Heritage of Honor, Book 1-A Dream Deferred (by Puchi Ann)

Summary:  Ben Cartwright meets and marries Inger Borgstrom.  With young Adam, they journey west, meeting new people along the way, developing friendships that will last a lifetime, and adding one more member to the family before Inger’s death and Ben’s settlement in what will become Nevada.

Word Count: 211, 512  Rating K

Heritage of Honor Series:

A Dream Deferred
A Dream’s First Bud
A Dream Imperiled
A Dream’s Darkest Hour
A Dream Divided

Heritage Companion

Never Alone
Centennial! A Journey of Discovery

 

CHAPTER ONE

             Ben Cartwright stood beside his small canvas-covered wagon gazing out over the surrounding fields.  In much the same way he had once watched the waves from the bow of the New England square-rigger where he’d served as first mate to Captain Abel Stoddard.  And though it had been six years since he walked a deck, there were times, like this, when the same emotions billowed through his soul, when the emptiness of the land echoed the solitude of the sea.

The Sangamon Valley of Illinois was a fertile land, a good place to build a home.  But twenty-seven-year-old Ben’s sights were set on a more distant horizon, his vision fixed on a less settled land.  He dreamed of being part of this growing nation, of helping expand its frontiers.  He was only one man, of course, perhaps an insignificant one, but the nation would be built of individual dreams, and he was determined to see his fulfilled.

Ben felt a slight tug on his sleeve and heard a soft whisper.  “Pa?”

As Ben looked down at the small boy seeking his attention, he wondered if he would ever get used to that term of address.  Young Adam had picked it up from the simple people among whom they’d traveled, and it fell naturally from his lips.  But it still sounded strange to Ben.   He had always called his own father “sir,” and when he’d gone to sea, he’d simply transferred that title and the respect it implied to Captain Stoddard.  Somehow, though, Adam’s single soft syllable lay sweeter on Ben’s ear than that crisp, respectful “sir” could ever have sounded.

“Pa?” Adam whispered again.  “Pa, I don’t feel good.”

Alarm instantly registered in Ben’s velvet brown eyes, and he stooped at once to feel the child’s forehead.  “Why, son, you’ve got fever,” Ben said.  “Do you hurt anywhere?”

“Just my head, Pa,” Adam murmured, laying his aching temple against his father’s broad shoulder.

“Well, I think we’d best bed you down right now, son.”   Ben lifted the boy in his arms and carried him to the mattress covering the center of the wagon bed.  Pulling a faded quilt over the child, Ben sat beside him and smoothed a lock of hair, dark like his own, back from the small forehead.  Then his hand rested lightly, lovingly, against Adam’s cheek.

Anyone watching that tableau would have realized that this cherished boy was his father’s whole world, all Ben had left of the love he once shared with Elizabeth Stoddard.  Elizabeth, dear Elizabeth, who had died giving this precious gift to Ben.  His heart convulsed at the thought of her.  The wound, though five years old, had never really healed, and Ben doubted it ever would.  Still, he had Adam and his love for the boy eased the pain.  At times like this, though, when the fear of again losing someone he loved hovered near, the pain of Elizabeth’s passing seemed as fresh as yesterday.

It was at times like this, too, that Ben most regretted the lack of female influence in their lives.  It had been hard rearing Adam alone.  He’d had help in the beginning, of course.  He couldn’t possibly have cared for an infant alone.  Dear Mrs. Callahan——dear, gray-haired, grandmotherly Mrs. Callahan——how tenderly she had nurtured baby Adam.  She would have known how to nurse a sick child had she still been with them, but Ben and Adam had been alone two years now.

Thoughts of Mrs. Callahan brought back to Ben’s memory that day long ago when they had said good-bye to Captain Stoddard, Elizabeth’s father.  How hopefully Ben and Mrs. Callahan, with tiny Adam cradled in her arms, had started out on their great adventure, traveling west in a hired carriage.  But Ben soon learned how impractical such conveyance was.  His share in the New Bedford chandler’s shop he had partnered with Captain Stoddard had seemed vast when they started, but his resources melted like snow in the sun with the expense of travel.

Mrs. Callahan had stayed with him, even though their journey slowed to a walk, even though the West was his dream, not hers.  Her delight lay in caring for the little life entrusted to her.  Where didn’t matter.  She had even stayed loyally when Ben missed her first stipend.  He had found employment and quickly paid her, but from that point on Ben found himself stopping more and more frequently to earn money and making less and less progress west.

Eventually, a higher loyalty called Mrs. Callahan back to New England.  Word came of a sick sister, and Mrs. Callahan returned to nurse her just before Adam’s third birthday.  Since then, Ben and his son had traveled alone in a painfully slow advance toward his dream.  Sometimes Ben felt they would never reach their destination.  At other times, like tonight, the wind from the horizon whispered his name and he knew destiny awaited him in the West.

That destiny would have to be delayed again, though.  With his funds almost depleted and Adam ill, Ben desperately needed to find work.  Harvest had already ended, that fall of 1848, so his best hope for employment would be found in a town.  By his calculations they should reach Petersburg tomorrow afternoon.  As Ben lay down beside Adam, he closed his eyes and breathed a silent prayer for God’s provision there.

The day’s journey began later than usual the next morning.  Adam had been restless most of the night; and when he finally did fall into a heavy sleep, his father had no heart for waking him with the jolting of the wagon.  But now Ben found himself questioning the wisdom of that decision.  The boy seated beside him seemed unnaturally listless, and his father began to fear he might need medical attention.  How Ben would pay for it was an unanswerable question, though.  He had only a few coins left in his pocket and, what was a more urgent concern, nothing whatever edible in the wagon.  The two-hour delay in starting that morning began to take on increasing significance as the sun reached its zenith without disclosing Petersburg on the horizon.

When Adam made no complaint about his father’s failure to make a noonday stop, Ben didn’t know whether to feel relieved or more concerned than before.  Adam was by nature a good-humored, uncomplaining child, but by no means a reticent one.  Had he felt any desire for food, he would not have hesitated to ask for it.  The fact that the request had not come disturbed Ben and tied his own stomach in such a knot that he, too, had no appetite.

By mid-afternoon, though, Ben Cartwright was pulling his team to a stop next to Petersburg’s local tavern.  Ben tugged the patchwork quilt closer about Adam’s shoulders and stepped down from the wagon.  “Stay right here, son,” he instructed.  “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Ben hesitated just a moment before entering the Illinois House.  Then, squaring his shoulders, he grasped the door handle with resolve.  The tavern seemed unusually busy for so early in the day.  Men Ben’s age and younger, who should have been occupied with their daily labor, were instead gathered around a table, lifting tankards of ale as they took turns singing rousing verses of a song they seemed to be composing as they went.

Ben ignored them and headed straight for the bar, hat in hand.

The mustachioed bartender looked up and asked perfunctorily, “What’ll it be, stranger?  Whiskey or ale?”

“Nothing,” Ben replied, though a drink would have moistened his suddenly dry mouth.  “Like some information.”

“Information?” the bartender asked, looking perturbed at dispensing a free product.  “What kind of information?”

Though he felt like letting his face drag the floor to hide his desperation, Ben forced himself to look the man in the eyes.  “I was wondering where I could find some work.”

Instead of the bartender, a man seated at the table next to the bar answered.  “I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place, friend.”  His hand swept toward the singers at the table behind Ben.  “Lots of these local boys looking for work.”

In a glance Ben took in the quality of clothes the man was wearing:  royal blue jacket with black velvet collar and cuffs and a maroon vest over a frilled shirt with a light blue cravat tied in a stylish bow at the neck.  Obviously, a man of means, probably the proprietor of the tavern.

Next to such a man, Ben knew he must present a bedraggled appearance in his worn brown pants and tan corduroy vest, its ribs rubbed smooth in several places.  The fact that, in his concern for Adam, he had neglected to shave that morning probably made him look even more like a vagrant.  But once again his need made him swallow his pride.  “Do any kind of job,” Ben said, and though he hated to sound like a beggar, added, “I’ve got a sick boy out there.”

Though displaying no overt solicitude, the tavern owner seemed helpful.  “You might try that sawmill at the edge of town.  I’m afraid you won’t have much luck.”

It was only a thread of hope, but Ben grabbed it.  “Well, I’ll—I’ll try there.  Thanks.”

From the table of rowdy carousers came a loud voice.  “Hey, you!”

Ben turned to see a big blonde Swede toss a coin at him.  “Maybe that’ll help you get out of town, huh?” the man laughed.

The pride Ben had been willing to swallow before surged up in his throat.  But he didn’t want trouble.  Ignoring the scoffer, he moved toward the door.

“Hey!” the Swede called again.  “Isn’t that enough or would ten cents make you move faster, unh?”

One of the Swede’s older drinking companions hooted.  ‘Gunnar, you’re a bad judge of men.  You’re too extravagant.  You can tell by just looking at him that he’s only worth a nickel!”

Gunnar laughed.  “No, no, no, no.  Today I feel generous.  Here’s a dime, mister.  Come and get it.”

Slowly, Ben approached the man, but he paid no attention to the outstretched dime.  Instead, he grabbed the Swede, pulled him from his chair and threw him against the bar.  As Gunnar’s friend rose to join the fray, Ben decked him with a solid left to the jaw, the fighting skills he had perfected in rowdy seaports around the world making him more than equal to the contest.

The tavern owner rose from his chair.  “All right, hold it, all of you.”  No one struck another blow, but Ben maintained his fighting stance and kept his eyes sweeping the room in case anyone else decided to mix in.

The proprietor’s voice rose authoritatively.  “Gunnar, you and the rest quiet down or I’ll throw you out myself.”

The Swede picked himself off the floor and walked away, disgruntled, but reluctant to antagonize the owner of his favorite place of diversion.

Turning to Ben, the tavern owner ordered, “You——come here.”  Still keeping a careful eye on the table occupied by the Swede and his friends, Ben scooped his hat off the floor, where it had fallen during the scuffle, and moved toward the man.

“Well, you handled yourself pretty well.  I’d’ve cracked their heads together myself,” the well-dressed man said, obviously impressed by Ben’s prowess.  “I could use a man like you around here.  Do odd jobs, clean up, occasionally throw somebody out.  I’ll pay you a dollar a day and food.  How about it?”

Ben’s response was immediate.  “When do you want me to start?”

The man’s tone softened as he replied kindly, “That’s up to you.”

Realizing he would have to make some disposition of Adam first, Ben said simply, “I’ll be back.”

His employer’s voice stopped him as he started to leave.  “Oh, just a minute.  You can probably use this.”

Ben looked at the dollar bill being held out to him, his jaw and his fists tightening.  “I’ll be back,” he said once more, turned and walked away.

Outside, Ben stepped briskly to the wagon.  “How are you feeling now, Adam?”

“My head still hurts, Pa,” forthright Adam replied, “but I’m getting hungry.”

For the first time that day Ben’s expression brightened.  “Well, that’s a good sign,” he said cheerily.  “That shows you’re getting better.”

“Pa, are we gonna eat soon?” Adam asked, his voice as close to complaining as Ben had ever heard from his stoical five-year-old.

“Yeah, son, yeah,” Ben answered, his eyes scanning the street for the prospect of a meal.  His searching brown eyes lighted on a sign across the way, BORGSTROM’S EMPORIUM.  “Yeah, I’ll go get something to eat,” he promised.  “I’ll be right back.”

Ben put his hat on and walked purposefully toward the  general store.  Entering, he saw a neatly-coifed blonde woman in her early twenties handing a brown paper-wrapped package to a stout lady. Ben waited by the door until the transaction was finished.

As the other customer left, the storekeeper’s slender hands rested on her narrow waist.  Her pale blue eyes turned to Ben.  “Good afternoon.  Can I help you?” she said with a melodious Swedish accent.

“Yes, I—uh.”  Ben hesitated, unsure what he could afford.  “Some milk and bread,” he suggested tentatively.

Above a ruffled white blouse with a narrow red ribbon about the neck, the woman’s head tilted to look around the counter.  “You have a container for the milk?”

“No,” Ben said.

Though he had tried to disguise it, his concern must have shown, for the storekeeper’s voice became soothing, reassuring.  “Oh, it’s all right.  I’ll loan you one.”  She took a small round covered pail from the counter and turned toward the large metal can behind her.  She plunged a dipper into it and began to ladle creamy milk into the pail.  “I have not seen you before,” she said over her shoulder.  “You must be a stranger in town.”

“Yes,” Ben responded brusquely, instantly regretting the stiffness of his reply.  He hadn’t meant to give her a short answer, but he felt ashamed of his meager circumstances and, therefore, divulged as little as possible of his personal business to strangers.  He needed information, however, and this friendly woman seemed as likely a person as any to ask.  “Would you happen to know of a room that I could rent——cheap?  Where they don’t object to children?”

The woman’s face brightened as she continued to fill the milk pail.  “So, you have children?”

“A five-year-old boy,” Ben replied, that customary brusqueness edging his voice again before he could stop it.

But nothing seemed to dampen this woman’s congenial manner.  “And your wife, she is vith you?” she asked conversationally.

“No,” Ben said, his tone sharper than before at the reminder of Elizabeth.  “My boy and I are alone.”

The woman glanced over her shoulder, her face registering compassionate comprehension.  She had heard the tension in Ben’s voice and guessed correctly that this rather shabby-looking man and his son were truly alone, that the wife and mother of this family had not just been left at home, but laid to rest in some distant churchyard.

That understanding moved her habitually helpful heart, but she kept her demeanor business-like to spare her customer further embarrassment.  “Vell, there is a Mrs. Miller who runs a boardinghouse across the street.”  The storekeeper pressed the lid on the milk container and reached for a strip of brown paper in which to wrap the bread.  “It’s not very elegant,” she continued, “but it’s clean.  And I’m sure she won’t obyect to a boy of five.”

Worried about the cost of his purchase, Ben didn’t think to thank her for the information.  “Uh—how much——how much will that be?”

“Ten cents should do it,” the woman replied.  Her face softened again as she took the two five-cent pieces Ben handed her.  The careful way the stranger had picked through the coins he drew from his pocket told her his life’s savings were held in the palm of his hand.  Now she understood his touchiness.  In her business she had seen pride make men act unlike themselves before.

Ben took the pail and the package of bread.  He intended to leave, but the woman had been so gracious already he found the boldness to speak again.  “Would you—uh——would you have anything for a fever?”

The blue eyes registered immediate concern.  “Oh?  You are not feeling vell?”

“Oh, it’s not for me,” Ben said immediately, shaking his head to emphasize the words.

He had no opportunity to say more, for at that moment Adam came through the door.  “Pa?”

Ben instantly took on the visage of a strict parent.  “Adam, I told you to stay in the wagon,” he said, stepping toward him.  He took the boy’s arm and started to turn him around.  “Now, come along.”

“Pa, I’m not feeling so well,” Adam said, that uncharacteristic fretful whimper tugging at his voice again.

The stern expression dropped from Ben’s face, and a troubled hand reached for Adam’s burning cheek.

The storekeeper’s slender fingers rested on Adam’s forehead moments after Ben touched him.  “My goodness, child, your head feels varm,” she said as she knelt before him.  “Open your mouth; let me see your throat.”

Adam responded readily to the gentle touch and the soft command that accompanied it.  The woman peered into his mouth.  Looking up at Ben, she smiled, relieved.  “Oh, it is not bad——just a little on the pink side.  It is a thing of the throat children get.  Oh, vait a minute.  I have something for that.”  She stood, her slate blue skirt rustling as she stepped quickly into an alcove behind Ben.  She took a small gray crock off a low shelf and handed it to him.

“What is it?” Ben asked warily.

“Salt pork and onions.”  She smiled at the look on his weathered face.  “Don’t laugh; it’s an old Svedish remedy.  I’m sure it will help.  When you get to the boardinghouse, ask Mrs. Miller to heat it.”

She still hadn’t addressed Ben’s greatest concern.  “Well, how—how much will this be?” he asked, that telltale irritation edging his voice again.

The woman smiled.  “Nothing; it’s for the boy,” she said with a cheerful nod toward Adam.

Ben bristled.  “I don’t need charity.”

“I’m not offering you charity,” the storekeeper said, the buoyancy of her tone indicating no offense with Ben’s continued brusqueness.  “I’m offering you medicine for your boy because I happen to like children.”  She leaned around Ben to look at the boy.  “Good-bye, Adam.  I hope you feel better.”

Adam responded with the politeness he had been taught, rather than the poor demonstration his father was currently displaying.  “Thank you, ma’am.”  The woman laughed lightly, seeing in the son what the father must be like when worry was not gnawing holes in his heart.

Ben still felt awkward about taking the medicine without paying.  But the storekeeper’s attitude had been too matter-of-fact for him to argue against.  “Come on, Adam,” he said and steered the boy out the door.  Just before exiting himself, Ben turned.  Feeling he should express gratitude for the woman’s kindness, he held up the crock of salt pork and onions, but the words just wouldn’t come.  He turned away, his emotions swirling in confusion.

The storekeeper followed him out and stood on the porch watching him cross the street, his right arm gently pressing Adam’s shoulder against his hip.  She smiled as she lifted her hand to shade her eyes from the bright sun.  For all his bluntness, there was much love in that man’s heart, she decided.  How else could he care so deeply for a child?

As the winsome Swede watched the Cartwrights, the tavern owner walked up the steps and tipped his hat to her.  “Good afternoon, Inger.  How’s business?”

“Business is fine, thank you, Mr. McWhorter,” Inger Borgstrom replied absently, her hand still shading her eyes as she watched the stranger tenderly lift little Adam into their wagon.

“Oh, is it?” McWhorter asked.  “I thought it was a little slow.  The town’s not doing so well these days.”  Realizing he did not have Inger’s attention, he followed her line of vision.  “Oh, he’s just some drifter.  I gave him a job cleaning out the stable.”

Inger looked pleased as she folded her hands demurely in front of her.  “Oh.  Vell, let’s hope he does a good yob of it, then.”

Feeling they had spent enough time discussing trivialities, McWhorter turned to face Inger.  “Now, when am I going to get my answer?”

A perturbed pucker replaced Inger’s smile.  “I gave you your answer, Mr. McWhorter:  I’m not ready to get married yet.”

“Oh, come now, Inger,” McWhorter urged.  “You’re not going to keep me waiting forever, are you?”

A bemused twinkle flickered in the blue eyes.  “Vell, I’m sorry if you obyect to vaiting.”

McWhorter caught her amusement and responded lightly, “I don’t mind waiting for something I want.”

Inger’s voice still sounded cheerful, but there was a hint of displeasure in her words.  “You do believe in getting what you’re after, don’t you?”

“I always have,” McWhorter admitted with a self-assured cock of his head.  “At least, I have up to now.”

As her prospective suitor walked away, Inger shaded her eyes and looked again at the father and son entering Mrs. Miller’s boardinghouse.  Compared to the suave and prosperous Mr. McWhorter, the stranger with the dark stubble on his face looked ill-kempt and indigent.  Even so, Inger felt her heart stir toward him in a way it never had toward McWhorter, despite his persistent declarations of ardor.  She was glad the stranger had found work here and glad she owned a business he was likely to visit again.

Inside the boardinghouse across the street Ben slipped a nightshirt, once white with purple stripes, but now dingy and pale from many washings, over Adam’s head.  Then, sweeping the youngster up in his strong arms, Ben popped the boy into the small bed that had been placed near the foot of the larger one his father would occupy.  Ben broke chunks of bread into the bowl he had borrowed from Mrs. Miller and poured milk over it.  Adam eagerly accepted the spoon his father handed him and began to feed his famished belly.

Answering the knock on his door, Ben greeted Mrs. Miller.  She handed him a set of towels and asked if there were anything else he or the boy might need.

“As a matter of fact, yes,” Ben admitted, holding out the gray crock Miss Borgstrom had given him.  “I’d also be very grateful if you heated this up for him.”

Mrs. Miller’s figure may have suffered from too much enjoyment of her own cooking, but the sympathy she felt for the sick child beautified her plump face.  “The poor little boy.  Of course.  You can come down for it in just a few moments.”

Ben put on a cheerful face as he closed the door and turned to look at Adam.  “Well!  My goodness,” Ben said, giving his voice a sprightly lilt.  “You certainly didn’t waste any time finishing that up.”  He took the empty bowl from Adam and set it on the small table to the right of the boy’s bed.

Adam licked the last few crumbs of bread from his lips.  “I sure wish there’d been some jam with the bread.”

Ben looked sympathetic.  “Yeah.  Well, it filled the cavity,” he said with a comforting pat on Adam’s tummy, “and tomorrow we’ll have some real food, huh?”

Adam nodded trustingly.  “Sure, Pa.”

Ben stood and headed for the door.

“Pa?”

Ben turned.  “Yes, son.”

Little Adam looked worried.  “Pa, did you have anything to eat?”

Ben hadn’t, of course, but he didn’t want Adam to be concerned.  So he added a dash more cheer to his voice as he responded, “Oh.  I’ll—I’ll have something to eat later.  I’ll go downstairs and wait for that medicine.”

Adam shook his head and frowned.  “I sure wouldn’t like that medicine much.  But that lady who gave it to us, she was nice, wasn’t she?”

Ben nodded agreeably.  “Yeah.  Yeah, she was real nice.”  As he walked downstairs, he found himself smiling.  Miss Borgstrom truly was nice, as Adam had said, as nice a person as Ben had met in any of the myriad small towns he’d passed through on his way west.

After dosing Adam with the warm medicine and getting him settled Ben crossed the street and entered the Illinois House once more.  The tavern was nearly empty now, most of the revelers having left to partake of the evening meal.  Mr. McWhorter, however, was behind the bar.  Ben walked purposefully toward him.

McWhorter looked surprised.  “I didn’t expect you back tonight.”

Ben shrugged.  “I thought you might have something I could do to earn my supper.  Wouldn’t expect any cash for so short a day.”

McWhorter nodded.  “Fair enough. You can wash up those tankards, clear the tables and sweep up.  That ought to earn your supper for you.”

Ben nodded his appreciation, turned and began to clear the nearest table.  There was an energy in his movement that belied the stress and strain of the long day he’d had.  Ben felt as refreshed as though he’d spent the entire time lounging on a riverbank.  He had food and shelter for himself and Adam and a job to help him rebuild the nest egg for his dream.  It was all he’d hoped for when he’d prayed for provision the night before.  As he tackled the task of making the tavern shipshape, Ben breathed another prayer, this time one of thanksgiving.

CHAPTER TWO

 The following afternoon Inger Borgstrom came into the store from the stockroom, stopping in the doorway as she saw the tall blonde man rifling through the cash register.  “Again, Gunnar?” she asked in shocked anger.  “You are always emptying it, little brother, but you never help to fill it.”

Gunnar didn’t even look at her as he continued to pocket the contents of the cash drawer.  “I have the right.  Our father left the store to both of us.”

“And he expected both of us to run it,” Inger protested, “not one of us to vaste his time and money in McWhorter’s tavern.”

“Don’t tell me what to do,” Gunnar demanded.  “I’m not made out for a storekeeper.”

“What are you made for, Gunnar?” Inger asked, her voice troubled.  “To drink?  To play cards?  To spend your time with your friends talking of going off to the gold mines?”

Gunnar walked toward Inger.  “I’m old enough not to take orders from my sister.  I vill do as I vant.”

“Please, Gunnar.  You are vasting your life doing as you vant.”  The warmth in Inger’s voice this time came more from concern than anger.  “We could make a success of the store if you vould vork in it.”

“I vill not vork in it!  I told you I vas cut out for other things,” Gunnar snapped.  He saw his sister’s shoulders slump with discouragement, but his temper was out of control and sentiment could not stop his angry accusation.  “If you vould only marry McWhorter, I could sell the stupid store!”  Without a backward glance he stormed out.

Just as Inger had feared, Gunnar went directly to the Illinois House and joined the usual group of guzzling gripers.  While the idle young men dallied over a game of cards, the complaints were the same as the day before and the day before that and days and days and days before that.  The chief subject of the murmuring was the lack of opportunity for a young man in Petersburg, Illinois.  And the proffered solution was the same one suggested every day.

“The ground is rich with gold in California,” Gunnar’s most vocal companion said for perhaps the hundredth time, “and I’ve been hearing such tales it makes my very skin crawl and my hands itch for the feel of it.”

Gunnar grabbed a handful of coins off the table and held them under his friend’s nose.  “But you need money,” he pointed out impatiently.  “For gear, for grub.”

The other man waved Gunnar’s objections aside.  “The boys and I sold everything we have—to McWhorter.  We got all the money we need.”

“I don’t have any money,” Gunnar said bitterly.

“But you have a store!  Sell it, man; sell it.  McWhorter’ll buy it.”

From behind the bar McWhorter listened with interest, his eyes fixed on Gunnar’s face, for the Borgstrom Emporium was a business he had long coveted.  In fact, if the truth were told, his long courtship of Inger was as much a courtship of the business as of its proprietress.

Gunnar shrugged in disgust.  “It belongs half to my sister.”

“But it’s in your name, isn’t it?” his friend asked.

“Yah, yah, it’s all in my name,” Gunnar admitted.

“Then, that makes it yours,” the prospective gold miner declared vehemently.  “California’s no place for the soft-hearted, Gunnar.”

McWhorter decided the moment was ripe to add his influence.  “You boys talking about California again, as usual?”

“Not just talking about it, McWhorter,” Gunnar’s friend announced pridefully.  “We’ll all soon be on our way.”

“All but you, eh, Gunnar?” McWhorter egged.  “What about my offer?  That’ll get you there and beyond.”

“You know why I can’t sell you the store,” Gunnar said glumly just as Ben Cartwright entered from the back.  Carrying a crate of tankards, Ben went behind the bar to set them in order.

“Why not?” Gunnar’s friend demanded.  “Aren’t you man enough to handle your sister?”

Ben’s ears pricked up.  For the first time he made the connection between the soft-spoken lady he had met yesterday and the lumbering Swede who had taunted his poverty earlier.  Miss Borgstrom was unmarried, then.  For some reason Ben couldn’t quite fathom, that revelation pleased him.

Gunnar, though, was decidedly displeased by his friend’s accusation.  “I’m man enough, Brewster, and you know it.  It’s Inger; she’s as stubborn as my father vas.”

McWhorter laughed.  “All she needs is a husband!”

Brewster smirked.  “Wouldn’t you like to tame her, McWhorter?”

Ben glanced sharply over his shoulder and saw McWhorter acknowledge the remark with a half-smile.  It was none of Ben’s business, of course, but he felt troubled by McWhorter’s interest in Inger Borgstrom.  She deserved better.  McWhorter had treated Ben well enough, but there was a business hardness about him that Ben had seen in earlier employers.  He felt certain as giving a woman as Miss Borgstrom would not be happy married to such a man.

But Ben kept his opinions to himself as he finished his day’s work and headed back to the boardinghouse.  After all, he had more pressing concerns than Inger Borgstrom’s future.  He had a sick boy to see to.  Adam had seemed better when Ben checked on him at noon, but it had hurt to leave the ailing youngster alone.  Of course, Mrs. Miller had promised to look in on Adam, but she had work of her own to tend to.  Ben knew he couldn’t expect her to give his son the attention the boy really needed.

As Ben walked down the hall toward his room, he heard the strains of a familiar tune.  He stopped outside his door and tried to let the pain wash through him.  But anger followed in its wake, Ben’s concern for his son’s health drowned in the surge of emotion.  Adam knew better; he’d been told again and again to respect his father’s property.     Ben opened the door and stormed in.  He was somewhat taken aback by the presence of Adam’s visitor.  But even that did not dissipate Ben’s paternal ire.  Tossing his hat on the table by the door, Ben grabbed the music box from Adam’s hands and closed it quickly to shut out the painful music.

Inger Borgstrom looked up at Ben, her blue eyes registering surprise and concern.  “He asked me if he could play it.  I said it vas all right,” she explained in Adam’s defense.

“What are you doing here?” Ben asked abruptly.

Inger smiled.  “I’m giving your son his medicine.  I knew you’d be busy.”

Ben took the bowl from her.  “I can take care of my son,” he asserted stiffly.

Inger rose from her chair and began to tie the strings of her cloak.  “I’m sure you can, but not while you’re vorking all day.”

“Miss Borgstrom, I had to take your medicine” Ben snapped, still disgruntled by his need for that charity.  “That doesn’t mean I can’t handle my own affairs.”

Inger’s open face looked incredulous.  “But, Mr. Cartwright, why are you so against anyone helping you?”

Ben didn’t answer her.  Instead, he delivered the lecture he had intended when he first entered.  “Adam, I don’t ever want you to play this again.  Do you understand?”

Adam’s dark eyes showed his disappointment, but he answered his father with a wordless nod.

“He told me about the music box,” Inger said.  “Did it belong to his mother?”

“Yes, it did,” Ben said tersely as he sat in the chair by Adam’s bed that Inger had vacated.

“He’s better,” Inger said encouragingly.  “His throat is better; his fever seems less.  But I think he should continue vith the medicine.”

Ben stood, suddenly awkward.  “I—I was gonna come by the store, soon as I’d cleaned up a bit.  I don’t mean to be ungrateful.  It’s just—”

Inger tilted her blonde head to peer intently at Ben.  “You know, vithout that dirty beard, your face looks quite nice.  In fact, if you wore a smile on it sometimes, it might be quite an attractive face.”  She turned to go, then glanced back, her face merry.  “You know, I think you could use a good meal yourself, Mr. Cartwright.  As soon as Adam is asleep, come to my house for dinner.  It’s right next to the store.”

As the Swedish lady breezed out the door, Ben felt the corner of his mouth twitch in consternation at her persistent sunniness in the face of his surly rebuffs.

From the bed behind his father, Adam piped up.  “You know, Pa, she’s a real nice—”

“I know, son,” Ben interrupted with a smile as he spun around to face the boy.  “She’s a real nice lady.”  Ben laughed.  “Well, young fella, let’s finish up this medicine.”  He spooned some into Adam’s reluctantly obedient mouth and crooned, “There we are.”

A strange nervousness danced through Ben’s stomach as he carefully brushed his Sunday suit.  Like his everyday clothes, it had seen better days.  But it was the only good garment he had left from the wardrobe with which he’d left New Bedford.  Of course, Miss Borgstrom had only been extending the milk of human kindness when she invited him to dinner.  Nothing more.  But Ben wanted to look his best, for some reason wanted——no, needed——her to see him as something other than a ungrateful beggar.

Looping his necktie, Ben examined his reflection in the small mirror above the washstand and smiled in satisfaction.  Miss Borgstrom had said he’d have an attractive face if he wore a smile on it.  Though Ben was not a vain man, at this moment he had to agree.  Being dressed up made him feel attractive and renewed the self-confidence he’d always felt when commanding men aboard ship.  It had been a long time since he’d felt that way, though, a long time since he’d been anything but a menial worker. Tonight, though, he felt more like his true self than he had in years.  And it seemed important that Inger Borgstrom meet the real Ben Cartwright, not the shabby shadow of the man who had walked into her store yesterday.  Stopping only long enough to drop a farewell kiss on slumbering Adam’s forehead, Ben headed toward the Borgstrom home next to the store.

The house was small, but Ben couldn’t remember ever being in one as homey.  Though the furnishings were simple, there were traces everywhere of its mistress’s creative touch.  Hand-stitched curtains, pillows and table coverings in soothing shades of blue calmed Ben’s heart the way watching the blue of a clear sky reach down to stroke the sapphire sea had once done.  It had been years since Ben had spent an evening in a real home, and it made him feel——well, homesick——downright homesick for a home, Ben decided.

He smiled at Inger Borgstrom as she brought a fresh-baked pie to the table for dessert.  “The food is not much,” Inger apologized.

“Oh, it’s been very good,” Ben replied earnestly.  The meal may have seemed inadequate to his hostess, but it was a feast in Ben’s eyes.  Not to mention in his contented stomach.  He just hoped he’d have room for that delicious-looking pie.

“It’s been a hard year all through Illinois,” Inger said, still trying to explain the meager meal she had offered her guest.

“Not as hard as those farmers when it comes to paying their bills,” her brother Gunnar grumbled.  His scowling presence at the table had been the only detraction from what Ben considered a perfect evening.

“They vill pay their bills, Gunnar,” Inger asserted as she sliced the apple pie.  “They are honest people.”

“Honest people who vant everything on credit,” Gunnar growled.

“Please, Gunnar; ve have a guest.”  Inger handed Ben his slice of pie with a smile.

Ben returned the smile warmly.  “This looks wonderful,” he said enthusiastically, “and I do thank you for your hospitality.”

“Have you been a long time on the road?” Inger asked.

“Yes,” Ben admitted, “yes, we haven’t come too far in the amount of time it’s taken.  Four years to get from New England to Illinois.”

“Four years!” Inger looked shocked.  “But surely it should not take so long.”

Ben rested his fork on the edge of his dessert plate.  “Well, we weren’t on the move all the time.  We made quite a few stops.”  He cut off another bite of pie.  “You have to have funds to keep going,” he added with a short laugh.

“Yah,” Gunnar agreed bitterly.  “A man can go nowhere vithout money.”

Inger felt a quick change of subject was in order.  “You say you came from New England.  What did you do there?”

Ben settled back in his chair.  “I was a seaman most of my life.  I wound up a first mate.”  For the first time Gunnar showed an interest in their guest.  “When I married,” Ben continued, “I opened up a ship’s chandler’s shop.  Then when my wife died, my boy and I set out to build a new life.”

“Why didn’t you go back to sea?” Gunnar spat out in disgust.  “There’s a life for a man!”

With the confidence of a man who knows he’s made the right choice, Ben smiled in the face of his critic.  “It’s pretty hard to raise a boy when you’re off at sea most of the time.”  He turned to Inger’s more welcoming countenance.  “I’d always had a dream about the West.  It’s a new country; it’s big and I want to be part of it——to build, to grow things—”

Inger smiled.  It was the kind of dream she understood, the kind she had once shared with her father.

The same memory came to Gunnar’s mind, though he saw it from a different perspective.  “Yah, yah,” he muttered disdainfully.  “That vas just like my father.  He had a dream of a new land, too.  Where did it get him?  A dirty store on a prairie crossroads.  He vorked ‘til the sweat poured off him and all he had when he died vas that store.”

“But his dream of a new land; at least, he never gave that up,” Inger protested proudly.

“What do I care about a storekeeper’s dream?” Gunnar snarled.

Inger’s face burned with solemn anger.  “That is your sin, Gunnar,” she said gravely.  “It is a sin to not care.”

“Don’t tell me what’s a sin!  Don’t preach to me all the time!”  Gunnar stood, wiped his mouth and tossed his napkin onto the table.  “I’m sick of listening to you,” he snapped as he left the room abruptly.

Inger lowered her head, embarrassed.  “I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright.  This vas no vay to treat a guest.”

“It’s been a wonderful evening,” Ben said with such sincerity Inger knew he meant it.  “I haven’t enjoyed one like this for such a long time.  But I really should be going. I left Adam alone with Mrs. Miller.”  He patted his lips with his napkin and rose slowly, as if reluctant even now to end the “wonderful evening.”

Inger stood, too, smoothing her snowy apron over her soft blue shirtwaist.  “I—I hope——I hope ve vill be friends,” she said, struggling to find the words she wanted.

“Thank you,” Ben responded cordially.  “Good night, Miss Borgstrom.”

“Good night, Mr. Cartwright.”  Inger extended her hand.

Ben took it without a word.  But no words were needed.  The touch itself communicated mutual respect and honest affinity.  As Ben left, he found his thoughts remaining with the congenial Miss Borgstrom.  And the way her eyes followed his retreating figure suggested hers went with him.

CHAPTER THREE

             Sunday morning Ben dressed again in the brown suit he’d worn to dinner at the Borgstrom’s three days before.  As he settled his broad shoulders into the jacket, he whistled a lively tune until he saw Adam grinning at him.

“You sure sound happy, Pa,” Adam tittered.

“Well, I feel happy,” Ben replied with a lilt in his voice.  “Our board is paid for another week, and I still have thirty cents left to splurge on my boy.”

Adam’s dark eyes went wide.  “Thirty cents for me?”

“In one way or another,” Ben laughed.  “I’ll have to set some of it back for new shoes since you’ve nearly outgrown your old ones.  But I figure I could let you have a nickel to fritter any way you please.”

“Oh, boy!”  Adam stood on his bed and threw his arms around his father’s neck.  “Thanks, Pa.”

“Well, you’ve earned it,” Ben said with a proud pat on Adam’s head.  “You’ve stayed abed just as Pa asked, and I know it was hard for you.”

Adam bounced on his bed.  “Can I spend it today, Pa?  Can I, huh?”

Ben wrestled Adam back onto his pillow.  “No stores open on Sunday, silly.  But if your fever stays down, I might take you shopping tomorrow.”

“At Miss Inger’s store?”

Ben laughed.  “Miss Inger, is it?  You’ve become quite friendly with that lady, haven’t you, son?”

Adam nodded soberly.  “She’s a real nice—”

“A real nice lady.”  Ben shook his head, amused at Adam’s persistent praise of his new friend.  “You don’t have to keep telling me.  I think so, too.”  Ben reached down to muss Adam’s hair.  “You be a good boy while Pa’s at church, and I’ll spend the whole afternoon with you.  How’s that sound?”

“It’d sound better if you said I could go with you,” Adam said, his small lips forming a pout.

Ben sat down and took Adam’s hand.  “I know you’re tired of being cooped up, son, but I’d rather not chance taking you out today.  There’s such a brisk wind.  But I do have a special treat for you this afternoon.”

Adam sat up eagerly.  “Tell me, Pa.”

Ben’s brown eyes twinkled.  “Wouldn’t you rather be surprised?”

Adam shook his head in vehement denial.  “Tell me, Pa,” he insisted.

“Oh, all right,” Ben said indulgently.  “Mrs. Miller found some old storybooks that used to belong to her little boy.  How’d you like Pa to read you some new stories?”

“Oh, yeah!”  Adam glowed with anticipation, for there was nothing he liked as much as hearing his father’s deep cello-toned voice reading a story.  And a brand new one?  Yes, that was well worth spending one more day indoors.

Ben’s conversation with Adam made him a little late in arriving at the white frame church near the edge of town.  He slipped quietly into the back pew and turned to the hymn number being announced from the pulpit.  But if he had hoped to remain inconspicuous, that hope lost all chance of fulfillment the moment he opened his mouth.  His rich baritone harmony turned many heads in his direction as interested eyes peered from beneath stylish bonnets to locate its source.  Only one set interested Ben, a pair of lake blue eyes that demurely sought their owner’s hymnal after she gave him a welcoming smile.

Ben, too, turned his attention to the service.  But he had far more difficulty than usual in keeping his mind on the parson’s words.  It was a good thing Adam was not there to sense his father’s wandering mind, Ben admitted with chagrin.  One morning’s bad example might have undermined half a decade’s careful training.

After the final amen Ben waited outside until Inger Borgstrom came out.  Seeing Ben, she walked quickly toward him, extending her hand.  Ben closed his broad palm around her slender fingers.  “Might I walk you home, Miss Borgstrom?”“ he asked.  “Unless, of course, you’re with someone else.”

“I am alone,” Inger answered with a hint of sadness.  “Gunnar used to bring me, but it seems the more he thinks of gold fields, the less he thinks of God and other good things.”

Ben slipped his arm through Inger’s.  “I’ve heard Gunnar and his friends at the tavern talk about going west to find gold, and I must confess I’m confused.  I realize I’ve been traveling a lot and may have missed the news, but I don’t recall hearing of any gold found in California.’

Inger fell into step beside Ben as he led her down the street.  “Yah, there have been some reports, but I do not know how accurate they are.  One of Gunnar’s friends has relatives in Philadelphia.  Last month they sent him a clipping from a paper there that printed a report from a minister in Monterey.”

“A minister?”  Ben asked, incredulous.  “It’s hard to believe a true man of God would desert his high calling to grub in the earth for mere mammon.”

Inger waved a hand in protest.  “No, no, I do not say he did.  The article spoke of his seeing other men——farmers, lawyers, doctors, and, yes, even priests——leaving their true vork to serve this, this golden goddess.  And now it seems Gunnar means to vorship her, too.  It vould grieve Mama so.”

Ben gave his companion’s forearm a gentle squeeze.  “I think it grieves you, too, Miss Borgstrom.”

“Yah, it grieves me.  I fear for him, Mr. Cartwright.  The path he is choosing, it——it is so far from what our father dreamed of when ve came to America.”

“Every man has a right to his own dreams, Miss Borgstrom,” Ben said quietly.

Inger looked up sharply.  “Yah, that is true.  But I do not think Gunnar dreams at all.  Or if he does, they are but shallow, stagnant dreams——not like your dream of building, growing things.  But enough of such thoughts.  How is Adam?  I thought he might be vell enough to be out today.”

“You should know,” Ben said with a meaningful smile.  “You’ve seen almost as much of him as I have these last few days.”

Inger laughed.  “You did not mind my visiting him?”

“No, certainly not,” Ben said, “though I don’t wonder you questioned it, considering my rudeness on your first visit.  To answer your other question, Adam probably is well enough to be up and around.  But with the weather turning so cold, I thought one more day inside would be safer.”

Inger nodded as she drew her crocheted shawl tighter.  “Yah, that vas wise.  You are a good father, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Please call me Ben.”

“If you vill call me Inger,” the lady laughed.

“It would be a pleasure.”

As they reached the front porch of the Borgstrom residence, Inger turned to face Ben.  “Vould you like to come inside, Ben?  Dinner vill be ready soon.”

“Thank you, but I promised Adam I’d spend the afternoon with him.  We have so little time together.”

“Yah, it must be hard to go avay to vork and leave him alone,” Inger said, giving Ben’s shoulder a sympathetic touch.  “Perhaps you vould both enjoy an outing next Sunday, though.  Adam should be quite vell by then.  Vould you like to share a picnic lunch?”

“A picnic sounds delightful, and I’m sure Adam will find the prospect most exciting.”  Ben reached around Inger to open the door for her.  “We may see you tomorrow noon, as well.  Adam has a few pennies to spend.”

“Vell, ve vill try to make them stretch a long vay,” Inger laughed.

Ben stiffened.  “We don’t ask more than fair value for our money.  I told you before I don’t need charity.”

Inger’s blue eyes snapped.  “And I do not need you to tell me how to price my goods, Mr. Cartwright!”

Ben tipped his hat.  “Good day, Miss Borgstrom.”  Then he caught himself, realizing he didn’t want to part in anger.  “Good day, Inger,” he said more quietly.

Inger’s face relaxed.  “Good day, Ben.  If you tell me your favorite pie, I vill fix it for the picnic.”  Mischief sparkled in the clear blue eyes.  “Unless, of course, you think that is charity.”

Ben laughed.  “Perhaps I do need charity, Inger, if it comes in the shape of pie.  And I’m sure any variety you prepare will become my favorite.”

Young Adam considered that week one of the best of his life.  As promised, Pa spent Sunday afternoon reading a treasure trove of new stories.  Then Monday, they visited the store, where Adam’s nickel purchased a surprisingly full sack of gumdrops.  Pa had frowned a little at that, but Miss Inger had given him back a look that definitely said she was in charge of gumdrops and Adam’s father had better not argue about it.  Adam couldn’t help grinning when he remembered how quick Pa had backed down and let Miss Inger have her way.

The rest of the week passed quickly in anticipation of the promised picnic, and its fulfillment after church Sunday was marvelous beyond Adam’s dreams.  The food basket was stuffed with savory meat pies, potato salad and a wonderful deep-dish apple pie for dessert.  Afterwards, Pa pointed out a good spot and Adam settled down on a large rock to angle for catfish.  Pa usually fished with him when they had time for an afternoon together, but today he didn’t seem in the mood.  Glancing over his shoulder, Adam saw his father, head propped on one elbow, lounging on the tablecloth that had held their dinner.  Adam shook his head.  Pa must be real tired from his week’s work to just lie around like that staring at Miss Inger.  Well, then, it would be up to Adam to provide the fish for their supper.  Relishing the feeling of responsibility, the boy squared his shoulders and turned his attention back to his line.

Inger Borgstrom sat with her back against a tall oak on the banks of the SangamonRiver, her eyes brimming with content.  “The fox grapes are sweet,” she told Ben, lifting another one to her mouth.

Ben gazed dreamily at Inger in her blue, lace-bodiced Sunday best, her hair hanging down with a blue ribbon tied in back.  “Umm,” he crooned.  “Everything around here is sweet——the air——the water.”  He gave her a meaningful smile and added, “The company.”

Inger ducked her head modestly.  “You——you have a big spot of purple on your chin.”

Ben wiped his chin with one broad finger.  “All right?”

Inger nodded, then looked demurely away as she felt Ben’s eyes rest on her face.  “What are you looking at?”

Ben didn’t answer directly.  “There’s so many places I might have passed through on my way west.  I might have missed you.”

“Vell, I am a very large peasant voman, Ben,” Inger said, blushing.  “It vould be hard to miss me.”

“You’re a very beautiful peasant woman,” Ben said warmly.

“Ach, no,” Inger said, “My nose is too long and my hands are rough.”

“You’re fishing for compliments!” Ben accused, amusement twinkling in his eyes.

Inger laughed.  “I hope I do better vith those than vith the catfish.”  Ben had tried to show her how to bait a hook earlier, but Inger felt too much sympathy for the poor worms to skewer them successfully.

“Oh, you leave those to Adam,” Ben advised.  “He’s a pretty good fisherman.”

They both looked a short way down the riverbank to where Adam sat, pole in hand.  “He’s a fine boy, Ben,” Inger said.

“Yes.”  Ben’s eyes sparkled with pride as he watched his son.  “It was nice of you to ask us to share a picnic with you.”

“Vell, it’s Sunday, isn’t it?” Inger asserted.  “A man deserves a rest after a long veek’s vork.”  Her work week had been just as long, Ben knew, but that didn’t seem important to this generous-spirited woman.

She looked at the river flowing to her left.  “Ve have a river in Sveden like the Sangamon——cold from the snows on the mountains.  When ve were children, my brother Gunnar and I used to run along the bank picking strawberries, eating them until ve were sick.”  Inger laughed nostalgically.

“You have a head full of happy memories, haven’t you?”

Inger nodded quietly, a soft smile on her lips.  “And you?”

Ben shrugged.  “Some good, some bad.”  He rubbed his hand across the tablecloth beneath him.

“You——you loved your wife very much, didn’t you?” Inger asked, broaching the subject tentatively.

Ben’s demeanor was instantly more sober.  “Yes, I loved her very much.”

In the quiet that followed Ben’s hushed response another voice was heard.  “Inger!  Inger!”  Ben stood to his feet as he saw Inger’s brother Gunnar stalking toward them.

“Ah, here you are,” Gunnar sputtered accusingly.  “I’ve been looking all around for you.”

“Why?  Is there anything wrong?” Inger asked.

Gunnar didn’t answer; instead, he gave an order.  “Get back to town right away!”

“But it is Sunday,” Inger protested.  “The store is closed.”

“Mr. McWhorter came around in his new carriage asking for you,” Gunnar announced.

Inger stiffened.  “I did not tell Mr. McWhorter I vould go riding vith him,” she said brusquely.

“Nah,” Gunnar snapped.  “But you go off on a picnic vith a penniless drifter.”

“Gunnar!” Inger exclaimed, shocked by his rudeness.

“Gunnar, wait a minute,” Ben said.

“You stay out of this!” Gunnar snarled.

“I’m trying to tell you there’s nothing to be angry about,” Ben explained.

“I tell you something!  You stay avay from my sister!”

“Gunnar, you are my brother, not my father,” Inger declared, a hint of banked fire in her words.

“You be quiet!” Gunnar demanded.  “I do what is best for you.”

“You do not run my life,” Inger reminded him.

“Get back to town!”  Turning abruptly, Gunnar stormed away with long steps.

Inger turned to Ben, sorrow and shame in her eyes.  “Oh, Ben, I am sorry.  He is young and unhappy.”

“And very angry——with me,” Ben said soberly as he sat once more on the ground at the feet of the gentle Swedish woman.

They said very little to each other after that.  Adam came running up shortly with a string of catfish, and for his sake they tried to keep up the illusion of light-hearted fun.  But the charm of their happy afternoon had been spoiled by the intrusion of conflict.  They fried and ate the catfish with only perfunctory words passing between them.

Even Adam seemed unusually silent, as if he sensed the troubled thoughts of his father and his friend.  But for him, at least, the magic of their adventure had not been tarnished.  He fell asleep that night dreaming of picnics to come.

* * * * *

Ben was at work behind the bar of the Illinois House when Gunnar Borgstrom, disgruntled eyes raking the floor, shuffled in.  Ben started to pour Gunnar’s customary shot glass of whiskey, but Mr. McWhorter came behind the bar and took the glass from Ben’s hand.  “I’ll serve Mr. Borgstrom,” McWhorter said.  “We’re running low on ale.  Bring another keg in from the back, Cartwright.”

“Right away, sir,” Ben replied, leaving immediately and, if the truth were told, eagerly.  After Gunnar’s sharp words yesterday Ben did not want to risk another angry confrontation.

McWhorter drew himself a tankard of ale and carried it and Gunnar’s drink to the Swede’s table.  “Hello, Gunnar,” he said pleasantly, drawing up a chair.  “Did you tell your sister I was looking for her yesterday?”

“Yah, I tell her,” Gunnar mumbled.

McWhorter leaned forward eagerly.  “Well, come on, man; tell me.  What did she say?”

Gunnar shook his head.  “My sister is a stubborn voman, Mr. McWhorter.”

“You’re the man in the house, aren’t you?” McWhorter goaded.  “Since your father’s gone, it’s your job to see that things go right for your sister.”

Gunnar nodded.  “Yah, I vant them to go right for her.  It vas our father’s vish that I vatch out for her.”

“Watch out for her?” McWhorter scoffed.  “How?  By seeing her waste away in that store across the street?”

Gunnar’s eyes narrowed.  “Mr. McWhorter, if I sell you the store and Inger still doesn’t marry you, what happens to her then?”

“Not marry me?”  McWhorter almost laughed.  “Why, I’ve got everything in the world to give her——richest man in the county.  Help you, too.”

“Me?” Gunnar snorted.  “I don’t need help.”

“It takes money to go to the gold fields, Gunnar——lots of it,” McWhorter said pointedly.  “Now, I could help a brother-in-law, give him all the money he needs.  Tell her, Gunnar.  Tell her how good I’d be for the both of you.”

Ben entered from the back carrying the requested keg of ale under his left arm.  As he went around the bar and began to dry the tankards he had been washing earlier, Gunnar leaned close to McWhorter.  “You’d be better off vithout that stranger around,” he whispered.

“Stranger?” McWhorter asked.

“That man you have vorking for you,” Gunnar responded with a significant glance toward the bar.  “My sister vent on a picnic vith him yesterday.”

“With Cartwright?”

Gunnar nodded.  “She’s seeing him.  And I think she likes him.”

McWhorter rose at once and approached the bar.  “Cartwright, I want to talk to you.”

Ben turned.  “Yes, Mr. McWhorter?”

“It’s about Inger Borgstrom.”

Ben’s gaze grew wary.  “Yes?”

“I’m going to marry her,” McWhorter announced with as much conviction as if the invitations had already been engraved and sent.

“I didn’t know,” Ben said sharply.  “She didn’t tell me anything about that.”

“I don’t want some shiftless drifter hanging around her,” McWhorter demanded.

Ben bristled.  “When Miss Borgstrom tells me that—”

“Well, I’m telling you,” McWhorter stated flatly.  “And here’s something else I’m telling you:  there’s no place in this town for you!”

Ben took a final swipe at the tankard he was holding.  “Does that mean I’m fired?”

“That’s exactly what it means,” McWhorter declared, spun on his heels and left abruptly.

Ben stood dazed for a moment.  Gunnar got up and sauntered over to him.  Tossing a dime on top of the bar, Gunnar grinned smugly.  “Here, drifter.  Maybe you’re not too proud to take that now!”  With a roaring laugh, he left for home.

In a somber mood Ben untied the black apron around his waist, dropped it on the bar and headed for the boardinghouse.  He had no idea where he’d go beyond that, though.  Much as he hated the term “drifter,” Ben found himself wondering if that didn’t describe his destiny far better than his cherished dream of settling in the West.

Adam was disappointed when Ben told him it was time to load the wagon and leave Petersburg.  He liked this town.  He hadn’t had time to make friends his own age, but then he rarely did.  He had, however, made a new friend in Miss Inger, and the thought that they’d never share another picnic saddened him.  He didn’t share his feelings with his father, however.  It was obvious Pa had feelings of his own——dark ones that Adam was wiser not prying into.  Adam didn’t have to ask if Pa had lost his job; his father was acting just the way he had the other times that had happened.  Adam knew without asking, so he quietly packed away his own feelings along with his shirts and pants and helped Pa carry their belongings to the wagon.

Adam climbed in to arrange the bundles Pa handed him.  They had almost stowed away all their meager possessions when Adam saw Miss Inger running across the street and heard her calling his father’s name.

“Ben!  Ben, I vant to talk vith you,” Inger called urgently.  But Ben didn’t respond; he turned silently and headed back inside to finish packing.  “Ben Cartwright!” Inger called more loudly.  “The least you can do is listen to me.”

Ben turned at the door of the boardinghouse.  “Why?” he demanded.  “So you can tell me you’re going to marry McWhorter?”  Abruptly, he turned his back and went inside.

Inger followed him.  “Marry McWhorter?  Who told you that ridiculous story?”

Ben faced Inger again, sparks flashing in his brown eyes.  “McWhorter did,” he said bluntly.  “Just before he fired me.”

“And you believed him?”  Inger’s voice was sharp with anger.

“Why shouldn’t I?” Ben snapped and walked swiftly to his room.

But Inger was close on his heels, entering the small room without invitation.  “Is—is that why you’re moving again?”  When Ben made no response, Inger’s tone grew hotter.  “Did you hear me, Ben?”

Ben hastily folded his remaining clothes.  “There’s nothing for me in this town.  There’s no future here.”  One by one he thrust the clothes into his carpetbag, so carelessly it made his previous folding pointless.

Inger clasped her arms tight against her body.  “So, what vill you do——go glowering through the vorld the rest of your life?” she asked with a hint of sarcasm in her tone.  “What becomes of Adam?”

That remark burned Ben’s pride.  “He’ll be all right; I’ll take care of him.”

“Can you?” Inger asked more gently.  “Ben, listen to me.  How much longer can you go on drifting this way, running avay from your memory of Elizabeth?”

Ben’s face tightened.  Was there no subject so private this exasperating woman would not intrude upon it?  “She has nothing to do with it,” Ben said tautly.

“She dwells over your head like a cloud,” Inger accused with barely concealed bitterness.  “She’s in your voice, in your heart.  Vell, she’s dead, Ben,” Inger added with grim force.  “You can’t carry her vith you for the rest of your life!”

“It’s my life,” Ben snapped.  “It’s my business!”

Inger’s hands came together in a gesture of entreaty.  “I—I have a better answer than that——a simple solution.  You could come to vork for me in the store.”  The heat returned to her voice. “If your stubborn pride vould let you!”

“I don’t need your help,” Ben declared.  “I don’t need any woman’s help.  I’m man enough to stand on my own two feet.”

“I—I’ll tell you what I think, Ben Cartwright,” Inger stuttered, finally losing her precarious hold on her emotions.  “I think you left your manhood behind vith your dead wife!”  Breaking into sobs, she ran from the room, almost stumbling into Adam as he came in to see what was keeping Pa so long.

Adam stopped in the doorway.  “Pa, why did she run away?”

“I don’t know, son,” Ben said absently.  Then, his head lifted in sudden comprehension.  He laid one hand on Adam’s shoulder.  “No, I—I do know,” he said as he moved past Adam.

“Inger——Inger, wait,” Ben called from the porch of the boardinghouse.

Arms held stiffly to her side, Inger stopped by the oak tree that grew in the middle of Petersburg’s dusty main street, but she wouldn’t face Ben.

“Inger, I’d like to talk with you,” Ben said as he caught up with her.

“Talk?” Inger muttered, pain in her voice.  “What good vill talking do?”  She took a step away.

Ben grasped her elbow.  “Inger, I—I want to do as you suggest.  I’ll work in the store.”

Inger’s blue eyes lighted like sunshine on an alpine lake as she turned to look at Ben.  “Oh, Ben, that’s vonderful!”

“Inger, I—I’m not a rich man,” Ben began tentatively.  “I have a young son.”  As Inger nodded, Ben continued, encouraged by her attention.  “But I do have a dream, a big dream——if only I could ask you to share it with me—”

Inger’s face grew brighter.  “Ask me, Ben; ask me!”

“Inger, I, Inger—” Ben broke off, unable to put his desire into words.

But Inger had read his heart and responded eagerly.  “Yes, Ben, I vill marry you!”

Ben gathered his future bride in his arms and kissed her lips firmly.

“Oh, Ben,” Inger protested demurely.  “What vill people say?  What vill they think?”

Ben almost shouted his joyous response.  “Well, people will say that Miss Inger Borgstrom is going to marry Mr. Benjamin Cartwright!”  He pulled Inger close and kissed her again.

Across the street McWhorter watched through eyes as hard as cast iron while Ben lifted Inger from her feet, swung her around with frolicsome energy, then walked with her to Borgstrom’s Emporium.

Inside the store Ben assumed a business-like attitude.  “Well, Miss Borgstrom, where do I start?”

Inger laughed.  “Not here, not today.  Or have you forgotten you have a vagon to unpack?”

Ben chuckled.  “You know, I had.  I’m afraid I also forgot my young son, who must be thoroughly confused by now.”

Inger looked shyly into Ben’s face.  “You vill tell him about us?”

Ben took both of Inger’s hands and pressed them warmly.  “I’m sure he’ll be as happy as I am.  I think he fell in love with you even before his father did.”  Ben shook his head in amusement.  “Though how that could be, I can’t imagine, since I’ve surely been falling in love with you since that first day we met across this counter.”

“And I vith you,” Inger said with a smile.  “You should spend this afternoon vith Adam.  Then, if he is happy about our news, perhaps ve can all celebrate vith dinner at my place, yah?”

“Yes, Inger, my love,” Ben said, savoring the endearment he had not used with anyone for better than five years.

Inger stifled a giggle behind her fingers as she glanced out the front window.  “I think maybe you’d better go now, Ben.”

Ben leaned around her to peer out the window and laughed out loud at the sight of young Adam tugging his father’s carpetbag down the steps of the boardinghouse.  “Yes, it looks like I’d better.  Can you handle catfish two days running?”

Inger nodded.  “So long as I share them vith you.  If I could have the fish by 5:30, it vould be good.”

Ben bent to kiss her hand gallantly.  “Your wish is my command, my lady.”

Inger pushed him toward the door.  “Hurry, Ben, or Adam vill drive avay vithout you.”

As instructed, Ben hurried across the street and scooped Adam, carpetbag and all, into his arms.

“I finished packing, Pa,” Adam said proudly.

“So I see,” Ben chuckled, “but I’m afraid Pa’s put you to a lot of trouble for nothing, son.”         Adam cocked his head quizzically at Ben, who laughed and explained, “We’re just going to have to unload this wagon again.”

“Aren’t we leavin’, Pa?” Adam asked.

Ben shook his head with vigor.  “No, sir.  We’re going to stay right here in Petersburg.  How does that sound?”

Adam beamed.  “It sounds great, Pa!”  Then his small face grew sober.  “Did Mr. McWhorter give you back your job, Pa?”

Ben gave his son a sudden, appraising look, amazed the boy had realized why they were leaving town.  What a discerning child his little Adam was!  “No, son,” he answered quietly.  “Pa isn’t going to work for Mr. McWhorter anymore.  I’ve found a better job——with a real nice lady.”

“Miss Inger?” Adam asked excitedly.

“That’s right, and I don’t start ‘til tomorrow, so just as soon as we’ve unloaded our wagon, you and I are going to spend another day down by the river fishing.”

“Oh, boy!” Adam yelped.  “Let me down, Pa, and I’ll get our stuff back inside quick as a wink.”  Ben complied, and let Adam drag the large carpetbag up the steps while he gathered another load of their belongings.

In an unbelievably short time Ben and Adam sat perched on the bank of the SangamonRiver.  Only Adam was actually fishing.  Ben took greater pleasure in simply holding Adam between his legs and stroking the straight black hair so like his own.  He spent the first hour just enjoying his son’s company and searching his heart for the right words.  Finally, he gave Adam’s cheek a pat.  “Son, Pa has something important to talk to you about.”

Adam lifted his eyes to his father’s face.  “Yeah, Pa?”

“Well, Adam,” Ben began, “you and I have been making our way west a long time now, just the two of us.  And that’s been real good.  Pa couldn’t ask for a better partner than his little son.  But I wondered how you’d feel about someone else sharing that dream with us.”

“What you mean, Pa?”

Ben struggled for just the right answer.  “Well, son, you know how dear your mother was to me.  I never figured I could love another woman as much as that.  Now, I don’t mean I love your mother any less, but I know now there is room in my heart for someone else, too——someone to be a wife to me and a mother to you.  But I’d like to know how you feel.”

Adam was clearly caught off guard, but he had no fear of answering his father candidly.  “I don’t know, Pa.  I guess it’d depend on if I liked the lady, too.”

Ben smiled.  “You like the lady very much, unless I read you wrong.  Adam, I—I’ve asked Miss Inger to be my wife.  How does that set with you?”

Adam smiled broadly.  “Miss Inger?  That sets just fine, Pa!  She’s ’bout the nicest lady I ever knew.”

Ben gave Adam a tight squeeze.  “I told her I thought you’d be pleased.”

Adam’s face scrunched thoughtfully.  “And she’ll be my mother now?”

Ben nodded.  “Technically, Adam, she’ll be your stepmother, but I think she’d be real pleased if you’d call her Mama.”

Adam tested the sound of the new term.  “Mama.  I’d like that, too, Pa.  You don’t think my own mother’d mind, do you?”

Ben kissed the boy’s cheek tenderly.  “Not for a minute.  You never knew your mother, son, but I know she’d be glad you had someone to love you the way she would have if she’d lived.  Never doubt that, son.”

Adam snuggled close to Ben’s chest.  “I won’t, Pa; I promise.”

Ben tousled the boy’s hair.  “Good.  Now, you’d better get to work on those catfish if we’re going to have enough for supper with your new mama-to-be.”

Adam nodded seriously.  “Maybe you better cut a pole and help, Pa.”

Ben laughed.  “Maybe you’re right!” he said as he stood to follow Adam’s suggestion.

After supper that evening Ben helped Inger with the dishes, then drew her into his arms for a long kiss.  “Come rest yourself,” Inger suggested, taking Ben’s hand and leading him to a large armchair by the fire.  “You’ve had a hard day.”

Ben laid his palm against Inger’s smooth cheek.  “I’ve forgotten the hard parts.  I only remember the love I found today.”

As Inger blushed and glanced away, her eyes fell on Adam, curled up on the sofa.  Smiling, she pulled away from Ben and laid a crocheted afghan over the slumbering boy.  She turned to find Ben watching her with eyes full of affection.  “Come here, little mother,” he ordered, patting his knee.  “Rest yourself.  You’ve done more work than I have today.”

Inger laughed.  “It won’t be so tomorrow, Mr. Cartwright.  I have much vork planned for you.”

Ben drew her into his lap and pecked behind her ear with his lips.  “I’ll try to keep my mind on business then, ma’am, but let’s not talk of work now.”

Inger laid her blonde head on Ben’s broad shoulder and sighed contentedly.  “No, let’s talk of other things.”

“Such as?” Ben asked with a quizzical lift of his eyebrow.

Inger’s blue eyes twinkled impishly.  “The date of our vedding, perhaps.  I vould like it to be very soon, my love.”

Ben’s face sobered.  “Not too soon, I’m afraid, Inger.  I have small resources for supporting a wife.”

Inger sat up.  “But the store vill provide us a living.  I am a frugal voman, Ben; I can get by vith very little.”

Ben shook his head.  “It’s not right, Inger, for you to support me.  That’s the husband’s responsibility.”

“But ve vould be vorking together,” Inger protested, “not one for the other.  What is wrong vith that?”

“Nothing, my love,” Ben replied.  “Working together is part of marriage, but not when your contribution would so far outweigh mine.  Besides, the store is half Gunnar’s, and I don’t stand high in his eyes.  We don’t know yet that he’ll accept me as a hired hand, but I’m certain he couldn’t accept me as a partner.”

Inger rubbed the worn ribs of Ben’s corduroy vest.  “Gunnar does not care what I do vith the store.  And if he vill not help me himself, how can he question whom I hire?”

Ben took her hand.  “Let’s leave it at that for now, shall we?  I really want to build us enough of a nest egg before we marry that we can head west for our honeymoon.  Indulge my man’s pride that much, please, Inger.”

Inger snuggled against his neck.  “All right, Benyamin, ve vill vait.  But please, not past spring.  I vould like to marry by spring.”

“By spring,” Ben promised, “pride or no pride.”  He pulled Inger close and sealed the promise with another kiss.

CHAPTER FOUR

             Ben stood on the front porch of Borgstrom’s Emporium and took a deep breath.  The November wind was cold, but Ben found the fresh air refreshing.  He was tired, for it had been a hectic day.  Saturdays always were, of course.  Farm families for miles around made their weekly trip to town, so the store was always extra busy that day.  But if Ben found few minutes to relax during business hours, there was at least one redeeming factor.  With a long trip home ahead of them, most of the farmers finished their business by mid-afternoon, so the store could be closed earlier than usual, too.  And in the three weeks Ben had worked here, Saturday had always meant an invitation to dinner with his betrothed.  Ben chuckled.  The last two weeks he hadn’t even had to wait for Saturday for that delight:  he and Adam had shared so many meals with the Borgstroms that Mrs. Miller had refused to accept full payment for their room and board.

Ben lifted the bushel basket of apples he had set on the porch that morning to whet the appetites of passersby.  Carrying it inside, he set it down and turned toward the counter.

Tying on her blue-gray cape, Inger came from the back room.  “There are no more customers, so I’m going home to fix dinner,” she said.  “Vould you pick Adam up at Mrs. Miller’s?”

Ben took Inger by the elbows, pulling her toward him,  and acquiesced readily.  “Yes, I will, and I’ll bring him along with me.”

“Hurry, I’m an impatient voman.”  Inger gave Ben a light kiss and started to leave.  Then she turned, remembering something she had meant to say earlier.  “Oh, Ben, vould you mind very much seeing if Gunnar vould come to supper?  He has not eaten vith us for days.”

Ben’s brown eyes clouded.  “Inger do you think Gunnar resents Adam and me eating with you all the time?  I think he resents me working here.  And I know he resents my loving you.”

Inger’s face was troubled, as it always seemed to be lately when anyone mentioned headstrong Gunnar.  “Don’t be angry vith him, Ben.  He is my brother, and I do love him, even though he is young and sulks.”

Ben smiled, more to lessen Inger’s concern than from any decrease of his own.  “Well, all right, I’ll try to bring him along.”

Inger touched his shoulder imploringly.  “Oh, but do not have an argument vith him if he does not vant to come.”

Ben made his tone light and cheerful.  “Why, I’ll be as gentle as a lamb,” he quipped.

Inger laughed, kissed him again and stroked his smooth face in farewell.  Stepping outside, she pulled the ruffled hood of her cape over her head and started toward home.

Ben spread a dish towel over the eggs and cheese on the counter, then untied his apron and locked up.  Not wanting to expose Adam to a potential argument with Gunnar, Ben strolled down the street to the Illinois House first.  He knew he would find Gunnar there, for the young man spent most of his time in the drinking establishment these days.  More than once Ben had seen the big Swede taking money from the store’s till to squander at McWhorter’s tavern, but as a mere employee, he felt he had no right to object.  He was tired of seeing Inger hurt, though, as she inevitably was every time Gunnar staggered home drunk.

When Ben walked in, he saw Gunnar seated at a table with Mr. McWhorter.  Ben still felt awkward around his former employer, even though he knew the fault for his dismissal had not been his own.  But his promise to Inger demanded he put personal feelings aside and concentrate on conciliating her brother.  “Gunnar,” Ben began, ignoring McWhorter.  “Say, you look like you could use a good meal.  Why don’t you come along home with me?”

“I’m not going home,” Gunnar groused.  “Stay avay from me, drifter.”

Ben quickly realized his light-hearted approach was futile.  “Well, your sister’s kind of worried about you,” he said more quietly, his own face reflecting Inger’s concern.  “She’d like you especially to come home tonight.”

“I told you I’m not going home,” Gunnar slurred.  “I’m going to the gold fields.”

“Well, of course, you’re going to the gold fields, Gunnar,” Ben agreed, reasoning with the big Swede the way he might have with little Adam, “but you’re not going tonight.”

McWhorter looked up at Ben.  “He’s telling the truth, Cartwright.”

“And I have the money, too,” Gunnar boasted.

“We just made a business deal,” McWhorter explained, rising and moving toward the bar.

“That’s right——a business deal!” Gunnar smirked at Ben.  “I sold him the store.”

Righteous indignation flamed within Ben.  “You what?” he demanded.  “You had no right!”

“He had every right,” McWhorter declared.  “His father left the deed in his name.  I kept it in my safe.  Now I own the shop.”

Ben ignored McWhorter.  “You did this to your sister?” Ben demanded of Gunnar.  “How could you?”

“She’ll get half the money, too,” Gunnar rationalized.

Ben leaned on the table to stare directly into Gunnar’s shifting blue eyes.  “For years your sister supports you and you do this!”

Ben’s tone reminded Gunnar of the one his sister used when admonishing him.  And Gunnar reacted to Ben with the same vehemence he ordinarily used toward Inger.  “Don’t preach to me!  Leave me alone!”

“You give him back that money and get back the deed,” Ben ordered through gritted teeth.

McWhorter’s lip curled on one side.  “Maybe without the store he won’t be so anxious to marry your sister, eh, Gunnar?”

“McWhorter, you’re right!” Gunnar shouted, the liquor he had consumed talking louder than the man.  “You don’t want my sister; you just want the store,” he accused, taking a swing at Ben.

Ben tried to hold Gunnar at arms’ length.  “Gunnar——Gunnar!” he protested.  When Gunnar continued to lunge wildly at him, Ben struck one blow to the younger man’s jaw.

Gunnar collapsed, unconscious.  Ben knelt swiftly beside him, slapping Gunnar’s cheeks in an attempt to rouse him.

“The boy’s had too much to drink,” McWhorter said analytically.

Ben looked worried.  “I’d better take him home,” he said reluctantly, dreading the look on Inger’s face when she saw her brother.

McWhorter shook his head.  “Not in that condition.  You go ahead.  I’ll take care of him.”

Still thinking of Inger, Ben nodded.  “Yeah, maybe you’re right.”  With one last look of concern at the sprawled figure of his future brother-in-law, Ben left to pick up Adam.

Ben had dreaded Inger’s reaction to the news of Gunnar’s treachery, but her actual response was unfathomable to him.  While he walked beside her, matching her step for step as she carried dishes from the cupboard by the fireplace to the dining table across the room, he gave an agitated description of the altercation in the tavern.  Instead of becoming upset, Inger nodded at him, smiling happily.

Smiling?  No, a perplexed Ben realized, the woman was doing more than that; she was giggling with outright girlish delight.  “You don’t seem to understand,” Ben said firmly.  “I said Gunnar sold the store.”

Inger laughed and nodded once again.

“Well, how can you find that funny?” Ben demanded.

Inger arranged the utensils by each plate.  “Oh, Ben, don’t you see?  In a vay, it is.”  She stopped and looked directly into his eyes.  “Ever since ve decided to get married, I have been trying to get up the courage to do as Gunnar vanted and sell the store.”  She laid an earnest hand on Ben’s arm.  “Ben, now ve can go west; ve can find that dream of yours; ve can build what you alvays vanted.”

The enormity of what she was proposing shocked Ben.  “But—but you mustn’t do this for me!” he protested.  “How could I build anything on your sacrifice?”

“Sacrifice?” Inger’s clear eyes were wide with astonishment.  “To have found a purpose, a place in life vith you?”

Having no answer, Ben took her hand tenderly.  “You’re—you’re so—”  Words failed him.  “Inger, I—I know how you feel about Gunnar,” he began again.

The soft touch of Inger’s hand on his lips stopped his words again.  “Ben, I love you,” Inger said plainly.  “You are my life now.  It is time for Gunnar to make his own vay.”  Her fingers stroked his smooth cheek.  “Oh, don’t you see, my love?  This is the vay it should be.”

Eyes swimming with emotion, Ben took Inger in his arms and started to kiss her.  Before their lips met, however, a knock on the door interrupted them.  Inger smiled softly, smoothed her blue dress and went to answer the door.  She was surprised by the identity of her caller.  “Oh, doctor, come in,” she said politely.  “What is it?”

The doctor’s expression was grave.  “I have your brother here, Miss Borgstrom.  I’m afraid he’s badly hurt.”  He stepped aside so two men could carry in her unconscious brother.

“Bring him in the bedroom——quickly,” Inger said, her voice trembling.  As she led them, she passed the sofa where Adam sat drawing on a tablet.  The youngster looked up, disturbed by the sight of Gunnar’s puffy face.

The two men quickly exited, leaving Inger and the doctor alone with Gunnar.  “How badly is he hurt?” Ben asked one of them as they passed him.

The man glared at Ben with accusative eyes.  “You should know, Cartwright.”  Ben was too stunned to ask anything more before the men left.

With troubled black eyes, Adam looked up at his father, who walked over to the fireplace and leaned against the mantel.  The boy felt all kinds of questions tugging at his brain, but with his usual perception he realized this was no time to bother Pa with a little boy’s questions.  Pa was upset.  Miss Inger, too.  The man he’d just started to call Uncle Gunnar was hurt, and the men who had just left acted like Pa was the one who had hurt him.  That just couldn’t be.  Or could it?  Looking at his father, Adam wondered ’cause Pa looked like he was wondering, too.

Adam glanced down at the picture he’d been drawing, a picture of a big house with three smiling people inside.  But the smile had vanished from the original of the child in the drawing.  He closed the tablet and set aside the fairy tale ending he’d been imagining.  It didn’t look like there’d be a “happily ever after” for him and Pa and Miss Inger.  But he was too young to just wait and worry, so he picked up Miss Inger’s sewing box and began fingering through the contents of its small compartments.

Before long Inger followed the doctor out of the bedroom.  She closed the door carefully to avoid disturbing Gunnar with so much as the click of a knob, then turned to the doctor.  “When vill you be back, doctor?” she asked anxiously.

“When I’ve finished my rounds,” the doctor replied.

“And what can I do for him meanwhile?”

The doctor shook his head.  “Well, not very much, I’m afraid.  Just keep him quiet.  You know, with a fractured skull we can’t tell when he’ll regain consciousness, but I’ll be back.”

Inger thanked the doctor as she showed him out, then turned angry eyes on the man she had intended to marry.  “Ben, how could you?” she demanded.

“I don’t understand,” Ben said, his face blank with bewilderment.

“You fought vith him, didn’t you?” Inger sputtered.  “The doctor says you almost killed him!”

Ben wagged his head from side to side, as if seeking an explanation.  “I hit him, yes.”

“You hit him?” Inger asked through tight lips.  “Ben, I thought the anger vas gone,” she said, almost in tears.  “I thought when you said you loved me, the anger vould go.”

“I didn’t hit him in anger,” Ben insisted.  “I didn’t hit him that hard!”

“And now he is lying in that room, and he may be dying,” Inger cried.

Ben reached for her.  “Inger, please—”

Inger pulled away.  “Ben, don’t!  Please go.”

“There’s something terribly wrong here.  You must believe me!” Ben said frantically.

But Inger could bear no more.  She went quickly into the bedroom, closing the door behind her.  Ben reached for the doorknob, then stopped.  Inger wouldn’t listen, not until he could explain the injury to her beloved brother.  So, instead of following her, Ben stepped quickly toward his son.

“Adam, you lie down for a little while,” he said as he settled the boy on the sofa.  “Stay here with Miss Inger.”

“Pa, what happened to Uncle Gunnar?” Adam asked, unable to remain silent if he were going to be left alone.

“I don’t know, son,” Ben said as he covered the boy with Inger’s crocheted afghan.  “I’m gonna find out.”

Sadly, Adam watched his father leave.  Something was very wrong, something Adam had no hope of understanding.  He knew Pa meant for him to go to sleep, but there was no way he could with so much churning inside him.  He saw Inger come out of Gunnar’s room and wanted to ask her to explain it all to him.  But before he could say anything, there was yet another knock on the door.  And the words choked in Adam’s throat when he saw the latest visitor to the Borgstrom home.

Inger, too, seemed surprised to see the man in the dark blue uniform with a double row of silver buttons down his jacket and a six-pointed star pinned to his chest.  “Oh!  Yes, constable?”

The policeman nodded respectfully.  “Mr. McWhorter told me what happened to your brother.  It’s a terrible thing.  How is Gunnar?”

Inger gave a concerned glance toward Gunnar’s room.  “Ve don’t know yet.”

“I’m sorry to be bothering you,” the officer apologized, “but I thought the sooner you preferred charges, the sooner I could arrest that man——Cartwright, that’s his name, isn’t it?”

“Yes, that is his name,” Inger said quietly, then looked over her shoulder at Adam.  “But there vill be no charges.”  However she might feel about Ben right now, she could not deprive a child of his only parent.

“No charges?” the policeman protested.  “If your brother dies, this man Cartwright is a murderer.  And if Gunnar recovers, he should be punished anyway.”

Adam’s eyes widened when he heard the word “murderer” attributed to his father.  Inger could almost feel the boy’s pain, even without looking at him.  “I say there vill be no charges,” she repeated.

“Ma’am, you’re making a mistake,” the law officer asserted.  “This Cartwright fellow should be in jail.”

“Good night, constable,” Inger said firmly.

The policeman couldn’t comprehend her attitude. “Good night, ma’am,” he said briskly and left.

Inger shut the door and looked at it sadly, as if its closing represented the slamming of a door on her only hope of happiness.

“Miss Inger?”

She turned swiftly at the sound of the youngster’s soft, plaintive voice.  “Yes, Adam?” she asked, moving toward him.

“Miss Inger, that man——he said my pa should be in jail.”  As Adam twisted the afghan between restless fingers, Inger stooped beside him, touching his shoulder in sympathy.

“Is my pa bad?” the boy asked, finally daring to speak the unspeakable dread of his heart.

Inger stroked his cheek.  “Poor darling,” she soothed.  “No, he’s not bad.  He may get angry and do a bad thing.  But, no, Adam, he is not bad.”

“Miss Inger, is my pa coming to get me?”

“Yes, Adam, he vill.”  Inger had no proof of that except the love for the boy she had seen so often in his father’s eyes.  She could not conceive of his leaving Adam behind, however great the risk to himself.

“Do you love my pa?” Adam asked with the forthrightness of a child.

And Inger answered him with childlike honesty of her own.  “Yes, Adam, I do.”

“Then why did you send him away?” Adam queried.

“Oh, Adam,” Inger choked.  “It’s something I yoost can’t explain.”  She patted the boy’s shoulder.  “Go to sleep now.”  Adam closed his eyes and tried to obey.  It was hard at first, but weariness won over his worry and he drifted into a troubled sleep.

Wishing there were someone to comfort her as she had Ben’s little boy, Inger sat in the rocker beside Adam’s makeshift bed and stared into the fire on her other side.  As hurt as she felt by Ben’s treatment of her brother, she couldn’t help worrying about him.  Where had he gone?  Had he feared she would deliver him up to the police?  Was he even now gathering his belongings to escape in the dead of night?  And what would become of Adam on such a flight from justice?

None of Inger’s guesses were correct, however.  Ben had made his way to the Illinois House.  Since McWhorter had locked up for the night, he was surprised to see Ben stride in from the back.

“McWhorter!  What did you do to Gunnar after I left?” Ben demanded.

“I sent for the doctor and they took him home,” McWhorter said.  One hand rested lightly on the bar, but the caution with which he calculated Ben’s distance belied his casual stance.

“Gunnar wasn’t hurt, not as he is now, when I left him here,” Ben declared, pointing to the floor where he had last seen the unconscious Swede’s six-foot form spread-eagled.

“You listen to me, Cartwright,” McWhorter warned.  “If you had any sense you’d get out of town before they pick you up.”

Ben’s face was flinty with solemn intent.  “I’ll get out of town after I find out the truth.”

McWhorter gave a short laugh.  “Well, what do you want me to do about it?”

Ben reached for McWhorter’s left arm.  “I want you to tell Inger what happened.”

McWhorter knocked Ben’s grasp loose.  “Get your hands off me!”

With a look of determination Ben again reached for the tavern owner.  “Now, McWhorter, I want you to tell Inger what happened!”

McWhorter struck Ben with his free hand.  Ben, his body twisting from the force of the unexpected blow, reeled into the bar, and metal tankards clattered to the floor behind it.

Ben straightened up, wiping his mouth with the back of his right fist.  “Now, there’s no need for any fighting,” he said firmly.  “All I want is the truth.”  Once again he placed his hand on McWhorter’s left shoulder.  “And I want you to tell me—”

Ben’s request was interrupted by another smashing blow from McWhorter’s right fist, which knocked Ben once more against the bar behind him.  Still without intent of striking, Ben lurched toward his antagonist.  Anticipating an attack, McWhorter grabbed Ben and flipped him onto his back, then circled quickly to be waiting when Ben rose from the floor.  Another solid punch sent Ben sprawling against a round table.

This time, Ben came up ready to fight.  He ducked McWhorter’s swinging fist and struck a right jab to the man’s jaw.  It was followed by a quick punch to McWhorter’s belly.  As the tavern owner doubled over, Ben struck his other cheek with a forceful left fist.

McWhorter fell against the bar, and Ben lunged toward him again.  But McWhorter parried that attack with a quick move that tossed Ben over the bar.  McWhorter leaped atop it, but Ben grabbed him and pulled him down behind the bar.  They wrestled against the back cupboard, knocking a keg of ale to the floor.  Locked arm in arm, they struggled their way onto the open floor.

After exchanging a few unsuccessful punches, Ben landed a right to his opponent’s jaw that sent McWhorter stumbling into a chair behind him.  The tavern owner grabbed the chair and tossed it at Ben.  Ben ducked, and the chair sailed over his head.  Then he moved in quickly, landing a right-left combination that sent McWhorter sprawling to the floor beside the bar.  McWhorter started to rise, but he was out of breath.  Panting, he leaned against the bar.

Ben stood over him.  “All right,” he said, breathing heavily.  “What happened to Gunnar?”

“I’ll tell you nothin’,” McWhorter gasped.

His hope as exhausted as his body, Ben staggered out the back door and down the alley toward the Borgstrom residence.  He lurched against their door, knocked, then leaned heavily on it while awaiting an answer.

Weakened as he was, Ben barely managed to avoid falling into Inger’s arms when she opened the door.  “Ben!” Inger said, stretching soft fingers toward his bruised face.

Ben held his own hand between hers and his face.  “How’s Gunnar?” he asked as Inger’s hand slowly fell.

“I think he’s going to be all right,” Inger said quietly.

Ben strode past her.  “I have to see him.  I’ve gotta talk to him.”  He staggered toward the bedroom.

Inger turned to follow him.  “But the doctor said—”

Ignoring her, Ben went straight in and leaned against the tall bedpost at the foot of Gunnar’s bed.  “Gunnar?”  Receiving no response, Ben moved toward the bandaged blonde head lying on the pillow and leaned over the unconscious Swede.  “Gunnar?”  When Inger’s brother still made no response, Ben raised up.  “I thought he could tell me the truth.”  Disappointed, he started to walk out.

“The truth?” Inger asked bitterly.  “But you said you hit him.”

Ben looked sadly at her.  “Yes——yes, I hit him.  In a moment of anger I lashed out at him, and I’m sorry for it.”  Bitterness crept into his voice as he continued, “But you believe that I could do something like this to him?”

“What else can I believe?” Inger declared.

Ben had a faraway look in his eyes, as if he were literally watching his dreams vanish.  “I thought once you could believe in me,” he murmured, “in my love for you.”

Inger’s face convulsed with unshed tears.  Scarcely glancing at her, Ben shook his head in bewilderment.  “You hit a man, and a love is lost.  And nothing to be done——nothing.”

Tears trickling down her cheeks, Inger sat at the foot of Gunnar’s bed.  “Oh, Ben, I vant to believe you.  Help me, Ben!”

Unnoticed by either of the suffering lovers, Gunnar’s blue eyes began to flicker.

“Not if you’ll always have doubts about me,” Ben muttered.

Gunnar stirred again, the words gradually penetrating the fog of his dazed senses.

“Either you love me with all your heart or there’s no love at all,” Ben concluded, finally facing the ultimate defeat of his desire.

Inger grasped the bedpost, wringing it with both hands, her body weaving forward and back in agony.  “Ah, what shall I do?  What shall I do?” she cried, her words a prayer.  But it was a prayer addressed to no one in particular, for in that moment of anguish she could think of no one or nothing that would solve her dilemma.

His heart as broken as hers, Ben moved toward the door.

“Ben?” Gunnar called softly.  Both Ben and Inger turned toward his voice.  “Inger,” Gunnar said weakly, “Ben did not do this to me.”  Inger’s hand flew to her heart.

Ben stepped swiftly to Gunnar, leaning on his mattress.  “Gunnar, what happened after I left?” he asked urgently.

Gunnar looked into Ben’s face.  “I remember falling to the floor.  After you left, I started to get up, and something hit me on the head.  That’s the last I remember.”

Ben straightened up.  “McWhorter!” he said with cold fury.

Gunnar nodded.  “It must have been McWhorter; he was the only one there.”

“Yeah, but he’ll never admit it,” Ben muttered bitterly.

“Oh, Ben, does he have to admit it?” Inger asked.

Ben clung stubbornly to his injured pride.  “If he doesn’t, how will you ever know the truth?”

“You yoost told me, Ben,” Inger said, her eyes glowing with trust.  “You said if one loves, one must love vith all one’s heart.”  She looked up at him adoringly.  “I do love you——vith all my heart.”  She reached toward him and Ben pulled her into an embrace of mutual forgiveness.

“Gunnar, Ben and I vould like to be married soon.  Do ve have your blessing?” Inger said, turning toward her brother.  Ben stared at her, dizzied by the sudden change in his prospects.

Though very tired, Gunnar smiled briefly.  “I give the bride avay, yah?”

Ben looked from one Borgstrom to the other, barely able to believe the storybook ending to this horrible day.  “Yah,” he said finally and pressed his lips against his beloved’s.

* * * * *

Sitting at Inger’s table copying the alphabet his father had written at the top of the page, Adam’s face was as intent as his grip on his stubby pencil.  Behind him, Ben smiled proudly at the boy’s diligent effort.  “You’re doing real fine, son.  Those letters are looking neater every day.”

Adam grinned up at his father.  “And when I know them real good, I can learn to read, right?”

Ben tousled the boy’s hair.  “Right, and reading will open up a whole world of learning.”

“I want to learn it all, Pa,” Adam said earnestly.

Ben laughed.  “That’s quite an ambition, son.  No one knows everything, of course, but you’re making a good start.”  Ben wandered back toward the fireplace and stirred the flickering logs with a poker.

“Inger?” a voice called from the bedroom.  “Inger?”

Ben stepped quickly through the open door.  “She isn’t here, Gunnar,” he said.  “She’s at the store going over the final inventory with McWhorter.”

Gunnar started to sit up.  “You left her alone vith McWhorter?”

“Here, here now!” Ben admonished, hurrying in.  “You stay right in that bed, young man.”

In his weakened condition Gunnar had little choice but to obey.  “But Inger, Ben—”

“Don’t worry about your sister,” Ben soothed.  “McWhorter already has what he wants, and he wouldn’t harm her in any case.”

“Why are you not vith her?” Gunnar insisted.  “It is your right and your duty as her intended husband.”

“That’s pretty much what I told her,” Ben said wryly, “but Inger would have none of it.  She said things were likely to go much smoother with McWhorter if I weren’t around.”

Gunnar gave a short laugh.  “Yah.  She don’t trust you or me either not to bash in his skull.”

Ben nodded grimly as he pulled up a chair.  “I’d like nothing better, but going against the law has never been my way.  I just wish we could prove that he was the one who beat you.  Since you didn’t see anything, and with the influence McWhorter has in this town—”

Gunnar’s lips curled. “Don’t you vorry, Benyamin.  I vill take care of McWhorter once I am better.”

Ben pressed the big Swede’s arm in a restraining gesture.  “I feel the same way, Gunnar, but you and I both have better things planned for our lives than rotting in jail for giving McWhorter the thrashing he deserves.”

Gunnar nodded slowly.  “Yah, ve have better things.”

Ben eased back in his chair.  “I’ve been wanting to talk to you about our plans, Gunnar, and how you could fit into them.”

“What you mean, Ben?”

Ben leaned forward, resting his broad palms on his knees.  “You know Inger and I plan to go west as soon as we’re married.  Why not come with us?  We could settle next to each other, work the land together, and both profit by it.”

Gunnar’s big hands moved restlessly across the bedcovers.  “That’s good of you, Ben, after what I did to you and Inger.”

Ben smiled broadly.  “Well, if you’re referring to selling the store, Inger says all you’ve done is speed the happiness of our wedding.  She bears no ill will, Gunnar.”

“Yah, she’s a good voman,” Gunnar said contritely.  “I don’t forgive myself so easy as she.  But I cannot go vith you, Ben, not even to repay a debt.  I am no more cut out for a farmer than a storekeeper.”

It was the response Ben had expected, but he felt deep disappointment.  “Still set on the gold fields, are you?”

Gunnar brightened.  “Yah, that is what I vant.  And when I strike it rich, then I can make up to you and Inger for all the trouble I caused.”

“No need of that,” Ben assured him.  “But, Gunnar, you’ve seen just one article about those gold fields, and there’s no way of telling how reliable that minister’s report is.  The land offers a better chance of building a solid future.”

Gunnar turned onto his side to face Ben.  “For you, Ben, that is true.  You are like that oak in the street outside, planted solid vith deep roots.  I am more like the vind that blows through the leaves; I have to be alvays moving wherever the vind may blow.”

Ben spread his hands in a gesture of reluctant acceptance.  “I understand what you’re saying, but we’re headed the same direction, man.  We might as well travel together.”

Gunnar shook his head.  “Nah, my plans are made.  My friends been good to vait for me ‘til I had the money and now ‘til I am vell enough to travel.  It’s best I go vith them.”  Gunnar laughed.  “Besides ve get there faster our vay than cross-country.”

Ben cocked his head and stared at Gunnar.  “What route are you taking?”

“Riverboat to New Orleans.  Then ve catch a steamer.”

“To Panama?” Ben protested.  “Oh, Gunnar, I know that’s quicker, but it’s a rough trip.  We docked at Panama once when I was sailing.  It’s almost fifty miles across the isthmus to catch a steamer to California.  A fifty mile walk through torrid jungle, and there’s danger of yellow fever, too.  Oh, man, you’d be better off with us.”

Gunnar’s lower lip thrust out stubbornly.  “Your vay has dangers, too, Ben.  Indians, for one thing.”

Ben shrugged.  “Not too much trouble with them, I hear.  But you’re right:  there are dangers either way.  I just wish we could face them together.  Your mind’s set, though, isn’t it?”

Gunnar nodded.  “Set firm.”

Ben gave the Swede’s muscular arm a light slap.  “You’ve got a right to chart your own course, Gunnar, same as me.”  Ben stood.  “But there’s one force to which you and I must bow.  If I don’t get you some of that soup Inger left, she’ll thrash both of us.”

Gunnar grimaced.  “Soup!  What kind of meal is that for a man?”

Ben swatted Gunnar’s thigh through the covers.  “It’s just the kind of meal this man needs, that’s what!”  He smiled cajolingly.  “Besides, it’s real good.  Adam and I had some a little while ago, so it’ll just take a few minutes to heat back up.  Let me get you some.”

Gunnar settled into his pillow with a look of resignation.  “All right, Ben, bring me this smorgasbord of a soup.”

Ben chuckled and headed toward the door.

“Ben?” Gunnar called softly.

Ben turned.  “Yes, Gunnar?”

“You and Inger set a date for the vedding yet?”

Ben smiled.  “First Sunday after you’re on your feet.  So, you see, it’s in my best interest to get you well fast.”

A grin lifted one corner of Gunnar’s mouth.  “That why you pushing soup?”

Ben laughed loud.  “You’ve found me out!  My motives are purely self-centered.”

* * * * *

With adoring eyes, Ben watched his bride walk down the aisle of the church toward him on the arm of her brother Gunnar.  It was a plain wedding compared to the one in which Ben had married Elizabeth Stoddard.  Between nursing Gunnar, settling the store’s accounts, selling the Borgstrom home with most of its furnishings and packing the rest, there had been no time to sew a special wedding dress.  Instead of the white satin gown and lace veil Elizabeth had worn, Inger simply dressed in her Sunday best.  And though blue may not have been the traditional color for a bride, it was perfect for Inger.  The shade exactly matched her eyes as they gleamed with love and joy.

Gunnar laid his sister’s hand in Ben’s and stepped back as the minister began the ceremony.  Since the marriage immediately followed the morning service, the parson kept his comments blessedly brief.  Most of them were unnecessary, anyway:  Ben and Inger already felt a stronger bond than their vows to love, honor and cherish could instill.  It was a bond forged in the furnace of adversity and, therefore, one not likely to be broken by whatever differences might arise between them in the normal course of married life.

