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The Trail Narrows








From: Desert Dust

Again we broke camp. We rolled down from the plateau into that wizard
basin lying all beautiful and slumberous and spell-locked like some land
of heart's desire. We replenished our water casks from the tank cars, we
swapped for a little feed, we occasionally exchanged greetings with
contractor outfits, and with grading crews. In due time we passed end o'
track, where a bevy of sweated men were moiling like mad, clanging down
the rails upon the hasty ties and ever calling for more, more. I witnessed
little General "Jack" Casement of Ohio--a small man with full russet beard
and imperative bold blue eyes--teetering and tugging at his whiskers and
rampantly swearing while he drove the work forward. And we left end o'
track, vainly reaching out after us, until the ring of the rails and the
staccato of the rapid sledges faded upon our ears.

Now we were following the long line of bare grade, upturned reddish by the
plows and scrapers and picks and shovels; sometimes elevated, for contour,
sometimes merged with the desert itself. There the navvies digged and
delved, scarcely taking time to glance at us. And day by day we plodded
in the interminable clouds of desert dust raised by the supply wagons.

Captain Hyrum fought shy of their camps. The laborers were mainly Irish,
trans-shipped from steerage, dock, and Bowery, and imported from Western
mining centers; turbulent in their relaxations and plentifully supplied
with whiskey: companies, they, not at all to the Mormon mind. Consequently
we halted apart from them--and well so, for those were womanless camps and
the daily stint bred strong appetites.

There were places where we made half circuit out from the grade and
abandoned it entirely. In this way we escaped the dust, the rough talk,
and the temptations; now and again obtained a modicum of forage in the
shape of coarse weedy grasses at the borders of sinks.

But it was a cruel country on men and beasts. Our teamsters who had been
through by the Overland Trail said that the Bitter Creek desert was yet
worse: drier, barer, dustier and uglier. Nevertheless this was our daily
program:

To rise after a shivery night, into the crisp dawn which once or twice
glinted upon a film of ice formed in the water buckets; to herd the
stiffened animals and place them convenient; to swallow our hot coffee and
our pork and beans, and flapjacks when the cooks were in the humor; to
hook the teams to the wagons and break corral, and amidst cracking of
lashes stretch out into column, then to lurch and groan onward, at snail's
pace, through the constantly increasing day until soon we also were wrung
and parched by a relentless heat succeeding the frosty night.

The sleeping beauties of the realm were ever farther removed. In the
distances they awaited, luring with promise of magic-invested azure
battlements, languid reds and yellows like tapestry, and patches of liquid
blue and dazzling snowy white, canopied by a soft, luxurious sky. But when
we arrived, near spent, the battlements were only isolated sandstone
outcrops inhabited by rattlesnakes, the reds and yellows were sun-baked
soil as hard, the liquid blue was poisonous, stagnant sinks, the snow
patches were soda and bitter alkali, the luxurious sky was the same old
white-hot dome, reflecting the blazing sun upon the fuming earth.

Then at sunset we made corral; against theft, when near the grade; against
Indians and pillage when out from the grade, with the animals under herd
guard. There were fires, there was singing at the Mormon camp, there was
the heavy sleep beneath blanket and buffalo robe, through the biting chill
of a breezeless night, the ground a welcomed bed, the stars vigilant from
horizon to horizon, the wolves stalking and bickering like avid ghouls.

So we dulled to the falsity of the desert and the drudgery of the trail;
and as the grading camps became less frequent the men grew riper for any
diversion. That My Lady and Daniel and I were to furnish it seemed to be
generally accepted. Here were the time-old elements: two men, one
woman--elements so constituted that in other situation they might have
brought comedy but upon such a trail must and should pronounce for
tragedy, at least for true melodrama.

Besides, I was expected to uphold the honor of our Gentile mess along with
my own honor. That was demanded; ever offered in cajolery to encourage my
pistol practice. I was, in short, "elected," by an obsession equal to a
conviction; and what with her insistently obtruded as a bonus I never was
permitted to lose sight of the ghastly prize of skill added to merit.

