Inger (by Krystyna)

Summary: This story covers the adventures of Ben, Inger and Adam Cartwright on the wagon train journey that was the dream that turned into a nightmare.  
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  12,600


 

The episode Journey Remembered was a very sanitized version of the hardships these pioneers would have encountered so this story is about bringing a touch of dramatic reality to the episode.

This story really is about things that could happen and may have happened during months of a very dangerous journey. The Great Emigration of wagon trains westwards did not really open up until the 1840s, particularly once the border between Canada and America became the 49th Parallel in 1846, so a family undertaking the journey in 1836 would be using the trading route used by men like Jim Bridger etc. The California trail, used by the Cartwrights, would go as far as Fort Hall, Idaho, then go west, but it really did not come into its own until 1849, after the Gold Rush began.

So in 1836 life would be even rougher, harder, and much crueler than the treks depicted on TV. which were mainly based on the journeys of the 1840s and 50s. In March 1836, the Alamo fell; that is how far back in history we have to travel and the story begins…in a small room of a boarding house in a bustling town called Independence, Missouri.

*****

The child scrunched up his eyes against the suns rays, which meant it was morning again. Like many mornings over the past months, he had dreaded waking up, just in case those months proved to have been just a dream and the dream was over.

He put his hands over his face and waited for the sounds that meant that everything was alright. He listened for those sounds with an eagerness other children would have not understood. He listened for the sound of a man and woman talking in low voices, of a kettle being put on the stove, and plates rattling, of a woman humming…and laughter. Best of all, the laughter. It was better than sunshine. It was something that in his short life he had heard seldom. His father had been a solemn, sad man but not now; now he smiled a lot and his black eyes twinkled and he was fun and it was not a dream, for he heard it now — laughter, whispers, and the woman singing.

He curled his fingers into balls and held them close to his eyes. ‘Dear God, please let Inger be my ma forever, and ever, and ever’. Forever was a long time, but that did not matter, so long as she was always his ma.

“Adam.” The door opened and she peered into the room, smiling her bright good morning smile. All the tight warm feeling of love that was tied up inside him exploded into one word as he ran to her

“MA.”

She caught hold of him and swung him round and they laughed. It was not really anything funny, nothing funny at all – but to laugh…oh, what joy!

*****

Frank Simon had been a hardworking man and a kindly, caring soul for most of his lifetime. Now, when most men would be considering making life easier and more comfortable, when pensions and money-making schemes could be considered for a secure and pleasurable old age, he had decided to cast in his lot with some others and start a new life in the wilder and more hazardous regions of the west.

There were several families and individuals who had agreed to follow Ben Cartwright to California. Their eyes were on the far off horizons of something better, fixed to the pin point of dreams fulfilled, and the closer dangers and hazards of such a journey seemed merely an inconvenience, something that had to be ‘got over’ before they had achieved their hopes.

Now he stood by his wagon and watched the storekeeper loading it with all that the journals had advised for the wagon train traveler. He ticked off each item off the list with immense satisfaction. He was not exactly an imaginative man but he was an enthusiastic one, and the journey he and his wife were to undertake now was the adventure of a lifetime. He was certainly very enthusiastic about that!

“Did you put in the medical supplies I listed?” he asked the storekeeper as he gave the list a final tick “I never noticed.”

“No, I told you already, you have to get them separately from the pharmacy across the way there.”

“Fair enough,” Frank mumbled back. With a pleasant smile, he pulled out his wallet and began to thumb through the money it contained with a slight frown creasing his brow. He and all the other travelers were more than aware that they were paying highly inflated prices for their goods. Each and every one of them also knew that without the supplies, they would never get out of Independence. It was a frightening prospect for many who had sunk their life savings in the project and saw most of the money going into the pockets of the greedy and unscrupulous even before the journey began. He frowned and shook his head and tutted, but said nothing when he became aware of the baleful glare he was given from the storekeeper who would just as promptly unload the wagon and resell everything in it at even more inflated prices to the next traveler who came along.

“Here you are.” He sighed and handed the money over, then he pocketed his wallet and walked thoughtfully to the pharmacy, passing as he did so a tall young man who was surveying, rather critically, the caulking on the underside of the wagon he had just purchased.

“Have you bought this wagon?“ Frank asked, stopping to stand beside the young man and share in the surveillance of the pitch that was used to caulk all the wagons undersides. “It looks good and sturdy to me.“ he added, prodding with a tentative finger at the knot hole in one of the boards.

“Do you think so, Mr. Simon?” the young man asked with a wry grin, “Are you much of an expert then?”

“I’m afraid not.” Frank smiled ruefully. “My wagons probably not caulked half as well as this one, though”

“I’ve just made sure that there was extra pitch put on, I’ve not sailed the seas without knowing the wisdom of a good double coating of pitch on a ship’s bottom.” Ben Cartwright frowned and then smiled slowly. Frank Simon was a good friend, and he and his wife had been as caught up with this vision of adventure and hope as Ben was himself.

“Do you think our friend, Mr. Wilkes, will be a reliable guide, Ben?” Simon asked thoughtfully, taking his friend by the elbow and moving him away from where others may overhear their conversation.

“I hope so,” Ben replied, although the frown on his brow only deepened at the thought of their guide, “I know he sees life more from the bottom of the bottle than anything else, but he was the only man who knows the terrain and was willing to take us as far as Ash Hollow.”

“You know we voted you in as the leader of the wagon train, Ben. You bear a heavy responsibility.”

“I know,” Ben nodded and cast his friend a brief smile. “But Wilkes has promised to take us to Ash Hollow and get us there in time to meet Ryan’s wagon train. From there we go on to California.”

The rich tones of Ben’s voice was almost caressing as he said the last few words and his eyes gleamed so that Frank decided to put his forebodings aside.

“I’m travelling with my wife and son.” The smile flashed forth now, like sun bursting from behind storm laden clouds and every bit as welcome. The near black eyes beamed with pride. “I’m very well aware of my responsibilities, Simon.”

“We know that; that’s why we’re backing you, all the way.” The other man smiled, his long, lean face breaking into a slow smile.

Ben leaned forward now to check the depth of the wagon’s sides and the strength of the hickory boughs upon which the tarpaulin cover lay. “I think I’ll get a spare wheel,” he muttered.

Frank nodded and made his excuses. As he walked on, he passed a small knot of children and paused to survey them, wondering whether or not they would be his patients in the weeks to come. There were four of them. Three rough tousle-headed begrimed boys shoving and pushing at one another as their bare feet kicked at a pebble between them. The other child stood a little to one side, and by posture and clothing proved, not to belong to the family of the other three. The older of the three children now paused in his game and stared over at the boy who was watching them. “What’s yer name?” he demanded.

“Adam Cartwright.”

The ten-year-old wiped his nose on his rather frayed sleeve and left a smear of snot smudged over his freckled face. “How old are ya?” he now demanded, his hands on his hips and his feet astride in an aggressive stance.

“Five,” came the mumbled reply.

“Do ya know who I am?”

“No.”

“Bet you’d be skeered if you knew.”

“No.” Adam shook his head staunchly.

“You’re a pretty boy, aintcha? Too pretty by half!”

The other boys came and stared at Adam now, and he in turn stared resolutely back. Inwardly he was perplexed; girls were pretty, not boys. He could recall someone once saying that with his curls and big eyes he would make a very pretty little girl indeed if someone tied a ribbon in his hair; he cringed at the memory and felt his stomach button up.