At the proper moment Ben’s five-year-old best man gave his father the narrow gold band, and Ben slipped it on his bride’s finger.  He felt a pang of regret at that moment, only because he yearned to give her a ring whose value reflected her worth to him, one as beautiful as that which he had given Elizabeth.  He still had that ring, of course, but it hadn’t seemed right to give it to Inger; that ring should more properly be saved for Adam’s future bride.  Ben’s current assets were insufficient to purchase anything as costly for Inger; in fact, it had taken all his funds to buy this plain gold band.  Now he was truly living on his wife’s charity, but that didn’t seem important anymore.  They were one.

Since they had packed the wagon the night before, it took little time to change to clothes more appropriate for travel and be ready to leave.  Ben helped Inger up to the wagon seat, then turned for a final farewell with Gunnar.  Resting his left hand on the big Swede’s sturdy shoulder, with his right hand Ben clasped Gunnar’s outstretched one.

“Yoost you take care of my sister,” Gunnar admonished, but his tone was light, not accusative.

“I’ll take care of my wife,” Ben said with a smile, “and that will take care of your sister.”  He gave Gunnar’s right shoulder a hearty slap.  “I hope you find what you’re looking for,” he said with an encouraging nod of his head.

“Maybe, maybe not,” Gunnar said with a devil-may-care shrug, “but, at least, I vill have tried.”  As Ben circled in front of the horse to mount the wagon’s opposite side, Gunnar stepped close to his sister.  “And you, Inger,” he said.  “Take vith you my love and grateful heart.”

Inger leaned down to take Gunnar’s face between her slender hands.  “Good-bye, Gunnar.  You vill be alvays in my thoughts and prayers.”

Gunnar looked beyond Inger.  “I hope you find your land, Ben, and raise fine sons.  My friends once call me ‘hoss,’ which means a good man vith friendly vays.”  Gunnar paused a moment, for he was unaccustomed to speaking his feelings so plainly.  “You are that, too, Ben,” he added sincerely.  “When you and Inger have a son, I hope his friends call him ‘hoss,’ too.”  Gunnar took a step toward the back of the wagon and smiled at the youngster seated behind his parents.  “Good-bye, Adam,” Gunnar said.  “Take good care of them, huh?”

Adam nodded solemnly, obviously taking the assignment seriously.  “Good-bye, Uncle Gunnar.”

Gunnar threw his shaggy blonde head back and laughed heartily as he gave the boy’s neck a playful shake.

Ben gathered up the reins.  “Gunnar, you be sure to leave word at the San Francisco post office, so we’ll know where to find you.”

“Yah, I do that,” Gunnar promised, “and you do the same.  Ve follow different paths to our promised land, but ve vill see each other there, yah?”

“Yah,” Ben agreed with a broad smile.

As the horse began to walk slowly away, Inger and Adam leaned back, waving to Gunnar until he was out of sight.  Ben touched his bride’s shoulder.  “Any regrets?” he asked softly.

Inger turned shining eyes toward Ben.  “None, my love.  It is a new beginning, a new vorld before us, and it gives me great joy to explore it vith you and vith our son.”  Inger gave Ben’s arm a contented squeeze and settled her eyes on the horizon ahead.

CHAPTER FIVE

             As Ben stepped down from the back of the wagon, he immediately looked for his wife.  Though they had traveled side by side for almost three weeks now, he couldn’t feast his eyes on her often enough, a sure sign their honeymoon was still in progress.  He saw her stirring the embers of the dying campfire and tiptoed stealthily up behind her.

Without turning around, Inger smiled.  “You won’t catch me that vay, Mr. Cartwright.  I’m wise to your vays.”

Ben laughed, spun her around and kissed her heartily.  “All right, then, Mrs. Cartwright, I’ll just catch you any way I can.”

Inger laid her head on his broad shoulder and looked up into his warm brown eyes.  “Adam asleep?”

“Sound asleep,” Ben said, then whispered conspiratorially in his wife’s ear, “We’re alone.”

Inger giggled.  “And what do you suggest ve do vith our solitude?”

Ben nibbled her ear gently.  “Guess,” he ordered softly.

Inger pushed him away.  “In the snow?” she giggled.

Ben pulled her close.  “Why not?  I thought you liked cold weather.”

Inger gave her blonde head an amused shake.  “I do like cold veather; it reminds me of Sveden.  But I did not say I vould like to sleep in the snow.  Were you serious, Ben?”

Ben smiled.  “No, love, I was only teasing.  I know it’s too cold to bed you under the stars the way we did that first night.  But you can’t blame me for dreaming.”

Inger smiled.  “No, that is your nature——and mine, I think.  I have a dream of my own, sweetheart.”

Ben kissed her forehead.  “Tell me,” he whispered.

But Inger shook her head.  “No, it is just a foolish dream, one I cannot have.”

Ben held her at arms’ length.  “Inger, darling, I insist you tell me.  You’ve never asked anything for yourself, so I know it must be important.”

Inger smiled lovingly.  “Important, yah, but impossible.  Ve vill be in St. Joseph soon?”

Ben nodded slowly, still trying to read her thoughts.  “Soon, yes.  By my reckoning, we should be there tomorrow or the next day at the latest.”

Inger reached up to stroke Ben’s cheek.  “My foolish dream, Benyamin, is to spend one night in a real bed vith you and lavish you vith my love.”

“Oh,” Ben said in sudden, sorrowful understanding.  “I wish we could, Inger.  Maybe we can.  But until I know the price of supplies, I can’t promise there’ll be enough for a night’s lodging.”

“Of course not, Ben.  That vould be a foolish use of our moneys.  That is why I said the dream vas not possible.”

“It’ll be possible someday, I promise,” Ben said, drawing Inger close.

“I can vait for someday,” Inger laughed.  “It vill make the dream more special when it does come true.”

The Cartwrights reached St. Joseph, Missouri, late the following day.  For Ben, to finally arrive at one of the celebrated jumping off points for the trails west was the culmination of years of yearning.  He slept restlessly, eager for the morning to come, the morning that would begin their real journey west.

Ben’s dusty black boots thudded purposefully as he entered Larrimore’s Mercantile and Outfitters Headquarters the next morning.  He hated quibbling over price, but he was prepared to do whatever dickering was necessary to save a few dollars back to give Inger her one night in a real bed.  After all the sacrifices she had made to make his dream come true, somehow he had to find a way to meet her simple request.  With Adam in hand, Inger followed him in, standing modestly back to let her husband handle the business transactions.

A tall, spare man with jet black hair leaned over the counter to greet them.  “Howdy, friend.  New in town?”

“Just passing through,” Ben responded, “on our way west.”

The proprietor laughed.  “Well, I figured I’d see a lot of extra business after that report came out about the gold in California, but I sure never expected anyone to show up this early.”

Ben looked up, surprised.  “I’d heard some news of gold in California, but I wasn’t sure the reports were reliable.  You think they are?”

The tall man with angular facial features rested both palms on the counter.  “When the President of the United States says there’s gold, I figure that’s good enough for me, mister.”

“President Polk?” Ben queried.  “Pardon me, sir, but we’ve been on the road the last three weeks.  Being newly married, we’ve kind of kept to ourselves, so we’re a little out of touch with the latest news, I’m afraid.”

The storekeeper’s prominent cheekbones protruded even farther as he grinned.  “Newlyweds, huh?  Well, congratulations to you and your lady, sir.”

Inger stepped forward.  “Please, sir,” she interrupted eagerly, “you said something about the President.  My brother is headed for the gold fields, and I have been afraid he vas chasing a silly goose.  I vould much like to hear the President’s vords.”

“Why, certainly, ma’am,” the man responded obligingly.  “I’d be glad to ease your mind.  According to the St. Louis paper, the President spoke to Congress about the gold strike last week.  Said there was so much wealth in California it would pay for the Mexican War a hundred times over.”

Inger grasped Ben’s arm.  “Oh, Ben, then Gunnar vill be vell, yah?”

Ben circled her shoulders with a quick, bolstering embrace.  “Sounds like he just might make his fortune, Inger.  I’m glad for him.”  Ben turned back to the storekeeper.  “Well, to answer your earlier question, Mr.—Larrimore, is it?”

“It is,” Larrimore responded.

“Pleased to meet you, sir.  I’m Ben Cartwright; this is my bride, Inger, and my son Adam.  To answer your earlier question, we are headed for California, but not after gold.  I plan to homestead there.  So we’re here to get outfitted for the trip and would appreciate any advice you can give us about the supplies we’ll need.”

Larrimore stared at Ben as if he’d suddenly sprouted two heads.  “You mean now, Mr. Cartwright?”

Ben laughed.  “Certainly, now.  We want to get on the road as soon as possible.”

The storekeeper shook his head in incredulity.  “You can’t be serious, Mr. Cartwright.  No one travels west this time of year.”

“Well, I know it’s not the usual time,” Ben conceded, “but we’ll make out.”

Larrimore looked from Ben to Inger to little Adam and decided brutal honesty was the kindest service he could offer.  “Mr. Cartwright, there is no way your family would survive the trip if you left now.  A single wagon offers no protection from hostiles, and there’s no grass for your draught animals this time of year.  Worse yet, winter snows are already thick in the Rockies.  You leave now, and the only ground you’re gonna homestead is a plot six-foot deep.”

Ben paled.  “That’s why trains usually form in the spring?”

“That’s why,” Larrimore said.

Ben exchanged an alarmed look with Inger.  She said nothing, but the unspoken question was clearly legible in her honest blue eyes.  What would they do?  There was nothing behind them, and they could not go forward, it seemed.

Larrimore saw the concern in the woman’s eyes and, without knowing the details, guessed that this couple had burned their bridges behind them.  “Sorry to disappoint you folks,” he said sincerely, “but I’m telling you the gospel truth.  If you want to reach California, you really need to wait here ‘til spring.”  He brightened his tone to lift their spirits.  “Lots of folks come early so as to go with one of the first trains out.  Not usually this early, of course, but, being early, you ought to have your pick of places to board.”

Ben smiled weakly.  Obviously, the man intended to be helpful.  But he couldn’t know the crushing blow he’d just dealt Ben’s dreams.  They had enough funds to last out the winter, of course, but then they’d be short of cash when the time came to buy supplies for the journey.  Ben felt an iron fist tighten around his heart.  But he had something more important than a dream to concern himself with now.  He had a wife, as well as a son, to provide for.  And their first need was shelter.  “Could—could you recommend a place we could stay, Mr. Larrimore——a place that wouldn’t cost too much?”

Larrimore nodded.  “Most places hereabouts are reasonable.  Not sure they’ll stay that way, though, with the news of this gold strike bringing in the numbers I expect.  Fact is, you could stay right here if it suits you, and I promise to keep the price stable.”

Ben glanced around the store.  “Here?”

Larrimore grinned.  “In the back, that is.  It ain’t big, but I always found it comfy.  My family lived there ‘til about a month ago when our new place was finished.  Care to take a look?”  Larrimore left the counter and headed toward a door at the rear of the store.

Ben hesitated.  “How—how much?”

Larrimore looked over his shoulder, his black eyes sympathetic.  “I’m sure we can work something out.”  He opened the door and held it as the Cartwrights stepped through.  Pointing, he said, “There’s a good lock here.  You wouldn’t have to worry about any of my customers intruding on your privacy.”

Inger nodded pleasantly.  Privacy was the least of her concerns right now, but it was kind of their prospective landlord to consider it for her.  She walked over to assess the cook stove standing in one corner of the main room.  Not as spacious an oven as the one she’d had back in Petersburg, but adequate.

Larrimore opened the doors to the two small, meagerly furnished bedrooms.  “Like I said, not a big place.  But I think you’ll find everything you need here.  You can do your own cooking, which will save you money over eating in a boardinghouse.  And you don’t even have to step outdoors to get your winter foodstuffs.”

Ben gave a short laugh at the humorous crackle in the man’s voice.  He turned to his wife.  “What do you think, Inger?”

Inger nodded.  “It is a good place, Ben.  The right place for us, I think.”

Ben turned back to Mr. Larrimore.  “It’s settled, then.  If we can come to terms on the rent, sir, you’ve got yourself some tenants.”

They went back through the store to the front porch.  “You can pull your wagon around the side to unload,” Larrimore suggested.  Then, he stopped as he caught sight of the wagon and the single horse pulling it.  “Please tell me this isn’t what you planned to take west,” Larrimore said, a smile twitching at his lips.

“Now, what’s wrong with my wagon?” Ben demanded, his frustration with the way the day had gone so far beginning to show.

Larrimore grinned, shaking his head.  “Cartwright, you’re about the greenest emigrant I’ve ever seen.  You won’t make it half way to the Rockies with that rig.”

“We’ve made it just fine so far,” Ben said hotly.

“Sorry,” Larrimore said.  “I meant no offense, but the truth is, you folks have a lot to learn about where you’re headed.  Not many places to resupply along the way, and the ones there are charge a pretty penny for their goods.  So it’s best to take all the necessities with you.  Your wagon’s too small to carry all the supplies you’ll need for a six-month trip, Mr. Cartwright.   What you need is a smaller version of the old Conestoga wagon. And you’ll need oxen or mules to pull it, not a horse.”

Ben’s shoulders slumped in chagrin.  “Mr. Larrimore, you’re right.  I’m as green as they come, and that’s putting it mildly.”

Larrimore gave him a hearty slap on the shoulder.  “Well, we’ve got a few months to correct that, Cartwright.  Be glad to tell you all I know.  Step into the store anytime you have a question.”

For the first time since he’d entered Larrimore’s store, Ben smiled broadly.  “I’ll do that.”  He stretched a hand toward the storekeeper.  “Thank you for all you’ve done so far, sir.  I don’t doubt you’ve saved us a heap of heartache already.”

Larrimore took the extended hand and shook it warmly.  “Anything for a new customer,” he laughed.

* * * * *

Ben carried the first load in from the wagon and set it on the white wooden table near the stove Inger had already begun to scour.  He stepped behind her and rubbed her shoulders gently.  “I’m sorry, Inger,” he said softly.

Inger turned to stroke her husband’s cheek soothingly.  “There is no need, Ben.”

“There is much need,” Ben muttered in self disgust.  “I took you from a safe, secure home to chase a dream, and look where it’s brought us!”

Inger kissed his cheek tenderly.  “It has brought us to another home, that is all.  Ve vill make it safe, secure, yah?”

Ben raised his head to meet her gaze directly.  “Yah,” he said bitterly.  “That much I promise.  I will find work; I won’t let you go hungry.  But it’s a hard thing to watch my dreams die.”

Inger squeezed both his broad hands with her slender fingers.  “Your dream is not dead, Ben, only de-, de-”  She shook her head, disturbed by her inability to find the word she wanted.

“Deferred?” Ben suggested.

“Yah,” Inger sighed.  “I think that is the meaning I vant.  The dream is not dead, only deferred, put aside for a while.  Ve vill pick it up again, Ben, when the time is right; you vill see.”

Ben nodded, though his eyes were still sad.  “Maybe so, Inger, but I feel like such a fool.”

Inger laughed.  “Ve were a bit foolish, the both of us, Benyamin.  Foolish vith love, maybe.  But ve are young:  ve vill make mistakes, and ve vill learn by them and do better next time.  It is the vay of things, my love.”

A meager smile played at the edge of Ben’s mouth as he began to respond to his wife’s comfort.  “You amaze me over and over, Inger, with your capacity for forgiveness and understanding.  I could never merit it, but I promise you I will learn by this mistake.  I will not take you from this home until I know all I must to bring us safely to California.”

Inger laid her slender hands on each of his broad shoulders.  “Ve vill learn together, and by spring ve vill be the most-knowing emigrants on the trail, yah?”

Ben gave his wife a hearty kiss.  “Yah!  Now, I’d best get this wagon unloaded quickly, so I can start looking for work.”

“No, you go ahead,” Inger urged.  “Adam and I can manage the vagon.”

Ben shook his head.  “I don’t want you lifting heavy boxes, Inger.  I’ve seen you do it in the store back in Petersburg, but no more.  And that, my wife, is an order.”

Inger smiled submissively.  “I shall obey, mine husband.  But beyond this,” she said, nodding at the box he had placed on the table, “only the box of dishes is truly heavy.  Just bring me that, then please to get out from underfoot.  I have much vork to do to properly clean our new home.”

With an amused shake of his head, Ben went to do as he was told.

* * * * *

Lying in bed that night, Ben felt, rather than heard, the laughter of the body pressed against his ribcage.  “And just what is it that amuses you, young lady?” he demanded playfully.

“Our son,” Inger giggled.  “He vas so excited to have a room all his own.  I think it made him feel grown up.”

Ben smiled.  “It’s the first time I’ve slept apart from him.”

Inger gave his chest a light slap.  “Vell, if you prefer, you can sleep in his room, Mr. Cartwright.”

Ben kissed her gently.  “I do not prefer, Mrs. Cartwright.  Besides, I wouldn’t dream of depriving him of all those grown-up feelings.”  He rolled out of his wife’s embrace.  “I just wish I could share them.  I feel like a little boy again, not a man——just a little boy playing at man of the house.”

Inger sat up abruptly.  “You are man of this house, Ben——a strong protector, a good provider.  You only doubt it because you have not yet found vork.  But you vill.  I have faith if you do not.”

Ben reached up to stroke her soft cheek.  “I’m glad I have yours to lean on, Inger.”

Inger sighed contentedly and snuggled down again in his arms.  “Oh, Ben, I know it is selfish,” she said, “but, like Adam, I am so happy to be just where I am tonight that the trouble that brought us here seems more a gift than a sorrow.  It is a dream come true——the dream I told you of last night.  I have longed to lie beside you like this, Ben.  Perhaps it is like the Good Book says——all things vorking together for good.”

Ben pulled her close, smoothing back her ripened-wheat tresses.  “Perhaps,” he agreed.  “Or perhaps it is only that an angel like you finds good in all things.  But how can a mere mortal hope to win the love of an angel?”

As she rolled back onto her pillow, the look Inger gave him was more impish than angelic. “Come and see,” she whispered, opening her arms, and Ben responded with an engulfing embrace.

CHAPTER SIX

             Inger balanced a platter of pastries in one hand while with her other she opened the door leading from her small kitchen into the store.  At Ben’s insistence Mr. Larrimore had installed a padlock on the store side, but Larrimore had been just as adamant in his insistence that the door remain unlatched during store hours for Inger’s convenience in shopping.

It was a convenience Inger appreciated, too, with the wind so chilly in mid-December.  But she suspected that the store owner rarely remembered to lock the door at the close of business hours.  She didn’t tell Ben, of course.  While his concern that he might be blamed for any shortage in the store’s inventory might seem irrational to her and to Mr. Larrimore, to Ben it was very real; and he had worries enough these days.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Cartwright,” Larrimore called from behind the counter.  “What can I help you with?”

“Nothing, thank you, Mr. Larrimore,” Inger said with a bright smile.  “Ve have all ve need.  I have, instead, brought you something to share vith your family.  A gift of thanks for all your kindness to us.”

Larrimore reached for the platter.  “Well, now, that’s mighty kind of you, ma’am.  My, these look absolutely delicious.”

“They were alvays a favorite vith my customers back home,” Inger said.

“Your customers?” Larrimore asked.  “Did you folks keep store where you came from?”

“Yah.  That is, I did,” Inger explained.  “My husband helped me there only a short time before ve married.  But he had his own ship’s chandlery in New Bedford, so he understood business.  He vas much help to me in the store.”

“I’m sure he was,” Larrimore agreed readily.  “He strikes me as the kind of man who’d do well at anything he set his mind to.  Has he found work yet?”

Inger shook her head sadly.  “Nothing steady.  Most days he picks up something, but no promises past the day.”

“Well, don’t you fret,” the storekeeper soothed.  “Any man who wants to work can generally find work to do.”  He looked longingly at the pastries sitting on the counter.  “Say, you mind if I sample one of these now.  I’ve got a powerful sweet tooth, but I don’t get much chance to indulge it.  My wife hates to bake.”

Inger’s clear blue eyes looked puzzled.  A woman who hated to bake was beyond her understanding, but she certainly understood a craving for sweets.  Gunnar’s notorious sweet tooth had made it hard to keep the store in Petersburg supplied with pastries for the customers.  “By all means, please try one,” she urged.

Larrimore grinned as he picked up one of the flaky, sugar-dusted puffs.  He closed his eyes in bliss as the buttery flavor melted in his mouth.  “Sheer heaven!” he exclaimed.  “Mrs. Cartwright, you have created the eighth wonder of the world.”

Inger laughed lightly.  “I think you praise them over much, but I am glad you enjoy.  You must save some now for Mrs. Larrimore and the little ones.”

“I will,” Larrimore promised.  “It’ll be hard, but I’ll keep my hands off ‘til after supper.”  He took another bite, rolling his tongue over his lips to catch a stray particle of sugar.  “You say you sold these in your store?”

“Yah.  Two, three dozen a day.”

Larrimore looked thoughtful.  “You know, I bet I could sell that many or more——if you’d be interested in making some extra money.”

Inger’s eyes brightened.  “I vould like that very much.”

“Tell you what,” Larrimore suggested.  “I’ll provide the ingredients and we’ll split the proceeds.  Sound fair?”

Inger thrust out her hand.  “Ve vill be partners, yah?”

“Suits me fine,” Larrimore said.  Taking his new partner’s outstretched hand, he gave it a hefty shake.

* * * * *

Inger looked up from the pot she was stirring as Ben stomped the dirt off his shoes and came inside.  She stepped across the small room to kiss his smudged cheek.  “You look tired, Ben.”

Ben nodded.  “It’s a good kind of tired, though, Inger, the kind that comes from a full day’s work.”  He smiled.  “And it doesn’t hurt that I’ll be needed again tomorrow.”

Inger smiled broadly.  “Oh, Ben, that is vonderful!”

“Well, no telling if anything will come of it——permanently, I mean——but I guess I’m meant to live one day at a time.”

“One day is all anyone can live at a time, Ben,” Inger said, smoothing back a lock of brown hair that had fallen across his forehead.

Ben shrugged and walked toward the basin of warm water Inger always had standing ready for him when he came in from a day’s work.  As he began to lather his hands with a bar of lye soap, Inger circled her arms around his waist and leaned contentedly against his back. “I, too, have had a vonderful day, Ben.”

Ben turned and smoothed the sleeves of her yellow calico.  “I’m glad, love.  Tell me about it.”

Inger took his hand, drawing him toward the dining table.  “Sit a moment, Ben.  I have good news.”

Ben obediently sat, resting his elbows on the table and his chin on his interlaced fingers.  “You have my undivided attention, Mrs. Cartwright.”

Inger laughed.  “I took Mr. Larrimore some of my Svedish pastries today——you know, the ones Adam likes so much.  Just making conversation, I told Mr. Larrimore how ve  used to sell them in our store, and he suggested I make some to sell here.  They von’t bring in big money, of course, but enough to help a little, I think.”  Seeing Ben’s suddenly darkened expression, Inger reached for his hand.  “You do not mind, mine husband?”

“I mind,” Ben said quietly.  “I mind a great deal.  I had hoped to be the provider for our family, Inger.  You’ve worked so hard for so long, and I wanted to give you the joy of just taking care of your own home.  At least, I thought that would make you happy.”

Inger squeezed his fingers.  “It does, Ben.  But this vill not take from that, I promise.  It vill take little time each day to bake a few sweets; and I thought, vith Christmas coming, it vould be good to have some extra pennies.”

Ben looked out the window at the gray sky that seemed to reflect his mood so precisely.  “Christmas,” he murmured.  “I haven’t even let myself think about Christmas.”

“Oh, there is no need,” Inger said, “not for you and me.  But for Adam, ve should make a celebration, yah?”

Ben turned his eyes back to her face, and his countenance began to reflect the sunniness of hers.  “For Adam——yes.  You’re right, Inger.  We should make this a happy holiday for him.  And if baking a few sweets each day can provide that, then how can I object?”  Ben sat up straighter.  “Where is the boy, anyway?”

“Napping,” Inger said, standing and going back to the stove to give the stew another stir.  “He’s been playing hard all day, so I told him to lie down for a bit.  He fell right to sleep.  But supper is almost ready.  You’d better wake him.”

“I will,” Ben said, coming up behind her to nibble at her ear.  “But first things first.”

Inger raised her spoon in mock threat; and feigning a look of abject terror, Ben backed away from her and headed toward Adam’s room.

* * * * *

Somewhere far away a voice was pulling at the edge of Ben’s dreams.  But he wasn’t ready yet to surrender to the soft sound.  Instead, eyes still closed, he snuggled deeper into his pillow.  The voice, accompanied this time by a jouncing of the mattress on which Ben lay, became more insistent.

“Pa!” Adam called again, his bare toes clambering over his father’s legs.  “Mama!” he added stretching across to shake Inger’s arm.  ”You gotta see!”  Adam plopped down between his parents, giving a little bounce in hopes of rousing them.

Ben opened one eye reluctantly.  “Yes, son, what is it?” he asked sleepily.

“Lookee, Pa!” Adam demanded in what was, for him, an unusual display of self-assertion.  “Santa did come——just like Mama said.”

A chuckle tickled Ben’s lips.  Christmas morning.  Of course, Adam would waken early on one of the few mornings his father could afford to sleep in.  Well, it was the nature of little boys to be radiantly expectant on that of all mornings.

“Pa, look!” Adam said again, this time dropping a bulging stocking into his father’s lap.

Ben’s brown eyes finally opened to rest on Adam’s excited face.  He glanced to his left and saw Inger smiling at him.  “Merry Christmas,” she mouthed, though no sound escaped her lips.  Ben winked back and pulled himself to a sitting position.

“My, my,” he said.  “Looks like Santa brought you a full load.”

Adam turned his stocking bottom side up.  “Yeah, Pa, just look,” he said, a touch of wonder still edging his voice.

Inger giggled as the shower of nuts and hard candies rained onto Ben’s stomach.

“I see, son, I see,” Ben laughed.  “A treasure trove if ever there was one.”

“Oh, there’s more, Pa,” Adam crowed.  He dug deep into the toe of the stocking and pulled out a bright whistle and a shiny red apple as big as his hand.

“Well, look at that!” Ben said, beaming at his son.  “Santa sure did give my good boy a merry Christmas, didn’t he?”  He tousled Adam’s uncombed black hair.  “And you deserve every bit of it, Adam,” he added as he drew the boy close and playfully spatted the pink bottom peeking out from under his scrunched-up nightshirt.

“Yah, you do,” Inger added.  “Such a good boy you are alvays to help when asked——sometimes even vithout being asked.”

Adam glowed with pleasure at their words of praise.  “You ain’t seen the best yet, though,” he declared.

“Haven’t seen,” Ben corrected drowsily.

“You haven’t seen the best yet,” Adam said, uncharacteristically impatient with his father’s instruction.  Though Adam usually had an insatiable appetite for learning, there was a time for proper grammar and there was a time to just say what you felt.  You’d think a man as smart as Pa would know that.  Adam held up a new pair of red mittens.  “Ain’t—I mean—aren’t these grand, Pa?  I really needed new ones, too.”

“I guess Santa must have noticed how crowded your fingers were in the old ones,” Ben said.

“Yeah, but how could he know how much I’d want a book?” Adam asked, holding up the little primer he’d found beneath the mittens.  “It’s the best gift of all!”

“Oh, Santa knows everything,” Inger whispered mysteriously.  “He even knows that now you must pick up all his fine gifts, so I can get up to fix the special breakfast I promised.”

With a grin Adam began to search the folds of the coverlet for his scattered riches, stuffing them back into his stocking for the second time that morning.  When they were all safely inside, he slid off the bed and started back to his room.  At the door, he turned in sudden remembrance.  “You want I should bring you your present?” he asked.

A look of surprise crossed Ben’s face, but not Inger’s.  “Oh, did Santa bring us something?” she asked innocently.  “By all means, bring it, Adam.”

As the boy scampered eagerly into the other room to comply, Ben turned a searching eye on his wife’s face.  “I thought we agreed not to exchange gifts, Inger.”

“Yah,” Inger admitted, fiddling with the pale blue ribbon at the neck of her cream-colored linen nightgown, “but it seems Santa did not agree, Benyamin.”

Ben started to respond, but before he could, Adam ran back in, carrying a small, flat package clearly labeled “To Ben and Inger from Santa.”

“Oh, my, what can this be?” Inger asked coyly.

“I’m sure I don’t know,” Ben replied with strong emphasis on the personal pronoun.

“Then, you must open it,” Inger urged.

“It seems to be addressed to you, too,” Ben pointed out, but the only response he received was a sharp jab in his ribs from Inger’s elbow.  With a wry smile, Ben pulled the twine from the package and drew a slim volume from the enclosing brown paper.  The smile broadened to engulf his entire face.  “An emigrant’s guide!” he exclaimed and planted an exuberant kiss on his wife’s cheek.  “Do you have any idea how I’ve coveted this?”

He looked lovingly into his wife’s shining eyes.  Of course, she knew.  She’d seen him reach for the volume numerous times in Larrimore’s store.  But he’d always pulled his yearning fingers back, reluctant to whet his appetite for what he felt he could not afford.  “It’s the perfect gift, Inger,” he added softly.

“For both of us,” Inger agreed with a gentle squeeze of his hand.  “Santa must have heard us talking of our plans to go west, yah?”

“Well, you said Santa knows everything, right, Mama?” Adam piped in.

“And Mama is, as usual, right,” Ben laughed.

“Santa and Mama,” Adam said with a vigorous nod.  He couldn’t understand why his parents were both suddenly hit with an uncontrollable attack of the giggles.

* * * * *

Inger perched on the arm of the faded-gray, padded chair in which Ben sat, avidly perusing his new Christmas gift.  She ran loving fingers through her husband’s smooth, dark, almost black hair.  “Is the book all you hoped it vould be?” she asked.

Ben smiled up at her and pulled her into his lap.  “Oh, yes, it’s excellent!  Larrimore tells me the emigrants last year swore by Mr. Palmer’s guide, and I can see why.  It’s very informative.”

“Good,” Inger declared with a firm nod.  “It vas a good investment, then, yah?”

“Yah,” Ben agreed, pressing a kiss onto her lips.  He turned back to a page he had previously read.  “Here’s something I hadn’t thought of before, Inger.  Palmer advises parents to lay in a good supply of schoolbooks.  Mighty hard to obtain where we’re going.”

“Oh, yah,” Inger laughed.  “That ve must do.  Did you see how Adam’s eyes sparkled when he showed us his new primer?  He is a boy who must have learning, Ben.”

Ben looked proudly through the door to Adam’s room, where the boy lay sprawled on his bed, trying to sound out the new words his father had shown him after a marvelous breakfast of apple torte and sausage.  “Yes, we will have to pack all the books we can carry for that bright young mind.  Palmer warns, though, that the biggest mistake most travelers make is carrying too much weight.”

“Vell, ve have little else to take,” Inger laughed.  “Perhaps that is a blessing, my love.”

Ben looked tenderly into her face.  “I wish I could give you all your heart’s desire, sweetheart.”

Inger snuggled her cheek against his neck.  “I have my heart’s desire, Ben.  I have you.”  She sat up and looked steadily into his velvet brown eyes.  “I am glad ve have few vorldy goods, mine husband; it leaves us more room to carry true treasure.”

“Like schoolbooks for Adam?” Ben asked impishly.

Inger pulled his ear.  “That is not what I meant.  But, yah——that, too.  To give our son the education he needs for his future is more important than the foolish trinkets ve might othervise take.”

Ben’s thick fingers stroked Inger’s smooth cheek.  “Not only unselfish, but wise, too.  You are my ‘true treasure,’ Inger.”

Inger kissed his forehead.  “And you, mine.”  She slipped off his knee with a light-hearted laugh.  “But a truly wise voman vould know she must begin to prepare dinner, so I take my leave now, Mr. Cartwright.”

Ben squeezed her hand.  “It’s not fair, you know.  Here I sit enjoying my holiday, and you work twice as hard making the day special.”

Inger shrugged.  “Yah, I do get tired, but I remember how much I looked forward to the holidays as a girl——the special foods, the happy laughter.  I vant that same joy vith my own family now; and, to me, it is vorth the vork.”  Her eyes twinkled saucily.  “Now unhand me, sir, or I vill cook your goose instead of the one on the stove!”

Ben dropped her hand.  “By all means, woman, cook that goose!” he ordered, pointing toward the stove.

From his room Adam looked up from his book and grinned.  Pa was trying to sound bossy, but it just didn’t come across that way——not when even Adam could hear the chuckles choked back in Pa’s throat.

CHAPTER SEVEN

             With a soapy hand, Inger swiped back the strand of hair straggling across her forehead and put the final pot into the dishpan.  It was the end of a long day and she was tired.  Cleaning their small apartment behind the store never took much time, but Inger had done a week’s worth of bread-baking today in addition to preparing three meals for her family.  Then after supper there’d been pastries to bake for sale in the store tomorrow.  Her baked goods were becoming so popular that Larrimore had asked her to double the batches, and Inger could scarcely afford to say no when her efforts provided the only reliable income the family had.

That was still a sore point with Ben.  He continued to  pick up an odd job here, another there, but that didn’t provide the kind of security they could plan on.  Inger glanced over her shoulder at her husband, who sat at the dining table, the blue-checked cloth folded back to offer a smooth writing surface.  With a frown puckering his brow, he stared at a sheet of coarse-grained white stationery purchased that afternoon for a penny, as much money as Ben ever allotted for his personal use.  Obviously, the letter must be important.

Not wanting to disturb him, Inger lifted the pan of dirty dishwater and headed for the door; but Ben heard her steps and exploded out of his chair.  “Here, let me do that,” he ordered brusquely, reaching her in three brisk strides across the room.

“I can do it, Ben,” Inger insisted.  “I am a strong voman and used to vork.”

“Entirely too used to it,” Ben scolded.  “Unhand that dishpan, woman!”

Inger smiled and, releasing the pan to him, followed him onto the stoop.  Ben dumped the contents over the railing and turned to find himself in Inger’s arms.  The narrowness of the space, too narrow to be called a porch, almost guaranteed that any two people standing there at the same time be locked in embrace.  And these two rarely missed an opportunity for intimacy.

Inger laid her weary head on her husband’s broad shoulder, aware of, but scarcely heeding the light snow dusting down from the sky.  “A beautiful night,” she whispered.

“Umn,” Ben murmured in soft agreement, then looked directly into his wife’s face.  “Beautiful, indeed!”

Inger laughed softly and drew him back inside.  She went to the rickety rocker by the window and pulled her sewing basket into her lap.

“You’re tired,” Ben said.  “Can’t that wait ‘til tomorrow?”

Inger shrugged.  “I suppose, but I can only vork on it at night, remember?  Adam is in and out all day, and he must not see his birthday gift.”

“It’s better than a month to his birthday,” Ben reminded her.  “Surely, there’ll be enough nights between now and then.”

Inger nodded wearily.  “You are ready for bed, then?”

Ben glanced over at the sheet of paper lying on the table and sighed.  “Not quite, I’m afraid.”  He pulled the chair out and plopped down irritably.  “Duty calls,” he muttered, gripping the pen with grim determination.

Inger looked intently at him.  The duty, evidently, was an unpleasant one.  “What are you writing?” she asked.

Ben propped his head on his right elbow and smiled ruefully.  “Overdue correspondence——long overdue——to my brother John.  I’ve never let a Christmas pass without writing him, and here it is the middle of January.”

Inger’s sewing dropped into her lap.  “Your brother?  Why, Ben, I did not know you had a brother.  I suppose I thought because you and Adam came to Petersburg alone, you had no one in the vorld.  That vas foolish, yah?”

“You weren’t far wrong,” Ben said, willingly laying down his pen.  “John, his wife Martha and his son Will are virtually my only relations.  There are some distant cousins scattered throughout New England, but I never had much contact with them.  John and I were close, though, especially after the death of our parents.  We knew we had no one but each other and we developed strong bonds.  Whenever we were in port at the same time, we made it a point to see as much of each other as possible.  And we wrote frequently between times.”

Inger picked up her needle and threaded it.  “John is a sailor like you, then?”

“Was,” Ben corrected.  “When he married, his wife insisted he quit the sea.  He did, for her sake, but sometimes I think he’s never quite lost the wanderlust that made him sign on board his first ship.”  Glad of the excuse to procrastinate, Ben stood and walked toward Inger.  “John’s really the reason I went to sea,” he said, dropping into the padded chair near her.

“To be vith him?” Inger asked.

Ben chortled.  “Hardly!  I was only thirteen when our parents died——of influenza——and I guess all John could think to do with me was find me a job as a cabin boy.”

“So young?” Inger reached over to give Ben’s hand a pat.  “And he could not find a place for you vith him?  That is sad, Ben.”

“It was then,” Ben agreed.  “I spent the first few nights soaking my berth with tears.  But it turned out to be the blessing of my life.  You see, it was Captain Stoddard John placed me with.  He was a stern man to work for, but kind of heart.  When we were in port, he’d take me into his own home——at least, ‘til I was of age.  And that’s where I met Elizabeth.”

Inger kept her eyes on her sewing.  “No vonder you loved her so.  You must have been almost like brother and sister growing up.”

“Not quite,” Ben said, arching an eyebrow, “or I doubt we’d ever have married.  More like close friends who grew closer with each passing year.”

“Like ve are becoming, I hope,” Inger murmured quietly.

Ben pressed her fingers to his lips in reassurance.  “Like we already are, my love.  You need never fear that a memory will outshine your presence in my heart.”

They were the words Inger needed to hear.  She blew a kiss back at Ben and picked up her sewing again.  “But if you and John are so close, Ben, why do you seem so reluctant to write him?”

“Pride,” Ben admitted, “the same foolish pride that makes me squirm at the idea of my wife’s supporting me.”

“I scarcely do that, Benyamin,” Inger said with a rebuking shake of her head.  “I earn very little.  Your vork may not be steady, but it pays much more than mine.”

Ben shrugged.  “That’s true, of course.  In fact,” he admitted with a wry smile, “it’s about all that assuages that male pride of mine.”

Inger giggled.  “In that case, I shall be sure to keep my earnings small.  But seriously, Ben, why does this pride keep you from writing your brother?”

Ben stood and walked restlessly back to the table.  Leaning against it, he faced Inger.  “I saw John and his family when we went through Ohio, stayed with them awhile, in fact.  We didn’t part on the best of terms.”

Inger came to him and held him close.  “Oh, I am sorry, Ben.  You quarreled?”

“Not exactly,” Ben said, sitting down.  Inger hovered near, her hand resting on his shoulder.  “It’s just that we didn’t see eye to eye about my future.  John can’t seem to understand that I’m a grown man now, and I have to make my own decisions.  He still thinks big brother knows best.”

Inger smiled.  “Yah, I think I can understand that.  It is how I feel about Gunnar sometimes.  John did not think you should go west?”

Ben shook his head.  “Definitely not.  He wanted me to stay with him, help work the farm.”

Inger stroked his cheek.  “Like you vanted Gunnar to do?”

Ben closed his eyes and chuckled.  “Maybe that’s why I understood Gunnar’s need to strike out on his own.  It wasn’t quite the same, though.  Gunnar could have had his own place right from the start, while I’d have been little more than a hired hand with John.”

Ben shook his head as he remembered the hurtful words he and John had hurled at each other.  “John’s land is so poor it barely supports him and his wife and boy.  Adam and I were an added strain and I knew it.  But John called me a fool for leaving, told me I’d soon learn how hard making my own way could be.  As if nearly five years on the road hadn’t already taught me!”

“So you are afraid to write and tell him he vas right, yah?”

“Yah!” Ben agreed, pushing the distasteful piece of stationery away.  “I’ve put it off in hopes of being able to tell him I have a good job and good prospects for the future.  But I guess it just isn’t going to happen, and I can’t bear losing contact with my only kin.  So, I’ll have to swallow my pride and let him know where I am.  Then I can just sit back and wait for his gloating letter telling how little brother should have listened to big brother.”

“Oh, Ben, you are being a child——a silly, frightened child,” Inger said, circling his shoulders with a comforting embrace.  “Write to John.  Tell him all your good news——that you have a wife and son who adore you, food on your table and a solid roof over your head.  Tell him what you are learning of this new land to which ve go, your hopes for a better life there.  And if he gloats, then he vill be the one acting like a child.”

Ben looked up at her sheepishly, amusement crinkling his eyes.  “How does it feel to be the only adult in a family of children, ma’am?”

Inger kissed his high forehead.  “I have alvays vanted to be a mother,” she laughed, “so it feels vonderbar.  Now, I must leave you to your letter while I check on my other little boy.”  Giving Ben’s hair a light tousle, she went into Adam’s room, pulled the open primer from beneath his hand and tucked him in snugly.  Not wanting to distract Ben’s thoughts, she then went quietly to bed.

Ben began to write and once the logjam of pride was broken, the words flowed easily.  Inger was right:  he had so much to be thankful for that it immeasurably overshadowed any negative aspects of his life. If John could overlook those, he would certainly be glad to hear that his younger brother was happily remarried.

Ben chuckled.  At least, he’d have Martha on his side on that count.  She’d preached Ben more than one sermon on his obligation to provide a new mother for Adam; and to escort her brother-in-law to the altar of repentance, she’d even introduced him to half a dozen buxom applicants for the job.  Ben hadn’t been ready then to open his heart to another.  It had taken Inger’s patient persistence to break down the barriers he had raised against further pain.  But oh! how glad he was now that they were down so he could receive the love she gave so freely.  And how foolish he’d been to keep this joyous news secret, just to avoid sharing less propitious tidings.

Ben mailed the letter the next morning, and walked the streets of St. Joseph with a light step, even though it was one of those days when no work was to be found.  Admitting his troubles to John somehow eased them, as if it had been not economic concerns, but the need for his brother’s approval that weighed Ben down.  Maybe confession really was good for the soul, he thought, and decided he’d better remember that.  As good a boy as Adam was, the time was bound to come when he perpetrated some childish prank.  Then Ben would be able to tell him from experience that it was better to ‘fess up and face the consequences than to harbor guilt in his heart and let fear destroy his joy in living.

Ben’s brighter attitude came when it was needed most.  For as the snows of January deepened during February, his days of employment came further apart.  So far, they hadn’t had to dip into their savings for the trip, other than a bit at Christmas; but unless things picked up soon, Ben knew he couldn’t make that claim for long.

* * * * *

By the third week of February the snows were deep enough to delight the hearts of children, if not those of the mothers who fought an unending battle against slush-covered floors.  After a day of such battles, Inger was setting the table for supper one night when an imperative knocking sounded on the door between the Cartwright’s  apartment and Larrimore’s Mercantile and Outfitting Headquarters.  She looked sharply at Ben, worry clouding her eyes.  It was so unusual to have someone seek entry from that direction that she instinctively feared some serious problem must have prompted the intrusion.

“I’ll get it,” Ben said quietly from the armchair where he was helping Adam with his reading.  He set the boy down and walked to the door.  Seeing their landlord, he breathed a sigh of relief.  “Why, come in, Mr. Larrimore.  This is an unexpected pleasure.”

“Sorry to barge in right at suppertime, folks,” Larrimore said, “but I’m at my wits’ end.”

“How can we help you, Mr. Larrimore?” Inger asked with a welcoming smile.

Without further invitation Larrimore came in and plunked himself into a chair beside the table.  He ran nervous fingers through his black hair; then looked at Ben, who sat down across the table from his guest.  “Have you seen the folks pouring into this town the last couple weeks, Cartwright?”

“To be sure!” Ben exclaimed.  “I wonder there’s a boarding place left with a vacancy.  Sure makes me glad we found this place when we did.”

“There’s still some left, but filling up fast,” Larrimore said, nodding his head emphatically.  “Everyone’s bound and determined to be in one of the first trains out this spring.  That’s what gold fever’ll do to folks, I guess.  And they’re scared supplies will run short, so everyone’s trying to stock up now.  The store’s full from morning to night with folks needing everything under the sun.”

Ben chuckled.  “But that’s good, isn’t it?  More customers mean more profit, I’ve always found.”

Larrimore drummed fidgety fingers on the tablecloth.  “Ever hear the phrase ‘too much of a good thing?’  I’m worn to a frazzle, Cartwright; and my missus is fuming ‘cause I’ve been late to dinner four nights running.”  He folded his hands to keep them still and continued.  “I’ve finally come to the conclusion that I just can’t manage by myself.  Inger here once told me you’d had some experience keeping shop, so I was wondering if I could talk you into helping me out.”

Ben could feel a bubble of excitement working its way up his throat.  He sent a quick, but significant glance toward Inger, then smiled.  “Well, Mr. Larrimore, as it happens, I can probably work you into my busy schedule.”

“You sure?” Larrimore asked, so caught up in his own frantic distress that he missed the irony in Ben’s voice.  “I know some of the places you’ve worked pay a mite more than I could afford; but, at least, I can promise you a steady job.”

Ben thrust his hand toward his new employer.  “That’s what I’ve been looking for, sir.  Shall I start tomorrow?”

“Bright and early,” Larrimore replied, giving Ben’s hand a hearty shake.  He stood, seeming embarrassed by the panicky way he’d presented the job offer.  He gave a short bow to Inger and backed toward the door.  “See you tomorrow, then.  And a good evening to you folks.”  He turned and slid quickly out, shutting the door behind him.

The giggles Inger had been suppressing behind her slender fingers burst like a waterfall cascading into a valley stream.  “Oh, Ben!” she laughed.  “He looked so fearful you vould say no.  How could he not know how much you have vanted just what he offers?”

Ben shook his head, a broad smile spreading across his face as he practically swept Inger from her feet and began to dance her around the room.  “I’ll never understands what makes some folks tick, Inger, but just now I don’t really care.  It’s time to celebrate!”

Adam bounded toward his parents and pulled on his father’s gray pant’s leg.  “Me, too, Pa!” he insisted.  “Let me celebrate, too!”

Ben laughed, scooping the youngster up in  his right arm while he circled Inger’s waist with his left. “Well, I guess so, little man!”  He began to swing and sway in time to some unheard melody.  “After all, you’re the one with a birthday coming.  And our good news just might mean you’ll have a grander one.”

Adam crowed happily, but Inger pushed Ben’s arm away.  “You two vill have to celebrate vithout me for a while or the chicken vill burn.”

“Well, then, we’ll just wait,” Ben declared, carrying Adam back to the armchair.  He rumpled the boy’s straight dark hair as he dandled him on his knee.  “Now, as long as we’re on the subject,” he began, “is there anything my good boy would especially like for his birthday?”

Adam’s black eyes widened at the unexpected question.  But he didn’t have to think twice.  “What I’d like most in the world is to go to school, Pa.  Do you think I could?”

“Why, son, I hadn’t thought to start you in school,” Ben answered carefully.  “You’ve been a mite young ‘til now.   And we still plan to go west come spring, so you wouldn’t get much learning in before then.”

Adam’s face drooped with disappointment.  “I’d sure like to learn all I could, though, Pa,” he said quietly.

Ben snuggled the small head against his muscular chest.  “Well, we’ll see, Adam.  I’m not sure what the schoolmaster would think of someone jumping in midstream, so to speak.  But if that’s really what you want, I’ll look into it.”

Adam’s expression brightened immediately.  “Thanks, Pa!” he cried, then leaned over to pull his primer from the small table beside the chair.  “Don’t you think I’d best learn some more words if I’m going to school soon?” he asked earnestly.

“The more, the better,” Ben agreed, opening the book to the page they’d been studying before Mr. Larrimore came in.  He pointed to a word near the top.  “What’s that say, Adam?”

Adam pursed his lips, then burst into a smile of recognition.  “‘Man,’ Pa.  It says ‘man.’”

* * * * *

Three days later the Cartwright household was in an early-morning bustle as Inger tried to get her husband off to work and an exuberant Adam ready for his first day of school.  “Hold still, Adam,” she admonished, pulling a comb through his sleep-rumpled hair.

“It hurts, Mama!” Adam protested.

Ben looked up from his final cup of coffee.  “Well, it wouldn’t if you’d stand still as your mother asks.”

“Yes, sir,” Adam said, shrugging in resignation.  He tried to hold himself rigid, but he couldn’t tell that it made any difference.  He still felt as if he were being yanked hairless.  Why couldn’t his mother leave well enough alone?

But Inger seemed determined that her son would look his best as he began his education.  Although Adam’s birthday wasn’t until tomorrow, she’d given him his new shirt this morning.  He’d been thrilled to start school with something new, but seemed less appreciative of the scrubbing his mother had given his face and hands.  Inger, however, surveyed his shiny cheeks with satisfied pride, then pressed a kiss on each one of them.  “There now, you look bright as a copper penny!”

Adam’s nose wrinkled.  He wasn’t sure he wanted to look like a shiny penny.  But taking a peek in the windowpane, he decided he liked what he saw and stood admiring his reflection.  Catching the change in his son’s countenance, Ben laughed.  “Now, there’s a face to turn a few girls’ heads!”

Adam spun around.  “Girls!”  he scoffed.  “Who wants girls gawking at him?”

“Oh, not you,” Ben agreed with forced gravity.  “You’re much too serious a scholar to be interested in girls, right, Adam?”

“Right!” Adam declared with an emphatic nod of his head.

Ben winked at Inger.  The look they exchanged clearly said that Adam’s attitude was bound to change, and Inger found herself wondering how she’d react to the young lady who wed her precious Adam.  That day was far in the future, though.  For now, he was still hers to hold.

And yet, even today, he was taking his first step away. Inger feared she’d miss his little feet running in and out, no matter how much cleaner her floor stayed without them.  And so far she’d seen no indication there would ever be the pitter-patter of smaller feet to replace those of the big brother making his way out into the world.  Well, she and Ben had only been married three months.  Too soon to worry yet, but Inger longed for the day she could tell Ben the happy news that he was to be a father once again.

Inger was jerked out of her reverie by the sound of Ben’s chair scooting back from the table.  As he stood, she moved into his open arms to give him a farewell kiss.

“Have a good day, my love,” he said, returning the kiss heartily.  He looked through the window and, seeing a light snow beginning to fall, grinned at Adam.  “Sure glad I don’t have to go out in that cold, son,” he teased.

“I like cold,” Adam said, a stubborn frown pursing his lips.

Ben arched a thick brown eyebrow.  “First I ever heard of it,” he said wryly.  Adam had always shown much more proclivity for curling up in his father’s lap near a warm fire and listening to a good story than for tromping through snowdrifts.  Ben’s stony expression cracked then, and Adam knew Pa wasn’t really put out with him.  He grinned back as his father tousled the hair Inger had so carefully combed and headed for the connecting door to the store.

“Oh, Ben!” Inger called, turning from the stove where she was dishing up Adam’s oatmeal.  “You’re forgetting the pastries!”  She snatched the basket from the wooden slab that served as kitchen counter and rushed toward him.

“Mercy, woman, don’t let me leave without those!” Ben scolded playfully.  “Why, Larrimore would probably fire me on the spot if I forgot to bring his favorite merchandise!”

Inger handed him the basket and slapped her palm against his backside as he hurried out.

Adam chortled.  He never thought he’d see Pa take a licking.

Inger turned around and wagged a cautioning finger at Adam.  But she was smiling as she did.  Oh, how she’d miss both her naughty children today!

* * * * *

Hearing footsteps tromping on the stairs, Inger looked up from the gray sock she was darning and smiled as the door blared open.  “Shut it tight, Adam,” she called.  “The wind’s blustery today.”

“It sure is!” Adam agreed.  He pushed the door shut with both hands and turned the latch.

Inger set her sewing basket at her feet and spread her arms wide.  Needing no further invitation, Adam jumped into her lap, obviously still bouncing with energy despite a day’s schooling.  Inger cuddled him close for a minute, then tilted her head to study his face.  He looked happy, she decided.  “You had a good day, yah?”

“Oh, the best ever, Mama,” Adam declared.  “I just love school!”

“That is good!” Inger said, her beaming face reflecting his enthusiasm.  “Tell me all about it, then.”

Adam’s face puckered in thought.  “Well, it’s more than just reading and printing.  We did sums like 1+1=2, 1+2=3, and we studied ge—geography.  The teacher let me tell about some of the places Pa and me traveled through.”

“What is your teacher’s name, Adam?”

“Mr. Edwards, Mama, and he’s real nice.  Most of the other boys and girls started last fall, so I was kind of behind, but Mr. Edwards says he’ll help me catch up quick.  And you know the best thing of all?”

“No, what is that, Adam?” Inger asked with a gay giggle.

“Mr. Edwards has a boy just older than me.  He’s real smart and has lots of books.  He said I could borrow one when my reading’s a little better.”

“So you made a new friend?”

Adam nodded vigorously.  “I think he’s gonna be a special friend, Mama.  Most of the other kids just sort of looked me over, like they couldn’t decide whether I belonged or not.  But Jamie asked me to sit with him right off and helped me with the words I didn’t know.”

Inger cupped her son’s face in her hands.  “Jamie sounds very special, indeed.  But don’t vorry, Adam.  The others vill soon see what a fine friend you vill make.”

“You reckon?” Adam asked seriously.  “I want to have lots of friends, Mama.”

“And so you vill,” she assured him.  “But never forget who reached toward you first.  Such people make the best friends.”

Adam grinned as he slid off Inger’s lap.  “I’ll remember,” he said.  He licked his lips as he saw the platter of cookies set on the table.  “It’d sure be easy to make friends with some of those,” he hinted.

“Vould it?” Inger asked, amusement tickling her lips.  “And could you also find room for a glass of milk?”

Adam laughed.  “Yeah, that’d be good, too.”

Inger stood and gave him an impulsive kiss as she went to get the milk.

Adam was still bubbling over with news of school at the supper table that evening.  “And guess what we’re doing on Thursday, Pa?  You’ll never guess!”

Ben arched an eyebrow saucily.  “In that case, I won’t try.  What marvelous activity is planned for Thursday, Adam?”

“A birthday party!” Adam announced.

“For you?” Inger asked.  “How nice!  But it vill be two days late.”

Ben grabbed for a napkin and choked in his attempt to keep his laughter from exploding through it.  “Oh, Inger, Inger!” he scolded gently.  “It’s easy to see you didn’t learn much American history in school.”

“And why should I?” Inger asked, drawing herself proudly erect.  “I vent to school in Sveden, Ben.”

“I know, I know,” Ben said, cupping his chin in his hand to gaze at her with chuckling chocolate eyes.  “Tell her, Adam.  Surely you studied that particular bit of history today.”

Adam laid his fork down and folded his hands, looking as much like the schoolmaster he already revered as was possible for a soon-to-be six-year-old.  “February 22nd is George Washington’s birthday, Mama.  He was—”

“I know who he vas,” Inger interrupted.  “The first president.  I just did not know his birthday.  So, it is Thursday, and you vill all celebrate, yah?”

Adam nodded and picked up his fork again.  “I never knew my birthday was so close to a president’s”

Ben cleared his throat.  “Well, since you know now, maybe you’d rather skip your birthday party and just share old George’s.”

The fork dropped with a clatter.  “You don’t mean it, do you, Pa?” Adam asked urgently.

Since Ben still looked in a mood to tease, Inger decided it was time to intervene.  After all, some topics were not fit subjects for jokes.  “Of course, he does not mean it, Adam,” she assured the anxious boy.  “Ve vill have your special birthday supper tomorrow night, just as ve planned.”  Inger turned reproachful blue eyes on her husband.  “And I do not think it is respectful to call the father of our country ‘old George,’ Ben.”

“Even I know better than that,” Adam declared with a smug jut of his chin.

Ben snapped rebuking fingers at Adam, then shrugged.  “All right, I stand corrected.  But you’d best remember to respect your own father, too, boy.”

Adam gulped.  “Yes, sir.  I’m sorry, Pa.”

“All right,” Ben said with a serious nod; then his face relaxed.  “I guess I shouldn’t have teased about your birthday, son.  I know how important a day that is to a youngster.”

Reassured that he was no longer in his father’s bad graces, Adam’s face brightened.  “I was wondering, Pa—” he began timidly.

“Yes?” Ben said, drawing the word out to encourage a response.  “Don’t tell me you want to put in a new list of wants at this late date.”

“Oh, no, Pa!”  Adam stroked the blue flannel shirt Inger had made him.  “This is all the present I want——this and getting to go to school, like I asked.  I just wondered if I could ask someone to my special dinner.”

“Jamie?” Inger asked with a knowing smile.

Adam grinned back at her.  “Yeah, how’d you guess?”  Not waiting for an answer, he rushed on.  “Would it be okay to ask him?  He wouldn’t eat much.”

Inger’s breath caught in her throat.  “Oh, Adam!  Your friends are velcome here anytime.  Ve vill alvays have food enough to share vith a friend.  Alvays——you understand?”

“That’s right,” Ben added.  “So, if it’s all right with your friend’s parents, we’ll be glad to have him.”

“He doesn’t have a mama,” Adam reported.  “That’s why I’d ‘specially like him to come.  A fella just doesn’t know what grand meals he’s missing when he doesn’t have a mama.  I gave him some of that pound cake you sent in my lunch pail, and he said it was the best thing he’d had in a long time, Mama.  I don’t think him and his pa eat so good most meals.”

Inger’s eyes grew misty, touched both by Adam’s compliment and the sadness of a motherless child, such a one as Adam had so recently been.  “I am glad you thought to ask him, Adam.”  Suddenly, she turned to Ben.  “But perhaps ve should not ask just the boy.  It vould be good to meet Adam’s teacher, and he might enjoy a home-cooked meal, too.”

“I’ve met Edwards, of course,” Ben said, “when I enrolled Adam.  But I’d like to become better acquainted, and tomorrow night would be a fine time to have him and his boy over.”

“Oh, good!” Adam said, wriggling happily in his chair.  “This is gonna be the grandest birthday ever!  Better even than old George’s!”  Then he slunk sheepishly down to avoid the stern looks from both his parents.  Pa always let him know fast when he’d nudged one toe too far over the line, and the eve of his birthday was no time to get in trouble.

* * * * *

Ben stroked the soft blonde hair flowing over his bare chest, and Inger rubbed her cheek against his breastbone in response.  “You didn’t say much about your day,” she said.

Ben chuckled.  “Now, how was I supposed to get a word in?”

Inger laughed and rolled back onto her pillow.  “Adam vas excited, vasn’t he?”

Ben turned on his right side so he could still twirl a lock of her long hair around his fingers.  “That he was.  I didn’t have much news anyway——just a real busy day.  But they’re all like that lately.”

“I know,” Inger said, incredulity tingeing her voice.  “So many people.  Where do they all stay, Ben?”

Ben shrugged.  “We’ve been selling a lot of tents.”

Inger sat up abruptly.  “Oh, but no, Ben!  Surely, people are not living in tents vith snow on the ground.”

Ben nodded soberly.  “I think some are, my love.  Maybe we weren’t such fools after all, coming early as we did.”

Inger reached out to touch Ben’s stubbled cheek.  “Ve were in God’s hands after all, yah?”

Ben smiled.  “So it would seem.  There’s more folks than even Larrimore expected, though.  He’s running short of some supplies.”

Inger gasped.  “Oh, Ben!  I just thought.  Ve have purchased nothing for our journey.”

Ben reached for her hand.  “And where would we put it if we did?  With a whole warehouse next door, Larrimore didn’t put much storage space in his quarters.”

Inger giggled.  “You think I have not noticed.  That kitchen cupboard barely holds our few pots and pans.  I don’t vonder Mrs. Larrimore vanted more room.”  Her expression sobered.  “But, Ben, what vill ve do?  If ve vait ‘til nearer time to leave, vill not the things ve need be taken already?”

“I was concerned about that,” Ben admitted, “and I mentioned it to Larrimore.  He assured me he has other shipments already in route from downriver and that he’ll see to it he doesn’t sell out of the things we want.  Might be a good idea to make a list, though, so we can tell him just what we’ll need.”

“I’ll do it tomorrow,” Inger promised.

“Good,” Ben said, then laughed.  “I just hope I can get Larrimore’s mind off gold long enough to show it to him.”

Inger snickered.  “Oh, no!  Don’t tell me Mr. Larrimore has the gold fever, too!”

“Definite symptoms,” Ben replied as they snuggled under the covers.  “Wouldn’t surprise me if any day he announced he was ready to throw his business to the wind and head for California.”

“Vell, at least, ve vould have friends on the journey,” Inger laughed.

Ben looked like he’d just eaten a sour pickle.  “You haven’t seen much of Mrs. Larrimore, my dear.  She’s not a traveling companion I think you’d relish.”

Irritated by what she considered backbiting, Inger spatted Ben’s hand and turned a cold shoulder to him.  But she couldn’t long ignore the tender kisses on her neck; and with a smile of forgiveness, she cuddled close, feeling cozy and protected as she fell asleep with Ben’s arms cradling her.

* * * * *

“Can we please be excused, Pa?” Adam asked as soon as he’d swallowed his final bite of birthday cake.  “Jamie wants to see my room.”

Ben glanced at the pale, honey-haired boy sitting next to Adam.  “Have you had all you want to eat, Jamie?”

Young Jamie turned sparkling hazel eyes toward Ben.  “Oh, yes, sir——plenty——and more.”

“Then, it’s all right with me if you boys are excused.  Mr. Edwards?”

Mr. Edwards stroked his smartly-trimmed auburn goatee in apparent thought, then nodded.  “You’re excused, Jamie.  But we won’t be able to stay much longer.  I still have papers to mark tonight.”

“Yes, sir,” Jamie said.  He stood and pushed his chair carefully back under the table.  He turned to Inger.  “It was a wonderful meal, ma’am.  I enjoyed it ever so much.”

“You are most velcome, Jamie,” Inger replied warmly, for she had been gratified to see this overly-thin youngster clean his plate.  “You must come back again——perhaps after school sometime for cookies and milk, yah?”

Jamie smiled brightly.  “Yes, ma’am!”

Adam pulled his friend’s arm.  “Come on!” he insisted.  Good manners were important, as he’d been taught himself, but if they really had only a short time left together, it shouldn’t all be squandered on the grownups.

“I must add my compliments to my young son’s,” Mr. Edwards told Inger as the boys scurried into the next room.  “Truly, a wonderful meal, Mrs. Cartwright.  I can’t remember when I’ve shared a better one.”

Ben chuckled.  “I can well understand your appreciation, sir.  Until a few months ago, I was at the mercy of boardinghouse meals.  And while they were satisfactory, there’s no comparison to the ones I’ve enjoyed since November, when Inger and I married.”  He lifted the metal coffee pot.  “Would you care for another cup?”

“I shouldn’t,” Edwards acknowledged, “but this is so much tastier than what I’m accustomed to, I’m afraid I can’t resist.”  His sapphire eyes twinkled as he extended his cup.  “In fact, if you were to offer me another slice of that magnificent cake, I’d probably find that greater temptation than I could resist, too.”

Pleased by the praise of her cooking, Inger cut another slice of cake while Ben poured a third cup of the rich, dark brew for the schoolmaster.  Edwards added sugar and cream to his taste.  “Married in November, you say?  You’re newlyweds, then,” he concluded.  “I realized, of course, that you were not Adam’s birth mother, Mrs. Cartwright, but I hadn’t guessed your relationship to be so new.  You both seem as melded together as a couple of much longer acquaintance.”

Inger’s lake blue eyes opened wide.  “Did Adam tell you I vas not his true mother, Mr. Edvards?” she asked curiously.  “I did not think you had had time to learn so much of him yet.”

“Oh, no,” Edwards said, setting the aromatic coffee aside.  “I’m certain Adam would never say anything of the sort.  It is so obvious that he does think of you as his true mother.  Actually, Mrs. Cartwright, you told me yourself, the first time you opened your mouth.”

“But I said nothing,” Inger protested.

Edwards wagged a finger at her.  “Ah, but it was how you said it.”  Seeing her perplexed expression, the schoolmaster smiled as he cut off a bite of cake with his fork.  “I mean no offense, madam, but it is obvious from your speech patterns that you were not born in this country.  One of the Nordic lands, I believe?”

“Yah,” Inger said, pleased by his accurate analysis of her heritage.  “I am from Sveden, Mr. Edvards, and I know it shows in the vay I speak.  I am not offended——or ashamed,” she added.

Edwards looked kindly into her clear, direct eyes.  He had seen enough prejudice toward foreigners to understand her addendum.  “Nor should you be,” he assured her.  “Your thoughts are beautifully expressed and your accent is charming.  But in my years as an instructor I’ve noticed that children tend to pick up the speech patterns of those with whom they spend the most time.  In the case of a child Adam’s age, that person is usually the mother.  So the fact that he speaks English without a trace of your Swedish idioms or accent suggests he learned it somewhere other than your knee.”

“Yah,” Inger agreed readily.  “All Adam knows he has learned from his father.”

“And you’ve done a fine job, if I may say so, Mr. Cartwright,” Edwards complimented.  “Adam is remarkably well-spoken for a youngster from these parts, as well as more than normally bright and eager to learn.”

Ben flushed with pride.  “You think Adam will do well, then, despite his late start.”

“I think it will prove a small handicap, indeed,” Edwards responded earnestly.  “I’m quite impressed, in fact, by your enrolling him at all.  Most of the emigrants camping around town seem to consider education of little value.”

Ben laughed self-consciously.  “I’m afraid it’s Adam who deserves the credit for that.  Though I do value education highly, I was hesitant for him to begin formal schooling when he’d get so little of it before we left.  But it was all the boy wanted for his birthday, and I could scarcely refuse the pleading look in those dark eyes.”

“Well, I’m even more impressed,” Edwards said, “and delighted you listened to your wise young son.  I’m convinced a good foundation is vital to a child’s education, and I pledge to you that Adam will receive that, however short his time with me may be.”

Ben and Inger looked warmly at their guest, feeling drawn to this man, as well as his young son.  Both the Edwards obviously needed the kind of friendship that had been extended tonight, but the Cartwrights felt amply repaid for the fellowship of their home by the promise the schoolmaster had just made.  Josiah Edwards radiated sincerity.  He was obviously the kind of man who would take such a pledge seriously and do all in his power to keep it faithfully.

CHAPTER EIGHT

             March charged in like the proverbial lion, its icy blasts abated by an occasional day of warmer temperatures.  But inside the Cartwright’s cozy home, life settled into a comfortable routine.  Ben was busy all day in the store; for despite the bleak weather, California-bound emigrants poured into St. Joseph almost daily.  Ben took pride and pleasure in being able to share with them the knowledge he had gleaned from studious perusal of his guidebook, but he had to laugh when the new arrivals expressed gratitude for the benefit of his experience in outfitting travelers.  Still, Ben’s book-learned advice was all they could count on at this store.  Larrimore, who actually had the experience being accorded Ben, had become so wrapped up in discussing the latest reports of gold with each new customer that he virtually left the recommendation of supplies and their sale to his employee.

Inger, never able to keep her fingers idle for long, worked happily at home.  Every day was baking day now.  With a growing number of new families in town hungry for what they had no place to prepare themselves, she was always baking bread or pastries, and, more importantly, cookies.  Young Jamie Edwards was making so many after-school appearances at her table for milk and cookies that Inger came to feel she already had a second son, although she could not seem to conceive herself.

As Jamie sat at Inger’s table, milk frosting his upper lip, he shared the sorrow of losing his own mother.  That had been less than a year ago, and Inger’s tender heart ached for the child’s obvious yearning for comfort.  Jamie was a sweet, sensitive boy, so delicate himself that Inger knew he must be the picture of his frail, consumptive mother, rather than his stalwart father.  If ever a child needed extra cookies and cuddles, it was this honey-haired, hazel-eyed, heart-broken child, so Inger never begrudged the dwindling flour and sugar barrels.  The supplies were spent in a good cause.

Jamie’s father, too, benefited from the Cartwright’s provisions.  He had proven such a congenial guest on his first visit that he had received a weekly invitation since that time.  Ben remembered all too well the monotony of boardinghouse menus; and while their own did not list gourmet fare, Josiah Edwards waxed eloquent in its praise.  It wasn’t the compliments, however, that made Ben and Inger urge his return week after week.  At first, it had been simple compassion for a family as bereft of home and hearth as Ben’s had once been.  But the more time they spent with the urbane schoolmaster, the more they came to appreciate his stimulating conversation and unpretentious desire to share the wealth of his knowledge.  The deepening relationship of the two families blessed both, as true friendship always does; but each felt itself the recipient of the greater good, and the other the true benefactor.

While Mr. Edwards presented his mealtime lessons with a humble heart, his newest pupil lauded him nightly.  In Adam’s opinion, there was nothing Mr. Edwards did not know, and he eagerly shared each new discovery he made at school with his attentive parents.  They somehow managed to hide their smiles as the youngster gave avid lectures on lessons Ben and Inger had long since learned.  After all, the material was new to Adam, and they didn’t want to dampen his enthusiasm.  Sometimes, though, simple as the lessons were, his parents found themselves learning some new fact about history or geography; and those insights provided a starting place for dinner conversations with their friend Josiah each Friday evening.

Adam was doing well in school and had never seemed happier.  As Inger had predicted, he soon found himself surrounded by friends.  None, however, held a candle to Jamie in Adam’s eyes.  Not only had the schoolmaster’s son been Adam’s first friend, but the love of learning they shared gave them more in common with each other than with any of the other students.  They were in and out of each other’s homes constantly, sometimes visiting both in a single day.  For while Jamie found a feast of cookies and love in Inger’s kitchen, Adam feasted with equal satisfaction on the rich fare of Jamie’s bookshelf.

* * * * *

Daylight was just beginning to fade as Ben closed the store’s door behind its final customer.  He turned to smile at Larrimore, who was straightening the ten-pound bags of salt on the shelf behind the counter.  “If there’s nothing further, sir,” Ben said, echoing the words he used every night at closing time, “I’ll see you in the morning.”

But Larrimore’s response this evening was different.  “Actually, there is something I’d like to discuss with you, Cartwright,” he said, turning and placing both hands palm down on the counter.

Surprised, Ben stopped halfway to the door that connected the store with his quarters.  “Certainly, sir.  At your service.”

Larrimore licked his lips nervously as he plucked the strings tying his apron around his waist.  “Sure are a ton of folks heading for California, aren’t there, Cartwright?”

Ben gave a short laugh, puzzled as to why Larrimore wanted to discuss something so obvious.  “That there are, sir.  You should show a record profit this year, Mr. Larrimore.”

Larrimore nodded absently, pulling the apron over his head and dropping it on the counter.  “Yes, and you’re due substantial credit for that, Cartwright.”

Ben’s eyes brightened.  “Why, thank you, sir.  I’m glad you’re pleased with my work.”

Larrimore came out from behind the counter.  “More than pleased, Cartwright.  More than pleased,” he said, rushing his words.  “I don’t doubt you could handle this business completely on your own, and there’s no one I’d trust more.”

A broad smile split Ben’s face, but something in Larrimore’s expression made him wonder what all this soft soap was intended to prepare him for.

He didn’t have to wait long to find out.  “Fact is,” Larrimore stammered, “I’ve been wondering if you wouldn’t like to do just that.”

Ben leaned forward, studying Larrimore intently.  “Do just what, sir?”

Larrimore grinned, too broadly to be natural.  “Why, manage the store for me while I’m away.”

Ben cocked his head.  “I hadn’t realized you were planning a trip.  But, of course, I’d be glad to manage the business during your absence.”  The sudden uplifting of Larrimore’s countenance made Ben cautious.  “Just how long did you plan to be gone, Mr. Larrimore?”

Larrimore ducked his head, a sheepish grin twisting his lips.  “A year?” he said, sounding as if he were asking permission.

“A year?” Ben sputtered in shock.  “Surely, you’re joking, Mr. Larrimore.”

Larrimore shook his head violently.  “No, no joke, Cartwright.  It’s a serious offer, and I’d pay you well.”

Ben’s brief laugh was one of amazement rather than amusement.  “You must remember, sir, that my family and I are going west this spring.”

Larrimore stepped hastily toward Ben.  “I know.  I know that was your plan, but if you’ll agree to wait a year, I’ll make it well worth your while.”  Larrimore stuffed his hands in his pockets and scuffed the floor with his right foot.  “I might as well admit it, Cartwright.  I’ve got the fever bad.”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  He scarcely needed to be told that Larrimore indeed suffered from gold fever.  Not when you could almost see the gold glitter in the storekeeper’s eyes every time an argonaut entered the mercantile with more news of the fabulous wealth to be gained in California.  “I see,” Ben said simply.  He paused for a moment.  “Mr. Larrimore, I realize you are my employer, but I’d like to speak with you man to man for a moment, if I may.”

“To be sure, to be sure,” Larrimore said, his head bobbing.  “In fact, it’s high time we were on a first name basis——Ben, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Ben agreed.  “Now, Mr.——I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t know your first name.”

“Lawrence,” Larrimore said quickly, “but please don’t shorten it to Larry.  I can’t abide the way that fits with my surname.”

Ben could see why.  Whatever had possessed the man’s parents to tag him with a name like Larry Larrimore?  “I count you as a friend, Lawrence,” he said without referring to the offensive diminutive.  “You’ve certainly been one to my family.  And now I’d like to return your many favors with what I trust is good advice, from one friend to another.”

Larrimore held up a silencing hand.  “I know.  I’ve already given myself a dozen reasons to stay put right here.”  He grinned that sheepish grin once again.  “Trouble is, I’m not listening.”

Ignoring the intended humor, Ben spread his hands in an almost pleading gesture.  “Don’t you realize you already have a gold mine in this store, Lawrence?”

Larrimore began to pace.  “I do, of course.  That’s why I don’t want to close the store.  But if all the tales of California are true, I could earn enough there in one year to give my wife the kind of life she’s always yammering for.  And if you’d stay and run things here, I wouldn’t be risking everything to make that happen.”

Ben grew sober.  “I’m sorry, Larrimore,” he said.  “My plans are made, and we’ve delayed them so many times already that a good job is no lure.”

Larrimore grabbed Ben’s biceps.  “I’d be more than generous,” he promised.

Ben smiled kindly.  “I’m sure you would, Lawrence; but it’s not money I’m interested in, beyond enough to meet my family’s needs.”

Larrimore grabbed Ben’s other arm.  “What about a share in my mine, say one percent?”

Ben laughed as he shook himself free.  “I’m looking for a home, not a mountain of gold.”  As Larrimore again reached a delaying hand toward him, Ben clapped the man on both shoulders and edged past him.  “The answer is no, sir.  And that is definite.”  He headed toward the door to his home.

“Five percent?” Larrimore called.

Ben merely shook his head in disbelief and turned away from the storekeeper’s pleading eyes.

* * * * *

Ben had thought the discussion closed, but he daily realized how wrong he had been.  Almost nightly Larrimore broached the subject again, offering larger and larger shares of his prospective gold mine.  Over supper each night Ben and Inger laughed at the shopkeeper’s latest proposal.  When Larrimore’s offer reached twenty-five percent, they found themselves amazed by his desperation to secure their help but the offer did not tempt them.  As Ben had told the merchant the first night, he and Inger were not interested in speculation; they were pursuing a more solid dream.

Ben had altered his customary farewell each evening to “I’ll see you in the morning,” for asking if his employer had anything further had become an open invitation to repeated pleas for a year’s service.  The strategy seemed to be working.  For the last three nights Larrimore had returned Ben’s words with a simple wave of his hand as had been his custom before succumbing to gold fever.

But Ben had allowed himself to relax too soon.  As he closed up that night, Larrimore stopped him with an all too familiar look in his eye.  Ben sighed.  “Sir, there really is no point to this conversation,” he stated.  “I’ve told you repeatedly I’m not interested in your offer, however generous you may make it.”

“I know, I know,” Larrimore responded.  “You’re not interested in gold.  You’ve made that clear; and whether you believe me or not, I have been listening.”

Ben arched an eyebrow and a half-smile lifted the cheek below it as he waited for the inevitable contradiction of Larrimore’s words.

Larrimore spread his hands in that characteristic pleading gesture of his.  “I have one final offer to make, Ben; and I promise if you’ll hear me out, I won’t bother you again.”

Ben’s lips puckered thoughtfully.  “All right,” he said slowly, “but I will hold you to that promise, sir.”

Larrimore’s face beamed.  “Fine, fine, Ben.”  He swept a hand toward a barrel, atop which lay a checkerboard for the amusement of his customers.  “Let’s sit down and have a nice, friendly talk, shall we?”

Ben chuckled and with a gentle shake of his head followed the merchant to the designated chair across the checkers barrel from Larrimore.  The storekeeper sat down gingerly on the edge of his seat.  “I’ve finally come to realize I’ve been taking the wrong approach with you, Ben.  I’ve been offering you enticements that appealed to me, but what I’m going to suggest this time is something I believe will appeal to you.”

“I don’t think the approach is the problem,” Ben inserted.

Larrimore raised a hand to silence Ben.  “Now, you promised to hear me out, Cartwright,” he chided.

“So I did,” Ben admitted, settling back in his chair and crossing one long leg over the other knee.

Larrimore leaned closer.  “I don’t know how much money you have stored back for your trip, Ben, but—”

Ben’s foot dropped from his knee, hitting the floor with a loud thump.  “I’d say that’s my business,” he muttered tautly, his hands gripping the arms of the chair.

“Oh, of course, of course,” Larrimore said, half rising from his seat to assuage Ben’s irritation.  “I don’t intend to inquire into your assets——not at all.”  Ben eased back in the chair, but not as comfortably as before.  Larrimore continued hurriedly.  “I have, however, made a few observations that have led me to what I think will be an attractive offer.  That’s all I meant to say.”

“Go on,” Ben said cautiously.

“Well, first off,” Larrimore said, “I know that you and your missus had some concern about having enough funds to stay over here ‘til spring.  Not that either of you ever complained,” he added hastily, “but I saw how willing you were to take any and every job that came your way.  Then, when you gave me that list of supplies to reserve for you, I couldn’t help but notice that it included no more than the bare necessities for the trip.  So I figured you had some funds, but not enough to live a life of leisure for a few months and still purchase the supplies you’d need.”

A slight smile touched Ben’s mouth as he toyed with the checkers pieces in front of him.  “A reasonable conclusion,” he said.  “You must realize, though, that your offer of a job here largely removed that concern.”

“Sure,” Larrimore agreed, “and it’s been an arrangement that’s benefited us both.  But I’m sure you’ve seen how the price of supplies has been rising.”

“Oh, yes!” Ben chuckled, turning a red checker over and over between his thumb and middle finger.  He smiled at his employer.  “Perhaps this is as good a time as any to tell you how I’ve respected your keeping your prices reasonable.  Other suppliers in town have tried to gouge these emigrants for all they’re worth, but you’ve kept your prices in line with your costs.  I admire that kind of integrity.”

Larrimore shrugged.  “It’s just good business, really.  And I’m sure a good businessman such as yourself must have realized that prices will be equally high at the other end of the trail, if not more so.”

Ben pushed the checkers away and leaned back in his chair.  “I’m sure you’re right, Lawrence.”  He gave his friend a wry grin.  “I doubt they’ll be any less a year from now, though.”

Larrimore laughed.  “No, probably not.  But the offer I’m prepared to make could ensure your getting a solid start in California instead of having to take the cheapest land available.”

Ben’s brow wrinkled thoughtfully.  “You’ve got my attention,” he admitted.

Larrimore almost smirked with confidence.  “I thought I might.”  He leaned forward, resting his forearms on the barrel between them.  “Here’s what I propose:  you stay here and manage the store while I make the trip to California and back.  In return, I’ll supply you with a wagon filled with supplies and the draught animals to pull it.  That way you keep all your funds intact; and you can have your pick of land in California, not simply settle for what you might otherwise afford.”

Ben whistled.  “That’s some offer, all right.  But with a year’s extra living expense, I’m not sure how far ahead we’d actually be.”

“Oh, hang the expenses!” Larrimore protested, throwing his hands in the air.  “You can stay on in our old living quarters——no charge——and take whatever supplies you need from the storeroom, same as my family.  I know you won’t take more than you actually need; and any extras you want, you can buy at cost.”

Ben wagged his head in incredulity.  “It’s a generous offer, Lawrence, and one I feel much more responsive to than anything you’ve suggested previously.”

Larrimore stood, smiling optimistically.  “I was sure you would.  Now, I don’t expect an answer tonight.  Go home; talk it over with Inger; think it through.  I’d like an answer by the end of the week, though.”

“I think I can promise you that.”  Ben stood and stretched a hand toward Mr. Larrimore.  They exchanged a handshake; and Ben left for home, certain he and Inger would have much to talk about after Adam went to bed.

* * * * *

Ben picked up a dish towel and started to dry the supper dishes as Inger washed them.  “You do not need to do that, Ben,” Inger protested.  “You have been on your feet all day.”

“I’m not tired,” Ben replied.  “There’s something I’d like to talk to you about, and I’d rather not wait ‘til you’re finished here.”

“Vell, if you vill be my hands,” Inger teased, “I guess I can loan you my ears.”

Ben chuckled.  “I’ve had another offer from Mr. Larrimore today.”

“Oh, no!” Inger laughed and handed Ben a plate to dry.

“This is a good one,” Ben said quietly.  Inger, however, failed to catch the difference in his mood tonight from the jovial one with which he’d greeted the merchant’s previous proposals.

“Let me guess,” Inger tittered.  “Now Mr. Larrimore vants to give us one hundred percent of his gold mine just so he can have the adventure of mining it.”

Ben gave her a slight smile, but his tone was almost reproachful.  “Now, Inger, I’m serious,” he insisted.  “We need to talk about this one.”

Inger raised probing blue eyes to look into Ben’s velvet brown ones.  “But, Ben, you have said often that nothing Mr. Larrimore could offer vould make us change our plans.”

“I didn’t give the man enough credit,” Ben said wryly.  Then he told Inger the details of Larrimore’s latest offer.

Inger took the dishtowel from Ben’s hand.  “This is not a thing to discuss over dishes,” she chided.  “Come, let us sit and look at it from all sides.”

“You’re right,” Ben said as he took her hand and walked toward the thinly-padded gray armchair.  As Inger sat next to him in the bare wood rocker, Ben took his pipe from the wobbly pedestal table between their chairs and lit it.  “It’s hard to know which course is best for us, Inger.  I can see advantages and problems either way we go.  If we accept the offer, we profit financially; but we delay our dream another year.”

“Yah, that is hard,” Inger agreed.  “But if ve are able to buy better land, to take vith us——livestock, maybe——then, ve could be further ahead than othervise.”

Ben took a slow draw on his pipe.  “That’s just what I’ve been thinking, but there are some difficulties with staying here.  These quarters, for instance.”  He poked his finger through the frayed fabric of his chair arm.  “They’re cramped, the furniture’s rickety and ‘well-worn’ is a generous description.  Not even a curtain at the window to brighten the place.”

“I could buy a little fabric and change that,” Inger said.  “I did not think it vorth the time or the money when ve planned to leave so soon; but if ve were to stay another year, I vould brighten things, Ben.  I can recover your chair and make cushions for this rocker and curtains, of course.”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “And the size of the place?”

Inger giggled.  “I think a vagon vould be smaller, Ben.”

Ben guffawed.  “You’re right about that!  Of course, you’d still have that experience ahead of you, my love.”

“Yah, sure,” Inger laughed.  “Perhaps living so close here vill teach us the patience ve need for elbowing each other in a vagon for six months, Ben.”

“Patience,” Ben murmured thoughtfully.  “Is that all it comes down to, Inger?  A question of whether I’m patient enough to set aside my lofty vision for a while?  If that’s all it is, I suppose I have my answer.”

“Vell, patience is a virtue, mine husband,” Inger said, a twinkle in her eye.  More soberly, she reached over to take his hand.  “No, Ben.  I think it is more than just impatience that makes your decision so hard.”

“Our decision,” Ben corrected.

“Yah, ours,” Inger agreed, “and Adam’s, too.  He is too young to have a voice in it, but ve must make it vith him in mind.”

Ben squeezed her hand and released it.  “All right, then, let’s talk about Adam.  How would it affect him to stay here?”

“In good vays, I think,” Inger said after a few moments’ reflection.  “There vill be no schools where ve go.  Perhaps another year vith Mr. Edvards vould give him a better—a better——Oh, Ben, what is the vord his teacher used?”

“A better foundation?” Ben suggested.

“Yah, that is it,” Inger said, nodding in relief that the right word had been found.  “And I know Adam vould enjoy more time vith his new friends.”

Ben shrugged.  “Might just make them harder to leave when the time came.  But I agree that Adam might also profit by our staying here.”

“There is another thing, Ben,” Inger said quietly.  “I had not meant to speak of it, but I have felt some concern about those who vould travel vith us.”

Ben laid his pipe aside.  “What do you mean, my love?”

“From what I see, there are not many families this year.  Mostly single men.”

“Single men with a single purpose,” Ben agreed grimly.  “The emigrants this year are different from those who’ve headed west before.  Mostly men greedy for gold.  We might not fit in as well with such a group.”

“That is what has been troubling me some,” Inger admitted.  “I don’t know that it vould be different next year, though.”

“Hard to say.  It depends on how the strikes hold out, I suppose.”  Ben shook his head.  “You’d think a man would get better at making decisions as he went along, but I feel no more capable of making this one than if I were Adam’s age.”

Inger kissed him softly.  “Then, ve must think more, mine husband, and pray for visdom.  Ve can sleep on it at least, yah?”

Ben stood and, taking both Inger’s hands, raised her to her feet.  “Yah.  Let’s do that——now.”

Inger let him escort her toward the bedroom, but as they passed the dishpan, she reached for the towel he had laid aside earlier.  “Dishes first, my hands,” she teased, handing it to him.

Ben chuckled.  “Ah, yes, and you were to loan me your ears,” he whispered.  Bending his head, he nibbled Inger’s right ear playfully.

Ben and Inger debated the pros and cons of Larrimore’s offer the rest of week.  And while they shared nothing with Adam, they had a long talk with his teacher after dinner Friday evening.  Mr. Edwards confessed himself too prejudiced to offer unbiased advice:  he didn’t want to lose these pleasant evenings at his friends’ table.  But he helped by asking salient questions, and by Saturday morning the Cartwrights were ready to make their decision.  Leaving Inger to break the news to Adam, Ben gave Larrimore the response the shopkeeper had hoped for.  To protect both sides, a written contract was drawn up and signed, each trusting he would never be required to demand the provisions added “just in case” the other party did not or could not meet his obligations.

CHAPTER NINE

             “An excellent dinner, as always, Inger,” Josiah Edwards said as he stood and pushed his chair under the table.

The light tinkle of Inger’s laughter seemed to fill the small room.  “It is plain peasant food, as alvays, Josiah, but I am glad you like.”

Josiah patted his waistline.  “I like too much, I’m afraid.  Many more meals like this and I shall be forced to pay Ben a visit for a new pair of trousers.”

Ben clapped his friend on the back.  “Yes, we’re really in need of new customers just now,” he said with dry humor.

Josiah wagged a neatly manicured finger at Ben much as he might a naughty schoolboy.  The two men moved toward the chairs by the window, Ben settling comfortably into his armchair and Josiah into the rocker.  Weeks ago Ben had stopped trying to persuade his guest to take the more cushioned seat.  As Josiah had frankly pointed out, his spare body fit the narrow rocker far better than Ben’s stockier frame.  But he always insisted on relinquishing even that scant comfort when Inger was free from kitchen chores and could join them.

“You must be busier than ever with Mr. Larrimore gone,” Josiah commented.

Ben offered the schoolmaster his tobacco tin.  “Yes, ever since he set off Monday morning, the store’s been packed from opening to close.  And I thought we were busy before!”

Josiah filled his pipe and returned the tobacco to Ben, who prepared his own bowl.  They shared a match, then each took a contented draw on his pipe.  It was a weekly routine they had grown comfortable with, just as they had become comfortable with the gaps of silence that new acquaintances feel constrained to fill with idle words.

“Do you realize, Ben, that we’re witnessing a unique moment in history?” Josiah asked.

Ben cocked his head and scrutinized his friend thoughtfully.  “The migration, you mean?”

“Precisely,” Josiah said.  His deep blue eyes sparkled with delight at his friend’s quick grasp of his thought.

Ben blew out a wisp of smoke.  “I suppose you’re right.  I’ve been so busy dealing with it, I haven’t had much chance to think about it.  But we must be setting some kind of record for travelers going west this year.”

Josiah leaned forward, his left palm resting on the corresponding knee.  “It’s more than a record, Ben.  This migration will change the face of the country and shape its destiny.  New towns, cities, states will be born in the far west.”

Ben laid his pipe aside.  “Wouldn’t they have been born anyway?”

“Eventually,” Josiah agreed.  “But now they’ll come bursting out of the womb full grown, so to speak, without the usual labor pains of new communities.”

Inger turned from the table she was clearing.  “And what vould either of you know about labor pains?” she asked with a faintly superior tone.

Josiah laughed and nodded his acceptance of her mild rebuke.  “Perhaps, it isn’t the correct metaphor, Inger.  I only meant to say that communities will spring up quickly without the usual slow process of growth.”

“Is that good?” Inger asked.  “Babies are meant to grow slowly, yah?  Ve vould not think it a good thing if ve woke up tomorrow to find Adam and Jamie men instead of boys, vould ve?”

“That’s true,” Josiah admitted.  “And I think you have a point.  The new settlements may find it difficult to keep up with their own growth, to provide the services the citizens of comparable-sized towns and cities back here in the States expect.”

Ben took up his pipe again and waved it under Josiah’s nose.  “Ah, but they’re going to have expert help!” he declared.  “How could any community fail to thrive with such stalwart citizens as the Cartwrights?”

Inger rolled her eyes and carried the dishes she had stacked to the dishpan.  If the men were going to talk foolishness, she might as well work.

“Oh, you two,” Josiah scolded gently as he leaned back in the rocker.  “I can always count on you to draw me into some serious dissertation when all I meant to do was open a discussion of my plans for tomorrow.”

Ben laughed.  “I’m sorry, but when it comes to serious discussions, my friend, I think you need little coercion.”

Josiah shrugged and smiled.  It was too true to be contradicted.

“Tell me about your plans, young man,” Ben ordered, as if he, now, were assuming the authoritative role of schoolmaster.

“Jamie and I are going upriver to watch the wagons ferry across the Missouri,” Josiah replied.

“Oh, I envy you,” Ben said.  “I hear they’re lined up for miles waiting their turn to cross.”

“Yes,” Josiah agreed.  “That’s what I’ve heard.  I want to talk with some of the people, get a feel for their motives and expectations.  I was serious when I said I felt we were living in a historic moment.  And it’s important to me, as a teacher, to understand what lies behind the events of history.”

“Oh, of course, it is,” Ben laughed.  “That’s just an excuse, Josiah.  You have more heart for learning than any of your pupils.  It’s plain curiosity that motivates you!”

“And you don’t feel any?” Josiah laughed back.

Ben smiled.  “You know I do.  If I could spare the time from the store, I’d be right out there with you.”

Josiah gave Ben’s shoulder a sympathetic squeeze.  “I could promise you a full report, but I’ve got a better idea.”  Then he shook his head.  “Oh, well, honesty compels me to admit that I’ve been instructed to wheedle you into letting Adam come along.”

Crossing his legs as he leaned back in his chair, Ben chuckled.  “Jamie gives the orders at your house now, does he?”

Josiah slapped Ben’s knee.  “And Adam doesn’t at yours?”

“Certainly not,” Ben insisted with mock indignation.  “I’m a believer in strict discipline, as you well know.”

“I know exactly how demanding you are,” Josiah snickered.  “So, may he go?”  He dropped his jocular demeanor.  “I believe it’s something the boys should see, Ben.  A moment of history to tell their grandchildren about.”

“Adam may go,” Ben said.  “And he’ll no doubt give me a fuller report than I could ever get from a mere grownup like you!”

* * * * *

Adam, who had learned of the proposed expedition in the privacy of his bedroom, had somehow managed to contain his excitement until his father announced he could go.  He and Jamie had agreed that was best; they had also agreed to get a good night’s sleep, so they wouldn’t miss a single sight, sound or smell the following day.  Each found keeping that pact more difficult, though; for visions of a long line of white-topped wagons rolled through their dreams and the waking moments that interspersed them.

Despite their abbreviated sleep, however, both Adam and Jamie almost bounced with eagerness as they set out at mid-morning that second Saturday in April, dressed in clean white shirts and brown string ties.  The boys tried to honor Josiah Edwards’ repeated requests to remember they were in a hired buggy and to take care lest they break its springs.  But the admonishment seemed again and again to yield its place in their thoughts to the wonder of what lay before them.

Yet wonder scarcely described the emotion all three adventurers felt as they saw, stretching to the horizon, an endless line of prairie schooners ready to set sail over waves of blue-green grass.

“Father!” Jamie cried.  “I can’t even see how far back they go!”

Josiah shook his head, clearly astonished.  “I’d heard reports, but this is amazing, boys.”

“How many do you think there are, Mr. Edwards?” Adam, ever fascinated by the mathematics of any situation, asked.

“Hundreds, Adam,” his teacher replied.  “Hundreds upon hundreds.”

“You reckon there’ll be any land left for Pa and Inger and me?”  Adam sounded anxious.

Josiah turned and patted the boy’s head.  “Plenty of room for your family, my boy.  Most of these people aren’t looking for homes.”

“They’re looking for gold, right, Father?” Jamie asked.

Josiah nodded.  “I’m afraid so, son.  And I’m afraid most of them will be grievously disappointed.”

“There is gold in California,” Adam declared.  “Even the President says so.”

“There is gold, Adam,” Mr. Edwards agreed, “but it’s harder to find than most of these people have any idea.”

“I still think it’d be fun to try,” Adam said.

“Me, too,” Jamie declared.  “At least, you’ll get the chance someday,” he pouted to Adam.  “I’ll never get across that ferry over there.”