At first the matter had disturbed and horrified me mightily, to the extent
that I anticipated evading the issue while preparing against it. Surely
this was the current of a prankish dream. And dreams I had--frightfully
tumultuous dreams, of red anger and redder blood, sometimes my own blood,
sometimes another's; dreams from which I awakened drenched in cold
nightmare sweat.

To be infused, even by bunkum and banter, with the idea of killing, is a
sad overthrow of sane balance. I would not have conceived the thing
possible to me a month back. But the monotonous desert trail, the close
companying with virile, open minds, and the strict insistence upon
individual rights--yes, and the irritation of the same faces, the same
figures, the same fare, the same labor, the same scant recreations, all
worked as poison, to depress and fret and stimulate like alternant chills
and fever.

Practice I did, if only in friendly emulation of the others, as a
pass-the-time. I improved a little in drawing easily and firing snap-shot.
The art was good to know, bad to depend upon. In the beginnings it worried
me as a sleight-of-hand, until I saw that it was the established code and
that Daniel himself looked to no other.

In fact, he pricked me on, not so much by word as by manner, which was
worse. Since that evening when, in the approving parlance of my friends, I
had "cut him out" by walking with her to the Adams fire, we had exchanged
scarcely a word; he ruffled about at his end of the train and mainly in
his own precincts, and I held myself in leash at mine, with
self-consciousness most annoying to me.

But his manner, his manner--by swagger and covert sneer and ostentatious
triumph of alleged possession emanating an unwearied challenge to my
manhood. My revolver practice, I might mark, moved him to shrugs and
flings; when he hulked by me he did so with a stare and a boastful grin,
but without other response to my attempted "Howdy?"; now and again he
assiduously cleaned his gun, sitting out where I should see even if I did
not straightway look; in this he was most faithful, with sundry
flourishes babying me by thinking to intimidate.

Withal he gave me never excuse of ending him or placating him, but shifted
upon me the burden of choosing time and spot.

Once, indeed, we near had it. That was on an early morning. He was driving
in a yoke of oxen that had strayed, and he stopped short in passing where
I was busied with gathering our mules.

"Say, Mister, I want a word with yu," he demanded.

"Well, out with it," I bade; and my heart began to thump. Possibly I
paled, I know that I blinked, the sun being in my eyes.

He laughed, and spat over his shoulder, from the saddle.

"Needn't be skeered. I ain't goin' to hurt ye. I 'laow yu expected to make
up to that woman, didn't yu, 'fore this?"

"What woman?" I encouraged; but I was wondering if my revolver was loose.

"Edna. 'Cause if yu did, 'tain't no use, Mister. Why," indulgently, "yu
couldn't marry her--yu couldn't marry her no more'n yu could kill me.
Yu're a Gentile, an' yu'd be bustin' yore own laws. But thar ain't no
Gentile laws for the Lord's an'inted; so I thought I'd tell yu I'm liable
to marry her myself. Yu've kep' away from her consider'ble; this is to
tell yu yu mought as well keep keepin' away."

"I sha'n't discuss Mrs. Montoyo with you, sir," I broke, cold, instead of
hot, watching him very narrowly (as I had been taught to do), my hand
nerved for the inevitable dart. "But I am her friend--her friend, mind
you; and if she is in danger of being imposed upon by you, I stand ready
to protect her. For I want you to know that I'm not afraid of you, day or
night. Why, you low dog----!" and I choked, itching for the crisis.

He gawked, reddening; his right hand quivered; and to my chagrin he slowly
laughed, scanning me.

"I seen yu practicin'. Go ahead. I wouldn't kill yu naow. Or if yu want
practice in 'arnest, start to draw." He waited a moment, in easy
insolence. I did not draw. "Let yore dander cool. Thar's no use yu tryin'
to buck the Mormons. I've warned ye." And he passed on, cracking his
lash.

Suddenly I was aware that, as seemed, every eye in the camp had been
fastened upon us two. My fingers shook while with show of nonchalance I
resumed adjusting the halters.

