape of Molly Wingate, though out of courtesy to
Woodhull, who stood near, they said nothing of the interrupted wedding.
The old mountain man's face grew yet more stern.

"That gal!" he said. "Her shot by a sneakin' Rapa-hoe? Ain't that a
shame! But she's not bad--she's comin' through?"

Molly Wingate, who stood ready now with bandages, told him how alike the
two arrow wounds had been.

"Take an' chaw tobacker, ma'am," said he. "Put a hunk on each side,
do-ee mind, an' she'll be well."

"Go on and tell us the rest," someone demanded.

"Not much to tell that ye couldn't of knew, gentlemen," resumed the
scout. "Ef ye'd sont back fer us we'd of jined ye, shore, but ye didn't
send."

"How could we send, man?" demanded Woodhull savagely. "How could we know
where you were, or whether you'd come--or whether you'd have been of any
use if you had?"

"Well, we knew whar you-all was, 't any rate," rejoined Jackson. "We was
two days back o' ye, then one day. Our captain wouldn't let us crowd in,
fer he said he wasn't welcome an' we wasn't needed.

"That was ontel we struck the big Crow trail, with you all a follerin'
o' hit blind, a-chasin' trouble as hard as ye could. Then he sont me on
ahead to warn ye an' to ask ef we should jine on. We knowed the Crows
was down atter the train.

"I laid down to sleep, I did, under a sagebrush, in the sun, like a
fool. I was beat out an' needed sleep, an' I thought I was safe fer a
leetle while. When I woke up it was a whoop that done hit. They was
around me, laughin', twenty arrers p'inted, an' some shot inter the
ground by my face. I taken my chance, an' shook hands. They grabbed me
an' tied me. Then they made me guide them in, like ye seen. They maybe
didn't know I come from the east an' not from the west.

"Their village is on some creek above here. I think they're on a visit
to the Shoshones. Eight hundred men they are, or more. Hit's more'n what
it was with the Sioux on the Platte, fer ye're not so many now. An' any
time now the main band may come. Git ready, men. Fer me, I must git back
to my own train. They may be back twenty mile, or thirty. Would ary man
want to ride with me? Would ye, Sam Woodhull?"

The eyes of his associates rested on Woodhull.

"I think one man would be safer than two," said he. "My own place is
here if there's sure to be a fight."

"Mebbe so," assented Jackson. "In fack, I don't know as more'n one'd git
through if you an' me both started." His cold gray eye was fixed on
Woodhull carelessly. "An' ef hit was the wrong man got through he'd
never lead them Missouri men for'rerd to where this fight'll be.

"An' hit'll be right here. Look yan!" he added.

He nodded to the westward, where a great dust cloud arose.

"More is comin'," said he. "Yan's Bannack's like as not, er even the
Shoshones, all I know, though they're usual quiet. The runners is out
atween all the tribes. I must be on my way."

He hurried to find his own horse, looked to its welfare, for it, too,
had an arrow wound. As he passed a certain wagon he heard a voice call
to him, saw a hand at the curtained front.

"Miss Molly! Hit's you! Ye're not dead no ways, then?"

"Come," said the girl.

He drew near, fell back at sight of her thin face, her pallor; but again
she commanded him.

"I know," said she. "He's--he's safe?"

"Yes, Miss Molly, a lot safer'n any of us here."

"You're going back to him?"

"Yes. When he knows ye're hurt he'll come. Nothin'll stop him, oncet I
tell him."

"Wait!" she whispered. "I heard you talk. Take him this." She pushed
into his hand a folded paper, unsealed, without address. "To him!" she
said, and fell back on the blankets of her rude pallet.

At that moment her mother was approaching, and at her side walked
Woodhull, actuated by his own suspicions about Jackson. He saw the
transaction of the passed note and guessed what he could not know. He
tapped Jackson on the shoulder, drew him aside, his own face pale with
anger.

"I'm one of the officers of this train," said he. "I want to know what's
in that note. We have no truck with Banion, and you know that. Give it
to me."

Jackson calmly tucked the paper into the fire bag that hung at his belt.

"Come an' take it, Sam, damn ye!" said he. "I don't know what's in hit,
an' won't know. Who it's to ain't none o' yore damn business!"

"You're a cursed meddler!" broke out Woodhull. "You're a spy in our
camp, that's all you are!"

"So! Well, cussed meddler er not, I'm a cussed shore shot. An' I advise
ye to give over on all this an' mind yore business. Ye'll have plenty to
do by midnight, an' by that time all yore womern an' children, all yore
old men an' all yore cowards'll be prayin' fer Banion an' his men to
come. That there includes you somewhere's, Sam. Don't temp' me too much
ner too long. I'll kill ye yit ef ye do! Git on away!"

They parted, each with eye over shoulder. Their talk had been aside and
none had heard it in full. But when Woodhull again joined Mrs. Wingate
that lady conveyed to him Molly's refusal to see him or to set a time
for seeing him. Bitterly angered, humiliated to the core, he turned
back to the men who were completing the defenses of the wagon park.

"I kain't start now afore dark," said Jackson to the train command.
"They're a-goin' to jump the train. When they do come they'll surround
ye an' try to keep ye back from the water till the stock goes crazy. Lay
low an' don't let a Injun inside. Hit may be a hull day, er more, but
when Banion's men come they'll come a-runnin'--allowin' I git through to
tell 'em.

"Dig in a trench all the way aroun'," he added finally. "Put the womern
an' children in hit an' pile up all yer flour on top. Don't waste no
powder--let 'em come up clost as they will. Hold on ontel we come."

At dusk he slipped away, the splash of his horse's feet in the ford
coming fainter and fainter, even as the hearts of some felt fainter as
his wise and sturdy counsel left them. Naught to do now but to wait.

They did wait--the women and children, the old, the ill and the wounded
huddled shivering and crying in the scooped-out sand, hardest and
coldest of beds; the men in line against the barricade, a circle of
guards outside the wagon park. But midnight passed, and the cold hours
of dawn, and still no sign came of an attack. Men began to believe the
dust cloud of yesterday no more than a false alarm, and the leaders were
of two minds, whether to take Jackson's counsel and wait for the
Missourians, or to hook up and push on as fast as possible to Bridger's
fort, scarce more than two hard days' journey on ahead. But before this
breakfast-hour discussion had gone far events took the decision out of
their hands.

"Look!" cried a voice. "Open the gate!"

The cattle guards and outposts who had just driven the herd to water
were now spurring for shelter and hurrying on the loose stock ahead of
them. And now, from the willow growth above them, from the trail that
led to the ford and from the more open country to the westward there
came, in three great detachments, not a band or a body, but an army of
the savage tribesmen, converging steadily upon the wagon train.

They came slowly, not in a wild charge, not yelling, but chanting. The
upper and right-hand bodies were Crows. Their faces were painted black,
for war and for revenge. The band on the left were wild men, on active
half-broke horses, their weapons for the most part bows and arrows. They
later found these to be Bannacks, belonging anywhere but here, and in
any alliance rather than with the Crows from east of the Pass.

Nor did the latter belong here to the south and west, far off their own
great hunting range. Obviously what Carson, Bridger, Jackson had said
was true. All the tribes were in league to stop the great invasion of
the white nation, who now were bringing their women and children and
this thing with which they buried the buffalo. They meant extermination
now. They were taking their time and would take their revenge for the
dead who lay piled before the white man's barricade.

The emigrants rolled back a pair of wagons, and the cattle were crowded
through, almost over the human occupants of the oblong. The gap was
closed. All the remaining cargo packages were piled against the wheels,
and the noncombatants sheltered in that way. Shovels deepened the trench
here or there as men sought better to protect their families.

And now in a sudden _melée_ of shouts and yells, of trampling hoofs and
whirling colors, the first bands of the Crows came charging up in the
attempt to carry away their dead of yesterday. Men stooped to grasp a
stiffened wrist, a leg, a belt; the ponies squatted under ghastly
dragging burdens.

But this brought them within pistol range. The reports of the white
men's weapons began, carefully, methodically, with deadly accuracy.
There was no panic. The motionless or the struggling blotches ahead of
the wagon park grew and grew. A few only of the Crows got off with
bodies of their friend's or relatives. One warrior after another
dropped. They were used to killing buffalo at ten yards. The white
rifles killed their men now regularly at a hundred. They drew off, out
of range.

Meantime the band from the westward was rounding up and driving off
every animal that had not been corralled. The emigrants saw themselves
in fair way to be set on foot.

Now the savage strategy became plain. The fight was to be a siege.

"Look!" Again a leader pointed.

Crouched now, advancing under cover of the shallow cut-bank, the
headdresses of a score of the Western tribesmen could be seen. They sank
down. The ford was held, the water was cut off! The last covering fringe
of willows also was held. On every side the black-painted savages sat
their ponies, out of range. There could be no more water or grass for
the horses and cattle, no wood for the camp.

There was no other concerted charge for a long time. Now and then some
painted brave, chanting a death song, would ride slowly toward the wagon
park, some dervish vow actuating him or some bravado impelling him. But
usually he fell.

It all became a quiet, steady, matter-of-fact performance on both sides.
This very freedom from action and excitement, so different from the
gallant riding of the Sioux, was more terrifying than direct attack _en
masse_, so that when it came to a matter of shaken morale the whites
were in as bad case as their foes, although thus far they had had no
casualty at all.

There lacked the one leader, cool, calm, skilled, experienced, although
courage did not lack. Yet even the best courage suffers when a man hears
the wailing of his children back of him, the groans of his wife. As the
hours passed, with no more than an occasional rifle shot or the zhut! of
an arrow ending its high arc, the tension on the nerves of the
beleaguered began to manifest itself.

At midday the children began to cry for water. They were appeased with
milk from the few cows offering milk; but how long might that last, with
the cattle themselves beginning to moan and low?

"How far are they back?"

It was Hall, leader of the Ohio wagons. But none could tell him where
the Missouri train had paused. Wingate alone knew why Banion had not
advanced. He doubted if he would come now.

"And this all was over the quarrel between two men," said Caleb Price to
his friend Wingate.

"The other man is a thief, Cale," reiterated Wingate. "He was
court-martialed and broke, dishonorably discharged from the Army. He was
under Colonel Doniphan, and had control of subsistence in upper Mexico
for some time. He had the regimental funds. Doniphan was irregular. He
ran his regiment like a mess, and might order first this officer, then
that, of the line or staff, to take on his free-for-all quartermaster
trains. But he was honest. Banion was not. He had him broken. The
charges were filed by Captain Woodhull. Well, is it any wonder there is
no love lost? And is it any wonder I wouldn't train up with a thief, or
allow him to visit in my family? By God! right now I wouldn't; and I
didn't send for him to help us!"

"So!" said Caleb Price. "So! And that was why the wedding--"

"Yes! A foolish fancy of a girl. I don't know what passed between her
and Banion. I felt it safer for my daughter to be married, as soon as
could be, to another man, an honest man. You know how that came out. And
now, when she's as apt to die as live, and we're all as apt to, you
others send for that renegade to save us! I have no confidence that he
will come. I hope he will not. I'd like his rifles, but I don't want
him."

"Well," said Caleb Price, "it is odd how his rifles depend on him and
not on the other man. Yet they both lived in the same town."

"Yes, one man may be more plausible than another."

"Yes? I don't know that I ever saw a man more plausible with his fists
than Major Banion was. Yes, I'll call him plausible. I wish some of
us--say, Sam Woodhull, now--could be half as plausible with these Crows.
Difference in men, Jess!" he concluded. "Woodhull was there--and now
he's here. He's here--and now we're sending there for the other man."

"You want that other man, thief and dishonest as he is?"

"By God! yes! I want his rifles and him too. Women, children and all,
the whole of us, will die if that thief doesn't come inside of another
twenty-four hours."

Wingate flung out his arms, walked away, hands clasped behind his back.
He met Woodhull.

"Sam, what shall we do?" he demanded. "You're sort of in charge now.
You've been a soldier, and we haven't had much of that."

"There are fifteen hundred or two thousand of them," said Woodhull
slowly--"a hundred and fifty of us that can fight. Ten to one, and they
mean no quarter."

"But what shall we do?"

"What can we but lie close and hold the wagons?"

"And wait?"

"Yes."

"Which means only the Missouri men!"

"There's no one else. We don't know that they're alive. We don't know
that they will come."

"But one thing I do know"--his dark face gathered in a scowl--"if he
doesn't come it will not be because he was not asked! That fellow
carried a letter from Molly to him. I know that. Well, what do you-all
think of me? What's my standing in all this? If I've not been shamed and
humiliated, how can a man be? And what am I to expect?"

"If we get through, if Molly lives, you mean?"

"Yes. I don't quit what I want. I'll never give her up. You give me
leave to try again? Things may change. She may consider the wrong she's
done me, an honest man. It's his hanging around all the time, keeping in
her mind. And now we've sent for him--and so has she!"

They walked apart, Wingate to his wagon.

"How is she?" he asked of his wife, nodding to Molly's wagon.

"Better some ways, but low," replied his stout helpmate, herself
haggard, dark circles of fatigue about her eyes. "She won't eat, even
with the fever down. If we was back home where we could get things!
Jess, what made us start for Oregon?"

"What made us leave Kentucky for Indiana, and Indiana for Illinois? I
don't know. God help us now!"

"It's bad, Jesse."

"Yes, it's bad." Suddenly he took his wife's face in his hands and
kissed her quietly. "Kiss Little Molly for me," he said. "I wish--I
wish--"

"I wish them other wagons'd come," said Molly Wingate. "Then we'd see!"



CHAPTER XXXII

THE FIGHT AT THE FORD


Jackson, wounded and weary as he was, drove his crippled horse so hard
all the night through that by dawn he had covered almost fifty miles,
and was in sight of the long line of wagons, crawling like a serpent
down the slopes west of the South Pass, a cloud of bitter alkali dust
hanging like a blanket over them. No part of the way had been more
cheerless than this gray, bare expanse of more than a hundred miles, and
none offered less invitation for a bivouac. But now both man and horse
were well-nigh spent.

Knowing that he would be reached within an hour or so at best, Jackson
used the last energies of his horse in riding back and forth at right
angles across the trail, the Plains sign of "Come to me!" He hoped it
would be seen. He flung himself down across the road, in the dust, his
bridle tied to his wrist. His horse, now nearly gone, lay down beside
him, nor ever rose again. And here, in the time a gallop could bring
them up, Banion and three of his men found them, one dead, the other
little better.

"Bill! Bill!"

The voice of Banion was anxious as he lightly shook the shoulder of the
prone man, half afraid that he, too, had died. Stupid in sleep, the
scout sprang up, rifle in hand.

"Who's thar?"

"Hold, Bill! Friends! Easy now!"

The old man pulled together, rubbed his eyes.

"I must of went to sleep agin," said he. "My horse--pshaw now, pore
critter, do-ee look now!"

In rapid words he now told his errand. They could see the train
accelerating its speed. Jackson felt in the bag at his belt and handed
Banion the folded paper. He opened the folds steadily, read the words
again and again.

"'Come to us,'" is what it says. He spoke to Jackson.

"Ye're a damned liar, Will," remarked Jackson.

"I'll read it all!" said Banion suddenly.

"'Will Banion, come to me, or it may be too late. There never was any
wedding. I am the most wicked and most unhappy woman in the world. You
owe me nothing! But come! M.W.'

"That's what it says. Now you know. Tell me--you heard of no wedding
back at Independence Rock? They said nothing? He and she--"

"Ef they was ever any weddin' hit was a damned pore sort, an' she says
thar wasn't none. She'd orto know."

"Can you ride, Jackson?"

"Span in six fast mules for a supply wagon, such as kin gallop. I'll
sleep in that a hour or so. Git yore men started, Will. We may be too
late. It's nigh fifty mile to the ford o' the Green."

It came near to mutiny when Banion ordered a third of his men to stay
back with the ox teams and the families. Fifty were mounted and ready in
five minutes. They were followed by two fast wagons. In one of these
rolled Bill Jackson, unconscious of the roughness of the way.

On the Sandy, twenty miles from the ford, they wakened him.

"Now tell me how it lies," said Banion. "How's the country?"

Jackson drew a sketch on the sand.

"They'll surround, an' they'll cut off the water."

"Can we ford above and come in behind them?"

"We mout. Send half straight to the ford an' half come in behind,
through the willers, huh? That'd put 'em atween three fires. Ef we driv'
'em on the wagons they'd get hell thar, an' ef they broke, the wagons
could chase 'em inter us again. I allow we'd give 'em hell. Hit's the
Crows I'm most a-skeered of. The Bannacks--ef that's who they was--'ll
run easy."

At sunset of that day the emigrants, now half mad of thirst, and half
ready to despair of succor or success, heard the Indian drums sound and
the shrilling of the eagle-bone whistles. The Crows were chanting again.
Whoops arose along the river bank.

"My God! they're coming!" called out a voice.

There was a stir of uneasiness along the line, an ominous thing. And
then the savage hosts broke from their cover, more than a thousand men,
ready to take some loss in their hope that the whites were now more
helpless. In other circumstances it must have been a stirring spectacle
for any who had seen it. To these, cowering in the sand, it brought
terror.

But before the three ranks of the Crows had cleared the cover the last
line began to yell, to whip, to break away. Scattering but continuous
rifle fire followed them, war cries arose, not from savages, but white
men. A line of riders emerged, coming straight through to the second
rank of the Crow advance. Then the beleaguered knew that the Missourians
were up.

"Banion, by God!" said a voice which few stopped to recognize as
Woodhull's.

He held his fire, his rifle resting so long through the wagon wheel that
Caleb Price in one swift motion caught it away from him.

"No harm, friend," said he, "but you'll not need this just now!"

His cold eye looked straight into that of the intending murderer.

The men in the wagon park rose to their work again. The hidden Bannacks
began to break away from their lodgment under the river bank. The sound
of hoofs and of shouts came down the trail. The other wing of the
Missourians flung off and cleared the ford before they undertook to
cross, their slow, irregular, deadly rifle fire doing its work among
the hidden Bannacks until they broke and ran for their horses in the
cottonwoods below. This brought them partly into view, and the rifles of
the emigrants on that side bore on them till they broke in sheer terror
and fled in a scattered _sauve qui peut_.