“You skeered?” the ten-year-old demanded in a high pitched voice.

“No.”

“You gone mighty red in the face.”

“I ain’t scared, though, and I’m not a baby either.”

“You are!” a seven-year-old squeaked from the protection of a pickle barrel.

“I’m older than you and bigger,” Adam replied inaccurately.

“And prettier!” the ten-year-old sneered amidst shrill cackles of laughter from the two other boys.

“I bet you are skeered, skeered yella.” The twelve-year-old now added his voice to the proceedings.

“No, I ain’t.”

“Bet you are!”

“Ain’t so.”

“You are too.”

“No.” Adam shook his head and pulled a face.

“I’m Tommy Curtis,” the ten year old declared, “Bet ya skeered now.”

“No,” Adam said and watched as Tommy Curtis rolled up the remnants of a ragged sleeve and clenched his fists.

He gave a grunt as someone pushed him in the small of the back and sent him flying between two barrels and a pile of boxes

“Bet ya skeered now,” Fred Curtis, the twelve-year-old demanded.

“No.” Adam’s smooth brow crinkled and he blinked, rapidly. Then he scrambled to his feet and brushed down his jacket. Inger was very proud of this jacket for some reason.

“You’re a baby,” Fred said, stepping back a bit in case the ‘baby’ took a swipe at him

“You’re a bully,” Adam said, blushing at his own daring for saying so.

Three pairs of eyes narrowed and three freckled, dirty faces moved closer. Adam averted his eyes but could not avoid those of Tommy

“Bet you can’t read!” Tommy challenged, for some obscure reason best known to himself.

“Can too.”

“Bet you can’t.”

“Can too…bet you can’t!”

“Can too,” Tommy glowered at the younger boy and tossed his head wildly. “Step over this line,” he said and pointed to a wriggly line that his brother had scrawled in the dust with the thin end of a hazel stick. “I dare ya.”

“Why?”

“Cos ya a coward if’n ya don’t.”

Adam promptly stepped over the line and received a smack in the nose as a result. It dumbfounded him the way it hurt and made his eyes water, but the cackle of laughter was the worse thing to bear. He swung one clenched fist wildly and caught Tommy under the chin; Kevin promptly kicked him in the shins and Fred grabbed him by the hair while Tommy proceeded to whop him in the mouth, sending him flat onto his back in the dirt, back between the barrels and boxes.

Frank stepped forward, thinking it wise now to intervene, but he was prevented from doing so by the emergence of a thick set man who now grabbed hold of Tommy’s breeches so that although Tommy lunged forward, and his arms and legs moved, he himself did not. After gyrating furiously for a second or two, he glanced up to see his father behind him and his big hands clenched hold of his breeches and braces. Kevin and Fred had melted away like snow and Ben was helping Adam to his feet.

“He started it,” Tommy yelled, waving an aggrieved fist in the air.

“D’ya think I’m stoopid?” Mr. Curtis yelled, giving Tommy a shake that rattled the boy’s teeth. “Get back inside before I knock yer teeth down your throat!”

Frank sighed and shook his head. He often wondered how some children ever managed to survive their parents’ ineptitude. He watched Ben straighten his son up and noticed how the boy wheezed and grunted in his effort not to cry. His shirt was unbuttoned and flapped like a ships top sail, and his hair was wild and dusty and dirt and blood disfigured his face.

“A big boy hit me…” he blurted out to his father. “Over there,” he pointed to nowhere in particular. “He kept hitting and kicking me.”

Ben carefully wiped the blood from the boys face

“I hate curls,” Adam announced fiercely.

“Stand still, tuck your shirt in. Inger will be worried out of her head if she sees you like this.” Ben glanced around him. “Where’s your hat?”

Adam felt a glow of delight warm his stomach. How he had hated that hat…so he had lost it! He had loathed it ever since Inger produced it for him before leaving Illinois. If only the curls could go as easily, he would have been even more delighted. Ben propelled him in the direction of the store and then turned to Frank.

“Well, Frank, have you made all your purchases now?”

“All except my medical supplies; Rachel wanted to make sure that, as there was no doctor on this trip, we had sufficient medical equipment in case of emergencies.”

“Let’s hope we don’t have to make too frequent a use of them,” Ben replied with a raised eye brow.

“I’m bringing along my prize mare,” Frank’s eyes went slightly dreamy. “She’s going to be the mother of the best breed of horseflesh in California — you see if she isn’t!” He gave a slightly shy laugh, his pride in the horse almost equaling the love he felt for his very efficient and energetic little wife. “I noticed that there was a length of canvas running beneath the wagon. Could you tell me what that might be for?”

“Buffalo chips for fuel. They’ll be dry and just ready to be picked up and slung into the canvas so that, at the end of the day, there’s dry fuel for the night’s camp fire.” Ben grinned. “I only learned that fact myself yesterday; an old trapper passed the information on to me. There’s no trees for fuel in the desert, and buffalo chips are the best thing for a good fire.”

“I guess there’s a lot to learn,” Frank sighed, and tucked his slip of paper into his pocket.

“And we’ll have to learn it fast,” Ben added.

“Have seen our wagon master yet?” Frank returned to the subject that Ben would have preferred unmentioned.

“I have…have you?” Ben glanced shrewdly over at the other man who nodded. There was nothing said. They lapsed into silence again.

*****

The next few days were a rush to buy tools, and essential items of equipment for every need and expectation. Food was checked and re-checked by the women. Oxen and horses were cared for by the men. Children were taught how to collect fuel for the fire and watched their fathers grease axles and hitch harness and haul up the tarpaulin in the event that should the worse happen they would not be left untrained and ill equipped for the tasks that lay ahead of them. Even children as young as Adam Cartwright, Kevin Curtis, Betty Lou Carson and Joe Payne were shown how to water and feed and care for the animals.

The day came for the wagons to assemble for line up. The wagon master surveyed all of them as he rode by them on his horse. He greeted them and noted odd little things that meant nothing to them but caused a lot of anxiety for him. He noted how many children in one family, which would mean that many distractions and hardship for the man of the family, something that could weigh against him and the others should an emergency arise. He noticed which wagons were overloaded and knew that along the route some items would have to be cast aside. Little point in mentioning it now, for each item meant something dear to the family that owned it and it would only become of negligible value when something more valuable — their lives — would be at risk.

“Check your wagons and make sure all your children are safely with you” he yelled.

Mothers clucked and fussed and gathered up their children while the wagon master silently fumed. Ben Cartwright watched the wagon master carefully; this was the first day, and perhaps, he told himself, he had been incorrect with his analysis of the man. Time would tell!

The wagon master felt the dark eyes watching him and turned around, gave Ben a long hard stare as he passed and then raised his hand. “Get into line.”

Wilkes was a scruffy, bedraggled wretch of a man. Ben and the other men were dismayed at seeing the slight sway he had in the saddle, the red-rimmed eyes, the heavy puffed flesh beneath the eye sockets and the way the man’s hand trembled when he passed it over his slack mouth. As Ben sat on the wagon seat with Adam between himself and Inger, he prayed that Wilkes would be sober enough and honest enough to lead them safely through to Ash Hollow.

