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The Covered Wagon by Emerson Hough

Part 6 out of 6

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had found him. Here stood his enemy, unarmed, delivered into his hands.

For one instant the two stood, staring into one another's eyes. Banion's
advance had been silent. Woodhull was taken as much unawares as he.

It had been Woodhull's purpose to get a stand above the sluices, hidden
by the angle, where he could command the reach of the stream bed where
Banion and Jackson last had been working. He had studied the place
before, and meant to take no chances. His shot must be sure.

But now, in his climbing on the steep hillside, his rifle was in his
left hand, downhill, and his footing, caught as he was with one foot
half raised, was insecure. At no time these last four hours had his
opportunity been so close--or so poor--as precisely now!

He saw Will Banion's eyes, suddenly startled, quickly estimating,
looking into his own. He knew that behind his own eyes his whole foul
soul lay bared--the soul of a murderer.

Woodhull made a swift spring down the hill, scrambling, half erect, and
caught some sort of stance for the work which now was his to do. He
snarled, for he saw Banion stoop, unarmed. It would do his victim no
good to run. There was time even to exult, and that was much better in a
long-deferred matter such as this.

"Now, damn you, I've got you!"

He gave Banion that much chance to see that he was now to die.

Half leaning, he raised the long rifle to its line and touched the

The report came; and Banion fell. But even as he wheeled and fell,
stumbling down the hillside, his flung arm apparently had gained a
weapon. It was not more than the piece of rotten quartz he had picked up
and planned to examine later. He flung it straight at Woodhull's
face--an act of chance, of instinct. By a hair it saved him.

Firing and missing at a distance of fifty feet, Woodhull remained not
yet a murderer in deed. In a flash Banion gathered and sprang toward him
as he stood in a half second of consternation at seeing his victim fall
and rise again. The rifle carried but the one shot. He flung it down,
reached for his heavy knife, raising an arm against the second piece of
rock which Banion flung as he closed. He felt his wrist caught in an
iron grip, felt the blood gush where his temple was cut by the last
missile. And then once more, on the narrow bared floor that but now was
patterned in parquetry traced in yellow, and soon must turn to red, it
came to man and man between them--and it was free!

They fell and stumbled so that neither could much damage the other at
first. Banion knew he must keep the impounded hand back from the knife
sheath or he was done. Thus close, he could make no escape. He fought
fast and furiously, striving to throw, to bend, to beat back the body of
a man almost as strong as himself, and now a maniac in rage and fear.

* * * * *

The sound of the rifle shot rang through the little defile. To Jackson,
shaving off bits of sweet meat between thumb and knife blade, it meant
the presence of a stranger, friend or foe, for he knew Banion had
carried no weapon with him. His own long rifle he snatched from its
pegs. At a long, easy lope he ran along the path which carried across
the face of the ravine. His moccasined feet made no sound. He saw no one
in the creek bed or at the long turn. But new, there came a loud,
wordless cry which he knew was meant for him. It was Will Banion's

The two struggling men grappled below him had no notion of how long they
had fought. It seemed an age, and the denouement yet another age
deferred. But to them came the sound of a voice:

"Git away, Will! Stand back!"

It was Jackson.

They both, still gripped, looked up the bank. The long barrel of a
rifle, foreshortened to a black point, above it a cold eye, fronted and
followed them as they swayed. The crooked arm of the rifleman was
motionless, save as it just moved that deadly circle an inch this way,
an inch back again.

Banion knew that this was murder, too, but he knew that naught on earth
could stay it now. To guard as much as he could against a last desperate
knife thrust even of a dying man, he broke free and sprang back as far
as he could, falling prostrate on his back as he did so, tripped by an
unseen stone. But Sam Woodhull was not upon him now, was not willing to
lose his own life in order to kill. For just one instant he looked up at
the death staring down on him, then turned to run.

There was no place where he could run. The voice of the man above him
called out sharp and hard.

"Halt! Sam Woodhull, look at me!"

He did turn, in horror, in fascination at sight of the Bright Angel. The
rifle barrel to his last gaze became a small, round circle, large as a
bottle top, and around it shone a fringed aura of red and purple light.
That might have been the eye.

Steadily as when he had held his friend's life in his hand, sighting
five inches above his eyes, the old hunter drew now above the eyes of
his enemy. When the dry report cut the confined air of the valley, the
body of Sam Woodhull started forward. The small blue hole an inch above
the eyes showed the murderer's man hunt done.