"Gosh! Looked for a minute like you and him was to have it out proper,"
Jenks commented, matter of fact, when I came in. "Hazin' you a bit, was
he? What'd he say?"

"He warned me to keep away from Mrs. Montoyo. Went so far as to lay claim
to her himself, the whelp. Boasted of it."

"Throwed it in your face, did he? Wall, you goin' to let him cache her
away?"

"Look here," I said desperately, still a-tremble: "Why do you men put that
up to me? Why do you egg me on to interfere? She's no more to me than she
is to you. Damn it, I'll take care of myself but I don't see why I should
shoulder her, except that she's a woman and I won't see any woman
mistreated."

He pulled his whiskers, and grinned.

"Dunno jest how fur you're elected. Looks like there was something between
you and her--though I don't say for shore. But she's your kind; she may be
a leetle devil, but she's your kind--been eddicated and acts the lady. She
ain't our kind. Thunderation! What'd we do with her? She'd be better off
marryin' Dan'l. He'd give her a home. If you hadn't been with this train I
don't believe she'd have follered in. That's the proposition. You got to
fight him anyway; he's set out to back you down. It's your fracas, isn't
it?"

"I know it," I admitted. "He's been ugly toward me from the first, without
reason."

"Reckoned to amuse himself. He's one o' them fellers that think to show
off by ridin' somebody they think they can ride. The boys hate to see you
lay down to that; for you'd better call him and eat lead or else quit the
country. So you might as well give him a full dose and take the pot."

"What pot?"

"The woman, o' course."

"I tell you, Mrs. Montoyo has nothing to do with it, any more than any
woman. It's a matter between him and me--he began it by jeering at me
before she appeared. I want her left out of it."

"Oh, pshaw!" Jenks scoffed. "That can't be did. He's fetched her into it.
What do you aim to do, then? Dodge her? When you're dodgin' her you're
dodgin' him, or so he'll take it."

"I'll not dodge him, you can bet on that," I vowed. "I don't seek her, nor
him; but I shall not go out of my way to avoid either of them."

"And when you give him his dose, what'll you do?"

"If that is forced upon me, nothing. It will be in defense of my rights,
won't it? But I don't want any further trouble with him. I hope to God I
won't have."

"Shore," Jenks soothed. "You're not a killer. All the same, you're
elected; he began it and you'll have to finish it. Then you'll needs look
out for yourself and her too, for he's made her the stakes."

"Why will I?"

"Got to. The hull train thinks so, one way or t'other, and you're white."

"She can stay with the Mormons, if she wants to."

"Oh, yes; if she wants to. But do you reckon she does? Not much! She's
lookin' to you--she's lookin' to you. She's a smart leetle piece--knows
how to play her cards, and she's got you and Dan'l goin'."

"But she's married. You can't expect----"

"Oh, yes," he wagged again, interrupting. "Shore. There's Montoyo. I don't
envy you your job, but damn' if you mightn't work harder and do wuss.
She's a clipper, and I never did hear anything 'specially bad of her,
beyond cappin'. Whoa, Jinny!"

I wrathfully cogitated. Now I began to hate her. I was a tool to her hand,
once more, was I? And how had it come about? She had not directly besought
me to it--not by word. Daniel had decreed, and already our antagonism had
been on. And I had defied him--naturally. He should not bilk me of free
movement. But the issue might, on the face of it, appear to be she. As I
tugged at the harness, under breath I cursed the scurvy turn of events;
and in seeking to place the blame found amazing cleverness in her. Just
the same, I was not going to kill him for her account; never, never! And I
wished to the deuce that she'd kept clear of me.

Jenks was speaking.

"So the fust chance you get you might as well walk straight into him, call
him all the names you can lay tongue to, and when he makes a move for his
gun beat him to the draw and come up shootin'. Then it'll be over with.
The longer it hangs, the less peace you'll have; for you've got to do it
sooner or later. It's you or him."

"Not necessarily," I faltered. "There may be another way."

