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held his mind.

"Let me see that little dingus ye had, Kit," said he - "that piece o'
gold."

Carson handed it to him.

"Ye got any more o' hit, Kit?"

"Plenty! You can have it if you'll promise not to tell where it came
from, Jim."

"If I do, Jim Bridger's a liar, Kit!"

He slipped the nugget into his pocket. They rode to the head of the
train, where Bridger found Wingate and his aids, and presented his
friend. They all, of course, knew of Fremont's famous scout, then at the
height of his reputation, and greeted him with enthusiasm. As they
gathered around him Bridger slipped away. Searching among the wagons, he
at last found Molly Wingate and beckoned her aside with portentous
injunctions of secrecy.

In point of fact, a sudden maudlin inspiration had seized Jim Bridger,
so that a promise to Kit Carson seemed infinitely less important than a
promise to this girl, whom, indeed, with an old man's inept infatuation,
he had worshiped afar after the fashion of white men long gone from
society of their kind. Liquor now made him bold. Suddenly he reached out
a hand and placed in Molly's palm the first nugget of California gold
that ever had come thus far eastward. Physically heavy it was; of what
tremendous import none then could have known.

"I'll give ye this!" he said. "An' I know whar's plenty more."

She dropped the nugget because of the sudden weight in her hand; picked
it up.

"Gold!" she whispered, for there is no mistaking gold.

"Yes, gold!"

"Where did you get it?"

She was looking over her shoulder instinctively.

"Listen! Ye'll never tell? Ye mustn't! I swore to Kit Carson, that give
hit to me, I'd never tell no one. But I'll set you ahead o' any livin'
bein', so maybe some day ye'll remember old Jim Bridger.

"Yes, hit's gold! Kit Carson brung it from Sutter's Fort, on the
Sacramenty, in Californy. They've got it thar in wagonloads. Kit's on
his way east now to tell the Army!"

"Everyone will know!"

"Yes, but not now! Ef ye breathe this to a soul, thar won't be two
wagons left together in the train. Thar'll be bones o' womern from here
to Californy!"

Wide-eyed, the girl stood, weighing the nugget in her hands.

"Keep hit, Miss Molly," said Bridger simply. "I don't want hit no more.
I only got hit fer a bracelet fer ye, or something. Good-by. I've got to
leave the train with my own wagons afore long an' head fer my fort.
Ye'll maybe see me - old Jim Bridger - when ye come through.

"Yes, Miss Molly, I ain't as old as I look, and I got a fort o' my own
beyant the Green River. This year, what I'll take in for my cargo, what
I'll make cash money fer work fer the immygrints, I'll salt down anyways
ten thousand; next year maybe twicet that, or even more. I sartainly
will do a good trade with them Mormons."

"I suppose," said the girl, patient with what she knew was alcoholic
garrulity.

"An' out there's the purtiest spot west o' the Rockies, My valley is
ever'thing a man er a womern can ask or want. And me, I'm a permanent
man in these yere parts. It's me, Jim Bridger, that fust diskivered the
Great Salt Lake. It's me, Jim Bridger, fust went through Colter's Hell
up in the Yellowstone. Ain't a foot o' the Rockies I don't know. I
eena-most built the Rocky Mountains, me." He spread out his hands. "And
I've got to be eena'most all Injun myself."

"I suppose." The girl's light laugh cut him.

"But never so much as not to rever'nce the white woman, Miss Molly.
Ye're all like angels to us wild men out yere. We - we never have forgot.
And so I give ye this, the fust gold from Californy. There may be more.
I don't know."

"But you're going to leave us? What are you going to do?" A sudden
kindness was in the girl's voice.

"I'm a-goin' out to Fort Bridger, that's what I'm a-goin' to do; an'
when I git thar I'm a-goin' to lick hell out o' both my squaws, that's
what I'm a-goin' to do! One's named Blast Yore Hide, an' t'other Dang
Yore Eyes. Which, ef ye ask me, is two names right an' fitten, way I
feel now."

All at once Jim Bridger was all Indian again. He turned and stalked
a-way. She heard his voice rising in his Indian chant as she turned back
to her own wagon fire.

But now shouts were arising, cries coming up the line. A general
movement was taking place toward the lower end of the camp, where a high
quavering call rose again and again.

"There's news!" said Carson to Jesse Wingate quietly. "That's old Bill
Jackson's war cry, unless I am mistaken. Is he with you?"

"He was," said Wingate bitterly. "He and his friends broke away from the
train and have been flocking by themselves since then."

