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that it?"

"I'll never marry a thief."

"But you love one?"

"I thought I loved you."

"But you do love him, that man!"

Now at last she turned to him, gazing straight through the mist of her
tears.

"Sam, if you really loved me, would you ask that? Wouldn't you just try
to be so gentle and good that there'd no longer be any place in my heart
for any other sort of love, so I'd learn to think that our love was the
only sort in the world? Wouldn't you take your chance and make good on
it, believing that it must be in nature that a woman can love more than
one man, or love men in more than one way? Isn't marriage broader and
with more chance for both? If you love me and not just yourself alone,
can't you take your chance as I am taking mine? And after all, doesn't
a woman give the odds? If you do love, me - "

"If I do, then my business is to try to make you forget Will Banion."

"There is no other way you could. He may die. I promise you I'll never
see him after I'm married.

"And I'll promise you another thing" - her strained nerves now were
speaking truth for her - "if by any means I ever learn - if I ever
believe - that Major Banion is not what I now think him, I'll go on my
knees to him. I'll know marriage was wrong and love was right all the
time."

"Fine, my dear! Much happiness! But unfortunately for Major Banion's
passing romance, the official records of a military court-martial and a
dishonorable discharge from the Army are facts which none of us can
doubt or deny."

"Yes, that's how it is. So that's why."

"What do you really mean then, Molly - you say, that's why?"

"That's why I'm going to marry you, Sam. Nine days from to-day, at the
Independence Rock, if we are alive. And from now till then, and always,
I'm going to be honest, and I'm going to pray God to give you power to
make me forget every other man in all the world except my - my - " But she
could not say the word "husband."

"Your husband!"

He said it for her, and perhaps then reached his zenith in
approximately unselfish devotion, and in good resolves at least.

The sun shone blinding hot. The white dust rose in clouds. The plague of
flies increased. The rattle and creak of wheel, the monotone of the
drivers, the cough of dust-afflicted kine made the only sounds for a
long time.

"You can't kiss me, Molly?"

He spoke not in dominance but in diffidence. The girl awed him.

"No, not till after, Sam; and I think I'd rather be left alone from now
till then. After - Oh, be good to me, Sam! I'm trying to be honest as a
woman can. If I were not that I'd not be worth marrying at all."

Without suggestion or agreement on his part she drew tighter the reins
on her mules. He sprang down over the wheel. The sun and the dust had
their way again; the monotony of life, its drab discontent, its
yearnings and its sense of failure once more resumed sway in part or all
of the morose caravan. They all sought new fortunes, each of these. One
day each must learn that, travel far as he likes, a man takes himself
with him for better or for worse.




CHAPTER XXIX

THE BROKEN WEDDING


Banion allowed the main caravan two days' start before he moved beyond
Fort Laramie. Every reason bade him to cut entirely apart from that
portion of the company. He talked with every man he knew who had any
knowledge of the country on ahead, read all he could find, studied such
maps as then existed, and kept an open ear for advice of old-time men
who in hard experience had learned how to get across a country.

Two things troubled him: The possibility of grass exhaustion near the
trail and the menace of the Indians. Squaw men in from the north and
west said that the Arapahoes were hunting on the Sweetwater, and sure to
make trouble; that the Blackfeet were planning war; that the Bannacks
were east of the Pass; that even the Crows were far down below their
normal range and certain to harass the trains. These stories, not
counting the hostility of the Sioux and Cheyennes of the Platte country,
made it appear that there was a tacit suspense of intertribal hostility,
and a general and joint uprising against the migrating whites.

These facts Banion did not hesitate to make plain to all his men; but,
descendants of pioneers, with blood of the wilderness in their veins,
and each tempted by adventure as much as by gain, they laughed long and
loud at the thought of danger from all the Indians of the Rockies. Had
they not beaten the Sioux? Could they not in turn humble the pride of
any other tribe? Had not their fathers worked with rifle lashed to the
plow beam? Indians? Let them come!

Founding his own future on this resolute spirit of his men, Banion next
looked to the order of his own personal affairs. He found prices so high
at Fort Laramie, and the stock of all manner of goods so low, that he
felt it needless to carry his own trading wagons all the way to Oregon,
when a profit of 400 per cent lay ready not a third of the way across
and less the further risk and cost. He accordingly cut down his own
stocks to one wagon, and sold off wagons and oxen as well, until he
found himself possessed of considerably more funds than when he had
started out.

