Summary: Ben took the leadership of his wagon train when the group decided to keep moving to Fort Laramie after the tragedy at Ash Hollow. With their journey nearly complete, Ben rides ahead to make arrangements with the cavalry at the fort, leaving others to move the wagons the 15 miles from the final campsite. He’s excited to see his group arrive, but soon realizes all is not well.
Rating: K Word Count: 16,263
Part One: November, 1836
Nearly seven-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 outside, 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. There was one only thing he could hear with clarity: 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 open again as he thought about what he would do before the wagons rolled out this morning. He did feel sleepy, so he shut his eyes tightly to the shadowy outlines in the wagon, and willed himself to doze off. 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, dark curls. Adam marveled that anyone could own…or be allowed to play with such a special, and expensive toy. Even the shoes Lallie wore were doll-like, made of smooth black leather with a thin strap buckled across the top of her foot. The other kids in this wagon train wore sturdy tied shoes and boots that had been handed down, and were usually a size too big, or in Adam’s case, a size too small, sporting at least one hole in the sole. Lallie Is like a living doll, he thought, releasing another sigh. Yet with all her advantages, Adam felt bad for Lallie. The other kids in this caravan had threadbare clothes and ill-fitting shoes, but they had each other to keep their minds off what they lacked. In Lallie’s case, that lifeless doll was her only companion.
The Clarks’ three wagons hadn’t been with Adam’s group very long, and they kept to themselves unless there was a meeting. Even then they sat off by themselves. When the train wasn’t moving, Lallie played with her doll under the watchful eyes of her family: usually her mother, whose sharp glances and comments kept the other children at bay.
Adam wasn’t sure why the Clarks weren’t friendlier, but he hoped his plan might give Lallie a chance to get to know him and the other kids so she’d play with them over the long winter. There was going to be a party once all the families were settled inside Fort Laramie, and Adam intended to make sure the Clarks knew about it. The other kids in the train had scoffed at his idea, saying Lallie’s 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. He 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 had him sleeping so pleasantly that he jumped when his father shook him.
“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 certain contender. “I sure would give anything for a piece of bacon,” he thought aloud.
Ben’s stern, “Be thankful 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 when you’re done, and go visit Hoss too.” He walked over and tousled Adam’s hair. “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 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. The boy 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 anything from another cloudy day to an icy rain 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 recalled the difficulties of the last six years as he’d tried to keep his wallet full enough to afford their trip to Missouri, and then to purchase the supplies they’d need to for the Oregon Trail. It had been a constant challenge to keep his young child properly fed and cared for. But then there’d been a sweet respite when he’d met and married Inger. She’d brought love and light to his and Adam’s lives, and gifted him with another son. Her death should have left him reeling and diminished, but since he was the only one in their group who knew 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 moving forward.
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 enough cash to sign on with a new westbound train come spring. They’d set out knowing the dangers, and he’d warned them from the start that he would push them hard.
They’d done everything he’d asked, and by this afternoon they would reach Fort Laramie. Ben’s 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. “And I promise that I’ll be a better father to your boys once we’re settled at the fort.”
The snorting oxen being moved into place near where he was standing, nudged into completing his walk to the Halverson wagon. He 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, 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 gas. 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. Thank you for everything you’ve done for us.” He gave her hand a tight squeeze. “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, gauging how soon the wagons might roll. The first teams were just being hooked up, leaving him ample 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, and 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 what to do. Everyone agreed that Adam might not have the strength to do the heavier work or handle the horses 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 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 now, they’d be with the larger train for the spring departure.
There was no missing the happy, excited faces of the families as they greeted him from atop their wagons. 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 early had given Ben time to go over his plans with the commander, and then explain why they’d been delayed getting to Ash Hollow and all that had followed. 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 large groups of wagons would continue moving along the Oregon Trail. Fort Laramie was at a critical point to offer 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 the Clark 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 Clarks and their wagons two weeks ago.
Ben smiled and waved another wagon through while a nagging concern began lifting the hair on the back of his neck. He wondered why Adam hadn’t already greeted him.
