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John Brent/Chapter XXIII

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An Idyl of the Rockys[edit]

I shall make short work of our journey to Laramie.

We bent northeastwardly by ways known to our leader, — alas! leader no more. He could guide, but no more gallop in front and beckon on the cavalcade.

It was a grand journey. A wild one, and rough for a lady. But this lady was made of other stuff than the mistresses of lapdogs.

We crossed the backbone of the continent, climbing up the clefts between the ragged vertebræ, and over the top of that meandering spine, fleshed with great grassy mounds; then plunging down again among the rifts and glens.

A brilliant quartette ours would have been, but for my friend’s wound. Four people, all with fresh souls and large and peculiar experience.

Except for my friend’s wound!

My friend, closer than a brother, how I felt for him every mile of that stern journey! He never complained. Only once he said to me, “Bodily agony has something to teach, I find, as well as mental.”

Never one word of his suffering, except that. He wore slowly away. Every day he grew a little weaker in body; but every day the strong spirit lifted the body to its work. He must live to be our guide, that he felt. He must be cheerful, gay even, lest the lady he had saved should too bitterly feel that her safety was daily paid for by his increasing agony. Every day that ichor of love baptized him with new life. He breathed love and was strong. But it was love confined to his own consciousness. Wounded, and dying perhaps, unless his life could beat time by a day or an hour, he would not throw any share of his suffering on another, on her, by calling for the sympathy which a woman gives to her lover.

Did she love him? Ah! that is the ancient riddle. Only the Sphinx herself can answer. Those fair faces of women, with their tender smiles, their quick blushes, their starting tears, still wear a mask until the moment comes for unmasking. If she did not love him, — this man of all men most lovable, this feminine soul in the body of a hero, this man who had spilled his blood for her, whose whole history had trained him for those crowning hours of a chivalric life when the lover led our Gallop of Three; if she did not love him, she must be, I thought, some bloodless creature of a type other than human, an angel and no woman, a creature not yet truly embodied into the body of love we seemed to behold.

She was sweetly tender to him; but that the wound, received for her sake, merited; that was hardly more than the gracious thankfulness she lavished upon us all. What an exquisite woman! How calmly she took her place, lofty and serene, above all the cloudy atmosphere of such a bewildering life as hers had been! How large and deep and mature the charity she had drawn, even so young, from the strange contrasts of her history! How her keen observation of a woman of genius had grasped and stored away the diamond, or the dust of diamond, in every drift across her life!

She grew more beautiful daily. Those weary days when, mile after dreary mile, the listless march of the Mormon caravan bore her farther and farther away into hopeless exile, were gone forever. She breathed ruddy hope now. Before, she had filtered hope from every breath and only taken the thin diet of pale endurance. All future possibility of trial, after her great escape, seemed nothing. She was confident of Brent’s instant recovery, with repose, and a surgeon more skilful than she, at Fort Laramie. She was sure that now her father’s wandering life was over, and that he would let her find him a home and win him a living in some quiet region of America, where all his sickly fancies would pass away, and his old age would glide serenely.

It would be long, too long, for the movement of this history, should I attempt to detail the talks and minor adventures of that trip by which the character of all my companions became better known to me.

For the wounded man’s sake we made lengthened rests at noonday, and camped with the earliest coming of twilight. Those were the moon-light nights of brilliant October. How strange and solemn and shadowy the mountains rose about our bivouacs! It was the poetry of camp-life, and to every scene by a fountain, by a torrent, in a wild dell, on a mountain meadow with a vision of a snow-peak watching us all the starry night and passing through rosiness into splendor at sunrise, — to every scene, stern or fair, our comrade gave the poetry of a woman’s presence and a woman’s fine perception of the minuter charm of nature.

And then — think of it! — she had a genius for cookery. I have known this same power in other fine poetic and artistic beings. She had a genius for imaginative cookery, — a rich inheritance from her father’s days of poverty and coal-mining. She insisted upon her share of camp-duty; and her great gray eyes were often to be seen gravely fixed upon a frying-pan, or watching a roasting bird, as it twirled slowly before the fire, with a strip of pork featly disposed overhead to baste that succulent revolver; while Brent, poor fellow, lay upon the grass, wrapped in blankets, slowly accumulating force for the next day’s journey, and watched her with wonderment and delight that she could condescend to be a household goddess.

“Ther ain’t her ikwill to be scared up,” would Armstrong say on these occasions. “I’m gittin’ idees to make my Ellen the head woman on all the Umpqua. I wish I had her along; for she’s a doughcyle gal, and takes nat’ral to pooty notions in thinkin’ and behavior and fixin’ up things ginerally.”

Armstrong became more and more the paternal element in our party. Memory of the Ellen on the Umpqua made him fatherly thoughtful for the Ellen here, a wanderer across the Rocky Mountains. And she returned more than he gave, in the sweet civilizing despotism of a lady. That grizzly turban presently disappeared from his head. Decorous bandages replaced it. With that token went from him the sternness. He was a frank, honest, kindly fellow, shrewd and unflinching, but one who would never have lifted his hand against a human being except for that great, solemn duty of an exterminating vengeance. That done, he was his genial self again. We never tired of his tales of plains and Oregon life, told in his own vivid dialect. He was the patriarchal pioneer, a man with the personal freedom of a nomad, and the unschooled wisdom of a founder of states in the wilderness. A mighty hunter, too, was Armstrong. No day passed that we did not bag an antelope, a deer, or a big-horn. It was the very land of Cocaigne for game. The creatures were so hospitable that it hardly seemed proper gratitude to kill them; even that great brown she-bear, who one night “popped her head into the shop,” and, muttering something which in the Bruin lingo may have been, “What! no soap!” smote Armstrong with a paw which years of sucking had not made tender.

Except for Brent’s wound, we four might have had a joyous journey, full of the true savor of brave travel. But that ghastly, murderous hurt of his needed most skilful surgery, and needed most of all repose with a mind at peace. He did not mend; but all the while

“The breath
Of her sweet tendance hovering over him
Filled all the genial courses of his blood
With deeper and with ever deeper love.”

But he did not mend. He wasted daily. His sleeps became deathly trances. We could not wear him out with haste. Brave heart! he bore up like a brave.

And at last one noon we drew out of the Black Hills, and saw before us, across the spurs of Laramie Peak, the broad plain of Fort Laramie.

Brent revived. We rode steadily. Just before sunset, we pulled up at our goal.