Winding down out of the hills into the grassy valley of the Upper
Sacramento, the little pack train of Banion and Jackson, six hardy mules
beside the black horse and Jackson's mountain pony, picked its way along
a gashed and trampled creek bed. The kyacks which swung heavy on the
strongest two mules might hold salt or lead or gold. It all was one to
any who might have seen, and the two silent men, the younger ahead, the
older behind, obviously were men able to hold their counsel or to defend
their property.

The smoke of a distant encampment caught the keen eye of Jackson as he
rode, humming, care-free, the burden of a song.

"Oh, then, Susannah!" admonished the old mountain man, and bade the said
Susannah to be as free of care as he himself then and there was.

"More men comin' in," said he presently. "Wonder who them people is, an'
ef hit's peace er war."

"Three men. A horse band. Two Indians. Go in easy, Bill."

Banion slowed down his own gait. His companion had tied the six mules
together, nose and tail, with the halter of the lead mule wrapped on
his own saddle horn. Each man now drew his rifle from the swing loop.
But they advanced with the appearance of confidence, for it was evident
that they had been discovered by the men of the encampment.

Apparently they were identified as well as discovered. A tall man in
leggings and moccasions, a flat felt hat over his long gray hair, stood
gazing at them, his rifle butt resting on the ground. Suddenly he
emitted an unearthly yell, whether of defiance or of greeting, and
springing to his own horse's picket pin gathered in the lariat, and
mounting bareback came on, his rifle high above his head, and repeating
again and again his war cry or salutation.

Jackson rose in his stirrups, dropped his lead line and forsook more
than a hundred and fifty thousand dollars some two mule-pack loads of
gold. His own yell rose high in answer.

"I told ye all the world'd be here!" he shouted back over his shoulder.
"Do-ee see that old thief Jim Bridger? Him I left drunk an' happy last
summer? Now what in hell brung him here?"

The two old mountain men flung off and stood hand in hand before Banion
had rescued the precious lead line and brought on the little train.

Bridger threw his hat on the ground, flung down his rifle and cast his
stoic calm aside. Both his hands caught Banion's and his face beamed,
breaking into a thousand lines.

"Boy, hit's you, then! I knowed yer hoss--he has no like in these
parts. I've traced ye by him this hundred miles below an' up agin, but
I've had no word this two weeks. Mostly I've seed that, when ye ain't
lookin' fer a b'ar, thar he is. Well, here we air, fine an' fatten, an'
me with two bottles left o' somethin' they call coggnac down in Yerba
Buena. Come on in an' we'll make medicine."

They dismounted. The two Indians, short, deep-chested, bow-legged men,
went to the packs. They gruntled as they unloaded the two larger mules.

The kyacks were lined up and the mantas spread over them, the animals
led away for feed and water. Bridger produced a ham of venison, some
beans, a bannock and some coffee--not to mention his two bottles of
fiery fluid--before any word was passed regarding future plans or past

"Come here, Jim," said Jackson after a time, tin cup in hand. The other
followed him, likewise equipped.

"Heft this pannier, Jim."

"Uh-huh? Well, what of hit? What's inter hit?"

"Not much, Jim. Jest three-four hunderd pounds o' gold settin' there in
them four packs. Hit hain't much, but hit'll help some."

Bridger stooped and uncovered the kyacks, unbuckled the cover straps.

"Hit's a true fack!" he exclaimed. "Gold! Ef hit hain't, I'm a putrified
liar, an' that's all I got to say!"

Now, little by little, they told, each to other, the story of the
months since they had met, Bridger first explaining his own movements.

"I left the Malheur at Boise, an' brung along yan two boys. Ye needn't
be a-skeered they'll touch the cargo. The gold means nothin' ter 'em,
but horses does. We've got a good band ter drive north now. Some we
bought an' most they stole, but no rancher cares fer horses here an'

"We come through the Klamaths, ye see, an' on south--the old horse trail
up from the Spanish country, which only the Injuns knows. My boys say
they kin take us ter the head o' the Willamette.

"So ye did get the gold! Eh, sir?" said Bridger, his eyes narrowing.
"The tip the gal give ye was a good one?"

"Yes," rejoined Banion. "But we came near losing it and more. It was
Woodhull, Jim. He followed us in."