The Crows swerved under the enfilading fire of the men who now crossed
the ford. Caught between three fires, and meeting for their first time
the use of the revolver, then new to them, they lost heart and once more
left their dead, breaking away into a mad flight west and north which
did not end till they had forded the upper tributaries of the Green and
Snake, and found their way back west of the Tetons to their own country
far east and north of the Two-go-tee crossing of the Wind River
Mountains; whence for many a year they did not emerge again to battle
with the white nation on the Medicine Road. At one time there were forty
Crow squaws, young and old, with gashed breasts and self-amputated
fingers, given in mourning over the unreturning brave.

What many men had not been able to do of their own resources, less than
a fourth their number now had done. Side by side Banion, Jackson, a half
dozen others, rode up to the wagon gap, now opened. They were met by a
surge of the rescued. Women, girls threw themselves upon them, kissing
them, embracing them hysterically. Where had been gloom, now was
rejoicing, laughter, tears.

The leaders of the emigrants came up to Banion and his men, Wingate in
advance. Banion still sat his great black horse, coldly regarding them.

"I have kept my promise, Captain Wingate," said he. "I have not come
until you sent for me. Let me ask once more, do I owe you anything now?"

"No, sir, you do not," replied the older man.

"And do you owe me anything?"

Wingate did not answer.

"Name what you like, Major Banion," said a voice at his shoulder--Caleb
Price.

Banion turned to him slowly.

"Some things have no price, sir," said he. "For other things I shall ask
a high price in time. Captain Wingate, your daughter asked me to come.
If I may see her a moment, and carry back to my men the hope of her
recovery, we shall all feel well repaid."

Wingate made way with the others. Banion rode straight through the gap,
with no more than one unseeing glance at Woodhull, near whom sat
Jackson, a pistol resting on his thigh. He came to the place under a
wagon where they had made a hospital cot for Molly Wingate. It was her
own father and mother who lifted her out as Will Banion sprang down, hat
in hand, pale in his own terror at seeing her so pale.

"No, don't go!" said the girl to her parents. "Be here with us--and
God.'"

She held out her arms and he bent above her, kissing her forehead gently
and shyly as a boy.

"Please get well, Molly Wingate," said he. "You are Molly Wingate?"

"Yes. At the end--I couldn't! I ran away, all in my wedding clothes,
Will. In the dark. Someone shot me. I've been sick, awfully sick, Will."

"Please get well, Molly Wingate! I'm going away again. This time, I
don't know where. Can't you forget me, Molly Wingate?"

"I'm going to try, Will. I did try. Go on ahead, Will," she added. "You
know what I mean. Do what I told you. I--why, Will!"

"My poor lamb!" said the strong voice of her mother, who gathered her in
her arms, looking over her shoulder at this man to whom her child had
made no vows. But Banion, wet eyed, was gone once more.

Jackson saw his leader out of the wagon gap, headed for a camping spot
far apart. He stumbled up to the cot where Molly lay, her silent parents
still close by.

"Here, Miss Molly, gal," said he, holding out some object in his hand.
"We both got a arrer through the shoulder, an' mine's a'most well
a'ready. Ain't nothin' in the world like a good chaw o' tobackers to put
on a arrer cut. Do-ee, now!"



CHAPTER XXXIII

THE FAMILIES ARE COMING!


The Missourians camped proudly and coldly apart, the breach between the
two factions by no means healed, but rather deepened, even if honorably
so, and now well understood of all.

Most men of both parties now knew of the feud between Banion and
Woodhull, and the cause underlying it. Woman gossip did what it might. A
half dozen determined men quietly watched Woodhull. As many continually
were near Banion, although for quite a different reason. All knew that
time alone must work out the answer to this implacable quarrel, and that
the friends of the two men could not possibly train up together.

After all, when in sheer courtesy the leaders of the Wingate train came
over to the Missouri camp on the following day there came nearer to
being a good understanding than there ever had been since the first
break. It was agreed that all the wagons should go on together as far as
Fort Bridger, and that beyond that point the train should split into two
or perhaps three bodies--a third if enough Woodhull adherents could be
found to make him up a train. First place, second and third were to be
cast by lot. They all talked soberly, fairly, with the dignity of men
used to good standing among men. These matters concluded, and it having
been agreed that all should lie by for another day, they resolved the
meeting into one of better fellowship.

Old Bill Jackson, lying against his blanket roll, fell into
reminiscence.

"Times past," said he, "the Green River Rendyvous was helt right in
here. I've seed this place spotted with tepees--hull valley full o'
Company men an' free trappers an' pack-train people--time o' Ashley an'
Sublette an' my Uncle Jackson an' all them traders. That was right here
on the Green. Ever'body drunk an' happy, like I ain't now. Mounting men
togged out, new leggin's an' moccasins their womern had made, warriors
painted up a inch o' their lives, an' women with brass wire an' calico
all they wanted--maybe two-three thousand people in the Rendyvous.

"But I never seed the grass so short, an' I never seed so much fightin'
afore in all my life as I have this trip. This is the third time we're
jumped, an' this time we're lucky, shore as hell. Pull on through to
Bridger an' fix yer wagons afore they tumble apart. Leave the grass fer
them that follows, an' git on fur's you kin, every wagon. We ain't
likely to have no more trouble now. Pile up them braves in one heap fer
a warnin' to any other bunch o' reds that may come along to hide around
the wagon ford. New times has come on the Green."

"Can you travel, Jackson?" asked Hall of Ohio. "You've had a hard time."

"Who? Me? Why shouldn't I? Give me time to pick up some o' them bows
an' arrers an' I'm ready to start. I noticed a right fine horn bow one
o' them devils had--the Crows allus had good bows. That's the
yaller-an'-red brave that was itchin' so long to slap a arrer through my
ribs from behind. I'd like to keep his bow fer him, him not needin' it
now."

Before the brazen sun had fully risen on the second day these late
peaceful farmers of Ohio, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, were
plodding along once more beside their sore-footed oxen; passing out
unaided into a land which many leading men in the Government, North and
South, and quite aside from political affiliations, did not value at
five dollars for it all, though still a thousand miles of it lay ahead.

"Oh, then, Susannah!" roared Jed Wingate, trudging along beside Molly's
wagon in the sand. "Don't you cry fer me--I'm going through to Oregon,
with my banjo on my knee!"

Fair as a garden to the sun-seared eyes of the emigrants seemed the
mountain post, Fort Bridger, when its rude stockade separated itself
from the distortions of the desert mirage, whose citadels of silence,
painted temples fronted with colossal columns, giant sphinxes, vast
caryatids, lofty arches, fretwork façades, fantastically splendid
castles and palaces now resolved themselves into groups of squat pole
structures and a rude stock corral.

The site of the post itself could not better have been chosen. Here the
flattened and dividing waters of the Black's Fork, icy cold and fresh
from the Uintah Mountains to the southward, supported a substantial
growth of trees, green now and wonderfully refreshing to desert-weary
eyes.

"The families are coming!"

Bridger's clerk, Chardon, raised the new cry of the trading post.

"Broke an' hungry, I'll bet!" swore old Jim Bridger in his beard.

But he retired into his tepee and issued orders to his Shoshone squaw,
who was young and pretty. Her name, as he once had said, was Dang Yore
Eyes--and she was very proud of it. Philosophical withal, though
smarting under recent blows of her white lord, she now none the less
went out and erected once more in front of the tepee the token Bridger
had kicked down--the tufted lance, the hair-fringed bull-neck shield,
the sacred medicine bundle which had stood in front of Jeem's tepee in
the Rendezvous on Horse Creek, what time he had won her in a game of
hands. Whereupon the older squaw, not young, pretty or jealous, abused
him in Ute and went out after wood. Her name was Blast Your Hide, and
she also was very proud of her white name. Whereafter both Dang Yore
Eyes and Blast Yore Hide, female, and hence knowing the moods of man,
wisely hid out for a while. They knew when Jeem had the long talk with
the sick white squaw, who was young, but probably needed bitter bark of
the cottonwood to cure her fever.

Painted Utes and Shoshones stood about, no more silent than the few
local mountaineers, bearded, beaded and fringed, who still after some
mysterious fashion clung to the old life at the post. Against the
newcomers, profitable as they were, still existed the ancient antipathy
of the resident for the nonresident.

"My land sakes alive!" commented stoical Molly Wingate after they had
made some inquiries into the costs of staples here. "This store ain't no
place to trade. They want fifty dollars a sack for flour--what do you
think of that? We got it for two dollars back home. And sugar a dollar a
tin cup, and just plain salt two bits a pound, and them to guess at the
pound. Do they think we're Indians, or what?"

"It's the tenth day of August, and a thousand miles ahead," commented
Caleb Price. "And we're beyond the buffalo now."

"And Sis is in trouble," added Jed Wingate. "The light wagon's got one
hind spindle half in two, and I've spliced the hind ex for the last
time."

Jackson advanced an idea.

"At Fort Hall," he said, "I've seed 'em cut a wagon in two an' make a
two-wheel cart out'n hit. They're easier to git through mountains that
way."

"Now listen to that, Jesse!" Mrs. Wingate commented. "It's getting down
to less and less every day. But I'm going to take my bureau through, and
my wheat, and my rose plants, if I have to put wheels on my bureau."

The men determined to saw down three wagons of the train which now
seemed doubtful of survival as quadrupeds, and a general rearrangement
of cargoes was agreed. Now they must jettison burden of every
dispensable sort. Some of the sore-necked oxen were to be thrown into
the loose herd and their places taken for a time by cows no longer
offering milk.

A new soberness began to sit on all. The wide reaches of desert with
which they here were in touch appalled their hearts more than anything
they yet had met. The grassy valley of the Platte, where the great
fourfold tracks of the trail cut through a waving sea of green belly
deep to the oxen, had seemed easy and inviting, and since then hardship
had at least been spiced with novelty and change. But here was a new and
forbidding land. This was the Far West itself; silent, inscrutable,
unchanged, irreducible. The mightiness of its calm was a smiting thing.
The awesomeness of its chill, indifferent nights, the unsparing ardors
of its merciless noons, the measureless expanses of its levels, the cold
barrenness of its hills--these things did not invite as to the bosom of
a welcoming mother; they repelled, as with the chill gesture of a
stranger turning away outcasts from the door.

"Here resolution almost faints!" wrote one.

A general requisition was made on the scant stores Bridger had hurried
through. To their surprise, Bridger himself made no attempt at frontier
profits.

"Chardon," commanded the moody master of the post to his head clerk,
"take down your tradin' bar an' let my people in. Sell them their flour
an' meal at what it has cost us here--all they want, down to what the
post will need till my partner Vasquez brings in more next fall, if he
ever does. Sell 'em their flour at four dollars a sack, an' not at
fifty, boy. Git out that flag I saved from Sublette's outfit, Chardon.
Put it on a pole for these folks, an' give it to them so's they kin
carry it on acrost to Oregon. God's got some use for them folks out yan
or hit wouldn't be happenin' this way. I'm goin' to help 'em acrost. Ef
I don't, old Jim Bridger is a liar!"

That night Bridger sat in his lodge alone, moodily smoking. He heard a
shaking at the pegs of the door flap.

"Get out!" he exclaimed, thinking that it was his older associate, or
else some intruding dog.

His order was not obeyed. Will Banion pulled back the flap, stooped and
entered.

"How!" exclaimed Bridger, and with fist smitten on the blankets made the
sign to "Sit!" Banion for a time also smoked in silence, knowing the
moody ways of the old-time men.

"Ye came to see me about her, Miss Molly, didn't ye?" began Bridger
after a long time, kicking the embers of the tepee fire together with
the toe of his moccasin.

"How do you know that?"

"I kin read signs."

"Yes, she sent me."

"When?"

"That was at Laramie. She told me to come on with you then. I could
not."

"Pore child, they mout 'a' killed her! She told me she'd git well,
though--told me so to-day. I had a talk with her." His wrinkled face
broke into additional creases. "She told me more!"

"I've no wonder."

"Ner me. Ef I was more young and less Injun I'd love that gal! I do,
anyhow, fer sake o' what I might of been ef I hadn't had to play my game
the way the cards said fer me.

"She told me she was shot on her weddin' night, in her weddin'
clothes--right plum to the time an' minute o' marryin, then an' thar.
She told me she thanked God the Injun shot her, an' she wished to God
he'd killed her then an' thar. I'd like such fer a bride, huh? That's
one hell of a weddin', huh? Why?"

Banion sat silent, staring at the embers.

"I know why, or part ways why. Kit an' me was drunk at Laramie. I kain't
remember much. But I do ree-colleck Kit said something to me about you
in the Army, with Donerphan in Mayheeco. Right then I gits patriotic.
'Hooray!' says I. Then we taken another drink. After that we fell to
arguin' how much land we'd git out o' Mayheeco when the treaty was
signed. He said hit war done signed now, or else hit warn't. I don't
ree-colleck which, but hit was one or t'other. He had papers. Ef I see
Kit agin ary time now I'll ast him what his papers was. I don't
ree-colleck exact.

"All that, ye see, boy," he resumed, "was atter I was over to the wagons
at Laramie, when I seed Miss Molly to say good-by to her. I reckon maybe
I was outside o' sever'l horns even then."

"And that was when you gave her the California nugget that Kit Carson
had given you!" Banion spoke at last.

"Oh, ye spring no surprise, boy! She told me to-day she'd told you then;
said she'd begged you to go on with me an' beat all the others to
Californy; said she wanted you to git rich; said you an' her had parted,
an' she wanted you to live things down. I was to tell ye that.

"Boy, she loves ye--not me ner that other man. The Injun womern kin love
a dozen men. The white womern kain't. I'm still fool white enough fer to
believe that. Of course she'd break her promise not to tell about the
gold. I might 'a' knowed she'd tell the man she loved. Well, she didn't
wait long. How long was hit afore she done so--about ten minutes? Boy,
she loves ye. Hit ain't no one else."

"I think so. I'm afraid so."

"Why don't ye marry her then, damn ye, right here? Ef a gal loves a man
he orto marry her, ef only to cure her o' bein' a damn fool to love any
man. Why don't you marry her right now?"

"Because I love her!"

Bridger sat in disgusted silence for some time.

"Well," said he at last, "there's some kinds o' damned fools that kain't
be cured noways. I expect you're one o' them. Me, I hain't so
highfalutin'. Ef I love a womern, an' her me, somethin's goin' to
happen. What's this here like? Nothin' happens. Son, it's when nothin'
happens that somethin' else does happen. She marries another
man--barrin' 'Rapahoes. A fool fer luck--that's you. But there mightn't
always be a Injun hidin' to shoot her when she gits dressed up agin an'
the minister is a-waitin' to pernounce 'em man an' wife. Then whar air
ye?"

He went on more kindly after a time, as he reached out a hard, sinewy
hand.

"Such as her is fer the young man that has a white man's full life to
give her. She's purty as a doe fawn an' kind as a thoroughbred filly. In
course ye loved her, boy. How could ye a-help hit? An' ye was willin' to
go to Oregon--ye'd plow rather'n leave sight o' her? I don't blame ye,
boy. Such as her is not supported by rifle an' trap. Hit's the home
smoke, not the tepee fire, for her. I ask ye nothin' more, boy. I'll not
ask ye what ye mean. Man an' boy, I've follered the tepee smokes--blue
an' a-movin' an' a-beckonin' they was--an' I never set this hand to no
plow in all my life. But in my heart two things never was wiped
out--the sight o' the white womern's face an' the sight o' the flag
with stars. I'll help ye all I can, an' good luck go with ye. Work hit
out yore own way. She's worth more'n all the gold Californy's got
buried!"

This time it was Will Banion's hand that was suddenly extended.

"Take her secret an' take her advice then," said Bridger after a time.
"Ye must git in ahead to Californy. Fust come fust served, on any beaver
water. Fer me 'tis easy. I kin hold my hat an' the immigrints'll throw
money into hit. I've got my fortune here, boy. I can easy spare ye what
ye need, ef ye do need a helpin' out'n my plate. Fer sake o' the finest
gal that ever crossed the Plains, that's what we'll do! Ef I don't, Jim
Bridger's a putrefied liar, so help me God!"

Banion made no reply at once, but could not fail of understanding.

"I'll not need much," said he. "My place is to go on ahead with my men.
I don't think there'll be much danger now from Indians, from what I
hear. At Fort Hall I intend to split off for California. Now I make you
this proposition, not in payment for your secret, or for anything else:
If I find gold I'll give you half of all I get, as soon as I get out or
as soon as I can send it."

"What do ye want o' me, son?"

"Six mules and packs. All the shovels and picks you have or can get for
me at Fort Hall. There's another thing."

"An' what is that?"

"I want you to find out what Kit Carson said and what Kit Carson had. If
at any time you want to reach me--six months, a year--get word through
by the wagon trains next year, in care of the District Court at Oregon
City, on the Willamette."

"Why, all right, all right, son! We're all maybe talkin' in the air, but
I more'n half understand ye. One thing, ye ain't never really intendin'
to give up Molly Wingate! Ye're a fool not to marry her now, but ye're
reckonin' to marry her sometime--when the moon turns green, huh? When
she's old an' shriveled up, then ye'll marry her, huh?"

Banion only looked at him, silent.

"Well, I'd like to go on to Californy with ye, son, ef I didn't know I'd
make more here, an' easier, out'n the crazy fools that'll be pilin' in
here next year. So good luck to ye."

"Kit had more o' that stuff," he suddenly added. "He give me some more
when I told him I'd lost that fust piece he give me. I'll give ye a
piece fer sample, son. I've kep' hit close."

He begun fumbling in the tobacco pouch which he found under the head of
his blanket bed. He looked up blankly, slightly altering the name of his
youngest squaw.

"Well, damn her hide!" said he fervently. "Ye kain't keep nothin' from
'em! An' they kain't keep nothin' when they git hit."



CHAPTER XXXIV

A MATTER OF FRIENDSHIP


Once more the train, now permanently divided into two, faced the desert,
all the men and many women now afoot, the kine low-headed, stepping
gingerly in their new rawhide shoes. Gray, grim work, toiling over the
dust and sand. But at the head wagon, taking over an empire foot by
foot, flew the great flag. Half fanatics? That may be. Fanatics, so
called, also had prayed and sung and taught their children, all the way
across to the Great Salt Lake. They, too, carried books. And within one
hour after their halt near the Salt Lake they began to plow, began to
build, began to work, began to grow and make a country.

