Summary: Just how much influence could one seven-year-old have on an Army Post?
Rated: K WC 15,500
Baker’s Brat Series:
The minute I laid eyes on the boy I knew. It took a moment to register with me and an instant later it would have been too late. I would have emptied the contents of both barrels of my rifle in his direction without thinking. But for an instant I hesitated, and it was in that instant that the information registered in my brain like a lightning flash.
The boy was white! It was hard to tell of course considering the state of him, hard to see beyond the filth that encrusted his body and clothing. It was his eyes that gave me the clue. The startling green colour leapt out at me like two beacons that signalled to me to stop. Closer investigation showed me that the hair was too curly to be that of an Indian’s and the colour was wrong. The boy had chestnut curls, and no Indian ever had hair that colour – least of all falling down around his shoulders in a curly halo like this boy’s.
In that instant, I lowered my gun and was rewarded by the look of sheer panic leaving the bright green orbs in front of me. The look was replaced by one of wariness as they followed the path of the rifle-butt as it travelled downwards and rested as it did by my feet. For a moment we stood still, he staring at my feet and I staring at him. Then a noise behind caused me to turn sharply and raise my gun again.
In the split second that it took for me to dispose of the brave who had been advancing upon me and then turn to again face the boy, he made as if to move away. I grabbed him by the wrist and held on for dear life as he struggled against me, kicking out and hitting me with his one free hand. The noise around us increased and I pulled him forward to the cover of a rock that was not far away, and flung him to the ground beside me. Pinning him by the arm I ignored his struggles and continued to fire randomly into the mass of bodies that wove before me.
After a few moments, I noticed the activity ceasing slightly and looked for the telltale blue uniforms that would signal my fellow soldiers were close. They seemed to be everywhere at once, running and shouting at the tops of their voices while chasing the Piautes. The boy beside me ceased to struggle as the noise diminished and my grip on him relaxed a little as I felt him quieten.
When I felt it was safe to take my eyes off the scene before me, I turned once more to study him, and noticed that he had positioned himself as far away from me as was possible given the circumstances. Those green eyes continued to stare at me and his expression was fierce. On one so young it looked quite amusing, and I would have laughed aloud if I had been anywhere else except in the middle of an Indian war.
In those few moments as we sat and studied each other I noticed a few more details about him. He was quite young – probably around six or seven– and very thin. He looked as if he could do with a hearty meal, and I sadly acknowledged that he was probably starving, as many of these poor heathen had been this last winter. He was dressed in traditional Paiute clothing, complete with moccasins, and his hair was kept back from his forehead with a leather thong.
‘Do you understand me boy?’ I asked. This statement only earned me a piercing glare from him and he tried to wrench his arm away from me. He barred his teeth to me like a young wolf cub and made a snarling noise. Well at least I knew one thing – he was not ready to be friends at this stage!
At that moment a shadow fell across us both and I looked up to see Sergeant Beame standing before us. ‘Baker, what on earth are you doing with that?’ he barked at me.
I stood up, dragging the boy with me. ‘He’s white Sarge,’ I answered. ‘See?’ I pushed the boy forward and showed him to the man.
‘Well I’ll be!’ he exclaimed. ‘Now what is that doing here?’ He rubbed his hand over his eyes wearily and thought for a moment before replying. ‘You’d better bring him over to the Lieutenant.’ He turned on his heel and disappeared into the mass of bodies in front of him, and I had no option but to follow.
‘Come on boy,’ I said and walked forward dragging the reluctant youngster with me. I tried not to look at the bodies of the fallen braves and soldiers around me, and wished that the boy didn’t have to witness the carnage that had taken place here. Even though I’d taken part in many of these scrub wars as we called them, they never got any easier to take!
I approached the cluster of blue uniforms at the other end of the clearing and noticed the number had vastly diminished from the time we had come across this camp. Many of my comrades had fallen this time, and the troop was cut by at least half. I wondered briefly whether or not we’d be returning to the Fort now after all.
Several of the others turned to stare at me when I reached them. I felt conspicuous because of the small figure dangling from the end of my hand, and wanted to shake him off. But I clung on and pushed him forward towards the Lieutenant as I said. ‘I found this youngster over by the rocks sir. He’s obviously white.’
Every eye in the group was riveted to the small figure beside me, and I felt him stiffen as he glared back at them. After a moment’s silence he took a step sideways and tried to hide behind me, but I pushed him forwards again. Lieutenant Parks stared at him for a moment and scowled. ‘Well we have no choice but to take him with us.’ He glared at me for giving him this complication. ‘We’ll have to return to the Fort anyway now.’
He turned and strode away from us, barking at the Sergeant as he went. ‘Have the men bury the bodies Sergeant Beame. We’ll make camp over the next rise as soon as that’s done.’
‘Yes sir!’ replied the Sergeant and began to organise the men.
I stood waiting for an indication of what to do with the boy, and when no order was issued in my direction I tentatively asked. ‘Sergeant, what am I to do with the boy?’
He stared at us for a moment. ‘Guess he’s your responsibility until we get back to the fort Baker. Make sure he doesn’t get away.’
I sighed with frustration as he strode away from me, and looked down at the small figure beside me. He glared back up at me, and for a moment I swear we were thinking the same thing. Stuck with you! What am I supposed to do now?
‘Come on boy,’ I said, my tone betraying my frustration. ‘Over here.’ I pulled him over towards the rocks again and sat him down none too gently. I felt instantly sorry for my rough handling of him, as I saw him grimace as he hit the earth and tried to rub his arm where I had pulled on it. Sitting beside him I loosened my hold and tried to figure out the best way to go about this.
I leant down towards him, noticing unhappily as I did the nasty smell that lingered around him. ‘Do you understand me boy?’ I asked him again. The only reaction I got this time was that he tried to wriggle out of my grasp again, and made as if to bite me before I shoved him backwards. ‘Suit yourself then,’ I said irritably and reached for a canteen that was lying beside us. ‘Here,’ I offered it to him, but he continued to glare at me and didn’t move to take a swallow.
I sighed and lifted it to my mouth, but before I could take more than a couple of swallows I felt it wrenched from my grasp as he pulled it towards him and lifted it to his own mouth. I watched as he drank thirstily, and wondered why he hadn’t taken it when first offered. Then it struck me. ‘You thought it was bad, huh?’ I asked. I had heard of Indians giving their captives bad water only to watch in amusement as they died in agony in front of them. I watched the boy as he drank and wondered what else he had witnessed in his time with them.
As he lowered the canteen from his mouth, I took it back and drank a few swallows myself. ‘Better?’ I asked him, but only received the customary glare. I put the stopper back in and looked up to see him staring at something over my shoulder. Turning, I followed his line of vision and watched with him as my comrades pulled body after body over to the freshly dug pit and dumped them in. I wondered for the first time just how long this child had lived here with these savages, and if indeed he considered himself one of them rather than white. Perhaps he didn’t understand English at all? Perhaps he didn’t even know he was white?
I shook my head and tried not to think about it. After all, it wasn’t anything to do with me. I was just put out that it happened to be me who had found him first, and now I was landed with the burden of him until we reached the fort. What would happen to him then was nothing to do with me, and I wondered why it had entered my head at all.
We sat in silence for a long time, watching as the remainder of the bodies were buried and what was left of our troop prepared to mount up. I pulled the boy to his feet and went to retrieve my horse, dragging him after me. Glaring at a couple of others who grinned at my discomfort, I picked the child up and placed him at the front of my saddle, then mounted behind him. As I placed my arm around his waist I noticed for the second time just how thin he was, and made up my mind to make sure he was well fed that night. Shaking my head I wondered why that thought had entered my mind at all, and I moved off after the others down the hill towards the creek where we were to make camp.
The boy sat stiffly in front of me, holding himself as far away from my body as was possible. As we reached the camp I sensed him tensing up again and held onto him firmly. I looked down onto the top of his head and noticed in his dirty curly hair a multitude of crawling little beings, and shuddered to think of them transferring themselves to me. Instinctively I pulled back away from him, and he looked up into my eyes questioningly. I quickly brought the horse to a halt and dismounted, reaching up for him and lifting him to the ground.
To the laughter of those around me, I marched him to the creek and sat down to remove my boots before pulling him into the water. Without hesitating I pushed him under the water, taking no notice of his wriggling protests. As I dunked his head time and time again I noticed the water around us darkened with the dirt that clung to his body and marvelled at just how much of it there had been.
Bringing him to a standing position I examined his head for a second time and was relieved to see that the crawling throng had lessened somewhat. Conscious of the gathering crowd on the bank, I hauled him towards them and flung him onto the grass in the sun. As he tried to crawl away several hands pushed him back towards me roughly, and I heard myself saying ‘Be careful with him!’
The sound of laughter again filled the air, and I wondered why I had sounded like I cared what happened to the boy. He was a dirt-ridden mass of fleas and all my instincts told me that I should be keeping my distance from him, yet I felt a little sorry for him as I gazed down where he sat glaring up at me and panting.
‘Hey you lot!’ barked the Sergeant. ‘This camp won’t set itself up you know!’ The others dispersed to their various tasks, leaving the boy and I alone. I wondered if I should try to clean him even more, and considered getting a cloth from my saddlebag to wipe his face with, but before I could move someone thrust both a cloth and a small bar of soap at me.
I acknowledged them with a shrug of my shoulders and proceeded to pick the boy up by the arm to haul him back into the creek again. But this time he was ready for me, and did everything possible to stop me. Fending off his flailing arms and legs was bad enough, but when he tried to bite me as well I lost my temper and started to shake him. ‘Stop it!’ I ordered, and he stilled for a moment, startled to feel the movement. ‘That’s better,’ I said and began to lift him into the water again.
