Authors: John Williams
He looked at her once more; she did not move, and the look of bewilderment did not leave her face. He pulled open the door and let the knob fly violently from his hand; he ran into the dark hall and stumbled down its length, opened the door to the landing, and stood for a moment on the landing, breathing air in deep, famished gulps. When his legs regained some of their strength, he went down the stairs, feeling his way by the rough bannister.
He stood for a moment on the rough sidewalk, and looked up and down the street. He could not see much of Butcher’s Crossing in the darkness. He looked across the street at his hotel; a dim light came from the doorway. He went across the dusty street toward it. He did not think of Francine, or of what had happened in the room above Jackson’s Saloon. He thought of the three or four days that he would have to wait in this place before Miller and the others were ready. He thought of how he might spend them, and he wondered how he might press them into one crumpled bit of time that he could toss away.
In the early dawn, on the twenty-fifth day of August, the four men met behind the livery stable where their wagon, loaded with six weeks’ provisions, waited for them. A sleepy stable man, scratching his matted hair and cursing mechanically under his breath, yoked their oxen to the wagon; the oxen snorted and moved uneasily in the faint light cast by a lantern set on the ground. His task completed, the stable man grunted and turned away from the four men; he shambled back toward the livery stable, swinging the lantern carelessly beside him, and dropped upon a pile of filthy blankets that lay on the open ground outside. Lying on his side, he raised the globe of the lantern and blew out the flame. In the darkness, three of the men mounted their horses; the fourth clambered into the wagon. For a few moments none of them spoke or moved. In the silence and darkness the heavy breathing of the stable man came regular and deep, and the thin squeak of leather upon wood sounded as the oxen moved against their yokes.
From the wagon Charley Hoge cleared his throat and said: “Ready?”
Miller sighed deeply, and answered, his voice muffled and quiet: “Ready.”
Upon the silence came the sudden pop of braided leather as Charley Hoge let his bull-whip out above the oxen, and his voice, shrill and explosive, cracked: “Harrup!”
The oxen strained against the weight of the wagon, their hooves pawing and thudding dully in the earth; the wheels groaned against the hickory axles; for a moment there was a jumble of sound—wood strained against its grain, rawhide and leather slapped together and pulled in high thin screeches, and metal jangled against metal; then the sound gave way to an easy rumble as the wheels turned and the wagon slowly began to move behind the oxen.
The three men preceded the wagon around the livery stable and into the wide dirt street of Butcher’s Crossing. Miller rode first, slouched in his saddle; behind him, forming a broad-based triangle, rode Schneider and Andrews. Still, no one spoke. Miller looked ahead into the darkness that was gradually beginning to lift; Schneider kept his head down, as if he were asleep in his saddle; and Andrews looked on either side of him at the little town that he was leaving. The town was ghostly and dim in the morning darkness; the fronts of the buildings were gray shapes that rose out of the earth like huge eroded stones, and the half-dugouts appeared to be piles of rubble thrown carelessly about open holes. The procession passed Jackson’s Saloon, and soon it was past the town. In the flat country beyond the town, it seemed to be darker; the clopping of the horses’ hooves became dull and regular in the ears of the men, and the thin clogging odor of dust clung about their nostrils, and was not blown away in the slowness of their passage.
Beyond the town the procession passed on its left McDonald’s small shack and the pole-fenced brining pits; Miller turned his head, grunted something inaudible to himself, and chuckled. A little past the clump of cottonwood trees, where the road began to go upward over the mounded banks of the stream, the three men on horseback came to a pause and the wagon behind them creaked to a halt. They turned and looked back, widening their eyes against the darkness. As they looked at the vague sprawling shape of Butcher’s Crossing, a dim yellow light, disembodied and hanging casually in the darkness, came on; from somewhere a horse neighed and snorted. With one accord, they turned again on their horses and began to descend the road that led across the river.