"Yes, I know. His wagons was not fur behind ye on the Humboldt. He left
right atter ye did. He made trouble, huh? He'll make no more? Is that
hit, huh?"

Bill Jackson slapped the stock of his rifle in silence. Bridger nodded.
He had been close to tragedies all his life. They told him now of this
one. He nodded again, close lipped.

"An' ye want courts an' the settlements, boys?" said he. "Fer me, when I
kill a rattler, that's enough. Ef ye're touchy an' want yer ree-cord
clean, why, we kin go below an' fix hit. Only thing is, I don't want
ter waste no more time'n I kin help, fer some o' them horses has a
ree-cord that ain't maybe so plumb clean their own selves. Ye ain't
goin' out east--ye're goin' north. Hit's easier, an' a month er two
closter, with plenty o' feed an' water--the old Cayuse trail, huh?

"So Sam Woodhull got what he's been lookin' fer so long!" he added
presently. "Well, that simples up things some."

"He'd o' got hit long ago, on the Platte, ef my partner hadn't been a
damned fool," confirmed Jackson. "He was where we could a' buried him
nach'erl, in the sands. I told Will then that Woodhull'd murder him the
fust chancet he got. Well, he did--er ef he didn't hit wasn't no credit
ter either one o' them two."

"What differ does hit make, Bill?" remarked Bridger indifferently. "Let
bygones be bygones, huh? That's the pleasantest way, sence he's dead.

"Now here we air, with all the gold there ever was molded, an' a hull
two bottles o' coggnac left, which takes holt e'enamost better'n
Hundson's Bay rum. Ain't it a perty leetle ol' world to play with, all
with nice pink stripes erroun' hit?"

He filled his tin and broke into a roaring song:

_There was a ol' widder which had three sons--
Joshuway, James an' John.
An' one got shot, an' one got drowned,
An' th' last un got losted an' never was found_--

"Ain't hit funny, son," said he, turning to Banion with cup uplifted,
"how stiff likker allus makes me remember what I done fergot? Now Kit
told me, that at Laramie--"

"Fer I'm goin' out to Oregon, with my wash pan on my knee!" chanted Bill
Jackson, now solemnly oblivious of most of his surroundings and hence
not consciously discourteous to his friends; "Susannah, don't ye cry!"

They sat, the central figures of a scene wild enough, in a world still
primitive and young. Only one of the three remained sober and silent,
wondering, if one thing lacked, why the world was made.



At the new farm of Jesse Wingate on the Yamhill the wheat was in stack
and ready for the flail, his deer-skin sacks made ready to carry it to
market after the threshing. His grim and weather-beaten wagon stood, now
unused, at the barnyard fence of rails.

It was evening. Wingate and his wife again sat on their little stoop,
gazing down the path that led to the valley road. A mounted man was
opening the gate, someone they did not recognize.

"Maybe from below," said Molly Wingate. "Jed's maybe sent up another
letter. Leave it to him, he's going to marry the most wonderful girl!
Well, I'll call it true, she's a wonderful walker. All the Prices was."

"Or maybe it's for Molly," she added. "Ef she's ever heard a word from
either Sam Woodhull or--"

"Hush! I do not want to hear that name!" broke in her husband. "Trouble
enough he has made for us!"

His wife made no comment for a moment, still watching the stranger, who
was now riding up the long approach, little noted by Wingate as he sat,
moody and distrait.

"Jess," said she, "let's be fair and shame the devil. Maybe we don't
know all the truth about Will Banion. You go in the house. I'll tend to
this man, whoever he may be."

But she did not. With one more look at the advancing figure, she herself
rose and followed her husband. As she passed she cast a swift glance at
her daughter, who had not joined them for the twilight hour. Hers was
the look of the mother--maternal, solicitious, yet wise and resolved
withal; woman understanding woman. And now was the hour for her ewe lamb
to be alone.

Molly Wingate sat in her own little room, looking through her window at
the far forest and the mountain peaks in their evening dress of many
colors. She was no longer the tattered emigrant girl in fringed frock
and mended moccasins. Ships from the world's great ports served the new
market of the Columbia Valley. It was a trim and trig young woman in the
habiliments of sophisticated lands who sat here now, her heavy hair,
piled high, lighted warmly in the illumination of the window. Her skin,
clear white, had lost its sunburn in the moister climate between the two
ranges of mountains. Quiet, reticent, reserved--cold, some said; but all
said Molly Wingate, teacher at the mission school, was beautiful, the
most beautiful young woman in all the great Willamette settlements. Her
hands were in her lap now, and her face as usual was grave. A sad young
woman, her Oregon lovers all said of her. They did not know why she
should be sad, so fit for love was she.