He stood quietly watching me roll up my pants, up to his knees in the water. I entered after him and sat him down as I removed his woven shirt and began to scrub his hair first and then his face. Ducking him under the water several times until I was satisfied that the worst of the dirt had been removed, I stood him up again and pulled down his pants, before repeating the ministrations on his torso and legs. I then lifted him up and sat him on the bank within arm’s distance as I scrubbed his clothing and laid it out to dry. All the while he stared at me with a slight frown on his face.
As I scrubbed the clothing he sat with his knees pulled up and his arms firmly clenched around them, naked as the day he was born. I glanced over at him and noticed the thin frame that barely covered his bones, and the curly hair that looked even longer when it was wet. I continued to scrub strongly, angry that I had been placed in this position, but anxious to get this child as clean as possible if I was to share a horse with him for the next couple of days.
When I had done all I could with the rough clothing, I laid them to dry in the sun and sat next to the boy as I pulled my boots back on. Behind us the noises of the others setting up camp provided a background of false domesticity, and I decided to try for a third time for a response from him. I touched him lightly on the shoulder, only to feel him pull away from me as I asked once more. ‘Do you understand me boy?’
There was no other response from him, but then I had not really expected one. We sat together in silence for several minutes, watching the water in front of us, and I felt quite guilty to have an excuse not to join the others in their work. The smell of meat roasting began to invade my nostrils and I remembered the game that one of the boys had shot earlier that day before we had come across the Indian camp. It seemed like a lifetime ago now!
After a while I picked up the boy’s shirt and pulled it over his head. As I reached for his pants he got there before me, and pulled them on himself, glaring at me as he did so. I shrugged, and stood up. He stood beside me, and I suddenly realised that he hadn’t moved away from me in several moments. I tried walking a few steps away and was pleased to see that he matched my movements, striding alongside me. At least I didn’t need to hang onto him every step of the way now!
I sat down with the others and the boy positioned himself next to me. As the plates of meat and beans were handed around I handed one to him, but he merely held onto it and looked at the contents without making a move to eat anything.
‘Can’t be too hungry,’ said a grizzled veteran beside me, and they all chuckled at the sight of the boy holding the plate in front of him and glaring at the meat. ‘Here, give it back if you’re not going to eat it,’ he reached for the plate, but I slapped his hand away.
‘Let the boy have it,’ I said angrily.
‘Why? He’s not eating it!’ replied the man beside me. ‘I’m not watching good food go to waste!’
I remembered the water, and leant over to snatch a piece of meat from his plate. Making sure that he was watching me, I brought it slowly to my mouth and bit off a piece, then held it out to him again. He snatched it quickly from my hand and stuffed it into his mouth and chewed noisily.
Everyone laughed and the veteran beside me said, ‘Well look at that! The brat was hungry after all! Feed him a bit more Baker.’
I picked up another piece of meat and we repeated the process several times until his plate was empty. He sat and looked at me silently with wide eyes, juice from the meat dribbling down his chin. I leant forward and wiped it with my thumb, and for a moment I could have sworn that he nearly smiled at me. Almost, but not quite. I felt pleased that he had eaten so much, and felt a real sense of achievement that I had managed to get him cleaned and fed so quickly. Maybe he wasn’t going to be such a burden after all?
I changed my mind later that night when, for what seemed like the hundredth time, he kicked me awake. I had spread my bedroll close to the fire and positioned him between the fire and myself, in order to keep him close in case he decided to run, and also to keep him warm. I figured that a little guy like him would need as much warmth as he could get during these cold nights, and lay next to him to conserve our body heat. Unfortunately I discovered too late just what a restless sleeper he was, and it was my fate that night to spend the hours fending off his flailing arms and legs as he tossed and turned in his sleep.
As the dawn broke I lay watching his profile in the dim light, and marvelled at his fine features. Without the layer of dirt covering him he was quite a handsome child, and I began to wonder just where he had originally come from and whether or not his family had given up looking for him. As we lay there together and I watched him sleep I noticed just how small and vulnerable he looked, and felt a wave of protectiveness come over me. Poor kid deserved better than this, that was for sure! I resolved to make sure that he got back to the Fort at least without too much worry.
Suddenly I felt a warm trickle against my leg, and realised with disgust that he had peed on me. Angrily, I shook him awake and picked him up under his arms. Carrying him away from the other sleeping forms around us, I stood him against a rock and watched amazed as he continued to relieve himself while still half asleep. It was as if he was sleepwalking! I plonked him down again on the bedroll and walked down to the creek to wash my pants leg, resolving as I did to make sure that we had separate bedrolls that night.
When I returned, the camp was rousing itself, and the boy was sitting up and rubbing his eyes as he looked around. I noticed with a hint of satisfaction that he seemed to be searching for something, and when he noticed me coming back towards him he relaxed a little.
I tried to smile at him, but the wetness on my pants leg reminded me that I wasn’t feeling too kindly towards him at the moment, and I just nodded at him instead before beginning to roll up the blankets and tie them together. He sat and watched me silently as usual, and I began to wonder if indeed he could talk at all.
As we organized ourselves in the early morning light, I sensed an air of amusement amongst the others, and realised that the boy was beginning to copy my movements as I went about my tasks. He stuck one step behind me and was constantly underfoot as I turned to pick something up or put it down. It was beginning to become somewhat annoying, and I sincerely wished him onto someone else.
As we began to mount up he stood next to me as if waiting to be put onto my horse, and I’m afraid I took out my frustration on him by plonking him none too gently in the saddle. He looked down at me with a glare, and I swear I could see a temper there on the little face. Sighing, I mounted up and took off at a trot, holding onto him tightly. He wriggled under my grip, but I stilled him impatiently and held on even tighter.
It annoyed me that he obviously felt that he was automatically attached to me now – although I suppose in truth he was – and I desperately wanted to be free of the burden of him. I offered to let him ride with one of the others, but not surprisingly they didn’t take me up on the offer and seemed to find it quite amusing. One of them referred to him as ‘Baker’s Brat’ and the name stuck until they were all taking great delight in referring to him as such.
For the next two days we went on as such, and by the time we reached the Post I was heartily sick of their constant ribbing about the boy, and had come to look on him as something to be well rid of as soon as we arrived. I made sure that he ate and slept at the appropriate times, but apart from that tried to have as little to do with him as possible.
Unfortunately, he obviously began to see himself as attached to me, and followed me everywhere I went like a shadow. Always underfoot, he continued to mimic my actions but never responded to any instructions. I began to realise that he mustn’t understand English at all. Either that or he was very good at playing a game about it for some reason.
Either way, as we rode into the Fort I breathed a sigh of relief to think that my duty with him was over and it was time to hand him over to someone else. As we dismounted I walked him over to Sargeant Beame and asked, ‘Sargeant what would you like me to do with the boy now?’
He looked at me for a moment as if he had forgotten all about him. After a moment’s hesitation he said, ‘I suppose you’d better hang onto him until we get orders to the contrary, Baker.’
‘Sarge!’ I said, but he had already turned on his heel and left. I glared after him and cursed under my breath as I wondered how much longer I would have to put up with this. As I looked around everyone else was disappearing with their horses, then heading over to the bunkhouse to grab some well deserved rest. I looked down at the small figure at my side and he stared back at me with his hands folded in front of him. ‘Well come on then,’ I said angrily, ‘I’m not standing around here wasting time with you!’
He followed me as I organised my horse, and then drifted with me over to the bunkhouse. As we entered, I was met with shouts from the others who were in various stages of getting ready for sleep. ‘You’re not bring that brat in here with us! Get him out of here and cleaned up at least!’
I glared at them and gave them a few choice words back, but knew I was fighting a losing battle in trying to stay without at least cleaning the boy up a bit. It was true that he was in a lot better condition than he had been when I had first found him, but he still smelt quite a bit and obviously needed a good bath. ‘Come on,’ I said as I pulled him after me. ‘The sooner we get this over with the better.’ I took him over to the bathhouse and seated him on a chair as I began to heat some water and search for towels.
As I worked, I sensed someone come in behind me, and turned to see Doc Conway enter. ‘So this is the youngster that everyone is talking about,’ he said with a grin. ‘Baker’s Brat I believe he’s called?’
I tried not to glare at him and answered smartly, ‘Yes sir. Have you come to take charge of him sir?’
He must have sensed the anxiousness in my voice, for his grin grew wider and he answered, ‘No I can see that he’s obviously attached to you Baker, so I wouldn’t dream of coming between you.’ He stared at the boy for a moment, who stared back at him without flinching. The kid had guts, that was for sure! After a moment, the Doc said, ‘I thought I’d better examine him, but on second thoughts you’d better finish getting him cleaned up first. Bring him over to my office when you’ve done. Oh and Baker,’ he said over his shoulder as he began to leave the room, ‘try and get him some decent clothes while you’re at it.’
And just where did he think I was going to get something to fit a child that size? I thought. Honestly ….. as if I had nothing better to do!
I finished filling the tub and pulled the boy over to it. He seemed to sense what was coming and tried to struggle away from me, but I had taken just about all I was going to, and stripped the clothing off him before plonking him into the water and holding him down. ‘Now sit still,’ I warned him, ‘or I’m just going to have to get rough.’
To my surprise he quietened down immediately, and I felt him glaring at me again. Not caring, I started to scrub him vigorously, ducking him under the water at regular intervals until the water turned so black that I couldn’t see the bottom of the tub anymore. I repeated the process a second time with a fresh tub of water until I was satisfied that the boy was as clean as I was going to get him, and wrapped him in a towel while I tried to comb out the tangled mess that masqueraded as his hair.
‘I’d give up on that if I were you,’ said a voice behind me, and I turned to see Trooper Dawson standing in the doorway grinning at me. Mike was a good friend of mine, and had no doubt come to see how I was getting on once he heard of my predicament.
‘And just what would you suggest then?’ I asked as I continued to tug at the curls.
‘Cut it,’ he replied. ‘Looks like it could do with a good cut anyway.’ He walked into the room and began to rummage through the various articles of shaving equipment that was left on the bench near a small mirror. ‘Here you go!’ he said after a moment. ‘Try this!’