He really cared little for these matters. What need had he for a fortune
or a future now? He was poorer than any jeans-clad ox driver with a
sunbonnet on the seat beside him and tow-headed children on the flour
and bacon sacks, with small belongings beyond the plow lashed at the
tail gate, the ax leaning in the front corner of the box and the rifle
swinging in its loops at the wagon bows. They were all beginning life
again. He was done with it.

The entire caravan now had passed in turn the Prairies and the Plains.
In the vestibule of the mountains they had arrived in the most splendid
out-of-doors country the world has ever offered. The climate was
superb, the scenery was a constant succession of changing beauties new
to the eyes of all. Game was at hand in such lavish abundance as none of
them had dreamed possible. The buffalo ranged always within touch, great
bands of elk now appeared, antelope always were in sight. The streams
abounded in noble game fish, and the lesser life of the open was
threaded across continually by the presence of the great predatory
animals - the grizzly, the gray wolf, even an occasional mountain lion.
The guarding of the cattle herds now required continual exertion, and if
any weak or crippled draft animal fell out its bones were clean within
the hour. The feeling of the wilderness now was distinct enough for the
most adventurous. They fed fat, and daily grew more like savages in look
and practice.

Wingate's wagons kept well apace with the average schedule of a dozen
miles a day, at times spurting to fifteen or twenty miles, and made the
leap over the heights of land between the North Platte and the
Sweetwater, which latter stream, often winding among defiles as well as
pleasant meadows, was to lead them to the summit of the Rockies at the
South Pass, beyond which they set foot on the soil of Oregon, reaching
thence to the Pacific. Before them now lay the entry mark of the
Sweetwater Valley, that strange oblong upthrust of rock, rising high
above the surrounding plain, known for two thousand miles as
Independence Rock.

At this point, more than eight hundred miles out from the Missouri, a
custom of unknown age seemed to have decreed a pause. The great rock was
an unmistakable landmark, and time out of mind had been a register of
the wilderness. It carried hundreds of names, including every prominent
one ever known in the days of fur trade or the new day of the wagon
trains. It became known as a resting place; indeed, many rested there
forever, and never saw the soil of Oregon. Many an emigrant woman, sick
well-nigh to death, held out so that she might be buried among the many
other graves that clustered there. So, she felt, she had the final
company of her kind. And to those weak or faint of heart the news that
this was not halfway across often smote with despair and death, and
they, too, laid themselves down here by the road to Oregon.

But here also were many scenes of cheer. By this time the new life of
the trail had been taken on, rude and simple. Frolics were promised when
the wagons should reach the Rock. Neighbors made reunions there.
Weddings, as well as burials, were postponed till the train got to
Independence Rock.

Here then, a sad-faced girl, true to her promise and true to some
strange philosophy of her own devising, was to become the wife of a
suitor whose persistency had brought him little comfort beyond the
wedding date. All the train knew that Molly Wingate Was to be married
there to Sam Woodhull, now restored to trust and authority. Some said
it was a good match, others shook their heads, liking well to see a maid
either blush or smile in such case as Molly's whereas she did neither.

At all events, Mrs. Wingate was two days baking cakes at the train
stops. Friends got together little presents for the bride. Jed, Molly's
brother, himself a fiddler of parts, organized an orchestra of a dozen
pieces. The Rev. Henry Doak, a Baptist divine of much nuptial diligence
en route, made ready his best coat. They came into camp. In the open
spaces of the valley hundreds of wagons were scattered, each to send
representatives to Molly Wingate's wedding. Some insisted that the
ceremony should be performed on the top of the Rock itself, so that no
touch of romance should lack.

Then approached the very hour - ten of the night, after duties of the day
were done. A canopy was spread for the ceremony. A central camp fire set
the place for the wedding feast. Within a half hour the bride would
emerge from the secrecy of her wagon to meet at the canopy under the
Rock the impatient groom, already clad in his best, already giving
largess to the riotous musicians, who now attuned instruments, now broke
out into rude jests or pertinent song.