She heard now a knock at the front door, to which, from her position,
she could not have seen anyone approach. She called out, "Come!" but did
not turn her head.

A horse stamped, neighed near her door. Her face changed expression. Her
eyes grew wide in some strange association of memories suddenly revived.

She heard a footfall on the gallery floor, then on the floor of the
hall. It stopped. Her heart almost stopped with it. Some undiscovered
sense warned her, cried aloud to her. She faced the door, wide-eyed, as
it was flung open.


Will Banion's deep-toned voice told her all the rest. In terror, her
hands to her face, she stood an instant, then sprang toward him, her
voice almost a wail in its incredulous joy.

"Will! Will! Oh, Will! Oh! Oh!"


They both paused.

"It can't be! Oh, you frightened me, Will! It can't be you!"

But he had her in his arms now. At first he could only push back her
hair, stroke her cheek, until at last the rush of life and youth came
back to them both, and their lips met in the sealing kiss of years. Then
both were young again. She put up a hand to caress his brown cheek.
Tenderly he pushed back her hair.

"Will! Oh, Will! It can't be!" she whispered again and again.

"But it is! It had to be! Now I'm paid! Now I've found my fortune!"

"And I've had my year to think it over, Will. As though the fortune

"Not so much as that one other thing that kept you and me apart. Now I
must tell you--"

"No, no, let be! Tell me nothing! Will, aren't you here?"

"But I must! You must hear me! I've waited two years for this!"

"Long, Will! You've let me get old!"

"You old?" He kissed her in contempt of time. "But now wait, dear, for I
must tell you.

"You see, coming up the valley I met the Clerk of the Court of Oregon
City, and he knew I was headed up for the Yamhill. He asked me to serve
as his messenger. 'I've been sending up through all the valley
settlements in search of one William Banion,' he said to me. Then I told
him who I was. He gave me this."

"What is it?" She turned to her lover. He held in his hands a long
package, enfolded in an otter skin. "Is it a court summons for Will
Banion? They can't have you, Will!"

He smiled, her head held between his two hands.

"'I have a very important document for Colonel William Banion,' the
clerk said to me. 'It has been for some time in our charge, for
delivery to him at once should he come into the Oregon settlements. It
is from His Excellency, the President of the United States. Such
messages do not wait. Seeing it of such importance, and knowing it to be
military, Judge Lane opened it, since we could not trace the addressee.
If you like--if you are, indeed, Colonel William Banion'--that was what
he said."

He broke off, choking.

"Ah, Molly, at last and indeed I am again William Banion!"

He took from the otter skin--which Chardon once had placed over the
oilskin used by Carson to protect it--the long and formal envelope of
heavy linen. His finger pointed--"On the Service of the United States."

"Why, Will!"

He caught the envelope swiftly to his lips, holding it there an instant
before he could speak.

"My pardon! From the President! Not guilty--oh, not guilty! And I never

"Oh, Will, Will! That makes you happy?"

"Doesn't it you?"

"Why, yes, yes! But I knew that always! And I know now that I'd have
followed you to the gallows if that had had to be."

"Though I were a thief?"

"Yes! But I'd not believe it! I didn't! I never did! I could not!"

"You'd take my word against all the world--just my word, if I told you
it wasn't true? You'd want no proof at all? Will you always believe in
me in that way? No proof?"

"I want none now. You do tell me that? No, no! I'm afraid you'd give me
proofs! I want none! I want to love you for what you are, for what we
both are, Will! I'm afraid!"

He put his hands on her shoulders, held her away arms' length, looked
straight into her eyes.

"Dear girl," said he, "you need never be afraid any more."

She put her head down contentedly against his shoulder, her face
nestling sidewise, her eyes closed, her arms again quite around his

"I don't care, Will," said she. "No, no, don't talk of things!"

He did not talk. In the sweetness of the silence he kissed her tenderly
again and again.

And now the sun might sink. The light of the whole world by no means
died with it.


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