The men at the trading post saw the Missouri wagons pull out ahead. Two
hours later the Wingate train followed, as the lot had determined.
Woodhull remained with his friends in the Wingate group, regarded now
with an increasing indifference, but biding his time.

Bridger held back his old friend Jackson even after the last train
pulled out. It was mid afternoon when the start was made.

"Don't go just yet, Bill," said he. "Ride on an' overtake 'em. Nothin'
but rattlers an' jack rabbits now fer a while. The Shoshones won't hurt
'em none. I'm powerful lonesome, somehow. Let's you an' me have one more
drink."

"That sounds reas'nble," said Jackson. "Shore that sounds reas'nble to
me."

They drank of a keg which the master of the post had hidden in his
lodge, back of his blankets; drank again of high wines diluted but
uncolored--the "likker" of the fur trade.

They drank from tin cups, until Bridger began to chant, a deepening
sense of his old melancholy on him.

"Good-by!" he said again and again, waving his hand in general vagueness
to the mountains.

"We was friends, wasn't we, Bill?" he demanded again and again; and
Jackson, drunk as he, nodded in like maudlin gravity. He himself began
to chant. The two were savages again.

"Well, we got to part, Bill. This is Jim Bridger's last Rendyvous. I've
rid around an' said good-by to the mountings. Why don't we do it the way
the big partisans allus done when the Rendyvous was over? 'Twas old Mike
Fink an' his friend Carpenter begun hit, fifty year ago. Keel-boat men
on the river, they was. There's as good shots left to-day as then, an'
as good friends. You an' me has seed hit; we seed hit at the very last
meetin' o' the Rocky Mountain Company men, before the families come. An
'nary a man spilled the whiskey on his partner's head."

"That's the truth," assented Jackson. "Though some I wouldn't trust
now."

"Would ye trust me, Bill, like I do you, fer sake o' the old times, when
friends was friends?"

"Shore I would, no matter how come, Jim. My hand's stiddy as a rock,
even though my shootin' shoulder's a leetle stiff from that Crow arrer."

Each man held out his firing arm, steady as a bar.

"I kin still see the nail heads on the door, yan. Kin ye, Bill?"

"Plain! It's a waste o' likker, Jim, fer we'd both drill the cups."

"Are ye a-skeered?"

"I told ye not."

"Chardon!" roared Bridger to his clerk. "You, Chardon, come here!"

The clerk obeyed, though he and others had been discreet about remaining
visible as this bout of old-timers at their cups went on. Liquor and
gunpowder usually went together.

"Chardon, git ye two fresh tin cups an' bring 'em here. Bring a piece o'
charcoal to spot the cups. We're goin' to shoot 'em off each other's
heads in the old way. You know what I mean"

Chardon, trembling, brought the two tin cups, and Bridger with a burnt
ember sought to mark plainly on each a black bull's-eye. Silence fell on
the few observers, for all the emigrants had now gone and the open space
before the rude trading building was vacant, although a few faces
peered around corners. At the door of the tallest tepee two native women
sat, a young and an old, their blankets drawn across their eyes,
accepting fate, and not daring to make a protest.

"How!" exclaimed Bridger as he filled both cups and put them on the
ground. "Have ye wiped yer bar'l?"

"Shore I have. Let's wipe agin."

Each drew his ramrod from the pipes and attached the cleaning worm with
its twist of tow, kept handy in belt pouch in muzzle-loading days.

"Clean as a whistle!" said Jackson, holding out the end of the rod.

"So's mine, pardner. Old Jim Bridger never disgraced hisself with a
rifle."

"Ner me," commented Jackson. "Hold a hair full, Jim, an' cut nigh the
top o' the tin. That'll be safer fer my skelp, an' hit'll let less
whisky out'n the hole. We got to drink what's left. S'pose'n we have a
snort now?"

"Atter we both shoot we kin drink," rejoined his friend, with a
remaining trace of judgment. "Go take stand whar we marked the scratch.
Chardon, damn ye, carry the cup down an' set hit on his head, an' ef ye
spill a drop I'll drill ye, d'ye hear?"

The _engagé's_ face went pale.

"But Monsieur Jim--" he began.

"Don't 'Monsieur Jim' me or I'll drill a hole in ye anyways! Do-ee-do
what I tell ye, boy! Then if ye crave fer to see some ol'-time shootin'
come on out, the hull o' ye, an' take a lesson, damn ye!"

"Do-ee ye shoot first, Bill," demanded Bridger. "The light's soft, an'
we'll swap atter the fust fire, to git hit squar for the hindsight, an'
no shine on the side o' the front sight."

"No, we'll toss fer fust," said Jackson, and drew out a Spanish dollar.
"Tails fer me last!" he called as it fell. "An' I win! You go fust,
Jim."

"Shore I will ef the toss-up says so," rejoined his friend. "Step off
the fifty yard. What sort o' iron ye carryin', Bill?"

"Why do ye ask? Ye know ol' Mike Sheets in Virginia never bored a
better. I've never changed."

"Ner I from my old Hawken. Two good guns, an' two good men, Bill, o' the
ol' times--the ol' times! We kain't say fairer'n this, can we, at our
time o' life, fer favor o' the old times, Bill? We got to do somethin',
so's to kind o' git rested up."

"No man kin say fairer," said his friend.

They shook hands solemnly and went onward with their devil-may-care
test, devised in a historic keel-boat man's brain, as inflamed then by
alcohol as their own were now.

Followed by the terrified clerk, Bill Jackson, tall, thin and grizzled,
stoical as an Indian, and too drunk to care much for consequences, so
only he proved his skill and his courage, walked steadily down to the
chosen spot and stood, his arms folded, after leaning his own rifle
against the door of the trading room. He faced Bridger without a tremor,
his head bare, and cursed Chardon for a coward when his hand trembled as
he balanced the cup on Jackson's head.

"Damn ye," he exclaimed, "there'll be plenty lost without any o' your
spillin'!"

"Air ye all ready, Bill?" called Bridger from his station, his rifle
cocked and the delicate triggers set, so perfect in their mechanism that
the lightest touch against the trigger edge would loose the hammer.

"All ready!" answered Jackson.

The two, jealous still of the ancient art of the rifle, which nowhere in
the world obtained nicer development than among men such as these, faced
each other in what always was considered the supreme test of nerve and
skill; for naturally a man's hand might tremble, sighting three inches
above his friend's eye, when it would not move a hair sighting center
between the eyes of an enemy.

Bridger spat out his tobacco chew and steadily raised his rifle. The man
opposite him stood steady as a pillar, and did not close his eyes. The
silence that fell on those who saw became so intense that it seemed
veritably to radiate, reaching out over the valley to the mountains as
in a hush of leagues.

For an instant, which to the few observers seemed an hour, these two
figures, from which motion seemed to have passed forever, stood frozen.
Then there came a spurt of whitish-blue smoke and the thin dry crack of
the border rifle.

The hand and eye of Jim Bridger, in spite of advancing years, remained
true to their long training. At the rifle crack the tin cup on the head
of the statue-like figure opposite him was flung behind as though by the
blow of an invisible hand. The spin of the bullet acting on the liquid
contents, ripped apart the seams of the cup and flung the fluid wide.
Then and not till then did Jackson move.

He picked up the empty cup, bored center directly through the black
spot, and turning walked with it in his hand toward Bridger, who was
wiping out his rifle once more.

"I call hit mighty careless shootin'," said he, irritated. "Now lookee
what ye done to the likker! Ef ye'd held a leetle higher, above the
level o' the likker, like I told ye, she wouldn't o' busted open
thataway now. It's nacherl, thar warn't room in the cup fer both the
likker an' the ball. That's wastin' likker, Jim, an' my mother told me
when I was a boy, 'Willful waste makes woeful want!'"

"I call hit a plum-center shot," grumbled Bridger. "Do-ee look now!
Maybe ye think ye kin do better shoot'in yerself than old Jim Bridger!"

"Shore I kin, an' I'll show ye! I'll bet my rifle aginst yourn--ef I
wanted so sorry a piece as yourn--kin shoot that clost to the mark an'
not spill no likker a-tall! An' ye can fill her two-thirds full an' put
yer thumb in fer the balance ef ye like."

"I'll just bet ye a new mule agin yer pony ye kain't: do nothin' o' the
sort!" retorted Bridger.

"All right, I'll show ye. O' course, ye got to hold still."

"Who said I wouldn't hold still?"

"Nobody. Now you watch me."

He stooped at the little water ditch which had been led in among the
buildings from the stream and kneaded up a little ball of mud. This he
forced into the handle of the tin cup, entirely filling it, then washed
off the body of the cup.

"I'll shoot the fillin' out'n the handle an' not out'n the cup!" said
he. "Mud's cheap, an' all the diff'runce in holdin' is, ef I nicked the
side o' yer haid it'd hurt ye 'bout the same as ef what I nicked the
center o' hit. Ain't that so? We'd orto practice inderstry an' 'conomy,
Jim. Like my mother said, 'Penny saved is er penny yearned.' 'Little
drops o' water, little gains o' sand,' says she, 'a-makes the mighty
o-o-ocean, an the plea-ea-sant land.'"

"I never seed it tried," said Bridger, with interest, "but I don't see
why hit hain't practical. Whang away, an ef ye spill the whisky shootin'
to one side, or cut har shootin' too low, your _caballo_ is mine--an' he
hain't much!"

With no more argument, he in turn took up his place, the two changing
positions so that the light would favor the rifleman. Again the
fear-smitten Chardon adjusted the filled cup, this time on his master's
bared head.

"Do-ee turn her sideways now, boy," cautioned Bridger. "Set the han'le
sideways squar', so she looks wide. Give him a fa'r shot now, fer I'm
interested in this yere thing, either way she goes. Either I lose ha'r
er a mule."

But folding his arms he faced the rifle without batting an eye, as
steady as had been the other in his turn.

Jackson extended his long left arm, slowly and steadily raising the
silver bead up from the chest, the throat, the chin, the forehead of his
friend, then lowered it, rubbing his sore shoulder.

"Tell him to turn that han'le squar' to me, Jim!" he called. "The damn
fool has got her all squegeed eroun' to one side."

Bridger reached up a hand and straightened the cup himself.

"How's that?" he asked.

"All right! Now hold stiddy a minute."

Again the Indian women covered their faces, sitting motionless. And at
last came again the puff of smoke, the faint crack of the rifle, never
loud in the high, rarefied air.

The straight figure of the scout never wavered. The cup still rested on
his head. The rifleman calmly blew the smoke from his barrel, his eye on
Bridger as the latter now raised a careful hand to his head. Chardon
hastened to aid, with many ejaculations.

The cup still was full, but the mud was gone from inside the handle as
though poked out with a finger! "That's what I call shootin', Jim," said
Jackson, "an' reas'nable shootin' too. Now spill half o' her where
she'll do some good, an' give me the rest. I got to be goin' now. I
don't want yer mule. I fust come away from Missouri to git shet o'
mules."

Chardon, cupbearer, stood regarding the two wild souls whom he never in
his own more timid nature was to understand. The two mountain men shook
hands. The alcohol had no more than steadied them in their rifle work,
but the old exultation of their wild life came to them now once more.
Bridger clapped hand to mouth and uttered his old war cry before he
drained his share of the fiery fluid.

"To the ol' days, friend!" said he once more; "the days that's gone,
when men was men, an' a friend could trust a friend!"

"To the ol' days!" said Jackson in turn. "An' I'll bet two better shots
don't stand to-day on the soil o' Oregon! But I got to be goin', Jim.
I'm goin' on to the Columby. I may not see ye soon. It's far."

He swung into his saddle, the rifle in its loop at the horn. But Bridger
came to him, a hand on his knee.

"I hate to see ye go, Bill."

"Shore!" said Jackson. "I hate to go. Take keer yerself, Jim."

The two Indian women had uncovered their faces and gone inside the
lodge. But old Jim Bridger sat down, back against a cottonwood, and
watched the lopping figure of his friend jog slowly out into the desert.
He himself was singing now, chanting monotonously an old Indian refrain
that lingered in his soul from the days of the last Rendezvous.

At length he arose, and animated by a sudden thought sought out his
tepee once more. Dang Yore Eyes greeted him with shy smiles of pride.

"Heap shoot, Jeem!" said she. "No kill-um. Why?"

She was decked now in her finest, ready to use all her blandishments on
her lord and master. Her cheeks were painted red, her wrists were heavy
with copper. On a thong at her neck hung a piece of yellow stone which
she had bored through with an awl, or rather with three or four awls,
after much labor, that very day.

Bridger picked up the ornament between thumb and finger. He said no
word, but his fingers spoke.

"Other pieces. Where?"

"White man. Gone--out there." She answered in the same fashion.

"How, cola!" she spoke aloud. "Him say, 'How, cola,' me." She smiled
with much pride over her conquest, and showed two silver dollars.
"Swap!"

In silence Bridger went into the tepee and pulled the door flaps.



CHAPTER XXXV

GEE--WHOA--HAW!


Midsummer in the desert. The road now, but for the shifting of the
sands, would have been marked by the bodies of dead cattle, in death
scarcely more bone and parchment than for days they had been while
alive. The horned toad, the cactus, the rattlesnake long since had
replaced the prairie dogs of the grassy floor of the eastern Plains. A
scourge of great black crickets appeared, crackling loathsomely under
the wheels. Sagebrush and sand took the place of trees and grass as they
left the river valley and crossed a succession of ridges or plateaus. At
last they reached vast black basaltic masses and lava fields, proof of
former subterranean fires which seemingly had forever dried out the life
of the earth's surface. The very vastness of the views might have had
charm but for the tempering feeling of awe, of doubt, of fear.

They had followed the trail over the immemorial tribal crossings over
heights of land lying between the heads of streams. From the Green
River, which finds the great cañons of the Colorado, they came into the
vast horseshoe valley of the Bear, almost circumventing the Great Salt
Lake, but unable to forsake it at last. West and south now rose bold
mountains around whose northern extremity the river had felt its way,
and back of these lay fold on fold of lofty ridges, now softened by the
distances. Of all the splendid landscapes of the Oregon Trail, this one
had few rivals. But they must leave this and cross to yet another though
less inviting vast river valley of the series which led them across the
continent.

Out of the many wagons which Jesse Wingate originally had captained, now
not one hundred remained in his detachment when it took the sagebrush
plateaus below the great Snake River. They still were back of the
Missouri train, no doubt several days, but no message left on a cleft
stick at camp cheered them or enlightened them. And now still another
defection had cut down the train.

Woodhull, moody and irascible, feverish and excited by turns, ever since
leaving Bridger had held secret conclaves with a few of his adherents,
the nature of which he did not disclose. There was no great surprise and
no extreme regret when, within safe reach of Fort Hall, he had announced
his intention of going on ahead with a dozen wagons. He went without
obtaining any private interview with Molly Wingate.

[Illustration: _A Paramount Picture.

The Covered Wagon_.

CAMPED FOR THE NIGHT ALONG THE OLD TRAIL.]

These matters none the less had their depressing effect. Few illusions
remained to any of them now, and no romance. Yet they went on--ten
miles, fifteen sometimes, though rarely twenty miles a day. Women fell
asleep, babes in arms, jostling on the wagon seats; men almost slept as
they walked, ox whip in hand; the cattle slept as they stumbled on,
tongues dry and lolling. All the earth seemed strange, unreal. They
advanced as though in a dream through some inferno of a crazed
imagination.

About them now often rose the wavering images of the mirage, offering
water, trees, wide landscapes; beckoning in such desert deceits as they
often now had seen. One day as the brazen sun mocked them from its
zenith they saw that they were not alone on the trail.

"Look, mother!" exclaimed Molly Wingate--she now rode with her mother on
the seat of the family wagon, Jed driving her cart when not on the cow
column. "See! There's a caravan!"

Her cry was echoed or anticipated by scores of voices of others who had
seen the same thing. They pointed west and south.

Surely there was a caravan--a phantom caravan! Far off, gigantic,
looming and lowering again, it paralleled the advance of their own
train, which in numbers it seemed to equal. Slowly, steadily,
irresistibly, awesomely, it kept pace with them, sending no sign to
them, mockingly indifferent to them--mockingly so, indeed; for when the
leaders of the Wingate wagons paused the riders of the ghostly train
paused also, biding their time with no action to indicate their intent.
When the advance was resumed the uncanny _pari passu_ again went on, the
rival caravan going forward as fast, no faster than those who regarded
it in a fascinated interest that began to become fear. Yonder caravan
could bode no good. Without doubt it planned an ambush farther on, and
this sinister indifference meant only its certainty of success.

Or were there, then, other races of men out here in this unknown world
of heat and sand? Was this a treasure train of old Spanish _cargadores_?
Did ghosts live and move as men? If not, what caravan was this, moving
alone, far from the beaten trail? What purpose had it here?

"Look, mother!"

The girl's voice rose eagerly again, but this time with a laugh in it.
And her assurance passed down the line, others laughing in relief at the
solution.

"It's ourselves!" said Molly. "It's the Fata Morgana--but how marvelous!
Who could believe it?"

Indeed, the mirage had taken that rare and extraordinary form. The
mirage of their own caravan, rising, was reflected, mirrored, by some
freak of the desert sun and air, upon the fine sand blown in the air at
a distance from the train. It was, indeed, themselves they saw, not
knowing it, in a vast primordial mirror of the desert gods. Nor did the
discovery of the truth lessen the feeling of discomfort, of
apprehension. The laughter was at best uneasy until at last a turn in
the trail, a shift in the wizardry of the heat waves, broke up the
ghostly caravan and sent it, figure by figure, vehicle by vehicle, into
the unknown whence it had come.

"This country!" exclaimed Molly Wingate's mother. "It scares me! If
Oregon's like this--"

"It isn't, mother. It is rich and green, with rains. There are great
trees, many mountains, beautiful rivers where we are going, and there
are fields of grain. There are--why, there are homes!"

The sudden pathos of her voice drew her mother's frowning gaze.

"There, there, child!" said she. "Don't you mind. We'll always have a
home for you, your paw and me."

The girl shook her head.

"I sometimes think I'd better teach school and live alone."

"And leave your parents?"

"How can I look my father in the face every day, knowing what he feels
about me? Just now he accuses me of ruining Sam Woodhull's life--driving
him away, out of the train. But what could I do? Marry him, after all? I
can't--I can't! I'm glad he's gone, but I don't know why he went."