"There ain't, if you're a he critter on two legs," snapped Jenks. "Not in
this country or any other white man's country; no, nor in red man's
country neither. What you do back in the States, can't say. Trust in
pray'r, mebbe."

Nevertheless I determined to make a last effort even at the risk of losing
caste. In the reaction from the pressure of that recent encounter when I
might have killed, but didn't, I again had a spell of fierce, sick protest
against the role being foisted upon me--foisted, I could see, by her
machinations as well as by his animosity. The position was too false to be
borne. There was no joy in it, no zest, no adequate reward. Why, in God's
name, should I be sentenced to have blood upon my hands and soul? Surely I
might be permitted to stay clean.

Therefore this evening immediately after corral was formed I sought out
Captain Adams, as master of the train; and disregarding the gazes that
followed me and that received me I spoke frankly, here at his own wagon,
without preliminary.

"Daniel and I appear to be at outs, sir," I said. "Why, I do not know,
except that he seems to have had a dislike for me from the first day. If
he'll let me alone I'll let him alone. I'm not one to look for trouble."

His heavy face, with those thick pursed lips and small china blue eyes,
changed not a jot.

"Daniel will take care of himself."

"That is his privilege," I answered. "I am not here to question his
rights, Captain, as long as he keeps within them; but I don't require of
him to take care of me also. If he will hold to his own trail I'll hold to
mine, and I assure you there'll be no trouble."

"Daniel will take care of himself, I say," he reiterated. "Yes, and look
after all that belongs to him, stranger. There's no use threatening
Daniel. What he does he does as servant of the Lord and he fears naught."

"Neither do I, sir," I retorted hotly. "One may wish to avoid trouble and
still not fear it. I have not come to you with complaint. I merely wish to
explain. You are captain of the train and responsible for its conduct. I
give you notice that I shall defend myself against insult and annoyance."

I turned on my heel--sensed poised forms and inquiring faces; and his
booming voice stayed me.

"A moment, stranger. Your talk is big. What have you to do with this woman
Edna?"

"With Mrs. Montoyo? What I please, if it pleases her, sir. If she claims
your protection, very good. Should she claim mine, she'll have it." And
there, confound it, I had spoken. "But with this, Daniel has nothing to
do. I believe that the lady you mention is simply your present guest and
my former acquaintance."

"You err," he thundered, darkening. "You cannot be expected to see the
light. But I say to you, keep away, keep away. I will have no
gallivanting, no cozening and smiling and prating and distracting. She
must be nothing to you. Never can be, never shall be. Her way is
appointed, the instrument chosen, and as a sister in Zion she shall know
you not. Now get you gone----" a favorite expression of his. "Get you
gone, meddle not hereabouts, and I'll see to it that you are spared from
harm."

Surprising myself, and perhaps him, I gazed full at him and laughed
without reserve or irritation.

"Thank you, Captain," I heard myself saying. "I am perfectly capable of
self-protection. And I expect to remain a friend of Mrs. Montoyo as long
as she permits me. For your bluster and Daniel's I care not a sou. In
fact, I consider you a pair of damned body-snatchers. Good-evening."

Then out I stormed, boiling within, reckless of opposition--even courting
it; but met none, Daniel least of all (for he was elsewhere), until as I
passed on along the lined-up wagons I heard my name uttered breathlessly.

"Mr. Beeson."

It was not My Lady; her I had not glimpsed. The gentle English girl
Rachael had intercepted me. She stood between two wagons, whither she had
hastened.

"You will be careful?"

"How far, madam?"

"Of yourself, and for her. Oh, be careful. You can gain nothing."

Her face and tone entreated me. She was much in earnest, the roses of her
round cheeks paled, her hands clasped.

"I shall only look out for myself," said I. "That seems necessary."

"You should keep away from our camp, and from Daniel. There is nothing you
can do. You--if you could only understand." Her hands tightened upon each
other. "Won't you be careful? More careful? For I know. You cannot
interfere; there is no way. You but run great risk. Sister Edna will be
happy."

