In the central portion of the great North American Continent there lies a_rid and repulsive desert, which for many a long year served as a barrie_gainst the advance of civilisation. From the Sierra Nevada to Nebraska, an_rom the Yellowstone River in the north to the Colorado upon the south, is _egion of desolation and silence. Nor is Nature always in one mood throughou_his grim district. It comprises snow-capped and lofty mountains, and dark an_loomy valleys. There are swift-flowing rivers which dash through jagge_anons; and there are enormous plains, which in winter are white with snow, and in summer are grey with the saline alkali dust. They all preserve, however, the common characteristics of barrenness, inhospitality, and misery.
There are no inhabitants of this land of despair. A band of Pawnees or o_lackfeet may occasionally traverse it in order to reach other hunting- grounds, but the hardiest of the braves are glad to lose sight of thos_wesome plains, and to find themselves once more upon their prairies. Th_oyote skulks among the scrub, the buzzard flaps heavily through the air, an_he clumsy grizzly bear lumbers through the dark ravines, and picks up suc_ustenance as it can amongst the rocks. These are the sole dwellers in th_ilderness.
In the whole world there can be no more dreary view than that from th_orthern slope of the Sierra Blanco. As far as the eye can reach stretches th_reat flat plain-land, all dusted over with patches of alkali, and intersecte_y clumps of the dwarfish chaparral bushes. On the extreme verge of th_orizon lie a long chain of mountain peaks, with their rugged summits flecke_ith snow. In this great stretch of country there is no sign of life, nor o_nything appertaining to life. There is no bird in the steel-blue heaven, n_ovement upon the dull, grey earth — above all, there is absolute silence.
Listen as one may, there is no shadow of a sound in all that might_ilderness; nothing but silence — complete and heart-subduing silence.
It has been said there is nothing appertaining to life upon the broad plain.
That is hardly true. Looking down from the Sierra Blanco, one sees a pathwa_raced out across the desert, which winds away and is lost in the extrem_istance. It is rutted with wheels and trodden down by the feet of man_dventurers. Here and there there are scattered white objects which glisten i_he sun, and stand out against the dull deposit of alkali. Approach, an_xamine them! They are bones: some large and coarse, others smaller and mor_elicate. The former have belonged to oxen, and the latter to men. For fiftee_undred miles one may trace this ghastly caravan route by these scattere_emains of those who had fallen by the wayside.
Looking down on this very scene, there stood upon the fourth of May, eightee_undred and forty-seven, a solitary traveller. His appearance was such that h_ight have been the very genius or demon of the region. An observer would hav_ound it difficult to say whether he was nearer to forty or to sixty. His fac_as lean and haggard, and the brown parchment-like skin was drawn tightly ove_he projecting bones; his long, brown hair and beard were all flecked an_ashed with white; his eyes were sunken in his head, and burned with a_nnatural lustre; while the hand which grasped his rifle was hardly mor_leshy than that of a skeleton. As he stood, he leaned upon his weapon fo_upport, and yet his tall figure and the massive framework of his bone_uggested a wiry and vigorous constitution. His gaunt face, however, and hi_lothes, which hung so baggily over his shrivelled limbs, proclaimed what i_as that gave him that senile and decrepit appearance. The man was dying — dying from hunger and from thirst.
He had toiled painfully down the ravine, and on to this little elevation, i_he vain hope of seeing some signs of water. Now the great salt plai_tretched before his eyes, and the distant belt of savage mountains, without _ign anywhere of plant or tree, which might indicate the presence of moisture.
In all that broad landscape there was no gleam of hope. North, and east, an_est he looked with wild questioning eyes, and then he realised that hi_anderings had come to an end, and that there, on that barren crag, he wa_bout to die. "Why not here, as well as in a feather bed, twenty years hence,"
he muttered, as he seated himself in the shelter of a boulder.
Before sitting down, he had deposited upon the ground his useless rifle, an_lso a large bundle tied up in a grey shawl, which he had carried slung ove_is right shoulder. It appeared to be somewhat too heavy for his strength, fo_n lowering it, it came down on the ground with some little violence.
Instantly there broke from the grey parcel a little moaning cry, and from i_here protruded a small, scared face, with very bright brown eyes, and tw_ittle speckled, dimpled fists.
"You've hurt me!" said a childish voice reproachfully.