He held up a large pair of scissors and motioned with them towards me.
‘I can’t cut hair!’ I said. ‘I’d probably end up scalping him!’ I swear I felt the boy flinch at my words, but when I looked down at him he was still sitting staring at Mike.
‘Well I’ll get Ames then.’ He said. ‘He’ll be able to do it.’ Ames was the resident barber at the Fort who made sure that we all looked presentable and passed inspection.
‘While you’re at it, see if you can find something for me to dress the kid in,’ I said.
‘You’ve got to be kidding! And just what would you suggest?’ he replied.
‘How do I know! But I can’t have him running around here naked that’s for sure!’ I replied testily. ‘See what you can do, eh Mike?’
He grinned at me. ‘Yeah OK.’
I turned back to the boy and continued to pull on the comb that now seemed to be stuck in his hair. After several more attempts I gave up, and sat down next to him, defeated. We stared at each other for a few moments, and then I shrugged my shoulders and grinned at him. ‘Well you certainly look a lot different with all that filth off you,’ I said. ‘You look just about human now.’
It was true. The child was really very good looking, even if he was a bit thin. Apart from his hair he had very fine features and his eyes were the greenest that I had ever seen. I wondered not for the first time just who his folks were, and if they were still looking for him.
‘So this is Baker’s Brat,’ a voice behind me said, and I turned to see Ames grinning at me. ‘Mike said you needed my services over here. He said to tell you he’s on a mission to find some clothing.’
I nodded at him, and motioned to the boy sitting beside me. ‘I think all this needs to be cut off. I can’t do anything with it!’
Ames took one look at the boy’s head and exclaimed, ‘I’m not surprised! What a mess!’
Without another word he picked up the scissors and began hacking at the curly locks, dropping them on the floor around us.
We were both taken by surprise when the boy leapt to his feet and began to push Ames away from him with his puny little arms, scowling at him at the same time. ‘Hey, sit down you!’ Ames yelled. ‘Baker, hold onto him while I finish this.’
I held him down, no easy task that was for sure. The boy was determined not to let Ames at his hair, and it took the two of us to keep him anywhere near still. Finally I sat him on my lap and held his arms by his sides with one hand, while trying to keep his head still with the other. Ames held onto his head as well while trying to cut the hair at the same time. Finally, he finished and stepped back to survey his handiwork.
‘Not too bad at all considering the circumstances,’ he proclaimed. ‘At least now we’ll be able to comb it. Keep hold of him for a minute longer.’ He picked up a comb and pulled it through the now shorter curls, exclaiming as he did so. ‘It’s incredibly thick even now. Have to do though.’ He picked up a mirror and held it up for the boy to see, but he just continued to scowl into it. ‘OK suit yourself,’ said Ames. ‘Stubborn little cuss ain’t he?’
I shrugged as I let him go and he scampered back to his position alongside me. ‘Sure is! You want him?’
‘No way! He’s all yours!’ Ames replied with a laugh.
At that moment. Mike entered the room, holding a bundle of clothing in his arms. ‘Don’t tell me you found something!’ I exclaimed. ‘What have you got?’
He held them out to me. ‘I don’t know how good they’ll be, but at least they’ll be better than what he had on before.’
I held them up to inspect them, and noted that the pants and shirt were rather thread worn, but clean. They looked too large for him, but as Mike said they were a better choice than what he had come in. ‘Where’d you get them?’ I asked.
‘Remember that wagon train that came through here a couple of months back?’ I nodded. Several families had taken refuge with us at the height of the Indian problems. There had been a couple of children with them, that much I remembered. ‘Well the family with the kid that didn’t make it …. well …. They left some stuff behind.’ He motioned to me not to say too much in front of the boy, which I thought was fairly stupid as it was obvious that he couldn’t understand us anyway. I remember now that one particular family had a child who had died – fever or something I think – and guessed that the clothes must have belonged to him. There was even a small pair of boots.
I pulled the boy around in front of me and began to dress him. My first instincts were right – the clothes were too big, but with the suspenders pulled as high up as they would go he didn’t really look too bad. The boots were large as well and flopped on him a bit, but they would do for now.
Standing him away from me, the three of us surveyed him critically for a moment, and agreed that he looked a whole lot better than he had when he first arrived. Personally, I thought he looked kind of cute, but there was no way that I was going to let on that fact to anyone!
‘I have to get him over to Doc Conway,’ I said to the others. ‘He wants to take a look at him.’
‘What do you reckons gonna happen to him?’ Mike asked.
‘How should I know,’ I replied. ‘I’m just waiting for orders that’s all. Soon as someone takes him off my hands I’m going to get some sleep. I’ve been lumbered with him far too long already.’ I stood up and walked towards the door, noticing that the boy shadowed me as was becoming usual. ‘Come on you!’ I said irritably. ‘Let’s get going. Thanks guys!’
We walked outside into the hot sunshine, the boy’s boots flopping slightly as we walked. As we proceeded across the compound, several men called out to us, but the boy ignored them and instead looked to me for a reaction. I didn’t give them the satisfaction of having one, but by the time we reached the doctor’s office I was madder than I’d been. I hoped to goodness the Doc would see his way clear to taking the boy off my hands, and I aimed to try and talk him into it if I could.
Doc Conway stood as we entered his office, his eyes travelling immediately to the boy and registering surprise. ‘Well you certainly performed a miracle here!’ he exclaimed. ‘Come over here boy!’ He gestured to the child, but he didn’t move. I pushed him forward a step or two, but he immediately stepped backwards and stood behind me glaring at the doctor fiercely.
‘Seems like he’s not too keen on doctors,’ said Doc with a laugh. He bent down and leant close to him and said, ‘Do you understand me boy?’
‘I’m sure he doesn’t Doc,’ I said, trying to get him out from behind me. ‘He hasn’t responded to anything so far.’
‘Hmm. Well, bring him over here and I’ll take a look at him,’ the Doc said. I pulled him out from behind me and dragged him across to the examining table that was in the corner, and picked him up to place him on it. He struggled in my arms, hitting out at me with both arms and legs.
‘Stop it!’ I said impatiently, shaking him a little. ‘Calm down will you? The Doc’s not going to hurt you!’ He continued to struggle, so I pinned him to the table with both arms as I tried to keep him quiet. Bending close to his face I looked into his green eyes and said quietly, ‘Lie still now. Just keep still for God’s sake kid!’
The doctor came over to us to commence his examination. It took the two of us to get his suspenders and shirt off so that he could begin, and when he was satisfied I pulled the shirt back on and began to remove his pants. The boots were impossible, so I just pulled the pants down around his ankles and left them there. At least that helped to keep his legs still!
Cursing under my breath at him as he continued to struggle, I watched as the Doc finished up and then let go of the boy. Glaring at me, he pulled his pants up and replaced his suspenders himself, pushing my hands away when I tried to help him. When he was fully dressed again, he sat looking at me with a fierce expression on his face, and I could tell that he wasn’t happy with me at all.
‘He seems to be all right,’ the Doc said as he put away his instruments. ‘On the skinny side of course, but apart from that he’s fine.’
For some unknown reason it pleased me to hear his words and I smiled at the boy, but he continued to glare at me. ‘What do I do with him now Doc?’ I asked hopefully. ‘Seems that he might be better off with you here for now don’t you think?’
‘Sorry, but I can’t keep him,’ Doc Conway replied. ‘I’ve got patients to see and he’d only get in the way. The best thing you can do for this youngster is to feed him up and then get him to sleep for a while.’
‘But Doc,’ I began to try again, but he held his hand up to stop me. ‘Thank you Corporal Baker,’ he said. ‘I’m sure the Colonel will send for him when he’s ready.’ He turned and left the room, and once more I was left to consider what to do with the child.
We stared at each other for a moment, his eyes telling me clearly that he still wasn’t happy with me, and then I shrugged and left the room. Telling myself that I didn’t really care if he followed me or not, I was nevertheless relieved to hear the distinctive flopping of his boots behind me as he shadowed me again.
We walked over to the Dining Hall, and joined the queue for lunch. I could hear the calls as I entered, and was none too pleased at the sound of them. ‘It’s the kid! You know the one – Baker’s Brat.’ I didn’t like the thought of them attaching him to me in that way, but to tell the truth I couldn’t blame them. We were becoming an item, the two of us – that was for sure!
I collected a plate for each of us and sat him down next to me and began to eat. I noticed with a hint of satisfaction that he began to eat without being coaxed to this time, and actually used the fork that I handed to him. He was either a very clever mimic, or he had not lived with those savages all his life, that was obvious. He didn’t eat too much, but at least he was doing it voluntarily now.
‘So how’s it going?’ Mike sat next to me with his own plate and smiled at the kid. ‘Haven’t got rid of him yet?’
‘No! Seems like no one else is stupid enough to get saddled with him,’ I replied. ‘Maybe I should take him over to the Colonel’s office and wait with him there.’
‘I wouldn’t if I were you,’ replied Mike. ‘They told you to keep him with you until they’re ready for him, so if I were you I’d do just that!’ He smiled at the boy again, but didn’t get any response from him.
‘Well what am I supposed to do in the meantime?’ I asked. ‘I can’t have him trailing around after me all the time! I’ve got things to do!’
‘Yeah? Like what?’ asked Mike with a grin. ‘Seems to me like you’ve just got back, so you’ve got no duties until tomorrow really. Surely they’ll have taken him off your hands by then. Just what were you intending to do this afternoon?’
‘I was going to catch up on some sleep, for your information,’ I snapped.
‘Well stick him in a bunk somewhere and knock him out as well. That shouldn’t be too hard should it?’
‘Yeah right! Just my luck that he won’t leave me alone if I try it!’ I replied. Mike grinned again and stood up, patting me on the shoulder as he left.