Oh well, he thought. The excitement in the group must be keeping him with the other kids. The Halverson wagon was next in line, and Ben rose 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 we can build two simple cabins before the snow flies.” He sent the couple a sly wink. “We can make it more like a two-room cabin with a connecting door 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 and Hoss?”
Irene’s smile faded instantly. “He came by to see his brother before we left, 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 today, so I haven’t seen anyone other than Pete and the girls.”
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 next three units go by so Ned Kennedy would come through. 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 and work left, Ned. 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 had to stay 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 would 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 deflected questions, but there was quiet grumbling in the assembling group; the men complaining about leaving their teams hooked up, and the women worrying about how long supper would be delayed by this interruption. The complaining was caused more by uneasiness than irritability because they 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 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 problems with our situation, but that’s all 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 everyone accounted for?”
The murmuring grew for a moment as heads shook.
“Then it’s just Adam.” A round of nods provided the answer. “My son 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 its own 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,” Ben explained. “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’d come and get to know us. 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 and flinched silently 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, and 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 you should have had gotten shed of your child 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 young 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 in that 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?”
“Maybe the Indians got him when he was out there,” Mrs. Clark proposed with a superior tone. “And if that’s the case, then I am owed an apology, since I had nothing to do with him being gone.”
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 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. He was thankful 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 he’d 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 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. 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. Taking the role of wagon leader meant Adam had to shoulder responsibility not normally required of a child. His son 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, 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; two boys—each old enough to drive a wagon; Layla; a maid who cleaned, did the laundry and cooked the meals, and a man who took care of the stock and drove a wagon. Ben was excited to find them…at first…since they confirmed that his group was only a few days behind the train that had gone on ahead from Ash Hollow.
He had been disturbed when he first heard that their wagon master had left these folks behind. Yet he’d soon understood that the man had no option: the Clarks had chosen to stay put. They’d brought no spare parts, even though they were moving four wagons to carry their considerable belongings. 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 a useable wagon or parts to fix theirs. Her indignation over the situation revolved around the fact that they had paid to have all their possessions make it to their destination. Mrs. Clark had eventually concluded her recitation of outrage with the complaint that the wagon master had refused to leave any of his scouts behind to protect then, nor had any other family in the train volunteered to stay with them to afford additional safety.
It took little time for Ben to suspect what situation had sent the Clarks on this journey, and he also understood why the forward group had moved on. The Clarks were obviously wealthy, accustomed to issuing orders and expecting them to be carried out. Mr. Clark said little during the time they accompanied Ben’s train, but “Mother” was always vocal in her certainty that their means should provide immunity from the troubles that befell “others.”
The “others”—the good people who’d sacrificed everything for their opportunity to go west—understood that fate cared little about personal abundance. They also understood that they were the others Mrs. Clark felt should carry the brunt of the hardships. Any sympathy they’d initially held over the Clarks’ situation had quickly vanished.
Ben would have left the Clarks to wait it out, but the instincts he’d developed at sea for predicting a coming change of weather, made him sense the urgency of finding shelter before the heavy 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’d pressed the Clarks to move on.
When Mrs. Clark remained adamant that they wait for rescue, Ben pressured the husband until he finally grew a spine and told his wife to listen. He made his urging visually vivid, reminding them that his group was the last one passing by, leaving them without recourse if the rescue from the fort was delayed or made impossible by weather. This probability was real since they were still two weeks out from the fort, making even a quick turn-around in sending help at least three weeks out. If the parts did arrive, then they still had the two-week trip to get themselves to safety.
When “Mother” had still remained adamant that they wouldn’t leave anything behind to go with Ben, he resorted to drawing on her sense of protection for the young daughter. In pointing to the distant clouds, he’d suggested that they could contain snow, and that winter in the plains hit brutal and hard with little regard of a family trapped in a canvas-covered wagon. He painted a realistic picture of waking to find themselves stuck in drifts so high they couldn’t leave their wagons to find firewood. Their supplies would dwindle as the temperatures plummeted, leaving them freezing and starving until succumbing to a painful, miserable death…surrounded by the “things” they’d valued more than their lives.
