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reasoned. But she forgot that. All the vanguard and the full army of
wild creatures had passed by now. She alone, the white woman, most
helpless of the great creatures, stood before the terror.

She sprang out of the wagon and looked about her. The smoke crest,
black, red-shot, was coming close. The grass here would carry it.
Perhaps yonder on the flint ridge where the cover was short - why had she
not thought of that long ago? It was half a mile, and no sure haven
then.

She ran, her shawl drawn about her head - ran with long, free stride, her
limbs envigored by fear, her full-bosomed body heaving chokingly. The
smoke was now in the air, and up the unshorn valley came the fire
remorselessly, licking up the under lying layer of sun-cured grass which
a winter's snow had matted down.

She could never reach the ridge now. Her overburdened lungs functioned
but little. The world went black, with many points of red. Everywhere
was the odor and feel of smoke. She fell and gasped, and knew little,
cared little what might come. The elemental terror at last had caught
its prey - soft, young, beautiful prey, this huddled form, a bit of brown
and gray, edged with white of wind-blown skirt. It would be a sweet
morsel for the flames.

Along the knife-edged flint ridge which Molly had tried to reach there
came the pounding of hoofs, heavier than any of these that had passed.
The cattle were stampeding directly down wind and before the fire.
Dully, Molly heard the lowing, heard the far shouts of human voices.
Then, it seemed to her, she heard a rush of other hoofs coming toward
her. Yes, something was pounding down the slope toward her wagon,
toward her. Buffalo, she thought, not knowing the buffalo were gone from
that region.

But it was not the buffalo, nor yet the frightened herd, nor yet her
mules. Out of the smoke curtain broke a rider, his horse flat; a black
horse with flying frontlet - she knew what horse. She knew what man rode
him, too, black with smoke as he was now. He swept close to the wagon
and was off. Something flickered there, with smoke above it, beyond the
wagon by some yards. Then he was in saddle and racing again, his eyes
and teeth white in the black mask of his face.

She heard no call and no command. But an arm reached down to hers, swept
up - and she was going onward, the horn of a saddle under her, her body
held to that of the rider, swung sidewise. The horse was guided not down
but across the wind.

Twice and three times, silent, he flung her off and was down, kindling
his little back fires - the only defense against a wildfire. He breathed
thickly, making sounds of rage.

"Will they never start?" he broke out at last. "The fools - the fools!"

But by now it was too late. A sudden accession in the force of the wind
increased the speed of the fire. The little line near Molly's wagon
spared it, but caught strength. Could she have seen through the veils of
smoke she would have seen a half dozen fires this side the line of the
great fire. But fire is fire.

Again he was in saddle and had her against his thigh, his body, flung
any way so she came with the horse. And now the horse swerved, till he
drove in the steel again and again, heading him not away from the fire
but straight into it!

Molly felt a rush of hot air; surging, actual flame singed the ends of
her hair. She felt his hand again and again sweep over her skirts,
wiping out the fire as it caught. It was blackly hot, stifling - and then
it was past!

Before her lay a wide black world. Her wagon stood, even its white top
spared by miracle of the back fire. But beyond came one more line of
smoke and flame. The black horse neighed now in the agony of his hot
hoofs. His rider swung him to a lower level, where under the tough cover
had lain moist ground, on which uncovered water now glistened. He flung
her into the mire of it, pulled up his horse there and himself lay down,
full length, his blackened face in the moist mud above which still
smoked stubbles of the flame-shorn grass. He had not spoken to her, nor
she to him. His eyes rested on the singed ends of her blown hair, her
charred garments, in a frowning sympathy which found no speech. At
length he brought the reins of his horse to her, flirting up the singed
ends of the long mane, further proof of their narrow escape.

"I must try once more," he said. "The main fire might catch the wagon."

He made off afoot. She saw him start a dozen nucleuses of fires; saw
them advance till they halted at the edge of the burned ground, beyond
the wagon, so that it stood safe in a vast black island. He came to her,
drove his scorched boots deep as he could into the mud and sat looking
up the valley toward the emigrant train. An additional curtain of smoke
showed that the men there now were setting out back fires of their own.
He heard her voice at last:

"It is the second time you have saved me - saved my life, I think. Why
did you come?"