Josiah gave his son a comforting squeeze.  “No, I’m afraid we’re not pioneers, Jamie.  St. Joseph is about as wild and woolly a town as I ever intend to see.”

“Well, when I grow up,” Jamie insisted, “I’m going west to see Adam, and we’re going prospecting, aren’t we, Adam?”

“It’s a deal!” Adam exclaimed and thrust his hand forward to seal the covenant.

“All right, all right,” Josiah protested.  “But we’re prospecting for a different kind of gold today, boys.  What do you say we drive along this line of wagons and see if we can’t pick up a few nuggets of knowledge?”

“Okay!” both boys responded eagerly.

Josiah headed the buggy away from the ferry and drove past the queued emigrants.  Occasionally, he stopped and chatted for a while with someone, trying to pick people who seemed both representative of and different from the typical argonaut of 1849.  Far down the line he pulled up next to a wagoneer epitomizing the latter.

“Hello,” he called to the man drinking a dipper of water from the keg lashed to the wagon.  “Would you mind sharing a bit of that with some thirsty travelers?” he asked, pointing to the youngsters beside him.

“Help yourself,” the man offered.  “Got two younguns of my own, so I know how quarrelsome they can get when they’re hungry or thirsty.”

“Not these two,” Josiah said, as he stepped down from the buggy and reached back to lift each of the boys to the ground.  “I don’t think I’ve ever heard them quarrel.”  He smiled at the man’s disbelieving look.  “Of course, the fact that they’re friends, not brothers, could have something to do with that.”

The man guffawed loudly.  “That’s a good one on me, mister!  I guess I should have figured.  The light-haired one don’t look much like you.”

“But I am his son,” Jamie protested.  “It’s Adam who’s our friend.”

The man scratched his head.  “Okay, so I’ll quit making guesses and just ask straight out.  What you folks doing heading the wrong way?”

Josiah took a dipperful of water from the barrel and handed it to Adam, who shared it with Jamie.  “It’s only the wrong way if you’re going to California,” he pointed out.

The man grinned.  “Or Oregon.  That’s where we’re headed.  Fooled you that time, mister.”

Josiah laughed good-naturedly.  “So you did.  And that should entitle you to a straight answer.  The boys and I are just out here for the day.  I’m the local schoolmaster at St. Joseph, so I wanted to come out today and meet some of the people who are shaping the destiny of our country.”

“You still joshing me?” the man asked, peering intently at Mr. Edwards.

“Not at all,” Edwards assured him.  “I expect one day to have to teach youngsters like these——and those two peeking out of your wagon——about the great expedition of 1849.  So I just couldn’t pass up the chance to get a first-hand look at history in the making.”

The man scratched his head again.  “Well, I never,” he exclaimed.  “Never thought of ourselves as history-makers, did we, Ma?” he asked the woman sitting on the wagon seat.

“For a fact, we never,” she said.  “We ain’t like these others much, mister.  We’re just simple farmers, looking for better land.”

The couple’s tow-headed children clambered down from the back of the wagon and stood staring at Adam and Jamie.  “Wanna play?” the little boy asked.

Adam and Jamie looked up at Mr. Edwards for permission.  “Why don’t you boys stretch your legs a bit while I talk with these fine people?” Josiah suggested.  He turned to the man.  “If that’s acceptable to you, sir.”

“Fine, just fine,” the man said.

“Ain’t many younguns in this outfit for our’n to play with,” the woman added.  “It’d be a treat for them.”

The little boy, who looked to be a year or two younger than Adam, took each of his young guests with one hand.  The little girl shyly put her hand in young Jamie’s and the foursome wandered away from the wagon.

“Don’t stray far,” the woman called.

Josiah drank a dipperful of lukewarm water from the keg.  “Now, tell me why you chose Oregon when the whole world seems bound for California.”

“Simple enough,” the man said.  “Like my woman told you, we’re farmers, not miners.”

“Good land in California, too, I hear,” Josiah commented.

“Yeah,” the man agreed, “but I hear they do more ranching there than crop growing.  Oregon’s the territory for that.”

“I see,” Josiah said.  “That’s a difference I wasn’t aware of.  Did you expect to have so many fellow-travelers when you set out?”

“Never in all our born days!” the woman exclaimed.  “I ain’t too sure I like it, neither.  Some pretty rough characters amongst these folk.”

As if to prove her words, a man whose rough edges had obviously never been smoothed sauntered over.  “I hear right?” the black-bearded man demanded.  “You folks headed for Oregon?”

“We are,” Josiah’s recent acquaintance responded.  “And you, mister?”

“Californy, of course!  And I’ll thank you land grubbers to get out of this here line and make way for folks who got a real need to cross first.”

“Why, we got just as much ‘real need’ as you, I reckon,” the woman sputtered.

“No such a thing,” the intruder asserted.  “I got to get west quick as I can afore all the best claims is took.  It don’t matter when you sodbusters get there.”

“Actually, sir, it does,” Josiah interrupted.  “These people risk being trapped in the mountains after snowfall if they don’t make an early start.”

“Who asked you to horn in, buster?” the man snapped, shoving Josiah, who lost his balance and fell in an undignified heap on the ground.  With a snort the California emigrant turned again to the one bound for Oregon.  “Now, you gonna pull your rig out of line, or do I have to make you?”  he said, tapping the holster tied down to his right leg.

The prospective farmer grabbed for the shotgun under his wagon seat, and the impatient miner fumbled for the gun in his holster.  Clearly, he was no gunslinger or the farmer would have been killed before he could swing the shotgun around to fire at his antagonist.  But in the long run, neither man’s lack of skill gave his opponent the advantage.  The miner managed to fire first, but as the farmer fell, he discharged both barrels of the shotgun and hit the other man point-blank in the gut.

The woman screamed and threw herself down beside her husband while men from neighboring wagons ran to the site of the confrontation.  As Josiah scrambled to his feet, he saw her trying to stanch with her hands the red geyser spurting from her husband’s chest and knew with sickening certainty that death was imminent.  Immediately, he thought of the children and saw the four running toward the wagon in answer to the report of the firearms.  Adam, being fleeter of foot than Jamie and longer-limbed than the other two youngsters, was in the lead.

“Stop, Adam!” Mr. Edwards called, running toward the boy.

Adam did stop, not so much in response to Josiah’s command as to the shock of seeing two bodies lying in separate pools of blood beside his new friends’ wagon.  Catching up only seconds later, Jamie screamed and grabbed Adam’s arm.

Josiah wanted to snatch both boys up and run away with them to some quiet place where he could administer the comfort they needed.  There was a more pressing need, however; for on the heels of the larger boys ran a small boy and girl, who must, at all cost, be stopped before they came upon the grisly scene.  Pumping his aching legs even harder, Josiah reached them and grabbed one with each arm.  He pulled them to the ground.  “Stop, children, please stop,” he ordered breathlessly.  Perhaps it was the aura of authority he was used to carrying as a teacher, but, surprisingly, the youngsters responded.

The little boy looked terrified.  “What happened?” he demanded, and the stricken look on the little lad’s face told Josiah he half-suspected bad news already.

“There’s been a shooting,” Josiah said, holding the boy close to his side while he gathered the little girl into his lap.

“Not—not Pa?” the boy whispered.

Josiah nodded gravely.  “I’m so sorry, son, so very sorry; but I’m afraid your father is dead.”

The little girl struggled to get out of Josiah’s arms.  “No, no!” she screamed.  “Pa!”

Josiah squeezed her tight.

“Let me go!” she cried.

“No, sweetheart,” Josiah said gently.  “It’s not a thing for little girls to see.  I’ll take you to your mother as soon as there’s been time to—to see to things.”  He looked down at the boy, pleading for the youngster to understand what he himself clearly could not.

“We want our pa,” the boy wept.

“I know, son, I know,” Josiah murmured, tears flowing openly down his cheeks.  Adam and Jamie had wandered slowly back to where Mr. Edwards sat holding the two sobbing children.  Jamie instinctively reached out to stroke the pale yellow hair of the little girl, while Adam sat on the ground next to the boy and wrapped his slender arms around the distraught youngster.

As the children grew quieter in the embrace of their friends, Josiah finally felt able to release them.  Words ordinarily came easily to the schoolmaster, but he could find none now with which to comfort the grieving children.  What could words accomplish, anyway, when a scene of carnage now replaced what moments before had been a refuge of safety and of love?

* * * * *

Ben tallied the cost of the list of items in his hand and handed it to the smooth-cheeked young man standing next to him.  “If you’ll take that to my wife, she’ll receive your payment and you can begin loading your supplies.”

“Thanks, Mr. Cartwright,” the twenty-year-old said.  “Sure appreciate your advice.  I’ve never been on a trip like this before; I had no idea what to take.”

“Glad to be of service,” Ben said and turned to the next customer beckoning for his attention.  “How can I help you, sir?” he asked automatically.

The man scratched at his five o’clock shadow.  “Well, bacon, to start with, I reckon.”

“And how many are in your party?” Ben asked.

“Four men altogether.  We were neighbors back in Ohio and figured we’d pan more gold working as partners than any of us could alone.”

“Sounds like a good plan,” Ben commented amiably.  “Now, we advise taking seventy-five pounds of bacon for each adult.  For your group, that would be—”  But before he could finish his sentence, he felt his legs pinioned by a frantic set of arms.

Ben looked down.  “Pa’s glad to see you, son,” he laughed, “but I’m a little busy for hugging right now.”  He expected Adam to take the hint, but the boy just squeezed tighter.  Looking closer, Ben saw the red-rimmed eyes and stooped to gather his son in his arms.

Coming from behind the counter, Inger saw an equally tearful Jamie being led into the store by his somber-faced father.  “Josiah, what has happened?” she asked as they moved toward Ben.

Josiah spread his free hand in a gesture of helplessness.  “I’m so sorry, Ben.  I’d never have taken the boys on this outing if I’d had any idea how it would end.”

“Talk plain, man,” Ben demanded as he stood with Adam’s dark head resting on his shoulder.

“There was a shooting, Ben, between two men in line for the ferry,” Josiah said quietly.  Despite his low tone, the other occupants of the store began to cluster around the two friends.

“The boys saw this?” Inger asked urgently.

Josiah shook his head.  “Not the shooting itself, Inger, but I couldn’t stop them before they saw the bodies.  It was a terrible shock, I’m afraid.”

“Poor darlings,” Inger murmured and bent to comfort Jamie.  The youngster immediately snuggled against her smudged apron.

“Who was killed, mister?” the emigrant from Ohio demanded, and his question was echoed in murmurs from the rest of those crowding behind Ben.

“A man named Reaver and another whose name I didn’t get,” Josiah responded briefly.  He turned to the woman soothing his son.  “The man’s wife is distraught, Inger.  I thought, perhaps, you—”

“Yah, sure,” Inger said at once.  Then, she glanced anxiously at the two shaken little boys.  “But, I cannot, now.”

“Come on, mister, tell us about the killings,” a man in the crowd called.

“In a minute,” Josiah said tersely.  He took Jamie from Inger.  “Let me take the boys back to my rooms for the afternoon,” he suggested.  “I felt I had to let you know, but you and Ben are too busy here to deal with this now.”

“Ben?” Inger asked.

“I think it would be best,” Ben said.

The man who had called to Josiah a moment before pushed through the crowd.  “Listen, we’ve all got a stake in what happened out by that ferry.  It ain’t fair to keep back what you know.”

“They are right,” Inger said.  “They may have friends or family involved.  I can be making ready while you answer their questions, Josiah, and the boys can help me.”

Ben set Adam on the floor.  “Go with your mother, son.”

Inger took his hand and Jamie’s.  “Come, children,” she said softly.  “Help me decide how ve can help this family.”

The crowd parted to let them pass, then closed again around Josiah.   In the quarters behind the store, Inger learned from the boys that there were two fatherless children back at the emigrant’s wagon, as well as an overwhelmed widow.  Sensing that woman would have little heart for cooking tonight, Inger quickly sliced bread and made sandwiches from the leftover beef roast she had served the previous evening.  She had just finished packing them in a wicker basket along with the peach pie she had baked earlier for her family’s supper when Josiah came in.  She wrapped herself in a light shawl, and they all left for the clearing just outside town where Josiah had driven the bereft family’s wagon after taking the body to the undertaker.

* * * * *

When Ben woke the next morning, he instinctively reached for Inger, but his hand touched, instead, an empty pillow.  Scratching his chest through the buttons of his flannel nightshirt, Ben struggled out of bed and into the kitchen, where Inger was dismembering a chicken.  “A little early to be starting dinner, isn’t it?” Ben yawned.

“This is not for us,” Inger explained.  “I vanted to take a decent meal to that poor family, not just sandviches.”

“That’s so like you,” Ben said, kissing her cheek lovingly.

Inger smiled and returned the kiss.  “Can you get Adam dressed for church?” she asked.

“I did for years without your help,” Ben reminded her.  “It might be better, though, if we went with you.”

“I don’t think so, Ben,” Inger said.  “It is another voman Mrs. Reaver needs.”

“Probably,” Ben agreed.  “Shall I hitch the wagon?”

“Yah, please,” Inger said.  “It is only a short vay from town, but I plan to take much food vith me.  I vill be back to prepare our dinner by the time you and Adam return from the service.”

“Make it easy on yourself,” Ben said.  “A light lunch will be enough for us.”

“Oh, thank you, Ben,” Inger said, wrapping her arms around his shoulders, butcher knife in hand.  “Then I can take time to bake a few cookies for the little ones.”

“Inger, Inger,” Ben scolded softly.  “The idea was to lighten your load.”

“Oh, but Ben, they are children who have suffered a great loss,” Inger insisted.  “A little sweetness may lighten their load, and that is more important than easing mine, yah?”

“Yah.”  Ben ran his hand over her cornsilk hair.  “Sometimes, though, Inger, I think you’d like to mother the entire universe.”

Inger turned away quickly so Ben would not see her pain.  After almost five months of marriage, she still showed no signs of becoming a mother in her own right.  Still, even if she never had a little one of her own, so many children needed love that Inger knew her heart need never feel empty.

As requested, Ben saw that Adam was properly groomed and dressed in his best suit for church.  Sitting next to his father on a rough pew inside the white clapboard house of worship, the youngster looked as clean and pressed as always, but his demeanor seemed different today——hushed, quiet, none of the usual squirming when the preacher’s sermon ran long.  The boy didn’t seem to be listening to it either, though, and Ben sensed the horror of the previous day was still haunting Adam’s thoughts.

After the service, Ben took Adam’s hand and led him toward the docks.  The riverfront was quiet today, no steamers waiting to be unloaded.  Though curious by nature, Adam didn’t even ask the reason for the detour.  They walked in silence to the end of the pier, where Ben sat down and pulled his son close.  “You seem troubled, lad,” he began.

Adam lifted a pair of brooding black eyes to his father’s face.  “I just don’t understand, Pa.”

“You don’t understand what, son?”

“If God is as good as the preacher says, why would He want that boy’s pa to die?” Adam asked bitterly.  “He was a nice man, Pa, real kind and friendly.  His boy and girl were even younger than me, and they needed their pa like I need you.”  He snuggled into his father’s chest.  “I never thought something like that could happen to a boy’s pa.”

“Fathers aren’t invulnerable, Adam,” Ben said, then smiled at the boy’s puzzled look.  “What I mean is that no matter how strong a man may be or how much he is needed, he can still get into situations he doesn’t know how to handle.”

“Not you,” Adam insisted, his tone almost an order.  “You are in—in—”

“Invulnerable,” Ben finished for him.  He pulled Adam’s small face toward his own.  “No, son, I’m not; but I’m not planning on leaving you an orphan, either.  Please don’t worry, child.”

“But if God let that boy’s pa die, He might let you.”  Adam choked on the lump in his throat.  “I just don’t see how He could, if He’s all full of love like you always said.”

Ben stroked Adam’s cheek.  “God is love, Adam, the purest and best love.  I don’t think He wanted those children’s father to be killed.”

“Then, why—”

Ben laid a silencing finger on Adam’s mouth.  “Just because bad things happen doesn’t mean it’s God’s will for them to happen, Adam.  Neither of those men acted with the wisdom God gave them.  It was their own foolishness that caused their deaths, not God.”

Adam’s lower lip trembled.  “You—you won’t ever be foolish, will you, Pa?”

Ben realized no mere man could keep a promise that broad, but reading the fear in Adam’s eyes, he wrapped protective arms around the boy.  “I’ll try hard not to, Adam,” he promised softly.

CHAPTER TEN

             “Mrs. Cartwright, Mrs. Cartwright,” a demanding voice called impatiently.  “A little service, if you please.”

Inger turned to face the plumpish, but pretty matron, whose golden brown hair was dressed in the ringlets ordinarily favored by much younger women.  “Yah, sure, I be there in yoost one moment.”  She turned back to the customer whose payment she had been receiving.

“Some folks don’t know how to wait their turn, I reckon,” the man said.

Inger’s chin dipped slightly, but she made no comment as she gave him the correct change and thanked him for his business.

“My pleasure, ma’am,” the man said, doffing his brown felt hat.  He walked past the plumpish woman with a disapproving shake of his head.

Pushing a straggling lock of blonde hair back into the bun at the nape of her neck, Inger approached the woman.  “How can I help you, Mrs. Larrimore?” she asked.

“You know I shop here every Wednesday,” the shop’s owner said peevishly.  “I don’t see why you can’t arrange to be free to take my order.”

Inger laughed softly.  “Vell, it is hard to make the other customers arrive in just the right order.”

“I expect to be given first priority,” was the haughty response.  “Don’t forget who pays you, Mrs. Cartwright.”

“You pay my husband, Mrs. Larrimore,” Inger replied sturdily.  “I am only here to help him because the store is so busy this season.”

Mrs. Larrimore looked taken aback.  “Well, it’s true you have no real obligation to assist, I suppose.”  She tossed a ringlet back with her mittened hand.  “Nonetheless, I expect better service when I come here, whether by your husband or yourself.”

Inger forced a smile she did not feel onto her lips.  “Yah, so how may I help you?”

Mrs. Larrimore drew a narrow slip of paper from her crocheted handbag.  “Here is my list.  I expect to be at the dressmaker’s about half an hour, and I insist this be filled by the time I return.”

Inger scanned the list.  “Yah, ve have all this in stock.  Ve vill have it ready for you.”

Mrs. Larrimore turned to leave.  “Oh, I want a dozen of your pastries, too.  Sterling and Jewel are quite fond of them.”

“There are none left, I’m afraid,” Inger replied.  “Since I started vorking here days, I have only time to make one batch each night, and they sold before noon.”

“Well, really, this is too much,” Mrs. Larrimore snapped.  “After all, Mrs. Cartwright, you did have an agreement with my husband.”

“And I have kept it,” Inger said.  The edge in her voice showed signs of strained patience.  “The agreement vas to share the profit on what I bake.  There was no requirement of how much I vas to prepare each day.”

“But the children have their hearts set on them,” Mrs. Larrimore pouted.  “You don’t understand how disappointed they’ll be.”

She had found the right note to pluck Inger’s heartstrings.  “Why don’t I make a dozen especially for you tonight, Mrs. Larrimore?” Inger said gently.  “The children vill be less disappointed if they know they can have their treat tomorrow, yah?”

Mrs. Larrimore sighed.  “Well, I suppose, if that’s the best you can do.  You know our house?”

Inger nodded.  “Yah, the large white one on the edge of town.  Ve are very busy here, though, as you see, Mrs. Larrimore.  Perhaps Sterling could come by after school for them,” she suggested.

Mrs. Larrimore stiffened.  “My son is not your errand boy, Mrs. Cartwright.  If you’re too busy yourself, send your own boy!”

Inger gasped in shock, unable to think of a response.  Fortunately, Mrs. Larrimore spun on her heels, muttering something about being late at the dressmaker’s, and left abruptly.

Inger was shaking as she returned to her duties behind the counter.  Escorting a more satisfied customer to the cash register, Ben noticed his wife’s distress.  He touched her elbow lightly.  “Inger?”

Inger shook her head and pulled away.  “It is nothing, Ben,” she said, and then in evident contradiction, added, “Ve have no time to talk now.”

* * * * *

Adam carefully crooked the basket of pastries over one arm and rapped firmly on the back door of the white house.  “How do you do, ma’am?” he said politely when his knock was answered.  “My mother sent these to you,” he added, holding out the basket.

Camilla Larrimore bent down to pat his dark hair.  “My, aren’t you a bright-eyed little fellow!  And so early, too.”

“I’m on my way to school,” Adam said.

“Well, wait just one minute and I’ll give you a penny for your trouble, child.”

“Oh, no, ma’am,” Adam protested.  His small chest swelled with pride beneath his red plaid flannel shirt.  “My pa already promised me a penny for this job.”  His black eyes sparkled at the thought of his expected wealth.  “It’s the first money I ever earned all my own.”

A boy with hair almost as dark as Adam’s edged past Mrs. Larrimore’s skirt.  “I get spending money every week——lots more than one old penny——and I don’t have to do a thing for it,” he taunted.

“Hush, Sterling,” his mother said, but the affectionate hand she ran through his curls dampened the effectiveness of her rebuke.  “You must remember that not everyone has your advantages.  Children of emigrants and foreigners must learn early to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow, and you must always deal kindly with those less fortunate.”

“Yes, mother,” Sterling replied in sugary tones.  But the condescending look he gave Adam soured the youngest Cartwright’s stomach.  He left the Larrimore home dragging his heels, and for the first time Josiah Edwards found it necessary to send a note to the parents of his most avid student.

As Ben inquired into the reasons for his son’s inattentiveness, Adam poured out the questions he had brooded over all day.  “What’s wrong with emigrants and foreigners, Pa?” he demanded.  “Ain’t we just as good Americans as the Larrimores?”

“Aren’t,” Ben automatically corrected.  “Yes, of course, we are, son.  There’s nothing wrong with being emigrants, a status we share with most of the people passing through town these days.  It just means we’re people in pursuit of a dream.”

Adam cocked his head and gave his father a puzzled frown.  “But I thought that was good,”

“It is good,” Ben said.  “It’s that dream that kept me going after your mother’s death.  If I hadn’t had a dream of a better life for you and me, there’d have been little to live for.”

“But Mrs. Larrimore—”

“Is a foolish woman,” Ben finished, cupping Adam’s angular chin in his palm.  “How could anyone with sense look at this solid, New England face and call you a foreigner?”

“I think she meant Inger,” Adam said quietly.

“I am sure she did,” Inger sputtered.  “Oh, Ben, I told you I should have taken the pastries myself.  Adam is too young to deal with such people.”

Ben reached over to rub her arm with calming strokes.  “I disagree, Inger.  Adam will meet difficult people all through life.  He might as well learn early.”  Ben turned his attention back to the boy.  “Now, Adam, Inger’s parents came to this country in search of a better life, just as we hope to find in California.  Do you see anything wrong with that?”

“No, Pa,” Adam said stoutly.  “I think it’s a good thing.”

“So do I, and these ‘foreigners,’ as Mrs. Larrimore calls them brought much that was good with them,” Ben said.  “Why, just look what happiness Inger’s parents brought you and me by coming to America.”

Adam grinned at Inger, and Ben smiled as he saw her tense face relax.  He pulled Adam close.  “Will you promise me something, Adam?  Whenever you meet someone who looks or talks different from others, remember Inger and the good changes she brought with her.  Then look for the good that stranger can bring, instead of all the ways he’s different.  Promise?”

Adam nodded solemnly.  “I promise, Pa.”

* * * * *

Mr. Edwards had no complaints about Adam’s diligence the following day.  The young scholar was back to his usual absorption in his lessons.  But Jamie, who normally vied with Adam for top marks, seemed listless and inattentive.  It was not until the noon hour, however, that Josiah realized his son was feeling unwell.  He dismissed school early, to sounds of rejoicing from everyone except Adam, and canceled his weekly dinner visit to the Cartwrights.

The next morning Josiah responded to a rap on his door and found Inger smiling at him.  “I brought Jamie some chicken soup,” she said.

“I appreciate the thought, Inger, but I’m afraid Jamie won’t be able to eat,” Josiah said.  “He’s been vomiting all night and he’s had severe diarrhea.”

“Ach, no!” Inger commiserated.  “Such a frail boy he has alvays seemed and now so ill.  You have sent for the doctor?”

“I expect him any moment,” Josiah said.  “Perhaps it would be better if you didn’t come in until we know what we’re dealing with, Inger.”

Inger shook her head.  “For myself, I have no fear, but I had to make Adam stay home.  He vas much vorried for his friend.  Please, I may come in and vait vith you?”

Josiah swung the door open.  “I should say no, for your sake.  But it would be a relief to have company.”

Inger entered and, without waiting for an invitation, went directly to Jamie’s bedside.  She took the little boy’s thin hand and was surprised to find it cold and clammy.  “Adam sends his love, Jamie,” she said softly, “and his hopes that you vill feel better soon.”

Jamie said nothing, but his head rolled off his pillow toward Inger.  She knelt beside him, taking his pale cheeks between her hands, and he looked up at her with sad, suffering eyes that wrenched her heart.

“Poor lamb,” Inger soothed, stroking the honey hair from his forehead.  She started to croon a soft Swedish lullaby her mother used to sing on the rare occasions little Inger had been ill.  A soft smile curved Jamie’s lips and his weary eyes closed.  He had just started to drift to sleep when the doctor arrived.

It took the doctor only a few minutes to arrive at a diagnosis.  “It’s cholera, Mr. Edwards,” the doctor said, stroking his gray beard gravely.  “I’ve seen a number of cases among the emigrants camped outside town.  I believe it came upriver with them from New Orleans.  The German families seem especially hard hit, and they mentioned seeing several cases in the city there.”

“Cholera,” Josiah whispered in horror.  “Dear God, doctor, he’s such a delicate child.  How can he possibly survive a scourge like that?”

The doctor took the younger man’s arm firmly.  “Don’t allow yourself the luxury of despair, my boy; he can survive, but you must be strong for him.  If he survives the first day or two, there is good hope he will recover.”

Inger took the shaken Josiah in her arms.  “What can ve do for the child, doctor?” she asked as the schoolmaster laid his auburn head against her shoulder.

“He needs complete rest,” the doctor ordered, “and as much fluid as you can make him take.  Add some salt, as well.  It will help replace what he’s losing through the vomiting and diarrhea.”

“I had brought some chicken soup,” Inger said.  “This vould be good for him, yah?”

The doctor smiled as he straightened his tweed vest.  “Exactly what he needs, ma’am.  Any kind of broth will do nicely.  And—uh—it might be best to procure it elsewhere than the boardinghouse kitchen.  With so many assorted people dining there, there is greater risk of contamination.”

“Is—is that where he contracted this?” Josiah croaked, raising his head.

The doctor shrugged.  “I can’t say with certainty, but there are a lot of unknown elements in a situation like this.”  He took a small writing pad from his jacket pocket and scribbled on it words so indecipherable they would have earned any of Mr. Edwards’ pupils a failing mark.  “I’ll prescribe some laudanum.  It should calm his bowels, but be careful to give exactly the dose I order.  It’s a dangerous drug, though it can be helpful in these cases.”

Josiah took the prescription from the doctor.  “Yes, thank you,” he murmured absently.

The doctor frowned at Mr. Edwards’ evident distraction and motioned Inger toward the door.  She followed, a questioning look in her eyes.  “You’re a member of the family, ma’am?” the doctor asked quietly once they were away from Josiah.

“No, a friend,” Inger said, “but almost they seem like family.”

“These people need help, ma’am,” the doctor said.

“That is why I am here, doctor.”

The doctor smiled and gave her arm a grandfatherly pat.  “Obviously, you’re not a fair weather friend, then.  Take precautions for your own health, as well, my dear:  get plenty of rest, and be careful not to eat or drink from anything the child has touched.  Be careful how you dispose of his bodily wastes.”

“I vill do as you say,” Inger replied.  “You think Jamie vill be better soon?”

“The next forty-eight hours should tell the story,” the doctor said, taking his tall beaver hat from a table by the door.  “I’ll try to stop by again tomorrow to see how he’s progressing.”

Inger thanked the doctor and opened the door for him.  She took her shawl from the same table where the doctor’s hat had rested.  “Give me the prescription, Josiah,” she said, holding out her hand.  “I vill go to the apothecary for you.”

“Thank you,” Josiah said as he gave her the sheet containing the doctor’s scrawled note.  “I would hate to leave him.”

“I vill be back soon,” Inger promised, giving his elbow a sympathetic squeeze.  She returned in less than fifteen minutes and spooned a teaspoonful of the opiate into Jamie’s mouth.

Turning to the schoolmaster, then, she commanded in a gentle, but firm voice, “It is time for you now to rest.  I am sure you have not slept at all this night.”

“No,” Josiah said quietly, “but I can’t—”

“You can and you must,” Inger said with determination.  “The doctor has said you must be strong for Jamie, and that you cannot do vithout sleep.  Rest now, my friend.  I vill stay by Jamie until suppertime.”

At the edge of Josiah’s consciousness was an impression that he should refuse.  But, too weary to argue, he simply bowed to her logic and lay down upon his bed.

* * * * *

“Finish your oatmeal quickly, Adam,” Inger admonished the following morning.  “You do not vish to be late for church.”

Adam gave his cereal a lackadaisical stir.  “I don’t want to go; I want to help you take care of Jamie.”

“Do as your mother says,” Ben ordered sternly.

“Yes, sir,” Adam muttered irritably and spooned in a mouthful of oatmeal.

Inger fluttered her fingers through the youngster’s hair.  “He means no disrespect, Ben.  He is just vorried about his friend.”

“I know,” Ben said and smiled gently at Adam.  “I’m sorry, son.  But you must understand that Jamie is very ill, and it isn’t safe for a little lad like you to go near him.”

“Yes, sir,” Adam sighed.  “I just wish I could.”

Inger walked to the stove to fork the chicken she was boiling.  Finding it tender, she lifted it from the pot and began to debone it and cut it into chunks.  “Ben, you vill remember to have the pastor tell everyone there vill be no school this veek?”

Ben rubbed her shoulders. “I will remember, of course.  And you see that you remember the doctor’s advice and don’t overtax yourself.”

Inger nodded absently.  “I vill leave enough chicken and dumplings here for you and Adam.  I do not think Josiah should eat at the boardinghouse until the danger of this sickness is past.”

“He really appreciated what you sent over last night.”

“I vish ve could do more,” Inger sighed.  “For the first time I vish ve had a large home, so they could have a room here.”

Ben turned her around and embraced her.  “Inger, my love, you can’t mother the whole world.”

“I’m not trying to!” Inger said hotly.  “These are our friends, Ben.”

“And a week ago it was two children of a total stranger you wished you could shelter,” Ben said with a smile.

“Yah, I know,” Inger said, shaking her head at being convicted by her own actions.  “But I cannot help it, Ben.  I have been so blessed all my life——first in the home of my parents, and now in my joy vith you.  Perhaps it is a veakness, but I cannot bear to see others vith less to rejoice in.”

Ben kissed her.  “It is a great strength.  Never change, sweetheart.  And I promise, when we reach California, we’ll build a house big enough to hold all our sick friends and whatever other waifs may wander in.”

Inger laughed.  “Now you are teasing me, but I may hold you to it, mine husband.  I am just glad you vill let me leave the vork of the store to be vith Jamie.  I think he vill need much nursing before he is strong again.”

“It’s my work anyway, not yours,” Ben pointed out.

Adam twisted around in his seat.  “I could help you, Pa, since there’s no school.”

Ben and Inger exchanged a look of infinite parental pride.  “That you could!” Ben agreed heartily.  “And that will be helping your friend, Adam, since it makes your mother feel more free to stay with him.”

Adam dark eyes brightened.  “Honest?”

“Oh, yah, I feel much better,” Inger said, patting his shoulder and turning back to her chicken.  “Now, you, Ben, quit dawdling or I shall have to scold you instead of our son.”

Ben winked at Adam.  “Yes, ma’am.  We’ll be good boys and get to church on time.”

Inger turned.  “Ask everyone to pray for Jamie,” she whispered.  Ben nodded and went into their bedroom to adjust his black string tie before the cracked mirror hanging above the four-drawer chest.

* * * * *

Camilla Larrimore pulled her full skirt aside to avoid touching the buckskin-clad emigrant leaving her husband’s store.  The thought of his greasy garment brushing against her new green brocade sickened her, and the other customers jostling her on every side didn’t seem much cleaner.  If she hadn’t been so low on sugar and syrup, she would have skipped her weekly shopping trip this Wednesday.  But Jewel wouldn’t eat her cereal without generous additions of sweetening, and Sterling loved to drown his pancakes in pools of maple syrup.

She stood on tiptoe and tried to see beyond the broad-shouldered men crowding the store.  Now, where was that Cartwright fellow?  “Howdy, Mrs. Larrimore,” a small voice called.  She turned and saw the little boy who had delivered her pastries the week before.  “Why, hello there,” she said.  “I’m looking for your father, child.”

“He’s in the storeroom,” Adam explained, “getting some more cornmeal.  Folks are buying a lot of cornmeal today.”

“I see,” Mrs. Larrimore said.  “Well, I suppose your mother can wait on me.  Where is she?”

“Oh, I’m taking her place today,” Adam announced, his shirt puffing out just a fraction of an inch.  “She’s taking care of my sick friend.”

“My gracious!” Mrs. Larrimore sputtered.  “It’s getting harder and harder to get waited on here.”

“Just tell me what you need,” Adam said.  “I’ll get all the small things for you, and Pa’ll get anything heavy soon as he can.  Me and Pa’s working partners this week.”

“Well, I suppose you could get most of what I need,” she said, twirling one of her golden brown ringlets absently.  “I want ten pounds of sugar and a can of maple syrup, a slab of bacon and a dozen eggs.”

“I can do all that,” Adam promised proudly.

Entering from the back room, Ben saw his son talking to Camilla Larrimore.  Since he didn’t want the boy to deal with his most difficult customer alone, Ben hurried over.  “Mrs. Larrimore,” he said with energy.  “I had begun to think we wouldn’t see you this week.”

“Well, I thought if I waited until later in the day, I wouldn’t find you as busy,” Camilla said petulantly.  “But I see that was a vain hope.”

“We stay busy until closing time,” Ben admitted, “but that’s to your advantage, of course——in a business sense, I mean.”

“Yes, but it’s quite a nuisance in a personal sense,” she said, crinkling her nose as another aromatic emigrant came too close.

Ben gave a short laugh in hopes of arousing her sense of humor.  “The price we pay for success, ma’am.  Now, what can I help you with today?”

“She already told me, Pa,” Adam interrupted.  “I can get everything she needs.”

Ben gave his son’s small shoulder a sturdy clap.  “Well, that’s fine, Adam.  You go right ahead and gather things up.”

“Just how long does your wife plan to play nursemaid, Mr. Cartwright?” Mrs. Larrimore demanded.

Ben pursed his lips.  “As long as she’s needed, Mrs. Larrimore.  Jamie Edwards is a very sick little boy.”

Camilla looked horrified.  “It’s not the schoolmaster’s boy she’s with!  The pastor said Sunday he had cholera!”

“That’s right,” Ben replied gravely.  “The doctor thinks he will recover, but he’s still very weak.”

“But think, Mr. Cartwright,” Camilla protested.  “Your wife is risking her own health——yours and your boy’s, as well.”

“She’s being very careful,” Ben said quietly.  Camilla started to speak again, but Ben interrupted.  “I appreciate your concern, but the Edwards are our closest friends.  And, in any case, Inger would not leave a motherless boy to suffer alone when he seems so comforted by her presence.”

Camilla shook her head reproachfully.  “Foreigners seem to have no sense whatsoever.  I understand this plague was brought to our community by some German emigrants, and now it’s likely to be spread by your Swedish wife.”

Ben bristled, but managed to choke back the angry words crowding into his throat.  A moment later Adam arrived with Mrs. Larrimore’s filled shopping basket; and as she busily checked its contents, she forgot all about foolish foreigners.

As Ben had indicated, Jamie made a turn for the better; but his recovery was slow.  Not until the end of April was he well enough to leave his bed; and, to Inger, he still seemed weak.  In body, he was; but his attachment to his gentle Swedish friend had grown stronger during his illness and convalescence.  He still missed his mother, but no longer with an aching heart.  He felt he had found her love beating again in the breast of another.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

             On the first Thursday in May a tall, dark-haired man in his early thirties entered Larrimore’s Mercantile and Outfitters Headquarters, doffing his black hat to the attractive blonde woman behind the counter.  The man looked so familiar Inger thought for a moment he must be one of her regular customers, but a second look confirmed he was another emigrant passing through St. Joe in search of a golden horizon.  “Could you tell me which of these men is Mr. Larrimore, ma’am?” the newcomer asked.

“Oh, I am sorry,” Inger said.  “Mr. Larrimore has gone to California, but if it’s supplies you need, my husband vill be glad to help you.”

The man shook his head, seeming disappointed.  “I was looking for a little more than just supplies,” he said, “but I can use some of those, too.  I’m headed for California myself.”

Inger laughed.  “Who is not these days?”  She pointed across the crowded room.  “That is my husband.  He vill be glad to advise you on what supplies to take.  There are several ahead of you, though, I am afraid.”

“No problem,” the stranger said and ambled toward the corner where Ben was surrounded by emigrants eager to purchase whatever he suggested.  As he came closer to the group, the man in the black hat cocked his head and a wide grin split his face.  Then, instead of taking his place with the others, he moved to one side and lounged against a barrel of crackers.

When Ben hefted a sack of cornmeal and headed outside to load it on a customer’s wagon, the stranger followed him with his eyes.  Ben soon came back inside, and though his vision was unimpaired now by a load on his shoulder, he still barely noticed the man by the cracker barrel.  He went directly to the next emigrant awaiting his help.

“The apron looks real natural, little brother.”

Ben spun abruptly at the sound of the soft, teasing drawl; and he stared for a moment at the man who had spoken.  Then his face exploded with joy.  “John!” Ben cried as he pushed past other customers to engulf his older brother in strong arms.  John gave him an equally fierce bear hug in exchange.

Ben pulled back and held John at arms’ length.  “Man, it’s good to see you!” he declared.  “What on earth brings you to Saint Joseph?”  Ben looked through the window to the street.  “Where is Martha——and Will?”

“They’re not with me,” John explained.

Inger had come from behind the counter.  She lifted quizzical eyes to Ben’s face.  He reached for her hand and pulled her into a one-arm embrace.  “Inger, my love,” he said, thumping the slightly taller man on the chest, “this is my brother John.”

Inger’s eyes glowed with welcome.  “Oh, vonderbar, Ben!”  She stretched a hand toward her brother-in-law.  “It is good to meet you, John.”

“And you,” Ben’s brother responded.  “She’s everything you said in your letter, Ben——a real beauty.”

“Ach, no!” Inger protested.  “Only in the eyes of mine husband.”

“And his brother,” John said, tapping her nose playfully.  “It’s not proper to correct a guest, missy.”  He looked over at Ben.  “You do have a berth for me, don’t you, little brother?”

“Aye, aye!” Ben jibed back. “For as many nights as you anchor with us.”  He inclined his head toward the back of the store.  “It’s not large, but there’s room in Adam’s bed.”  He suddenly realized he had a line of customers waiting, some relishing the brothers’ reunion, others showing definite signs of annoyed impatience.  “I—I have to work now, John,” he said, “but Inger can show you to your room, and you two can get acquainted.  Then I’ll see you at supper.”

“Fine, Ben,” John laughed.  “I wouldn’t want to interfere with your work.  Like I said, the apron looks real natural.”

Ben gave the other man a playful shove.  “Will you stop?  Take this big galoot out of here, Inger, before he causes any more uproar.”

“Yah, sure,” Inger said slowly, not quite knowing how to take the brothers’ sparring.  “Please to come vith me, John.”

John followed her to the back of the store and through the connecting door to the Cartwrights’ small living quarters.  Inger went directly to the stove.  “You vould like some coffee?” she asked.

“Sounds fine, ma’am,” he responded, “but I’m afraid I’m keeping you from your work.”

“Please, it is Inger,” she corrected, “and I am leaving only a little earlier than usual.  I try to be here when Adam returns from school——to give him cookies and milk and to hear all the news of his day.  When you are six, it is hard to hold it all in ‘til suppertime.”

John laughed, a deep, resounding laugh similar to Ben’s.  “Adam’s a lot like his cousin Will in that.”

Inger smiled as she dipped water from a gutta-percha bucket into the metal coffee pot.  “Your son is close in age to Adam, yah?”

“A year older, and like two peas in a pod,” John replied.  “They got to be great friends while Ben stayed with us.”

“Yah, Adam vill be disappointed his cousin could not come vith you.”  She set the pot on the stove.

John stepped quickly toward her.  “Here, let me build up that fire for you.”

“Oh, thank you,” Inger agreed, standing back so he could reach the stove.  “Tell me, John,” she said a moment later, “why did you ask for Mr. Larrimore instead of your brother?”

John was too busy coaxing the flickering flame in the stove’s fire box to turn around.  “I was just looking for information about Ben,” he explained.  The fire caught, so John stood, slid the coffee pot onto a burner and turned around.  “Since Ben’s letter said you planned to get an early start for California, I assumed you’d already be gone.  I knew you had rented this place from Mr. Larrimore, so I thought he could tell me how far ahead you were and what train you’d gone with.  I was hoping to catch up to you.”

“I see,” Inger said, then puzzlement again flickered in her lake-blue eyes.  “But Ben wrote again about our change in plans.”

John shrugged.  “Must have come after I left.  Why are you still here, Inger?”

“Ve are not going to California this year, John.  Ve decided to vait until next spring.”

“What!” John ejaculated.  “Whatever for?”

Inger pulled out a chair.  “Sit here, John, and I vill tell you while ve vait for the coffee to brew.”

John listened to Inger’s explanation without comment, but his forehead creased with frustration.  He had plenty to say, but now wasn’t the time and Inger wasn’t the person.  Later tonight, though, John intended to have a few pertinent words with his irritating and, at times, unfathomable younger brother.

Adam, followed closely by Jamie, came bursting through the side door from the street.  “We’re home!” he shouted, his noisy announcement totally unnecessary.  No one could enter those small quarters unobserved anyway.

Suddenly the youngster caught sight of their visitor and gave a war whoop worthy of an Indian brave.  “Uncle John!”   Completely forgetting Jamie, Adam pounced on his uncle’s lap and staked a claim there.

John wrestled the boy back and forth, then wrapped him in a tight hug.  “Missed your old uncle, did you?”

“I sure have!” Adam said.  “Did Cousin Will come with you?”

“I’m afraid not, Adam.”

“Aw, shucks!”

“Adam,” Inger chided.  “You are forgetting your manners.  Please introduce your friend.”

Adam looked abashed.  “I’m sorry, Mama; I just got all excited.  Uncle John, this is my best friend, Jamie Edwards.”

John stood and shook hands with young Jamie as if he had been an adult.  “How do you do, young fellow?”

Unlike Adam, Jamie hadn’t forgotten his manners.  “I do very well, sir, and it’s a real pleasure to meet you.”

John chuckled at the boy’s almost exaggerated politeness.  “The pleasure’s mine, my boy, I assure you.  I hear cookies and milk are available in the mess.  You’ll stay for some, won’t you?”

“I always do,” Jamie said frankly.

Inger looked around her immaculate little home and lifted her chin proudly.  “I see no mess, Brother John,” she declared stiffly.

John guffawed.  “Oh, Inger, I’m sorry; I forgot I was talking to landlubbers.  ‘Mess’ is our word for mealtime on board ship.  I can’t find a thing to fault with your housekeeping; the place is spotless.”

Inger smiled then.  “It is plain, I know, but when the busy season in the store is past, I vill sew some curtains and cushions and make it more presentable.”

John took her hand between his two.  “Believe me, Inger, the only fault I find in you is that you were foolish enough to marry that rascally little brother of mine.”

Inger withdrew her hand and spatted his in playful rebuke.  “That vas the wisest choice I ever made,” she stated proudly.  “Now behave yourself or you vill get no cookies!”

John grinned, and the twinkle in his gray eyes made him resemble Ben more than ever.  He sat down at the table, folded his hands and smiled angelically.  Adam winked at Jamie and aped his uncle’s posture; and, taking the hint, so did Jamie.  Inger shook her head at the naughty trio and began to set out the cookies with milk for the boys and another cup of black coffee for John.

When everyone felt stuffed full of cookies, John pulled his chair back and reached for the black hat he had laid aside when he came in.  “I need to stable my horse, Inger,” he explained in answer to her quizzical look.  “Is there a livery you’d care to recommend?”

“Yah,” Inger replied.  “Ve keep our horse at Abramson’s Livery.  Adam can show you the vay.”

John stood and brushed cookie crumbs off his gray flannel shirt.  “Sounds good.  Adam, you ready to navigate, lad?”

Adam popped a playful salute at his uncle.  “Aye, aye, captain.”

John laughed and swung the youngster up onto his shoulders.  “Best climb to the crow’s nest then, aye, matey?”

Adam giggled and took firm hold on his uncle’s hair, which was just a shade lighter brown than Ben’s. “Aye, matey!”  He looked down at his friend from his perch.  “You coming, Jamie?”

Jamie grinned.  “Just as far as the boardinghouse.  Father said not to dally today.”

John, with Adam riding piggyback and Jamie trailing close behind, headed for the door.

“Be careful, Adam!” Inger called.  “Vatch you do not bump your head!”

“Oh, Mama!” Adam chided.  “I got more sense than that!”

“Of course, he does, Mama,” John chuckled.  “After all, he is a Cartwright.”

Inger folded her arms and pasted a frown on her face.  “It seems to me Cartwrights are more full of sass than sense,” she said with what she intended as severity.  The twitching of her lips tattled her true feelings, though; so John just grinned, bent his knees and waddled through the door.

Jamie crinkled his nose and pointed as Adam’s uncle maintained the comical posture on his way down the steps and into the street.  “Quack, quack!” the youngster giggled and copied John’s duck-like walk.

From the stoop Inger smiled, happy to hear Jamie laugh again.  The boy still had not fully recovered from his bout with cholera.  But, waddling along behind John, he seemed almost as sturdy as his stalwart friend riding in the “crow’s nest.”  Inger watched contentedly until the trio of clowns had turned onto the main street out of sight.  Then she went inside and tried to figure how to make the simple supper she had planned seem special, so Ben’s brother would feel truly welcome.

Inger need not have worried.  John declared he had not tasted a supper as appetizing or as filling since leaving home.  “Or even before, if the truth be told,” he added with a wink at Ben.  The younger Cartwright coughed and turned his head away quickly, so his face wouldn’t betray his thoughts.  John’s wife Martha was a good enough cook, but tended to carry frugality to a fault.  Ben had usually left her table hungry; but, feeling guilty about sharing his brother’s meager board, he had never complained.

“Would you care to walk down and see our waterfront, John?” Ben asked, to change the subject.

“Aye, I would,” John readily agreed.

“Inger?” Ben asked.

John cut a quick glance at his sister-in-law.  He really preferred to be alone with Ben for a while, but could not, of course, have refused if she wanted to accompany them.  That would be a surly way for a guest to behave.

“Ach, no, Ben!” Inger said so quickly John hoped she had not sensed his reluctance to include her.  “I have dishes to vash and pastries to bake.”

“Can I come, Pa?” Adam asked eagerly.

Ben started to assent, but he caught a glimpse of his brother’s face and changed his mind.  “Not tonight, Adam,” he said.  “Stay here and give Mama all the help you can.”

Adam’s lower lip puckered out with disappointment, but he knew better than to argue.  As the boy started to help clear the table, Ben rubbed his neck approvingly on the way to the door.

Ben and John walked along the riverside, the smell of the moisture-tipped breeze reminding both of their years at sea.  John stood half-a-head taller than his brother, but that wasn’t obvious when he leaned over the dock railing to look at the steamers anchored nearby. “Oh, to be afloat again,” John sighed.

Ben nodded, understanding the emotion; for at times he, too, missed the feel of a swaying deck beneath his feet.  He looked sympathetically at John.  His older brother’s face was more weathered than his, for John had spent more years braving the salt gales of the Atlantic.  But the moonlight glinting on the older man’s angular cheekbones reflected more than the passage of time.  “Something on your mind, John?” Ben asked quietly.

John looked sharply at his younger brother.  “Aye, Ben, there is.”  His tone grew harsher.  “When did you get to be such a blame fool, boy?” he demanded.

Ben stuffed his hands in his pants’ pockets and kicked at a pebble near his foot.  “You’re upset because I can’t go to California with you, aren’t you?”

“Upset doesn’t spell the half of it, little brother,” John sputtered, pacing with his hands behind his back.  “I all but beg you to stay in Ohio with me, but you can’t be budged.  No, no, you’ve got to rush off to California in quest of your fool dream.  But some storekeeper you barely know quirks his finger, and you throw it all to the wind at his command!”

Ben chuckled.  “You’re jealous, John!”

John turned to face Ben, his eyes sparking like firecrackers on the Fourth of July.  “Jealous, am I?  Of a cock-sure, smart-mouthed pup like you?”

Ben sucked in a slow breath.  “Sorry, bad choice of words.  But, John, you surely can’t think I hold Mr. Larrimore in greater respect or affection than I do you.”

John surveyed Ben coolly.  “How can I think otherwise when it’s his wishes you follow?”

Ben shook his head.  “It wasn’t a matter of following his wishes.  He made me a fair and, I believe, favorable business proposal, and I accepted.  I had no idea you’d suddenly take it into your head to go west!”

John spread his hands in frustration.  “I know that!  But, Ben, now is the time to go, don’t you see?  There’s a fortune in gold just waiting to be scooped off the ground.”

Ben snorted.  “Oh, John, not you, too!  Tell me you’re not just another gold-crazed fool with no thought for his future or his family.”

John’s broad nostrils flared.  “It’s my family and my future I’m thinking of, boy!  You think it’s good for my family to scratch along year after year on that stony excuse for a farm?”

“No,” Ben said quickly.  “No, I don’t.  But there’s good land in California, John.  Why don’t you go home and sell your worthless rock pile?  Then, you can pack up Will and Martha and travel west with us next spring.  Nothing would please me more than to have you settle nearby.”

John took a long, slow breath.  “Oh, Ben, we’re hopelessly different——always have been.  I can’t think of much we’ve ever seen eye-to-eye on.  Maybe I’d best push on at first light.”

Ben reached for his brother’s elbow.  “No, John, please——please stay——a few days, at least.”

“But, Ben—”

Ben raised a silencing hand.  “No, hear me out.  I may not always agree with the choices you make, and I know you don’t often think much of mine.  But there’s love and respect between us.  And once you leave, there’ll be half a continent and who knows how many months or years between us.  Can’t we set aside our differences and enjoy each other a few days before parting for so long?”

He didn’t add “perhaps forever,” but both brothers knew the possibility of that in the wilderness through which each would ultimately travel.  John looked down at Ben, and a new respect flickered in his  eyes.  “You’re right, Ben; we’re brothers; we need each other too much to let a difference of opinion separate us.  I’ll stay on ‘til Monday; and if I can’t persuade you to come with me by then, I’ll accept your decision and go on my way alone.”

Ben smiled in relief.  “Good, John, good.”  He threw an arm around his brother.  “It means the world to me to have you share my home, even for just a few days.  You’ve given so much to me.”

John felt a lump rising in his throat.  To disguise it, he grabbed Ben’s head under one armpit and scrubbed his younger brother’s noggin.  Then, arm in arm, they sauntered back.

The next morning John volunteered to help Ben in the store, and Ben readily agreed so Inger could have a day of purely domestic pursuits.  The brothers worked well together, instinctively forming the kind of team they had as boys in their father’s chandlery.  During a mid-afternoon lull in business, Ben clapped his brother’s muscular shoulder.  “It feels good, working together like we did when we were lads, eh, John?”

John nodded, but couldn’t resist casting a superior eye on his brother.  “Could be that way again if you’d stop being pigheaded.  I’d be willing to work share-and-share alike with you in the gold fields.”

Ben’s jaw jerked in irritation.  “You know, now that I think about it, this is exactly the way it was back home:  you always bossing, always thinking you knew best.”

“I’m five years your elder, boy,” John snorted.  “I think I have a bit more perspective.”

Ben raised an eyebrow.  “Yeah?” he said sharply.  “Well, why don’t you apply your perspective to a sack of flour?  We need some brought in from the stockroom.”

John ruffled and, biting his tongue, turned abruptly on his heel to get the flour.  It frayed his dignity to be ordered around by his baby brother, but that realization had no sooner crossed his mind than it was replaced by another.  John suddenly found himself wondering if this was how Ben had felt taking orders from him.  In a moment of soul-searching honesty John acknowledged that he had been an imperious overlord to Ben back in New Bedford.  Too caught up in the pride of his position as his father’s right-hand man to give any thought to how the younger boy might feel about his bossy ways.  Well, then, any irritation he felt now had been richly earned, and he’d be man enough to take it graciously.  Returning with the flour, John gave his younger brother a deferential smile.  “Where would you like this, boss?” he asked quietly.

Ben’s brown eyes blinked at the dizzying change in the older man’s demeanor.  “There——next to the cornmeal.”   As John dropped the sack at the spot indicated and, without being asked, headed back to the stockroom for another, Ben shook his head, perplexed.  Now, what had gotten into his big brother all of a sudden?  Ben had no time to ponder that quandary, though.  The lull ended as three customers entered the store simultaneously and Ben stepped briskly to inquire into their needs.

The brothers worked in greater harmony throughout the rest of that day and their congenial partnership continued on the next.  Saturday was, as usual, the busiest day of the week, for local farm families, making their weekly excursion to town, joined the throngs of emigrants crowding the store.  For the first Saturday in weeks Inger was able to stay away from the business, and she spent the better part of the day preparing a huge picnic lunch for Sunday afternoon.

Driving three miles south of town, the Cartwrights found a private spot along the banks of the Missouri and spread a sumptuous feast of fried chicken and fixings under a cottonwood.  Afterwards, the two brothers tossed a ball with Adam until both were exhausted while Inger packed the leftovers back into their wagon.  Then she took her turn playing with the indefatigable youngster while Ben and John collapsed, exhausted, under the shade tree.

Ben gave a spacious yawn.  “I always thought it was children who needed naps, but that boy can outlast me any day.”

Lying down, John stretched his shoulders back.  “Sign of old age, my boy!”

“Old age!” Ben chortled.  “Look who’s talking, older brother.”

John stuck a bony finger into Ben’s ribcage.  “I am your older brother and don’t you forget it.  I’ll thank you to respect your elders, sonny.”

Ben gave him a wry grin.  “I try, sir; I try.”  He stretched out, propping his head up on one elbow.  “Seriously, John, I want to say how glad I am you spent these days with us.”

John rolled onto his left side to face Ben.  “Even if it hasn’t been all sugar and spice?”

Ben chuckled.  “There’s been plenty of spice, John!”

John rolled his eyes.  “Nothing dulls your sharp tongue, does it, boy?”

Ben smirked.  “Amazing, isn’t it, when I had nothing but your sweet speech to pattern mine after?”

John gave his younger brother a light slap across the cheek.  “That for your impudence, you young scamp!”

Ben sat up and hugged his knees.  “Duly noted, sir.”  He sighed deeply.  “Oh, John, if I’d only known your plans, nothing would have kept me from going with you.”

John sat up, too.  “There’s nothing I can say to change your mind?”

Ben shook his head.  “I wish I could turn the clock back and make a different decision,” he admitted, “but I accepted an obligation here.  I just wouldn’t feel right abandoning it.”  His expression pleading for understanding, he looked directly into his brother’s gray eyes, so reminiscent of their father’s.  “It isn’t the way we were raised, John.”

John looked soberly at the grass beneath them.  “No, it isn’t,” he conceded.  “Father always believed a man’s word was his bond.  I can hardly fault you for keeping faith with that.”  He pulled a blade of grass and twirled it around his thumb.  “I’ve said some hard things to you the last couple of days, Ben, but it’s because I was so disappointed to have all my plans fall through.  I’d hoped to have the pleasure of your company on the journey and your help in the venture.”

Ben squeezed the back of John’s wrist.  “I’m disappointed, too, John.  Maybe someday the mails will move faster, and people won’t have so much trouble making plans.”  Ben withdrew his hand and rubbed his own thigh self-consciously.  “You—you do believe I’m doing the right thing in staying, don’t you, John?”

John nodded slowly.  “In my heart, yes.  I guess I’d have been ashamed if you’d broken your word to that Larrimore fellow——and ashamed of myself for making you.”

“And that would have been a barrier between us.”  Ben said.

“Aye,” John agreed.  He sat up straighter.  “Ben, I want you to know I’m proud of you.  You’ve weathered a lot of storms in your life, sailed into many a stiff gale of ill circumstance.  But you’ve kept your compass on a straight heading.  You’re hard-working, steadfast and honest to a fault. I know no one with greater potential for success.  That’s why I’m sure you can be whatever you set out to be.   And if all I ever have to show for my life is being a decent brother to you, it’ll be enough.”

Ben had to blink quickly to keep the moisture in his eyes from spilling over.  He felt like he’d just been handed a treasure worth more than all the gold in California, the esteem of the person whose opinion, save Inger’s and Adam’s, he valued most on earth.

Monday morning came too soon for all the Cartwrights.  They were all up at dawn, for John wanted to get an early start.  He had made arrangements with an emigrant he met in the store Saturday to exchange his services herding cattle for storage of his supplies in the man’s wagon.  Eager as he was to start his adventure, however, he felt reluctant to leave the warmth of his brother’s home.

Saying good-bye was hard.  A tearful Adam clung to his uncle until Ben pulled him away.  Inger’s eyes were misty, too, for though she had known John only a few days, he had found a welcome place in her affections.  “You vill be sure to write us when you can?”

“Every chance I get,” John promised, “and I’ll try to locate your brother once I get to California and send you word where to find him.”

“Thank you,” Inger said.  “Gunnar vas never good to write, but he did promise to leave word at the San Francisco post office.”

“I’ll check there first thing,” John assured her.  “Families ought to keep in touch.”  He bent to kiss her cheek, then turned to Ben, who had finally managed to settle Adam down.

“Little brother,” John murmured warmly as he grabbed the younger man in a tight bear hug, then released him.  “You’ve got a standing invitation to share in my diggings if you ever do manage to tear yourself away from this store.”

“I’ll be there next year,” Ben assured him, “but I plan to do my digging in rich bottom land.”

John grinned and shook his head.  “Hard to picture you as a landlubber, mate, but you’re too stubborn to throw your dream overboard.”

Ben smiled at his older brother.  “Do you really think I should?”

John raised Ben’s chin with one long finger.  “You do, and I’ll personally tan your britches.”  Adam giggled, and John gave him a conspiratorial wink before turning back to Ben.  “Cling to your dream, brother,” he ordered.  “Remember, it’s the stars we steer by.”

Ben gave his older brother a slow and solemn salute.  “Aye, aye, captain.”  John returned the salute, evasively dragging his hand past the dampness at the corner of his eye.  Then, he gathered his belongings and after another round of hugs and kisses left to meet the emigrant train.

CHAPTER TWELVE

              Larrimore’s Mercantile remained busy throughout the month of May and into June.  Though Ben worked long hours, the toil rarely seemed irksome, for assurance of his brother’s approval and anticipation of sharing a bright future together in California bolstered his flagging spirits whenever he grew weary.  Still, he was content to see business slacken toward the end of the month.  At least, it meant Inger no longer had to spend her days helping him in the store.

But if Ben expected his wife to devote the extra hours to relaxation, he sorely misjudged her industrious nature.  No sooner was Inger freed from responsibilities in the mercantile than she set to work breaking up a small garden plot behind the store.

“But, Inger,” Ben protested when she first asked him for vegetable seeds, “we can get all the produce we need from the store.  There’s no need for you to work so hard.”

“To me, it is more play than vork, Ben,” she said liltingly.  “I enjoy feeling dirt between my fingers.  Besides, fresher is better, and I vant only the best for my family.  Ve can eat food from our own garden all summer, perhaps even dry some vegetables to take on our journey.  And ve can let some go to seed and take that, yah?”

“Yah,” Ben agreed.  “Seed ve vill need.”

Inger tittered at his silly rhyme.  “So indulge me then, mine husband.”

Ben kissed her forehead.  “As often as I can, my love.  Take whatever seed you want and grub in the earth as much as you like.”

With Adam’s and Jamie’s help Inger planted beans and onions, corn and carrots, turnips and radishes and, providing each boy with a hoe, enlisted them in her war against weeds.  To them, working in the garden seemed like a new game, for Inger never kept them at it long enough to make their labor arduous.  As the tiny plants began to sprout through the dark, rich soil, the boys watched with fascination the daily changes in the garden, eagerly awaiting the day they could harvest the fresh vegetables and appease the appetites their exercise was whetting.

As Inger watched the youngsters picking the first ripe green beans for one of their Friday night feasts, she smiled at their pride in their produce.  It reminded her of how she had felt as a girl on her father’s farm in Sweden, as if she personally were responsible for supplying the table with flavorful food.  It was good, too, to see color coming back into Jamie’s pale face, to see warm sunshine bake strength into his bones and fresh air flood his lungs with vitality.

Despite all these reasons for happiness, however, Inger felt an unaccustomed sadness.  While she had always loved seeing the earth come to life each spring, this year every green stem, every colorful bloom, reminded her of a secret sorrow.  Why, why, why——the ominous echo of that question pounded her heart with its doleful drumbeat.  Why did the earth all around her blossom so lavishly when none of the seed Ben planted in her germinated?

Adam and Jamie came running up, their metal pails filled to the brim with slender green pods.  “We picked all we could find the size you told us.  Is it enough for dinner, Miss Inger?” Jamie asked eagerly.

Inger smoothed his windblown hair.  “Yah, is plenty,” she said.  “You and Adam run play now while I snap them.”

“We can help,” Jamie said, “can’t we, Adam?”

“Sure!” Adam agreed readily.

Inger laughed.  “Such eager helpers I have.  All right, then, take a bean each.  Snap off each end——like so——and pull the string down the side.  Yah, that is right.”

With the boys’ help, the beans were soon boiling briskly in the pot and, flavored with bacon drippings and onion, furnished the centerpiece for a meal of roast beef, potatoes and carrots.  The Cartwrights and Edwards alike heaped their plates, the boys, especially, digging in with the legendary hunger of harvest hands.

“May I have some more green beans, please?” Jamie asked, eagerly holding out his plate.

“Mercy, Jamie!” his father remonstrated, though he was grinning as he said it.  “At this rate, Inger will have nothing left to feed her family the rest of the week.”

“Do not chide the child, Josiah,” Inger scolded.  “It is good he eats vell.  He is a growing boy and must alvays take as much as he vishes from my table.  And you, Josiah, could use a second helping yourself, so thin you are.  Give me your plate.”

Ben gave Josiah’s arm a solicitous pat.  “Forgive my wife, sir,” he said with exaggerated solemnity.  “She thinks every underfed person on the face of the earth is her child, and it is her task to tyrannize them into health.”  He scowled eloquently at Inger.  “I know you’re a notorious old mother hen, my dear, but you mustn’t bully our guests into stuffing themselves.  Save your nagging for your own babies.”

There had been no real rebuke in Ben’s words, but Inger felt as if a pan of scalding water had been poured over her.  She reddened and staggered abruptly to her feet.  “Is it my fault I cannot give you children?” she cried.  Then seeing everyone wide-eyed with shock at her sudden outburst, she covered her face in her hands and rushed into the bedroom, slamming the door.

The others stared at the closed door in awkward silence.  Jamie’s small chin began to quiver.  “Is Miss Inger mad at me?” he asked, his voice quavering.

Josiah stretched an arm toward him.  “No, son, of course not.”  Jamie quickly buried himself in the comfort of his father’s breast.

“I’m sure it has nothing to do with you,” Ben soothed.  He raised dazed eyes to his friend’s face.  “I can’t imagine what did set her off, though.  I’ve never seen Inger behave like that.”

“I think I can guess,” Josiah said softly, “and if I’m right, you and your wife need some time alone tonight.  Why don’t you let Adam come home with us?  Jamie’s been begging to have him sleep over, and this looks to be an ideal time.”

Adam looked troubled.  “Is—is Mama sick?”

“I don’t think so, Adam,” his father replied.  “She seems upset about something, though, so maybe you should go along with Jamie to give us a chance to talk it out.”

“Run get your nightshirt,” Josiah suggested, “and we’ll clear out—that is, if Ben will cut us three slices of that cake to take with us.”

“Yes, of course,” Ben said, moving to the sideboard to slide a knife through the pound cake sitting there.  He wrapped them in a page of the previous day’s St. Joseph Gazette.  “I’m so sorry about this.  It’s just not like Inger to—”

“For mercy’s sake, Ben,” Josiah chuckled, “don’t say that to her!”  He rubbed his friend’s shoulder sympathetically.  “Be gentle, Ben; you’re the only one who can mend her broken heart.”

Ben gasped.  “Broken heart!” he exclaimed.  “How do you know—?”

Josiah shook his head quickly.  “I don’t know; I’m only guessing.  Just tread softly, Ben:  a woman’s emotions are delicate ground.”

Ben’s head wagged back and forth in bewilderment.  “I don’t feel like I’m on ground at all,” he said, “more like I’m lost at sea without a compass.”

Josiah laughed lightly.  “The woman always has the compass, Ben.  Don’t worry; you’ll work it out.  You love each other too much for it to end otherwise.”

Adam, nightshirt in hand, came out of his bedroom and, with Jamie, tiptoed past the closed door next to his.  “Ready, boys?” Josiah asked, putting an arm around each of them.  At their nod, he took the wrapped cake from Ben and said good-bye.

Ben stared at the bedroom door and realized with a sharp pang that never before had it been closed between him and his wife.  Should he go to her or just sleep in Adam’s room tonight ‘til she settled down?  Scorning such cowardice, he took a deep breath and turned the doorknob.  “Inger?” he whispered softly.

Inger was lying across the bed, her face buried in the coverlet.  “Leave me alone, Ben,” she sobbed.  “I am so ashamed.”

Ben walked across the tiny room and sat next to her on the bed.  “There’s no need, sweetheart,” he crooned, stroking her heaving back.

Inger pulled away.  “Please, Ben, go back to our guests.  It is rude to desert them, I know, but I cannot face them.”

“They’ve left,” Ben said quietly.

Inger turned to look at him with red, puffy eyes.  “Oh, I am sorry, Ben.  I have spoiled everyone’s evening.”

Ben brushed a tear from her cheek.  “No, my love.  No one feels anything but concern for you.  Can’t you tell me what troubles you, dearest?  Is it something I said?”

Wiping her cheeks, Inger sat up.  “No, Ben.”  She choked.  “Well—yah.”

Ben looked desperately at the ceiling, wishing he could see through it and into the heavens, for it was surely the wisdom of God he needed in this moment.  “Inger, sweetheart,” he demurred.  “It can’t be both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’

Inger buried her face in her hands.  “Don’t scold me, Ben!”

“But I wasn’t—”  Ben stopped in mid-sentence, realizing with surely heaven-sent insight that what Inger needed wasn’t words.  He took her in his arms and held her close as she wept out her grief.

After several minutes she quieted and laid her head against Ben’s shoulder.  “Don’t you remember, Ben?” she murmured.  “You said I should save my bullying vays for my own babies.”

If she had not looked so serious, Ben would have been tempted to laugh.  “Sweetheart, I wasn’t scolding you,” he explained as patiently as if he were consoling little Adam.  “I was teasing.”

“I know that!” Inger sputtered.  “But you said ‘my babies.’  Don’t you see, Ben?  I have no babies!  It is seven months ve are married now, and no sign of life in me.”

Ben’s face relaxed.  “Is that all, sweetheart?” he asked.

“All?” Inger demanded.  “How can you say ‘all’ about the dearest vish of my heart?”

Ben pursed his lips.  Obviously, he’d made another monstrous marital misstep.  “Forgive me, dearest,” he said gently.  “I only meant that we are young yet.  We have plenty of time for children.”

“Oh, Ben, I am afraid,” Inger confessed.  “What if I cannot have children?  What if I am barren?”

Ben took her face between his large palms.  “Aren’t you the one who always reminds me that our lives, our dreams, are in God’s hands?”

Inger nodded slowly.  “Yah, that is true, but—”

“No, listen to me, Inger,” Ben insisted.  “Certainly, I want more children.  I want a house full of boys as bright as Adam and girls as beautiful as you.  But if Adam is all the good Lord sees fit to bless us with, then Adam will be blessing enough.  Of course, with the amount of love you have to lavish on children, he’ll probably turn out the most spoiled boy in California!”

For the first time Inger laughed, though it was a short, choked sort of laugh.  “You vill not be disappointed in me?”

Ben pulled her close.  “Never, my love, never.”  Feeling her relax in his embrace, Ben sighed with relief and just held her quietly for a few minutes.  Then he said hesitantly, “Inger, I want you to do something for me.”

Inger sat up.  “Yah?  What is it, mine husband?”

Ben took her hand.  “I want you to see the doctor, the one who treated Jamie.  You liked him, didn’t you?”

“Very much, but—”

Ben laid a finger across her lips.  “I don’t want any argument.  You’ve carried this worry long enough.  Let the doctor check you out and tell us if there’s any reason you can’t have children.”

“But it is such a foolish expense, Ben.”

“No, no.”  Ben shook his head vehemently.  “You wouldn’t hesitate to consult a doctor if you were physically ill, and your peace of mind is even more important.  Why, Inger, you’re the very sunlight of our home!  If a cloud obscures that light, we’re all plunged into darkness.  You do as I say, young lady, and see the doctor first thing tomorrow.  Then if it’s bad news, we’ll grieve together and go on from there.”

“All right, Ben,” Inger said meekly.  “I suppose it is better to know than to vorry, yah?”

“Yah,” Ben said firmly, then smiled.  “I just realized, sweetheart:  we’re completely alone for the first time since we married.  Adam’s spending the night with Jamie, so we could give that doctor a little something extra to look for, eh?”

Inger looked pained.  “Oh, Ben, not tonight,” she pleaded.  “I am sorry, but I just couldn’t—”

Ben stroked the blonde hair that had tumbled loose from its customary bun.  “No, no, not tonight,” he soothed, secretly berating himself for his lack of sensitivity.  “Just let me hold you and I’ll be content.”

Without undressing, they lay down and Ben caressed Inger gently, demanding nothing in return.  In the quiet of the night they drifted to sleep, her head on his shoulder and neither stirred ‘til early morning.

* * * * *

Saturday afternoon Inger breezed through the mercantile’s front door.  She moved quickly behind the counter to encircle Ben in her arms and, ignoring the customers’ amused chuckles, kissed him with the passion she ordinarily reserved for their bedroom.

Ben gave an embarrassed laugh and pulled her into a corner.  “Not bad news, I take it,” he said, smiling, for his wife’s face glowed with gladness.

Inger giggled.  “No, not bad news.”

“Well, what did the doctor say?” Ben asked.  “Tell me quickly, dear.  There’s a roomful of people gawking at us!”

“I don’t care if the whole vorld gawks, Ben!” Inger whispered.  “The doctor says there is no reason I cannot have children.  He thinks maybe I put too much pressure on myself to give you a child right avay, and this tension makes it harder to conceive.  He says I must relax and trust that a child vill come in God’s good time.”

“There, you see!” Ben said, giving her shoulders a squeeze.  “Isn’t that just what I said?”

“Yah,” Inger agreed.  “I have heard from two wise men now, and I vill do just as they say.  I vill not vorry, but, Ben, I vill need some fabric.”

“For the curtains?” Ben asked slowly, his head spinning from the sudden subject change.  “I told you to pick whatever you like.”

“For that, too,” Inger said, “but I meant for baby clothes, Ben.”

“Baby clothes?” Ben asked.  “You—you don’t think you’re rushing that just a bit, do you, Inger?”

Inger snickered.  “Yah, maybe.  So call it an act of faith, mine husband.  I vant to keep my hands busy, so my mind has no time to dwell on foolish fears.”

Ben gave her a quick hug.  “In the interest of that, sweetheart, make all the little diapers and dresses your heart desires.”  He glanced quickly over his shoulder.  “Now, in the name of mercy, woman, let’s quit making a spectacle of ourselves.”

Inger just laughed and gave him another lingering kiss while one customer applauded and several others joined in.

* * * * *

Late one Saturday in mid-July Ben trudged wearily up the side steps to his home.  His brown eyes shone with renewed luster, however, when Inger met him at the door with a kiss.  “I vas vatching for you,” she said.  “You are later than usual coming back from Mrs. Larrimore’s.”

“Yeah,” Ben muttered, “and more put out than usual, too.  If there’s one part of my job I truly hate, it’s making regular reports to that woman.”

“Yah, I know,” Inger soothed, taking his hat. “I kept your supper varm.  Vash up and I’ll get it for you.”

“Sounds good,” Ben said.  He dipped his hands in the basin of warm water Inger had, as usual, prepared for him.  “I tell you, Inger,” he grumbled as he lathered his hands with a bar of lye soap, “it’s no wonder Larrimore was frantic to find someone trustworthy to manage the store.  His wife has absolutely no business sense.  A dishonest man could rob her blind.”

Inger set two bowls of stew on the table.  “She is lucky to have you, my love.”

Ben dried his hands on the towel lying by the basin.  “I wish she felt that way.  So help me, I think she believes I’m cheating her!”

Inger’s blue eyes widened in alarm.  “You are not serious, Ben?”

“Almost,” Ben said with a crooked smile.  He noticed the second bowl on the table.  “You haven’t eaten yet?”

Inger took his hand.  “I fed Adam early and sent him to bed, but I vanted to vait for you.”

“You shouldn’t have,” Ben said, pulling out her chair, then, dropping a kiss atop her fair head, added, “but I’m grateful for the company.”

“Tell me what you meant about Mrs. Larrimore,” Inger urged.

Ben shrugged.  “Oh, it’s nothing, really.  She just can’t understand why the store’s receipts have dropped so suddenly.”

“But surely she realizes the emigration season has passed,” Inger reasoned.  “She must have seen sales drop like this in other years.”

Ben chuckled.  “Dearest, I doubt she ever looked at receipts in other years.  I tried to explain it to her, but it wasn’t until I took her back to the books for last year that she understood how well the business has been doing, even since the overland traffic tapered off.”  He raised an eyebrow.  “At least, I think she understands now.”

Inger reached across the table to stroke his stubbled cheek.  “It must be hard for her, Ben, vith her husband avay, when she has left all these things to him before.  Ve must be patient.”

Ben rolled his eyes.  “Darling, maybe you have that degree of patience; but I, for one, am no saint.”

Inger frowned.  “If you’re going to be like this, Ben, I may just not give you the special mail that came today.”

Ben’s hand froze midway between his bowl and his mouth.  “Mail?  The only person who writes us is Martha, and it’s too soon for another letter from her.”

Inger tapped the table playfully.  “No, nothing from Martha.  And this did not come by regular mail.  It came, like I say, special.”

Ben dropped the spoon and scowled.  “You’re trying my patience, Inger, and this is definitely not the day for it.”

“Yah, I can see your patience needs much vork,” Inger teased.  She took a bite of stew and chewed slowly.

“Inger!”

“I think it vill do you good to vait, Ben,” Inger said with a maddening smile.  “Of course, the soldier vas so eager to get the letter to you, perhaps it is not fair to him to delay.”

“Soldier?  What soldier?” Ben demanded.

Inger took another leisurely sip of stew broth.  “Why, the one from FortKearny, of course.”

“FortKearny?”  Ben’s brow furrowed, then his face lit up like a phosphorous match.  “John——it’s from John!”

Inger patted her lips demurely with a napkin.  “Yah, I think it may be.”

Ben wiggled his fingers, palm up.  “Unhand my mail, young lady!”

Inger appeared to give his order some consideration.  “No, I think ve should vait ‘til morning, Benyamin,” she said with a pointed nod.  “It vill teach you patience.”

Ben jerked out of his chair and came around the table.  “Inger, give me that letter,” he sputtered, “or so help me, I’ll tickle you!”

Too late, Inger tried to elude the fingers digging into her side.  “No, no, please, Ben,” she gasped helplessly.  “I vill be good, I promise.”

Ben tapped the palm of his hand.  “The letter, then, my dear, the letter.”

Inger giggled.  “On the table by your pipe.  If you hadn’t been such a grumpy bear, you’d have seen it when you came in.”

Ben chucked her under the chin and headed for the table.  Lifting the sealed envelope, he gave Inger a surprised look.  “You didn’t read it?”

“Of course not, Ben!” Inger said.  “He is your brother.”

“And yours now, too,” Ben insisted, giving her a quick hug.  “You could have read it, sweetheart.”

“I like better to share vith you,” Inger said sweetly.  “Come back to the table, dear heart, and read it to me when you’ve finished eating.”

They sat down again, but the stew grew cold while Ben tore open the envelope and began to read:

“Dear Ben, on hearing that a party of soldiers here at FortKearny would be returning to Saint Joseph for supplies, I hurriedly put pen to paper, hoping my words will reach you.  The trail thus far has been soggy beyond my power to describe: torrential downpours worthy of a passage around the Horn, winds such as I haven’t seen since my days at sea and fiery flashes of lightning, the like of which I’ve never seen anywhere!  When I first started out, the prairie seemed a sea of grass, but with all the rain, it’s become a bottomless ocean of mud.  The wagons bog down in it, and the cattle struggle to keep their footing.”

“The poor animals,” Inger moaned softly.

Ben nodded absently.  “Our progress has been slower than we hoped,” he continued, “but our party has fared better than many.  So far we have lost no animals, and we have been little hindered by sickness.  I met a man here at the fort who is headed back east.  He said there has been a real outbreak of cholera between here and FortLaramie, but I’ve seen no cases as yet.  I did spend two miserable days laid up with dysentery, though.  Too much salt pork, I think.  I can’t stress enough, Ben, the importance of fresh meat.  I know you got to be a fair shot while you stayed with us; but for mercy’s sake, buy your rifle early and put in some target practice when you can.”

Ben looked up at Inger.  “That’s sound advice, don’t you think?”

“Yah,” Inger agreed readily.  “Of course, the guidebook says to take bacon and salt pork.”

“Because they keep well,” Ben inserted, “and because you can’t count on finding game along the trail.  But I think John is right:  we’ll stay healthier if we eat fresh meat whenever possible.”

Inger smiled.  “So buy a rifle and prepare yourself, Benyamin.  What else does Brother John say?”

Ben scanned the letter to find his place.  “Once in a while we find greens along the road.  I don’t fix them too well, but I seem to feel heartier after a mess of them.  Tell Inger that there are more families than she expected on the trail this year.  We are not all ‘gold-crazed fools,’ as my brash young brother called me.”

“Oh, Ben, you did not!” Inger reprimanded.

“I’m afraid I did,” Ben admitted with chagrin.  “Don’t worry; John and I made our peace before he left.”

“Vell, that is good,” Inger conceded, “but to treat a guest so, Ben—”

Ben flashed her an irritated frown.  “Do you want to hear the letter or not?”  At her contrite nod he read on.   “Most of them seem like good people.  Some hard cases, though.  Many brought more supplies than their draft animals could pull, especially with the weather as it is.  It pains me to see good bacon and flour cast aside, but what hurts more is seeing supplies deliberately spoiled just so no one else can use them.  Even this early in the journey some folks need extra supplies, due to wagons tipping over at river fords, etc.  And to see others so hard-hearted they won’t give of their bounty to help a fellow traveler in distress is appalling to civilized men.  There are others, though, willing to share, though they have barely enough for themselves; and their courage and humanity is an inspiration.

“Tell Adam I’m keeping a sharp look out for Indians as he asked.  I have seen a few——Pawnees, I was told——but mostly they keep their distance.  I traded a red shirt to one here at the fort for some fresh fish, the first I’d had since our picnic by the Missouri.  Sure were tasty, but nothing to compare with Inger’s!  I hear the Indians are fond of red shirts——beads, too,——so you might bring some along as trade goods.

“I miss you, little brother.  How I wish you and your family could have shared the journey with me!  I’m learning how important it is to have good-hearted folks to travel with.  Choose your companions wisely, Ben; your success on the journey may depend on it.  I’ll try to send further messages to you as I have opportunity, but I’m not sure what the chances are.  Sure hope these soldiers prove reliable!  See you in California next spring.  With warmest regards, your brother John.”

Inger sighed contentedly.  “Ah, that vas good, yah, Ben?”

Ben folded the letter and carefully reinserted it in its envelope.  “To hear from John?  I’ll say it was!  I hadn’t hoped for news ‘til he reached California.”

“At least, he writes,” Inger said, “not like that vorthless scamp of a Gunnar.”

Smiling, Ben shook his head.  “Inger, Inger,” he chuckled.  “Gunnar thinks we’re on the trail.  How could he write?”

“I wrote our change of plans, Ben,” Inger insisted.

“I know, I know,” Ben soothed, “but Gunnar could not have received your letter and sent one back this quickly, dear.”

Inger laughed.  “Yah, you are right.  But I know my lazy brother:  he vill not write.  I am glad yours is of a different sort.”

Ben took a bite of stew.  “Yeah, it was good to hear—”  His face wrinkled in distaste and he pushed the bowl away.  “Inger, my love, would you mind reheating this?” he wheedled.

Inger bobbed her head from side to side, as if weighing the question.  “Vell, I don’t know, Ben.  There is the matter of your tickling me.”

Ben arched a bushy brown eyebrow.  “Reheat this stew, woman, or there’ll be more tickling once I get you to bed.”

Inger’s chin tilted provocatively.  “I thought there were others things you liked better to do in bed.”  Seeing Ben’s face droop like a woebegone waif, she laughed and reached for the bowl.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

             Inger pulled back the blue and yellow calico curtains to peer at the garden plot behind her home, barren now but for the dry stalks and stems offering mute testimony to a productive summer.  Barren——like her body.  A sad smile touched her lips.  Then she smoothed the curtains and the smile became real.  It had, indeed, been a productive summer in all ways but that one.  The ruffled curtains and matching rocker cushions made the small apartment homey, and across the new tablecloth she had made from the same yellow fabric scattered with sprigs of blue flowers had marched a seemingly endless succession of green and golden vegetables.

Inger walked into the next room and drew a small basket from beneath the bed.  She sat down on the mattress and, placing the basket in her lap, began lovingly touching the miniature garments it held.  Whenever she felt discouraged, she instinctively reached for the little basket of baby clothes and the hope they represented.  Somehow, though her dream continued unfulfilled, she felt she held a promise from God with each wee shirt or diaper.  If she prepared for a child, a child would surely come.

She pressed one small blue bootie to each cheek and laughed.  How Ben had teased her about those blue booties!  “You seem to be set on a boy, Inger,” he had joked.

“Yah, that is what I vant,” Inger admitted, “so I make only clothes for baby boys.  Don’t laugh at me, Ben, but I believe God vill not keep me vaiting so long and not send what I vant.”

“And if He sends a girl?” Ben asked, his brown eyes sober.

Inger shook her head carelessly at his concern.  “Then I vill love her, Benyamin.  Have no doubt of that.  I think it vould be good for Adam to have a brother to play vith, that is all.  For myself, it does not matter; I intend to have many sons and daughters, Ben!”

Ben had laughed and kissed her then.  Now, sitting on the bed with the crocheted booties against her cheeks, Inger felt the kiss anew and her heart was cheered.  Rising quickly, she returned the basket to its place and went into the kitchen.  Adam, back in school now, would soon be home, doubtless bringing a hungry friend with him.  Inger opened the canister of flour and measured out enough for a batch of oatmeal cookies.

* * * * *

Since September seventh fell on a Friday in 1849, it seemed only natural to include the Edwards family in the Cartwrights’ celebration of Ben’s birthday.  As Josiah slipped out of his brown tweed jacket that evening, he juggled a square package from one hand to the other, then held it out to his friend.  “Happy birthday, Ben.”

Surprised, but pleased, Ben took the gift.  “You didn’t have to do this, Josiah.”

“Oh, yes, I did,” Josiah laughed.  “It’s really more the repayment of a debt than a gift, I’m afraid.”  He waved to the woman standing by the stove.  “Hello, Inger.  Something special tonight?”

“Nothing you have not had before,” Inger called, “but tonight ve eat all Ben’s favorites.  Sit down to table now, please, and I vill dish up.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Josiah replied with his most obedient smile.  “Come here and take your place, Jamie, and you, too, Birthday Boy.”

Adam tittered at the name Mr. Edwards had given his father and scooted into the chair next to Jamie’s.  “Eat good,” he whispered to his friend.  “There’s chocolate cake with the fluffiest white icing I ever saw for dessert.”

His eyes fixed on the package in his hand, Ben ambled toward his place at the head of the table.  “I’m still trying to figure out what debt you owe me, sir.”

Josiah chuckled.  “That, sir, should become obvious when you open your gift.”

Inger set the pot roast, flavored with horseradish to make it the New England style Ben favored, in the center of the table and stood with arms akimbo.  “Open your gift, Benyamin, so ve can eat.”

Ben sat down and snapped the string tying the brown paper-wrapped parcel.  “Tobacco!” he cried with delight.  “Thank you, Josiah.”

Josiah nodded acknowledgment of Ben’s courtesy.  “Considering how much of yours I’ve smoked away these last months, you see why I call it a debt repaid rather than a gift.”

His chin twitching, Ben shook his head.  “No, no, sir.  This is a far better grade of tobacco than you ever borrowed from me.”

Josiah spread his hands.  “Let’s just say I prefer to borrow the best in future.  But before we test it out, let’s see if a meal of your favorites is fit for consumption, shall we?”

Inger stopped slicing the loaf of fresh-baked bread long enough to thump Josiah on the head with her thumb.  “Ow!” he cried, his hands leaping to hold his offended pate.  “What was that for?”

“For calling my food not fit for consumption,” Inger responded in her sweetest tone.

Ben clucked his tongue.  “After all you’ve consumed, too!  For shame, Josiah!”

The thumb landed on Ben’s head this time.  “Behave yourself, Ben, or the birthday boy vill get no cake.”

“Yea!  More for me!” Adam yelled, then ducked as he saw the punishing thumb raised over his head.  “Well, chocolate’s my favorite,” he pouted.  “Jamie’s, too, I bet.”

Inger laughed and kissed the top of his head instead of thumping it.  “And you shall both have all you can hold, my sweet, but dinner first.”  She sat down.  “Please to say grace for us, Josiah?”

Josiah gave his head one last comforting rub and grinned good-naturedly at Inger before folding his hands.  “Father,” he prayed, “for this food, which I affirm to be not only fit for consumption, but undoubtedly delicious, I thank You heartily.”  His tone grew more serious.  “I thank You still more for the loving hands which have prepared it and the warmth of this home my son and I have enjoyed so many other nights.  Amen.”

Ben carved the roast beef and handed a plate, first, to each of his guests and then to Inger and Adam.  “How’s my boy doing in school this year?” he asked as he passed the potatoes to Josiah on his left.

Josiah beamed a smile toward Adam.  “The school term’s just started, of course, but our young scholar seems as interested in learning as ever.  In fact, he’s providing Jamie some stiff competition, especially in arithmetic.”

“He likes it better than me,” Jamie said with a shrug.

“Than I,” his father corrected, giving the youngster’s slim shoulder a squeeze.  “That’s no excuse, my boy.  If you’re not careful, your friend will soon surpass you in that subject, if not others.”

“I wouldn’t mind,” Jamie replied with a carefree laugh.  “It’s fun having someone to match wits with.  No one ever came close before.”

“I believe what Jamie is trying to say is that he enjoys the challenge Adam’s quick mind represents,” Josiah commented, “and I think that’s all to the good——for both of them.”

“It is good to hear Adam does vell,” Inger said.  “For this reason I am glad ve stayed the extra year here.  He is learning much from you, Josiah.”

Josiah nodded, gazing seriously at Adam.  The boy had such an intense love of learning that Josiah hated to see him travel so far beyond the reach of formal schooling.  But this was a night for celebration, not for somber pondering about the future.  Josiah put off his schoolmaster garb and turned to his friend.  “Have you heard more from your brother, Ben?”

Ben shook his head.  “Not a word.  John promised he’d write when he could, but we’ve heard nothing since that letter from FortKearny.”

Josiah sliced a bite of tender roast.  “Well, there’s no regular mail, Ben.  He may not have found anyone to carry a message east.  Most are going the other way, you know, and those who do return may not be entirely reliable postal carriers.”

“Yah, I am sure that is why,” Inger said.  “The soldier who brought the first letter said John had done him a good turn.  That is why he vas so glad to carry his letter.  Others might not be so—so—”

“So motivated?” Josiah suggested.

“Yah, that is the vord I vant,” Inger said with a smile.  “But ve are much blessed to have heard from John at all, I think.  Poor Mrs. Larrimore has had no vord from her husband.”

“Well, he should be in California by now; and John should, at least, be near there,” Ben said.  “I’m sure they’ll each send word when they arrive.  The Pacific Mail Steamship Company was formed last year, you know, to bring mail from San Francisco across the isthmus.”

“I remember reading about it,” Josiah said.  “Amazing, isn’t it, to be able to communicate with the far west so quickly.”

Ben reached for the other man’s hand.  “Amazing and wonderful, my friend.  Be assured, you’ll hear from us.”

“And you from us,” Josiah promised.  “Miles may separate us, but somehow, I think our friendship will survive.”

Inger stood quickly.  “I think it is time for the cake,” she said, lifting her voice to lighten everyone’s suddenly solemn mood.  “Who vants the first piece?”

“Me!” cried four voices at once, and the solemn mood dissolved into laughter.

* * * * *

The time between Ben’s birthday and the end of the year was particularly festive for the Cartwrights and their friends.  Inger felt she barely finished one celebration before it was time to plan the next.  She had intended to observe her own birthday in October with a quiet family dinner.  But when she learned that only three days separated it from young Jamie’s birthday, the simple observance became, instead, another gala gathering, this time with all of Jamie’s favorite foods on the menu.  In November, at Ben’s insistence, he and Inger celebrated their first year of marriage with dinner in a restaurant.  Then, though Inger protested the expense, they had daguerreotypes taken, one together and one of Inger alone.  Afterwards, at home, they toasted what each declared the happiest year of their lives with a glass of inexpensive red wine, storing the rest away to welcome in the new year when it came.

Then began preparations for the year’s most anticipated holiday.  December had barely commenced when Adam and Jamie started to whisper secret wants and wishes in the supposed privacy of Adam’s room.  Since they left the door open, however, their soft voices were often——perhaps intentionally——overheard and their “secrets” shared later in beneath-the-covers whispers by Ben and Inger.

One desire, though, was expressed plainly and, considering it was timid Jamie doing the talking, boldly.  “I wish we could spend Christmas here instead of that old boardinghouse,” he confided to Inger.  “Mrs. Martin wouldn’t even let me hang a stocking by the fire last year and dinner was just awful!”

Inger knelt to hold the child in her arms.  “I promise dinner vill be vonderful this year, little one, a real Svedish Christmas feast like when I vas a girl.  You and your papa vill like much, I think.”

“You mean it?  We can come?” Jamie asked, his bright eyes shining like stars above his pale cheeks.

“Yah, sure!” Inger laughed.  “How could our celebration be complete vithout you?  Tell your papa I vill not take no for an answer.”

Jamie grinned.  “He won’t say no, not when I remind him about that burnt duckling.”

“Tell him also you are invited to spend the night vith Adam December twelfth,” Inger added as she stood and patted his head.  “The next morning is when ve start our Christmas celebration in Sveden.”

Jamie did a quick calculation on his fingers.  “The twelfth’s on a Wednesday,” he said.  “Father won’t like me to stay here on a school night, I’m afraid.”

“I vill talk to him,” Inger promised, smoothing the wrinkles Jamie’s embrace had left in her apron.  “What I plan vill take little time, so you vill both be on time for school, as alvays.”

“We didn’t do anything special on the thirteenth last year, did we, Mama?” Adam asked.

Inger laughed and pinched Adam’s cheek.  “No, but this year ve add something extra.  Is all right, yah?”

Adam grinned.  “Sure!  Will there be presents then, too?”

Inger shook her head.  “No, no, it is only a special breakfast to velcome back the warmth of the sun as the days get longer.  No presents, but you vill like, I think.”

“I know we will!” Jamie declared, winning a smile of approval from Inger.

“Mama,” Adam began tentatively.  “Isn’t there some way Jamie could have his whole Christmas here?”

Inger looked into the earnest black eyes.  “I don’t know what you mean, Adam.”

“You know, the whole day,” Adam explained, “presents and all.  And could we have a tree?”

Inger’s brow furrowed.  “A tree, Adam?  I do not know about that.  Ve have so little room here.”

“Oh, please!” Adam pleaded.  “Sterling Larrimore is bragging all over school about the huge tree they’re going to have——bigger even than Queen Victoria’s, he says——with real candles and tons of candy and presents tied on all the branches.”

“Ooh,” Jamie cooed.  “That sounds pretty.  Could we, Miss Inger?  Could we have a tree like that, just a little one?  I’d help make the decorations.”

“So you shall,” Inger agreed impulsively.  “But you must write Santa a nice note and ask him to deliver your presents here.”

“How’ll we get a letter to Santa?” Adam asked.

Inger rumpled his straight black hair.  “You give to your Papa.  He vill know where to send it.”

“Come on!” Adam ordered Jamie as he ran toward the connecting door to the mercantile.  “Pa’ll give us a sheet of paper, I know he will!”

Inger laughed at their eagerness.  Perhaps she had been a bit overeager herself to make such plans without consulting Jamie’s father.  But she was sure he would agree that Christmas would be happier in their home than in a boardinghouse with a stockingless fireplace and a burnt duckling.