"In my belief you haven't heard or seen the last of Sam Woodhull yet,"
mused her mother. "Sometimes a man gets sort of peeved--wants to marry a
girl that jilts him more'n if she hadn't. And you certainly jilted him
at the church door, if there'd been any church there. It was an awful
thing, Molly. I don't know as I see how Sam stood it long as he did."

"Haven't I paid for it, mother?"

"Why, yes, one way of speaking. But that ain't the way men are going to
call theirselves paid. Until he's married, a man's powerful set on
having a woman. If he don't, he thinks he ain't paid, it don't scarcely
make no difference what the woman does. No, I don't reckon he'll forget.
About Will Banion--"

"Don't let's mention him, mother. I'm trying to forget him."

"Yes? Where do you reckon he is now--how far ahead?"

"I don't know. I can't guess."

The color on her cheek caught her mother's gaze.

"Gee-whoa-haw! Git along Buck and Star!" commanded the buxom dame to the
swaying ox team that now followed the road with no real need of
guidance. They took up the heat and burden of the desert.



CHAPTER XXXVI

TWO LOVE LETTERS


"The families are coming--again the families!" It was again the cry of
the passing fur post, looking eastward at the caravan of the west-bound
plows; much the same here at old Fort Hall, on the Snake River, as it
was at Laramie on the North Platte, or Bridger on the waters tributary
to the Green.

The company clerks who looked out over the sandy plain saw miles away a
dust cloud which meant but one thing. In time they saw the Wingate train
come on, slowly, steadily, and deploy for encampment a mile away. The
dusty wagons, their double covers stained, mildewed, torn, were
scattered where each found the grass good. Then they saw scores of the
emigrants, women as well as men, hastening into the post.

It was now past midsummer, around the middle of the month of August, and
the Wingate wagons had covered some twelve hundred and eighty miles
since the start at mid-May of the last spring--more than three months of
continuous travel; a trek before which the passage over the
Appalachians, two generations earlier, wholly pales.

What did they need, here at Fort Hall, on the Snake, third and last
settlement of the two thousand miles of toil and danger and exhaustion?
They needed everything. But one question first was asked by these
travel-sick home-loving people: What was the news?

News? How could there be news when almost a year would elapse before
Fort Hall would know that on that very day--in that very month of
August, 1848--Oregon was declared a territory of the Union?

News? How could there be news, when these men could not know for much
more than a year that, as they outspanned here in the sage, Abraham
Lincoln had just declined the governorship of the new territory of
Oregon? Why? He did not know. Why had these men come here? They did not
know.

But news--the news! The families must have the news. And here--always
there was news! Just beyond branched off the trail to California. Here
the supply trains from the Columbia brought news from the Oregon
settlements. News? How slow it was, when it took a letter more than two
years to go one way from edge to edge of the American continent!

They told what news they knew--the news of the Mormons of 1847 and 1848;
the latest mutterings over fugitive negro slaves; the growing feeling
that the South would one day follow the teachings of secession. They
heard in payment the full news of the Whitman massacre in Oregon that
winter; they gave back in turn their own news of the battles with the
Sioux and the Crows; the news of the new Army posts then moving west
into the Plains to clear them for the whites. News? Why, yes, large news
enough, and on either hand, so the trade was fair.

But these matters of the outside world were not the only ones of
interest, whether to the post traders or the newly arrived emigrants.
Had others preceded them? How many? When? Why, yes, a week earlier fifty
wagons of one train, Missouri men, led by a man on a great black horse
and an old man, a hunter. Banion? Yes, that was the name, and the scout
was Jackson--Bill Jackson, an old-time free trapper. Well, these two had
split off for California, with six good pack mules, loaded light. The
rest of the wagons had gone on to the Snake. But why these two had
bought the last shovels and the only pick in all the supplies at old
Fort Hall no man could tell. Crazy, of course; for who could pause to
work on the trail with pick or shovel, with winter coming on at the
Sierra crossing?

But not crazier than the other band who had come in three days ago, also
ahead of the main train. Woodhull? Yes, that was the name--Woodhull. He
had twelve or fifteen wagons with him, and had bought supplies for
California, though they all had started for Oregon. Well, they soon
would know more about the Mary's River and the Humboldt Desert. Plenty
of bones, there, sure!

But even so, a third of the trains, these past five years, had split off
at the Raft River and given up hope of Oregon. California was much
better--easier to reach and better when you got there. The road to
Oregon was horrible. The crossings of the Snake, especially the first
crossing, to the north bank, was a gamble with death for the whole
train. And beyond that, to the Blue Mountains, the trail was no trail at
all. Few ever would get through, no one knew how many had perished.
Three years ago Joe Meek had tried to find a better trail west of the
Blues. All lost, so the story said. Why go to Oregon? Nothing there when
you got there. California, now, had been settled and proved a hundred
years and more. Every year men came this far east to wait at Fort Hall
for the emigrant trains and to persuade them to go to California, not to
Oregon.

But what seemed strange to the men at the trading post was the fact that
Banion had not stopped or asked a question. He appeared to have made up
his mind long earlier, and beyond asking for shovels he had wanted
nothing. The same way with Woodhull. He had come in fast and gone out
fast, headed for the Raft River trail to California, the very next
morning. Why? Usually men stopped here at Fort Hall, rested, traded, got
new stock, wanted to know about the trail ahead. Both Banion and
Woodhull struck Fort Hall with their minds already made up. They did not
talk. Was there any new word about the California trail, down at
Bridger? Had a new route over the Humboldt Basin been found, or
something of that sort? How could that be? If so, it must be rough and
needing work in places, else why the need for so many shovels?

But maybe the emigrants themselves knew about these singular matters, or
would when they had read their letters. Yes, of course, the Missouri
movers had left a lot of letters, some for their folks back East next
year maybe, but some for people in the train. Banion, Woodhull--had they
left any word? Why, yes, both of them. The trader smiled. One each. To
the same person, yes. Well, lucky girl! But that black horse now--the
Nez Percés would give a hundred ponies for him. But he wouldn't trade. A
sour young man. But Woodhull, now, the one with the wagons, talked more.
And they each had left a letter for the same girl! And this was Miss
Molly Wingate? Well, the trader did not blame them! These American
girls! They were like roses to the old traders, cast away this lifetime
out here in the desert.

News? Why, yes, no train ever came through that did not bring news and
get news at old Fort Hall--and so on.

The inclosure of the old adobe fur-trading post was thronged by the men
and women of the Wingate train. Molly Wingate at first was not among
them. She sat, chin on her hand, on a wagon tongue in the encampment,
looking out over the blue-gray desert to the red-and-gold glory of the
sinking sun. Her mother came to her and placed in her lap the two
letters, stood watching her.

"One from each," said she sententiously, and turned away.

The girl's face paled as she opened the one she had felt sure would find
her again, somewhere, somehow. It said:


     DEAREST: I write to Molly Wingate, because and only because I know
     she still is Molly Wingate. It might be kinder to us both if I did
     not write at all but went my way and left it all to time and
     silence. I found I could not.

     There will be no other woman, in all my life, for me. I cannot lay
     any vow on you. If I could, if I dared, I would say: "Wait for a
     year, while I pray for a year--and God help us both."

     As you know, I now have taken your advice. Bridger and I are joined
     for the California adventure. If the gold is there, as Carson
     thinks, I may find more fortune than I have earned. More than I
     could earn you gave me--when I was young. That was two months ago.
     Now I am old.

     Keep the news of the gold, if it can be kept, as long as you can.
     No doubt it will spread from other sources, but so far as I
     know--and thanks only to you--I am well ahead of any other
     adventurer from the East this season, and, as you know, winter soon
     will seal the trails against followers. Next year, 1849, will be
     the big rush, if it all does not flatten.

     I can think of no one who can have shared our secret. Carson will
     be East by now, but he is a government man, and close of mouth with
     strangers. Bridger, I am sure--for the odd reason that he worships
     you--will tell no one else, especially since he shares profits
     with me, if I survive and succeed. One doubt only rests in my mind.
     At his post I talked with Bridger, and he told me he had a few
     other bits of gold that Carson had given him at Laramie. He looked
     for them but had lost them. He suspected his Indian women, but he
     knew nothing. Of course, it would be one chance in a thousand that
     any one would know the women had these things, and even so no one
     could tell where the gold came from, because not even the women
     would know that; not even Bridger does, exactly; not even I myself.

     In general I am headed for the valley of the Sacramento. I shall
     work north. Why? Because that will be toward Oregon!

     I write as though I expected to see you again, as though I had a
     right to expect or hope for that. It is only the dead young man,
     Will Banion, who unjustly and wrongly craves and calls out for the
     greatest of all fortune for a man--who unfairly and wrongly writes
     you now, when he ought to remember your word, to go to a land far
     from you, to forget you and to live down his past. Ah, if I could!
     Ah, if I did not love you!

     But being perhaps about to die, away from you, the truth only must
     be between you and me. And the truth is I never shall forget you.
     The truth is I love you more than anything else and everything else
     in all the world.

     If I were in other ways what the man of your choice should be,
     would this truth have any weight with you? I do not know and I dare
     not ask. Reason does tell me how selfish it would be to ask you to
     hold in your heart a memory and not a man. That is for me to
     do--to have a memory, and not you. But my memory never can content
     me.

     It seems as though time had been invented so that, through all its
     aeons, our feet might run in search, one for the other--to meet,
     where? Well, we did meet--for one instant in the uncounted ages,
     there on the prairie. Well, if ever you do see me again you shall
     say whether I have been, indeed, tried by fire, and whether it has
     left me clean--whether I am a man and not a memory.

     That I perhaps have been a thief, stealing what never could be
     mine, is my great agony now. But I love you. Good-by.

     WILLIAM HAYS BANION.

  To MARGARET WINGATE,
  _Fort Hall_, in Oregon.

For an hour Molly sat, and the sun sank. The light of the whole world
died.

       *       *       *       *       *

The other letter rested unopened until later, when she broke the seal
and read by the light of a sagebrush fire, she frowned. Could it be that
in the providence of God she once had been within one deliberate step of
marrying Samuel Payson Woodhull?


     MY DARLING MOLLY: This I hope finds you well after the hard journey
     from Bridger to Hall.

     They call it Cruel to keep a Secret from a Woman. If so, I have
     been Cruel, though only in Poor pay for your Cruelty to me. I have
     had a Secret--and this is it: I have left for California from this
     Point and shall not go to Oregon. I have learned of Gold in the
     State of California, and have departed to that State in the hope
     of early Success in Achieving a Fortune. So far as I know, I am the
     First to have this news of Gold, unless a certain man whose name
     and thought I execrate has by his Usual dishonesty fallen on the
     same information. If so, we two may meet where none can Interfear.

     I do not know how long I may be in California, but be Sure I go for
     but the one purpose of amassing a Fortune for the Woman I love. I
     never have given you Up and never shall. Your promise is mine and
     our Engagement never has been Broken, and the Mere fact that
     accident for the time Prevented our Nuptials by no means shall ever
     mean that we shall not find Happy Consumation of our most Cherished
     Desire at some later Time.

     I confidently Hope to arrive in Oregon a rich man not later than
     one or two years from Now. Wait for me. I am mad without you and
     shall count the Minutes until then when I can take you in my Arms
     and Kiss you a thousand Times. Forgive me; I have not Heretofore
     told you of these Plans, but it was best not and it was for You.
     Indeed you are so much in my Thought, my Darling, that each and
     Everything I do is for You and You only.

     No more at present then, but should Opportunity offer I shall get
     word to you addressed to Oregon City which your father said was his
     general Desstination, it being my own present purpose Ultimately to
     engage in the Practise of law either at that Point or the
     settlement of Portland which I understand is not far Below. With my
     Means, we should soon be Handsomely Settled.

     May God guard you on the Way Thither and believe me, Darling, with
     more Love than I shall be ever able to Tell and a Thousand Kisses.

  Your Affianced and Impatient Lover,
  SAM'L. PAYSON WOODHULL.

The little sagebrush fire flared up brightly for an instant as Molly
Wingate dropped one of her letters on the embers.



CHAPTER XXXVII

JIM BRIDGER FORGETS


"What's wrong with the people, Cale?" demanded Jesse Wingate of his
stouthearted associate, Caleb Price. The sun was two hours high, but not
all the breakfast fires were going. Men were moody, truculent, taciturn,
as they went about their duties.

Caleb Price bit into his yellow beard as he gazed down the irregular
lines of the encampment.

"Do you want me to tell you the truth, Jesse?"

"Why, yes!"

"Well, then, it seems to me the truth is that this train has lost
focus."

"I don't know what you mean."

"I don't know that I'm right--don't know I can make my guess plain. Of
course, every day we lay up, the whole train goes to pieces. The thing
to do is to go a little way each day--get into the habit. You can't wear
out a road as long as this one by spurts--it's steady does it.

"But I don't think that's all. The main trouble is one that I don't like
to hint to you, especially since none of us can help it."

"Out with it, Cale!"

"The trouble is, the people don't think they've got a leader."

Jesse Wingate colored above his beard.

"That's pretty hard," said he.

"I know it's hard, but I guess it's the truth. You and I and Hall and
Kelsey--we're accepted as the chief council. But there are four of us,
and all this country is new to all of us. The men now are like a bunch
of cattle ready to stampede. They're nervous, ready to jump at anything.
Wrong way, Jesse. They ought to be as steady as any of the trains that
have gone across; 1843, when the Applegates crossed; 1846, when the
Donners went--every year since. Our folks--well, if you ask me, I really
think they're scared."

"That's hard, Cale!"

"Yes, hard for me to say to you, with your wife sad and your girl just
now able to sit up--yes, it's hard. Harder still since we both know it's
your own personal matter--this quarrel of those two young men, which I
don't need explain. That's at the bottom of the train's uneasiness."

"Well, they've both gone now."

"Yes, both. If half of the both were here now you'd see the people
quiet. Oh, you can't explain leadership, Jesse! Some have it, most
don't. He had. We know he had. I don't suppose many of those folks ever
figured it out, or do now. But they'd fall in, not knowing why."

"As it is, I'll admit, there seems to be something in the air. They say
birds know when an earthquake is coming. I feel uneasy myself, and don't
know why. I started for Oregon. I don't know why. Do you suppose--"

The speculations of either man ceased as both caught sight of a little
dust cloud far off across the sage, steadily advancing down the slope.

"Hum! And who's that, Jesse?" commented the Ohio leader. "Get your big
glass, Jesse."

Wingate went to his wagon and returned with the great telescope he
sometimes used, emblem of his authority.

"One man, two packs," said he presently. "All alone so far as I can see.
He's Western enough--some post-trapper, I suppose. Rides like an Indian
and dressed like one, but he's white, because he has a beard."

"Let me see." Price took the glass. "He looks familiar! See if you don't
think it's Jim Bridger. What's he coming for--two hundred miles away
from his own post?"

It was Jim Bridger, as the next hour proved, and why he came he himself
was willing to explain after he had eaten and smoked.

"I camped twelve mile back," said he, "an' pushed in this mornin'. I
jest had a idee I'd sornter over in here, see how ye was gittin' along.
Is your hull train made here?"

"No," Wingate answered. "The Missouri wagons are ahead."

"Is Woodhull with ye?"

"No."

"Whar's he at?"

"We don't know. Major Banion and Jackson, with a half dozen packs, no
wagons, have given up the trip. They've split off for California--left
their wagons."

"An' so has Sam Woodhull, huh?"

"We suppose so. That's the word. He took about fifteen wagons with him.
That's why we look cut down."

"Rest of ye goin' on through, huh?"

"I am. I hope the others will."

"Hit's three days on to whar the road leaves for Californy--on the Raft
River. Mebbe more'll leave ye thar, huh?"

"We don't know. We hope not. I hear the fords are bad, especially the
crossing of the Snake. This is a big river. My people are uneasy about
it."

"Yes, hit's bad enough, right often. Thar's falls in them cañons
hundreds o' feet high, makin' a roarin' ye kin hear forty mile, mebbe.
The big ford's erroun' two hunderd mile ahead. That'd make me four
hunderd mile away from home, an' four hunderd to ride back agin' huh? Is
that fur enough fer a ol' man, with snow comin' on soon?"

"You don't mean you'd guide us on that far? What charge?"

"I come fer that, mainly. Charge ye? I won't charge ye nothin'. What do
ye s'pose Jim Bridger'd care ef ye all was drownded in the Snake? Ain't
thar plenty more pilgrims whar ye all come from? Won't they be out here
next year, with money ter spend with my pardner Vasquez an' me?"

"Then how could we pay you?"

"Ye kain't. Whar's Miss Molly?"

"You want to see her?"

"Yes, else why'd I ask?"

"Come," said Wingate, and led the way to Molly's little cart. The girl
was startled when she saw the old scout, her wide eyes asking her
question.

"Mornin', Miss Molly!" he began, his leathery face wrinkling in a smile.
"Ye didn't expect me, an' I didn't neither. I'm glad ye're about well o'
that arrer wound. I kerried a arrerhead under my shoulder blade sever'l
years oncet, ontel Preacher Whitman cut hit out. Hit felt right crawly
all the time till then.

"Yes, I jest sorntered up couple hundred mile this mornin', Miss Molly,
ter see how ye all was gettin' along--one thing er another."

Without much regard to others, he now led Molly a little apart and
seated her on the sage beside him.

"Will Banion and Bill Jackson has went on to Californy, Miss Molly,"
said he. "You know why."

Mollie nodded.

"Ye'd orto! Ye told him."

"Yes, I did."

"I know. Him an' me had a talk. Owin' you an' me all he'll ever make,
he allowed to pay nothin'! Which is, admittin' he loves you, he don't
take no advice, ter finish that weddin' with another man substertuted.
No, says he, 'I kain't marry her, because I love her!' says he. Now,
that's crazy. Somethin' deep under that, Miss Molly."

"Let's not talk about it, please."

"All right. Let's talk erbout Sam Woodhull, huh?"

"No!"

"Then mebbe I'd better be goin'. I know you don't want ter talk erbout
me!" His wrinkling smile said he had more to tell.

"Miss Molly," said he at last, "I mout as well tell ye. Sam Woodhull is
on the way atter Will Banion. He's like enough picked out a fine bunch
o' horse thiefs ter go erlong with him. He knows somethin' erbout the
gold--I jest found out how.

