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no extreme regret when, within safe reach of Fort Hall, he had announced
his intention of going on ahead with a dozen wagons. He went without
obtaining any private interview with Molly Wingate.

[Illustration: _A Paramount Picture.

The Covered Wagon_.

CAMPED FOR THE NIGHT ALONG THE OLD TRAIL.]

These matters none the less had their depressing effect. Few illusions
remained to any of them now, and no romance. Yet they went on - ten
miles, fifteen sometimes, though rarely twenty miles a day. Women fell
asleep, babes in arms, jostling on the wagon seats; men almost slept as
they walked, ox whip in hand; the cattle slept as they stumbled on,
tongues dry and lolling. All the earth seemed strange, unreal. They
advanced as though in a dream through some inferno of a crazed
imagination.

About them now often rose the wavering images of the mirage, offering
water, trees, wide landscapes; beckoning in such desert deceits as they
often now had seen. One day as the brazen sun mocked them from its
zenith they saw that they were not alone on the trail.

"Look, mother!" exclaimed Molly Wingate - she now rode with her mother on
the seat of the family wagon, Jed driving her cart when not on the cow
column. "See! There's a caravan!"

Her cry was echoed or anticipated by scores of voices of others who had
seen the same thing. They pointed west and south.

Surely there was a caravan - a phantom caravan! Far off, gigantic,
looming and lowering again, it paralleled the advance of their own
train, which in numbers it seemed to equal. Slowly, steadily,
irresistibly, awesomely, it kept pace with them, sending no sign to
them, mockingly indifferent to them - mockingly so, indeed; for when the
leaders of the Wingate wagons paused the riders of the ghostly train
paused also, biding their time with no action to indicate their intent.
When the advance was resumed the uncanny _pari passu_ again went on, the
rival caravan going forward as fast, no faster than those who regarded
it in a fascinated interest that began to become fear. Yonder caravan
could bode no good. Without doubt it planned an ambush farther on, and
this sinister indifference meant only its certainty of success.

Or were there, then, other races of men out here in this unknown world
of heat and sand? Was this a treasure train of old Spanish _cargadores_?
Did ghosts live and move as men? If not, what caravan was this, moving
alone, far from the beaten trail? What purpose had it here?

"Look, mother!"

The girl's voice rose eagerly again, but this time with a laugh in it.
And her assurance passed down the line, others laughing in relief at the
solution.

"It's ourselves!" said Molly. "It's the Fata Morgana - but how marvelous!
Who could believe it?"

Indeed, the mirage had taken that rare and extraordinary form. The
mirage of their own caravan, rising, was reflected, mirrored, by some
freak of the desert sun and air, upon the fine sand blown in the air at
a distance from the train. It was, indeed, themselves they saw, not
knowing it, in a vast primordial mirror of the desert gods. Nor did the
discovery of the truth lessen the feeling of discomfort, of
apprehension. The laughter was at best uneasy until at last a turn in
the trail, a shift in the wizardry of the heat waves, broke up the
ghostly caravan and sent it, figure by figure, vehicle by vehicle, into
the unknown whence it had come.

"This country!" exclaimed Molly Wingate's mother. "It scares me! If
Oregon's like this - "

"It isn't, mother. It is rich and green, with rains. There are great
trees, many mountains, beautiful rivers where we are going, and there
are fields of grain. There are - why, there are homes!"

The sudden pathos of her voice drew her mother's frowning gaze.

"There, there, child!" said she. "Don't you mind. We'll always have a
home for you, your paw and me."

The girl shook her head.

"I sometimes think I'd better teach school and live alone."

"And leave your parents?"

"How can I look my father in the face every day, knowing what he feels
about me? Just now he accuses me of ruining Sam Woodhull's life - driving
him away, out of the train. But what could I do? Marry him, after all? I
can't - I can't! I'm glad he's gone, but I don't know why he went."

"In my belief you haven't heard or seen the last of Sam Woodhull yet,"
mused her mother. "Sometimes a man gets sort of peeved - wants to marry a
girl that jilts him more'n if she hadn't. And you certainly jilted him
at the church door, if there'd been any church there. It was an awful
thing, Molly. I don't know as I see how Sam stood it long as he did."

"Haven't I paid for it, mother?"