"Have I though," the man answered penitently, "I didn't go for to do it." A_e spoke he unwrapped the grey shawl and extricated a pretty little girl o_bout five years of age, whose dainty shoes and smart pink frock with it_ittle linen apron all bespoke a mother's care. The child was pale and wan, but her healthy arms and legs showed that she had suffered less than he_ompanion.
"How is it now?" he answered anxiously, for she was still rubbing the tows_olden curls which covered the back of her head.
"Kiss it and make it well," she said, with perfect gravity, shoving th_njured part up to him. "That's what mother used to do. Where's mother?"
"Mother's gone. I guess you'll see her before long."
"Gone, eh!" said the little girl. "Funny, she didn't say good-bye; she 'mos_lways did if she was just goin' over to Auntie's for tea, and now she's bee_way three days. Say, it's awful dry, ain't it? Ain't there no water, no_othing to eat?"
"No, there ain't nothing, dearie. You'll just need to be patient awhile, an_hen you'll be all right. Put your head up agin me like that, and then you'l_eel bullier. It ain't easy to talk when your lips is like leather, but _uess I'd best let you know how the cards lie. What's that you've got?"
"Pretty things! fine things!" cried the little girl enthusiastically, holdin_p two glittering fragments of mica. "When we goes back to home I'll give the_o brother Bob."
"You'll see prettier things than them soon," said the man confidently. "Yo_ust wait a bit. I was going to tell you though — you remember when we lef_he river?"
"Well, we reckoned we'd strike another river soon, d'ye see. But there wa_omethin' wrong; compasses, or map, or somethin', and it didn't turn up. Wate_an out. Just except a little drop for the likes of you and — and —"
"And you couldn't wash yourself," interrupted his companion gravely, starin_p at his grimy visage.
"No, nor drink. And Mr. Bender, he was the fust to go, and then Indian Pete, and then Mrs. McGregor, and then Johnny Hones, and then, dearie, your mother."
"Then mother's a deader too," cried the little girl dropping her face in he_inafore and sobbing bitterly.
"Yes, they all went except you and me. Then I thought there was some chance o_ater in this direction, so I heaved you over my shoulder and we tramped i_ogether. It don't seem as though we've improved matters. There's an almight_mall chance for us now!"
"Do you mean that we are going to die too?" asked the child, checking he_obs, and raising her tear-stained face.
"I guess that's about the size of it."
"Why didn't you say so before?" she said, laughing gleefully. "You gave m_uch a fright. Why, of course, now as long as we die we'll be with mothe_gain."
"Yes, you will, dearie."
"And you too. I'll tell her how awful good you've been. I'll bet she meets u_t the door of Heaven with a big pitcher of water, and a lot of buckwhea_akes, hot, and toasted on both sides, like Bob and me was fond of. How lon_ill it be first?"
"I don't know — not very long." The man's eyes were fixed upon the norther_orizon. In the blue vault of the heaven there had appeared three littl_pecks which increased in size every moment, so rapidly did they approach.
They speedily resolved themselves into three large brown birds, which circle_ver the heads of the two wanderers, and then settled upon some rocks whic_verlooked them. They were buzzards, the vultures of the west, whose coming i_he forerunner of death.
"Cocks and hens," cried the little girl gleefully, pointing at their ill- omened forms, and clapping her hands to make them rise. "Say, did God mak_his country?"
"In course He did," said her companion, rather startled by this unexpecte_uestion.
"He made the country down in Illinois, and He made the Missouri," the littl_irl continued. "I guess somebody else made the country in these parts. It'_ot nearly so well done. They forgot the water and the trees."
"What would ye think of offering up prayer?" the man asked diffidently.
"It ain't night yet," she answered.
"It don't matter. It ain't quite regular, but He won't mind that, you bet. Yo_ay over them ones that you used to say every night in the waggon when we wa_n the Plains."
"Why don't you say some yourself?" the child asked, with wondering eyes.
"I disremember them," he answered. "I hain't said none since I was half th_eight o' that gun. I guess it's never too late. You say them out, and I'l_tand by and come in on the choruses."
"Then you'll need to kneel down, and me too," she said, laying the shawl ou_or that purpose. "You've got to put your hands up like this. It makes yo_eel kind o' good."
It was a strange sight had there been anything but the buzzards to see it.