Wilkes counted the wagons as they lined up. The Simon family, he felt, would not last the course. Once the Indians saw that fancy mare, they would be down on the wagon train like bees attracted to honey. The Curtis family… he sighed as he saw a rough man and a slattern of a wife with too many dirty snot-nosed brats hanging out of the wagon, yet somehow that sort always seemed to survive… whether by cunning, deviousness or God’s mercy, he could not be sure. The Cartwrights …he felt a niggle of apprehension; the man made him feel inadequate, and for that he was not grateful! There were the Paynes, good-tempered and easy going…a little boy stared wide eyed at him as he passed them by and he scowled darkly at him. The young couple — the Phillips — watched him uneasily; they were still in their teens and raw. They knew that he had not wanted them there; he viewed them as a liability.

The journey was beginning, and for some it would end too soon; for others it was the beginning of their new lives, their future. The year was 1835.

*****

The wagons rolled at a steady pace, and during the days, Adam struck up his friendships. When the wagons settled in the evenings, Adam would wander from wagon to wagon, collecting a crowd of the children who would run off into the grasses to play. The swish of the grasses and the calls of the birds as they dipped and dived accompanied by the sounds of children’s laughter and their shouts in play were the music at the end of Inger’s days. The only mishap was when the Curtis’ wagon lost a wheel, and in replacing it Mr. Curtis cut his hand; the only excitement was when Mr. Curtis literally made a song and dance about it. Adam was not sure why he got a sharp slap across the back side when he showed his parents Mr. Curtis’ song and dance later that evening; the dance seemed to be going well, but it was the words of the so-called song that brought the entertainment to an abrupt end.

One morning, instructions were yelled out to hanker down their belongings and to secure their children. Ben lifted Adam into the wagon while Inger began to check that furniture, pots and pans were secured down tightly.

“What’s happening, Pa?”

“We‘re going to cross a river,” Ben said grimly, and he smiled as though it was not really that difficult nor that much to worry about. He turned as the guide approached him

“Well, Mr. Cartwright?” The tone of voice was aggressive, even impudent. Ben bristled. “River’s higher than we expected it to be this time of the year. Tell Mrs. Cartwright to strap the kid to the bed, and to stay as still as possible, then the wagon will float more steadily. Me and Simon are going to ford here; we’ll take ropes out. See the logs there…” he pointed to several stout logs. “They’ll be tied to the wagons to stabilize them, make them float. The ropes will indicate safe passage for the wagons to float between. Keep the cattle close; they must not stray beyond the ropes.”

This was their first major hurdle, and quite a few were scared out of their wits but refused to admit it. Now they clambered aboard their wagons and told one another what they had been instructed to do; then they took the reins to their animals and waited.

One by one, the wagons were floated across between the two lengths of rope that slapped against the waves that swept up and over the wagons’ wheels. The logs kept them buoyant. Outriders pushed back any wagon that seemed to float or spin beyond the boundary.

Inger watched as the wagons trundled up onto the opposite bank and looked at Ben, who smiled at her and folded his big hands over hers

“Well, Mrs. Cartwright?” he said softly, a gentle smile but concerned eyes looked down at her.

“Well, Mr. Cartwright?” she smiled back, and the freckles that were scattered over the bridge of her nose were like gold dust which he stroked very gently with his finger.

“Are you ready?”

Ben flicked the reins and the horses moved slowly forward. From the corner of his eye, he saw her fasten the strings of her bonnet beneath her chin, as calmly as though they were going to a church picnic.

“Is Adam alright?” he asked without looking at her, his attention focused on the direction he had to take.

“He is alright”

“I want you to be inside.” He looked at her thoughtfully. She was so precious to him; even this little request was to keep her safe because he knew the vagaries of life and how the smallest things could wreck a man’s joy. “Go inside, darling, and keep Adam calm.”

“I am alright,” she replied with her chin stubbornly raised. The blue eyes became bluer than ever.

He looked at her and she saw the depth of warm love in his eyes and smiled. Then, very quickly, she slipped into the wagon where the boy was laying on the bed, a blanket pulled securely and tightly over him. Inger lay by his side and put her arm around him. He could feel the beat of her heart and smell her warm body smell. Even when the wagon jolted and span about, he was not frightened because Inger was whispering a story to him, and he felt totally safe and secure in her arms. The sounds from outside were just a far off echo to the sounds that he heard being whispered into his ear.

The wagon floated and then spun with the current and was steadied back on course. It reached the bank and lurched as the horses pulled it from the water and onto land. Then Luke was yelling “Steady…steady now” in his deep voice and she smiled; the boy could feel her lips move in the smile against his cheek.

“Were you frightened?“ Ben asked Adam, although he was looking over his head at his wife’s blue eyes and smiling at her

“No, Pa. What‘s Mr. Curtis doing now?” Adam asked, anxious to be busy and to see what was going to happen next.

Ben smiled and set him loose; he took his wife by the hand and together they watched as the child ran to Betty Lou and her brothers.

Ben looked at Inger and drew her to his side and kissed her gently. “Well done,” he whispered. He led her a little away from the crowd so that he could take her in his arms and hold her close. “Oh Inger, Inger…I love you so much.”

“My darling Ben.” She kissed him with such a warmth of feeling that he longed to hold onto her, to grasp that moment and keep it forever.

*****

Adam sat between his father and Inger deep in thought. The wagon seat was no softer this morning than any other morning and the endless sky seemed to stretch all around him as much today as it did yesterday. He was listening to Inger singing. She was always singing or humming. He would sometimes look at her, just for the sake of enjoying the pleasure of having her as his new mother.

A new mother? He frowned. How could he have a new mother when he had never had an old one? He sighed at the thought and remembered the day when Ben had found him playing with Elizabeth’s music box. Well, he had not been playing with it, just had very, very gently opened the lid and listened to the music. He had not heard it play for a long time because Ben no longer sat there brooding into the darkness over his loss. Adam could remember the times when Ben would tell him about Elizabeth, the lady with the dark hair in the photograph to whom the musical box had belonged. Elizabeth – that had been his real mother’s name and she had been as dark as Inger was fair.

He had been confused by Ben’s actions that day. An anger borne of guilt had swept over the man as he had seen the boy with the musical box, and he had shouted at the child, taking the little box from him and replacing it on the bureau with angry words, forbidding the child to touch it again and admonishing Inger for daring to interfere. Later, Inger had come and taken the child in her arms and stroked him to calmness and told him in her soft lilt of a voice, “It’s alright, Adam, it’s alright to cry. Sometimes even men must cry, my darling!”

Adam sighed again and shut his eyes tightly. Inger was his ma, and now he pressed in closer to her and was only too happy to have her arm steal around him and hold him close. He was like other children now. He had a Pa AND a Ma.

Days went by and they passed over mountain ridges where the trail was so steep that only inches prevented them from falling to their deaths and the rear wheels and tailboards of the wagons hovered over emptiness. Water sluiced down from a relentless heaven and churned up mud into treacle; puddles became ankle deep, and then knee deep, and a constant nightmare quagmire that strove to engulf them all.

Women worked with the men, struggling at the head of their horses, hauling at the ropes, coaxing them, pulling and tugging them onwards just as courageously as any man while their skirts clung around their feet and legs and encased them with mud. In this state they would fall asleep at night and awaken the next day for another fight against the elements.

