Summary: Ben took over the leadership of his wagon train after the loss of their wagon master at Ash Hollow when the group decided they had to keep going even after missing its connection with a larger train heading to Fort Laramie, Wyoming. The responsibility for these souls helped him over his grief at losing Inger, and they are scheduled to roll into the fort by afternoon. Ben rides ahead to the fort on this last day of travel to make arrangements, leaving others in charge of moving the wagons out from their final campsite. He’s excited to greet his friends as they arrive late that afternoon, but Ben soon realizes they’ve lost something along the 15-miles they covered.
Word Count: 16,085
Six-year-old Adam Cartwright folded his arms behind his head and sighed heavily. It was still dark in the wagon, and without being able to get up and peek at the eastern sky, he had no idea how close it was to morning. He held his breath, hoping to hear sounds of life—pots banging…voices—anything to let him know that he’d be able to get up soon. But the only thing he could hear with clarity was his father’s snoring.
How much he’d actually slept so far was uncertain. He’d drifted off a few times, only to have his eyes fly back open as he thought about his planned excursion come daylight. All his thinking had left him feeling sleepy, so he shut his eyes tightly to the shadowy outlines in the wagon, and willed himself to doze until dawn. It didn’t take long before an image appeared in his mind and he started rehearsing again.
Layla Clark, or Lallie as her family called her, was the prettiest girl Adam had ever seen. She was as perfect as the porcelain doll she often carried. The doll’s face resembled Lallie’s, and the clothes on the doll always matched what Lallie wore! Their hair was similar too; both adorned with ribbons and bows pinning back their long curls. Adam marveled that anyone would be so special as to have a toy like that. Even the shoes Lallie wore were dainty like that doll’s, made of smooth black leather with a thin strap buckled across the top of her foot, rather than the sturdy tied shoes and boots the other kids in the wagon train wore. Lallie Is like a living doll, he thought, releasing another sigh. But Adam felt bad for Lallie, because that doll was her only companion.
The Clark’s three wagons hadn’t been with Adam’s caravan very long, and they kept to themselves unless there was a meeting they had to attend. They sat off by themselves at those, and Mrs. Clark only spoke when she had a question or observation, which was usually given in an accusatory tone that made the other folks in the train cringe. When the train wasn’t moving, Lallie played alone with her doll under the watchful eyes of her family: usually her mother, whose sharp glances kept others at bay.
Adam figured the Clarks hadn’t had time to get to know anyone very well, and he hoped his plan might provide Lallie with a chance to do just that. There was going to be a party once all the families were settled in Fort Laramie tomorrow, and Adam intended to make sure the Clarks would attend or at least allow their daughter to come so she’d make friends to play with over the long winter. The other kids in the train had scoffed at his idea, saying the entire Clark family thought they were too good to socialize with common folks.
That hadn’t deterred Adam, and he’d spent the night perfecting his invitation. Now he just had to get to their wagons and say his piece. He’d finally drifted off thinking about that party with its food, games, and music to mark the end of the long trip across the plains. The dream was so pleasant that he jumped when his father shook him and said, “Rise and shine, Adam. It’s going to be a long day.”
“You look tired,” Ben said as he handed Adam a heavy bowl of oatmeal.
“Maybe some, but I’m mostly excited.”
“This is a big day for us, so eat up.”
“Aren’t you gonna eat, Pa?”
“I had some coffee and chewed some jerky while I made your cereal.”
Adam looked into the bowl containing what resembled a glob of gray mud with burned edges. He wasn’t sure what his pa did to make it look like that, but the results were always the same. Adam had heard a phrase about some food having the power to “stick to your ribs,” and if that was true, his father’s oatmeal was a sure contender. “I sure would give anything for a piece of bacon,” he thought aloud.
Ben’s stern, “Be thankful that you have this,” was tempered by a lopsided grin. “But I will be glad when we can get supplies and have time to hunt for meat.” He kicked dirt over the small fire, and dumped the dregs of coffee on top to snuff what embers remained. “I’m going to say good morning to your brother and then saddle up. Why don’t you stow our things after you finish and go visit Hoss too.” He walked over and tousled Adam’s hair. “Do you remember that I’m riding ahead to the fort now so I can get things organized for when the train arrives?”
Adam nodded while still staring into his bowl. He looked up and smiled broadly. “I’ll run in front of the wagons, so I’m the first person you see when we get there!”
“I’ll hold you to that.” Ben kissed his son’s head and smoothed the hair he’d messed. “Mr. Kennedy will be driving our wagon today, so let him know which family you’ll be with if you don’t want to ride with him.” Ben laughed when he turned back after a few steps and saw Adam’s cheeks pouched out like a chipmunk gathering nuts. “Slow down, son,” he cautioned. “I know you think it’s easier if you stuff it all in at once and keep swallowing until it’s gone. But one of these days, you’re going to choke, and that oatmeal is so stiff, it’ll take a hammer and chisel to clear your throat.”
The little boy began to giggle so hard he blew the gray sludge out his nose. It took several swallows to clear what was left in his cheeks, while his father hurried back to lend a hand if necessary. He finally took a deep breath and grabbed his cup of water for a long drink. “You shouldn’t make me laugh when I’m eating that, Pa.” Adam sniffed and started to laugh again. “There’s still some up my nose.”
“I really have to go now. Take smaller bites! And wear your heavy coat. It looks like we’re in for another cool, windy day.”
Ben shivered and pulled up the collar of his jacket to keep the rising wind from snaking down his back as he strode along the line of wagons. He greeted those who were gathering their things, and enjoined them to be ready to leave within the hour.
His line of sight opened to the western horizon when he reached a gap between two wagons and he stopped to take a good look. It was mid-November, and the dark, heavy clouds billowing in the distance might portend just another cloudy day or possibly a chilly rain or sleet if the temperature dropped another ten degrees. He was quite sure he’d seen small snowflakes swirling in the wind the night before as he’d tightened the flaps on their wagon.
Ben’s recalled the difficulties of the last six years as he’d tried to keep his wallet full enough to afford supplies for the Oregon Trail, while also keeping his young child properly fed and cared for. There’d been a sweet respite when he’d met and married Inger. She’d brought love and light to his and Adam’s life, and gifted him with a son. Her death should have left him reeling and diminished, but since he was the only one in their group who knew near enough about maps and navigating to set a course across the unknown, he’d accepted the responsibilities of getting the souls in this caravan to their winter stopover. He’d handled his grief as he’d become accustomed, by putting one foot in front of the other and going on.
The group’s decision to move on despite the waning weeks of good weather had not been made lightly. They’d considered everything that could go wrong. But what tipped the scales against remaining in Nebraska was that they’d already paid to be part of the larger train that had moved on ahead of them. No one had the resources in time or money to wait around. They’d set out, knowing the dangers, and he’d warned them from the start that he would push them hard, and they’d done everything he’d asked.
They’d reach Fort Laramie this evening by his reckoning, and his gaze drifted upwards as a ray of sunshine warmed his face. Both Elizabeth and Inger had supported his plans to go west, and he smiled with his memory of their encouragement. “I know you two have been with us each day,” he said softy. “You’ve watched over your sons and I promise that once we’re settled at the fort, I’ll be a better father.”
He resumed his walk to the Halverson wagon, and stuck his head inside when his knock was followed by permission to enter. “How’s our boy?” he asked the woman cradling the squirming bundle of blankets on her lap. Irene Halverson had lost her baby just before Hoss lost his mother, and she’d taken Inger’s child to her heart while nursing and caring for him.
“He’s just fine. I got him to suck on some warm cereal last night before settling him, and he slept all night.”
Ben climbed into the wagon and carefully took his son, cradling him to his chest. “I can’t get over how fast he’s growing. I bet he’s nearly twice the size Adam was at the same age.”
Irene laughed. “I doubt that’s true, but he is a big boy, and that’s a good thing out here. I expect you’ll be glad to spend more time with him.”
“I will, but he is very attached to you, and will need your help for a bit yet, so I’d like to secure side-by-side shelters for our two families at the fort.”
“My husband would appreciate having you close by. He often bemoans his all-womenfolk household.” Her eyes clouded with tears. “Losing our son was hard on him, but having Hoss here softens that blow.”
Hoss smiled widely, making Ben grin from ear-to-ear. “I remember Adam smiling early, but his caregiver said it was just gas at first. I’d say Hoss’s smile is the genuine thing, though.”
Irene laughed. “I’d think Adam probably did everything early, including smiling. Did he speak in full sentences at six months?”
“He did by a year.” Ben sat in the chair she’d abandoned, and rocked Hoss, telling him about Fort Laramie. His son’s eyes grew bluer and rounder as his father spoke, and he made a series of grunts and squeals in response. Ben ended the conversation by planting several kisses on his baby’s fuzzy, blonde head.
“Today’s trip will be long and tiring, but people will be dispirited if they don’t make it all the way,” he told Irene as he handed Hoss back. “I best make sure everyone is ready to roll, and then get going myself. Thank you for everything you’ve done for us.” He grasped her hand tightly. “Adam’s going to stop by in a bit. It’s fine if he wants to stay with your girls today, but please remind him to tell Mr. Kennedy.” Ben swung his leg over the gate and paused before jumping down. “I’ll see you at the fort!”
