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The U.P. Trail (Chapter3)

2006-08-22 23:26

  Chapter 3

  Bill Horn, leader of that caravan, had a large amount of gold which he was taking back East. No one in his party, except a girl, knew that he had the fortune.

  Horn had gone West at the beginning of the gold strikes, but it was not until '53 that any success attended his labors. Later he struck it rich, and in 1865, as soon as the snow melted on the mountain passes, he got together a party of men and several women and left Sacramento. He was a burly miner, bearded and uncouth, of rough speech and taciturn nature, and absolutely fearless.

  At Ogden, Utah, he had been advised not to attempt to cross the Wyoming hills with so small a party, for the Sioux Indians had gone on the war-path.

  Horn was leading his own caravan and finding for himself the trail that wound slowly eastward. He did not have a scout or hunter with him. Eastward-traveling caravans were wont to be small and poorly outfitted, for only the homesick, the failures, the wanderers, and the lawless turned their faces from the Golden State. At the start Horn had eleven men, three women, and the girl. On the way he had killed one of the men; and another, together with his wife, had yielded to persuasion of friends at Ogden and had left the party. So when Horn halted for camp one afternoon in a beautiful valley in the Wyoming hills there were only nine men with him.

  On a long journey through wild country strangers grow close together or far apart. Bill Horn did not think much of the men who had accepted the chance he offered them, and daily he grew more aloof. They were not a responsible crowd, and the best he could get out of them was the driving of oxen and camp chores indifferently done. He had to kill the meat and find the water and keep the watch. Upon entering the Wyoming hills region Horn showed a restlessness and hurry and anxiety. This in no wise affected the others. They continued to be aimless and careless as men who had little to look forward to.

  This beautiful valley offered everything desirable for a camp site except natural cover or protection in case of attack. But Horn had to take the risk. The oxen were tired, the wagons had to be greased, and it was needful to kill meat. Here was an abundance of grass, a clear brook, wood for camp-fires, and sign of game on all sides.

  “Haul round——make a circle!” Horn ordered the drivers of the oxen.

  This was the first time he had given this particular order, and the men guffawed or grinned as they hauled the great, clumsy prairie- schooners into a circle. The oxen were unhitched; the camp duffle piled out; the ring of axes broke the stillness; fires were started.

  Horn took his rifle and strode away up the brook to disappear in the green brush of a ravine.

  It was early in the evening, with the sun not yet out of sight behind a lofty ridge that topped the valley slope. High grass, bleached white, shone brightly on the summit. Soon several columns of blue smoke curled lazily aloft until, catching the wind high up, they were swept away. Meanwhile the men talked at their tasks.

  “Say, pard, did you come along this here Laramie Trail goin' West?” asked one.

  “Nope. I hit the Santa Fe Trail,” was the reply.

  “How about you, Jones?”

  “Same fer me.”

  “Wal,” said another, “I went round to California by ship, an' I'd hev been lucky to drown.”

  “An' now we're all goin' back poorer than when we started,” remarked a third.

  “Pard, you've said somethin'.”

  “Wal, I seen a heap of gold, if I didn't find any.”

  “Jones, has this here Bill Horn any gold with him?”

  “He acts like it,” answered Jones. “An' I heerd he struck it rich out thar.”

  The men appeared divided in their opinions of Bill Horn. From him they drifted to talk of possible Indian raids and scouted the idea; then they wondered if the famous Pony Express had been over this Laramie Trail; finally they got on the subject of a rumored railroad to be built from East to West.

  “No railroad can't be built over this trail,” said Jones, bluntly.

  “Sure not. But couldn't more level ground be dug?” asked another.

  “Dug? Across them Utah deserts an' up them mountains? Hell! Men sure hev more sense than thet,” exclaimed the third.

  And so they talked and argued at their tasks.

  The women, however, had little to say. One, the wife of the loquacious Jones, lived among past associations of happy years that would not come again——a sober-faced, middle-aged woman. The other woman was younger, and her sad face showed traces of a former comeliness. They called her Mrs. Durade. The girl was her daughter Allie. She appeared about fifteen years old, and was slight of form. Her face did not seem to tan. It was pale. She looked tired, and was shy and silent, almost ashamed. She had long, rich, chestnut-colored hair which she wore in a braid. Her eyes were singularly large and dark, and violet in color.

  “It's a long, long way we are from home yet,” sighed Mrs. Jones.

  “You call East home!” replied Mrs. Durade, bitterly.

  “For land's sake! Yes, I do,” exclaimed the other. “If there was a home in that California, I never saw it. Tents and log cabins and mud-holes! Such places for a woman to live. Oh, I hated that California! A lot of wild men, all crazy for gold. Gold that only a few could find and none could keep! …… I pray every night to live to get back home.”

  Mrs. Durade had no reply; she gazed away over the ridges toward the east with a haunting shadow in her eyes.

  Just then a rifle-shot sounded from up in the ravine. The men paused in their tasks and looked at one another. Then reassured by this exchange of glances, they fell to work again. But the women cast apprehensive eyes around. There was no life in sight except the grazing oxen. Presently Horn appeared carrying a deer slung over his shoulders.

  Allie ran to meet him. She and Horn were great friends. To her alone was he gentle and kind. She saw him pause at the brook, then drop the deer carcass and bend over the ground, as if to search for something. When Allie reached his side he was on his knees examining a moccasin print in the sand.

  “An Indian track!” exclaimed Allie.

  “Allie, it sure ain't anythin' else,” he replied. “Thet is what I've been lookin' fer…… A day old——mebbe more.”

  “Uncle Bill, is there any danger?” she asked, fearfully gazing up the slope.

  “Lass, we're in the Wyoming hills, an' I wish to the Lord we was out,” he answered.

  Then he picked up the deer carcass, a heavy burden, and slung it, hoofs in front, over his shoulders.

  “Let me carry your gun,” said Allie.

  They started toward camp.

  “Lass, listen,” began Horn, ear

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