Many times Ben would beg Inger to stay in the wagon, to keep safe, and each time she would kiss him, and laugh at his fears. In the evening, she would sit in the wagon with Adam in her arms and sing, as though the rain and mud belonged to another world entirely.

At last they were riding into sunshine again and spirits were raised. The women smiled when the wagon master announced that, once they had reached flat land, they would spend the day to dry out.

Wet bedding, wet clothes and wet mattresses were soon adorning the shrubs and bushes like so many gigantic butterflies. Blue skies were balm to their sorely tried nerves, and the sun was so warm that it was not long before their chilled bones dried out. Adam sought out his friends and found some rocks to climb and looked down at the wagon train, and then clambered a little higher.

*****

“I can’t climb no further,” Kevin announced suddenly and flopped down on a rock, rubbing his feet.

“Nor can I,” Betty Lou said, sitting down and screwing up her face against the glare of the sun which bounced with white hot heat from the rocks

“Aw, yer all cowards,” Tommy scoffed and jumped up several more rocks before stubbing his toe and jumping up and down like a jack rabbit. “Aw, I stubbed me toe.”

“Does it hurt?” Adam asked, unwisely.

“I should say,” Tommy moaned, prancing about until he could find a rock upon which to perch and survey his toe more closely, “We must have come some way up. Look how small the wagons are?”

“Don’t they though?” Adam declared. He looked at Betty Lou and Kevin, who were looking frightened and clinging together as though in fear of falling from their place among the rocks. “Better get back,” he muttered and noticed the two younger children give a sigh of relief.

“Nah, let’s go higher,” said the indomitable Thomas, the pain in his foot now forgotten.

“I want to go back,” whispered Betty Lou bleakly.

“So do I,” Kevin said. “Ma would give us a tanning if she knew we had come up here so far and you know it, Tommy Curtis”

“Aw, you lot skeered or summat?” Tommy scowled at them and began to jump from one rock to another, going higher and higher as a result. Adam sighed and knew that he should take care of Betty Lou; she was a girl and younger. He glanced over at Tommy who was doing a good imitation of an Indian war dance on a large flat boulder.

Adam was about to speak when Tommy yelled, “Throw up yer boots; these rocks are darned hot,”

“No… I’m taking Betty Lou back; she wants to go back to her ma.”

“Yer jest skeered.”

“I’m not,” came the resolute reply.

“Yer are all. Yer just a coward, a yella smelly belly coward.” Tommy hopped from one foot to another. “Go on…who needs yer anyhowwwwww.”

The three younger children turned in horror at the boy’s yell, half expecting it to be a ruse on his part to keep them there. But it had seemed extremely realistic and when they looked, Tommy had disappeared. Adam scrabbled over the rocks and slithered over the scree until he came to what appeared to be the erstwhile child’s downfall — a gaping hole in the rocks from which came yells and curses which truly identified Tommy Curtis as the son of his loud-mouthed father

“Tommy? Are you all right?”

“Gah, gotta lump the size of an egg here. You’d better go and get help.”

Adam looked at Kevin and Betty Lou, who were doing a fair imitation of conjoined twins. They looked at him and shook their heads as though one thought had simultaneously struck their individual minds.

Adam peered down once more and thought that Tommy was quite brave really. He took a deep breath and edged closer and dangled his hands over the gap in the rocks. “Can you reach my hands?”

“Nah, fat chance!”

Adam looked again at the other children, who were now staring open-mouthed and pointing to somewhere behind him. He turned and felt the color drain from his face. A swarthy near naked man stood close by. The man watched them intently, his bronzed features expressionless. The three children stood as though frozen to the spot, Kevin oblivious now to the heat searing the soles of his feet and Betty Lou too scared to weep as she scrunched up her apron in her hands. Adam just stood and stared

“Oi!” Tommy yelled from the hole in the ground, “Are you there still? Hey, git me outta here.”

Adam looked at the Indian. He had heard people talk about the wild savages that lived here. Some said that they were kind; some said that they were not! But most said things that Adam was not allowed to repeat and could not understand anyway. But he knew that he had listened and felt fear. Now here they were, and there was Tommy yelling his head off and using the foul language his father was heard yelling when he was angry.

Adam wondered if the Indian understood the white man’s language, and if he did, what would he be thinking of the expletives that were pouring forth from the bowels of the earth.

The Indian approached the hole where Tommy lay, knelt down and peered over the ledge. Tommy gave a shriek of horror and shrunk back against the rocks. The Indian now glanced over at the three children and indicated by signs that he would help get the boy out of the hole. From the hole in the ground, Tommy began to scream blue murder, and Betty Lou and Kevin began to cry, great wet tears that spilled down and over their cheeks.

Adam looked at them and felt his own heart wobble; he was about to speak when the man re-appeared, a rope in his hands and this he began to feed down into the hole. Tommy was yelling to them to make a run for it, and in the same breath, adding, “Don’t leave me behind!”

The man seemed to be totally ignorant of what Tommy was saying. He calmly fed the rope down into the hole, and after a short time, began to haul up a very red-faced and red-eyed little boy. For, despite his bravado and bullying swagger, that was really all that Tommy Curtis was – just a little boy. The Indian smiled, knelt down, and checked with firm hands that there were no bones broken, then he nodded and said something in his own language.

No one was crying now as they listened and watched as though spellbound. Then he gave Tommy a little push on the back, and turned and ran off into the rocks. Within a blink of the eye, he had gone from their sight.

“Let’s go!” Tommy shrieked.

Without any more ado, they turned and began to run, and as they ran they screamed, “Indians, Indians.”

Ben swung Adam into his arms and held him tight so that the boy could barely breathe before he was flung unceremoniously into the wagon. Within minutes, the wagons were loaded with terrified families and rifles and guns bristled everywhere.

After some time had passed, Ben asked Adam what had actually happened. After listening as the boy gasped out the story, he had to go and tell the wagon master. The wagon master was relieved that there was not going to be a massacre after all, but he was too drunk to be happy about it, giving Ben the rough edge of his tongue.

It was Ben who ordered that there was to be a double guard on the train every night. Adam was not really sure why he had received a good spanking from Ben and sent to bed without supper.

In the morning, Ben beckoned the boy to follow him and Adam was led to a small area behind the wagon. Here Ben sat down and drew his son into his arms; he stroked the boy’s black hair and looked into the dark eyes. “Adam, I’ve told you before not to run off, haven’t I?”

“Yes, Pa.”

“And you know that Inger and I trust you to look after the younger children here?”

“Yes, and I did. I didn’t stop looking after Betty Lou, Pa.”

“But I told you not to run off out of sight of the wagons.”

“Kevin did too, and Tommy.” Adam pleaded his case with anxious dark eyes.

“But I don’t expect you to follow their example. Now, you are five years old and have to be a good example.” He paused to let that sink into the boy’s mind and then he sighed. “I want to be proud of you, Adam; you have to be strong enough to stand on your own two feet and be your own person. If Tommy wants to go off, then let him; I don’t want you being disobedient anymore.”

Adam stared down at the ground and noticed several ants trailing wearily along a rut in the dust; he sighed and wished he were an ant at that moment.

Ben’s hand tightened its grip on his son’s arm, aware that Adam was beginning to lose concentration, which in turn made Ben more determined than ever to get his point over,

“If you keep being disobedient, then I shall have to put you on a leading line like one of the mules; you wouldn’t want that, would you? You could have been killed by those Indians, or taken away from us. We would never have seen you again. Now I hope the spanking will impress the memory of what I am telling you on your mind. Be obedient, son; it could mean your life, and ours.”