Where they crossed, the river was shallow; its trickling around the flat rocks that had been laid in the soft mud as a bed for crossing had a murmurous sound that was intensified by the darkness; the dim light from the filling moon caught irregularly upon the water as it flowed, and there was visible upon the stream a constant glitter that made it appear wider and deeper than it was. The water barely came above their horses’ hooves, and flowed unevenly over the turning rims of the wagon wheels.
A few moments after they crossed the stream, Miller again pulled his horse to a halt. In the dimness, the other men could see him raise himself in the saddle and lean toward the lifting darkness in the west. As if it were heavy, he lifted his arm and pointed in that direction.
“We’ll cut across country here,” he said, “and hit the Smoky Hill trail about noon.”
The first pink streaks of light were beginning to show in the east. The group turned off the road and set across the flat land; in a few minutes, the narrow road was no longer visible to them. Will Andrews turned in his saddle and looked back; he could not be sure of the point where they had left the road, and he could see no mark to guide them in their journey westward. The wagon wheels went easily and smoothly through the thick yellow-green grass; the wagon left narrow parallel lines behind it, which were quickly swallowed up in the level distance.
The sun rose behind them, and they went more quickly forward, as if pushed by the increasing heat. The air was clear, and the sky was without clouds; the sun beat against their backs and brought sweat through their rough clothing.
Once the group passed a small hut with a sod roof. The hut was set on the open plain; behind it a small plot of ground had been cleared once, but now it was going back to the yellow-green grass that covered the land. A broken wagon wheel lay near the front entrance, and a heavy wooden plow was rotting beside it. Through the wide door, at the side of which hung a scrap of weathered canvas, they could see an overturned table and the floor covered with dust and rubble. Miller turned in his saddle and spoke to Andrews:
“Gave it up.” His voice had a thin edge of satisfaction. “Lots of them have tried it, but don’t many make it. They pull out when it gets a little bad.”
Andrews nodded, but he did not speak. As they went past the hut, his head turned; he watched the place until his view of it was cut off by the wagon that came behind them.
By noon the horses’ hides were shining with sweat, and white flecks of foam covered their mouths and were sent flying into the air as they shook their heads against the bits. The heat throbbed against Andrews’s body, and his head pounded painfully with the beat of his pulse; already the flesh on his upper thighs was tender from rubbing against the saddle flaps, and his buttocks were numb on the hard leather of the seat. Never before had he ridden for more than a few hours at a time; he winced at the thought of the pain he would feel at the end of the day.
Schneider’s voice broke upon him: “We ought to be getting to the river about this time. I don’t see no sign of it yet.”
His voice was directed to no one in particular, but Miller turned and answered him shortly. “It ain’t far. The animals can hold out till we get there.”
Hardly had he finished speaking when Charley Hoge, behind them in the wagon, perched higher on his wagon seat than they in their saddles, called in his high voice: “Look ahead! You can see the trees from here.”
Andrews squinted and strained his eyes against the noon brightness. After a few moments he was able to make out a thin dark line that slashed up through the yellow field.
Miller turned to Schneider. “Shouldn’t be more than ten minutes from here,” he said, and smiled a little. “Think you can hold out?”
Schneider shrugged. “I ain’t in no hurry. I was just wondering if we was going to find it as easy as you thought.”
Miller rapped his horse gently across the rump with one hand, and the horse went forward a bit more rapidly. Behind him Andrews heard the sharp crack of Charley Hoge’s whip, and heard his wordless cry to the oxen. He turned. The oxen lumbered forward more swiftly, as if they had been awakened from a reverie. A light breeze came toward them, ruffling the grass in a soft sweep. The horses’ ears pitched forward; beneath him Andrews felt a sudden stiffening and a surge of movement as his horse went ahead.
Miller pulled back on his reins and called to Andrews: “Hold him hard. They smell water. If you ain’t careful, he’ll run away with you.”
Andrews grasped the reins tightly and pulled hard against the forward movement of the horse; the horse’s head came back, the black eyes wide and the coarse black mane flying. He heard behind him the thin squeak of leather straining as Charley Hoge braked against the oxen, and heard the oxen lowing as if in agony at their restraint.
