“Because I am in your power, John Cowles?” she asked. “Because by accident you have learned that I am a comely woman, as you are a strong man, normal, because I am fit to love, not ill to look at? Because a cruel accident has put me where my name is jeopardized forever—in a situation out of which I can never, never come clean again—is that why? Do you figure that I am a woman because you are a man? Is that why? Is it because you know I am human, and young, and fit for love? Ah, I know that as well as you. But I am in your hands—I am in your power. That is why I say, John Cowles, that you must try to think, that you must do nothing which shall make me hate you or make you hate yourself.”
“I thought you missed me when I was gone,” I murmured faintly.
“I did miss you,” she said. “The world seemed ended for me. I needed you, I wanted you—” I turned toward her swiftly. “Wanted me?”
“I was glad to see you come back. While you were gone I thought. Yes, you have been brave and you have been kind, and you have been strong. Now I am only asking you still to be brave, and kind, and strong.”
“But do you love me, will you love me—can you—”
“Because we are here,” she said, “I will not answer. What is right, John Cowles, that we should do.”
Woman is strongest when armored in her own weakness. My hands fell to the ground beside me. The heats vanished from my blood. I shuddered. I could not smile without my mouth going crooked, I fear. But at last I smiled as best I could, and I said to her, “Ellen! Ellen!” That was all I could find to say.
Strength came to us as we had need, and gradually even the weaker of us two became able to complete the day’s journey without the exhaustion it at first had cost her. Summer was now upon us, and the heat at midday was intense, although the nights, as usual, were cold. Deprived of all pack animals, except our dog, we were perforce reduced to the lightest of gear, and discomfort was our continual lot. Food, however, we could still secure, abundant meat, and sometimes the roots of plants which I dug up and tested, though I scarce knew what they were.
We moved steadily on toward the west and northwest, but although we crossed many old Indian trails, we saw no more of these travelers of the Plains. At that time the country which we were traversing had no white population, although the valley of the Platte had long been part of a dusty transcontinental highway. It was on this highway that the savages were that summer hanging, and even had we been certain of its exact location, I should have feared to enter the Platte valley, lest we should meet red men rather than white.
At times we lost the buffalo for days, more especially as we approached the foothills of the mountains, and although antelope became more numerous there, they were far more difficult to kill, and apt to cost us more of our precious ammunition. I planned to myself that if we did not presently escape I would see what might be done toward making a bow and arrows for use on small game, which we could not afford to purchase at the cost of precious powder and ball.