He turned to her as she sat in the edge of the wallow, her face streaked
with smoke, her garments half burned off her limbs. She now saw his
hands, which he was thrusting out on the mud to cool them, and sympathy
was in her gaze also.

"I don't know why I came," said he. "Didn't you signal for me? Jackson
told me you could."

"No, I had no hope. I meant no one. It was only a prayer."

"It carried ten miles. We were all back-firing. It caught in the
sloughs - all the strips of old grass. I thought of your camp, of you. At
least your signal told me where to ride."

At length he waved his hand.

"They're safe over there," said he. "Think of the children!"

"Yes, and you gave me my one chance. Why?"

"I don't know. I suppose it was because I am a brute!" The bitterness
of his voice was plain.

"Come, we must go to the wagons," said Molly at length, and would have
risen.

"No, not yet. The burned ground must cool before we can walk on it. I
would not even take my horse out on it again." He lifted a foot of the
black Spaniard, whose muzzle quivered whimperingly. "All right, old
boy!" he said, and stroked the head thrust down to him. "It might have
been worse."

His voice was so gentle that Molly Wingate felt a vague sort of
jealousy. He might have taken her scorched hand in his, might at least
have had some thought for her welfare. He did speak at last as to that.

"What's in your wagon?" he asked. "We had better go there to wait. Have
you anything along - oil, flour, anything to use on burns? You're burned.
It hurts me to see a woman suffer."

"Are not you burned too?"

"Yes."

"It pains you?"

"Oh, yes, of course."

He rose and led the way over the damper ground to the wagon, which stood
smoke-stained but not charred, thanks to his own resourcefulness.

Molly climbed up to the seat, and rummaging about found a jar of butter,
a handful of flour.

"Come up on the seat," said she. "This is better medicine than nothing."

He climbed up and sat beside her. She frowned again as she now saw how
badly scorched his hands were, his neck, his face. His eyebrows, caught
by one wisp of flame, were rolled up at the ends, whitened. One cheek
was a dull red.

Gently, without asking his consent, she began to coat his burned skin as
best she might with her makeshift of alleviation. His hand trembled
under hers.

"Now," she said, "hold still. I must fix your hand some more."

She still bent over, gently, delicately touching his flesh with hers.
And then all in one mad, unpremeditated instant it was done!

His hand caught hers, regardless of the pain to either. His arm went
about her, his lips would have sought hers.

It was done! Now he might repent.

A mad way of wooing, inopportune, fatal as any method he possibly could
have found, moreover a cruel, unseemly thing to do, here and with her
situated thus. But it was done.

Till now he had never given her grounds for more than guessing. Yet now
here was this!

He came to his senses as she thrust him away; saw her cheeks whiten, her
eyes grow wide.

"Oh!" she said. "Oh! Oh! Oh!"

"Oh!" whispered Will Banion to himself, hoarsely.

He held his two scorched hands each side her face as she drew back,
sought to look into her eyes, so that she might believe either his hope,
his despair or his contrition.

But she turned her eyes away. Only he could hear her outraged
protest - "Oh! Oh! Oh!"




CHAPTER XIV

THE KISS


"It was the wind!" Will Banion exclaimed. "It was the sky, the earth! It
was the fire! I don't know what it was! I swear it was not I who did it!
Don't forgive me, but don't blame me. Molly! Molly!

"It had to be sometime," he went on, since she still drew away from him.
"What chance have I had to ask you before now? It's little I have to
offer but my love."

"What do you mean? It will never be at any time!" said Molly Wingate
slowly, her hand touching his no more.

"What do you yourself mean?" He turned to her in agony of soul. "You
will not let me repent? You will not give me some sort of chance?"

"No," she said coldly. "You have had chance enough to be a gentleman - as
much as you had when you were in Mexico with other women. But Major
William Banion falsified the regimental accounts. I know that too. I
didn't - I couldn't believe it - till now."

He remained dumb under this. She went on mercilessly.

"Oh, yes, Captain Woodhull told us. Yes, he showed us the very
vouchers. My father believed it of you, but I didn't. Now I do. Oh,
fine! And you an officer of our Army!"

She blazed out at him now, her temper rising.

"Chance? What more chance did you need? No wonder you couldn't love a
girl - any other way than this. It would have to be sometime, you say.
What do you mean? That I'd ever marry a thief?"

Still he could not speak. The fire marks showed livid against a paling
cheek.

