Having shaken her off and resisted contrary temptation I looked not again but paced rapidly for the clean atmosphere of the rough-and-honest bull train. As a companion, better for me Mr. Jenks. When my wrath cooled I felt that I might have acted the cad but I had not acted the simpleton.
The advance of the day's life was stirring all along the road, where under clouds of dust the four and six horse-and-mule wagons hauled water for the town, pack outfits of donkeys and plodding miners wended one way or the other, soldiers trotted in from the military post, and Overlanders slowly toiled for the last supply depot before creaking onward into the desert.
Along the railway grade likewise there was activity, of construction trains laden high with rails, ties, boxes and bales, puffing out, their locomotives belching pitchy black smoke that extended clear to the ridiculous little cabooses; of wagon trains ploughing on, bearing supplies for the grading camps; and a great herd of loose animals, raising a prodigious spume as they were driven at a trot—they also heading westward, ever westward, under escort of a protecting detachment of cavalry, riding two by two, accoutrements flashing.
The sights were inspiring. Man's work at empire building beckoned me, for surely the wagoning of munitions to remote outposts of civilization was very necessary. Consequently I trudged best foot forward, although on empty stomach and with empty pockets; but glad to be at large, and exchanging good-natured greetings with the travelers encountered.
Nevertheless my new boots were burning, my thigh was chafed raw from the swaying Colt's, and my face and throat were parched with the dust, when in about an hour, the flag of the military post having been my landmark, I had arrived almost at the willow-bordered river and now scanned about for the encampment of my train.
Some dozen white-topped wagons were standing grouped in a circle upon the trampled dry sod to the south of the road. Figures were busily moving among them, and the thin blue smoke of their fires was a welcoming signal. I marked women, and children. The whole prospect—they, the breakfast smoke, the grazing animals, the stout vehicles, a line of washed clothing—was homy. So I veered aside and made for the spot, to inquire my way if nothing more.
First I addressed a little girl, tow-headed and barelegged, in a single cotton garment.
"I am looking for the Captain Adams wagon train. Do you know where it is?"
She only pointed, finger of other hand in her mouth; but as she indicated this same camp I pressed on. Mr. Jenks himself came out to meet me.
"Hooray! Here you are. I knew you'd do it. That's the ticket. Broke loose, have you?"
"Yes, sir. I accept your offer if it's still open," I said.
We shook hands.
"Wide open. Could have filled it a dozen times. Come in, come on in and sit. You fetched all your outfit?"
"What you see," I confessed. "I told you my condition. They stripped me clean."
He rubbed his beard.
"Wall, all you need is a blanket. Reckon I can rustle you that. You can pay for it out of your wages or turn it in at the end of the trip. Fust I'd better make you acquainted to the wagon boss. There he is, yonder."
He conducted me on, along the groups and fires and bedding outside the wagon circle, and halted where a heavy man, of face smooth-shaven except chin, sat upon a wagon-tongue whittling a stick.
"Mornin', Cap'n. Wall, I'm filled out. I've hired this lad and can move whenever you say the word. You——" he looked at me. "What's your name, you say?"
"Frank Beeson," I replied.
"Didn't ketch it last night," he apologized. "Shake hands with Cap'n Hyrum Adams, Frank. He's the boss of the train."
Captain Adams lazily arose—a large figure in his dusty boots, coarse trousers and flannel shirt, and weather-beaten black slouch hat. The inevitable revolver hung at his thigh. His pursed lips spurted a jet of tobacco juice as he keenly surveyed me with small, shrewd, china-blue eyes squinting from a broad flaccid countenance. But the countenance was unemotional while he offered a thick hand which proved singularly soft and flatulent under the callouses.
"Glad to meet you, stranger," he acknowledged in slow bass. "Set down, set down."
He waved me to the wagon-tongue, and I thankfully seated myself. All of a sudden I seemed utterly gone; possibly through lack of food. My sigh must have been remarked.
"Breakfasted, stranger?" he queried passively.
"Not yet, sir. I was anxious to reach the train."
"Pshaw! I was about to ask you that," Mr. Jenks put in. "Come along and I'll throw together a mess for you."
"Nobody goes hungry from the Adams wagon, stranger," Captain Adams observed. He slightly raised his voice, peremptory. "Rachael! Fetch our guest some breakfast."
"But as Mr. Jenks has invited me, Captain, and I am in his employ——" I protested. He cut me short.
"I have said that nobody, man, woman or child, or dog, goes hungry from the Adams wagon. The flesh must be fed as well as the soul."
There were two women in view, busied with domestic cares. I had sensed their eyes cast now and then in my direction. One was elderly, as far as might be judged by her somewhat slatternly figure draped in a draggled snuff-colored, straight-flowing gown, and by the merest glimpse of her features within her faded sunbonnet. The other promptly moved aside from where she was bending over a wash-board, ladled food from a kettle to a platter, poured a tin cupful of coffee from the pot simmering by the fire, and bore them to me; her eyes down, shyly handed them.
I thanked her but was not presented. To the Captain's "That will do, Rachael," she turned dutifully away; not so soon, however, but that I had seen a fresh young face within the bonnet confines—a round rosy face according well with the buxom curves of her as she again bent over her wash-board.
"Our fare is that of the tents of Abraham, stranger," spoke the Captain, who had resumed his whittling. "Such as it is, you are welcome to. We are a plain people who walk in the way of the Lord, for that is commanded."
His sonorous tones were delivered rather through the nose, but did not fail of hospitality.
"I ask nothing better, sir," I answered. "And if I did, my appetite would make up for all deficiencies."
"A healthy appetite is a good token," he affirmed. "Show me a well man who picks at his victuals and I will show you a candidate for the devil. His thoughts will like to be as idle as his knife."
The mess of pork and beans and the black unsweetened coffee evidently were what I needed, for I began to mend wonderfully ere I was half through the course. He had not invited me to further conversation—only, when I had drained the cup he called again: "Rachael! More coffee," whereupon the same young woman advanced, without glancing at me, received my cup, and returned it steaming.
"You are from the East, stranger?" he now inquired.
"Yes, sir. I arrived in Benton only yesterday."
"A Sodom," he growled harshly. "A tented sepulcher. And it will perish. I tell you, you do well to leave it, you do well to yoke yourself with the appointed of this earth, rather than stay in that sink-pit of the eternally damned."
"I agree with you, sir," said I. "I did not find Benton to be a pleasant place. But I had not known, when I started from Omaha."
"Possibly not," he moodily assented. "The devil is attentive; he is present in the stations, and on the trains; he will ride in those gilded palaces even to the Jordan, but he shall not cross. In the name of the Lord we shall face him. What good there shall come, shall abide; but the evil shall wither. Not," he added, "that we stand against the railroad. It is needed, and we have petitioned without being heard. We are strong but isolated, we have goods to sell, and the word of Brigham Young has gone forth that a railroad we must have. Against the harpies, the gamblers, the loose women and the lustful men and all the Gentile vanities we will stand upon our own feet by the help of Almighty God."
At this juncture, when I had finished my platter of pork and beans and my second cup of coffee, a tall, double-jointed youth of about my age, carrying an ox goad in his hand, strolled to us as if attracted by the harangue. He was clad in the prevalent cowhide boots, linsey-woolsey pantaloons tucked in, red flannel shirt, and battered hat from which untrimmed flaxen hair fell down unevenly to his shoulder line. He wore at his belt butcher-knife and gun.
By his hulk, his light blue eyes, albeit a trifle crossed, and the general lineaments of his stolid, square, high-cheeked countenance I conceived him to be a second but not improved edition of the Captain.
A true raw-bone he was; and to me, as I casually met his gaze, looked to be obstinate, secretive and small minded. But who can explain those sudden antagonisms that spring up on first sight?
"My son Daniel," the Captain introduced. "This stranger travels to Zion with us, Daniel, in the employ of Mr. Jenks."
The youth had the grip of a vise, and seemed to enjoy emphasizing it while cunningly watching my face.
"Haowdy?" he drawled. With that he twanged a sentence or two to his father. "I faound the caow, Dad. Do yu reckon to pull aout to-day?"
"I have not decided. Go tend to your duties, Daniel."
Daniel bestowed upon me a parting stare, and lurched away, snapping the lash of his goad.
"And with your permission I will tend to mine, sir," I said. "Mr. Jenks doubtless has work for me. I thank you for your hospitality."
"We are commanded by the prophet to feed the stranger, whether friend or enemy," he reproved. "We are also commanded by the Lord to earn our bread by the sweat of our brow. As long as you are no trifler you will be welcome at my wagon. Good-day to you."
As I passed, the young woman, Rachael—whom I judged to be his daughter, although she was evidently far removed from parent stock—glanced quickly up. I caught her gaze full, so that she lowered her eyes with a blush. She was indeed wholesome if not absolutely pretty. When later I saw her with her sunbonnet doffed and her brown hair smoothly brushed back I thought her more wholesome still.
Mr. Jenks received me jovially.
"Got your belly full, have you?"
"I'm a new man," I assured.
"Wall, those Mormons are good providers. They'll share with you whatever they have, for no pay, but if you rub 'em the wrong way or go to dickerin' with 'em they're closer'n the hide on a cold mule. You didn't make sheep's eyes at ary of the women?"
"No, sir. I am done with women."
"And right you are."
"However, I could not help but see that the Captain's daughter is pleasing to look upon. I should be glad to know her, were there no objections."
"How? His daughter?"
"Miss Rachael, I believe. That is the name he used."
"The young one, you mean?"
"Yes, sir. The one who served me with breakfast. Rosy-cheeked and plump."
"Whoa, man! She's his wife, and not for Gentiles. They're both his wives; whether he has more in Utah I don't know. But you'd best let her alone. She's been j'ined to him."
This took me all aback, for I had no other idea than that she was his daughter, or niece—stood in that kind of relation to him. He was twice her age, apparently. Now I could only stammer:
"I've no wish to intrude, you may be sure. And Daniel, his son—is he married?"
"That whelp? Met him, did you? No, he ain't married, yet. But he will be, soon as he takes his pick 'cordin' to law and gospel among them people. You bet you: he'll be married plenty."
WE GET A "SUPER"
What with assorting and stowing the bales of cloth and the other goods in the Jenks two wagons, watering the animals and staking them out anew, tinkering with the equipment and making various essays with the bull whip, I found occupation enough; nevertheless there were moments of interim, or while passing to and fro, when I was vividly aware of the scenes and events transpiring in this Western world around about.
The bugles sounded calls for the routine at Fort Steele—a mere cantonment, yet, of tents and rough board buildings squatting upon the bare brown soil near the river bank, north of us, and less than a month old. The wagon road was a line of white dust from the river clear to Benton, and through the murk plodded the water haulers and emigrants and freighters, animals and men alike befloured and choked. The dust cloud rested over Benton. It fumed in another line westward, kept in suspense by on-traveling stage and wagon—by wheel, hoof and boot, bound for Utah and Idaho. From the town there extended northward a third dust line, marking the stage and freighting road through the Indian country to the mining settlements of the famous South Pass of the old Oregon Trail; yes, and with branches for the gold regions of Montana.