Three men rode up to the Wingate wagon, and two flung off. Jackson was
there, yes, and Jed Wingate, his son. The third man still sat his
horse. Wingate straightened.

"Mr. Banion! So you see fit to come into my camp?" For the time he had
no answer.

"How are you, Bill?" said Kit Carson quietly, as he now stepped forward
from the shadows. The older man gave him a swift glance.

"Kit! You here - why?" he demanded. "I've not seed ye, Kit, sence the
last Rendyvous on the Green. Ye've been with the Army on the coast?"

"Yes. Going east now."

"Allus ridin' back and forerd acrost the hull country. I'd hate to keep
ye in buckskin breeches, Kit. But ye're carryin' news?"

"Yes," said Carson. "Dispatches about new Army posts - to General Kearny.
Some other word for him, and some papers to the Adjutant General of the
Army. Besides, some letters from Lieutenant Beale in Mexico, about war
matters and the treaty, like enough. You know, we'll get all the
southern country to the Coast?"

"An' welcome ef we didn't! Not a beaver to the thousand miles, Kit. I'm
goin' to Oregon - goin' to settle in the Nez Percé country, whar there's
horses an' beaver."

"But wait a bit afore you an' me gits too busy talkin'. Ye see, I'm with
Major Banion, yan, an' the Missoury train. We're in camp ten mile below.
We wouldn't mix with these people no more - only one way - but I reckon
the Major's got some business o' his own that brung him up. I rid with
him. We met the boy an' ast him to bring us in. We wasn't sure how
friendly our friends is feelin' towards him an' me."

He grinned grimly. As he spoke they both heard a woman's shrilling, half
greeting, half terror. Wingate turned in time to see his daughter fall
to the ground in a sheer faint.

Will Banion slipped from his saddle and hurried forward.




CHAPTER XXVII

TWO WHO LOVED


Jesse Wingate made a swift instinctive motion toward the revolver which
swung at his hip. But Jed sprang between him and Banion.

"No! Hold on, Pap - stop!" cried Jed. "It's all right. I brought him in.

"As a prisoner?"

"I am no man's prisoner, Captain Wingate," said Banion's deep voice.

His eyes were fixed beyond the man to whom he spoke. He saw Molly, to
whom her mother now ran, to take the white face in her own hands.
Wingate looked from one to the other.

"Why do you come here? What do I owe you that you should bring more
trouble, as you always have? And what do you owe me?"

"I owe you nothing!" said Banion. "You owe me nothing at all. I have not
traveled in your train, and I shall not travel in it. I tell you once
more, you're wrong in your beliefs; but till I can prove that I'll not
risk any argument about it."

"Then why do you come to my camp now?"

"You should know."

"I do know. It's Molly!"

"It's Molly, yes. Here's a letter from her. I found it in the cabin at
Ash Hollow. Your friend Woodhull could have killed me - we passed him
just now. Jed could have killed me - you can now; it's easy. But that
wouldn't change me. Perhaps it wouldn't change her."

"You come here to face me down?"

"No, sir. I know you for a brave man, at least. I don't believe I'm a
coward - I never asked. But I came to see Molly, because here she's asked
it. I don't know why. Do you want to shoot me like a coyote?"

"No. But I ask you, what do I owe you?"

"Nothing. But can we trade? If I promise to leave you with my train?"

"You want to steal my girl!"

"No! I want to earn her - some day."

The old Roman before him was a man of quick and strong decisions. The
very courage of the young man had its appeal.

"At least you'll eat," said he. "I'd not turn even a black Secesh away
hungry - not even a man with your record in the Army."

"No, I'll not eat with you."

"Wait then! I'll send the girl pretty soon, if you are here by her
invitation. I'll see she never invites you again."

Wingate walked toward his wagon. Banion kept out of the light circle and
found his horse. He stood, leaning his head on his arms in the saddle,
waiting, until after what seemed an age she slipped out of the darkness,
almost into his arms, standing pale, her fingers lacing and
unlacing - the girl who had kissed him once - to say good-by.

"Will Banion!" she whispered. "Yes, I sent for you. I felt you'd find
the letter."

"Yes, Molly." It was long before he would look at her. "You're the
same," said he. "Only you've grown more beautiful every day. It's hard
to leave you - awfully hard. I couldn't, if I saw you often."

He reached out again and took her in his arms, softly, kissed her
tenderly on each cheek, whispered things that lovers do say. But for his
arms she would have dropped again, she was so weak. She fought him off
feebly.

"No! No! It is not right! No! No!"

