Emerson Hough.

The Covered Wagon online

. (page 3 of 20)
Online LibraryEmerson HoughThe Covered Wagon → online text (page 3 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


could make this fall!"

"Women - always thinking of jell!"

"But we got every herb here we need - boneset and sassafras and Injun
physic and bark for the fever. There ain't nothing you can name we ain't
got right here, or on the Sangamon, yet you talk of taking care of our
children. Huh! We've moved five times since we was married. Now just as
we got into a good country, where a woman could dry corn and put up
jell, and where a man could raise some hogs, why, you wanted to move
again - plumb out to Oregon! I tell you, Jesse Wingate, hogs is a blame
sight better to tie to than buffalo! You talk like you had to settle
Oregon!"

"Well, haven't I got to? Somehow it seems a man ain't making up his own
mind when he moves West Pap moved twice in Kentucky, once in Tennessee,
and then over to Missouri, after you and me was married and moved up
into Indiana, before we moved over into Illinois. He said to me - and I
know it for the truth - he couldn't hardly tell who it was or what it was
hitched up the team. But first thing he knew, there the old wagon stood,
front of the house, cover all on, plow hanging on behind, tar bucket
under the wagon, and dog and all. All he had to do, pap said, was just
to climb up on the front seat and speak to the team. My maw, she climb
up on the seat with him. Then they moved - on West. You know, Molly. My
maw, she climb up on the front seat - "

His wife suddenly turned to him, the tears still in her eyes.

"Yes, and Jesse Wingate, and you know it, your wife's as good a woman as
your maw! When the wagon was a-standing, cover on, and you on the front
seat, I climb up by you, Jess, same as I always have and always will.
Haven't I always? You know that. But it's harder on women, moving is.
They care more for a house that's rain tight in a storm."

"I know you did, Molly," said her husband soberly.

"I suppose I can pack my jells in a box and put in the wagon, anyways."
She was drying her eyes.

"Why, yes, I reckon so. And then a few sacks of dried corn will go
mighty well on the road."

"One thing" - she turned on him in wifely fury - "you shan't keep me from
taking my bureau and my six chairs all the way across! No, nor my garden
seeds, all I saved. No, nor yet my rose roots that I'm taking along. We
got to have a home, Jess - we got to have a home! There's Jed and Molly
coming on."

"Where's Molly now?" suddenly asked her husband. "She'd ought to be
helping you right now."

"Oh, back at the camp, I s'pose - her and Jed, too. I told her to pick a
mess of dandelion greens and bring over. Larking around with them young
fellows, like enough. Huh! She'll have less time. If Jed has to ride
herd, Molly's got to take care of that team of big mules, and drive 'em
all day in the light wagon too. I reckon if she does that, and teaches
night school right along, she won't be feeling so gay."

"They tell me folks has got married going across," she added, "not to
mention buried. One book we had said, up on the Platte, two years back,
there was a wedding and a birth and a burying in one train, all inside
of one hour, and all inside of one mile. That's Oregon!"

"Well, I reckon it's life, ain't it?" rejoined her husband. "One thing,
I'm not keen to have Molly pay too much notice to that young fellow
Banion - him they said was a leader of the Liberty wagons. Huh, he ain't
leader now!"

"You like Sam Woodhull better for Molly, Jess?"

"Some ways. He falls in along with my ideas. He ain't so apt to make
trouble on the road. He sided in with me right along at the last
meeting."

"He done that? Well, his father was a sheriff once, and his uncle, Judge
Henry D. Showalter, he got into Congress. Politics! But some folks said
the Banions was the best family. Kentucky, they was. Well, comes to
siding in, Jess, I reckon it's Molly herself'll count more in that than
either o' them or either o' us. She's eighteen past. Another year and
she'll be an old maid. If there's a wedding going across - "

"There won't be," said her husband shortly. "If there is it won't be her
and no William Banion, I'm saying that."




CHAPTER V

THE BLACK SPANIARD


Meantime the younger persons referred to in the frank discussion of
Wingate and his wife were occupying themselves in their own fashion
their last day in camp. Molly, her basket full of dandelion leaves, was
reluctant to leave the shade of the grove by the stream, and Jed had
business with the team of great mules that Molly was to drive on the
trail.

As for the Liberty train, its oval remained unbroken, the men and women
sitting in the shade of the wagons. Their outfitting had been done so
carefully that little now remained for attention on the last day, but
the substantial men of the contingent seemed far from eager to be on
their way. Groups here and there spoke in monosyllables, sullenly. They
wanted to join the great train, had voted to do so; but the cavalier
deposing of their chosen man Banion - who before them all at the meeting
had shown himself fit to lead - and the cool appointment of Woodhull in
his place had on reflection seemed to them quite too high-handed a
proposition. They said so now.