In the end, the biggest factor in them coming along was that Ben had his men use every good part on the wagon with the broken axle to shore up the other three for a heavier load. Earlier today at the fort, Ben had asked the other wagon master why he hadn’t done this. It hadn’t been an accusation, and Ben had anticipated the answer. The poor man had looked sick as he’d explained that he had presented the same warnings, but Mrs. Clark had remained unmoving, and he decided the safety of the many outweighed singular stubbornness. Both Ben and the other man concluded that hearing the same counsel from the last people to pass by before winter might set in, had finally cracked through their resolve.
Ben’s thoughts turned back to the day when the repairs had been finished, and the stash of the fourth wagon was divided among the other three. Mrs. Clark had watched, wailing as their furnishing and trunks were moved, overloading the useable wagons to point where Ben feared they’d break down at the first hole in the road. He shook his head now as he remembered her weeping the entire next day, grieving the few meaningless things they’d ended up leaving behind.
The family had remained aloof the entire two weeks of travel, placing their three wagons in a triangle each night, to wall themselves off from the rest. Ben’s conversation with the other wagon master provided that this was nothing new, and not wanting to create a worse situation, he’d let the Clarks be, insisting only that they attend planning meetings.
They showed up to these gatherings dressed in their finest clothing, causing heads to shake and eyes to roll. They further alienated Ben’s group by complaining about the small, ragtag caravan they’d been forced to join, and criticizing their lack of adequate leadership and scouts. What the Clarks seemed unwilling to concede was that this group was part of the same group they’d paid to be 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. Five burned 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 brief stop 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 was grateful that most of them and their occupants had moved on.
Amidst the mourning and anxiety created by the tragedy, 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: something she’d have seen if she’d have lowered her nose enough to see the graves. He wondered more at 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. His 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 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, what 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, making him clench the reins so tight that his nails dug into his palms.
The remnant of light in the west when he’d left the fort had relinquished its hold on the horizon. Ben slowed his pace when his horse slipped into a shallow hole camouflaged by shadows on the path. He’d freed his mind from the memories that had plagued him early in this trip, and with concentration and a steady pace, he estimated he was within five miles of their previous camp.
He’d focused so completely on other things 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 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 a distance 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 only an animal there. Yet, he did have reason to hope. Ben had prepared the children in his train for such a situation.
He’d been plagued with worry about Adam being left behind after taking on the leadership of the train. His new role had meant frequent scouting ahead of the train while relying on others to keep track of his son. He’d set rules for Adam to follow in making sure someone always knew where he’d ride during the trip, 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 wagons 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 moving the horse forward, and this time, a small figure rose from the brush, and a shaky voice cried, “Pa!” Ben nearly flew out of the saddle 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 offered silent thanks while holding Adam tightly, and fashioned a cocoon out of 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 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’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 churn and hurt. 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. 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 his legs and the saddle. He shivered when Adam slipped his chilly arms under his jacket to find 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 made sure Adam never worried about it. 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 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 handsome 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 I’m absolutely sure you’ll grow into a handsome man with perfect-sized teeth 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 follow suit.”
“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 the boy closer so he wouldn’t be bouncing on the saddle horn; wrapped one arm tightly around his back, and then nudged the horse to a faster pace.
After supper, the parents in the wagon train sent their children to 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 that they’d witnessed the heavy loss Ben Cartwright had already endured. They understood the gift he had given them in taking the lead after Inger’s death. And above all, they knew that Ben Cartwright would be a broken man if he lost his first son.
As the time since Ben’s departure stretched well into the third hour, some of the women spoke of leaving the gathering to get their children to bed. Sylvia Kennedy asked that they remain 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 Adam. Others added their own petitions: some that the lost would be found while others gave thanks for this part of the journey had concluded safely. When no further offerings were made, they bowed their heads in silence before beginning to disperse.
They’d only gone a few steps when Ned’s shout made them turn back and scan the darkness.
“There’s a rider comin’!” Ned yelled as he finally made out what was moving in the distance.
“Is it Ben?” several people asked in unison.