Side by side on the narrow shawl knelt the two wanderers, the little prattlin_hild and the reckless, hardened adventurer. Her chubby face, and his haggard, angular visage were both turned up to the cloudless heaven in heartfel_ntreaty to that dread being with whom they were face to face, while the tw_oices — the one thin and clear, the other deep and harsh — united in th_ntreaty for mercy and forgiveness. The prayer finished, they resumed thei_eat in the shadow of the boulder until the child fell asleep, nestling upo_he broad breast of her protector. He watched over her slumber for some time, but Nature proved to be too strong for him. For three days and three nights h_ad allowed himself neither rest nor repose. Slowly the eyelids drooped ove_he tired eyes, and the head sunk lower and lower upon the breast, until th_an's grizzled beard was mixed with the gold tresses of his companion, an_oth slept the same deep and dreamless slumber.
Had the wanderer remained awake for another half hour a strange sight woul_ave met his eyes. Far away on the extreme verge of the alkali plain ther_ose up a little spray of dust, very slight at first, and hardly to b_istinguished from the mists of the distance, but gradually growing higher an_roader until it formed a solid, well-defined cloud. This cloud continued t_ncrease in size until it became evident that it could only be raised by _reat multitude of moving creatures. In more fertile spots the observer woul_ave come to the conclusion that one of those great herds of bisons whic_raze upon the prairie land was approaching him. This was obviously impossibl_n these arid wilds. As the whirl of dust drew nearer to the solitary bluf_pon which the two castaways were reposing, the canvas-covered tilts o_aggons and the figures of armed horsemen began to show up through the haze, and the apparition revealed itself as being a great caravan upon its journe_or the West. But what a caravan! When the head of it had reached the base o_he mountains, the rear was not yet visible on the horizon. Right across th_normous plain stretched the straggling array, waggons and carts, men o_orseback, and men on foot. Innumerable women who staggered along unde_urdens, and children who toddled beside the waggons or peeped out from unde_he white coverings. This was evidently no ordinary party of immigrants, bu_ather some nomad people who had been compelled from stress of circumstance_o seek themselves a new country. There rose through the clear air a confuse_lattering and rumbling from this great mass of humanity, with the creaking o_heels and the neighing of horses. Loud as it was, it was not sufficient t_ouse the two tired wayfarers above them.
At the head of the column there rode a score or more of grave ironfaced men, clad in sombre homespun garments and armed with rifles. On reaching the bas_f the bluff they halted, and held a short council among themselves.
"The wells are to the right, my brothers," said one, a hard-lipped, clean- shaven man with grizzly hair.
"To the right of the Sierra Blanco — so we shall reach the Rio Grande," sai_nother.
"Fear not for water," cried a third. "He who could draw it from the rocks wil_ot now abandon His own chosen people."
"Amen! Amen!" responded the whole party.
They were about to resume their journey when one of the youngest and keenest- eyed uttered an exclamation and pointed up at the rugged crag above them. Fro_ts summit there fluttered a little wisp of pink, showing up hard and brigh_gainst the grey rocks behind. At the sight there was a general reining up o_orses and unslinging of guns, while fresh horsemen came galloping up t_einforce the vanguard. The word 'Redskins' was on every lip.
"There can't be any number of Injuns here," said the elderly man who appeare_o be in command. "We have passed the Pawnees, and there are no other tribe_ntil we cross the great mountains."
"Shall I go forward and see, Brother Stangerson," asked one of the band.
"And I," "and I," cried a dozen voices.
"Leave your horses below and we will await you here," the Elder answered. In _oment the young fellows had dismounted, fastened their horses, and wer_scending the precipitous slope which led up to the object which had excite_heir curiosity. They advanced rapidly and noiselessly, with the confidenc_nd dexterity of practised scouts. The watchers from the plain below could se_hem flit from rock to rock until their figures stood out against the skyline.
The young man who had first given the alarm was leading them. Suddenly hi_ollowers saw him throw up his hands, as though overcome with astonishment, and on joining him they were affected in the same way by the sight which me_heir eyes.
On the little plateau which crowned the barren hill there stood a single gian_oulder, and against this boulder there lay a tall man, long-bearded and hard- featured, but of an excessive thinness. His placid face and regular breathin_howed that he was fast asleep. Beside him lay a little child, with her roun_hite arms encircling his brown sinewy neck, and her golden haired hea_esting upon the breast of his velveteen tunic. Her rosy lips were parted, showing the regular line of snow-white teeth within, and a playful smil_layed over her infantile features. Her plump little white legs terminating i_hite socks and neat shoes with shining buckles, offered a strange contrast t_he long shrivelled members of her companion. On the ledge of rock above thi_trange couple there stood three solemn buzzards, who, at the sight of the ne_omers uttered raucous screams of disappointment and flapped sullenly away.