‘Come on you!’ I said, really getting angry with the boy now. ‘I’m outta here!’ He scrambled off the bench beside me and we exited the Hall to shouts of farewell from the others. ‘See ya later kid! Don’t be too tough on the brat Baker!’ I scowled around the room before leaving, my disposition darkening with every step that I took. It was all right for them! They didn’t have to put up with the brat trailing after them every step of the way! I resolved that if the kid didn’t sleep then I’d bang him on the head with something.
I needn’t have worried though, because as soon as I had lifted him into a bunk and covered him with a blanket he closed his eyes and was unconscious within minutes. I breathed a sigh of relief, as I realised that I finally free of the burden for at least a little while to come. I pulled off my own boots and settled myself on a bunk next to him, and was soon blissfully snoring and dreaming myself.
Several hours later I woke to a piercing scream, and sat up to find the boy tossing and turning under the blanket. Well at least now I knew that he had a voice – and what a voice it was! I reached over to try and still him, but he pushed me away even though still asleep. I held onto him and tried to wake him up, but the only thing I achieved was that he struggled even harder, screaming all the while.
Finally I reached down, picked him up and placed him on my knee. As I held him close to my chest he opened his eyes and stared up at me, and I could feel his heart beating fast against my own. Without thinking about it, I began to stroke his hair and he seemed to relax a little. He studied my face intently for a few moments while we stayed in this position, and his eyes began to close again. Gradually he relaxed until I could hear his breathing become regular and calm, and he stuck his thumb into his mouth and began to suck on it. As I looked down at him I noticed his features begin to relax again, and his body lost the tenseness as he leant in towards me.
I felt that I should put him back into the bed again, but for some unknown reason I stayed where I was holding him for a few more moments. I hoped that this was not going to go on all night, as it was obvious from the sky outside the window that evening was now approaching and I felt it unlikely that anyone would be sending for us now until the morning. I hoped that he would sleep through the night at least and give me the chance to catch up on some well earned rest.
As I began to place him back into the bed, I noticed with distaste that he had once again wet himself and the sheets. Cursing, I stripped the clothing off him and pulled off the sheets, searching in the cupboard at the end of the room for a rubber mat, which I placed on the mattress. After the sheets had been replaced I put him back into the bad and left to deliver his clothing and sheets to the laundry. I’d be darned if I was about to do his washing as well!
Feeling free for the first time in days, I took the opportunity to wander over to get a good meal, and then joined some of my friends in a poker game. ‘Where’s the brat?’ I was asked as I sat down. ‘Haven’t given him away have you Baker?’
‘I wish,’ I said fervently. ‘Anyone want him?’ We all laughed at the joke, and began to discuss what might happen to him as we played.
‘The Colonel will probably send him to the orphanage down south,’ said Mike. ‘Seems to me there’s no other alternative if we don’t know who he is. Was there anything on him to give a clue?’
‘No, nothing,’ I replied. ‘He won’t talk, so we can’t find out who his folks are either.’
‘Maybe he doesn’t have any,’ said Ames. ‘Maybe them savages killed em.’
I frowned at the thought, and hoped that if it were true the boy hadn’t seen it happen. ‘Who knows,’ I shrugged. ‘All I know is that I’ll be glad to see the back of him.’ Somehow as I said the words, however, they didn’t ring true to me. I wasn’t quite sure why, but the boy was beginning to grow on me a little, and I hoped that at least we’d be able to find someone who’d be willing to take him in.
After a couple of hours, my tired body got the best of me and I decided to hit the sack and have an early night. As I approached my room in the bunkhouse I was angry to hear the screams again that told me he was awake, and I opened the door with a bang. ‘What’s up with you for heaven’s sake?’ I began, but stopped when I saw his face. The tears were streaming down his cheeks and his thumb was still firmly planted in his mouth. His hair was matted as if he had tossed around on it for some time, and his eyes were wide with fright.
To my surprise, he stopped screaming when he saw me, and practically flung himself across the bunk towards me. Clasping me around the neck he hung on tightly, and it was all I could do to breathe. ‘Hey, little buddy,’ I said while trying to disengage his arms from my neck. ‘What’s the matter? Did you wonder where I’d gone?’
He continued to hang onto me tightly, so I sat down and pulled him onto my lap. I stroked his hair again, and whispered to him. ‘Calm down kid, it’s OK! Just quit this will you?’
He quietened down almost immediately, and loosened his hold on me a little. I sat with him for a while in this position, and gradually felt him calm down again like the last time. This time when I replaced him in the bed, however, he didn’t go straight to sleep but lay watching me intently as I removed my boots and lay down. ‘Go to sleep will you?’ I said crossly. ‘For heaven’s sake give me a break for a while!’ I turned and faced the wall as I tried to will myself to sleep, but I felt his eyes on me the whole time.
Finally I rolled over and faced him. ‘What?’ I said irritably. ‘Go to sleep will you?’ He continued to watch me, sucking on his thumb the whole time. We lay watching each other for a long time, and after a while I swear I saw him smile a little at me. The last thing I remember before I drifted off to sleep was the annoying slurping noise of him sucking on his thumb.
When I awoke it was early morning, and the boy was fast asleep beside me. It was funny, but I couldn’t remember having brought him into the bed with me, but than again maybe he had crawled there during the night himself. However it had happened, he was flung sideways across the bed, and his arms and legs were intertwined with mine. Gently, I pulled him off me, and rolled him over to the other side of the narrow cot. He didn’t stir, so I crawled over the top of him and got out of bed.
After dressing myself, I went down to the laundry to retrieve his clothing, and came back with it to find him still fast asleep. I tried shaking him to wake him up as I had no intention of missing breakfast because of him, but he was very difficult to stir. ‘Wake up kid,’ I said crankily. ‘Open your eyes will you?’ I shook him a little, but he still refused to wake, so finally I set about dressing him while he was still asleep. As I sat him on my lap and began to button his shirt, he opened his eyes and looked straight at me. I was startled to see a wide smile on his face, and returned the look without thinking. His eyes sparkled at me and I thought for a moment what a cute kid he really was.
Shaking my head slightly, I set him on his feet and said gruffly, ‘Hurry up and pee if you have to kid. I don’t want to be late for breakfast.’
It wasn’t until he had done his business and we were walking across to the Dining Hall that I realised that he obeyed an instruction for the first time. So he did understand English after all? Cunning little cuss that he was! I was determined to find out just how much he did understand, and started to talk to him as we went.
‘So kid, what do you think?’ I said as we entered the Hall. ‘Where should we sit?’ He pointed to a vacant bench and sat down, patting the space beside him to indicate where I should be. ‘So you do understand me?’ I said as I sat. ‘And can you talk as well?’ He sat and looked at me, but didn’t respond. ‘Well, we’ll see,’ I said suspiciously. ‘Let’s eat first though.’
I stood to get our food, and was asked by several men at the counter. ‘So where’s your brat today Baker?’
‘Over there,’ I signalled with my hand to indicate where he was sitting on the bench. I noticed that his eyes never left me for a moment, almost as if he thought that I might take off on him and disappear. ‘Anyone want him?’ I repeated my regular joke and we all laughed. As expected, no one took me up on the offer.
He ate about half of what I hoped he would this time, but managed to drink a glass of milk that I thought would do him the world of good. I caught myself thinking in surprise of just how much I was beginning to sound like someone who really cared about him, and wondered why that would be so.
As we finished eating, Sargeant Beame approached the table and said, ‘Well Baker, how’s it going with the brat?’
‘Fine thanks sir,’ I said, knowing my words didn’t match the expression on my face.
‘Good,’ he said. ‘The Colonel wants you to take him over to his office straight after breakfast.’
Finally! I stood up straight away, and hauled the boy to his feet as well. ‘Yessir!’ I said enthusiastically. ‘I’ll go straight away!’
‘Thought you might,’ he replied with a grin, and looked down at the boy. ‘See ya kid!’ He waved us both away from him.
I hurried over to the Colonel’s office as fast as I could, the kid running to keep up with me and nearly tripping over his big boots a couple of times. As we entered the office, Lieutenant Parks met me and motioned for me to bring the boy into the inner office. His eyes registered surprise when he glanced at the boy, which didn’t surprise me at all. He was a very different looking child to the one that we had found days ago.
As I stood to attention in Colonel Hudson’s office, the boy stood behind me and clutched hold of my belt. ‘Here’s the boy sir,’ said the Lieutenant, indicating him and trying to reach behind me to pull him out. But the boy clung onto my belt even tighter and refused to budge. He glared at the Lieutenant and pushed his hands away. ‘Bring him out where the Colonel can see him!’ he ordered, and I reached behind me and pulled him forward.
Colonel Hudson leant forward and peered at the child standing before him. ‘Well young man,’ he said with a smile. ‘And just what were you doing out there all by yourself with those Indians?’ The boy just looked at him, and I noticed that his jaw clenched tightly shut. I knew his stubborn look by now, and realised that the Colonel would get no reaction out of him at all.
‘Does he understand?’ the Colonel asked me.
‘I think so sir,’ I said. ‘He follows directions, and he can yell – I know that for sure! But he’s never spoken at all.’
‘Hmm. So he’s said nothing at all about his family then?’
‘Nothing on him to indicate where he might have come from?’ this time the question was directed towards the Lieutenant.
‘No sir, nothing.’
He sighed. ‘Well then I don’t think we have any choice but to get him to the orphanage.’ he said. ‘Arrange it please Lieutenant.’
‘Sir?’ asked Lieutenant Parks.
‘Wouldn’t it make more sense to send him next week when we send that Patrol out? They’re going south and it would save making two trips.’
My heart sank, as I could sense what was coming. The Colonel thought for a moment before he replied. ‘I suppose it would. We can’t really spare any men at the moment after that last fiasco,’ he gave the Lieutenant a look that made him cringe. ‘But it would mean someone looking after him.’
Great! I thought. And I bet I know who that someone will be!
