Emerson Hough.

The Covered Wagon online

. (page 15 of 20)
Online LibraryEmerson HoughThe Covered Wagon → online text (page 15 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

through. To their surprise, Bridger himself made no attempt at frontier

"Chardon," commanded the moody master of the post to his head clerk,
"take down your tradin' bar an' let my people in. Sell them their flour
an' meal at what it has cost us here - all they want, down to what the
post will need till my partner Vasquez brings in more next fall, if he
ever does. Sell 'em their flour at four dollars a sack, an' not at
fifty, boy. Git out that flag I saved from Sublette's outfit, Chardon.
Put it on a pole for these folks, an' give it to them so's they kin
carry it on acrost to Oregon. God's got some use for them folks out yan
or hit wouldn't be happenin' this way. I'm goin' to help 'em acrost. Ef
I don't, old Jim Bridger is a liar!"

That night Bridger sat in his lodge alone, moodily smoking. He heard a
shaking at the pegs of the door flap.

"Get out!" he exclaimed, thinking that it was his older associate, or
else some intruding dog.

His order was not obeyed. Will Banion pulled back the flap, stooped and

"How!" exclaimed Bridger, and with fist smitten on the blankets made the
sign to "Sit!" Banion for a time also smoked in silence, knowing the
moody ways of the old-time men.

"Ye came to see me about her, Miss Molly, didn't ye?" began Bridger
after a long time, kicking the embers of the tepee fire together with
the toe of his moccasin.

"How do you know that?"

"I kin read signs."

"Yes, she sent me."


"That was at Laramie. She told me to come on with you then. I could

"Pore child, they mout 'a' killed her! She told me she'd git well,
though - told me so to-day. I had a talk with her." His wrinkled face
broke into additional creases. "She told me more!"

"I've no wonder."

"Ner me. Ef I was more young and less Injun I'd love that gal! I do,
anyhow, fer sake o' what I might of been ef I hadn't had to play my game
the way the cards said fer me.

"She told me she was shot on her weddin' night, in her weddin'
clothes - right plum to the time an' minute o' marryin, then an' thar.
She told me she thanked God the Injun shot her, an' she wished to God
he'd killed her then an' thar. I'd like such fer a bride, huh? That's
one hell of a weddin', huh? Why?"

Banion sat silent, staring at the embers.

"I know why, or part ways why. Kit an' me was drunk at Laramie. I kain't
remember much. But I do ree-colleck Kit said something to me about you
in the Army, with Donerphan in Mayheeco. Right then I gits patriotic.
'Hooray!' says I. Then we taken another drink. After that we fell to
arguin' how much land we'd git out o' Mayheeco when the treaty was
signed. He said hit war done signed now, or else hit warn't. I don't
ree-colleck which, but hit was one or t'other. He had papers. Ef I see
Kit agin ary time now I'll ast him what his papers was. I don't
ree-colleck exact.

"All that, ye see, boy," he resumed, "was atter I was over to the wagons
at Laramie, when I seed Miss Molly to say good-by to her. I reckon maybe
I was outside o' sever'l horns even then."

"And that was when you gave her the California nugget that Kit Carson
had given you!" Banion spoke at last.

"Oh, ye spring no surprise, boy! She told me to-day she'd told you then;
said she'd begged you to go on with me an' beat all the others to
Californy; said she wanted you to git rich; said you an' her had parted,
an' she wanted you to live things down. I was to tell ye that.

"Boy, she loves ye - not me ner that other man. The Injun womern kin love
a dozen men. The white womern kain't. I'm still fool white enough fer to
believe that. Of course she'd break her promise not to tell about the
gold. I might 'a' knowed she'd tell the man she loved. Well, she didn't
wait long. How long was hit afore she done so - about ten minutes? Boy,
she loves ye. Hit ain't no one else."

"I think so. I'm afraid so."