By the time they got to the Smoky Hill, the animals were quieter, but tense and impatient. Andrews’s hands were sore from pulling against the reins. He dismounted; hardly had he got his feet on the ground when his horse sprang away from him and tore through the low underbrush that lined the river.
His legs were weak. He took a few steps forward and sat shakily in the shade of a scrub oak; the branches scratched against his back, but he did not have the will to move. He watched dully as Charley Hoge set the brake on the wagon and unyoked the first team of oxen from the heavy singletree. With his one hand pulling hard against the yoke, his body slanted between the oxen, Charley Hoge let himself be pulled toward the stream. He returned in a few moments and led another pair to the stream, while the remaining oxen set up a deep and mindless lowing. Miller dropped upon the ground beside Andrews; Schneider sat across from them, his back to another tree, and looked about indifferently.
“Charley has to lead them down two at a time, yoked together,” Miller said. “If he let them all go down together, they might trample each other. They ain’t got much more sense than buffalo.”
By the time the last oxen were released from the wagon, the horses began to amble back from the river. The men removed the bits from their horses’ mouths and let them graze. Charley got some dried fruit and biscuits from the wagon, and the men munched on them.
“Might as well take it easy for a while,” Miller said. “The stock will have to graze; we can take it easy for a couple of hours.”
Small black flies buzzed about their damp faces, and their hands were busy slapping them away; the slow gurgle of the river, hidden by the dense brush, came to their ears. Schneider lay on his back and placed a dirty red handkerchief over his face and folded his bare hands under his armpits; soon he was asleep, and the center of the red handkerchief rose and fell gently with his breathing. Charley Hoge wandered along the grassy outer bank of the river toward the grazing animals.
“How far have we come this morning?” Andrews asked Miller, who sat erect beside him.
“Pretty near eight miles,” Miller answered. “We’ll do better when the team is broke in. They ain’t working together like they ought to.” There was a silence. Miller continued: “A mile or so ahead, we run into the Smoky Hill trail; it follows the river pretty close all the way into the Colorado Territory. It’s easy traveling; should take us less than a week.”
“And when we get into the Colorado?” Andrews asked.
Miller grinned briefly and shook his head. “No trail there. We’ll just travel on the country.”
Andrews nodded. The weakness in his body had given way to a lassitude. He stretched his limbs and lay on his stomach, his chin resting on his folded hands. The short grass, green under the trees and moist from the seepage of the river, tickled his nostrils; he smelled the damp earth and the sweet sharp freshness of the grass. He did not sleep, but his eyes drooped and his breath came evenly and deeply. He thought of the short distance they had come, and he tensed muscles that were growing sore. It was only the beginning of the journey; what he had seen this morning—the flatness, the emptiness, the yellow sea of undisturbed grass—was only the presentiment of the wilderness. Another strangeness was waiting for him when they left the trail and went into the Colorado Territory. His half-closed eyes nearly recaptured the sharp engravings he had seen in books, in magazines, when he was at home in Boston; but the thin black lines wavered upon the real grass before him, took on color, then faded. He could not recapture the strange sensations he had had, long ago, when he first saw those depictions of the land he now was seeking. Among the three men who waited beside the river, the silence was not broken until Charley Hoge began leading the oxen back to the wagon to yoke them for the resumption of the afternoon trip.
The trail upon which they went was a narrow strip of earth that had been worn bare by wagon wheels and hooves. Occasionally deep ruts forced the wagon off into the tall grass, where the land was often more level than on the trail. Andrews asked Miller why they stuck to the trail, and Miller explained that the sharp grass, whipping all day against the hooves and fetlocks of an ox, could make him footsore. For the horses, which lifted their hooves higher even in a slow walk, there was less danger.
Once, along the trail, they came upon a wide strip of bare earth that intersected their path. In this strip the earth was packed tightly down, though its surface was curiously pocked with regular indentations. It extended away from the river almost as far as the eye could see, and gradually merged into the prairie grass; on the other side of the men, it led toward the river, gradually increasing in width to the very edge of the river, which at this point was bare of brush and tree.