Colonel Hudson looked at me for a moment. ‘He seems quite attached to you Corporal. Consider yourself on light duties for the week and try to get something out of him while you look after him. Let me know if you do.’ My heart sank even further. ‘Dismissed!’ he signalled me away with his hand and picked up some papers on his desk.
I looked at the Lieutenant and he shrugged his shoulders at me. ‘The Colonel said you are dismissed Baker,’ he said.
I held onto the boy’s arm and pulled him roughly out of the room. I stopped outside and glared down at him. ‘Well thanks very much!’ I spat out. ‘Now I’m stuck with you even longer!’ To my surprise he swung his foot back and kicked me hard on the shin. ‘Why you little……’ I made a grab for him, but he took off across the compound, surprisingly fast considering his large boots.
I sprinted after him, but stopped when I saw Mike come around a corner and grab onto him for me. ‘Whoa there little buddy!’ he said as he swung the child into the air. ‘What’s all this about?’ He smiled when he saw me and asked, ‘so what did he do this time?’
‘I’m stuck with him for a whole week!’ I spat out. ‘Light duties and looking after him!’
‘Light duties doesn’t sound too bad,’ said Mike.
‘Want to trade?’ I asked sarcastically.
‘Nope!’ he said with a grin as he handed the boy back to me. ‘He’s all yours I’m afraid. He’s Baker’s Brat to the end!’ He laughed aloud.
‘Thanks!’ I said, trying to rub my shin as I held onto him. ‘Cut it out will you kid?’ I shook him to make him stop, and set him on his feet again. ‘Now don’t you try that again or I’ll tan you!’ He frowned at me and clenched his little fists, for all the world looking like he was thinking about hitting me.
‘Come on!’ I ordered him. ‘Get over to the bunkhouse. At least if I have to look after you I’m going to have a week’s rest to make up for it!’
‘No!’ he yelled at me. ‘I don’t want to!’
Mike and I both jerked with surprise. ‘What did you say?’ I asked him.
‘I don’t want to!’ He stamped his foot and the boot flopped as he did so.
‘Why you little …..’ I spluttered. ‘So you can talk! You’ve been having me on all the time!’
His answer was to stick out his tongue at me and try to hit me with his little fists, but I held onto his arms until he gave up. ‘He sure is a stubborn little cuss ain’t he?’ asked Mike, quite amused.
I glared up at him for a moment, then turned back to the boy and shook him again. ‘If you can talk, then tell me your name!’ I shouted. ‘Well? What is it?’
He stuck out his tongue at me again and said ‘I don’t want to be stuck wiv you either!’
So that was it! He thought I didn’t want him! Well he was right – I didn’t, and I guess I had made that fact fairly clear to him. I couldn’t really blame him for being angry about it. I knelt down in front of him and said in a milder tome. ‘Listen kid, it’s nothing personal you know. It’s just that I’ve got other things I could be doing.’ He continued to stare at me. ‘How about we both make the best of it?’ I continued. ‘What do you say huh?’ He didn’t answer, but the angry look in his eye faded a little.
I got up. ‘Come on,’ I said. ‘Let’s go find something to do.’ I winked at Mike and walked away, determined to play it carefully in order to find out as much as I could about the boy. I figured the sooner I could find out about him, the sooner I would be rid of him. I glanced back to see if he was following me, but for once he stood still and crossed his arms across his chest in a stance of defiance. I shrugged my shoulders and pretended not to care as I continued to walk, and before too long I heard the unmistakable sound of his boots flopping along behind me again.
I went over to the stables and began to groom some of the horses there, looking at him out of the corner of my eye as I worked. He stood quietly in a corner of the barn and watched me intently, and after a while came over and picked up a brush and began to work alongside me. I left him all the low parts to attend to, and noticed that he did a very good job with them. Someone had taught him about horses, that was for sure.
‘So where’d you learn how to do that?’ I asked casually.
‘My brother learned me,’ he replied.
‘Yeah? What’s his name?’
‘You live with him?’ I asked.
He frowned. ‘No! He went away!’
‘Oh? Where to?’
‘Boston. I’m on my way to see him.’
I laughed. ‘You’re a bit lost then kid!’ I replied, and earned a dark look from him again. I tried one more time.
‘So how’d you end up with the Indians?’
‘I got lost. They founded me, that’s all,’ he shrugged. ‘Until you came along.’
I pointed a finger at him. ‘And just you be glad that I did! What was a kid like you doing wandering around out there for anyway? Your Ma and Pa must be worried sick about you!’
‘I ain’t got no Ma,’ he said sadly. ‘She’s dead.’
I felt a twinge of sympathy for the child. ‘Well your Pa then. He must be worried about you!’ When I got no response from him, I tried again. ‘Does he know you were going to see your brother in Boston?’
‘No,’ he said quietly. ‘I didn’t tell him. I just went.’
He glared at me again. ‘Cause I wanted to!’ he declared. ‘Pa said Adam wasn’t coming home for a long time, and I wanted to see him! Pa wouldn’t let me go!’
‘And just how were you intending to get there?’ I asked, quite amused now.
‘On my pony!’ he declared. ‘I woulda got there too if I hadn’t got lost and them Indians founded me!’
I laughed again. ‘I bet you would have too!’ I said. ‘Do you know where Boston is?’
He drew himself up to his full height and answered. ‘Sure I do! It’s over that way!’ He waved his arm in the general direction of the south.
I reached out and turned it around to the east to correct him. ‘More over that way little buddy,’ I said. ‘And it’s a very long way away!’
‘I know that!’ he said. ‘That’s why Adam couldn’t come home for a long time. Must be more’n a week away at least.’
‘Yeah! At least!’ I agreed, chuckling to myself. This sure was one plucky little kid. I remembered the aim of this conversation and tried again. ‘So where ya from kid?’ I asked.
‘Will ya send me back there if I tell ya?’ he asked.
‘Sure will,’ I replied with a smile.
‘Then I ain’t telling!’ he declared.
‘Well at least tell me what your pa’s name is, so that I can let him know that you’re all right,’ I said.
He looked at me warily. ‘Will ya tell my pa to come get me?’ he asked.
I didn’t know what to reply to this. If I said yes he was likely to clam up again, but if I said no he was likely not to believe me anyway. I tried to wriggle out of it. ‘Do you want me to?’ I asked.
He hung his head for a moment and thought. ‘Yes,’ he said quietly. ‘I want my Pa to come get me.’
I bent down and put my arm on his shoulder. ‘Then tell me his name little buddy,’ I said. ‘What is it?’
He looked up at me and I noticed his big green eyes were filling with tears. ‘It’s Ben Cartwright. He lives on the Ponderosa Ranch near Virginia City,’ he said.
I whistled. I had heard of Ben Cartwright! Why he was the richest man in the Territory! He must have turned the countryside over looking for this boy of his, and here he was right under my nose for the past few days! I needed to let the Colonel know as soon as possible.
‘Come on kid,’ I said ‘Let’s get back to the Colonel and he’ll sort it out for you.’
When we entered the Colonel’s office again, the same fierce look came back on the boy’s face again. ‘Why we gotta tell him?’ he said. ‘Why can’t you just tell my Pa?’
‘Cause he’s in charge around here,’ I explained. ‘The Colonel will know just what to do for you.’ He didn’t look convinced, and continued to frown as we were ushered into the inner office again.
‘Excuse me Colonel sir, but you said to let you know if I found out anything about the boy,’ I began.
‘Yes?’ he said looking up from his paperwork.
‘He’s Ben Cartwright’s son, sir,’ I said. ‘Ben Cartwright from…..’
‘I know where Ben Cartwright is from!’ interrupted the Colonel and stared at the boy intently. ‘Are you sure about this Baker?’
‘He told me so himself sir,’ I replied.
‘I thought you told me he couldn’t talk,’ snapped the Colonel.
‘I said he hadn’t talked sir, I didn’t know if he could or not,’ I replied and earned a frown from the man. ‘Apparently he can,’ I ended lamely, feeling slightly foolish now.
‘Come here boy,’ the Colonel beckoned to him, but the kid stood his ground next to me and merely stared at him. The Colonel tried again. ‘What’s your name son?’ he asked, but the boy didn’t speak. ‘Are you sure about this Baker? I don’t relish bringing Ben Cartwright on a wild goose chase here for nothing if this isn’t true.’
I swallowed. ‘He says it is sir,’ I replied.
‘All right then! I’ll have a wire sent to him. Until we hear from him my orders stand and you are to consider yourself in charge of the boy! Dismissed!’
‘Sir!’ I saluted him smartly and left the room, the boy trailing behind me again. ‘Why didn’t you speak to him?’ I asked the boy angrily as we left the office and shut the door behind us.
‘Cause I don’t like him!’ he declared. ‘His eyebrows is too big and fierce looking!’
I chuckled quietly to myself, for it was true that the Colonel had an unfortunate abundance of facial hair. I kept a stern look on my face as I replied. ‘Well that’s no reason to be rude! Come on kid, let’s get those horses finished.’
As we walked across the compound for what seemed like the tenth time that morning, I asked him, ‘You still haven’t told me your name kid. What is it?’
‘Joe,’ he said. ‘Joe Cartwright. Pleased ta meet ya!’ He held out a small hand and smiled at me, and I grinned back at him.
‘Well now that we are officially introduced Joe Cartwright, we need to get a few things straight,’ I said as I shook the small hand. ‘First of all, I’m in charge here, and you do as I say. Got that?’ He nodded, his eyes wide. ‘Second of all, I’ll look after you because that’s what I’ve been told to do, but I don’t need you whining after me every minute of the day. Understood?’ He nodded again.
‘Will ya spank me if I’m bad?’ he asked tentatively.
I forced myself to look stern. ‘Yes I will,’ I said. ‘So you’d better watch yourself Joe Cartwright.’
He nodded again solemnly and put his hands behind his back as he stared up at me. ‘Now that we’ve got that straight, then we’ll get on with our work,’ I said. ‘Come on, we’re needed back at the stables.’
