The Desert and The Sown by Mary Hallock Foote
XX. A Station in the Desert
That forsworn identity which Adam Bogardus had submitted to be clothed in as a burial garment was now become a thing for the living to flee from. He had seen a woman in full health whiten and cower before it;--she who stood beside his bed and looked at him with dreadful eyes, eyes of his girl-wife growing old in the likeness of her father. Hard, reluctant eyes forced to own the truth which the ashen lips denied. Are we responsible for our silences? He had not spoken to her. Nay, the living must speak first, or the ghostly dead depart unquestioned. He asked only that he might forget her and be himself forgotten. If it were that woman's right to call herself Emily Bogardus, then was there no Adam her husband. Better the old disguise which left him free to work out his own sentence and pay his forfeit to the law. He had never desired that one breath of it should be commuted, or wished to accept an enslaving pardon from those for whose sake he had put himself out of the way. If he could have taken his own comparative spiritual measurement, he might have smiled at the humor of that forgiveness promised him in the name of the Highest by his son.
For many peaceful years solitude had been the habit of his soul. Gently as he bore with human obligations, he escaped from them with a sense of relief which shamed him somewhat when he thought of the good friends to whom he owed this very blessed power to flee. It was quite as Leander had surmised. He could not command his faculties--memory especially--when a noise of many words and questions bruised his brain.
The stillness of the desert closed about him with delicious healing. He was a world-weary child returned to the womb of Nature. His old camp-craft came back; his eye for distance, his sense of the trail, his little pet economies with food and fire. There was no one to tell him what to eat and when to eat it. He was invisible to men. Each day's march built up his muscle, and every night's deep sleep under the great high stars steadied his nerves and tightened his resolve.
He thought of the young man--his son--with a mixture of pain and tenderness. But Paul was not the baby-boy he had put out of his arms with a father's smile at One Man station. Paul was himself a man now; he had coerced him at the last, neither did he understand.
The blind instinct of flight began after a while to shape its own direction. It was no new leaning with the packer. As many times as he had crossed this trail he never had failed to experience the same pull. He resisted no longer. He gave way to strange fancies and made them his guides.
At some time during his flight from the hospital, in one of those blanks that overtook him, he knew not how, he had met with a great loss. The words had slipped from his memory--of that message which had kept him in fancied touch with his wife all these many deluding years. Without them he was like a drunkard deprived of his habitual stimulant. The craving to connect and hold them--for they came to him sometimes in tantalizing freaks of memory, and slipped away again like beads rolling off a broken thread--was almost the only form of mental suffering he was now conscious of. What had become of the message itself? Had they left it exposed to every heartless desecration in that abandoned spot?--a scrap of paper driven like a bit of tumble-weed before the wind, snatched at by spikes of sage, trampled into the mire of cattle, nuzzled by wild beasts? Or, had they put it away with that other beast where he lay with the scoff on his dead face? Out of dreams and visions of the night that place of the parting ways called to him, and the time was now come when he must go.
He approached it by one of those desert trails that circle for miles on the track of water and pounce as a bird drops upon its prey into the trampled hollow at One Man station--a place for the gathering of hoofs in the midst of the plain.
He could trace what might have been the foundation of a house, a few blackened stones, a hearthstone showing where a chimney perhaps had stood, but these evidences of habitation would never have been marked except by one who knew where to look. He searched the ground over for signs of the tragedy that bound him to that spot--a smiling desolation, a sunny nothingness. The effect of this careless obliteration was quieting. Nature had played here once with two men and a woman. One of the toy men was lost, the other broken. She had forgotten where she put the broken one. There were mounds which looked like graves, but the seeker knew that artificial mounds in a place like this soon sink into hollows; and there were hollows like open graves, filled with unsightly human rubbish, washed in by the yearly rains.