The railroad trains kept thundering by us—long freights, dusty and indomitable, bringing their loads from the Missouri River almost seven hundred miles in the east. And rolling out of Benton the never-ceasing construction trains sped into the desert as if upon urgent errands in response to some sudden demand of More, More, More.
Upon all sides beyond this business and energy the country stretched lone and uninhabited; a great waste of naked, hot, resplendent land blotched with white and red, showing not a green spot except the course of the Platte; with scorched, rusty hills rising above its fantastic surface, and, in the distance, bluish mountain ranges that appeared to float and waver in the sun-drenched air.
The sounds from Benton—the hammering, the shouting, the babbling, the puffing of the locomotives—drifted faintly to us, merged into the cracking of whips and the oaths and songs by the wagon drivers along the road. Of our own little camp I took gradual stock.
It, like the desert reaches, evinced little of feverishness, for while booted men busied themselves at tasks similar to mine, others lolled, spinning yarns and whittling; the several women, at wash-boards and at pots and pans and needles, worked contentedly in sun and shade; children played at makeshift games, dogs drowsed underneath the wagons, and outside our circle the mules and oxen grazed as best they might, their only vexation the blood-sucking flies. The flies were kin of Benton.
Captain Adams loped away, as if to town. Others went in. While I was idle at last and rather enjoying the hot sun as I sat resting upon a convenient wagon-tongue Daniel hulked to me, still snapping his ox goad.
"Haowdy?" he addressed again; and surveyed, eying every detail of my clothing.
"Howdy?" said I.
"Yu know me?"
"Your name is Daniel, isn't it?"
"No, 'tain't. It's Bonnie Bravo on the trail."
"All right, sir," said I. "Whichever you prefer."
"I 'laow we pull out this arternoon," he volunteered farther.
"I'm agreeable," I responded. "The sooner the better, where I'm concerned."
"I 'laow yu (and he pronounced it, nasally, yee-ou) been seein' the elephant in Benton an' it skinned yu."
"I saw all of Benton I wish to see," I granted. "You've been there?"
"I won four bits, an' then yu bet I quit," he greedily proclaimed. "I was too smart for 'em. I 'laow yu're a greenie, ain't yu?"
"In some ways I am, in some ways I'm not."
"I 'laow yu aim to go through with this train to Salt Lake, do yu?"
"That's the engagement I've made with Mr. Jenks."
"Don't feel too smart, yoreself, in them new clothes?"
"No. They're all I have. They won't be new long."
"Yu bet they won't. Ain't afeared of peterin' aout on the way, be yu? I 'laow yu're sickly."
"I'll take my chances," I smiled, although he was irritating in the extreme.
"It's four hunderd mile, an' twenty mile at a stretch withaout water. Most the water's pizen, too, from hyar to the mountings."
"I'll have to drink what the rest drink, I suppose."
"I 'laow the Injuns are like to get us. They're powerful bad in that thar desert. Ain't afeared o' Injuns, be yu?"
"I'll have to take my chances on that, too, won't I?"
"They sculped a whole passel o' surveyors, month ago," he persisted. "Yu'll sing a different tyune arter yu've been corralled with nothin' to drink." He viciously snapped his whip, the while inspecting me as if seeking for other joints in my armor. "Yu aim to stay long in Zion?"
"I haven't planned anything about that."
"Reckon yu're wise, Mister. We don't think much o' Gentiles, yonder. We don't want 'em, nohaow. They'd all better git aout. The Saints settled that country an' it's ourn."
"If you're a sample, you're welcome to live there," I retorted. "I think I'd prefer some place else."
"Haow?" he bleated. "Thar ain't no place as good. All the rest the world has sold itself to the devil."
"How much of the world have you seen?" I asked.
"I've seen a heap. I've been as fur east as Cheyenne—I've teamed acrost twice, so I know. An' I know what the elders say; they come from the East an' some of 'em have been as fur as England. Yu can't fool me none with yore Gentile lies."
As I did not attempt, we remained in silence for a moment while he waited, provocative.
"Say, Mister," he blurted suddenly. "Kin yu shoot?"
"I presume I could if I had to. Why?"
"Becuz I'm the dangest best shot with a Colt's in this hyar train, an' I'll shoot ye for—I'll shoot ye for (he lowered his voice and glanced about furtively)—I'll shoot ye for two bits when my paw ain't 'raound."
"I've no cartridges to waste at present," I informed. "And I don't claim to be a crack shot."
"Damn ye, I bet yu think yu are," he accused. "Yu set thar like it. All right, Mister; any time yu want to try a little poppin' yu let me know." And with this, which struck me as a veiled threat, he lurched on, snapping that infernal whip.
He left me with the uneasy impression that he and I were due to measure strength in one way or another.
Wagon Boss Adams returned at noon. The word was given out that the train should start during the afternoon, for a short march in order to break in the new animals before tackling the real westward trail.
After a deal of bustle, of lashing loads and tautening covers and geeing, hawing and whoaing, about three o'clock we formed line in obedience to the commands "Stretch out, stretch out!"; and with every cask and barrel dripping, whips cracking, voices urging, children racing, the Captain Adams wagon in the lead (two pink sunbonnets upon the seat), the valorous Daniel's next, and Mormons and Gentiles ranging on down, we toiled creaking and swaying up the Benton road, amidst the eddies of hot, scalding dust.
It was a mixed train, of Gentile mules and the more numerous Mormon oxen; therefore not strictly a "bull" train, but by pace designated as such. And in the vernacular I was a "mule-whacker" or even "mule-skinner" rather than a "bull-whacker," if there is any appreciable difference in role. There is none, I think, to the animals.
Trudging manfully at the left fore wheel behind Mr. Jenks' four span of mules, trailing my eighteen-foot tapering lash and occasionally well-nigh cutting off my own ear when I tried to throw it, I played the teamster—although sooth to say there was little of play in the job, on that road, at that time of the day.
The sun was more vexatious, being an hour lower, when we bravely entered Benton's boiling main street. We made brief halt for the finishing up of business; and cleaving a lane through the pedestrians and vehicles and animals there congregated, the challenges of the street gamblers having assailed us in vain, we proceeded—our Mormons gazing straight ahead, scornful of the devil's enticements, our few Gentiles responding in kind to the quips and waves and salutations.
Thus we eventually left Benton; in about an hour's march or some three miles out we formed corral for camp on the farther side of the road from the railroad tracks which we had been skirting.
Travel, except upon the tracks (for they were rarely vacant) ceased at sundown; and we all, having eaten our suppers, were sitting by our fires, smoking and talking, with the sky crimson in the west and the desert getting mysterious with purple shadows, when as another construction train of box cars and platform cars clanked by I chanced to note a figure spring out asprawl, alight with a whiffle of sand, and staggering up hasten for us.
First it accosted the hulk Daniel, who was temporarily out on herd, keeping the animals from the tracks. I saw him lean from his saddle; then he rode spurring in, bawling like a calf:
"Paw! Paw! Hey, yu-all! Thar's a woman yonder in britches an' she 'laows to come on. She's lookin' for Mister Jenks."
Save for his excited stuttering silence reigned, a minute. Then in a storm of rude raillery—"That's a hoss on you, George!" "Didn't know you owned one o' them critters, George," "Does she wear the britches, George?" and so forth—my friend Jenks arose, peering, his whiskered mouth so agape that he almost dropped his pipe. And we all peered, with the women of the caravan smitten mute but intensely curious, while the solitary figure, braving our stares, came on to the fires.
"Gawd almighty!" Mr. Jenks delivered.
Likewise straightening I mentally repeated the ejaculation, for now I knew her as well as he. Yes, by the muttered babble others in our party knew her. It was My Lady—formerly My Lady—clad in embroidered short Spanish jacket, tightish velvet pantaloons, booted to the knees, pulled down upon her yellow hair a black soft hat, and hanging from the just-revealed belt around her slender waist, a revolver trifle.
She paused, small and alone, viewing us, her eyes very blue, her face very white.
"Is Mr. Jenks there?" she hailed clearly.
"Damn' if I ain't," he mumbled. He glowered at me. "Yes, ma'am, right hyar. You want to speak with me?"
"By gosh, it's Montoyo's woman, ain't it?" were the comments.
"I do, sir."
"You can come on closer then, ma'am," he growled. "There ain't no secrets between us."
Come on she did, with only an instant's hesitation and a little compression of the lips. She swept our group fearlessly—her gaze crossed mine, but she betrayed no sign.
"I wish to engage passage to Salt Lake."
"With this hyar train?" gasped Jenks.
"Yes. You are bound for Salt Lake, aren't you?"
"For your health, ma'am?" he stammered.
She faintly smiled, but her eyes were steady and wide.
"For my health. I'd like to throw in with your outfit. I will cook, keep camp, and pay you well besides."
"We haven't no place for a woman, ma'am. You'd best take the stage."
"No. There'll be no stage out till morning. I want to make arrangements at once—with you. There are other women in this train." She flashed a glance around. "And I can take care of myself."
"If you aim to go to Salt Lake your main holt is Benton and the stage. The stage makes through in four days and we'll use thirty," somebody counseled.
"An' this bull train ain't no place for yore kind, anyhow," grumbled another. "We've quit roarin'—we've cut loose from that hell-hole yonder."
"So have I." But she did not turn on him. "I'm never going back. I—I can't, now; not even for the stage. Will you permit me to travel with you, sir?"
"No, ma'am, I won't," rasped Mr. Jenks. "I can't do it. It's not in my line, ma'am."
"I'll be no trouble. You have only Mr. Beeson. I don't ask to ride. I'll walk. I merely ask protection."
"So do we," somebody sniggered; and I hated him, for I saw her sway upon her feet as if the words had been a blow.
"No, ma'am, I'm full up. I wouldn't take on even a yaller dog, 'specially a she one," Jenks announced. "What your game is now I can't tell, and I don't propose to be eddicated to it. But you can't travel along with me, and that's straight talk. If you can put anything over on these other fellers, try your luck."
"Oh!" she cried, wincing. Her hands clenched nervously, a red spot dyed either cheek as she appealed to us all. "Gentlemen! Won't one of you help me? What are you afraid of? I can pay my way—I ask no favors—I swear to you that I'll give no trouble. I only wish protection across."
"Where's Pedro? Where's Montoyo?"
She turned quickly, facing the jeer; her two eyes blazed, the red spots deepened angrily.
"He? That snake? I shot him."
"What! You? Killed him?" Exclamations broke from all quarters.
She stamped her foot.
"No. I didn't have to. But when he tried to abuse me I defended myself. Wasn't that right, gentlemen?"
"Right or wrong, he'll be after you, won't he?"
The question held a note of alarm. Her lip curled.
"You needn't fear. I'll meet him, myself."