The cries of the foul birds awoke the two sleepers who stared about them i_ewilderment. The man staggered to his feet and looked down upon the plai_hich had been so desolate when sleep had overtaken him, and which was no_raversed by this enormous body of men and of beasts. His face assumed a_xpression of incredulity as he gazed, and he passed his boney hand over hi_yes. "This is what they call delirium, I guess," he muttered. The child stoo_eside him, holding on to the skirt of his coat, and said nothing but looke_ll round her with the wondering questioning gaze of childhood.
The rescuing party were speedily able to convince the two castaways that thei_ppearance was no delusion. One of them seized the little girl, and hoiste_er upon his shoulder, while two others supported her gaunt companion, an_ssisted him towards the waggons.
"My name is John Ferrier," the wanderer explained; "me and that little un ar_ll that's left o' twenty-one people. The rest is all dead o' thirst an_unger away down in the south."
"Is she your child?" asked someone.
"I guess she is now," the other cried, defiantly; "she's mine 'cause I save_er. No man will take her from me. She's Lucy Ferrier from this day on. Wh_re you, though?" he continued, glancing with curiosity at his stalwart, sunburned rescuers; "there seems to be a powerful lot of ye."
"Nigh upon ten thousand," said one of the young men; "we are the persecute_hildren of God — the chosen of the Angel Merona."
"I never heard tell on him," said the wanderer. "He appears to have chosen _air crowd of ye."
"Do not jest at that which is sacred," said the other sternly. "We are o_hose who believe in those sacred writings, drawn in Egyptian letters o_lates of beaten gold, which were handed unto the holy Joseph Smith a_almyra. We have come from Nauvoo, in the State of Illinois, where we ha_ounded our temple. We have come to seek a refuge from the violent man an_rom the godless, even though it be the heart of the desert."
The name of Nauvoo evidently recalled recollections to John Ferrier. "I see,"
he said, "you are the Mormons."
"We are the Mormons," answered his companions with one voice.
"And where are you going?"
"We do not know. The hand of God is leading us under the person of ou_rophet. You must come before him. He shall say what is to be done with you."
They had reached the base of the hill by this time, and were surrounded b_rowds of the pilgrims — pale-faced meek-looking women, strong laughin_hildren, and anxious earnest-eyed men. Many were the cries of astonishmen_nd of commiseration which arose from them when they perceived the youth o_ne of the strangers and the destitution of the other. Their escort did no_alt, however, but pushed on, followed by a great crowd of Mormons, until the_eached a waggon, which was conspicuous for its great size and for th_audiness and smartness of its appearance. Six horses were yoked to it, whereas the others were furnished with two, or, at most, four a-piece. Besid_he driver there sat a man who could not have been more than thirty years o_ge, but whose massive head and resolute expression marked him as a leader. H_as reading a brown-backed volume, but as the crowd approached he laid i_side, and listened attentively to an account of the episode. Then he turne_o the two castaways.
"If we take you with us," he said, in solemn words, "it can only be a_elievers in our own creed. We shall have no wolves in our fold. Better fa_hat your bones should bleach in this wilderness than that you should prove t_e that little speck of decay which in time corrupts the whole fruit. Will yo_ome with us on these terms?"
"Guess I'll come with you on any terms," said Ferrier, with such emphasis tha_he grave Elders could not restrain a smile. The leader alone retained hi_tern, impressive expression.
"Take him, Brother Stangerson," he said, "give him food and drink, and th_hild likewise. Let it be your task also to teach him our holy creed. We hav_elayed long enough. Forward! On, on to Zion!"
"On, on to Zion!" cried the crowd of Mormons, and the words rippled down th_ong caravan, passing from mouth to mouth until they died away in a dul_urmur in the far distance. With a cracking of whips and a creaking of wheel_he great wagons got into motion, and soon the whole caravan was winding alon_nce more. The Elder to whose care the two waifs had been committed, led the_o his waggon, where a meal was already awaiting them.
"You shall remain here," he said. "In a few days you will have recovered fro_our fatigues. In the meantime, remember that now and for ever you are of ou_eligion. Brigham Young has said it, and he has spoken with the voice o_oseph Smith, which is the voice of God."