For the next couple of days we got on fairly well considering the circumstances. Even though we knew his name now, the title of Baker’s Brat had stuck, and everyone continued to call him that. He didn’t seem to mind, and he still attached himself to me apart from the times when I couldn’t stand it anymore and shooed him away for a while. He really was quite a nice kid, but it was obvious right from the start that he had a mind of his own and a strong will to match it.
There were times when I felt he was in charge of me instead of the other way around!
At night he continued to have those nightmares, often calling for his Pa in the middle of a dream. I took to going to bed early myself, as it just wasn’t worth the hassle of checking on him all the time. If I didn’t, then he invariably ended up screaming the place down, and I wasn’t too popular with everyone because of it. More often than not I would wake in the morning to find him cuddled in next to me, sleeping soundly. As long as I remembered to wake him a couple of times to pee he kept dry, and saved me from making extra trips to the laundry.
During the day he helped me with the duties I needed to get done, although most of the time he was more a hindrance than a help. He became quite popular amongst the men, and they greeted us everywhere we went. ‘Hello there kid! Well, how’s Baker’s Brat this morning?’ And so on. Now that he was feeling more comfortable about being with me, he took to others more easily as well, and had quite a fetching little personality with them. Really, he became quite a novelty in the Fort, and soon everyone seemed to know him.
After a couple of days, it was hard to imagine the place without him. It seemed that he had made an impact everywhere at once. If he had been a different type of child, then all the attention might have spoilt him, but I could see that he was taking it all in his stride.
He was quick to pick up on the ways of others, and soon began saluting officers when they passed him. They found it quite amusing and usually saluted him back, always with a kindly look. Lieutenant Parks even gave him a yellow army issue bandanna that he wore proudly around his neck.
‘Baker?’ he asked me on the third day. He had taken to calling me the same as everyone else, and I didn’t think it necessary to correct him.
‘Am I too little to join the army?’
I grinned at him. ‘Just a bit,’ I said. ‘Maybe in a little while when you’re bigger.’
He looked at me sadly. ‘It might take more than a little while,’ he said. ‘I never seem to get any bigger.’
‘How old are you kid?’ I asked.
He straightened up and nearly stood on his tiptoes. ‘I’m nearly eight,’ he said. ‘But everyone says I’m puny.’
‘Who says that?’ I felt quite protective of him now, and didn’t like to think of him being picked on.
‘All the kids at school,’ he replied. ‘But if I got into the army, then they wouldn’t say that would they?’
‘No I guess they wouldn’t,’ I agreed. ‘But don’t you worry Joe, I’m sure you’ll grow bigger some day and catch them up.’
‘I don’t think I’ll catch up ta my brother Hoss,’ he said.
‘You’ve got another brother?’ I asked. ‘Does this one live at home or is he in Boston too?’
He shook his head. ‘Nah. He lives on The Ponderosa wiv Pa and me,’ he informed me. ‘And Adam’s coming back some day too.’
‘Why’s he in Boston now, then?’ I asked, curious about the famous Cartwrights that I’d heard so much about.
‘He went away ta College,’ he said. ‘He said he wanted ta learn about numbers and jimetry and stuff.’
‘Yeah. You know, like circles and squares and stuff like that.’
‘Oh yeah, stuff like that!’ I said hiding a grin at his pronunciation of geometry.
‘Don’t know why he wants ta learn it though. School’s dumb!’
‘Yeah. Well, I wasn’t too fond of it myself,’ I answered without thinking.
His eyes widened. ‘Ya wasn’t? Did ya have a horrible teacher too?’
‘Don’t tell me that your teacher is horrible!’ I said trying to look shocked.
‘Well not zactly horrible,’ he replied. ‘But she is strict! And boring too! She makes us learn numbers and spellings and stuff. And then she reads mushy stuff to us all the time.’ He leant close to me. ‘Know what?’ he asked in a whisper.
‘She’s kinda gone on my brother Adam. Hoss says that’s why he wanted ta go ta Boston.’
I stifled a laugh. ‘Well I’m sure it wasn’t the whole reason,’ I said.
‘I dunno! If ya saw Miss Jones you’d prob’ly want ta run away too!’ he declared. ‘Adam says she ain’t his idea of a woman!’
I decided that if I was going to keep any kind of dignity about me, then I had better end this conversation right away. ‘How about we see if we can get something from the kitchen?’ I suggested.
He nodded with his eyes sparkling, distracted from all thoughts of the horrible teacher for a while. As we stood to make our way over to the kitchen, Sargeant Beame suddenly appeared in front of us, and we both saluted.
‘Morning Baker’s Brat,’ he said with a twinkle in his eye. ‘And just how are you today?’
‘Fine thanks Sarge,’ he replied. ‘How ya doin yaself?’
‘Very well,’ he replied, trying to keep his voice gruff, but failing miserably. ‘Cartwright’s replied to the Colonel’s wire,’ he said to me. ‘He’ll be here in a couple of days. Do you think you can survive until then?’
I grinned at him. ‘Oh I think so Sarge,’ I replied. ‘At least I’ll do my best.’
He turned to go, but was stopped by the boy pulling on his trouser leg. ‘I’m joining the army when I get bigger Sarge,’ he informed the man.
‘Are you indeed?’ replied the Sargeant with amusement. ‘And just what makes you think we’d have you?’
The boy’s face fell. ‘Even if I grew lots?’ he said tentatively.
The Sargeant saw his dismay and continued. ‘Tell you what kid, you come back when you’re this big,’ he indicated a spot around the height of his shoulder, ‘and we’ll consider it.’ He winked at me. ‘But you’ve got to eat more to get that tall you know.’ He knew of the boy’s poor eating habits and was obviously trying to help get some meat on his bones in a backhanded way.
Joe looked at him seriously. ‘I will Sarge,’ he cried. ‘I’ll eat lots!’
The Sargeant saluted him again. ‘See that you do!’ he said sternly, and turned on his heel chuckling as he went.
The boy pulled on my hand. ‘Come on Baker!’ he cried. ‘We’ve got ta see what they’ve got in the kitchen. I’ve got ta start eating more, the Sarge says!’
‘OK OK, hold your horses,’ I said. ‘It’ll still be there when we get there.’
He pulled me impatiently across the compound, but hesitated when the front gates began to open and a troop of soldiers entered on horseback. In the middle of the group was an Indian with his hands tied behind his back and a rope around his neck, being led slowly forward.
The boy stopped and stared for a moment, then let out a scream and ran as fast as his little legs would carry him around the side of a building. I ran after him, and finally cornered him crouched among some barrels behind the Dining Hall. I bent over him and stroked him on the hair as I asked softly. ‘What is it little buddy? Did the Indian scare you?’
He looked up at me with tear-filled eyes, and then flung his arms around my neck. ‘Don’t let him take me away!’ he sobbed. ‘I don’t want ta go wiv him, I want ta go wiv my Pa!’
I held onto him tightly. ‘You don’t have to go with him. He’s a prisoner here and he can’t take you away. It’s all right.’
He drew back and looked at me, the tears running down his cheeks. ‘He won’t take me?’
‘No, I promise you that he won’t. I told you that your Pa’s coming for you didn’t I?’ He nodded. ‘And didn’t you hear the Sarge say that your Pa’s on his way?’ He nodded again. ‘Well then! Your Pa won’t let any Indian take you away and neither will I!’ I declared.
He put his head down on my shoulder and buried his face against my neck. ‘Don’t want ta go wiv no Indians anymore!’ he declared.
I held him tight and patted his back. ‘It’s OK little buddy, you don’t have to.’ I drew him back and stood him firmly on his feet again. ‘Now how about that food eh?’ I pulled out my handkerchief and rubbed it across his face to dry the tears, then stood up. He nodded at me and tried to smile, then gripped my hand tightly as we wandered slowly across the compound. I sensed him looking intently for the Indian, but he was nowhere to be seen, probably having already been taken into the Colonel’s office.
I hadn’t really given it much thought since I had brought him back to the Fort, but I began to wonder just what his life had been like with the Indians and how long he had been with them. Surely they would not have hurt a child so young, but his reaction today had shown me that he was quite afraid of them and I began to wonder about it.
After we had taken some bread and cheese from the kitchen, we sat in the sun and I tried to get him to talk about it. ‘So little buddy, do you know the Indian that came in a while ago?’ He shook his head and refused to look at me. ‘How long were you with the Indians for?’ I asked.
‘Dunno,’ he shrugged.
I tried again. ‘Didn’t you like living with them?’
This time he shook his head violently. ‘No!’ he declared.
‘Why not?’ I thought it might do him good to talk about it, but he was having none of it and simply shrugged as he continued to chew. We sat for a few minutes longer in silence, and suddenly I felt his body edge over to mine and he leaned in towards me. I put my arm around his shoulder as we sat there, and his head snuggled into my waist. He obviously needed to feel the touch of someone at that moment, and I was happy to oblige him. I was beginning to feel rather protective of this youngster now, and if the truth were told I quite enjoyed the closeness myself.
After a time, he said quietly, ‘Baker?’
‘How long before my Pa gets here?’
‘Just a couple of days little buddy. Do you think you can put up with me until then?’
He wriggled away from me and stood up in front of me solemnly. ‘Yep! I reckon I can,’ he said. ‘I like ya Baker!’
I felt quite pleased at his words, and grinned at him. ‘Well I like you too Joe Cartwright,’ I said, and we both laughed before he said again. ‘But I want my Pa ta come and get me now so I can go home.’
I pulled him towards me and held him be the shoulders. ‘It won’t be long now buddy until you’re home again. You’ll like that won’t you?’
He nodded enthusiastically and said, ‘Yes! But ……’ his face clouded.
‘But what?’ I asked.
‘My Pa might be mad at me for running away. He might tan me good.’