"Yes, I know you saved me - twice, this time at much risk," resumed the
girl. "Did you want pay so soon? You'd - you'd - "

"Oh! Oh! Oh!"

It was his voice that now broke in. He could not speak at all beyond the
exclamation under torture.

"I didn't believe that story about you," she added after a long time.
"But you are not what you looked, not what I thought you were. So what
you say must be sometime is never going to be at all."

"Did he tell you that about me?" demanded Will Banion savagely.
"Woodhull - did he say that?"

"I have told you, yes. My father knew. No wonder he didn't trust you.
How could he?"

She moved now as though to leave the wagon, but he raised a hand.

"Wait!" said he. "Look yonder! You'd not have time now to reach camp."

In the high country a great prairie fire usually or quite often was
followed by a heavy rainstorm. What Banion now indicated was the
approach of yet another of the epic phenomena of the prairies, as rapid,
as colossal and as merciless as the fire itself.

On the western horizon a low dark bank of clouds lay for miles, piled,
serrated, steadily rising opposite to the course of the wind that had
driven the fire. Along it more and more visibly played almost incessant
sheet lightning, broken with ripping zigzag flames. A hush had fallen
close at hand, for now even the frightened breeze of evening had fled.
Now and then, at first doubtful, then unmistakable and continuous, came
the mutter and rumble and at length the steady roll of thunder.

They lay full in the course of one of the tremendous storms of the high
country, and as the cloud bank rose and came on swiftly, spreading its
flanking wings so that nothing might escape, the spectacle was
terrifying almost as much as that of the fire, for, unprotected, as they
were, they could make no counter battle against the storm.

The air grew supercharged with electricity. It dripped, literally, from
the barrel of Banion's pistol when he took it from its holster to carry
it to the wagon. He fastened the reins of his horse to a wheel and
hastened with other work. A pair of trail ropes lay in the wagon. He
netted them over the wagon top and lashed the ends to the wheels to make
the top securer, working rapidly, eyes on the advancing storm.

There came a puff, then a gust of wind. The sky blackened. The storm
caught the wagon train first. There was no interval at all between the
rip of the lightning and the crash of thunder as it rolled down on the
clustered wagons. The electricity at times came not in a sheet or a
ragged bolt, but in a ball of fire, low down, close to the ground,
exploding with giant detonations.

Then came the rain, with a blanketing rush of level wind, sweeping away
the last vestige of the wastrel fires of the emigrant encampment. An
instant and every human being in the train, most of them ill defended by
their clothing, was drenched by the icy flood. One moment and the
battering of hail made climax of it all. The groaning animals plunged
and fell at their picket ropes, or broke and fled into the open. The
remaining cattle caught terror, and since there was no corral, most of
the cows and oxen stampeded down the wind.

The canvas of the covered wagons made ill defense. Many of them were
stripped off, others leaked like sieves. Mothers sat huddled in their
calicoes, bending over their tow-shirted young, some of them babes in
arms. The single jeans garments of the boys gave them no comfort. Under
the wagons and carts, wrapped in blankets or patched quilts whose colors
dripped, they crawled and sat as the air grew strangely chill. Only
wreckage remained when they saw the storm muttering its way across the
prairies, having done what it could in its elemental wrath to bar the
road to the white man.

As for Banion and Molly, they sat it out in the light wagon, the girl
wrapped in blankets, Banion much of the time out in the storm, swinging
on the ropes to keep the wagon from overturning. He had no apparent
fear. His calm assuaged her own new terrors. In spite of her bitter
arraignment, she was glad that he was here, though he hardly spoke to
her at all.

"Look!" he exclaimed at last, drawing back the flap of the wagon cover.
"Look at the rainbow!"

Over the cloud banks of the rain-wet sky there indeed now was flung the
bow of promise. But this titanic land did all things gigantically. This
was no mere prismatic arch bridging the clouds. The colors all were
there, yes, and of an unspeakable brilliance and individual distinctness
in the scale; but they lay like a vast painted mist, a mural of some
celestial artist flung _en masse_ against the curtain of the night. The
entire clouded sky, miles on untold miles, was afire. All the opals of
the universe were melted and cast into a tremendous picture painted by
the Great Spirit of the Plains.

"Oh, wonderful!" exclaimed the girl. "It might be the celestial city in
the desert, promised by the Mormon prophet!"