"By gosh, I don't mix up in no quarrel 'twixt a man and his woman." And—"'Tain't our affair. When he comes he'll come a-poppin'." Such were the hasty comments. I felt a peculiar heat, a revulsion of shame and indignation, which made the present seem much more important than the past. And there was the recollection of her, crying, and still the accents of her last appeals in the early morning.
"I thought that I might find men among you," she disdainfully said—a break in her voice. "So I came. But you're afraid of him—of that breed, that vest-pocket killer. And you're afraid of me, a woman whose cards are all on the table. There isn't a one of you—even you, Mr. Beeson, sir, whom I tried to befriend although you may not know it." And she turned upon me. "You have not a word to say. I am never going back, I tell you all. You won't take me, any of you? Very well." She smiled wanly. "I'll drift along, gentlemen. I'll play the lone hand. Montoyo shall never seize me. I'd rather trust to the wolves and the Indians. There'll be another wagon train."
"I am only an employee, madam," I faltered. "If I had an outfit of my own I certainly would help you."
She flushed painfully; she did not glance at me direct again, but her unspoken thanks enfolded me.
"Here's the wagon boss," Jenks grunted, and spat. "Mebbe you can throw in with him. When it comes to supers, that's his say-so. I've all I can tend to, myself, and I don't look for trouble. I've got no love for Montoyo, neither," he added. "Damned if I ain't glad you give him a dose."
Murmurs of approval echoed him, as if the tide were turning a little. All this time—not long, however—Daniel had been sitting his mule, transfixed and gaping, his oddly wry eyes upon her. Now the large form of Captain Adams came striding in contentious, through the gathering dusk.
"What's this?" he demanded harshly. "An ungodly woman? I'll have no trafficking in my train. Get you gone, Delilah. Would you pursue us even here?"
"I am going, sir," she replied. "I ask nothing from you or these—gentlemen."
"Them's the two she's after, paw: Jenks an' that greenie," Daniel bawled. "They know her. She's follered 'em. She aims to travel with 'em. Oh, gosh! She's shot her man in Benton. Gosh!" His voice trailed off. "Ain't she purty, though! She's dressed in britches."
"Get you gone," Captain Adams thundered. "And these your paramours with you. For thus saith the Lord: There shall be no lusting of adultery among his chosen. And thus say I, that no brazen hussy in men's garments shall travel with this train to Zion—no, not a mile of the way."
Jenks stiffened, bristling.
"Mind your words, Adams. I'm under no Mormon thumb, and I'll thank you not to connect me and this—lady in ary such fashion. As for your brat on horseback, he'd better hold his yawp. She came of her own hook, and damned if I ain't beginnin' to think——"
I sprang forward. Defend her I must. She should not stand there, slight, lovely, brave but drooping, aflame with the helplessness of a woman alone and insulted.
"Wait!" I implored. "Give her a chance. You haven't heard her story. All she wants is protection on the road. Yes, I know her, and I know the cur she's getting away from. I saw him strike her; so did Mr. Jenks. What were you intending to do? Turn her out into the night? Shame on you, sir. She says she can't go back to Benton, and if you'll be humane enough to understand why, you'll at least let her stay in your camp till morning. You've got women there who'll care for her, I hope."
I felt her instant look. She spoke palpitant.
"You have one man among you all. But I am going. Good-night, gentlemen."
"No! Wait!" I begged. "You shall not go by yourself. I'll see you into safety."
"Haw haw! What'd I tell yu, paw? Hear him?"
"By gum, the boy's right," Jenks declared. "Will you go back to Benton if we take you?" he queried of her. "Are you 'feared of Montoyo? Can he shoot still, or is he laid out?"
"I'll not go back to Benton, and I'm not afraid of that bully," said she. "Yes, he can shoot, still; but next time I should kill him. I hope never to see him again, or Benton either."
The men murmured.
"You've got spunk, anyhow," said they. And by further impulse: "Let her stay the night, Cap'n. It'll be plumb dark soon. She won't harm ye. Some o' the woman folks can take care of her."
Captain Adams had been frowning sternly, his heavy face unsoftened.
"Who are you, woman?"
"I am the wife of a gambler named Montoyo."
"Why come you here, then?"
"He has been abusing me, and I shot him."
"There is blood on your hands? Are you a murderess as well as a harlot?"
"Shame!" cried voices, mine among them. "That's tall language."
Strangely, and yet not strangely, sentiment had veered. We were Americans—and had we been English that would have made no difference. It was the Anglo-Saxon which gave utterance.
She crimsoned, defiant; laughed scornfully.
"You would not dare bait a man that way, sir. Blood on my hands? Not blood; oh, no! He couldn't pan out blood."
"You killed him, woman?"
"Not yet. He's likely fleecing the public in the Big Tent at this very moment."
"And what did you expect here, in my train?"
"A little manhood and a little chivalry, sir. I am going to Salt Lake and I knew of no safer way."
"She jumped off a railway train, paw," bawled Daniel. "I seen her. An' she axed for Mister Jenks, fust thing."
"I'll give you something to stop that yawp. Come mornin', we'll settle, young feller," my friend Jenks growled.
"I did," she admitted. "I have seen Mr. Jenks; I have also seen Mr. Beeson; I have seen others of you in Benton. I was glad to know of somebody here. I rode on the construction train because it was the quickest and easiest way."
"And those garments!" Captain Adams accused. "You wish to show your shape, woman, to tempt men's eyes with the flesh?"
"Would you have me jump from a train in skirts, sir? Or travel far afoot in crinoline? But to soothe your mind I will say that I wore these clothes under my proper attire and cloak until the last moment. And if you turn me away I shall cut my hair and continue as a boy."
"If you are for Salt Lake—where we are of the Lord's choosing and wish none of you—there is the stage," he prompted shrewdly. "Go to the stage. You cannot make this wagon train your instrument."
"The stage?" She slowly shook her head. "Why, I am too well known, sir, take that as you will. And the stage does not leave until morning. Much might happen between now and morning. I have nobody in Benton that I can depend upon—nobody that I dare depend upon. And by railway, for the East? No. That is too open a trail. I am running free of Benton and Pedro Montoyo, and stage and train won't do the trick. I've thought that out." She tossed back her head, deliberately turned. "Good-night, ladies and gentlemen."
Involuntarily I started forward to intercept. The notion of her heading into the vastness and the gloom was appalling; the inertness of that increasing group, formed now of both men and women collected from all the camp, maddened. So I would have besought her, pleaded with her, faced Montoyo for her—but a new voice mediated.
"She shall stay, Hyrum? For the night, at least? I will look after her."
The Captain's younger wife, Rachael, had stepped to him; laid one hand upon his arm—her smooth hair touched ashine by the firelight as she gazed up into his face. Pending reply I hastened directly to My Lady herself and detained her by her jacket sleeve.
"Wait," I bade.
Whereupon we both turned. Side by side we fronted the group as if we might have been partners—which, in a measure, we were, but not wholy according to the lout Daniel's cackle and the suddenly interrogating countenances here and there.
"You would take her in, Rachael?" the Captain rumbled. "Have you not heard what I said?"
"We are commanded to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless, Hyrum."
"Verily that is so. Take her. I trust you with her till the morning. The Lord will direct us further. But in God's name clothe her for the daylight in decency. She shall not advertise her flesh to men's eyes."
"Quick!" I whispered, with a push. Rachael, however, had crossed for us, and with eyes brimming extended her hand.
"Will you come with me, please?" she invited.
"You are not afraid of me?"
"I? No. You are a woman, are you not?" The intonation was gentle, and sweet to hear—as sweet as her rosy face to see.
"Yes," sighed My Lady, wearily. "Good-night, sir." She fleetingly smiled upon me. "I thank you; and Mr. Jenks."
They went, Rachael's arm about her; other women closed in; we heard exclamations, and next they were supporting her in their midst, for she had crumpled in a faint.
Captain Adams walked out a piece as if musing. Daniel pressed beside him, talking eagerly. His voice reached me.
"She's powerful purty, ain't she, paw! Gosh, I never seen a woman in britches before. Did yu? Paw! She kin ride in my wagon, paw. Be yu goin' to take her on, paw? If yu be, I got room."
"Go. Tend to your stock and think of other things," boomed his father. "Remember that the Scriptures say, beware of the scarlet woman."
Daniel galloped away, whooping like an idiot.
"Wall, there she is," my friend Jenks remarked non-committally. "What next'll happen, we'll see in the mornin'. Either she goes on or she goes back. I don't claim to read Mormon sign, myself. But she had me jumpin' sideways, for a spell. So did that young whelp."
There was some talk, idle yet not offensive. The men appeared rather in a judicial frame of mind: laid a few bets upon whether her husband would turn up, in sober fashion nodded their heads over the hope that he had been "properly pinked," all in all sided with her, while admiring her pluck roundly denied responsibility for women in general, and genially but cautiously twitted Mr. Jenks and me upon our alleged implication in the affair.
Darkness, still and chill, had settled over the desert—the only discernible horizon the glow of Benton, down the railroad track. The ashes of final pipes were rapped out upon our boot soles. Our group dispersed, each man to his blanket under the wagons or in the open.
"Wall," friend Jenks again broadly uttered, in last words as he turned over with a grunt, for easier posture, near me, "hooray! If it simmers down to you and Dan'l, I'll be there."
With that enigmatical comment he was silent save for stertorous breathing. Vaguely cogitating over his promise I lay, toes and face up, staring at the bright stars; perplexed more and more over the immediate events of the future, warmly conscious of her astonishing proximity in this very train, prickled by the hope that she would continue with us, irritated by the various assumptions of Daniel, and somehow not at all adverse to the memory of her in "britches."
That phase of the matter seemed to have affected Daniel and me similarly. Under his hide he was human.
DANIEL TAKES POSSESSION
I was more than ever convinced of her wisdom in choice of garb when in early morning I glimpsed her with the two other women at the Adams fire; for, bright-haired and small, she had been sorrily dulled by the plain ill-fitting waist and long shapeless skirt in one garment, as adopted by the feminine contingent of the train. In her particular case these were worse fitting and longer than common—an artifice that certainly snuffed a portion of her charms for Gentile and Mormon eyes alike.
What further disposition of her was to be made we might not yet know. We all kept to our own tasks and our own fires, with the exception that Daniel gawked and strutted in the manner of a silly gander, and made frequent errands to his father's household.
It was after the red sun-up and the initial signaling by dust cloud to dust cloud announcing the commencement of another day's desert traffic, and in response to the orders "Ketch up!" we were putting animals to wagons (My Lady still in evidence forward), when a horseman bored in at a gallop, over the road from the east.
"Montoyo, by Gawd!" Jenks pronounced, in a grumble of disgust rather than with any note of alarm. "Look alive." And—"He don't hang up my pelt; no, nor yourn if I can help it."
I saw him give a twitch to his holster and slightly loosen the Colt's. But I was unburthened by guilt in past events, and I conceived no reason for fearing the future—other than that now I was likely to lose her. Heaven pity her! Probably she would have to go, even if she managed later to kill him. The delay in our start had been unfortunate.