* * * * *

Thursday morning, the thirteenth of December, Inger rose earlier than usual to prepare the St. Lucia buns that had traditionally signaled the beginning of the holiday season in her girlhood home.  She hummed an old hymn to the saint of Sicily, who had been adopted by the Swedish, even in staunchly Protestant homes like Inger’s, as the patron of light.  Adding a pinch of saffron to color the bread sunny yellow, she thought about how long it had been since she had celebrated this day she enjoyed as much, if not more, than Christmas itself.

Not since her parents’ death had she observed Luciadagen.  Gunnar had never wanted to continue the Old World customs.  To him, they were a reminder of old-fashioned ways not suitable to a new land.  To Inger, they recalled the warmth and love she had known as a girl, both in Sweden and in the home her parents had made here in the States.  Inger could think of no better way to express her contentment in the life she had found with Ben and Adam than to share with them all that had given her joy before.

She kneaded the dough to the proper texture, then set it to rise near the stove kept burning low through the night since it provided the only heat in their lodgings.  While she waited, she placed small candles in the wreath of evergreens she had made the previous day and laid a match nearby to light them later.  Next to it she placed the wide crimson ribbon hidden until this morning in her basket of baby things.  All the festive symbols ready, she stepped onto the stoop, closing the door behind her, and sat down on the top step.

Chilly in nothing but her linen nightgown and flannel wrapper, Inger hugged her knees tightly to her chest.  She welcomed the cold as an old friend, though, another reminder of home.  The only thing that could have made this day more perfect would be a soft snowfall.  Inger laughed lightly, knowing Ben would tease her about her fondness for winter weather if she shared such a thought.  But he would understand, too; he could be as syrupy sentimental about ocean spray as Inger ever was about breezes off the snow-covered mountains of Sweden.

At last the breakfast buns were ready, the coffee and hot cocoa steaming hot, so Inger slipped off her wrapper and tied the crimson ribbon around the waist of her white nightgown.  Then she lighted the candles of the wreath and set it carefully on her head, picked up a plate with two buns and a cup of coffee and headed for the bedroom she shared with Ben.  “Joyous Luciadagen, Benyamin,” she announced as she approached him.

Ben’s sleepy eyes widened at the vision before him.  An angel could not have seemed more beautiful to him than this Nordic messenger of good will.  The ring of candles cast such a halo of soft light over Inger’s fair face that Ben wouldn’t have been surprised to see wings sprouting from her shoulders.

“Good morning, Ben,” Inger said, and the voice, too, was that of an angel in Ben’s ears.  He sat up and Inger handed him the plate of rolls and the coffee.

“Breakfast in bed!” he exclaimed.  “If this is how the Swedes celebrate Christmas, then may all my Christmases be Swedish.”

Inger laughed gently.  “They vill be, my love, through all our years together.  You like Luciadagen, yah?”

Munching on a yellow bun, Ben mumbled his response, but Inger understood his words.  “No, I can’t join you yet, Ben.  I have to bring the boys’ breakfasts to them.  But I vill be back soon.”

Armed with more St. Lucia buns and cups of hot cocoa, Inger went to Adam’s room. “Good morning, my darlings,” Inger cooed to the two boys in the small bed.  “Are you ready for the special breakfast I promised?”  Contrary to Jamie’s fear, his father, in the interest of expanding the boy’s knowledge of another culture, had readily agreed to his spending the night with his friend.

The youngsters sat up almost simultaneously, and Jamie clapped his hands in delight.  “Oh, you’re beautiful, Miss Inger, like a fairy princess.”

“A strange fairy,” Inger laughed, “in only my nightgown.  It should be a beautiful white dress, but I have none.”

“You are beautiful, Mama,” Adam insisted.  He eyed the buns hungrily.  “Those look beautiful, too!”

Smiling as she shook her head in amusement, Inger handed him his plate and gave the second to Jamie.  On each was a single sweet bun with a cup of cocoa balanced beside it.

Jamie took a bite and sighed happily.  “They’re really good!  Miss Inger,” he began tentatively, “will you tell us about how people celebrate Christmas in Sweden?  Father said I should ask.”

Inger laughed.  “Your papa makes everything into a lesson, little one.”

Jamie blushed.  “I’d really like to know,” he said.

“You shall hear then.  Let me first take off this crown.”

“Oh, no,” Adam protested.  “Leave it on.  It’s so pretty, Mama.”

Inger pulled Adam’s ear.  “It vill not be so pretty if I catch my hair on fire, silly son.”

“No, I guess not!” Adam tittered.

Inger took the coronet of evergreens from her head and blew out the candles.  “Besides, if ve are to speak of Jultomten, ve should not have candles burning.  He is afraid of candles.”

“Jultomten?” Jamie asked.

“Yah, that is our name for Santa Claus in Sveden,” Inger said, sitting on the bed to face the two boys munching contentedly on their breakfast buns.

“I never heard of Santa being afraid of fire,” Adam said, his nose wrinkling skeptically.

“Vell, I am only telling you what I vas taught as a girl,” Inger replied, tweaking the youngster’s nose.

Jamie swallowed a sip of cocoa.  “So, why is Jultomten afraid of fire?” he asked.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Inger replied with a shrug.  Secretly she thought that part of the legend had been concocted by parents who wished to discourage their children from playing with fire themselves, but that explanation wouldn’t do now.  “Perhaps he is afraid his long beard vill catch fire or his red suit vill get all sooty,” she suggested instead.

“He sounds exactly like St. Nicholas,” Jamie pointed out.

“Yah, sure,” Inger agreed.  “Is mostly another name for the same thing, but Jultomten is a little different.  He is not vith us just at Christmas.  Though ve never see him, he often flits through the house, moving things around, upsetting milk buckets.”

“That’s not very nice,” Adam said indignantly.

Inger laughed.  “Oh, he is just a playful little elf, having fun.  But on Christmas Eve he loads his sleigh vith gifts and the Christmas goats—”

“Goats!” both boys shouted.  “Santa doesn’t use goats,” Adam scoffed.  “It’s reindeer, Mama.”

Inger spatted the top of his head.  “Goats, reindeer, what does it matter?  People tell the old stories a little different in every country, Adam, but everywhere there is a bringer of gifts to remind us of the great gift God sent to earth at Christmas.”

Adam shrugged.  “I guess so, but goats still sound funny.”

“There is one other difference in what I vas taught as a girl,” Inger said.  “Here Santa brings gifts to all good children, but in Sveden ve believe Jultomten also leaves spanking svitches for naughty boys.”

“Ugh!” said Adam.  “I wouldn’t like that!”

Inger cuddled his cheeks between her palms.  “You have nothing to fear, little one, nor does Jamie.  Jultomten knows you have been the best of boys.”

* * * * *

After Adam had been snuggled into bed that night, Inger seated herself in the rocker near Ben’s armchair and folded her hands in her lap.  “Ben, I must talk vith you,” she said.

Ben took a farewell puff on his pipe and laid it aside on the table between them.  “You have my undivided attention, my love.”

“It is about Christmas,” Inger began.

“You want to invite the Edwards,” Ben stated matter-of-factly, certain he had read her mind.

“Of course,” Inger replied impatiently.  “That goes vithout saying, I should think.  What I vant to speak to you about is the tree.”

Ben cocked his head.  “The tree?  What tree?”

The expression on his face was so bewildered Inger had to laugh.  “The Christmas tree, Ben!  I promised the boys ve vould have one.”

“A Christmas tree?” Ben repeated, still feeling dazed.  “Since when do we put up a Christmas tree?”

Inger ducked her head, almost embarrassed to admit the reason.  “Since Sterling Larrimore boasts to our son about how their tree vill be more splendid than Queen Victoria’s.”

Ben’s eyes narrowed as he scrutinized his wife’s face.  “Since when do we line our lives up with what the Larrimores do?”

Inger flushed deeply.  Ben’s words hurt, perhaps because she sensed a hint of truth in them.  But only a hint, she was sure.  “Ve don’t, Ben, and I do not mean our tree to measure against theirs.  But many people do put up trees nowadays, and if so simple a thing gives joy to our child, why should ve not?”

Ben chuckled.  “I can think of a number of reasons, Inger.  The biggest problem that comes to mind is where to put it.”

Inger tapped the table between them.  “Here,” she smiled.

“On the table?” Ben scoffed.  “You weren’t kidding when you said it wouldn’t measure up to the Larrimore’s——not to mention Queen Victoria’s!”

Inger slapped his knee sharply.  “I have told you that is not my purpose.  And not on the table, you provoking man——in place of it.”

“All right,” Ben said slowly, deliberately trying to sound rational to emphasize that Inger so obviously was not.  “And where does the table go——back to Mrs. Larrimore?”

“Ben!” Inger snapped.  “You are being impossible.  Ve vill store the table in Adam’s room.  It is only for a few days, and he vill not mind, I am sure.”

“All right, all right,” Ben murmured as if pacifying a child.  “How on earth are we supposed to decorate this regal evergreen?  Had you thought of that?”

“Yah, sure,” Inger said buoyantly, “but I vill need your help.  I found some old shingles behind the house, too worn for roofing, but they vill make fine ornaments.”

“Wood shingles,” Ben said, nodding blankly and mouthing each syllable as though it were a separate word.  “Of course.”  He reached out to take Inger’s hand and patted it soothingly.  “Do you think Queen Victoria would hang shingles on her tree, my love?”

Inger pulled her hand out of Ben’s clasp.  “If you say one more vord about Queen Victoria, Ben, I vill—”

Ben pressed his broad palms against her cheeks.  “I’m trying to understand, Inger.”

Still angry, Inger turned her head.  “You vould understand better, mine husband, if you vould listen, instead of making such foolishness.”

Ben threw up his hands in protest.  “I’m am listening, Inger.  You’re just not making sense.”

Inger gave him a perturbed glance.  “Vell, I am trying, Ben!  I vant you should use the shingles to carve some simple shapes.  Then the boys could paint them and ve could hang them from the branches vith pieces of ribbon.”

Ben’s brow furrowed.  “What kind of simple shapes?” he asked gingerly.

“Everyday things,” Inger said brightly.  “Stars, candles, trees, birds.”

Ben looked horrified.  “Birds!  Good lands, Inger, I’ve never done much whittling at all.  And birds!  How can you call birds simple?”

“I show you,” Inger said.  She opened her Swedish Bible, so large it almost covered the small table, and took a folded piece of paper from it.  “I drew these this afternoon.  See?  Simple!”

Ben took the paper and unfolded it.  “Well, they don’t look as complicated as I thought,” he admitted.

Inger beamed.  “There, you see!  I know you can do this, Ben, and Adam vill love helping to make them.  It vill give him and Jamie something to do now that it is getting so cold outside.”  Inger’s face sobered.  “I’m vorried about Jamie, Ben; he coughs so much.”

Ben took Inger’s hand and kissed it.  “All right, little mother, I’ll try.  I just hope Adam won’t be too disappointed.”

“They vill be beautiful in his eyes, Ben,” Inger promised, “because they come from the hand of his father.  Trust me, my love.”

* * * * *

Though Ben felt little confidence in Inger’s prediction, Adam’s admiring eyes as he stretched across the table to watch the shapes emerging from the old shingles proved her accuracy as a prophet, at least in matters of the heart.  And Ben felt his own bosom swell with pride as Adam and his friend gaily painted trees, birds, stars and candles with three small cans of primary colors Ben had been glad to donate to the project.  With what he was sure was only small prejudice, Ben considered their ornaments works of art worthy of hanging even on Queen Victoria’s tree.

On a Saturday afternoon three days before Christmas the boys were finishing up the last few ornaments to hang on the tree at one end of the kitchen table while Inger rolled out cookies at the other.  “What do you think of this one, Miss Inger?” Jamie asked, holding up a blue bird with red heart-shaped wings.

“Oh, I like it!” Inger said.  “He seems a very happy bird.  Make some more like that, Jamie.”  Turning her attention back to her own craftsmanship, she drew a sharp knife around a wooden bird laid atop the cookie dough, for she had saved some of the shingle shapes back to make gingersnaps matching the painted ornaments.  On each cookie she place a sliver of almond as wings for birds, pinecones on trees, the flame of a candle or the center of a star.

When the first sheet of cookies turned golden brown in the oven, she had another ready to slide in.  With a flat knife she lifted the warm cookies onto a plate and set it on the table between the boys.  “I need tasters,” she said.

Jamie’s grin matched the one on his friend’s face.  Warm cookies were one of the reasons he preferred to visit Adam’s home rather than have Adam come to his room at the boardinghouse.  While cookies were occasionally available where Jamie lived, they were rarely as good and never as warm as the fresh ones popping regularly from Inger’s oven.

Adam sank his teeth into the crispy star.  “Um, good!” he announced.  Taking another from the plate before him, he gave it an appraising scrutiny, then laid it on the table and tried to poke a hole in it with the end of his paintbrush.  The cookie splintered in three pieces.  “Aw, shucks!” Adam said.  “I thought we could put some of these on the tree——instead of candy, you know.”

“Yeah, they’d have been prettier than candy, too,” Jamie commiserated.

Inger laughed.  “If you vant to hang them on the tree, you have to make the hole before they bake, my foolish ones.  Give me your brush, Adam.”  Taking it, she pressed a hole near the top of the tree she had just cut.  “There, now it vill bake vith a hole in it for the ribbon.”

“Yeah!” Adam cried.  “Will you make some more like that?”

“Yah, sure,” Inger agreed, “but not too many.  These are mostly for eating Christmas Eve while ve decorate.  You and your father are coming, yah, Jamie?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Jamie replied politely.  “Father said to tell you he will bring some popcorn, so we can string it around the branches.”

“Oh, that vill make it very pretty indeed,” Inger said.  “Give your father my thanks.”

“I wish you could spend the night here,” Adam pouted.

“Adam,” Inger admonished firmly.  “Ve have discussed that before.  Ve have no place for Jamie’s father to sleep, and family should be together on such a special night.  But you and Jamie vill be here until time for the service at church and together again the next morning.  It vill have to be enough.”

“I know,” Adam whimpered, “but that way we have to wait so long for our presents.”

Inger rested both hands on her hips, ignoring the flour they dusted onto her gray muslin skirt.  “Continue that attitude, Adam Cartwright, and you vill vait until after supper for your presents!”  Seeing his crestfallen face, she softened her tone.  “Santa does not like to see such impatience,” she reminded the boys.  “Ve vould not vant him to change his mind about the gifts he plans, vould ve?”

“Or change them for switches,” Jamie added gravely, thrusting his elbow into Adam’s side.  “Behave!”

* * * * *

The cedar tree stretched just to the top of the window near which Ben’s armchair and Inger’s rocker used to sit.  The branches spread so wide that the chairs, as well as the table, had to be moved to accommodate them, but no one seemed to mind the inconvenience.  Birds, both wooden and baked, their way lighted by stars and candles of similar substance, fluttered through a simulated forest of evergreens resembling the real one on which they hung.  Festooned from bough to bough were strands of fluffy white popcorn puffs that reminded Inger of clouds.

When everything was in place on the tree, Ben on one side, and Josiah on the other, began to light the small wax candles attached to the outer branches.  The last two sparked into flame almost simultaneously, and both men stepped back to survey their work.  Ben rested his broad palm on Adam’s slim shoulder.  “There!  What do you say to that, my boy?”

Adam and Jamie both clapped their hands.  “It’s grand, Pa!” Adam declared.  “I knew it would be.”

Jamie gave an emphatic nod of agreement.  “I bet Sterling would be pea-green.”

“Jamie,” his father cautioned.  “That attitude is not in keeping with the spirit of Christmas.”

“Yes, sir,” Jamie responded dutifully, but the grin he tossed toward Adam told his friend his opinion remained unchanged.

Josiah didn’t see the naughty exchange between the boys, however, for he was too busy admiring the tree.  “I must say, my friends, this is the finest Christmas tree I’ve ever seen.”

Inger tittered.  “And just how many how you seen before?”

Josiah gave her a sheepish grin.  “Just one,” he admitted.  “Three years ago, before we came here, I visited some of my students of German descent.  They had decorated a tree, and while it was nice, I honestly find this one even more attractive.”

“I must say it turned out better than I expected,” Ben said.  He winked at Inger.  “Even Queen Victoria would be proud.”

Inger flapped a disdaining hand toward Ben.  “Oh, you and your talk of the Queen!”

Josiah laughed.  “Well, now, Inger, it’s appropriate.  After all, it’s largely due to the influence of her royal highness that this custom is becoming so popular.”

“Why is that?” Inger queried curiously.

“Well, when she married Prince Albert, he brought his German customs with him to England,” Josiah explained, “and when the picture of the Queen’s family gathered around their Christmas tree was published a few years ago, everyone on both sides of the Atlantic found it such an attractive symbol of Yuletide harmony that they began to copy the custom.”

“Yah, I remember seeing the picture in the newspaper now,” Inger said.  “You are right; it did seem warm and homey.”

“Not as much as this,” Jamie insisted, the longing for home so evident in his voice that no one had the heart to contradict him.

Inger stooped and gave him a kiss.  “Ve vill light it again tomorrow when you come,” she promised, “so ve can all enjoy its beauty again.”  Jamie gave her a warm hug in response.

“I’ve been toying with the idea of setting up a tree, a really large one, at the schoolhouse next year,” Josiah said, “and seeing this has just about made my decision for me.”

“Oh, that is a vonderful idea, Josiah!” Inger exclaimed.  “Then everyone could enjoy it.  I vill leave these ornaments here vith you then, if you do not think them too roughly made.”

“They’re perfect,” Josiah assured her, “and the children could use them as samples to make more.  I thought, too, we might have a short program with the children reciting seasonal verses.”

“Oh, Father!” Jamie cried.  “We’d all like that, wouldn’t we, Adam?”

Adam’s face fell.  “I won’t be here,” he mumbled.

A cloud crossed Jamie’s face.  He and Adam rarely thought about their impending separation, but when they did, both were inevitably saddened.

“Here, now!  No long faces,” Ben ordered briskly.  “It’s Christmas, my lads, a time for joy!”

“Yah, you have plenty of time to store up happy memories of each other before spring,” Inger pointed out.  The boys’ faces relaxed.  Spring was a long way off yet; no need to spoil Christmas with thoughts of sadness so far away.

“Now, I think ve have time for one more cup of hot chocolate and some cookies before ve leave for church,” Inger said brightly.

Josiah held up a protesting hand.  “Please, no more cookies for me, or Santa Claus and I will be visiting the same tailor.”

“All right,” Inger laughed, “but you must have something varm to drink before ve go out into the night.”

Josiah smiled back.  “That I won’t refuse.”

The Cartwrights and their guests lingered so long over their cocoa and cookies that they had to hurriedly blow out the candles on the tree and hustle into their coats.  “Does everyone have their candles?” Inger queried.  On being assured that everyone was prepared, she pulled on her mittens and followed the others out the door.

It was only a short walk to the church through a clear, crispy cold night.  No one noticed the dropping temperature, though, for their hearts were warmed by greetings from friends and the glow of happy faces smiling back at them.  Ben slid into his accustomed pew, followed by Inger, Adam, Jamie and Josiah.  Ben’s rich baritone and Josiah’s soaring tenor blended harmoniously with Inger’s mellow alto and the boys’ lilting soprano voices as the worshippers sang a few opening hymns celebrating the birth of Christ.  Following the congregational singing and a surprisingly sweet-toned solo by Camilla Larrimore, the minister delivered a brief sermon from the first chapter of John reminding his listeners of the light that had come to pierce the gloom of a world blackened by sin.

As he spoke, two ushers extinguished the lights in the room until all that remained was the faint glimmer from the candle in the minister’s hand.  Holding it aloft, he announced, “Let this represent that twinkle of light that came to us in a manger in Bethlehem.  Even though it was a heavenly light, the miracle of its radiance would never have reached us had it been held within the hearts of those who first saw it.

“The shepherds, however, did not harbor that light; they spread its beams far and wide, and I invite you now to become like the shepherds.  Use the candles I asked you each to bring, first to receive and then to share the light of God’s love with one another.” He stepped first to his right and then to his left, lighting the candles of the two men sitting at the end of each front pew.  Spreading from one reverent heart to the next, the light passed down the rows.  Inger gave Adam a tender smile as he cautiously lighted her candle, then turned to gaze lovingly into Ben’s eyes as she shared her light with him.

Soon the entire room glowed with soft candlelight.  “You see how the darkness is completely banished when we each reflect the light of Christ,” the minister declared.  “I urge you, dear friends, to remember that our Lord has called you the light of the world.  Let your light so shine that men will see your good works and glorify your father which is in heaven.”

“Amen!” called a masculine voice seated somewhere behind Ben.

“Indeed!  So be it,” the minister responded enthusiastically.  “As you leave, take your light with you and share its message joyfully with all you meet.”  He offered a brief benediction and the organ began to play in muted tones as friends and neighbors filed quietly from the sanctuary.  No one wanted to disrupt the sanctified silence with idle chit-chat, so the only words heard were whispered farewells.

“Until tomorrow,” Ben murmured as he clasped Josiah’s hand.

“Until tomorrow,” Josiah responded, his ocean-blue eyes gleaming.  “Go with the light, my friend.”

The Cartwrights walked home at a leisurely pace through the light snow that had started to fall during the service.  Just before turning into the alley that led to the side entrance to their quarters, they turned and looked back down the street at the flickering lights moving this way and that away from the church.  From a distance they could not see who carried the small flames, but each, they knew, represented a friend, someone unknown a year ago, but cherished now.  Ben slipped his free arm around Inger’s shoulders and she smiled up into his eyes, seeing in them a reflection of the light he held.  Neither spoke nor felt the need to.  Each knew the other was basking in the glow of blessings discovered during their sojourn in St. Joseph.

* * * * *

Ben was up before Adam this Christmas morning——of necessity, for he had to sneak Jamie’s presents in from the mercantile storeroom where Josiah had hidden them.  As he placed the gifts under the tree, he couldn’t help but notice the difference between the gifts for the two boys.  Josiah had not been lavish with his son, but it was obvious Jamie’s presents had cost considerably more than Adam’s simple toys.  Ben sighed.  Someday, maybe, he’d be able to shower his little lad with all his childish heart desired.  Then he chuckled softly.  In the long run, that might mean more to the father than the son, anyway.  For now, he could only hope Adam would be pleased with what he could provide.  Certainly, it was more than the youngster had ever seen on previous Christmas mornings.

Ben stood and looked at the arrangement of gifts beneath the tree.  “What do you think?” he asked Inger.

Inger gave the lump of dough on the table an extra thump, then dusted the flour from her hands and looked at the tree.  “It’s fine, Ben,” she assured him.  “You’re sure you have everything?”

Ben kissed her.  “Everything, including a package or two with the name of a lovely lady on them.  Santa hopes you’ll like them.”

Inger gave him a quick hug, then went back to kneading the dough for Christmas breakfast.  “Santa alvays chooses wisely,” she said.  She winked at her husband. “So you vill, of course, be pleased vith what he brings you.”

“Of course,” Ben laughed.

Inger smiled a secret smile.  There was one present for Ben, one she was sure would please him, that wouldn’t fit beneath the tree.  She’d give it to him later in her own way.

Inger had just put the apple torte in the oven when Adam came bouncing into the room, stocking in hand.  They had agreed that he might investigate it as soon as he woke, though the larger gifts would wait until Jamie and Josiah arrived.  The stocking clattered to the floor, though, when Adam saw the large, unwrapped present leaning against the wall behind the tree.  “A sled!” he screamed.  “Santa brought me a sled!”

Ben’s heart flew into his throat.  “No, no, son,” he stammered, reaching out to stop Adam’s pell-mell rush toward the object of his excitement.  He took the boy in his arms, then reached for the tag tied to the sled and held it for Adam to see.

Adam read the large letters with a dejected face.  “Oh, it’s for Jamie.”

“There is much for you, too,” Inger said.  “Look and see, but no touching.”

Adam went on a prospecting expedition under the tree and emerged with the same forlorn face.  “The big ones are all for Jamie,” he said.

Ben felt crushed by the disappointment in the youngster’s eyes.  Why on earth had he ever consented to this idea of sharing Christmas with the Edwards?  It had seemed right at the time, an act of kindness to a lonely family, but now Ben feared it would do nothing but point out the difference in their financial status.  He had no words with which to respond to Adam’s doleful proclamation.

Inger, however, had.  “Come here, Adam,” she said softly.  He went to her immediately and melted into the comfort of her arms.  “Santa did not bring you big presents this year because he knows you could not take them vith you on our trip to California,” she explained.  “You remember ve must be careful not to load the vagon vith things ve do not need.”

“Yes,” Adam said slowly, “but I like that sled, Mama; I really, really do!”

Inger brushed his dark hair from his forehead.  “Do you not think Jamie vill share, Adam?”

Adam’s head lifted proudly.  “‘Course, he will!  Me and Jamie share everything!” he said emphatically.

“And do you not think Santa knows this?” Inger asked with a gentle smile.

A slow grin lifted Adam’s face.  “So he gave Jamie big things to share and me little things to take with me, but they’re really all for both of us?”

Ben clapped his son on the shoulders.  “That’s right!  The best gifts are the ones we share, my boy.”  He looked gratefully at Inger.  How easily she had handled what he had thought an insurmountable problem.

The Edwards arrived around mid-morning.  Jamie didn’t even have time to take off his coat before Adam dragged him over to the tree.  “Look what Santa brought us!” he ordered.  “A sled!”

“Adam,” Ben rebuked, a slight pucker at his lips.

“Oh, all right,” Adam said, impatient with his father’s emphasis on facts Adam now considered totally irrelevant.  “He brought it to you, but you’ll share, right?”

Jamie stared at the sled with open-faced bedazzlement.  “You bet I will!” he shouted.  “Can we try it out now, can we?  I’m still dressed for outdoors.”

“Now, Jamie, Adam’s waited all morning to open his presents just so you could be here, too,” Josiah admonished.  “Perhaps he’d rather do that than rush right outdoors.”

Jamie gave his friend a chagrined look.  “I’m sorry; I forgot.”

“Why don’t you open just one, Adam?” Inger suggested.  “Then you could sled awhile and still have time to open the others before lunch.”

“That’s a good idea,” Ben said.  He leaned to whisper in Josiah’s ear.  “Nothing Adam’s getting is likely to live up to that sled, anyway.”

“Nothing of Jamie’s, either,” Josiah whispered back.  “I should have disguised it, but it just seemed too big to wrap.”

Adam took one of his gifts from beneath the tree and tore the paper from it.  His face wrinkled in bewilderment.  “What is it?” he asked.

The adults laughed.  “Hold it to your eye, Adam, and turn the bottom part,” Ben suggested.

Adam did and his mouth dropped in wonder.  “Ooh, pretty!  Look at this, Jamie.”

Jamie took the kaleidoscope and turned it to watch the ever-changing geometric patterns.  “I like this,” he said.  He looked up at Adam with an ingratiating smile.  “Share-and-share-alike, right, Adam?”

Adam laughed.  “Right!”  As pleased as he was with his gift, though, Adam saw no reason to change their original plan to share Jamie’s present first, so he crowded his arms into his overly-snug winter coat and was soon dragging his friend down the snow-covered street toward the nearest elevation.

“If Inger has time,” Josiah said after the boys had left, “I brought you each a remembrance of the day.  Perhaps you’d just as well open them while the boys are out.”

“Yah, everything is on schedule,” Inger giggled, “and I am alvays ready for a present.”

Josiah wriggled his nose at her.  “Well, then, Miss Greedy, we’ll let you go first.”  He took a small package from his pocket and laid it in her hand.  “Nothing to compare with all you’ve given me and my son, but I hope you’ll like it.”

With awestruck eyes Inger examined a length of intricately patterned, obviously expensive, lace.  “It is beautiful, Josiah,” she murmured.  “I have had nothing so elegant ever.  Thank you.”

Josiah smiled at her evident delight.  He gave her a wink.  “I had better not see any of that on those baby didees you’re always making, either, young lady.  That is for you.”

Inger laughed.  “It vill go on my Sunday best, I promise.”

“Now, Ben,” Josiah said and handed him his gift.

“Now, what could this be?” Ben asked, turning over and over in his hands the package that could be nothing but a book.  He frowned eloquently at his friend.  “No doubt a text on grammar to improve my careless speech.”

“No doubt,” Josiah chuckled.

Ben tore the paper away and turned the title so Inger could read it, The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman.  “How perfect!” she exclaimed, clapping her hands.

“Parkman only went as far as FortLaramie along your route,” Josiah explained, “but I’m sure you’ll be seeing many of the same sights he describes along the trail.”

Ben engulfed his friend in a bear hug.  “You couldn’t have given me anything I’d enjoy more.  But wherever did you find it?”

Josiah shrugged.  “I ordered it.  I’ve been following the serialization in the Knickerbocker, which I subscribe to, and found it most interesting.  It’s just recently come out in a single volume, so it seemed ideal.”

Inger handed the first of two packages to Josiah.  “These are not so fine as your gifts, but they come vith much love.”

Josiah pressed her hand.  “The greatest gift of all, Inger, and one I’ve received in abundance from your hand.  There is no way any gift could repay you for the open-hearted affection you’ve shown my child and your endless efforts to give us the warmth of a home.”  Seeing her wipe a tear from her eye, he tore into his present.  “Well, well now,” he said brightly, “what have we here?”  He wrapped the navy muffler around his neck.  “Yes, sir, I’m all ready to go sledding now!”

Ben gave a round box to the schoolmaster.  “And here is the finishing touch for your first run down the hillside!”

Inger slapped his arm.  “Oh, Ben!”

Josiah grinned as he took the stylish silk hat from the box.  “I can just see me landing right on this if I did take a fling at that sled!  This, my friends, I wear with my Sunday best.”

The boys ran in later, red-cheeked and ready for the quieter excitement of opening presents, and each found himself content with what Santa had brought him.  Some of the gifts were remarkably alike:  each boy had a leather pouch filled with glass marbles and an identical pair of navy mittens, oddly enough a perfect match for Josiah’s muffler.  In addition, Jamie received a Noah’s Ark to play with during his all too frequent stays in bed and Adam an educational card game with pictures of the birds of North America, as well as a new quilted flannel jacket that was a miniature copy of the one his father found beneath the tree.

Inger was entranced by her new lacy shawl and a dress length of pale blue satin fabric that would be beautifully set off by the exquisite lace she had received earlier.  Looking from Ben to Josiah, Inger shook her head in amusement.  It seemed Santa had had some conspiring cohorts this year.

When all the surprises beneath the tree had been revealed, Josiah pulled a slim volume from his deep coat pocket.  “One more gift for Adam,” he said, “but this one is from me, not Santa——and there’s an assignment that goes with it.”

Adam opened the book and cocked his head as he saw the blank pages.  “It’s a journal,” Josiah explained.  “Beginning with the New Year, I want you to write a little each day about the things you see and do.  At the end of the year, when you’re in California, you’ll send it back to Jamie, so he can read all about your adventures.”

“I got one, too,” Jamie said hurriedly, “and I’m supposed to send it to you next year.”

“What a fine idea, Josiah!” Ben said.  “It’ll help the boys stay close despite the miles between them.”

Josiah nodded, pleased that Ben had perceived his purpose.  “I realize, of course, that the first few months will probably describe things you both already know about, but it will be fun to remember later the things you did together.  And the latter half of the books should be news.”

Adam and Jamie grinned at each other.  Like their fathers, they thought exchanging the journals a grand idea.  It would, in fact, become a habit they continued into their adult years.

At noon everyone sat down to a Swedish feast of corned pork roast; sauerkraut cooked with onions, apples, pork jowl and brown sugar; green split peas with bacon; caramelized potatoes and lutfisk, a lime-cured fish in cream sauce.  “In my country ve vould serve much more, a true smorgasbord,” Inger said apologetically, “but perhaps this vill give you a sample of our foods.”

“If this is a sample,” Ben laughed, “may we never see a full smorgasbord, my love.  I am stuffed to the gills.”

Josiah nodded in agreement.  “It’s been absolutely wonderful, Inger.  Tasting the foods of your country and learning some of your customs has made this a unique Christmas, one we’ll remember for many years to come.”

Inger blushed with pleasure at the warm reception her meal had received.  She had been somewhat concerned that the unfamiliar dishes would taste odd to the American palates of the others at the table, but even the boys had enthusiastically tried everything and pronounced it good.  Inger stood and pushed her chair under the table.  “There is one more custom to be shared,” she said, “and it goes vith the dessert.”

“Dessert,” Ben groaned.  “The woman has no pity.”

“I want dessert,” Adam declared.  “I’ve got plenty of room.”

“You must all have at least a taste,” Inger insisted.  “It is, as I say, a Christmas custom.”

“Keep mine small, please,” Ben pleaded.  Inger frowned slightly, but did as he asked.

When everyone had been served a small dish of the rice pudding, Inger told them about the custom associated with it.  “This is risengrod,” she explained, “just a simple pudding, but one of you vill find an almond in his portion.  Let us see who vill be the lucky one.”

Adam and Jamie eagerly dove into their portions, each hoping to be the winner, although they didn’t know the prize.  But the almond had somehow found its way into Ben’s small dish of pudding.  “Other than a morsel extra food, which I’m far from needing, what makes me so lucky to have found the almond?” Ben laughed as he held his spoon so everyone could see his discovery.

Inger looked at him coyly.  “When I vas a girl, ve alvays said that whoever found the almond vould be the first to marry.”  Everyone laughed at the expression on Ben’s face.  “Since that cannot apply to you, Benyamin,” Inger added with a smile, “ve vill follow the other tradition and give you a special present.”

“Much better,” Ben said heartily.  “Now, where is this marvelous present?”

“Marvelous, it is,” Inger laughed, “but you cannot have it ‘til later.”

Ben thrust out his lower lip in an eloquent pout and turned sad-puppy eyes on his heartless wife, but the only response was a series of hoots circling the table.  Inger shook her head and smiled.  Having deliberately ensured the almond would land in Ben’s bit of pudding, she was determined to deliver the prize at the time and place of her choosing, as well.

Ostensibly to soothe Ben’s ruffled feathers, Josiah sent the boys to bring his new chess set from the boardinghouse and spent the afternoon teaching Ben the game.  Then after a light supper of leftovers from dinner, followed by hot, spiced glogg with gingersnaps left from the night before, the Edwards went home.

Adam, tired from a day of sledding, fell asleep before Inger finished the evening dishes, and Ben carried him to bed.  Finally, the dishes were washed, dried and put away; and Inger came to perch on Ben’s lap.  Ben wrapped loving arms around her.  “Have you had a merry Christmas, my love?” he asked.

“The merriest ever,” Inger said, “and the busiest.  I am glad for a quiet moment at its end to spend vith you.”

“You are, as always, my best Christmas gift,” Ben said, nuzzling his head against her neck.

“You do have one more, remember?” Inger said.

Ben chuckled.  “Actually, I’d forgotten.  Don’t tell me I finally get my famous almond-in-the-pudding present?”

Inger shook her head playfully.  “No, not yet, but by summer’s end you should have it.”

Ben’s brown eyes flickered with bemusement.  Inger took his cheeks between her hands.  “Some gifts take months to prepare, my love,” she murmured.  “Nine months, to be exact.”

The light of understanding flashed into Ben’s eyes.  “A baby?” he whispered.  “Oh, Inger, are you sure?”

“It is a little soon to be completely sure,” Inger admitted, “but I am past my time; and, yes, in my heart I am sure.  I think sometime in July or August Adam should have a little brother or sister to keep company vith in our vagon.”

Ben pulled her tight to his chest and just held her.  There were no words to express the joy they shared in the prospect of a dream fulfilled.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

              Like yeast slowly working its magic in bread dough, the new year of 1850 brought a rising sense of expectation to the Cartwright family.  Inger’s hopes of pregnancy were confirmed, and Adam was thrilled at the prospect of his new baby brother——he was sure it would be a boy——who would arrive that summer.  Even before that eagerly-anticipated event, though, would come the long-awaited, oft-delayed departure for their home in California.  Though Ben considered it his dream, the rest of his family had so thoroughly adopted it that they, too, greeted the new year with growing excitement over its realization.

Only one cloud hovered on the horizon to threaten the sunshine in their hearts, the continuing silence from California.  Ben had received no word of John’s safe arrival; and as the weeks passed, he waited with growing concern.  He had learned indirectly, in a letter from Martha, that John had reached Ft. Laramie safely, thus surviving the scourge of cholera that had been epidemic on the trail the previous spring.  But tales had begun to filter east of the dangers of the journey beyond that point, especially the suffering of emigrants along the Humboldt; and these added to Ben’s fears for his brother.

The edgy suspense ended on January fifteenth when a letter arrived with San Francisco as its return address.  For once, Ben put personal concerns above his obligations at work and let customers wait while he tore into the letter.  Fortunately, at this early part of the year, there weren’t many shoppers; and most of them were regular customers and friends who didn’t mind delaying their transactions while Ben relieved his anxiety about a family member.  They understood because many of them, too, were eagerly watching each post for news of a loved one.

Inger had planned a supper of beans and cornbread, and since that was a meal that needed little attention, she simply let the beans simmer while she rocked Adam in her lap and listened to Ben read the letter from John later that evening.

“Dear Ben, Inger and Adam,” Ben began.  “‘As I promised in my last letter, I will try to describe San Francisco—’”

“His last letter?” Inger asked.  “But, Ben, ve have had no such letter.”

“I know,” Ben said, his words clipped and sharp.  “I hoped for better things when the postal service began making regular deliveries to California, but it’s abominably unreliable.”

“Gently, Ben,” Inger admonished, nodding toward the boy in her lap.  “Little pitchers, you know.”

Ben shrugged.  “Yeah.  But it’s frustrating, at best.”

“I know, I know,” Inger soothed.  “Go on vith the letter, Benyamin.”

Once more Ben lifted the thin paper, written edge to edge in small characters.  “‘As I promised in my last letter, I will try to describe San Francisco for you and the prospects for mining.  But before I do I want to share a few cautions about the trail that there was no room for in my last letter.  As you know, there are a number of cutoffs along the trail and we traveled several of them.’”

“What’s a cutoff, Pa?” Adam asked.

“A shorter way of getting to the same place, son,” Ben replied.

“Oh, that’s good,” Adam said.

Ben smiled.  “Sometimes, Adam, but not always.  Listen to what Uncle John says next.  ‘We took the Sublette Cutoff, which does save time; and as we arrived early in the season, we made out well enough.  But it is a hard, hot, waterless trail and would be more so in late summer.  You will have to judge for yourself whether it would be best for your family, depending on the weather and the condition of your equipment and supplies.  The road to FortBridger is longer, but perhaps safer for a family who would have to travel more slowly than our party of only men and, thus, could not make the dry drive as quickly.’”

“So, is that one good or not, Pa?” Adam asked.

Ben shook his head.  “I’m not sure, son.  Like your uncle says, we’ll have to decide when we get to that point.  Uncle John was definitely opposed to the other cutoffs he took, though.  Listen to this:  ‘We also tried two new cutoffs opened just this year.  Hudspeth’s Cutoff brought us no undue hardship, but when we rejoined the established trail, we were surprised to learn, on comparing mileage with emigrants who came by Fort Hall, that we’d saved only a few miles.  I would advise you to go on to Fort Hall by the regular route, as it will give you a chance to resupply and refurbish your outfit.’”

“That sounds wise,” said Inger, “if ve save only a few miles the other vay.”

“I thought so, too,” Ben agreed, “but wait ‘til you hear what John says about the last cutoff they took.  ‘Our final attempt to shorten our trip was the new Lassen’s Cutoff by which we hoped to avoid the rigors of the Forty-MileDesert to the south.  Ben, if ever you have given credence to any advice of mine, heed this as you would the word of a commanding officer:  do not, under any circumstances, allow yourself to be persuaded to take this route.  We not only ended up crossing a wider desert than the one we missed; but when we finally did cross the Sierras, we hit California two hundred miles further north than we had been led to believe.  Our party survived intact; but many who came behind us suffered inexpressible hardship, a number dying of starvation and exposure.  The loss of life would have been even greater but for government relief parties that were able to save some.  I beg of you, Ben, to stick with the main trail, either the Truckee or the Carson route, and take no untried cutoffs.’”

Adam frowned.  “It don’t sound to me like there’s any good cutoffs, Pa.”

Ben laughed.  “Uncle John does paint a gloomy picture of them, doesn’t he?  They’re not all bad, I’m sure, but there’s good reason to stay with the main trail most of the time.”

“Perhaps, if there are more gloomy vords, ve should save them for later,” Inger suggested, smoothing Adam’s hair.

“No, that’s all,” Ben said.  “Next he describes San Francisco.”

“Oh, good,” Inger said with a smile.  “That vill be better for the little pitchers.”

Adam squirmed.  He knew perfectly well what “little pitchers” referred to and wondered why they thought he was so dumb he couldn’t figure out they meant him.  Besides, he was going to California, same as the grownups; he had a right to know everything, too.  “Tell about San Francisco, Pa,” he demanded loudly.

Ben raised an eyebrow and started to read.  “‘San Francisco is a booming city of almost fifteen thousand now, Ben—’”

“So many!” Inger cried.  “It is bigger than St. Joseph.”

“Oh, just by seven or eight times!” Ben laughed.  “May I continue?”

“Yah, sure, I am sorry.”

“I’m teasing, my love,” Ben said.  “I don’t mind interruptions——not even the ones from our little question box here.”   He winked at Adam, then turned back to the letter.  “‘A booming city of almost fifteen thousand now, Ben, but unfortunately, it has grown so quickly that construction and services have been unable to keep up.”

“Just what Josiah feared,” Inger commented.

Ben nodded and continued, “The clay streets become bottomless pools of mud after a rain and pose great danger for man and beast.  Some mules and horses——even a drunken man I heard of——have actually drowned in the deep mud.  The only solution anyone has come up with so far is to throw brush and tree limbs in to try to make some solid surface, but then, horses become tangled in the brush and break their legs.  Some wag printed up a sign and stuck it at the corner of Clay and Kearny streets:  This street is impassable, not even jackassable.’”

Adam laughed.  “That’s a funny poem.  I’ll have to recite it to Mr. Edwards.”

Ben coughed.  “Yes, I’m sure he’ll appreciate its literary merits.  John goes on to say, ‘Tobacco crates are used for sidewalks, but sometimes the rains are so heavy they are completely submerged.  Miners here pan out, on average, an ounce of gold dust a day, worth about sixteen dollars, and that is close to what it costs to feed oneself each day, prices here being highly inflated due to shortages.  Can you imagine six dollars a pound for butter?’”

Inger’s hand flew to her mouth.  “Six dollars!  Oh, Ben, ve had better take our own cow.”

Ben chuckled.  “I’ll put that on our list, love, but listen to these other prices.  ‘Eggs are ten dollars a dozen and onions and potatoes a dollar apiece.  Yes, Ben, that’s a dollar for one onion!  And tacks——why, they’re worth their weight in gold.  Don’t load your wagon with them, though.  More shipments of all kinds of goods are arriving daily and prices are going down.  Hopefully, by the time you arrive, they will be more reasonable.’”

“I should hope so!” Inger said sturdily.  “Is John finding enough gold to pay for all these luxuries, like onions and potatoes?”

Ben cocked his head.  “I think so, but not much beyond, if I read between the lines correctly.  Here’s what he says:  ‘As to my own prospects, they are not as bright as I had hoped.  So many have responded to the siren call of gold that what was easily plucked from the ground in ‘48 must now be urged out by back-breaking work in icy streams.  I’m not complaining; unlike some here, I’m not averse to hard work, but it will take longer to make my pile than I originally thought, perhaps as much as two or three years.’”

“Martha vill not like to hear that,” Inger put in quietly.

“Or Will either,” Adam said.  “I bet he misses his pa something fierce.”

“I’m sure he does,” Ben agreed.  “It makes me all the more glad we’re traveling as a family.”

Adam bobbed his head rapidly.  “Yeah, me, too!”

“Does John say where he is exactly, Ben?” Inger asked.  “If he is to stay so long, it vould be good to settle close perhaps.”

Ben guffawed.  “Oh, Inger, Inger!”

“What is so funny?” Inger demanded, her face flushing.  “It is good to be near family.  If only I knew where Gunnar—”  Her voice broke.

Ben took her hand quickly.  “Forgive me, sweetheart.  I’ve been so concerned about my brother, I forgot you haven’t had word from yours since before John left here.  You must be terribly worried.”

Inger shook her head.  “For his safety, no.  Gunnar is a strong, healthy bull of a boy.  I am sure he survived the trip better than most and is in California now.  I only vorry that he may fall in vith bad companions.  He is easily led, and if he should do wrong, his shame could keep him from facing me.  John does not mention seeing him?  He promised to look.”

Ben gently stroked the hand he still held.  “No, he makes no mention of Gunnar, but he may have in that letter we missed.”  As Inger sighed, Ben gave her hand an encouraging squeeze.  “We’ll do our best to find your brother once we arrive, I promise.”

Inger wiped a tear from her eye.  “Yah, I appreciate, but I still do not know why you laughed at me, Ben.”

Ben suppressed the impulse to repeat his offense.  “Your idea of settling near John isn’t practical, my love.  Mining takes place in mountain streams, farming in valley lowlands.”

“Oh, of course,” Inger said, blushing again.  “What a dunderhead I am——and I a farmer’s daughter, too!”

“A beautiful farmer’s daughter,” Ben said, kissing her fingertips just before releasing her hand.  “But to answer your other question, John is working the Feather River at present, but may try other areas once that is worked out.  He promises to meet us in San Francisco in mid-October.  If the rains come early, he’ll be there sooner; and, hopefully, we will, too; so we might see him as early as September.”

“Is there more to his letter?”

“He just sends his love and wishes us a good journey.”

“For that I pray daily,” Inger murmured.

“I’m sure John will, too.  Now, how about stirring up that batch of cornbread you promised, woman.”  Ben stood and took Adam in his arms.  “She’s got two hungry emigrants here, right, son?”

“Half starved, Pa!” Adam announced.

Inger laughed and tweaked the youngster’s ear.  “Then I vill stir quickly so you do not perish on the trail to the table.”

* * * * *

January had not far advanced before it became obvious that statehood for California would be the year’s most hotly debated issue.  No one denied that California’s burgeoning population made it an obvious candidate for statehood, although Josiah Edwards contended that since that population was largely transient, it did not provide the proper foundation for self-government.  Few others raised that point, however; their sole concern was the effect the admission of California to the Union would have on the tenuous balance between slave states and free.  Californians had submitted a slavery-prohibiting constitution the previous November, and President Taylor had urged acceptance of the new state the following month.  But southern Congressmen had threatened secession were California to be admitted as a free state, and no one wanted to see the Union dissolved.  It became clear there would be no easy solution to the impasse.

By mid-February all anyone talked about was Henry Clay’s proposals for compromise, and Larrimore’s Mercantile became more honestly the headquarters for loud and increasingly bitter contention than the outfitter’s headquarters the sign proclaimed it to be.  Though staunchly opposed to slavery, Ben tried to avoid taking sides.  Had he actually owned the store, he might have felt he had the right, if not the moral duty, to voice an opinion.  But he hesitated to alienate customers when it wasn’t really his own future he’d be jeopardizing.  So he just listened to southern supporters quote the words of their advocate, John Calhoun of South Carolina, insisting that not only must the North concede the right to extend slavery, but it must also “cease the agitation of the slave question.”  And he listened in equally noncommittal silence to the opponents of slavery recite the impassioned declaration of William Seward of New York that “there is a higher law than the Constitution which regulates our authority.”

Fortunately, just when Ben’s tongue felt rawest from being bitten all week long, Friday would arrive; and he could let it flap to his heart’s content in free and open discussions with Josiah Edwards.  Only to his friend could he admit not only his true opinion of Clay’s proposed compromise, but also his mixed feelings about the admission of California as a state, feelings that had nothing to do with the political issue of the day, but with a secret and, Ben feared, selfish personal disappointment.  “I’ve dreamed for years of being one of the first to settle in a new area and being one of the builders of a new community,” Ben sighed.  “Now, it looks like I’ll be moving to a settled state; and though I hate to confess it, I feel like a little lad whose balloon has just burst.”

Josiah laughed gently.  “I wouldn’t worry about your balloon just yet, Ben.  Most of the people in California now aren’t planning to stay.  You will be, and I’m sure you’ll soon find yourself a leader among the true builders of your new state.  You have qualities that will assure a position of prominence wherever you go.”

Ben turned fiery red at what he considered elaborate and unearned praise, but Inger immediately agreed with Josiah and Ben hadn’t the heart to argue.  He heard too much argument at work all day long to welcome it in his home.  Besides, he couldn’t help hoping they were right.

Before many days passed in February, however, Adam made concerted efforts to focus everyone’s attention on the far more important concern ——to him, at least——of his seventh birthday.  He was quick to point out that his birthday fell on a Friday; and so, of course, Jamie and his father would surely need to be invited.  Trying to avoid laughing at his needless stratagem, his parents readily agreed.

Adam also had definite opinions about what should be served.  Since his father had been allowed the privilege of choosing the menu on his birthday and Jamie on his, Adam felt he should be accorded the same right.  “It is good you told me early,” Inger said when he announced he wanted a repeat of the pickled pork she had cooked for Christmas dinner.  “The roast takes ten days to pickle properly.”  Adam’s request had come well within that limit, though; so Inger gladly consented; and when February 22nd arrived, all the guests declared their delight with Adam’s choice.

The gifts Adam received that evening might not have pleased many children, but he could imagine nothing better than a stack of schoolbooks to take on their journey.  Ben had purchased them from a list compiled by Josiah Edwards, but he had not expected the coordinating gift the schoolmaster offered.  “I know there may not be schools where you are headed for quite some time, so I would still like you to consider me your schoolmaster, Adam.  Before you leave, I will make up a list of assignments you can complete on your journey.  Mail your lessons back to me whenever you have opportunity, and I will grade and forward them to San Francisco.  There should be mail waiting for you when you arrive.”

Adam smiled.  “I’d like that, and can I ask questions if I don’t understand?”

“Certainly,” Josiah chuckled, “though the answers will be months in arriving.  I imagine your father can answer most of your questions, my boy, so try him first.  But I will do my best to see that your inquiring mind is both challenged and satisfied.”

“How good you are to take such interest in our child, Josiah!” Inger exclaimed.

“Indeed!” Ben agreed.  “What you’re proposing will be a significant amount of trouble to you.”

“Nothing compared to the satisfaction I expect to reap,” Josiah demurred.  “Adam is too promising a scholar to allow his love of learning to deteriorate from lack of stimulus; so, please, let me give him what guidance I can until you find someone better.”

Ben clapped his friend on the shoulder.  “We may find someone nearer, sir, but never anyone better, I’m sure.”

Josiah raised a hand in semi-protest.  “Well, then, I will be available to Adam as long as he wants me, as a mentor first and later, perhaps, as his friend.”

While their elders were talking, Adam and Jamie had slipped into the bedroom.  Jamie handed Adam a small package.  “This is from me,” Jamie said.  “Father gave it to me just after I started to read, and it’s my favorite.”

“I know,” Adam said appreciatively, for he and Jamie had shared many of the stories in Lessons from Nature for Youth, their favorites being the ones about animals Adam was likely to see on the prairie to the west.  “Thanks, Jamie.  I’ll keep it always.”

* * * * *

Beginning in March, the earliest emigrants began arriving in St. Joseph.  Some, anxious to avoid the hardships that had befallen late-starters the previous year, headed directly toward California despite admonitions from Ben and other outfitters to wait until the grass was high enough to support their oxen.  Most, however, heeded the advice; and the town’s four hotels quickly filled to capacity, even the Edgar House, noted for its meager meals and filthy sheets.  But the available housing came nowhere close to meeting the demand, and by April hundreds of tents spread through the valley at the base of the Blacksnake Hills.

The travelers had a long wait, for the prairie flowered late after an unusually cold and wet winter.  Many passed the time gambling and drinking in local saloons; others, desiring to save their funds for the needs of the journey, gathered around the stoves in local stores to discuss whatever news they could garner.  The debate over California’s admission to the Union became more heated, for the emigrants came from all parts of the country and brought with them views as differing as the geography of their former homes.

Ben found himself more weary at the end of each day this spring than he had the previous one.  Partly, that was due to his increased workload, for there were almost twice as many emigrants this year as there had been in 1849.  People had figured out that they could cut two weeks off their overland journey by traveling two days upriver by boat from Independence; so St. Joseph, along with Council Bluffs to the north, was receiving the majority of the outfitting business this year.

Ben’s weariness, however, did not stem primarily from the extra work, but from listening dawn to dusk to the enflamed rhetoric of opposing political factions.  He was more grateful than anyone when word reached the town of Daniel Webster’s decisive speech of March 7th.  Though himself an opponent of slavery, Webster had argued that the North must be prepared to accept even slavery in order to preserve the Union.  Not everyone agreed with his sentiments, of course; but from that point on a willingness to compromise seemed to calm the spirit of conflict.  The loud voices in the mercantile softened, and the conversation turned to the more immediate concerns of what to take on the trail.

Still, Ben found himself mentally marking off each day until the first of May, the date by which Lawrence Larrimore had hoped to return.  When the day came, bringing with it no sign of the mercantile’s owner, Ben was disappointed, but not alarmed.  He hadn’t really expected Larrimore to arrive on that exact date.  Everyone knew by this time that the number of passengers seeking steamer transport from Panama far exceeded the capacity of the ships covering that route.  Though Ben had promised to remain until the end of the month, if necessary, he heartily hoped he would be free of his obligations to Larrimore weeks sooner than that.

Just past noon on May 10th, Camilla Larrimore came running into the mercantile wildly waving an envelope.  “Oh, Mr. Cartwright, I absolutely must speak to you immediately!” she cried.

Ben took one look at the lady’s frantic features and turned to Inger, who was again helping out during the store’s busy season.  “Can you hold the fort a bit, my dear?”

Inger’s brow furrowed with concern.  “Of course, Ben.  Why don’t you take Mrs. Larrimore to our place where you can talk in private?”

“Yes, yes, please,” Mrs. Larrimore responded in Ben’s stead and headed directly for the door leading to her former home.

Ben shrugged toward his wife and followed.  Closing the door behind him, he gestured toward the dining table.  “Won’t you have a seat, Mrs. Larrimore?”

Camilla stopped pacing.  “Yes, I suppose that would be best.”  She sat down on the edge of the chair Ben pulled out for her and turned pleading eyes on her store’s manager.  “Oh, Mr. Cartwright!  You must help me.  I simply don’t know what to do.”

Ben took the seat opposite her.  “Certainly, Mrs. Larrimore,” he said in a calming voice.  “I’m sure there are times you must feel the need for your husband’s counsel; and if I can assist you in any way in filling that void until his return, I will be more than pleased to do so.”

“Thank you; you’re most kind,” Camilla replied.  “Perhaps you should just read this letter from my husband.  Then you’ll see my predicament.”

Ben took the proffered letter and scanned its contents.  “I see,” he said slowly.  “You want me to do as your husband asks and help you find a buyer for the store?”

“Heavens, no!” Camilla squealed.  “I want you to talk my husband out of this insane notion of moving to California.”

Ben coughed, more to give himself space to think than anything else.  “But, Mrs. Larrimore, surely you don’t expect me to come between you and your husband.”

“But this idea of his of a store in San Francisco is sheer lunacy!” Camilla insisted.  “I know I have no head for business, but it’s obvious we’re making more money every year here.”

“For now, that’s true” Ben said.  “But I think you should realize this current boom will drop off once the easily obtainable gold in California has been gathered.  According to my brother, that’s already happening, so—”

“I know,” Mrs. Larrimore interrupted.  “That’s why Lawrence started doing business in San Francisco.  He found he could make more money in merchandise than mining.”

Ben shrugged.  “I think many men made similar discoveries, ma’am; and most of those who go west this year will find it even harder to make their fortunes in mining.  That’s why I expect the emigrant traffic to drop to normal numbers soon, perhaps as early as next year.  You could still earn a good living, of course, but this may be the last big year for business in St. Joseph.  That may be why your husband wants to relocate.”

“I believe you’re taking his side, Mr. Cartwright,” Camilla pouted.

Ben felt anger rising at her accusation.  “I was trying to explain his position, not defend it, Mrs. Larrimore.  But I can’t try to talk him out of it as you suggest; it simply isn’t my place to take sides in a marital dispute.”

Tears welled up in Camilla’s brown eyes.  “Oh, dear, I suppose it isn’t; but I don’t know what to do.  I can’t abide the thought of starting from scratch in another frontier town.  St. Joseph is so provincial, you know, Mr. Cartwright.”

Ben suppressed a smile.  “I suppose it seems so to a woman of your refined taste,” he said gently.  “But according to my brother’s last letter, San Francisco is already a city of substantial size.  A bit raw perhaps, but it might in time afford you the amenities you find lacking in St. Joseph.”

Camilla bit her lip nervously.  “Do you really believe that’s possible?”

Ben nodded decisively.  “I do.  I expect to see great growth in California over the next few years, not just in number, but in quality of life.  How else could I plan to make my home there?”

“But I dread that long, frightening journey,” Camilla whimpered.  “I know your family is looking forward to it; but you’re of peasant stock, while I—”  She clapped her hand to her mouth.  “Oh, dear, I meant no offense.”

Ben shook his head.  “None taken,” he said.  Over the past year of dealing with Mrs. Larrimore he had come to realize that most of her outrageous remarks were made in ignorance rather than intended slight.

“I only meant that I feel ill-suited to the trip,” Camilla explained.

“Yes, I’m sure you would find it difficult,” Ben conceded.  He couldn’t help smiling as he pictured Mrs. Larrimore walking beside an ox team in the neatly tailored butternut suit she wore today.  “Many do,” he added, “but I’m also sure you can learn to face the challenges, should you and your husband determine to go.”

Camilla sighed.  “I suppose I shall have to.  You read the letter.  You see how determined Lawrence is.  I’ve never been able to change his mind once it’s truly set.  That’s how we came to St. Joseph in the first place.”

Ben smiled.  He knew from his own experience just how determined Lawrence Larrimore could be.  “Would you like me to sound out some prospective buyers?” he asked quietly.

Camilla nodded slowly.  “I suppose that’s best.  We really have little time to settle our affairs and outfit ourselves for the journey.  It would be good to have buyers waiting for him.”

“I’ll help in any way I can,” Ben promised.

Camilla raised an earnest face.  “Oh, then, do say we can travel in your party, Mr. Cartwright.  I’d feel so much safer with people we know and trust.”

Ben paled.  “I—I don’t know, Mrs. Larrimore,” he stammered.  “I hesitate to delay our departure past the time of your husband’s return.  He’ll need time after that to conclude the sale of this business and make preparations for your journey.”

“Oh, but he’ll be here soon,” she insisted.  “He thinks by the fifteenth.  Please, Mr. Cartwright; it would truly ease my mind.”

“I’ll speak to Inger,” Ben said softly.  “But we cannot wait longer than the end of the month, as per our previous agreement.”

Camilla stood.  “Yes, I understand.  But with your help I’m sure we can be ready to leave before then.”  She stretched a hand toward Ben and gave him her most ingratiating smile.  “Thank you so much, Mr. Cartwright.”

Ben assured her she was welcome and escorted her to the door.

* * * * *

“I really didn’t know what to tell her,” Ben said late that night after relating Mrs. Larrimore’s request to Inger.

Inger burrowed under the covers and snuggled against Ben’s chest.  “You are vorried about the delay,” she said.

“I am,” Ben replied.  “If we don’t leave ‘til early June, we’ll be among the last emigrants out.  The reports we’ve had back warn about trying to cross the Sierras after the snows start.”

“Yah, I know,” Inger said, “but since ve cannot leave until the middle of May anyvay, ve are talking about a difference of only a veek or two.”

“A week or two could make the difference,” Ben said gravely.  “Is it worth the risk to calm the fears of a foolish woman?”

“I have fears, too, Ben,” Inger said quietly, twirling the blue ribbon at the neck of her nightgown around her index finger, “so it is easier, perhaps, for me to understand hers.”

Ben pulled her close.  “What fears, sweetheart?”

Inger looked away.  “You remember the tales ve have heard of people abandoning the sick and spoiling food so others could not use it?”

Ben smoothed a lock of blonde hair from her forehead.  “Um-hmn.”

Inger looked intently into his warm brown eyes.  “I think I vould feel safer from such things in the company of friends, Ben.”

Ben frowned.  “The Larrimores aren’t really friends, Inger——just acquaintances, really.  And Mrs. Larrimore is not an easy person to get along with.”

“Yah, that is true,” Inger admitted, “but they are good, honorable  people, Ben; and that is what matters, I think.  I remember your brother saying ve should choose such people to travel vith.”

Remembering, Ben nodded.  “Yes, he did.”

“And Mr. Larrimore has already been where ve are going,” Inger added.  “That could be a help, perhaps enough to make up for the delay.”

“That’s true, too,” Ben said, his brow wrinkling in thought.

Inger smoothed her hand across his stubbled cheek.  “There is one thing more, Ben.”  Ben cocked an eyebrow inquiringly.  “I vould feel better to have another voman near when my time comes,” Inger whispered.

Ben kissed her forehead.  “All right, sweetheart, we’ll see to it you have one, although I doubt Camilla Larrimore would be of much use to you.  A more helpless woman I’ve never seen.”

Inger giggled.  “That is true, but when the time comes, Ben, I may be more helpless than she.”

Ben laughed.  “Never, my love, not even in your weakest moment.”

* * * * *

Due to the crowds, Lawrence Larrimore was unable to book passage in Panama on the steamer that would have brought him home by the fifteenth.  He did, however, arrive safely a week later and, thanks to Ben’s efforts before he returned, quickly found a buyer for the mercantile.  In appreciation, he was even more generous than he had promised in supplying the Cartwrights for their journey.  Ben found himself the pleased owner of the sturdiest wagon available, eight oxen in excellent condition, and so many goods he wondered how to fit them all in.

Fortunately, unlike many couples, the Cartwrights had few decisions to make about what to leave behind.  None of the furniture was theirs anyway, and there weren’t many family treasures.  Ben was shocked to learn that Inger planned to discard one, however.  “But, darling,” he protested.  “That Swedish Bible is all you have of your grandmother’s, and I know how you cherish it.”

Inger blinked back a tear.  “Yah, but ve must not be foolish.”

Ben stroked her cheek.  “We can be a little foolish, my love.  I planned to take my Bible, as well as a few remembrances of Adam’s mother——her music box, our wedding ring and the copy of Paradise Lost we used to read together.”

Inger smiled sadly.  “It is not the same, Ben; you know it is not.  Ve vill vant the Good Book vith us on the trail; and yours is small, not big and bulky like my grandmother’s.  And Adam should have those small reminders of his mother.  They vill take little room.”

Ben kissed her tenderly.  “Sweetheart, you’re always thinking of others.  Let us do something for you this time.”

Inger shook her head with determination.  “No, Ben, please say no more.  It vas a hard decision to make, but I have made it.  Now, I need you to help me be strong to carry it out.”

On Friday, the twenty-fourth of May, the Cartwrights hosted their farewell dinner for the Edwards.  “Do you know yet the date of your departure?” Josiah asked as he buttered a slice of bread.

Dishing himself a helping of peas, Ben shook his head.  “Not specifically.  It’s somewhat dependent on when the Larrimores can be ready.  This week sometime, of course.”

“You’re certain they can be ready by then?”

Ben rolled his eyes toward the ceiling.  “Not really, but if they’re not ready, we’ll simply have to leave without them.  From what I hear, Mrs. Larrimore is demanding to take all sorts of inappropriate things; and poor Lawrence is spending precious time trying to dissuade her.  Now, with Inger here I have the opposite problem.  She refuses to take her one family heirloom, and I can’t talk her out of her stubborn self-sacrifice.

“He means my grandmother’s Bible,” Inger explained.  “I have told him a hundred times it is too big.  I only vish I had someone to give it to.  It hurts to throw it in the rubbish.”

Josiah looked at her with understanding eyes.  “Could I have it, Inger?”

Inger gave him a puzzled look.  “But you do not read Svedish, Josiah.  Why vould you vant it?”

“It’s a beautifully illuminated volume in its own right,” Josiah replied, “and I would cherish it still more as a remembrance of its gracious owner.”

Inger smiled at him.  “I think you do this only to ease my heart, but I am grateful.  Yes, please take it vith you tonight.”

“Thank you,” Josiah said emphatically.

* * * * *

Inger gave the tiny baby booties a final kiss and laid them atop the pile of diapers on her bed.  Then she eased them all into the burlap bag with the lengths of fabric that would make garments her growing family would need in California.  Adam came in, his bag of marbles in one hand, his Birds of the World card game in the other and his kaleidoscope under his arm.  “Mama, should we pack these in the bottom of the wagon?” he asked.

Inger giggled.  “Do you think our journey vill be all vork and no play, Adam?”

Adam shrugged.  “You said the things we don’t really need for a while should go on bottom.”

Inger pulled him close.  “No, my sweet,” she cooed.  “Your little things can stay up top where you can get them easily.  You remember the storage pockets I sewed inside our vagon cover?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Vell, one of them shall be yours,” Inger promised.  “You may keep these things and your yournal in it.”

“Okay,” Adam agreed readily.

“Now what I need you to do,” Inger said, “is bring me the textbooks you vill not need ‘til later.  You have the list Mr. Edwards gave you?”

“In my room,” Adam said.  “Shall I get it?”

Inger shook her head.  “No, you read vell enough to do this yourself.  See which books you vill need for the assignments he made.  Then bring me any others.”

Adam’s head lifted at her confidence in him.  “I can do that quick as a wink!”

Inger smiled as the youngster disappeared.  If only her decisions could be made “quick as a wink.”  Since the wagon would be packed in two layers, it was important to determine what should be kept accessible and what stowed deep in the wagon.  Some decisions were easy.  Obviously, she would not sew until she reached the journey’s end, so the fabric would go below.  Just as obviously, she would need to cook every day, so the Dutch oven and spider skillet would have to be packed where they could be easily reached.  But there were countless items, like the medicines, for instance, that might or might not be needed on the trip.  Where to put all those things was what Inger had puzzled over half the morning.

The outside door opened and Ben came in after wiping the mud from his feet on the stoop.  Fortunately, the rain of the last three days had stopped, so he had decided to load as much as possible today in hopes of starting out by week’s end.  Inger came from the bedroom to greet him with a kiss.  “You have the vagon and our oxen?” she asked.

“Small point in coming back without them,” Ben chuckled.  “You have things sorted out?”

Inger sighed.  “As best I can, Ben, but I am not sure I have chosen wisely.”

Ben gave her shoulder a small pat.  “Don’t worry, my love.  I’m sure we’ll find ourselves packing and unpacking this wagon a dozen times before we’re through.  I’ve got the spare parts already loaded in the bottom and I’ll put all but one sack of flour down below.  Then we’ll fit the other things in as level as we can and stretch a canvas over the top before packing the rest.”

“Yah, that sounds good,” Inger said.  “Adam is choosing the books he vill need.”

“I already did,” Adam announced, carrying five volumes from his room and placing them on the dining table.  “I won’t need these for a while.”

Ben scooped the boy up in his arms.  “Good lad!  You’ve brought them at just the right time.”

Adam grinned.  “Can I help pack the wagon, Pa?”

“You surely can,” Ben said proudly.  “I need to get the heavy sacks of flour in first.  Then you can bring me the smaller things that Mama shows you.  All right?”

“Yes, sir!”

* * * * *

After the final amen Josiah turned to Ben, seated next to him.  “I want you all to be my guests for dinner at the boardinghouse,” he stated, “and I won’t take no for an answer.”

“You vill not have to,” Inger laughed.  “I am sure I vill have my fill of cooking over an open fire before our journey ends.  No need to start today.”

“No, indeed,” Josiah agreed readily.  “I only wish I could give you as fine a meal as those I’ve enjoyed in your home.  I’m afraid you’ll find the fare today rather Spartan.”

“We accept your hospitality,” Ben said, “and no need to apologize for the quality of the meal.”  He stepped into the aisle and headed toward the back of the church with Josiah at his side and Inger, in her yellow calico, following with the two boys.  Having already packed her blue satin Sunday best in the lower level of the wagon, Inger had been forced to wear one of her most worn garments to church.  In marked contrast, Camilla Larrimore had dressed in her elegantly trimmed green brocade.

“I hadn’t expected you to be here this Sunday,” Josiah said to Ben after shaking the minister’s hand at the door, “but Adam told me you’d been delayed.”

Ben nodded grimly.  “I never expected to still be here the first Sunday in June, either, but the ferries have been crowded.   We’re scheduled to cross sometime tomorrow, though.”

“The Larrimores will be with you?” Josiah asked as they walked toward the boardinghouse.

Ben laughed, then turned to make sure the mentioned couple were not nearby.  “Finally,” he said.  “Lawrence broke down and bought a second wagon to haul all the things his wife insists she needs.  He hired Enos Montgomery to drive for him and help tend the stock.”

Josiah chuckled in response.  “I imagine you’ll have an interesting trip with them along.”

“I imagine,” Ben agreed wryly.

“Well, I know the delays have been frustrating,” Josiah said, “but I’m glad to keep you as long as we can.  My boy and I will miss you all.”

Ben stopped and touched his friend’s shoulder.  “And we will miss you.”

Josiah swallowed the lump rising in his throat.  “At least, you’ve had one last sermon to ponder on the trail,” he said lightly.  “It’ll be some time before you hear another.”

Ben wagged a finger beneath the schoolmaster’s nose.  “Don’t be so sure.  We just may have one every week.  There’s a minister in the party we joined, a Reverend Wentworth.”

“Good, good!” Josiah snickered.  “You need someone to keep you on the straight and narrow.”

Ben gave his friend a good-natured punch on the arm, and Inger stepped up quickly to rub it in apparent sympathy.  “Your prayers vill do more to keep us on the straight and narrow than any sermon,” she said quietly.

“You know you have them——every day ‘til I hear of your safe arrival,” Josiah pledged.  “Now, for that sumptuous meal I promised you!”

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

             Inger swiped a damp wisp of hair from her forehead.  Though the heat had made the air muggy all morning, she was glad to see the sun shine on their first day’s journey.  Heavy rains had poured from the heavens the night before, but the contents of their wagon had stayed dry beneath the double osnaburg duck cover coated with linseed oil.  Now the sun and its accompanying humidity drenched Inger’s calico with sweat. She loosened the top button of her bodice to let in a little cool air, then stroked her hand down the back of the lead ox.  “Poor beasts,” she murmured.  “It is hard for you to stand all morning in the heat, too, isn’t it?”

Looking up, she saw Ben, mud splattering his brown pants with every step, coming from the front of the line.  Reaching her, he took both her elbows and gave them an encouraging squeeze.  “Not much longer,” he assured her.  “Two more ahead of us, then our turn on the ferry.”

“Ah, good,” Inger sighed.  “And the price?”

“What we expected,” Ben said.  “Five dollars.”

Inger shook her head in reluctant acceptance.  “It seems a great deal.”

Ben shrugged.  “It is, of course.  With the river running seventeen feet deep, the ferrymen know they have us over a barrel.  It’s worth it, though, for your safety.”

“Yah, I know,” Inger agreed.  “It is hard to see so much hard-earned money leave so quickly, though.”

Ben chuckled.  “You should hear the complaints up the line.  At least, living this close, we were prepared.”  He looked around.  “Now, where’s Adam run off to?” he asked sharply.

Inger laid her fingers across his lips before he said words he’d later regret.  “Nowhere at all, Ben.  He thought to use this time to start his lessons.”  She tilted her head toward the wagon.

Ben shook his head in disbelief.  “I was never that dedicated a scholar.”

“Today, I think it is more to take his mind from his sadness,” Inger said softly.

Ben looked surprised.  “I thought he’d be thrilled our first day on the trail.”

“It is also his first day vithout Jamie,” Inger pointed out.

“Ah,” Ben said in sudden understanding.  “And waiting in line all morning isn’t interesting enough to provide distraction from his homesickness, eh?”

“For any of us,” Inger giggled.  “I am even homesick for our tiny rooms behind the mercantile.”

Ben’s broad nose wrinkled in distaste.  “A sure sign of an idle mind,” he muttered.  Inger gave his cheek a pinch.  “A thousand pardons,” Ben replied with a crooked smile, then leaned into the front opening of the wagon cover.  “Put your books away and come down here, Adam,” he called.

Adam crawled toward his father, who lifted him to the ground.  “You want me, Pa?”

“We’ll be crossing soon, son,” Ben explained.  “You don’t want to stay cooped up in the wagon for that, do you?”

For the first time that day, Adam grinned.  “No, sir!  Will it be real soon, Pa?”

Ben hoisted him up on his shoulder.  “Look up ahead and see how close we are.”

“Hooray!” Adam yelled.

Before long, the Cartwrights’ wagon had rolled aboard the ferry.  Adam rushed to the side and stepped up on the bottom rail.  Ben made a quick grab for the boy’s suspendered blue trousers.  “Hey, hey, now!” he admonished.  “You’d best stay right with Pa, boy, or we’ll be yelling ‘Man overboard.’”

Adam laughed loud.  “Now I know what sailing’s like, right, Pa?”

Ben laughed even louder than Adam.  “Well, let’s just say you’re getting a taste,” he said when he’d recovered his breath.  “This is a lot calmer water than the sea, Adam, and though a third mile makes it a wide river, it’s a skip and a jump compared to the ocean.  Wait ‘til you get a look at that, my boy!”

Adam shrugged and turned back to the rail.  The current adventure was enough for now, and even Ben was forced to admit that the gentle roll of water beneath the ferry stirred memories of his days at sea and recalled that same sense of adventure.  At least, he conceded with an inward chuckle, it was as close to sailing as he was ever likely to be again.  He looked from little Adam, eagerly scanning the ripples passing beneath them, to Inger, eyes shining with joy at taking the first step toward their new home, and knew he’d never miss the sea, except for nostalgic moments now and then.  He’d found so much more away from it.

By the time everyone in their party had crossed the Missouri, the sun had long passed its zenith, so they were only able to travel two hours before the agreed time of encampment.  Ben was disappointed that they had come only three miles.  According to the guidebooks, oxen were supposed to make about two miles an hour, on average.  Of course, the trail was still muddy from the heavy rains.  Probably, that had slowed them, and they were stopping earlier than they would once they were really out on the trail because there was an important decision to be made tonight.

Stopping early proved to be wise that first night.  Many of the women were unused to cooking over an open fire, and their efforts at starting one and keeping it burning at the right intensity were nothing short of comical.  Camilla Larrimore, who had brought a small camp stove precisely to avoid open-flame cookery, still seemed so utterly helpless her new neighbors wondered how she’d managed to light her kitchen stove back home.  Some of them, however, fared little better.  Inger had cooked outdoors before, on their journey to St. Joseph, and once her fire was burning briskly, characteristically offered to help her less experienced trail mates.  Even so, dinner was ready far later than anticipated.  Thus, the men were unable to meet until well past dark.  While they congregated on the north side of the camp, the women cleared up the dishes, then gathered around the Wentworth’s campfire.  Being the last started, it was burning brighter than any of the others.

“There’s still a bit of coffee,” Martha Wentworth offered, “if anyone’s of a mind for some.”  She was a lean-limbed woman whose salt-and-pepper hair made her look older than her thirty-two years.  Her gray eyes smiled hospitably as she held up the coffee pot.

“I never turn down a cup,” Rachel Payne announced, her hazel eyes twinkling as she flipped a lock of dark brown hair across her shoulder.  Rachel was just a year older than Inger, and like her, sported a protruding belly.  Mrs. Wentworth smiled and poured a cup of coffee for Mrs. Payne, but no one else seemed to want one.  Rachel took a sip and glanced across the way to where the men counseled together.  “Just like men to talk circles around an issue we women could settle in a few minutes,” she said, “but we’re not allowed to vote.”

“It wouldn’t be fitting,” Mrs. Wentworth said sharply.  “God intended man to be head of the house.”

“I won’t dispute religion with you,” Rachel told the minister’s wife, “but God did give minds to women, too.  I’m sure He meant we should use them.”

“Well, I, for one, want no part of choosing our wagon captain,” Camilla tittered, nervously pulling on the jacket of the butternut suit she had donned for traveling that morning.  “It’s all I can do just to fulfill my wifely duties.”

The other ladies restrained the urge to laugh.  After seeing her struggle to light a stove earlier, most of them agreed that fulfilling her wifely duties on the trail was probably all the challenge the fragile-looking and obviously overdressed Mrs. Larrimore could hope to meet.

“What about you, Mrs. Cartwright?” Rachel asked.  “You seem pretty much a homebody.  I guess the idea of women’s voting shocks you, too.”

“From what I see, ve are all homebodies here,” Inger laughed lightly.  “I have not thought before of what you say, but it does not shock me.  For myself, I am content to let Ben speak for our family, but men often find their vords first in the hearts of their wives, yah?”

“You are right!” blonde, blue-eyed Ludmilla Zuebner declared, her fleshy neck forming a double chin when she nodded firmly.  “It is so with my Fredrich.”

“And my Robert,” Maggie McTavish added with an impish wink.  Like the rest of her family, Maggie was blue-eyed with reddish hair.

Rachel Payne grinned good-naturedly.  “Well, I guess I’ll agree, to keep the general peace.  I’m sure each of those men over there will hear an earful tonight if he goes far afield from what he’s heard whispered in his bed.”  Only Martha Wentworth and Camilla blushed.

As Rachel had predicted, though, there were plenty of beneath-the-covers whispers later that night about the men’s choice of Lawrence Larrimore as captain of the train.  “I didn’t vote for him,” Ben admitted inside their tent after Adam had gone to sleep.  “I’m sure he expected me to, but he’s too easily swayed by his wife.  I’ve already seen him make some foolish decisions on account of her, and I hesitate to put such a person in charge of the lives of so many others.  Most of the men, though, thought his trip last year made him a logical choice.”

“They have a point, Ben,” Inger said quietly.

Ben shook his head.  “We’d have had the benefit of his experience without making him leader, Inger.”

“Who did you vote for?” Inger asked curiously.

“I was impressed with Jonathan Payne, even if he is the youngest man here.  He struck me as someone who could handle opposition and make clear-headed decisions.”  Ben laughed.  “My vote was the only one he got, though.  So much for my judgment!”

“I like his wife,” Inger whispered.  “She has strong opinions, but does not seem the type to push them on others.  I think ve might be friends.”

“She’s nearer your age than the others, isn’t she?”

“Yah, only one year older,” Inger said.  She giggled as she patted her ample stomach.  “And ve have one other thing in common.”

“I noticed.”  Ben laid his hand on Inger’s belly until he felt the satisfying ripple of the baby’s movement beneath his fingers.  “When’s her child due?”

“A little before ours, I think,” Inger said.  “A month, perhaps.”

Ben was quiet for a while.  “I’ll support Lawrence, of course, now he’s been chosen,” he said soberly.  “I just hope the way the vote turned out doesn’t make him fear otherwise.”

Inger pressed her head against his shoulder.  “Why vould he?”

“Because I came in second in the voting,” Ben said sheepishly.

Inger raised up.  “Oh, Ben, what an honor!”

Ben smiled despite his efforts not to.  “I felt honored, I can tell you.  These are good, strong men, Inger; and other than Jonathan, I’m younger than them all.  To have earned their respect on such short acquaintance really moved me.”

“They know a leader when they see one, Ben,” Inger said, snuggling down again.

Ben tweaked her nose.  “You are prejudiced, young lady.”

“But you have led men before——when you were on ship,” Inger insisted.

“Yeah,” Ben admitted, “and I can tell you I don’t envy Lawrence the responsibility.  I knew the sea, but this is an unknown world we’re entering.  Maybe it is best that someone who’s been there before take the lead.”

Ben drifted to sleep basking in the esteem of his trail mates, but Inger dozed off totally unconscious of the many whispered conversations that mentioned her name with favor.  Adam, on the other hand, knew exactly who liked him and vice versa.  He was sure Johnny Payne and Billy Thomas would become friends, just as he was sure he wanted as much distance as possible between him and pompous Sterling Larrimore.  Everyone else was either too old or too young or, worse yet, a girl.

* * * * *

A single rifle shot split the silent darkness.  Ben rolled over with a groan.  Though he’d never been a late riser, four o’clock came early.  Ben shook Inger’s shoulder gently.  “I’m awake, Ben,” she murmured, though her eyes were still closed.  “I am only dreaming I am still asleep.”

Ben leaned over to kiss her forehead and the blue eyes opened.  “Sleep well?” he asked, the twitching of his lower lip revealing the mischief in the query.

Inger shook a finger at him.  “Naughty man, to bring me back to such a bed.  I had forgotten how much I hated sleeping on the ground.”

The mischief faded from Ben’s aspect as he took her hand gently.  “I’m sorry, my love.”

Inger sat up quickly and gave him a hearty kiss.  “No, I am sorry, Ben, to be such a complainer.  This is what ve both vant, and ve vill soon get used to the discomforts again.  Get dressed now and see to the stock while I get breakfast.”

Similar conversations were taking place in most of the tents around the camp.  The words in one, however, seemed more irritable than the others.  As Inger coaxed her breakfast fire to life, she could hear quarrelsome voices from the Larrimore tent next to theirs.  The words weren’t always clear, but Camilla’s piercing whine was readily recognizable.  Finally, the lady herself emerged from the tent, her brown ringlets disheveled and her attitude decidedly grumpy.  “Of all ungodly hours to cook breakfast!” she groused.

“Good morning, Camilla,” Inger called.  “It is early, isn’t it?”

Camilla wavered a moment before answering.  “Much too early,” she finally said, “although you look cheery enough.”

Inger chuckled.  “Believe me, I like it as little as you, but what can ve do, yah?  Our families must be fed.”

“I suppose.”   Looking at the stove that had caused her such frustration the night before, Camilla sighed.  “I don’t think I’ll ever get the hang of this thing.”

“Oh, yah, sure.  Soon it vill be second nature,” Inger assured her as she walked toward the offending device.  “Shall I help you?”

Camilla looked relieved.  “Oh, yes, please.  You know, I just wasn’t built for this life, Mrs. Cartwright.”

“Please call me Inger.  Ve are all friends here, yah?”

Camilla sighed again.  “I don’t think I’ve made many friends.  Everyone was laughing at me last night, you know.”

Inger smiled sympathetically, noting that Camilla had changed the tailored suit that had evoked so many titters of derision for a simpler frock today.  “I think ve all gave each other something to laugh at last night.  But ve vill do better today.”

Camilla sniffed.  “I hope so.”  As Inger got her fire burning, she looked up appreciatively.  “I must say, Mrs.——I mean, Inger——you’ve been most kind, especially since it’s obvious from your husband’s vote that you have little confidence in us.”

Inger bit her lip.  “Ben thinks vell of your husband, Camilla.  If he also thinks vell of others, that does not change his feeling for Lawrence.  He has received a great honor and ve are happy for him.”

Camilla’s face eased.  “It is an honor, isn’t it?  But, then, I always knew Lawrence was capable of great things.  Perhaps he was right in coming west after all.  Perhaps we will finally rise to our proper station in society there.”

“I hope you find all you vant,” Inger said quietly.  “Now, I must see to my family’s breakfast.”

Camilla’s delicate fingers fluttered to her mouth.  “Oh, my yes.  Thank you,” she called as Inger turned away.  Inger gave her a smile over her shoulder and went back to her own fire.  Across the camp, Rachel Payne waved, and Inger returned the greeting.

A sleepy-eyed boy crawled out of the Cartwright tent.  “Morning,” Adam yawned, pulling a suspender over one shoulder.

“Good morning, Adam,” Inger said.  “You did not have to get up quite this early, little one.”

“I heard the noise,” Adam said, pulling up the other suspender, “and it woke me up.”  There was, as Adam indicated, a bustling about the camp now as women rattled pans and men gathered yokes and chains.  “Where’s Pa?” Adam asked.

“He has gone for our milk cow,” Inger replied.  “Soon you vill have fresh milk to drink, Adam.”

Adam grinned.  “You think I could milk the cow, Mama?”

Inger smiled, pleased.  “I am sure you could.  I vas no bigger than you when I learned.  And it vould be such a help, too, vith all the vork your father and I have to do each morning.”

Adam’s grin widened.  “I better get my socks and shoes on quick!”

“Yah,” Inger laughed, “and vash your face and hands.  Your father should be here soon.”

But Ben had not returned by the time Adam was washed, and Inger’s brow began to furrow with concern.  The stock was not grazing that far away.  To keep Adam from sharing her worry, she found a new chore for him.  “Vould you like to help me by grinding some coffee, Adam?”

“Sure,” Adam said.  Inger gave him the grinder filled with beans she had roasted in a pan over the fire.  “When do you think I’ll get to drink coffee?” Adam asked as he turned the handle.

Inger tittered.  “Not for a while, my son.  Milk is what growing children need.”

Adam frowned.  That wasn’t an answer.  But he wasn’t much bothered, either.  He liked milk and wasn’t sure what coffee would taste like.  He had a natural curiosity about it, but figured he’d have to wait to satisfy it.

Much later than expected, Ben led their milk cow in and tied her to the back of the wagon.  From the look on his face, Inger knew there was trouble.  “What is it, Ben?”

“Just put out,” Ben said.  “Some of the other cows in the herd decided to hightail it for home, and Bossy here did her best to follow.  Took me awhile to catch her.”

“Oh, I am glad ve did not lose her,” Inger said.  “Here, take some coffee and rest while I milk her.  Then I vill fry you some pancakes.”  Tired, Ben just nodded and took the offered cup of coffee.

“Did the others catch their cows?” Inger asked.

Ben shook his head.  “Some did, some are still looking.  I think they’re all accounted for except Payne’s and Larrimore’s.  Jonathan and Enos Montgomery are trailing after them now.”

Inger glanced over to the Larrimore encampment, where Lawrence had just stumbled in and dropped onto a camp stool.  Seeing that his wife had still not finished grinding her coffee, Inger took a cup to Lawrence.  “Ve have had a wearisome start to our day, yah?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Lawrence agreed, accepting the extended cup.  He raised it by way of thanks.  “This will help, though.  I thank you.”

“You are velcome.  Do not vorry; I am sure Enos vill find your cow.  He seems a responsible young man.”

“He is.  I’m not worried about the fool animal, but the delay is bothersome.  This isn’t much of a way to start off as captain.”

“It vill get better, I am sure,” Inger said encouragingly.  “Now, back to my pancakes.”  Wondering what his own chances were of breakfast anytime in the immediate future, Lawrence looked hungrily after her as she left.

“Come, Adam,” Inger called when she had returned to her own wagon, “and I vill show you how to milk the cow.”

“I’m gonna be a helper, Pa,” Adam announced as he stood quickly.

“That’s my boy,” Ben said proudly.

Sterling Larrimore emerged from the tent next to theirs.  “How’s a fella ‘sposed to sleep with all this racket?” he demanded.

“A fellow is supposed to be up and helping out by now,” his father snapped.

Camilla put a protective arm around her pudgy son.  “Now, Lawrence, the child’s not used to these hours.  Nor am I, for that matter.”

“Obviously,” Larrimore muttered, “but we’re all going to have to get used to them.  We can’t ask the whole train to wait while you sluggards sleep in.”

Giving him an angry glare, Camilla turned away.  A bleary-eyed, girl of six with tousled black hair crawled out of the tent.  “I’m sleepy, Mama,” she whimpered, “and everyone’s yelling.”

“I know, Jewel, sweetie,” Camilla cooed.  “Papa’s upset about that mean old cow and taking it out on everyone.”

Lawrence bristled and started to make an angry retort, then stopped.  There was truth in what Camilla said, after all.  He was upset about the cow and the delay.  Probably that had made him speak more sharply than he’d intended.  And his family was only out here in the wilderness because of his wishes, not their own.  It would behoove him to be patient, at least until they became accustomed to trail life.  Perhaps seeing the harder lot of the other emigrants would make his children appreciate their privileges more and lessen their complaints.  He looked across at little Adam Cartwright lugging a pail of milk to his father and wondered how Ben managed to sire such a cooperative boy when his own grumbled about everything he was asked to do.

“Oh, I feel so rich having our own cow,” Inger enthused.  “Not since I vas a girl on the farm have I tasted fresh milk varm from the cow.  And look how much she gave, Ben!”

“It’s a lot,” Ben agreed.  “Surely, we can’t drink all that.”

“No,” Inger admitted.  “On a farm it vould not go to vaste, but out here there is no place to store it, no chance to make cheese and butter.”

“You can make butter, you know,” called the sandy-haired woman camped on the Cartwrights’ other side.

“I brought no churn, Mrs. Thomas,” Inger explained.  “The extra veight, you know.”

Nelly Thomas’s plump cheeks pooched out even farther when she laughed.  “You don’t need one, honey.”  She ambled over to Inger.  “Just skim off the cream like you would for the churn, then hang it in a covered pail from the bottom of the wagon.  By the end of the day you’ll have butter.”

“From the bumping of the vagon,” Inger said, suddenly seeing what the other woman was saying.  “How smart you are!”

Mrs. Thomas shrugged.  “Just a trick I learned on the trip from Indiana.  Works right well.  Like you, I can’t afford the weight of a churn, not with all the blacksmith tools Clyde just had to bring.”

“Your husband is a blacksmith?” Inger asked.  “That vill be a useful skill on the trail.”

“And in California, we hope.”

“I am sure it vill be,” Inger agreed enthusiastically.  “You are Nelly, yah?”

“That’s right, and may I call you Inger?”

“Yah, please.  It is hard to get so many names straight so quickly, but I am trying,” Inger said.

Nelly gave a short laugh.  “I know what you mean.  I’m especially having trouble remembering the names of that German family.”

“The Zuebners?” Inger asked.  “Such beautiful names they have—Fredrich and Ludmilla——and the children are Stefán, Katerina and Marta.”

“Beautiful names,” Nelly said, “but they don’t roll off my tongue as easy as they do yours.  Seem like nice folks, though.”

“Yah, I think ve have a good group to journey vith,” Inger said.  “I vill try your idea about the butter, Nelly, but I think I vill still have more milk than ve need.”  She turned toward her husband, who was just finishing his plate of pancakes.  “Ben, do you mind if I offer some to the Paynes?  They vill have none this morning vith their cow running off, and Rachel should drink some——for the baby.”

“Go ahead,” Ben said.

“Nice, thoughtful girl, your Inger,” Nelly told Ben as Inger headed across the camp to the Payne wagon.

“An angel come to earth,” Ben said fondly.

Nelly smiled.  It was good to see a couple so obviously in love as the Cartwrights.  She’d have to make a point of getting better acquainted.

By the time Jonathan and Enos returned with the wayward livestock, everyone had cleared up from breakfast, struck the tents and loaded the wagons.  All that remained was to yoke the oxen and pull out, hoping to make up the lost two hours somewhere.  It was a vain hope that day, however, for everyone except the farm-bred Zuebners seemed to be having problems with their draught animals.

Seeing Ben struggle to keep his oxen from overturning the wagon, Zuebner came running forward.  “Let me help you, Mr. Cartwright,” he said.

“I can’t figure what’s wrong,” a frustrated Ben told him.

“Der chains is tangled, is all,” Zuebner said.

“I thought I had them right,” Ben said.

Zuebner laughed.  “Is nothing you do.  Is just the oxen are new to each other and don’t work together yet.  They learn pretty quick, you see.  Is all straight now, but you watch they don’t pull against each other.”

“Thanks, Zuebner.”

“Sure, sure.”

Ben was not the only one in need of Zuebner’s help before midday.  Most of the teams were, as Zuebner said, ‘new to each other’ and pulled more as individuals than as a team.  Of them all, the minister, Ebenezer Wentworth, had the most difficulty convincing his team to go where he wanted.  “Gee, gee!” he yelled as his oxen pulled to the right.  “You infernal beasts, I said ‘gee!’”

“Would be better you say ‘haw,’” Zuebner called back.  “You are telling them ‘right’ when you mean ‘left,’ Mr. Wentworth.”

Wentworth threw his hands skyward.  “Why can’t I keep those straight?  Haw, haw, you maddening creatures!”

Somehow, the inexperienced teamsters stumbled through the morning, stopping at noon for both man and beast to rest and refuel.  The teams were unhitched from the wagons, but not unyoked as they were driven to water and allowed to graze.  Larrimore had planned to make up time with a shorter stop than usual since the oxen had not done a full morning’s pulling, but though the women served only a cold meal, its preparation and rehitching the reluctant oxen still required almost the full two hours normally allotted for nooning.

Finally, everyone seemed ready to roll again.  But just as Larrimore was about to give the order to move out a piercing scream rippled up and down the line of wagons.  “Bobby, Bobby!” Nelly Thomas called frantically as she ran toward the narrow stream near which they had stopped.

Inger ran to the wagon behind theirs where Adam stood near Billy Thomas, who looked close to tears.  “What is wrong?” she asked urgently.

“I was supposed to be watching him,” Billy stuttered, “but me and Adam was having fun, and—and—”

“Adam?” Inger asked.

“We don’t know where Bobby went, Mama,” Adam said.

“The little one is missing?” Inger cried.  “Oh, dear God, help us find him!”  She ran after Nelly.  Soon the entire party had heard about its lost member, and the men spread out to search the surrounding countryside.

Inger caught up with Nelly and wrapped comforting arms around the weeping mother.  “Ve vill find him,” Inger promised.

“But he’s so tiny,” Nelly sobbed.  “This grass is taller than he is, Inger!”

Inger squeezed tighter.  “Yah, I know, but probably he is frightened and crying by now.  They vill hear him.”

“I pray so,” Nelly cried.  “Oh, my sweet little brown-eyed boy.  What would I do without him?”