"Where's Woodhull now?" demanded the bearded man who had championed
Banion. "I see Will out rounding up his cows, but Sam Woodhull ain't
turned a hand to hooking up to pull in west o' town with the others."

"That's easy," smiled another. "Sam Woodhull is where he's always going
to be - hanging around the Wingate girl. He's over at their camp now."

"Well, I dunno's I blame him so much for that, neither. And he kin stay
there fer all o' me. Fer one, I won't foller no Woodhull, least o' all
Sam Woodhull, soldier or no soldier. I'll pull out when I git ready, and
to-morrow mornin' is soon enough fer me. We kin jine on then, if so's we
like."

Someone turned on his elbow, nodded over shoulder. They heard hoof
beats. Banion came up, fresh from his new work on the herd. He asked for
Woodhull, and learning his whereabouts trotted across the intervening
glade.

"That's shore a hoss he rides," said one man.

"An' a shore man a-ridin' of him," nodded another. "He may ride front o'
the train an' not back o' hit, even yet."

Molly Wingate sat on the grass in the little grove, curling a chain of
dandelion stems. Near by Sam Woodhull, in his best, lay on the sward
regarding her avidly, a dull fire in his dark eyes. He was so enamored
of the girl as to be almost unfit for aught else. For weeks he had kept
close to her. Not that Molly seemed over-much to notice or encourage
him. Only, woman fashion, she ill liked to send away any attentive
male. Just now she was uneasy. She guessed that if it were not for the
presence of her brother Jed near by this man would declare himself
unmistakably.

If the safety of numbers made her main concern, perhaps that was what
made Molly Wingate's eye light up when she heard the hoofs of Will
Banion's horse splashing in the little stream. She sprang to her feet,
waving a hand gayly.

"Oh, so there you are!" she exclaimed. "I was wondering if you'd be over
before Jed and I left for the prairie. Father and mother have moved on
out west of town. We're all ready for the jump-off. Are you?"

"Yes, to-morrow by sun," said Banion, swinging out of saddle and
forgetting any errand he might have had. "Then it's on to Oregon!"

He nodded to Woodhull, who little more than noticed him. Molly advanced
to where Banion's horse stood, nodding and pawing restively as was his
wont. She stroked his nose, patted his sweat-soaked neck.

"What a pretty horse you have, major," she said. "What's his name?"

"I call him Pronto," smiled Banion. "That means sudden."

"He fits the name. May I ride him?"

"What? You ride him?"

"Yes, surely. I'd love to. I can ride anything. That funny saddle would
do - see how big and high the horn is, good as the fork of a lady's
saddle."

"Yes, but the stirrup!"

"I'd put my foot in between the flaps above the stirrup. Help me up,
sir?"

"I'd rather not."

Molly pouted.

"Stingy!"

"But no woman ever rode that horse - not many men but me. I don't know
what he'd do."

"Only one way to find out."

Jed, approaching, joined the conversation.

"I rid him," said he. "He's a goer all right, but he ain't mean."

"I don't know whether he would be bad or not with a lady," Banion still
argued. "These Spanish horses are always wild. They never do get over
it. You've got to be a rider."

"You think I'm not a rider? I'll ride him now to show you! I'm not
afraid of horses."

"That's right," broke in Sam Woodhull. "But, Miss Molly, I wouldn't
tackle that horse if I was you. Take mine."

"But I will! I've not been horseback for a month. We've all got to ride
or drive or walk a thousand miles. I can ride him, man saddle and all.
Help me up, sir?"

Banion walked to the horse, which flung a head against him, rubbing a
soft muzzle up and down.

"He seems gentle," said he. "I've pretty well topped him off this
morning. If you're sure - "

"Help me up, one of you?"

It was Woodhull who sprang to her, caught her up under the arms and
lifted her fully gracious weight to the saddle. Her left foot by fortune
found the cleft in the stirrup fender, her right leg swung around the
tall horn, hastily concealed by a clutch at her skirt even as she
grasped the heavy knotted reins. It was then too late. She must ride.

Banion caught at a cheek strap as he saw Woodhull's act, and the horse
was the safer for an instant. But in terror or anger at his unusual
burden, with flapping skirt and no grip on his flanks, the animal reared
and broke away from them all. An instant and he was plunging across the
stream for the open glade, his head low.