"Why don't ye marry her then, damn ye, right here? Ef a gal loves a man
he orto marry her, ef only to cure her o' bein' a damn fool to love any
man. Why don't you marry her right now?"

"Because I love her!"

Bridger sat in disgusted silence for some time.

"Well," said he at last, "there's some kinds o' damned fools that kain't
be cured noways. I expect you're one o' them. Me, I hain't so
highfalutin'. Ef I love a womern, an' her me, somethin's goin' to
happen. What's this here like? Nothin' happens. Son, it's when nothin'
happens that somethin' else does happen. She marries another
man - barrin' 'Rapahoes. A fool fer luck - that's you. But there mightn't
always be a Injun hidin' to shoot her when she gits dressed up agin an'
the minister is a-waitin' to pernounce 'em man an' wife. Then whar air

He went on more kindly after a time, as he reached out a hard, sinewy

"Such as her is fer the young man that has a white man's full life to
give her. She's purty as a doe fawn an' kind as a thoroughbred filly. In
course ye loved her, boy. How could ye a-help hit? An' ye was willin' to
go to Oregon - ye'd plow rather'n leave sight o' her? I don't blame ye,
boy. Such as her is not supported by rifle an' trap. Hit's the home
smoke, not the tepee fire, for her. I ask ye nothin' more, boy. I'll not
ask ye what ye mean. Man an' boy, I've follered the tepee smokes - blue
an' a-movin' an' a-beckonin' they was - an' I never set this hand to no
plow in all my life. But in my heart two things never was wiped
out - the sight o' the white womern's face an' the sight o' the flag
with stars. I'll help ye all I can, an' good luck go with ye. Work hit
out yore own way. She's worth more'n all the gold Californy's got

This time it was Will Banion's hand that was suddenly extended.

"Take her secret an' take her advice then," said Bridger after a time.
"Ye must git in ahead to Californy. Fust come fust served, on any beaver
water. Fer me 'tis easy. I kin hold my hat an' the immigrints'll throw
money into hit. I've got my fortune here, boy. I can easy spare ye what
ye need, ef ye do need a helpin' out'n my plate. Fer sake o' the finest
gal that ever crossed the Plains, that's what we'll do! Ef I don't, Jim
Bridger's a putrefied liar, so help me God!"

Banion made no reply at once, but could not fail of understanding.

"I'll not need much," said he. "My place is to go on ahead with my men.
I don't think there'll be much danger now from Indians, from what I
hear. At Fort Hall I intend to split off for California. Now I make you
this proposition, not in payment for your secret, or for anything else:
If I find gold I'll give you half of all I get, as soon as I get out or
as soon as I can send it."

"What do ye want o' me, son?"

"Six mules and packs. All the shovels and picks you have or can get for
me at Fort Hall. There's another thing."

"An' what is that?"

"I want you to find out what Kit Carson said and what Kit Carson had. If
at any time you want to reach me - six months, a year - get word through
by the wagon trains next year, in care of the District Court at Oregon
City, on the Willamette."

"Why, all right, all right, son! We're all maybe talkin' in the air, but
I more'n half understand ye. One thing, ye ain't never really intendin'
to give up Molly Wingate! Ye're a fool not to marry her now, but ye're
reckonin' to marry her sometime - when the moon turns green, huh? When
she's old an' shriveled up, then ye'll marry her, huh?"

Banion only looked at him, silent.

"Well, I'd like to go on to Californy with ye, son, ef I didn't know I'd
make more here, an' easier, out'n the crazy fools that'll be pilin' in
here next year. So good luck to ye."

"Kit had more o' that stuff," he suddenly added. "He give me some more
when I told him I'd lost that fust piece he give me. I'll give ye a
piece fer sample, son. I've kep' hit close."

He begun fumbling in the tobacco pouch which he found under the head of
his blanket bed. He looked up blankly, slightly altering the name of his
youngest squaw.

"Well, damn her hide!" said he fervently. "Ye kain't keep nothin' from
'em! An' they kain't keep nothin' when they git hit."