"It may be so to them. May it be so to us. Blessed be the name of the
Lord God of Hosts!" said Will Banion.

She looked at him suddenly, strangely. What sort of man was he, after
all, so full of strange contradictions - a savage, a criminal, yet
reverent and devout?

"Come," he said, "we can get back now, and you must go. They will think
you are lost."

He stepped to the saddle of his shivering horse and drew off the poncho,
which he had spread above the animal instead of using it himself. He was
wet to the bone. With apology he cast the waterproof over Molly's
shoulders, since she now had discarded her blankets. He led the way, his
horse following them.

They walked in silence in the deep twilight which began to creep across
the blackened land. All through the storm he had scarcely spoken to her,
and he spoke but rarely now. He was no more than guide. But as she
approached safety Molly Wingate began to reflect how much she really
owed this man. He had been a pillar of strength, elementally fit to
combat all the elements, else she had perished.

"Wait!"

She had halted at the point of the last hill which lay between them and
the wagons. They could hear the wailing of the children close at hand.
He turned inquiringly. She handed back the poncho.

"I am all right now. You're wet, you're tired, you're burned to pieces.
Won't you come on in?"

"Not to-night!"

But still she hesitated. In her mind there were going on certain
processes she could not have predicted an hour earlier.

"I ought to thank you," she said. "I do thank you."

His utter silence made it hard for her. He could see her hesitation,
which made it hard for him, coveting sight of her always, loath to leave
her.

Now a sudden wave of something, a directness and frankness born in some
way in this new world apart from civilization, like a wind-blown flame,
irresponsible and irresistible, swept over Molly Wingate's soul as
swiftly, as unpremeditatedly as it had over his. She was a young woman
fit for love, disposed for love, at the age for love. Now, to her
horror, the clasp of this man's arm, even when repelled in memory,
returned, remained in memory! She was frightened that it still
remained - frightened at her own great curiousness.

"About - that" - he knew what she meant - "I don't want you to think
anything but the truth of me. If you have deceived people, I don't want
to deceive you."

"What do you mean?" He was a man of not very many words.

"About - that!"

"You said it could never be."

"No. If it could, I would not be stopping here now to say so much."

He stepped closer, frowning.

"What is it you are saying then - that a man's a worse brute when he goes
mad, as I did?"

"I expect not," said Molly Wingate queerly. "It is very far, out here.
It's some other world, I believe. And I suppose men have kissed girls. I
suppose no girl ever was married who was not ever kissed."

"What are you saying?"

"I said I wanted you to know the truth about a woman - about me. That's
just because it's not ever going to be between us. It can't be, because
of that other matter in Mexico. If it had not been for that, I suppose
after a time I wouldn't have minded what you did back there. I might
have kissed you. It must be terrible to feel as you feel now, so
ashamed. But after all - "

"It was criminal!" he broke out. "But even criminals are loved by women.
They follow them to jail, to the gallows. They don't mind what the man
is - they love him, they forgive him. They stand by him to the very end!"

"Yes, I suppose many a girl loves a man she knows she never can marry.
Usually she marries someone else. But kissing! That's terrible!"

"Yes. But you will not let me make it splendid and not terrible. You say
it never can be - that means we've got to part. Well, how can I forget?"

"I don't suppose you can. I don't suppose that - that I can!"

"What are you going to say? Don't! Oh, please don't!"

But she still went on, strangely, not in the least understanding her
own swift change of mood, her own intent with him, _vis-à-vis_, here in
the wilderness.

"While we were walking down here just now," said she, "somehow it all
began to seem not so wrong. It only seemed to stay wrong for you to have
deceived me about yourself - what you really were - when you were in the
Army. I could maybe forgive you up to that far, for you did - for men
are - well, men. But about that other - you knew all the time we
couldn't - couldn't ever - I'd never marry a thief."

The great and wistful regret of her voice was a thing not to be escaped.
She stood, a very splendid figure, clean and marvelous of heart as she
was begrimed and bedraggled of body now, her great vital force not
abated by what she had gone through. She spread her hands just apart and
looked at him in what she herself felt was to be the last meeting of
their lives; in which she could afford to reveal all her soul for once
to a man, and then go about a woman's business of living a life fed on
the husks of love given her by some other man.