"Ye see, some men ain't above shinin' up to a Injun womern even, such
bein' mebbe lonesome. Sam Woodhull wasn't. He seed one o' my fam'ly
wearin' a shiny thing on her neck. Hit were a piece o' gold Kit give me
atter I give you mine. He trades the womern out o' her necklace--fer all
o' two pesos, Mexican. But she not talkin' Missoury, an' him not talkin'
Shoshone, they don't git fur on whar the gold come from.

"She done told him she got hit from me, but he don't say a word ter me
erbout that; he's too wise. But she did tell him how Will Banion gits
some mules an' packs o' me. From then, plain guessin', he allows ter
watch Banion.

"My womern keeps sayin'--not meanin' no harm--thet thar's plenty more
necklaces in Cal'for; because she's heard me an' Banion say that word,
'Californy.'

"Slim guessin' hit were, Miss Molly, but enough fer a man keen as Sam,
that's not pertickler, neither. His plan was ter watch whar the packs
went. He knowed ef Banion went ter Oregon he'd not use packs.

"Huh! Fine time he'll have, follerin' that boy an' them mules with
wagons! I'm easier when I think o' that. Because, Miss Molly, ef them
two does meet away from friends o' both, thar's goin' to be trouble, an'
trouble only o' one kind."

Again Molly Wingate nodded, pale and silent.

"Well, a man has ter take keer o' his own self," went on Bridger. "But
that ain't all ner most what brung me here."

"What was it then?" demanded Molly. "A long ride!"

"Yeh. Eight hunderd mile out an' back, ef I see ye across the Snake,
like I allow I'd better do. I'm doin' hit fer you, Miss Molly. I'm ol'
an' ye're young; I'm a wild man an' ye're one o' God's wimern. But I had
sisters oncet--white they was, like you. So the eight hunderd mile is
light. But thet ain't why I come, neither, or all why, yit."

"What is it then you want to tell me? Is it about--him?"

Bridger nodded. "Yes. The only trouble is, I don't know what it is."

"Now you're foolish!"

"Shore I am! Ef I had a few drinks o' good likker mebbe I'd be
foolisher--er wiser. Leastways, I'd be more like I was when I plumb
forgot what 'twas Kit Carson said to me when we was spreein' at Laramie.
He had somethin' ter do, somethin' he was goin' ter do, somethin' I was
ter do fer him, er mebee-so, next season, atter he got East an' got
things done he was goin' ter do. Ye see, Kit's in the Army."

"Was it about--him?"

"That's what I kain't tell. I jest sorntered over here a few hunderd
mile ter ask ye what ye s'pose it is that I've plumb fergot, me not
havin' the same kind o' likker right now.

"When me an' Bill was havin' a few afore he left I was right on the
p'int o' rememberin' what it was I was fergittin'. I don't make no
doubt, ef Kit an' me er Bill an' me could only meet an' drink along day
er so hit'd all come plain to me. But all by myself, an' sober, an' not
sociable with Dang Yore Eyes jest now, I sw'ar, I kain't think o'
nothin'. What's a girl's mind fer ef hit hain't to think o' things?"

"It was about--him? It was about Kit Carson, something he had--was it
about the gold news?"

"Mebbe. I don't know."

"Did he--Mr. Banion--say anything?"

"Mostly erbout you, an' not much. He only said ef I ever got any mail
to send it ter the Judge in the Willamette settlements."

"He does expect to come back to Oregon!"

"How can I tell? My belief, he'd better jump in the Percific Ocean. He's
a damn fool, Miss Molly. Ef a man loves a womern, that's somethin' that
never orto wait. Yit he goes teeterin' erroun' like he had from now ter
doomsday ter marry the girl which he loves too much fer ter marry her.
That makes me sick. Yit he has resemblances ter a man, too, some
ways--faint resemblances, yes. Fer instance, I'll bet a gun flint these
here people that's been hearin' erbout the ford o' the Snake'd be a hull
lot gladder ef they knew Will Banion was erlong. Huh?"

Molly Wingate was looking far away, pondering many things.

"Well, anyways, hit's even-Stephen fer them both two now," went on
Bridger, "an' may God perteck the right an' the devil take the
him'mostest. They'll like enough both marry Injun wimern an' settle down
in Californy. Out o' sight, out o' mind. Love me little, love me long.
Lord Lovell, he's mounted his milk-white steed. Farewell, sweet sir,
partin' is such sweet sorrer; like ol' Cap'n Bonneville uster say. But
o' all the messes any fool bunch o' pilgrims ever got inter, this is the
worstest, an' hit couldn't be no worser.

"Now, Miss Molly, ye're a plumb diserpintment ter me. I jest drapped in
ter see ef ye couldn't tell me what hit was Kit done told me. But ye
kain't. Whar is yer boasted superiorness as a womern?

"But now, me, havin' did forty mile a day over that country yan, I need
sustenance, an' I'm goin' to see ef ol' Cap' Grant, the post trader, has
ary bit o' Hundson Bay rum left. Ef he has hit's mine, an' ef not, Jim
Bridger's a liar, an' that I say deliberate. I'm goin' to try to git
inter normal condition enough fer to remember a few plain, simple
truths, seein' as you all kain't. Way hit is, this train's in a hell of
a fix, an' hit couldn't be no worser."



CHAPTER XXXVIII

WHEN THE ROCKIES FELL


The news of Jim Bridger's arrival, and the swift rumor that he would
serve as pilot for the train over the dangerous portion of the route
ahead, spread an instantaneous feeling of relief throughout the hesitant
encampment at this, the last touch with civilization east of the
destination. He paused briefly at one or another wagon after he had made
his own animals comfortable, laughing and jesting in his own independent
way, _en route_ to fulfill his promise to himself regarding the trader's
rum.

In most ways the old scout's wide experience gave his dicta value. In
one assertion, however, he was wide of the truth, or short of it. So far
from things being as bad as they could be, the rapid events of that same
morning proved that still more confusion was to ensue, and that
speedily.

There came riding into the post from the westward a little party of
old-time mountain men, driving their near-spent mounts and packs at a
speed unusual even in that land of vast distances. They were headed by a
man well known in that vicinity who, though he had removed to California
since the fur days, made annual pilgrimage to meet the emigrant trains
at Fort Hall in order to do proselyting for California, extolling the
virtues of that land and picturing in direst fashion the horrors of the
road thence to Oregon and the worthlessness of Oregon if ever attained.
"Old Greenwood" was the only name by which he was known. He was an old,
old man, past eighty then, some said, with a deep blue eye, long white
hair, a long and unkempt beard and a tongue of unparalleled profanity.
He came in now, shouting and singing, as did the men of the mountains
making the Rendezvous in the old days.

"How, Greenwood! What brings ye here so late?" demanded his erstwhile
crony, Jim Bridger, advancing, tin cup in hand, to meet him. "Light.
Eat. Special, drink. How--to the old times!"

"Old times be damned!" exclaimed Old Greenwood. "These is new times."

He lifted from above the chafed hips of his trembling horse two sacks of
something very heavy.

"How much is this worth to ye?" he demanded of Bridger and the trader.
"Have ye any shovels? Have ye any picks? Have ye flour, meal,
sugar--anything?"

"Gold!" exclaimed Jim Bridger. "Kit Carson did not lie! He never did!"

And they did not know how much this was worth. They had no scales for
raw gold, nor any system of valuation for it. And they had no shovels
and no pickaxes; and since the families had come they now had very
little flour at Fort Hall.

But now they had the news! This was the greatest news that ever came to
old Fort Hall--the greatest news America knew for many a year, or the
world--the news of the great gold strikes in California.

Old Greenwood suddenly broke out, "Have we left the mines an' come this
fur fer nothin'? I tell ye, we must have supplies! A hundred dollars fer
a pick! A hundred dollars fer a shovel! A hundred dollars fer a pair o'
blankets! An ounce fer a box of sardines, damn ye! An ounce fer half a
pound o' butter! A half ounce fer a aig! Anything ye like fer anything
that's green! Three hundred fer a gallon o' likker! A ounce for a box o'
pills! Eight hundred fer a barrel o' flour! Same fer pork, same fer
sugar, same fer coffee! Damn yer picayune hides, we'll show ye what
prices is! What's money to us? We can git the pure gold that money's
made out of, an' git it all we want! Hooray fer Californy!"

He broke into song. His comrades roared in Homeric chorus with him,
passing from one to another of the current ditties of the mines. They
declared in unison, "Old Grimes is dead, that good old man!" Then they
swung off to yet another classic ballad:

  _There was an old woman who had three, sons--
    Joshua, James and John!
  Josh got shot, and Jim got drowned,
  And John got lost and never was found,
  And that was the end of the woman's three sons,
    Joshua, James and John_.

Having finished the obsequies of the three sons, not once but many
times, they went forward with yet another adaptation, following Old
Greenwood, who stood with head thrown back and sang with tones of
Bashan:

  _Oh, then Susannah,
    Don't you cry fer me!
  I'm goin' to Californuah,
    With my wash pan on my knee_.

The news of the gold was out. Bridger forgot his cups, forgot his
friends, hurried to Molly Wingate's cart again.

"Hit's true, Miss Molly!" he cried--"truer'n true hitself! Yan's men
just in from Californy, an' they've got two horseloads o' gold, an' they
say hit's nothin'--they come out fer supplies. They tried to stop Will
Banion--they did trade some with Woodhull. They're nigh to Humboldt by
now an' goin' hard. Miss Molly, gal, he's in ahead o' the hull country,
an' got six months by hisself! Lord give him luck! Hit'll be winter,
afore the men back East kin know. He's one year ahead--thanks ter yer
lie ter me, an ter Kit, and Kit's ter his General.

"Gold! Ye kain't hide hit an' ye kain't find hit an' ye kain't dig hit
up an' ye kain't keep hit down. Miss Molly, gal, I like ye, but how I do
wish't ye was a man, so's you an' me could celerbrate this here fitten!"

"Listen!" said the girl. "Our bugle! That's Assembly!"

"Yes, they'll all be there. Come when ye kin. Hell's a-poppin' now!"

The emigrants, indeed, deserted their wagons, gathering in front of the
stockade, group after group. There was a strange scene on the far-flung,
unknown, fateful borderlands of the country Senator McDuffie but now had
not valued at five dollars for the whole. All these now, half-way
across, and with the ice and snow of winter cutting off pursuit for a
year, had the great news which did not reach publication in the press of
New York and Baltimore until September of 1848. It did not attain notice
of the floor of Congress until December fifth of that year, although
this was news that went to the very foundation of this republic; which,
indeed, was to prove the means of the perpetuity of this republic.

The drunken hunters in their ragged wools, their stained skins, the
emigrants in their motley garb--come this far they knew not why, since
men will not admit of Destiny in nations--also knew not that they were
joying over the death of slavery and the life of the Union. They did not
know that now, in a flash, all the old arguments and citations over
slavery and secession were ancient and of no avail. The wagoners of the
Sangamon, in Illinois, gathered here, roistering, did not know that they
were dancing on the martyr's grave of Lincoln, or weaving him his crown,
or buying shot and shell for him to win his grievous ordeal, brother
against brother. Yet all those things were settled then, beyond that
range of the Rockies which senators had said they would not spend a
dollar to remove, "were they no more than ten feet high."

Even then the Rockies fell. Even then the great trains of the covered
wagons, driven by men who never heard of Destiny, achieved their places
on the unwritten scroll of Time.

The newcomers from beyond the Sierras, crazed with their easy fortune,
and now inflamed yet further by the fumes of alcohol, even magnified the
truth, as it then seemed. They spent their dust by the handful. They
asked for skillets, cooking pans, that they could wash more gold. They
wanted saws, nails, axes, hammers, picks. They said they would use the
wagon boxes for Long Toms. They said if men would unite in companies to
dam and divert the California rivers they would lay bare ledges of
broken gold which would need only scooping up. The miners would pay
anything for labor in iron and wood. They would buy any food and all
there was of it at a dollar a pound. They wanted pack horses to cross
the Humboldt Desert loaded. They would pay any price for men to handle
horses for a fast and steady flight.

Because, they said, there was no longer any use in measuring life by the
old standards of value. Wages at four bits a day, a dollar a day, two
dollars, the old prices--why, no man would work for a half hour for such
return when any minute he might lift twenty dollars in the hollow of an
iron spoon. Old Greenwood had panned his five hundred in a day. Men had
taken two thousand--three--in a week; in a week, men, not in a year!
There could be no wage scale at all. Labor was a thing gone by. Wealth,
success, ease, luxury was at hand for the taking. What a man had dreamed
for himself he now could have. He could overleap all the confining
limits of his life, and even if weak, witless, ignorant or in despair,
throw all that aside in one vast bound into attainment and enjoyment.

Rich? Why should any man remain poor? Work? Why should work be known,
save the labor of picking up pure gold--done, finished, delivered at
hand to waiting and weary humanity? Human cravings could no longer
exist. Human disappointment was a thing no more to be known. In
California, just yonder, was gold, gold, gold! Do you mind--can you
think of it, men? Gold, gold, gold! The sun had arisen at last on the
millennial day! Now might man be happy and grieve no more forever!

Arguments such as these did not lack and were not needed with the
emigrants. It took but a leap to the last conclusion. Go to California?
Why should they not go? Had it not been foreordained that they should
get the news here, before it was too late? Fifty miles more and they had
lost it. A week earlier and they would not have known it for a year. Go
to Oregon and plow? Why not go to California and dig in a day what a
plow would earn in a year?

Call it stubbornness or steadfastness, at least Jesse Wingate's strength
of resolution now became manifest. At first almost alone, he stayed the
stampede by holding out for Oregon in the council with his captains.

They stood near the Wingate wagon, the same which had carried him into
Indiana, thence into Illinois, now this far on the long way to Oregon.
Old and gray was Mary Ann, as he called his wagon, by now, the paint
ground from felly, spoke and hub, the sides dust covered, the tilt
disfigured and discolored. He gazed at the time-worn, sturdy frame with
something akin to affection. The spokes were wedged to hold them tight,
the rims were bound with hide, worn away at the edges where the tire
gave no covering, the tires had been reset again and again. He shook the
nearest wheel to test it.

"Yes," said he, "we all show wear. But I see little use in changing a
plan once made in a man's best sober judgment. For me, I don't think all
the world has been changed overnight."

"Oh, well, now," demanded Kelsey, his nomad Kentucky blood dominant,
"what use holding to any plan just for sake of doing it? If something
better comes, why not take it? That stands to reason. We all came out
here to better ourselves. These men have done in six months what you and
I might not do in ten years in Oregon."

"They'd guide us through to California, too," he went on. "We've no
guide to Oregon."

Even Caleb Price nodded.

"They all say that the part from here on is the worst--drier and drier,
and in places very rough. And the two fords of the Snake--well, I for
one wish we were across them. That's a big river, and a bad one. And if
we crossed the Blue Mountains all right, there's the Cascades, worse
than the Blues, and no known trail for wagons."

"I may have to leave my wagons," said Jesse Wingate, "but if I do I aim
to leave them as close to the Willamette Valley as I can. I came out to
farm. I don't know California. How about you, Hall? What do your
neighbors say?"

"Much as Price says. They're worn out and scared. They're been talking
about the Snake crossings ever since we left the Soda Springs. Half want
to switch for California. A good many others would like to go back
home--if they thought they'd ever get there!"

"But we've got to decide," urged Wingate. "Can we count on thirty wagons
to go through? Others have got through in a season, and so can we if we
stick. Price?"

His hesitant glance at his staunch trail friend's face decided the
latter.

"I'll stick for Oregon!" said Caleb Price. "I've got my wife and
children along. I want my donation lands."

"You, Hall?"

"I'll go with you," said Hall, the third column leader, slowly. "Like to
try a whirl in California, but if there's so much gold there next
year'll do. I want my lands."

"Why, there's almost ten thousand people in Oregon by now, or will be
next year," argued Wingate. "It may get to be a territory--maybe not a
state, but anyways a territory, some time. And it's free! Not like Texas
and all this new Mexican land just coming in by the treaty. What do you
say, finally, Kelsey?"

The latter chewed tobacco for some time.

"You put it to me hard to answer," said he. "Any one of us'd like to try
California. It will open faster than Oregon if all this gold news is
true. Maybe ten thousand people will come out next year, for all we
know."

"Yes, with picks and shovels," said Jesse Wingate. "Did ever you see
pick or shovel build a country? Did ever you see steel traps make or
hold one? Oregon's ours because we went out five years ago with wagons
and plows--we all know that. No, friends, waterways never held a
country. No path ever held on a river--that's for exploring, not for
farming. To hold a country you need wheels, you need a plow. I'm for
Oregon!"

"You put it strong," admitted Kelsey. "But the only thing that holds me
back from California is the promise we four made to each other when we
started. Our train's fallen apart little by little. I'm ole Kaintucky.
We don't rue back, and we keep our word. We four said we'd go through.
I'll stand by that, I'm a man of my word."

Imperiously as though he were Pizarro's self, he drew a line in the dust
of the trail.

"Who's for Oregon?" he shouted; again demanded, as silence fell, "This
side for Oregon!" And Kelsey of Kentucky, man of his word, turned the
stampede definitely.

Wingate, his three friends; a little group, augmenting, crossed for
Oregon. The women and the children stood aloof,--sunbonneted women,
brown, some with new-born trail babes in arms, silent as they always
stood. Across from the Oregon band stood almost as many men, for the
most part unmarried, who had not given hostages to fortune, and were
resolved for California. A cheer arose from these.

"Who wants my plow?" demanded a stalwart farmer, from Indiana, more than
fifteen hundred miles from his last home. "I brung her this fur into
this damned desert. I'll trade her fer a shovel and make one more try
fer my folks back home."

He loosed the wires which had bound the implement to the tail of his
wagon all these weary miles. It fell to the ground and he left it there.

"Do some thinking, men, before you count your gold and drop your plow.
Gold don't last, but the soil does. Ahead of you is the Humboldt Desert.
There's no good wagon road over the mountains if you get that far. The
road down Mary's River is a real gamble with death. Men can go through
and make roads--yes; but where are the women and the children to stay?
Think twice, men, and more than twice!" Wingate spoke solemnly.

"Roll out! Roll out!" mocked the man who had abandoned his plow. "This
way for Californy!"