After wiping out the pot and bowl, and stowing them in a box attached to the outside of the wagon, Adam looked around, gaging how much time he had until the wagons rolled. The first teams were just being hooked up, ensuring him enough time to visit his baby brother and then see Lallie.
Ned Kennedy was talking to his oldest son when Adam started towards the Halverson wagon, and he headed over to speak to them. “Good morning, Mr. Kennedy…Jake.” He nodded towards both men. “Pa says I can ride with the Halversons today as long as you know about it. I’m going to see Hoss, and I’ll stay there so you don’t have to worry about where I am.”
“Thanks for telling me,” Ned told the youngster, and nudged his own son as Adam strode away like a soldier on a mission. “That boy knows where he’s going, and I don’t just mean to the Halverson wagon.” Both men chuckled. Everyone in their caravan had come to realize that Adam Cartwright was a six-year-old…going on thirty…as his father would always add, who knew exactly what he wanted and how to go about getting it. He was quiet compared to the boisterous, wilder children in the group, but he was always thinking and planning things out. He learned how the ladies packed their wagons to get to things quickly and told his father how they should reorganize their own things to be as efficient, and he knew how to care for the stock, and the basics of driving a team. If a wagon broke down, the men knew he’d be in the middle of the repair, trying to learn how to do it. Everyone agreed that Adam might not have the strength to do the heavier work or handle the large horses or oxen yet, but they joked that he would be ready to lead a wagon train of his own by the time he was eight.
Adam climbed into the Halverson’s wagon after knocking, and went directly to the cradle. “Hi, Hoss; it’s me, Adam,” he told his baby brother. Hoss began thrashing his arms and legs excitedly. “Do you think he recognizes me, Mrs. Halverson?”
“He knows your voice, that’s for sure. He responds to your pa that way too.”
“I’ll be glad when his head doesn’t wobble so much. Pa says l can play with him then.”
Irene smiled sadly, remembering Adam sitting in the corner with Hoss resting up against him on the day Inger died. “Once the floor doesn’t move under us, I’ll let you rock him. But that baby is growing a lot faster than you are right now, and it’s best to just talk to him.”
Adam’s conversation covered the same information his father had shared, but Hoss didn’t seem to mind the repetition. Adam lowered his voice once Mrs. Halverson left the wagon, and he told his brother about going to see Lallie, and his hope she’d be able to come to the party. “I gotta hightail it now, Hoss, but I’ll be back and tell you how it goes.” He concluded his conversation by letting his brother grab tightly onto his finger, while he kissed Hoss’s fuzzy head just as his father had done.
“I gotta do something quick before we leave,” he told Mrs. Halverson when he exited the wagon.
“Your pa says you can come with us today. Just tell Mr. Kennedy if you’ll be doing that,” she called as he trotted away.
Adam hollered back that he’d already told him, and he’d return in a minute, but the wind and a neighing horse kept his words from reaching their destination.
Ben sat atop his horse directing the wagons to form a half-circle against the outside wall of Fort Laramie. He raised his eyes and gave thanks, just as he had several times already this day, and thought back to his daily bombardment of prayers, asking for safe passage. There’d been the usual delays for repairs and one monsoonal downpour, but they’d mustered on making miles in rain and sunshine, and they’d arrived in good time! Not only did they have a place of refuge for winter, they’d be with the larger train for the spring departure.
There was no missing the happy, excited faces of the families as they drove past. The odds against them completing the trip in time had always loomed over them, and each member of this large traveling family understood their accomplishment: a battle won from the ashes of loss and uncertainty.
Their wagons wouldn’t enter the fort until tomorrow when cavalry officers would perform an orderly intake. Arriving before the train, had given Ben time to go over his plans with the commander, and then explain to him and the leaders of the larger wagon train, all that his group had been through in getting there. After his preliminary work was done, he still had time to look around at accommodations and make decisions.
With the West beckoning pioneers, it was a certainty that larger groups of wagons would continue moving along the Oregon Trail. Fort Laramie was at a critical point in the journey, offering safe harbor during the winter. To accommodate the late fall influx, the men stationed there had begun constructing barracks and cabins to house their winter guests. After a perusal of the remaining space available, Ben decided where each of his group might do best, and wrote up assignments that he’d go over once the wagons arrived.
He was confident everyone would be satisfied…except for one family. He was accepting of it since this would be the last time he’d have to handle their disgruntlement. It was nothing new; he’d had to handle all their complaints since finding the Clark’s wagons two weeks ago.
Ben smiled and waved another wagon through while a nagging concern lifted the hair on the back of his neck. He wondered why Adam hadn’t already greeted him as he’d promised.
Oh well, he thought. The excitement in the group must be keeping him with the others. The Halverson wagon was next in line, and Ben stood in his stirrups to see if his son was standing behind the driver’s seat. His disappointed sigh accompanied a tip of his hat to Irene and Pete. “Welcome to your winter retreat!” He rode beside them as they headed toward a place to stop. “I looked at what’s available inside, and have a proposition for you, Pete. There aren’t enough cabins for everyone, but the soldiers have logs cut, field stone gathered and even some plots leveled. I think there’s time to build two simple cabins before the snow flies…if you’re willing to put in a little elbow grease with me.” He sent the couple a sly wink. “We can connect them with a passageway so you can send the kids to play by us without even putting on their shoes.”
“That sounds great,” Irene replied. “I’d like a little quiet now and then.”
“I’ll confirm our intentions with the commander first thing tomorrow.” Ben’s look turned to puzzlement. “Is Adam inside the wagon with your daughters?”
Irene’s smile faded instantly. “He came by early to see Hoss, and I told him to let Ned Kennedy know if he was riding with us. He left, saying he had something to do, and he never came back. I figured Ned talked him into riding along, since he gets sleepy without someone to gab with. We never stopped on the way, so I haven’t seen anyone other than Pete and the girls all day.”
Uneasiness crept down Ben’s back like the cold morning wind had earlier, making him shiver. “Adam was so excited that he was restless all night. He probably hunkered down for a nap in our wagon and doesn’t even realize he’s here.” He tried shaking off his anxiety. “I’ve told everyone else to get their teams to the tie line while the ladies get their cook-fires started. Then everyone needs to gather in the center so I can go over what will happen tomorrow.”
Ben waved the Halverson wagon along; anxious to have the last three units get past so Ned Kennedy would come through with his unit. He took a long drag of breath when he saw Ned and his wife pulling up.
“Is Adam inside snoozing?” he asked as Ned maneuvered the Cartwright vehicle into the center position of the arc of wagons.
Ned wound the reins around the brake handle. When he turned to Ben, his face had the wrinkled look of an old bloodhound. “Your son told me he was riding with Irene and Pete. I haven’t s seen him since this morning.”
Fear smacked into Ben’s gut like a catapulted boulder. “They thought he was riding with you.” The unknown whereabouts of his son made his stomach twist as the boulder’s impact deepened. “You and your sons start from here, Ned, and work left. I’ll head the opposite direction. Maybe he got distracted and ended up with another family when you pulled out. Irene said you didn’t stop during the day, so he stayed put.” Ben took a deep breath to organize his thoughts. “Holler if you find him.” Ben’s knotted gut and pounding heart were screaming that no such holler would come. No matter where Adam might have “ended up” for the journey, Ben knew his son would have come running as soon as the wagons reached the fort. He dismounted and waited for Ned to disembark before pointing towards the fort’s wall, midway between the ends of the wagon formation. “Check each wagon and then have the family assemble over there.”
Sylvia Kennedy slid to the edge of the seat, looking down at the two men. Her look was stern, and her tone, serious. “You both know that Adam wouldn’t go with someone else without telling us or Irene, and he’d have been the first to greet you no matter where’d he’d spent the day. Don’t waste time searching. Just get everyone together and we’ll figure out when he was last seen.”
Ben and the Kennedys moved down the row, sending people to the fence; their serious demeanors deflecting questions. There was quiet grumbling in the assembled group; the men complaining about leaving their teams hooked up, and the women worrying about how long supper would be delayed by this interruption. But they all knew Ben Cartwright never did anything without good reason. The possibility that this meeting would bring bad news about the winter layover left them unable to stand still. A collective, expectant sigh exited the assembly, sounding like a whispering prairie wind, when Ben finally walked over. Ned grabbed a crate from the nearest wagon, placed it in front of the crowd, and motioned for Ben to stand on it.
Ben’s voice when commanding the wagon train was firm and authoritative, but the worried father experienced a lack of volume and solidity, causing him to breathe deeply and stand up straighter. “I know you’re afraid that there’s bad news about our winter situation, but everything is fine. However, we are missing a child. I want each family to do a headcount.” He waited while families made sure everyone was there. “Is anyone else unaccounted for?”
The murmuring grew for a moment as heads shook.
“Then it’s just my son.” A round of nods provided the answer. “Adam spoke to at least two people before the wagons rolled this morning. Did anyone see or talk to him during the trip?” The absolute silence gave further testimony. “Then we need to pinpoint when he was last seen.”