He knew that he had seen one more miracle. But, chastened now, he could,
he must, keep down his own eager arms. He heard her speak once more, her
voice like some melancholy bell of vespers of a golden evening.

"Oh, Will Banion, how could you take away a girl's heart and leave her
miserable all her life?"

The cry literally broke from her. It seemed in her own ears the sudden
voice of some other woman speaking - some unaccountable, strange woman
whom she never had seen or known in all her life.

"Your - heart?" he whispered, now close to her in the dusk. "You were
not - you did not - you - "

But he choked. She nodded, not brazenly or crudely or coarsely, not even
bravely, but in utter simplicity. For the time she was wholly free of
woman coquetry. It was as though the elements had left her also
elemental. Her words now were of the earth, the air, the fire, the
floods of life.

"Yes," she said, "I will tell you now, because of what you have done for
me. If you gave me life, why shouldn't I give you love - if so I could?"

"Love? Give me love?"

"Yes! I believe I was going to love you, until now, although I had
promised him - you know - Captain Woodhull. Oh, you see, I understand a
little of what it was to you - what made you - " She spoke disconnectedly.
"I believe - I believe I'd not have cared. I believe I could follow a man
to the gallows. Now I will not, because you didn't tell me you were a
thief. I can't trust you. But I'll kiss you once for good-by. I'm sorry.
I'm so sorry."

Being a man, he never fathomed her mind at all. But being a man, slowly,
gently, he took her in his arms, drew her tight. Long, long it was till
their lips met - and long then. But he heard her whisper "Good-by," saw
her frank tears, felt her slowly, a little by a little, draw away from
him.

"Good-by," she said. "Good-by. I would not dare, any more, ever again.
Oh, Will Banion, why did you take away my heart? I had but one!"

"It is mine!" he cried savagely. "No other man in all the world shall
ever have it! Molly!"

But she now was gone.

He did not know how long he stood alone, his head bowed on his saddle.
The raucous howl of a great gray wolf near by spelled out the lonesome
tragedy of his future life for him.

Quaint and sweet philosopher, and bold as she but now had been in one
great and final imparting of her real self, Molly Wingate was only a
wet, weary and bedraggled maid when at length she entered the desolate
encampment which stood for home. She found her mother sitting on a box
under a crude awning, and cast herself on her knees, her head on that
ample bosom that she had known as haven in her childhood. She wept now
like a little child.

"It's bad!" said stout Mrs. Wingate, not knowing. "But you're back and
alive. It looks like we're wrecked and everything lost, and we come nigh
about getting all burned up, but you're back alive to your ma! Now,
now!"

That night Molly turned on a sodden pallet which she had made down
beside her mother in the great wagon. But she slept ill. Over and over
to her lips rose the same question:

"Oh, Will Banion, Will Banion, why did you take away my heart?"




CHAPTER XV

THE DIVISION


The great wagon train of 1848 lay banked along the Vermilion in utter
and abject confusion. Organization there now was none. But for Banion's
work with the back fires the entire train would have been wiped out. The
effects of the storm were not so capable of evasion. Sodden, wretched,
miserable, chilled, their goods impaired, their cattle stampeded, all
sense of gregarious self-reliance gone, two hundred wagons were no more
than two hundred individual units of discontent and despair. So far as
could be prophesied on facts apparent, the journey out to Oregon had
ended in disaster almost before it was well begun.

Bearded men at smoking fires looked at one another in silence, or would
not look at all. Elan, morale, esprit de corps were gone utterly.

Stout Caleb Price walked down the wagon lines, passing fourscore men
shaking in their native agues, not yet conquered. Women, pale, gaunt,
grim, looked at him from limp sunbonnets whose stays had been half
dissolved. Children whimpered. Even the dogs, curled nose to tail under
the wagons, growled surlily. But Caleb Price found at last the wagon of
the bugler who had been at the wars and shook him out.

"Sound, man!" said Caleb Price. "Play up Oh, Susannah! Then sound the
Assembly. We've got to have a meeting."

They did have a meeting. Jesse Wingate scented mutiny and remained away.

"There's no use talking, men," said Caleb Price, "no use trying to fool
ourselves. We're almost done, the way things are. I like Jess Wingate as
well as any man I ever knew, but Jess Wingate's not the man. What shall
we do?"

He turned to Hall, but Hall shook his head; to Kelsey, but Kelsey only


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