"Why, yes, one way of speaking. But that ain't the way men are going to
call theirselves paid. Until he's married, a man's powerful set on
having a woman. If he don't, he thinks he ain't paid, it don't scarcely
make no difference what the woman does. No, I don't reckon he'll forget.
About Will Banion - "

"Don't let's mention him, mother. I'm trying to forget him."

"Yes? Where do you reckon he is now - how far ahead?"

"I don't know. I can't guess."

The color on her cheek caught her mother's gaze.

"Gee-whoa-haw! Git along Buck and Star!" commanded the buxom dame to the
swaying ox team that now followed the road with no real need of
guidance. They took up the heat and burden of the desert.




CHAPTER XXXVI

TWO LOVE LETTERS


"The families are coming - again the families!" It was again the cry of
the passing fur post, looking eastward at the caravan of the west-bound
plows; much the same here at old Fort Hall, on the Snake River, as it
was at Laramie on the North Platte, or Bridger on the waters tributary
to the Green.

The company clerks who looked out over the sandy plain saw miles away a
dust cloud which meant but one thing. In time they saw the Wingate train
come on, slowly, steadily, and deploy for encampment a mile away. The
dusty wagons, their double covers stained, mildewed, torn, were
scattered where each found the grass good. Then they saw scores of the
emigrants, women as well as men, hastening into the post.

It was now past midsummer, around the middle of the month of August, and
the Wingate wagons had covered some twelve hundred and eighty miles
since the start at mid-May of the last spring - more than three months of
continuous travel; a trek before which the passage over the
Appalachians, two generations earlier, wholly pales.

What did they need, here at Fort Hall, on the Snake, third and last
settlement of the two thousand miles of toil and danger and exhaustion?
They needed everything. But one question first was asked by these
travel-sick home-loving people: What was the news?

News? How could there be news when almost a year would elapse before
Fort Hall would know that on that very day - in that very month of
August, 1848 - Oregon was declared a territory of the Union?

News? How could there be news, when these men could not know for much
more than a year that, as they outspanned here in the sage, Abraham
Lincoln had just declined the governorship of the new territory of
Oregon? Why? He did not know. Why had these men come here? They did not
know.

But news - the news! The families must have the news. And here - always
there was news! Just beyond branched off the trail to California. Here
the supply trains from the Columbia brought news from the Oregon
settlements. News? How slow it was, when it took a letter more than two
years to go one way from edge to edge of the American continent!

They told what news they knew - the news of the Mormons of 1847 and 1848;
the latest mutterings over fugitive negro slaves; the growing feeling
that the South would one day follow the teachings of secession. They
heard in payment the full news of the Whitman massacre in Oregon that
winter; they gave back in turn their own news of the battles with the
Sioux and the Crows; the news of the new Army posts then moving west
into the Plains to clear them for the whites. News? Why, yes, large news
enough, and on either hand, so the trade was fair.

But these matters of the outside world were not the only ones of
interest, whether to the post traders or the newly arrived emigrants.
Had others preceded them? How many? When? Why, yes, a week earlier fifty
wagons of one train, Missouri men, led by a man on a great black horse
and an old man, a hunter. Banion? Yes, that was the name, and the scout
was Jackson - Bill Jackson, an old-time free trapper. Well, these two had
split off for California, with six good pack mules, loaded light. The
rest of the wagons had gone on to the Snake. But why these two had
bought the last shovels and the only pick in all the supplies at old
Fort Hall no man could tell. Crazy, of course; for who could pause to
work on the trail with pick or shovel, with winter coming on at the
Sierra crossing?

But not crazier than the other band who had come in three days ago, also
ahead of the main train. Woodhull? Yes, that was the name - Woodhull. He
had twelve or fifteen wagons with him, and had bought supplies for
California, though they all had started for Oregon. Well, they soon
would know more about the Mary's River and the Humboldt Desert. Plenty
of bones, there, sure!

But even so, a third of the trains, these past five years, had split off
at the Raft River and given up hope of Oregon. California was much
better - easier to reach and better when you got there. The road to
Oregon was horrible. The crossings of the Snake, especially the first
crossing, to the north bank, was a gamble with death for the whole
train. And beyond that, to the Blue Mountains, the trail was no trail at
all. Few ever would get through, no one knew how many had perished.
Three years ago Joe Meek had tried to find a better trail west of the
Blues. All lost, so the story said. Why go to Oregon? Nothing there when
you got there. California, now, had been settled and proved a hundred
years and more. Every year men came this far east to wait at Fort Hall
for the emigrant trains and to persuade them to go to California, not to
Oregon.