Adam frowned. The spanking had made an impression, he thought, but not on his mind. He had suffered fear and shock on the ridge and had thought he deserved the love and cuddles that Betty Lou had received from her parents. He bowed his head and a tear trickled down his face and plopped onto his shirt, making a dark stain. He felt his father’s rough hand stroke his head and instinctively he lay his head against his fathers shoulder, comforted now by the strength of the mans arm about him

“Pa?”

“Yes son?”

“Do I always have to be the oldest?”

Ben sighed, ruffled the boy’s hair and smiled to himself. It was such a stupid question from his so clever child that he was suddenly reminded that Adam was only a little boy after all.

*****

“Adam?”

He lay in his cot, half-asleep when he realized that Inger was sitting beside him; he turned and smiled sleepily. Inger smiled down at him and brushed back the dark curls from his brow, noticing as she did so the freckles that peppered the boy’s nose and cheeks and the dark crescent of the lashes. She passed him a cup of water and watched as the child began to drink,

“It’s awful hot, Inger.”

“I know.” She smiled, again soothed back the curls from his brow. It was terribly hot and the wagon was like a furnace. It seemed to sap at her strength and she unconsciously put a hand to her stomach.

She had known that she was pregnant before they had began this journey, and as the days had passed, she longed for the moment when she could take Ben to one side, share a moment in some idyllic spot where she could whisper to him her wonderful, wonderful news. Her eyes gleamed now and a slow smile passed over her mouth.

Adam looked at her with drowsy, heat-laden eyes. There was, he thought, something special and something different about Inger this evening. He had never had a mother to hold him when he cried in his sleep, nor a mother to spoil him and cuddle him as he had now.

She looked at the child, and hugged him close, and he laughed.

“Are you happy, Inger?” he whispered.

She took his hand, held it to her cheek, and smiled. “Oh yes, Adam, I am so very, very happy.”

“Even though it’s so hot?”

She hugged him again, and smiled and nodded, and tweaked his nose gently.

What, she wondered, would this lonely solemn little boy make of having his own little brother or sister to play with? She stood up and half- turned as she left him; such a solemn little boy, just beginning to realize that there was no harm in laughing just for the sake of it, just because life was good, just because laughter was a wonderfully gift from God.

“Oh Inger, I do love you. I love you so much; you are the very best Ma in all the world…forever,” he whispered and planted a big wet kiss her cheek. For no reason that she could explain, her eyes filled with tears as she blew out the lamp and left him to sleep in the all confining darkness.

*****

“There’s the settlement” Wilkes pointed to the small huddle of buildings ahead of them, “We lose a family every time we git here. That’s how settlements git built. The weak ones stay behind. Will you be staying behind, Mr. Cartwright?”

“No,” came the short answer. Ben found it increasingly difficult to respect the man. He drank too much, and was too feckless for such a responsible job. They had lost time and good opportunities to make the time up because of this man.

Ben had sailed the seas under officers like him and knew the results of an unhappy crew. He wondered if they would lose any wagons…if there were any now who would prefer to stay than travel on to Ash Hollow with them.

“You’re a strong character, Mr. Cartwright. A mite headstrong perhaps, but I guess a new land needs settlers with a bit of that in ‘em.” With a smirk of a smile on his greasy face, Wilkes wheeled his horse around and led the way to the settlement below.

“If we could just lose him on the way, we might make up better time,” Carson muttered. “He’s drunk more often than he’s sober.”

The settlement was bustling and busy. There were wooden cabins and a trading post. There was good soil for farming and orchards over-laden with fruit. The children played happily along the raised sidewalks. A white clapboard school house was in the process of being built; it was evident that it was already becoming a well-established community, a small township.

“Get your supplies here. It’ll be your last chance,” Wilkes said. “We leave tomorrow morning. Any deciding to stay can tell us then; there’s no shame in doing so.”

“Are we staying here, Pa?” Adam asked, but to that he received no reply.

The evening passed uneventfully apart from the wagon master falling down the steps of the trading post saloon because he was even more drunk than usual. This had accelerated into an argument between him and another man, but in the early hours of the morning, he was sitting on his horse, waiting for them to move out.

*****

“Hey!” Tommy ran and pulled at Adams arm. “Come on over here.”

Obediently Adam followed Tommy’s lead and joined with Kevin and Fred Curtis, the Payne children, and several others, and listened to their plans. They had left the settlement behind them two days previously and it had taken the Curtis boys that long to get their big plan underway. If Mrs. Payne and Mrs. Simon had not been concerned over the disappearance of her best kitchen knife and an old saber, the consequences of Messrs Curtis’ latest escapade would have been horrific.

The children often disappeared to play together when the wagons were encamped so none of the parents were unduly concerned when early evening came and the children had gone. Inger was tired; the heat had sapped her energies and the baby’s demands on her body were beginning to tell. Rachel Simon had mentioned to her several times now that she should tell Ben, but she was still waiting for that magic moment to whisper to him the wonderful news. Now, as she prepared the evening meal, she could hear the children’s chatter and laughter; there was some clapping and cheers. She recognized a song that she had taught Adam, and she paused to listen and smiled. He had a lovely voice in his lilting childish way and she felt proud to hear it. All these sounds filtered through from the area that Tommy Curtis had designated to be the theatre.

Fred Curtis was growing impatient. He was dressed up in an old beaver hat and his mother’s cape with the sealskin collar, and had a moustache painted on his upper lip. He looked a truly impressive sight. He eyed the audience with mounting irritability while Adam sang his song. When he had finished, Tommy stepped forward

“Now, lad-eez and gennlemen.”

Tommy took the stage, dressed in a delightful mixture…his mother’s best boots — on the wrong feet — his father’s frilled shirt that reached to his knees and was kept up by his fathers string tie neatly knotted around his middle. On his head was a hat with a feather in it; no one dared even ask to whom it belonged. It balanced delicately upon his ears so that he had to hold his head at an odd angle in order to see what he was doing and where he was going. He also sported a huge charcoal moustache, and Adam wished more than anything that he had been able to dress up and paint on a moustache too.

“Thank you.” Tommy bowed low and promptly lost his hat. He retrieved it and, after a little while, got it back in a comfortable position on his tousled head. He now announced the following to his expectant audience: “My brother Fred…”

“Pssst,” hissed Fred from behind a tree trunk that hid him from the view of everyone there. Tommy duly trotted over and received hastily whispered instructions. He returned to center stage.

“Thank yew. Now the Great Fredino will perform great feats to amaze and excite you. He will do great feats that will make you – make you…do what, Fred?”

“Applaud, applaud,” hissed the Great Fredino,

“Applaud…applaud his great bravery and courage. His great feats will be talked about as the greatest feats …”

“Git on with it” yelled Joe Payne, who did not like any of the Curtis children.

“Will git on with it now,” Tommy concluded rather lamely.

“Hoo-ray,” yelled Betty Lou, and everyone applauded because they were so glad to see Tommy leave the ‘stage’.

Fred now took the stage, dressed in all his finery. He pulled away a towel which had covered a tray and raised his hands for silence as a gasp rippled through the audience. Upon the tray gleamed the saber and the kitchen knife. The children shifted uneasily. Fred stepped forward and bowed and held up a hand.