Irene Halverson moved forward and faced the group. “He came by our wagon just before we hooked up the team. He said he had something to do before we pulled out, and I didn’t see him after that. I thought he was riding with Ned.”
“Ned says Adam told him he would be with the Halversons, and I’d already left for the fort by then. Did anyone other than Ned and Irene see or talk to him before you left?” Ben was again met with silence. His voice was strained as he pushed his friends to think harder. “He told Irene he was going somewhere. Didn’t anyone see him pass by?”
Increased activity and volume in the vicinity of the McElroy family caused heads to turn in their direction. Mrs. McElroy walked her 13-year-old daughter forward, and said, “Go ahead, Franny, tell him.”
“Mr. Cartwright,” the young woman said hesitantly. “I know where he went, but I was waiting for that family to speak up. I was afraid my mother would be mad that I eavesdropped on the conversation he had there, but Ma says I need to tell you what I know.”
Ben didn’t even realize he’d been holding his breath, and he released it in a long sigh. “Go ahead, Franny. I can’t look for Adam until I know where to start.”
The teen gulped. “I wanna explain why I listened when I shouldn’t have. Adam had been telling us kids about how he felt sorry for that Layla girl, because she seems so lonesome. Her mother never lets her play with us, and she isn’t even allowed to come when I do story time with all the kids after supper. Adam said he was going to make sure Layla and her family knew about the party we’re having tomorrow night, so they could get to know us better. That’s where he went when he left Mrs. Halverson.”
Ben’s eyes bore a hole into Mrs. Clark’s forehead. “Why didn’t you tell me about this?”
The woman pulled her shoulders back and shot an imperious look down her nose. “Why should I? He came and left well before we pulled out. It’s not my responsibility to keep track of your son.”
His cheeks were mottled with anger when he looked back at Franny, but he forced himself to sound calm. “Did you see him go somewhere after that?”
She nodded and looked back at her mother.
Marla McElroy harrumphed and drew her daughter towards her protectively. “I don’t like to admit that a child of mine was eavesdropping, but I’m glad she did. Mrs. Clark may feel she had no part in this, but you’ll feel differently once you know what she said to Adam before he left her.”
“Did something happen we should know about?” Ben asked Mrs. Clark.
When the woman remained silent, Ben turned to Franny. “I don’t like hearsay, but in this case I think we need to know what was said.”
Franny nodded and steeled her spine. “Adam called for Layla when he got to their wagons, and she climbed out to ask what he wanted. His voice was shaky and he said um a lot at first, but he finally got going and told her that after our last meeting, we’d planned a party to celebrate reaching Fort Laramie. Her family had gone back to their wagons by then, so he wanted to make sure she knew about it. He said he’d tell her mother too, and he hoped the whole family would come.”
Ben smiled at Layla Clark. “Is that what Adan told you?” She nodded but remained mute when her mother dug her nails into the girl’s shoulders like a hawk snatching a mouse.
Franny cleared her throat. “Mrs. Clark kind of snuck up behind Adam while the two kids were talking, and she grabbed Adam by the neck, like she’s doing with Layla now. She didn’t ask what they were talking about; she just called him a dirty little thief. When he denied that and cried out that she was hurting him, she yelled that he’d come by to spy into their wagons so he could slip back later while they were up front driving, and steal whatever he could get his filthy hands on.”
There was an audible intake of breath by the group as Franny exposed Mrs. Clark’s accusations.
“Is there more?” Ben asked.
She nodded. “Adam kept saying that wasn’t true, but Mrs. Clark said that stealing was the only way you,” Franny pointed towards Ben, “would you be able to buy supplies when we got to the fort. She told Adam you’re so poor that you have to beg your supper every night from some family in the wagon train. That was her proof that you expected everyone to ease your poverty. Since she had never given you a meal, you probably felt justified in sending your unsupervised brat to spy and steal.” Another hiss rose from the group. “Then she said that if you wanted to be a wagon master, you should have had gotten shed of your kid before taking this kind of job, although having your…um…then she used a bad word to describe Adam that means you weren’t married to his mother… with you was a good way to make people feel sorry for you.” Franny stalled as her memory of the vile conversation caused her eyes to flood with tears and roll down her bright pink cheeks.
“Thank you, Franny. You’ve been very brave,” Ben told the youngster. “Is there anything else I should know?”
Franny nodded weakly and sniffed. “After that, she said she didn’t want a homely, beaver-toothed thief near her daughter, so he should go away…and stay away.”
Ben’s gaze drifted to the Clark family, focusing on Mrs. Clark. “You said those ugly things to a six-year-old child who only wanted your daughter to be included in some fun?”
“I doubt I said it as this girl reports.”
Mrs. McElroy stepped in front of her daughter. “That’s where you’re wrong, Mrs. Clark. My daughter can remember everything word-for-word. It’s something she’s always been able to do and it’s unnerving at times. If you’d like to test her, she can tell you everything that’s been said so far at this meeting.”
“None of this has anything to do with that child not being here!” Mrs. Clark screeched. “You all think I’m horrible, but all I did was tell the boy the truth.”
Ben held his hands up. “Mrs. Clark, what you said to my son was appalling and inexcusable, but you’re right; it gets us no closer to finding him.” He turned again to Franny. “Did you see where he went when he left Mrs. Clark?”
A quick nod. “He ran past me heading out of camp, and I caught up to ask if he was all right. He said that he had to…you know… relieve himself…real bad. He was sort of bent over, holding his stomach like it was hurting him. I heard Ma calling, so I hollered for Adam to get done quick, and I hurried back to my own wagon.”
“Did anyone see him come back into camp?” Heads bowed and shook. Ben expected that answer. It was clear that Adam left feeling sick and never returned.
Ned Kennedy asked, “You think maybe he got lost?”
Ben shrugged and then shot an angry look towards Mrs. Clark, when she proposed, “Maybe the Indians got him when he was out there.”
Irene Halverson shot forward, grabbed the Clark woman’s arm and pulled her off to the side. Applause erupted when the others heard Irene saying, “Shut your mouth before I put my fist in it. Not even God would hold me accountable for doing that.”
Ned touched Ben’s arm as he stepped off the box. “My boys and I’ll saddle up.”
“Thank you, but this is my responsibility. Mrs. Clark is right; if I was a better father, Adam would be here.” He smiled wanly. “Besides, I need you to get people organized for tomorrow.” Ben reached into his pocket and withdrew the directions for the intake. “As long as everyone is still here, go over this, and then let them get on with their preparations.” He started to leave and turned back. “If I’m not here by morning, have the commander send soldiers. I’ll leave some sort of marking to show where I’ve gone if I leave the road.”
Ben looked back to the half-circle of wagons before directing his horse onto the rutted roadway formed from wheels heading toward the fort, and gave thanks for having men like Ned Kennedy with him. Ned wasn’t good with maps and could get lost driving in a straight line, but he was an exceptional organizer of people and equipment. He saw Ned gesturing to the others to gather round again, and Ben knew with certainty that this friend, made in the toughest of circumstances, would have these people ready to move quickly come morning.
He glanced up at the sky, noting a nearly-full moon rising. However, the clearing skies also meant any heat the clouds had managed to trap earthbound during peaks of sun during the day, would vanish quickly. The good news was that the moonlight would provide enough illumination after the sun set to keep the horse at a trot. By his reckoning, they’d made over 15 miles today, so it would take over an hour at this pace to get back to their previous campsite.
The cool air had cleared his head of the mind-numbing anger he’d felt after hearing the circumstances of Adam’s disappearance, letting him process decisions more quickly. He wanted to push full-out, but he reasoned it would leave the horse too tired for the off-trail search that might be required. He decided it was better to pace the trip for a quick return should he find Adam injured or ill.
With this sorted through, his mind returned to Adam’s encounter with Mrs. Clark. He sighed deeply, admitting his own failure to account for the most important thing in his life before leaving for the fort. His taking the role of wagon leader had also necessitated that Adam had to shoulder responsibility not normally required of a child. Adam wasn’t a saint, but he was a good kid—respectful, kind, and in this case, caring enough to want to help a lonely child. Mrs. Clark’s thoughtless tirade, delivered to a child doing his absolute best, struck him as exceptionally cruel.
He wished that Adam had shared his plan before going ahead with it, so he could have gone along. Ben would have expected the invitation to be spurned, but he wouldn’t have allowed Mrs. Clark to abuse his son over it.
He sighed raggedly as he recalled their wagons coming upon the Clark’s four vehicles two weeks earlier. He tried to remember if he’d ever heard their first names, and concluded he hadn’t. All he’d heard the parents call each other was Clark and Mother. As far as he knew, the Clarks hadn’t spoken to any family in the group other than to “demand” some sort of consideration or assistance.
The Clark family consisted of the parents, Lallie, her two much-older brothers, a maid, and a man who took care of the stock and wagons. Ben was excited to find them…at first…since they confirmed that his group had kept pace with the forward train, and they were still only a few days behind it.