Once more the train, now permanently divided into two, faced the desert,
all the men and many women now afoot, the kine low-headed, stepping
gingerly in their new rawhide shoes. Gray, grim work, toiling over the
dust and sand. But at the head wagon, taking over an empire foot by
foot, flew the great flag. Half fanatics? That may be. Fanatics, so
called, also had prayed and sung and taught their children, all the way
across to the Great Salt Lake. They, too, carried books. And within one
hour after their halt near the Salt Lake they began to plow, began to
build, began to work, began to grow and make a country.

The men at the trading post saw the Missouri wagons pull out ahead. Two
hours later the Wingate train followed, as the lot had determined.
Woodhull remained with his friends in the Wingate group, regarded now
with an increasing indifference, but biding his time.

Bridger held back his old friend Jackson even after the last train
pulled out. It was mid afternoon when the start was made.

"Don't go just yet, Bill," said he. "Ride on an' overtake 'em. Nothin'
but rattlers an' jack rabbits now fer a while. The Shoshones won't hurt
'em none. I'm powerful lonesome, somehow. Let's you an' me have one more

"That sounds reas'nble," said Jackson. "Shore that sounds reas'nble to

They drank of a keg which the master of the post had hidden in his
lodge, back of his blankets; drank again of high wines diluted but
uncolored - the "likker" of the fur trade.

They drank from tin cups, until Bridger began to chant, a deepening
sense of his old melancholy on him.

"Good-by!" he said again and again, waving his hand in general vagueness
to the mountains.

"We was friends, wasn't we, Bill?" he demanded again and again; and
Jackson, drunk as he, nodded in like maudlin gravity. He himself began
to chant. The two were savages again.

"Well, we got to part, Bill. This is Jim Bridger's last Rendyvous. I've
rid around an' said good-by to the mountings. Why don't we do it the way
the big partisans allus done when the Rendyvous was over? 'Twas old Mike
Fink an' his friend Carpenter begun hit, fifty year ago. Keel-boat men
on the river, they was. There's as good shots left to-day as then, an'
as good friends. You an' me has seed hit; we seed hit at the very last
meetin' o' the Rocky Mountain Company men, before the families come. An
'nary a man spilled the whiskey on his partner's head."

"That's the truth," assented Jackson. "Though some I wouldn't trust

"Would ye trust me, Bill, like I do you, fer sake o' the old times, when
friends was friends?"

"Shore I would, no matter how come, Jim. My hand's stiddy as a rock,
even though my shootin' shoulder's a leetle stiff from that Crow arrer."

Each man held out his firing arm, steady as a bar.

"I kin still see the nail heads on the door, yan. Kin ye, Bill?"

"Plain! It's a waste o' likker, Jim, fer we'd both drill the cups."

"Are ye a-skeered?"

"I told ye not."

"Chardon!" roared Bridger to his clerk. "You, Chardon, come here!"

The clerk obeyed, though he and others had been discreet about remaining
visible as this bout of old-timers at their cups went on. Liquor and
gunpowder usually went together.

"Chardon, git ye two fresh tin cups an' bring 'em here. Bring a piece o'
charcoal to spot the cups. We're goin' to shoot 'em off each other's
heads in the old way. You know what I mean"

Chardon, trembling, brought the two tin cups, and Bridger with a burnt
ember sought to mark plainly on each a black bull's-eye. Silence fell on
the few observers, for all the emigrants had now gone and the open space
before the rude trading building was vacant, although a few faces
peered around corners. At the door of the tallest tepee two native women
sat, a young and an old, their blankets drawn across their eyes,
accepting fate, and not daring to make a protest.

"How!" exclaimed Bridger as he filled both cups and put them on the
ground. "Have ye wiped yer bar'l?"

"Shore I have. Let's wipe agin."