But what seemed strange to the men at the trading post was the fact that
Banion had not stopped or asked a question. He appeared to have made up
his mind long earlier, and beyond asking for shovels he had wanted
nothing. The same way with Woodhull. He had come in fast and gone out
fast, headed for the Raft River trail to California, the very next
morning. Why? Usually men stopped here at Fort Hall, rested, traded, got
new stock, wanted to know about the trail ahead. Both Banion and
Woodhull struck Fort Hall with their minds already made up. They did not
talk. Was there any new word about the California trail, down at
Bridger? Had a new route over the Humboldt Basin been found, or
something of that sort? How could that be? If so, it must be rough and
needing work in places, else why the need for so many shovels?

But maybe the emigrants themselves knew about these singular matters, or
would when they had read their letters. Yes, of course, the Missouri
movers had left a lot of letters, some for their folks back East next
year maybe, but some for people in the train. Banion, Woodhull - had they
left any word? Why, yes, both of them. The trader smiled. One each. To
the same person, yes. Well, lucky girl! But that black horse now - the
Nez Percés would give a hundred ponies for him. But he wouldn't trade. A
sour young man. But Woodhull, now, the one with the wagons, talked more.
And they each had left a letter for the same girl! And this was Miss
Molly Wingate? Well, the trader did not blame them! These American
girls! They were like roses to the old traders, cast away this lifetime
out here in the desert.

News? Why, yes, no train ever came through that did not bring news and
get news at old Fort Hall - and so on.

The inclosure of the old adobe fur-trading post was thronged by the men
and women of the Wingate train. Molly Wingate at first was not among
them. She sat, chin on her hand, on a wagon tongue in the encampment,
looking out over the blue-gray desert to the red-and-gold glory of the
sinking sun. Her mother came to her and placed in her lap the two
letters, stood watching her.

"One from each," said she sententiously, and turned away.

The girl's face paled as she opened the one she had felt sure would find
her again, somewhere, somehow. It said:


DEAREST: I write to Molly Wingate, because and only because I know
she still is Molly Wingate. It might be kinder to us both if I did
not write at all but went my way and left it all to time and
silence. I found I could not.

There will be no other woman, in all my life, for me. I cannot lay
any vow on you. If I could, if I dared, I would say: "Wait for a
year, while I pray for a year - and God help us both."

As you know, I now have taken your advice. Bridger and I are joined
for the California adventure. If the gold is there, as Carson
thinks, I may find more fortune than I have earned. More than I
could earn you gave me - when I was young. That was two months ago.
Now I am old.

Keep the news of the gold, if it can be kept, as long as you can.
No doubt it will spread from other sources, but so far as I
know - and thanks only to you - I am well ahead of any other
adventurer from the East this season, and, as you know, winter soon
will seal the trails against followers. Next year, 1849, will be
the big rush, if it all does not flatten.

I can think of no one who can have shared our secret. Carson will
be East by now, but he is a government man, and close of mouth with
strangers. Bridger, I am sure - for the odd reason that he worships
you - will tell no one else, especially since he shares profits
with me, if I survive and succeed. One doubt only rests in my mind.
At his post I talked with Bridger, and he told me he had a few
other bits of gold that Carson had given him at Laramie. He looked
for them but had lost them. He suspected his Indian women, but he
knew nothing. Of course, it would be one chance in a thousand that
any one would know the women had these things, and even so no one
could tell where the gold came from, because not even the women
would know that; not even Bridger does, exactly; not even I myself.

In general I am headed for the valley of the Sacramento. I shall
work north. Why? Because that will be toward Oregon!

I write as though I expected to see you again, as though I had a
right to expect or hope for that. It is only the dead young man,
Will Banion, who unjustly and wrongly craves and calls out for the
greatest of all fortune for a man - who unfairly and wrongly writes
you now, when he ought to remember your word, to go to a land far
from you, to forget you and to live down his past. Ah, if I could!
Ah, if I did not love you!