It was dollars to doughnuts that every man in the company had had his eye out for Montoyo, since daylight; and the odds were that every man had sighted him as quickly as we. Notwithstanding, save by an occasional quick glance none appeared to pay attention to his rapid approach. We ourselves went right along hooking up, like the others.
As chanced, our outfit was the first upon his way in. I heard him rein sharply beside us and his horse fidget, panting. Not until he spoke did we lift eyes.
"Howdy yourself, sir," answered Mr. Jenks, straightening up and meeting his gaze. I paused, to gaze also. Montoyo was pale as death, his lips hard set, his peculiar gray eyes and his black moustache the only vivifying features in his coldly menacing countenance.
He was in white linen shirt, his left arm slung; fine riding boots encasing his legs above the knees and Spanish spurs at their heels—his horse's flanks reddened by their jabs. The pearl butt of a six-shooter jutted from his belt holster. He sat jaunty, excepting for his lips and eyes.
He looked upon me, with a trace of recognition less to be seen than felt. His glance leaped to the wagon—traveled swiftly and surely and returned to Mr. Jenks.
"You're pulling out, I believe."
"Yes, you bet yuh."
"This is the Adams train?"
"I'm looking for my wife, gentlemen. May I ask whether you've seen her?"
"You have seen her?"
"Yes, sir. We'll not beat around any bush over that."
He meditated, frowning a bit, eying us narrowly.
"I had the notion," he said. "If you have staked her to shelter I thank you; but now I aim to play the hand myself. This is a strictly private game. Where is she?"
"I call yuh, Pedro," my friend answered. "We ain't keepin' cases on her, or on you. You don't find her in my outfit, that's flat. She spent the night with the Adams women. You'll find her waitin' for you, on ahead." He grinned. "She'll be powerful glad to see you." He sobered. "And I'll say this: I'm kinder sorry I ain't got her, for she'd be interestin' company on the road."
"The road to hell, yes," Montoyo coolly remarked. "I'd guarantee you quick passage. Good-day."
With sudden steely glare that embraced us both he jumped his mount into a gallop and tore past the team, for the front. He must have inquired, once or twice, as to the whereabouts of the Captain's party; I saw fingers pointing.
"Here! You've swapped collars on your lead span, boy," Mr. Jenks reproved—but he likewise fumbling while he gazed.
I could hold back no longer.
"Just a minute, if you please," I pleaded; and hastened on up, half running in my anxiety to face the worst; to help, if I might, for the best.
A little knot of people had formed, constantly increasing by oncomers like myself and friend Jenks who had lumbered behind me. Montoyo's horse stood heaving, on the outskirts; and ruthlessly pushing through I found him inside, with My Lady at bay before him—her eyes brilliant, her cheeks hot, her two hands clenched tightly, her slim figure dangerously tense within her absurd garment, and the arm of the brightly flushed but calm Rachael resting restraintfully around her. The circling faces peered.
Captain Adams, at one side apart, was replying to the gambler. His small china-blue eyes had begun to glint; otherwise he maintained an air of stolidity as if immune to the outcome.
"You see her," he said. "She has had the care of my own household, for I turn nobody away. She came against my will, and she shall go of her will. I am not her keeper."
"You Mormons have the advantage of us white men, sir," Montoyo sneered. "No one of the sex seems to be denied bed and board in your establishments."
"By the help of the Lord we of the elect can manage our establishments much better than you do yours," big Hyrum responded; and his face sombered. "Who are you? A panderer to the devil, a thief with painted card-boards, a despoiler of the ignorant, and a feeder to hell—yea, a striker of women and a trafficker in flesh! Who are you, to think the name of the Lord's anointed? There she is, your chattel. Take her, or leave her. This train starts on in ten minutes."
"I'll take her or kill her," Montoyo snarled. "You call me a feeder, but she shall not be fed to your mill, Adams. You'll get on that horse pronto, madam," he added, stepping forward (no one could question his nerve), "and we'll discuss our affairs in private."
She cast about with swift beseeching look, as if for a friendly face or sign of rescue. And that agonized quest was enough. Whether she saw me or not, here I was. With a spring I had burst in.
But somebody already had drawn fresh attention. Daniel Adams was standing between her and her husband.
"Say, Mister, will yu fight?" he drawled, breathing hard, his broad nostrils quivering.
A silence fell. Singularly, the circle parted right and left in a jostle and a scramble.
Montoyo surveyed him.
"For her, o' course."
The gambler smiled—a slow, contemptuous smile while his gray eyes focused watchfully.
"It's a case where I have nothing to gain," said he. "And you've nothing to lose. I never bet in the teeth of a pat hand. Sabe? Besides, my young Mormon cub, when did you enter this game? Where's your ante? For the sport of it, now, what do you think of putting up, to make it interesting? One of your mammies? Tut, tut!"
Daniel's freckled bovine face flushed muddy red; in the midst of it his faulty eyes were more pronounced than ever—beady, twinkling, and so at cross purposes that they apparently did not center upon the gambler at all. But his right hand had stiffened at his side—extended there flat and tremulous like the vibrant tail of a rattlesnake. He blurted harshly:
"I 'laow to kill yu for that. Draw, yu——!"
We caught breath. Montoyo's hand had darted down, and up, with motion too smooth and elusive for the eye, particularly when our eyes had to be upon both. His revolver poised half-way out of the scabbard, held there rigidly, frozen in mid course; for Daniel had laughed loudly over leveled barrel.
How he had achieved so quickly no man of us knew. Yet there it was—his Colt's, out, cocked, wicked and yearning and ready.
He whirled it with tempting carelessness, butt first, muzzle first, his discolored teeth set in a yellow grin. The breath of the spectators vented in a sigh.
"Haow'll yu take it, Mister?" he gibed. "I could l'arn an old caow to beat yu on the draw. Aw, shucks! I 'laow yu'd better go back to yore pasteboards. Naow git!"
Montoyo, his eyes steady, scarcely changed expression. He let his revolver slip down into its scabbard. Then he smiled.
"You have a pretty trick," he commented, relaxing. "Some day I'd like to test it out again. Just now I pass. Madam, are you coming?"
"You know I'm not," she uttered clearly.
"Your choice of company is hardly to your credit," he sneered. "Or, I should say, to your education. Saintliness does not set well upon you, madam. Your clothes are ill-fitting already. Of your two champions——"
And here I realized that I was standing out, one foot advanced, my fists foolishly doubled, my presence a useless factor.
"—I recommend the gentleman from New York as more to your tastes. But you are going of your own free will. You will always be my wife. You can't get away from that, you devil. I shall expect you in Benton, for I have the hunch that your little flight will fetch you back pretty well tamed, to the place where damaged goods are not so heavily discounted." He ignored Daniel and turned upon me. "As for you," he said, "I warn you you are playing against a marked deck. You will find fists a poor hand. Ladies and gentlemen, good-morning." With that he strode straight for his horse, climbed aboard (a trifle awkwardly by reason of his one arm disabled) and galloped, granting us not another glance.
Card shark and desperado that he was, his consummate aplomb nobody could deny, except Daniel, now capering and swaggering and twirling his revolver.
"I showed him. I made him take water. I 'laow I'm 'bout the best man with a six-shooter in these hyar parts."
"Ketch up and stretch out," Captain Adams ordered, disregarding. "We've no more time for foolery."
My eyes met My Lady's. She smiled a little ruefully, and I responded, shamed by the poor role I had borne. With that still jubilating lout to the fore, certainly I cut small figure.
This night we made camp at Rawlins' Springs, some twelve miles on. The day's march had been, so to speak, rather pensive; for while there were the rough jokes and the talking back and forth, it seemed as though the scene of early morning lingered in our vista. The words of Montoyo had scored deeply, and the presence of our supernumerary laid a kind of incubus, like an omen of ill luck, upon us. Indeed the prophecies darkly uttered showed the current of thought.
"It's a she Jonah we got. Sure a woman the likes o' her hain't no place in a freightin' outfit. We're off on the wrong fut," an Irishman declared to wagging of heads. "Faith, she's enough to set the saints above an' the saints below both by the ears." He paused to light his dudeen. "There'll be a Donnybrook Fair in Utah, if belike we don't have it along the way."
"No Mormon'll need another wife if he takes her," laughed somebody else.
"She'll be promised to Dan'l 'fore ever we cross the Wasatch." And they all in the group looked slyly at me. "Acts as if she'd been sealed to him already, he does."
This had occurred at our nooning hour, amidst the dust and the heat, while the animals drooped and dozed and panted and in the scant shade of the hooded wagons we drank our coffee and crunched our hardtack. Throughout the morning My Lady had ridden upon the seat of Daniel's wagon, with him sometimes trudging beside, in pride of new ownership, cracking his whip, and again planted sidewise upon one of the wheel animals, facing backward to leer at her.
Why I should now have especially detested him I would not admit to myself. At any rate the dislike dated before her arrival. That was one sop to conscience when I remembered that she was a wife.
Friend Jenks must have read my thoughts, inasmuch as during the course of the afternoon he had uttered abruptly:
"These Mormons don't exactly recognize Gentile marriages. Did you know that?" He flung me a look from beneath shaggy brows.
"What?" I exclaimed. "How so?"
"Meanin' to say that layin' on of hands by the Lord's an'inted is necessary to reel j'inin' in marriage."
"But that's monstrous!" I stammered.
"Dare say," said he. "It's the way white gospelers look at Injuns, ain't it? Anyhow, to convert her out of sin, as they'd call it, and put her over into the company of the saints wouldn't be no bad deal, by their kind o' thinkin'. It's been done before, I reckon. Jest thought I'd warn you. She's made her own bed and if it's a Mormon bed she's well quit of Montoyo, that's sartin. Did you ever see the beat of that young feller on the draw?"
"No," I admitted. "I never did."
"And you never will."
"He says his name's Bonnie Bravo. Where did he find that?"
"Haw haw." Friend Jenks spat. "Must ha' heard it in a play-house or got it read to him out a book. Sounds to him like he was some punkins. Anyhow, if you've any feelin's in the matter keep 'em under your hat. I don't know what there's been between you and her, but the Mormon church is between you now and it's got the dead-wood on you. It's either that for her, or Montoyo. He knows; he's no fool and he'll take his time. So you'd better stick to mule-whacking and sowbelly."
Still it was only decent that I should inquire after her. No Daniel and no "Bonnie Bravo" was going to shut me from my duty. Therefore this evening after we had formed corral, watered our animals at the one good-water spring, staked them out in the bottoms of the ravine here, and eaten our supper, I went with clean hands and face and, I resolved, a clean heart, to pay my respects at the Hyrum Adams fire.
A cheery sight it was, too, for one bred as I had been to the company of women. Whereas during the day and somewhat in the evenings we Gentiles and the Mormon men fraternized without conflict of sect save by long-winded arguments, at nightfall the main Mormon gathering centered about the Adams quarters, where the men and women sang hymns in praise of their pretensions, and listened to homilies by Hyrum himself.