Each drew his ramrod from the pipes and attached the cleaning worm with
its twist of tow, kept handy in belt pouch in muzzle-loading days.

"Clean as a whistle!" said Jackson, holding out the end of the rod.

"So's mine, pardner. Old Jim Bridger never disgraced hisself with a

"Ner me," commented Jackson. "Hold a hair full, Jim, an' cut nigh the
top o' the tin. That'll be safer fer my skelp, an' hit'll let less
whisky out'n the hole. We got to drink what's left. S'pose'n we have a
snort now?"

"Atter we both shoot we kin drink," rejoined his friend, with a
remaining trace of judgment. "Go take stand whar we marked the scratch.
Chardon, damn ye, carry the cup down an' set hit on his head, an' ef ye
spill a drop I'll drill ye, d'ye hear?"

The _engagé's_ face went pale.

"But Monsieur Jim - " he began.

"Don't 'Monsieur Jim' me or I'll drill a hole in ye anyways! Do-ee-do
what I tell ye, boy! Then if ye crave fer to see some ol'-time shootin'
come on out, the hull o' ye, an' take a lesson, damn ye!"

"Do-ee ye shoot first, Bill," demanded Bridger. "The light's soft, an'
we'll swap atter the fust fire, to git hit squar for the hindsight, an'
no shine on the side o' the front sight."

"No, we'll toss fer fust," said Jackson, and drew out a Spanish dollar.
"Tails fer me last!" he called as it fell. "An' I win! You go fust,

"Shore I will ef the toss-up says so," rejoined his friend. "Step off
the fifty yard. What sort o' iron ye carryin', Bill?"

"Why do ye ask? Ye know ol' Mike Sheets in Virginia never bored a
better. I've never changed."

"Ner I from my old Hawken. Two good guns, an' two good men, Bill, o' the
ol' times - the ol' times! We kain't say fairer'n this, can we, at our
time o' life, fer favor o' the old times, Bill? We got to do somethin',
so's to kind o' git rested up."

"No man kin say fairer," said his friend.

They shook hands solemnly and went onward with their devil-may-care
test, devised in a historic keel-boat man's brain, as inflamed then by
alcohol as their own were now.

Followed by the terrified clerk, Bill Jackson, tall, thin and grizzled,
stoical as an Indian, and too drunk to care much for consequences, so
only he proved his skill and his courage, walked steadily down to the
chosen spot and stood, his arms folded, after leaning his own rifle
against the door of the trading room. He faced Bridger without a tremor,
his head bare, and cursed Chardon for a coward when his hand trembled as
he balanced the cup on Jackson's head.

"Damn ye," he exclaimed, "there'll be plenty lost without any o' your

"Air ye all ready, Bill?" called Bridger from his station, his rifle
cocked and the delicate triggers set, so perfect in their mechanism that
the lightest touch against the trigger edge would loose the hammer.

"All ready!" answered Jackson.

The two, jealous still of the ancient art of the rifle, which nowhere in
the world obtained nicer development than among men such as these, faced
each other in what always was considered the supreme test of nerve and
skill; for naturally a man's hand might tremble, sighting three inches
above his friend's eye, when it would not move a hair sighting center
between the eyes of an enemy.

Bridger spat out his tobacco chew and steadily raised his rifle. The man
opposite him stood steady as a pillar, and did not close his eyes. The
silence that fell on those who saw became so intense that it seemed
veritably to radiate, reaching out over the valley to the mountains as
in a hush of leagues.

For an instant, which to the few observers seemed an hour, these two
figures, from which motion seemed to have passed forever, stood frozen.
Then there came a spurt of whitish-blue smoke and the thin dry crack of
the border rifle.

The hand and eye of Jim Bridger, in spite of advancing years, remained
true to their long training. At the rifle crack the tin cup on the head
of the statue-like figure opposite him was flung behind as though by the
blow of an invisible hand. The spin of the bullet acting on the liquid
contents, ripped apart the seams of the cup and flung the fluid wide.
Then and not till then did Jackson move.