He did not yet essay the short, stiff-legged action of the typical
bucker, but made long, reaching, low-headed plunges, seeking his own
freedom in that way, perhaps half in some equine wonder of his own. None
the less the wrenching of the girl's back, the leverage on her flexed
knee, unprotected, were unmistakable.

The horse reared again and yet again, high, striking out as she checked
him. He was getting in a fury now, for his rider still was in place.
Then with one savage sidewise shake of his head after another he plunged
this way and that, rail-fencing it for the open prairie. It looked like
a bolt, which with a horse of his spirit and stamina meant but one
thing, no matter how long delayed.

It all happened in a flash. Banion caught at the rein too late, ran
after - too slow, of course. The girl was silent, shaken, but still
riding. No footman could aid her now.

With a leap, Banion was in the saddle of Woodhull's horse, which had
been left at hand, its bridle down. He drove in the spurs and headed
across the flat at the top speed of the fast and racy chestnut - no
match, perhaps, for the black Spaniard, were the latter once extended,
but favored now by the angle of the two.

Molly had not uttered a word or cry, either to her mount or in appeal
for aid. In sooth she was too frightened to do so. But she heard the
rush of hoofs and the high call of Banion's voice back of her:

"Ho, Pronto! Pronto! _Vien' aqui!_"

Something of a marvel it was, and showing companionship of man and horse
on the trail; but suddenly the mad black ceased his plunging. Turning,
he trotted whinnying as though for aid, obedient to his master's
command, "Come here!" An instant and Banion had the cheek strap. Another
and he was off, with Molly Wingate, in a white dead faint, in his arms.

By now others had seen the affair from their places in the wagon park.
Men and women came hurrying. Banion laid the girl down, sought to raise
her head, drove back the two horses, ran with his hat to the stream for
water. By that time Woodhull had joined him, in advance of the people
from the park.

"What do you mean, you damned fool, you, by riding my horse off without
my consent!" he broke out. "If she ain't dead - that damned wild
horse - you had the gall - "

Will Banion's self-restraint at last was gone. He made one answer,
voicing all his acquaintance with Sam Woodhull, all his opinion of him,
all his future attitude in regard to him.

He dropped his hat to the ground, caught off one wet glove, and with a
long back-handed sweep struck the cuff of it full and hard across Sam
Woodhull's face.




CHAPTER VI

ISSUE JOINED


There were dragoon revolvers in the holsters at Woodhull's saddle. He
made a rush for a weapon - indeed, the crack of the blow had been so
sharp that the nearest men thought a shot had been fired - but swift as
was his leap, it was not swift enough. The long, lean hand of the
bearded Missourian gripped his wrist even as he caught at a pistol grip.
He turned a livid face to gaze into a cold and small blue eye.

"No, ye don't, Sam!" said the other, who was first of those who came up
running.

Even as a lank woman stooped to raise the head of Molly Wingate the
sinewy arm back of the hand whirled Woodhull around so that he faced
Banion, who had not made a move.

"Will ain't got no weapon, an' ye know it," went on the same cool voice.
"What ye mean - a murder, besides that?"

He nodded toward the girl. By now the crowd surged between the two men,
voices rose.

"He struck me!" broke out Woodhull. "Let me go! He struck me!"

"I know he did," said the intervener. "I heard it. I don't know why.
But whether it was over the girl or not, we ain't goin' to see this
other feller shot down till we know more about hit. Ye can meet - "

"Of course, any time."

Banion was drawing on his glove. The woman had lifted Molly,
straightened her clothing.

"All blood!" said one. "That saddle horn! What made her ride that
critter?"

The Spanish horse stood facing them now, ears forward, his eyes showing
through his forelock not so much in anger as in curiosity. The men
hustled the two antagonists apart.

"Listen, Sam," went on the tall Missourian, still with his grip on
Woodhull's wrist. "We'll see ye both fair. Ye've got to fight now, in
course - that's the law, an' I ain't learned it in the fur trade o' the
Rockies fer nothin', ner have you people here in the settlements. But
I'll tell ye one thing, Sam Woodhull, ef ye make one move afore we-uns
tell ye how an' when to make hit, I'll drop ye, shore's my name's Bill
Jackson. Ye got to wait, both on ye. We're startin' out, an' we kain't
start out like a mob. Take yer time."

"Any time, any way," said Banion simply. "No man can abuse me."

"How'd you gentlemen prefer fer to fight?" inquired the man who had
described himself as Bill Jackson, one of the fur brigaders of the
Rocky Mountain Company; a man with a reputation of his own in Plains
and mountain adventures of hunting, trading and scouting. "Hit's yore
ch'ice o' weapons, I reckon, Will. I reckon he challenged you-all."