"You're not going to be with us any more?" she said at last.

He shook his head. They both looked at his horse, his rifle, swung in
its sling strap at the saddle horn. She shook her head also.

"Is this the real good-by, Will?" Her lips trembled.

"It must be. I have given my word to your father. But why did you send
for me? Only to torture me? I must keep my word to hold my train apart.
I've promised my men to stick with them."

"Yes, you mustn't break your word. And it was fine just to see you a
minute, Will; just to tell you - oh, to say I love you, Will! But I
didn't think that was why I sent. I sent to warn you - against him. It
seems always to come to the same thing."

She was trying not to sob. The man was in but little better case. The
stars did not want them to part. All the somber wilderness world
whispered for them to love and not to part at all. But after a time they
knew that they again had parted, or now were able to do so.

"Listen, Will," said the girl at last, putting back a lock of her fallen
hair. "I'll have to tell you. We'll meet in Oregon? I'll be married
then. I've promised. Oh, God help me! I think I'm the wickedest woman in
all the world, and the most unhappy. Oh, Will Banion, I - I love a thief!
Even as you are, I love you! I guess that's why I sent for you, after
all.

"Go find the scout - Jim Bridger!" she broke out suddenly. "He's going on
ahead. Go on to his fort with him - he'll have wagons and horses. He
knows the way. Go with Bridger, Will! Don't go to Oregon! I'm afraid for
you. Go to California - and forget me! Tell Bridger - "

"Why, where is it?" she exclaimed.

She was feeling in the pocket of her apron, and it was empty.

"I've lost it!" she repeated. "I lose everything!"

"What was it, Molly?"

She leaned her lips to his ear.

"It was gold!"

He stood, the magic name of that metal which shows the color in the
shade electrifying even his ignorance of the truth.

"Gold?"

She told him then, breaking her own promise magnificently, as a woman
will.

"Go, ride with Bridger," she went on. "Don't tell him you ever knew me.
He'll not be apt to speak of me. But they found it, in California, the
middle of last winter - gold! Gold! Carson's here in our camp - Kit
Carson. He's the first man to bring it to the Valley of the Platte. He
was sworn to keep it secret; so was Bridger, and so am I. Not to Oregon,
Will - California! You can live down your past. If we die, God bless the
man I do love. That's you, Will! And I'm going to marry - him. Ten days!
On the trail! And he'll kill you, Will! Oh, keep away!"

She paused, breathless from her torrent of incoherent words, jealous of
the passing moments. It was vague, it was desperate, it was crude. But
they were in a world vague, desperate and crude.

"I've promised my men I'd not leave them," he said at last. "A promise
is a promise."

"Then God help us both! But one thing - when I'm married, that's the end
between us. So good-by."

He leaned his head back on his saddle for a time, his tired horse
turning back its head. He put out his hand blindly; but it was the
muzzle of his horse that had touched his shoulder. The girl was gone.

The Indian drums at Laramie thudded through the dark. The great wolf in
the breaks lifted his hoarse, raucous roar once more. The wilderness was
afoot or bedding down, according to its like.




CHAPTER XXVIII

WHEN A MAID MARRIES


Carson, Bridger and Jackson, now reunited after years, must pour
additional libations to Auld Lang Syne at Laramie, so soon were off
together. The movers sat around their thrifty cooking fires outside the
wagon corral. Wingate and his wife were talking heatedly, she in her
nervousness not knowing that she fumbled over and over in her fingers
the heavy bit of rock which Molly had picked up and which was in her
handkerchief when it was requisitioned by her mother to bathe her face
just now. After a time she tossed the nugget aside into the grass. It
was trodden by a hundred feet ere long.

But gold will not die. In three weeks a prowling Gros Ventre squaw found
it and carried it to the trader, Bordeaux, asking, "Shoog?"

"Non, non!" replied the Laramie trader. "Pas de shoog!" But he looked
curiously at the thing, so heavy.

"How, cola!" wheedled the squaw. "Shoog!" She made the sign for sugar,
her finger from her palm to her lips. Bordeaux tossed the thing into the
tin can on the shelf and gave her what sugar would cover a spoon.

"Where?" He asked her, his fingers loosely shaken, meaning, "Where did
you get it?"

The Gros Ventre lied to him like a lady, and told him, on the South
Fork, on the Creek of Bitter Cherries - near where Denver now is; and
where placers once were. That was hundreds of miles away. The Gros
Ventre woman had been there once in her wanderings and had seen some
heavy metal.

