The Freighter's Dream

By Ida M. Huntington

"Squeak! Squ-e-a-k! Scr-e-e-ch!" The shrill, monotonous sound rent the hot noontide air like a wail of complaint.

"Thar she goes ag'in, a-cussin' of her driver!" grumbled old Hi, as he walked at the head of his lead oxen, Poly and Bony, with Buck and Berry panting behind them. "Jest listen at her! An' 'twas only day afore yistiddy that I put in a hull half hour a-greasin of her. Wal, she'll hev to fuss till mornin'. We ain't got no time to stop a minute in this hot place. If we make the springs afore the beasteses gin out 'twill be more'n I look fer!"

Old Hi anxiously gazed ahead, trying to see through the shimmering haze of the desert the far-distant little spot of ground where bubbled up the precious spring by which they might halt for rest and refreshment. "G'lang, Poly! That's right, Bony! Keep it up, ol' fellers!" Hi strove to encourage the patient oxen as they plodded wearily along through the fearful heat and the suffocating clouds of fine alkali dust.

For weeks the long train of covered wagons had moved steadily westward over the dim trails. Starting away back in Ohio, loaded with necessities for the prospectors in the far West, they had crossed the fertile prairies, stuck in the muddy sloughs, forded the swollen rivers, rumbled over the plains and wound in and out the mountain passes. Now they were crawling over the desert, man and beast almost exhausted, even the seasoned wagons seeming to protest against the strain put upon them.

All that afternoon Hi walked with his oxen, talking and whistling, as much to keep up his own courage as to quicken their pace. For a few moments at a time they would rest, and then onward again towards the springs indicated on the map by which they traveled.

Half blind and dizzy from the dust and heat, sometimes Hi stumbled and staggered and nearly fell. He dared not turn to see how it fared with the men and teams behind him. Wrecks of wagons and bones of oxen by the side of the trail told an all-too-plain story. Some there were in every train who dropped by the way; men who raved in fever and died calling for water; faithful oxen who were shot to put them out of misery. Wagons were abandoned with their valuable freight when the teams could no longer pull them.

All afternoon they crept forward; the reiterating "Squeak! Squ-e-a-k! Scr-e-e-ch!" of the wagon sounded like a maddened human voice to poor Hi, fevered and half delirious.

At last the sun sank like a ball of fire in the haze. A cool breath of air sighed across the plain. The prairie dogs barked from their burrows. The coyotes yapped in the distance. But not yet could the long train stop, for rest without water meant death.

Far into the night the white-topped wagons crept on like specters. No sound was heard except that of the plodding feet of the oxen, the rumble of the heavy wagons and the "Squeak! Squ-e-a-k! Scr-e-e-ch!" that had troubled Hi since noon. Suddenly the oxen lifted their heads, sniffed the air eagerly, and without urging quickened their pace.

"What is it, ol' fellers?" asked Hi, as hope revived. "Is it the water ye are smellin'? Stiddy, thar! Stiddy!"

A few moments more, and Hi gave a shout of joy that was taken up and sounded down the line. "The spring! The spring!"

A halt was made. Every drop of the precious water was carefully portioned out so that each might have his share. Preparations were made for the night. The wagons were pulled up in a circle. The oxen were carefully secured that they might not wander away. Here and there a flickering little fire was seen as the scanty "grub" was cooked. After Hi had bolted his share he wrapped himself in his blanket and lay down near his wagon. The large white top loomed dimly before him in the darkness.

A little while he stretched and twisted and turned uneasily until his tired muscles relaxed. In his ears yet seemed to sound the "Squeak! Squ-e-a-k! Scr-e-e-ch!" of the complaining wagon as it had bothered him all afternoon. "Darn ye! Won't ye ever shet up?" he muttered as he drifted off to sleep.

"Won't I ever shet up? I won't till I git good and ready!" The sharp, shrill voice made Hi open his eyes with a start. Above him leaned the huge form of an old woman in a white cap drawn close about her wrinkled, seamed face, only partly distinguishable in the darkness. As he lay blinking, trying to see her more plainly, the high falsetto voice continued its plaint.

"Won't I ever shet up? A nice way thet is to talk to me, Hi Smith! Do I iver grumble and snarl when ye treat me right? Hain't I been faithful to ye through thick an' thin? Hain't I made a home fer ye all this hull endurin' trip? Hain't I looked after yer grub and yer blankets and done ever'thin' I could to make ye comfortable? Hain't I kep' the rain offen ye at night? An' thet time the Injuns was after ye, didn't I stand atween ye an' the redskins and pertect ye? Didn't I keep ye from gittin' drownded when ye crossed thet river whar the current swep' the beasteses offen their feet? Didn't I watch over ye and shield ye from the sun when ye lay sick of the fever and hadn't nary wife to look after ye? Hain't I follered after them dumb beasteses through mud and water and over gravel and through clouds of alkali dust thick enough to choke a person, and niver said a word? An' now, jest bekase I'm fair swizzled up with the heat and ye fergit to give me some grease to rub on my achin' j'ints, ye cuss me! Yis, I heerd ye! Ye needn't deny it! A-cussin' of me who has taken the place of home an' mother to ye fer years! I heerd ye! I he-e-rd ye! What d'ye mean, I say!" And the tirade ended in a perfect screech of anger.

Thoroughly aroused, Hi rolled over and jumped hastily to his feet. He looked all around. The old woman had mysteriously vanished. A coyotte sneaked past him. Day was breaking in the east. The first gleam of light fell on the white-topped wagon drawn up beside him.

He rubbed his eyes. "Wal, I swan!" he muttered, as he gazed bewilderedly at the close-drawn white top looming above him. "Glad I woke up airly! I'll hev time ter grease that thar wagon afore we start!"