He spent three days in the hollow, doing nothing, steeped in sunshine, lying down to rest broad awake in the tender twilight, making his peace with this place of bitter memory before bidding it good-by. His thoughts turned eastward as the planets rose. Time he was working back towards home. He would hardly get there if he started now, before his day was done. He saw his mother's grave beside his father's, in the southeast corner of the burying-ground, where the trees were thin. All who drove in through the big gate of funerals could see the tall white shafts of the Beviers and Brodericks and Van Eltens, but only those who came on foot could approach his people in the gravelly side-hill plots. "I'd like to be put there alongside the old folks in that warm south corner." He could see their names on the plain gray slate stones, rain-stained and green with moss.
On the third May evening of his stay the horizon became a dust-cloud, the setting sun a ball of fire. Loomed the figure of a rider topping the heaving backs of his herd. All together they came lumbering down the slopes, all heading fiercely for the water. The rider plunged down a side-draw out of the main cloud. Clanking bells, shuffling hoofs, the "Whoop-ee-youp!" came fainter up the gulch. The cowboy was not pleased as he dashed by to see an earlier camp-fire smoking in the hollow. But he was less displeased, being half French, than if he had been pure-bred American.
The old man, squatting by his cooking-fire, gave him a civil nod, and he responded with a flourish of his quirt. The reek of sage smoke, the smell of dust and cattle rose rank on the cooling air. It was good to Boniface, son of the desert; it meant supper and bed, or supper and talk, for "Bonny" Maupin ("Bonny Moppin," it went in the vernacular) would talk every other man to sleep, full or empty, with songs thrown in. To-night, however, he must talk on an empty stomach, for his chuck wagon was not in sight.
"W'ich way you travelin'?" he began, lighting up after a long pull at his flask. The old man had declined, though he looked as if he needed a drink.
"East about," was the answer.
"Well; summer's before us. I cal'late to keep moving till snow falls."
"Shucks! You ain' pressed for time. Maybe you got some friend back there. Goin' back to git married?" He winked genially to point the jest and the old man smiled indulgently.
"Won't you set up and take a bite with me? You don't look to have much of a show for supper along."
"Thanks, very much! I had bully breakfast at Rock Spring middlin' late this morning. They butcherin' at that place. Five fat hog. My chuck wagon he stay behin' for chunk of fresh pig. I won' spoil my appetide for that tenderloin. Hol' on yourself an' take supper wis me. No?--That fellah be 'long 'bout Chris'mas if he don' git los'! He always behin', pig or no pig!"
Bonny strolled away collecting fire-wood. Presently he called back, pointing dramatically with his small-toed boot. "Who's been coyotin' round here?" The hard ground was freshly disturbed in spots as by the paws of some small inquisitive animal. There was no answer.
"What you say? Whose surface diggin's is these? I never know anybody do some mining here."
"That was me"--Bonny backed a little nearer to catch the old man's words. "I was looking round here for something I lost."
"What luck you have? You fin' him?"
"Well, now, doos it reely matter to you, sonny?"
"Pardner, it don' matter to me a d--n, if you say so! I was jus' askin' myself what a man would look for if he los' it here. Since I strike this 'ell of a place the very groun' been chewed up and spit out reg'lar, one hundred times a year. 'T'is a gris' mill!"
"I didn't gretly expect to find what I was lookin' for. I was just foolin' around to satisfy myself."
"That satisfy me!" said Bonny pleasantly; and yet he was a trifle discomfited. He strolled away again and began to sing with a boyish show of indifference to having been called "sonny."
"Oh, Sally is the gal for me! Oh, Sally's the gal for me! On moonlight night when the star is bright-- Oh"--
"Halloa! This some more your work, oncle? You ain' got no chicken wing for arm if you lif' this.--Ah, be dam! I see what you lif' him with. All same stove-lid." Talking and swearing to himself cheerfully, Bonny applied the end of a broken whiffletree to the blunt lip of the old hearthstone which marked the stage-house chimney. He had tried a step-dance on it and found it hollow. More fresh digging, and marks upon the stone where some prying tool had taken hold and slipped, showed he was not the first who had been curious.