He had been disturbed when he first heard that the forward wagon master had left these folks behind. Yet he’d soon understood that the man had no option, because the Clarks had chosen to stay put. They’d brought no spare parts of their own, even though having four wagons in their group, and the other members of the train had already used their spares or were unwilling to share what they still had. Mrs. Clark had huffed when she’d told Ben about that situation and then stated outright that she’d demanded a rider be dispatched to the fort ahead of the train with the purpose of returning in haste with parts or wagons to use in lieu of their two disabled ones. Her indignation over the situation revolved around the fact that they had paid to have all their possessions make it to their destination, not the bits and pieces they’d have after leaving some behind. Mrs. Clark had concluded her recitation of outrage with the complaint that the wagon master had refused to leave any of his scouts behind to protect them, nor had any other family volunteered to stay with them to afford additional safety.
It took little time for Ben to suspect what was pushing the Clarks, and he understood why the forward group had eagerly moved on without them. The Clarks were obviously wealthy: accustomed to issuing orders, and expecting them to be carried out. Mr. Clark said little, but “Mother” was always vocal in her certainty that their wealth should provide immunity from the troubles that befell the “others” on this difficult trip.
These “others”: the good people who’d sacrificed everything to obtain a fresh opportunity, understood that fate cared little about personal abundance. They also understood that they were the people Mrs. Clark felt should carry the brunt of the hardships. Any sympathy they’d initially held had vanished quickly.
Ben would have left the Clarks where he’d found them, but the instincts for changing weather he’d developed on the sea, made him sense the urgency of finding shelter before the heavy, wintery clouds on the horizon brought disaster. His respect for God’s command to love his neighbor outweighed his personal dislike for this arrogant family, and he pressed the Clarks to move with them.
When Mrs. Clark remained adamant that they wait, Ben pressed the husband until he finally grew a spine and told his wife to listen. Ben reminded them that his group was the last one of the season. He also reminded them there might be delays with help getting back to them, and that they were still two weeks out from the fort. The picture he painted of them being caught in an early snow; stuck in drifts so high they couldn’t leave their wagons to find firewood or hunt for game, finally made them pay attention. He enhanced the details by telling them how their supplies would run out and the temperatures would drop well below freezing, leaving them starving, until succumbing to a painful, miserable, lonely death…surrounded by the “things” that had kept them from acting.
The solution was simple, and Ben asked the other wagon master why he hadn’t done it when he’d talked to him at the fort today. The poor man had looked sick as he’d explained that he had used all the same motivations to make them move on, but Mrs. Clark had remained unmoving, and he finally relented.
To get his train moving with the Clarks along, Ben had used parts from the one severely damaged wagon to make repairs to the other, and then the Clarks had consolidated their things into the three usable ones. Mrs. Clark had stood wailing as their furnishing and trunks were moved, overloading the useable wagons to point where Ben feared they’d experience further breakdowns. He shook his head now as he remembered her weeping the entire next day, grieving the few meaningless things they did leave behind.
The Clarks remained aloof the entire two weeks, placing their three wagons in a triangle each night, walling themselves off from the rest. Ben’s conversation with the other wagon master provided proof that this was nothing new. He’d let them be, insisting only that they attend daily planning meetings.
The family always showed up to these gatherings dressed in their fine clothing, causing heads to shake and eyes to roll. They further alienated Ben’s group by complaining about what a small, ragtag caravan they’d been forced to join, and criticizing their lack of adequate leadership and scouts. What this family seemed unwilling to concede was that this group was part of the same group they’d been in, and only circumstances had prevented them from joining up in Ash Hollow.
Mrs. Clark’s tirade against Adam didn’t surprise Ben either. The woman’s true character had been fully revealed two days after they’d joined Ben’s train, when they came upon a gruesome scene. Several burned out wagons, still generating tendrils of smoke, littered the remains of the forward train’s campsite. Fresh mounds of earth, topped with lashed-branch crosses, provided evidence of 20 deaths in an attack by natives or marauders. Ben had allowed a stop only to offer prayers at the graves and make sure there was no one still in need of help. According to the Clarks, there were at least 80 wagons in that group, and Ben gave thanks that most of them and their occupants had been able to move on towards safety.
Amidst the sorrow and prayers, Mrs. Clark had huffed about how she now realized how unfairly her family had been treated. She cited the fact that none of the occupants of the burned out wagons had been forced to remain behind, waiting for rescue as her family had. Ben hadn’t bothered to point out that people had been left behind… if she’d have lowered her nose enough to see the graves. And he further wondered how she missed that fact that being “left behind” had kept the Clarks out of the massacre.
He pushed these disturbing memories aside with a sad shake of his head and a deep sigh. The horse was keeping a good pace despite moving across ground that chewed up axles and wheels with regularity. With the ride going well, Ben let his thoughts turn to his son, whose kind innocence had motivated his attempt to include Layla and her family. Times had gotten tough during their five-year journey from Boston to Missouri, and while he’d kept Adam away from those who’d questioned and criticized, he knew his son had heard some of the rude remarks about their situation. The difference was that the brunt of those unkind assessments had never been directed towards Adam.
Mrs. Clark had initiated a personal attack, accusing the boy of being a thief, and labelling him a beggar. Even a child as well-grounded and sure of himself as Adam, would have been taken aback. Ben imagined that his son had felt like he’d been kicked in the stomach, and he understood Adam’s need to find a private place to sort things out.
Still, whatever had sent him outside camp didn’t explain why he hadn’t returned. As much as he hated himself for allowing her voice into his head, Mrs. Clark’s remark about Indians might be true. But as her voice quieted, other possible reasons sprang up that brought no more comfort, making him clench the reins so tight that his nails dug into his palms.
The remnant of light illuminating the western horizon when he’d left the fort, had relinquished its hold to night. Ben slowed his pace when his horse slipped into a shallow hole camouflaged by moonlit shadows on the path. He’d freed his mind from the thoughts that were plaguing him, and with concentration and a steady pace, he estimated he was within five miles of their previous camp.
He’d focused so completely on the destination that he hadn’t noticed how cold it had become. His stiff, icy fingers took a bit of flexing to regain enough dexterity to don his gloves, and his heart chilled when he noted the visible clouds his breath created in the silver moonlight. He’d told Adam to wear his heavier coat, but the child’s pants were thin and short, and his socks were so worn that they were more like a connection of darned holes that slid down into his shoes instead of staying put around his legs. The mittens in Adam’s coat pockets were too small and as holey as his socks. Picturing his son curled up, trying…but failing to keep warm in the frigid air, filled him with despair. He began speaking aloud as he rode. He first sent petitions to Adam’s Heavenly Father asking for protection over his son. His thoughts turned next to Elizabeth, asking that she guide his rescue efforts. His prayers ended with a settling in his heart that allowed him to breathe fully again. HIs horse had slowed and then stopped as Ben had become still in the saddle while speaking his mind to those unseen, and he used his stationary position to scan the horizon. He was still out from where they’d camped, yet he suddenly felt nudged to attention.
A distant shadow moved for an instant in the brush at the side of the road, making Ben bolt upright and squint into the darkness. “Probably a coyote,” he muttered to himself. That possibility didn’t stop him from hollering, “Adam!” He continued assuring himself it had been an animal as he moved forward, trying to keep his heart from bursting with disappointment if there was nothing there. Yet, he did have reason to hope. Ben hadn’t left such situations to chance.
He’d been plagued with worry about Adam being left behind after taking on the leadership of the train. His new role had meant frequently scouting ahead of the train and relying on others to keep track of his son. He’d set rules for Adam to follow when it came to riding in wagons other than his own, and he’d relaxed over time to where he’d anticipated seeing his smiling little guy running towards him following each day’s travel.
But what he was relying on now was the instructions he’d given all the children, and reinforced daily with Adam: what to do if they got separated or left behind. They were to stay put unless they were certain which way the train had headed. If they were sure, they could begin walking until someone came for them or they caught up when the train stopped. He’d also taught them to keep a vigilant eye ahead, and had them practice hiding in brush or behind rocks if they saw anyone approaching, and stay there until they were sure it was safe to come out.
“Adam,” he hollered again, and this time, a small figure rose from the brush, and a shaky voice cried, “Pa!” Ben nearly flew off his horse and ran the remainder of the way, catching Adam as the boy jumped into his arms. The child was shivering violently, and his small hands and arms felt like ice where they touched the back of his father’s neck.
“You’re freezing.” His voice was thick with concern as he carried Adam to the horse and grabbed the blanket he’d brought along.
“I’m hungry and tired too, Pa,” Adam admitted in teeth-shattering staccato while snuggling into the warmth of the thick wool cover. “I must’a walked a hundred miles.”
“Maybe more like six, but I bet it felt like a hundred!” Ben’s heart swelled with pride at his son’s accomplishment. The children walked along with the wagons on the trail, but not for miles on end without a rest. He prayed in thanks while holding Adam tightly, and fashioned a cocoon out of the blanket to best use what little warmth existed under the boy’s jacket. Adam was finally able to take a long breath as the convulsive shivering waned. Ben pulled the fabric back a bit to see his face better, and asked, “So…how’d you end up walking to Fort Laramie?”