Years later, after Fort Laramie was taken over by the Government,
Bordeaux as sutler sold much flour and bacon to men hurrying down the
South Fork to the early Colorado diggings. Meantime in his cups he often
had told the mythical tale of the Gros Ventre woman - long after
California, Idaho, Nevada, Montana were all afire. But one of his
halfbreed children very presently had commandeered the tin cup and its
contents, so that to this day no man knows whether the child swallowed
the nugget or threw it into the Laramie River or the Platte River or the
sagebrush. Some depose that an emigrant bought it of the baby; but no
one knows.

What all men do know is that gold does not die; nay, nor the news of it.
And this news now, like a multiplying germ, was in the wagon train that
had started out for Oregon.

As for Molly, she asked no questions at all about the lost nugget, but
hurried to her own bed, supperless, pale and weeping. She told her
father nothing of the nature of her meeting with Will Banion, then nor
at any time for many weeks.

"Molly, come here, I want to talk to you."

Wingate beckoned to his daughter the second morning after Banion's
visit.

The order for the advance was given. The men had brought in the cattle
and the yoking up was well forward. The rattle of pots and pans was
dying down. Dogs had taken their places on flank or at the wagon rear,
women were climbing up to the seats, children clinging to pieces of
dried meat. The train was waiting for the word.

The girl followed him calmly, high-headed.

"Molly, see here," he began. "We're all ready to move on. I don't know
where Will Banion went, but I want you to know, as I told him, that he
can't travel in our train."

"He'll not ask to, father. He's promised to stick to his own men."

"He's left you at last! That's good. Now I want you to drop him from
your thoughts. Hear that, and heed it. I tell you once more, you're not
treating Sam Woodhull right."

She made him no answer.

"You're still young, Molly," he went on. "Once you're settled you'll
find Oregon all right. Time you were marrying. You'll be twenty and an
old maid first thing you know. Sam will make you a good husband. Heed
what I say."

But she did not heed, though she made no reply to him. Her eye,
"scornful, threatening and young," looked yonder where she knew her
lover was; not was it in her soul ever to return from following after
him. The name of her intended husband left her cold as ice.

"Roll out! Roll out! Ro-o-o-ll ou-t!"

The call went down the line once more. The pistolry of the wagon whips
made answer, the drone of the drivers rose as the sore-necked oxen bowed
their heads again, with less strength even for the lightened loads.

The old man who sat by the gate at Fort Laramie, twisting a curl around
his finger, saw the plain clearing now, as the great train swung out and
up the river trail. He perhaps knew that Jim Bridger, with his own
freight wagons, going light and fast with mules, was on west, ahead of
the main caravan. But he did not know the news Jim Bridger carried, the
same news that Carson was carrying east. The three old mountain men, for
a few hours meeting after years, now were passing far apart, never to
meet again. Their chance encountering meant much to hundreds of men and
women then on the road to Oregon; to untold thousands yet to come.

As for one Samuel Woodhull, late column captain, it was to be admitted
that for some time he had been conscious of certain buffetings of fate.
But as all thoroughbred animals are thin-skinned, so are all the
short-bred pachydermatous, whereby they endure and mayhap arrive at the
manger well as the next. True, even Woodhull's vanity and self-content
had everything asked of them in view of his late series of mishaps; but
by now he had somewhat chirked up under rest and good food, and was once
more the dandy and hail fellow. He felt assured that very presently
bygones would be bygones. Moreover - so he reasoned - if he, Sam Woodhull,
won the spoils, what matter who had won any sort of victory? He knew, as
all these others knew and as all the world knows, that a beautiful woman
is above all things _spolia opima_ of war. Well, in ten days he was to
marry Molly Wingate, the most beautiful woman of the train and the belle
of more than one community. Could he not afford to laugh best, in spite
of all events, even if some of them had not been to his own liking?

But the girl's open indifference was least of all to his liking. It
enraged his vain, choleric nature to its inner core. Already he planned
dominance; but willing to wait and to endure for ten days, meantime he
employed innocence, reticence, dignity, attentiveness, so that he seemed
a suitor misunderstood, misrepresented, unjustly used - to whose patient
soul none the less presently must arrive justice and exoneration, after
which all would be happier even than a marriage bell. After the wedding
bells he, Samuel Woodhull, would show who was master.

Possessed once more of horse, arms and personal equipment, and having
told his own story of persecution to good effect throughout the train,
Woodhull had been allowed to resume a nominal command over a part of the
Wingate wagons. The real control lay in the triumvirate who once had
usurped power, and who might do so again.