“It has to be unless someone from the post is 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, 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 eat 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 brought over, 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 perfect, son.” 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. “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 the flask 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 in any way they can. I am sorry about your wife, and that we made assumptions instead of asking why things seemed a little unorthodox about this train.” 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 unprepared for what we’d encounter. My wife has not been able to adjust to the rigor 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, and adapting when things don’t go as planned.” Clark sighed heavily. “My wife complains bitterly about everything since we left our home in the East, and never lets me have a moment of peace. 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 eight 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 restraint. “Wagon caravans have only been crossing the continent for a couple of years. We’re all warned that it will 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 one change of clothing, heavy-duty boots that get more worn by the day, and if we’re lucky, we have one nicer set of clothing stashed in the bottom of a trunk that also holds 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 it 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 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 fine 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 by arranging 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. “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 here 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.”
The nighttime visitor 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 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. “There is 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 these people who helped her and engage my son in 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 stuck 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.”
Part Two – 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 the harbor during his college years in Boston. The temperatures here were more moderate and that was pleasant, but 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 remembered with Abel in the bays and in Cambridge.
He looked back towards the city, where the gas lamps created halos of light 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 its growth into major city when he went back to Boston. Actually, 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 bells clanging inside the buoys that marked the shipping lane below him. He glanced up when a gull screeched as it passed by on the way to 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. He smiled.
With low-hanging clouds blocking the moonlight, darkness now absorbed the edges of the cliff, making it appear as a solid black curtain. 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 the area between the path and the edge of the cliff. After a few slips and catches, he got far enough to make out a woman trying to move along the boulders where the land 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, tangling her feet as she struggled with the hazardous footing. His frightened yelp when he believed she had gone over the side, flew away in the wind just as the gulls had, and relief flooded over him when he realized she’d only slipped between two large rocks that hid her from view.
The woman’s back was to him, and the steady wind kept her from hearing his approach. When he got near enough, 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. 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 near 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 with my indecision, I’d hoped the conditions out here would help me along. Now I’m even rethinking that, but I’m frozen to this spot with fear now.”
Adam’s mind raced back over the article he’d read about the woman who had fallen, 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.
“The newspaper identified the woman who died as Mrs. Ida Clark, and hinted that she’d become despondent after a scandal involving her family’s business became public.” 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,” she responded softly as tears rolled down her cheeks. “And my last name is Samson now.”
She made no attempt to make an association between them, prompting Adam to smile. “I gather you don’t recognize me.”
“I’m sorry,” she offered. “It was long ago, and my parents were so protective that I didn’t get to know anyone well on that trip.”
“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, as I recall. You got lost or something after she screamed at you about coming to our wagons.” With her admission, the tears vanished, and she tossed her head back and laughed. “The name Cartwright did come up a few times over the years.”
“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 being 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 over her fast-changing demeanor.
“It was neither kindly nor unkindly, just mentioned,” she explained with a heavy sigh. “Mother and Father saw the name in the San Francisco Chronicle. That’s where we finally settled after coming west. You’ve probably seen the name too since you read the newspaper.”
Adam’s eyes crinkled into a squint. He wasn’t sure why she’d wonder if he’d seen his own name in the paper. But her next pronouncement cleared that up.
“There’s a wealthy family named Cartwright living in Nevada. Let’s see…” She tapped her temple. “If I recall, their place is named after some kind of tree. It’s one of the largest timber and cattle ranches in the West. I suppose Cartwright is a common enough name though, and we knew it wasn’t the family we’d traveled with.”
“What made you think that?” Adam posed the question in a way that gave her no reason to suspect that there wasn’t another Cartwright family.
“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 you’d have been lucky to get a sixth-grade education, much less go back East for college.” Layla stopped abruptly and gave her companion a thorough looking over. “She’d have been surprised to see how well you turned out. You are quite handsome, Adam. And your clothing and manners suggest that you’re doing well enough with what you were given.”
“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 squandered the money people had invested with them, we became the most hated family in San Francisco society.”