"There you go, over on you' back, like snap' turtle; I see where you lay there before. What the dev'! I say!" Bonny, much excited with his find, extracted a rusty tin tobacco-box from the hole, pried open the spring lid and drew forth its contents: a discolored canvas bag bulging with coin and whipped around the neck with a leather whang. The canvas was rotten; Bonny supported its contents tenderly as he brought it over to the old man.
"Oncle, I ask you' pardon for tappin' that safe. Pretty good lil' nest-egg, eh? But now you got to find her some other place."
"That don't belong to me," said the old man indifferently.
"Aw--don't be bashful! I onderstan' now what you los'. You dig here--there--migs up the scent. I just happen to step on that stone--ring him, so, with my boot-heel!"
"That ain't my pile," the other persisted. "I started to build a fire on that stone two nights ago. It rung hollow like you say. I looked and found what you found."
--"And put her back! My soul to God! An' you here all by you'self!"
"Why not? The stuff ain't mine."
"Who is she? How long since anybody live here?"
"I don't know,--good while, I guess."
"Well, sar! Look here! I open that bag. I count two hondre' thirteen dolla'--make it twelve for luck, an' call it you' divvee! You strike her first. What you say: we go snac'?"
"I haven't got any use for that money. You needn't talk to me about it."
"Got no h'use!--are you a reech man? Got you' private car waitin' for you out in d' sagebrush? Sol' a mine lately?"
"I don't know why it strikes you so funny. It's no concern of mine if a man puts his money in the ground and goes off and leaves it."
"Goes off and die! There was one man live here by himself--he die, they say, 'with his boots on.' He, I think, mus' be that man belong to this money. What an old stiff want with two hondre' thirteen dolla'? That money goin' into a live man's clothes." Bonny slapped his chappereros, and the dust flew.
"I've no objection to its going into your clothes," said the old man.
"You thing I ain' particular, me? Well, eef the party underground was my frien', and I knew his fam'ly, and was sure the money was belong to him--I'd do differend--perhaps. Mais,--it is going--going--gone! You won' go snac'?"
The old man smiled and looked steadily away.
"Blas' me to h--l! but you aire the firs' man ever I strike that jib at the sight of col' coin. She don' frighten me!"
Bonny always swore when he felt embarrassed.
"Well, sar! Look here! You fin' you'self so blame indifferend--s'pose you so indifferend not to say nothing 'bout this, when my swamper fellah git in. I don' wish to go snac' wis him. I don' feel oblige'. See?"
"What you want to pester me about this money for!" The old man was weary. "I didn't come here, lookin' for money, and I don't expect to take none away with me. So I'll say good-night to ye."
"Hol' on, hol' on! Don' git mad. What time you goin' off in the morning?"
"Before you do, I shouldn't wonder."
"But hol'! One fine idea--blazin' good idea--just hit me now in the head! Wan' to come on to Chicago wis me? I drop this fellah at Felton. He take the team back, and I get some one to help me on the treep. Why not you? Ever tek' care of stock?"
"Some consid'able years ago I used to look after stock. Guess I'd know an ox from a heifer."
"Ever handle 'em on cattle-car?"
"Well, all there is, you feed 'em, and water 'em, and keep 'em on their feets. If one fall down, all the others they have too much play. They rock"--Bonny exhibited--"and fall over and pile up in heap. I like to do one turn for you. We goin' the same way--you bring me the good luck, like a bird in the han'. This is my clean-up, you understand. You bring me the beautiful luck. You turn me up right bower first slap. Now it's goin' be my deal. I like to do by you!"
The packer turned over and looked up at the cool sky, pricked through with early stars. He was silent a long time. His pale old face was like a fine bit of carving in the dusk.
"What you think?" asked Moppin, almost tenderly. "I thing you better come wis me. You too hold a man to go like so--alone."
"I'll have to think about it first;--let you know in the morning."