The council ended in turmoil, where hitherto had been no more than a
sedate daily system. Routine, become custom, gave way to restless
movement, excited argument. Of all these hundreds now encamped on the
sandy sagebrush plain in the high desert there was not an individual who
was not affected in one way or another by the news from California, and
in most cases it required some sort of a personal decision, made
practically upon the moment. Men argued with their wives heatedly; women
gathered in groups, talking, weeping. The stoic calm of the trail was
swept away in a sort of hysteria which seemed to upset all their world
and all its old values.

Whether for Oregon or California, a revolution in prices was worked
overnight for every purchase of supplies. Flour, horses, tools,
everything merchantable, doubled and more than doubled. Some fifty
wagons in all now formed train for California, which, in addition to the
long line of pack animals, left the Sangamon caravan, so called, at best
little more than half what it had been the day before. The men without
families made up most of the California train.

The agents for California, by force of habit, still went among the
wagons and urged the old arguments against Oregon--the savage tribes on
ahead, the forbidding desolation of the land, the vast and dangerous
rivers, the certainty of starvation on the way, the risk of arriving
after winter had set in on the Cascade Range--all matters of which they
themselves spoke by hearsay. All the great West was then unknown.
Moreover, Fort Hall was a natural division point, as quite often a third
of the wagons of a train might be bound for California even before the
discovery of gold. But Wingate and his associates felt that the Oregon
immigration for that year, even handicapped as now, ultimately would run
into thousands.

It was mid-morning of the next blazing day when he beckoned his men to
him.

"Lets pull out," he said. "Why wait for the Californians to move? Bridger
will go with us across the Snake. 'Twill only be the worse the longer we
lie here, and our wagons are two weeks late now."

The others agreed. But there was now little train organization. The old
cheery call, "Catch up! Catch up!" was not heard. The group, the family,
the individual now began to show again. True, after their leaders came,
one after another, rattling, faded wagons, until the dusty trail that
led out across the sage flats had a tenancy stretched out for over a
half mile, with yet other vehicles falling in behind; but silent and
grim were young and old now over this last defection.

"About that old man Greenwood," said Molly Wingate to her daughter as
they sat on the same jolting seat, "I don't know about him. I've saw
elders in the church with whiskers as long and white as his'n, but you'd
better watch your hog pen. For me, I believe he's a liar. It like
enough is true he used to live back in the Rockies in Injun times, and
he may be eighty-five years old, as he says, and California may have a
wonderful climate, the way he says; but some things I can't believe.

"He says, now, he knows a man out in California, a Spanish man, who was
two hundred and fifty years old, and he had quite a lot of money, gold
and silver, he'd dug out of the mountains. Greenwood says he's known of
gold and silver for years, himself. Well, this Spanish man had relatives
that wanted his property, and he'd made a will and left it to them; but
he wouldn't die, the climate was so good. So his folks allowed maybe if
they sent him to Spain on a journey he'd die and then they'd get the
property legal. So he went, and he did die; but he left orders for his
body to be sent back to California to be buried. So when his body came
they buried him in California, the way he asked--so Greenwood says.

"But did they get his property? Not at all! The old Spanish man, almost
as soon as he was buried in California dirt, he came to life again! He's
alive to-day out there, and this man Greenwood says he's a neighbor of
his and he knows him well! Of course, if that's true you can believe
almost anything about what a wonderful country California is. But for
one, I ain't right sure. Maybe not everybody who goes to California is
going to find a mountain of gold, or live to be three hundred years old!

"But to think, Molly! Here you knew all this away back to Laramie!
Well, if the hoorah had started there 'stead of here there'd be dead
people now back of us more'n there is now. That old man Bridger told
you--why? And how could you keep the secret?"

"It was for Will," said Molly simply. "I had given him up. I told him to
go to California and forget me, and to live things down. Don't chide me
any more. I tried to marry the man you wanted me to marry. I'm tired.
I'm going to Oregon--to forget. I'll teach school. I'll never, never
marry--that's settled at last."

"You got a letter from Sara Woodhull too."

"Yes, I did."

"Huh! Does he call that settled? Is he going to California to forget you
and live things down?"

"He says not. I don't care what he says."

"He'll be back."

"Spare his journey! It will do him no good. The Indian did me a
kindness, I tell you!"

"Well, anyways, they're both off on the same journey now, and who knows
what or which? They both may be three hundred years old before they find
a mountain of gold. But to think--I had your chunk of gold right in my
own hands, but didn't know it! The same gold my mother's wedding ring
was made of, that was mine. It's right thin now, child. You could of
made a dozen out of that lump, like enough."

"I'll never need one, mother," said Molly Wingate.

The girl, weeping, threw her arms about her mother's neck. "You ask why
I kept the secret, even then. He kissed me, mother--and he was a thief!"

"Yes, I know. A man he just steals a girl's heart out through her lips.
Yore paw done that way with me once. Git up, Dan! You, Daisy!

"And from that time on," she added laughing, "I been trying to forget
him and to live him down!"



CHAPTER XXXIX

THE CROSSING


Three days out from Fort Hall the vanguard of the remnant of the train,
less than a fourth of the original number, saw leaning against a gnarled
sagebrush a box lid which had scrawled upon it in straggling letters one
word--"California." Here now were to part the pick and the plow.

Jim Bridger, sitting his gaunt horse, rifle across saddle horn, halted
for the head of the train to pull even with him.

"This here's Cassia Creek," said he. "Yan's the trail down Raft River
ter the Humboldt and acrost the Sierrys ter Californy. A long, dry jump
hit is, by all accounts. The Oregon road goes on down the Snake. Hit's
longer, if not so dry."

Small invitation offered in the physical aspect of either path. The
journey had become interminable. The unspeakable monotony, whose only
variant was peril, had smothered the spark of hope and interest. The
allurement of mystery had wholly lost its charm.

The train halted for some hours. Once more discussion rose.

"Last chance for Californy, men," said old Jim Bridger calmly. "Do-ee
see the tracks? Here's Greenwood come in. Yan's where Woodhull's wagons
left the road. Below that, one side, is the tracks o' Banion's mules."

"I wonder," he added, "why thar hain't ary letter left fer none o' us
here at the forks o' the road."

He did not know that, left in a tin at the foot of the board sign
certain days earlier, there had rested a letter addressed to Miss Molly
Wingate. It never was to reach her. Sam Woodhull knew the reason why.
Having opened it and read it, he had possessed himself of exacter
knowledge than ever before of the relations of Banion and Molly Wingate.
Bitter as had been his hatred before, it now was venomous. He lived
thenceforth no more in hope of gold than of revenge.

The decision for or against California was something for serious
weighing now at the last hour, and it affected the fortune and the
future of every man, woman and child in all the train. Never a furrow
was plowed in early Oregon but ran in bones and blood; and never a
dollar was dug in gold in California--or ever gained in gold by any
man--which did not cost two in something else but gold.

Twelve wagons pulled out of the trail silently, one after another, and
took the winding trail that led to the left, to the west and south.
Others watched them, tears in their eyes, for some were friends.

Alone on her cart seat, here at the fateful parting of the ways, Molly
Wingate sat with a letter clasped in her hand, frank tears standing in
her eyes. It was no new letter, but an old one. She pressed the pages to
her heart, to her lips, held them out at arm's length before her in the
direction of the far land which somewhere held its secrets.

"Oh, God keep you, Will!" she said in her heart, and almost audibly.
"Oh, God give you fortune, Will, and bring you back to me!"

But the Oregon wagons closed up once more and held their way, the stop
not being beyond one camp, for Bridger urged haste.

The caravan course now lay along the great valley of the Snake. The
giant deeds of the river in its cañons they could only guess. They heard
of tremendous falls, of gorges through which no boat could pass, vague
rumors of days of earlier exploration; but they kept to the high
plateaus, dipping down to the crossings of many sharp streams, which in
the first month of their journey they would have called impassable. It
all took time. They were averaging now not twenty miles daily, but no
more than half that, and the season was advancing. It was fall. Back
home the wheat would be in stack, the edges of the corn would be seared
with frost.

The vast abundance of game they had found all along now lacked. Some
rabbits, a few sage grouse, nightly coyotes--that made all. The savages
who now hung on their flanks lacked the stature and the brave trappings
of the buffalo plainsmen. They lived on horse meat and salmon, so the
rumor came. Now their environment took hold of the Pacific. They had
left the East wholly behind.

On the salmon run they could count on food, not so good as the buffalo,
but better than bacon grown soft and rusty. Changing, accepting,
adjusting, prevailing, the wagons went on, day after day, fifty miles, a
hundred, two hundred. But always a vague uneasiness pervaded. The
crossing of the Snake lay on ahead. The moody river had cast upon them a
feeling of awe. Around the sage fires at night the families talked of
little else but the ford of the Snake, two days beyond the Salmon Falls.

It was morning when the wagons, well drawn together now, at last turned
down the precipitous decline which took them from the high plateau to
the water, level. Here a halt was called. Bridger took full charge. The
formidable enterprise confronting them was one of the real dangers of
the road.

The strong green waters of the great river were divided at this ancient
ford by two midstream islands, which accounted for the selection of the
spot for the daring essay of a bridgeless and boatless crossing. There
was something mockingly relentless in the strong rippling current, which
cut off more than a guess at the actual depth. There was no ferry, no
boat nor means of making one. It was not even possible to shore up the
wagon beds so they might be dry. One thing sure was that if ever a
wagon was swept below the crossing there could be no hope for it.

But others had crossed here, and even now a certain rough chart existed,
handed down from these. Time now for a leader, and men now were thankful
for the presence of a man who had seen this crossing made.

The old scout held back the company leaders and rode into the stream
alone, step by step, scanning the bottom. He found it firm. He saw wheel
marks on the first island. His horse, ears ahead, saw them also, and
staggeringly felt out the way. Belly-deep and passable--yes.

Bridger turned and moved a wide arm. The foremost wagons came on to the
edge.

The men now mounted the wagon seats, two to each wagon. Flankers drove
up the loose cattle, ready for their turn later. Men rode on each side
the lead yoke of oxen to hold them steady on their footing, Wingate,
Price, Kelsey and Hall, bold men and well mounted, taking this work on
themselves.

The plunge once made, they got to the first island, all of them, without
trouble. But a dizzying flood lay on ahead to the second wheel-marked
island in the river. To look at the rapid surface was to lose all sense
of direction. But again the gaunt horse of the scout fell out, the
riders waded in, their devoted saddle animals trembling beneath them.
Bridger, student of fast fords, followed the bar upstream, angling with
it, till a deep channel offered between him and the island. Unable to
evade this, he drove into it, and his gallant mount breasted up and held
its feet all the way across.

The thing could be done! Jim Bridger calmly turned and waved to the
wagons to come on from the first island.

"Keep them jest whar we was!" he called back to Hall and Kelsey, who had
not passed the last stiff water. "Put the heavy cattle in fust! Hit
maybe won't swim them. If the stuff gets wet we kain't help that. Tell
the wimern hit's all right."

He saw his friends turn back, their horses, deep in the flood, plunging
through water broken by their knees; saw the first wagons lead off and
crawl out upstream, slowly and safely, till within reach of his voice.
Molly now was in the main wagon, and her brother Jed was driving.

Between the lines of wading horsemen the draft oxen advanced, following
the wagons, strung out, but all holding their footing in the green water
that broke white on the upper side of the wagons. A vast murmuring roar
came up from the water thus retarded.

They made their way to the edge of the deep channel, where the cattle
stood, breasts submerged.

Bridger rose in his stirrups and shouted, "Git in thar! Come on
through!"

They plunged, wallowed, staggered; but the lead yokes saw where the ford
climbed the bank, made for it, caught footing, dragged the others
through!

Wagon after wagon made it safe. It was desperate, but, being done,
these matter-of-fact folk wasted no time in imaginings of what might
have happened. They were safe, and the ford thus far was established so
that the others need not fear.

But on ahead lay what they all knew was the real danger--the last
channel, three hundred yards of racing, heavy water which apparently no
sane man ever would have faced. But there were wheel marks on the
farther shore. Here ran the road to Oregon.

The dauntless old scout rode in again, alone, bending to study the water
and the footing. A gravel bar led off for a couple of rods, flanked by
deep potholes. Ten rods out the bar turned. He followed it up, foot by
foot, for twenty rods, quartering. Then he struck out for the shore.

The bottom was hard, yes; but the bar was very crooked, with swimming
water on either hand, with potholes ten feet deep and more all
alongside. And worst of all, there was a vast sweep of heavy water below
the ford, which meant destruction and death for any wagon carried down.
Well had the crossing of the Snake earned its sinister reputation.
Courage and care alone could give any man safe-conduct here.

The women and children, crying, sat in the wagons, watching Bridger
retrace the ford. Once his stumbling horse swam, but caught footing. He
joined them, very serious.

"Hit's fordin' men," said he, "but she's mean, she shore is mean. Double
up all the teams, yoke in every loose ox an' put six yoke on each
wagon, er they'll get swep' down, shore's hell. Some o' them will hold
the others ef we have enough. I'll go ahead, an' I want riders all along
the teams, above and below, ter hold them ter the line. Hit can be
did--hit's wicked water, but hit can be did. Don't wait--always keep
things movin'."

By this time the island was packed with the loose cattle, which had
followed the wagons, much of the time swimming. They were lowing
meaningly, in terror--a gruesome thing to hear.

The leader called to Price's oldest boy, driving Molly's cart, "Tie on
behind the big wagon with a long rope, an' don't drive in tell you see
the fust two yoke ahead holdin'. Then they'll drag you through anyhow.
Hang onto the cart whatever happens, but if you do get,' in, keep
upstream of any animile that's swimmin'."

"All set, men? Come ahead!"

He led off again at last, after the teams were doubled and the loads had
been piled high as possible to keep them dry. Ten wagons were left
behind, it being needful to drive back, over the roaring channel, some
of the doubled heavy teams for them.

They made it well, foot by foot, the cattle sometimes swimming gently,
confidently, as the line curved down under the heavy current, but always
enough holding to keep the team safe. The horsemen rode alongside,
exhorting, assuring. It was a vast relief when at the last gravel
stretch they saw the wet backs of the oxen rise high once more.

"I'll go back, Jesse," said Kelsey, the man who had wanted to go to
California. "I know her now."

"I'll go with you," added young Jed Wingate, climbing down from his
wagon seat and demanding his saddle horse, which he mounted bare-backed.

It was they two who drove and led the spare yokes back to repeat the
crossing with the remaining wagons. Those on the bank watched them
anxiously, for they drove straighter across to save time, and were
carried below the trail on the island. But they came out laughing, and
the oxen were rounded up once more and doubled in, so that the last of
the train was ready.

"That's a fine mare of Kelsey's," said Wingate to Caleb Price, who with
him was watching the daring Kentuckian at his work on the downstream and
more dangerous side of the linked teams. "She'll go anywhere."

Price nodded, anxiously regarding the laboring advance of the last
wagons.

"Too light," said he. "I started with a ton and a half on the National
Pike across Ohio and Indiana. I doubt if we average five hundred now.
They ford light."

"Look!" he cried suddenly, and pointed.

They all ran to the brink. The horsemen were trying to stay the drift of
the line of cattle. They had worked low and missed footing. Many were
swimming--the wagons were afloat!

The tired lead cattle had not been able to withstand the pressure of the
heavy water a second time. They were off the ford!

But the riders from the shore, led by Jim Bridger, got to them, caught a
rope around a horn, dragged them into line, dragged the whole gaunt team
to the edge and saved the day for the lead wagon. The others caught and
held their footing, labored through.

But a shout arose. Persons ran down the bank, pointing. A hundred yards
below the ford, in the full current of the Snake, the lean head of
Kelsey's mare was flat, swimming hard and steadily, being swept
downstream in a current which swung off shore below the ford.

"He's all right!" called Jed, wet to the neck, sitting his own wet
mount, safe ashore at last. "He's swimming too. They'll make it, sure!
Come on!"

He started off at a gallop downstream along the shore, his eyes fixed on
the two black objects, now steadily losing distance out beyond. But old
Jim Bridger put his hands across his eyes and turned away his face. He
knew!

It was now plain to all that yonder a gallant man and a gallant horse
were making a fight for life. The grim river had them in its grip at
last.

In a moment the tremendous power of the heavy water had swept Kelsey and
his horse far below the ford. The current there was swifter, noisier,
as though exultant in the success of the scheme the river all along had
proposed.

As to the victims, the tragic struggle went on in silence. If the man
called, no one could hear him above the rush and roar of the waters.
None long had any hope as they saw the white rollers bury the two heads,
of the horse and the man, while the set of the current steadily carried
them away from the shore. It was only a miracle that the two bobbing
black dots again and again came into view.

They could see the mare's muzzle flat, extended toward the shore; back
of it, upstream, the head of the man. Whichever brain had decided, it
was evident that the animal was staking life to reach the shore from
which it had been swept away.

Far out in midstream some conformation of the bottom turned the current
once more in a long slant shoreward. A murmur, a sob of hundreds of
observers packed along the shore broke out as the two dots came closer,
far below. More than a quarter of a mile downstream a sand point made
out, offering a sort of beach where for some space a landing might be
made. Could the gallant mare make this point? Men clenched their hands.
Women began to sob, to moan gently.

When with a shout Jed Wingate turned his horse and set off at top speed
down the shore some followed him. The horses and oxen, left alone, fell
into confusion, the wagons tangled. One or two teams made off at a run
into the desert. But these things were nothing.

Those behind hoped Jed would not try any rescue in that flood. Molly
stood wringing her hands. The boy's mother began praying audibly. The
voice of Jim Bridger rose in an Indian chant. It was for the dead!

They saw the gallant mare plunge up, back and shoulders and body rising
as her feet found bottom a few yards out from shore. She stood free of
the water, safe on the bar; stood still, looking back of her and down.
But no man rose to his height beside her. There was only one figure on
the bar.

They saw Jed fling off; saw him run and stoop, lifting something long
and heavy from the water. Then the mare stumbled away. At length she lay
down quietly. She never rose.

"She was standing right here," said Jed as the others came, "He had hold
of the reins so tight I couldn't hardly open his hand. He must have been
dead before the mare hit bottom. He was laying all under water, hanging
to the reins, and that was all that kept him from washing on down."

They made some rude and unskilled attempt at resuscitation, but had
neither knowledge nor confidence. Perhaps somewhere out yonder the
strain had been too great; perhaps the sheer terror had broken the heart
of both man and horse. The mare suddenly began to tremble as she lay,
her nostrils shivering as though in fright. And she died, after bringing
in the dead man whose hand still gripped her rein.