Adam looked down, shifting foot to foot. “I’m sorry, Pa.” he said softly. “I didn’t mean to. It was just…”
Adam was not prone to tears and accepted punishment for his infractions with as much dignity as he could muster in a given situation, but exhaustion was taking its toll. Ben saw tears wet his son’s long lashes and begin their escape. This little boy was so grown up, sure of himself, and conscientious that Ben often forgot how young Adam was. As the silent tears continued, he realized how badly his child’s heart had been hurt, and how frightened he’d really been at being left behind. He drew Adam close to deliver a soft kiss to his cheek and wipe away the tears. “I know what Mrs. Clark said to you, and why you…needed to be alone.” He felt Adam shudder before he finally looked up. “But two things don’t make sense. Why you didn’t get back before the train left, and why you didn’t tell Mrs. Halverson you were going with them? The train left without you because Irene thought you were with Ned.”
The storm front of tears had passed, but another downpour was threatening. Adam sniffed loudly. “I told Mr. Kennedy I would be with the Halversons, and I did tell Mrs. Halverson I’d come back there.”
“Hmmm.” Ben believed Adam was telling the truth. “Perhaps one of them didn’t hear you?”
Adam shrugged. “I s’pose. There was a lot of noise from the horses when I told Mrs. Halverson.”
“I’m sure that’s what happened. I’m also sure that in the future you’ll make sure you verify that you’ve been heard.” Ben pulled the blanket tighter as a cold breeze made Adam shiver again. “You still haven’t said why you weren’t back before they left?”
“I fell asleep,” Adam said sheepishly.
“How did that happen?” Ben’s voice carried a chuckle along with his surprise.
“I’d practiced all night so’s I could ask Lallie and her family to the party real proper. It was fine until Mrs. Clark grabbed me and started hollering. After I walked away, I remembered all the mean things she said, and my stomach started to hurt real bad. That oatmeal didn’t wanna stay put and I threw it all up.” He grimaced and shivered at the thought. The teams weren’t even hooked up yet, so I sat down against a rock when I got to feeling so dizzy I thought I’d throw up again. Next thing I woke up and everyone was gone.”
“You never heard the wagons rolling?”
Adam’s head moved side-to-side. “I could see dust way off. I even tried running to catch up, but I fell and hurt my knees.” He lowered his head again and spoke in a quiet voice. “I tore a hole in my pants Pa. I’m sorry.”
Ben smiled lovingly. “Well that hole has a lot of company, so what’s another patch. Hopefully we can replace them at the fort.” He waited for Adam to look up again. “So you started walking.”
“I knew I had to go west and follow the wagon ruts. That was easy to figure out.”
“You did just fine. How about we get you to a warm fire and then to bed?” Ben thought about how best to arrange the two of them on the horse. Adam would undoubtedly fall asleep so he didn’t want him riding behind. “I’ll get on first, and lift you up. You’ll ride facing me.”
Adam tipped his head, and his face puckered as he pictured the arrangement.
“It’s too far to do it any other way, son. You’re small enough to sit on my lap and wrap your legs and arms around my back.”
“You sure I’m not too big for that, Pa?”
“We’ll make it work.”
With both Cartwrights in place, Ben arranged the blanket to cover Adam’s legs and tucked the corners tightly between himself and the saddle. He shivered when Adam slipped his chilly arms under his jacket to find a little warmth.
“Pa?” Adam spoke without raising his head from his father’s chest as the horse began to move. “Is what Mrs. Clark said, true? Are we so poor we have to beg our supper?”
“We’re not rich like they are, but we have everything we need. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed with how much we have, like…”
Adam picked up on his father’s nightly iteration. “A million stars to prove there’s a heaven above us, and the sun during the day to give us light and warmth. We have the earth and its bounty to shelter us and give us food, and we have our mamas as our angels to watch over and protect us.”
“That’s right. How can we be poor with all those riches?” He’d never wanted his son to worry about finances, yet Adam was an astute child who undoubtedly understood that they lacked financial abundance. Their clothing was patched, and their lodgings were simple, but he always made sure Adam never felt uneasy about their situation. The Clark woman had managed to infect Adam’s wellbeing with her malicious thoughts, and he knew the little boy needed actual reassurance. “The families in our wagon train always invited us to dinner to show their appreciation for our service: me in leading them, and you for being fine without me all day. They also knew it was more important for me to secure the train and get things ready for the next day rather than cooking a pot of stew.”
Adam giggled. “You mean burning a pot of stew.”
“I’m going back to being just a father now, so you’ll either have to eat my burned stew or learn to cook.”
The little boy’s voice turned serious and his next question came out with a soft hiccup left over from the earlier tears. “Am I ugly, Pa? Mrs. Clark said I’m homely and have beaver teeth. I don’t so much care whether that’s true, but I ain’t never felt ashamed of how I look before.”
Ben smiled into the darkness. His son had been called an urchin, a beggar, and a thief, but the words resting heaviest in his heart was that the horrid woman had criticized his appearance. “I think beavers are fine, inventive creatures who use their teeth for making incredible structures.”
Adam’s lips drew to the side in a sour look. “So…she’s right?”
Ben pulled the horse to a stop and tipped Adam’s chin up. “I was teasing you. You are a very cute young man, and as far as the teeth go, they’re bigger now because the rest of you has to grow more before they’ll be the right size.” His thoughts returned to a point along their journey to Missouri. “Do you remember that puppy by your Uncle’s farm in Ohio?” A quick nod rocked the bundled child on his lap. “His paws seemed way too big for the rest of him, and I told you that was because he had to grow into them. God’s wonderful plans include some interesting things, like paws…and teeth that might seem too big at first but then are just right after a little more time.”
He thought he’d done a good job of explaining, but Adam’s wide-eyed concern seemed unabated. “Would it help to know that everyone thinks you’re cute right now, and that I’m absolutely sure you’ll grow into a handsome man one day?”
“How d’ya know that?”
“Because you favor your mother’s looks, and she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. It’s only reasonable that her son would be the same.”
“She is beautiful in that picture we have,” Adam said reverently.
The reassurances helped settle the boy, and Ben soon felt Adam’s full weight resting on his chest as he drifted off. He lifted Adam closer so he wouldn’t be bouncing on the saddle horn; wrapped one arm tightly around the boy’s back, and then nudged the horse to a faster pace.
After supper, the parents in the wagon train sent their children by Franny for story time, and then drifted to the external arc of the wagon formation to watch for Ben. The discussion among the women centered on why Mrs. Clark would say such horrible things. The men, given to speaking of probabilities rather than gossip, shared their opinions as to the likely outcome of Ben’s search. What hung ominously over both groups was they knew the heavy loss Ben Cartwright had already endured. They understood the gift he had given them in taking the lead on the journey after Inger’s death. And they all knew that Ben Cartwright would be a broken man if he lost his oldest son.
As the time since Ben’s departure began to stretch well into the third hour, some of the women spoke of leaving to get their children to bed. Sylvia Kennedy asked that they remain for a few minutes longer and gathered everyone around her as she recited Matthew 3:17 and 17:5, recalling God’s heavenly proclamations of love for his own son, and praying His protection over Ben Cartwright’s boy. Others added their own petitions: some that the lost would be found while others gave thanks for this part of the journey concluded safely, and finally that their time in the fort would be well spent and ready them for the second half of the trip. When no further verbal offerings were made, they bowed their heads in silent prayer.
The groups had begun to move back toward their own wagons when every head snapped to the eastern horizon as Ned shouted, “There’s a rider comin’!”
“Is it Ben?” several people asked in unison.
“It has to be unless there’s someone from the post still out.” Ned charged forward to get a better look. “Praise God,” he shouted back, as he recognized the figure on horseback and saw the small lump in front of Ben.
Ben continued riding until he reached the wagons. “Take Adam,” Ben told Pete Halverson as he slid the sleeping boy into the other man’s arms. “Ned, I’d be thankful if you’d see to my horse.” He dropped to the ground, took Adam, and looked around at the expectant faces of the group while a wide grin formed in response. “You all want to know what happened, and I’ll tell you. But first, might anyone have leftovers? Adam hasn’t eaten all day, and I’d like him to have something before I put him to bed.”
Patricia Murphy raised her hand and shouted, “I left stew warming in case you got back. I’ll get it!”
The group moved like a wave onto shore, following Ben to his wagon. The aroma drifting from the pot of stew Patricia came running with, made the father’s stomach growl as loudly as the son’s, and both Cartwright’s wolfed it down. With enough consumed to take the edge off, Ben told the story of how Adam got left behind, saying only that the little boy had dozed off when he’d started feeling ill. He finished by reinforcing that the careful instructions to their children about what to do in such a circumstance, had worked perfectly.
As Ben looked up at the faces of the people he’d come to treasure, he understood that each of them knew the underlying cause of Adam’s “illness.” They continued to hover protectively over both father and son until Ben encouraged them to return to their wagons. “Adam and I thank you for your prayers and concern. But tomorrow’s going to be a big day with a party at the end, so get a good night’s rest and be ready to celebrate!”
With his stomach full, and the blazing fire warming him to cozy, Adam started to yawn. “Pa, can we say goodnight to Hoss before I go to bed.”
“Sounds like the perfect idea.” Ben wrapped his arm around the little boy’s shoulders as they walked to the Halverson wagon.
Hoss was happily sucking on a square of gauzy muslin filled with Irene’s cereal concoction when his father and brother arrived. He stopped eating and smiled when he heard their voices.
