Emerson Hough.

The Covered Wagon online

. (page 13 of 20)
Online LibraryEmerson HoughThe Covered Wagon → online text (page 13 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

were near the western limit of the buffalo range. They urged on, mile
after mile. The sick and the wounded must endure as they might.

Finally they topped the gentle incline which marked the heights of land
between the Sweetwater and the tributaries of the Green, and knew they
had reached the South Pass, called halfway to Oregon. There was no
timber here. The pass itself was no winding cañon, but only a flat,
broad valley. Bolder views they had seen, but none of greater interest.

Now they would set foot on Oregon, passing from one great series of
waterways to another and even vaster, leading down to the western
sea - the unknown South Sea marked as the limits of their possessions by
the gallants of King Charles when, generations earlier, and careless of
all these intervening generations of toil and danger, they had paused
at the summit of Rockfish Gap in the Appalachians and waved a gay hand
each toward the unknown continent that lay they knew not how far to the

But these, now arrived halfway of half that continent, made no merriment
in their turn. Their wounded and their sick were with them. The blazing
sun tried them sore. Before them also lay they knew not what.

And now, coming in from the northeast in a vast braided tracing of
travois poles and trampling hoofs, lay a trail which fear told them was
that of yet another war party waiting for the white-topped wagons. It
led on across the Pass. It could not be more than two days old.

"It's the Crows!" exclaimed Sam Woodhull, studying the broad trail.
"They've got their women and children with them."

"We have ours with us," said Caleb Price simply.

Every man who heard him looked back at the lines of gaunt cattle, at the
dust-stained canvas coverings that housed their families. They were far
afield from home or safety.

"Call Wingate. Let's decide what to do," exclaimed Price again. "We'll
have to vote."

They voted to go on, fault of any better plan. Some said Bridger's post
was not far ahead. A general impatience, fretful, querulous, manifested
itself. Ignorant, many of these wanted to hurry on to Oregon, which for
most meant the Williamette Valley, in touch with the sea, marked as the
usual end of the great trek. Few knew that they now stood on the soil of
the Oregon country. The maps and journals of Molly Wingate were no more
forthcoming, for Molly Wingate no more taught the evening school, but
lay delirious under the hothouse canvas cover that intensified the rays
of the blazing sun. It was life or death, but by now life-and-death
issue had become no unusual experience.

It was August, midsummer, and only half the journey done. The heat was
blinding, blistering. For days now, in the dry sage country, from the
ford of the North Fork of the Platte, along the Sweetwater and down the
Sandy, the white alkali dust had sifted in and over everything. Lips
cracked open, hands and arms either were raw or black with tan. The
wagons were ready to drop apart. A dull silence had fallen on the
people; but fatuously following the great Indian trail they made camp at
last at the ford of the Green River, the third day's march down the
Pacific Slope. No three days of all the slow trail had been harder to
endure than these.

"Play for them, Jed," counseled Caleb Price, when that hardy youth,
leaving his shrunken herd, came in for his lunch that day at the ford.

"Yes, but keep that fiddle in the shade, Jed, or the sun certainly will
pop it open."

Jed's mother, her apron full of broken bits of sagebrush, turned to see
that her admonishment was heeded before she began her midday coffee
fire. As for Jed himself, with a wide grin he crouched down at the side
of the wagon and leaned against a wheel as he struck up a lively air,
roaring joyously to his accompaniment:

_Git out o' the way, old Dan Tucker,
You're too late to git yore supper!_

Unmindful of the sullen apathy of men and women, the wailing of children
stifling under the wagon tops, the moans of the sick and wounded in
their ghastly discomfort, Jed sang with his cracked lips as he swung
from one jig to the next, the voice of the violin reaching all the
wagons of the shortened train.

"Choose yore pardners!" rang his voice in the joyous jesting of youth.
And - marvel and miracle - then and there, those lean brown folk did take
up the jest, and laughingly gathered on the sun-seared sands. They
formed sets and danced - danced a dance of the indomitable, at high noon,
the heat blinding, the sand hot under feet not all of which were shod.
Molly Wingate, herself fifty and full-bodied, cast down her firewood,
caught up her skirt with either hand and made good an old-time jig to
the tune of the violin and the roaring accompaniment of many voices and
of patted hands. She paused at length, dropping her calico from between
her fingers, and hastened to a certain wagon side as she wiped her face
with her apron.

"Didn't you hear it, Molly?" she demanded, parting the curtain and
looking in.