But Molly Wingate did not appear, nor her father, nor her mother. A hush
fell on the rude assemblage. The minister of the gospel departed to the
Wingate encampment to learn the cause of the delay. He found Jesse
Wingate irate to open wrath, the girl's mother stony calm, the girl
herself white but resolute.

"She insists on seeing the marriage license, Mr. Doak," began Jesse
Wingate. "As though we could have one! As though she should care more
for that than her parents!"

"Quite so," rejoined the reverend man. "That is something I have taken
up with the happy groom. I have with all the couples I have joined in
wedlock on the trail. Of course, being a lawyer, Mr. Woodhull knows that
even if they stood before the meeting and acknowledged themselves man
and wife it would be a lawful marriage before God and man. Of course,
also we all know that since we left the Missouri River we have been in
unorganized territory, with no courts and no form of government, no
society as we understand it at home. Very well. Shall loving hearts be
kept asunder for those reasons? Shall the natural course of life be
thwarted until we get to Oregon? Why, sir, that is absurd! We do not
even know much of the government of Oregon itself, except that it is
provisional."

The face of Molly Wingate appeared at the drawn curtains of her
transient home. She stepped from her wagon and came forward. Beautiful,
but not radiant, she was; cold and calm, but not blushing and uncertain.
Her wedding gown was all in white, true enough to tradition, though but
of delaine, pressed new from its packing trunk by her mother's hands.
Her bodice, long and deep in front and at back, was plain entirely,
save for a treasure of lace from her mother's trunk and her mother's
wedding long ago. Her hands had no gloves, but white short-fingered
mitts, also cherished remnants of days of schoolgirl belledom, did
service. Over white stockings, below the long and full-bodied skirt,
showed the crossed bands of long elastic tapes tied in an ankle bow to
hold in place her little slippers of black high-finished leather. Had
they seen her, all had said that Molly Wingate was the sweetest and the
most richly clad bride of any on all the long, long trail across the
land that had no law. And all she lacked for her wedding costume was the
bride's bouquet, which her mother now held out to her, gathered with
care that day of the mountain flowers - blue harebells, forget-me-nots of
varied blues and the blossom of the gentian, bold and blue in the
sunlight, though at night infolded and abashed, its petals turning in
and waiting for the sun again to warm them.

Molly Wingate, stout and stern, full bosomed, wet eyed, held out her one
little present to her girl, her ewe lamb, whom she was now surrendering.
But no hand of the bride was extended for the bride's bouquet. The voice
of the bride was not low and diffident, but high pitched, insistent.

"Provisional? Provisional? What is it you are saying, sir? Are you
asking me to be married in a provisional wedding? Am I to give all I
have provisionally? Is my oath provisional, or his?"

"Now, now, my dear!" began the minister.

Her father broke out into a half-stifled oath.

"What do you mean?"

Her mother's face went pale under its red bronze.

"I mean this," broke out the girl, still in the strained high tones that
betokened her mental state: "I'll marry no man in any halfway fashion!
Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't I think? How could I have forgotten?
Law, organization, society, convention, form, custom - haven't I got even
those things to back me? No? Then I've nothing! It was - it was those
things - form, custom - that I was going to have to support me. I've got
nothing else. Gone - they're gone, too! And you ask me to marry
him - provisionally - provisionally! Oh, my God! what awful thing was
this? I wasn't even to have that solid thing to rest on, back of me,
after it all was over!"

They stood looking at her for a time, trying to catch and weigh her real
intent, to estimate what it might mean as to her actions.

"Like images, you are!" she went on hysterically, her physical craving
for one man, her physical loathing of another, driving her well-nigh
mad. "You wouldn't protect your own daughter!" - to her stupefied
parents. "Must I think for you at this hour of my life? How near - oh,
how near! But not now - not this way! No! No!"

"What do you mean, Molly?" demanded her father sternly. "Come now,
we'll have no woman tantrums at this stage! This goes on! They're
waiting! He's waiting!"

"Let him wait!" cried the girl in sudden resolution. All her soul was in
the cry, all her outraged, self-punished heart. Her philosophy fell from
her swiftly at the crucial moment when she was to face the kiss, the
embrace of another man. The great inarticulate voice of her woman nature
suddenly sounded, imperative, terrifying, in her own ears - "Oh, Will
Banion, Will Banion, why did you take away my heart?" And now she had
been on the point of doing this thing! An act of God had intervened.