“You don’t know about all the excitement today, do you son?” Ben cooed as he picked Hoss up and instinctively started moving side-to-side as the happy baby babbled and spit.
“Can I hold him?” Adam asked as he sat in the rocking chair. “The wagon isn’t moving now, and I missed Hoss so much today, I just want…” His voice trailed off as he fought back the exhaustion that was tugging at his emotions again.
Ben arranged Hoss with his head on Adam’s arm, and his butt in his lap. “No complaining if he wets on you,” he teased, and received a sour glance from his eldest. Adam’s feet didn’t reach the floor, so Ben stood behind the chair and gently rocked both children.
When Adam’s eyes started drooping as much as Hoss’s, Irene took the baby, shooing the men away so she could nurse Hoss before he fell asleep.
“I’ll be just outside,” Ben whispered to a nearly sleeping Adam after tucking him under the heavy quilt and kissing his head. “Just holler if you need me.”
He was taken aback, banging his head on the canvas stay, when he stuck his head outside the wagon and saw someone sitting by the dying fire.
“I’m sorry to have startled you,” Mr. Clark said sheepishly as Ben climbed down and joined him. “I wanted to tell you how relieved I…ah…we are that your son is safe. And…my wife wanted you to know how sorry she is for the things she said to him, and implied about you.”
“If your wife is sorry, then why are you the one apologizing?” Ben poured a cup of coffee from the still-warm pot. “Would you like some?”
Clark accepted the brew, and pulled a silver flask from his pocket. He poured a good dose into his cup and passed it to his host. “I tell my wife I need this to take away the chill on these cold nights, but I really need it to dull my senses to her constant tirades.” He laughed sadly. “I’m sure that wasn’t a surprise admission. You’ve been around us long enough to know that we are not a happy group. That woman, Irene, who told Mother to shut up earlier, took me and my wife aside after you left to look for your son. She explained how you came to be wagon master, and why all the others try to help you however they can. I am sorry about your wife, and that we never asked why things seemed a little unorthodox about this train instead of making assumptions.” He shook his head slowly. “We didn’t know you have a baby too.”
“Thank you for those admissions.”
Clark drew a deep breath. “This trip has been hard, and we were sorely prepared for what we’d encounter. My wife has not been able to adjust to the rigors of this travel. It’s been an eye-opener to see the other women who go through the same ordeals while keeping a positive attitude, helping each other out, and adapting when things don’t go as planned.” Clark sighed heavily. “My wife complains bitterly about everything and never lets me have a moment of peace about making her do this. But I never heard her say such ugly things to a child before. I don’t know what poked her this morning, but your son got the brunt of everything that’s been brewing in her heart for the last six months.”
Ben’s mouth twitched into a half-grin. “I knew you were ill-prepared for this sort of adventure from the moment we came across your wagons.” Ben added coffee to his cup and held it out for an additional pour from the silver flask. “Most people making this trip are looking for a better life: a chance to prosper in a place with abundant opportunity. Judging from the number of possessions you’re hauling with you, you took your family away from a very prosperous life where it seems you already had what the rest of us are seeking. There’d be no reason for you to put your family through this ordeal unless you were forced to do it.”
“That’s merely your conjecture.” The fearful look on Clark’s face belied his outraged tone. “What would you know about why I’m moving west!”
The good whiskey in his coffee loosened Ben’s usual restraint. “Wagon caravans have only been crossing the continent for a couple of years. We’re all warned that it’s going to be a miserable trip to be taken only by the hardiest souls who want to settle in even more challenging conditions. People—including me—sell everything they have to afford a single wagon and supplies. We have a change of clothing, heavy-duty boots, and if we’re lucky, we have one nicer set of clothing stashed in the bottom of a trunk that also holds all our important papers, a little cash, and a map with the location of the land we hope to possess. We do this because we feel this is our destiny.”
Ben drained his cup, and walked to the wagon to make sure Adam was sleeping. Reassured by the soft snore produced by Adam’s stuffy nose, he returned and loomed over his fireside companion. “You have more furniture stuffed in those three wagons than the rest of us put together. You also have servants to do the hard work, and so many clothes you needed a fourth wagon just to haul them. I would bet that your wife keeps a pouch hidden in her petticoats for her jewelry, and she probably stuffs it in her pillow at night.” He stopped to laugh when Clark’s eyebrows shot upwards as his mouth dropped open, confirming the truth of Ben’s hypotheses. “People with your kind of wealth don’t have to trail out like this. If you wanted to check the business climate on the western coast, you’d have sent an emissary, or taken a clipper ship around the horn alone. When you had things set, you would have had your family join you. You’d have arranged for a ship to bring your possessions below deck, while your family stayed in a comfortable cabin next to the captain’s quarters. There are dangers and discomfort on the sea, but the difference in personal effort is immense.”
Ben waited to see if Clark would offer any rebuttal to his theory. “The fact that you’re moving your family and things in this manner, in these conditions, tells me that you’re running from something, not towards it, and you had no time to plan an orderly departure. You’re here apologizing for your wife, because she hates you for causing the situation that condemned her to this life. And she is re-offended each morning when she wakes to face where she is.” He paused again but noted only steely silence from Clark. “You don’t make friends because you’ve got a past that you don’t want others discovering, and your daughter isn’t allowed to play with the children because she’s not adept at hiding your secrets. Your wife is afraid Lallie will let something slip…like maybe that her father’s name is Clark, but it’s not your last name.”
Clark stood abruptly and stared down at his feet. “I’m under no obligation to explain anything to you.”
“No you aren’t, but the signs are all there. Your daughter always looks surprised when she hears someone calls your wife, Mrs. Clark, and she looks scared and lonely because nothing makes sense anymore.”
He looked up at Ben again, his expression a mixture of grief masked with arrogance. “Once again, my wife and my family offer our sincerest apologies.”
Ben grasped Clark’s arm gently when he turned to leave. “I appreciate that you came, and that you’ve attempted to make things right. But you’re forgetting something. My son walked nearly seven miles today because he fell asleep after being sick; made that way by your wife’s horrible abasement. Your wife owes the apology to Adam, not me.”
“She is a proud woman: too proud to apologize to a child.” The solemn-looking man began to walk away.
“There’s a way she can apologize without saying a word.”
Clark looked over his shoulder. “How can she do that?”
“Bring your entire family to the party tomorrow night, and allow Lallie to play with the other children. I assure you that I’ve not shared my suspicions with another soul. These are faithful, decent people, and they only suspect that your wife feels superior to them, nothing more.” Ben chuckled under his breath. “This is the one thing I must insist upon: during the party, Mrs. Clark will tell Adam how handsome he looks. Further, she will smile when she says it.”
He took a step closer to Clark. “Inform your wife that if she refuses to display some humanity towards those who have helped her, and engage my son in feigned pleasantry, I will speak to the post commander and wagon master about her reckless behavior today, especially towards a child. Your wife will be seen as a danger to the wellbeing of the train, and I promise that your wagons will not be allowed to continue with us next spring. I believe in second chances, and I imagine those who sent you scurrying away are more interested in recovering their cash than in putting you behind bars or you wouldn’t have made it this far. But if Mrs. Clark forces my hand, I will share my suspicions with the commander. While you are here awaiting acceptance into another train, he will send inquiries to larger cities in the East, checking for outstanding legal actions against someone matching your description and circumstances.”
San Francisco – Spring 1865
Adam took a deep breath of misty San Francisco air. The smell of salt mixed with seaweed, along with the earthy odor of fermenting detritus on the coastline below were much the same as he remembered from his college years in Boston. The temperature out here was more moderate, but he found he missed the dramatic change of seasons, including the brilliantly-colored falls, and white winters snows in Massachusetts. There was plenty of snow on the Ponderosa, but inland winters were different from what he’d experienced on the bay of the Atlantic Ocean.
He looked back towards the city, where the gas lamps created halos of light around them in the swirling mist. It was more peaceful now that he was away from the bustle of people, but the never-ending noise of the docks still clattered, clanked and groaned in the distance. He would miss watching San Francisco continue to grow into major city once he went back to Boston. Well…he’d miss a lot of things that had become his norm for the last twelve years. But he’d made his decision, spoken to his father and brothers, and was now making his final visits to those he’d come to love and respect during his post-college years in the West.
His walk resumed, taking him along the rise until the din of the harbor was replaced by the bells clanging in the buoys that marked the shipping lane below him. He glanced up when a gull screeched as it passed, seeking its nighttime shelter. The quieter it became, the more he thought about his decision. He’d planned his exit carefully, yet his heart beat furiously with the sad realization of all he was leaving behind. Another deep breath settled these fears, replacing them with encouraging thoughts of what he would gain, and he smiled.
With low-hanging clouds blocking the moonlight, darkness absorbed the edges of the cliff, making it appear as a solid black wall. Amidst this backdrop, Adam noticed what appeared to be movement of dark against dark. Curiosity won out over better judgment, sending him onto the slippery rocks filling in the area between the path and the cliff. After a few slips and near tumbles, he got far enough to make out that it was a woman trying to move along the boulders where the cliff ended in a steep drop to the sea. He had no idea what she was doing out there, and he feared she would inadvertently tumble over the edge because her full skirt kept snagging on the rough granite and tangling in her feet as she struggled with the uneven and hazardous footing. His frightened yelp flew away in the wind just as the gulls had, when she flew forward in a tumble. Relief flooded over him when he saw that she’d been able to stop herself before disappearing into the void beyond the cliff.