He picked up the empty cup, bored center directly through the black
spot, and turning walked with it in his hand toward Bridger, who was
wiping out his rifle once more.

"I call hit mighty careless shootin'," said he, irritated. "Now lookee
what ye done to the likker! Ef ye'd held a leetle higher, above the
level o' the likker, like I told ye, she wouldn't o' busted open
thataway now. It's nacherl, thar warn't room in the cup fer both the
likker an' the ball. That's wastin' likker, Jim, an' my mother told me
when I was a boy, 'Willful waste makes woeful want!'"

"I call hit a plum-center shot," grumbled Bridger. "Do-ee look now!
Maybe ye think ye kin do better shoot'in yerself than old Jim Bridger!"

"Shore I kin, an' I'll show ye! I'll bet my rifle aginst yourn - ef I
wanted so sorry a piece as yourn - kin shoot that clost to the mark an'
not spill no likker a-tall! An' ye can fill her two-thirds full an' put
yer thumb in fer the balance ef ye like."

"I'll just bet ye a new mule agin yer pony ye kain't: do nothin' o' the
sort!" retorted Bridger.

"All right, I'll show ye. O' course, ye got to hold still."

"Who said I wouldn't hold still?"

"Nobody. Now you watch me."

He stooped at the little water ditch which had been led in among the
buildings from the stream and kneaded up a little ball of mud. This he
forced into the handle of the tin cup, entirely filling it, then washed
off the body of the cup.

"I'll shoot the fillin' out'n the handle an' not out'n the cup!" said
he. "Mud's cheap, an' all the diff'runce in holdin' is, ef I nicked the
side o' yer haid it'd hurt ye 'bout the same as ef what I nicked the
center o' hit. Ain't that so? We'd orto practice inderstry an' 'conomy,
Jim. Like my mother said, 'Penny saved is er penny yearned.' 'Little
drops o' water, little gains o' sand,' says she, 'a-makes the mighty
o-o-ocean, an the plea-ea-sant land.'"

"I never seed it tried," said Bridger, with interest, "but I don't see
why hit hain't practical. Whang away, an ef ye spill the whisky shootin'
to one side, or cut har shootin' too low, your _caballo_ is mine - an' he
hain't much!"

With no more argument, he in turn took up his place, the two changing
positions so that the light would favor the rifleman. Again the
fear-smitten Chardon adjusted the filled cup, this time on his master's
bared head.

"Do-ee turn her sideways now, boy," cautioned Bridger. "Set the han'le
sideways squar', so she looks wide. Give him a fa'r shot now, fer I'm
interested in this yere thing, either way she goes. Either I lose ha'r
er a mule."

But folding his arms he faced the rifle without batting an eye, as
steady as had been the other in his turn.

Jackson extended his long left arm, slowly and steadily raising the
silver bead up from the chest, the throat, the chin, the forehead of his
friend, then lowered it, rubbing his sore shoulder.

"Tell him to turn that han'le squar' to me, Jim!" he called. "The damn
fool has got her all squegeed eroun' to one side."

Bridger reached up a hand and straightened the cup himself.

"How's that?" he asked.

"All right! Now hold stiddy a minute."

Again the Indian women covered their faces, sitting motionless. And at
last came again the puff of smoke, the faint crack of the rifle, never
loud in the high, rarefied air.

The straight figure of the scout never wavered. The cup still rested on
his head. The rifleman calmly blew the smoke from his barrel, his eye on
Bridger as the latter now raised a careful hand to his head. Chardon
hastened to aid, with many ejaculations.