I raised my eyebrows at him. ‘He probably will be, but I think he’ll be more pleased to get you back don’t you think?’ He looked at me, not quite convinced as I continued. ‘Well anyway, it’s no use worrying about that now. You’ve still got two more days with us. What do you want to do?’
‘Can I ride one of them big horses?’ he asked enthusiastically, and I was amazed at how quickly his mood could change again.
‘Well, I don’t know,’ I said stroking my chin. ‘They’re kinda big for a little fellar like you.’
‘But I can ride real good Baker!’ he declared. ‘My Pa and my brothers taught me, and I’ve got a pony at home called …..’ he stopped again and tears filled his eyes.
‘What is it now?’ I asked. Here we go again! I thought.
‘My pony Star,’ he sniffled. ‘He got lost wiv me and then I didn’t know where he went. He just walked away somewheres and I might neva see him again!’
‘Well I’m sure he’s OK,’ I said quickly. ‘Maybe he wandered back home again and your Pa found him.’
The sniffles got louder. ‘Ya reckon?’ he asked.
I didn’t think it was very likely, but I didn’t want to have him any more upset than he already was. ‘Maybe,’ I said. ‘Tell you what. How about I let you ride with me on one of those big horses?’
The smiles immediately came through the tears, and he tried to pull me to my feet immediately. ‘Yeah OK! Come on, can we do it now?’
I sighed, unsure how much more of these mood changes I could take. ‘Sure thing little buddy, whatever you want.’
‘Ya know what Baker?’ he said as he flopped beside me on our way to the corral.
‘No what?’ I asked.
‘My brother Adam calls me little buddy too, just like you do.’
‘Yep! He’s nice like you too. Ya know, my brother Adam …..’
As we walked and I listened to his stories about his family, I wondered just how I could have thought he couldn’t speak just a short time ago. It seemed like now that he never shut up, and I longed for just a little peace and quiet. The child certainly had a voice, and he used it well, that was for sure!’
I let him pick out a horse, and saddled it. By the time I was ready to mount up, the word had spread and interested onlookers who wanted to see the boy’s riding abilities surrounded the corral. As I saddled the horse I heard him telling everyone who would listen just how good he was at riding, and by the time I was ready to lift him down from his perch on the top rung of the corral fence I think he had himself and everyone else convinced that he was a top rider.
‘Come on,’ I said. ‘You get up there first and then I’ll sit behind you.’
‘I can do it myself,’ he declared, and tried to put his foot in the stirrup. Seeing as how it was about level with his chin, it was an impossible task, so I lifted him up level with it. From there he grasped hold of the saddle horn and tried to pull himself up, and with a well placed boost from me he managed to eventually do it. That earned him a huge clap from the crowd, and he sat tall in the saddle and grinned around at everyone.
As he tried to grab the reins, he said to me in all seriousness. ‘I can do it now, I don’t need you ta help.’ He pushed my hands away from him and actually tried to kick the horse forward, but I was not about to let him get away with it.
‘Oh no you don’t!’ I said ‘I told you I’m riding with you, and I meant it.’ I had visions of what the Colonel would say to me if I let the boy fall. ‘Now just hold on there.’
I quickly mounted behind him, and he glared up at me. ‘I told ya I don’t need ya ta help me!’ He said crossly. I ignored him and started to walk the horse around the corral. After a while I let go of the reins and let him take control, although I kept my arm around his waist. He earned another round of applause as he successfully manoeuvred the animal around the corral, and grinned at everyone in acknowledgement of their praise. He certainly had been taught to ride well, that was for sure. One day I was sure the boy would make an excellent horseman.
I gradually sat back in the saddle and let go of him, and he took complete control of the horse. It amazed me to think it, but he had in fact been right! He didn’t need me with him at all, and if his legs had been long enough to reach the stirrups I would have jumped off and let him continue by himself. By the time we had been several times around the corral he had everyone cheering him, and was lapping up the praise excitedly.
‘See? I told ya I could do it!’ he exclaimed as I finally helped him down from the animal. ‘I’m a good rider ain’t I?’
‘You certainly are,’ I said, and held him up for everyone to cheer again. He beamed around at them, pleased to be the centre of attention for so many.
One of the men came forward and gave him a pair of gloves. ‘Here you go Baker’s Brat, he said affectionately. ‘I reckon you deserve these Cavalry gloves seeing as how you can ride so well.’
The boy’s eyes shone with delight, and he immediately tried to put them on. His little hands didn’t come close to filling them of course, and they reached up past his elbows, but he wore them as if they fitted perfectly and strutted around for everyone to see and give him another clap.
Finally he made his way back to me. ‘See Baker?’ he said with delight. ‘I’ve got a bandanna and gloves now. I’m nearly a proper soldier ain’t I?’
‘Nearly,’ I said grinning at him. ‘And one day you just might be in the Cavalry for real with riding like that.’
‘Can we go again?’ he asked, his green eyes shining with anticipation.
‘No we can’t. Once is enough. Everyone has work to do, they haven’t got time to sit around and watch you all day.’
‘OK,’ he said undaunted. ‘What do we do next?’
And so it went on all day. By the time evening fell I was exhausted just trying to keep up with him as he tumbled from one adventure into the next, charming everyone he came into contact with in the Fort. All, from the lowliest Private right up to the Colonel himself when we met him near the Doc’s office, before I put him to bed that night, greeted him enthusiastically. Even if his response to the Colonel was somewhat subdued in comparison to the others, he was at least polite this time.
‘Well young man, I believe you’re just about ready to join up with us!’ the Colonel said kindly as he bent down close to the boy’s face.
‘Yessir,’ he said warily staring at the man’s whiskers. ‘But the Sarge says I have ta eat more first and get bigger.’
‘Good idea,’ said the Colonel with a twinkle in his eye. ‘I’m sure your father would appreciate you waiting a while.’ He patted him on the head as he moved away. ‘Good job Baker, keep it up,’ he said.
‘Thank you sir,’ I said and saluted as he passed.
The boy scrunched up his face at the man as he departed. ‘Why’s he have so much hair on his face?’ he asked in a loud voice, and I saw the Colonel hesitate for a moment.
I put a hand over the youngster’s mouth to stop him from saying any more. ‘Shh,’ I said as the officer disappeared around the side of the building. ‘That’s not polite.’
He pulled my hand away. ‘Why not?’
‘Because,’ I replied feeling somewhat foolish for not having a reason to give him. ‘You don’t go around talking about how people look that’s all.’
‘People talk about how I look,’ he said as I led him into the bunkhouse and started to undress him. ‘They always say I look like my Ma.’
‘You said your mother was dead,’ I said.
‘She is,’ he said in a sorrowful tone. ‘She went to heaven a long time ago when I was five. Pa says that she can’t come back.’ He thought for a moment. ‘I think Boston must be near Heaven, cause Pa says that Adam can’t come back either.’
‘Heaven is a lot further away than Boston,’ I assured him as I tucked him in. ‘I’m sure your brother Adam will come back some day.’
He lay staring up at me with his large green eyes. ‘Maybe,’ he said. ‘But I reckon Adam went ta Heaven like my Ma, and Pa just hasn’t told me.’
I sat on the edge of the bed. ‘No, I’m sure he didn’t. Your Pa would have told you if that were true.’
‘Then why won’t he let me go ta see him?’ he asked. ‘I asked and I asked and he wouldn’t let me go. He just said that we have ta wait ta see Adam again. I think we have ta wait until Judgement Day when we see Mama again. That’s what the minister said in church. When is Judgement Day Baker?’
I ignored that question, not really sure how to answer it. ‘Is that why you wanted to go and see Adam? Because you think he’s dead?’ I asked. He nodded. ‘Now you listen to me little buddy,’ I said. ‘Your brother Adam is not dead, and your Pa would tell you that if he were here. I want you to put that thought right out of your head, you hear me?’
He nodded again. ‘OK Baker,’ he said quietly.
‘Tell you what,’ I said, an idea forming in my head. ‘How about you and I write him a letter tomorrow? If he was dead we couldn’t write to him could we?’
‘No I guess not,’ he said.
‘Well we’ll write to him, and when your Pa comes he’ll put the address on it and take it to post for you. How about that?’
He sat up and hugged him tightly. ‘Thanks Baker,’ he said. ‘I reckon if Adam isn’t dead he’d like ta read a letter from me. Only ya will have ta help me wiv it cause I can’t do spellings too good yet.’
‘Don’t you worry little buddy, I’ll help you,’ I said as I patted him on the head. ‘Now go to sleep!’ He turned over to face the wall and was soon peacefully dozing. I sat next to him for a long time, wondering just how I was going to do without him in a day or so when his father came to take him away. It was strange to think it now, but in the space of a few short days I knew that this boy had stolen my heart, and I would really miss him when he left. I stroked his silky curls and smiled at the way his thumb popped into his mouth again as it seemed to every night. I had even become used to the slurping noises he made as he sucked on it.
I sighed wearily as I took off my boot. These early nights were becoming a habit with me, and I wondered if I would be able to adjust once he had left. It saddened me to think that we only had a short time left together, and I fell asleep to the sound of slurping and thoughts of what we would do tomorrow.
Most of the next morning was taken up with completing his letter to his brother Adam. He was right when he said that spelling wasn’t his strong point, and we ended up doing several drafts of it before we were both satisfied that it was right. We would have been finished quicker if he had let me write it out for him, but as with everything else he was a stubborn little cuss and insisted on doing the finished draft himself.
He was left-handed and his penmanship was not the best because of it. Even the finished product had a multitude of smudges on it and I doubted that his brother would even be able to read half of it, but at least the boy himself was satisfied with it. As we finally sealed the envelope, he looked at me with a satisfied grin. ‘Adam will be pleased ta read that if he’s really not dead!’ he declared.
‘I’m sure he will,’ I answered with a chuckle.
‘Ain’t ya gonna put an address on it?’ he asked.
‘Your Pa’s going to do that. Remember?’ I replied. ‘Besides, I don’t know whereabouts in Boston your brother Adam lives.’