They were singing now, as I approached—every woman busy also with her hands. The words were destined to be familiar to me, being from their favorite lines:
Cheer, saints, cheer! We're bound for peaceful Zion! Cheer, saints, cheer! For that free and happy land! Cheer, saints, cheer! We'll Israel's God rely on; We will be led by the power of His hand.
Away, far away to the everlasting mountains, Away, far away to the valley in the West; Away, far away to yonder gushing fountains, Where all the faithful in the latter days are blest.
Into this domestic circle I civilly entered just as they had finished their hymn. She was seated beside the sleek-haired Rachael, with Daniel upon her other hand. I sensed her quickly ready smile; and with the same a surly stare from him, disclosing that by one person at least I was not welcomed.
"Anything special wanted, stranger?" Hyrum demanded.
"No, sir. I was attracted by your singing," I replied. "Do I intrude?"
"Not at all, not at all." He was more hospitable. "Set if you like, in the circle of the Saints. You'll get no harm by it, that's certain."
So I seated myself just behind Rachael. A moment of constraint seemed to fall upon the group. I broke it by my inquiry, addressed to a clean profile.
"I came also to inquire after Mrs. Montoyo," I carefully said. "You have stood the journey well, this far, madam?"
Daniel turned instantly.
"Thar's no 'Mrs. Montoyo' in this camp, Mister. And I'll thank yu it's a name yu'd best leave alone."
"How so, sir?"
"Cause that's the right of it. I 'laow I've told yu."
"I'm called Edna now, by my friends," she vouchsafed, coloring. "Yes, thank you, I've enjoyed the day."
Rachael spoke softly, in her gentle English accents. I learned later that she was an English girl, convert to Mormonism.
"We Latter Day Saints know that the marriage rites of Gentiles are not countenanced by the Lord. If you would see the light you would understand. Sister Edna is being well cared for. Whatever we have is hers."
"You will take her on with you to Salt Lake?"
"That is as Hyrum says. He has spoken of putting her on the stage at the next crossing. He will decide."
"I think I'd rather stay with the train," My Lady murmured.
"Yu will, too, by gum," Daniel pronounced. "I'll talk with paw. Yu're goin' to travel on to Zion 'long with me. I 'laow I'm man enough to look out for ye an' I got plenty room. The hull wagon's yourn. Guess thar won't nobody have anything to say ag'in that." His tone was pointed, unmistakable, and I sat fuming with it.
My Lady drily acknowledged.
"You are very kind, Daniel."
"Wall, yu see I'm the best man on the draw in this hyar train. I'm a bad one, I am. My name's Bonnie Bravo. That gambler—he 'laowed to pop me but I could ha' killed him 'fore his gun was loose. I kin ride, wrastle, drive a bull team ag'in ary man from the States, an' I got the gift o' tongues. Ain't afeared o' Injuns, neither. I'm elected. I foller the Lord an' some day I'll be a bishop. I hain't been more'n middlin' interested in wimmen, but I'm gittin' old enough, an' yu an' me'll be purty well acquainted by the time we reach Zion. Thar's a long spell ahead of us, but I aim to look out for yu, yu bet."
His blatancy was arrested by the intonation of another hymn. They all chimed in, except My Lady and me.
There is a people in the West, the world calls Mormonites in jest, The only people who can say, we have the truth, and own its sway. Away in Utah's valleys, away in Utah's valleys, Away in Utah's valleys, the chambers of the Lord.
And all ye saints, where'er you be, from bondage try to be set free, Escape unto fair Zion's land, and thus fulfil the Lord's command, And help to build up Zion, and help to build up Zion, And help to build up Zion, before the Lord appear.
They concluded; sat with heads bowed while Hyrum, standing, delivered himself of a long-winded blessing, through his nose. It was the signal for breaking up. They stood. My Lady arose lithely; encumbered by her trailing skirt she pitched forward and I caught her. Daniel sprang in a moment, with a growl.
"None o' that, Mister. I'm takin' keer of her. Hands off."
"Don't bully me, sir," I retorted, furious. "I'm only acting the gentleman, and you're acting the boor."
I would willingly have fought him then and there, probably to my disaster, but Hyrum's heavy voice cut in.
"Who quarrels at my fire? Mark you, I'll have no more of it. Stranger, get you where you belong. Daniel, get you to bed. And you, woman, take yourself off properly and thank God that you are among his chosen and not adrift in sin."
"Good-night, sir," I answered. And I walked easily away, a triumphant warmth buoying me, for ere releasing her strong young body I had felt a note tucked into my hand.
A note from a pretty woman always is a potential thing, no matter in what humor it may have been received. The mere possession titillates; and although the contents may be most exemplary to the eye, the mind is apt to go hay-making between the lines and no offense intended.
All the fatuousness that had led me astray to the lure of her blue eyes, upon the train and in hollow Benton, surged anew now—perhaps seasoned to present taste by my peppery defiance of Daniel. A man could do no less than bristle a little, under the circumstances; could do no less than challenge the torpedoes, like Farragut in Mobile Bay. Whether the game was worth the candle, I was not to be bullied out of my privileges by a clown swash-buckler who aped the characteristics of a pouter pigeon.
Mr. Jenks was just going to bed under the wagon. With pretext of warming up the coffee I kicked the fire together; while squatting and sipping I managed to unfold the note and read it by the flicker, my back to the camp.
All that it said, was:
If you are not disgusted with me I will walk a stretch with you on the trail, during the morning.
The engagement sent me to my blanket cogitating. When a woman proposes, one never knows precisely the reason. Anyway, I was young enough so to fancy. For a long time I lay outside the wagons, apart in the desert camp, gazing up at the twinkling stars, while the wolves whimpered around, and somewhere she slept beside the gentle Rachael, and somewhere Daniel snored, and here I conned her face and her words, elatedly finding them very pleasing.
Salt Lake was far, the Big Tent farther by perspective if not by miles. I recognized the legal rights of her husband, but no ruffling Daniel should quash the undeniable rights of Yours Truly. I indeed felt virtuous and passing valorous, with that commonplace note in my pocket.
We all broke camp at sunrise. She rode for a distance upon the seat of Daniel's wagon—he lustily trudging alongside. Then I marked her walking, herself; she had shortened her skirt; and presently lingering by the trail she dropped behind, leaving the wagon to lumber on, with Daniel helplessly turning head over shoulder, bereft.
"Bet you the lady up yonder is aimin' to pay you a visit," quoth friend Jenks the astute. "And Dan'l, he don't cotton to it. You ain't great shakes with a gun, I reckon?"
"I've never had use for one," said I. "But her whereabouts in the train is not a matter of shooting, is it?"
"A feller quick on the draw, like him, is alluz wantin' to practice, to keep his hand in. Anyhow I'd advise you to stay clear of her, else watch him mighty sharp. He's thinkin' of takin' a squaw."
We rolled on, in the dust, while the animals coughed and the teamsters chewed and swore. And next, here she was, idling until our outfit drew abreast.
"Mornin'," Jenks grunted, with a shortness that bespoke his disapproval; whereupon he fell back and left us.
She smiled at me.
"Will you offer me a ride, sir?"
My response was instant: a long "Whoa-oa!" in best mule-whacker. The eight-team hauled negligent, their mulish senses steeped in the drudgery of the trail; only the wheel pair flopped inquiring ears. When I hailed again, Jenks came puffing.
"What's the matter hyar?" He ran rapid eye over wagon and animals and saw nothing amiss.
"Mrs. Montoyo wishes to ride."
"The hell, man!" He snatched whip and launched it, up the faltering team. The cracker popped an inch above the off lead mule's cringing haunch twenty feet before. "You can't stop hyar! Can't hold the rest of the train. Joe! Baldy! Hep with you!" The team straightened out; he restored me the whip. His wrath subsided, for in less dudgeon he addressed her.
"Want to ride, do ye?"
"I did, sir."
"Wall, in Gawd's name ride, then. But we don't stop for passengers."
With that, in another white heat he had picked her up bodily, swung her upon the nearest mule; so that before she knew (she scarce had time to utter an astonished little ejaculation as she yielded to his arms) there she was, perched, breathless, upon the sweaty hide. I awaited results.
"What you need is an old feller, lady. These young bucks ain't broke to the feed canvas. Now when you want to get off you call me. You don't weigh more'n a peck of beans."
With a bantering wink at me he again fell back. Once more I had been forestalled. There should be no third time.
My Lady sat clinging, at first angry-eyed, but in a moment softened by my discomfiture.
"Your partner is rather sudden," she averred. "He asked permission of neither me nor the mule."
"He meant well. He isn't used to women," I apologized.
"More used to mules, I judge."
"Yes. If he had asked the mule it would have objected, whereas it's delighted."
"Perhaps he knows there's not much difference between a woman and a mule, in that respect," she proffered. "You need not apologize for him."
"I apologize for myself," I blurted. "I see I'm a little slow for this country."
"You?" She soberly surveyed me as I ploughed through the dust, at her knees. "I think you'll catch up. If you don't object to my company, yourself, occasionally, maybe I can help you."
"I certainly cannot object to your company whenever it is available, madam," I assured.
"You do not hold your experience in Benton against me?"
"I got no more than I deserved, in the Big Tent," said I. "I went in as a fool and I came out as a fool, but considerably wiser."
"You reproached me for it," she accused. "You hated me. Do you hate me still, I wonder? I tell you I was not to blame for the loss of your money."
"The money has mattered little, madam," I informed. "It was only a few dollars, and it turned me to a job more to my liking and good health than fiddling my time away, back there. I have you to thank for that."
"No, no! You are cruel, sir. You thank me for the good and you saddle me with the bad. I accept neither. Both, as happened, were misplays. You should not have lost money, you should not have changed vocation. You should have won a little money and you should have pursued health in Benton." She sighed. "And we all would have been reasonably content. Now here you and I are—and what are we going to do about it?"
"We?" I echoed, annoyingly haphazard. "Why so? You're being well cared for, I take it; and I'm under engagement for Salt Lake myself."
The answer did sound rude. I was still a cad. She eyed me, with a certain whiteness, a certain puzzled intentness, a certain fugitive wistfulness—a mute estimation that made me too conscious of her clear appraising gaze and rack my brain for some disarming remark.
"You're not responsible for me, you would say?"
"I'm at your service," I corrected. The platitude was the best that I could muster to my tongue.
"That is something," she mused. "Once you were not that—when I proposed a partnership. You are afraid of me?" she asked.
"Why should I be?" I parried. But I was beginning; or continuing. I had that curious inward quiver, not unpleasant, anticipatory of possible events.
"You are a cautious Yankee. You answer one question with another." She laughed lightly. "Yes, why should you be? I cannot run away with you; not when Daniel and your Mr. Jenks are watching us so closely. And you have no desire to be run away with. And Pedro must be considered. Altogether, you are well protected, even if your conscience slips. But tell me: Do you blame me for running away from Montoyo?"