They buried Kelsey of Kentucky--few knew him otherwise--on a hillock by
the road at the first fording place of the Snake. They broke out the top
board of another tail gate, and with a hot iron burned in one more
record of the road:

"Rob't. Kelsey, Ky. Drowned Sept. 7, 1848. A Brave Man."

The sand long ago cut out the lettering, and long ago the ford passed to
a ferry. But there lay, for a long time known, Kelsey of Kentucky, a
brave man, who kept his promise and did not rue back, but who never saw
either California or Oregon.

"Catch up the stock, men," said Jesse Wingate dully, after a time.
"Let's leave this place."

Loads were repacked, broken gear adjusted. Inside the hour the silent
gray wagon train held on, leaving the waters to give shriving. The voice
of the river rose and fell mournfully behind them in the changing airs.

"I knowed hit!" said old Jim Bridger, now falling back from the lead and
breaking oft' his Indian dirge. "I knowed all along the Snake'd take
somebody--she does every time. This mornin' I seed two ravens that flew
acrost the trail ahead. Yesterday I seed a rabbit settin' squar' in the
trail. I thought hit was me the river wanted, but she's done took a
younger an' a better man."

"Man, man," exclaimed stout-hearted Molly Wingate, "what for kind of a
country have you brought us women to? One more thing like that and my
nerve's gone. Tell me, is this the last bad river? And when will we get
to Oregon?"

"Don't be a-skeered, ma'am," rejoined Bridger. "A accident kin happen
anywheres. Hit's a month on ter Oregon, whar ye're headed. Some fords on
ahead, yes; we got ter cross back ter the south side the Snake again."

"But you'll go on with us, won't you?" demanded young Molly Wingate.

They had halted to breathe the cattle at the foot of lava dust slope.
Bridger looked at the young girl for a time in silence.

"I'm off my country, Miss Molly," said he. "Beyant the second ford, at
Fort Boise, I ain't never been. I done aimed ter turn back here an' git
back home afore the winter come. Ain't I did enough fer ye?"

But he hesitated. There was a kindly light on the worn old face, in the
sunken blue eye.

"Ye want me ter go on, Miss Molly?"

"If you could it would be a comfort to me, a protection to us all."

"Is hit so! Miss Molly, ye kin talk a ol'-time man out'n his last pelt!
But sence ye do want me, I'll sornter along a leetle ways furtherer with
ye. Many a good fight is spoiled by wonderin' how hit's goin' to come
out. An' many a long trail's lost by wonderin' whar hit runs. I hain't
never yit been plumb to Californy er Oregon. But ef ye say I must, Miss
Molly, why I must; an' ef I must, why here goes! I reckon my wimern kin
keep my fire goin' ontel I git back next year."



CHAPTER XL

OREGON! OREGON!


THE freakish resolves of the old-time trapper at least remained
unchanged for many days, but at last one evening he came to Molly's
wagon, his face grim and sad.

"Miss Molly," he said, "I'm come to say good-by now. Hit's for keeps."

"No? Then why? You are like an old friend to me. What don't I owe to
you?"

"Ye don't owe nothin' ter me yit, Miss Molly. But I want ye ter think
kindly o' old Jim Bridger when he's gone. I allow the kindest thing I
kin do fer ye is ter bring Will Banion ter ye."

"You are a good man, James Bridger," said Molly Wingate. "But then?"

"Ye see, Miss Molly, I had six quarts o' rum I got at Boise. Some folks
says rum is wrong. Hit ain't. I'll tell ye why. Last night I drinked up
my lastest bottle o' that Hundson's Bay rum. Hit war right good rum, an
ez I lay lookin' up at the stars, all ter oncet hit come ter me that I
was jest exactly, no more an' no less, jest ter the ha'r, ez drunk I was
on the leetle spree with Kit at Laramie. Warn't that fine? An' warn't
hit useful? Nach'erl, bein' jest even up, I done thought o' everything I
been fergettin'. Hit all come ter me ez plain ez a streak o' lightnin'.
What it was Kit Carson told me I know now, but no one else shall know.
No, not even you, Miss Molly. I kain't tell ye, so don't ask.

"Now I'm goin' on a long journey, an' a resky one; I kain't tell ye no
more. I reckon I'll never see ye agin. So good-by."

With a swift grasp of his hand he caught the dusty edge of the white
woman's skirt to his bearded lips.

"But, James--"

Suddenly she reached out a hand. He was gone.

       *       *       *       *       *

One winter day, rattling over the icy fords of the road winding down the
Sandy from the white Cascades, crossing the Clackamas, threading the
intervening fringe of forest, there broke into the clearing at Oregon
City the head of the wagon train of 1848. A fourth of the wagons
abandoned and broken, a half of the horses and cattle gone since they
had left the banks of the Columbia east of the mountains, the cattle
leaning one against the other when they halted, the oxen stumbling and
limping, the calluses of their necks torn, raw and bleeding from the
swaying of the yokes on the rocky trail, their tongues out, their eyes
glassy with the unspeakable toil they so long had undergone; the loose
wheels wabbling, the thin hounds rattling, the canvas sagged and
stained, the bucket under each wagon empty, the plow at each tail gate
thumping in its lashings of rope and hide--the train of the covered
wagons now had, indeed, won through. Now may the picture of our own Ark
of Empire never perish from our minds.

On the front seat of the lead wagon sat stout Molly Wingate and her
husband. Little Molly's cart came next. Alongside the Caleb Price wagon,
wherein now sat on the seat--hugging a sore-footed dog whose rawhide
boots had worn through--a long-legged, barefoot girl who had walked
twelve hundred miles since spring, trudged Jed Wingate, now grown from a
tousled boy into a lean, self-reliant young man. His long whip was used
in baseless threatenings now, for any driver must spare cattle such as
these, gaunt and hollow-eyed. Tobacco protuberant in cheek, his feet
half bare, his trousers ragged and fringed to the knee, his sleeves
rolled up over brown and brawny arms, Jed Wingate now was enrolled on
the list of men.

"Gee-whoa-haw! You Buck an' Star, git along there, damn ye!" So rose his
voice, automatically but affectionately.

Certain French Canadians, old-time _engagés_ of the fur posts, now
become _habitants_, landowners, on their way home from Sunday chapel,
hastened to summon others.

"The families have come!" they called at the Falls, as they had at
Portland town.

But now, though safely enlarged at last of the confinement and the
penalties of the wagon train, the emigrants, many of them almost
destitute, none of them of great means, needed to cast about them at
once for their locations and to determine what their occupations were to
be. They scattered, each seeking his place, like new trout in a stream.



CHAPTER XLI

THE SECRETS OF THE SIERRAS


Sam Woodhull carried in his pocket the letter which Will Banion had left
for Molly Wingate at Cassia Creek in the Snake Valley, where the Oregon
road forked for California. There was no post office there, yet Banion
felt sure that his letter would find its way, and it had done so, save
for the treachery of this one man. Naught had been sacred to him. He had
read the letter without an instant's hesitation, feeling that anything
was fair in his love for this woman, in his war with this man. Woodhull
resolved that they should not both live.

He was by nature not so much a coward as a man without principle or
scruple. He did not expect to be killed by Banion. He intended to use
such means as would give Banion no chance. In this he thought himself
fully justified, as a criminal always does.

But hurry as he might, his overdriven teams were no match for the
tireless desert horse, the wiry mountain mount and the hardy mules of
the tidy little pack train of Banion and his companion Jackson. These
could go on steadily where wagons must wait. Their trail grew fainter as
they gained.

At last, at the edge of a waterless march of whose duration they could
not guess, Woodhull and his party were obliged to halt. Here by great
good fortune they were overtaken by the swift pack train of Greenwood
and his men, hurrying back with fresh animals on their return march to
California. The two companies joined forces. Woodhull now had a guide.
Accordingly when, after such dangers and hardships as then must be
inevitable to men covering the gruesome trail between the Snake and the
Sacramento, he found himself late that fall arrived west of the Sierras
and in the gentler climate of the central valley, he looked about him
with a feeling of exultation. Now, surely, fate would give his enemy
into his hand.

Men were spilling south into the valley of the San Joaquin, coming north
with proofs of the Stanislaus, the Tuolumne, the Merced. Greenwood
insisted on working north into the country where he had found gold,
along all the tributaries of the Sacramento. Even then, too, before the
great year of '49 had dawned, prospectors were pushing to the head of
the creeks making into the American Fork, the Feather River, all the
larger and lesser streams heading on the west slopes of the Sierras; and
Greenwood even heard of a band of men who had stolen away from the lower
diggings and broken off to the north and east--some said, heading far up
for the Trinity, though that was all unproved country so far as most
knew.

And now the hatred in Woodhull's sullen heart grew hotter still, for he
heard that not fifty miles ahead there had passed a quiet dark young
man, riding a black Spanish horse; with him a bearded man who drove a
little band of loaded mules! Their progress, so came the story, was up a
valley whose head was impassable. The trail could not be obliterated
back of them. They were in a trap of their own choosing. All that he
needed was patience and caution.

Ships and wagon trains came in on the Willamette from the East. They met
the coast news of gold. Men of Oregon also left in a mad stampede for
California. News came that all the World now was in the mines of
California. All over the East, as the later ships also brought in
reiterated news, the mad craze of '49 even then was spreading.

But the men of '48 were in ahead. From them, scattering like driven game
among the broken country over hundreds of miles of forest, plain, bench
land and valley lands, no word could come out to the waiting world. None
might know the countless triumphs, the unnumbered tragedies--none ever
did know.

There, beyond the law, one man might trail another with murder stronger
than avarice in his heart, and none ever be the wiser. To hide secrets
such as these the unfathomed mountains reached out their shadowy arms.

       *       *       *       *       *

Now the winter wore on with such calendar as altitude, latitude,
longitude gave it, and the spring of '49 came, East and West, in
Washington and New York; at Independence on the Missouri; at Deseret by
the Great Salt Lake; in California; in Oregon.

Above the land of the early Willamette settlements forty or fifty miles
up the Yamhill Valley, so a letter from Mrs. Caleb Price to her
relatives in Ohio said, the Wingates, leaders of the train, had a
beautiful farm, near by the Cale Price Mill, as it was known. They had
up a good house of five rooms, and their cattle were increasing now.
They had forty acres in wheat, with what help the neighbors had given in
housing and planting; and wheat would run fifty bushels to the acre
there. They load bought young trees for an orchard. Her mother had
planted roses; they now were fine. She believed they were as good as
those she planted in Portland, when first she went through
there--cuttings she had carried with her seed wheat in the bureau
drawer, all the way across from the Saganon. Yes, Jesse Wingate and his
wife had done well. Molly, their daughter, was still living with them
and still unmarried, she believed.

There were many things which Mrs. Caleb Price believed; also many things
she did not mention.

She said nothing, for she knew nothing, of a little scene between these
two as they sat on their little sawn-board porch before their door one
evening, looking out over the beautiful and varied landscape that lay
spread before them. Their wheat was in the green now. Their hogs reveled
in their little clover field. "We've done well, Jesse," at length said
portly Molly Wingate. "Look at our place! A mile square, for nothing!
We've done well, Jesse, I'll admit it."

"For what?" answered Jesse Wingate. "What's it for? What has it come to?
What's it all about?"

He did not have any reply. When he turned he saw his wife wiping tears
from her hard, lined face.

"It's Molly," said she.



CHAPTER XLII

KIT CARSON RIDES


Following the recession of the snow, men began to push westward up the
Platte in the great 'spring gold rush of 1849. In the forefront of
these, outpacing them in his tireless fashion, now passed westward the
greatest traveler of his day, the hunter and scout, Kit Carson. The new
post of Fort Kearny on the Platte; the old one, Fort Laramie in the
foothills of the Rockies--he touched them soon as the grass was green;
and as the sun warmed the bunch grass slopes of the North Platte and the
Sweetwater, so that his horses could paw out a living, he crowded on
westward. He was a month ahead of the date for the wagon trains at Fort
Bridger.

"How, Chardon!" said he as he drove in his two light packs, riding alone
as was his usual way, evading Indian eyes as he of all men best knew
how.

"How, Kit! You're early. Why?" The trader's chief clerk turned to send a
boy for Vasquez, Bridger's partner. "Light, Kit, and eat."

"Where's Bridger?" demanded Carson. "I've come out of my country to see
him. I have government mail--for Oregon."

"For Oregon? _Mon Dieu_! But Jeem"--he spread out his hands--"Jeem he's
dead, we'll think. We do not known. Now we know the gold news. Maybe-so
we know why Jeem he's gone!"

"Gone? When?"

"Las' H'august-Settemb. H'all of an' at once he'll took the trail
h'after the h'emigrant train las' year. He'll caught him h'on Fort Hall;
we'll heard. But then he go h'on with those h'emigrant beyon' Hall,
beyon' the fork for Californ'. He'll not come back. No one know what has
become of Jeem. He'll been dead, maybe-so."

"Yes? Maybe-so not! That old rat knows his way through the mountains,
and he'll take his own time. You think he did not go on to California?"

"We'll know he'll didn't."

Carson stood and thought for a time.

"Well, its bad for you, Chardon!"

"How you mean, M'sieu Kit?"

"Eat your last square meal. Saddle your best horse. Drive four packs and
two saddle mounts along."

"_Oui?_ And where?"

"To Oregon!"

"To Oregon? _Sacre 'Fan!'_ What you mean?"

"By authority of the Government, I command you to carry this packet on
to Oregon this season, as fast as safety may allow. Take a man with
you--two; pick up any help you need. But go through.

"I cannot go further west myself, for I must get back to Laramie. I had
counted on Jim, and Jim's post must see me through. Make your own plans
to start to-morrow morning. I'll arrange all that with Vasquez."

"But, M'sieu Kit, I cannot!"

"But you shall, you must, you will! If I had a better man I'd send him,
but you are to do what Jim wants done.".

"_Mais, oui_, of course."

"Yes. And you'll do what the President of the United States commands."

"_Bon Dieu_, Kit!"

"That packet is over the seal of the United States of America, Chardon.
It carries the signature of the President. It was given to the Army to
deliver. The Army has given it to me. I give it to you, and you must go.
It is for Jim. He would know. It must be placed in the hands of the
Circuit Judge acting under, the laws of Oregon, whoever he may be, and
wherever. Find him in the Willamette country. Your pay will be more than
you think, Chardon. Jim would know. Dead or alive, you do this for him.

"You can do thirty miles a day. I know you as a mountain man. Ride!
To-morrow I start east to Laramie--and you start west for Oregon!"

And in the morning following two riders left Bridger's for the trail.
They parted, each waving a hand to the other.



CHAPTER XLIII

THE KILLER KILLED


A rough low cabin of logs, hastily thrown together, housed through the
winter months of the Sierra foothills the two men who now, in the warm
days of early June, sat by the primitive fireplace cooking a midday
meal. The older man, thin, bearded, who now spun a side of venison ribs
on a cord in front of the open fire, was the mountain man, Bill Jackson,
as anyone might tell who ever had seen him, for he had changed but
little.

That his companion, younger, bearded, dressed also in buckskins, was
Will Banion it would have taken closer scrutiny even of a friend to
determine, so much had the passing of these few months altered him in
appearance and in manner. Once light of mien, now he smiled never at
all. For hours he would seem to go about his duties as an automaton. He
spoke at last to his ancient and faithful friend, kindly as ever, and
with his own alertness and decision.

"Let's make it our last meal on the Trinity, Bill. What do you say?"

"Why? What's eatin' ye, boy? Gittin' restless agin?"

"Yes, I want to move."

"Most does."

"We've got enough, Bill. The last month has been a crime. The spring
snows uncovered a fortune for us, and you know it!"

"Oh, yes, eight hundred in one day ain't bad for two men that never had
saw a gold pan a year ago. But she ain't petered yit. With what we've
learned, an' what we know, we kin stay in here an' git so rich that hit
shore makes me cry ter think o' trappin' beaver, even before 1836, when
the beaver market busted. Why, rich? Will, hit's like you say, plumb
wrong--we done hit so damned easy! I lay awake nights plannin' how ter
spend my share o' this pile. We must have fifty-sixty thousand dollars
o' dust buried under the floor, don't ye think?"

"Yes, more. But if you'll agree, I'll sell this claim to the company
below us and let them have the rest. They offer fifty thousand flat, and
it's enough--more than enough. I want two things--to get Jim Bridger his
share safe and sound; and I want to go to Oregon."

The old man paused in the act of splitting off a deer rib from his
roast.

"Ye're one awful damn fool, ain't ye, Will? I did hope ter finish up
here, a-brilin' my meat in a yaller-gold fireplace; but no matter how
plain an' simple a man's tastes is, allus somethin' comes along ter bust
'em up."

"Well, go on and finish your meal in this plain fireplace of ours,
Bill. It has done us very well. I think I'll go down to the sluice a
while."

Banion rose and left the cabin, stooping at the low door. Moodily he
walked along the side of the steep ravine to which the little structure
clung. Below him lay the ripped-open slope where the little stream had
been diverted. Below again lay the bared bed of the exploited water
course, floored with bowlders set in deep gravel, at times with seamy
dams of flat rock lying under and across the gravel stretches; the bed
rock, ages old, holding in its hidden fingers the rich secrets of
immemorial time.

Here he and his partner had in a few months of strenuous labor taken
from the narrow and unimportant rivulet more wealth than most could save
in a lifetime of patient and thrifty toil. Yes, fortune had been kind.
And it all had been so easy, so simple, so unagitating, so
matter-of-fact! The hillside now looked like any other hillside,
innocent as a woman's eyes, yet covering how much! Banion could not
realize that now, young though he was, he was a rich man.

He climbed down the side of the ravine, the little stones rattling under
his feet, until he stood on the bared floor of the bed rock which had
proved so unbelievably prolific in coarse gold.

There was a sharp bend in the ravine, and here the unpaid toil of the
little waterway had, ages long, carried and left especially deep strata
of gold-shot gravel. As he stood, half musing, Will Banion heard, on the
ravine side around the bend, the tinkle of a falling stone, lazily
rolling from one impediment to another. It might be some deer or other
animal, he thought. He hastened to get view of the cause, whatever it
might be.