‘He lives wiv his grandfather,’ he replied. ‘Just put Adam Cartwright. And the address will be Adam Cartwright’s Grandfather. Boston.’
‘I think we’ll wait for your Pa to do it,’ I said firmly. ‘Now let’s get some lunch.’
As we entered the Dining Hall, Colonel Hudson greeted us again. I stared at him in surprise, as there was something remarkably different about him today. His eyebrows, beard and moustache had been trimmed and he looked visibly younger because of it. I swallowed nervously, and hoped that the boy’s remarks from the night before had not been the cause of it.
He nodded at us both as we stepped aside to allow him to enter in front of us, and the boy opened his mouth in shock. But before he could speak, I put my hand over his mouth and bustled him into the building, shaking my finger at him as I said in a whisper. ‘Remember what I said last night! Don’t comment on how people look.’
He nodded, but couldn’t take his eyes off the Colonel the whole way through the meal. That combined with the fact that he refused to take off his Cavalry gloves meant that his eating was somewhat impaired, and we were the last ones to finally leave the Hall.
As we left the building, I noticed the Colonel speaking to a silver-haired man on the porch next to his office. In an instant, the boy by my side had let go my hand and was running as fast as his little legs would carry him across the compound yelling all the way. ‘Pa! Pa! It’s me, Pa! Pa!’
The man turned at the first sound of the child’s voice and made it down the stairs three at a time. He met the child at the bottom of the porch and scooped him up into his arms, holding onto him tightly for a long while. The boy buried his face onto his father’s shoulder and clasped him around the neck tightly.
After what seemed like a very long time, the man loosened himself for the child’s grasp and held him back a little to take a look at him. ‘Joseph,’ he said simply and the love that he put into that one word made tears spring to my eyes and it was necessary for me to quickly rub them away. He looked carefully at the child in his arms as if to imprint the vision into his brain, and it was a few moments before he held him close to him again and turned to face the Colonel.
‘How can I ever thank you Colonel Hudson?’ he asked over the boy’s head. ‘I don’t know how to begin.’
The Colonel motioned for me to approach them. ‘Here’s the man you have to thank Mr Cartwright,’ he said. ‘This is Corporal Baker who found the boy and has looked after him ever since.’
Mr Cartwright held out a hand to me, the other one wrapped tightly around his son. ‘Corporal, I don’t know what to say. Thank you,’ he said as we shook hands. I noticed his eyes fill with tears as he said. ‘I thought I’d lost him for sure.’
The boy wriggled in his father’s grasp and turned his head to face me. ‘This is Baker Pa. He looked after me,’ he informed his father. ‘He’s in the army.’
His father nodded at him and turned back towards me. ‘I hope he hasn’t been too much trouble for you,’ he said. I thought back over the past week – the interruptions to my sleep, the worry about how much he wasn’t eating, the problem with getting him cleaned up and kept that way, and the times he had peed on me. ‘No trouble at all,’ I said with a twinkle in my eye, and we both laughed.
‘Somehow I don’t quite believe you,’ said Mr Cartwright. ‘No body knows more than I do just what this youngster is capable of.’
‘Pa?’ said the boy, turning his father’s face towards his own.
‘Yes Joseph?’ his father replied.
He held his hand near his father’s shoulder. ‘Pa I’ve gotta eat more so that I can get this big, and I’ve got gloves and a bandanna so I’m half there already, and Adam isn’t dead anymore in Boston, and you have to write the address, and I have ta get a bigger horse, and the Indian’s not gonna take me away, and the Colonel had a shave, and I know not ta talk about how people look, and …..’
Mr Cartwright held up a hand to silence him. ‘Joseph, please!’ he said. ‘Let’s have one thing at a time shall we?’
The boy grinned at him. ‘OK Pa,’ he said. ‘Well Adam’s not dead any more, so I don’t have ta go …. ‘ he stopped and looked at his father solemnly. ‘Are ya gonna tan me for running away Pa?’ he asked tentatively.
His father looked at him sternly. ‘I think we have a lot to talk about young man,’ he said. ‘We’ll discuss that when we get home.’
The boy swallowed and looked at me beseechingly. ‘I think it might be best if I fill you in on a few things Mr Cartwright,’ I said.
He nodded at me. ‘I’d be grateful Corporal, otherwise it might be weeks before I get any sense out of this one.’ He gave the child a hug and grinned at him. ‘Something tells me I have a lot to catch up on.’
Colonel Hudson interrupted. ‘You’d be most welcome to stay the night Mr Cartwright. That way you’d have time to speak to the Corporal and then leave fresh in the morning.’
‘Thank you Colonel,’ he replied. ‘Well come on then Corporal, let’s you and I find a quiet place to get acquainted while we discuss this young man.’
Later that night we both sat and watched the child as he slept and listened to the slurping noises as he sucked his thumb. ‘I’m so grateful to you Corporal,’ said Mr Cartwright. ‘If it wasn’t for you my son would still be with the Indians or worse.’ He shuddered as the thought crossed his mind as to just how close he had come to losing the boy. ‘If there is anything I can ever do for you….’
I held up my hand. ‘Don’t mention it sir,’ I said. ‘It’s actually been quite an experience during the past week.’ It amazed me to think that it had only been a week since I had first found the child. ‘Not that it’s been smooth sailing all the way though.’
He smiled at me. ‘I’m sure it hasn’t,’ he acknowledged. ‘I still can’t believe how he came to be with the Indians in the first place.
‘How long ago did he run away?’ I asked curious to know.
‘Six weeks ago,’ he replied. ‘I had almost given up the search when I received the telegram from the Colonel. I couldn’t believe it at first!’
‘Sir if you don’t mind me saying so, I think the boy needs you to explain to him about his brother,’ I ventured. ‘He really thought he was dead, and that’s why he ran.’
‘Yes I know that now,’ he said as he fingered the letter in his pocket. ‘I really thought he understood that Adam had gone to College. I suppose he just remembered his mother leaving of course. I’ll have a long talk with him about it.’
‘And…..’ I hesitated, and he glanced at me.
‘Yes?’ he asked.
‘About his time with the Indians,’ I continued. ‘Well, he seemed very upset about it, and I really didn’t manage to find out much about it at all. He didn’t want to talk about it, but I sensed he was quite scared. I think that’s going to need quite a bit of sorting out.’
The man nodded and reached out to touch the curly head on the bed. ‘Yes, I agree. We’ll have to work through that as well.’ He turned to me. ‘Well Corporal I think it’s time I turned in as well. I’m sure you’re looking forward to enjoying your first good night’s sleep in a week.’
I was indeed! But strangely, it was difficult for me to get to sleep at all without the constant slurping noise in my ear all night and I woke several times thinking I needed to check on the boy and get him up to pee. By the time morning arrived I felt a sense of loss already, and dreaded having to say goodbye to him.
Mr Cartwright wanted to get on the trail as soon as possible, so after a quick breakfast he and the boy were ready to depart. I waited until everyone had fussed over the boy until I came over to say my goodbyes to him as he stood near to his father who was saying his final farewell to the Colonel.
‘Well little buddy,’ I said, trying to sound cheerful. ‘Guess you’re on your way now. Be a good kid for your Pa, won’t you?’
He looked at me solemnly for a moment, and then nodded silently. I bent down to give him a quick hug, and whispered, ‘Don’t forget to keep eating will you? We want to see you back here quickly you know!’
He nodded again, then flung his arms around my neck and sobbed. ‘I want ya ta come wiv us Baker!’ he said between sniffles. ‘Why can’t ya?’
I held onto him for a moment, and then pulled him away from me. ‘Don’t be stupid kid! Course I can’t come with you. I’ve got work to do here you know!’ I tried to look at him sternly. ‘Now get up on that horse and stop fussing.’
I lifted him up so that he could reach the stirrup and gave him a boost to help him haul himself into the saddle. ‘I don’t need ya help,’ he said with a small frown. ‘I told ya before I can do it!’
Stubborn until the end! I thought to myself. ‘Yeah I know you can little buddy,’ I said, and turned as I heard his father’s voice. ‘Mr Cartwright,’ I held out my hand to him. ‘Take care sir!’
He clasped my outstretched hand with both hands and pressed on it tightly as he looked deep into my eyes. ‘Thank you Corporal,’ he said in a tight voice. ‘Thank you very much son.’
I nodded, unable to find my voice, and watched as he mounted up in the saddle. Winking at the boy, I stepped back and saluted him, and grinned to see the snappy salute that he gave back to me. I couldn’t help thinking that with his yellow bandanna and gloves he looked half the part of a soldier already, and wondered if some day he might really enlist as he threatened to. Heaven help the army if he does! I thought.
As Mr Cartwright turned the horse and they slowly left the Fort, a little face appeared from around his waist and looked wistfully back at me, and a yellow-gloved hand waved. I waved back as I walked a few steps outside the Fort entrance, feeling a tightness in my throat that I found hard to explain. Suddenly I was shaken out of my thoughts by a voice beside me.
I turned to see Mike standing there, also gazing after the riders. ‘Well that’s the last we’ll see of him,’ he said ruefully. ‘Guess you’re glad to get your life back again!’
‘I sure am!’ I declared emphatically.
We stood in silence for a moment. ‘There’s poker game going on in the bunkhouse,’ Mike said. ‘Coming?’
I nodded. ‘I’ll be there in a moment,’ I said. He patted me on the shoulder and left, and I leant against one of the fence posts as I watched the disappearing cloud of dust in the distance. ‘Goodbye Baker’s Brat,’ I whispered softly as I turned back towards the Fort.
Next Story in the Baker’s Brat Series:
Other Stories by this Author
- Baker’s Legacy (by JoanS)
- Baker’s Dozen (by JoanS)
- Baker’s Destiny (by JoanS)
- Natural Ability (by JoanS)
- My Brother, My Enemy (by JoanS)