"I don't care. He'd have no chance on an even break with me, with any
sort of weapon, and he knows that."

Jackson cast free his man and ruminated over a chew of plug.

"Hit's over a gal," said he at length, judicially. "Hit ain't usual; but
seein' as a gal don't pick atween men because one's a quicker shot than
another, but because he's maybe stronger, or something like that, why,
how'd knuckle and skull suit you two roosters, best man win and us to
see hit fair? Hit's one of ye fer the gal, like enough. But not right
now. Wait till we're on the trail and clean o' the law. I heern there's
a sheriff round yere some'rs."

"I'll fight him any way he likes, or any way you say," said Banion.
"It's not my seeking. I only slapped him because he abused me for doing
what he ought to have done. Yes, I rode his horse. If I hadn't that girl
would have been killed. It's not his fault she wasn't. I didn't want her
to ride that horse."

"I don't reckon hit's so much a matter about a hoss as hit is about a
gal," remarked Bill Jackson sagely. "Ye'll hatter fight. Well then,
seein' as hit's about a gal, knuckle an' skull, is that right?"

He cast a glance around this group of other fighting men of a border
day. They nodded gravely, but with glittering eyes.

"Well then, gentlemen" - and now he stood free of Woodhull - "ye both give
word ye'll make no break till we tell ye? I'll say, two-three days out?"

"Suits me," said Woodhull savagely. "I'll break his neck for him."

"Any time that suits the gentleman to break my neck will please me,"
said Will Banion indifferently. "Say when, friends. Just now I've got to
look after my cows. It seems to me our wagon master might very well look
after his wagons."

"That sounds!" commented Jackson. "That sounds! Sam, git on about yer
business, er ye kain't travel in the Liberty train nohow! An' don't ye
make no break, in the dark especial, fer we kin track ye anywhere's.
Ye'll fight fair fer once - an' ye'll fight!"

By now the group massed about these scenes had begun to relax, to
spread. Women had Molly in hand as her eyes opened. Jed came up at a run
with the mule team and the light wagon from the grove, and they got the
girl into the seat with him, neither of them fully cognizant of what had
gone on in the group of tight-mouthed men who now broke apart and
sauntered silently back, each to his own wagon.




CHAPTER VII

THE JUMP-OFF


With the first thin line of pink the coyotes hanging on the flanks of
the great encampment raised their immemorial salutation to the dawn.
Their clamorings were stilled by a new and sterner voice - the notes of
the bugle summoning sleepers of the last night to the duties of the
first day. Down the line from watch to watch passed the Plains command,
"Catch up! Catch up!" It was morning of the jump-off.

Little fires began at the wagon messes or family bivouacs. Men, boys,
barefooted girls went out into the dew-wet grass to round up the
transport stock. A vast confusion, a medley of unskilled endeavor marked
the hour. But after an hour's wait, adjusted to the situation, the next
order passed down the line:

"Roll out! Roll out!"

And now the march to Oregon was at last begun! The first dust cut by an
ox hoof was set in motion by the whip crack of a barefooted boy in jeans
who had no dream that he one day would rank high in the councils of his
state, at the edge of an ocean which no prairie boy ever had envisioned.

The compass finger of the trail, leading out from the timber groves,
pointed into a sea of green along the valley of the Kaw. The grass, not
yet tall enough fully to ripple as it would a half month later, stood
waving over the black-burned ground which the semicivilized Indians had
left the fall before. Flowers dotted it, sometimes white like bits of
old ivory on the vast rug of spindrift - the pink verbena, the wild
indigo, the larkspur and the wild geranium - all woven into a wondrous
spangled carpet. At times also appeared the shy buds of the sweet wild
rose, loveliest flower of the prairie. Tall rosinweeds began to thrust
up rankly, banks of sunflowers prepared to fling their yellow banners
miles wide. The opulent, inviting land lay in a ceaseless succession of
easy undulations, stretching away illimitably to far horizons, "in such
exchanging pictures of grace and charm as raised the admiration of even
these simple folk to a pitch bordering upon exaltation."

Here lay the West, barbaric, abounding, beautiful. Surely it could mean
no harm to any man.

