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John Brent/Chapter XVI

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Armstrong[edit]

I awoke in the solemn quiet dawn of the next morning with my forebodings of ill gone, and in their stead what I could not but deem a baseless hopefulness for our new friends’ welfare.

Brent did not share it. His usual gay matin-song was dumb. He cowered, chilled and spiritless, by our camp-fire. Breakfast was an idle ceremony to both. We sat and looked at each other. His despair began to infect me. This would not do.

I left my friend, sitting unnerved and purposeless, and walked to the mail-riders’ camp.

Jake Shamberlain was already stirring about, as merry as a grig, — and that is much to say on the Plains. There are two grigs to every blade of grass from Echo Cailon to the South Pass, and yet every one sings and skips, as gay as if merriment would make the desert a meadow,

“You are astir early after the ball, Jake,” said I.

“Ef I wait till the gals in the train begins to polky round, I shan’t git my men away nayry time. They olluz burr to gals, like all young fellers. We’ll haul off jest as soon as you’re ready.”

“We are ready,” I said.

I made our packs, and saddled the mustangs.

“Come, Brent,” said I, shaking him by the shoulder, “start, old fellow! Your ride will rouse you.”

He obeyed, and mounted. He was quite cowed and helpless. I did not know my brave, cheerful friend in this weak being. He seemed to me as old and dreary as Mr. Clitheroe. Love must needs have taken a very cruel clutch upon his heart. Indeed, to the delicate nature of such a man, love is either life of life, or a murderous blight worse than death.

As we started, a gray dawn was passing into the violet light just before sunrise. The gale had calmed itself away. The tender hues of morning glorified the blue adobes of Bridger’s shabby fort. It rested on the plain, still as the grave, — stiller for the contrast of this silent hour with last night’s riot. A deathly quiet, too, dwelt upon the Mormon caravan. There were the white-topped wagons just growing rosy with the fond colors of early day. No abandoned camp of a fled army could have looked more lonely. Half a mile from the train were the cattle feeding quietly in a black mass, like a herd of buffalo. There was not one man, out of our own party, to be seen.

“Where are their sentinels, Jake?” said I.

“Too much spree for good watch,” says he.

“Elder Sizzum ought to look sharper.”

“He’s a prime leader. But he tuk dance, argee, and faro last night with a perfect looseness. I dunno what’s come over Sizzum; bein’ a great apossle’s maybe too much for him. But then he knows ther ain’t no Utes round here, to stampede his animals or run off any of his gals. Both er you men could have got you a wife apiece last night, and ben twenty miles on the way, and nobody the wiser. Now, boys, be alive with them mules. I want to be off.”

“Where are Smith and Robinson?” I asked, missing the two gamblers as we started.

“Let ’em slide, cuss ’em!” said Jake. “’Taint my business to call ’em up, and fetch ’em hot water, and black their boots. They moved camp away from us, over into the brush by you. Reckon they was afeard some on us would be goin’ halves with ’em in the pile they raked last night. Let ’em slide, the durn ripperbits! Every man for hisself, I say. They snaked me to the figure of a slug at their cheatin’ game; an’ now they may sleep till they dry and turn to grasshopper pie, for me.”

Jake cracked his long whip. The mules sprang forward together. We started.

I gave one more look at the caravan we had seen winding so beautifully down on the plain, no longer ago than yesterday evening. Rosy morning brightened on every wagon of the great ellipse. Not a soul was to be seen of all their tenants. I recognized Mr. Clitheroe’s habitation at the farther end. That, too, had the same mysterious, deserted air, as if the sad pair who dwelt in it had desperately wandered away into the desert by night.

Brent would not turn. He kept his haggard face bent eastward, toward the horizon, where an angry sunrise began to thrust out the quiet hues of dawn.

I followed the train, doggedly refusing to think more of those desolate friends we were leaving. Their helpless fate made all the beauty of the scene only crueller bitterness. What right had dawn to tinge with sweetest violet and with hopeful rose the shelters of that camp of delusion and folly!

We rode steadily on through the cool haze, and then through the warm, sunny haze, of that October morning. Brent hardly uttered a word. He left me the whole task of driving our horses. A difficult task this morning. Their rest and feast of yesterday had put Pumps and Fulano in high spirits. I had my hands full to keep them in the track.