"Did she send you, madam?" I asked.

"N-no; yes. Yes, she wishes it. Her place has been found. The Lord so
wills. We all are happy in Zion, under the Lord. Surely you would not try
to interfere, sir?"

"I have no desire to interfere with the future happiness of Mrs. Montoyo,"
I stiffly answered. "She is not the root of the business between Daniel
and me, although he would have it appear so. And you yourself, a woman,
are satisfied to have her forced into Mormonism?"

"She has been living in sin, sir. The truth is appointed only among the
Latter Day Saints. We have the book and the word--the Gentile priests are
not ordained of the Lord for laying on of hands. In Zion Edna shall be
purged and set free; there she shall be brought to salvation. Our bishops,
perhaps Brigham Young himself, will show her the way. But no woman in Zion
is married without consent. The Lord directs through our prophets. Oh,
sir, if you could only see!"

An angel could not have pleaded more sweetly. To have argued with her
would have been sacrilege, for I verily believed that she was pure of
heart.

"There is nothing for me to say, madam," I responded. "As far as I can do
so with self-respect I will avoid Daniel. I certainly shall not intrude
upon your party, or bother Mrs. Montoyo. But if Daniel brings trouble to
me I will hand it back to him. That's flat. He shall not flout me out of
face. It rests with him whether we travel on peacefully or not. And I
thank you for your interest."

"I will pray for you," she said simply. "Good-bye, sir."

She withdrew, hastening again, sleek haired, round figured, modest in her
shabby gown. I proceeded to the outfit with a new sense of disease. If
she--if Mrs. Montoyo really had yielded, if she were out of the game--but
she never had been in it; not to me. And still I conned the matter over
and over, vainly convincing myself that the situation had cleared.
Notwithstanding all my effort, I somehow felt that an incentive had
vanished, leaving a gap. The affair now had simmered down to plain temper
and tit for tat. I championed nothing, except myself.

Why, with her submissive, in a fracas I might be working hurt to her,
beyond the harm to him. But she be hanged, as to that phase of it. I had
been led on so far that there was no solution save as Daniel turned aside.
Heaven knows that the matter would have been sordid enough had it focused
upon a gambler's wife; and here it looked only prosaic. Thus viewing it I
fought an odd disappointment in myself, coupled with a keener
disappointment in her.

"You talked to Hyrum, I see," Jenks commented.

"I did."

"'Bout Dan'l, mebbe?"

"I wanted to make plain that the business is none of my seeking. Hyrum is
wagon master."

"Didn't get any satisfaction, I'll bet."

"No. On the contrary."

"I could have told you you'd be wastin' powder."

"At any rate," I informed, "Mrs. Montoyo is entirely out of the matter.
She never was in it except as she was entitled to protection, but now she
requires no further notice."

"How so?"

"That is her wish. She sent me word by Rachael."

"She did? Wall?" He eyed me. "You swaller that?"

"Willingly." And I swallowed my bitterness also.

"Means to marry him, does she?"

"Rachael did not say as to that. Rather, she gave me to understand that a
way would be found to release Mrs. Montoyo from Benton connections, but
that no woman in Utah is obliged to marry. Is that true?"

"Um-m." Jenks rubbed his beard. "Wall, they do say Brigham Young is ag'in
promisc'yus swappin', and things got to be done straight, 'cordin' to the
faith. But an unjined female in the church is a powerful lonely critter.
Sticks out like a sore thumb. They read the Bible at her plenty. Um-m,"
mused he. "I don't put much stock in that yarn you bring me. There's a
nigger in the wood-pile, but he ain't black. What you goin' to do about
it?"

"Nothing. It's not my concern. Now if Daniel will mind his affairs I'll
continue to mind mine."

"Wall, Zion's a long way off yet," quoth friend Jenks. "I don't look to
see you or she get there--nor Dan'l either."

He being stubborn, I let him have the last word; did not seek to develop
his views. But his contentious harping shadowed like an omen.





Next: I Do The Deed

Previous: I Take A Lesson



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