"Yes, I did. I wanted - I almost wanted to join. Mother, I almost wanted
to hope again. Am I to live? Where are we now?"

"By a right pretty river, child, and eena'most to Oregon. Come, kiss
your mother, Molly. Let's try."

Whereupon, having issued her orders and set everyone to work at
something after her practical fashion, the first lady of the train went
frizzling her shaved buffalo meat with milk in the frying pan; grumbling
that milk now was almost at the vanishing point, and that now they
wouldn't see another buffalo; but always getting forward with her meal.
This she at last amiably announced.

"Well, come an' git it, people, or I'll throw it to the dogs."

Flat on the sand, on blankets or odds and ends of hide, the emigrants
sat and ate, with the thermometer - had they had one - perhaps a hundred
and ten in the sun. The men were silent for the most part, with now and
then a word about the ford, which they thought it would be wise to make
at once, before the river perchance might rise, and while it still would
not swim the cattle.

"We can't wait for anyone, not even the Crows," said Wingate, rising and
ending the mealtime talk. "Let's get across."

Methodically they began the blocking up of the wagon bodies to the
measurement established by a wet pole.

"Thank the Lord," said Wingate, "they'll just clear now if the bottom
is hard all the way."

One by one the teams were urged into the ticklish crossing. The line of
wagons was almost all at the farther side when all at once the rear
guard came back, spurring.

"Corral! Corral!" he called.

He plunged into the stream as the last driver urged his wagon up the
bank. A rapid dust cloud was approaching down the valley.

"Indians!" called out a dozen voices. "Corral, men! For God's sake,
quick - corral!"

They had not much time or means to make defense, but with training now
become second nature they circled and threw the dusty caravan into the
wonted barricade, tongue to tail gate. The oxen could not all be driven
within, the loose stock was scattered, the horses were not on picket
lines at that time of day; but driving what stock they could, the boy
herders came in at a run when they saw the wagons parking.

There was no time to spare. The dust cloud swept on rapidly. It could
not spell peace, for no men would urge their horses at such pace under
such a sun save for one purpose - to overtake this party at the ford.

"It's Bill Jackson!" exclaimed Caleb Price, rifle in hand, at the
river's edge. "Look out, men! Don't shoot! Wait! There's fifty Indians
back of him, but that's Jackson ahead. Now what's wrong?"

The riddle was not solved even when the scout of the Missouri train,
crowded ahead by the steady rush of the shouting and laughing savages,
raised his voice as though in warning and shouted some word,
unintelligible, which made them hold their fire.

The wild cavalcade dashed into the stream, crowding their prisoner - he
was no less - before them, bent bows back of him, guns ready.

They were stalwart, naked men, wide of jaw, great of chest, not a woman
or child among them, all painted and full armed.

"My God, men!" called Wingate, hastening under cover. "Don't let them
in! Don't let them in! It's the Crows!"



"How, cola!" exclaimed the leader of the band of Indians, crowding up to
the gap in the corral where a part of the stock had just been driven in.
He grinned maliciously and made the sign for "Sioux" - the edge of the
hand across the throat.

But men, rifles crosswise, barred him back, while others were hurrying,
strengthening the barricade. A half dozen rifles, thrust out through
wheels or leveled across wagon togues, now covered the front rank of the
Crows; but the savages, some forty or fifty in number, only sat their
horses laughing. This was sport to them. They had no doubt at all that
they would have their will of this party of the whites as soon as they
got ready, and they planned further strategy. To drive a prisoner into
camp before killing him was humorous from their point of view, and
practical withal, like driving a buffalo close to the village before
shooting it.

But the white men were not deceived by the trading-post salutation.

"He's a liar!" called out the voice of Jackson. "They're not
Sioux - they're Crows, an' out for war! Don't let 'em in, boys! For
God's sake, keep 'em out!"

It was a brave man's deed. The wonder was his words were not his last,
for though the Crows did not understand all his speech, they knew well
enough what he meant. One brave near him struck him across the mouth
with the heavy wooden stock of his Indian whip, so that his lips gushed
blood. A half dozen arrows turned toward him, trembling on the strings.
But the voice of their partisan rose in command. He preferred a parley,
hoping a chance might offer to get inside the wagon ring. The loose
stock he counted safe booty any time they liked. He did not relish the
look of the rifle muzzles at a range of twenty feet. The riders were now
piled in almost against the wheels.