Jesse Wingate nodded to the minister. They drew apart. The holy man
nodded assent, hurried away - the girl sensed on what errand.

"No use!" she said. "I'll not!"

Stronger and stronger in her soul surged the yearning for the dominance
of one man, not this man yonder - a yearning too strong now for her to
resist.

"But Molly, daughter," her mother's voice said to her, "girls has - girls
does. And like he said, it's the promise, it's the agreement they both
make, with witnesses."

"Yes, of course," her father chimed in. "It's the consent in the
contract when you stand before them all."

"I'll not stand before them. I don't consent! There is no agreement!"

Suddenly the girl reached out and caught from her mother the pitiful
little bride's bouquet.

"Look!" she laughed. "Look at these!"

One by one, rapidly, she tore out and flung down the folded gentian
flowers.

"Closed, closed! When the night came, they closed! They couldn't! They
couldn't! I'll not - I can't!"

She had the hand's clasp of mountain blossoms stripped down to a few
small flowers of varied blooms. They heard the coming of the groom, half
running. A silence fell over all the great encampment. The girl's father
made a half step forward, even as her mother sank down, cowering, her
hands at her face.

Then, without a word, with no plan or purpose, Molly Wingate turned,
sprang away from them and fled out into a night that was black indeed.

Truly she had but one thought, and that in negation only. Yonder came to
claim her a man suddenly odious to her senses. It could not be. His
kiss, his arms - if these were of this present time and place, then no
place in all the world, even the world of savage blackness that lay
about, could be so bad as this. At the test her philosophy had forsaken
her, reason now almost as well, and sheer terrified flight remained her
one reaction.

She was gone, a white ghost in her wedding gown, her little slippers
stumbling over the stones, her breath coming sobbingly as she ran. They
followed her. Back of them, at the great fire whose illumination
deepened the shadows here, rose a murmur, a rising of curious people, a
pressing forward to the Wingate station. But of these none knew the
truth, and it was curiosity that now sought answer for the delay in the
anticipated divertisement.

Molly Wingate ran for some moments, to some distance - she knew of
neither. Then suddenly all her ghastly nightmare of terror found climax
in a world of demons. Voices of the damned rose around her. There came a
sudden shock, a blow. Before she could understand, before she could
determine the shadowy form that rose before her in the dark, she fell
forward like the stricken creature.




CHAPTER XXX

THE DANCE IN THE DESERT


There was no wedding that night at the Independence Rock. The Arapahoes
saw to that. But there were burials the day following, six of them - two
women, a child, three men. The night attack had caught the company
wholly off guard, and the bright fire gave good illumination for shaft
and ball.

"Put out the fires! Corral! Corral!"

Voices of command arose. The wedding guests rushed for the shelter of
their own wagons. Men caught up their weapons and a steady fire at the
unseen foe held the latter at bay after the first attack.

Indeed, a sort of panic seized the savages. A warrior ran back
exclaiming that he had seen a spirit, all in white, not running away
from the attack, but toward them as they lay in cover. He had shot an
arrow at the spirit, which then had vanished. It would be better to fall
back and take no more like chances.

For this reason the family of Molly Wingate, pursuing her closely as
they could, found her at last, lying face down in the grass, her arms
outspread, her white wedding gown red with blood. An arrow, its shaft
cracked by her fall, was imbedded in her shoulder, driven deep by the
savage bowman who had fired in fear at an object he did not recognize.
So they found her, still alive, still unmutilated, still no prisoner.
They carried the girl back to her mother, who reached out her arms and
laid her child down behind the barricaded wagon wheels.

"Bring me a candle, you!" she called to the nearest man. It chanced to
be Sam Woodhull.

Soon a woman came with a light.

"Go away now!" the mother commanded the disappointed man.

He passed into the dark. The old woman opened the bodice over the girl's
heart, stripped away the stained lace that had served in three weddings
on two sides of the Appalachians, and so got to the wound.

"It's in to the bone," she said. "It won't come out. Get me my scissors
out of my bag. It's hanging right 'side the seat, our wagon."

"Ain't there no doctor?" she demanded, her own heart weakening now. But
none could tell. A few women grouped around her.

"It won't come out of that little hole it went in," said stout Molly
Wingate, not quite sobbing. "I got to cut it wider."