The cup still was full, but the mud was gone from inside the handle as
though poked out with a finger! "That's what I call shootin', Jim," said
Jackson, "an' reas'nable shootin' too. Now spill half o' her where
she'll do some good, an' give me the rest. I got to be goin' now. I
don't want yer mule. I fust come away from Missouri to git shet o'

Chardon, cupbearer, stood regarding the two wild souls whom he never in
his own more timid nature was to understand. The two mountain men shook
hands. The alcohol had no more than steadied them in their rifle work,
but the old exultation of their wild life came to them now once more.
Bridger clapped hand to mouth and uttered his old war cry before he
drained his share of the fiery fluid.

"To the ol' days, friend!" said he once more; "the days that's gone,
when men was men, an' a friend could trust a friend!"

"To the ol' days!" said Jackson in turn. "An' I'll bet two better shots
don't stand to-day on the soil o' Oregon! But I got to be goin', Jim.
I'm goin' on to the Columby. I may not see ye soon. It's far."

He swung into his saddle, the rifle in its loop at the horn. But Bridger
came to him, a hand on his knee.

"I hate to see ye go, Bill."

"Shore!" said Jackson. "I hate to go. Take keer yerself, Jim."

The two Indian women had uncovered their faces and gone inside the
lodge. But old Jim Bridger sat down, back against a cottonwood, and
watched the lopping figure of his friend jog slowly out into the desert.
He himself was singing now, chanting monotonously an old Indian refrain
that lingered in his soul from the days of the last Rendezvous.

At length he arose, and animated by a sudden thought sought out his
tepee once more. Dang Yore Eyes greeted him with shy smiles of pride.

"Heap shoot, Jeem!" said she. "No kill-um. Why?"

She was decked now in her finest, ready to use all her blandishments on
her lord and master. Her cheeks were painted red, her wrists were heavy
with copper. On a thong at her neck hung a piece of yellow stone which
she had bored through with an awl, or rather with three or four awls,
after much labor, that very day.

Bridger picked up the ornament between thumb and finger. He said no
word, but his fingers spoke.

"Other pieces. Where?"

"White man. Gone - out there." She answered in the same fashion.

"How, cola!" she spoke aloud. "Him say, 'How, cola,' me." She smiled
with much pride over her conquest, and showed two silver dollars.

In silence Bridger went into the tepee and pulled the door flaps.



Midsummer in the desert. The road now, but for the shifting of the
sands, would have been marked by the bodies of dead cattle, in death
scarcely more bone and parchment than for days they had been while
alive. The horned toad, the cactus, the rattlesnake long since had
replaced the prairie dogs of the grassy floor of the eastern Plains. A
scourge of great black crickets appeared, crackling loathsomely under
the wheels. Sagebrush and sand took the place of trees and grass as they
left the river valley and crossed a succession of ridges or plateaus. At
last they reached vast black basaltic masses and lava fields, proof of
former subterranean fires which seemingly had forever dried out the life
of the earth's surface. The very vastness of the views might have had
charm but for the tempering feeling of awe, of doubt, of fear.

They had followed the trail over the immemorial tribal crossings over
heights of land lying between the heads of streams. From the Green
River, which finds the great cañons of the Colorado, they came into the
vast horseshoe valley of the Bear, almost circumventing the Great Salt
Lake, but unable to forsake it at last. West and south now rose bold
mountains around whose northern extremity the river had felt its way,
and back of these lay fold on fold of lofty ridges, now softened by the
distances. Of all the splendid landscapes of the Oregon Trail, this one
had few rivals. But they must leave this and cross to yet another though
less inviting vast river valley of the series which led them across the

Out of the many wagons which Jesse Wingate originally had captained, now
not one hundred remained in his detachment when it took the sagebrush
plateaus below the great Snake River. They still were back of the
Missouri train, no doubt several days, but no message left on a cleft
stick at camp cheered them or enlightened them. And now still another
defection had cut down the train.

Woodhull, moody and irascible, feverish and excited by turns, ever since
leaving Bridger had held secret conclaves with a few of his adherents,
the nature of which he did not disclose. There was no great surprise and

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 15 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryEmerson HoughThe Covered Wagon → online text (page 15 of 20)