Her back was to him, and the wind kept her from hearing his approach. When he closed the gap between them, he cleared his throat to make her look at him, and then held out his hand. “These rocks are hard to navigate any time, and downright deadly when they’re damp, ma’am. Let me help you to even ground.” He nearly fell backward trying to avoid the swing she made at him with the purse dangling from her wrist. It connected with his cheek in a solid slap, and he rubbed the stinging bruise while staring dumbfounded.
“Maybe I don’t want your help,” she finally yelled at him. “Perhaps I’m counting on these deadly conditions to help me do what I seem unable to accomplish by my own will.”
Adam secured a sturdier foothold, and tried to get a better look at her face. She was pretty and probably his age, but her face was awash in indecision and terror. “If your intent is to tumble to your death, then you’ve picked the right spot.” He waited for a reaction. “I say that because a woman recently plunged to her death near here.”
“I know all about that woman.” Tears began to roll down her cheeks. “She was my mother.”
“I am so sorry,” he professed honestly, and then thought more clearly about this woman’s first statement. “So…do you mean to…follow her?”
She laughed miserably and spoke with the thickness of tone indicative of prolonged crying. “I intended on it, but then I counted on nature helping me since I couldn’t force myself to jump. It would seem I’m even rethinking that.”
Adam recalled the article he’d read about the death, and his brows pulled together. He didn’t wait for an invitation. He reached forward, grabbing the woman’s hand and yanked her to a flat rock next to him. “How about I determine your fate for the next few minutes?” He continued holding on until he got her to the path and made her sit on a bench.
“Your mother…the newspaper identified her as Mrs. Ida Clark, and hinted that she’d become despondent after a scandal was exposed that involved her family’s business.” Adam paused, wondering if this young woman noticed anything familiar about him. She had changed over the years, but not so much that he didn’t recognize her. “My father saw the stories about that scandal when it first came to light, and he told me it was the same Clark family we traveled with on the Oregon Trail. Might you be Layla…Lallie Clark?”
“No one’s called me Lallie in many years, and my last name is Samson now.”
She looked away, making Adam smile. “I’m gathering you don’t recognize me.”
“I’m sorry,” she offered. “It was so long ago, and my parents were so protective that I didn’t get to know anyone.”
“I’m Adam Cartwright.” His matter-of-fact statement elicited a small squeak of recognition from his companion.
“I do remember the name….” She fidgeted on the bench as her memories returned. “My mother wasn’t very kind to you one time, as I recall. You got lost or something after that, and I remember feeling very uneasy until your father found you.” With her admission out, she tossed her head back and laughed. “The name, Cartwright, did come up a few times in recent years while we’ve lived in San Francisco.”
“I hope it was spoken of kindly.” Adam sat back, feeling stunned and annoyed when Layla laughed again at his comment. He found it odd that she could switch from the grief-stricken daughter who’d been contemplating suicide to this giggling schoolgirl. But what made him shiver was the imperious look she sent his way when he’d frowned at her change of demeanor.
“It was neither kindly nor unkindly: just mentioned,” she finally explained with a heavy sigh. “Mother and Father saw the name mentioned in the Chronicle. You’ve probably seen it too since you read the newspaper. There’s a wealthy family named Cartwright living in Nevada. Let’s see…” She tapped her temple. “Their place is named after some kind of tree, if I remember rightly. It’s one of the largest timber and cattle ranches on the West Coast. I suppose Cartwright is a common enough name though, and we knew it wasn’t the family we’d traveled with.”
Adam grinned. “What made you think that?”
“The head of this ranch was…hmm…I’m pretty sure it was Ben Cartwright, and that didn’t sound familiar to my parents. Those same stories mentioned a son named Adam, but they knew that was merely a coincidence since that Adam is an engineer who went to Harvard. He’s also considered one of the richest, most handsome, and eligible men in the West.” She fanned herself with a neatly gloved hand as she paused. “Anyway, Mother laughed and laughed at that. She said you were such a homely little ragamuffin, and your father couldn’t afford an expensive school like that.” Layla stopped abruptly and gave her companion a thorough looking over. “She’d have been surprised to see how well you turned out. You’re quite handsome, Adam. And it would appear that you’re doing well enough.”
“The article said your mother’s death was not an accident, and you confirmed that.” he said, changing the subject. “May I ask what made her despondent enough to jump?”
Layla sat back, closing her eyes in thought. “Mother never handled hard times well. When it became public that Papa, my husband, and my brothers had been squandering the money people had invested with them, we became the most hated family in San Francisco.”
“I’m sure things would have gotten better. People forget as soon as another scandal hits the news. I’m sorry she couldn’t see that.”
“Things wouldn’t have gotten better. In fact they were about to get a lot worse. After Mother’s death, my father finally told me the whole story. He’d tried to keep Mother out of trouble, but at Papa’s trial, several people testified that Mother hosted the initial get-togethers. My father or brothers gave their presentation, and then she served up encouragement to invest along with the food and drinks. They claimed she was the biggest salesman of all. The evidence against her was mounting, and they were about to charge her as an accessory. They’d swindled people with ties to San Francisco politics, and Papa knew Mother would be convicted and sentenced to prison. She killed herself rather than face the humiliation.” Layla huffed. “I don’t know why people were so upset about losing a few dollars.”
“The newspapers laid out the scope of what your family did, Layla. It was a lot more than a few dollars. They squandered people’s fortunes.” Adam chuckled as he concluded his thought.
“What do you find funny about this tragedy?”
“It’s not funny: more like ironic. When my father saw the articles about your father’s woes, he said he wasn’t surprised. He was pretty sure your family had been running from a scandal when you were on the wagon train. He even confronted your father about it on the day I got left behind. Pa said he threatened to have the commander at Fort Laramie hold your family there and send inquiries back east, if your mother didn’t start treating people better. Pa didn’t believe that your last name was Clark either, and the reason you couldn’t play with us was because your parents feared you’d inadvertently expose their lies.”
Layla’s cheeked turned crimson. “Clark was my father’s first name, but my parents said we would be using it for our last name after we left Baltimore. I’m sure they kept the change simple so it would be easier for me to remember. It took a long time before I didn’t look confused when someone called me Layla Clark.”
“That would have been hard.”
“I never understood why everything changed so fast back then, and when Papa told me about Mother the other day, I finally demanded that he explain everything. He said people who thought he’d cheated them back in Baltimore had gotten a financial judgment against him. He hired several big wagons to come to the alley behind our house one night, and they moved as much of our furniture and clothing as possible to the railyard. Papa booked our passage under a false name, and shipped our furniture to St. Louis. There wasn’t much left behind when the authorities arrived at our house the next day to confiscate our things for an auction.
“We found a place in St. Louis using our new identities, but I don’t remember much from that time except that my parents were always worried about strangers. The next spring, Papa bought the wagons and we headed west. He said he saw someone from Baltimore in St. Louis, and that’s when he decided we needed to go where no one would recognize us.” She paused to think. “I think the tension from always looking over his shoulder, made Papa operate legally when we settled in San Francisco.”
“But he couldn’t make as much money that way.” Adam took her hand when she nodded. “You knew nothing of how your father made his money?”
She shook her head. “The way Mother protected me on the wagon train continued when we settled. I had tutors instead of going to school, and I never had friends. She always claimed people envied us and would harm us if they could.”
“But you married. How did you meet your husband?”
“I should tell you the whole story. My ‘brothers’ were actually Papa’s children from a first marriage, and they were old enough to be in business with him when we got settled. They wanted their own homes, even though they built next door. With Mother’s expensive tastes and trying to support three households, he slipped back into his old ways. We lived like royalty during those years of the gold rush when money was pouring in. Knowing that now makes my skin crawl. I had hoped to go out on my own when I got to my early 20s, but one day Papa brought an older man to the house for dinner. He paid an undo amount of attention to me that night, and after he left, Mother told me he was going to marry me. I objected at first, but no one defied Mother. I was married shortly, and William became another partner in my father’s business.”
“Did he figure out that your father was cheating people?” Adam said sadly.
She nodded and shuddered. “I should have realized something was wrong about it, but we lived in a wing in my parents’ home and my naiveté’ continued.”
“To keep him quiet about the fraud, your parents gave him a piece of the business, and a beautiful wife to boot?”
Another quick nod.
“Do you have children?” he asked, hoping the answer was no.
Her eyes were blazing when she looked up at him. “William didn’t want a family, and fortunately it never happened. He didn’t want a wife either, but he liked the idea of a pretty woman on his arm for social occasions and to make him seem more credible to the ‘customers’.” She shuddered again. “He was awful to me: cruel and abasing, making me do things…horrible things…to him. And I did begin to question everything. I thought surely my mother would tell William to leave after I told her what he expected of me, and that I was desperately unhappy. Rather than defending me, she said that no marriage was perfect, and it was my job to keep my husband happy any way possible.” She became reflective, but then nearly shouted, “I’m glad he’s in prison, and I’ll divorce him while he’s there.”