"Swap!" exclaimed the Crow leader ingratiatingly, and held out his hand.
"How, cola!"

"Don't believe him! Don't trust him, men!"

Again Jackson's voice rose. As the savages drew apart from him, to hold
him in even better bow range, one young brave, hideously barred in
vermilion and yellow, all the time with an arrow at the prisoner's back,
the men in the wagon corral now saw that Jackson's hands were tied
behind his back, so that he was helpless. But still he sat his own
horse, and still he had a chance left to take.

"Look out!" he called high and clear. "Get away from the hole! I'm
comin' in!"

Before anyone fully caught his meaning he swung his horse with his legs,
lifted him with his heels and made one straight, desperate plunge for
the gap, jostling aside the nearest two or three of his oppressors.

It was a desperate man's one hope - no hope at all, indeed, for the odds
were fifty to one against him. Swift as was his movement, and unprepared
as his tormentors were for it, just as the horse rose to his leap over
the wagon tongue, and as the rider flung himself low on his neck to
escape what he knew would come, a bow twanged back of him. They all
heard the zhut! of the arrow as it struck. Then, in a stumbling heap,
horse and rider fell, rolled over, as a sleet of arrows followed

Jackson rolled to one side, rose to his knees. Molly Wingate chanced to
be near. Her scissors, carefully guarded always, because priceless, hung
at her neck. Swiftly she began to saw at the thong which held Jackson's
wrists, bedded almost to the bone and twisted with a stick. She severed
the cord somehow and the man staggered up. Then they saw the arrow
standing out at both sides of his shoulder, driven through the muscles
with the hasty snap of the painted bowman's shot.

"Cut it - break it!" he demanded of her; for all the men now were at the
edge, and there was no one else to aid. And staunch Molly Wingate, her
eyes staring again in horror, took the bloody stem and tried to break it
off, in her second case of like surgery that week. But the shaft was
flexible, tough and would not break.

"A knife - quick! Cut it off above the feather!"

He himself caught the front of the shaft and pushed it back, close to
the head. By chance she saw Jed's knife at his belt as he kneeled, and
drew it. Clumsily but steadily she slashed into the shaft, weakened it,
broke it, pushed the point forward. Jackson himself unhesitatingly
pulled it through, a gush of blood following on either side the
shoulder. There was no time to notice that. Crippled as he was, the man
only looked for weapons. A pistol lay on the ground and he caught it up.

But for the packs and bales that had been thrown against the wheels, the
inmates of the corral would all have fallen under the rain of arrows
that now slatted and thudded in. But they kept low, and the Indians were
so close against the wagons that they could not see under the bodies or
through the wheels. The chocks had not yet been taken out from under the
boxes, so that they stood high. Against such a barricade cavalry was
helpless. There was no warrior who wanted to follow Jackson's example of
getting inside.

For an instant there came no order to fire. The men were reaching into
the wagons to unsling their rifles from the riding loops fastened to the
bows. It all was a trample and a tumult and a whirl of dust under
thudding hoofs outside and in, a phase which could last no more than an
instant. Came the thin crack of a squirrel rifle from the far corner of
the wagon park. The Crow partisan sat his horse just a moment, the
expression on his face frozen there, his mouth slowly closing. Then he
slid off his horse close to the gap, now; piled high with goods and

A boy's high quaver rose.

"You can't say nothing this time! You didn't shoot at all now!"

An emigrant boy was jeering at his father.

But by that time no one knew or cared who shot. The fight was on. Every
rifle was emptied in the next instant, and at that range almost every
shot was fatal or disabling. In sudden panic at the powder flare in
their faces, the Crows broke and scattered, with no time to drag away
their wounded.

The fight, or this phase of it, was over almost before it was begun. It
all was one more repetition of border history. Almost never did the
Indians make a successful attack on a trading post, rarely on an
emigrant train in full corral. The cunning of the Crow partisan in
driving in a prisoner as a fence had brought him close, yes - too close.
But the line was not yet broken.

Firing with a steady aim, the emigrants added to the toll they took. The
Crows bent low and flogged their horses. Only in the distant willow
thickets did they pause. They even left their dead.

There were no wounded, or not for long. Jackson, the pistol in his hand,
his face gray with rage and pain, stepped outside the corral. The Crow
chief, shot through the chest, turned over, looked up dully.

"How, cola!" said his late prisoner, baring his teeth.