Inger choked back the sob rising in her own throat.  Nelly felt just as Inger would if anything were to happen to Adam; and little Bobby was only four, so much more vulnerable out in that sea of grass.

A hour passed with no word, when over the crest of a knoll Clyde Thomas walked toward camp, a golden-haired boy over his shoulder.  With a shout of joy Nelly ran toward them and, gathering the little wanderer into her arms, smothered his tear-tracked cheeks with kisses.

“I got losted, Mama,” Bobby whimpered.  “I couldn’t keep up with Billy, and I got losted.”

“That scamp!” Nelly said.  “He’ll get an earful from me, I promise you.”  But by the time she had her younger boy back safe in camp, the elder brother’s threatened scolding was forgotten.

The men trickled back one by one, and the train headed out again, anxious to make up for lost time.  They met with no further difficulties, but by day’s end they had only gained seven miles toward their goal.  Everyone was disappointed by their slow progress, but each tired traveler said a quiet prayer of thanks that night that none of their party had been lost.

The next morning offered a reprise of the previous day’s difficulties as untried wagoneers struggled with untrained teams.  Though the weather was pleasant and cool for a change, the trail was still mucky from rains earlier in the week.  Even so, by the time they made camp that evening, everyone agreed it had been a better day than the one before, although they had covered only nine miles.

The wagon party had stopped for the night earlier than usual because Lawrence Larrimore assured them that Cold Springs was the best campsite they could reach before dark.  The cool, refreshing water and excellent forage for the cattle did much to restore the emigrants’ confidence in their chosen captain, and the women welcomed the early stop.  Not only did it give them a better chance to prepare dinner by the desired hour, but they also found time to rinse out a few garments before sundown.  Although the clothes most of them had worn since leaving St. Joe smelled stale from the accumulated sweat of travel in sticky weather, no one bothered with a thorough laundering.  There simply wasn’t time.

The sun shone bright and hot on the train’s third full day of travel.  Almost everyone in the party seemed to be falling into the routine of trail life, rising at the rifle signal and performing morning chores in time to leave by seven, as planned.  It was half past that, however, before Camilla Larrimore could drag drowsily through her duties  and be ready to head out.  Since even that represented an improvement, no one complained, and they made camp that night, grateful to have come twelve miles.

Friday saw their best day thus far.  The sun’s heat had at last dried the trail enough to give solid footing to the oxen.  When they made a respectable fourteen miles that day, Ben’s hopes for a successful journey began to rise.

Saturday was another productive day.  The first hour’s drive brought the emigrants to Walnut Creek and the comforting sight of the bridge across it.  “Enjoy it while you can,” Larrimore told them as the wagons of their party pulled to the end of the line rumbling over the bridge.  “It’s the only one you’ll see.  From here, we’re mostly on our own, except for a few ferries.”

“Aye, and costing more than a hound’s tooth, I’ll wager” Robert McTavish growled.

“True enough,” Larrimore admitted, “but worth the price in most cases.”

“At least, this bridge is free,” Clyde Thomas said with satisfaction.

Rachel Payne smoothed her dark brown curls underneath her yellow print sunbonnet and turned to Inger, walking beside her. “Try to figure that!  Ferries charge an arm and a leg; for the greater safety of a bridge, we pay nothing.”

Inger’s blue bonnet bobbed up and down.  “Ferries take men to vork them,” she offered as explanation.

“And the laborer is worthy of his hire,” Martha Wentworth called.

“Agreed, ma’am,” Jonathan Payne replied, his blue eyes twinkling.  “I just wish these ferrymen didn’t prize their labor so much above mine!”  Laughter trickled from one wagon to the next as the joke was repeated, but soon it was time to cross the bridge, so the banter stopped as each man hurried to guide his own team.

Walking next to his father as they crossed the bridge, Adam looked longingly at the creek below.  “I wish we could stop and fish awhile, Pa,” he said.  “Fish’d be real good for lunch.”

“That they would, son,” Ben agreed, resting a hand on his lad’s head, “but it’s too early to stop.  We’ve a lot of miles to cover before the nooning.”

Adam sighed.  “I know, sir.  I was just wishing.”

Ben ruffled the youngster’s black hair.  “You’ll get your chance, Adam.  Plenty of creeks and rivers ahead.  We’re bound to camp near one sometime soon.  Then you’ll be in charge of providing the meal, all right?”

Adam looked up and the disappointment faded from his features.  “Sure, Pa.  I’ll catch us the biggest mess of catfish you ever saw!”

After a satisfying morning’s drive the train stopped for the noon rest.  Inger cleared away the dishes and sat down next to Ben.  As he leaned against one of the wagon’s rear wheels, she laid her head on his shoulder.  “Alvays writing in your yournal, mine husband.”

“An old habit from my days at sea,” Ben explained.  “I’m not the only one,” he added, cocking his head to the right to indicate the place beneath the wagon where Adam lay sprawled on his stomach with his own journal open before him.  The seven-year-old had faithfully written a few lines each day to be shared with Jamie at year’s end, and, like his father, had fallen into the habit of using the noon rest hour to make his entries.

Inger laughed.  “Yah.  I have no time to put vords to paper, but my mind is a kind of yournal, full of veather and growing things.  Not many vould vant to read it.”

Ben closed his book and took her face between his palms.  “I would,” he said softly.

Inger snuggled against him.  “Someday, I, too, vill write a yournal,” she said, “and in it I vill put all the things I have learned from you——how to find our vay by the stars and how to know the coming veather by the smell of the vind.”

Ben stroked his hand repeatedly over her golden hair.  “Those things are like nothing compared to the things you’ve taught me——understanding, affection, love.”  He squeezed her tight.  “But then I knew you would the first time I saw you in the store in Petersburg.”

Inger turned glistening eyes to his face.  “You were something from a childhood fancy,” she murmured.  “So many times yoost before I’d fall asleep after a hard day’s vork in the wheat fields, a man——so strong and swift——vould come and lift me up in his arms as lightly as if I vas a sheaf of wheat.”  She touched his lips with her fingertips and whispered, “It vas you, Ben.”

Ben leaned his face toward hers, but before they could exchange a kiss, Adam scrambled from beneath the wagon.  “Pa, what word would you use for the McTavishes’ hair color?”

Ben chuckled.  “Are you writing all that for Jamie, son?”

“Well, sure,” Adam stated matter-of-factly.  “How else will he know about everyone?”

Inger patted the youngster’s knee.  “How, indeed?”  She looked across the encampment toward the McTavish wagon.  “It is not fiery red, like Billy Thomas’s, but a reddish brown, yah?”

“More red than brown,” Ben said, his brow wrinkling as he searched for the right word.  “Something like the color of burnished copper.  I guess you’d say ‘auburn,’ Adam.”

“Spell it,” Adam demanded.  Ben complied and Adam copied the word into his journal, but neither of them had time to write much more before it was time to reyoke the oxen and head out on the trail again.

They traveled until just past five that afternoon.  In the beginning, some of the wagoneers had protested the early stops, but they soon learned they had little enough time to complete the necessary chores before nightfall.  The oxen had to be unhitched and turned out to graze along with the other cattle.  Those who had horses needed to hobble or picket them so they, too, could feed.  Then there were tents to set up, fuel to gather, fires to build, supper to cook, dishes to scrub.  After the second day on the trail, no one complained about stopping at five.

After eating the men from each wagon generally gathered around the Larrimore’s campfire to discuss the next day’s itinerary.  Though Lawrence was the acknowledged leader and everyone listened carefully to what he remembered about the trail ahead, each wagon owner had an equal voice in the decisions made.  To this point the meetings had been amicable, but that changed when Ebenezer Wentworth let it be known that he expected the train to observe the sacred Sabbath as religiously as if they were in their home settlements.

“Ridiculous!” McTavish charged.  “We can’t afford the delay of resting a full day every week.”

“Would you challenge the Almighty?” Wentworth demanded, his black eyes flashing.  “How can we ask God to prosper our journey if we refuse to keep His commandments?”

“He is right,” Zuebner said sturdily.  “We need da Lord to shine on our path.”

“Bah,” McTavish scoffed.  “As late as we started and with the delays we’ve suffered, every day is precious.  We can’t risk our lives to humor superstitious fools.”

“There’s no need for name-calling,” Ben inserted quickly.  “I’m sure if we listen to one another, we can come to a consensus of what’s best for all.”

“All right,” McTavish agreed, cooling down.  “What do you say, Larrimore?  How was it done in your party last year?”

“Being in a hurry to reach the gold fields before they were stripped bare, we traveled straight through,” Lawrence said, “but we’ve got women and children to consider.  They might need rest more than we did.”

“So, what are you saying?” Clyde Thomas asked.  Like his son Billy, his hair was red, though its shade was more subdued.  “Do we stop over a day or not?”

Lawrence looked edgily from Wentworth’s frowning face to McTavish’s glowering visage to the confused expressions of Thomas and Payne.  “I’ll abide by the decision of the group,” he said.

Clyde Thomas turned away to spit.  “Safe answer,” he muttered to no one in particular.  Zuebner nodded in silent agreement.

“I know I don’t have Lawrence’s trail experience,” Ben began, “but I have studied the guidebooks carefully.  Some of them recommend regular rest; it’s felt the livestock stay stronger longer and the people healthier, so there are less delays for other reasons.  I tend to agree.”

“You agree we must observe the Sabbath,” Wentworth stated firmly.

Ben spread his hands in a conciliatory gesture.  “I agree a day of rest each week is wise, and I’d favor its being Sunday, when possible. I’m sure there’ll come times, though, depending on our location and how our journey’s gone during the week, when another day might be better.  I think we should evaluate our situation each week and decide what to do at that time.”

“Then we should push on tomorrow,” McTavish insisted.  “We’ve lost time this week.”

Ben shook his head.  “That’s mostly due to inexperience, McTavish.  The last three days have shown what we’re capable of, so I expect better progress next week.  And we’re all extra tired from the struggles we’ve faced.  I say lay over tomorrow since we have a good campsite here.”

“Sounds good to me,” Payne chimed in.

“Yeah, I’m ready to vote,” Thomas added.

“All right,” Lawrence said.  “Who favors camping here until Monday morning?”  Ben, Clyde, Jonathan, Fredrich and Ebenezer raised their hands.

“Opposed?”  Only McTavish voted against the stopover.

“Looks like that settles it,” Lawrence said.

“You didn’t vote, Larrimore,” McTavish accused.

Seeing Lawrence’s discomfort, Ben said quietly, “There’s really no need, except in case of a tie.”  Lawrence looked at him, grateful for the intervention.

Ben gave McTavish a hearty slap on the back.  “Give it a try, man.  If we don’t like the results, I’m sure none of us is too stubborn to change his mind.”  McTavish cut a sharp look at Wentworth.  He was quite sure at least one of them was that stubborn.

When the small band of travelers gathered at nine the next morning, they experienced not the uplifting worship they had hoped for, but a diatribe on the sanctity of the Sabbath and the harvest of woe those who violated it could expect to reap.  Though there were mumbled complaints as the little congregation dispersed two hours later, most felt Wentworth was entitled to preach the truth as he saw it.  “But if he don’t find a different tune to play by next Sunday,” Clyde muttered to Ben as they left, “so help me, I’ll vote to travel Sundays, worn out or not, just to spite him.”

Ben chuckled.  From what he’d seen of Clyde Thomas so far, he figured the man’s bark was considerably sharper than his bite.  He couldn’t help agreeing with the sentiment, however.  The service hadn’t been very uplifting.

The extra rest, however, was.  Everyone, especially Camilla Larrimore and her perpetually groggy youngsters, had taken advantage of the planned stop to sleep later than usual.  After walking fifty-eight miles the previous week, they all enjoyed the quiet pleasure of sitting around talking and getting better acquainted.  They were fine folks, Ben decided.  If you looked close enough, of course, you could see that each had faults, but each had good points, as well.  If Ben hadn’t discovered them in everyone yet——McTavish and Wentworth, for instance——that only meant he hadn’t looked closely enough.  By the time they reached California, Ben was sure he’d know every wrinkle and wart, but he expected the inner radiance of good character to blind him to those lesser faults.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

             To everyone’s satisfaction the Larrimore train pulled out at precisely seven Monday morning, the tenth of June.  “Hard to believe we’re the same inept bunglers that left St. Joseph a week ago, isn’t it, Inger?” Ben asked as he walked beside his wife through the green-gold grass along the trail.  “We look like seasoned trailsmen today.”

“Yah,” Inger agreed.  “Even Camilla vas ready on time this morning.”

“A sure sign God is smiling on our observance of His holy day,” Ben snickered.

Inger looked shocked.  “Ben, do not mock holy things!”

“I’m not,” Ben protested.  “I’m mocking Ebenezer Wentworth.”

“Vell, do not do that, either,” Inger demanded.  “He is our neighbor, as vell as a man of God; and ve must treat him vith respect.”

Ben gave her a quick squeeze.  “You’re right, my love.  I’ll try to do better, but the man does try my patience.”

“Which you have in such abundance!” Inger tittered.

Ben raised an eyebrow.  “Now, who’s mocking?”

Inger blushed and nodded acceptance of his rebuke.  She drew in a sharp breath and stopped for a moment, laying her hand over the bulge in her gray muslin skirt.  She smiled, then, and continued walking.  “That vas a hard one,” she said.

“Our boy’s got quite a kick, eh?” Ben smiled.

“Yah, a good, sturdy one,” Inger laughed.  “No little girl could treat her mother so roughly.  It must be a boy and a big one, at that.”

Ben ran an appraising eye over Inger’s protruding abdomen.  “Are you sure you’ve got your timing right, Inger?”

Inger glanced sideways at her husband.  “What does that mean, Benyamin Cartwright?” she asked, her eyes narrowing.

It was Ben’s turn to blush.  “Well, I was just wondering if maybe—that is—”

“Are you saying I look so big you expect me to deliver any minute?” Inger asked, her face flaming.

“Well, not just any minute,” Ben stammered, “but—”

“Oh, Ben!” Inger cried.  “How can you be so cruel?  I know I am big as a house, but I hoped you still found me attractive enough.”

“I do!” Ben protested.  “But, face facts, you’re carrying a larger load than Rachel Payne now, and you say her baby’s scheduled to arrive weeks before ours.”

Inger chuckled and shook her head.  “Oh, Ben, Ben.  You should have seen my mother carrying Gunnar.  She vas as big as this, I am sure.  Did I not tell you once I vas a very large peasant voman?”

Ben smiled as he recalled their first picnic beside the SangamonRiver.  “A very beautiful peasant woman, I said then, and that’s still how I see you.”

Inger took his arm.  “If you think my load is heavy, Ben, you must imagine how it feels from this side of my belly.”

Ben reached over to pat her stomach.   “I’m sure you must get weary, especially with all this walking.”

Inger shrugged.  “Let’s just say that I, above all others, am glad for the day’s rest ve had yesterday.”

Inger’s sentiments were echoed throughout the train as they made camp that evening.  Even Robert McTavish admitted that the fifteen miles they’d covered were evidence that the Sabbath’s rest had been good for both the emigrants and their draught animals.  Yes, Cartwright’s advice had been sound.  McTavish would have felt better about following it, however,  if only Ebenezer Wentworth had been less arrogantly confident that the day’s productiveness had vindicated his righteous pronouncements.

* * * * *

Ben walked toward the tree in whose shadow Inger crooned a lullaby to a prostrate mare as she wiped a cool cloth across the horse’s neck.  “Inger,” he said, “how much longer—”

“Shh, Ben!,” Inger whispered urgently as she stroked the mare’s flank.

“Well, hurry it up, will you?  Everyone’s all loaded up and ready to go.”

“I can’t go now, Ben, not yet.  I have to know that she is all right.”

“Look, we made good progress this morning,” Ben explained, “but we’ve already nooned here beyond what we should.  That mare may not foal for hours.  Let Payne look after her; he’ll catch up with us.”

“It vill be any minute, Ben,” Inger said. “I can’t leave her now, Ben, not now.  It is her first.  She’s frightened and nervous.”

“But, Inger, it’s not your horse,” Ben insisted.

Inger turned flashing eyes on her husband.  “Ben,” she said sternly, “Adam is not my child, but you have entrusted him to me, just as Mr. Payne has entrusted his prize mare to me.”  Her face softened.  “It vill be only a little longer, Ben, I am sure.”

The mare whinnied as if in pain, and Inger turned to soothe her.  Ben headed back toward the wagons, but he hadn’t reached them before he heard Inger shout.  “Ben, Ben.  Get Mr. Payne.”

“Is it time?” Ben hollered back between cupped hands.

“Quickly, Ben!” Inger cried.

Ben turned to face the circle of wagons.  “Hey, Payne!  Your mare’s ready!”

Jonathan Payne came running.  Without a word to Ben, he passed him and raced toward Inger, whose arms circled the neck of a wobbly roan foal with a white blaze on his forehead.  Accepting Jonathan’s breathless thanks, she flapped the front of her damp blue and rose print blouse to cool herself and leaned against Ben.  “Isn’t he beautiful, Ben?” she cooed, laying her hand gently on her husband’s chest and looking lovingly into his velvet brown eyes.  “I’m ready to go on now, Ben.  I’m sorry about the delay.”

Ben laid his hand over hers.  “I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  Hey, Payne!” he called.  “Slap some diapers on that boy, and let’s get rolling.”

The wagons pulled into line and headed out.  But though everything went well and the oxen pulled sturdily, the delay meant they made only ten miles that day.  No one seemed greatly troubled, however, except Robert McTavish.  “If we waste this kind of time over a dumb animal, what are we likely to squander when those women take to having their bairns?” he complained to his wife.

“Shush your mouth, now, Robert McTavish,” Maggie ordered.  “You’d sing a different tune if it were your own bairns coming into the world.”  His two teen-aged daughters, the “bairns” in question, giggled at their father’s sudden discomfiture.

* * * * *

After heading due west all morning the wagons circled near the VermillionRiver.  “Since it’s about time for our noon stop anyway,” Lawrence Larrimore decided, “we’ll rest up here before crossing.”

Clyde Thomas rubbed his stubbled chin.  “Sounds good.  The oxen should have a rest before tackling a river.”

Ben nodded his agreement.  For the first time since leaving St. Joseph, except when they’d crossed a few piddling creeks no one had feared, there was no ferry or bridge.  They’d have to find their own way across; and since all but Lawrence were inexperienced at fording rivers, they’d be foolish to attempt it when they were already tired from a morning’s drive.

Adam came racing across from the Payne wagon, where he’d been walking along with his friend Johnny all morning.  “Pa,” he called, “can I go fishing?  Can I, Pa?”

Ben scooped the youngster into his arms.  “No, son, not today.”

“But why, Pa?” Adam demanded.  “You promised I could sometime.  It looks like a good fishing place, too.”

“I’m sorry, Adam,” his father said, giving him a squeeze.  “I’m just afraid we wouldn’t have time to fry up the fish after you caught them, and we mustn’t let food go to waste.”

“Aw, please, Pa,” Adam whined.

Ben set him down.  “No, Adam, you’ll have to wait until we bed down near a river.  I’m sorry, but those are the facts, and I’ll have no pouting, my boy.”

Adam was pouting, but Ben overlooked the seeming disobedience, knowing it arose from disappointment, not defiance.  “Help your mother get the grub box out of the wagon,” Ben said to give his son something else to think about.

“Yes, sir,” Adam said, downcast, but submissive.

Ben sauntered down to the riverbank, where the other men were gathering while the women prepared lunch.  “What you think, Larrimore?” Zuebner was asking as Ben joined them.  “Is too deep to ford?”

“We forded here last year,” Lawrence replied, “but it does look a little deeper than I remember.  I think it’s still fordable, but maybe we should put it to a vote.”

“Let’s ford,” McTavish said bluntly.  “We need to make up some of the time we lost yesterday.”

“True enough,” Clyde Thomas put in.  “I vote to ford.”

“Why don’t we test the depth first?” Ben suggested.

“Good idea,” Jonathan agreed.

“Fine,” McTavish snapped.  “You test it, then.  You’re the reason we’re behind schedule.”

Payne’s nostrils flared, but he controlled his temper.  “Fair enough,” he said tautly.  “I’ll test it.”  He waded out to the center of the river, which came barely to mid-thigh.  “I’d say about three feet,” he called and stumbled out of the water.

“Guidebooks say that’s fordable,” Ben said, “but you’d know better than any of us if that’s true, Lawrence.”

Lawrence looked hesitant.  “Well, that depth is always chancy.  It’s probably safe enough, but anything can happen.”

“Make a decision, man!” Clyde demanded.

“Or I will,” McTavish snarled.

Lawrence took a deep breath.  “We’ll ford,” he decided.

Each day a different wagon took the lead position, so everyone had a fair turn at avoiding the dust of the wagons ahead.  As they approached the river after nooning by its banks, the Wentworths led the way.  Martha Wentworth waded across first, followed by twelve-year-old Mark and thirteen-year-old Matthew with his five-year-old sister Mary riding piggyback.  Once they reached the other shore safely, Ebenezer led the oxen into the water and aimed for the far side, moving obliquely downriver.  The water came just below the base of the wagon bed, so the goods inside should have been well protected, but when the wagon reached midstream, the strong current began to pull the oxen to the left.  As Wentworth struggled to turn them, he characteristically yelled “haw” when he meant “gee.”  Zuebner ran to help.  Before he could reach the minister, however, the wagon tipped over and water flooded inside.

Seeing her husband lose his footing, Martha Wentworth screamed.  Ebenezer came up spewing water and coughing, but unhurt.  Zuebner pulled him to his feet and started to unhitch the oxen.    “Come on, Wentworth,” he yelled.  “We got to save your stock.”  Thanks to Zuebner’s quick thinking, the oxen were disentangled and led to shore without injury.  Martha and the children ran to Ebenezer and wrapped him in a bevy of arms as they sobbed out their relief.

The other men of the party waded out to the capsized wagon and put their shoulders to the task of setting it upright again.  After rehitching the oxen,  they guided the Wentworth wagon safely to the west bank.  Leaving Adam with Rachel Payne, Inger, along with Maggie McTavish, waded across to help Mrs. Wentworth unpack their goods and assess the damage.  The other men returned to the east shore of the river to reanalyze their options.  Camilla Larrimore was pulling frantically on her husband’s arm as he tried to join the others.  “We can’t cross this river, Lawrence.  Please, let’s turn around and head for home.”

“Don’t be foolish, Camilla,” Lawrence said irritably.  “You don’t hear anyone else wanting to turn tail and run.”

“All right,” Camilla screamed as he jerked his arm free and walked away, “but if I lose my mother’s china or our grandfather clock, you’ll not hear the end of it, Lawrence Larrimore!”

Lawrence’s cheeks blazed crimson.  From the way the other men avoided looking at him directly, he knew they had heard.  Feeling his leadership devalued once again, he thrust his jaw out and announced, “It’s obvious we’ll need to caulk the wagons and float them across, men.”

“It’s not obvious to me,” McTavish snorted.  “Wentworth doesn’t know what he’s doing, that’s all.”

“I think we can ford,” Zuebner agreed, “if we are more careful.”

Clyde Thomas sidled over to Ben.  “What you think, Cartwright?”

Ben shook his head.  “I’m not sure.  Floating’s more work, to be sure, but we’ll lose even more time if we turn over like Wentworth did.”

“Yeah,” Clyde said.  “Well, I criticized Larrimore before for bein’ wishy-washy.  Now that he’s made a decision, I guess I’d better stand behind him, especially if he’s got the gumption to buck his woman.”  When the vote was taken, the majority decided to turn their wagons temporarily into boats and float them across.  “Guess we’ll have plenty of chance to see how it’s done,” Clyde cackled as he and Ben headed back toward their wagons.

Ben gave him a good-natured grin.  Sometimes there were advantages to being last in line, as Clyde was today.  And next to last didn’t feel at all uncomfortable to Ben.  Ben looked around and saw his son playing marbles with Johnny Payne.  “Adam!  Come here, son,” he called.

Adam gathered the glass orbs into his suede bag and hustled over to his father.  “You need me, Pa?”

“Sure do,” Ben said brightly.  “I need you to catch us a mess of catfish for supper.”

Adam’s face lit up like a lantern.  “You mean it, Pa?  I can go fishing?”

Ben gave the youngster’s ear a tweak.  “Yeah.  Looks like we’re gonna be here awhile, boy, so you should have time.  I’ll help you cross the river, then you let your mother know where you’re headed and you can pick your spot.”

Adam gave a happy bounce.  “Can I ask Johnny to go, too, Pa?  And Billy?”

“Sure, sure,” Ben said.  “As long as it’s all right with their folks.”

“It’s all right with Billy’s,” Nelly called from the wagon behind Ben’s.  “I’ll be glad to get that scamp out from under foot.”

“Run ask Johnny’s parents then,” Ben ordered.  “Tell them I’ll see him safe across.”

“Yes, sir!” Adam said.  Ben smiled as he saw Adam dash across the camp yelling, “Hey, Johnny!  Guess what!”

Before half an hour had passed, Adam and his two friends were sitting on the riverbank angling for catfish.  “This is sure gonna make a better supper than more of that old salt pork,” Johnny Payne whispered to Adam.

“You bet!” Adam agreed enthusiastically as he baited his hook.  It was easy to see what had attracted Adam to the other seven-year-old. Though built sturdier, the boy looked a great deal like Jamie Edwards.  His hair was a little lighter, but he had the same hazel eyes and the same gentle ways.  Johnny certainly didn’t possess Jamie’s zest for learning, however.  He wasn’t a good reader and couldn’t understand why Adam liked it so much.  Johnny thought the trip to California was all the better for the vacation it represented from lessons.  Why anybody would want to sit under a wagon every evening and study the way Adam did was beyond Johnny’s comprehension.

The red-haired rascal on Adam’s other side agreed with Johnny about that, but he’d already discovered the Cartwright boy could be downright stubborn about doing his lessons each night, as well as writing in that infernal journal of his at every noon break.  Having a wide stubborn streak himself, Billy could understand a fellow standing his ground, though not for something as utterly boring as schoolwork.  He tried every chance he got to pull Adam away from the books——to get into mischief, his mother would have said——and counted himself lucky on the rare occasions when it worked.  Today, he hadn’t had to try.  Adam had been the instigator of the fun, and that made Billy like him all the better.

Billy gave his freckled arm a hard slap, satisfied to see the bloody squish of the dead mosquito.  “There’s one that won’t live to bite me again,” he announced and reached over to swat the insect sinking its probe into Adam’s neck.  “And that makes two!”

Adam’s nose crinkled.  “They’re bad, ain’t they?”

“Biggest bloodsuckers I ever seen,” Billy said.  “They gettin’ you much, Johnny?”

Johnny scratched at the red welts on his arms.  “Like I was dinner on the plate,” he grumbled.  “I sure hope the catfish are worth the trouble.”

“They will be,” Adam insisted.  “Just keep thinking about that salt pork.”  Johnny’s face twisted at the thought.

“Catching anything?” called a high-pitched voice.

Turning, the boys saw a young girl with flaxen braids and a teasing twinkle in her blue eyes.  “Shove off, Marta,” Billy ordered.  “No girls allowed.”

“Why not?” Marta Zuebner asked, planting her arms defiantly on her hips.  “I fish pretty good, too, you know.”  Marta, unlike the rest of her family, had been born in the United States, so she spoke with no trace of German accent.  Neither did her sister Katerina, who had been only a year old when her parents immigrated to the United States.  Twelve-year-old Stefán’s speech was slow and plodding, like his father’s, but less noticeably accented.

“Don’t know no such a thing,” Billy sputtered.  “Push her in, Johnny.”

But gentle Johnny, who was closest to Marta, couldn’t bring himself to such meanness.  “She ain’t doing no harm,” he said.

“You gotta be quiet,” Adam admonished, “or you’ll scare the fish away.”

“If you blabbering boys haven’t scared them by now, I doubt I will,” Marta laughed.  She turned pleading eyes on Adam, who seemed to be the leader of the group.  “Let me stay,” she begged.  “None of the other girls are close to my age except my sister and she’s a sissy.  Jewel and Mary are just babies, and Roberta and Joan McTavish are practically grown women.”

“We ain’t your age, either,” Billy Thomas snorted.

“No, you’re a year younger,” nine-year-old Marta said, tossing her braids imperially, “and these other two even less, but you’re the closest there is.  I guess I’ll have to make do.”

“Let her stay,” Johnny said.  “She’ll be quiet, I bet.”

“I’m against it,” Billy muttered.  “How ‘bout you, Adam?”

Adam frowned.  Why did his two new friends have to put him in the middle?  “I guess you can stay,” he decided, “but if you scare the fish, off you go.”

Marta grinned and squatted down next to Johnny, giving him an even sweeter smile.  “Thanks,” she whispered as she hung her bare feet in the water.  “You won’t be sorry.”

* * * * *

Ben and the other men worked hard that afternoon, taking the wheels and running gear off the wagon boxes and caulking them to make them as watertight as possible.  Though Ben had plenty of experience piloting ships on the open sea, he wasn’t as accustomed to swift river currents as to billowing waves.  It wasn’t the lack of experience, however, that birthed the fear he felt rising in his gorge as he eased his wagon boat into the water and climbed atop to pole it across.  It was the knowledge that everything his family needed to survive the trip west was inside.  In his mind’s eye he saw all his supplies floating south while he swam frenetically behind.  He shook his head to clear it of the tormenting image.  If there was one thing he’d learned at sea, it was to keep his fears in check no matter how fierce the gale.  If he turned them loose, they became a howling hurricane, wreaking devastation in its path.

There’d been one close call earlier.  When McTavish had taken his team across before floating his wagon over, one of the oxen had stumbled and gone down.  Jonathan Payne, who had crossed just before McTavish, had rushed back to help, though, and together the two men got the ox to his feet and across the river.  Standing on the east shore waiting his turn to cross, Ben had smiled as he saw McTavish slap Payne on the back by way of thanks.  It looked as though those two had let their differences drown in the river, and Ben was glad.  Their group was too small to let friction fracture it.

By the time the last wagon had been floated over and reassembled, all the men agreed it was too near time to make camp to make it worthwhile to go on.  They’d spend another night by the VermillionRiver and continue on their way in the morning.  Ben got the tent set up, then dropped beside the fire Inger had built to fry Adam’s catfish.  “You look tired,” Inger said as she ran slender fingers through his hair.

“Frazzled out,” Ben admitted.  “I hope we don’t have to go through that often.”

“Maybe ve vill be able to ford most of the crossings,” Inger said soothingly.

“Or ferry over,” Ben suggested as an even better alternative.  “I’m beginning to think that’s a bargain at twice the price.”

Inger giggled.  “You must not give the ferrymen ideas, Benyamin.”

Ben tossed her an enervated grin.  “Supper on the horizon?”

“Yah, soon,” Inger promised.  “Catfish and rice.  Most of the Wentworth’s was soaked, so some of us traded them flour and cornmeal for rice.  If ve cook it tonight, it vill be all right.”

“I take it the Wentworth’s lost their flour and cornmeal?”

“All except what was stored below,” Inger said, turning back to watch the catfish, “but how did you know?”

Ben chuckled.  “I didn’t; it’s you I know.  Why else would you trade flour and cornmeal for rice when we have all we need?”

Inger smiled.  “I only traded flour; the cornmeal came from Rachel.  Everyone has tried to help all they could.  Camilla even invited the Wentworths to dinner.  Martha has had such a tiring day.”

“That was good of Camilla,” Ben said.  “I didn’t know she had it in her.”

“Ben!” Inger chided sharply.

“Sorry.  Did the Wentworths lose much else?”

“A few small things floated avay,” Inger said, “but it is food they are short of now.”

“They can probably pick up some extra supplies at FortKearny,” Ben suggested.

“Yah, they should have plenty to last that long, at least,” Inger said.

The cornmeal-coated catfish turned golden brown and Inger called to Adam to put his books away and come to dinner.  Ben crunched the crispy fish with satisfaction.  “Adam, my boy, you’ve just made up for all the trials of my day with this tasty supper.”

Adam beamed with pride.  “They’re good, huh?”

“Thanks to your provision and Mama’s good cooking, they’re the best meal we’ve had since St. Joe,” Ben declared and gave his son a vigorous squeeze.

* * * * *

Inger’s gray muslin skirt rustled as she passed through the knee-high grass.  “Isn’t the prairie beautiful, Ben?” she murmured.

Ben looked across the sea of green blades dotted with spring flowers of pink, purple, yellow and blue.  “Yes, very lovely,” he agreed, then turned to smile at Inger.  “But I thought it was mountain scenery you yearned for.”

Inger laughed.  “Yah, yah, I miss that, but this is beautiful in its own vay.  What are those blue flowers, Ben?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Ben smiled.  “You’re the expert on growing things.”

“I vill ask Nelly,” Inger said.  “She seems to know about such things.  She’s the one who found the wild onions and garlic near where we did laundry yesterday afternoon.”

“Speaking of which, have I told you how much I appreciate the fresh shirt?” Ben asked.

Inger shrugged.  “Vell, I had the time and plenty of vater; and I like clean clothes, too, Ben.”  Inger drifted back to ask Nelly to identify the flowers around them.

“The blue ones are indigo,” Nelly said, “and then there’s lupine and larkspur.  Oh, and some verbena over there.  Those pink ones are just called wild pinks.”

“They are so beautiful,” Inger sighed.

Adam, walking along with Billy Thomas, caught the longing tone in Inger’s voice and ran forward to his father.  Pulling on Ben’s gray pant’s leg, he motioned for him to bend down and his father obliged.  “Pa, would it be okay if I picked some of those flowers for Mama?” Adam whispered.

Ben put his lips to Adam’s ear.  “Yes, you may, but don’t get out of sight of the wagons.  And see if you can get one of the other boys to go with you.”

Adam nodded and ran back to Billy, passing Inger as she returned to walk beside Ben.  “What vas that all about?” she asked.

Ben winked.  “Wait and see, oh preacher of patience; wait and see.”

Inger tilted her head quizzically, then glanced over her shoulder at Adam, who had pulled Billy to one side and was engaged in earnest conversation.  Clearly, those boys were up to something.

“Flower picking?” Billy scoffed.  “Don’t tell me you’re sweet on that Marta, like dumb ole Johnny.”

Adam pushed his face close to Billy’s.  “You take that back!”

“Well, you’re the one said she could stay and pester us yesterday,” Billy accused.

“I got no more use for girls than you,” Adam sputtered.  He took a breath.  “Except for my mama, that is.  She’s the one I want the flowers for, and I bet your ma’d like some, too.  What’d ya say?”

Billy’s freckled nose crinkled and his blue eyes squinted.  “Oh, I guess,” he said finally, more because he couldn’t think of anything else to do than for any other reason.  Just walking through flat grasslands day after day got mighty boring; and we must be bored, Billy figured, if we’ve taken to picking flowers to pass the time.

“Come on, then,” Adam said.  “I’ll race you to that first rise over there.”

Billy grinned and took out after Adam.  Racing was more the type of fun he relished.

“Now, where are those boys off to?” Nelly asked, perturbed.  “Billy!” she yelled, but got no answer.  “Oh, that boy. He’ll be the death of me yet!”

“Adam’s on a sort of errand, Nelly,” Ben called back.  “I told him to get another boy to go with him, but they should have asked you first.  Don’t worry, though; I told them to stay in sight.”

Nelly waved.  “It’s all right, Ben.  As long as the trip isn’t Billy’s idea, I won’t worry.  You don’t know the devilment that scamp can cook up!”

Ben chuckled under his breath.  He had a feeling Nelly’d think better of her little scamp when he returned with a fistful of flowers.

As he suspected, Nelly was totally nonplused when Billy thrust his prairie bouquet toward her.  “My, my,” she said, “what a sweet surprise, Billy, sugar.”  She looked ahead and saw Adam Cartwright presenting flowers to his mother, as well, and smiled.  No need to tell her which boy’d had the idea for the fragrant offerings.  That Adam Cartwright was a good influence on her little mischief-maker.  The more Billy saw of him, the better.

* * * * *

After a quick lunch of salt pork and cornbread, Clyde Thomas ambled over to the Cartwright’s campfire.  “Say, Ben,” he said, “how ‘bout we leave the womenfolk to guide the oxen this afternoon and walk out a ways to see if we can find some game worth shootin’?”

Ben looked at Inger, who was pouring a cup of coffee for Clyde.  “Think you could handle the team, Inger?” he asked.

“Yah, if you vill hitch them,” Inger said.  “They are gentle beasts, Ben, and the country is level.  I see no reason I could not.”

“Fresh game would be nice,” Ben mused aloud.

“You bet!” Clyde agreed with an emphatic nod.  “After the fine fish we had for supper last night, that old salt pork tastes worse than ever.  I’m hankering for real meat for a change.”

“It vould be good,” Inger said longingly.

“We’ll try, then,” Ben decided.  “No promises, though, so keep the old standby close at hand.”

Inger laughed.  “I vill, but try hard, Ben.  The two of you have my mouth vatering already for something better.”

Ben was gone most of the afternoon while Inger, with Adam by her side to shout “gee” and “haw” in his most grown-up voice, led the oxen northwestward.  Near time to make campBen and Clyde caught back up with the train, each the proud possessor, respectively, of three and four birds hanging from lines carried across their shoulders.

“You were successful, I see,” Inger said when Ben trotted to her side and displayed his catch.  “What kind of birds are they, Ben?”

“Clyde called them prairie plovers,” Ben replied.  “He says you can roast them just like chicken.”

“They look more like quail,” Inger said, bemused.  “I am glad ve have one apiece.”

Ben chuckled.  “Yeah, they’re small, but anything beats salt pork.”

“To be sure!” Inger laughed.  “It is sad ve are tired of it already, though, since ve shall be eating it so many more months.”

Ben grimaced.  “Don’t remind me.”

For supper that night Inger made a dressing from the cornbread leftover from lunch, seasoned with the wild onions and garlic they had gathered the day before, and laid the plover to roast on a bed of it in the Dutch oven.  Ben and Adam both declared it their best meal yet on the trail.  “All it needs to make it perfect is some cranberry sauce,” Ben sighed contentedly.

“Tsk, tsk,” Inger scolded with a merry twinkle in her eye.  “I can see it takes little to spoil you, mine husband.  Two days of fresh food, and you not only reject salt pork, but vant luxuries, as vell.”

“You’re right, I spoil easy,” Ben said, reaching for her  hand and kissing the tips of her fingers.  “But that’s your fault, my love, for spoiling me so often.”

Inger pinched his nose.  “In that case, Benyamin, I shall correct my spoiling vays and feed you nothing but salt pork from now on.”  Ben reached for her again, but this time there was no kiss, just fingers digging into her ribs until she collapsed from giggling.

* * * * *

“Looks like we’ll be getting some rain,” Rachel Payne commented as she looked at the slate-colored clouds overhead.  Her sunbonnet, like Inger’s, was hanging from its strings around her neck.

“Yah, the sky is much darker now than when ve stopped for our noon rest,” Inger said.  “Ve could use a little rain to settle the dust.”

“True enough,” Rachel agreed, “though I’d rather it came a little later in the day.”

Ben looked back to the rear of the wagon where the two friends were walking.  “You ladies are likely to get more than a little rain.  Those are storm clouds if ever I saw them.”

“Do you think so, Ben?” Inger said anxiously.  She turned to Rachel and whispered quickly, “Ben knows about veather from his days at sea.”

“I think we’re in for quite a squall,” Ben said.  “You’d better make sure the boys haven’t strayed far.”

Inger and Rachel looked out across the prairie and saw both their boys, along with Billy Thomas, playing tag to the side of the line of wagons.  “You boys get on back!” Rachel yelled.  Adam and Johnny scampered back promptly with Billy dragging his heels behind.

“What is it, Mama?” Johnny asked.  “We was having fun.”

“Mr. Cartwright thinks there’s a storm brewing,” Rachel explained.  “You youngsters all need to stay close to your folks.”

“Aw, who’s scared of a little rain?” Billy scoffed.

“It’s gonna be more than a little,” Ben said.  “Get back to your wagon now, Billy.”

Billy’s mouth twisted disdainfully, but his expression changed moments later when a bolt of lightning hit near enough to make his red hair stand on end.  Without another word, he raced back to his mother.

“Mercy, that was close!” Rachel cried.  “I think I’ll be getting back to my own wagon now, Inger.”

Blue sparks flashed as bolt after bolt of lightning stabbed earthward.  “Oh, Ben, this is terrible,” Inger cried, grabbing his elbow.  “I have never seen such a storm.”

“Nor I,” Ben admitted.  “I’ve seen fiercer gales at sea, but never air so charged with electricity.  And that smell!  As if the whole sky were on fire.”

The sobs of frightened children drifted up and down the line of wagons, though their mothers, scarcely less frightened, tried to quiet them.  The men, of course, would never have admitted the fear thumping wildly in their hearts as they struggled to move the wagons forward despite the high winds blowing in their faces, but they all felt it.  The oxen pulling the wagons bellowed piteously and from far behind the train the loose livestock being trailed by Enos Montgomery answered with mournful moos.

Pulling his red flannel collar up to shield his neck and his droopy-brimmed hat down over his eyes, Ben pushed straight into the wind until he caught up with the Larrimore wagon.  “Lawrence, I don’t think we can keep going through this,” Ben shouted.  “And someone should get back to help Enos with the livestock or they’ll scatter from here back to the Vermillion.”

“You’re right!” Lawrence yelled over the roaring wind.  “I’ll get Zuebner and we’ll head back to the stock.  You take charge of setting up camp, all right?”  Ben nodded and headed back to stop his team and spread the word to the other emigrants.

“I’ll help you get your tent set up,” Clyde offered when Ben gave the order to make camp, “then our women and younguns can stay there while we fix mine, Larrimore’s and Zuebner’s.”

“Sounds good,” Ben hollered, giving Clyde a sound slap on the back.  Ben pulled the ground sheet out of the wagon and together they wrestled against the wind to spread it flat and raise the tent above it.  When everything was pegged taut, Inger called to Nelly, who came running with her two boys.

“Go get Jewel and Marta and Katerina,” Inger told Adam.

“Okay, Mama!” Adam said.

“No, wait!” Nelly said.  “Billy can fetch the Zuebner girls.  That way they’ll all be back sooner.”

“Yah, that is good,” Inger agreed.  “Hurry, boys!”

The boys ran to do as they were told, Adam feeling like one of the knights of the Round Table Mr. Edwards had read to his students about last year, and Billy just feeling disgusted at the thought of girls in the tent.  “I wish we had room for everyone,” Inger sighed, “but, at least, ve can shelter the little ones.”

“Don’t you fret, honey,” Nelly comforted.  “The rest can crowd in their wagons that long, and our men will get those other tents up quick.  They’re hard workers, those two.”  Inger smiled at the compliment to her Ben.

Sooner than even Nelly could have predicted, Clyde stuck his head through the tent flap.  “Tents are all up.  Everybody back to their own!”

The Zuebner girls grinned and, bare toes squishing in the mud, dashed through the rain to their campsite, but Jewel just cringed in Inger’s lap.  “It’s all right, Jewel,” Ben assured her, but the little girl wouldn’t move.  “Would you like me to carry you to your mother?” he asked gently and Jewel, nervously nibbling her tongue, nodded slowly.  As Ben lifted her from Inger’s lap, she wrapped slender arms around his neck and clung so tight Ben felt close to suffocation.

After depositing her in Camilla’s outstretched arms, Ben ran for the shelter of his own tent.  Bursting through the flap he fastened it shut.  “Whew!  I’m glad to be out of that!” he said.

“Oh, Ben, you are soaked through,” Inger fretted.  “You should get out of those wet clothes at once.”

Ben raised an eyebrow.  “And into what?”

Inger giggled.  “Into my arms, I suppose.  Ve should have thought to get dry clothes from the vagon.”

Ben started to unbutton his shirt.  “Your arms are clothes enough for me,” he teased.

Adam snickered at the reproachful look Inger gave Ben as she reached over to slip his shirt off.  “You can, at least, wrap up in a blanket for awhile.  We brought those.”

“Won’t help much, I’m afraid,” Ben said.  “I’ll have to go out again before long.  We didn’t get the grub box.”

“Perhaps the rain vill slow by dinnertime,” Inger said hopefully.  “It vill be hard to cook in the rain.”

“We can make out on pilot bread if we have to,” Ben assured her.  “We’re still full from that feast last night, right, Adam?”

“Not me,” Adam said.  “I want supper, Pa.”  His parents both laughed at his forthrightness.

“So do I, son,” Ben chuckled.  “So do I, but it won’t be anything to compare with that plover and dressing, I’m guessing.”

“You made a rhyme, Pa!” Adam giggled.

“Yes, sir, I’m a regular poet.”  Ben gave the youngster’s nose a sound tweak.  He cuddled Adam close as Inger laid a blanket across his shoulders.

“You finished quicker than I thought you could,” Inger commented.

“Had some help,” Ben said.  “Zuebner’s boy is only twelve, but he’s a responsible lad.  He’d already started setting up before we got there.  Then he and Sterling helped us with the Larrimore tent.”

“Sterling helped?” Inger asked, amazed, for Sterling Larrimore was not noted for his willingness to work.

“Not without protest,” Ben grinned.  “I think Stefán shamed him into doing his part.  The boy looked right proud of himself once the job was done, though.  Maybe all he needs is a chance to prove himself.”

“There are plenty such chances out here,” Inger said.  “Perhaps Sterling vill find himself on the prairie, yah?”

“One can hope,” Ben said, giving his wife a hug.  “One can always hope.”

Hope was a quality residing in each tent that night as the travelers waited for the rain to stop; but the storm raged relentlessly, whipping at the canvas sides of their shelters.  When it became obvious a cold supper was the only option, Ben made a dash for the grub box; and his family made a banquet of cheese and crackers.  It was midnight by the time the storm let up, but no one marked that moment.  Exhausted from a frightening day of fighting the elements, they were all asleep.

* * * * *

By common consent, the Larrimore train agreed to cover the ten miles between the camp they’d set up during the storm and the Big Blue River before stopping for their noon break the next day.  They had to travel an hour longer than usual to do so, but everyone felt the river would provide the best place to refresh themselves and their stock.  They were prepared, therefore, for a hard drive that morning and a late lunch.  They were not prepared, however,  for the crowd of wagons waiting to cross the ferry.

Larrimore went forward to consult with emigrants from other trains and the ferrymen.  “Looks like we’re in for a wait,” he reported to the men of his party.

“How long?” McTavish demanded.  “Can we cross by nightfall?”

“Best guess is no,” Larrimore said with a disgusted shake of his head.  “A couple of those parties ahead of us are large ones.”

“Is there no other crossing?” Thomas queried.

Again, Lawrence shook his head.  “River’s running slightly deeper than the Vermillion was.  We could try to ford, but it would be risky; and if we caulk and float like before, we won’t save enough time to be worth the effort.  We should be first or second across tomorrow morning, anyway.”

“We can’t cross tomorrow,” Wentworth stated bluntly.  “We must honor the Sabbath.”

“We’re not staying over an extra day for that,” McTavish fumed.  “We’ve lost enough time this week.”  Even the devotedly religious Zuebner nodded.

“Cartwright?” Wentworth appealed, remembering Ben’s support the previous week.

“I’m sorry, Wentworth, but I agree,” Ben said.  “We’ve only had one full, uninterrupted day’s travel this week.  Much as I’d like to take a day’s rest, I don’t think we can afford the time.”

“And the animals will have the whole afternoon to refurbish themselves,” Payne pointed out.  “We can’t justify a layover on their account.”

“Most of us seem to be in agreement,” Larrimore said.  “Sorry, Ebenezer, but we’ll lose our place in line if we don’t cross in the morning.  Surely, none of us wants that.”

Wentworth cast a condemning eye on the other emigrants.  “Mark my words, all of you:  God will not hold you guiltless of this sacrilege.  It would surprise me little if you each found yourself suffering great loss of property or even life for mocking Him here.”

Zuebner blanched.  “You do not mean this, Reverend Wentworth?”

“I assure you on my authority as a man of God,” Wentworth said, his black eyebrows knitting together to form a single line above his glowering eyes.

“You’d best not be spreading that poison to our womenfolk and children,” Clyde warned.

“It is they who will suffer for your sin, Mr. Thomas,” Wentworth admonished.  “Have they not the right to know why?”

Clyde fixed a hard stare on the minister.  “The God I serve ain’t one to punish the innocent for the wrongs of the guilty.  Not that I’m admittin’ guilt in this.”

Wentworth’s face darkened with foreboding.  “You will; one day you will.  I beg you to remember that the Lord will not always strive with man; do not try His patience by delaying your repentance.”  Sweeping his smoldering black eyes around the circle so they would know they were all included in his warning, Wentworth turned his back and stalked away.

“That’s a hard man,” Payne said.

“Aye,” McTavish snarled, “and he’s the only one of us that’s suffered any loss of property yet.  Makes ye wonder what sins he’s harboring to have his goods dumped in the river!”

“That’s enough,” Ben ordered sharply.  “The man’s rigid in his beliefs, but sincere; and we’re asking him to go against those beliefs.  We should offer him understanding, not reproach.”

“You speak good words,” Zuebner said.  “I still believe the Reverend Wentworth to be a good and godly man; we must show respect.”

“You changing your vote, Zuebner?” McTavish demanded.

Zuebner shook his head sadly, the sudden dimming of his blue eyes showing his grief at the need to oppose a man of God.  “No, no.  Even a godly man can be mistaken; and Reverend Wentworth is in this, I think.  But as Ben says, we must not reproach, but show kindness.”

“Come on, men,” Ben said.  “We’ve got a free afternoon here; let’s use it to enjoy ourselves, not to wrangle over who’s right and who’s wrong.”

“Now, that I can agree with!” Payne said enthusiastically.  “I, for one, am gonna take my boy down to the riverside for some fishing.  Who’ll join me?”  Several of the men grinned and nodded, but it was Ben and Adam who ended up sitting on the riverbank next to Jonathan Payne and his boy Johnny.  The others scattered along the river, some in groups of fathers and sons, others choosing to make new acquaintances with fishermen from other wagon parties.

About four o’clock that afternoon Ben returned with a bucket swimming with catfish.  “Oh, Ben!” Inger exclaimed.  “So many!  Ve vill feast tonight, yah?”

Ben lifted her from the ground and set her down again gently, careful of the precious burden she carried.  “Yah, we will feast and we will party, my love.  Can we have supper early?”

“Yah, sure,” Inger said, “but why?”

Ben grinned with pleasure at the surprise he was about to spring.  “Because we are going to a dance, Inger Cartwright, and you’ll want time to spruce up!”

Inger’s hands flew to her cheeks.  “A dance, Ben?  There is to be a dance?”

Ben’s head bobbed happily.  “Yeah.  A fellow from another train came up to us while we were fishing and invited us.  They’ve got a fiddler in their group, and they wanted to host a party since there’s so many of us camped close tonight.”

“Oh, Ben, what fun!” Inger cried, clapping her hands.  Then her eyes fell to her dusty dress.  “Oh, you are right; ve must eat early, so ve can bathe and dress.  I vish now I had not packed my best dress so deep in the vagon!”

“I could get it for you,” Ben offered.

Inger laughed.  “No, no.  I vill not have you do so much vork for my vanity.  My yellow calico is clean and it vill do nicely.  I am sure no one else vill be dressed fancy, either.”

“Camilla might,” Ben teased.  Seeing his wife’s reproachful look, he made a quick offer.  “I’ll clean the fish, then you get them frying while I take Adam down to the river for a swim.  That’ll get us clean without making him think he’s taking a bath.  Then, he and I will clear up after supper, so you can have time to primp.”

Inger put her arms around his neck and kissed him.  “You are so good to me, my love.”

“I’m glad I can be,” Ben whispered.  “You give me so little chance, you selfless angel.”

Inger diced and fried the last of their fresh potatoes to go with the fish and cornbread, but she was so excited about the forthcoming frolic that she had little appetite herself.  While Ben and Adam joined forces to pack away the leftovers and scour the tin plates clean, Inger and Rachel Payne slipped to a secluded spot on the river and soaked away two weeks’ worth of trail dust before putting on fresh dresses.  Then, giggling like two schoolgirls at their first grownup party, they walked with their husbands the short distance to the host camp.

Even the youngsters felt their feet prancing to the rhythm of the fast fiddle, and they each soon found someone to share their movements to the music.  Johnny, who really was taken with the charms of the little tomboy Marta Zuebner, naturally chose her; and Adam quickly snatched up tiny Jewel Larrimore as the next best alternative.  Sterling and Stefán took turns leading the latter’s sister Katerina; and while the McTavish girls had no one their age in their own party, they suffered no lack of men to waltz them around; for there were few ladies in the other groups represented at the dance.  That left only Billy Thomas without a partner, but he felt happier, anyway, doing jigs with his brother Bobby than he would have with any girl.

* * * * *

The members of the Larrimore train were up early Sunday morning despite the late hours they’d kept the night before.   Though their feet were sore from dancing, they all felt lighter in spirit.  Everyone except the Wentworths, that is.  As further censure for their disregard of the Sabbath, Wentworth had refused to join in the evening’s entertainment.  No one had missed him, although the other ladies secretly sympathized with Martha and the boys.  Little Mary probably didn’t care, but both Matthew and Mark wore long faces that had nothing to do with righteous indignation at being forced to travel on the Sabbath.

Having gladly paid the four-dollar charge, the travelers had all crossed the ferry in time to noon on the far side of the Big Blue.  Everyone agreed ferries were the safest, easiest crossings available, although Clyde Thomas loudly asked anyone who’d listen how many times they’d have to pay through the nose before they reached California.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

             Around mid-morning Monday the Larrimore train intersected a line of wagon ruts.  “Look at that, Inger!” Ben shouted.  “We’ve joined the Oregon Trail.”

“That is good news, Ben,” Inger called forward from her place at Nelly Thomas’s side.

Puzzlement wrinkled Adam’s brow.  Trotting away from Billy, he caught up with his father.  “Pa, I don’t understand.”

Ben lifted the youngster up and carried him as he continued to walk beside his team.  “What don’t you understand, Adam?”

“How come we’re joining the Oregon Trail when we’re going to California?”

Ben chuckled as he tickled the boy’s chin.  “That does sound confusing, doesn’t it, son?”

“Are we going the wrong way, Pa?”

“No, no, Adam,” Ben assured him.  “It’s just that the best way to get to California is to follow the old tried and true Oregon Trail most of the way, then take a cutoff that leads southwest from it.”

“Where’s the cutoff, Pa?” Adam asked.  “Will we get there pretty soon?”

Ben struggled to repress a smile.  “Now, Adam, I think I’m going to let you discover the answer to that for yourself.  I’ll let you take a look at my guidebook when we stop for lunch.  You read well enough now to figure the words out.”

“Okay,” Adam said, squirming to let his father know he wanted down.  When the train circled for its noon break, he sprawled in the shade under the wagon and skimmed through Ben’s guidebook.  “Look how many pages there are between the one that tells about the Big Blue and the one with the California Trail,” Adam whispered, awestruck, to Billy and Johnny, who had joined him beneath the wagon.

“Boy, howdy!” Billy cried.  “That’s a bunch.”

“Yeah, and it took us two weeks to get this far,” Adam said, holding between his fingers the few pages listing the landmarks they’d already passed.  “Just think how long it’ll be before we get to the California Cutoff!”

“How long, Adam?” Johnny asked.

Adam shook his head.  “I don’t know.  Looks like forever.”

“That there’s the kind of book worth reading, if you ask me——a thousand times better than old McGuffey,” Billy stated bluntly.  “Can you tell what’s coming up next?”

“I guess the Little Blue River,” Adam said.  “See this map?  It don’t look very far from the Big Blue we crossed yesterday.”

“Yeah.  Wonder if we’ll have to cross it, too.”

“I’ll ask Pa,” Adam promised.  He flipped forward a few pages.  “Listen to all these funny-sounding places we’ll be passing——Courthouse Rock and Jail Rock, then further on, Chimney Rock.  Wonder if smoke comes out it.”

Billy laughed.  “Me, I just want to see Sutter’s Fort, where they found all the gold.”

“It weren’t in a fort,” Johnny scoffed.  “They found gold in a river, my pa says.”

“So, maybe the river runs right through Sutter’s place,” Billy snorted.

“I don’t think so,” Adam said, “Folks don’t usually build right over a river.  On the bank, maybe, like St. Joe, but not with the river smack in the middle of it.”

“Yeah!”  Johnny stuck his tongue out at Billy.  “See, I told you!”  Billy gave the younger boy’s shoulder a hard shove and took off with Johnny giving chase.  Adam clambered into the wagon and pulled his journal out of its storage pocket.  He had to tell Jamie all his discoveries about the trail ahead while they were fresh in his mind.

 

* * * * *

 

As Adam had guessed, the wagons traveled along the cottonwood-lined east shore of the Little Blue River the next day.  The sky was clear and the sun bright——oppressively bright.  The emigrants sweltered and sweated beneath its burning rays, but the oxen, to whom God had denied the privilege of perspiration, suffered even more.  The train was forced to take numerous short breaks during the day, so the oxen could cool off.  At noon Ben, with Adam’s help, brought a pail of water from the river to wash their animals’ backs.  Around the camp the other men and their sons were doing the same.

The women, on the other hand, were all gathered near the Payne wagon, in which Rachel lay with Martha Wentworth at her side, soothing and encouraging her in her labor.  “I guess we won’t be getting any further today,” Camilla commented.  “Not that I mind the extra rest.”

Maggie McTavish cackled.  “Oh, this won’t take the whole afternoon.  It’s her second, after all.”

“Does that make a difference?” Inger asked innocently.  The other women, each of them the mother of more than one child, giggled.

“Makes big difference,” Ludmilla Zuebner said.  “First one is always hardest and slowest.”

“Lands, yes,” Maggie declared.  “I thought I’d never get my Roberta to come out and face the world, but Joan came bouncing out so fast I scarce had time to reach my bed.”

Nelly Thomas quickly put a comforting arm around Inger.  “Hush, now, you ninnies,” she scolded the others.  “You’re scarin’ this child.  She can’t help but think about her time comin’ up, and you tell her how hard it’s gonna be!”

“Sorry, Inger,” Maggie murmured, giving the expectant mother an apologetic smile.

Inger laughed.  “My mother gave birth to my brother Gunnar after a day’s vork in the field.  I’m sure it vill be as effortless for me.”

“Oh, my,” Camilla tittered into her fingers.  Ludmilla and Maggie exchanged knowing smiles, while Nelly just reached up to pat Inger’s shoulder.  “You poor, innocent lamb,” she chuckled.  “He was her second, you know.”

“Now, Nelly, there is no need to cluck like a mother hen,” Inger chided.  “You are only five years my elder, after all, not my grandmother.”

“It’s being a mother that ages a woman, honey,” Nelly said, “especially when you’re the mother of a rascal like Billy.”

“And Bobby?” Inger asked with a smile.

Nelly’s brown eyes grew hazy with doting fondness.  “Bobby?  He’s my angel child.  Not an ornery bone in his body; and, goodness knows, I needed one like that after Billy.”  No one contradicted her.  Each of them had been witness to, if not victim of, one of Billy’s mischievous pranks.

Listening to the cries of pain issuing from the Payne wagon brought vivid memories to the mind of each mother; and, evidently deciding naive Inger needed an education in the rigors of childbirth, the other ladies took turns describing how harrowing their experiences had been.  This time Nelly didn’t bother trying to restrain them; so if Inger had been of a fearful nature, she would have heard enough that afternoon to terrify her about her upcoming confinement.

Camilla turned out to be a better prognosticator than Maggie, for the Payne baby showed little inclination to shorten Rachel’s labor.  The afternoon passed slowly, and the women had just started to drift reluctantly back to their own wagons to begin supper preparations when a piercing wail announced that a new member had joined their company.  They all ran back, eager for a glimpse of the new baby.  Martha Wentworth brought the blanket-wrapped bundle out.  “It’s a girl,” she announced as the others crowded close.  “Now, for goodness sakes, ladies, someone call the father!”  There was no need, however.  Jonathan had heard the infant’s first cry and was already racing across camp from where he’d been passing the time jawing with the other men.

After supper Jonathan carried his daughter over to the Cartwright campfire, where Ben and Clyde chatted over a final cup of coffee while Inger and Nelly cleaned up after the meal they had joined forces to prepare.  “Here comes the proud papa!” Clyde announced loudly.

Jonathan grinned.  “Proud I am!  Take a look at this little beauty!”

Inger pulled back the pale green crocheted coverlet and tenderly touched the downy soft, corn-colored fuzz covering the little head.  “Oh, she is beautiful,” she murmured softly.  “And her eyes are like Johnny’s, aren’t they?”

Jonathan fondly touched the diminutive nose with his broad index finger.  “She looks just like he did as a baby, except prettier.”

“Have you named the little darling?” Nelly asked as she took a peek at the tiny girl.

“Yeah, we’re gonna call her Susan, after Rachel’s mother,” Jonathan replied.

“We’re planning to name our child after either Inger’s father or mine,” Ben said.

“Just like a man,” Nelly declared, “to assume he’s having a son!”  Inger, who secretly agreed with Ben, just spread her hands in a gesture that seemed to imply “who can say.”

“Well, if we name the first boy after Inger’s father,” Ben went on, oblivious to Nelly’s sarcasm, “we’ll name the next one after mine——Joseph.”

“Listen to the man!” Clyde hooted.  “Hasn’t even got this youngun out of the oven, and he’s already got a name picked out for the next.”  Everyone laughed, even those at distant campfires, for Clyde’s voice had been booming enough for almost everyone else to hear.

“I’m gonna get back to Rachel now,” Jonathan said.  “She just thought Inger might like a closer look at our little lady here.”

“For inspiration, no doubt!” Ben exclaimed.

Inger spatted the back of his hand.  “Tell Rachel I thank her,” she said to Jonathan.  “Susan is, indeed, a lovely little lady and you have much right to be proud.”

As the button-bursting papa walked away, Clyde snickered.  “Now, wouldn’t it be funny if these two little prairie babies grew up and got hitched?”

“Oh, good land!” Nelly snorted.  “Now, here you are advertisin’ for a boy.  There’s enough fool men in the world as it is, especially in California.  You’d best have a girl, Inger, honey, or there won’t be enough to go ‘round.”

Inger laughed.  “I vould have to have twins to please you both.”

Ben took a look at Inger’s bulging belly.  “Maybe you will,” he muttered under his breath.

“Ben!” Inger cried.  “I have blessings enough already vithout you vishing a double portion on me.”

“That wouldn’t be a blessing, honey,” Nelly laughed.  “That would be a curse!  They might both turn out ornery as Billy!”

* * * * *

The blistering heat drained the travelers’ energy again the next day, giving them no hope of making up time lost by their slowed pace of travel and the wait for little Susan’s arrival.  No one complained, though.  They had accepted the inescapable fact that there would be ups and downs along the trail.  Some days they’d make good mileage; others would end with frustratingly few miles between them and their last campsite.  All in all, they felt they were doing the best they could and they’d have to trust that would be enough.

Thursday brought slightly cooler weather.  The oxen fared better, but still plodded wearily under a searing sky.  Friday continued hot and ended, like the day before, with only ten more miles behind them.  “Just the first day of summer, and it already feels like mid-July,” Clyde Thomas groused.  The others, sweat dripping from their chins, nodded an unspoken prayer that what they’d experienced this week was not a forecast of typical weather on the prairie.

* * * * *

Ben crawled through the flap of his tent and pulled off his boots.  “We can sleep late tomorrow,” he announced.

“We’re stopping for the Sabbath?” Inger asked.

“Yup.  Even McTavish voted for it,” Ben replied as he unbuttoned and removed his damp and smelly red shirt.  “Said the oxen needed the rest after the hot hauls they’ve made this week.”

“He is right,” Inger said.  “Ve have not gotten as far as ve hoped, but the poor animals are exhausted.”

“And poor Inger, too,” Ben said as he lay down next to her and kissed her cheek.  “I’m afraid the heat is extra hard on you in your condition.”  Inger nodded, but lay her finger across his lips and inclined her head toward Adam.

Ben smiled.  How like his Inger to remind him not to worry their boy.  He rolled over to face Adam.  “You want to do some fishing tomorrow after the sermonizing, son?”

Adam frowned.  “Do I have to, Pa?”

Ben’s brow furrowed with concern.  “No, of course not, Adam.  I just thought you’d like to.”

Adam yawned.  “Maybe.  I’m just awful tired, I guess.”

Ben reached over to tousle the lad’s dark hair.  “Long, hard week, wasn’t it, boy?”

“Uh-huh.”  Adam rolled over to face his father more directly.  “Pa, I was looking at the map in your guidebook after supper, and I was wondering.”

“Wondering what, Adam?”

“How come we gotta do so much winding around?  It’d be shorter to go straight west, wouldn’t it?”

“That’s true, Adam, but shortest isn’t always best,” Ben said.  “Remember, I told you that when we read Uncle John’s letter about the cutoffs?”

“I remember, but I’m sure tired of walking, Pa.”

Ben chuckled.  “So am I, son, but there’s a lot still ahead.”

“So why ain’t shortest best?” Adam demanded.

Ben thought for a moment.  “You know how much trouble the oxen had with the heat this week, don’t you, son?”

“Yes, sir.  Them and me both.”

Ben ran his callused hand across the boy’s smooth cheek.  “How much harder do you think it would have been if we hadn’t been near water?”

Adam grimaced.  “Plumb awful, Pa!”

Ben nodded.  “Well, that’s what it would be like if we went due west.  We’d be heading straight into the GreatAmericanDesert.”

“Ain’t there no water west of here, Pa?” Adam queried.

“Sure, there is,” Ben replied, “but not as much as we’d need.  So the main reason we meander around the way we do is to stay close to rivers.”

“And rivers meander,” Adam said wearily, comprehending his father’s meaning.

“That’s right,” Ben said.  “There’s also more dependable forage for the animals the way we’re headed, so that’s another reason we keep to known trails.  The people who went before us have figured out the best route to travel, Adam; and we’re wise to follow in their footsteps instead of heading off where there’s not a landmark to be found.”

“Like Chimney Rock?” Adam asked eagerly.  “I’d sure hate to miss that one.”

Ben laughed.  “You won’t miss it, boy.  I understand you can see it days ahead on the trail.”

“Yeah?”  Adam yawned again.  “That’s good.”

“That’s good,” Ben agreed, “and what would be even better would be for you to get some sleep.  Then maybe you’ll feel like fishing tomorrow or maybe just swimming.”

“Swimming sounds good,” Adam drawled.  “Night, Pa.”

“Good night, son.”

* * * * *

Swimming evidently sounded good to all the youngsters of the Larrimore train.  As Adam shared his plans with Billy and Johnny after the morning worship service, which the Reverend Wentworth had kept blessedly short, the faces of all the others within hearing distance brightened at the thought of a cool dip in the river.  “That is a good idea,” Stefán Zuebner declared.  “I, too, will go swimming.”

“We’ll go with you,” Matthew Wentworth said, speaking for his younger brother Mark, as well.

“Yeah,” Sterling Larrimore agreed, “but let’s not have these babies tagging along.  We men ought to stick together.”  None of the others thought having Sterling along would enhance the afternoon’s fun, but his propitious choice of the word “men” to describe his prospective companions won him entrance into their brotherhood.  Though Sterling was the youngest of the four, they had to agree that his eleven years more naturally grouped him with them than with the younger trio.  Besides, he was right:  men shouldn’t have to mix with babies.

Billy Thomas stuck his tongue in Sterling’s face.  “Who cares?” he jeered.  “We wouldn’t have you on a platter!”

Adam’s face wrinkled up like a prune.  “Not even if you was smothered in cream gravy!”

Sterling made an exaggerated gesture of stifling a yawn.  “Like I said——babies.  Stick with your mamas, snivel noses!”   With a lofty laugh he threw an arm around Mark Wentworth’s shoulder and walked away, followed by Matthew and Stefán.

“Ooh, that Sterling burns me up,” Johnny fumed.  “Always acting like he’s something.  And them others trailed right along with him.”

“Don’t worry,” Billy said, jerking his head toward the departing boys.  “I’ll think of a way to cook their gooses.”

“Aw, it’s too hot to cook,” Adam snickered.  “I’d rather swim.”  Billy cackled, but as he ran in answer to his mother’s call, his scheming brain started plotting revenge.

The women in the wagon company probably would have agreed with Adam that it was too hot to cook, but they had to anyway.  Then, while they cleared away the dishes, they had to endure endless pleas from their children for permission to head for the river.  However much the mothers would like to have sent their whining offspring out of earshot, though, none would release them until an hour past dinner.

After a seemingly interminable delay, Adam and Johnny walked toward the river, with a disgruntled Billy dragging his younger brother behind him.  “Don’t this take the cake?” Billy griped loudly.  “We’re the ones stuck with a baby!”

“I’ll be good, Billy,” Bobby promised, trotting hard to keep up with his older brother’s longer stride.

“That’s what I’m afraid of, prissy britches,” Billy taunted.  “You better do just like I say, buddy boy, or I’ll drown you myself.”

Bobby’s face puckered up.  “Aw, you wouldn’t, would you, Billy?”

Billy stopped and stared at the woebegone little face.  “Not unless you keep that up!  I can’t stand bawl babies.”

“I ain’t no bawl baby!” Bobby hollered.

Billy gave the little boy’s head an affectionate, if overly solid, pat.  “That’s better.  I like you mad a lot better than sad.”  Bobby grinned, understanding now that Billy was just teasing, like usual.

The boys arrived at a bend in the river hidden from camp.  “This looks like a good spot,” Adam said.

“Yeah,” Johnny agreed.  “Looks fine to me.”

Billy didn’t answer verbally.  He just started shedding his shirt and pants.  Little Bobby stared wide-eyed.  “You’s naked, Billy,” he accused.

“So what?” Billy scoffed.  “Ain’t you never heard of skinny-dipping?”  Bobby shook his head.  “Well, that’s ‘cause you’re a baby,” Billy concluded.

“Ain’t neither!”

“Are, too!”

“Aw, quit fussing, fellas,” Johnny said.  “It’s too blame hot.”

“And too hot for clothes, right?” demanded Billy.

Johnny looked to Adam for a response.  “Right,” Adam decided and starting peeling off his clothes.  It wasn’t the first time he’d swum naked.  He and Pa had skinny-dipped in plenty of creeks when they were traveling from town to town.  It was the cheapest way to take a bath, Pa’d said.  Johnny shrugged and followed suit.

Soon the boys were merrily splashing water in each other’s faces.  “Hey, there!  Having fun?” a female voice called.

Pulling Bobby down between them, Adam and Johnny sat down fast, and squished their bare buttocks into the muddy river bottom; but Billy stood up, arms akimbo.  “We were ‘til you come along,” he sputtered.  “You ain’t invited, Marta.”

“The river don’t belong to you,” Marta stated calmly, reaching back to unbutton her dress.  She had just slipped it off when someone screamed.

“Marta, you get your dress back on!” her sister Katerina ordered, running up and snatching the red gingham frock from the ground while she shielded her eyes from the quartet of nude bathers.

Just behind Katerina came Roberta and Joan McTavish, one holding Jewel Larrimore and the other Mary Wentworth by the hand.  “You had no business running ahead like that, Marta,” Roberta scolded.  “What would your mother say?”

“What’s the problem?” Marta demanded.  “Mama said we could go swimming.”

“With us,” Roberta responded sharply, “not with boys.  You quit parading yourself, Marta Zuebner, or I’ll march you straight back to your mother.  And as for you, Billy Thomas, you squat down in that water this minute.  You ought to be ashamed prancing around stark naked in front of these girls.”

Instead of squatting, Billy started stomping toward the riverbank.  “Get them blame girls out of here,” he threatened, “or I’ll show you some real fancy prancing!”  Katerina’s shrill shriek resounded back as she dragged Marta upriver, followed by the gaggle of squealing girls.

Billy slapped the water triumphantly.  “Whoopee!” he hollered.  “I guess I showed them who’s king of the river!”

“I’ll say!”  His eyes glowing with something akin to worship, Johnny splashed toward him.  “Where’d you get the nerve, Billy?”

Billy held his arms up at right angles and pumped the air.  “I’m the nerviest feller in these here parts,” he announced.  Lost in his gloating, he didn’t notice Adam slipping up behind him until he’d been jerked beneath the surface.

Billy came up spewing water, but grinning.  He made a grab for Adam and dunked him.  A good-natured free-for-all ensued until, worn-down with fun, the four unclad companions stretched on the bank and let the sun bake them dry.  Billy sat up first.  “I’ve had enough swimming,” he said and started pulling his pants back on.

“Yeah, me, too,” Johnny agreed, quickly following his new hero’s example.  “How ‘bout you, Adam?”

“Yeah, I reckon,” Adam said.  “You fellas wanna do some fishing now?”

A roguish flame sparked in Billy’s blue eyes.  “I got a better idea.”

Johnny looked up, eager for direction.  “What’s that, Billy?”

“I think it’s time we paid them other boys back for their sass this morning,” Billy declared, “and we may as well get the girls while we’re at it.”

“What you got in mind?” Adam whispered.  There was no one near enough to hear, but the plotting nature of the discussion made him feel secretive and daring.

“I figure them big shots stripped bare to go swimming, same as us,” Billy reasoned.  “I say we snitch their clothes and make ‘em walk back to their wagons in their birthday suits.”  His cohort snickered.  The thought of old Sterling strutting home with the grass spanking his bare behind tickled Adam pink.

“Not the girls,” Johnny protested.  “We can’t make girls traipse back bare.”  Adam nodded solemnly.  He had a feeling none of them could get away with that.

“Aw, girls don’t skinny-dip,” Billy argued, “and they was being bossy with us, too.  They deserve to scamper around in their petticoats.”

“Not Marta,” Johnny insisted.

“Oh, listen to lover boy here,” Billy snorted, appealing to Adam.

“Marta wasn’t being bossy,” Adam said.  “She had grit enough to come right in with us.  We got no cause to pester her.”

“Oh, all right, you prissy prudes,” Billy grumbled.  “Marta can keep her dumb dress, but we swipe everyone else’s duds, right?”

“Right!” Adam and Johnny cheered together.

“Mama won’t like it,” Bobby said, pulling on his britches for a fast getaway.  “I’m gonna tell.”

Billy yanked the little boy’s pants away from him.  “You do, and I’ll blister your bottom beet red,” he promised, his own face turning the color he’d threatened to paint Bobby’s bottom.  “I ain’t gonna have no tattle-tellin’ baby for a brother.”

Bobby looked suitably intimidated.  “Okay,” he agreed hastily.  “I won’t tell.  Gimme my britches, Billy!”

Billy tossed the small trousers back and wagged a warning finger under Bobby’s nose.  “Just you remember what I said, boy.  Either you throw in with us, or wham!”

“I’m in; I’m in,” Bobby babbled.

Since all their tormentors had headed upriver past them earlier, the boys set off that direction.  “Stay low,” General Thomas commanded.  “We gotta see ‘xactly where they all are.”

They came upon the girls first and ducked behind some short bushes a few feet from the river’s edge.  As Billy’d guessed, the girls were splashing merrily in their petticoats, oblivious to danger.  “Stay here,” Billy whispered.  “I’ll scout ahead and find the others.”

He was gone less than five minutes before he reappeared, grinning broadly.  “They’re just around that next bend——naked as jaybirds.”

Little Bobby giggled.  “Shh!” Billy warned in an anxious undertone.  “You’ll give us away.”  Bobby’s head bobbed wildly to let Billy know he’d heard and understood.

“Okay, here’s what I figure,” Billy announced.  “Me and Adam will sneak up and get the boy’s duds, while Johnny grabs up the girls’.  Then we run fast as we can and pitch them in the Zuebner’s tent.  It’s the closest.”

“What ‘bout me?” Bobby demanded.

Billy frowned.  In his opinion, Bobby was the one fly in the ointment.  He was too slow, clumsy-footed and noisy for this kind of work.  “You stay here and keep watch,” Billy ordered, suddenly inspired, “and you sing out if you see our folks coming.”  Since that wasn’t likely to happen, Billy figured the assignment would keep Bobby occupied and out of the way.

The ruse worked.  “Okay, Billy,” Bobby said, his chest swelling with the importance of his responsibility.  “I watch good.”

“And quiet,” Billy urged.  “Not a sound unless you see real danger coming.”  Bobby nodded and sucked his lips in to make sure nothing slipped out.

Billy and Adam snaked their way through scant cover toward the older boys swimming spot.  Then, still keeping low, Billy moved stealthily into the open and made a quick grab for the clothes.  He tossed half back to Adam, then snatched up the others and scampered back behind a bush.  “Didn’t even see me,” he snickered.

“Come on, we gotta go,” Adam whispered urgently.  Billy frowned, feeling it was a shame they couldn’t stay and see the fury on the big shots’ faces when they discovered the theft, but getting away with the prank was decidedly more important.  With a sigh, Billy followed Adam back to where they’d left the others.

They found Johnny, dresses in hand, crouched in the shrubbery beside Billy’s little brother.  “Gimme a couple of them dresses.  You can’t carry that many.  Okay, stay low,” Billy ordered, “and if they see you, run for all you’re worth.  We’ll meet at Johnny’s tent.”  Being the furthest from his own, Billy judged that the safest place to await the return of their naked victims.

Unaware of their loss, the quartet of self-styled “men” dived and splashed with the abandonment of little boys until they heard a chorus of shrieks wafting on the wind.  Stefán immediately headed for shore, concerned for his sisters’ safety.  “Come on,” he called to the others.  “We must help them.  Perhaps, they have come upon a snake.”

Sterling, Matthew and Mark followed, less interested in the welfare of young maidenhood than the opportunity to do battle with slippery Sam.  But as they charged onto the bank, both motives fell victim to a frantic search for their clothes.  It was soon obvious that more than the wind had taken them away.

“I’ll kill ‘em!” Sterling screeched and raced downriver.

“Come back!” Mark yelled.  “There’s girls down there!”  But furious Sterling ran on heedlessly.

“We must kill the snake,” Stefán urged as he headed after Sterling.

Matthew grabbed his arm.  “Don’t let them play you for the fool.  There ain’t been no snake there, except the two-legged kind.  I’d lay odds the girls are worked up about the same thing we are.”

Suddenly, Stefán knew Matthew was right.  He glanced down at his bare flesh and flushed crimson as he realized he’d almost exhibited his masculinity, not only to his sisters and the little girls, but to the teenaged McTavishes, whose buxom beauty he’d ogled, moonfaced, whenever chance or stratagem placed them in his path.  He heard the girls squeal louder than before and divined instantly that Sterling had just streaked past them.  Giving the river a wide berth, Stefán headed for camp, the Wentworth boys stalking irately behind.

With overtly innocent faces the pranksters played marbles near the Payne wagon, glancing up from time to time lest they miss seeing the recipients of their revenge return.  Sterling arrived first, bellowing like a mad bull.  “Mama!” he yelled.  “Look what them brats done!”

Hearing her son’s outraged voice, Camilla spun around.  With a horrified cry, she covered her eyes.  “Sterling, what are you doing?”

“I’m gonna punch me a bunch of funny fellers,” Sterling announced, narrowing his eyes and heading toward the Payne wagon, where he’d just caught sight of the snickering boys.

“You’re not going anywhere like that, son,” Lawrence ordered.  “Get in the wagon this minute and find something to cover yourself.”  For the first time Sterling noticed the eyes of every adult in the wagon party staring at his exposed body, and his hands instinctively flew to his crotch as he rushed for the wagon.

Standing next to her own wagon, Inger covered her laughing lips with her hand; but Clyde and Ben didn’t bother to conceal their amusement.  Clyde guffawed loud enough for the whole camp to hear.  “Is them your Sunday-go-to-meeting togs, boy!” he cackled.

“Clyde, shh!” Nelly chided.  “It isn’t funny.”  But the expression on her face belied her words.

Just then Jewel, petticoat dripping, ran to her mother.  “Mama, they stole my dress!” she whimpered piteously.

“Oh, my poor darling,” Camilla cooed as she rushed the little girl toward their tent.  “Who took your dress, sweetheart?”

“Boys!” Jewel wailed.  “Bad, bad boys!”

“Uh-oh,” Nelly said.  “I got a sick feeling I know whose bad boy she means.”  Looking across the camp, she spotted her son.  “Billy, get over here!” she yelled.  Billy grimaced.  He recognized the suspicious tone in his mother’s voice and, even on the open prairie, felt the walls closing in.

The other sopping wet girls, except the fully clothed and giggling Marta, had disappeared quickly into their tents.  But Roberta McTavish, who had been in charge of the girls’ bathing party, felt responsible to report the mischief to the appropriate mothers.  She walked directly to the Thomas wagon first, where Nelly was already interrogating her freckle-faced boy.  “It was him,” Roberta reported.  “I didn’t see him, but I know sure as the world it was him.  And I’ll wager the others went right along.  He had to have help to carry away that many dresses.”

Ben felt a sudden intuition that Roberta was right.  “Adam!” he called and waved the boy home.  Adam swallowed hard and dragged back toward the wagon.  Ben grasped his son’s shoulder firmly when the boy finally came within arms’ length.  “Did you filch any of the girls’ dresses, Adam?” a stern-faced Ben demanded.

Adam’s face lit up.  “No, sir, not a one,” he answered sincerely.

Billy caught what Adam meant.  “Me, neither, not a one,” he offered.

“You little liar,” Roberta accused.  “You know you did it to get back at me ‘cause I wouldn’t let you dance around in the altogether for everyone to see.”

“Billy!” his mother snapped.  “Did you let these girls see you buck naked?”

“It wasn’t my fault, Ma,” Billy protested.  “We was just skinny-dipping.  They’re the ones came peeking.”

“Well, I never!” Roberta ejaculated.  “At least, the others had sense enough to duck under the water, but not Billy, Mrs. Thomas.  He wanted everyone to get a good look.”

“Don’t you worry, Robbie,” Nelly promised, fixing a hard stare on Billy.  “He’ll think twice before he pulls that stunt again.”  Satisfied, Roberta tossed her single dripping auburn braid over her shoulder and marched back to her own tent to change.

“All right, you rapscallion,” Nelly said, jerking Billy by the elbow.  “You did snitch those dresses, didn’t you?”

“No, Ma.  Honest.”  Billy pasted an offended look on his face.  “Just ask Adam.  You don’t think he’d lie, do you?”  Adam felt his face flushing.  He hadn’t told an outright lie, but he’d sure come close, and he was feeling increasingly uncomfortable.

Before anyone could elicit Adam’s testimony, though,  a ruckus exploded on the far side of camp.  No one could make out the words, at first, but it finally dawned on everyone, almost simultaneously, that the three older boys in their party were all squatting in the tall grass hollering for someone to bring them some clothes.  After seeing Sterling and the girls, it didn’t take Wentworth and Zuebner long to realize their boys were in dire need.

Ludmilla Zuebner, her arms full of assorted clothes, came out of the tent where she’d been helping Katerina change.  “Here is clothes,” she said, “but I don’t know how they got there.”

“Bet Billy does!” Marta sniggered as her father picked out Stefán’s things and those that apparently belonged to the other boys.  Ludmilla put the spare dresses over her arm and prepared to return them to their owners.

“I suppose you don’t know anything about where them boys’ duds went, either, do you, Billy?” Clyde demanded.              Billy winced, knowing he’d have to tell an out-and-out whopper to get by that one.  He didn’t figure he could count on Adam to back him up if it reached that point.  “Looks like they went to the Zuebner’s tent,” he offered.  “Maybe Marta snitched ‘em.”

Accusing an innocent bystander was too much for Adam.  “Aw, Billy,” he muttered under his breath, but Ben heard.

Ben squeezed Adam’s shoulder again, harder this time.   “What do you know, boy?”

Adam squirmed.  “I know it wasn’t Marta,” was all he said.

“But you said you didn’t do it,” Ben probed.  “If you and Billy are telling the truth about that—”

“Hold on a minute, Ben,” Clyde interrupted.  “Maybe we just asked the wrong question.”  Ben turned perplexed eyes on Clyde.  “Did either of you younguns take anybody’s clothes?” the older man asked.  “Not just the girls——anybody’s?”

Adam and Billy both looked sick.  They’d been caught and they knew it.  “There’s your answer, Ben,” Clyde announced, pointing to two guilty faces.  “They filched from the boys and left the girls to someone else——Johnny, I’m guessing.”

“And me, too, Pa,” little Bobby piped up, his expression somewhere between pride in his accomplishment and fear of the price he’d have to pay for being one of the big boys.  “I was the lookout.”

“Land sakes, you wretch!” Nelly fumed, pulling Billy by one ear toward their tent.  “Ain’t it bad enough to lead Adam and Johnny astray without dragging your poor baby brother down the primrose path, too?”

“Sorry, Ben,” Clyde muttered as he followed his wife, pulling off his belt as he went.

“Don’t be,” Ben called.  “I’ve got a feeling Adam was a willing participant.”  He fixed a hard stare on his son.  “I’m right, aren’t I, boy?  Billy didn’t have any trouble talking you into this stunt, did he?”

Adam shook his head.  “No, sir.  I wanted to get back at them boys bad as he did.  They called us babies, Pa!”

“That’s precious little excuse,” Ben said bluntly.

“Guess not, Pa.  I’m sorry.”

“Why were you mad at the girls, Adam?” Inger asked.

Adam shrugged his shoulders.  “I wasn’t, really.  I guess we just got carried away, Mama.”

“You’re gonna have to be punished, you know that, don’t you, boy?” Ben asked soberly.

Adam sighed.  “Yes, sir.”

Ben held out his hand.  “You come along with me then.  It’s time we had a very necessary little talk.”

Adam didn’t enjoy the communication Ben addressed to the seat of his pants, but he absolutely hated its aftermath.  His father dragged him to each wagon in turn and had him apologize to everyone——every boy, every girl, every parent——for his behavior.  Most of the parents took the afternoon’s pranks in stride, and the children grudgingly accepted Adam’s apology.  But Camilla Larrimore delivered a long and loud lecture on the subject of nasty-minded little boys that had Adam’s ears burning by the time she finally wound down.  He went to bed that night wondering why Pa couldn’t have stopped with just the spanking.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

             As the new week began, Nelly determined to keep Billy on a short leash, not even allowing him the pleasure of bemoaning his fate to his friends.  Adam, who had gone to sleep the night before feeling he had the strictest pa in the world, decided maybe his punishment hadn’t been so bad after all.  At least, it was over, and he hadn’t been deprived of the companionship of the other boys.  He and Inger both ambled over to the Payne wagon as the train started up that morning, Inger to coo at little Susan and Adam to deplore with Johnny the severity of parents.

Adam wasn’t sure which of his friends he liked best.  Johnny was nicer, to be sure, and not likely to lead him into trouble.  But Billy added zest to an otherwise dull day.  He was just plain fun to be with, trouble notwithstanding.

Adults and children alike were finding their journey monotonous as it entered its fourth week.  Now that they’d become accustomed to the routine, things went smoother, but the day after day sameness of that routine was wearing in itself.  The novelty of travel had worn off:  take a step, take another——walk, walk, walk——through a land so level nothing but the recorded mileage on Mr. Larrimore’s odometer told them they’d made any progress at all.  No wonder the emigrants craned their eyes for landmarks.  Most days, though, there weren’t any——just more grass.  Take a step, take another——walk, walk, walk.

Monday was no exception.  The evening, though, was pleasant and cool, a refreshing change.  After tucking Adam in for the night, Ben and Inger sought solitude beneath a cottonwood downstream from the camp.  The prairie grass shimmered beneath a full moon that cast a soft glow on the lovers’ faces.  They were too tired to give full expression to their ardor, but cuddling and kissing beneath the cottonwood refreshed them more than if they’d spent the night in a feather bed.  Arm in arm, they walked back to camp through the rustling grass, ready in spirit, if not yet in body, to face another day.

* * * * *

The emigrants had only been on the trail an hour the next morning when their craning eyes were at last rewarded by the sight of the Narrows, the next significant landmark on their journey.  The wagons moved single file through a threadlike opening between the Little Blue River babbling on the left and steep bluffs rising to their right.  For the next mile the trail was rough, then smoothed out again, and the sense of sameness settled back over the travelers.  Take a step, take another——walk, walk, walk.

The sky darkened threateningly in the late afternoon.  Heavy, black clouds hugged the horizon, portending the onslaught of a storm.  Larrimore located the closest acceptable campsite and ordered the wagons to circle in order to form a corral for their livestock.  Some of the other men, feeling they should have pressed on until the rain actually hit, grumbled about the early stop.  Yet as Ben and Clyde, working together, grappled with their tents in an already howling wind, they couldn’t help remembering how much harder that job had been in pouring rain.  They, at least, were grateful to finish the job and get under shelter without soaking their shirts.

The rainfall seemed no heavier than before, but the wind was colder and fiercer.  Adam, shivering in Inger’s arms, heard something outside that sounded like more than mere raindrops splashing to earth.  Plunk, plunk, plunk——like pebbles pattering the ground.  Ben peeked out the tent’s opening.  “Look at that!” he exclaimed.

Adam squiggled out of his mother’s lap and crawled to his father.  “What is it, Pa?”  Ben pulled the boy close and let him look.  “Boy, howdy, Pa!” Adam cried, using the ejaculation he’d picked up from Billy.  “What is it?”

“Hailstones, Adam,” Ben explained, “balls of frozen rain.”

“Look, Mama,” Adam dictated.  “They’re big as marbles, big as a whole fistful of marbles!”

Inger was already peering over Ben’s shoulder at the white balls——some, indeed, as large as Adam’s fist——carpeting the ground.  “Is it dangerous, Ben?” she asked anxiously.

“I imagine you’d have quite a headache if one hit you,” Ben said,  “and I’ll wager everyone’s glad we stopped early now.  No one would want to set up camp in that!”

The travelers spent an uncomfortable evening.  Lightning flashed, casting eerie shadows on the walls of the tents; thunder boomed, drowning out the bawling of the cattle; hailstones clattered, adding their counterpoint to the general cacophony; and rain drizzled, leaking through weak spots in the canvas shelters.  Thinking they’d have no chance for a hot meal, Ben opened cans of sardines for his family to nibble on as they listened to the stormy symphony.  The rain let up about seven o’clock, though, so building a fire from wood they’d placed in the wagon to keep it dry, Inger hurriedly baked a fresh batch of cornbread to give them something warm in their bellies before they tried to sleep.

The temperature dropped, and the weather Wednesday was the most favorable in a week.  The oxen plodded along at a livelier pace, as if they, too, were enjoying the cooler air.  Nelly relented and gave Billy another chance, so the three erstwhile pranksters gamboled about, splashing through every puddle they could find.  Between mud holes, they compared notes on the dire consequences each had suffered for Sunday’s fun.  After listening to the others, Billy was sure he had fared the worst.  “My bottom’s probably still red,” he reported and offered to show them the evidence.  No one took him up on it.

The weather began to heat up again the next day, but it was still pleasant, and the train made good progress, covering fourteen miles, just one shy of Wednesday’s advance.  Friday was a virtual repeat of the previous two days, but near its end excitement surged through every heart as one by one the wagons pulled up a high bluff and the emigrants gazed down on a panorama of the trail ahead.

When the Cartwrights reached the vantage point, Ben set Adam up on his shoulders.  “See there, boy!  That’s the Platte.”

“Another river,” Adam said, wondering why his father sounded so thrilled.

“Not just another river, Adam,” Ben emphasized.  “The river, the one that’ll lead us west.”

Adam brightened at once.  “The one that goes by Chimney Rock?”

Ben threw his head back and exploded with laughter.  “Yes, the one that goes by Chimney Rock, that most important of all landmarks on the Oregon Trail!”

Adam’s probing eyes squinted into the declining sun on the western horizon.  “I don’t see it, Pa.”

Ben set the boy down and gave him an encouraging squeeze.  “It’s still a good ways off, son.  You just keep looking, and I promise you’ll see it.”

“Okay,” Adam replied and scampered off to talk to Billy.

Inger slipped an arm around Ben’s waist.  “I thought the prairie was flat before, but it truly is down there.”

“Yeah,” Ben agreed, “none of the rolls and slopes we’re used to.  Flat as a pancake.”

“And no trees at all,” Inger moaned softly.

Ben pointed to a large island in the middle of the mile-wide river.  “That must be Grand Island.  There’s a few over there.”

Inger turned reproachful eyes on him.  “Hardly enough to mention, Benyamin.  We can’t use those for fuel.”

“No,” Ben admitted, “but I cut extra last night.  We should have enough to get us to Ft.Kearny.  After that, my love, I’m afraid it’s buffalo chips or nothing.”

Inger grimaced at the thought of cooking over dried manure.  “I do not look forward to that,” she said.

Naughtiness glittered in Ben’s eye.  “Just think how much Camilla will enjoy it.”  For once, Inger just smiled instead of rebuking him.  For a moment Ben reminded her of a certain little red-headed mischief in the wagon behind theirs; and boys would be boys, after all, whatever their age.

After everyone had gotten a good view of the PlatteValley, they headed down into it, making camp a mile further along the trail.  Consulting their guidebooks, the men determined that Ft.Kearny was only fourteen miles ahead, and everyone agreed to push on that far before stopping the next night.  Ebenezer Wentworth quickly pointed out that the fort would make an excellent place to spend the Sabbath.

“I suppose we might as well get that settled,” Larrimore sighed.  “Anyone opposed to staying over?”

“Not only am I not opposed,” Payne said.  “I think we might consider taking an extra day there.  Some of our wagons——Wentworth’s, for one——aren’t in very good shape, and the trail ahead is likely to be even rougher.”