Adam was uncomfortable with this latest information and unsure of how to help. He’d opened a floodgate of emotions he couldn’t solve anything, and quickly decided to move things along. “Can I see you safely home so you can rest? It does seem like you’ve dealt with a lot of loss and information in a very short time. There are doctors who can help you sort through your feelings.”
She grabbed Adam’s hands as her look became furtive. “I’m broke. Mother and I were living in a seedy boarding house, but I haven’t paid them in so long they had my things packed and on the porch when I came back from a walk to the cemetery today.” Her tears returned. “I have nowhere to stay, no money, and no future.”
Adam rose and paced while Layla continued to cry quietly. “It appears that you’ve hit rock bottom.” He stopped in front of her and raised her chin so she was looking at him.” Although considering what you were trying to do when I found you…that may not be the kindest reference. I need to be on a stage to Sacramento in a couple of hours, but I know a woman who runs a shelter for women in your situation, and I have enough time to take you there. She’s just the person you need right now.”
She coughed as she forced herself to stop crying. “What kind of place is it?”
“A safe place, run by a woman named, Josie Sullivan1. She was brought to the Barbary Coast under false pretenses during the gold rush, and had to work in the saloons, doing some horrible things. But she married a fine man and got away from here. He died a few years ago and she came back to San Francisco to start an organization for women who want a better life. From what you’ve just told me, I’m thinking the two of you have a lot in common. Josie doesn’t care why you need help; she just helps.”
Her lip curled. “This doesn’t sound like a place where I’d be comfortable.”
“Josie won’t judge you; so don’t judge her. And she has a lot of resources, like lawyers who might help with a divorce if that’s truly what you want.”
“I don’t have to pay for my room?”
“There’s no fee, but Josie expects everyone to assist with the cooking and cleaning, and she’ll help you find a job. I was with her earlier this evening, and she said she needs a person to teach her ladies how to read, write, and do figures so they can find decent work. You mentioned getting a good education, so you might do that.”
“I’d like teaching.” She nodded several times, and sighed. “I don’t have a lot of choice in the matter. Is it far?”
“We can walk there in ten minutes.”
“Adam,” Layla said softly. “I hate myself when I start talking like Mother and use that uppity attitude. I know she loved me, but after all I’ve heard recently, I wonder how much was love, and how much was simply her need to control me.” She took his hand again, gently this time. “I’m sorry I said those things about how you couldn’t ever measure up enough to be those other Cartwrights. Whatever you’re doing, it suits you. You look happy.” Her smile was genuine. “I’ve often thought about that day you came to our wagon. You were so brave and sweet…and cute. Then Mother ruined it. I never told this to a soul, but after you left, I snuck away to find you so I could apologize. I didn’t see where you’d gone, and had to get back before she realized I was missing.”
“Thank you, Lallie. It’s good to know that.”
“I was so glad Mother changed her mind and insisted we go to that party after all. It was the happiest night of my life. You’re still just as kind as when you were six, but I’ve become more like my mother, and I have to change or I’ll end up old, bitter and hopeless too. I feel free with her gone, yet I miss her because I’m so alone.”
Adam looked up at the clock on the mantel. He’d gotten to Josie’s Sunshine House with Layla two hours ago, and introduced the women, staying with them just long enough to give a brief synopsis of Layla’s troubles. Once they’d started discussing particulars he’d slipped away to read. Time passed quickly as he got lost in a book of short stories, and he realized his stage was due to leave in an hour. He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I have to say goodbye. The stage depot isn’t far, but I need to get started.”
Josie asked Layla for a moment of privacy with Adam and she walked her old friend to the door, speaking quietly. “Layla will do well here. I praise God that he sent you to the right place to help her tonight.”
“It seems that providence intervened in sending me for a walk along that familiar path. Lallie is struggling, but she wants to change. Her life was a cocoon of lies that kept her isolated and lonely. It won’t be easy, Josie. She’s never made her own decisions, but you’ll help her learn to do that.”
Josie hugged him tightly, and planted a kiss on his cheek. “I know I won’t see you as often, Sunny1, but if you do get back to San Francisco, you better stop!”
“You’d hunt me down if I didn’t. I’ll never forget you, Josie, and I still thank God for placing me in your hands when I needed help. Layla will be most fortunate if she takes your advice and learns from your wisdom.” He turned and saw that Layla had come into the parlor too. “Would you walk me to the door, Lallie?”
Adam took Layla’s hand as he led her down the porch steps “You must have heard the last part of what I said to Josie. She will help to change your life if you trust her.”
Layla nodded. “She has a powerful personality and she’s so encouraging. How did she help you?”
“She found me after I’d been badly injured in an accident. She didn’t know how it happened, and I couldn’t remember a thing even when I did wake up. Josie didn’t worry about who I was; she just took me in and called me, Sunny. You can ask her about it later if you’d like. She was in the right place at the right time to save me, just as I was for you tonight.”
“I’ll look forward to hearing about it.” She grimaced and then laughed. “I wasn’t thinking clearly when you found me, and I never asked about your father. Is he doing well?”
“Pa is a force to be reckoned with and shows no signs of slowing down.” He pulled a pocket watch from his vest and sighed. “I do need to get moving.”
“It was good to see you, Adam. It’s funny how Life evens things out. I’m as penniless as mother accused your father of being. It’s probably punishment for all the pain my family has caused.”
Adam took her shoulders. “Don’t think of it as punishment. Think of it as being able to do something good for yourself and others despite what you’ve been through. You’ve learned a lesson many never do: our bad decisions and actions can injure others.”
Layla smiled. “The last time you and I were standing like this, you asked me to a party. I wish that was the case this time.”
“I did invite you to a party; the best one ever. You’ll have friends, and learn the joy of helping others. And best of all, you’re in charge of your own life. It will take time, but you’ll do fine. And stop worrying about not having money. You still have everything you need.” Adam began stepping away while still facing her. “My father used to say this to me every night when our finances were tight. We have the stars above us twinkling like diamonds to remind us that there is a heaven. We have the sun to warm us, and the land to provide a bountiful harvest. We have those who’ve passed before us leaving us their wisdom and protection, and we had our faith to keep us moving towards our goals.” He waved as he turned, and then hollered back. “I’m rooting for you, Layla.”
Josie met Layla at the door, escorting her inside before locking up. “Adam is a lovely man,” she commented with a sigh.
“He does seem to be. I just hope I can live up to his expectations.”
Josie laughed. “He only expects that you do the best you can.”
Layla squeezed Josie’s hand. “I’m glad I’m here. I feel safe, just as Adam said I would.” She stopped on the steps as Josie led her upstairs to show her to her room. “You know…I was so busy talking about myself, I never found out much about Adam. He said he was going to Sacramento. Is that where he lives?”
Josie laughed heartily. “No, he has business there just like he had in San Francisco. He lives on the Ponderosa. It’s his family’s ranch in Nevada. But he won’t be around long. He’s leaving for Boston soon.”
“Is that where he and his father were from before they headed west?”
“It is, but Adam went back to Boston when he was a teen. His grandfather still lived there, and Adam attended college. He ended up at the very top of the first engineering class to graduate from Harvard. He’s been back on the Ponderosa helping his father and brothers make that into a tremendously successful business. But his grandfather is ill, so he’s heading back to help him, and he also hopes to marry the woman he met during his college years.” She waved her hands, indicating Layla should look around. “He designed this place for me when I told him what I wanted to do, and even though I had plenty of money, he insisted on paying for the construction. He said he wanted to be part of this good work.”
Layla’s mouth dropped open while Josie spoke. “So, the Adam Cartwright who just walked out of here, is the Adam Cartwright from the newspapers…the cowboy scholar and rich bachelor? And his father is Ben Cartwright, the ranching and timber magnate?’
“Well I’ll be!” The room soon filled with the sound of Layla’s laughter. She laughed so hard she had to sit on the steps to catch her breath.
“What is so funny?” Josie asked, not understanding this amused outburst.
Layla regained control and stood again. “Adam was very discreet in the information he revealed to you about our past acquaintance. After we get to my room, I’ll tell you the whole, miserable story. The abridged version is that my recently-departed mother was very harsh and critical of Adam and his father back in that wagon train, and her opinion that they’d remain penniless nobodies, never wavered.” She shook her head and grinned. “After what you just confirmed about those two, I’m pretty sure my mother must be rolling in her grave.”
Both women jumped when they heard a loud crash. Josie started to laugh as hard as Layla had been a minute earlier. “After what you just told me, one might think that clunk was your mother expressing her displeasure. But…it was just Mary. I asked your housemates to stay in their rooms while I spoke to you, and Mary said she was going to clean and rearrange her furniture.” She grabbed Layla’s hand and tugged her up the steps. “C’mon, let’s go meet your new friends and get you settled in for a good night’s rest.
1 Josie Sullivan is a character in my story Sunny, With a Chance of Rain. She found Adam near death after an accident on his way home from San Francisco, and took him to her house to care for him. The severity of his injuries resulted in a loss of his memory. Josie said that calling him, “hey you,” wouldn’t work, so she named him Sunny.