“We had ridden some eighteen miles, when Brent fell back out of the dust of our march, and beckoned me.

“Dick,” said he, “I have had enough of this.”

He grew more like himself as he spoke.

“I was crushed and cowardly last night and this morning,” he continued. “For the first time in my life, my hope and judgment failed me together. You must despise me for giving up and quitting Miss Clitheroe.”

“My dear boy,” said I, “we were partners in our despair.”

“Mine is gone. I have made up my mind. I will not leave her. I will ride on with you to the South Pass. That will give the caravan a start, so that I can follow unobserved. Then I will follow, and let her know in some way that she has a friend within call. She must be saved, sooner or later, whether she will or no. Love or no love, such a woman shall not be left to will herself dead, rather than fall into the hands of a beast like Sizzum. I have no mission, you know,” and he smiled drearily; “I make one now. I cannot fight the good fight against villany and brutishness anywhere better than here. When I get into the valley, I will camp down at Jake’s. I can keep my courage up hunting grizzlys until she wants me. Perhaps I may find Biddulph there still. What do you say, old fellow? I am bound to you for the journey. Will you forgive me for leaving you?”

“You will find it hard work to leave me. I go with you and stand by you in this cause, life or death.”

“My dear friend! my brother!”

We took hands on this.

Our close friendship passed into completed brotherhood. Doubts and scruples vanished. We gave ourselves to our knight-errantry.

“We will save her, John,” said I. “She is my sister from this moment.”

His face lighted up with the beauty of his boyish days. He straightened himself in his saddle, gave his fair moustache a twirl, and hummed, for gayety of heart, “Ah non giunge!” to the beat of his mustang’s hoofs.

We were riding at the bottom of a little hollow. The dusty trail across the unfenced wilderness, worn smooth and broad as a turn-pike by the march of myriad caravans, climbed up the slopes before and behind us, like the wake of a ship between surges. The mail train had disappeared over the ridge. Our horses had gone with it. Brent and I were alone, as if the world held no other tenants.

Suddenly we heard the rush of a horseman after us.

Before we could turn he was down the hillock, — he was at our side.

He pulled his horse hard upon his haunches and glared at us. A fierce look it was; yet a bewildered look, as of one suddenly cheated of a revenge he had laid finger on.

He glared at us, we gazed at him, an instant, without a word.

A ghastly pair — this apparition — horse and man! The horse was a tall, gaunt white. There were the deep hollows of age over his blood-shot eyes. His outstretched head showed that he shared his master’s eagerness of pursuit. Death would have chosen such a steed for a gallop on one of death’s errands.

Death would have commissioned such a rider to bear a sentence of death. A tall, gaunt man, with the loose, long frame of a pioneer. But the brown vigor of a pioneer was gone from him. His face was lean and bloodless. It was clear where some of his blood had found issue. A strip of old white blanket, soiled with dust and blood, was turbaned askew about his head, and under it there showed the ugly edges of a recent wound.

When he pulled up beside us, his stringy right hand was ready upon the butt of a revolver. He dropped the muzzle as he looked at us.

For what horror was this man the embodied Nemesis!

“Where are they?”

He whispered this question in a voice thick with stern purpose, and shuddering with some recollection that inspired the purpose.

“They! who?”

“The two murderers.”

“They stayed behind at Bridger.”

“No. The Mormons told me they were here. Don’t hide them! Their time is come.”

Still in the same curdling whisper. He crushed his voice, as if he feared the very hillocks of the prairie would reverberate his words, and earth would utter a warning cry to those he hunted to fly, fly, for the avenger of blood was at hand.

No need to be told whom he sought. The two gamblers — the two murderers — the brutes we had suspected; but where were they? Where to be sought?

We hailed the mail train. It was but a hundred yards before us over the ridge. Jake Shamberlain and his party returned to learn what delayed us.

The haggard horsemen stared at them all, in silence.

“I’ve seen you before, stranger,” said Shamberlain.

“Yes,” said the man, in his shuddering whisper.