“He’s right,” Clyde added.  “I brought my blacksmith tools, so—”

“For that matter, there’s a blacksmith at the fort,” Lawrence interrupted, “so if any of the wagons needs more attention than Clyde can give, there’s that option, too.”

“The women would like a day to get all the clothes clean again, I bet,” Fredrich put in.  “I vote we stay here Monday, too.”

Lawrence looked around.  “The rest of you agree?”

“Sounds good,” Ben replied, and McTavish nodded slowly.  Wentworth, the only other voice unheard from, looked reluctant.  He had a feeling the extra day’s rest would create conflict concerning the next Sabbath, but he couldn’t deny his own wagon needed attention he was ill disposed to give it on God’s holy day.  “I agree,” he said quietly.

* * * * *

 

The Larrimore party ran on schedule Saturday, so they arrived at Ft.Kearny, on the south shore of the PlatteRiver near the western end of Grand Island, in time to set up outside its walls and settle in for their two-day layover.  No one actually visited the fort itself, though, until the next day.

After an uplifting time of worship that morning and a leisurely lunch, Ben and Inger, with Adam tagging along, decided to take a get-acquainted stroll around the compound.  As they wandered past a string of low, earthen huts, Inger shook her head sadly.  “It must be hard to keep house in such a place.”

Looking askance at the unshaven soldiers slouched against the buildings, Ben frowned.  “Doesn’t look like anyone here’s much interested in housekeeping, judging by the way they keep their own appearance.”

Inger nodded.  “Yah, I see what you mean.”  The crazily patched uniforms she could understand; men weren’t skilled in mending, after all.  But to let their hair grow long and limp with grease showed no pride.  “Perhaps, they have been here a long time and feel discouraged about ever getting home,” she offered generously.

“They’re soldiers,” Ben muttered, “representatives of this country.  They should be more careful of the image they project.  I would never—”

“Shh, Ben.  They vill hear you.”

“I don’t much care if they do,” Ben sputtered.  “Even traveling every day, I manage to shave and keep reasonably clean.”

“Yah, I know,” Inger said, stroking his arm soothingly, “but you are a prince among men.”

Ben gave her a sharp look, then smiled.  “I was sounding a little lordly, wasn’t I?”

“A little,” Inger snickered softly.

“Can I look around on my own?” Adam asked, bored with the adult conversation.

“Sure, son,” Ben said readily, “just stay inside the compound and don’t leave without us.”  Adam nodded and raced off in hope of seeing some Indians.

Inger pointed to the cottonwood saplings planted around the parade ground.  “Someone is trying to improve the vay the place looks.”

Ben nodded with satisfaction.  “Yeah, that’s good.”

They wandered on a little further and Inger pointed to a building.  “Oh, Ben, that one looks cleaner.”

Ben laughed.  “Well, it should!  It’d sure spoil my appetite if it were filthy.  That’s the bakery, my love.”

“Yah, I see the sign now,” Inger giggled.  “Oh, Ben, could ve get some fresh bread tomorrow?  I know it is a luxury, but it is hard to bake properly over a campfire.”

Ben squeezed his wife closer to his side.  “It doesn’t say much for me as a provider, if bread is a luxury.”

“Oh, Ben, I meant no complaint,” Inger said hastily.

”I know.  You wouldn’t,” Ben replied.  “Buy all the fresh bread you want, Inger.”

“Fresh meat vould be good, too,” Inger said.  “I vonder if they have a butcher shop here.”

“Haven’t seen one” Ben said.  “I’ll try to do more hunting, Inger.  We do need to be eating more fresh things.  It’s a wonder we haven’t been more afflicted with dysentery than we have.”

“I think Adam had more problems this morning,” Inger admitted, “so I hope you can do more hunting.  But I understand how tired you get vith all the vork of the journey.”

Ben kissed her cheek lightly.  “No more than you.”  His eyes lighted as he saw the building in front of them.  “Say, now here’s an idea,” he suggested.  “How would you like to spend a night in a real bed, Inger?”

Inger shook her head when she, too, saw the boardinghouse.  “No, Ben, ve do not need to vaste our money that vay.”

Ben lifted her chin.  “I remember when we were just outside St. Joe you told me you had a dream of spending one night in a real bed.”

Inger stroked his smooth cheek.  “And my dream came true, Ben.  I only vanted it because ve had never had that together, but I am not a bride any longer.”

Ben pressed her face between his large palms.  “Always my bride,” he whispered.

* * * * *

The first day of July was a busy one for all the emigrants.  It started with a visit to the sutler’s store, where everyone picked up a few items, and the Wentworths were able to replenish the stores they’d lost crossing the VermillionRiver.  Then the men and women divided, the men to visit the smithy and make ready for the rough trail ahead and the women to scrub the laundry that had piled up since their last opportunity to wash.

Adam bundled up his sheaf of homework papers and gave it to his father to mail back to Josiah Edwards, then joined the other children in exploring every corner of the army post.  He’d been disappointed the day before when he didn’t see any of the Indians Uncle John had written about, but early that afternoon he came racing into the blacksmith’s.  “Pa, Pa!  Come see the injuns!” he cried.

Ben laughed and scooped the youngster up.  “That we’ve got to see, eh, boy?”  Leaving Clyde to tighten the rims of his wheels, Ben wandered outside with Adam, and with the help of a soldier at the post who spoke Pawnee, traded red shirts and beads for a pair of moccasins and a buffalo robe for each member of his family.

That evening Inger wriggled her toes happily in the soft leather shoes.  “They are so comfortable, Ben,” she twittered, “and what pretty beadwork!”

Ben grinned.  “I figured you’d like them.”.

“Oh, yah, I do,” Inger assured him.  She lifted a heavy buffalo robe.  “And ve vill sleep varm under these when ve reach the mountains.”

“When’s that?” Adam demanded.

Ben pinched his nose.  “Don’t worry, boy.  Not ‘til we’ve seen the all-important Chimney Rock.”  Adam looked just a little put out.  He thought Pa’d teased him enough about his eagerness to see that particular landmark.

By day’s end all the wagons had been made as trailworthy as possible, and the emigrants were rested and ready to begin the next leg of their journey.  Adam would have been gratified to know that several of the adults were as eager as he to see the unusual rock formations between there and Ft.Laramie.  But those were still far ahead.  As they left Ft.Kearny early Tuesday morning, the travelers fell back into the old routine: take a step, take another——walk, walk, walk.

As they tramped through the flatlands of the PlatteValley, the children amused themselves by counting the wormwood and cottonwood trees on small islands in the river.  Even the smallest among them, with limited numbers at their command, had no trouble keeping the tally.  But the treeless prairie blossomed with wildflowers beyond numbering:  bluebells, yellow buttercups, purple and white lupine.  In the distance pronghorn antelope bounded through the grass, exciting the children and awaking in everyone the desire for fresh meat.

When the men met together that evening, they realized that the monotony of their trek had almost made them overlook the upcoming national holiday.  “We should celebrate the birth of this country,” Zuebner declared.  As a naturalized citizen, he, perhaps more than the native-born sons, appreciated the freedom and prosperity America had given his family.

But he was not alone in his desire to commemorate Independence Day.  The others quickly cheered his suggestion and decided to give the following Thursday over to the finest Fourth of July festival they could furnish in the wilderness.  Half their number would remain with the train to protect and assist the women the next day while the others hunted along the trail to provide meat for the feast.  There would be games in the morning before the shared meal and orations in the afternoon to salute the day.

“Yup, there’s gonna be some fine speechifyin’,” Clyde reported to Nelly in their tent that night.  “Larrimore’s gonna say a few words as captain of our train.  Then, Wentworth.”

“That won’t be a few words,” Nelly chuckled.

“Naw,” Clyde snickered, “probably not, but I ain’t gonna begrudge the man since we’ve already decided he don’t get to preach this Sunday.”

“We’ll be traveling then?” Nelly asked.  “Bet Wentworth didn’t like that.”

Clyde shrugged.  “You could tell he was disappointed, but he handled it better than usual.  Saw it comin’, I think.”  His lips twitched with contained amusement.  “Guess who else is scratching his head for words to say.”

“Land sakes, not you, I hope!”

“Would I be laughing if I got stuck with that chore?” Clyde sniggered.  “No—hee, hee—ole Ben’s the lucky cuss!”

“Well, I expect he’ll do a fine job,” Nelly declared heatedly.

“Don’t doubt it for a minute,” Clyde assured her, “but I ‘spect you coulda knocked Ben boy over with a feather when the others voted to hear from him.  He’ll probably have his head so full of the fine words he’s planning that he won’t shoot worth a hoot tomorrow, and we’ll all go hungry.”

“Just see you do your part, Clyde Thomas,” Nelly ordered.  “And you’d best get to sleep or you won’t be much of a shot come morning, either.”

After breakfast the next morning Cartwright, Thomas, Payne and McTavish headed out to hunt while Larrimore, his hired man Enos Montgomery, Wentworth and Zuebner each yoked oxen for his own wagon and that of one of the hunters.  The older boys spread out to lend a hand whenever needed, but there was little need.  The day’s travel went smoothly, and the wagons circled late that afternoon sixteen miles down the trail, near Plum Creek.

While the men cared for the teams, the smaller children set out on their daily quest for fuel.  Since a bushel of buffalo chips was required to cook a meal, everyone helped except the three youngest in the party.  The boys and Marta thought nothing of picking up the cottony white, feathery light rounds that dotted the prairie.  But Katerina and the McTavish girls gingerly picked up each dried dropping with only two of their ladylike fingertips.  And the mothers weren’t much happier about cooking over such fuel, even if their “prairie coal” did burn clean and hot as charcoal.

That evening Adam came racing back to camp with a bucket of chips banging against his leg with every step.  “Mama!” he yelled.  Inger turned, concerned that something was wrong, but Adam seemed unhurt.  “Mama,” he panted as she bent to hold him.  “Guess what.”

“What?” Inger asked, amused by Adam’s breathless excitement, now that she knew nothing was wrong.

“Berries!” Adam shouted.  “Bushes and bushes of berries!  Can I pick some?  Can I, please?”

Inger’s eyes brightened.  “Fresh berries?  Oh, yah, son, you must get all you can before dark.  I vill gather more buffalo chips and you see to the berries.”

Adam grinned.  He didn’t mind gathering buffalo chips; but berries were sure more fun, especially when he thought of the tasty treats that might come later.

Toward suppertime the hunters returned.  As Ben laid his day’s catch at Inger’s feet, he gave her a rueful smile.  “Clyde and I didn’t make out so well.”

Inger brushed dust from his cheek.  “I am sure you did your best, Ben.  What did you find?”

Ben opened the bag in which he’d carried his game.  “Nothing fancy to work with, I’m afraid.  Just some sage hen and rabbits.”

Inger laughed.  “They vill be fine, Ben.”

Ben sighed, obviously disappointed.  “I got one shot at an antelope, but I missed.  They’re skittish animals, hard to sneak up on.  Jonathan bagged one, though.  McTavish came up empty.”

“Clyde?” Inger asked.

“Same as me.”

“It doesn’t matter, Ben,” Inger soothed.  “Ve are all sharing tomorrow, so you vill eat good.”

Ben sniffed.  “I just wish I felt like I’d done my part.”

“Oh, pish posh,” said Nelly Thomas, who had ambled over in time to hear Ben’s last lament.  “We’ll all be doing our best, and that’s the most anyone can ask.”  She turned to Inger.  “Listen, honey, now that we know what we’ve got to work with, I think we ladies ought to get together and plan out the meal for tomorrow.  No sense duplicatin’ our efforts.”

“Yah, I agree,” Inger said.  “Let us invite the others here after supper to talk.  I vill make extra coffee.”

“Yeah, we’ll have us one of them meetings the men are always traipsin’ off to,” Nelly chuckled.

Ben grinned.  “Well, if there’s gonna be a hen party at my wagon, I am definitely traipsing off somewhere else——anywhere else!”  Nelly flapped a deprecating hand at him and headed back to her own wagon to start supper.

* * * * *

Inger was dicing preserved potatoes when Camilla Larrimore came over.  “That seems to be coming nicely,” Camilla commented.

Inger looked up and smiled at Camilla’s air of authority.  As the captain’s wife, Mrs. Larrimore seemed to think she was in charge of the meal, even though she herself wasn’t doing any actual cooking.  No one begrudged her apparent laziness, however; after all, Camilla wasn’t much of a cook to begin with; and she had been more than generous in her contributions to the meal, a brandy-soaked fruitcake brought from home and a pound cake purchased at the Ft.Kearny bakery.  Also, she had given Martha Wentworth, who was providing all the bread for the meal, the use of her camp stove.

Inger thought they had divided the work equitably, each woman concentrating on one dish for the noontime feast.  She was making a sage hen and rabbit pie from the meats Ben and Clyde had provided, while                            Nelly baked blackberry pies from the fruit their two boys had picked yesterday.  Rachel Payne was roasting the best cuts of the antelope while Ludmilla Zuebner made stew from the remainder and Maggie McTavish baked dried apple pies and cooked a huge skillet of greens her daughters had picked along the trail the day before.  With so much fresh food this would be the best meal any of them had eaten since leaving home.  And four kinds of dessert to top it off!

“Yah,” Inger said to Camilla.  “Everything is coming along fine.”

“Well, I hope you can spare the time to watch the games we’ve planned,” Camilla said.  “The races begin soon, and there’ll be prizes to the top three winners in each group——for the children, that is.”

“I know,” Inger replied.  “It vas good of you to donate those.”

“Oh, it isn’t much,” Camilla said, her fingers fluttering through the air.  “Just a little candy we brought for the children.  Sterling eats too much as it is.  It’ll do him good to share a bit with the others.”  She smiled so fondly at the mention of her boy, though, that Inger knew Camilla didn’t feel too critical of his overindulgence.  The captain’s wife waved good-bye and walked toward the Thomas wagon, the next stop on her inspection tour.

When she was alone again, Nelly strolled over to Inger.  “Well, I guess we passed muster,” she giggled.  Inger wagged a scolding finger at Nelly, but she was smiling as she did.  “I’m headed over to watch the boys race,” Nelly said.  “You got time to join me?”

“I vill make time,” Inger laughed.  “Adam vould be disappointed if I missed his big race, and I have only to make the gravy and crust before my pie is ready to bake.”

“Come on, then, honey,” Nelly said, taking Inger’s arm, “before all the best seats is taken.”  Inger laughed and together the two friends walked to the strip of prairie designated as the race track.

The four younger boys, plus Marta, were lined up, ready to begin.  There’d been some talk of having a separate race for the girls; but since Marta was the only one interested in running, she’d been grouped in with the boys, much to Billy’s disgust.

Lawrence Larrimore fired a pistol and the youngsters took off.  It became obvious almost from the start that the real race was between Billy and Adam with Marta and Johnny vying for third place and little Bobby lagging hopelessly behind.  Adam took the lead at first, then was overtaken by Billy.  He pumped harder and almost caught the longer-legged boy, but Billy crossed the finish line seconds before him with Marta panting across third.

Nelly gave her boy a tight squeeze and rumpled his hair, which was already standing on end like the flames of a campfire.  “Well, I’m glad to know you’re good for something!”  Billy grinned.  No matter how she sounded, he could tell his mother was proud.

Inger and Ben congratulated Adam as heartily as if he’d won, and truthfully, he felt like a winner when Mrs. Larrimore presented him with the bag of jellybeans he’d earned for second place.  Even the losers of the race shared in the sweet rewards of victory, however, for Marta willingly split her prize with her friend Johnny and Nelly made Billy share with his baby brother.

Inger and Nelly headed back to finish cooking, but the men stayed to cheer the older boys as they lined up to race next.  Since he was oldest and tallest, Matthew Wentworth assumed he would have an easy time outdistancing the others, but when the pistol cracked, he discovered a formidable opponent in sturdy Stefán Zuebner.  Stefán was only a year younger and used to harder work than the minister’s boy, so his well-muscled legs gained steadily on Matthew’s early lead.  With the goal in sight, Matthew’s strength gave out and his pace slackened just enough for Stefán’s last minute burst of speed to push him ahead.  Matthew’s pride was spared an even worse bruising, though, when he barely beat out his younger brother Mark.  Far to the rear, chunky Sterling chugged along and finally stumbled across the finish line to collapse in his mother’s arms.

With nothing at stake but pride, the men lined up next, their sons and daughters standing on the sidelines to urge them on.  The wives were busy with the meal, but they watched from a distance, amused to see their men cavort like little boys.  His breast swelling with manly pretension, Stefán fired the pistol to begin the race; and all eight men took off.  They stayed close to one another in the beginning, but age and athleticism soon separated them.  Twenty-two-year-old Enos Montgomery easily came in first, but the race for second was close with Jonathan just edging out Ben.  Lawrence came in fourth, followed by Clyde and the surprisingly swift-footed, forty-year-old Robert McTavish.  The stolid German Zuebner trotted across the finish line next, and to no one’s surprise, the Reverend Wentworth panted in last.  Even he received hearty slaps of congratulations from the others, though; for he had finished the race, a worthy accomplishment for a man whose most arduous labor before beginning this journey had been turning the pages of his Bible.

Next came the three-legged race.  Billy quickly grabbed Adam for his partner, leaving Johnny to tie his leg to Marta’s.  The Wentworth brothers teamed up, probably at the insistence of their parents, leaving Stefán to race with Sterling, sure to be excess baggage in any team effort.  The odds were in favor of the Wentworth brothers; and as the race began, they pulled easily ahead.

But speed wasn’t everything in this competition, as Matthew and Mark learned when they stretched for the finish line only to tangle up and fall flat on their faces.  With a triumphant shout Billy and Adam lurched past them to win the race.  The older boys managed to get upright and stumble in second, though, shortly before Johnny and Marta arrived.  Stefán finally managed to drag Sterling across in dead last, but he wasn’t upset.  He’d won the big prize in the previous race, and that was glory enough for the big-hearted boy.

Inger waved at Adam and blew him a kiss to acknowledge his victory, then made a final check on the meat pie before watching the men line up.  Satisfied it wouldn’t overcook before she returned, she moved closer for a better view of the race.  With a smile Nelly walked up next to her to cheer for the team of Cartwright and Thomas.

Jonathan and Lawrence were paired together, as well as Robert and Fredrich while Enos generously volunteered to run with the minister.  At the crack of the pistol, the runners were off, providing a much more entertaining race than the youngsters, who, except for Matthew and Mark, had managed to stay on their feet.  Not so, the men.  With one exception, they all fell down, laughing so hard they could scarcely get up again.  Jonathan and Lawrence recovered first and crossed the finish line, closely followed by Enos and Ebenezer, the only ones to avoid taking a roll in the dust.  Ben and Clyde tromped in third and last came the pair of older emigrants, Robert and Fredrich.

Merry-hearted, but weary in body, each man returned to his own wagon to receive either the congratulations or the teasing of his wife.  There wasn’t much time for either, though; the food was almost ready, and the men needed to move camp chairs, crates and kegs——anything that could be used for seating——to the central area where the meal would be served.

When everyone was thoroughly stuffed, Lawrence stood to his feet.  “Before saying a few words in honor of the occasion,” he began, “I think we men need to give three cheers to the ladies for serving up the finest food this side of the Missouri.”

“Or the Mississippi, for that matter,” Clyde chimed in.

“Here, here!” Jonathan shouted in agreement.

Lawrence grinned.  “I stand corrected and rightly so.  I don’t know how you ladies managed it, but I’ve seen St. Louis restaurants that didn’t serve as hearty or tasty a meal as we’ve enjoyed here in the wilderness today.  Well, then, gentlemen, three cheers for the finest food this side of the Mississippi——and, for all I know, east of it!”

“Hip!  Hip!  Hooray!” the men, joined by the even louder children, yelled three times in chorus while the ladies blushed.

Lawrence raised his hands to silence the crowd.  “Now, as I promised, I will be brief.  This is a day which causes us to reflect on what this country means to us.  It might be said by some that in leaving the settled states, we show a dissatisfaction with this country of ours.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It is because we have enjoyed the blessings of a free land that we have the courage to leave it.  Yet, we haven’t really left America behind; we’ve each brought her with us.  We and others like us in this vast caravan of emigrants have an obligation to share with our new land the real spirit of America.  Having journeyed with you all for just over a month now, I can say with confidence that that responsibility is in good hands, and at our journey’s end I know I shall be proud to tell any I meet that I was privileged to be your captain.  I thank you again for that honor.”

“Here, here!” Jonathan cheered again as Lawrence sat down to thunderous applause.

Everyone quieted again as Ebenezer Wentworth stood to his feet.  “Surely, no one expects me to be brief,” he said.  As everyone laughed, the minister smiled.  “Today, however, I shall surprise you.  Now, you all know my feeling about strict observance of the Sabbath.”  An uneasy hush fell over the group.  “However,” Wentworth continued, “if there is ever a proper reason to set that aside temporarily, it must surely be to celebrate the birth of the nation that has done more than any other to establish and preserve each man’s right to worship God according to the dictates of his conscience.”

The minister spoke, though not to his usual length, about the settling of America by those seeking religious freedom, the first amendment’s guarantee of the right to worship and the duty of all true Americans to avail themselves of it.  “In conclusion, then,” he finished, “let it never be said of any in this party that we ever neglected or took for granted the precious gift of religious liberty.  Let us, rather, cherish and preserve it for our posterity in the same manner in which our forebears sustained it for us.”  The applause that greeted his final words was long and loud.

Ben Cartwright rose nervously to his feet.  “I’m not sure why I was asked to speak today,  and after hearing the wise and well-spoken words of the previous speakers, I hesitate to address you at all.  If I have anything to contribute to a discussion of our priceless liberties as Americans, however, perhaps it is by way of comparison.  During my years at sea, it was my privilege to visit many foreign countries——more, I dare say than any man here.  I had opportunity to observe the strengths and weaknesses of each, and I assure you that it was more than mere homesickness that made my heart leap at the sight of my home port when each voyage ended.”

Ben related a series of anecdotes that illustrated the variety of societies he had explored.  “I could give you many more examples,” he closed, “but I trust these are sufficient to demonstrate how blessed we are to live in the United States of America.  In all my travels I have found no government more equitable, no laws more just, no people more privileged.  Like the speakers before me, I am positive each man, woman and child here appreciates our rich heritage as Americans and is committed to passing it intact to those who will come after us.”  Ben sat down, his face flushing darker and darker crimson as the applause of his peers continued.

Each of the speakers was congratulated by those seated nearest him and the conversation turned to lighter topics while the last crumbs of pie and cake were packed into already bursting stomachs.  “I think you have had enough,” Inger whispered as she patted Ben’s waistline.

Ben just gave her an impish grin and returned the pat.  “Best follow your own advice, Mrs. Cartwright,” he suggested with a wicked wink.  “I do believe your belly’s sticking out further than mine.”  Those seated near enough to hear laughed heartily at the rosy hue that crept from Inger’s chin to her forehead.

The Cartwright’s good-natured repartee was representative of the high spirits that suffused the entire camp.  The monotony of the journey was forgotten in the diversion of the day, and the boost the celebration gave the emigrants’ morale was long-lasting.  It could not have come at a better time, for the rest of the week was a trial to their patience as rain deluged down on them three days in succession.  Though able to trudge through it, the oxen moved slowly over the soggy ground.

Sunday was the best day of the three, but the train still traversed only eleven miles.  Wentworth muttered to his wife that they were only reaping the consequences of breaking the Sabbath, but Martha urged him to keep his peace.  “Democracy is our creed, even here on the prairie, Ebenezer,” she pointed out, “and since we don’t dare travel alone, we’ll have to follow the decisions of the majority.”  Ebenezer nodded solemnly, but in his heart he feared these people he had come to genuinely care for might yet reap a dreadful harvest for their desecration of God’s law.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

             The sun showed its face again Monday; and as the ground dried, the trail improved steadily.  Adam felt glad to get out of the wagon and romp around again, and his sentiments were shared by everyone else who had taken shelter in the bumpy wagons during the heavy rains.  As tired as their feet got walking eight hours a day, not a single emigrant preferred the bone-bruising jolts of riding.

Wild fruit still flourished along the trail, so Adam and his friends each carried a pail as they ranged out from the line of wagons, filling it, along with their stomachs, brimful of ripe berries.  They had just started back with their bountiful harvest when Johnny pointed off to their left.  “What’s that?”

Adam and Billy squinted in the bright sunlight.  In the distance they saw a number of small, furry animals peeking out of mounds of earth.  The little animals yipped at one another, scurried to other openings nearby and disappeared into them.  “Let’s go see,” Billy said, starting toward them.

“Better not,” Adam warned.  “We’re getting pretty far from the wagons, as is.”

“Oh, you mama’s boys!” Billy taunted.  “Scared to get too far from her apron strings, huh?”

“We ain’t, neither,” Johnny declared, “but I ain’t fixin’ to earn myself another lickin’ this soon.”

“Me, neither,” Adam added.  “I bet Pa’ll let me come back later, but I got to get these berries to Mama first.”

“Oh, pooh,” Billy snorted.  “I guess a couple of little saints like you won’t mind totin’ my berries back, too, then.”  Before either Adam or Johnny could refuse, Billy plunked his pail on the ground and trotted off to investigate the unknown.

“Come on, Adam,” Johnny said.  “Let’s get back ‘fore we get in trouble.”

Adam frowned.  “We can’t leave him alone; Pa says no one should be out on the prairie by himself.”

“I ain’t takin’ a lickin’ for Billy,” Johnny insisted.

“Go on back, then,” Adam snapped.  “I’ll go after him.”

Johnny shifted uncomfortably, unable to decide whether to risk his friends’ disapproval or his parents’.  Opting for the former, he reached for Adam’s pail of berries.  “I’ll carry these back for you,” he offered.  “Billy’ll have to tote his own.”

“Fair enough,” Adam agreed.  “Tell Pa why I stayed, okay?”

“Sure,” Johnny promised.  The Payne boy ran for home as fast as he could while juggling two pails of berries.  Panting up to Inger, he held out Adam’s.  “I brung these in for Adam,” he explained breathlessly.

Inger took the pail and looked back along the trail.  She couldn’t see her son.  “Where is Adam, Johnny?” she asked urgently.

Johnny jerked his head back over his shoulder.  “We saw these strange animals, and Billy took off for a closer look.  Adam went after him.”

“Ben!” Inger called.

“I heard,” Ben said, hurrying back.  He took Johnny by both shoulders.  “Can you show me where you left them, son?”

“I—I gotta get home,” Johnny stammered.  “Mama’ll worry.”

Inger reached for his pail.  “It’s all right, Johnny.  I vill take these to your mother and tell her you are vith Ben.”  She turned anxious eyes to her husband.  “Oh, Ben, I hope they have come to no harm.  Adam knows better than to stray out of sight like this.”

“Sounds like I may need to have another necessary little talk with that boy,” Ben muttered.

“It weren’t Adam’s fault,” Johnny explained hurriedly as he trotted to keep up with Mr. Cartwright’s pace.  “He wanted to come back, but when Billy took off, Adam said it wasn’t right to leave him.  Said you told him no one should be alone out there.”

The anger drained out of Ben’s face.  If Adam’s actions were questionable, his boy had acted from a right motive, at least.  Coming up to Clyde, Ben slapped his friend’s shoulder.  “Our boys may be into some trouble.  Want to come back with me and check things out?”

“Reckon I’d better,” Clyde sputtered.  “If trouble’s afoot, I can guess who started it trottin’!”

Johnny led them back to where he’d left the other boys and pointed.  “There they are!”

Ben scanned the area Johnny was indicating and on the horizon saw Adam and Billy chasing prairie dogs.  He breathed easier.  At least, the “strange animal” was not a dangerous one.  “Thanks, Johnny,” he said, patting the seven-year-old’s head.  “You can go back to your folks now.”  Johnny didn’t need to be told a second time.  He took off running.

Each hollering his son’s name, Ben and Clyde tromped through the grass.  “Uh-oh,” Billy said.

“I tried to tell you,” Adam scolded.  Billy just shrugged and headed back to meet his fate.  Adam stood still, preferring to let his father come after him than to go seeking trouble.

When Ben reached his son, he gave him a stern frown.

“I’m sorry, Pa,” Adam said, “but I couldn’t leave him; I just couldn’t.”

Ben lifted the boy up.  “I know; Johnny told me.  I’m proud you wouldn’t desert a friend, Adam, but it looked to me like you were doing as much playing as he was.”

Adam gave his father a sheepish look.  “I guess I was, Pa, but it didn’t start out that way.”

Ben laughed.  “Got pulled in, did you?”

Adam grinned, relaxing at his father’s kindly expression.  “Yes, sir.  Ain’t they funny little critters, Pa?”

“Aren’t,” Ben corrected.  “They’re prairie dogs, Adam.  You’re in the middle of one of their towns.”

Adam giggled.  “They bark kinda like dogs, Pa, but they sure won’t let you pet ‘em.”

Ben didn’t respond, for another animal he’d never seen before suddenly caught his eye.  “Clyde!” he yelled, excited.  “Look over there!”

Far to the south shaggy creatures with huge, horned heads grazed.  Seeing them, Clyde echoed Ben’s excitement.  “Buffalo!  That’s what they’s got to be, Ben, sure as the world.”

“Don’t see how they can be anything else,” Ben agreed.  “Oh, I’ve been longing for a look at one of those.”

“I been longing for more than a look,” Clyde cackled.  “I hear buffalo meat’s the best there is.”

“Are they really buffalo, Pa?” Adam asked, bouncing on his father’s arm.

“Whoopee!  We found buffalo,” Billy yelled, jumping up and down.  The fact that he hadn’t seen the bison until Mr. Cartwright pointed them out did nothing to diminish Billy’s opinion of himself as a tracker of big game.  “We’re the best hunters there is!”

“You’re the best scoundrel there is, you mean,” Clyde snapped.  “I ain’t forgot your orneriness yet, boy.”

Whatever dire consequences Clyde had intended to follow Billy’s misbehavior, however, were forgotten in discussing the possibility of a buffalo hunt with Ben.  Both men were eager to try their shooting skills against so formidable a target.  The opportunity would have to wait until the next day, though, for it was almost time to circle the wagons when they returned to the train.

When they shared the news with the other men that night, everyone wanted a chance at a buffalo, so in the end, Clyde lost his.  Horses would be needed for the hunt, and only Jonathan Payne had brought any with him.  That made him an obvious choice for the party; and since Ben had originally sighted the game, Jonathan offered him the use of his second horse.  Clyde was disappointed, but Ben’s promise to share whatever meat he obtained eased the older man’s mind.  At least, he’d get to taste buffalo, though he’d still rather have shot it himself.

* * * * *

Ben shifted awkwardly in the saddle.  “Been quite a while since I sat a horse,” he apologized to Jonathan, whose easy gait marked him as a true horseman.

“It’ll come back to you,” Jonathan assured him.

Ben laughed.  “I wasn’t that good to begin with.  I’d never ridden at all until I stayed on my brother’s farm in Ohio.  I’m afraid, even then, I got more practice driving a team than riding.”

“You’ll do fine,” Jonathan said encouragingly.

He was right.  The further Ben rode, the more at one with the animal he felt.  Of course, that might have more to do with the quality of the horse than with the rider’s skill, Ben realized.  “Fine animal,” he commented.

“She’s a good one,” Jonathan said proudly.  “I hope it’s not a mistake trying to bring her west, but I couldn’t bear leaving her behind.  I’m planning to breed horses in California, you know, and I’d like to save her blood line.”

“I didn’t know,” Ben replied.  “You think there’s much market out there?”

“There’s more than enough wild mustangs, from what I hear,” Jonathan said, “but I intend to focus on quality stock——maybe do some crossbreeding and produce an even hardier mount.”

“It’s a fine dream,” Ben, no stranger to dreams himself, said.  “I wish you every success.”

“You see me a year after we’ve settled, and I’ll pick you out the best of my string,” Jonathan promised.  “For a fair price, too.”

“I might do that,” Ben said.  “I expect I’ll need a mount out there; and if this one’s an example of what you’ll raise, I’d treasure having one of my own.”

They rode side by side in companionable silence for awhile.  Then, Ben raised in his stirrups and pointed ahead.  “There they are.”

“What a fantastic sight!” Jonathan cried.

“Small herd, though,” Ben commented.  “I expected them to stretch to both horizons from what I’d heard.”

“I was talking to McTavish last night,” Jonathan related.  “He said he’d been told they stay in smaller groups like this ‘til later in the summer.  It’s more like what you figured then, I guess.”

“Yeah, well, this size may be more than we can handle,” Ben said.  “You know how to go about this?”

“Just what I’ve heard,” Jonathan admitted.  “We need to get downwind of them.  When we’re about three hundred yards behind, we’ll urge the horses into a run and come in on their right side.  Try to put the bullet behind the shoulder.  Skull’s too thick to penetrate.”

Ben took a deep breath.  He’d never hunted on the run before, never shot anything larger than a squirrel, for that matter.  He welcomed the chance to test his mettle against a real challenge, though.  “You lead out,” he said, giving deference to Jonathan as the superior hunter.

Jonathan nodded and, with Ben close behind, headed downwind of the herd of about twenty bison.  They eased closer; but before they came within three hundred feet, a sudden shift of wind carried their scent toward the herd.  The buffalo raised their huge heads and began to run, surprisingly swift for such cumbersome-looking beasts.  Jonathan flicked the reins of his horse, and the animal burst forward in response.

Ben copied the motion, hoping his horse had been trained to respond the same way.  She had and soon he came up almost even with Jonathan.  He fell back a little, so the other man wouldn’t be in his line of fire.  His heart thumping wildly, Ben came closer and closer to the racing buffalo.  Suddenly he was directly alongside one and, raising his rifle, aimed behind the right shoulder, his weapon cracking almost simultaneously with Jonathan’s.  The mare galloped on, not having been given any other instruction, so Ben wasn’t sure his aim had been true.  He turned in the saddle and, seeing one of the shaggy beasts stumble to the ground, gave an exultant shout.

“Great shot, Ben!” Jonathan called.

Ben’s brow wrinkled.  He’d expected his animal to fall further back.  He rode over to the carcass and saw that the bullet had pierced precisely behind the right shoulder.  Ben looked up as Jonathan reined in beside him.  “I think it must have been your shot that brought him down,” Ben said.  Jonathan had proven himself a fine marksman when he brought in the antelope for the feast on the Fourth, so Ben considered it far more likely that he, and not Ben, had been accurate in placing the bullet this time.

Jonathan shrugged.  “Can’t be sure.  Everything happened so fast.  We fired about the same time.”

“Not at the same cow,” Ben pointed out dryly.

Jonathan laughed.  “No, one of us missed his clean.  But what matters is that one of us shot true.  We planned to split the meat, anyway.”

Chuckling, Ben nodded.  “Yeah, the rest is just pride, I guess.  We’d best get to butchering, and packing all these horses can carry.”

They set to work skinning and carving up the animal.  Neither of them wanted to be wasteful like other hunters they’d heard about, but there was more meat than the two horses could manage.  They’d have to leave some behind.  Taking the best cuts——the tongue, hump and flanks—they divided them fairly.  Ben insisted the hide should be Jonathan’s, though, since it was likely his shot that brought the animal down.  “Besides,” Ben added, “I traded for buffalo robes at Ft. Kearny.  You have more use for it than I do.”  On that basis, Jonathan accepted the hide; and the two men headed back to rejoin the train, each leading a heavily-laden horse.

Ben and Jonathan finally caught up with the other emigrants just after they’d stopped for the noon break.  They were met with a chorus of cheers as soon as they came within sight and all the youngsters raced out to see who could reach them first.  Naturally, fleet-footed Stefán Zuebner was the winner.  “You have found meat!” Stefán cried.  “Congratulations to you, sirs!”

“Thanks, Stefán,” Ben said, giving the boy a comradely punch in the arm.  Stefán smiled broadly at what he considered acceptance as a man.  “You tell your folks we’ll send over some steaks to fry up for lunch.”  Stefán’s smile widened and he turned to race back to camp.

The other children crowded around.  “Can we have some, too?” Sterling begged.  No one else was ill-mannered enough to ask, but they were all ravenously curious about the taste of buffalo.

Ben laughed.  “You youngsters can all have a taste.  Your folks, too.”

“You won’t have much left at that rate,” Jonathan chuckled.

Ben shrugged.  “I’d hate to be left out, so how can I do it to others?”

“Some could,” Jonathan said seriously, then grinned.  “I planned to share, too; and I’m willing to loan the horses to anyone else who cares to try their luck.”

“With each taking their turn, we should have fresh meat in camp pretty steadily for the next little while,” Ben said.

The children crowded around the Cartwright campfire as Inger laid thin buffalo steaks in the cast-iron skillet.  The little noses wrinkled appreciatively as the steak sizzled, giving off an aroma that whetted their appetites.  There was more than enough meat to go around, of course, but the thicker cuts would have to be saved for later when there was more time to cook.  There weren’t so many thin pieces that could be fried quickly for lunch.

Once the pan was full, Inger began handing out the extra meat according to the size of each family represented.  “It won’t make a full meal,” she said, “but everyone vill, at least, get a taste.”  The youngsters disappeared in all directions.

“Thank you, ma’am,” Robbie McTavish said.  “I’m sure the others feel grateful, too.  They shouldn’t have run off like that without saying so, though.”

“They are just excited,” Inger replied generously, “but you are a most mannerly young lady, and that is good to see.”

Roberta blushed, pleased at the compliment to her maturity.  “Thanks, again,” she murmured and ran toward the wagon where her mother had already started frying the meat rushed over by her sister Joan.

Adam sniffed the air appreciatively.  “They’re nearly done, aren’t they?”

“Yes, almost, my impatient little one,” Inger laughed.  “How like your father you are in that.”

“Not quite,” Ben said with an upraised eyebrow.  “His father’s been drooling at the thought of lunch for some time now.  I’m willing to eat it half raw.”

“Help yourself, then,” Inger giggled.  “I vill not be party to raw meat.  You, Adam?”

“I’ll wait,” the youngster said, grimacing at the thought of bloody food.

“A wise decision,” his mother declared, pulling him close.  Soon the meat was cooked to her satisfaction, and Adam bit into his first buffalo steak and declared it good.

They’d shared so much that none of the Cartwrights were quite full with just meat, so Inger padded out the meal with fried corncakes.  “We’ll do better tonight,” she promised.  Adam didn’t care.  He thought buffalo steak and corncakes were about as good as it came and told Jamie so in the journal entry he recorded right after lunch.

The buffalo hump took quite a while to boil, so Inger had more time than usual to relax.  Nelly had insisted that since Inger was providing the meat and bread, she would see to everything else.  “I’ll fry up some potatoes and fix a skillet of greens.  I saw some dock growing down by the river awhile ago and sent Billy to pick us a bunch.  We’ve got plenty of berries left to make a big cobbler, too.”

“But, Nelly,” Inger protested, “you are doing more than your share.”

“And what did you do this afternoon, Inger Cartwright, giving away all that meat?” Nelly demanded.

“The Paynes are doing as much tonight,” Inger said.  “It is not so much, really, when you think how much the men brought back.”

“It’s plenty,” Nelly insisted, “so I’ll hear no more talk of who’s outdoing the other.”

Inger laughed.  “All right.  I vill just take a stroll vith my husband, then, and let you fix what you like.”

Nelly wagged a finger under Inger’s nose.  “Oh, you two!  Always sparking.”

“Vell, Ben says I am still a bride,” Inger giggled.  “Why should I not act like one?”  Why not, indeed, Nelly thought with satisfaction as she saw the young couple wander off alone.

The Cartwrights and Thomases sat down that evening to succulent buffalo hump, crispy potatoes and savory greens, seasoned with bacon drippings.  “Finest meat I ever did eat,” Clyde declared.

“Hard to believe, but it’s better than beef,” Ben agreed, “and the vegetables surely complement the meat, Nelly.”

“Just plain taters and greens,” Nelly objected, “nothing to brag over so.”

“Yeah, but wait ‘til you taste the dessert,” Billy announced.  “My ma makes the best berry cobbler in these here United States.”

Nelly wiggled her fingers into his ribs.  “Land sakes, no need to go on so, boy,” she said.

“It’s true, Mama!” Bobby insisted.

Nelly leaned the other direction to kiss his golden curls.  “Oh, all right.  I ain’t gonna fight the both of you.”

“The three of us,” Clyde sniggered.

“Four,” Ben chuckled.  “I tasted that famous cobbler last week, remember.

Nelly was blushing furiously.  “If anyone says, ‘Make it five,’ so help me I won’t dish up any of it.”  Duly threatened, everyone kept quiet and turned their attention back to their plates.

“If I come back with a buffalo tomorrow, you folks are invited to our wagon for another feed,” Clyde announced.

“Oh, you are hunting tomorrow, Clyde?” Inger asked.

“Yup.  Jonathan said it was only right I get second crack at it since I was with Ben when we made the first sighting,” Clyde responded as he forked up another bite of greens.  “Said I could take whoever I wanted with me.  Who you reckon would make a good partner, Ben?”

“Anyone but Wentworth,” Ben said dryly.

“Oh, Ben, for shame!” Inger scolded.

Ben grinned.  He’d deliberately said what he did to get Inger’s dander up, and she shook her head at his naughtiness when she realized the trick he’d pulled.  Turning back to Clyde, Ben pondered the question.  “How about McTavish?” he suggested.  “Neither Larrimore or Zuebner was very anxious to hunt last week, so I get the feeling they aren’t too confident of their marksmanship.  Wentworth, no disrespect intended, would be the worst choice, of course.  I’m not sure the man’s ever fired a rifle at all.”

“Sounds about right,” Clyde agreed.  “They ought to learn, though.  They can’t always depend on someone else to do their shootin’.”

“True enough,” Ben said.  “That’s why I’m making the effort.”

“And doin’ right well,” Clyde cackled.  “Fork me another piece of that hump, please, Inger gal.”

“Not until you say a kind vord about each of our neighbors you have slighted,” Inger replied, smiling provokingly.

“Inger!” Ben chided.  “Clyde is our guest.”

“Yah, but I mean what I say, Benyamin, and there vill no more for you, either, until I hear good things said of Mr. Larrimore and Mr. Zuebner and the Reverend Ventvorth.”  Inger folded her arms with determination.

Clyde just grinned.  “I got no problem at all with that, Inger.  Ain’t a man in this here train ain’t got his good points.  I still think Ben here would’ve made a better captain, but Larrimore’s done right well, especially in keepin’ the peace ‘twixt the contrary ones.  And what any of us would have done in the beginning without Zuebner to help us with our teams, I got no idea.”

Inger smiled, benevolently now.  “And Reverend Ventvorth?”

“I’ll take that one,” Ben said, “so as to earn my dessert.  Wentworth and I have some differences in how we see things, but he truly cares about people.  I believe he and his good wife would be the first ones to help in time of need.  His sermons sometimes give me plenty to think about, and other times they’re a genuine lift at the end of a long week.”

“Yup, we got us just about the finest set of folks to travel with you’ll find anywhere along the trail,” Clyde summed up.

Nelly gave her husband a squeeze.  “Inger, honey, pass this man some meat.  I do believe he’s earned it.”

Inger laughed.  “Yah, I agree, and Ben may have cobbler.”

“How ‘bout me?” Adam asked.  “Do I have to make a speech to get dessert?”

Everyone laughed.  “No, son,” Inger assured him.  “Sometimes, silence is golden.  Yours has earned you all the cobbler you can eat.”

* * * * *

By mid-morning Wednesday the pair of hunters had been long gone, but young Billy was still declaring to anyone who’d listen that his pa would soon return dragging the biggest buffalo on the whole, wind-blasted prairie for their lunch.

“Don’t say ‘blasted,’” Johnny lectured.  “It ain’t a nice word.”

“I said ‘wind-blasted,’” Billy argued.  “Ain’t nothing wrong with that.  ‘Sides, you’re missing the point.  My pa’s gonna tote back the biggest buffalo ever——maybe two.”

“Couldn’t carry two,” Adam snickered.  “You saw how the horses was weighed down with one.”

Billy shrugged.  “Yeah, I guess Pa’ll have to stop with one, but he could do more, I bet.  Good as whoever shot that one yesterday.”  Billy gave Adam a mischievous wink.

“Don’t start that again,” Adam mumbled.  He and Johnny had spent the better part of the morning quarreling about whose father had actually shot the game the day before.  Neither of the fathers claimed the credit, but each of their sons was determined his own sire should have it.

Billy cackled.  He thought reigniting the fireworks would be fun, but something else abruptly caught his fly-away attention.  “Hey, why we stopping?  It ain’t time to noon yet.”  Curiosity strapping wings to their feet, the boys raced to catch up with the wagons.

“Why we stopping, Pa?” Adam asked when he reached his father.

“There’s another party, just off the trail there, sitting idle in the middle of the morning,” Ben explained.  “Mr. Larrimore walked over to see if they’re just taking a day off or if they’re in need of some kind of help.”

“Oh,” Adam said and ambled back to his friends.  Nothing exciting about seeing another train.  They’d passed and been passed so many times the sight of an unfamiliar wagon wasn’t interesting anymore.

Lawrence Larrimore came running back to camp and whispered something to Camilla.  Her hands flew to her cheeks and she quickly called her children.  Lawrence climbed into his wagon and disappeared.

“Something looks amiss,” Ben said to Inger.  “I’m gonna ask.”

“Yes, do,” his wife urged.  It could be nothing, of course.  It didn’t take much to fluster Camilla Larrimore, but the captain’s wife looked more than just flustered as she gathered her chicks to her side.

“Oh, Mr. Cartwright, isn’t it dreadful?” she declared as Ben approached.

“Isn’t what dreadful, Mrs. Larrimore?” Ben asked.

“Dear me, you don’t know, do you?” Camilla fluttered.

Just then Lawrence, carrying two small glass bottles, jumped down from the back of his wagon.  Ben stepped purposefully toward him.  “What’s the problem, Lawrence?” he demanded, his voice excessively firm from his frustration over his failure to get a straight answer from Camilla.

“Cholera,” Lawrence whispered soberly.

Ben paled, remembering the epidemic that had swept the trail the year before.  “There’s cholera in that camp?”

Lawrence nodded.  “Half their men are down, besides women and children; that’s why they’ve had to stop.  We’re gonna give them a wide berth and hope we avoid whatever gave them the sickness.”

“Yeah,” Ben muttered.  “You taking them some laudanum?”

Again, Lawrence nodded.  “We brought extra as part of the goods we planned to sell in California,” Camilla explained hurriedly, “and those poor people have none left.”

“I’m just gonna charge them what I would have in St. Joe,” Lawrence told his wife.  “We could have gotten much more for it in California, but I won’t play highway robber to folks in need out here.”

“Well, of course not!” Camilla said indignantly.  As if she would behave so selfishly!  No matter how much she wanted to prosper in their new home, there were some things decent people didn’t stoop to.  “You give it to them at cost,” she dictated.

Lawrence smiled.  Sometimes his wife surprised even him.  Turning to Ben, he made a request.  “Tell the other men what’s up and that we’ll be taking a wide detour.  Be ready to roll as soon as I get back.”

“Aye, aye, captain.  I’ll relay your orders,” Ben replied as crisply as if he were still first mate on Captain Stoddard’s New Bedford sailing vessel.  For a moment Larrimore thought Cartwright was making sport of his authority; but when he saw Ben immediately head down the line of wagons to deliver the message, he knew the man he was coming to rely on as his second in command was just fulfilling that role.

The wagons pulled out, steering wide of the area where the other train camped.  The men and women of the Larrimore train were compassionate enough to want to help the disabled emigrants; but where cholera was concerned, there wasn’t much anyone could do.  The laudanum might help a little, but the disease seemed to kill indiscriminately.  An infant in arms might survive while a strong man succumbed in under twenty-four hours.  Like nothing else, cholera reminded the travelers that they were in the hands of God; and that afternoon many prayers ascended to be spared an attack by the scourge of the prairie.

The wagons circled for the noon encampment around eleven-thirty to find Clyde and Robert waiting for them at the prearranged campsite.  “What took you so long?” Clyde called.

“Detour,” Lawrence called, figuring a more detailed explanation could wait.

Satisfied, Clyde led Payne’s horse back to join his family.  “That’s sure a mighty puny buffalo, Pa,” Billy hollered as he and Adam ran to investigate the fruits of the hunt.

Clyde gave an embarrassed chuckle.  “Didn’t catch sight of a buffalo, Billy.  This here’s antelope.”

“Antelope steaks make mighty fine eating, too,” Ben said.  He’d left off unhitching his oxen to see how Clyde had fared.  He rumpled the Thomas youngster’s fiery hank of hair and stooped down.  “Harder to shoot than buffalo, too, son.  Looks like your pa’s quite a hunter.”  Billy’s chest swelled out again, and he gave Adam a triumphant grin.

“I think we done figured out what it takes to nab one of these skittish critters,” Clyde cackled.  “You sure as shootin’ can’t sneak up on ‘em.  But they’re curious as all get out.  McTavish flapped his big red handkerchief, and a couple come walkin’ straight at us to see what was what.  Nailed ‘em both!”

Ben laughed.  “Just got to get their attention, is that it?”

“Yup.  Tell you all about it over lunch,” Clyde said.  “Nelly’ll fry us up some of them fine antelope steaks you was mentionin’.”

“I wasn’t hinting for an invite,” Ben chuckled, “but I won’t turn one down, either.  Better get back to my team now, though.”

“And me to mine.  See you soon.”

* * * * *

Larrimore and Zuebner decided to take their turn at hunting buffalo the next day.  No one expected much from the former merchant and the German grain farmer, but the unlikely pair surprised everyone when they caught back up with the train at its noon encampment near a landmark the guidebooks called O’Fallon’s Bluff.  A joyous shout rang out as the other emigrants saw the men leading heavily-laden horses and ran to congratulate them.

Ben gave Lawrence a hearty slap on the back.  “Looks like you had good luck, man!”

Lawrence grinned happily.  “Surprised ourselves.”

“Who shot the beastie?” McTavish asked.

Lawrence and Fredrich roared with laughter.  “We did,” the German said, “the both of us.”

As the other men crowded around, demanding an explanation, Lawrence raised both hands to get their attention.  “I shot first, and the bullet hit, but not quite on target.  It slowed the animal, but didn’t stop him.”

“That gave me time to catch up and take shot,” Fredrich inserted.  “My aim not so good, either.  Buffalo just stumble around.  Then Larrimore hit him again and he fall.”

“So you see,” Lawrence chortled, “it took the both of us to bring him down.”  The other men laughed, too, enjoying the joke.

“Meat’s meat, anyway you bag it,” Ben said.  “You’ve done well, men.”

“There’ll be a cut for everyone,” Lawrence promised.  “Send your young ones over to fetch it after we’ve had a chance to unload.”

“Much obliged,” Thomas said and the others echoed him.

Larrimore moved toward his own wagon, followed by Zuebner, who helped unload the horses and divide the meat.  “You take hide,” Zuebner said.  “Is only right.  You took first shot and brought animal down, too.”

“Fine by me,” Lawrence agreed, but was immediately negated by his wife.

“Goodness!” Camilla declared.  “I don’t have any use for that smelly thing!”

“Aw, Ma!” Sterling protested.  “I want a buffalo robe.”

“No!” his mother declared vehemently, denying her boy for one of the few times in his life.  “I wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

Lawrence shrugged and held the shaggy coat toward Zuebner.  “It’s yours, if you want it.”  Sterling gave the dust at his feet a mad scuff.

“Sure!” Zuebner said enthusiastically.  “My Ludmilla, she know how to make warm cover out of this.”

Lawrence threw an arm around Sterling.  “I’ll buy you a robe at Ft.Laramie, son.  Won’t be cold enough to need one before then.”

“All right, Father,” Sterling agreed, disgruntled, but mollified by the promise.  “I guess I can wait that long.”

Lawrence walked to the Cartwright campfire.  “Ben, I’d like your help in transmitting some information to the others about the trail ahead.”

“Sure, glad to help,” Ben replied.  “Incidentally, thanks for the steaks.  Inger’s frying them up right now, and they smell delicious.”

Lawrence shook his head as if to devalue his gift.  “There’s more meat than two families can eat before it spoils anyway, unless we take time to jerk it.  What the others need to know, Ben, concerns the next five miles.  We’ll be going through some deep sand.  It’s real hard on the oxen’s feet, so everyone will want to watch them closely.  We may need to trade some out with the spare stock if they start to lame.”

“Sounds like we might not make as much mileage this afternoon as this morning,” Ben commented.

“No, we won’t,” Lawrence said.  “That’s why I urged everyone to push on this far before nooning.  We’ll get through this hard stretch, but not much further.  If you’ll tell half the folks, I’ll inform the others.”  Ben nodded his acceptance of the assignment.

After a two-hour break the train headed west into a strong wind.  As the emigrants pushed forward, blowing sand battered their faces, leaving their nostrils dry, their lips cracked.  The men pulled their kerchiefs over their noses, but it didn’t help much.  Though the women tried to shield their faces with the sleeves of their dresses, a layer of dust soon coated them head to foot.  Inger moaned as she stumbled through the deep sand.  With nothing but the muddy yellow Platte to wash in, how would they ever get clean again?  Oh, for the clear waters of the Little Blue River!  There was no turning back, though.  Take a step, take another——trudge, trudge trudge——and try to ignore the sand in your shoes.

For the livestock, it was worse.  The oxen sank in the deep sand and that made pulling the heavy wagons harder; but, at least, they were shod.  Not the milk cows.  Enos drove them slowly, but the sand wore away at the soft, inner flesh of their feet, and none of them reached camp that night undamaged.

One of Ben’s oxen began to favor its right rear hoof, so he knew something was wrong.  Stopping his wagon, he checked the ox and found half of its shoe missing.  Clyde helped him unhitch the animal and yoke another in its place.  “I brought extra shoes,” he told Ben.  “We’ll get this critter shod again tonight.”  Ben just nodded his thanks.  In the driving wind, no one talked more than they had to.

The group that made camp that evening looked disreputable and felt drained, but they were grateful to have come through the worst of the terrain without more trouble than they’d had.  Only Ben had been forced to change teams; and since Clyde had helped him, he hadn’t been delayed as much as he otherwise would have been.  Still, he lost his place in line and limped in forty-five minutes after the other wagons had circled.

Inger and Adam had walked on with the forward wagons, though; so she had their campfire built and a pot of coffee brewed to greet her husband on his arrival.  Ben would have preferred a tall glass of iced tea, an impossibility on the prairie.  He’d have settled for a cup of cool water, but the turbid waters of the Platte just couldn’t satisfy that craving.

The oxen found better footing the following day, but nothing else changed.  The trail continued dry and dusty, and even the children dragged along without energy for frolicking.  During the noon stop, Adam lay languidly in the shade of the wagon.  His journal was open, but he couldn’t think of anything to write.  That bothered him.  He wanted his trip to sound as adventurous as he and Jamie had assumed it would be.  But what was adventurous about a mouthful of dirt or nostrils so dry they bled?

A horned toad crawled under the wagon, probably as eager to escape the sizzling sun as the sweating boy.  Adam picked up the sand-colored lizard and stroked its bumpy back.  Here, at least, was something he could write Jamie about.  Adam turned the little lizard over and rubbed the smooth stomach.  Setting the reptile down, he picked up the journal and began to draw Jamie a picture.

By day’s end a number of oxen were struggling with loose shoes.  Clyde earned a little extra that night by either reattaching or replacing shoes, two per hoof, to the feet of his neighbor’s oxen.  That night, not for the first time, the members of the Larrimore train, blessed heaven for making a blacksmith one of their party.

The sun rose, quickly burning away the coolness of the night.  Long before it reached its zenith, the emigrants knew they were facing the hottest day they’d seen in weeks.  The wind was blistering, and the dust so thick Ebenezer Wentworth, for the first time, began to consider that the Bible’s description of Abraham’s descendants might be symbolic, rather than literal.  Either that, or God had worked a greater miracle than the minister had before realized in giving the patriarch offspring outnumbering the grains of sand pelting his face in one day’s drive across the prairie.

The minister’s request for a Sabbath layover met with hearty approval that evening.  After their ten-day trek, the oxen needed the rest, and so did the people.  Sunday gave them a blessed chance for repose, and most of the emigrants spent the day in exactly that:  sleeping late, taking an afternoon nap and retiring early.  Everyone knew the morrow held nothing but more dust, more drudgery.

CHAPTER TWENTY

             The next two days proved as monotonous and dreary as the emigrants expected.  Inger, especially, found the endless walking wearisome.  The added weight of the child within her seemed to drag her deeper into the dust than the women she walked beside.  At least, that’s how it seemed to Inger, who couldn’t believe how large she was growing.  While she had felt big as a house earlier in the journey, she no longer thought of that house as a single-family dwelling.  Now, she saw it as a well-populated boardinghouse of at least two stories.  She was eating more than she had in St. Joe, of course, but then, so was everyone else.  The extra exercise and the fresh air seemed to heighten all their appetites.  That same exercise, though, kept the others from gaining weight, while hers increased daily.

As she studied her expanding girth, Inger began to wonder if all those jokes about carrying twins were jokes, after all.  Each night before she went to sleep, she breathed a silent prayer to her maker for the safe delivery of a strong, healthy child——but please, dear God, only one.  How would she ever care for two on this tiring trek across the prairie?

Though it was a hour shy of the usual stopping time when the Larrimore train reached the South Platte Tuesday evening, no one wanted to attempt the crossing before morning.  The men needed time to appraise the situation; besides, the party wanted to stay together and they couldn’t all get across before dark.  On investigation, the river was found to be half a mile wide at this location, known as the California Crossing, and about two and a half feet deep.  Over Camilla’s shrieks of terror, Larrimore announced——and the others agreed——that they would ford the river the next morning.

Breakfast was a hurried affair all over the camp.  Everyone felt tense about their first effort at fording a river, although only the women admitted their fear.  But while the other women felt edgy, Camilla Larrimore bordered on hysteria.  She had not forgotten seeing the Wentworth wagon lunge sideways into the Vermillion, and had a premonition her treasures would soon be floating down the South Platte, destination unknown.

It was Larrimore’s turn to lead out, but Camilla, weeping, begged him to let someone else go first.  “If I could just know someone had crossed safely, I’m sure I’d feel easier,” she pleaded.

But Larrimore, conscious that everyone was watching his wife’s display, turned a deaf ear.  “We can’t take just the advantages of lead position and not our share of the risks, Camilla,” he muttered harshly.  “Get hold of yourself, woman.”

Tears streaked Camilla’s face.  “You never used to speak to me so, Lawrence.  Have you ceased to care for me as a husband ought?”

Lawrence pulled her aside.  “Good gracious, Camilla!  Keep such questions for our bed!”  He took her damp cheeks between his palms.  “My feelings for you are the same as always, but you’ve got to stop making these scenes.  Or don’t you care what folks think of you anymore?”

Camilla wiped her eyes.  “I care, Lawrence, but I’m just not a pioneer, and it’s time you faced that.  I’m doing my best.”

Lawrence gave her a quick embrace.  “I know, I know.  I understand you’re afraid, but it’s our turn and we must take it.  I’ll send Enos over first with our second wagon.  That way, we’re mostly risking our trade goods, not your special keepsakes; but that’s as far as I can go, Camilla.”

Camilla nodded.  “All right, Lawrence, but if it tips, we’ll find another way across with my things, yes?”

Lawrence looked uncomfortable, but nodded slowly and headed over to tell Enos to lead the second wagon into the water first.  Enos shrugged nonchalantly and called to his team.  Walking beside them, he crossed the river, suffering nothing worse than a soaked pair of pant legs.  Then Lawrence followed with his other wagon while Enos splashed back through the river to round up the loose stock and herd them across.  Camilla stood on the east bank, nibbling her fingers.  When the family wagon rolled onto the west bank safely, she sighed with relief and waded across to hug her husband, all displeasure with him forgotten in her relief.

Ben’s wagon was the next to cross, then Clyde Thomas’s.  Both arrived on the far shore with no difficulty.  Then Fredrich Zuebner led his oxen into the water.  Those who had already crossed didn’t bother watching; they assumed that Zuebner, with his superior skill with stock, was most likely of them all to make the ford easily.  But emigrants on both sides of the river rushed to its edge when they heard him shouting at his team.  “Get up, Buck; go on, Bright!  Keep moving, boys; keep moving!”  The team seemed to struggle for awhile, then pulled harder and reached the other side.

Lawrence and Ben rushed to Zuebner.  “What was the trouble?” Lawrence asked.

“Quicksand!” Zuebner cried.  “I thought we was goners, sure, but this is good team.”

“What about the others?” Ben asked urgently.  “Can they cross safely?”

“Sure, sure,” Zuebner said.  “Tell them to move upstream a bit, and if they hit more quicksand, keep team moving.  Is important not stop, you understand?”

“Yeah,” Ben said.  He looked back at Lawrence.  “I’ll wade over and tell them,” he offered.

Lawrence nodded.  “Appreciate it.”

Only McTavish, Payne and Wentworth remained on the east bank.  McTavish took his turn first and forded over successfully.  Then Jonathan Payne started his animals.  Everyone watched anxiously now, hopeful their vigil would soon be rewarded, and everyone in their party would safely put the California Crossing behind them.

Just over halfway across the river, one of the oxen started to flounder.  Payne sloshed forward to urge him on, but the ox bellowed in fear and refused to move.  Zuebner ran in to help, but the balky animal wouldn’t budge, and in his struggles tripped up his yoke mate.  Suddenly, what everyone had feared happened; and the Payne wagon crashed onto its side.

All the men plunged in to unhitch the animals and right the wagon.  Then since Larrimore’s two teams had had the most time to rest, they were double-hitched to Payne’s entrenched wagon to pull it to the west shore.  Tears in her eyes, Rachel waded across carrying little Susan.  Inger went to her immediately and took the baby so Rachel would be free to sort through her drenched belongings.

On the east bank Wentworth and his family stood looking fearfully at the river.  “Can you handle it?” Martha asked, clearly worried.

Wentworth looked up, as if beseeching the heavens for an answer.  Finally, he looked at his wife.  “I’m not good at this, as you know, my dear; but I am confident God has called us to California to preach His Word.  What can we do but try our best and trust God’s mercy?”  Martha smiled and patted his arm supportively.

Just as Wentworth started to lead his team into the water, though, he saw Fredrich waving as he came splashing toward him.  Wentworth waited until Zuebner plodded ashore.

“You want I should lead team across?” Zuebner offered.

“Praise the Lord!” Martha shouted.  “We surely do.”

“Yes, yes,” Wentworth agreed instantly.  “You are an answer to prayer, my friend.”

“Prayer is your job, Reverend,” Zuebner said.  “Teams is mine.  You do your part; I do mine, all right?”

“More than all right,” Wentworth said.  With Zuebner’s help, the party was soon reunited on the far side of the South Platte, and everyone stood with bowed heads as Wentworth gave thanks to the Almighty that none had been lost.

Inger, with Susan Payne still cradled in her arms, approached her own wagon, where she saw Ben feeding a campfire.  “Oh, thank you for doing my chores, Ben,” she said.

“Well, you seemed kind of busy,” Ben replied.  “It’s the least I could do.  I sent Adam to angle for our supper.  I guess in a pinch I could fry the fish if you’re still tied up.”

“No, I vill cook,” Inger insisted.  “I asked the Paynes to supper, and I vould like to fix a good one.”

“In that case, I’d better help Adam catch us a double mess,” Ben said and headed toward the river.

Inger took a blanket from the back of the wagon and laid the baby down to play with her toes.  Then she crawled back inside to see what she had available to go with the fish.  Not finding anything beyond the usual staples, Inger sighed, grabbed a bag of rice and emerged from the wagon to see Martha Wentworth bending over the baby.

“Hello, Inger,” Mrs. Wentworth said.

“Hello,” Inger replied.  “Can I help you vith anything, Martha?”

“As a matter of fact, you can,” Martha said with a smile.  “I don’t know if you realize it, but the Paynes lost a good bit of their supplies——more than we did when we tipped awhile back.”

“Yah, I knew,” Inger sighed.  “I have been helping Rachel go through things.”

“Then you know they need help,” Martha stated.  “I’d like to organize a pounding for them.”

“A pounding?” Inger asked, puzzled.  “But surely they do not need to be pounded on top of all their other trouble.”

Martha gasped.  “Oh, my dear, don’t you know what a pounding is?”

Inger shrugged.  “Like a hammer on nails?”

Martha giggled.  “Oh, no, no——nothing like that, Inger, dear.  Usually, it’s the minister who gets pounded, so I can assure you it doesn’t hurt a bit.  A pounding is a kind of gift-giving to show love or gratitude, or in this case, just neighborliness.  It gets its name from what folks bring——a pound of this or a pound of that.”

Inger laughed.  “Oh, I see, now.  That is much less painful than hammering, yah?”

“Much, much,” Martha tittered.  “Now, I was thinking that if we each gave the Paynes a pound of whatever we could spare, they’d have enough to get to Ft.Laramie and resupply.”

“What a vonderful idea!” Inger cried.  “Ve can spare that much of almost everything, and I am sure the others can, too.”

“Without being a burden on anyone,” Martha explained.  “Rachel said you’d asked her family to eat with you tonight, so I thought we could sneak things over to the Payne wagon while they were here.  Then, they’d get a nice surprise when they went back.”

“Oh, yah, that vill be fun,” Inger agreed.  “If you vill vatch the baby, I vill get our ‘pounds’ and you can take them vith you.”

Martha sat down on the blanket and let Susan grasp her little finger.  “Take your time,” she said.  “This little lady and I will get along just fine.”

Rachel Payne’s eyes were dry, but still red, when she arrived with Jonathan and Johnny for supper that night.  Though she praised the tasty fish, she couldn’t bring herself to eat much.  She said nothing, but the furrows on her forehead revealed her fretful thoughts.  Inger hated to see her friend suffer; but knowing Rachel’s fears would soon be put to flight, she made cheerful conversation about how Susan was growing.

Rachel smiled.  Even though she knew Inger was trying to take her mind off her troubles, she couldn’t help responding to praise of her daughter.  If anything could take her mind off her troubles, it surely would be this greatest of blessings.

After a satisfying dinner the Paynes walked home, unaware of the eyes following their steps.  “Why, what on earth?” Rachel cried when she saw the sacks of flour, cornmeal, rice, beans and coffee stacked against their wagon wheels.  “Where did all this come from?” she asked, overwhelmed.

“Friends,” Jonathan said, wiping a tear from his eye before it disgraced his masculinity.  “Mighty good friends.”

Rachel hugged him tight, then called into the darkness, “Thanks to all you good elves out there!”  Only silence met her words, but wives smiled into the faces of their husbands and husbands at their wives.  Then everyone disappeared into their respective tents, and the silence was broken by the sound of snores rumbling in the night.

* * * * *

After being on the trail only half an hour Thursday, Ben’s wagon, in the lead that morning, pulled to the bottom of California Hill.  “Adam,” Ben called, “you’ll have to get out now.”  Adam had spent so much time fishing the previous afternoon that he’d fallen behind in his lessons, so he’d been catching up in the back of the wagon.  He readily scrambled out at his father’s summons, though; it was hard to read, anyway, with the wagon jouncing the print before his eyes.

Inger gave the youngster a hug.  “Run back and stay vith the Thomases until ve are up the hill.”  Adam gladly ran to join his friend Billy.

“That goes for you, too,” Ben ordered.  “Back with the others.”

“But I vant to help,” Inger protested.

“No,” Ben said firmly.  “Get back with the others.”  He turned his attention to the team as Inger headed to the rear.

She didn’t go far, though.  Certain the animals would have trouble pulling the heavy wagon up the hill, she put her shoulder to the rear wheel and pushed.  The extra impetus did seem to help the oxen, and Inger had a moment’s satisfaction before the wheel rolled back and she lost her footing.  With a sharp cry, she tumbled pell-mell down the hill.

Ben spun around at the sound of his wife’s scream and charged down after her.  “Inger!” he cried as he gathered her limp form into his arms.  “Inger, darling!”

“Oh, Ben,” Inger moaned, her face contorted with pain.  “I should have listened.  I—I am sorry.”

“Shh.  Hush now,” Ben soothed.  “You’ll be all right, sweetheart.”  An involuntary cry escaped Inger’s lips.  She wanted to believe Ben, but pain and fear combined to clasp her in their chilly grip.

Nelly Thomas bent over her, stroking Inger’s forehead with a calming hand.  “Best bring your wagon back down, Ben,” she suggested.  “Clyde can help you get Inger inside.  She’s gonna need some rest.”  Ben nodded and took off after the team he’d left on the hillside.

Soon Inger was reclining in her wagon on a narrow mattress loaned by the Paynes.  Rachel sat at her side, rubbing her hand in an attempt to comfort her.  “You’re gonna be all right, Inger,” Rachel said, unconsciously echoing Ben’s promise.

“For myself, I have no fear,” Inger sobbed.  “It is the baby.  I—I cannot feel him, Rachel.”

Rachel laid a hand on Inger’s belly and said a silent prayer.  But, like Inger, she felt no reassuring movement.  “Well, that could be a good sign,” Rachel said.  “At least, the fall hasn’t brought on premature labor.”

Inger gave a rough laugh.  “Premature!  Look at me, Rachel.  This baby is anything but premature.”

Rachel smiled.  “No, I guess not.  Just relax, though, Inger; don’t borrow trouble ‘til it gets here.  Trust me, it shows up often enough without looking for it.”

Remembering her friend’s trouble the previous day, Inger reached for Rachel’s hand.  “Ve have had our share this veek, yah?”

“We surely have!” Rachel agreed.

Ben stuck his head through the rear opening in the wagon cover.  “How’s she doing?” he asked.

Rachel stepped across to Ben.  “She’s resting comfortably in spite of the pain,” she whispered, “but she’s worried about the baby.”  Ben paled.  Like Inger, he’d eagerly awaited the birth of their child for nearly nine months.  To lose the baby now, when they’d come so close to that time of joy, was unthinkable.  But, even so, Ben knew that would be easier to face than the loss of Inger herself.

He paced the ground outside his wagon, feeling the futility of the motion, but not knowing what else to do with himself.  Looking up, he saw the other men of the party approaching him and comprehended at once the purpose of the delegation.  He had, however, no idea what response he could make to their justifiable concern.

Lawrence came up abreast of him.  “How is she, Ben?” he asked solicitously.

McTavish came straight to the point.  “How long before she can travel?”

Ben spread his hands in a noncommittal gesture.  “She’s in pain,” he said.

“No one wants to push you,” Wentworth explained, “but they’re concerned about the time we’re losing——yesterday and today.”

Ben nodded, but had no other answer to give.  “I guess we could take last place today,” he suggested.  “Maybe by the time everyone else is up—”

“No one’s leaving you behind,” Lawrence said sharply.  “We’re made of better stuff than that.”  Ben smiled appreciatively, but his brow was wrinkled with worry.  Without knowing how long he and Inger might be delayed, how could he ask the others to jeopardize themselves by waiting with them?

“Ben, Ben,” Inger called, peering out the back of the wagon.  “Come here.”

Ben hurried to her.  “Inger, you’re supposed to be resting,” he chided.

“Ben, tell them ve can go on now,” Inger said.

Ben bit his lip.  He hadn’t realized the men had spoken loudly enough for her to hear.  “No,” he said.  “You’re not able yet.”

Inger reached through the cinched opening in the wagon cover to smooth her palm across his cheek.  “I am able, Ben.  I vas only concerned about the baby, but I felt life inside me again.  I know now I vill carry the child.  Please, Ben, tell them ve vill go on.”

Ben glanced at Rachel Payne, whose supporting arm surrounded Inger’s shoulders.  “Is she all right?” he asked.

“Oh, don’t worry, Ben,” Rachel assured him.  “She’s a strong, healthy girl.”

Ben walked back over to the men.  “We’ll go on,” he said.

“Good,” McTavish said bluntly and headed back toward his wagon.

“Look here,” Clyde said to those who still remained.  “Seein’ as how Inger needs to stay in that wagon and that’ll make a harder pull for the oxen, why don’t some of us give their wagon a push?”

“Sure, I help,” Zuebner offered.

“Me, too,” said Jonathan Payne.

“Good,” Lawrence declared.  “Now, if you each take a back wheel, Cartwright and I can take a front one, and we’ll soon have this family on top of California Hill, where they belong!”

Rachel Payne climbed down from the wagon to spare the oxen her extra weight, and the four men braced themselves against their designated wheels.  With the added help, the oxen easily made the pull up the hill, and the men gave a shout of triumph.  Rachel started to climb up after them to check on Inger, but Nelly Thomas tapped her on the back.  “Mrs. Wentworth says your baby’s cryin’, Rachel,” she said.  “Probably wants feedin’.  I’ll see to Inger.”

Rachel nodded her thanks for the message and the offered help and walked back to feed Susan.  Nelly climbed on up the hill and stepped into the Cartwright wagon, which had stopped while Ben went back down to assist the next wagon up.  “How you makin’ out, honey lamb?” Nelly asked.

Inger smiled.  “Except for the usual bumps and jolts, I am fine.”

“Well, I’ll be checkin’ on you from time to time,” Nelly promised.  “Don’t be thinkin’ we’ve forgot you.”

“I know you vould not,” Inger responded warmly.

With everyone working together, the rest of the train reached the top of the hill without trouble.  Larrimore’s wagons, being more heavily loaded than the others, though, had to be double-teamed, and that took extra time.  The emigrants didn’t make much progress that day; but the next was better, though the trek across the high, waterless tableland blew dust in their faces.

That dust was the only reason Inger was content to follow Ben’s adamant orders to remain in the wagon.  How she was supposed to rest, though, with the springless vehicle jostling her from side to side was beyond Inger’s understanding.  That night as she lay next to her husband in their tent, she begged for a reprieve.  “I vould much prefer to valk, Ben,” she pleaded, “and I am sure it is safe.  The baby is fine.”

“It’s you I’m concerned about,” Ben whispered and kissed her ear.

“And I, too, am fine,” Inger assured him.  “I had a bad scare; that is all.  There is no more pain.”

“All right, you can walk,” Ben decided.  He didn’t see any reason to tell Inger that he wouldn’t have allowed her to ride tomorrow, even without her pleas——not when they’d be leaving the tableland via a descent all the guidebooks described as hair-raising.

When Ben got his first look at Windlass Hill the next day, he was pretty sure no one else would attempt it from the inside of a wagon, either.  Clyde Thomas, standing beside Ben, whistled.  “Land o’ mercy!” he bellowed.  “It’s well nigh straight down.”  Clyde didn’t look thrilled with the opportunity to be first to tackle the precipitous drop.  It was his turn, though, so he gave his britches a hitch and turned toward his team.

“Lock your wheels first, Clyde,” Lawrence ordered.  “Otherwise, they’ll roll too fast.”

“You sure this is safe, Larrimore?” Clyde asked.

“Thousands have done it before you,” Lawrence replied.  “It’s a tough couple of miles, but you can manage it.”

Looking again at the steep descent, Clyde gulped.  He wished he felt as confident as Larrimore sounded.  He pulled his chains through the spokes of the rear wheels and hooked them to the wagon bed.  “Well, now or never, I guess,” he said to Nelly.

“You be careful, Clyde,” Nelly admonished.  She stood to the side of the trail near the edge of the precipice, so she could watch her husband’s descent.  Feeling an arm circle her waist, Nelly looked up and smiled at Inger.  “I ain’t worried,” Nelly said.

Inger nodded, certain Nelly had spoken for her own benefit, rather than Inger’s.  “All vill be vell,” Inger said.  At first, her prediction appeared correct.  The wagon skidded behind the oxen, faster than if on level land, but not racing into the team the way it would have with unlocked wheels.  Halfway down, the wagon started to gain speed.  Even so, seeing the ground level out ahead, Clyde thought he was going to make it.  While still on the decline, though, the wagon careened into the rear yoke of oxen and reeled over, spilling its contents down the hill.

“Clyde!” Nelly screamed and ran down after him.

Inger started to follow her, but Ben grabbed her by the elbow.  “Don’t you dare!” he commanded.  “You stay right here, Inger Cartwright.”  Mindful that her previous disobedience had put both her and her child in jeopardy, Inger stopped.  Ben, the other men in the party and Martha Wentworth right behind him, raced to help Clyde and Nelly.

Before Ben and the others could reach the bottom of the hill, though, a shot rang out.  Smoke was still drifting from Clyde’s rifle when Ben ran up to him.

“Couldn’t let the critter suffer,” Clyde explained.

“Hurt that bad, huh?” Ben asked.  Clyde nodded gravely.  “How about the wagon?” Ben queried.

“See for yourself,” Clyde snorted.  “It’s a pure mess.”

Nelly was standing beside the crippled wagon as Ben approached it.  Martha Wentworth came up and took the trembling woman in her arms.  “It’s a miserable job, I know,” Martha said, “but we’ll all pitch in and help, Nelly.”

“But look at the wagon,” Nelly wailed.  “The supplies are probably all right, but how can we carry them in that?”

Ben saw what she meant.  Unlike the wagons which had tipped crossing rivers, this one was smashed in on one side.  More importantly, the rear axle appeared broken.  “You have a spare?” Ben asked Clyde.

Clyde shook his head.  “Couldn’t afford the extra weight with the blacksmithing tools I was carryin’.  Fool choice to make, I reckon.”

McTavish was examining the wagon.  “Wouldn’t have mattered anyway,” he said.  “The back half of your wagon’s good for nothing but firewood, man.”

“Yeah,” Clyde muttered.  “Well, I’d best get this rig out of the way, so the rest of you will have a clear shot.

Ben said nothing, just picked up a hundred-pound sack of cornmeal and toted it to the bottom of the hill.  The other men each loaded up with supplies and carried them down while Clyde unhitched his team.  When the supplies were all piled together off to one side, the men eased what remained of the wagon down, then gathered around Larrimore to rediscuss their options.

“There aren’t any other options,” Larrimore said, “unless we winch the wagons down.  That’s a time-consuming process, and really no guarantee of safety.  Clyde was carrying a heavy load.  That’s probably what made his wagon pick up speed.  The rest of you aren’t packing as much.”

“You are,” McTavish pointed out.

Lawrence nodded.  “Don’t have to tell me.  I warned Camilla about bringing so much, but she wouldn’t listen.  I may have problems, but I don’t think the rest of you will.”

“You still think our best option is to lock the wheels and skid down, then?” Ben asked.

“I do,” Lawrence said firmly.  “Of course, the womenfolk will be fearful, but we’ll just have to be firm with them.”

“Aye!” McTavish snorted.  “Ye do that so well, Larrimore.  Surely, ye’ll be showing the rest of us how to manage our women.”  He spun on his heel and trudged back up to give his own wife the word.

Lawrence winced.  “I guess I had that coming,” he admitted.  He sighed as he looked up the hill where his greatest challenge of the day stood awaiting his return.  He glanced over at Wentworth.  “Pray for me, Reverend,” he said, his face long.  “The fiery furnace was a piddling flicker compared to what I’m about to walk into.”  No one laughed at Lawrence’s dark humor.

Since Ben would have last turn at the hill, he remained to help Clyde salvage what he could of his wagon.  He had waved Inger on down, so she sat with Nelly on a blanket spread on the grass.  Together, they watched the men cut away the damaged boards and saw the wagon in half.  Nelly shook her head sadly.  With that little room, they couldn’t even carry all their food, much less other things.  “How on earth we’ll make a living in California without Clyde’s tools, I can’t begin to guess,” she sighed.

Inger pulled her close.  “Perhaps, if ve each carry some,” she suggested.

Nelly turned grateful, but discerning eyes on her friend.  “They’re heavy, honey.  Who’d be willing to add that much to their load as far as we’ve got to go?”  Inger nodded.  Much as she’d like to help the Thomases, she knew it was important to be practical.

By the time Ben and Clyde had completed the wagon conversion, Zuebner, McTavish, Payne and Wentworth had successfully skidded their wagons down Windlass Hill.  Larrimore was due down next, then Ben.  “Lawrence unloaded some things,” Wentworth told them.  “Hopefully, enough to keep the wagon from racing.”

“How’d he talk that woman into leaving her gewgaws behind?” Clyde asked.

“Leave them?  Not that woman!” McTavish chortled.  “Larrimore promised to carry her things down on his back if he had to.”  The others shook their heads, grateful their own wives were less demanding.

The lightened Larrimore wagons both arrived undamaged, as did Ben’s.  Then Larrimore and his hired man, Enos Montgomery, each made four more trips on foot up and down the hill to transport the rest of Camilla’s treasures and the store stock that had been unloaded for safety’s sake.  No one offered to help.  They figured such foolishness shouldn’t be encouraged; besides, the Thomases were more in need of help.  Over Clyde’s protests, the others helped load his two-wheeled cart, then divided his extra supplies and tools amongst them.

Ben took the anvil.  “Nothing doing, Ben,” Clyde ordered.  “You can’t pack that all the way to California.”

“It’s your living, man,” Ben insisted.  “You’ll need it.  Besides, if Lawrence is right, I’ll only have to carry it as far as FortLaramie.”

“What you mean?” Clyde asked.

“Larrimore said last year there were a number of wagons available for sale at the fort.  Some folks evidently decided to abandon theirs and pack their goods by mule to get west faster.”

“That was last year,” Clyde sputtered.  “No guarantee anyone did the same this time out.”

“No guarantee,” Ben agreed, “but it’s likely some did.  Anyway, we can cross that bridge once we get to it.  If you can’t get another wagon, we’ll have to leave the anvil behind, of course, but let’s hope for the best.”

A traitorous moisture was filming Clyde’s eyes.  He brushed it away.  “We were sure lucky to throw in with folks like you,” he said.  “Some I’ve heard of would’ve just left us to stumble on as best we could.”

“We all need each other,” Ben said.  “If this sorry week’s taught us anything, it’s that.  First the Paynes, then us, then you.  What would any of us do on this trip without good friends?”

Clyde slapped Ben’s arm in agreement, then went to take Zuebner up on his offer to help butcher the dead ox.  When that was done, Clyde distributed the meat to everyone who had accepted any of his goods into their wagons.  “I ain’t got room for it, no how,” he said, brushing off the others’ heartfelt thanks.  “Might as well give it away as see it rot.”

When he gave the biggest and best cuts to Ben, Ben threw his own words back in his face.  “Some I’ve heard of would’ve left the meat to rot rather than share it,” he said, winking at Clyde.

Clyde cackled.  “Shucks, Ben, this ain’t so much a gift as a hint for an invite to supper.”  Ben laughed and extended the invitation.

It was getting late, and the train was still three miles from Ash Hollow, but everyone wanted to push ahead that far.  They limped into their destination just as the sun was sinking on the western horizon and hurried to set up camp.  The men didn’t even bother discussing whether they’d travel tomorrow or observe the Sabbath.  They were all too exhausted after the last few harrowing days to think of anything but sleep and rest.  Without discussion, they instinctively knew they’d remain encamped until Monday morning.  Like the Lord after a busy week of creation, they’d rest on the seventh day and call it good.

When the emigrants awoke Sunday morning, they rejoiced in the pleasant vista that met their eyes.  With the summer sun already hot overhead, they reveled in the first real shade they’d seen in weeks, even if it was only provided by stunted ash and a few red cedars.  Actually, the canyon itself gave more shade than the trees, as high, perpendicular cliffs on both sides of the narrow ravine cast refreshing shadows.  A little brooklet babbling through its sandy bottom gave the women the chance for a genuine washday.  Not since Plum Creek had they seen a campsite more congenial.

While the women scrubbed vigorously through piles of dirty laundry, the men wandered through the ravine exploring.  Play being more enticing than work, most of the children scampered after their fathers rather than staying behind to rinse out clothes for their mothers.  Adam tagged happily along with Ben as he visited the landmark that marked the entrance to Ash Hollow, a log cabin to the left of the trail that had been erected years before by some trappers caught in winter snows.  The youngster found that history mildly interesting; but he was utterly fascinated by the messages scrawled, inside and out, on the walls of the cabin.  No longer needed for shelter, the cabin now served as a kind of general post office for those in the vanguard of the army of emigrants to leave messages for those behind.

Adam made a slow circuit of the inside walls, pleased with how many of the inscriptions he could read.  He stumbled over some of the harder words, but as long as the messages were printed, he usually managed to get the gist of them.  Some advertised for the return of lost cattle, probably a futile request considering the distances involved; others offered directions or suggestions to ease the way for those who came later.  One Adam read warned that the only way to reach California before winter was to abandon the oxen and all nonessential gear and use mules to pack what was needed for survival.  Adam frowned.  No one in their party had any mules.  How could they possibly follow this advice?  He ran over to his father to ask if it was good advice.

Sitting on the dirt floor, Ben looked up from the pile of letters he had pulled from a barrel set in a corner.  “Not for us, Adam,” he said.  “That was meant mostly for men in a hurry to reach gold country who were traveling by themselves.  A family needs a wagon.”

“Oh,” Adam said and squatted down next to his father.  “What you got there, Pa?”

“Letters, just letters, son,” Ben said.  “I don’t even know why I’m sorting through them.  Curiosity, I guess.  The sign on the barrel asks for the letters to be conveyed to the nearest Government post office, but we’re all going the wrong way for that.  I doubt many of these missives ever reach the persons they were written to.”

“That’s kind of sad,” Adam said.

Ben tickled the boy’s ribs through his brown plaid shirt.  “Yeah, it is, and I’ve had about enough of it.”  He decided, though, to look through the letters in his lap before he tossed them back in the barrel.  Suddenly, his eyes brightened.  “Adam!  Look at this, son!”  He held the envelope up for Adam to see.

“I can’t read writing, Pa,” Adam protested, “just printing.”

“Oh, yeah,” Ben laughed.  “I forgot.  Well, son, it so happens this letter is gonna reach the person it’s addressed to.”

“Yeah?” Adam chirped.  “Who’s that, Pa?”

“Mr. Benjamin Cartwright!  That’s how it reads,” Ben announced.  “Now, what do you think of that, Adam Cartwright?”

The excitement on Adam’s face was answer enough.  “Who’s it from, Pa?” he asked eagerly.

Ben chuckled.  “Now, who do you think, boy?  Who do we know that’s been on the trail before us?”

Adam grinned.  “Uncle John?”

Ben nodded.  “Let’s go show Mama, shall we?”

“Yeah, let’s!” Adam shouted.  “Boy, will she be surprised!”

Flapping the envelope in the air, Ben raced toward the brook, with Adam trailing behind.  “Inger, hey, Inger!” he called.

Red-faced and sweating, Inger looked up and wiped a damp lock of blonde hair from her forehead with a raw, soapy hand.  “Just what I need——helpers!” she called back.  The other women pounding clothes in the stream just laughed.  They knew none of them had a prayer of getting help with this job from the male contingent of their community.

Heedless of the hint, Ben charged up and dropped down next to his wife.  “Leave off rubbing that dress, Inger Cartwright, and listen to what your brother-in-law has to say!”

Inger dropped her washboard at once.  “My what?”  Ben held the envelope beneath her nose so she could read the address.  “But how?” Inger asked.

Ben explained about the cache of letters in the trappers’ old cabin.  “And there was one from John?  Oh, how exciting, Ben!” Inger said.  “Read it at once.”  The other ladies stopped scrubbing to listen, too.  The idea of anyone hearing from a loved one out here was too delightful for them to worry about whether it was ill-mannered to listen in.

As Adam plopped down in his father’s lap, Ben gave him a welcoming squeeze and wrestled the letter from its container with one hand.  “‘Dear Ben, Inger and Adam,’” he read, “‘Not knowing if this will ever reach you, I feel foolish to write, but couldn’t resist the chance.  We’ve made good progress since leaving Ft.Kearny and until last week had avoided the cholera.  Plenty of parties we’ve passed have been hit hard, though.  Some men had been left to die alone in their last hours, but we could not be so heartless.  We took three men with us who had been cast out by their mates, but they soon died.  Perhaps, it was they who brought the disease to our camp, but though we have suffered, none of us regret taking in these helpless creatures.  So far, I remain in good health; I hope my luck holds out.’”

“It did!” Adam exclaimed.  “Uncle John never got cholera, did he, Pa?”

“No, son, he didn’t,” Ben replied.  “Now, let Pa finish the letter.”  Adam snuggled against his father’s chest and Ben pressed a kiss on top of his head to let Adam know his unspoken apology was accepted.

“‘I wish I knew more to tell you about the trail ahead,’” Ben continued, “‘but I’m a greenhorn in these parts and so are my companions.  You’ll find a small Sioux village at the mouth of this ravine, an interesting place to visit and good folks to trade with.  You might leave Inger behind, though, as some of the men make a practice of going about in the altogether, and the others don’t wear much more.’”

Downstream, Camilla Larrimore tittered, then covered her mouth, embarrassed to be caught eavesdropping.  “Sorry, Ben,” she giggled.

Ben smiled.  “There’s not much more to hear, I’m afraid, ladies.  My brother just sends us his best wishes and renews his pledge to meet us in San Francisco on our arrival.”

“How nice that you have someone waiting,” Martha Wentworth called as she rubbed Ebenezer’s best white Sunday shirt against her washboard.  “And how wonderful to hear from him so unexpectedly.”

“Shall ve go trade this afternoon, Ben?” Inger asked.

“If by ‘we,’ you mean me and Adam, yes,” Ben replied with an arched eyebrow, “but if you meant yourself, the answer is no.  I’ll not have my wife watching wild bucks parade around ‘buck’ naked.”

Inger gave him an impish smile.  “I’ve already had skinny-dipping boys parade before me.  I doubt Indians look much different.”

“Oh, Inger, how can you?” Camilla shrieked.  “I’d be mortified to see a naked Indian!”

“She’s teasing, Camilla,” Rachel laughed.

“Well, I should hope so!” Camilla declared indignantly.

“Yah, I am,” Inger assured her, “but Ben must promise to bring back something interesting.”

“Like some buckskin, maybe?” Ben jibed and ducked as Inger tossed her wet dress at him.

Adam wanted to head for the Sioux village that instant, but his mother insisted after lunch would be soon enough.  Adam didn’t think so, but he finally decided he might as well eat plenty.  It was obvious Pa intended to fill his belly full before they could leave, anyway.

The youngster, his arms pimply with gooseflesh at the thought of seeing a real Indian village, romped along beside his father.  He nearly burst with excitement when he saw the conical lodges of tanned buffalo skin and the tall, graceful men and women walking toward them.  Like Uncle John had said, some of the men were stripped bare, and some had only a blanket around their waists, but the women wore beautiful dresses of tanned buffalo skins, decorated with colorful glass beads like the ones they’d brought to trade.

The Indians soon let them know by signs that they weren’t interested in beads.  Evidently, enough emigrants had passed before this party that they had plenty of those, but one naked buck plucked repeatedly at Ben’s shirt until the white man understood what he wanted.  Ben felt ashamed to give the man what was probably the most worn garment he possessed, his better shirts being laundered at the time.  Yet the shirt clearly represented luxury to the Sioux warrior, so Ben pulled it off in exchange for the fresh fish the Indian offered.  He had a feeling fish wasn’t what Inger had meant by “something interesting,” but it seemed to be the best trade he could make.

If Inger was less than thrilled with the opportunity to fry trout for supper, she didn’t show it.  They’d had mostly salt pork or bacon the previous week, so anything fresh was appreciated.  Besides, fish cooked quickly, and supper needed to be quick tonight.  In order to take advantage of the opportunity to do their laundry, the ladies had suggested having the worship service in the evening, and Martha Wentworth had conveyed the message to an agreeable husband.  At home, he wouldn’t have approved of such labor on the Sabbath, but out here even staid and stern Ebenezer Wentworth bowed to the necessity of a convenient stream.  Besides, he’d had no clean shirts left in which to preach.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

             Inger woke with a frown on her face and an unsettled feeling in her stomach.  Something seemed wrong, but she wasn’t sure what.  Next to her, Ben stirred uneasily and sat up.  “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Inger whispered.  “Something voke me.”

“Yeah, me, too,” Ben said.  Then, a mournful cry pierced through the thin walls of their tent.  That was what he’d heard before, Ben suddenly realized, that sharp sound like an animal in pain.  “Stay here,” he ordered Inger.  “I’ll see what’s up.”

Not stopping to pull on his boots, Ben crawled outside and stumbled in his stocking feet toward the source of the sound.  His face tightened when he realized it was coming from the tent next to theirs.  “Clyde?” he called through the canvas.  “Anything wrong?”

Clyde Thomas, his face haggard, peered through the opening of his tent.  “It’s Bobby,” he croaked hoarsely.

“He didn’t take off again?” Ben asked.

Clyde shook his head.  “No, no.  Wish it was that simple.  He’s sick, Ben, bad sick.  Nelly’s scared it might be the cholera.  You ever seen a case?”

“Inger more than me,” Ben explained.  “You want her to take a look at the lad?”

“I’d appreciate it.”

Ben nodded and hurried back to his own tent.  “Get dressed quick,” he told Inger.  “Bobby Thomas is sick; his folks want you to see if it looks like cholera.”

The color drained from Inger’s face.  “Cholera!  Oh, Ben, I pray not!”  She pulled on her blue and rose print blouse and fastened it so hastily she missed the third button, but she didn’t notice that then.  She fastened her shoes loosely and hurried out.

When Inger entered the Thomas tent, she saw immediately that Bobby was very ill, indeed.  She instinctively laid her slender hand against his cheek.  The little boy moaned.  “Oh, poor little one,” Inger murmured.  “So cold you are!”

“He’s been switchin’ back and forth ‘twixt freezing and burning up,” Nelly whispered.  “I reckon it could be the ague, but he seems sicker than that.”

“Has he had any diarrhea or vomiting?” Inger asked.

“Diarrhea real bad,” Nelly said, “but he ain’t retched none yet.  To get so sick so fast——is it the cholera, Inger?  Ben said you’d seen it before.”