But being perhaps about to die, away from you, the truth only must
be between you and me. And the truth is I never shall forget you.
The truth is I love you more than anything else and everything else
in all the world.

If I were in other ways what the man of your choice should be,
would this truth have any weight with you? I do not know and I dare
not ask. Reason does tell me how selfish it would be to ask you to
hold in your heart a memory and not a man. That is for me to
do - to have a memory, and not you. But my memory never can content
me.

It seems as though time had been invented so that, through all its
aeons, our feet might run in search, one for the other - to meet,
where? Well, we did meet - for one instant in the uncounted ages,
there on the prairie. Well, if ever you do see me again you shall
say whether I have been, indeed, tried by fire, and whether it has
left me clean - whether I am a man and not a memory.

That I perhaps have been a thief, stealing what never could be
mine, is my great agony now. But I love you. Good-by.

WILLIAM HAYS BANION.

To MARGARET WINGATE,
_Fort Hall_, in Oregon.

For an hour Molly sat, and the sun sank. The light of the whole world
died.

* * * * *

The other letter rested unopened until later, when she broke the seal
and read by the light of a sagebrush fire, she frowned. Could it be that
in the providence of God she once had been within one deliberate step of
marrying Samuel Payson Woodhull?


MY DARLING MOLLY: This I hope finds you well after the hard journey
from Bridger to Hall.

They call it Cruel to keep a Secret from a Woman. If so, I have
been Cruel, though only in Poor pay for your Cruelty to me. I have
had a Secret - and this is it: I have left for California from this
Point and shall not go to Oregon. I have learned of Gold in the
State of California, and have departed to that State in the hope
of early Success in Achieving a Fortune. So far as I know, I am the
First to have this news of Gold, unless a certain man whose name
and thought I execrate has by his Usual dishonesty fallen on the
same information. If so, we two may meet where none can Interfear.

I do not know how long I may be in California, but be Sure I go for
but the one purpose of amassing a Fortune for the Woman I love. I
never have given you Up and never shall. Your promise is mine and
our Engagement never has been Broken, and the Mere fact that
accident for the time Prevented our Nuptials by no means shall ever
mean that we shall not find Happy Consumation of our most Cherished
Desire at some later Time.

I confidently Hope to arrive in Oregon a rich man not later than
one or two years from Now. Wait for me. I am mad without you and
shall count the Minutes until then when I can take you in my Arms
and Kiss you a thousand Times. Forgive me; I have not Heretofore
told you of these Plans, but it was best not and it was for You.
Indeed you are so much in my Thought, my Darling, that each and
Everything I do is for You and You only.

No more at present then, but should Opportunity offer I shall get
word to you addressed to Oregon City which your father said was his
general Desstination, it being my own present purpose Ultimately to
engage in the Practise of law either at that Point or the
settlement of Portland which I understand is not far Below. With my
Means, we should soon be Handsomely Settled.

May God guard you on the Way Thither and believe me, Darling, with
more Love than I shall be ever able to Tell and a Thousand Kisses.

Your Affianced and Impatient Lover,
SAM'L. PAYSON WOODHULL.

The little sagebrush fire flared up brightly for an instant as Molly
Wingate dropped one of her letters on the embers.




CHAPTER XXXVII

JIM BRIDGER FORGETS


"What's wrong with the people, Cale?" demanded Jesse Wingate of his
stouthearted associate, Caleb Price. The sun was two hours high, but not
all the breakfast fires were going. Men were moody, truculent, taciturn,
as they went about their duties.

Caleb Price bit into his yellow beard as he gazed down the irregular
lines of the encampment.

"Do you want me to tell you the truth, Jesse?"

"Why, yes!"

"Well, then, it seems to me the truth is that this train has lost
focus."

"I don't know what you mean."

"I don't know that I'm right - don't know I can make my guess plain. Of
course, every day we lay up, the whole train goes to pieces. The thing
to do is to go a little way each day - get into the habit. You can't wear
out a road as long as this one by spurts - it's steady does it.

"But I don't think that's all. The main trouble is one that I don't like
to hint to you, especially since none of us can help it."

"Out with it, Cale!"

"The trouble is, the people don't think they've got a leader."

Jesse Wingate colored above his beard.

"That's pretty hard," said he.