Silence held them as she finished the shreds of the ashen shaft and
pressed to one side the stub of it. So with what tools she knew best she
cut into the fabric of her own weaving, out of her own blood and bone;
cut mayhap in steady snippings at her own heart, pulling and wrenching
until the flesh, now growing purple, was raised above the girl's white
breast. Both arms, in their white sleeves, lay on the trodden grass
motionless, and had not shock and strain left the victim unconscious the
pain must now have done so.

The sinew wrappings held the strap-iron head, wetted as they now were
with blood. The sighing surgeon caught the base of the arrowhead in
thumb and finger. There was no stanching of the blood. She wrenched it
free at last, and the blood gushed from a jagged hole which would have
meant death in any other air or in any patient but the vital young.

Now they disrobed the bride that was no bride, even as the rifle fire
died away in the darkness. Women brought frontier drafts of herbs held
sovereign, and laid her upon the couch that was not to have been hers
alone.

She opened her eyes, moaning, held out her arms to her mother, not to
any husband; and her mother, bloody, unnerved, weeping, caught her to
her bosom.

"My lamb! My little lamb! Oh, dear me! Oh, dear me!"

The wailing of others for their dead arose. The camp dogs kept up a
continual barking, but there was no other sound. The guards now lay out
in the dark. A figure came creeping toward the bridal tent.

"Is she alive? May I come in? Speak to me, Molly!"

"Go on away, Sam!" answered the voice of the older woman. "You can't
come in."

"But is she alive? Tell me!" His voice was at the door which he could
not pass.

"Yes, more's the pity!" he heard the same voice say.

But from the girl who should then have been his, to have and to hold, he
heard no sound at all, nor could he know her frightened gaze into her
mother's face, her tight clutch on her mother's hand.

This was no place for delay. They made graves for the dead, pallets for
the wounded. At sunrise the train moved on, grim, grave, dignified and
silent in its very suffering. There was no time for reprisal or revenge.
The one idea as to safety was to move forward in hope of shaking off
pursuit.

But all that morning and all that day the mounted Arapahoes harassed
them. At many bends of the Sweetwater they paused and made sorties; but
the savages fell back, later to close in, sometimes under cover so near
that their tauntings could be heard.

Wingate, Woodhull, Price, Hall, Kelsey stationed themselves along the
line of flankers, and as the country became flatter and more open they
had better control of the pursuers, so that by nightfall the latter
began to fall back.

The end of the second day of forced marching found them at the Three
Crossings of the Sweetwater, deep in a cheerless alkaline desert, and on
one of the most depressing reaches of the entire journey. That night
such gloom fell on their council as had not yet been known.

"The Watkins boy died to-day," said Hall, joining his colleagues at the
guarded fire. "His leg was black where it was broke. They're going to
bury him just ahead, in the trail. It's not best to leave headboards
here."

Wingate had fallen into a sort of apathy. For a time Woodhull did not
speak to him after he also came in.

"How is she, Mr. Wingate?" he asked at last. "She'll live?"

"I don't know," replied the other. "Fever. No one can tell. We found a
doctor in one of the Iowa wagons. He don't know."

Woodhull sat silent for a time, exclaimed at last, "But she will - she
must! This shames me! We'll be married yet."

"Better wait to see if she lives or dies," said Jesse Wingate
succinctly.

"I know what I wish," said Caleb Price at last as he stared moodily at
the coals, "and I know it mighty well - I wish the other wagons were up.
Yes, and - "

He did not finish. A nod or so was all the answer he got. A general
apprehension held them all.

"If Bridger hadn't gone on ahead, damn him!" exclaimed Kelsey at last.

"Or if Carson hadn't refused to come along, instead of going on east,"
assented Hall. "What made him so keen?"

Kelsey spoke morosely.

"Said he had papers to get through. Maybe Kit Carson'll sometime carry
news of our being wiped out somewhere."

"Or if we had Bill Jackson to trail for us," ventured the first speaker
again. "If we could send back word - "

"We can't, so what's the use?" interrupted Price. "We were all together,
and had our chance - once."

But buried as they were in their gloomy doubts, regrets, fears, they got
through that night and the next in safety. They dared not hunt, though
the buffalo and antelope were in swarms, and though they knew they now


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