“I shall now swallow this cutlass whole,” he declared, picking up Mrs. Payne’s ancestor’s saber with a flourish. The children gasped in horror. Fred frowned and put the cutlass down. It was heavier than he had thought and he realized he would need both hands to lift it above his head. He replaced it and picked up Rachel Simon’s knife. “But first I shall use this knife…” Once again he paused; he frowned and looked anxiously at his audience. Perhaps he should have practiced first. The sword swallower’s performance at the settlement had made it look so easy.

Betty Lou stifled a nervous giggle but her youngest sister began to cry. Adam stared open-mouthed and wide-eyed. Joe Payne silently returned to the wagons.

The Great Fredino puffed out his chest

“Complete silence or I shall not continue” he demanded, stamping his foot on the ground. Betty Lou grabbed her little sister by the hand and took her away. Adam fidgeted and stared anxiously at the Great Fredino who was flourishing the knife above his head with the air of the Barber of Seville.

The silence was now one of horrified transfixed fascination. Fredino put back his head and didn’t even falter when his hat fell with a thump behind him. He opened his mouth to the fullest extent and held the knife aloft. Adam shut his eyes and put his hands to his ears for some inexplicable reason as the blade touched the boy’s lips. From nowhere, Mr. Curtis appeared and, with the loudest of swearwords, snatched the knife from the Great Fredino’s hand before it could go any further.

The ’sword swallower’ was dragged from the ’stage’ by the ear, followed by a protesting Tommy. The performance, to everyone’s relief, was over.

From that moment on, every knife, dagger and sword in the camp was kept under strict scrutiny, just in case some other curious youngster decided to make a more successful attempt at the Great Fredino‘s swallowing disaster.

*****

There was great excitement on the day Mr. Simon’s prize mare gave birth to a pretty little foal. It had been Inger’s persistence in waiting and helping the mare that had caused Wilkes to find a quiet spot and drink himself into oblivion. It had taken all Ben’s self control not to give the wretched man the thrashing of his life, and when the other travelers had shown a lack of confidence in his abilities, Ben had plunged into despair and self-doubt.

It was Inger who had held him close and encouraged him, reminded him that ‘we walk by faith, not by sight’. As Ben watched Wilkes staggering to his horse, he wondered whether any of them would reach Ash Hollow alive.

Matters worsened when Joe Payne Senior demanded the wagon train stay for a while as his son, Joseph, was ill with a fever. Martha Payne and Inger were the little patient’s nurses, and for a brief 24 hours, the wagons never moved from camp. Adam and the children were subdued into silence as they waited to know the outcome of their playmate’s illness.

As it happened, Wilkes demanded the wagons journeyed onwards. Tulliver, one of the most impatient of the men, gave voice to his feelings on the matter and Ben had no choice but to allow the wagons to restart the journey.

The prearranged meeting at Ash Hollow had to be reached on time. Any delay would mean being caught on the wrong side of the Sierra’s and the journey abandoned.

It seemed to Adam that when Inger spoke of their future home, she wove a picture in his mind of what it would be like, with windows to the west and windows facing the east so that they could see the sun rise and set every day.

Adam heard the voices, low in the wagon. He was half asleep, but even so, the words penetrated into his head. Wilkes, the wagon master had been killed. Ben and Inger were talking in low voices. The wagon master had been shot in self-defense by a man to whom he owed a lot of money. This man, Lucas Rockwell was now their guide.

“It took some persuading,” Ben said in his deep voice, “The man’s bitter about something, as bitter as loco weed. Inger, we have to make the best of a bad job.”

“Wilkes was not very reliable, Ben. Perhaps this Mr. Rockwell will be better for us all.”

“I don’t know, Inger.”

The words trailed away and Adam closed his eyes. In minutes, he was sleeping, and when the new morning came, he met the new wagon master, Lucas Rockwell, who would be taking them on the rest of their journey. He felt a niggle of anxiety worm at his stomach; he didn’t like this Mr. Rockwell.

Inger was not singing as she usually did when it was breakfast time, but she gave her boy a smile and stroked his hair.

“We have a new wagon master, Adam. We have to work hard to make up for lost time, so it will be busier now for a while.”

Adam nodded and looked at Inger. She was different — not just that she was not singing today — but she looked different. She looked tired, and anxious. Her eyes were constantly looking up and searching for signs of Ben, as though she felt he were not safe unless in her sight.

There was something else that Adam had noticed and that was that Inger didn’t look quite the same as even just a few weeks ago. Something had changed in Inger, and as he ate his oatmeal, he tried to work it out. It seemed to him that Inger was swelling up, and the fear seized him that she would, like a balloon, one day be blown into the sky and drift away from them.. He watched her out of the corner of his eye and was reassured by watching her do the usual morning tasks with her usual briskness.

Rockwell was a hard man and a lonely one. He was constantly berating them for doing things wrong, constantly telling them that they weren’t fit for the land they had fooled themselves into believing was flowing with milk and honey. He goaded them with his words and made each one of them more aware of their inadequacies as a result.

One morning Ben took Adam to one side and pulled him to his lap. “Son, I want you to stay close to the wagons.”

“Yes, Pa.”

“This is important; you do understand, don‘t you?”

“Yes, Pa.”

“Mr. Rockwell has told us we are in Indian territory now, so stay close.”

Adam nodded. The thought of Indians did not seem so bad to him at that moment. He remembered the Indian they had met on the rocks weeks before Rockwell appeared; he was more concerned about Inger. Seeing her stand and stretch with her hands on her back filled him with concern and he wondered if his Pa had noticed, or if he should say anything to him about his worry for her.

As it was, Ben was too busy with keeping Curtis and Tulliver from coming to blows over some mere incidental. It seemed to Adam that Ben was everywhere but with them at times, and he began to look for his father with as much concern as Inger.

Tommy stopped by and sat down beside his friend,

“We‘re in Indian territory,” Tommy announced with a trace of excitement in his shrill voice.

“I know.”

“They skin people alive; you know that, dontcha?”

Adam pulled some blades of grass up with his fingers and thought of the Indian who had come and helped Tommy. “No they don‘t,” he declared.

“Yep, they do. They skin you up, and no matter how much you yell and scream, they don’t stop. I heard Mr. Rockwell tell my Pa that they sometimes cut all your hair off with a hatchet.”

“That‘s stupid. I don’t want to hear anymore.”

“Cos you’re skeered.”

“I’m not.”

Day’s end at last. The night sky was ablaze with stars. Inger and Ben stood wrapped in one another’s arms and watched as a shooting star fell to earth. A dog yelped and there were the sounds of animals moving, snorting. They said nothing for a while, listening to the night sounds around them. Indians could creep up on a man so quietly but the couple were too intent with their thoughts and feelings to remember the advice they had been given. A bird gave a faint call in the distance and Ben held her closer. Far away the sky was changing, growing lighter, cerise pinks and orange tints, dark blue and purple. Ben sighed and shook his head in wonderment. “It‘s so beautiful.” he whispered.

“Amen to that,” she softly intoned.

Now, she thought, now is the time to tell him. She raised her face towards his and smiled, she opened her mouth to speak …

“Captain.” Rockwell’s sneering voice came loudly towards them, “You’re wanted over here. Mrs. Cartwright, your place is in the wagon.”