"Not in the least," I heartily assured.
"You would have helped me, at the last?"
"I think I should have felt fully warranted." Again I floundered.
"Even to stowing me with a bull train?"
"Anywhere, madam, for your betterment, to free you from that brute."
"Oh!" She clapped her hands. "But you didn't have to. I only embarrassed you by appearing on my own account. You have some spirit, though. You came to the Adams circle, last night. You did your duty. I expected you. But you must not do it again."
"There are objections, there."
"From that Daniel, then. Well, I will come to Captain Adams' camp as often as I like, if with the Captain's permission. And I shall come to see you, whether with his permission or not."
"I don't know," she faltered. "I—you would have helped me once, you say? And once you refused me. Would you help me next time?"
"As far as I could," said I—another of those damned hedging responses that for the life of me I could not manipulate properly.
"Oh!" she cried. "Of course! The queen deceived you; now you are wise. You are afraid. But so am I. Horribly afraid. I have misplayed again." She laughed bitterly. "I am with Daniel—it is to be Daniel and I in the Lion's den. You know they call Brigham Young the Lion of the Lord. I doubt if even Rachael is angel enough." She paused. "They're going to make nooning, aren't they? I mustn't stay. Good-bye."
I sprang to lift her, but with gay shake of head she slipped off of herself and landed securely.
"I can stand alone. I have to. Men are always ready to do what I don't ask them to do, as long as I can serve as a tool or a toy. You will be very, very careful. Good-day, sir."
She flashed just the trace of a smile; gathering her skirt she ran on, undeterred by the teamsters applauding her spryness.
"Swing out!" shouted Jenks, from rear. "We're noonin'." The lead wagons had halted beside the trail and all the wagons following began to imitate.
I TAKE A LESSON
From this hour's brief camp, early made, we should have turned southward, to leave the railroad line and cross country for the Overland Stage trail that skirted the southern edge of the worse desert before us. But Captain Hyrum was of different mind. With faith in the Lord and bull confidence in himself he had resolved to keep straight on by the teamster road which through league after league ever extended fed supplies to the advance of the builders.
Under its adventitious guidance we should strike the stage road at Bitter Creek, eighty or one hundred miles; thence trundle, veering southwestward, for the famed City of the Saints, near two hundred miles farther.
Therefore after nooning at a pool of stagnant, scummy water we hooked up and plunged ahead, creaking and groaning and dust enveloped, constantly outstripped by the hurrying construction trains thundering over the newly laid rails, we ourselves the tortoise in the race.
My Lady did not join me again to-day, nor on the morrow. She abandoned me to a sense of dissatisfaction with myself, of foreboding, and of a void in the landscape.
Our sorely laden train went swaying and pitching across the gaunt face of a high, broad plateau, bleak, hot, and monotonous in contour; underfoot the reddish granite pulverized by grinding tire and hoof, over us the pale bluish fiery sky without a cloud, distant in the south the shining tips of a mountain range, and distant below in the west the slowly spreading vista of a great, bared ocean-bed, simmering bizarre with reds, yellows and deceptive whites, and ringed about by battlements jagged and rock hewn.
Into this enchanted realm we were bound; by token of the smoke blotches the railroad line led thither. The teamsters viewed the unfolding expanse phlegmatically. They called it the Red Basin. But to me, fresh for the sight, it beckoned with fantastic issues. Even the name breathed magic. Wizard spells hovered there; the railroad had not broken them—the cars and locomotives, entering, did not disturb the brooding vastness. A man might still ride errant into those slumberous spaces and discover for himself; might boldly awaken the realm and rule with a princess by his side.
But romance seemed to have no other sponsor in this plodding, whip-cracking, complaining caravan. So I lacked, woefully lacked, kindred companionship.
Free to say, I did miss My Lady, perched upon the stoic mule while like an Arab chief I convoyed her. The steady miles, I admitted, were going to be as disappointing as tepid water, when not aerated by her counsel and piquant allusions, by her sprightly readiness and the essential elements of her blue eyes, her facile lips, and that bright hair which no dust could dim.
After all she was distinctly feminine—bravely feminine; and if she wished to flirt as a relief from the cock-sure Daniel and the calm methods of her Mormon guardians, why, let us beguile the way. I should second with eyes open. That was accepted.
Moreover, something about her weighed upon me. A consciousness of failing her, a woman, in emergency, stung my self-respect. She had twitted me with being "afraid"; afraid of her, she probably meant. That I could pass warily. But she had said that she, too, was afraid: "horribly afraid," and an honest shudder had attended upon the words as if a real danger hedged. She had an intuition. The settled convictions of my Gentile friends coincided. "With Daniel in the Lion's den"—that phrase repeated itself persistent. She had uttered it in a fear accentuated by a mirthless laugh. Could such a left-handed wooer prove too much for her? Well, if she was afraid of Daniel I was not and she should not think so.
I could see her now and then, on before. She rode upon the wagon seat of her self-appointed executor. And I might see him and his paraded impertinences.
Except for the blowing of the animals and the mechanical noises of the equipment the train subsided into a dogged patience, while parched by the dust and the thin dry air and mocked by the speeding construction crews upon the iron rails it lurched westward at two and a half miles an hour, for long hours outfaced by the blinding sun.
Near the western edge of the plateau we made an evening corral. After supper the sound of revolver shots burst flatly from a mess beyond us, and startled. Everything was possible, here in this lone horizon-land where rough men, chafed by a hard day, were gathered suddenly relaxed and idle. But the shots were accompanied by laughter.
"They're only tryin' to spile a can," Jenks reassured. "By golly, we'll go over and l'arn 'em a lesson." He glanced at me. "Time you loosened up that weepon o' yourn, anyhow. Purty soon it'll stick fast."
I arose with him, glad of any diversion. The circle had not yet formed at Hyrum's fire.
"It strikes me as a useless piece of baggage," said I. "I bought it in Benton but I haven't needed it. I can kill a rattlesnake easier with my whip."
"Wall," he drawled, "down in yonder you're liable to meet up with a rattler too smart for your whip, account of his freckles. 'Twon't do you no harm to spend a few ca'tridges, so you'll be ready for business."
The men were banging, by turn, at a sardine can set up on the sand about twenty paces out. Their shadows stretched slantwise before them, grotesquely lengthened by the last efforts of the disappearing sun. Some aimed carefully from under pulled-down hat brims; others, their brims flared back, fired quickly, the instant the gun came to the level. The heavy balls sent the loose soil flying in thick jets made golden by the evening glow. But amidst the furrows the can sat untouched by the plunging missiles.
We were greeted with hearty banter.
"Hyar's the champeens!"
"Now they'll show us."
"Ain't never see that pilgrim unlimber his gun yit, but I reckon he's a bad 'un."
"Jenks, old hoss, cain't you l'an that durned can manners?"
"I'll try to oblige you, boys," friend Jenks smiled. "What you thinkin' to do: hit that can or plant a lead mine?"
"Give him room. He's made his brag," they cried. "And if he don't plug it that pilgrim sure will."
Mr. Jenks drew and took his stand; banged with small preparation and missed by six inches—a fact that brought him up wide awake, so to speak, badgered by derision renewed. A person needs must have a bull hide, to travel with a bull train, I saw.
"Gimme another, boys, and I'll hit it in the nose," he growled sheepishly; but they shoved him aside.
"No, no. Pilgrim's turn. Fetch on yore shootin'-iron, young feller. Thar's yore turkey. Show us why you're packin' all that hardware."
Willy-nilly I had to demonstrate my greenness; so in all good nature I drew, and stood, and cocked, and aimed. The Colt's exploded with prodigious blast and wrench—jerking, in fact, almost above head; and where the bullet went I did not see, nor, I judged, did anybody else.
"He missed the 'arth!" they clamored.
"No; I reckon he hit Montany 'bout the middle. That's whar he scored center!"
"Shoot! Shoot!" they begged. "Go ahead. Mebbe you'll kill an Injun unbeknownst. They's a pack o' Sioux jest out o' sight behind them hills."
And I did shoot, vexed; and I struck the ground, this time, some fifty yards beyond the can. Jenks stepped from amidst the riotous laughter.
"Hold down on it, hold down, lad," he urged. "To hit him in the heart aim at his feet. Here! Like this——" and taking my revolver he threw it forward, fired, the can plinked and somersaulted, lashed into action too late.
"By Gawd," he proclaimed, "when I move like it had a gun in its fist I can snap it. But when I think on it as a can I lack guts."
The remark was pat. I had seen several of the men snip the head from a rattlesnake with a single offhand shot—yes, they all carried their weapons easily and wontedly. But the target of an immobile can lacked in stimulation to concord of nerve and eye.
Now I shot again, holding lower and more firmly, out of mere guesswork, and landed appreciably closer although still within the zone of ridicule. And somebody else shot, and somebody else, and another, until we all were whooping and laughing and jesting, and the jets flew as if from the balls of a mitrailleuse, and the can rocked and gyrated, spurring us to haste as it constantly changed the range. Presently it was merely a twist of ragged tin. Then in the little silence, as we paused, a voice spoke irritatingly.
"I 'laow yu fellers ain't no great shucks at throwin' lead."
Daniel stood by, with arms akimbo, his booted legs braggartly straddled and his freckled face primed with an intolerant grin at our recent efforts. My Lady had come over with him. Raw-boned, angular, cloddish but as strong as a mule, he towered over her in a maddening atmosphere of proprietorship.
She smiled at me—at all of us: at me, swiftly; at them, frankly. And I knew that she was still afraid.
"Reckon we don't ask no advice, friend," they answered. Again a constraint enfolded, fastened upon us by an unbidden guest. "Like as not you can do better."
Daniel laughed boisterously, his mouth widely open.
"I couldn't do wuss. I seen yu poppin' at that can. Hadn't but one hole in it till yu all turned loose an' didn't give it no chance. Haw haw! I 'laow for a short bit I'd stand out in front o' that greenie from the States an' let him empty two guns at me."
"S'pose you do it," friend Jenks promptly challenged. "By thunder, I'll hire ye with the ten cents, and give him four bits if he hits you."
"He wouldn't draw on me, nohaow," scoffed Daniel. "I daren't shoot for money, but I'll shoot for fun. Anybody want to shoot ag'in me?"
"Wasted powder enough," they grumbled.
"Ever see me shoot?" He was eager. "I'll show ye somethin'. I don't take back seat for ary man. Yu set me up a can. That thar one wouldn't jump to a bullet."
In sullen obedience a can was produced.
"Fur as yu like."
It was tossed contemptuously out; and watching it, to catch its last roll, I heard Daniel gleefully yelp "Out o' my way, yu-all!"—half saw his hand dart down and up again, felt the jar of a shot, witnessed the can jump like a live thing; and away it went, with spasm after spasm, to explosion after explosion, tortured by him into fruitless capers until with the final ball peace came to it, and it lay dead, afar across the twilight sand.