"I know it's hard, but I guess it's the truth. You and I and Hall and
Kelsey - we're accepted as the chief council. But there are four of us,
and all this country is new to all of us. The men now are like a bunch
of cattle ready to stampede. They're nervous, ready to jump at anything.
Wrong way, Jesse. They ought to be as steady as any of the trains that
have gone across; 1843, when the Applegates crossed; 1846, when the
Donners went - every year since. Our folks - well, if you ask me, I really
think they're scared."

"That's hard, Cale!"

"Yes, hard for me to say to you, with your wife sad and your girl just
now able to sit up - yes, it's hard. Harder still since we both know it's
your own personal matter - this quarrel of those two young men, which I
don't need explain. That's at the bottom of the train's uneasiness."

"Well, they've both gone now."

"Yes, both. If half of the both were here now you'd see the people
quiet. Oh, you can't explain leadership, Jesse! Some have it, most
don't. He had. We know he had. I don't suppose many of those folks ever
figured it out, or do now. But they'd fall in, not knowing why."

"As it is, I'll admit, there seems to be something in the air. They say
birds know when an earthquake is coming. I feel uneasy myself, and don't
know why. I started for Oregon. I don't know why. Do you suppose - "

The speculations of either man ceased as both caught sight of a little
dust cloud far off across the sage, steadily advancing down the slope.

"Hum! And who's that, Jesse?" commented the Ohio leader. "Get your big
glass, Jesse."

Wingate went to his wagon and returned with the great telescope he
sometimes used, emblem of his authority.

"One man, two packs," said he presently. "All alone so far as I can see.
He's Western enough - some post-trapper, I suppose. Rides like an Indian
and dressed like one, but he's white, because he has a beard."

"Let me see." Price took the glass. "He looks familiar! See if you don't
think it's Jim Bridger. What's he coming for - two hundred miles away
from his own post?"

It was Jim Bridger, as the next hour proved, and why he came he himself
was willing to explain after he had eaten and smoked.

"I camped twelve mile back," said he, "an' pushed in this mornin'. I
jest had a idee I'd sornter over in here, see how ye was gittin' along.
Is your hull train made here?"

"No," Wingate answered. "The Missouri wagons are ahead."

"Is Woodhull with ye?"

"No."

"Whar's he at?"

"We don't know. Major Banion and Jackson, with a half dozen packs, no
wagons, have given up the trip. They've split off for California - left
their wagons."

"An' so has Sam Woodhull, huh?"

"We suppose so. That's the word. He took about fifteen wagons with him.
That's why we look cut down."

"Rest of ye goin' on through, huh?"

"I am. I hope the others will."

"Hit's three days on to whar the road leaves for Californy - on the Raft
River. Mebbe more'll leave ye thar, huh?"

"We don't know. We hope not. I hear the fords are bad, especially the
crossing of the Snake. This is a big river. My people are uneasy about
it."

"Yes, hit's bad enough, right often. Thar's falls in them cañons
hundreds o' feet high, makin' a roarin' ye kin hear forty mile, mebbe.
The big ford's erroun' two hunderd mile ahead. That'd make me four
hunderd mile away from home, an' four hunderd to ride back agin' huh? Is
that fur enough fer a ol' man, with snow comin' on soon?"

"You don't mean you'd guide us on that far? What charge?"

"I come fer that, mainly. Charge ye? I won't charge ye nothin'. What do
ye s'pose Jim Bridger'd care ef ye all was drownded in the Snake? Ain't
thar plenty more pilgrims whar ye all come from? Won't they be out here
next year, with money ter spend with my pardner Vasquez an' me?"

"Then how could we pay you?"

"Ye kain't. Whar's Miss Molly?"

"You want to see her?"

"Yes, else why'd I ask?"

"Come," said Wingate, and led the way to Molly's little cart. The girl
was startled when she saw the old scout, her wide eyes asking her
question.

"Mornin', Miss Molly!" he began, his leathery face wrinkling in a smile.
"Ye didn't expect me, an' I didn't neither. I'm glad ye're about well o'
that arrer wound. I kerried a arrerhead under my shoulder blade sever'l
years oncet, ontel Preacher Whitman cut hit out. Hit felt right crawly
all the time till then.

"Yes, I jest sorntered up couple hundred mile this mornin', Miss Molly,
ter see how ye all was gettin' along - one thing er another."


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