And then fate, chance, the goddess of fortune which some men say does
not exist, but which all wilderness-goers know does exist, for one
instant paused, with Will Banion's life and wealth and happiness lightly
a-balance in cold, disdainful fingers.

He turned the corner. Almost level with his own, he looked into the eyes
of a crawling man who--stooped, one hand steadying himself against the
slant of the ravine, the other below, carrying a rifle--was peering
frowningly ahead.

It was an evil face, bearded, aquiline, not unhandsome; but evil in its
plain meaning now. The eyes were narrowed, the full lips drawn close, as
though some tense emotion now approached its climax. The appearance was
that of strain, of nerves stretched in some purpose long sustained.

And why not? When a man would do murder, when that has been his steady
and premeditated purpose for a year, waiting only for opportunity to
serve his purpose, that purpose itself changes his very lineaments,
alters his whole cast of countenance. Other men avoid him, knowing
unconsciously what is in his soul, because of what is written on his
face.

For months most men had avoided Woodhull. It was known that he was on a
man hunt. His questions, his movements, his changes of locality showed
that; and Woodhull was one of those who cannot avoid asseverance,
needing it for their courage sake. Now morose and brooding, now loudly
profane, now laughing or now aloof, his errand in these unknown hills
was plain. Well, he was not alone among men whose depths were loosed.
Some time his hour might come.

It had come! He stared now full into the face of his enemy! He at last
had found him. Here stood his enemy, unarmed, delivered into his hands.

For one instant the two stood, staring into one another's eyes. Banion's
advance had been silent. Woodhull was taken as much unawares as he.

It had been Woodhull's purpose to get a stand above the sluices, hidden
by the angle, where he could command the reach of the stream bed where
Banion and Jackson last had been working. He had studied the place
before, and meant to take no chances. His shot must be sure.

But now, in his climbing on the steep hillside, his rifle was in his
left hand, downhill, and his footing, caught as he was with one foot
half raised, was insecure. At no time these last four hours had his
opportunity been so close--or so poor--as precisely now!

He saw Will Banion's eyes, suddenly startled, quickly estimating,
looking into his own. He knew that behind his own eyes his whole foul
soul lay bared--the soul of a murderer.

Woodhull made a swift spring down the hill, scrambling, half erect, and
caught some sort of stance for the work which now was his to do. He
snarled, for he saw Banion stoop, unarmed. It would do his victim no
good to run. There was time even to exult, and that was much better in a
long-deferred matter such as this.

"Now, damn you, I've got you!"

He gave Banion that much chance to see that he was now to die.

Half leaning, he raised the long rifle to its line and touched the
trigger.

The report came; and Banion fell. But even as he wheeled and fell,
stumbling down the hillside, his flung arm apparently had gained a
weapon. It was not more than the piece of rotten quartz he had picked up
and planned to examine later. He flung it straight at Woodhull's
face--an act of chance, of instinct. By a hair it saved him.

Firing and missing at a distance of fifty feet, Woodhull remained not
yet a murderer in deed. In a flash Banion gathered and sprang toward him
as he stood in a half second of consternation at seeing his victim fall
and rise again. The rifle carried but the one shot. He flung it down,
reached for his heavy knife, raising an arm against the second piece of
rock which Banion flung as he closed. He felt his wrist caught in an
iron grip, felt the blood gush where his temple was cut by the last
missile. And then once more, on the narrow bared floor that but now was
patterned in parquetry traced in yellow, and soon must turn to red, it
came to man and man between them--and it was free!

They fell and stumbled so that neither could much damage the other at
first. Banion knew he must keep the impounded hand back from the knife
sheath or he was done. Thus close, he could make no escape. He fought
fast and furiously, striving to throw, to bend, to beat back the body of
a man almost as strong as himself, and now a maniac in rage and fear.

       *       *       *       *       *

The sound of the rifle shot rang through the little defile. To Jackson,
shaving off bits of sweet meat between thumb and knife blade, it meant
the presence of a stranger, friend or foe, for he knew Banion had
carried no weapon with him. His own long rifle he snatched from its
pegs. At a long, easy lope he ran along the path which carried across
the face of the ravine. His moccasined feet made no sound. He saw no one
in the creek bed or at the long turn. But new, there came a loud,
wordless cry which he knew was meant for him. It was Will Banion's
voice.

The two struggling men grappled below him had no notion of how long they
had fought. It seemed an age, and the dénouement yet another age
deferred. But to them came the sound of a voice:

"Git away, Will! Stand back!"

It was Jackson.

They both, still gripped, looked up the bank. The long barrel of a
rifle, foreshortened to a black point, above it a cold eye, fronted and
followed them as they swayed. The crooked arm of the rifleman was
motionless, save as it just moved that deadly circle an inch this way,
an inch back again.

Banion knew that this was murder, too, but he knew that naught on earth
could stay it now. To guard as much as he could against a last desperate
knife thrust even of a dying man, he broke free and sprang back as far
as he could, falling prostrate on his back as he did so, tripped by an
unseen stone. But Sam Woodhull was not upon him now, was not willing to
lose his own life in order to kill. For just one instant he looked up at
the death staring down on him, then turned to run.

There was no place where he could run. The voice of the man above him
called out sharp and hard.

"Halt! Sam Woodhull, look at me!"

He did turn, in horror, in fascination at sight of the Bright Angel. The
rifle barrel to his last gaze became a small, round circle, large as a
bottle top, and around it shone a fringed aura of red and purple light.
That might have been the eye.

Steadily as when he had held his friend's life in his hand, sighting
five inches above his eyes, the old hunter drew now above the eyes of
his enemy. When the dry report cut the confined air of the valley, the
body of Sam Woodhull started forward. The small blue hole an inch above
the eyes showed the murderer's man hunt done.



CHAPTER XLIV

YET IF LOVE LACK


Winding down out of the hills into the grassy valley of the Upper
Sacramento, the little pack train of Banion and Jackson, six hardy mules
beside the black horse and Jackson's mountain pony, picked its way along
a gashed and trampled creek bed. The kyacks which swung heavy on the
strongest two mules might hold salt or lead or gold. It all was one to
any who might have seen, and the two silent men, the younger ahead, the
older behind, obviously were men able to hold their counsel or to defend
their property.

The smoke of a distant encampment caught the keen eye of Jackson as he
rode, humming, care-free, the burden of a song.

"Oh, then, Susannah!" admonished the old mountain man, and bade the said
Susannah to be as free of care as he himself then and there was.

"More men comin' in," said he presently. "Wonder who them people is, an'
ef hit's peace er war."

"Three men. A horse band. Two Indians. Go in easy, Bill."

Banion slowed down his own gait. His companion had tied the six mules
together, nose and tail, with the halter of the lead mule wrapped on
his own saddle horn. Each man now drew his rifle from the swing loop.
But they advanced with the appearance of confidence, for it was evident
that they had been discovered by the men of the encampment.

Apparently they were identified as well as discovered. A tall man in
leggings and moccasions, a flat felt hat over his long gray hair, stood
gazing at them, his rifle butt resting on the ground. Suddenly he
emitted an unearthly yell, whether of defiance or of greeting, and
springing to his own horse's picket pin gathered in the lariat, and
mounting bareback came on, his rifle high above his head, and repeating
again and again his war cry or salutation.

Jackson rose in his stirrups, dropped his lead line and forsook more
than a hundred and fifty thousand dollars some two mule-pack loads of
gold. His own yell rose high in answer.

"I told ye all the world'd be here!" he shouted back over his shoulder.
"Do-ee see that old thief Jim Bridger? Him I left drunk an' happy last
summer? Now what in hell brung him here?"

The two old mountain men flung off and stood hand in hand before Banion
had rescued the precious lead line and brought on the little train.

Bridger threw his hat on the ground, flung down his rifle and cast his
stoic calm aside. Both his hands caught Banion's and his face beamed,
breaking into a thousand lines.

"Boy, hit's you, then! I knowed yer hoss--he has no like in these
parts. I've traced ye by him this hundred miles below an' up agin, but
I've had no word this two weeks. Mostly I've seed that, when ye ain't
lookin' fer a b'ar, thar he is. Well, here we air, fine an' fatten, an'
me with two bottles left o' somethin' they call coggnac down in Yerba
Buena. Come on in an' we'll make medicine."

They dismounted. The two Indians, short, deep-chested, bow-legged men,
went to the packs. They gruntled as they unloaded the two larger mules.

The kyacks were lined up and the mantas spread over them, the animals
led away for feed and water. Bridger produced a ham of venison, some
beans, a bannock and some coffee--not to mention his two bottles of
fiery fluid--before any word was passed regarding future plans or past
events.

"Come here, Jim," said Jackson after a time, tin cup in hand. The other
followed him, likewise equipped.

"Heft this pannier, Jim."

"Uh-huh? Well, what of hit? What's inter hit?"

"Not much, Jim. Jest three-four hunderd pounds o' gold settin' there in
them four packs. Hit hain't much, but hit'll help some."

Bridger stooped and uncovered the kyacks, unbuckled the cover straps.

"Hit's a true fack!" he exclaimed. "Gold! Ef hit hain't, I'm a putrified
liar, an' that's all I got to say!"

Now, little by little, they told, each to other, the story of the
months since they had met, Bridger first explaining his own movements.

"I left the Malheur at Boise, an' brung along yan two boys. Ye needn't
be a-skeered they'll touch the cargo. The gold means nothin' ter 'em,
but horses does. We've got a good band ter drive north now. Some we
bought an' most they stole, but no rancher cares fer horses here an'
now.

"We come through the Klamaths, ye see, an' on south--the old horse trail
up from the Spanish country, which only the Injuns knows. My boys say
they kin take us ter the head o' the Willamette.

"So ye did get the gold! Eh, sir?" said Bridger, his eyes narrowing.
"The tip the gal give ye was a good one?"

"Yes," rejoined Banion. "But we came near losing it and more. It was
Woodhull, Jim. He followed us in."

"Yes, I know. His wagons was not fur behind ye on the Humboldt. He left
right atter ye did. He made trouble, huh? He'll make no more? Is that
hit, huh?"

Bill Jackson slapped the stock of his rifle in silence. Bridger nodded.
He had been close to tragedies all his life. They told him now of this
one. He nodded again, close lipped.

"An' ye want courts an' the settlements, boys?" said he. "Fer me, when I
kill a rattler, that's enough. Ef ye're touchy an' want yer ree-cord
clean, why, we kin go below an' fix hit. Only thing is, I don't want
ter waste no more time'n I kin help, fer some o' them horses has a
ree-cord that ain't maybe so plumb clean their own selves. Ye ain't
goin' out east--ye're goin' north. Hit's easier, an' a month er two
closter, with plenty o' feed an' water--the old Cayuse trail, huh?

"So Sam Woodhull got what he's been lookin' fer so long!" he added
presently. "Well, that simples up things some."

"He'd o' got hit long ago, on the Platte, ef my partner hadn't been a
damned fool," confirmed Jackson. "He was where we could a' buried him
nach'erl, in the sands. I told Will then that Woodhull'd murder him the
fust chancet he got. Well, he did--er ef he didn't hit wasn't no credit
ter either one o' them two."

"What differ does hit make, Bill?" remarked Bridger indifferently. "Let
bygones be bygones, huh? That's the pleasantest way, sence he's dead.

"Now here we air, with all the gold there ever was molded, an' a hull
two bottles o' coggnac left, which takes holt e'enamost better'n
Hundson's Bay rum. Ain't it a perty leetle ol' world to play with, all
with nice pink stripes erroun' hit?"

He filled his tin and broke into a roaring song:

  _There was a ol' widder which had three sons--
    Joshuway, James an' John.
  An' one got shot, an' one got drowned,
  An' th' last un got losted an' never was found_--

"Ain't hit funny, son," said he, turning to Banion with cup uplifted,
"how stiff likker allus makes me remember what I done fergot? Now Kit
told me, that at Laramie--"

"Fer I'm goin' out to Oregon, with my wash pan on my knee!" chanted Bill
Jackson, now solemnly oblivious of most of his surroundings and hence
not consciously discourteous to his friends; "Susannah, don't ye cry!"

They sat, the central figures of a scene wild enough, in a world still
primitive and young. Only one of the three remained sober and silent,
wondering, if one thing lacked, why the world was made.



CHAPTER XLV

THE LIGHT OF THE WHOLE WORLD


At the new farm of Jesse Wingate on the Yamhill the wheat was in stack
and ready for the flail, his deer-skin sacks made ready to carry it to
market after the threshing. His grim and weather-beaten wagon stood, now
unused, at the barnyard fence of rails.

It was evening. Wingate and his wife again sat on their little stoop,
gazing down the path that led to the valley road. A mounted man was
opening the gate, someone they did not recognize.

"Maybe from below," said Molly Wingate. "Jed's maybe sent up another
letter. Leave it to him, he's going to marry the most wonderful girl!
Well, I'll call it true, she's a wonderful walker. All the Prices was."

"Or maybe it's for Molly," she added. "Ef she's ever heard a word from
either Sam Woodhull or--"

"Hush! I do not want to hear that name!" broke in her husband. "Trouble
enough he has made for us!"

His wife made no comment for a moment, still watching the stranger, who
was now riding up the long approach, little noted by Wingate as he sat,
moody and distrait.

"Jess," said she, "let's be fair and shame the devil. Maybe we don't
know all the truth about Will Banion. You go in the house. I'll tend to
this man, whoever he may be."

But she did not. With one more look at the advancing figure, she herself
rose and followed her husband. As she passed she cast a swift glance at
her daughter, who had not joined them for the twilight hour. Hers was
the look of the mother--maternal, solicitious, yet wise and resolved
withal; woman understanding woman. And now was the hour for her ewe lamb
to be alone.

Molly Wingate sat in her own little room, looking through her window at
the far forest and the mountain peaks in their evening dress of many
colors. She was no longer the tattered emigrant girl in fringed frock
and mended moccasins. Ships from the world's great ports served the new
market of the Columbia Valley. It was a trim and trig young woman in the
habiliments of sophisticated lands who sat here now, her heavy hair,
piled high, lighted warmly in the illumination of the window. Her skin,
clear white, had lost its sunburn in the moister climate between the two
ranges of mountains. Quiet, reticent, reserved--cold, some said; but all
said Molly Wingate, teacher at the mission school, was beautiful, the
most beautiful young woman in all the great Willamette settlements. Her
hands were in her lap now, and her face as usual was grave. A sad young
woman, her Oregon lovers all said of her. They did not know why she
should be sad, so fit for love was she.

She heard now a knock at the front door, to which, from her position,
she could not have seen anyone approach. She called out, "Come!" but did
not turn her head.

A horse stamped, neighed near her door. Her face changed expression. Her
eyes grew wide in some strange association of memories suddenly revived.

She heard a footfall on the gallery floor, then on the floor of the
hall. It stopped. Her heart almost stopped with it. Some undiscovered
sense warned her, cried aloud to her. She faced the door, wide-eyed, as
it was flung open.

"Molly!"

Will Banion's deep-toned voice told her all the rest. In terror, her
hands to her face, she stood an instant, then sprang toward him, her
voice almost a wail in its incredulous joy.

"Will! Will! Oh, Will! Oh! Oh!"

"Molly!"

They both paused.

"It can't be! Oh, you frightened me, Will! It can't be you!"

But he had her in his arms now. At first he could only push back her
hair, stroke her cheek, until at last the rush of life and youth came
back to them both, and their lips met in the sealing kiss of years. Then
both were young again. She put up a hand to caress his brown cheek.
Tenderly he pushed back her hair.

"Will! Oh, Will! It can't be!" she whispered again and again.

"But it is! It had to be! Now I'm paid! Now I've found my fortune!"

"And I've had my year to think it over, Will. As though the fortune
mattered!"

"Not so much as that one other thing that kept you and me apart. Now I
must tell you--"

"No, no, let be! Tell me nothing! Will, aren't you here?"

"But I must! You must hear me! I've waited two years for this!"

"Long, Will! You've let me get old!"

"You old?" He kissed her in contempt of time. "But now wait, dear, for I
must tell you.

"You see, coming up the valley I met the Clerk of the Court of Oregon
City, and he knew I was headed up for the Yamhill. He asked me to serve
as his messenger. 'I've been sending up through all the valley
settlements in search of one William Banion,' he said to me. Then I told
him who I was. He gave me this."

"What is it?" She turned to her lover. He held in his hands a long
package, enfolded in an otter skin. "Is it a court summons for Will
Banion? They can't have you, Will!"

He smiled, her head held between his two hands.

"'I have a very important document for Colonel William Banion,' the
clerk said to me. 'It has been for some time in our charge, for
delivery to him at once should he come into the Oregon settlements. It
is from His Excellency, the President of the United States. Such
messages do not wait. Seeing it of such importance, and knowing it to be
military, Judge Lane opened it, since we could not trace the addressee.
If you like--if you are, indeed, Colonel William Banion'--that was what
he said."

He broke off, choking.

"Ah, Molly, at last and indeed I am again William Banion!"

He took from the otter skin--which Chardon once had placed over the
oilskin used by Carson to protect it--the long and formal envelope of
heavy linen. His finger pointed--"On the Service of the United States."

"Why, Will!"

He caught the envelope swiftly to his lips, holding it there an instant
before he could speak.

"My pardon! From the President! Not guilty--oh, not guilty! And I never
was!"

"Oh, Will, Will! That makes you happy?"

"Doesn't it you?"

"Why, yes, yes! But I knew that always! And I know now that I'd have
followed you to the gallows if that had had to be."

"Though I were a thief?"

"Yes! But I'd not believe it! I didn't! I never did! I could not!"

"You'd take my word against all the world--just my word, if I told you
it wasn't true? You'd want no proof at all? Will you always believe in
me in that way? No proof?"

"I want none now. You do tell me that? No, no! I'm afraid you'd give me
proofs! I want none! I want to love you for what you are, for what we
both are, Will! I'm afraid!"

He put his hands on her shoulders, held her away arms' length, looked
straight into her eyes.

"Dear girl," said he, "you need never be afraid any more."

She put her head down contentedly against his shoulder, her face
nestling sidewise, her eyes closed, her arms again quite around his
neck.

"I don't care, Will," said she. "No, no, don't talk of things!"

He did not talk. In the sweetness of the silence he kissed her tenderly
again and again.

And now the sun might sink. The light of the whole world by no means
died with it.

THE END





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