“Yah, in St. Joe,” Inger said and looked sadly into the eyes of the worried mother.  “This looks much the same, Nelly, and ve know it is around us.”

“Merciful God,” Nelly cried, burying her face in her hands.  “I knew it; I knew!”

Inger folded the older woman in her arms, but Nelly pushed her away.  “You get on out of here, Inger Cartwright,” she dictated.  “You can’t risk exposin’ yourself now; think of your baby, honey.  I shouldn’t have let Clyde send for you, but I was hopin’ it wasn’t what I feared.”

“I am not afraid,” Inger said soothingly.  “I nursed a young friend vith cholera in St. Joe and came to no harm.  I can help you vith Bobby.”

Nelly shook her head emphatically.  “Make her see reason, Ben,” she pleaded.

Ben took a firm grasp of Inger’s arm.  “It’s best, Inger; come with me.”

Inger started to argue, but Ben looked so firm, she knew nothing would dissuade him.  “Let me take Billy, at least,” she offered, “and I vill fix breakfast for everyone at my fire.”

Nelly smiled.  “Sure, honey; that’d be a blessing.  Billy, you go on with Mrs. Cartwright now, and mind everything she says, you hear.”

“Yes’m,” Billy said with unusually quiet compliance.  While Inger started breakfast, Billy crawled into the Cartwright tent and woke Adam.

Adam yawned wide and rubbed his eyes.  “What you doin’ here?” he demanded.

“Bobby’s sick,” Billy whispered, “and Ma threw me out.”

“Oh,” Adam said and sat up.  “He got the runs again?”  Like all the other emigrants, Adam had accepted regular bouts with dysentery as a fact of trail life.

Billy’s rusty freckles stood out against the unaccustomed paleness of his cheeks as he wagged his head back and forth.  “Unh-uh.  Your ma says it’s the cholera.”

Adam’s eyes jerked wide.  “That’s bad,” he said.  “My friend Jamie had that; he nearly died.”  It was obvious from the look on Billy’s face, though, that he didn’t need Adam’s testimony to tell him his little brother was in danger.  He’d already read that message in the anxious eyes of his parents.

While Inger started the breakfast coffee, Ben moved forward to talk with Larrimore.  “You sure it’s cholera?” Lawrence asked.

“Not positive,” Ben replied, “but it’s more than dysentery.”

“Who else is sick?” Jonathan Payne asked as he walked up.

“What do you mean, ‘who else,?’” Larrimore demanded.

Jonathan looked grim.  “My Johnny,” he said tautly.  “I was just coming to tell you.  Looks bad to me.”

Ben shuddered involuntarily.  They’d all stayed in basically good health for so long that they’d hoped to be spared this greatest danger of the trail.  Had their luck finally run out?  As word of the sick boys spread through the camp, the men gathered purposefully around the Larrimore wagon.

“We’ll have to leave the sick wagons behind,” McTavish stated bluntly.

“We can’t do that!” Ben sputtered.  “It’s inhuman to abandon anyone out here, especially those too weak to care for themselves.”

“The bairns have their parents to care for them,” McTavish snapped, “and you’ve no right to ask the rest of us to risk our families.”

“I’m not asking more than I’m willing to do,” Ben said.

“Aye, ye are,” McTavish snorted.  “Your boy plays with them others all the time; he’ll likely be next, anyway.”

Ben gasped, whether from outrage or fear, he couldn’t say.

“That’s enough,” Larrimore ordered.  “We’ve faced our problems together so far, and I’m for sticking together.  Who knows who’ll take sick next?  There’s no running from cholera, McTavish.”

“But if we stay away from the sick, we have better chance,” Zuebner said.  “I don’t say leave them, but maybe keep some distance, you think?”

Larrimore looked at Ben, as if seeking guidance, but Ben didn’t feel comfortable saying more than he already had.  “It’s probably wise to separate the sick from the healthy, as much as possible,” Lawrence decided slowly, “but I won’t be party to abandoning them.  Payne, why don’t you and the Thomases start about a half hour after we break camp?  That way you’ll still be close enough to get word to us if you have problems with your wagons.”

Payne nodded soberly.  “That sounds fair——even kind.  We don’t want to spread this sickness, but we’d sure appreciate having someone close by, especially if we sight Indians.  They’ve been friendly enough so far, but there’s safety in numbers.”

“Everyone agreed?” Larrimore asked.

“Yeah,” Ben said, and his assent was echoed by Thomas, Zuebner and Wentworth.  McTavish stalked away without saying anything.

As the others drifted back to their wagons for breakfast, Wentworth remained behind.  “Mr. Larrimore,” he said quietly, “my wife and I would like to travel with the Paynes and the Thomases.  We might be of some use to them.”

Lawrence looked up sharply.  “You should check with Martha before you make such an offer.”

Shaking his head, Wentworth smiled.  “No need.  Martha and I have always been of one mind when it comes to serving the needy.”

Lawrence reddened.  “You put us all to shame, Reverend.”

“Not my intent,” Ebenezer said as he turned to leave.

The minister was not the only one whose thoughts turned to helping the families with ailing members.  When Inger heard that the two wagons were to be separated from the main party, she suggested that she and Ben join the smaller group.  “Three vagons vill be safer than two,” she insisted.

“Not this time, Inger,” Ben said.  “I don’t like it any better than you, but I won’t put you at risk, not with your time so close.”

“But, Ben—”

“No!” Ben declared.  “Not another word, Inger Cartwright.  There’s Adam to think of, too, if you don’t care for yourself or our unborn child.”

Tears filled Inger’s eyes.  “Oh, Ben, how can you?” she whimpered and went to hide in the tent until she could get her emotions under control.  She stretched out on the blankets and buried her face in them.  Why couldn’t Ben understand?  Of course, she wanted to protect Adam and the little son she hoped to give him, but to stand by when others were in need without offering a hand to help put such an ache in her heart she didn’t think she could bear it.

“Inger,” Ben whispered through the tent opening.  “May I come in?”  Without looking at her husband, Inger nodded.  Ben crawled slowly to her side and lay down beside her.  “Please don’t cry, sweetheart,” he soothed.  “I know you have a heart tender enough to take in the whole world, but that’s why sometimes you need me——to protect you from yourself.”

Inger turned and let Ben encircle her with his strong arms.  “I know, Ben, but it hurts.”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” he said and just held her, stroking the hair she had hastily pinned up earlier.

The gesture made Inger laugh.  “I must look a fright,” she said, “and you are making it worse.”  For the first time she noticed she had not buttoned herself properly and her fingers moved to rectify the mistake.  “Vatch the bacon for me, Ben, while I put myself straight.”

Ben kissed her.  “You look beautiful to me, but I’ll watch the bacon.”  Feeling forgiven, he slipped outside to tend to breakfast.  He had just lifted the final strip of bacon from the skillet when he saw the McTavish wagon rumble past and out onto the trail.

Ben’s jaw hardened.  For the first time a member of their party had defied the decision of the majority and gone off on his own.  Ben knew it was a common thing on the trail for trains to split apart, for individual wagons to separate and join with another party heading west.  He’d been proud to think their group possessed more sense of community than those others, however, and this sudden breach disheartened him.

The healthy members of the Larrimore party headed out immediately after breakfast; the other three wagons followed, keeping about a mile between them and the four in the lead.  They pulled a little closer at the noon stop to water the stock in the nearby creek, but still maintained a discreet distance.

As Inger stirred the rice she was cooking with salt pork for flavoring, she gazed longingly at the wagons of her friends.  Ben brushed a tear from her cheek.  “The pork makes the rice salty enough without your adding these,” he said softly.

Inger gave him a weak smile and took a step back from the pot.  “Better?” she asked, but her heart obviously wasn’t in her attempt at humor.  She glanced over at Billy Thomas who had flopped down next to their wagon when Adam crawled beneath it to scribble in his journal.  Here, at least, was someone she could help.  She squatted next to him and brushed his red hair.  “Lunch vill be ready soon, Billy.”

“I ain’t hungry,” Billy muttered.

Inger gave him a sympathetic look.  “Don’t vorry about your brother, Billy.  Your mama is looking out for him.”

“I ain’t worried,” Billy said gruffly.  Inger looked puzzled.  Billy wasn’t the best-mannered boy in the world, but he had always been more mischievous than mean.  Today, though, he sounded mad at the world.  Despite his words, Inger was sure he must be worried about little Bobby.  Surely, that explained his irritability.

An instant later her mother’s instinct challenged that conclusion.  She stopped brushing the boy’s hair and let her hand rest on his forehead.  Feeling his flesh burn against her palm, Inger understood why Billy had seemed so listless as he’d dragged along beside Adam that morning.  He wasn’t just worried about Bobby; he was sick himself.

Inger stood up and stepped close to Ben.  “Ben, I think Billy is not vell.  I vant to take him back to his mother.”

Concern flickered in Ben’s eyes as he looked at Billy.  “I’ll take him,” he said.

“No, Ben,” Inger insisted.  “I vant to go.”

Ben took her in his arms.  “Now, sweetheart, we’ve already discussed—”

“Yah, I know,” Inger interrupted sharply, “but you did not listen much.  I vant to take Billy home, Ben.”

Ben looked steadily into her purposeful face.  He couldn’t say no again; he just couldn’t.  “All right, but don’t stay long, please, Inger.”

“I vill not,” she promised.  Walking back to the wagon, she reached for Billy’s hand.  “Come, Billy.  Let us go see your mama.”  Billy scrambled up and took Inger’s extended hand without a word.  Together, they walked toward the small encampment of quarantined wagons.

Nelly frowned as she saw Inger heading her way with Billy at her side.  Then she sighed.  Likely, Billy’d been giving trouble, and the Cartwrights had had their fill of him.  Why, today of all days, did he have to play the pest?  Today, when she needed to focus all her attention on her suffering four-year-old.  “What’s he done?” she asked wearily when Inger came close.

Inger shook her head and laid her finger across her lips to silence Nelly before she said words she’d regret.  With sad eyes she looked into her friend’s face.  “I think Billy is sick, too,” she whispered.

Nelly paled as she stooped to examine her older son.  “Oh, merciful heavens,” she cried.  “Not both of them.”

Inger helped her settle Billy inside the wagon, then wandered over to see the Paynes.  “How is Johnny?” she asked.

“Fretful,” Rachel said wearily.  “He was up half the night, and he still can’t rest.”

“May I see him?” Inger asked.

“If you’re not scared to,” Rachel said.

Inger said nothing, just climbed into the wagon and sat down next to the boy whose features reminded her so much of Jamie Edwards.  She started to croon the soft Swedish lullaby Jamie had found soothing during his illness and smiled as she saw Johnny’s eyes grow heavy and close in sleep.

“You’re a wonder, Inger,” Rachel whispered.  “I’ve sung myself hoarse, but nothing seemed to comfort him.”

Inger laughed softly.  “Maybe it’s like bread,” she said.  “My mother used to say the bread of another country alvays tastes better than your own.”

“I’d like to try Swedish bread sometime,” Rachel said.

“Yah, someday, when this terrible time is past, ve vill visit in each other’s homes and taste each other’s bread,” Inger said dreamily.

“Someday,” Rachel said, and in her heart it was a promise.

Inger crept quietly from the wagon so as not to wake Johnny.  “I must get back,” she said.  “I promised Ben I vould not stay long.”

Rachel gave her a hug.  “I understand.  Take care, Inger.”  Watching the Swedish woman walk back to her own camp, Rachel smiled.  She hoped Inger would follow that advice.  What would any of them do without her gentle influence?

* * * * *

After feeding her family at noon the following day, Inger wandered down to the cholera camp.  Ben had finally decided his wife was determined to worry herself sick if she didn’t know how the others were doing; therefore, it would be safer in the long run to let her pay a brief visit.  The first person Inger saw was Martha Wentworth.  “How is everyone?” Inger asked.

Martha gave her an affectionate embrace.  “Holding their own, I guess.  No new cases, thank the Lord.”

“That is good,” Inger agreed.  “Perhaps ve did vell to separate the vagons.”

Hearing Inger’s soft accent, Nelly emerged from her wagon.  “Inger Cartwright, you’re incorrigible,” Nelly chided.

“Like Billy?” Inger laughed.  But Nelly, who had always been quick to make sport of the antics of her eldest, didn’t respond to Inger’s teasing.  Instead, she just looked sadly toward the wagon.

“Are the boys worse?” Inger asked, sorry now that she had spoken so lightly.

Nelly turned a strained face toward Inger.  “I don’t know, honey.  Bobby seems about the same, but he was bad off yesterday.  Billy’s probably a little worse, but he seems took kind of mild, compared to his baby brother.”

“I don’t think Billy’s in any danger,” Martha said, “but he’s sure not his feisty little self, either.”

“I wish he was being a pure nuisance, like usual,” Nelly said, the words tight in her throat.  Hearing her son call, Nelly patted Inger’s arm and crawled back in the wagon.  “Mama’s here, Billy sugar,” she called.

Martha took Inger by the arm and steered her aside.  “I’m concerned about Nelly,” she said.  “She looks peaked to me.”

“Perhaps she is just worn down vith caring for the boys,” Inger suggested.

Martha didn’t look convinced.  “Maybe,” she said, “but I’m afraid she’s coming down sick herself.  Keep her in your prayers, my dear.”

“Yah, I vill,” Inger promised.  She paid a brief visit to the Payne wagon and soothed restless Johnny to sleep again with her Swedish song.  Then it was time to reload the wagons and move onto the trail again.  They were moving along the sandy south bank of the North Platte now, but across the wide river the opposite shore looked even more barren.  The only green to be seen was on the numerous little islands in the midst of the river——a bleak, lifeless landscape that matched the terrain of their thoughts.

The trek seemed more tiring today than it had before.  Ben said that was because they were climbing now; and while the uphill grade was slight, it was constant, giving their legs little opportunity for rest.  But Inger thought they felt tired because their hearts were heavy, pulled down by a force greater than gravity, fear for the friends below them on the trail.

Inger got the evening campfire burning bright, then turned to see Adam leaning against the rear wheel of the wagon staring at the wagons camped a mile behind them.  “Now vould be a good time to do your lessons,” she said, hoping to distract him.

“Do I have to?” Adam asked.  “I don’t feel like reading right now.”

Inger smiled.  “You can have a day off if you like, Adam.  I am sure your teacher vould understand.”  Adam nodded and kicked at the wagon wheel.  Inger folded him into her arms.  “You are vorried about your friends?”

Adam nodded.  “And you and Pa,” he added.

Inger kissed the top of his head.  “Your father and I are fine,” she said, “and ve plan to stay fine.”

Ben came back from watering the stock and sniffed appreciatively at the steaming pot.  “Ah, smells good,” he said.

Inger stood and shook her head.  “Smells like salt pork again to me,” she said.

Ben grinned.  “Oh, well, hunger makes the best sauce, I’ve always heard.  What do you say, Adam?  Salt pork sound good tonight?”

Adam shook his head.  “I ain’t real hungry,” he muttered and wandered off.

Ben’s brow furrowed.  “Now, what’s bothering him?”

“Worried about his friends, I think,” Inger said.

But Adam’s loss of appetite was not due to sympathetic concern for his friends, as his parents discovered late that night.  It was pitch dark when Inger was awakened by a small, hot body pressing against her back.  She heard a soft voice whimpering “Mama,” and her eyes snapped open.  “Yes, Adam, what is it?” she whispered, hoping not to waken Ben.

“My stomach hurts, Mama,” Adam moaned.  “Real bad.”

Inger turned at once and opened her arms.  Adam crawled into her embrace and lay trembling against her side.  Inger reached out to touch his cheek and pulled her hand back quickly when she felt how warm he was.  “Ben, Ben, wake up,” she cried urgently.

Ben’s brown eyes opened.  “What is it?” he yawned.  “It’s not morning yet.”

“Adam is sick,” Inger whispered.

Ben bolted upright and reached cross Inger to feel Adam’s forehead.  “Oh, no,” he murmured.  “Dear God, no.”

“His stomach is cramping,” Inger said.  “I think ve should give him some laudanum.”

“I’ll get it,” Ben said and hurried to the wagon for their box of medicines.  He returned to find Inger cleaning Adam’s bottom.  The boy was lying in an ill-smelling brown puddle.  “Diarrhea?” Ben asked, knowing what that likely meant.  Inger nodded gravely.

Ben spooned a dose of laudanum into his son’s mouth.  It seemed to quiet the boy’s bowels, but the fever continued to rise, alternating with body-shaking chills.  By morning their fears were confirmed, and they pulled their wagon into line with those of the other stricken families.

Inger rode inside the wagon with Adam, trying to lower his temperature by sponging his hot little body.  The lukewarm water didn’t cool him much, however.  As she wiped the damp cloth over his face and chest, she tried to soothe him to sleep with her Swedish lullaby.  It didn’t work the same magic on him that it had on Jamie or Johnny Payne, however, and Inger found herself remembering her mother’s remark about bread of another country.  Maybe if Rachel sang to Adam?  Inger shook her head to dislodge the silly thought.  Adam was too sick to find solace in anyone’s song.

Looking down, she saw tears staining the boy’s face.  “Does your stomach hurt badly, my sweet?” she asked tenderly.

Adam nodded.  “I—I guess God’s real mad at us, huh, Mama.”

Inger stared, wide-eyed, at the little boy’s taut features.  “No, Adam, of course not.  Why vould He be?”

“We traveled when we shouldn’t,” Adam said soberly.  “I guess God’s punishing us for that, huh?”

Inger pressed his hot cheeks between her hands.  “No, Adam.  He is not.”

“But the preacher said—”

“The preacher is wrong,” Inger said firmly.  “Do not trouble yourself, sweet boy.  God has not made you sick because ve traveled on Sunday.”  Adam stared quietly into her face, but it was obvious from his tormented expression that he remained unconvinced.

When they stopped at noon, Inger climbed out of the wagon to share Adam’s concern with Ben.  She found him staring ahead on the trail.  “What is it?” she asked.

Ben sighed.  “Looks like we’ve got more company.”

Shading her eyes, Inger followed his line of sight.  “Oh, no,” she moaned mournfully.  “The Zuebners.”  She and Ben walked forward to meet the wagon.  “You have sickness, too?” Inger asked.

Fredrich nodded soberly.  “Is Katerina.  She seem all right this morning, but now very sick.”

“I’ll see how she’s doing,” Inger offered.  Before she climbed into the Zuebner wagon, though, she told Ben what was worrying Adam.  “Perhaps, if Reverend Ventvorth spoke to him,” she suggested.

“I’ll ask,” Ben assured her.

The minister was already on his way to meet the new members of their growing community.  After telling the Zuebners’ news, Ben explained briefly about Adam’s fear of divine retribution.  “If you could speak to him, assure him the Almighty is not angered,” Ben said, “I’d be much obliged.”

Ebenezer Wentworth gazed sorrowfully into Ben’s face.  “How can I, Mr. Cartwright?  I tried to warn you—”

“Now, wait a minute,” Ben exploded.  “You’re not saying God poured out this curse on us for breaking the Sabbath!”

Ebenezer laid a conciliatory hand on Ben’s shoulder, but Ben flung it off.  “Please, my friend,” the minister said. “I have no wish to add to your pain, but there are consequences of disobedience.  Much as I regret it, I’m afraid this wagon train is reaping the seeds it sowed.”

“Twice!” Ben yelled.  “Twice we traveled on Sunday.  How can you say—”

“Twice you listened to the voice of circumstance instead of the voice of God,” Wentworth declared, his voice rising in response to Ben’s heated words.  “When you did keep God’s holy day, it was because it was convenient, not because you repented for the other times.  It seems as though only your innocent child took my warnings to heart.  I will gladly assure him that he is not personally responsible for this tragedy, of course, but I will not damage his soul by telling him a falsehood.”

Ben pulled his arm back to take a swing at the minister’s jaw, but Zuebner grabbed his arm.  “No, Ben,” he protested.  “He is a man of God!”

Ben spat.  “Man of God!  Man without a heart,” he blurted out and turned away.  An agonized Wentworth started to follow, but Zuebner held him back, shaking his head.  He may not have had the reverend’s spiritual knowledge, but he was wise in the ways of people.  He knew in his heart Ben could not contain his rage if Wentworth said one more word.

As the wagons limped along that afternoon, more and more distance stretched between them and the two Larrimore wagons remaining in the lead.  As the sick weakened, it became necessary to stop more often to empty pails of vomit or draw water to cool fevered brows.  By traveling late, though, the stragglers caught up and made camp near their captain.

Lawrence came back to check on the condition of the others in the train.  What he found disturbed him.  Billy Thomas seemed better, but he was the only one who showed improvement.  His brother Bobby was desperately ill, and their mother had finally collapsed, stricken with cholera herself.  Clyde remained well, but worn out from caring for the sick members of his family.

Johnny Payne was weak, cold and clammy to the touch, but so far the rest of his family was in good health.  Adam Cartwright was raving deliriously, his body shaken by intermittent convulsions, while Katerina Zuebner lay listless, her delicate face drawn and white.  Only the Wentworth family was untouched by illness, seeming to validate the minister’s belief that the cholera had been sent as recompense for their sins.

After his survey, Lawrence stopped by the Cartwright wagon.  “I don’t see much point in keeping the train separated any longer,” he said.  “I’m not sure we aren’t already coming down with this plague ourselves.”

“You feeling poorly?” Ben asked, concerned.

Lawrence shrugged.  “Not sure.  My head aches something fierce, but that could just be the strain, I guess.  Camilla’s been a mite queasy this afternoon.  Sick or not, I think we’d feel safer if we were closer to you others, though; so you might as well leave at seven tomorrow, same as us.”

Ben nodded.  “All right.  We’ll keep a little space, but not a full mile.”  He crawled into his tent, where Inger lay holding Adam in her arms.  “Let me watch the boy awhile,” he said.

“All right,” Inger replied and, easing Adam down, sat up.  “It’s time I started supper, I guess.”

“Don’t bother,” Ben said, “unless you’re hungry.”

“You must eat, Ben,” Inger urged.  “Starving yourself vill not help Adam.”

“Eating won’t help him either,” Ben said pointedly.  “I can open a tin of sardines if I get hungry later, Inger.  I just don’t see the use of tiring yourself out cooking when no one’s got an appetite.”

Inger sighed.  “Yah, I have no appetite, either.  I vill make some coffee, though.”

Ben smiled.  “That’d be good.”  As Inger left, he gathered his son into his arms and held him close until the boy stopped shaking.  The chill past, Adam grew warm again and started to babble something about Chimney Rock.  “I wanted see it,” he slurred.

Ben’s arms tightened around the child.  “You will, Adam; you will,” he reassured him.  “Pa promises.  You’re gonna see Chimney Rock, and FortLaramie and Independence Rock and—”  Ben’s voice broke in a guttural sob, and his tears soaked the boy’s black hair.

Hearing voices outside the tent later, Ben emerged, and his visage darkened when he saw Martha Wentworth.  “Oh, hello, Mr. Cartwright,” Martha said.  “I was just telling Inger that little Johnny is having a hard time getting to sleep again.  His mother thought perhaps Inger could come sing to him a bit.  I’d be glad to sit with Adam.”

“You get away from my family,” Ben demanded.  Martha blanched at his angry tone.

“Ben!” Inger said, shocked.  “You have no need to speak to Martha that vay.”

“Why?  Are her feelings different from her husband’s?” Ben sputtered.

“I don’t know, Ben,” Inger said.  “I only know Martha has come to ask help for a friend.  Vould you punish Johnny because you are angry vith Reverend Ventvorth?”

Ben folded his arms.  “No, of course not.  Go sing to Johnny whenever you like, but we don’t need help from the Wentworths.  I can see to Adam.”

“I’ll tell Rachel you’ll be down soon,” Martha said quietly.  “I’m sorry, Inger; I meant no offense.”

“You gave none,” Inger assured her.  When Martha was gone, Inger, arms akimbo, turned flashing eyes on her husband.  “How could you, Ben?  She has shown us nothing but kindness.”

“You weren’t there; you didn’t see the self-righteous arrogance on that man’s face,” Ben snapped.

“No, I did not,” Inger retorted, “but I doubt he looked much more ‘holier than thou’ than you do right now!”

Ben bit his tongue to stop the acidic words he felt forming.  He didn’t want to quarrel with Inger.  He wasn’t angry with her——or with Martha Wentworth, for that matter.  His anger was directed at Wentworth himself, and maybe——if the minister’s prophecies of doom came to pass——just maybe, at Wentworth’s god.

Neither Ben nor Inger slept much that night, for Adam’s temperature continued to rise, and he jerked again and again with the convulsions of his fevered brain.  As Ben rocked the boy back and forth, back and forth, his frantic prayers ascended heavenward; and Inger’s quieter pleas sought aid from the same Protector.

Just as dawn broke, so did Adam’s fever and the boy lay limp in his father’s arms.  The weary parents rejoiced, hoping he had passed the crisis; but Adam seemed so weak they couldn’t be sure.  Inger thought how strange it would be if her sturdy Adam succumbed to the disease frail Jamie had survived.  But she knew it could happen; cholera knew no respect of persons.

Still, she and Ben felt relieved as they left their tent that morning to prepare and eat a hurried breakfast.  They encouraged one another with assurances that Adam would soon be better, but their hope shriveled when they heard that Johnny Payne had slipped away in the night.

Inger immediately ran to her friend’s wagon to offer her help in preparing the body for burial, but she found Martha Wentworth already there gently washing the small, cold form.  “Go to Rachel; she needs you,” Martha whispered.  Inger nodded and went to enclose Rachel in a comforting embrace.  “He was such a good boy,” Rachel wept, “such a sweet, good boy.”  Inger held her tighter and mingled her tears with those of the disconsolate mother.

Throughout the burial, Inger supported Rachel in her arms, for her friend seemed barely able to stand upright.  Then, as the Reverend Wentworth said the final amen, Rachel collapsed.  At first, everyone thought her pained heart had left her prostrate, but an anguished Jonathan informed them she had been feeling weak the previous day.  Before heading out on the trail, they realized Rachel had fallen victim to the disease that had just taken her son’s life.

The emigrants plodded forward step by weary step through a long day.  No one felt any enjoyment in the journey now; no one looked hopefully toward the western horizon; no one had any expectation they’d ever reach their destination.  All anyone felt was a heaviness that made each step a struggle, each breath a burden.  No one wanted to go forward, but what else was there to do?

As they set up camp that evening, the still air was shattered by the sound of sobs from the wagon beside the Cartwrights.  Almost knowing without asking, Ben walked slowly over to Clyde Thomas, who had just climbed out the back of his wagon.  “Bobby?” Ben asked when he saw the tears streaking Clyde’s haggard face.  Clyde nodded without a word.

Ben called to Inger, who ran to her friend’s side.  Nelly lay next to her child, stroking his golden hair with a feeble hand.  “Why, Inger?” she sobbed.  “Why?  He was always such a little angel.  Why would God take him?”

Inger took the little boy in her arms and cradled him against her breast as her tears flowed freely.  “I don’t know, Nelly; perhaps heaven vas an angel short.  Oh, I yoost don’t know!”  Heart-broken as if little Bobby had been her own child, Inger wept; and though Nelly was too weak to say so then, she took comfort in knowing her child was resting in loving arms.

As another small body was laid to rest in the earth that night, Ebenezer Wentworth reminded the bereaved parents and their friends that little Bobby did, indeed, rest in loving arms, those of his heavenly Father.  “He sings with the angels tonight,” the minister assured them, “free from the pain of this life, waiting to welcome us all when our time of passing comes.”  As angry as Ben felt with Wentworth, even he found the words comforting, and it was obvious Clyde and Nelly were grateful for the consolation they offered.

Still, the day had been painful.  Ben and Inger were relieved by Adam’s slight improvement, but having attended two funerals, they found it hard to rejoice openly in their good fortune.  The number of sick continued to rise.  Both bereaved mothers were ill, and Fredrich Zuebner, too.  They’d seen the first signs of that when he’d tried to help dig Bobby’s grave and fallen, too weak to rise again.  All four Larrimores were feeling sick, as well.  While none of them seemed seriously ill, you could never tell with cholera.  Enos Montgomery——thankfully, not afflicted himself——went far beyond the duties for which he’d been hired in his solicitous care for the entire family.

Ben took charge of the men’s meeting that night in Lawrence’s absence.  Along with Clyde, Jonathan and Ebenezer——the only men still on their feet——he decided the train would have to halt until enough of them felt able to continue the journey.

The train remained encamped by the North Platte Friday.  Sickness had prostrated at least one member of every family now, for the Wentworth children and Martha had finally fallen ill.  The boys each seemed to have a light case, like the one from which Billy Thomas was now recovering, but Martha and tiny Mary were very ill.  With everyone in his family sick, Reverend Wentworth was no longer able to assist the other ailing members of the party.  He had his hands full.

Billy Thomas wandered over to the Cartwright’s fire just before noon.  “Hello, Billy,” Inger said, stooping to give him a hug.  “You are feeling better, yah?”

“Yes’m,” Billy said.  “Can I see Adam now?”  It was the third time he had asked that morning.

Inger shook her head.  “Not today, Billy,” she replied, as she had to each earlier request.  “Adam is still very weak.”

“He’s gonna get better, though, ain’t he?” Billy demanded.

“We hope so,” Inger said.  “How is your mother?”

“I don’t know,” Billy said, kicking a pebble.  “She don’t want me around.”

Inger smoothed the red hair that was sticking up in at least twelve directions.  “She’s just sick, Billy; she needs quiet so she can rest.”

Billy shook his head.  “She never did want me around——just Bobby.”

Inger knelt and drew the unhappy boy into her arms.  “That is not true, Billy,” she said matter-of-factly.  “Bobby vas a sveet little boy, but you are just as special to your mother in your own vay.”

“She calls me a pest,” Billy moped.

Inger laughed gently.  “Vell, aren’t you?”  She gave the boy a firm squeeze.  “When your mama says that, she says it vith much love in her eyes.  You know she is only teasing.  If you crawl close to her, I think she vould squeeze you tighter than this.”

A slight grin lifted the corners of Billy’s mouth.  “You reckon?”

“Yah, I am sure a hug is just the medicine she needs,” Inger said brightly.  “Run give her one, then hurry back here, and I vill give you lunch.  Tell your papa to come, too.”  Billy gave her a quick nod and raced to his parents’ tent.

When lunch was almost ready, Inger pulled back the flap of her tent and looked inside.  “Is Adam better?” she asked.

Sitting beside their son, Ben shook his head.  “He seems about the same.  He’s sleeping now, though.”

“That is good,” Inger said, dropping down beside her husband.  She sighed wearily and Ben put an arm around her.

“You’re tired,” he said.

“Yah,” Inger agreed.  “Ve have had little sleep the last two nights.”

“I know,” Ben said solemnly, “and you’ve been doing more than you should to help the others.”

Inger gave a short, almost bitter, laugh.  “How can I not, Ben?  There are so few of us left who can help.”

“Nonetheless,” Ben said firmly.  “You have done enough.  I want you to lie down and rest this afternoon.  Surely, that babe of ours isn’t going to stay cooped up in your belly much longer, and you mustn’t go into labor already exhausted.”

Inger chuckled.  “Our baby seems in no great hurry, but you are right.  I vill rest, Ben; I promise.  Lunch is ready now, and Clyde and Billy should be here any minute.  You are coming?”

Ben gave her a twisted smile.  “I don’t think so.  My stomach’s churning.”

Alarm sprang into Inger’s eyes.  “Oh, Ben, not you, too!”

Ben caught her and held her close.  “No, no, my love.  I don’t think it’s cholera, just another bout with dysentery.”

“Then it is you who should rest this afternoon,” Inger said.

Ben chuckled.  “We’re a feeble bunch, all right.  I’ll make you a bargain.  You dish up lunch, and I’ll tend to the cleanup.  Then we’ll both take a nap alongside our sleepy boy here.”

Inger laid her head on his shoulder.  “It’s a bargain,” she said.

Although Ben wasn’t interested in food, he crawled out to meet Clyde when he arrived with Billy.  “How’s Nelly?” he asked.

“She seems a little better,” Clyde said, “but real weak.”

“That’s the way it is with Adam,” Ben commented.  “You heard anything about the others?”

Clyde cackled.  “I hear old Sterling ain’t got the cholera after all, for all his carryin’ on.  Seems the youngun made a raid on the jellybeans while his ma was too sick to stop him.  Plumb gorged himself into a bellyache.  Enos thinks that may be what’s ailin’ Jewel, too, though she seems sicker than Stirpot.”

Ben chuckled.  It was good to have something to laugh at again.  But he was sure Lawrence and Camilla weren’t up to enjoying the humor their children were giving their neighbors.

“Rachel’s on the mend,” Clyde reported, “and little Katerina’s holding her own, but her pa’s real bad, I hear.”

Ben shook his head.  “That strong bull of a man.  It’s hard to picture him sick.”

“That’s cholera for you,” Clyde said.  “Strikes where it will, takes who it wants.” The faraway look in his eyes told Ben Clyde was thinking of Bobby, so Ben reached out to grasp his friend’s shoulder.

Clyde took seconds on everything Inger offered him.  “Seein’ as how you still got some left,” he suggested, “you mind if I take a little to Nelly.”

“You think she can eat it?” Inger asked.  “I vas going to make some soup for Adam later; I vould be glad to bring some to Nelly, too.”

“Probably would set easier on her stomach,” Clyde admitted.  “I just thought I ought to get a little nourishment in her.”

“I’ll bring some soup,” Inger promised.

“For supper,” Ben said firmly.  “You are taking a nap first, remember?”

Inger rolled her eyes.  “Yes, Ben, I remember.”

The Cartwrights lay side by side in their tent for most of the afternoon.  It was time for Inger to start the promised soup, but she had fallen asleep, and Ben hadn’t the heart to waken her.  He heard shuffling feet outside the canvas shelter, then an urgent whisper.  “Ben, Ben, you awake?”

Ben crawled to the tent opening and peered out.  “Yeah, Clyde, but the soup’s not on yet.”

“I ain’t here for soup,” Clyde said.  “I know you’re feelin’ puny, but you reckon you got the strength to help me and Jonathan dig a grave?”

Ben groaned.  “Oh, no.  Who this time?”

“It’s Fredrich,” Clyde mumbled.

“But he just took sick yesterday,” Ben protested.  “I’ve heard of cholera killing that fast, but not Fredrich, surely.”

“He’s gone, Ben.  I hate to ask, but there’s only three of us left able-bodied enough to do the job.  I could ask Wentworth, I guess, but he’s tendin’ four sick ones at his wagon.”

“He wasn’t strong-muscled to begin with,” Ben said.  “I’ll come, but I’m not sure how much help I’ll be.  How’s Ludmilla holding up?  Should I send Inger?”

“Naw, I wouldn’t,” Clyde replied.  “Rachel’s with her, still peaked herself, but strong enough to comfort someone else, I reckon.”

“Larrimore know?” Ben asked.

“Not yet.”

“I’ll tell him, then meet you down by Bobby’s grave.”

Clyde nodded.  Somehow, it comforted him to know that his boy wouldn’t be lying alone on the prairie.  It was as if even in death, the big German farmer would be there to watch over Bobby the way he’d watched over so many of them at dangerous river crossings.

Everyone who was able to stand attended the brief service the Reverend Wentworth conducted over Fredrich’s burial.  When Inger saw the grieving widow approach the grave, she started toward her.  Then, seeing Ludmilla leaning heavily on her son’s arm, she stopped.  It was right that Stefán be the one to comfort his mother today.

As Inger watched the boy support his mother, she knew he had stepped into his rightful place as head of the family.  And if any boy of twelve could handle the load of responsibility that had suddenly dropped onto his young shoulders, Stefán was that boy.  No, Inger corrected herself, for all his youth, Stefán was a boy no longer; he was a young man now.

Saturday found most of the infirm showing signs of improvement, but still too weak to consider traveling.  The grim reaper refused to conclude his harvest without swinging his sickle through one more family, however.  When she heard the news, Inger went at once to help prepare Martha Wentworth’s body for burial, but she found Ludmilla Zuebner already at work.  “I can do this,” Ludmilla said, “but, maybe, you speak to minister.  He is so sad, and I don’t know words to give him.”

Inger nodded.  She wasn’t sure she had words to comfort the poor man, either, but she breathed a short prayer and went to find him.  As she approached the Wentworth tent, Inger heard the agonized cries of the bereft husband.  “My God, my God,” the minister sobbed.  “It is I who sinned, not my sainted wife.  And these innocent children——please, dear Lord, take my life and spare theirs!”

Inger closed her eyes and pressed her fingers to her lips.  She had seen grief in the others who had lost family members, heard the painful “why” screaming from their hearts, but nothing like the anguish pouring through the thin walls of this tent.  This was the sound of a soul enduring the torments of hell on the wrong side of the grave.

Inger braced herself and slipped through the opening of the tent.  Unaware of her entrance, the minister, stretched prostrate between his suffering children, continued to cry out for a mercy he clearly felt he did not merit.  “Reverend Ventvorth,” Inger said quietly.

Surprised, the minister rolled over and lifted a puffy, blotched face.  “What do you want?” he asked gruffly.

Inger knelt beside him.  “Can I help you vith the children?” she asked softly.

“No,” Wentworth said abruptly.  “I don’t need help.”  His voice broke.  “I—I don’t deserve help.”

Though she felt uncomfortable being so familiar with a man of God, Inger gently touched his cheek.  “Ebenezer,” she said softly.  “Do not distress yourself so.”

Wentworth sat up, his face taut.  “Mrs. Cartwright, I’m sure you mean well, but you cannot understand what I am feeling.  To have brought this on my dear family, I—I—”  He broke down again and turned his face away.

Inger took his hand and squeezed hard.  “But you have not, Reverend Ventvorth.”

The face the minister turned back to her was flushed with anger.  “Do you presume to instruct me in religion, ma’am?”

Inger took a deep breath before answering.  “No, I know you are much wiser in spiritual things than I; but sometimes, when our hearts are so pained, ve forget the vords of the Good Book ve need most.  Perhaps, then, a simple peasant voman can remind a friend of God’s goodness, even though he is so much wiser at other times.”

The kind words so softly spoken quenched the fire in the minister’s heart.  “Forgive me, Mrs. Cartwright,” he said.  “I had no right to attack you like that, but you don’t understand.  I have always believed the evil that comes to our lives arrives in consequence of our sins.  Not believing that yourself, how can you know my pain?”

“I cannot,” Inger said simply, “but what is this sin you have done?  You did not vish to travel on the Sabbath; you were forced by the others.  Vould God hold you guilty for that?”

Wentworth sighed.  “I don’t know.  I thought not, but perhaps I should have used more faith, been willing to travel alone.”

“That vould have been foolish,” Inger said firmly.

Wentworth’s eyes raked the ceiling of his canvas shelter.  “Then, perhaps, my real sin was my uncharitable attitude toward the rest of you.  Perhaps that is why God has taken my dear wife.”

Inger looked kindly into his haunted face.  “It vas cholera that took your wife, not the hand of God,” she said as tenderly as if she were talking to a child.  “And I think there is no sin for you to repent of.  Does not the Good Book say that it rains upon the just and the unjust, both alike.”

Wentworth’s lips trembled.  “Yes, yes, it says that.”

“Is cholera different from rain?” Inger asked quietly.  “If ve cannot understand the vays of the veather, how can ve hope to know why one lives and one dies when it is disease that rains upon us?”

“I—I don’t know,” the minister said, but for the first time there was hope in his heart.  “Perhaps, it is like the rain, coming whether or not there is sin.  I would like to believe that, Mrs. Cartwright, but—”

“Let me stay vith the children,” Inger offered.  “Find a quiet place and ask the heavenly Father if it is not so.  I am sure it is peace He vants to give you, not all these tortured thoughts.”

Reverend Wentworth swallowed hard.  “Yes, yes, I’d like to do that, if you’d be so kind.”

Inger smiled.  “I like children.  It takes no kindness to tend them.  Go and find peace, Ebenezer.”  The minister blinked back grateful tears and without further word left his children to Inger’s care.

He returned an hour later, his countenance totally transformed.  Gone was the tension tightening his facial muscles; in its place, a tranquil trust resided.  He returned to a tent that was totally transformed, too.  In the absence of his heart-rending bombardment of a brazen heaven, a soft song had calmed his children’s restless tossing and lulled their weary bodies to sleep.  Leaving them to rest, Wentworth walked Inger back to her wagon.

Ben, who had been brewing a pot of coffee, stood as his wife approached on the minister’s arm.  “Mr. Cartwright, I’ve come to ask your forgiveness,” Ebenezer said forthrightly.  “You came to me in a time of need, and I offered you no understanding.  Worse, I left your sick child to wrestle with a principle I now question myself.  Can you find it in your heart to forgive my foolishness?”

If the minister had decked him with a sturdy right jab, Ben couldn’t have been more dumbfounded.  “I—I don’t know what to say,” he began.  “I know you were only expressing your beliefs, and every man in this nation has that right, but—”

Ebenezer held up his hand.  “I understand what you’re saying, Mr. Cartwright, and it’s very gracious of you.  But though I didn’t see it this way at the time, I know now I wronged you.  It’s your forgiveness I need, not your defense.”

Ben extended his hand.  “You are forgiven, sir.”

Ebenezer exhaled in relief.  “Thank you.  I know I have no right to ask such a favor, but I would appreciate your saying a few words over my wife at the burying.”

Ben’s face turned as white as his canvas wagon cover had been the day they left St. Joe.  “I’m not a public speaker,” he stammered.  “I couldn’t possibly express myself as eloquently as you have at the other services.”

Ebenezer smiled sadly.  “I doubt I’d be eloquent at this one, and I scarcely think it’s eloquence that’s called for.  I’ve learned there can be great wisdom, as well as great comfort, in simple words.  I can think of no one I would rather have preside at Martha’s funeral, if you’re willing.”

Ben swallowed the lump in his throat.  “I’ll do my best,” he said in a choked whisper.

“Thank you,” Ebenezer replied.  “Now, would you still like me to speak with your boy?”

“At a later time, I would,” Ben said.  “He’s so weak and tired today I doubt he could understand what you’d say.”

Ebenezer nodded.  “Whenever you feel he’s ready, then.  I think I know how to comfort his fears, thanks to your wife.”

As the minister walked away, Ben turned puzzled eyes to Inger’s face.  “Now, what did he mean by that, I wonder.”

Inger tapped the tip of his nose.  “He meant that you are blessed vith a vonderful wife and should listen to her more often.”  Ben arched a skeptical eyebrow, but Inger refused to give him any further explanation.

After the funeral Lawrence stumbled to Ben’s side.  Though still too feeble to stand for long, he had pushed himself to attend out of his great respect for the minister’s wife.  “Fine words, Ben,” he said.

Ben didn’t agree; he’d felt uncomfortable the whole time, but the minister had shaken his hand and told him how much he appreciated the kind remarks Ben had made about his wife.  In the long run, Ben supposed, what mattered most was that the one whose heart was sorest had found relief.

“I wondered if you’d gather the men together tonight to discuss whether we should move on tomorrow,” Lawrence requested.

“Sure,” Ben agreed readily.  “After supper?”

Lawrence shrugged.  “Whenever you like.  I’m asking you to act as captain in my stead, though I imagine most of the folks would just as soon you keep the position permanently.”

“No, sir,” Ben dissented stoutly.  “You’re their choice; I wouldn’t be captain, even if I’d heard anyone voice a desire to change——which I haven’t.  I’ll gladly serve as your first mate, however.”

A rowdy cackle assaulted Ben’s ears, and he spun around to see Clyde Thomas climbing up the knoll behind him.  “You got to face facts, Ben,” he said.  “You’re a landlubber now; you can’t be anybody’s first mate.  We’d better make you a lieutenant, instead.  How’s that sound, Larrimore?”

Larrimore grinned.  “Lieutenant Cartwright.  Yeah, that sounds good.  Put it to a vote tonight, Clyde.”

“Ain’t you gonna be at the meetin’?” Clyde asked.

Lawrence shook his head.  “I’m worn down.  I believe we should travel tomorrow if at all possible, but I figure I’d better get all the rest I can today or I’ll be the one holding us up.”

“Don’t push yourself,” Ben urged.  “We can wait if we need to.”

Lawrence nodded.  “Appreciate it, but I think I’ll be able to manage.  If not, I just might make ole jelly belly Sterling take over my team.”

“High time,” Clyde muttered as the train’s captain disappeared into his tent.  “That youngun could use a good dose of hard work.”  He laid a sympathetic hand on Ben’s shoulder.  “I don’t envy you taking charge tonight, Lieutenant.  With Wentworth grieving over his woman, he may be all the harder to convince about moving on a Sunday.”

“I don’t think it’ll be a problem,” Ben said quietly.  He gave Clyde a punch on the arm to acknowledge his concern.  “I imagine Inger will want to pay Nelly a visit while we meet.”

“She’ll look forward to it,” Clyde said.  “She didn’t feel like gettin’ up for the buryin’, but she’s feelin’ sprier.”

As the men gathered around the Cartwright campfire that night, young Stefán Zuebner walked shyly into the light.  “I know I am not a man,” he said, “but I must know the plans, so my family will be ready.”

Ben put a supportive arm around the slender shoulders.  “You’re taking on a man’s responsibility, son; that earns you the right to a place on this council.  We’ll expect you at every meeting.”  Stefán blushed as he saw the other men nod and give him encouraging smiles.

“Before we try to make any decision,” Ben began, “I think we need a report on how everyone’s faring.  Let’s start with you, Stefán.”

“Only Katerina is sick,” Stefán replied, “and she is better.  Very weak still, but she can ride in the wagon.”

“Good.  Jonathan?”

“We’re fit for travel,” Payne reported.  “Rachel may do more riding than walking, but we’ll manage.”

“Clyde, Nelly’s better, isn’t she?” Ben asked.

“Yeah, I vote to move on,” Clyde answered.  “We been in this death camp long enough.”

“Fine,” Ben responded.  “Reverend Wentworth?”

A hush fell over the men gathered about the fire.  They expected the minister’s usual didactic insistence on keeping the Sabbath and hated the thought of crossing someone who’d just buried his wife.

“The boys are much improved,” Ebenezer said, “but Mary’s very weak.  I wish they could have another day to rest, but I understand the need to move on as soon as possible.  You don’t really need my vote, of course; it’s clear you have a consensus already.  I’d like to state publicly, though, that I believe the time has come to continue our journey.”  Ebenezer smiled.  As he noticed the relieved expressions of his companions, he felt a genuine camaraderie with them, as well as a certain satisfaction in having surprised them so thoroughly.

“Larrimore and I both vote to continue,” Ben said.  “That makes it unanimous.”

“For the first time,” Clyde chortled.  He gave the minister’s back a hearty whack.

“Easy, Clyde,” Ben laughed.  “We’re trying to get everyone healthy again, not create more invalids!”  The others joined in the laughter, and the meeting closed with each vying the others in the forcefulness of their fraternal back-thumping.

The train made a late start the next morning; those who were leaving loved ones behind wanted a few final moments at their graves.  It was the first time Nelly’d had the strength to stand beside the mound of earth beneath which her golden-haired darling now slept, and the strain proved too great for her.  She fell across the tiny grave and wept uncontrollably.  Clyde finally had to carry her to her wagon.  Inger’s heart ached to go to her, but Adam was still so feeble she had to stay with him.

“I’m getting way behind on my lessons,” Adam mourned as he lay languidly in the wagon.

Inger gave him a tender kiss.  “You have vorked hard before, son; you can afford to rest now.”

“I guess,” Adam sighed, “but I ain’t been writing in my journal, either.  Jamie won’t know what’s been happening.”

Inger patted his hand.  “Now, now, do not fret; if you like, you can tell me what to say, and I vill write for you later.”

Adam smiled weakly.  “Later,” he yawned.  “I’m tired now.”  Though it was not yet mid-morning, his eyes closed and he slept.  Inger took advantage of his nap time to climb down from the rocking wagon.  The baby was kicking so hard she felt as though she were being pummeled about inside and out.  Far better to walk, so the blows came from only one direction.

As they traveled over a broad river bottom, they passed Smith’s Creek, a beautiful stream flowing over a sandy bed and stopped to water the oxen and fill their barrels full of the cool, refreshing water that made such a pleasant contrast to the muddy, stale waters of the Platte.  No one wanted to leave, but they were determined to reach Courthouse Rock by noon, and their late start left them little time to spare.  In the clear air the huge sandstone formation looked close, but it was miles ahead.

When they finally arrived, however, it was not the famous landmark that first demanded their attention.  Instead, all eyes riveted on the solitary wagon camped near its base.  Ben, still acting as lieutenant by Lawrence’s request, called the wagons to a halt.

Clyde trotted up to him.  “What’s wrong?”

Ben pointed.  “Isn’t that McTavish?” he asked.

Shading his eyes with his hand, Clyde peered ahead and nodded.  “Yup,” he said and spat at the ground.  “What’s he doing here?  That turncoat should’ve been miles ahead by now.”

“Yeah,” Ben said.  “That’s just what’s bothering me.  I’m gonna go forward and check out the situation before we make camp.  You hold everyone here.”

Clyde popped a salute at Ben.  “Aye, aye, Lieutenant,” he said crisply.

Ben frowned.  This was no time for jokes.  He ambled slowly toward the McTavish camp and greeted his former trail mate with a curt “Hello.”

McTavish had been watching Ben’s approach and responded cautiously.  “Hello, Ben.  Been wondering when you folks would catch up.”

“Why?  Were you waiting for us?” Ben asked brusquely.

McTavish flushed crimson and shook his head.  “No,” he admitted.  “I was ten kinds of a fool to part company with you, but I’m not so great a one as to think you’d welcome me back now I’ve come on hard times.”

Ben’s icy stare thawed.  “You’ve had trouble?” he asked.

“Nothing but,” McTavish said.  “I learned you can’t outrun cholera, for one thing.”

For the first time Ben noticed the newly-dug grave.  “Oh, no,” he sighed.  “Who did you lose, Robert?”

Robert blinked back the dampness in his eyes.  “My youngest, Joan.  Maggie and Roberta took sick, too.  We all did, but I think the rest of us will pull through.  Joanie’s gone, though.”  The husky man’s voice broke with a sob.

Ben reached out and touched the broad shoulder with a sympathetic hand.  “I’m sorry.  We buried four of the others back a ways, so we know something of what you’re feeling.”

McTavish examined Ben’s face for signs of bereavement.  “None of your own?”

“No, thank God,” Ben replied.  “Adam was bad for a time, and he’s still puny, but we’re hopeful he’ll make it.  Bobby Thomas, Johnny Payne, Martha Wentworth, and Fredrich Zuebner are the ones we lost.”

“Zuebner!” McTavish cried.  “I’d’ve never guessed him.”

Ben waved to Maggie, who was peering out the back of the wagon with a pale, fearful face.  He turned back to Robert.  “Why are you out here alone?  I was sure you’d have hooked up with another party by now.”

McTavish couldn’t bring his eyes to Ben’s face.  “No one would have us,” he said, looking away.  “The healthy trains wouldn’t risk the cholera, and the sickly ones had enough problems without taking on ours.”

“I see,” Ben said quietly.  He looked back at the other men of the train, gathered in a group, watching from a distance.  Ben wasn’t sure how they would respond to the dilemma now facing them.  He turned back to McTavish.  “If the others agree, would you want to join back up with us?” he asked.

McTavish looked up, his lower lip trembling.  “I—I have no right to ask after abandoning ye all.”

“No, you haven’t,” Ben agreed bluntly, “and I’m not sure how the vote will go, but I’m willing to put it to them.”

McTavish swallowed a lump made up mostly of pride.  “You should know the worst, then, before you decide.”  He took a deep breath.  “We had a visit from some thieving Indians last night.  A lone wagon was an invitation, I guess.  They did us no harm, and didn’t stay long once they knew we had sickness, but they took everything that wasn’t packed deep.”

“You’re short of supplies?” Ben asked.

“Aye, and money to buy more,” McTavish admitted.  Tears started to trickle down his cheeks into his auburn beard.  “I—I don’t know what to do, Cartwright.  I don’t think we’ve got enough to go either forward or back, and we can’t stay here.”

Ben took him by both arms.  “I’ll ask the others,” he said quietly, knowing now how he himself would vote.

The Larrimore train circled for their noon encampment near Courthouse Rock, but still some distance from the wagon of the Scottish emigrant.  While the women prepared lunch, the men argued hotly about how to handle the situation.

“Leave ‘em behind!” Clyde snorted.  “They made their decision; let ‘em live with it.”

Jonathan Payne nodded grimly.  “Clyde’s pretty much spoken my feelings.”

“The man acted out of fear for his family,” Ben pointed out.  “I don’t say that makes it right, but I can understand.”

“I can’t!” Clyde shouted.  “The rest of you had families to consider, too.”

“But—but what about Mrs. McTavish and Roberta?” young Stefán stammered.  “How can we leave helpless women alone on the trail?”

“Keep your opinions to yourself, youngun,” Clyde sputtered.  “Just ‘cause you’re sweet on the gal—”

“Clyde!” Ben interrupted.  “Every man here has the right to voice his opinion, even one as young as Stefán.”

“All right, all right,” Clyde said, calming down.  “He ain’t the one I’m riled at, I reckon.”

Lawrence coughed.  “The boy makes a good point, I think.  How can we abandon the woman and girl because we’re angry with the man?”

“That really isn’t the point,” Reverend Wentworth said quietly.  “McTavish doesn’t need our help less because he’s a man.”

“But he doesn’t deserve it,” Payne insisted.

Wentworth sighed.  “None of us ever does, my friend.  I know what it is to need forgiveness, and I cannot be less charitable with Robert McTavish.”

Clyde and Jonathan looked at each other and read the same sentiment in each other’s eyes.  They were the ones McTavish had abandoned that first day; and, to them, it was more personal than to the others.  But they saw the vote would go against them and didn’t want to distance themselves from the men who’d stood faithfully by them.  “I guess we have no choice but to accept them back,” Jonathan said.

“Yeah,” Clyde grumbled, “but I don’t think I’ll ever feel the same about that man.”

“Don’t lock yourself in, my friends,” Ebenezer urged.  “Men can change.  I’m proof of that, and I’m sure the Robert McTavish who rejoins our party will be a different man from the one who left it.”

“Could—could I take the word to Mr. McTavish?” Stefán asked shyly.  The other men grinned.  They knew exactly what pollen was attracting the bee.

Ben struggled to keep from smiling.  “Sure, Stefán.  I’m sure Mr. McTavish will be glad to see you.”  He couldn’t resist putting the emphasis on the word “mister.”  Stefán blushed and ran to the isolated wagon.

The women had the food prepared by then, so the meeting dismissed.  Afterwards, a few members of the party walked over for a closer look at Courthouse Rock and its smaller companion, Jail Rock.  No one really felt like exploring, though.  They rehitched the oxen and headed out, a party of eight wagons once again.

A few miles down the trail, the train passed a ledge with POST OFFICE carved in the rock.  In its water-worn fissures letters had been deposited for those behind on the trail, but no one stopped to check for messages.  The only one with any hope of finding a missive addressed to him was Ben, and the chances of that were too remote to warrant taking time to check through each crevice.

They made camp that evening four miles beyond Courthouse Rock, and as Ben carried Adam to their tent, he felt a sudden inspiration.  “See there, Adam,” he said, pointing at the rock formations behind them.  “That’s where we were at noon.”

“Uh-huh,” Adam said, laying his weary head on his father’s shoulder.

Ben turned around to face west.  “But look where we’ll be tomorrow, son,” he urged.  “That’s Chimney Rock!”

Adam’s head lifted immediately, and he smiled at the narrow spire rising above the flat prairie.  “It is, isn’t it, Pa?  It really is.”

“It really is,” Ben said enthusiastically.  “Didn’t Pa promise you’d see it?”

“Yeah,” Adam sighed contentedly as he laid his head down again.  He was still weak, obviously, but Ben thought he’d seen a spark of fresh life flicker in those precious black eyes.

Though Adam was still too wobbly to walk the next day, he no longer lay apathetically inside the wagon.  He spent most of the morning on his knees, peering through the front opening at his long-looked-for landmark.  He didn’t understand why folks called it Chimney Rock; to Adam, it looked more like the trunk of a huge tree with all its limbs lopped off.

When they stopped at noon, with the sandstone formation still seeming as far away as ever, his father explained that the rock reminded some people of the factory chimneys back east.  “But I like your description better,” Ben said brightly, happy to see his boy taking an interest in his surroundings once again.  It pleased Ben, too, to see Adam’s appetite pick up.  He felt certain now his son would recover.

“Ain’t we ever gonna get there?” Adam asked petulantly.  “You promised today.”

“We’ll still make it,” Ben assured him, “slow as we’re going.”  It wasn’t simply impatience that made the miles seem long to Adam today.  Ben knew the train was moving forward at a pace a snail could challenge.  Still, to be making any progress, taking into account how weak some of them still were, was a victory.

The greatest victory, of course, was the one they had achieved over the dreaded cholera.  There’d been no new cases, and Ben didn’t think there would be any.  Their losses had been heavy, but to the survivors life was doubly dear.  So were the friends and family still with them.

As Ben predicted, the train reached Chimney Rock before sundown—quite a bit before sundown, actually.  Though they could have covered another two or three miles, everyone was glad to make camp early.  Considering their condition, the day had been long enough, and they weren’t likely to find a better place to spend the night.  The bubbling spring near the famous landmark had always made it a popular campsite, and no group of emigrants ever greeted it with greater appreciation.

While Inger prepared the evening meal, Ben carried Adam over to Chimney Rock.  As the boy’s small hand reached out to touch its conical base, he smiled.  He couldn’t find the words he needed to express what he felt, but Ben understood, anyway.  Staring at the landmark’s pinnacle, five hundred feet above him, he, too, felt a sense of triumph in just arriving.  Though he knew the most arduous part of their journey still lay ahead, coming this far gave Ben Cartwright renewed confidence that one day he’d rub the soil of the Sacramento Valley between his fingers with the same awe his young son felt when his hand touched Chimney Rock.

* * * * *

Inger stirred restlessly and slowly awoke.  As her hand dropped from her stomach to the soaked blanket beside her, she jerked alert.  She immediately looked at Adam, sleeping on her right side, too far away for the dampness she felt to have come from his bowels.  Besides, the odor was different from diarrhea, more of a sickly sweet aroma.  Suddenly her stomach tightened in a way she’d never felt before, but immediately identified.  She smiled, understanding the wetness now.  Her water had broken and her labor begun.

Inger nibbled her lips until the contraction ended.  It was still dark and she didn’t want to waken Ben.  Eventually, though, her soft moans became audible enough to penetrate his dreams and his eyes opened.  Concern flashed into them when he realized Inger was in pain.  Dear God, not now.  She couldn’t come down with cholera now when he was sure the worst was over!

“Inger,” Ben whispered.  “Where does it hurt, sweetheart?”

“My stomach, Ben,” Inger groaned.  “Where else?”

Where else, indeed, Ben thought.  That’s where cholera always started.  Ben gathered his wife into his arms.  “Oh, darling, I’m so sorry.  I thought we were safely past this.”

As another contraction hit, Inger winced.  “Past it?  It is just starting, Ben!” she cried, wondering how he could be so completely stupid.  “It vill be hours before the baby comes.”

“Baby!” Ben shouted, relief and excitement battling for control of his face.  “Is that what it is, the baby?”

Consternation painting her features, Inger stared at him.  “But what else vould it be?”

Ben gave an embarrassed chuckle.  “Cholera?  Dysentery, maybe?”

“Oh, Ben!”  Inger laughed, then gasped as the contraction ended.  “No, Ben, I am not sick,” she said when she stopped giggling.  “In fact, I expect to feel better soon than I have in veeks.  Is it light yet?”

“Just barely.”

“Then, maybe, you could take Adam to the Thomases and ask Rachel to come?”

Ben kissed her.  “Of course, darling.”  He pulled on his boots and lifted Adam to his shoulder.  “Be back soon,” he promised.

Clyde and Nelly were already awake when Ben called softly into their tent.  When Clyde answered his summons, he hurriedly explained that Inger was in labor.  “Can I deposit a boy with you for safe keeping?”

“Sure, sure,” Clyde said.  “Hand him over.”  He took Adam from Ben’s arms and laid him down next to Billy so gently that neither boy woke.

Ben hurried to the Payne tent and asked if Rachel could go to Inger.  Rachel’s face lighted up happily, and she ran to the Cartwright tent as fast as her still unsteady legs would carry her.

After that, there didn’t seem to be much for Ben to do.  He started to cook breakfast for himself and Adam, but Nelly wouldn’t hear of it.  “Not after all the meals Inger fed my menfolk while I was ailin’,” she insisted.

With nothing else for his idle hands to do, Ben clasped them behind his back and began to pace outside his wagon.  When Adam woke, he fell into step behind his father, matching the older Cartwright stride for stride.  For a long while, Ben didn’t notice his extra shadow.  When he did, he stopped his restless motion, figuring if he looked as ridiculous as his son, he was putting on quite a show for the rest of the camp.

As Inger’s labor continued through the morning, Ben began to worry about the delay they were causing.  No one else seemed concerned, however.  Maybe they figured they’d lost so much time already, a few hours more couldn’t make any difference, or maybe they were still so debilitated they welcomed the rest.  Some of the sturdier men and boys, though, used the layover to climb up Chimney Rock and carve their names on its surface.  Ben learned later that Stefán Zuebner had shimmied all the way to the top.

About the time the train would have normally stopped for their noonday rest, a loud squall pierced the canvas walls of the labor room.  To Ben, though, the cries were sweet music.  Adam heard them, too, and looked up from his game of marbles with Billy Thomas.  “He’s here, ain’t he, Pa?” the boy shouted.

Ben’s lips twitched.  “You just won’t entertain the notion that it might be a girl, eh, boy?”

Adam bounced to his feet.  “No, sir!  That’s a boy.  I can tell.”

Ben laughed and took Adam’s hand.  “Let’s check, just to be sure, before we give the little one a name.”

“But, Pa—”  Ben held his finger to his lips, so Adam didn’t get a chance to remind his father of the vital information he’d been about to convey.  Frustrated, he followed his father into their tent.

Rachel Payne finished wrapping the baby in the blanket Inger had provided and handed him to his father.  “A fine strapping boy, Ben,” she said, beaming, “and I do mean strapping!”

Ben knew what she meant the minute she laid the infant in his arms.  He had no scale here in the wilderness, of course, but he judged the newborn to weigh better than ten pounds, probably closer to fifteen.  In contrast to his memories of baby Adam, this boy was proportioned to match the vast prairie of his birth.  No wonder Inger’s belly had stuck out a country mile.  Rachel laughed at the amazement on Ben’s face and slipped outside to give the little family some privacy.

“What a fine, walloping son you’ve given me, Inger,” Ben said as he sat next to his wife.

Adam was even more impressed.  “Look at the size of it, Pa!” he cried, sitting on Inger’s other side.

Ben chuckled.  “That’s not an ‘it,’ son; that’s your brother.”

“Can I name him, Pa?”  Adam begged.  “Can I, huh?”

Ben didn’t know how to respond without disappointing Adam, but he and Inger already had one name too many to choose from.  Inger looked longingly into her husband’s eyes.  “I had alvays hoped to name him after my father——Eric,” she said quietly.  Ben touched her cheek with a tender hand.  He, too, had wanted to honor his father with a namesake, but he couldn’t deny Inger after all she had endured to bring this child into the world.  Besides, they’d have other sons.

Adam wasn’t so easily convinced.  “But don’t you remember?” he insisted.  “Uncle Gunnar said we should name him Hoss.”

“Ah, yes, I remember,” Inger replied, smiling dreamily at the memory of her brother.  “In the mountains, that is the name for a big man vith friendly vays.”

Ben looked from one to the other.  “Tell you what, Adam,” he suggested, assuming the role of peacemaker.  “We’ll give him both names and see which one sticks.”  Inger smiled at her husband’s tactfulness.  She was sure which name would stick, but as she glanced at Adam, the stubborn pucker of his lower lip said he intended to make sure it was his choice that stuck.

Adam began his campaign immediately.  Running over to the Thomas tent, he announced loudly, “It’s a boy!”

“I know that,” Billy scoffed.  “Mrs. Payne beat you to the punch.”

“Oh,” Adam said as he squatted next to his friend.  “Bet she didn’t tell you his name, though.  It’s Hoss.”

“Hoss!” Billy hooted.  “That’s a funny name.”

Adam doubled his fist and stuck it under Billy’s nose.  “Don’t you be makin’ fun of my little brother.  He’s special; that’s why he’s got a special name.”

“All little brothers is special,” Billy sniffed, not in derision this time, though.

Catching the wistfulness in Billy’s tone, Adam understood what Billy had left unsaid.  “Yeah,” he agreed quietly.  “Bobby was a special little fellow, too.  I’m gonna miss him.”

Billy bit his tongue, hoping the immediate pain would counteract the hidden one that threatened to come leaking out.  “I used to think he was a nuisance, always taggin’ after me.  I—I just wish he still could.”

Adam scooted closer and squeezed his arm around Billy’s shoulder.  “I’ll share Hoss with you,” he promised.  “That way you’ll still have a little brother.”

The kind words dissolved Billy’s self-control.  He shoved Adam away and, blinking back the tears, ran as hard as he could toward Chimney Rock.  Despite the rough treatment, Adam knew his offer had been accepted.  Billy just needed to outrun his emotions.  He’d be back soon; then, maybe, Pa’d let him give Billy a look at their new brother Hoss.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

 As the Larrimore train continued west along the North Platte, the lusty cries of its newest member brought a smile to the faces of everyone in the community of emigrants.  The new life seemed a vindication of all they had sacrificed, a reparation for all they had lost.  The birth of Eric Cartwright inspired renewed vigor in their steps as it reminded them that there was a future, a life beyond this wearisome plodding through endless wilderness.

This reawakening was nowhere more evident than in Nelly Thomas.  When the train stopped at noon, she cradled the fat little infant in her arms and took deep, enlivening draughts of his sweet baby breath.  Brushing the soft fuzz of his cottony white hair, she remembered her first touch of Bobby’s golden wisps and the memories were sweet.  She held the baby close and let his nearness heal her hurting heart.

About half past two that Wednesday afternoon, the eight wagons found their way blocked by a massive, mile-wide formation towering seven hundred and sixty feet above the Platte, against whose shore it crowded.  The trail veered to the left around Scott’s Bluff, named for Hiram Scott, who was supposed to have died there, although legends varied in their description of his final hours.  Some said the ailing man had been abandoned by his trail mates and left to die at this location; others attributed his death to Indians, still others to being mauled by a grizzly.  No one knew for sure.  All they knew was that the detour added frustrating miles to the journey.  Later emigrants would avoid the extra miles via Mitchell’s Pass, a wide cut through the center of the formation, but in 1850 that alternative was not yet available.

Scott’s Bluff was another of the fascinating phenomena that marked the Oregon Trail.  Though not as popular as Chimney Rock or Independence Rock, which still lay ahead, the steep clay cliffs always drew the attention of those who passed by and set their imaginations to work to describe it for those back home.  A medieval city, some said, or a mighty fortress, which erosion had supplied with parapets and towers worthy to be inhabited by knights errant in the service of maidens fair.

The cool spring gushing in this picture-perfect valley made Scott’s Bluff a desirable campsite, but mid-afternoon was too early to stop.  With longing looks backward, the emigrants passed the spring and trudged ahead on a steadily rougher trail.  Their path was continually upward toward the Rocky Mountains, their hazy, snow-capped peaks now visible in the distance.  For all their rugged, boulder-ridden ascent, however, these were only foothills.  Even so, the altitude made the summer night cold; and everyone who had a buffalo robe gratefully huddled beneath its warm fur.

Thursday morning Ben and Clyde borrowed Jonathan’s horses, determined to track down some game for the camp.  Over supper the previous night they had discussed what a tonic fresh meat would be for those who were still recovering from cholera.  They were hoping to sight a herd of buffalo, since they would soon be leaving the big animals’ customary territory, but they saw none.  Instead, they found deer tracks and followed them, each bagging a good-sized buck.

Returning to camp by noon, Clyde apologized to Nelly, who had expressed a craving for buffalo tongue.  “Don’t fret yourself none, darlin’,” Nelly said.  “Venison stew suits my taste buds just dandy.”   Since Nelly was still recuperating herself, Inger cooked two huge pots of the stew and shared some with each family.  The eyes of the invalids, in particular, lit up at the sight of the savory stew, and they spooned in such sizable portions that their loved ones knew they were feeling better and thanked God for the return of healthy appetites.

The venison took longer to prepare than the standard salt pork and cornbread, so the train was a little late in starting their afternoon march.  Everyone who tasted the stew, however, considered it worth the wait.  Besides, as the men had discussed in their meeting the previous evening, they’d have to stop at the trading post ahead, anyway.  Most of them——even the Paynes, thanks to the pounding their friends had given them——had sufficient supplies to have by-passed it.  McTavish, on the other hand, was dangerously low on breadstuff.  For his sake they’d have to stop and, considering how late they’d pull in, might as well spend the night near there.

On first view Robidoux’s Trading Post was unimpressive, nothing but a log shanty divided into two parts:  in one end a combination grog shop and grocery and in the other a blacksmith’s forge.  Jonathan decided to take advantage of the service by getting his horses reshod, even though a dollar a shoe seemed high.  When Clyde discovered he could rent the use of the shop and tools for seventy-five cents an hour, he offered to service Payne’s horses for half the price.  “You pull your wagon in here, too, Ben Cartwright,” Clyde ordered.  “Seein’ as how you’re carryin’ my anvil, the least I can do is make sure your rig is tight.”

“On one condition,” Ben said.  “You can tighten my wagon to your heart’s content, provided you’ll join me for a drink when you’re done.”

Clyde cracked a grin.  “Say now, that do sound good.  I ain’t had a shot of good whiskey since St. Joe.”

Ben looked askance at the shabby shanty.  “I didn’t promise you it’d be good.  Rotgut’s probably all they have, but I figure you’ll have earned it.”

“Listen to the man!” Clyde announced to the rafters.  “He’s sayin’ my work ain’t worth nothin’ but rotgut!”

Ben flapped his hand at Clyde in dismissal of the charge and left to see if Inger’d found anything she needed in the other end of the cabin.

“No, Ben,” Inger assured him.  “They have few supplies here, so I think to vait until Fort Laramie to restock.  You must meet Mr. Robidoux, though.  He says he is one of the men who founded St. Joseph.”

“Well, that’s interesting!” Ben said.  He introduced himself to the French proprietor of the trading post and asked if he were indeed a founder of St. Joseph.”

“Ah, oui, monsieur,” Antoine Robidoux replied.  “That was in ‘forty-three.  It was as small a place as this then, but I hear it is doing well.  You came through there?”

“We lived there for about a year and a half,” Ben said.  “It’s turned into a fine town, sir; I hope your place here fares as well.”

Robidoux made the sign of the cross over his chest.  “Oui, let us hope.”

“What can you tell us about the trail ahead?” Ben asked.  As the trader described the route to follow, Inger wandered over to talk with Robidoux’s Indian wife.

Over a dinner of roast venison, Ben told the Thomases what he’d learned.  “It’s about fifty miles on to Fort Laramie,” he said.  “We should be able to make that in about three days’ good drive.

“If we don’t stop for the Sabbath,” Clyde pointed out.  “Maybe we should, though.  The oxen are lookin’ a little ragged.”

“Yeah, well I guess we’ll decide that Saturday night,” Ben said.

“Oh, you men,” Nelly chided.  “Always jawin’ when there’s good food ready to dish up.”

“Quit jawin’ yourself, then, woman, and start dishin’,” Clyde cackled.

The trail continued rough throughout Friday’s march, but the train made good time, nonetheless.  Adam was able to scamper around in the tall grass with Billy, chasing the biggest crickets they’d ever seen, with almost as much vigor as before his illness.  He ran whimpering to his mother soon after, though, his pants legs peppered with stickers that pricked blood from his fingers when he tried to remove them.

Inger swatted him into the wagon and climbed up after him to pick off the offending grass burrs.  “Stay close to the vagons,” she cautioned.  “You won’t pick up so many stickers where the trail is beaten down.”  Adam tried to walk beside the wagon, but he got tired of choking on dust.  When Billy stuck his thumbs in his ears and wiggled his fingers in a taunting gesture, Adam took off after him.

He didn’t return to the camp until the wagons stopped for the noon break.  With his legs covered once again with evidence of his disobedience, he was afraid he’d get a scolding, if not a licking.  Inger just shook her head reproachfully, though, and told him he’d have to tend to his own stickers this time.  She had lunch to prepare, as well as an imperative, squalling baby to nurse.  She had no time to baby Adam, too.

Adam frowned.  For the first time he wondered if having a baby brother was going to be all he’d imagined it to be.  So far Hoss didn’t do much besides wail for food and wet his britches, and he demanded an unbelievable amount of Inger’s time with both those activities.

When Adam confided his opinion to Billy, the redhead rolled in the grass, heedless of the stickers clinging to his shirt.  “That’d be a good name for him,” he snickered.  “Let’s call him little ‘Wet and Wail!’”

Adam giggled.  “That sounds like an Indian name.”

Billy sat up, suddenly inspired.  “Hey, yeah!  And if our baby brother is an injun, we must be, too.”

“‘Our brother?’” Adam grinned.  “Didn’t know you claimed him.”

“Can’t yet,” Billy said and hurriedly explained.  “Don’t you see, Adam.  I can’t be Hoss’s brother until I’m yours.”

Adam’s brow furrowed.  “Yeah, I guess.  I figured we were just pretending.”

“No, no,” Billy insisted.  “Let’s be real blood brothers, like the injuns, Adam.”

Adam caught his friend’s excitement.  “Hey, yeah!  You know how?”

Billy pulled a burr from his shirt and pinched it hard.  Showing Adam the drop of blood oozing from his index finger, he held out his shirt with the other hand.  “Help yourself,” he chuckled.

Adam’s nose wrinkled in distaste.  Those burrs hurt!  That wouldn’t bother a real Indian, though, he decided, as he plucked a sticker from Billy’s shirt and made his own finger bleed.

“Now we gotta smash our fingers together so the blood’ll mix,” Billy ordered.  “Then, we’ll be brothers for sure and always.”

Adam pressed his finger against Billy’s and rubbed it in a circular motion.  “We ought to have Indian names, too,” he suggested.

“Okay,” Billy said.  “Let’s see; I’ll call you Chief Know-It-All.”  Billy exploded with laughter at his own joke.

“Oh, yeah?” Adam snorted, mad that Billy was again making fun of his scholarly tendencies.  “Well, then, I’ll call you Chief Fire-on-Head.”

Billy, being sensitive about his flaming hair color, shoved Adam down and rolled him in a nest of stickers.  Adam yelped and scuffled to trade places with Billy.  As any mother of two could have told them, it was the most fitting conclusion to their ritual:  now they were acting like real brothers.

As Clyde had observed, the oxen were showing signs of strain by the end of Saturday’s advance; but the men decided to travel on Sunday nonetheless.  As Ben pointed out after consultation with his guidebook, two days’ drive would bring them to Fort Laramie, a safer place to rest themselves and their animals.  So they pushed on, their weary teams making a respectable fifteen miles on Sunday.  Since that put them only five miles from the fort, McTavish suggested trying to reach it that night.  Lawrence told him, however, that the Laramie River lay between them and the fort and the ferry didn’t run past dark.  They couldn’t reach the fort ‘til morning, anyway.

The train was on the trail early Monday, eager to cover the four miles between them and the river.  They arrived about nine o’clock to find the ferry crowded, but most of them were content to wait their turn.  Only McTavish argued against paying the four-dollar fee.  “The river’s not that deep; we could ford it,” he insisted.

“It’s not the depth,” Larrimore argued.  “It’s the current.  It’s too swift to ford safely, Robert.  If it’s a question of money, I’d be happy to—”

“I’ll not be taking your charity, Mr. High and Mighty!” McTavish snapped and stalked away, his face blazing.  His anger told his neighbors, more clearly than anything else could have, how painfully short of funds the fiercely proud Scotsman was.  When it came his turn, he paid the four dollars, but the others wondered how he’d pay for the supplies he needed or for the ferries over rivers still ahead.  They had no idea, however, how to meet the man’s need without the offensive appearance of charity.

Despite the crowd, the Larrimore train was able to cross the river by mid-afternoon, leaving them plenty of time to travel the mile and a half between the river and the fort.  Their route lay through a narrow gorge, so narrow that when Adam looked overhead he saw a wild goat leap from one side to the other above him.  “Pa!  Pa, did you see that?” he shouted.

Ben turned and gave the excited boy a smile.  “See what, son?”

“The goat, Pa!” Adam said, pointing overhead.  “He jumped right across there!”

“Oh, son, you’re pulling my leg,” Ben accused.

“Naw, he ain’t,” Clyde called ahead.  “I seen it, too.”

As he walked forward, Ben watched the cliff top with a skeptical eye, but he soon gave a delighted cry.  “They’re right, Inger!  Did you see that?”

“Yah, I did,” Inger said, shifting her heavy baby to her other shoulder.  “Climb up and catch one, and ve vill have goat stew for supper.”

“Not tonight, my dear,” Ben chuckled.  “Tonight I do nothing but set up the tent and collapse inside it.”

“Aw, come on, Pa,” Adam wheedled.  “Goat stew sounds good.”

Ben ruffled his hair.  “Mama’s teasing, son.  There’s no way to climb up that steep cliff carrying a rifle.  We may find some wild goats in the mountains ahead, though.”

An hour later sharp-eyed Adam was the first in his family to spot the fort.  Inger followed his pointing finger, and her eyes shone with joy.  “Oh, Ben,” she murmured.  “What a beautiful valley!  So much good grass for the oxen.  I am so glad ve pushed to get here before stopping.”

“Yeah, look how clear the water is,” Ben commented.  “Quite a change from our muddy friend, the Platte.”

“Oh, yah,” Inger agreed.  “It vill be almost a pleasure to do laundry in such vater.  Oh, and a bath!  What heaven that vill be!”

“Amen to that!” Nelly called.  Had the other ladies been close enough to hear, they would have added their amens, as well.  After choking on the dust of the trail for weeks, a refreshing bath in the sparkling waters of the Laramie River and clean clothes to dress in afterwards would make the best benediction to this stage of their journey.

Thanks to Clyde’s work at Robidoux’s fort, Ben’s wagon was in fine shape, so he was able to make August 6th a true day of rest.  As he strolled through the fort with Inger and Adam at his side, he was impressed by all he saw.  From the fifteen-foot high walls with their slender palisade to the clay blockhouses on two corners with their brass swivel cannons, the place gave off an aura of preparedness for any emergency.  Even the entrance was well conceived for security.  It consisted of two gates with an arched passage between them through which each visitor had to pass.  Seeing the small square window cut in one side of the passage, Ben nodded with approval.  That window allowed someone from the adjoining room to inspect those entering and deal with anyone suspicious before the inner gate into the fort itself was opened.  Though their wagons were camped outside the walls of the fort, having such a professionally run refuge nearby made Ben and the other emigrants feel safer than they had in weeks.

Passing through the inner gate, Ben inspected the interior and found his first impressions collaborated.  The fort was divided into two parts:  one a square area surrounded by storerooms, offices and quarters for the fort’s residents, the other side a narrow corral behind whose high clay walls the livestock could be herded for safe-keeping if the fort were under attack.  The walls of Fort Laramie, while only made of adobe, were whitewashed, exhibiting the kind of care Ben had found lacking at Fort Kearny.

To tend to first things first, Ben helped Adam post his second bundle of homework assignments back to Josiah Edwards, then the three Cartwrights moved through the crowd of other emigrants at the fort to see what the sutler’s store had to offer.  “I could use more rice,” Inger said.  “Ve are eating more of that than I expected.  I know it is high, but—”

“We’re not short of funds,” Ben reminded her.  “Get whatever you think we need.”  He expected a smile in return, but Inger wasn’t even looking at him.  Her eyes were on Maggie McTavish, obviously making careful decisions about what supplies she could buy, what she could do without.  Ben understood Inger’s distraction now.  Giving her an encouraging hug, he asked softly.  “Just rice?  Anything else, my love?”

Inger turned to smile up at him, then.  “Yah, I think ve should buy three more buffalo skins.  They are three dollars each; but vith colder nights ahead, I think ve vould like to have one underneath as vell as one covering us.”

“That’s a good idea,” Ben said.  “Is three enough?  What about little Eric?”

“‘Little’?” Inger laughed.  “Try carrying him all day and see if you call him that.”

Ben chuckled in response.  “He’s an armload, all right.  You didn’t lighten your load much by giving birth.”

“At least, he sleeps in the vagon part of the day,” Inger smiled, giving her snoozing baby a gentle pat.  She looked more soberly at her husband.  “Ben,” she began hesitantly, “could ve afford six buffalo skins?”

“Six?” Ben asked, surprised.  “I know that new boy of ours is big, but surely he doesn’t need more than the rest of us.”

“Not for him,” Inger whispered.  “I vould like to give them to the McTavishes.  I know they vill not spend money for something like that, and I hate to think of them shivering in the cold mountain nights.”

“It’s a kind thought, Inger,” Ben said, giving her cheek a tender stroke, “but I doubt McTavish would accept.”

“He doesn’t need to know,” Inger said.  “You could just put them in his vagon after he goes to sleep.  If they don’t know where they came from, they can’t return them.”

Ben raised an eyebrow.  “I don’t know, Inger,” he said skeptically.  “The man just might be proud enough to leave them lying on the ground.”

“The voman is not,” Inger assured him.  “Maggie vill see they stay where they ought.  I am not vorried about that, only the expense.”

Ben kissed her swiftly.  “Never, never worry about that, my dear.  We spent an extra year in St. Joseph to make sure we’d suffer no lack on this journey.”

“That vas for land in California,” Inger reminded him, “and for livestock.”

Ben shook his head.  “That was for anything we need, and I figure helping out a neighbor qualifies as a need.  Now, is there anything else you want, something for yourself, perhaps?”

“I can think of nothing, Ben.  Just rice and buffalo skins.”  The baby on her shoulder started to stir.  “Can you make the purchases alone, mine husband?” she asked with a smile.  “Our son seems ready to vake up, and he usually demands his dinner soon after.”

“At the top of his lungs,” Ben said wryly.  “Please take him out of here before he starts that up, Inger.”

Amused that Ben would be embarrassed by something as natural as a hungry baby, Inger shook her head in mild rebuke and edged through the crowd toward the door.  She made her way back to their wagon and crawled inside the tent to nurse her boy.  Then, she laid him down for a nap while she gathered up her family’s dirty laundry.

“Goin’ down to the river?” Nelly Thomas called.

“Yah, could you vatch the baby for me?  Or did you plan to go into the fort?” Inger asked.

“Lands, no,” Nelly scoffed.  “I got no hankerin’ to push my way through that crowd.  ‘Sides, I got a pile of dirty duds ‘most high as yours to tend to.”

“No one’s is as high as mine,” Inger moaned.  “The diapers that boy can soil in a day!  I try to keep them up on the trail, but it is hard.”

“I reckon Rachel can sympathize with you in that,” Nelly laughed.  Her voice quivered as she added, “Of course, she don’t have a boy like Adam to do for now.”

“I’m sure she’d velcome the extra vork,” Inger said quietly, “and you, as vell, Nelly.”

Nelly nodded silently, then brightened.  “Well, enough sad memories.  I’d be glad to help watch Hoss—”

“Hoss!” Inger exclaimed.  “Oh, no, don’t tell me Adam has you convinced!”

Nelly shrugged and grinned.  “Can’t help myself.  He and Billy won’t call that youngun anything else, and you got to admit the name fits, Inger.”

Inger chuckled.  “Not yet, I don’t.  But how can you vatch Eric if you have vork of your own?”

“Easy,” Nelly said.  “There’s plenty of shade down to the riverside for the baby to nap in, so I’ll carry him while you bring your clothes.  Then we’ll work together; and when your things are clean, I’ll come back for my clothes and you can help wash them.”

“A good plan,” Inger agreed.  “Let me get a blanket for Eric; then I vill be ready.”

Meanwhile, Ben had completed his transactions at the trading post and was staggering out with a load of six buffalo skins and an Indian cradleboard on his back, as well as a package under one arm.  He heard a loud cackle and, recognizing the voice, turned to grin at Clyde Thomas.  “I must make quite an eyeful, all right,” Ben admitted.

“Looks like I should’ve brought my cart along to carry all your goods back to camp,” Clyde snickered.

“You don’t know the half of it,” Ben said.  “I’ve got a hundred-pound sack of rice still in there that I’ll have to come back for.”

“I’d offer to help,” Clyde said, grinning broadly, “but with the list Nelly made, I’ll be wishing I’d brought that cart for my own stuff.”

“I thought you meant to trade it for a wagon,” Ben said.  “Wouldn’t they barter with you?”

“Well, I tell you,” Clyde said, “they had them wagons priced reasonable enough that I decided to just buy one outright and keep the cart, too.  With all the tools I’m carryin’, I can use the extra space, and I figure Billy can handle a single yoke of oxen.”

“Sure,” Ben agreed.  “Be good experience for him, and Adam can help out, too.”

“Dad gum, right!” Clyde snorted.  “I don’t figure you or me either aims to raise no lazy sluggard like that Stirpot Larrimore.”

“Clyde,” Ben drawled in admonishment.

Clyde spit at the ground.  “It’s the truth, and you know it.”

“Yeah, well, just don’t let Inger hear it,” Ben warned, “or you’ll have to make a speech in the boy’s honor before you taste your next supper at our campfire.”

Clyde cackled.  “A timely warning, Ben boy!  I’ll take heed to it.  See you back at camp.”

“Or here,” Ben groaned.  “I’ve got another trip to make, remember?”

“Oh, the hardships of bein’ rich!” Clyde snickered.

“Are we rich, Pa?” Adam asked as he trotted by Ben’s side.

“We have each other, don’t we, boy?” Ben asked.  “And good friends and all we need for a good life?”

“I reckon,” Adam said.

“That’s riches enough for any man,” Ben said.  He and Adam made their way back to camp to unload.  “You coming back with me, son?” Ben asked when he was ready to return to the fort.

“I can’t carry the rice, Pa,” Adam said.  “It’s too heavy.”

Ben laughed.  “I didn’t mean for you to.  I thought we might take a stroll up on the wall before I picked up the rice.  Ought to be a fine view from there.  You want to see it?”

Adam shrugged.  “I reckon.”  Adam didn’t expect to take much pleasure in just gawking at scenery, but he had nothing better to do.  As he walked along the southern wall beside his father, though, he pointed excitedly to a cluster of scaffolds in the distance.  “What’s that, Pa?  It looks like Indian stuff.”

Ben looked at the circle of white buffalo skulls surrounding the scaffolds.  “I don’t know, son,” he said, “but you’re right.  It definitely has an Indian look to it.”

“That be the burying place for Dakota chiefs,” a soldier guarding the wall offered.

“Really?” Ben asked.  “They bury them in the air like that?”

“Sure do,” the soldier said.  “To give them a head start to the happy hunting ground, maybe.”

“Maybe,” Ben said, not sure how accurate a source of information on tribal customs the soldier was.  He thanked the man politely, though; then he and Adam climbed down from the wall and went to pick up their rice.

Late that night Inger lay in the tent with her head on Ben’s shoulder while their younger son sucked greedily at her breast.  “Some of the vomen down by the river were talking about trouble vith the Indians,” she said.

“Yeah, I heard some talk at the fort, too,” Ben replied, “but I don’t think there’s been much real trouble, mostly just the fear of it.”

“Yah, I think you are right,” Inger agreed.  “Ve have had no problems, except for the McTavishes.”

“That’s because they were alone,” Ben said soberly.  “I haven’t heard of well-organized trains having any problems.  Lawrence says it was the same last year.”

“They are such colorful people.  I vish I could speak their language and learn more of their vays,” Inger said, laying Eric down to sleep beside his brother.  She snuggled back against her husband’s chest.  “I think if ve knew them better, ve vould find them not so different from us and fear them less.”

Ben idly fingered her hair.  “Probably.  I guess people are people, whether they call themselves Yankees or Swedes or Dakotas.  The Indian ways are different, though, like the way I told you they bury their dead.  Makes me wonder sometimes if the two ways of life can exist side by side.”

“But why should it matter how they bury their dead?” Inger puzzled.

“Not that so much, maybe,” Ben said, “but the Indian culture and that of the white man are different in so many ways, Inger.  Most of the Indians we’ve seen are nomadic, while we prefer settlements.  It’s not such a problem in places like this that aren’t heavily populated, but on the eastern edges of the frontier the Indians are being crowded out.  You can’t hunt buffalo down the streets of St. Louis, my love.”

Inger laughed.  “Oh, Ben, what an idea!”

Ben pulled her close.  “But don’t you see, sweetheart, buffalo once roamed that precise spot and Indians followed the herds.  Now they can’t, and that’s largely due to the encroachment of civilization.  What seems good to us must seem a tragedy to them.”

“Are ve wrong to come west, then, Ben?”

Ben lay back and stared at the canvas ceiling.  “I don’t know.  If we didn’t come, others would, but maybe that’s just an excuse.  I’d like to think this land was big enough for both, but talk like I heard at the fort today makes me wonder.”

“I think ve vill not solve this problem tonight,” Inger said.  “Better ve should sleep and be ready for the journey tomorrow.”

Ben laughed softly to avoid waking the boys.  “My practical little wife,” he whispered.  “Yes, it’s time to sleep.  Good night, my love.”  He kissed her forehead tenderly and fell asleep cradling her in his arms.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

 The Cartwrights and their fellow emigrants spent Wednesday morning unpacking and rearranging their wagon loads.  For most it was the first time since leaving St. Joseph that they had made such a thorough reorganization.  Now was the time, though, to begin using the supplies they had intended for the latter half of their journey.  Also, since they’d be heading into the mountains soon, it seemed prudent to unearth warmer clothes and winter coats from the lower level of their belongings.  They might need to get to them on short notice.

Clyde Thomas had more adjustments to make than any of them.  First he had to retrieve his supplies from the trail mates who had generously carried them for him since his wagon raced to destruction down Windlass Hill.  Then he sorted out what he’d transfer to the cart——mostly his blacksmithing tools, but a few other items, as well.  Finally, like the others, he repacked what remained in his wagon.

Following a simple lunch that required little preparation, the train lined up to leave just after noon.  Inger drifted back to the Payne wagon to walk alongside Rachel and compare notes on the growth of their babies.  She wiggled tiny Susan’s little fist and blew the baby a kiss.  “What a sweet little lady,” she cooed.

“She looks like a plaything up against your boy,” Rachel laughed.  “I can see why you’re carrying him Indian-style.”

Inger smiled over her shoulder at the youngest Cartwright, strapped into a cradleboard on her back.  “This vas Ben’s idea,” she said. “I think he is trying to turn us all into Indians vith his moccasins and the pemmican he bought yesterday and then this.  I can’t imagine how he talked that Cheyenne out of her cradleboard when she surely needed it herself; but I like it, even if it does make me look like a squaw.  Eric is such an armload, he vas wearing me out lifting him.”

“I can imagine,” Rachel said quickly.  “Susan’s light, but I surely look forward to laying her down for her nap.”

“She is a good sleeper?” Inger asked.

“Just fair,” Rachel sighed.  “I guess your boy keeps you up nights, too.”

“No,” Inger smiled proudly and just a bit mischievously.  “Eric is a good, considerate boy and lets his mama sleep so long as I fill his belly full before I lay him down.”

“Now, do you hear that, Susan?” Rachel chided, tickling the little girl’s dainty chin.  “That’s the way a baby ought to treat her mother.”

Inger giggled.  “I am sorry if I make you jealous.”

Rachel looked lovingly into Susan’s hazel eyes.  “Not a bit,” she murmured.  “I’m quite content with what I have.  Have you noticed how much she looks like Johnny, Inger?”

Inger stroked the golden hair fringing the baby’s face.  “Yah, they are much alike.  She is a comfort to you, I know.”

“Oh, that she is,” Rachel agreed.  “I don’t know how I’d’ve stood losing my boy if I didn’t have this little one to care for.”

“Yah, it is a blessing to be needed,” Inger said.  As the baby riding on her back let loose a loud cry, she gave her friend a wry smile.  “Oh, dear, it looks like I am needed right now.  I’d better get back to the vagon and feed this bottomless pit.”

“You don’t have to go all that way,” Rachel said.  “Climb up in my wagon to nurse him.  That way we can keep visiting.”

“All right,” Inger said, readily placing Eric into the Payne wagon and climbing in herself.  “I vill enjoy the company, but tell Susan no peeking.”

“Hmph!” Rachel declared, affecting an offended expression as she lifted her blue muslin skirt to follow Inger in, “as if my little girl would take the least interest.  Now, tell me, have you tried Ben’s pemmican yet?”

“Yah,” Inger said as she removed Eric from his confining cradleboard and unbuttoned her yellow calico bodice so he could nurse.  “Ve each took a small taste last night.  I vould not like it as a steady diet, but it vas quite good.  Better than salt pork, at least.”

Rachel hooted.  “What isn’t?  Once we reach California, I swear there won’t a slab of it enter the house!”

Inger smiled down at her greedily sucking baby.  Her tired taste buds agreed with Rachel, but her practical mind rejected her friend’s adamant statement.  Inger knew in her own heart she’d eat whatever necessity demanded to provide this healthy little eater with the nourishment he needed——and obviously relished.