“I’m sure things would have gotten better. People tend to 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 said he tried to keep Mother out of trouble, but at Papa’s trial, several people testified that Mother hosted the initial get-togethers where his schemes began. My father or brothers gave the presentation offering huge returns for their investments, while Mother served food and drinks along with a great deal of encouragement that they could have the life of luxury we had if they’d be brave enough to risk the capital. They claimed she was the salesman who pushed and wheedled until they agreed. The evidence against her was mounting, and they were about to charge her with the same crimes as Papa. My father managed to avoid detection, always staying one step ahead in paying out something to the previous investors with the newest money he took in. But he became careless, swindling people with ties to San Francisco politics. He knew they wouldn’t be satisfied until Mother was convicted and in 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 far more than a few dollars. There could be a case made for ‘buyer beware’ when a deal sounds too good to be realistic, but your father truly squandered the fortunes of others.” Adam chuckled as he concluded his thought.
“What do you find funny about this?”
“Nothing’s funny: it’s ironic. When my father saw the articles about your father’s woes, he said he wasn’t surprised. He was convinced your family was 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, but when Papa told me about Mother the other day, I demanded that he explain everything. He said people who thought he’d cheated them back in Baltimore had gotten a financial judgment that would have taken everything we owned. He hired several big wagons to come to the alley behind our house as soon as he received the order, and they moved as much of our furniture and clothing as possible to the railyard. Papa booked our passage under a false name, and we all went to St. Louis. All he left behind for them to confiscate for the auction were the items that were too big to move quickly.
“We rented a house in St. Louis, and Papa worked at some menial job so as not to be detected. I don’t remember much from that time except that my parents were always worried about strangers. Papa told me that the next spring, just about the time we were going to buy a house and set up our new life, he saw someone from Baltimore who recognized him. He immediately bought the wagons and we headed west, using a new alias so that there was no trail. They settled on Clark, and it’s remained that ever since.” She paused briefly “Papa confessed that those horrible, frightening times made him run a legitimate business when we settled in San Francisco.”
“I imagine he couldn’t make as much money that way,” Adam speculated. He took her hand when she nodded. “You never suspected that your father made his money through trickery and lies?”
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 was never allowed friends. She always claimed people envied us and would harm us if they could.”
“But you said 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. They wanted their own homes, even though they built right next door. With Mother’s expensive tastes and three households to support, Papa went back to his old ways. We lived like royalty during those years of the gold rush when money poured in. I admit I benefitted from that income, but I wasn’t happy with my life. I had hoped to go out on my own when I got into my 20’s, but one day Papa brought an older man to the house for dinner. He paid an undue amount of attention to me that night, and after he left, Mother told me I was going to marry him. I objected vehemently, but no one defied Mother. I married Mark Samson and he became another partner in my father’s business.”
“He must have figured out how your father ‘earned’ his money, and to keep him quiet your parents offered him a piece of the business and…you?”
Layla nodded and shuddered. “I should have realized it was something like that, but we lived in a wing in my parents’ home so my isolation and naiveté’ continued.”
“Do you have children?” he asked, hoping the answer was no.
Her face was set in anger when she looked up at Adam. “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 distant the first year of our marriage, but then he’d drink heavily and began abusing me. He was cruel and abasing, making me do things…horrible things…to him. My innocence shattered quickly then, and I went to Mother with stories of the horrors he put me through. I imagined she would send him packing, but she said that no marriage was perfect, and it was my job to keep my husband happy any way he demanded.” She became reflective, but then nearly shouted, “I’m glad he’s in prison. I’ll divorce him while he’s there and be gone before any of them gets out.”
Adam shifted uneasily on the bench. Layla had opened a floodgate of emotions that might return her to the edge of the cliff, and he realized he had to move her away from this spot. “Can I see you safely home so you can rest? You’ve dealt with a lot of loss and information in a very short time, and you need to take care of yourself. You might even see a doctor who can help you rest and recover.”
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 waiting on the porch when I came back from 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, and smiled. “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 she’s just the person you need right now. I have enough time to take you there if we leave 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 forced to work in the roughest saloons on the docks. Josie saw other women working with her give up hope and succumb to their circumstances. But she kept her head and spirits high, and she eventually married one of the richest miners around, 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 need a better life. From what you’ve just told me, I’m thinking the two of you have a lot in common.”