And what he did with this brave he did with all the others of the
wounded able to move a hand. The debt to savage treachery was paid,
savagely enough, when he turned back to the wagons, and such was the
rage of all at this last assault that no voice was raised to stay his

"There's nothing like tobacker," asserted Jackson coolly when he had
reëntered the corral and it came to the question of caring for his arrow
wound. "Jest tie on a good chaw o' tobacker on each side o' that hole
an' 'twon't be long afore she's all right. I'm glad it went plumb
through. I've knowed a arrerhead to pull off an' stay in when the sinew
wroppin's got loose from soakin'.

"Look at them wrists," he added, holding up his hands. "They twisted
that rawhide clean to the bone, damn their skins! Pertendin' to be
friends! They put me in front sos't you'd let 'em ride up clost - that's
the Crow way, to come right inter camp if they can, git in close an'
play friends. But, believe me, this ain't but the beginnin'. They'll be
back, an' plenty with 'em. Them Crows ain't west of the Pass fer only
one thing, an' that's this wagon train."

They gathered around him now, plying him with questions. Sam Woodhull
was among those who came, and him Jackson watched narrowly every moment,
his own weapon handy, as he now described the events that had brought
him hither.

"Our train come inter the Sweetwater two days back o' you all," he said.
"We seed you'd had a fight but had went on. We knowed some was hurt,
fer we picked up some womern fixin's - tattin', hit were - with blood on
hit. And we found buryin's, the dirt different color."

They told him now of the first fight, of their losses, of the wounded;
told him of the near escape of Molly Wingate, though out of courtesy to
Woodhull, who stood near, they said nothing of the interrupted wedding.
The old mountain man's face grew yet more stern.

"That gal!" he said. "Her shot by a sneakin' Rapa-hoe? Ain't that a
shame! But she's not bad - she's comin' through?"

Molly Wingate, who stood ready now with bandages, told him how alike the
two arrow wounds had been.

"Take an' chaw tobacker, ma'am," said he. "Put a hunk on each side,
do-ee mind, an' she'll be well."

"Go on and tell us the rest," someone demanded.

"Not much to tell that ye couldn't of knew, gentlemen," resumed the
scout. "Ef ye'd sont back fer us we'd of jined ye, shore, but ye didn't

"How could we send, man?" demanded Woodhull savagely. "How could we know
where you were, or whether you'd come - or whether you'd have been of any
use if you had?"

"Well, we knew whar you-all was, 't any rate," rejoined Jackson. "We was
two days back o' ye, then one day. Our captain wouldn't let us crowd in,
fer he said he wasn't welcome an' we wasn't needed.

"That was ontel we struck the big Crow trail, with you all a follerin'
o' hit blind, a-chasin' trouble as hard as ye could. Then he sont me on
ahead to warn ye an' to ask ef we should jine on. We knowed the Crows
was down atter the train.

"I laid down to sleep, I did, under a sagebrush, in the sun, like a
fool. I was beat out an' needed sleep, an' I thought I was safe fer a
leetle while. When I woke up it was a whoop that done hit. They was
around me, laughin', twenty arrers p'inted, an' some shot inter the
ground by my face. I taken my chance, an' shook hands. They grabbed me
an' tied me. Then they made me guide them in, like ye seen. They maybe
didn't know I come from the east an' not from the west.

"Their village is on some creek above here. I think they're on a visit
to the Shoshones. Eight hundred men they are, or more. Hit's more'n what
it was with the Sioux on the Platte, fer ye're not so many now. An' any
time now the main band may come. Git ready, men. Fer me, I must git back
to my own train. They may be back twenty mile, or thirty. Would ary man
want to ride with me? Would ye, Sam Woodhull?"

The eyes of his associates rested on Woodhull.

"I think one man would be safer than two," said he. "My own place is
here if there's sure to be a fight."

"Mebbe so," assented Jackson. "In fack, I don't know as more'n one'd git
through if you an' me both started." His cold gray eye was fixed on
Woodhull carelessly. "An' ef hit was the wrong man got through he'd
never lead them Missouri men for'rerd to where this fight'll be.

"An' hit'll be right here. Look yan!" he added.

He nodded to the westward, where a great dust cloud arose.

"More is comin'," said he. "Yan's Bannack's like as not, er even the
Shoshones, all I know, though they're usual quiet. The runners is out
atween all the tribes. I must be on my way."

He hurried to find his own horse, looked to its welfare, for it, too,
had an arrow wound. As he passed a certain wagon he heard a voice call
to him, saw a hand at the curtained front.