The men lacked experience in column travel, the animals were unruly. The
train formation - clumsily trying to conform to the orders of Wingate to
travel in four parallel columns - soon lost order. At times the wagons
halted to re-form. The leaders galloped back and forth, exhorting,
adjuring and restoring little by little a certain system. But they dealt
with independent men. On ahead the landscape seemed so wholly free of
danger that to most of these the road to the Far West offered no more
than a pleasure jaunt. Wingate and his immediate aids were well worn
when at mid afternoon they halted, fifteen miles out from Westport.

"What in hell you pulling up so soon for?" demanded Sam Woodhull
surlily, riding up from his own column, far at the rear, and accosting
the train leader. "We can go five miles further, anyhow, and maybe ten.
We'll never get across in this way."

"This is the very way we will get across," rejoined Wingate. "While I'm
captain I'll say when to start and stop. But I've been counting on you,
Woodhull, to throw in with me and help me get things shook down."

"Well, hit looks to me ye're purty brash as usual," commented another
voice. Bill Jackson came and stood at the captain's side. He had not
been far from Woodhull all day long. "Ye're a nacherl damned fool, Sam
Woodhull," said he. "Who 'lected ye fer train captain, an' when was it
did? If ye don't like the way this train's run go on ahead an' make a
train o' yer own, ef that's way ye feel. Pull on out to-night. What ye
say, Cap?"

"I can't really keep any man from going back or going ahead," replied
Wingate. "But I've counted on Woodhull to hold those Liberty wagons
together. Any plainsman knows that a little party takes big risks."

"Since when did you come a plainsman?" scoffed the malcontent, for once
forgetting his policy of favor-currying with Wingate in his own surly
discontent. He had not been able to speak to Molly all day.

"Well, if he ain't a plainsman yit he will be, and I'm one right now,
Sam Woodhull." Jackson stood squarely in front of his superior. "I say
he's talkin' sense to a man that ain't got no sense. I was with Doniphan
too. We found ways, huh?"

His straight gaze outfronted the other, who turned and rode back. But
that very night eight men, covertly instigated or encouraged by
Woodhull, their leader, came to the headquarters fire with a joint
complaint. They demanded places at the head of the column, else would
mutiny and go on ahead together. They said good mule teams ought not to
take the dust of ox wagons.

"What do you say, men?" asked the train captain of his aids helplessly.
"I'm in favor of letting them go front."

The others nodded silently, looking at one another significantly.
Already cliques and factions were beginning.

Woodhull, however, had too much at stake to risk any open friction with
the captain of the train. His own seat at the officers' fire was dear to
him, for it brought him close to the Wingate wagons, and in sight - if
nothing else - of Molly Wingate. That young lady did not speak to him all
day, but drew close the tilt of her own wagon early after the evening
meal and denied herself to all.

As for Banion, he was miles back, in camp with his own wagons, which
Woodhull had abandoned, and on duty that night with the cattle guard - a
herdsman and not a leader of men now. He himself was moody enough when
he tied his cape behind his saddle and rode his black horse out into the
shadows. He had no knowledge of the fact that the old mountain man,
Jackson, wrapped in his blanket, that night instituted a solitary watch
all his own.

The hundreds of camp fires of the scattered train, stretched out over
five miles of grove and glade at the end of the first undisciplined day,
lowered, glowed and faded. They were one day out to Oregon, and weary
withal. Soon the individual encampments were silent save for the champ
or cough of tethered animals, or the whining howl of coyotes, prowling
in. At the Missouri encampment, last of the train, and that heading the
great cattle drove, the hardy frontier settlers, as was their wont, soon
followed the sun to rest.

The night wore on, incredibly slow to the novice watch for the first
time now drafted under the prairie law. The sky was faint pink and the
shadows lighter when suddenly the dark was streaked by a flash of fire
and the silence broken by the crack of a border rifle. Then again and
again came the heavier bark of a dragoon revolver, of the sort just then
becoming known along the Western marches.

The camp went into confusion. Will Banion, just riding in to take his
own belated turn in his blankets, almost ran over the tall form of Bill
Jackson, rifle in hand.

"What was it, man?" demanded Banion. "You shooting at a mule?"

"No, a man," whispered the other. "He ran this way. Reckon I must have
missed. It's hard to draw down inter a hindsight in the dark, an' I jest
chanced hit with the pistol. He was runnin' hard."

"Who was he - some thief?"

"Like enough. He was crawlin' up towards yore wagon, I halted him an' he
run."

"You don't know who he was?"

"No. I'll see his tracks, come day. Go on to bed. I'll set out a whiles,
boy."

When dawn came, before he had broken his long vigil, Jackson was bending
over footmarks in the moister portions of the soil.


1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryEmerson HoughThe Covered Wagon → online text (page 3 of 20)