Verily, by his cries and the utter savagery and malevolence of his bombardment, one would have thought that he took actual lust in fancied cruelty.
"I 'laow thar's not another man hyar kin do that," he vaunted.
There was not, judging by the silence again ensuing. Only—
"A can's a different proposition from a man, as I said afore," Jenks coolly remarked. "A can don't shoot back."
"I don't 'laow any man's goin' to, neither." Daniel reloaded his smoking revolver, bolstered it with a flip; faced me in turning away. "That's somethin' for yu to l'arn on, ag'in next time, young feller," he vouchsafed.
If he would have eyed me down he did not succeed. His gaze shifted and he passed on, swaggering.
"Come along, Edna," he bade. "We'll be goin' back."
A devil—or was it he himself?—twitted me, incited me, and in a moment, with a gush of assertion, there I was, saying to her, my hat doffed:
"I'll walk over with you."
"Do," she responded readily. "We're to have more singing."
The men stared, they nudged one another, grinned. Daniel whirled.
"I 'laow yu ain't been invited, Mister."
"If Mrs. Montoyo consents, that's enough," I informed, striving to keep steady. "I'm not walking with you, sir; I am walking with her. The only ground you control is just in front of your own wagon."
"Yu've been told once thar ain't no 'Mrs. Montoyo,'" he snarled. "And whilst yu're l'arnin' to shoot yu'd better be l'arnin' manners. Yu comin' with me, Edna?"
"As fast as I can, and with Mr. Beeson also, if he chooses," said she. "I have my manners in mind, too."
"By gosh, I don't walk with ye," he jawed. And in a huff, like the big boy that he was, he flounced about, vengefully striding on as though punishing her for a misdemeanor.
She dropped the grinning group a little curtsy. A demure sparkle was in her eyes.
"The entertainment is concluded, gentlemen. I wish you good-night."
Yet underneath her raillery and self-possession there lay an appeal, the stronger because subtle and unvoiced. It seemed to me every man must appreciate that as a woman she invoked protection by him against an impending something, of which she had given him a glimpse.
So we left them somewhat subdued, gazing after us, their rugged faces sobered reflectively.
"Shall we stroll?" she asked.
"With pleasure," I agreed.
Daniel was angrily shouldering for the Mormon wagons, his indignant figure black against the western glow. She laughed lightly.
"You're not afraid, after all, I see."
"Not of him, madam."
"And of me?"
"I think I'm more afraid for you," I confessed. "That clown is getting insufferable. He sets out to bully you. Damn him," I flashed, with pardonable flame, "and he ruffles at me on every occasion. In fact, he seems to seek occasion. Witness this evening."
"Witness this evening," she murmured. "I'm afraid, too. Yes," she breathed, confronted by a portent, "I'm afraid. I never have been afraid before. I didn't fear Montoyo. I've always been able to take care of myself. But now, here——"
"You have your revolver?" I suggested.
"No, I haven't. It's gone. Mormon women don't carry revolvers."
"They took it from you?"
"But you're not a Mormon woman."
"Not yet." She caught quick breath. "God forbid. And sometimes I fear God willing. For I do fear. You can't understand. Those other men do, though, I think. Do you know," she queried, with sudden glance, "that Daniel means to marry me?"
"He?" I gasped. "How so? With your—consent, of course. But you're not free; you have a husband." My gorge rose, regardless of fact. "You scarcely expect me to congratulate you, madam. Still he may have points."
"Daniel?" She shrugged her shoulders. "I cannot say. Pedro did. Most men have. Oh!" she cried, impulsively stopping short. "Why don't you learn to shoot? Won't you?"
"I've about decided to," I admitted. "That appears to be the saving accomplishment of everybody out here."
"Of everybody who stays. You must learn to draw and to shoot, both. The drawing you will have to practice by yourself, but I can teach you to shoot. So can those men. Let me have your pistol, please."
I passed it to her. She was all in a flutter.
"You must grasp the handle firmly; cover it with your whole palm, but don't squeeze it to death; just grip it evenly—tuck it away. And keep your elbow down; and crook your wrist, in a drop, until your trigger knuckle is pointing very low—at a man's feet if you're aiming for his heart."
"At his feet, for his heart?" I stammered. The words had an ugly sound.
"Certainly. We are speaking of shooting now, and not at a tin can. You have to allow for the jump of the muzzle. Unless you hold it down with your wrist, you over shoot; and it's the first shot that counts. Of course, there's a feel, a knack. But don't aim with your eyes. You won't have time. Men file off the front sight—it sometimes catches, in the draw. And it's useless, anyway. They fire as they point with the finger, by the feel. You see, they know."
"Evidently you do, too, madam," I faltered, amazed.
"Not all," she panted. "But I've heard the talk; I've watched—I've seen many things, sir, from Omaha to Benton. Oh, I wish I could tell you more; I wish I could help you right away. I meant, a dead-shot with the revolver knows beforehand, in the draw, where his bullet shall go. Some men are born to shoot straight; some have to practice a long, long while. I wonder which you are."
"If there is pressing need in my case," said I, "I shall have to rely upon my friends to keep me from being done for."
"You?" she uttered, with a touch of asperity. "Oh, yes. Pish, sir! Friends, I am learning, have their own hides to consider. And those gentlemen of yours are Gentiles with goods for Salt Lake Mormons. Are they going to throw all business to the winds?"
"You yourself may appeal to his father, and to the women, for protection if that lout annoys you," I ventured.
"To them?" she scoffed. "To Hyrum Adams' outfit? Why, they're Mormons and good Mormons, and why should I not be made over? I'm under their teachings; I am Edna, already; it's time Daniel had a wife—or two, for replenishing Utah. Rachael calls me 'sister,' and I can't resent it. Good at heart as she is, even she is convinced. Why," and she laughed mirthlessly, "I may be sealed to Hyrum himself, if nothing worse is in store. Then I'll be assured of a seat with the saints."
"You can depend upon me, then. I'll protect you, I'll fight for you, and I'll kill for you," I was on the point of roundly declaring; but didn't. Her kind, I remembered, had spelled ruin upon the pages of men more experienced than I. Therefore out of that super-caution born of Benton, I stupidly said nothing.
She had paused, expectant. She resumed.
"But no matter. Here I am, and here you are. We were speaking of shooting. This is a lesson in shooting, not in marrying, isn't it? As to the pressing need, you must decide. You've seen and heard enough for that. I like you, sir; I respect your spirit and I'm sorry I led you into misadventure. Now if I may lend you a little something to keep you from being shot like a dog, I'll feel as though I had wiped out your score against me. Take your gun." I took it, the butt warm from her clasp. "There he is. Cover him!"
"Where?" I asked. "Who?"
"There, before you. Oh, anybody! Think of his heart and cover him. I want to see you hold."
I aimed, squinting.
"No, no! You'll not have time to close an eye; both eyes are none too many. And you are awkward; you are stiff." She readjusted my arm and fingers. "That's better. You see that little rock? Hit it. Cock your weapon, first. Hold firmly, not too long. There; I think you're going to hit it, but hold low, low, with the wrist. Now!"
I fired. The sand obscured the rock. She clapped her hands, delighted.
"You would have killed him. No—he would have killed you. Quick! Give it to me!"
And snatching the revolver she cocked, leveled and fired instantly. The rock split into fragments.
"I would have killed him," she murmured, gazing tense, seeing I knew not what. Wrenching from the vision she handed back the revolver to me. "I think you're going to do, sir. Only, you must learn to draw. I can tell you but I can't show you. The men will. You must draw swiftly, decisively, without a halt, and finger on trigger and thumb on hammer and be ready to shoot when the muzzle clears the scabbard. It's a trick."
"Like this?" I queried, trying.
"Partly. But it's not a sword you're drawing; it's a gun. You may draw laughing, if you wish to dissemble for a sudden drop; they do, when they have iron in their heart and the bullet already on its way, in their mind. I mustn't stay longer. Shall we go to the fire now? I am cold." She shivered. "Daniel is waiting. And when you've delivered me safe you'd better leave me, please."
She smiled, looking me straight in the eyes.
"Quien sabe? To avoid a scene, perhaps; perhaps, to postpone. I have an idea that it is better so. You've baited Daniel far enough for to-night."
We walked almost without speaking, to the Hyrum Adams fire. Daniel lifted upper lip at me as we entered; his eyes never wandered from my face. I marked his right hand quivering stiffly; and I disregarded him. For if I had challenged him by so much as an overt glance he would have burst bonds.
Rachael's eyes, the older woman's eyes, the eyes of all, men and women, curious, admonitory, hostile and apprehensive, hot and cold together—these I felt also amidst the dusk. I was distinctly unwelcome. Accordingly I said a civil "Good-evening" to Hyrum (whose response out of compressed lips was scarce more than a grunt) and raising my hat to My Lady turned my back upon them, for my own bailiwick.
The other men were waiting en route.
"Didn't kill ye, did he?"
"Wall," said one, "if you can swing a rattler by the tail, all right. But watch his haid."
Friend Jenks paced on with me to our fire.
"We were keepin' cases on you, and so was he. He saw that practice—damn, how he did crane! She was givin' you pointers, eh?"
"Yes; she wanted amusement."
"It'll set Bonnie Bravo to thinkin'—it'll shorely set him to thinkin'," Jenks chuckled, mouthing his pipe. "She's a smart one." He comfortably rocked to and fro as we sat by the fire. "Hell! Wall, if you got to kill him you got to kill him and do it proper. For if you don't kill him he'll kill you; snuff you out like a—wall, you saw that can travel."
"I don't want to kill him," I pleaded. "Why should I?"
Jenks sat silent; and sitting silent I foresaw that kill Daniel I must. I was being sucked into it, irrevocably willed by him, by her, by them all. If I did not kill him in defense of myself I should kill him in defense of her. Yet why I had to, I wondered; but when I had bought my ticket for Benton I had started the sequence, to this result. Here I was. As she had said, here I was, and here she was. I might not kill for love—no, not that; I was going to kill for hate. And while I never had killed a man, and in my heart of hearts did not wish to kill a man, since I had to kill one, named Daniel, even though he was a bully, a braggart and an infernal over-stepper it was pleasanter to think that I should kill him in hot blood rather than in cold.
Jenks spat, and yawned.
"I can l'arn you a few things; all the boys'll help you out," he proffered, "When you git him you'll have to git him quick; for if you don't—adios. But we'll groom ye."
Could this really be I? Frank Beeson, not a fortnight ago still living at jog-trot in dear Albany, New York State? It was puzzling how detached and how strong I felt.