"Miss Molly! Hit's you! Ye're not dead no ways, then?"

"Come," said the girl.

He drew near, fell back at sight of her thin face, her pallor; but again
she commanded him.

"I know," said she. "He's - he's safe?"

"Yes, Miss Molly, a lot safer'n any of us here."

"You're going back to him?"

"Yes. When he knows ye're hurt he'll come. Nothin'll stop him, oncet I
tell him."

"Wait!" she whispered. "I heard you talk. Take him this." She pushed
into his hand a folded paper, unsealed, without address. "To him!" she
said, and fell back on the blankets of her rude pallet.

At that moment her mother was approaching, and at her side walked
Woodhull, actuated by his own suspicions about Jackson. He saw the
transaction of the passed note and guessed what he could not know. He
tapped Jackson on the shoulder, drew him aside, his own face pale with

"I'm one of the officers of this train," said he. "I want to know what's
in that note. We have no truck with Banion, and you know that. Give it
to me."

Jackson calmly tucked the paper into the fire bag that hung at his belt.

"Come an' take it, Sam, damn ye!" said he. "I don't know what's in hit,
an' won't know. Who it's to ain't none o' yore damn business!"

"You're a cursed meddler!" broke out Woodhull. "You're a spy in our
camp, that's all you are!"

"So! Well, cussed meddler er not, I'm a cussed shore shot. An' I advise
ye to give over on all this an' mind yore business. Ye'll have plenty to
do by midnight, an' by that time all yore womern an' children, all yore
old men an' all yore cowards'll be prayin' fer Banion an' his men to
come. That there includes you somewhere's, Sam. Don't temp' me too much
ner too long. I'll kill ye yit ef ye do! Git on away!"

They parted, each with eye over shoulder. Their talk had been aside and
none had heard it in full. But when Woodhull again joined Mrs. Wingate
that lady conveyed to him Molly's refusal to see him or to set a time
for seeing him. Bitterly angered, humiliated to the core, he turned
back to the men who were completing the defenses of the wagon park.

"I kain't start now afore dark," said Jackson to the train command.
"They're a-goin' to jump the train. When they do come they'll surround
ye an' try to keep ye back from the water till the stock goes crazy. Lay
low an' don't let a Injun inside. Hit may be a hull day, er more, but
when Banion's men come they'll come a-runnin' - allowin' I git through to
tell 'em.

"Dig in a trench all the way aroun'," he added finally. "Put the womern
an' children in hit an' pile up all yer flour on top. Don't waste no
powder - let 'em come up clost as they will. Hold on ontel we come."

At dusk he slipped away, the splash of his horse's feet in the ford
coming fainter and fainter, even as the hearts of some felt fainter as
his wise and sturdy counsel left them. Naught to do now but to wait.

They did wait - the women and children, the old, the ill and the wounded
huddled shivering and crying in the scooped-out sand, hardest and
coldest of beds; the men in line against the barricade, a circle of
guards outside the wagon park. But midnight passed, and the cold hours
of dawn, and still no sign came of an attack. Men began to believe the
dust cloud of yesterday no more than a false alarm, and the leaders were
of two minds, whether to take Jackson's counsel and wait for the
Missourians, or to hook up and push on as fast as possible to Bridger's
fort, scarce more than two hard days' journey on ahead. But before this
breakfast-hour discussion had gone far events took the decision out of
their hands.

"Look!" cried a voice. "Open the gate!"

The cattle guards and outposts who had just driven the herd to water
were now spurring for shelter and hurrying on the loose stock ahead of
them. And now, from the willow growth above them, from the trail that
led to the ford and from the more open country to the westward there
came, in three great detachments, not a band or a body, but an army of
the savage tribesmen, converging steadily upon the wagon train.

They came slowly, not in a wild charge, not yelling, but chanting. The
upper and right-hand bodies were Crows. Their faces were painted black,
for war and for revenge. The band on the left were wild men, on active
half-broke horses, their weapons for the most part bows and arrows. They
later found these to be Bannacks, belonging anywhere but here, and in
any alliance rather than with the Crows from east of the Pass.

Nor did the latter belong here to the south and west, far off their own
great hunting range. Obviously what Carson, Bridger, Jackson had said
was true. All the tribes were in league to stop the great invasion of
the white nation, who now were bringing their women and children and

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 13 15 16 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryEmerson HoughThe Covered Wagon → online text (page 13 of 20)