The next day little Joseph Payne died of the fever. They buried him quickly, burned gunpowder over the grave and drove their wagons and livestock over it to remove the scent as best they could from marauding wolves and Indians. A pall of grief seemed to settle over the little convoy of wagons as they journeyed onwards towards Ash Hollow.

*****

The sound of gunfire rolled over the still earth and the echoes reverberated amongst the hills until they were lost in the dense silence of the vast wild lands. The children tensed and became alert. Adam rolled from his back to his stomach and raised his head while Kevin bobbed up straight with a frown robbing him of his natural smile.

“It‘s alright; betcha it‘s Injuns,” Tommy said with relish.

“Pa said they were going to practice their shooting today,” Kevin explained as he got to his feet and peered about him. “Let‘s go and watch.”

Mr. Curtis put down his rifle and shook his head in mock disbelief; he spat on the ground and then turned to face the school teacher who was standing, white-faced, in front of them

“Let‘s get this right,” Curtis growled. “You’re saying that you ain‘t gonna shoot any Indians, is that right? Is that what you jest said?”

The youth nodded and folded his arms across his chest. The crowd of men edged in nearer to listen. The school teacher was young, the youngest man there, and his wife was a mere girl of 17. They were clean living, modest and had earned the respect of their fellow travelers by their quiet behavior. Now, suddenly, Mr. Philips was taking center stage in a very dramatic manner. Mr. Curtis, built like a bull, with a red face and tufts of red hair, and hands like hams, was the very antithesis of Mr. Phillips, who now stood before him, a gentle David before a very crude Goliath

“I spoke to you, you dumb ass.” Curtis spat the words out in angry contempt.

“Look, I just told you, I will not take a gun to any man, red or white or black, if it came to that. I did not come here to kill anyone.”

“You didn‘t come to kill anyone,” Curtis roared and threw his arms in the air to embrace the audience of shocked men. “Did you hear? The idjit says he didn‘t come to kill anyone?”

“That‘s a relief; I‘d hate him to take a pot shot at me.” Simon grinned.

“This is no joke,” Tulliver yelled, taking his stand beside Curtis. “We may have to depend on him to back us up. What if he were on guard duty? What protection will he be then?”

The men began to mutter and nod and cast angry looks at Phillips, who blushed a little and looked down at his feet momentarily, before raising his chin proudly.

“He‘ll use a gun alright when he sees what they do,” Curtis growled.

Phillips went white then and cast a look around for support. Ben stepped forward, his own rifle resting in the crook of his arm. He stepped between Curtis and Phillips and placed a restraining hand on the men’s chests. “That’s enough, there’s no point in arguing amongst ourselves.”

“Our lives could be at stake,” Curtis growled and swung with his fists at the teacher, but Phillips managed to step back in time. Ben, with the help of Frank Simon, protected him from further attack and then picked up the discarded rifle, which he held to Philips who only shook his head proudly.

“No, Mr. Cartwright, I can‘t take it.”

“The men here are right, Phillips. For your sake and for that of your wife?”

“I‘m just a school teacher, Mr. Cartwright; I didn’t come here to shoot anyone.”

“You may have no choice.”

“I didn’t come to shoot anyone either,” Simon said now. “But I have to accept the fact that I may have to take some lives during the course of this trip. Couldn‘t you take the rifle, Mr. Phillips, just in case?”

Phillips shook his head. He had wanted Ben and Frank to understand but even now they had that wary look on their faces, the same way they would look at a strange dog, wondering whether or not it would bite. Only now, they knew this dog would not bite, and they did not respect him for that, but he maintained his stand, and shook his head.

Ben and Frank watched as the youth returned, alone, to the wagons. Frank shook his head sadly. “Poor lad, he is living in a dream world. I hope we all have the chance to have such a luxury”

“Let’s hope Rockwell doesn’t get to know; he’ll make the lad’s life a misery. It’s bad enough with Curtis and Tulliver,” Ben replied. With an anxious glance at the retreating figure of the school teacher, he picked up his rifle.

Out of the corner of his eye, Ben saw movement. He immediately had his rifle ready and aimed when the boys stepped forward, staring wide-eyed around them. Curtis gave a roar and immediately cuffed young Kevin, the nearest of his sons to him. “What do you think you‘re doing? You could have been killed?”

“Aw, Pa, we jest wanted to see what was happening,” Tommy squealed, dodging in time to avoid the hamlike fist coming in his direction. They turned and ran as fast as they could back to the wagons. Adam took a look at Ben’s face and decided that he would be wise to do exactly the same.

Inger looked at him and frowned. “What have you been doing, Adam?”

“Nuthin ma, jest runnin.”

She stretched, her hands in the pit of her back and she closed her eyes and raised a hand to her brow.

“Are you alright, Ma?”

She smiled her sweet smile and nodded. Yes, everything was all right she said, but when she saw Rachel Simon looking over at her, she knew she would have to tell Ben soon about the coming child.

It was the very next day that Ben found out that he was to be a father again. They were attempting a steep climb and the wheels caught in a rut. Later wagon trains would learn from the lessons such as these and learned the wisdom of using sturdy mules or oxen to pull their wagons. The horses strained as best they could to get the wagon free but to no avail.

It was Rockwell who ordered Inger and Adam off the wagon to lighten the load; it was Ben who ordered Inger to go to Rachel’s wagon; it was Inger who decided that her feeble help may be just good enough to get the wagon shifted. She was wrong. The wagon backed sharply and sent her sprawling and rolling down the hill.

Resting in the wagon afterwards, she told her husband the news that she had been keeping back from him for months. It seemed to be that he was suddenly caught up in a maelstrom of emotions. The perfect joy of anticipation, the terrible fear that he could lose her like he had lost Elizabeth, the burden of responsibility that suddenly weighed upon his shoulders. Life would never be the same again. He held her close in his arms and prayed that God in his mercy would keep his beloved Inger safe and well.

*****

Rockwell wiped sweat from his brow and then looked down at the upturned faces. He wished they did not trust him so much. He was not a natural leader — a bully in some ways, but not a leader.

“I‘ll need extra guards around the camp when we bed down. If there are women capable of using a rifle, that would help too. Pawnee don’t stick to any preconceived ideas; they are as likely to attack during the night as they would during the day. Don’t get complacent and think any fool ideas about them worrying about their souls getting lost during the dark.”

“How do you know it’s Pawnee around here?” Curtis yelled.

“The Captain,” Rockwell said in his sneering tone whenever he alluded to Ben “and I just rode into a bunch of Cheyenne.” He paused as they looked at one another. He noticed the frightened look on their faces. “Southern Cheyenne are alright; they won’t harm anyone. Black Kettle told me they were attacked themselves by Bad Faces – that’s what they call the Pawnee, We have to stick together and fight together. Keep cool heads.” He looked at them again and hoped his words conveyed more confidence in them than he felt. Pawnee were pretty unscrupulous.

“Couldn‘t you have asked the Cheyenne to help?” Frank Simon asked.

“Black Kettle would have done, had I asked. They had wounded, and they had a way to go.” He paused and stared at Phillips, his glare at the school teacher made the other men turn to glare at him. Phillips could see Curtis turning purple.

They dispersed. With a cold glare at Ben, Rockwell made his way to his horse, then turned as he sensed Ben close by him. “Don’t worry, Captain, I’ll get you there, with or without your hair.” His crooked teeth gleamed yellow, like the fangs of a wolf.