THE TRAIL NARROWS
Again we broke camp. We rolled down from the plateau into that wizard basin lying all beautiful and slumberous and spell-locked like some land of heart's desire. We replenished our water casks from the tank cars, we swapped for a little feed, we occasionally exchanged greetings with contractor outfits, and with grading crews. In due time we passed end o' track, where a bevy of sweated men were moiling like mad, clanging down the rails upon the hasty ties and ever calling for more, more. I witnessed little General "Jack" Casement of Ohio—a small man with full russet beard and imperative bold blue eyes—teetering and tugging at his whiskers and rampantly swearing while he drove the work forward. And we left end o' track, vainly reaching out after us, until the ring of the rails and the staccato of the rapid sledges faded upon our ears.
Now we were following the long line of bare grade, upturned reddish by the plows and scrapers and picks and shovels; sometimes elevated, for contour, sometimes merged with the desert itself. There the navvies digged and delved, scarcely taking time to glance at us. And day by day we plodded in the interminable clouds of desert dust raised by the supply wagons.
Captain Hyrum fought shy of their camps. The laborers were mainly Irish, trans-shipped from steerage, dock, and Bowery, and imported from Western mining centers; turbulent in their relaxations and plentifully supplied with whiskey: companies, they, not at all to the Mormon mind. Consequently we halted apart from them—and well so, for those were womanless camps and the daily stint bred strong appetites.
There were places where we made half circuit out from the grade and abandoned it entirely. In this way we escaped the dust, the rough talk, and the temptations; now and again obtained a modicum of forage in the shape of coarse weedy grasses at the borders of sinks.
But it was a cruel country on men and beasts. Our teamsters who had been through by the Overland Trail said that the Bitter Creek desert was yet worse: drier, barer, dustier and uglier. Nevertheless this was our daily program:
To rise after a shivery night, into the crisp dawn which once or twice glinted upon a film of ice formed in the water buckets; to herd the stiffened animals and place them convenient; to swallow our hot coffee and our pork and beans, and flapjacks when the cooks were in the humor; to hook the teams to the wagons and break corral, and amidst cracking of lashes stretch out into column, then to lurch and groan onward, at snail's pace, through the constantly increasing day until soon we also were wrung and parched by a relentless heat succeeding the frosty night.
The sleeping beauties of the realm were ever farther removed. In the distances they awaited, luring with promise of magic-invested azure battlements, languid reds and yellows like tapestry, and patches of liquid blue and dazzling snowy white, canopied by a soft, luxurious sky. But when we arrived, near spent, the battlements were only isolated sandstone outcrops inhabited by rattlesnakes, the reds and yellows were sun-baked soil as hard, the liquid blue was poisonous, stagnant sinks, the snow patches were soda and bitter alkali, the luxurious sky was the same old white-hot dome, reflecting the blazing sun upon the fuming earth.
Then at sunset we made corral; against theft, when near the grade; against Indians and pillage when out from the grade, with the animals under herd guard. There were fires, there was singing at the Mormon camp, there was the heavy sleep beneath blanket and buffalo robe, through the biting chill of a breezeless night, the ground a welcomed bed, the stars vigilant from horizon to horizon, the wolves stalking and bickering like avid ghouls.
So we dulled to the falsity of the desert and the drudgery of the trail; and as the grading camps became less frequent the men grew riper for any diversion. That My Lady and Daniel and I were to furnish it seemed to be generally accepted. Here were the time-old elements: two men, one woman—elements so constituted that in other situation they might have brought comedy but upon such a trail must and should pronounce for tragedy, at least for true melodrama.
Besides, I was expected to uphold the honor of our Gentile mess along with my own honor. That was demanded; ever offered in cajolery to encourage my pistol practice. I was, in short, "elected," by an obsession equal to a conviction; and what with her insistently obtruded as a bonus I never was permitted to lose sight of the ghastly prize of skill added to merit.
At first the matter had disturbed and horrified me mightily, to the extent that I anticipated evading the issue while preparing against it. Surely this was the current of a prankish dream. And dreams I had—frightfully tumultuous dreams, of red anger and redder blood, sometimes my own blood, sometimes another's; dreams from which I awakened drenched in cold nightmare sweat.
To be infused, even by bunkum and banter, with the idea of killing, is a sad overthrow of sane balance. I would not have conceived the thing possible to me a month back. But the monotonous desert trail, the close companying with virile, open minds, and the strict insistence upon individual rights—yes, and the irritation of the same faces, the same figures, the same fare, the same labor, the same scant recreations, all worked as poison, to depress and fret and stimulate like alternant chills and fever.
Practice I did, if only in friendly emulation of the others, as a pass-the-time. I improved a little in drawing easily and firing snap-shot. The art was good to know, bad to depend upon. In the beginnings it worried me as a sleight-of-hand, until I saw that it was the established code and that Daniel himself looked to no other.
In fact, he pricked me on, not so much by word as by manner, which was worse. Since that evening when, in the approving parlance of my friends, I had "cut him out" by walking with her to the Adams fire, we had exchanged scarcely a word; he ruffled about at his end of the train and mainly in his own precincts, and I held myself in leash at mine, with self-consciousness most annoying to me.
But his manner, his manner—by swagger and covert sneer and ostentatious triumph of alleged possession emanating an unwearied challenge to my manhood. My revolver practice, I might mark, moved him to shrugs and flings; when he hulked by me he did so with a stare and a boastful grin, but without other response to my attempted "Howdy?"; now and again he assiduously cleaned his gun, sitting out where I should see even if I did not straightway look; in this he was most faithful, with sundry flourishes babying me by thinking to intimidate.
Withal he gave me never excuse of ending him or placating him, but shifted upon me the burden of choosing time and spot.
Once, indeed, we near had it. That was on an early morning. He was driving in a yoke of oxen that had strayed, and he stopped short in passing where I was busied with gathering our mules.
"Say, Mister, I want a word with yu," he demanded.
"Well, out with it," I bade; and my heart began to thump. Possibly I paled, I know that I blinked, the sun being in my eyes.
He laughed, and spat over his shoulder, from the saddle.
"Needn't be skeered. I ain't goin' to hurt ye. I 'laow yu expected to make up to that woman, didn't yu, 'fore this?"
"What woman?" I encouraged; but I was wondering if my revolver was loose.
"Edna. 'Cause if yu did, 'tain't no use, Mister. Why," indulgently, "yu couldn't marry her—yu couldn't marry her no more'n yu could kill me. Yu're a Gentile, an' yu'd be bustin' yore own laws. But thar ain't no Gentile laws for the Lord's an'inted; so I thought I'd tell yu I'm liable to marry her myself. Yu've kep' away from her consider'ble; this is to tell yu yu mought as well keep keepin' away."
"I sha'n't discuss Mrs. Montoyo with you, sir," I broke, cold, instead of hot, watching him very narrowly (as I had been taught to do), my hand nerved for the inevitable dart. "But I am her friend—her friend, mind you; and if she is in danger of being imposed upon by you, I stand ready to protect her. For I want you to know that I'm not afraid of you, day or night. Why, you low dog——!" and I choked, itching for the crisis.
He gawked, reddening; his right hand quivered; and to my chagrin he slowly laughed, scanning me.
"I seen yu practicin'. Go ahead. I wouldn't kill yu naow. Or if yu want practice in 'arnest, start to draw." He waited a moment, in easy insolence. I did not draw. "Let yore dander cool. Thar's no use yu tryin' to buck the Mormons. I've warned ye." And he passed on, cracking his lash.
Suddenly I was aware that, as seemed, every eye in the camp had been fastened upon us two. My fingers shook while with show of nonchalance I resumed adjusting the halters.
"Gosh! Looked for a minute like you and him was to have it out proper," Jenks commented, matter of fact, when I came in. "Hazin' you a bit, was he? What'd he say?"
"He warned me to keep away from Mrs. Montoyo. Went so far as to lay claim to her himself, the whelp. Boasted of it."
"Throwed it in your face, did he? Wall, you goin' to let him cache her away?"
"Look here," I said desperately, still a-tremble: "Why do you men put that up to me? Why do you egg me on to interfere? She's no more to me than she is to you. Damn it, I'll take care of myself but I don't see why I should shoulder her, except that she's a woman and I won't see any woman mistreated."
He pulled his whiskers, and grinned.
"Dunno jest how fur you're elected. Looks like there was something between you and her—though I don't say for shore. But she's your kind; she may be a leetle devil, but she's your kind—been eddicated and acts the lady. She ain't our kind. Thunderation! What'd we do with her? She'd be better off marryin' Dan'l. He'd give her a home. If you hadn't been with this train I don't believe she'd have follered in. That's the proposition. You got to fight him anyway; he's set out to back you down. It's your fracas, isn't it?"
"I know it," I admitted. "He's been ugly toward me from the first, without reason."
"Reckoned to amuse himself. He's one o' them fellers that think to show off by ridin' somebody they think they can ride. The boys hate to see you lay down to that; for you'd better call him and eat lead or else quit the country. So you might as well give him a full dose and take the pot."
"The woman, o' course."
"I tell you, Mrs. Montoyo has nothing to do with it, any more than any woman. It's a matter between him and me—he began it by jeering at me before she appeared. I want her left out of it."
"Oh, pshaw!" Jenks scoffed. "That can't be did. He's fetched her into it. What do you aim to do, then? Dodge her? When you're dodgin' her you're dodgin' him, or so he'll take it."
"I'll not dodge him, you can bet on that," I vowed. "I don't seek her, nor him; but I shall not go out of my way to avoid either of them."
"And when you give him his dose, what'll you do?"
"If that is forced upon me, nothing. It will be in defense of my rights, won't it? But I don't want any further trouble with him. I hope to God I won't have."
"Shore," Jenks soothed. "You're not a killer. All the same, you're elected; he began it and you'll have to finish it. Then you'll needs look out for yourself and her too, for he's made her the stakes."
"Why will I?"
"Got to. The hull train thinks so, one way or t'other, and you're white."
"She can stay with the Mormons, if she wants to."
"Oh, yes; if she wants to. But do you reckon she does? Not much! She's lookin' to you—she's lookin' to you. She's a smart leetle piece—knows how to play her cards, and she's got you and Dan'l goin'."
"But she's married. You can't expect——"
"Oh, yes," he wagged again, interrupting. "Shore. There's Montoyo. I don't envy you your job, but damn' if you mightn't work harder and do wuss. She's a clipper, and I never did hear anything 'specially bad of her, beyond cappin'. Whoa, Jinny!"
I wrathfully cogitated. Now I began to hate her. I was a tool to her hand, once more, was I? And how had it come about? She had not directly besought me to it—not by word. Daniel had decreed, and already our antagonism had been on. And I had defied him—naturally. He should not bilk me of free movement. But the issue might, on the face of it, appear to be she. As I tugged at the harness, under breath I cursed the scurvy turn of events; and in seeking to place the blame found amazing cleverness in her. Just the same, I was not going to kill him for her account; never, never! And I wished to the deuce that she'd kept clear of me.
Jenks was speaking.
"So the fust chance you get you might as well walk straight into him, call him all the names you can lay tongue to, and when he makes a move for his gun beat him to the draw and come up shootin'. Then it'll be over with. The longer it hangs, the less peace you'll have; for you've got to do it sooner or later. It's you or him."