Wingate himself really had not much more than nominal control of the
general company, although he continued to give what Caleb Price called
the easy orders. His wagons, now largely changed to ox transport, still
traveled at the head of the train, Molly continuing to drive her own
light wagon and Jed remaining on the cow column.

The advance hardly had left Fort Laramie hidden by the rolling ridges
before Woodhull rode up to Molly's wagon and made excuse to pass his
horse to a boy while he himself climbed up on the seat with his fiancée.

She made room for him in silence, her eyes straight ahead. The wagon
cover made good screen behind, the herdsmen were far in the rear, and
from the wagons ahead none could see them. Yet when, after a moment, her
affianced husband dropped an arm about her waist the girl flung it off
impatiently.

"Don't!" she exclaimed. "I detest love-making in public. We see enough
of it that can't be hid. It's getting worse, more open, the farther we
get out."

"The train knows we are to be married at the halfway stop, Molly. Then
you'll change wagons and will not need to drive."

"Wait till then."

"I count the hours. Don't you, dearest?"

She turned a pallid face to him at last, resentful of his endearments.

"Yes, I do," she said. But he did not know what she meant, or why she
was so pale.

"I think we'll settle in Portland," he went on. "The travelers' stories
say that place, at the head of navigation on the Willamette, has as good
a chance as Oregon City, at the Falls. I'll practice law. The goods I am
taking out will net us a good sum, I'm hoping. Oh, you'll see the day
when you'll not regret that I held you to your promise! I'm not playing
this Oregon game to lose it."

"Do you play any game to lose it?"

"No! Better to have than to explain have not - that's one of my mottoes."

"No matter how?"

"Why do you ask?"

"I was only wondering."

"About what?"

"About men - and the differences."

"My dear, as a school-teacher you have learned to use a map, a
blackboard. Do you look on us men as ponderable, measurable,
computable?"

"A girl ought to if she's going to marry."

"Well, haven't you?"

"Have I?"

She still was staring straight ahead, cold, making no silent call for a
lover's arms or arts. Her silence was so long that at length even his
thick hide was pierced.

"Molly!" he broke out. "Listen to me! Do you want the engagement broken?
Do you want to be released?"

"What would they all think?"

"Not the question. Answer me!"

"No, I don't want it broken. I want it over with. Isn't that fair?"

"Is it?"

"Didn't you say you wanted me on any terms?"

"Surely!"

"Don't you now?"

"Yes, I do, and I'm going to have you, too!"

His eye, covetous, turned to the ripe young beauty of the maid beside
him. He was willing to pay any price.

"Then it all seems settled."

"All but one part. You've never really and actually told me you loved
me."

A wry smile.

"I'm planning to do that after I marry you. I suppose that's the
tendency of a woman? Of course, it can't be true that only one man will
do for a woman to marry, or one woman for a man? If anything went wrong
on that basis - why, marrying would stop? That would be foolish,
wouldn't it? I suppose women do adjust? Don't you think so?"

His face grew hard under this cool reasoning.

"Am I to understand that you are marrying me as a second choice, and so
that you can forget some other man?"

"Couldn't you leave a girl a secret if she had one? Couldn't you be
happier if you did? Couldn't you take your chance and see if there's
anything under the notion about more than one man and more than one
woman in the world? Love? Why, what is love? Something to marry on? They
say it passes. They tell me that marriage is more adjustable, means more
interests than love; that the woman who marries with her eyes open is
apt to be the happiest in the long run. Well, then you said you wanted
me on any terms. Does not that include open eyes?"

"You're making a hard bargain - the hardest a man can be obliged to
take."

"It was not of my seeking."

"You said you loved me - at first."

"No. Only a girl's in love with love - at first. I've not really lied to
you. I'm trying to be honest before marriage. Don't fear I'll not be
afterward. There's much in that, don't you think? Maybe there's
something, too, in a woman's ability to adjust and compromise? I don't
know. We ought to be as happy as the average married couple, don't you
think? None of them are happy for so very long, they say. They say love
doesn't last long. I hope not. One thing, I believe marriage is easier
to beat than love is."

"How old are you, really, Molly?"

"I am just over nineteen, sir."

"You are wise for that; you are old."

"Yes - since we started for Oregon."

He sat in sullen silence for a long time, all the venom of his nature
gathering, all his savage jealousy.

"You mean since you met that renegade, traitor and thief, Will Banion!
Tell me, isn't that it?"

"Yes, that's true. I'm older now. I know more."

"And you'll marry me without love. You love him without marriage? Is


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