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 access to resources, like lawyers who can help with a divorce if that’s what you want.”
“I don’t have to pay for my room?”
“There’s no fee, but Josie expects everyone to pitch-in at the house, and she’ll help you find a job. I was with her earlier today, and she’s looking for a person to teach her newest housemates to read, write, and do figures so they can find decent work. I’d bet your mother made sure you were well-taught by those expensive tutors, so you would fit that need nicely.”
“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 would never amount to much. Whatever you’re doing; it suits you.” 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 nice 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 and helpful, but I’ve become more like my mother. 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 help Layla tell of her 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.”
Josie asked Layla for a moment of privacy with Adam before she walked her old friend to the door. “Layla will do well here. I praise God that he sent you to the right place to save her tonight, and that you thought of me to help.”
“It seems that providence intervened in sending me for a walk along that 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 how 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. Providence placed 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 outside, 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 you 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 anything about me, and I couldn’t remember much even when I did wake up. Josie didn’t worry about who I was; she just took me in, and then named me,” Sunny.” You can ask her more about it if you’d like. She was in the right place at the right time to save me, just as she is for you tonight.”
“I’ll look forward to hearing that story.” 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 go.”
“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 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 powerful lesson in the toughest of ways. The bad decisions, lies and evil actions—in your case by the people you should have been able to trust the most—have the ability to destroy rather than build, and it leaves long-lasting consequences.”
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.”
“But I did invite you to a party this time; the best one ever. You’ll finally have friends, and learn the joy of helping others. And best of all, you’re in charge of your own life now.” Adam took one step back while still holding her hands. “Layla, not having money isn’t indicative of not having dreams, aptitude and drive. Your family missed that fact when they looked at my father and the others in that wagon train. Don’t make that same mistake when you view your own possibilities.” He smiled
She nodded grasping his hands tightly.
“I’m going to leave you with something to remember that might keep you focused on the right things as you begin to change your life. It’s something my father said to me each night when times were tough, to make me realize how much we truly had.” The smile he gave her was as kind as his words. “We have the stars shining like diamonds above us, to remind us that there is a heaven. We have the sun to warm us; the land to provide a bountiful harvest; and our hands to build a shelter. We have the wisdom and protection of those who’ve passed before us, and we have faith to keep us moving towards our goals.”
Adam raised Layla’s hand and kissed it before he began to walk away. He turned back after a few steps, to say, “I’m rooting for you, Lallie.”
Josie met Layla at the door, and locked up behind them. “Adam is a lovely man,” she commented with a sigh.
“He does seem to be. I just hope I live up to his expectations.”
Josie laughed. “He only expects you to try.”
Layla looked around, sighed and then smiled broadly. “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 some business there just like he had in San Francisco. He lives on the Ponderosa: his family’s ranch in Nevada. But he won’t be around long. He’s leaving for Boston soon.”
“Is Boston where he and his father lived before they headed west?”
“Yes. Adam went back to Boston to spend time with his grandfather, and attend college there. He ended up at the top of the first engineering class to graduate from Harvard. He returned to the Ponderosa after that and helped his father and brothers make their ranch into a tremendously successful operation. But his grandfather is ill, so he’s going to Boston again to help him.” Josie stopped to wink. “He also hopes to marry the woman he met during his college years.” She swept her arm in front of her indicating the area around them. “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 had 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 the amused outburst.
Layla regained control and stood again. “Adam was very discreet in the information he revealed 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. “I’m pretty sure that what you just told me will make my mother roll 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. “I mean no disrespect of the dead, but after what you just told me, I wondered if that clunk was your mother expressing her displeasure. But…the noise came from Mary’s room and I know she was planning to clean and move some things around tonight.” She grabbed Layla’s hand and tugged her up the steps. “Cmon, let’s go meet everyone and get you settled in your new home.
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.
Other Stories by this Author
- A Moment Before Leaving (by MissJudy)
- He’s My Father Too (by MissJudy)
- A Father’s Parable (by Missjudy)
- A Prayer in the Night (by MissJudy)
- Quarantine (by MissJudy)