*****

Mr. Phillips hemmed politely at the entrance of the Cartwright’s wagon, and Ben peered down at him before joining him at their camp fire,

“Well?” Ben asked sharply, for he shared in the feelings of the men there, that Phillips was a coward. Although Inger had encouraged him to have respect for Phillips’ conscience, knowing they were in Pawnee territory had made Ben feel even more apprehensive about the man.

“I know, Mr. Cartwright, I know nerves are pretty strung out now, but I can‘t go against my conscience.”

“I wouldn‘t want any man to do that, Mr. Phillips,” Ben muttered awkwardly, biting down on his bottom lip in order not to berate the unfortunate man.

“The men here think I‘m a coward.”

“I know.”

“Do you think I’m a coward?”

Ben paused and frowned. The last thing he needed now was a man asking a question like that! But a man who would stick by his principles and abide by his conscience in the way this lad was doing could not, in the ordinary way of things, be accused of being a coward. He placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Look, we could well need a fire warden,” he suggested.

“What do you mean?” Phillips looked anxiously at the older man.

Ben smiled. “We will need a fire warden, someone who will check the water barrels and the wagons. If there is a risk of fire during an attack, we won’t have to leave our posts because of worrying about them if you agree to protect us in this way?”

“I could do that.” Phillips breathed with a smile and took Ben’s hand in his own and shook it warmly. “I knew I could count on you for a solution, Mr. Cartwright.”

Ben nodded and smiled and watched the man walk back to his own wagon; it seemed he walked a little taller than he had for some days.

‘Well,” Ben mused to himself as he watched Phillips join his wife by their camp fire, ‘that will stick in Curtis’ craw’.

Rockwell listened to the suggestion of appointing Phillips as fire warden and agreed, although he thought it was stupid and a man should just take a gun and do what a man should do. Having said that, he stormed off and mounted his horse, ordering them to waste no more time. They had twenty miles to cover that day.

The days were getting colder. Two days passed uneventfully, although there were signs of Indians watching them from the buttes. Then they came …

Adam had time to scramble into the wagon almost as soon as he had heard Inger yelling to him. He crouched down low without any time to think about it when there came yells and screams such as he had never even dreamed of hearing before. There were the sounds of the buzzing of many bees and several arrows embedded themselves in the wagon wall close to his head.

It was like a nightmare. Inger lay on her stomach by her husband’s side, reloading the rifles as quickly as they were handed to her. Men, stripped naked to the waist and painted in garish red and black war paint, hurled themselves and their horses at the barricades that the settlers had hurriedly built around them. Blood curdling screams were no longer a cliché in a novel; they were actual sounds that did indeed curdle the blood within their veins, that turned limbs to water, and it was only that primeval force to survive that made each one of them move, act and think.

Inger was efficient in what she did, even though it was torture for her to lay there beneath her wagon with the boy just above them. Her fingers shook a little when she thought of him, so she forced herself to remember that she was descended from Vikings, and that her husband needed her at his side, and God willing, they would get through this ordeal.

The rifles emptied, and were efficiently reloaded and sometimes their eyes would meet, but that was all; they became like machines, too scared to think, to feel, only there to function.

Mr. and Mrs. Phillips did what they had to do when the fire arrows flew into the camp and found their marks. They were there to beat out the flames with wet blankets in such a passion that even Curtis was to find words of praise for them when it was finally all over.

“I mustn’t be afraid,” Adam whispered to himself as he scrunched up his eyes and covered his ears with his hands.

Everyone there concentrated solely on surviving. There was no time to be spent searching for places to hide, in screaming or fainting in horror. Courage and boldness was matched with the women alongside the men in every possible way. When some Indians succeeded in getting through the barrier and actually clambered into the Simons wagon, Rachel calmly shot the two foremost and then proceeded to beat the others back with a broom and mop, something about which she and Frank they laugh about later.

Amid her tears, Mrs. Curtis and her older boys were amazingly courageous under fire, seeming to be everywhere at once with rounds of ammunition to be passed amongst them.

At last the battle ended. Silence was left, bearing a terrible heaviness. Now, one by one, they emerged from their places. Ben rushed into the wagon and grabbed Adam, and held him in his arms and then he saw that Adam had a knife in his hand

“What were you going to do with that?” he asked gently, taking it from the boy.

“I wouldn’t let them hurt Ma,” he cried and threw himself into Inger’s arms with a wail of misery. “All that noise, Ma, and the guns banging and all that screaming.”

“It‘s alright now.. They’ve gone…” She breathed and her breath was warm and sweet against his cheek. “They’ve gone.”

“Will they come back?” Ben asked Rockwell as they surveyed the debris of their battle.

“Maybe, if we give them the chance. Get everyone ready to move out first thing in the morning, Captain,” came the snarl of a reply.

“But there are wounded” Ben reminded him.

“You have the evening to see to them. We need to move out.” Rockwell stared at the man before him and was satisfied in seeing the flush of color fade from the man’s face, “You ain’t got time to waste now, Captain.”

*****

It was Tulliver who fell asleep on night duty and let the Indians slip pass him to steal Rockwell’s horses and stock. He who had berated Phillips’ so heartily was the one to earn a cuff around the head that sent him sprawling to the ground.

The night Rockwell killed the Indian at their camp was the same night Erik ‘Hoss’ Cartwright was born. The night that Adam reminded his parents that they had promised Uncle Gunner that their son would be called Hoss, and Inger, with a weary but contented smile, told them that Hoss meant a big friendly man. Little was she to know how appropriate that name would be for her son.

Ben opened the musical box and they listened together. He held Inger by the hand and smiled at her — lovely Inger — and in her arms she held the infant baby and by her side was Adam, half-asleep but listening to the music with his usual intensity. Ben told them of the home he was going to build for them and about the land to which they were travelling. He wove the words together just as the musical notes held the tune. Then Inger said how she wanted the windows to catch the sun in the morning and as it set in the evening.,, and soon the child drifted off into sleep, hearing his father’s promise of a new home, a dog for Hoss and a pony for him…and Inger would be there, always there, and there would be song and laughter and joy.

*****

EPILOGUE

The little boy lay in his bed and held the covers close to him. If he kept his eyes shut, perhaps the dream would remain.

“Please God, let Inger be my ma forever, and forever, and forever. Please God, let Hoss be my brother forever, and forever, and forever. Please God, don’t let Pa cry anymore.” He bunched his fist into balls and rubbed his eyes.

It was no good. The dream was over. He heard his father’s weeping from the other room and stole from his bed and crept to the door and peeked out.

Ben had his face buried in his hands and the tears trickled freely through his fingers. His sunshine had faded now. Inger was his sunshine. Her smile and laughter, her joy in life; all that made Inger was lovely and so gentle, so loved, and beloved. He sobbed for his loss and for his pain.

Warm fingers touched his wet hands and forced them apart and he was made to look down into the pale face of the little child who gazed up at him. Adams fingers touched his father’s cheeks and wiped away the tears with the gentleness of love. He put his arms around his father’s neck and held him close, just as not so long ago Inger had held him. And just as she had said to him, so he now spoke to his father.

“It’s alright, it’s alright, Pa, it’s alright to cry; even men can cry sometimes.”

“For all our days have come to their decline in your fury
We have finished our years just like a whisper”

Psalm 90 v 9

***The End***

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