“It’s Armstrong from Oregon, from the Umpqua, ain’t it? You don’t look as if you were after cattle this time. Where’s your brother?”

“Murdered.”

“I allowed something had happened, because he warnt along. I never seed two men stick so close as you and he did. They didn’t kill him without gettin’ a lick at you, I see. Who was it? Indians?”

“Worse.”

“I reckon I know why you’re after us, then.”

“I can’t waste time, Shamberlain,” said Armstrong, in a hurried whisper. “I’ll tell you in two words what’s happened to me, and p’r’aps you can help me to find the men I mean to find.”

“I’ll help you, if I know how, Armstrong. I haint seen no two in my life, old country or new country, saints or gentiles, as I’d do more for ’n you and your brother. I’ve olluz said, ef the world was chock full of Armstrongs, Paradise wouldn’t pay, and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob mout just as well blow out their candle and go under a bushel-basket, unless a half-bushel would kiver ’em.”

The stranger seemed insensible to this compliment. He went on in the same whisper, full of agony, pain, and weariness. While he talked, his panting horse drew up his lip and whinnied, showing his long, yellow teeth. The spirit of his rider had entered him. He was impatient of this dalliance.

“We were coming down from the Umpqua, my brother and I,” says Armstrong, “goan across to the States, to drive out cattle next summer. We was a little late one morning, along of our horses havin’ strayed off from camp, and that was how we met them men. Two on ’em ther’ was, — a tall, most ungodly Pike, and a little fat, mean-lookin’ runt. We lighted on ’em jest to the crossin’ of Bear River. They was comin’ from Sacramenter, they said. I kinder allowed they was horse-thieves, and wanted to shy off. But Bill — that was my brother——”

Here the poor fellow choked a little.

“Bill, he never couldn’t think wrong of nobody. Bill, he said, ‘No. Looks was nothin’,’ he said, ‘ and we’d jine the fellers.’ So we did, and rode together all day, and camped together on a branch we cum to. I reckon we talked too much about the cattle we was goan to buy, and I suppose ther’ ain’t many on the Pacific side that ain’t heard of the Armstrongs. They allowed we had money, — them murderers did. Well, we camped all right, and went to sleep, and I never knowed nothin’, ef it warnt a dream that a grizzly had wiped me over the head, till 1 woke up the next day with the sun brilin’ down on my head, and my head all raw and bloody, as ef I’d been scalped. And there was Bill — my brother Bill — lyin’ dead in his blankets.”

A shudder passed through our group. These were the men we had tolerated, sat with at the camp-fire, to whose rough stories and foul jokes we had listened. Brent’s instinct was true.

Armstrong was evidently an honest, simple, kindly fellow. His eyes were pure, gentle blue. They filled with tears as he spoke. But the stern look remained, the Rhadamanthine whisper only grew thicker with vengeance.

“Bill was dead,” he continued. “The hatchet slipped when they come to hit me, and they was too skeared, I suppose, to go on choppin’ me, as they had him. P’r’aps his ghost cum round and told ’em ’t warnt the fair thing they’d ben at, and ’t warnt. But they got our horses. Bill’s big sorrel and my Flathead horse, what’s made a hunderd and twenty-three miles betwixt sunrise and sunset of a September day, goan for the doctor, when Ma Armstrong was tuk to die. They got the horses, and our money belts. So when I found Bill was dead, I knowed what my life was left me for. I tied up my head, and somehow 1 crep, and walked, and run, and got to Box Elder. I don’t know how long it took, nor who showed me the way; but I got there.”

Box Elder is the northernmost Mormon settlement, or was, in those days.

“I’ll never say another word agin the Mormon religion, Jake,” Armstrong went on. “They treated me like a brother to Box Elder. They outfitted me with a pistol, and this ere horse. They said he’d come in from a train what the Indians had cut off, and was a terrible one to go. He is; and I believe he knows what he’s goan for. I’ve ben night and day ridin’ on them murderers’ trail. Now, men, give me time to think. Bill’s murderers ain’t at Bridger. They was there last midnight. They must be somewheres within fifty miles, and I’ll find ’em, so help me God!”

His hoarse whisper was still. No one spoke.

Another rush of hoofs down the slope behind!