The terrain they traveled that day was almost barren——nothing to be seen but scattered sagebrush and a multitude of small, dried up ponds dotting the arid land around them.  While the country they walked through Thursday was still dry, still mostly bare, the wagoneers began to notice differences by mid-morning.  The landscape grew rockier, and in place of the sagebrush, the trail was edged with stunted pines.

The appearance of the wood was timely, for the buffalo chips that had provided the main source of fuel on the prairie were in limited supply here on the western boundary of the shaggy beasts’ range.  The children rejoiced.  Free from the daily chore of gathering the dried patties, they had more time to explore the new specimens of flora and fauna they were encountering.  The men, on the other hand, found their workload increased as they worked nightly to wrest wood for their fires from the scrubby, but rock-rooted pine trees.

Occasionally, they passed a broken-down wagon abandoned by its former owner and scavenged the boards for firewood.  One day Clyde found one with a wheel still in good condition and appropriated it.  Having divided his load, he now had room for spare parts, but hadn’t purchased any at FortLaramie, thinking he could always dismantle the cart if he needed spares.

The wagons rolled past Register Cliff that first morning out from FortLaramie.  Seeing all the names carved into its side, Adam begged to add his own; but Ben refused.  “We don’t have time to make a special stop, son,” he explained.

“Aw, Pa,” Adam whimpered.

Ben lifted the boy into his arms.  “Son, I know you’re young and find it hard to understand, but our lives depend on making good mileage every day.  We’ve already had a lot of setbacks.  I’d like to put my name up there, too, but we can’t spare the time.”

“All right,” Adam sighed, “but it sure seems a shame.”

Ben gave him a squeeze.  “Yeah, I know.  I can’t make you a promise, Adam; but if we strike Independence Rock near noon or nighttime, we’ll try to leave our mark there.  How’s that sound?”

“It sounds great, Pa!” Adam shouted.  “That’s the best place, too.”

“Now, remember, Pa didn’t promise,” Ben cautioned as he set the boy down.  “I only said we’d try, and I think the chances are good ‘cause everyone else will want to, too.”

“Yes, sir,” Adam said and ran excitedly back to tell Billy how high he planned to carve the letters of his name.

As Ben and Inger walked side by side Friday, they saw more and more pine trees covering the bare rock.  Dotted here and there in the crevices, china asters bloomed.  Ben stooped to pick one and offered it to Inger.  “Here, my love,” he said, “a blossom whose beauty is rivaled only by your own.”

Inger dropped an amused curtsey and accepted the floral offering.  Walking again, she took deep draughts of the pine-scented air.  “Doesn’t it smell fresh, Ben?”

Ben sucked the air in greedily.  “Yeah, we’re moving into forest country for sure now.”

“Even more ahead,” Inger said, pointing forward.  “See how dark those hills are.”

“Must be why they call them the Black Hills,” Ben laughed.

“Oh, do they?” Inger asked.  “Yah, it is a fitting name; they look black vith so many trees covering them.”  As they left the pale plains behind them, Inger breathed ever more deeply the evergreen scent of junipers and pines.  The country here didn’t really resemble Sweden, but the fragrance stirred old memories and made her feel a little homesick.  Seeing her distraction, Ben asked if anything were wrong.  “No,” Inger assured him.  “Something very right, I think.  If the land to which ve go is anything like this, I know it vill feel like home.”

“Any land where you are will feel like home,” Ben said, pulling her close to his side, “but I’d like to settle somewhere near trees like these——though, maybe, a little taller.  Air this pure and invigorating is bound to make a man’s work more pleasurable.”

“And grow him sons strong and straight as pines,” Inger said, her eyes shining up into his face.

Ben touched the flower in her hand.  “And daughters beautiful as china asters,” he whispered.

On Saturday the wagon train crossed two streams with water so clear the pebbly bottoms reminded Ben of cobbled streets.  Inger rejoiced when they made their noon stop near one.  She found the cool water refreshing to drink and even pulled off her shoes to wiggle her bare feet in its icy ripples.  Adam waded up and down the rivulet, shrieking happily in spite of his frozen feet and gathering smooth stones to stuff in his storage pocket in the wagon as a remembrance of the Rocky Mountains.  The fact that they weren’t really in the Rockies yet, as his father pointed out, didn’t matter an iota to Adam.

By day’s end all the women in the party were sighing longingly for those pristine streams, for the earth they tramped that afternoon was such a deep red its dust stained their clothes.  How they wished they could return to that clear water and give them a thorough laundering!  The men weren’t concerned about dirty clothes, however; to them the richly colored soil was a signpost.  From the higher points of their path, they could look down and see the trail ahead, as plainly marked as if someone had painted a red stripe on the ground.

The men met that night to determine whether to travel the following day.  Even Ebenezer Wentworth felt they should continue since they’d only journeyed three and a half days since their last stop.  Larrimore suggested they start an hour later than usual, however, so the minister might provide a bit of inspiration to their thoughts.  “That is,” Lawrence said, “if the Reverend feels he can hold himself to an hour.”

“I’ll be brief,” Ebenezer pledged, “provided you promise to listen to me in my full, long-winded splendor our first Sunday in Sacramento.”  The male constituents of his congregation laughingly agreed.

Wentworth kept his part of the bargain, so the train was on the move by eight o’clock Sunday morning.  As they crossed the ridge of the Black Hills, a sparse growth of needle-nosed fir began to cover the gray rock.  Ben was surprised to see snow still glistening in crevices.  Shivering, he imagined how much snow must have dusted these mountains the previous winter for there to be any left in August and recommitted himself to crossing the Sierra Nevadas before the first snow fell there.

That afternoon Clyde Thomas trotted ahead to catch up with Ben.  “Take a gander to the left, Ben,” he said.  “We got company.”

Ben looked southwest and saw the mounted warriors watching the wagons from an adjacent ridge.  “Nothing new, Clyde,” he said.  “We’ve had Indians watching us all along the trail.”

“These look different, though,” Clyde said.  “They ain’t Sioux like we been seein’ lately.”

Ben squinted to take a closer look.  “They are darker skinned, aren’t they?  Almost like the mulatto slaves we saw back in Missouri.  Built shorter and more stout, too.  I think they may be Crows.”

“You an Indian expert now?” Clyde cackled.

Ben chuckled.  “Nope.  I just remember what Robidoux told me back at his trading post.  He said the Black Hills were a dividing line between the Sioux and Crow nations.”

“Must be Crow, then,” Clyde agreed.  “Did Robidoux say whether they be warlike?”

“I think they all can be,” Ben stated, “but Robidoux did say the Crow tend to be brave, honorable people.”

“Wouldn’t want to test it out myself,” Clyde said.

“Nor I,” Ben admitted.  “I suspect they’ll leave us alone if we leave them alone.”

“Might be a good idea to corral the livestock in the wagon circle, though,” Clyde said, “them injuns bein’ so close.  I think I’ll bring it up tonight.”

“Sounds like a wise precaution,” Ben said.  “I’ll second your motion.”

The train made camp that night near another clear creek, so the women did a hurried washing while their husbands chopped fuel for the supper fires.  Most of the red stains came out with vigorous scrubbing over the rough washboards, but the clothes were still too damp by morning to consider wearing in the chilly air.  Fortunately, the more complete laundering they’d done at FortLaramie meant everyone had spare garments to change into.

Like most of the other ladies, Inger spent Monday flapping first one garment and then another in the warm air until it dried.  She felt lonely with nothing but wet diapers to keep her company, for Ben wasn’t traveling with the train that morning.  Jonathan Payne had invited him to go hunting.  Ben felt selfish accepting the invitation when he had hunted so recently with Clyde, but Jonathan made it plain he preferred Ben’s company to that of anyone else.  That remark made Ben flush with pleasure:  it felt good to earn the esteem of a man whose opinion he valued; and when it came to hunters, Jonathan Payne was the best among them.

Leaving early and wandering westward, the hunters crossed the path of some mountain goats, similar to the ones Adam had seen leaping above the entrance to FortLaramie.  Firing quickly, Jonathan downed a ram and Ben a ewe.  “Good work, Ben,” Jonathan shouted.  “You’re getting to be quite a shot.”

“Not as good as you,” Ben insisted.  “Looks like my boy will get that goat stew he wanted the other day.”

“Sounds good to me,” Jonathan said as they walked toward the carcasses.

Once the goats had been skinned and the meat tied to their saddles, the two friends started leading the horses forward to the point they expected to intersect the wagon train.  The goats, while small, would provide fresh meat for their families.  Not enough to go far, however.  Ben regretted that.  Inger’d probably insist on inviting the Thomases to share their stew, but it wouldn’t stretch further than that.  Still, Ben was content with their morning’s work, and by all appearances, so was Jonathan.

Sighting the five buffalo grazing in a secluded valley below them, then, was an added bonus.  “Look at that, Ben,” Jonathan whispered excitedly.

“Now, that’s a sight I never thought to see again,” Ben whispered back.

Jonathan drew his rifle from his scabbard.  “I, for one, don’t aim to let a chance like this pass by.”  As he started throwing the goat meat off his saddle, Ben followed suit.  Jonathan was right.  If they could get a buffalo, there’d be meat for the whole camp, meat they’d likely be tasting for the last time in their lives.

They walked the horses as close as they could to the shaggy bison.  Then, when the animals caught their scent and started to run, they urged the horses forward.  On the open plain the buffalo would probably have escaped, but there was less running room here.  Sharpshooter Jonathan brought down the first cow.  Ben had a longer chase, but his cow circled back when she encountered rocky ground, so he dropped her not far from where Jonathan’s buffalo had fallen.

Giving a triumphant shout, Ben dismounted and raised his rifle in salute to his fellow hunter.  Jonathan looked up from his butchering to grin at Ben.  “The camp’ll eat good tonight!” he cried.  Suddenly, his grin faded.

Seeing the fear on Jonathan’s face, Ben spun around and saw three Crow warriors, advancing fast.  Jonathan laid down his knife and quietly picked up his rifle, but Ben was watching the Indians too carefully to notice.  Riding up to the white men, one of the Crows leaped from his pony and, his face glowering, gestured toward the buffalo.  Ben didn’t really know sign language, but he understood immediately that the Indians were demanding the meat for themselves.

Jonathan understood, too, and felt outraged by the red men’s attempt to take what he considered rightfully his.  He lifted his rifle to his shoulder and sighted it.  From the corner of his eye Ben saw the movement and, lunging toward Jonathan, grabbed the rifle’s barrel and pushed it upward just as the other man fired.  The bullet sped harmlessly skyward, but the Indians responded to the threat by drawing arrows from the quivers on their backs and fitting them to their bows.

Ben turned quickly and raised his hands, palm outward.  He wasn’t sure how to convey what he intended, but he had to try.  Their arrows aimed at his chest, the Indians watched him cautiously, none of them moving.  Ben pointed to the buffalo he had shot and then to the Crow standing before him.  He pointed to the other buffalo and then to Jonathan.  Once again, he pointed to the buffalo his own rifle had felled, then pointed to the Crow.  When the Indian lowered his bow and nodded solemnly, Ben breathed a sigh of relief.  Somehow, despite his nontraditional sign language, the man had understood and accepted the offer to split the meat.

Side by side, the two races butchered the bison in silence, each eyeing the other with watchful suspicion.  When the white men finished butchering their animal, Jonathan started to gather up the woolly hide.  The Crow who seemed to be the leader sprang to his feet and raised his knife in a threatening manner.

Ben pushed his way between the two men, again raising his hands palm outward.  He pointed to the hide and, bringing his right hand out from his heart, held it inches from the Indian’s breast.  He was trying to offer the hide as a gift from one heart to another, all the time sending arrows of prayer flying heavenward that the gift would be received.  Something Ben could only describe later as respect glittered in the Indian’s dark eyes.  Keeping his knife pointed at Jonathan, he plucked the hide from the ground, then turned his back and walked away.

Ben helped Jonathan load the horses with the meat.  Then each took the reins of his animal.  Raising his hand in final farewell to the Crows, Ben turned and walked away as the Indian had done earlier.  “Don’t look back,” he urged Jonathan under his breath.  “I think they’ll respect a show of courage.”

“We’re dead pigeons if they don’t,” Jonathan muttered, but he did as Ben suggested.  Neither of them looked back until they topped the ridge from which they’d first seen the buffalo.  Gazing down into the valley once more, they saw the Crows riding away, leaving behind nothing but blood.  Unlike the white men, they would use everything the bison had to offer.  Ben and Jonathan retrieved the goat meat they’d left behind, its extra weight adding little to their horses’ loads, and headed once more toward where they expected to find the train.

In the meantime, Inger and Rachel had grown steadily more worried.  The wagons had circled for their noon break two hours before; now they were ready to head out on the trail again and still no sign of Ben or Jonathan.  Never before had hunters been so late in returning to the train.  The wagons lined up, but just as Larrimore was about to give the order to move forward, Wentworth came running up from the rearmost one.  “They’re coming!” he shouted.  “Wait up, Larrimore; they’re coming!”

Lawrence smiled in relief.  He, too, had felt concerned for the party’s missing members, but hadn’t known what to do except move on and hope they caught up by nightfall.  Inger and Rachel didn’t wait for their husbands to come to them.  Each deposited her baby with another woman and ran as fast as she could to meet her man.

Inger arrived first.  “Oh, Ben, I vas so vorried,” she cried.  “What kept you?”

Ben wrapped her in a strong embrace.  “Long story, my love.  I’ll tell you everything later.  Short version is we found extra meat.”

“Not to mention a little squabble with some Indians over keeping it,” Jonathan added.

“Oh, Jon!” Rachel shrieked.  “Not really?”

“Ben?” Inger asked anxiously.  “You fought Indians?”

“No, no,” Ben assured her.  “We ran into some, but worked out our differences peaceably.  I’ll explain it all later.  Let’s get on into camp and unload this meat, so the train can move on.”  The women weren’t satisfied with the explanations they’d received, but they understood the importance of what Ben had said.  The explanations would have to wait.

Not until the emigrants made camp that evening near AyersNaturalBridge was a full explanation offered.  All the women combined forces that evening to prepare their final feast of buffalo meat, and everyone ate together near the Payne’s wagon.  As they chewed the succulent meat, Jonathan regaled them with an account of their morning’s adventures that left the children wide-eyed with wonder and the adults breathless with excitement.

“I must have been crazed to take aim at that brave with the odds against us,” Jonathan said, shame-faced.  “If Ben hadn’t pushed my rifle up to deflect my shot, we’d’ve had all-out war on our hands.”  Adam’s black eyes glowed with pride in his father’s fearlessness.

“Now, Jonathan,” Ben said, “don’t make me out a hero.”

“Be modest all you want, Ben,” Jonathan insisted.  “I was there and I know the truth.  I wouldn’t be sitting here enjoying this meat in the company of these fine friends if it hadn’t been for your good sense and courage.”

“That Crow showed good sense and courage, too,” blushing Ben said, mostly to transfer the others’ attention off himself.  “I understand what Robidoux meant when he called them brave and honorable people.  They outnumbered us and could easily have taken what they wanted, but they were willing to be fair.”

“They take the meat you shot and you call them fair!” McTavish snorted.

Ben shook his head.  “Everything out here’s more properly theirs than ours,” he said.  “Imagine how you’d feel if someone walked into your smokehouse and grabbed the ham you were saving for Sunday dinner.”  McTavish shrugged.  He wasn’t sure he agreed with Ben’s analogy, but he figured that might be just how the Indians saw it.

“I shouldn’t have shot that second buffalo in the first place,” Ben added with chagrin.  “With the goats we already had, one was enough for our needs; I just got carried away in the excitement of the hunt.  Small wonder the Indians find white men so wasteful.”

“I’ve heard they make use of every part of the buffalo,” Clyde commented.

“I believe it,” Jonathan said.  “They took everything, even the waste parts of our animal.”

“What you considered waste parts,” Ben said with a smile.

“I didn’t notice you bringing home the hooves,” Jonathan said wryly.  “Inger probably could have made a tasty soup out of them.”

Ben chuckled.  “I imagine my resourceful wife could do just that, but I’m satisfied with this rump meat.”

“Folks’ll eat ‘most anything if they’re hungry enough, I reckon,” Clyde chimed in.  “Remember the Donner party?  They ended up eating boiled hides to stay alive.”

“And worse,” Ebenezer said gravely.  He didn’t need to elaborate.  Every man and woman there knew how those stranded emigrants of 1846 had resorted to cannibalism.  “God spare us that fate,” the minister added.

“Amen to that, Reverend,” Maggie McTavish said, and the other women murmured their assent.

“Shucks, with hunters like Ben and Jon here,” Clyde snickered, “we ain’t likely to run short of meat.  I say we give ‘em a healthy round of applause to say our thanks.”  To Ben and Jonathan’s embarrassment, everyone else stood to give them the suggested ovation.

“Sit down, folks,” Ben begged.  “The best thanks you can give us is simply to enjoy the food.”

Clyde sat down and forked another piece into his tin plate.  “Yup, that’s my favorite way to say thanks,” he cackled.

Adam pulled on his father’s sleeve.  “Pa, could we go climb that bridge over there after supper?”

In the dim light from the crescent moon above Ben could barely see the stone arch to the left of the trail.  “I don’t think so, Adam,” he said.  “Pa’s had enough adventure for one day.”  Adam wheedled a little more, but nothing could persuade his father.  Ordinarily soft-hearted where his boy’s wishes were concerned, Ben didn’t want to do anything that night but unwind in the presence of his loved ones.

The next two days were blissfully uneventful.  The only adventures took place in the land of make-believe as Adam and his friends reenacted again and again Ben Cartwright’s encounter with the Indians.  Adam always demanded the part of his heroic father, while Billy refused any role but that of the Crow warrior.  They enlisted a more than willing Marta to portray Jonathan Payne.  Since Johnny’s death the little tomboy had had no one to play with, and she was so grateful to be included in the boys’ game that she didn’t care what character she represented.  Adam tried to follow the story he’d heard around the campfire; but Billy, wanting to make his depiction of the Indian brave as wild as he was sure Indians really were, insisted on shooting Marta with his imaginary bow and arrow.

On Thursday the emigrants came to a bend in the North Platte.  Since the river wound southward from this point, they could no longer follow its course.  They’d have to cross here and head west over open ground.  Fortunately, the Mormons had established a ferry; for though the river was only three feet deep, everyone preferred the relative safety of a ferry.  The charge for transportation across the river was three dollars per wagon, the most reasonable fee they’d been assessed thus far.

Larrimore confided to Ben that he was concerned McTavish might not have sufficient funds for even so nominal a toll; however, when the Scotsman’s turn came to cross, he paid the three dollars without comment.  Perhaps, Ben suggested to the wagon train’s captain, their trail mate’s financial state was not as strained as he had led them to believe; perhaps the man was simply exercising the famed frugality of his national heritage.

Those who crossed the ferry early walked up to the nearby trading post while they waited for those behind.  Though the women always welcomed the chance to see what was offered, they found the store short on supplies.  And since most of what was available was priced high, almost everyone left without making a purchase.

As the Cartwrights and Thomases walked back to their wagons, Clyde offered Ben a chaw of the tobacco he’d bought.  “No thanks,” Ben said.  “I smoke a pipe, but I’ve never chewed tobacco.”

“Ought to try it sometime,” Clyde cackled.  “Gives you something to spit when you need to express some real strong feelin’s.”

“Now, Clyde, you hush that,” Nelly scolded.  “Lands sakes!  These folks’ll think you were raised in a barn.  Why on earth you bought that truck, I’ll never know.  It was higher than a cat’s back.”

“Ain’t it the truth?” Clyde said.  “I tell you these Mormons are making a killing out of this westward expansion.  Run most of the ferries; now, trading posts, too.”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “Don’t you figure Mormons have as much right to make a living as anyone else, Clyde?”

Clyde gave the wad of tobacco in his mouth a vigorous chew.  “Not sure, Ben,” he responded.  “I hear they got some mighty peculiar ways, some of ‘em not fit to mention in front of the ladies.”

“Well, I can’t condone polygamy, of course, if that’s what you’re referring to,” Ben said, “but I figure if a man’s enterprising enough to sight a good business opportunity, he’s got the right to take it.”

“I reckon,” Clyde agreed.  “I just wish he wouldn’t take it out of my pocket!”  Wagging  his head, Ben chuckled.

Though Larrimore had warned the others in the party that delays were frequent at the Mormons’ ferry, their train arrived on a slow day.  Despite striking the river in the afternoon, everyone safely reached the western shore by day’s end, and they camped a mile beyond the trading post.

Ben knew he should have felt relieved to be able to cross so promptly, but at the back of his mind was an itch that wouldn’t stay scratched.  It was natural, he supposed, for the trains to spread out as they moved westward, and there were still wagon parties behind theirs.  Ben found himself wondering, though, if the uncrowded ferry meant they were slipping further and further to the rear of this year’s migration.  The implications of that troubled him.

The following morning the eight-wagon party ascended a hill nearly one mile in length.  For the first time since leaving the Little Blue to intersect the Platte, their path was unmarked by a river; and although the emigrants had often complained about the turbid waters of the Platte, they felt they were leaving behind an old and trusted friend.

Most of the ground they covered as they aimed their wagons westward was desert-like, covered only with sagebrush, but the surrounding blue-gray hills were fringed with dwarf cedars.  Later that morning the train passed three isolated mountains to the south, between them and the Platte.  Large patches of the mountains were bare red rock, devoid of life, but the vivid color made them vibrant.  The mountains were known as the Red Buttes, Larrimore said, and everyone agreed it was a perfect name.

All morning the travelers had carefully kept their oxen from drinking from the small pools they’d passed.  No one wanted to risk losing their draught animals to alkaline sickness, and the red tint of the plants growing near the water indicated it was poisonous, at least to cattle.  As they passed Red Buttes, however, they found a healthful source of water in a small creek meandering through the valley and good, though somewhat overgrazed, grass.

When the wagon train made its noon stop there, Larrimore told them that this would be the last good water and forage until they reached Willow Springs.  “I think we should push on and try to reach there tonight,” he said.

“That’s a long drive for the oxen, isn’t it?” Payne asked.

“It is,” Larrimore agreed, “but we can make it.  I think it might be in order, then, to take a day’s rest there.  Willow Springs is one of the best campsites in this part of the country.”

“And the oxen can use the rest if we drive ‘em eighteen miles today,” Clyde commented.  “What you say, Wentworth?  Will the Almighty get uppity if we take Saturday off instead of Sunday?”

“Clyde,” Ben muttered beneath his breath, but the minister heard him anyway.

“It’s all right, Ben,” Ebenezer said.  “I can take a little teasing.  Allow me to point out, Mr. Thomas, that it was the seventh day on which the Lord rested from His creation.  Let me preach tomorrow, and I’ll be content to follow His example.”

“Okay, Reverend,” Clyde chuckled, “but remember, no long-winded speechifyin’ ‘til Sacramento.”  The minister slapped Clyde on the back and said he’d try his best to resist temptation.

“The Scripture tells us that ‘the heavens declare the glory of God,’” Wentworth told him small congregation Saturday morning.  “I suggest to you, my friends, that the very landscape through which we pass also gives us daily evidence of God’s glory.”  The minister reminded them of some of the spectacular scenery they’d already seen on their journey and the still more awesome sights waiting ahead.  “As we see all around us the handiwork of God,” Wentworth declared, “we understand anew how the Lord could look upon the results of His week of creation and call it good.  Refresh yourselves today in this most pleasant place, my friends; and as you do, lift your hearts in praise to the One who has given us richly all things to enjoy.”

That day at Willow Springs was one of the most restful stops the Larrimore train made during their entire journey west.  The site itself was pleasant with its cold springs fringed with willows and its plentiful grass, but not more amiable than other places they had camped.  Somehow, though, this Saturday the emigrants saw more than just attractive scenery and adequate provision.  Because of the minister’s inspiring words, they saw the Hand of a loving Creator planning this place of peaceful repose eons before their births, planning it with the knowledge that they would stop here this very Saturday to refresh their bodies and reflect on His goodness.  Whether they spent their time at Willow Springs scrubbing shirts or napping beneath shady trees, they came away with a renewed sense of the grandeur of God and gratitude for the grace of His provision.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

 Leaving Willow Springs Monday morning, the emigrants began the ascent of Prospect Hill.  An hour’s steady climb brought them to the summit and rewarded their efforts with a magnificent, panoramic view of the surrounding countryside.  To the south the PlatteRiver twisted away from them, and beyond that the dark majesty of the Black Hills rose against the sky.  To the west, ahead of them, they saw the valley of the SweetwaterRiver, a level plain several miles in extent, shut in by the misty blue RattlesnakeMountains.  No one, however, had time to gaze long upon the beauty of the scene:  they had not come as artists to admire and capture on canvas the glories of these mountains; they had come as conquerors, to wager their lives on their ability to bridge those heights.

So they pressed on, making almost four more miles by the time they stopped at eleven for their noon break.  No one was tempted to linger there, either, for the only water available came from an ill-smelling slough.  Thankfully, Larrimore had warned his people to fill their barrels before leaving Willow Springs; so no one had to use alkaline water that could be fatal to oxen and, while not usually deadly to humans, could play havoc with their digestive systems.

After a brief layover the wagons rolled another mile, then came to a hill that was steep both ascending and descending.  Moving up the sharp incline strained the oxen, but they were able to pull the loaded wagons to the summit without being double-teamed——with one exception.  Still achingly overloaded, the Larrimore oxen could not scale the hill without the help of extra draught animals.  Some of the other emigrants complained about the delay caused by Mrs. Larrimore’s foolish attachment to her belongings, but none thought it likely they could persuade her to abandon them.  So they waited, keeping their impatient mutters low, forgetting their irritation once they were again wheeling west.

About three o’clock that afternoon Larrimore ordered the wagons unhitched and the oxen watered in a small, but clear creek.  “It’s too early to make camp,” Payne grumbled.  “We’ve lost enough time today.”

“I didn’t say make camp,” Larrimore snapped, disgruntled by the veiled criticism of the delay his wagons had caused.  “I said to water the stock.  There is a creek ahead where we’ll make camp, but it’s even smaller than this and can’t be relied on for water.”

“What about grass?” Ben asked.  “Do we need to let the oxen graze here, too, Lawrence?”

Lawrence smiled at Ben’s respectful attitude.  “No, Ben, I don’t believe that will be necessary.  There should be plenty of grass.  No wood, however, so any fuel you can pick up along the trail will come in handy.”

“Appreciate the advice,” Ben said and headed back to unhitch his team.

Passing him on the way to his own wagon, Jonathan stopped.  “You’re too easy on that man, Ben,” he chided.  “The delays he and that woman have caused us—”

“We’ve all caused delays one place or another,” Ben replied.

Jonathan blew out an exasperated breath.  “Not like them,” he insisted.

“He’s the captain, Jon,” Ben said quietly, “and on the whole, a good one.  The advice he just gave us seems sound to me.”

Jonathan shrugged.  “We’ll see, I guess, when we get to that other creek.”  He slapped Ben’s back in friendly farewell and went to water his oxen.

When they reached that trickling creek an hour and a quarter later, Jonathan was forced to admit that Lawrence’s experience had spared them another night of watering their stock from the now dwindling casks.  The campsite was exactly as the wagon train leader had pictured it:  plentiful grass, little water, no wood.  Those who heeded his advice to gather fuel along the way, though, already had enough sagebrush to build their cook fires.

Early the next morning the train arrived at Greasewood Creek and refilled their water kegs.  Though the creek was six feet wide, it was only one foot deep, so the wagons forded it easily.  The road beyond, however, was difficult as the oxen’s hooves sank in the deep sand.  The sudden rainstorm that hit mid-morning didn’t help, either.  It lowered the temperature, which would have been a boon earlier in their journey.  Here, although the calendar read August nineteenth, the altitude meant the daytime temperature was rarely above the low sixties, anyway, and the nights even colder.  The chilly rain only made the travelers shiver, and despite the rocky nature of the ride, most of the women and children opted for traveling inside the wagons.

The rain turned the ground into a spongy bog that slowed the animals’ pace still more.  When they reached an alkali spring set in a valley almost surrounded by high hills, the land there was swampy and the water unsafe to drink.  When stirred, it turned black and smelled so bad no one was willing to risk its use for either cooking or watering the oxen.  Once again, the emigrants used the water they had carried with them and counted themselves blessed to have it.  The cattle, however, wanted more, so the men were kept busy making sure they didn’t stray toward the black pools.

While the men herded cattle and the women prepared lunch, Adam, Billy and Marta ran to a dry lake, whose bed seemed virtually untouched by the earlier shower, and scooped up all the white powder covering the ground their pails could hold.  Adam had read in his father’s guidebook that such dry lakes provided saleratus pure as any you could buy in a store, and he was eager to test it out.  Marta hoped to save her mother the cost of a fresh supply at the next trading post by her efforts here.  Billy’s motives, on the other hand, were neither scientific nor economical; to him it was just a game in which he was a prospector digging for gold.  Even his fertile imagination, however, had a hard time seeing shiny nuggets in his pail full of dry, white saleratus.

Some sand also found its way into the pail of saleratus Adam proudly presented Inger; but she sifted it out and, mostly to please him, used the leaven Adam had harvested in the biscuits she stirred up to go with a lunch of bacon and beans.  To her surprise and Adam’s scientific satisfaction, the saleratus did a commendable job of making the biscuits rise.  Adam offered to dig up some more for her, but Inger assured him an entire pail of saleratus was sufficient for their current needs.  “Besides,” she suggested, “since ve vill leave soon, you should tell Jamie all about your discovery, yah?”

“Oh, yeah,” Adam said.  “I almost forgot.”  He immediately retrieved his journal from his storage pocket and wrote a quick entry about finding natural saleratus at Alkali Springs and the better-than-usual (in Adam’s opinion) biscuits it had produced.

As the train headed west that afternoon, the clouds above began to darken once more; and before an hour had passed, rain was again pelting down with little sign of letup.  Not even the wagons provided complete protection from the icy droplets.  Though the white covers had been waterproofed before the emigrants left, with time and use they lost some of their ability to shed water; and the rain leaked through here and there.  Despite their slow progress over gummy ground, the eight wagons reached the SweetwaterRiver that day.  Though they had hoped to ford it before encamping, no one wanted to attempt crossing in the rain; and by the time it stopped, it was too late.

The next morning’s sky was clear, although a heavy haze hung over the surrounding mountains.  While the women prepared breakfast, the men examined the river.  Ben returned and accepted the plate of pancakes and bacon his wife handed him.

“Is the river much deepened by the rain?” Inger asked.

His mouth full, Ben nodded, then swallowed.  “Some.  It’s no more than about two and a half feet deep, though, so we’ll try to ford it.”

“Ah, that is good,” Inger said.  “Ve vill lose less time that vay.”

Ben started to agree; but hearing a piercing shriek from the encampment to their right, he jerked in that direction.  “We can’t!” he heard Camilla Larrimore scream.  “It isn’t safe, Lawrence.”

“Oh, dear,” Inger murmured.

Lawrence Larrimore was trying to quiet his wife.  “Shh, sweetheart,” he whispered urgently, hoping no one would hear her cries of frantic fear.  “The men have voted; we must abide by their decision.”

“But you’re the captain!” Camilla squealed.  “Make them caulk the boats and float.”

“I’m captain, yes,” Lawrence explained patiently, “but that means leader, Camilla, not dictator.”

“Well, maybe what this train needs is a dictator, then,” Camilla whimpered, “instead of all these ‘democratic’ meetings.  They take more time than caulking the wagons would.”

“Maybe you’d rather we took time to build a bridge!” Lawrence said hotly.

“Yes, I would, as a matter of fact!”  Even Camilla, though, knew that alternative was out of the question.

Lawrence finally did what he should have done in the first place.  He took his wife in his arms and held her tight.  “Trust me, sweetheart,” he pleaded.  “I won’t let harm come to you——nor to any of your precious things if I can avoid it.”

In the security of her husband’s arms, Camilla calmed down.  She still trembled with fear as she finished cooking breakfast and made preparations to leave, but she felt resigned to the crossing.  Fortunately for her nerves, the Larrimore wagons were in the lead that day, so her trial would soon be over.  As the first wagon approached the river, Inger came to stand beside Camilla, putting her arm around the woman who, though six years older, seemed so childlike and helpless in this situation.

Camilla smiled weakly up at Inger.  “I suppose you heard everything Lawrence and I said to each other this morning?”

“Almost,” Inger said with a gentle smile.  The conversation, after all, had been carried on at the volume of a pig hollering contest.

Camilla sniffled nervously.  “I know everyone thinks I behave badly, but I just can’t help myself, Inger.  I have an absolute horror of rivers.”

“Does it not help to know how many ve have crossed safely?” Inger asked quietly.

“No, nothing helps,” Camilla sighed.  She looked toward the mountains, and her eyes grew misty.  “I think, maybe, it’s the memory of my brother.”  She turned back to gaze into Inger’s sympathetic eyes.  “When I was seven, my younger brother wandered down by a creek near my parents’ home.  Before any of us realized he was missing, he’d slipped in and drowned.”

Inger’s arms tightened around the merchant’s wife.  “Oh, I am so sorry.  Have you alvays been afraid of vater, then?”

“I guess so,” Camilla admitted, “but I didn’t really have to face it ‘til now.  Mostly, I just stayed clear of creeks and rivers and kept the children away, too.”  The anxiety in her eyes deepened.  “Now, because I wouldn’t let Lawrence teach them, they don’t even know how to swim.  I know everyone thinks it’s my goods I worry about, but what I’m really afraid of losing is one of my children.”

“But the vater is not deep,” Inger reasoned.  “Surely, you do not fear they vill drown in such shallow vater.”

Camilla jerked away, turning her back to the river.  “I know it’s an unreasonable fear, Inger; that doesn’t make it less real.  Besides, everything I need to make a decent home for my children is in those wagons——food, clothing and, yes, even the finer things.  If they’re lost—”

Inger stepped close to brush the tears from Camilla’s cheeks.  “Look across the river,” she said softly.  “Your first vagon is already across, and who is that I see beside it?”

Camilla turned and laughed in relief.  “My babies,” she whispered.  She gave Inger a quick hug.  “Thanks for distracting me, dear friend.  I—I think I’ll run across now and give my darlings a kiss.”

“You still have a vagon left to ford over,” Inger teased.

“I don’t care,” Camilla said, her voice still shaky.  Then, she laughed lightly.  “Besides, that one’s just full of Lawrence’s store goods, anyway.”

Inger giggled.  She suspected Camilla was teasing, but thought it a good thing Mr. Larrimore hadn’t heard the comment.  After that morning’s squabble he might not feel charitable about his wife’s nonchalant attitude toward his merchandise.

All eight wagons, along with Clyde’s cart, made the crossing easily, then rumbled on toward Independence Rock, where they halted for the midday break.  Even before the wagons circled, Adam started trotting toward the huge landmark.  Ben jogged after him and grabbed his brown britches by the waistband.  “No, you don’t, son,” he ordered.

“But, Pa, you said—”

Ben laid a broad-palmed, but hardly heavy, swat against Adam’s backside.  “Don’t you ever take off alone like that, boy!  Besides, chores come first.  You fetch your mother whatever water she needs for cooking.  Then when I’ve watered the stock, we’ll climb Independence Rock together.”

Adam’s mouth puckered, but he didn’t argue.  He’d never seen it pay with Pa, anyway, especially not when Adam knew he was in the wrong.  He knew he was expected to see to it his mother had water for cooking and was usually glad to help.  Today was special, though, but Pa couldn’t seem to understand that a sight as grand as Independence Rock just naturally took a boy’s mind off chores.  Wondering why parents never understood really important things, Adam grumbled under his breath, but got the water bucket from the wagon and headed toward the river.

The needed chores were soon done, and an excited Adam gamboled happily at his father’s side as they approached the huge rock to the right of the trail.  “Do you know how big Independence Rock is, Adam?” Ben asked.

“I read it in the guidebook, Pa, but I don’t remember,” Adam said.

“Six hundred yards long and one hundred and twenty wide,” his father reminded him.

“Oh, yeah,” Adam said, “and a hundred foot high.”

The two Cartwrights had only a short walk; for the southwest end, where they would make their ascent, lay near the river, not far from where Adam had drawn the water for his mother.  They started up the narrow trail to the top of the granite formation.  Sometimes the path constricted until there was barely room for Ben’s feet; and while Adam’s were smaller, it was the boy Ben feared for as pebbles rattled beneath their steps and threatened to make them skid back to the bottom of the hill.

Ben found himself wishing he’d never promised Adam they would carve their names here at the giant registry of the overland trail, but he couldn’t bring himself to disappoint the boy now.  With his heart in his throat and a prayer on his lips, Ben helped Adam up the steepest spots and found his reward in his son’s joyous face when they reached the summit.

“We made it, Pa!” Adam crowed.

“We sure did,” Ben said, feeling both relieved and happy.

“Now we can carve our names, and everyone will know we were here,” Adam announced.

Ben chuckled.  “Let’s look around a bit first, shall we?  I’d like to read some of these other names, and then we can decide where to put ours.  All right with you?”

Adam frowned.  “I guess so.”  It seemed the safest answer.

Ben caught the boy’s lack of enthusiasm, but he knew some of the engravings on this rock went back many years.  He wanted to see if he could find some of the oldest ones.  Most of the names they read on the rock were, of course, those of ordinary people who had passed this way before them.  As soon as Ben thought that, however, he shook his head.  No one who made this journey could be considered ordinary.  Just by starting out, they’d set themselves apart from the mass of men, those content to rest in padded chairs and warm their toes at blazing fireplaces.

Ben started to laugh at the contradiction between his admiration for bold adventurers and his dream of building a home as cozy as that of those who never ventured past their own hearths.  Before Adam could ask what his father found amusing, though, the laughter broke with an abrupt gasp of delight.  “Look at that, Adam!” Ben cried, pointing to a name carved in the granite.

“Frémont,” Adam read slowly.  “We don’t know anyone called Frémont, do we, Pa?”

Ben roared with laughter as he caught Adam around the waist.  “Maybe, you don’t, boy,” he said, “but your pa sure does!  Well, actually, I don’t know him personally, but I know who he is.”

“Who is he, Pa?” Adam asked, interested by the importance his father seemed to attach to the unknown name.

“John Charles Frémont,” his father said.  “He was a famous explorer, son, who helped map out this whole area we’ve been traveling through.  It was reading about his expedition that helped feed my interest in coming west.”

Adam grinned as he looked again at the name.  If this Frémont was responsible for their trip west, he really was important.  Wandering a short distance away, Adam found cause for excitement himself.  “Come here, Pa,” he shouted.  “Here’s a real old one.  He must be an explorer, too.”

Ben took three long steps to reach Adam’s side and read the date to which the boy pointed, 1836.  “You’re right, Adam,” he said.  “That’s the oldest date I’ve seen.”

“I wasn’t even born then,” Adam said in awe.  “Were you, Pa?”

Ben chuckled.  “Yes, son, I’m afraid your pa’s that old.  In fact, I was just twice your age now in 1836.”  Adam’s forehead wrinkled.  He couldn’t figure out how old that made his father.

Seeing the puzzlement in the boy’s eyes, Ben lifted Adam’s chin with his index finger.  “How much is seven plus seven, Adam?”

“Fourteen,” Adam answered readily.  He relished arithmetic as much as ever and was always speedy in running sums.

“That’s how old I was in 1836,” Ben explained.  Adam nodded, but his brow remained furrowed.  He couldn’t imagine his father ever being that young.  Why, Pa was old; anyone living in 1836 had to be old.

As Ben and Adam made their way around the rock, they came across the names of other explorers like Bonneville and DeSmet.  The best surprise, however, came late in their personal exploration of Independence Rock.  Adam spotted the familiar name first.  “Pa, Pa!” he screamed with excitement.  “It’s Uncle John.”

Ben grinned broadly as he read his brother’s name inscribed in stone.  “You’re right, boy!” he shouted, giving Adam a quick hug.  “I think we’ve found the perfect place to leave our mark, don’t you?”

“Oh, yeah!” Adam cried.  “Us Cartwrights has gotta stick together.”

“We Cartwrights,” his father corrected.  “Goodness, Adam, what would Mr. Edwards make of that abominable sentence you just constructed?”

Adam giggled.  “He’d make me wear the dunce cap, huh?”

Ben ruffled the boy’s black hair.  “I doubt it, but he might make you copy a corrected version a hundred times.”

Adam frowned.  He’d had to do lines a few times in Josiah Edwards’ classroom.  As punishments went, it wasn’t hard; but it sure did get boring.  Still, even lines were better than the shame of sitting on a stool with that conical dunce cap marking you a dummy for all to see.

Ben laughed at his son’s expression.  “Relax, Adam.  No dunce cap and no lines.  One of the advantages to your classroom on the prairie, eh?”

When Adam gave him a relieved grin, Ben smiled back and started to carve the three names of his family next to his brother’s inscription.  Somehow, it seemed fitting to Ben for his name to stand side by side with John’s.  Fitting, and almost prophetic——like a promise that they’d stand side by side in California when their names, like those who’d gone before, were weathered by the passage of time.

Satisfied with their handiwork, Ben and Adam descended the hill only to receive a sound scolding from Inger.  “You are very late for lunch,” she chided.  “There is less than an hour until ve again move the vagons and you have not eaten.”

“I’m sorry, Inger,” Ben said, his voice sounding contrite, but his lips twitching with amusement.  “You can’t imagine the famous names we found up there, though.”

“I’m sure it vas all very interesting,” Inger said tersely, “but you vill have to tell me about them later.  Now you must eat, so I can have things clean and packed avay in time to leave vith the others.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to hear about Captain Frémont first?” Ben teased as he scooped a helping of beans into his tin plate.

“Yah, I am sure,” Inger muttered.  Honestly, she thought, why did men have to be so perverse?  Even Eric had been fussy during today’s nooning; and now that she’d finally gotten him settled down for a nap, here was Ben deliberately being bothersome.

“What about Benjamin Bonneville, then?” Ben persisted, oblivious to his wife’s glowering countenance.  “He’s quite famous, you know.”

“I don’t know,” Inger snapped.  “What I do know is that if you do not eat now, I vill not finish my vork!”

Ben winked at his son.  “Well, then, Adam, I guess we can’t tell her about the most special name of all, can we?”

“No, sir, we sure can’t,” Adam giggled.  “I don’t want to get in trouble.”

“Me, either,” his father agreed, “but it seems a shame we can’t tell your mother about that most famous of all California trailsmen, John Cartwright.”

Suddenly, the irritation dropped from Inger’s features, and she grabbed Ben by both arms.  “John?  You found John’s name?”

“Couldn’t say,” Ben mumbled, his mouth full of beans.  “I’m not allowed to discuss what we saw.”

Inger gave her husband an exasperated shake.  “You are the most provoking man!” she accused.  “Did you see John’s name or not?”

Ben laughed.  “I did, Inger, and carved each of our names beside his.”

“Ah, that is good,” Inger sighed contentedly.  “Yah, that vas vorth coming in late.  You are forgiven, bad boys.”

Having delivered their news, Ben and Adam dutifully gobbled down their meal and helped Inger clear things away again.  Consequently, when the rest of the Larrimore train was ready to pull out, so were the Cartwrights.  An uneventful afternoon’s drive brought them to Devil’s Gate, where they would spend the night, at about 3:30.

The early stop meant the men finished their daily chores long before sundown.  Seeing Ben bring in a load of sagebrush, Clyde sauntered over to the Cartwright’s wagon.  “You finished chorin’, Ben?” he asked.

“I think so,” Ben replied.  “You need anything else, Inger?”

“No,” Inger said.  “Adam is getting vater, and I should need nothing else until dinner time.”

“I’m done, too,” Clyde announced, “and I got me a hankerin’ to see that Devil’s Gate over yonder.  Want to come, Ben?”

Ben shrugged.  “Oh, I don’t know.  It’s just the river running through some rocks.”

Clyde cackled.  “Some rocks, he says!  That’s the RattlesnakeMountains, Ben!”

“Oh, Ben has seen so many mountains lately, they all look alike to him,” Inger teased.

Ben chuckled.  “Yeah, I’m getting plumb jaded out on scenery.  I’ll walk over with you, though, Clyde, just for the company.”

“Fine, fine,” Clyde grinned.

As the men headed toward the east end of Devil’s Gate, Nelly came to stand by Inger.  “Not like Ben to show so little interest in a new sight,” she said.  “He ain’t ailin’?”

“I think he is just tired,” Inger said.  “He and Adam had quite a climb this afternoon.  Had you heard they found the name of Ben’s brother at Independence Rock?”

“You don’t say!” Nelly enthused.  “Now, I know that was a thrill for Ben.  No way Devil’s Gate could live up to that, I reckon.”

Adam arrived with the bucket of water he’d been sent for.  “Mama, can I have the pail?” he asked eagerly.

“Why do you need it, Adam?” his mother asked.

“I found some more saleratus,” Adam explained, “and this looks real white, not sandy like what I got you before.  You want some, don’t you?”

“Yah, sure,” Inger said.  “But just one pail, mine son.  Ve must leave some for those who come after.”

Adam laughed loud.  “You’re so silly, Mama.  There’s enough there for a hundred wagon trains.”

Inger wiggled his nose.  “Vell, perhaps a hundred vill come.  One pail, Adam.”

“Okay,” he said as he climbed into the back of the wagon.

“Now, what will you do with more saleratus?” Nelly whispered.  “Didn’t the boy bring you a whole bucket the other day?”

“It keeps him from mischief,” Inger said with a smile.

A sudden twinkle sparkled in Nelly’s eye.  “Billy!” she called.  “Go along with Adam and get me a bucket of saleratus,” she ordered.  She turned to Inger.  “Well, I guess we’ll just have to stir up extra batches of biscuits from here on in.”

“Or batches of extra big biscuits,” Inger teased, referring to the rising properties of saleratus.  Nelly flapped her hand in response to Inger’s nonsense and went back to start supper, including that extra large batch of biscuits.

While Adam and Billy were busy scooping superfluous saleratus, Ben and Clyde were picking their way down the narrow canyon where the SweetwaterRiver forced its way between almost perpendicular rocks rising four hundred feet or more above them.  “Must have been volcanoes here at one time,” Ben commented.

“How can you tell?” Clyde asked.

Ben pointed to the dark rocks scattered throughout the passage.  “See those black rocks?  They’re like what I saw near the volcanoes in Hawaii.”

“Owyhee?” Clyde repeated.  “Don’t tell me you been to the Sandwich Islands?”  When Ben nodded, Clyde laughed.  “Where ain’t you been, Ben Cartwright?”

Ben chuckled.  “All kinds of places, Clyde.  It’s a big world out there.”

“You gonna be content to settle in one part of it,” Clyde asked, “or are you just a natural born wayfarer?”

“I enjoyed seeing the world when I was sailing,” Ben admitted, “but I think I’ve had my fill of the wayfaring life.  What I want now is a home and a family.  When you get right down to it, it’s more satisfying to build your own society that to spend your life visiting those of others.”

“To build a society,” Clyde said thoughtfully.  “Lofty ambition, Ben.  Most of us never think past building our own homes.”

“The most basic part of a society,” Ben said.  “Everything else is just an outgrowth of our need to provide a better life for our families.”

Clyde stroked his rusty chin whiskers.  “Reckon so, reckon so.”  Suddenly, a yellow glitter in the water caught his eyes.  Clyde stooped down to grab up a handful of gravel from the river bottom.  “Ben!” he shouted, fingering some shiny specks from the mud.  “Lookee there!  Ain’t that gold?”

Ben squatted down beside Clyde.  “I don’t know.  Sure is shiny enough.  I don’t know much about minerals, Clyde, but I don’t see how it could be.”

“Now, why be so all fired pessimistic?” Clyde grumbled.

Ben stood up.  “Just seems reasonable that someone would already have discovered gold here, if that’s what it is.  Think of how many emigrants have passed this way before us, my friend.”

“Yeah, but they had their sights on Californy,” Clyde insisted.  “I figure this is worth checking out, anyway.  Bet Larrimore would know how to test it.”

“Yeah, he should,” Ben admitted.  “Take him a sample, then, and see if you’ve struck it rich, Clyde.”

“If I have, I’ll cut you in for a share, Ben,” Clyde promised excitedly.  “That society of yours don’t run on pure dreams, do it?”

Ben laughed.  “No, it sure doesn’t.  All contributions appreciated.”

Clyde didn’t have a miner’s pan with him, so he couldn’t sift out too much of the glittery substance in the time he had.  After about twenty minutes work, though, he figured he had a sizable enough sample to show Larrimore.

When Clyde produced his new-found riches, however, Lawrence laughed so hard he had to hold his stomach.  “Throw it away, Clyde,” he hooted.  “Throw it away.”

“It isn’t gold, is it?” Ben asked with a told-you-so wink at Clyde.

“No, it isn’t,” Lawrence said, finally getting his voice under control.  “Don’t feel bad, though, men; you aren’t the first to be fooled by yellow mica.  Some of the men in my party last year toted bags of it with them to California.  The assayer had himself a good laugh at their expense.”

“Theirs?” Ben asked, raising an eyebrow.  “You didn’t fall for it, then?”

Lawrence turned crimson, embarrassed at being caught covering up his own mistake.  Then he realized he was among friends.  “Well, as a matter of fact—” he began.

“Hah!  You got suckered in like the rest, didn’t you, Larrimore?” Clyde guffawed.

“Toted in the biggest bag of the bunch,” Lawrence admitted, grinning.

As the story made the rounds from campfire to campfire that night, Camilla scolded her husband for putting himself down in the eyes of the others in their party.  “How do you expect the men to respect you as captain if you tell them what a fool you were?” she chided him.  Although Camilla didn’t realize it, her husband’s admission of fallibility had actually raised his stature with the other men.  Being imperfect creatures themselves, they found it easier to accept a leader with failings of his own than one who portrayed himself as the paragon of every manly virtue.

Wednesday’s march continued along the base of the Wind River range of the Rocky Mountains.  Though the highest peaks rose no more than two thousand feet, these mountains were far loftier than the Sweetwater range and demonstrated that the Rockies deserved their name.  Their jagged, snow-covered heights, barren of vegetation or even soil to grow it, formed a majestic mural to refresh eyes weary of the flatness of the plains.

While his parents admired the picturesque beauty of the scene, Adam stared at the snow-packed slopes and sighed.  “What’sa matter?” Billy asked.

“I was just wishing I could borrow that sled my friend Jamie got last Christmas,” Adam said.  “Think how fast you’d fly down that!”

Billy picked up a pebble and tossed it at a lizard sunning himself on a nearby rock.  “Don’t be a dunce,” he snorted, irritated that his aim was off.  “You’d crack your noggin wide open on them rocks.”

“Oh, yeah?” Adam demanded.  “What do you know?”

“I seen what ole Windlass Hill did to Pa’s wagon,” Billy declared.  “I ain’t so stupid I gotta be shown twice.  Mountains is dangerous!”

“Well, wishing ain’t!” Adam insisted.  “That’s all I was doing.”

“Might as well wish for the moon,” Billy snickered.  “Me, I’m just wishing for apple pie for supper.”

Adam stuck his tongue out.  “Might as well wish for the moon,” he taunted and took off at a run with Billy close behind.

* * * * *

“Adam,” Ben called loudly.  “Come here, son.”

Adam trotted forward from his place at Billy’s side.  “What you want, Pa?” he asked.  “It ain’t time to stop yet, is it?”

Ben lifted his son up in his arms.  “No, it isn’t,” he said, emphasizing the correct form of the verb.  “I just wanted you to see what’s ahead.”

Adam peered forward.  “More mountains, Pa; that’s all I see.”

Ben pointed to the cleft in the Granite range to their west.  “See that V-shape there, son.  That’s Split Rock.”

Adam wriggled in his father’s embrace.  “Chimney Rock was more interesting, Pa.”

Ben tickled the boy’s ribs.  “Oh, you and your Chimney Rock!”

Adam squealed.  “Stop, Pa, stop.”

Ben gave the boy’s side a final pat and obligingly quit.  “Don’t you know what Split Rock means, boy?” he asked.  Adam shook his head.

“I admit it’s not as interesting-looking a formation as some of the others we’ve seen, but it’s more important.  You see, if we line ourselves up with that cut in the ridge, it’ll lead us straight to South Pass.”

“Oh,” Adam said, “and we sure gotta find that!”  He knew from his father’s guidebook that South Pass was the way the wagons would get through the Rocky Mountains.

“We sure do,” Ben laughed as he set the youngster down.  “Run back and keep Billy company now, but be sure to mark down in your journal that you saw Split Rock today.”

“I will, Pa,” Adam promised, hurrying toward the Thomas wagon.  He pulled up abruptly and scurried back to his father.  “Pa?” he asked.  “Are we real close to South Pass?  Will we get there today?”

Ben roared with laughter.  “Mercy, no, boy!”  Seeing the boy’s downcast face, Ben patted his shoulder.  “Not today, son,” he said kindly, “but we should be there sometime within the next week.”

Adam grinned.  “Then, we’ll for sure be gettin’ close to California, right, Pa?”

Ben chuckled.  “Well, closer, anyway.  Go on now, son.  Billy looks plumb lonesome for you.”

As Adam left, Inger smiled at Ben.  “I’m sure it is Eric Billy is missing, Ben.  Perhaps, I should send him back.”

“I bet Nelly’d be pleased to have him,” Ben teased, “and I wouldn’t mind.  Then, I could get my arm around you easier.”

“Don’t tempt me,” Inger moaned softly.  “You don’t know how much our little son weighs.”

Ben stroked the baby’s plump chin.  “He’s a fine, brawny boy, Inger.”

“Yah,” Inger smiled.  “He reminds me of Gunnar as a baby——only bigger!”

“Want me to tote him awhile?” Ben asked.

“Oh, no, Ben,” Inger demurred.  “You have enough vork tending the stock.  Besides, I vas only teasing; I’m not really tired yet.  Ve have only been on the trail an hour this morning.”

“Is that all?” Ben asked dryly.  “Feels like months to me.  Like Adam, I wish we’d get to South Pass today.”

Inger giggled.  “Are you sure you don’t mean Sacramento?”

“No,” Ben joked.  “I can wait ‘til tomorrow for that.  I’m a patient man.”

Inger laughed.  “Yah, sure you are.  So patient you start looking for your next meal the minute the last one ends.”

Just then, Eric started to whimper.  “Like father, like son,” Ben snickered, for the sunny-dispositioned baby rarely cried unless he was hungry.  Shaking her head at her playful husband, Inger slipped the cradleboard from her back, lifted the baby into the wagon, then climbed in after him to let him nurse.

Inger spent most of the afternoon in the wagon, not because of Eric, but because another rainstorm deluged the train shortly after they left their noon encampment.  Despite the soggy ground, however, the train still reached its intended goal of Three Crossings in time to make their night camp there on the banks of the SweetwaterRiver.

The men debated long after dark the choice of routes that lay before them.  If they took the north trail, they’d have to cross the Sweetwater three times within a mile and a half, and while the southern route only crossed the river once, the oxen would have to trudge through deep sand.

As the discussion continued, Ben took another look in the guidebook to see if it expressed an opinion.  Both routes had advantages; both had drawbacks.  Ben’s brow furrowed as he reread the final line of description.  Getting the attention of the other men, he read that last line aloud:  “quicksand possible after rain.”

The others sat silent for a moment, each remembering the rain that had soaked them all afternoon.  “That’s in my book, too,” Jonathan said, “but I’d forgotten it.  I vote we take the north trail.”

“Aye,” McTavish agreed.  “Rivers are bothersome, but quicksand’s more risky.”

“We don’t know there’s quicksand,” Wentworth pointed out.  “We do know the risks of river crossings.”

“Some more than others,” McTavish mumbled.  Wentworth flushed, but made no response.

“We can’t debate all night,” Clyde grumbled.  “Call for the vote, Larrimore.”

“All right,” Lawrence agreed.  “I believe, as Clyde says, we’ve talked enough.  Those in favor of the north trail, say ‘aye.’”

Ben, Clyde, Jonathan, Robert and Stefán responded.

“Those for the south trail, same sign,” Larrimore said.

“I believe you and I are the only ones left,” Wentworth said with a smile.  “I don’t really know what’s best, so I’m willing to abide by the judgment of these good men.”

“We travel north, then,” Lawrence said.  “I think it’s a good choice, men.”

“You didn’t vote for it,” McTavish pointed out.

“Had my reasons,” Lawrence muttered.

As the Cartwrights lay in their tent that night, they were sure they knew their captain’s main reason for not adding his voice to those who voted to ford the river three times.  Long into the night they heard Camilla Larrimore’s mournful wails sounding in counterpoint to the raindrops falling against the canvas.

“Poor Camilla,” Inger murmured.  “She does hate rivers so.”

“Time she got used to it,” Ben muttered.

“Don’t be unkind, Ben,” Inger chided softly.  “I told you about her brother.”

“Yeah, I know,” Ben groused, “but I’m tired, Inger.  It’s been a long day and tomorrow could be rough.  We all need some sleep.”

Inger laid her head against his shoulder.  “Shall I sing you a lullaby, mine husband?”

“I wish you could drown that out!” Ben griped as more sobs filtered into the tent.  In the end, though, it was not Inger’s soft crooning that drowned out Camilla, but the loud cries of the youngest Cartwright, demanding his mother’s breast once again.  Ben didn’t consider it an improvement.  At least, Camilla wasn’t screaming right in his ears; Eric was.

Mrs. Larrimore appeared to have her fears under control by morning.  A close examination of her face would have revealed the tension she felt, but she said nothing as her wagon rolled through the first ford.  Seeing it arrive safely, she gathered Jewel into her arms and waded across, while Enos Montgomery led the second team to the water.

Ben exhaled a sigh of relief, not realizing until that moment that he’d been holding his breath.  He hoped this safe crossing would calm Camilla’s nerves and help her face the two to come.  His own wagon and Clyde’s still had to ford the river, but he was sure they’d make it.  The Sweetwater wasn’t wide here, and even the recent rains hadn’t put it above three feet deep.

By the time Clyde Thomas, the last in line, had successfully completed the first crossing, the Zuebner wagon, with young Stefán in command, was moving through the second.  The twelve-year-old showed no fear of going first.  Like his father before him, he was comfortable handling livestock, and the animals seemed to respond to the encouragement of his gentle voice as readily as they had to Fredrich’s.  Reaching the far side, Stefán waved at Robert McTavish.  McTavish returned the signal and headed his team into the water.

The second crossing went well until the overloaded Larrimore wagon dipped into the water.  Just over halfway across the wheels bogged down in the mud.  Lawrence hollered at the team and grabbed the yoke of the lead team to urge them forward, but the wagon was stuck fast.  From the north bank Camilla screamed at him to be careful.  Lawrence started to snap back at her, but slammed his palm against the unmoving wagon wheel, instead.  “That woman and her fool grandfather clock will be the death of me yet,” he groused to the oxen.

Fortunately, the men splashing to assist him didn’t hear his under-the-breath comment.  “You’ll need to double-team to pull that rig out of the mud,” Payne stated.

“I know,” Lawrence said.

“You want to use my team,” Stefán offered.  “They are most rested.”

Lawrence smiled at the generous offer.  “Kind of you, son, but I’ll use my own animals.  I’ve got two teams and I got myself into this fix.”

“Ye had help, man,” McTavish said bluntly, “though the blame is rightly yours:  ye ought to take more control.”

Lawrence shrugged.  Even though he knew the help he’d had getting into this predicament was apparent to his fellow travelers, he wasn’t willing to fault Camilla to them.  She was his wife and loyalty silenced his tongue.  McTavish, much as Lawrence hated to admit it, had a point, though:  he needed to take more control of his wife.  Somehow, he was going to have to make her see the absurdity of carrying this needless weight.  He couldn’t think about that now, however; now, he had troubles enough to occupy his mind.

Unhitching the team from his second wagon, Larrimore coupled them to the original oxen.  The twelve oxen plodded forward, and slowly, the immobile wheel began to roll.  Forward a little, then back again, finally breaking free and rumbling easily the rest of the way across the river.  The men on the far bank greeted Lawrence with shouts of congratulations, but the merchant had no time to respond.  Unhitching the twelve oxen, he led them back to bring his second wagon over.

The Cartwrights and Thomases had had plenty of time to catch up by the time Larrimore got his second wagon across.  “You reckon maybe we ought to double team, Ben?” Clyde asked.

“I doubt we need to,” Ben said.  “Neither of us is loaded all that heavy.”

“The cart is,” Clyde said, “but I reckon it can make it.  I just figured we’d have plenty of time to double up if you thought it’d be safer.”

Inger shook her finger beneath Clyde’s nose.  “You are making sport of the Larrimores’ troubles,” she scolded softly.  “Shame on you, Clyde.”

“You’ll have to excuse Saint Inger,” Ben chuckled.  “Nothing irritates her, so she has trouble understanding us mere mortals.”

“Admit it, Inger,” Clyde cackled.  “You get as put out with that woman as we do, don’t you, now?”

Inger smiled.  “Sometimes, yah, but she is doing better.”

“She is?” Ben said, almost choking on the words.  “Couldn’t prove it by last night’s performance.”

“Ben!”

Ben gave his wife a quick kiss to shut off any more rebuking words.  “All right, all right.  I’m just irritable from lack of sleep and weary with waiting my turn to tackle this river.”

“Yeah?” Clyde snickered.  “Well, I’m liable to get irritable, too, if you keep me waiting much longer.  Larrimore’s across, Ben.  Your turn, now.”

Ben looked up to see that Lawrence’s second wagon had, indeed, just finished fording the river.  He ran to his team and led them into the water.  Soon the eight wagons (plus one cart) were together again and headed toward the third crossing of the Sweetwater.  This time Larrimore, at his wife’s insistence, double-teamed his wagons at the start.  The constant change of teams cost the train time, of course.  There were complaints about that; but despite the delays, the wagons made camp near Ice Spring Slough, as originally planned.

Again, taking Saturday as their day of rest seemed most practical to the majority of the group.  “Keeping the Hebrew Sabbath makes us more and more resemble the Israelites in the wilderness,” Ebenezer joked.

Clyde doubled over, and it was some time before he could tell the others what he found side-splittingly funny.  “Just so we don’t spend forty years out here wanderin’ around like they did, Reverend,” he finally sniggered.  Still busy clearing away the dishes from supper, the women looked up at the sound of the unrestrained laughter that greeted Clyde’s remark and wondered what had made their men so merry.

Following the brief service Saturday morning, the emigrants all took picks and shovels, buckets and pails to the location known as Ice Spring Slough.  While the men dug beneath the sod, the women took a rare rest from their daily chores to simply watch.  The men had dug down about a foot when the first to strike ice sent up a shout.

The children, Adam among them, ran to their fathers and started to fill their pails with the chunks of ice being broken apart.  Adam couldn’t resist snatching a small chip and popping it into his mouth to suck on.  Ooh, how good the burning cold felt on his tongue!  “I haven’t had ice in just forever, Pa,” Adam said.  “It sure tastes good.”

Ben let Adam feed him a chip of ice.  “Mmn,” he mumbled.  “Yeah, that’s good, son.  Your pail’s almost full now, though.  Run dump it in our water keg and come back for more.”

“We gonna fill it full of ice, Pa?” Adam asked, flinging two more chunks into his pail.

“Sure are!” Ben announced.  “Then when it melts, we’ll have cool, refreshing water to drink.  That’s full enough, son; go empty it.”

Adam toted the heavy bucket back and clambered up on the wheel so he could reach the top of the cask lashed to the side of the wagon.  Dumping his ice inside, he hurried back for a second load.  “How come there’s ice here, Pa?” he asked as his father helped him scoop his pail full of the chunks he’d broken up while Adam was away.

“You’ve seen ice houses back east, haven’t you, son?” Ben asked.

“Sure,” Adam said.

“This works the same way,” Ben explained.  “Back home they pack the ice in hay and straw to keep it insulated from the heat.  The sod works the same way here.  The heat never gets to the ice, so it stays frozen.”

“Lucky for us, huh, Pa?”

Ben patted the boy’s shoulder.  “Yeah, real lucky, or more likely, as Reverend Wentworth would say, a gift from God.  Off you go again and hurry back.”

Adam grabbed up another chip of ice, grinned and ran back.  He had started to suck the ice himself, but as he walked past the blanket where his little brother lay kicking his heels beside his mother, Adam decided to be generous.  “Here, Hoss,” he said, taking the ice from his own mouth and poking it into the baby’s.

His little brother immediately made known at the top of his lungs his distaste for burning cold ice.  Inger turned.  Engrossed in her conversation with Rachel Payne, she hadn’t seen Adam feed his brother the ice, so she was shocked to find her baby choking.  Grabbing him up, she pounded the small back.  “What did you give him, Adam?” she demanded of her suddenly anxious older son.

“Just a little piece of ice, Mama,” Adam said.  “I thought he’d like it.”

“Oh, Adam!” Inger rebuked sternly.  “How could you?  He’s just a baby.”  She began to coo comforting words to her younger son.  “There, there, mine little one.  Brother didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“Is he okay?” Adam asked, worried.

“Yah, the ice vill melt,” Inger said, “and do him no harm.  You must be very careful what you put in a baby’s mouth, though, Adam.  He is not a big boy like you; he doesn’t know to let the ice melt in his mouth, so he choked on it a little.”

“I’m sorry,” Adam said contritely.

“I know,” Inger soothed, reaching out to stroke his cheek with a consoling touch.  “You vill remember to ask before giving Eric anything next time, yah?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Adam promised.  “I won’t feed Hoss nothin’ without your say so.”  He just grinned when Inger frowned at his use of his brother’s nickname.

Rachel giggled at the expression on her friend’s face.  “I think you’re fighting a losing battle, Inger,” she teased.

“Yah, I think so,” Inger laughed.  “Yesterday Ben vas playing vith the baby while I cooked supper, and I heard him call my father’s namesake Hoss.”  Rachel smiled.  She knew, if Inger did not, that no one in their wagon train called the chubby little armload anything else.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

 When the wagons rolled out Sunday morning, the emigrants knew they had to travel sixteen miles that day to reach the nearest water.  Their water casks were full of melting ice, of course, but they’d use some of that during the day and need to find another source by its end.  Since the animals were well-rested, no one doubted they could make the necessary mileage without undue strain.  Sixteen miles represented only a good eight-hour day, after all.  Their path led over a relatively smooth plain scattered with sage that grew as high as the men’s heads.  To the smaller children the six-foot sage plants seemed like trees, but not shady ones.  A shade tree would have been a luxury, too, in the hot August sun; but not even the children would have had time to rest beneath leafy boughs, anyway.  They had sixteen miles to cover.

Besides the sage “trees,” all the youngsters had to amuse themselves with were the furry rodents scurrying about.  Most of the children were content just to chase the little ground squirrels——that was all they knew to call them——but Billy repeatedly threw rocks at them over the combined protests of Adam and Marta.  Finally realizing that the boy was doing nothing but torment the little creatures, his mother yelled at him to stop and get back to the wagon.

Billy tossed a handful of pebbles at the nearest rodent and reluctantly went to his mother, Adam and Marta at his heels.  “I was just playing hunter, Ma,” he grumbled.  “Somebody in this here family ought to be a hunter.”

“Shh, Billy,” Nelly said quickly.  “Don’t let your pa hear you.”  She knew why Billy was disgruntled; she was put out herself with Clyde’s surly behavior this morning.  As if it were her fault or Billy’s that the old goat hadn’t taken Ben Cartwright up on his invitation to go hunting!

If the hunting party had included just Ben, of course, Clyde would have leaped at the chance; but it was McTavish who had asked Ben on the hunt and Ben who’d suggested including Clyde.  Ever since McTavish had left the train when cholera struck, Clyde had harbored resentment against the Scot.  Nelly didn’t feel the same degree of antipathy, but she understood it.  Time still needed to do its healing work before Clyde would relish spending a day hunting with the man he considered a turncoat coward.

Nelly ran affectionate fingers through Billy’s flaming hair.  “I reckon you’re right, son,” she said softly.  “We could use some meat for supper.  Get a thick hunk of sage and see if you can’t kill a couple of them squirrels or prairie dogs or whatever they are.”

“Yes, ma’am!” Billy yelled and started to run off in pursuit of his game.

“Wait a minute!” his mother called.  “Make sure you hit them hard enough to kill them, Billy,” she admonished.  “And just two.  I ain’t sending you out just to pester the critters, nor to wipe them off the face of the earth.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Billy muttered.  Honestly, sometimes his ma acted like he didn’t have the sense of a goose.  The freckled face brightened as quickly as it had clouded, though.  “Come on, Adam,” he urged.  “Let’s get us some fresh meat for supper!”

Adam’s nose wrinkled, and he shook his head with determination.  “I ain’t killin’ nothing that little,” he said.  “My pa’ll bring us plenty of fresh meat.”

Billy’s face turned the shade of his hair.  It was one thing for him to think ill of his pa, another for Adam to make out his was better.  With doubled fist he took a step toward the Cartwright boy; but before he could take another, Clyde swatted his backside and told him to get on with his hunting.  Then he turned on Adam.  “As for you, smarty britches, if you ain’t got nothin’ better to do than brag up your own pa, get on home!”  Like Billy, he’d heard Adam’s remark and interpreted it as criticism of himself.

“Land sakes, Clyde!” Nelly scolded as a shocked Adam ran back to his mother with Marta close behind.  “Don’t go takin’ your spleen out on that boy.  He didn’t mean nothin’ agin you.”

Clyde wasn’t ready to listen to reason, though.  He was mad at McTavish; he was mad at Ben Cartwright; he was mad at himself; and if little Adam was fool enough to get in the path of an angry cyclone, he might as well expect to get a little wind-blown.  Seeing McTavish tote a huge elk back to camp that evening did nothing to sweeten the blacksmith’s temper, either.  When Ben, who’d shot a mountain sheep, asked the Thomases to join them for supper, Clyde peevishly turned him down.  “No, thanks,” he said.  “My boy caught us some game today.  I reckon we’ll make out just fine on biled rodent.”

Ben looked puzzled.  He knew why Clyde had refused to hunt with McTavish, but now the man was acting upset with him.  “Have I done something to offend you, Clyde?” he asked.

“No,” Clyde said, too quickly.  Irked as he was with Ben for spending the day in the company of that Scottish wretch, he knew he had no right to restrict another man’s activity.  He couldn’t bring himself, however, to eat meat the wretch had any part in providing.  Uncomfortable admitting such an uncharitable attitude, he offered Ben no explanation of his refusal.  Ben walked away, still pondering what he’d said or done to rile his friend.

Nelly had just put her meat on to parboil to get out some of the oiliness before she roasted it when Inger Cartwright approached their campfire.  Nelly bit her lip nervously.  She was embarrassed by her man’s behavior toward Ben and was afraid she was about to see Clyde snarl at sweet little Inger, too.  “Hi, honey,” she said quietly.

Inger returned the greeting with a smile, then moved past her friend to stand directly before Clyde, who was seated on a barrel near the fire.  “Clyde, I have come to ask you to share dinner vith us,” she asked, making no mention of his earlier refusal of Ben’s invitation.  “I am making a fine stew of this mountain mutton Ben brought home.”

Clyde kept his eyes on the ground.  He’d had enough time to consider his hasty words and feel ashamed of himself, and he’d known before Inger spoke what she’d come to say.  The woman had every right to rake him over the coals for his treatment of her man; but here she was being gracious as always, still treating him like a friend.  Clyde’s face burned with embarrassment as he mumbled his decline to her offer.

Inger stooped down so her face would be even with his.  “I vill not take no for an answer,” she said gently.  “Please come.  Our campfire is lonely for you.”  A teasing smile touched her lips.  “I promise not to make you speak kind vords about Robert McTavish to earn your supper.”

Against his will, Clyde started to chuckle.  “Good of you to ask, Inger, and I’d like to say yes, but Nelly’s already started dinner here.”

“Nelly’d rather taste that ‘mutton’ than eat this oily thing!” his wife declared.

“Bring that, too,” Inger laughed.  “I’m sure it vill be eaten.  You must come, truly, for Ben also brought home prairie peas and ripe raspberries he found in the mountains.”

“Fresh fruit and vegetables!” Nelly cried.  “Oh, honey, we’ll be there quick as I can boil this skunk.”

“Skunk!” Billy hollered.  “I didn’t kill no skunk, did I?”

Clyde grabbed the youngster and gave his britches a playful swat.  “Naw, your ma’s just givin’ her opinion of the meat, boy.”

“Well, she oughta try it first,” Billy pouted.

Inger rubbed the freckled cheek.  “Ve vill all try some, Billy.  I am sure it vill be good.”

Billy grinned smugly and gave an emphatic nod.  “Yes, ma’am, but I figure I could save room for raspberry pie, if’n you was to bake one.”

“Billy!” his mother protested, covering her face.

“It’s all right,” Inger giggled.  “I hadn’t decided whether to bake a pie or just serve the berries vith cream, but pie it shall be.”

“Hooray!” Billy whooped.  “Berry pie with globs of thick cream!  Yum, yum!”

“Billy, you scamp,” his mother chided.  “Quit plannin’ Inger’s dinner for her.”  Billy just grinned.  He could tell by the lighter tone that his mother had quit being upset with him.  Anyway, it wasn’t Mrs. Cartwright’s dinner he was planning; it was his own.  He figured he had a right to make his wishes known.

Inger hurried back to finish the meal, and Nelly scrounged through the wagon to see what she could add.  Between them, the ladies prepared a meal the male members of their families declared fit for kings and princes.  Even Billy’s roast rodent was pronounced tasty with the seasonings his mother had added, but proud as he was of the fruit of his first hunt, Billy had to admit the mutton stew was better.

“These wild peas taste mighty close to the tame ones we grew back home,” Nelly observed.  “Sure glad you took time to gather some, Ben.”

“I’d have brought more if I’d had anything else to carry them in,” Ben said.  “I’d already found the raspberries, too, so I just couldn’t handle more.”

“Yah, I think I am hungrier for green things that I could ever be for meat,” Inger sighed contentedly.

“They’ll help prevent scurvy, too,” Ben said.  “When I was sailing, we carried oranges on ship for that purpose; but fresh vegetables work just as well.”

“Yah, that is good,” Inger agreed.  “Ve eat good, don’t ve, for being so far from a grocery or a garden plot?”

“We surely do,” Nelly said, “but I’ve had all I can hold for now.  How ‘bout you let me dandy that sack of potatoes for you, honey?”

“How dare you call my teeny, weeny little boy a sack of potatoes?” Inger laughed as she handed Eric to her friend.

“I want some more peas,” Adam said, and his mother gladly refilled his plate.

“Did you cook all the peas, Inger?” Nelly asked.

“Yah, this is all Ben brought, but there are some left, Nelly,” Inger replied.  “You vould like?”

“No, no, I’ve had plenty,” Nelly said.  “I was just going to suggest you might like to pickle some if you hadn’t cooked them all.  I’ve heard they’re tasty that way, too.”

“Oh, yah?  Vell, I am sorry I cannot try that.  Perhaps Ben vould like to spend tonight getting me the makings for pickles while I sleep,” Inger teased.

“Perhaps not,” Ben said with a wink.  “Isn’t that just like a woman, Clyde?  She sends you out for meat.  Then when you not only provide the main course, but a side dish and dessert, too, she complains that she doesn’t have pickles.”

“That’s a female for you,” Clyde joshed.  “Now, did someone mention dessert?”

“Only for those who respect vomen,” Inger twitted him back.

“I do,” Billy yelped, “especially them what bakes pie!”  Everyone laughed as Inger tweaked the small nose and promised Billy he could have the first slice for his quick defense of womanhood.

The emigrants nooned at the base of a rocky hill the next day, having driven the stock until the sun was directly overhead to reach it.  Though that meant pushing the oxen an hour longer than usual, it seemed prudent to let the draught animals have their two-hour rest immediately before scaling the steep incline.

When the time came to rehitch the teams and head up the hill, only Payne and Wentworth faced the challenge with smiling faces.  Since they were ahead of the Larrimores in line today, they would be spared the frustration of waiting for those two wagons to make their way laboriously uphill.  Those behind the Larrimores grumbled, as usual, about the delay, but Clyde Thomas, at least, had to eat his criticism of Camilla Larrimore when the cart containing his heavy blacksmithing tools had to be double-teamed to get up the hill.

Not only did Clyde have to deal with that frustration, but with a more than normally fractious son, as well.  Billy had felt so grown up after providing meat for the table the previous night that he considered himself man enough to take the cart over the hill all by himself and was furious when his father refused.  Seeing the trouble Clyde had, though, settled Billy down considerably.  He was suddenly content to be a boy again, not responsible for the possible loss of his father’s valued possessions.

Due to the time-consuming trek up and down the hill and the rough trail that followed it, the wagons only covered thirteen miles.  Everyone accepted that as a good day’s drive, however.  Under the best conditions, hills and rivers ate hours out of their day, though some still would have argued that a trip with Camilla Larrimore could scarcely be described as “under the best conditions.”

The train made short mileage Tuesday, as well, slowed by their final crossing of the SweetwaterRiver.  As his wagon rolled into the river, Ebenezer Wentworth couldn’t help remembering his first river crossing.  He’d been first in line that day, too, and so inexperienced it was no wonder his wagon tipped over.  Fredrich Zuebner had rushed to help him that day and in the days to follow had given the minister so much good advice about livestock that Wentworth faced this crossing with confidence.

Now, too, he had his boy Matthew to help, for the thirteen-year-old had a knack for handling oxen, some of it undoubtedly picked up from his friend, young Stefán Zuebner.  Obviously, the boy had more aptitude for an agricultural life than a clerical one, but that was fine with his father, who firmly believed that a man didn’t have to be a preacher to be a man of God.

The other travelers collectively held their breath when the first Larrimore wagon approached the fording place.  Actually, what they were tempted to hold was their ears, certain that Camilla Larrimore’s wails would soon assault them.  She surprised them, however.  Maybe it was because the Sweetwater was only fifty feet wide at this location and barely two feet deep; maybe the woman was finally gaining some confidence in her husband’s judgment; maybe it was all an act.  Whatever the reason, Camilla handled herself much better than she had at earlier crossings.  Oh, she held little Jewel so tightly the girl started to whimper; but though her lips felt raw from her nervous nibbling, Camilla managed to keep her fears under restraint.

Seeing the wagons arrive safely, Camilla sighed, relieved to have gotten past the ordeal one more time and pleased that for once she hadn’t disgraced her husband.  When she splashed across to meet him on the south side of the river, he gave her a hearty hug and told her how proud he was.  Camilla smiled.  The commendatory words almost made the trial worthwhile.  Almost.

Since the train had not reached the river until late afternoon, the emigrants encamped on the far side.  Everyone, advised that the water supply ahead was probably less satisfactory, made sure their kegs were brimful of fresh water.  They would all be sorry to leave behind the sparkling, clear refreshment of the Sweetwater, a river truly deserving of its name.

* * * * *

Ben looked up from his perusal of his trusty guidebook.  “This doesn’t make sense,” he muttered.

Stirring more rice into leftover mutton stew to make it stretch for their noon meal, Inger looked up.  “What does not make sense?” she asked.

“Well, this has got to be Koin Mounds,” Ben said, “but South Pass is only supposed to be three miles from here.”

“Yah?  And so?”

“Look around, Inger!” Ben insisted.  “Do you see anything resembling a mountain pass?”

“Now you mention it, no,” Inger admitted.  “It is just a nice, grassy meadow.”

“I know we’re moving up,” Ben said, “but I thought the road to the pass would be steeper.  It can’t be just three miles from here.”

“Why don’t you ask Lawrence?” Inger suggested.  “He has been here before, after all.”

“Yeah, I think I will,” Ben said.  “Do I have time before lunch?”

“Yah, I vant to make some dumplings to go in the stew, so you have, maybe twenty minutes or so.”  With that assurance, Ben moved to the captain’s encampment and made his inquiry.

Lawrence laughed.  “The guidebook’s right, Ben.  We are that close to South Pass.  Not as spectacular as you expected, is it?”

Ben chuckled.  “Well, to be honest, no.”

“Don’t look for it to change much, either,” Lawrence warned.  “Some folks never realize they’ve crossed the continental divide until they get to Pacific Springs.”

“That’s where we’re camping tonight, right?”

“Best place around,” Lawrence said.  “Four miles beyond the pass.”

As Ben pulled his wagon into line behind the two Larrimore ones, he shook his head, still unable to comprehend that the scene greeting his eyes was the approach to a mountain pass.  He’d anticipated something on the order of Devil’s Gate——not that narrow, of course, for the wagons couldn’t have gotten through that, but, basically, a narrow opening between high cliffs like that had been.

There were majestic mountains nearby, certainly——their old friends, the Wind River range some fifteen to thirty miles to the north and the snow-frosted Colorado Rockies lying south and southwest.  Even at a distance, they painted a splendid panorama:  gray-green sage at the base of the mountains, then green mountain bushes above, finally topped by glistening white snow on the highest peaks.

The trail itself, though, as Inger had said, looked like a grassy meadow with its broad, gradual curve, smooth as the arch of an ox yoke.  Ben truly wouldn’t have known when he reached South Pass had not Lawrence Larrimore called back to tell him.  Pointing right and left at a break in the surrounding mountains almost twenty miles wide, Lawrence yelled, “South Pass, Ben!”  Amazed, Ben sent the cry down the line to travelers as disbelieving as himself.

But, sure enough, when the wagons rolled through the wide pass, the trail began to dip downward.  Two hours later they circled near the little brook called Pacific Springs, the first stream they’d encountered to flow toward the Pacific Ocean instead of the Atlantic.  The emigrants stood beside it and cheered.  They’d crossed the Rockies!  The even more rugged Sierra Nevadas still lay before them, but no one wanted to think of that tonight.  Tonight would be a time of celebration.

The train didn’t head out until noon the next day.  On Larrimore’s advice, the men went about four miles north to cut and lay in a supply of hay, for grass would be scarce on the next stretch of trail.  By the time they returned, the women had lunch waiting, so they ate hurriedly and began their day’s journey.  They pushed hard that afternoon to make up for the delayed start, letting the oxen stop for a breather when needed, but taking no lengthy rest.

The trail crossed a brown and barren plain——no game, no grass, no water——nothing but mushroom-shaped buttes of rusty-brown sandstone.  It was country to make an emigrant wish he’d never left home, but it had a magnetic attraction.  After five hours steady plodding, though, no one cared what the scenery looked like.  They were too tired to care, and an important decision had to be made before they left the next morning.

“We should take Sublette’s Cutoff,” McTavish said bluntly.

“In this heat?  Are you daft, man?” Payne snorted.

“Are ye?” McTavish demanded hotly.  “Think of the time we’ve lost, and how much further it is to go by FortBridger.”

“It is further,” Ben offered.  “We’d add at least four days, maybe more, to our journey that way.  But I don’t know about the cutoff.  As Jonathan says, it’ll be hard going in this heat.”

“Perhaps it’s worth it if we save that much time,” Wentworth mused.  “The season grows late.”

Ben nodded gravely.  That had been his biggest concern for some time now.  “Which route did your party take, Lawrence?” he asked, hoping for more informed input.

“We took Sublette’s Cutoff,” Larrimore said, “and we made it fine, but we were all men.  It means walking almost twenty-four hours straight, and that would be hard on the women and children.”

“Couldn’t they ride in the wagons?” Wentworth asked.

Lawrence shook his head.  “Not a good idea.  On a dry drive like this, the oxen will be under a tremendous strain.  The more we lighten their load, the better.”

“That’s the real reason you’re opposed, isn’t it, Larrimore?” McTavish prodded.  “You don’t want to leave your woman’s play pretties behind.”

“I’ve stated my real reason,” Lawrence snapped.  “Leave my wife out of this.”

“Gentlemen, please,” Ebenezer pleaded.  “None of this will help make our decision.”

“I’m concerned about the women and children, too,” Jonathan inserted.  “What do you think, Clyde?”

“My Nelly’s a tough bird,” Clyde said.  “I figure she and the boy could handle it, but I’d sure hate to put them through it.”

“We—we grow short of supplies,” Stefán said quietly.  “For us, FortBridger might be best.”

“Don’t let that enter into your decision, son,” Ben said.  “We’ll see to it you have what you need.”

Stefán smiled.  “You have already been most kind, Mr. Cartwright, to share your game with us, so I do not fear to go hungry.  I just thought I should tell how it is with us.”

“And you were right to do so,” Lawrence said kindly.  “We need all the information each of us can supply to help make our decision.”

“Are ye ready to vote or not?” McTavish demanded.

Lawrence looked at the faces crowded around.  “Anyone have anything to add?”

“Indeed, we do!” Rachel Payne shouted as she walked sturdily into the circle of men with all the other ladies trailing behind.  “While you men were standing around belaboring the issue, we had our own meeting; and we’re here to tell you our feelings.”

“Mind your place, woman,” Payne mumbled, his face burning.

“My place is at your side,” Rachel said.  She looked at each of the other men and smiled politely.  “We’re not here to usurp your right to decide our course, gentlemen, but I just heard Mr. Larrimore say you needed all the information anyone could supply.  We feel we have such information.”

“Hear, hear!” Nelly said.

Lawrence looked at the other men, but their shocked faces gave him no clue as to the best way to handle this feminine invasion.  “Yes, well, uh, ladies,” he stammered.  “We’re always glad to listen, of course.”

“Then hear this,” Rachel ordered.  “We know that if you men were alone, you’d most likely choose to take Sublette’s Cutoff to save time and distance.  The fact that you’re debating so long must mean that you’re concerned for us and for the children.”

“Absolutely right, Rachel,” Ben said.  “From what Lawrence tells us, it would be a very difficult trek.”

“And we’re prepared to face it,” Rachel said.  “Of course, it will be hard on the smaller children, but if we help them, I believe they can handle it.  I know we women can.  We request that you consider taking the cutoff.  None of us want to face winter in the mountains.”

“So say you all?” Lawrence asked, his eyes on his wife.

“So say we all,” she responded quietly, but confidently.  Then, she smiled.  “After all, Lawrence, it’s rivers I’m afraid of, not deserts.”

The laughter that rippled around the circle of men lightened the mood.  “What do you say, then, men?” Lawrence cried.  “Can we afford to show less courage than the ladies?”

“Nay to that!” Clyde hollered.  “Ho for Sublette’s Cutoff!”  Though no formal vote was taken, the resounding shouts declared the decision:  they would take the rougher, but shorter route and pray God gave them the strength to endure it.

* * * * *

Ben lifted his younger son over his head and gave him a big grin.  “You’re one month old today, Eric Cartwright,” he announced.  The baby gurgled as if he were happy to be celebrating the occasion.

“And still too young to hold like that!” Inger cried.  “Support his head, Ben.”

Ben lowered the boy.  “Sorry; he’s grown so, I forget I can’t treat him like the big boy he seems.”

“Vell, be careful,” Inger murmured as she took the baby and lovingly brushed the blonde fuzz on his head.  “Better eat your breakfast, Ben; and you finish yours, Adam.”

“I’m done, Mama,” Adam said, showing her his empty plate.  “That was a good, big breakfast, too.”

“Yah, but you must eat hearty for the journey ahead,” his mother urged.

“You’ll get another chance to feed him,” Ben reminded her.  “We’ll take an extra long noon break today, so we can start the dry drive in the cooler part of the day.”

“Yah, that is true,” Inger said.  “I vill fix a big lunch since ve vill not be stopping to cook supper.”

“Are we really gonna walk all night, Pa?” Adam asked.

“I’m afraid so, son,” Ben said, “but I know you’ll be a good, brave boy about it.”

“‘Course, I will,” Adam declared, his chin jutting up proudly.  Pa was counting on him to act like a little man, and that’s just what he intended to be.

Before the wagons had been on the trail an hour, they came to a dry creek bed called Dry Sandy.  Though no water was visible, all the guidebooks said that by digging down six to eight inches, some could be found.  To be sure, it was salty and had an unpleasant flavor; but if a person were thirsty enough, it was better than nothing.  No one in the Larrimore train bothered to check, however.  It was only five more miles to Little Sandy, which was reported to have pure, sweet water; and they all had sufficient water in their kegs to go that far.

They arrived at Little Sandy about ten o’clock Friday morning and watered the oxen in the cool water.  The women worked hard to prepare an unusually heavy noon meal and to fix some extra bread to eat on the journey.  Their labors were finished by shortly past noon, however; so, like their husbands, they wisely used the time to crawl beneath the shade of their wagons and take a midday nap.  The children argued; but most of them, either from natural docility or fear of reprisal, curled up next to their parents and slept for a while.

The wagons left Little Sandy about four o’clock that afternoon, intending to drive for four hours, then give the oxen a half hour’s rest before continuing on.  When they stopped at eight, Inger gave her family thick slices of fresh-baked bread spread with the butter their faithful cow continued to provide and jam made from yellow currants found along the trail a week earlier.  With the cold bacon left from lunch, it made a satisfying meal.  Thirty minutes was not enough to rest their weary bodies, of course, but they knew they had to cross this arid region as quickly as possible.  To dawdle might cost the lives of their animals and, thus, endanger them all.  So when Larrimore called that it was time to leave, they stood at once and took their places in line.

At first, walking in the moonlight seemed almost pleasurable.  The air was cooler and the travelers weren’t overly tired.  But the steps they had already taken that day began to catch up with them by the time seven hours became eight, then nine and ten.  “Ain’t it time to stop yet, Pa?” Adam asked wearily.

“Not yet, son,” Ben said.  “We need to go on about another hour before we rest.”

“But I’m awful tired, Pa,” the little boy whimpered.  “I don’t think I can walk another hour.”

Ben sighed and lifted the boy onto his back.  He’d known this moment would come, but knowing didn’t give his own worn out muscles any extra energy.  “You can ride piggyback awhile, all right?”

“Okay,” Adam yawned and promptly dropped his head onto his father’s broad shoulder.

“Hold on tight,” Ben cautioned.

“Uh-huh,” Adam responded drowsily.

“I’ll vatch him,” Inger promised.

“Please do,” Ben chuckled.  “His grip feels kinda loose.”

On they plodded, their steps dragging in the sand, their bodies dropping with exhaustion at the signal to rest.  Ben eased Adam to the ground, and Inger guided the sleepy youngster to the blanket his father spread quickly on the ground.  “Sit down,” Ben told Inger.  “I’ll fetch out some oysters and crackers if that sounds good to you.”

Inger nodded, grateful to be spared even the minor exertion of slicing bread.  She had little interest in food herself and Adam seemed too sleepy to eat.  She managed to rouse him enough to take a little nourishment, though.

“Pa, can’t I ride in the wagon?” Adam pleaded.

“I’m sorry, son,” Ben said, “but we need to spare the oxen as much as possible.”

“Hoss gets to ride,” Adam pouted.

“Hoss is a baby,” Ben responded sternly.  “He doesn’t weigh enough to make a difference.”

“Yes, he does,” Adam insisted, almost in tears.  “He’s real heavy.”

Ben gathered the little boy into his lap.  “Now, what happened to my brave boy?” he asked gently.

“I’m not brave,” Adam sobbed.  “I’m tired.”

“Shh,” Ben soothed.  “Pa knows you’re tired, but you’re still my brave boy.  I’m sorry, Adam.  I’d carry you the whole way if I could, but I can’t.  Now, eat your dinner.  We don’t have much time.”

Ben had even less time to relax than the rest of his family.  Once he had Adam calmed down, he drew water from the casks for the oxen and ate a few oysters.  Then it was time to head out again.

Adam started out walking, but within the first hour his feet began to stumble, and Ben again lifted him in his arms.  He managed to carry the boy until about two o’clock in the morning when he finally gave up and laid Adam inside the wagon.

It was still dark when the wagons circled the next morning to take an hour’s rest.  They had come twenty-four miles since leaving Little Sandy the previous afternoon, and everyone, adult and child alike, felt exhausted.  No one had either time or energy to light a cook fire, so those who ate enjoyed a cold breakfast.

The Cartwrights were among those who simply chose to forego breakfast in favor of a few minutes sleep.  When Ben roused himself, however, he wondered whether that had been a good idea after all.  His nap had been too short to reinvigorate him; in fact, he felt more drowsy than before.  Yawning, he shook Inger’s shoulder.  “Time to get up, sweetheart,” he murmured as the blue eyes flickered open.

Inger groaned.  “Already, Ben?”

“‘Fraid so,” Ben sighed.  “You’d better wake Adam.”

“Oh, let him sleep, Ben,” Inger urged.  “Another hour, anyway.  The oxen won’t tell the difference that soon.”

“Oh, all right,” Ben relented.  “I suppose he doesn’t weigh all that much, but he really should walk.”

“Later,” Inger said persuasively.  “He vill later.”  Adam didn’t get the full hour’s extra rest his mother had begged for him, though.  His little brother saw to that with loud, demanding squalls no one could sleep through.  The rest of the family may have been willing to pass up breakfast, but the youngest member definitely wanted his.  Ben lifted a still groggy Adam down from the wagon and helped Inger in so she could nurse the baby.

Adam made no complaint this time although he had trouble keeping his eyes open.  When he did come fully awake, he decided that he, too, was hungry.  Inger, now walking alongside him with the baby strapped to her back, handed him a piece of bread she’d put in her apron pocket to nibble on later.  She could wait until they stopped at mid-morning, though.  Adam obviously needed nourishment now.

On the emigrants walked, their flagging footsteps following the same routine as the night before:  drive four hours, take a half-hour’s rest, walk four more hours, then take an hour off.  On and on they walked over a grassless land level as a tabletop, with sand in their shoes and dust in their throats, the sun scorching their faces and sweat soaking their bodies.

It was nine o’clock Saturday night when they finally came to Green River, having traveled fifty miles since four the previous afternoon.  The stock had to be watered and fed, of course; but no one had strength to do anything else.  None of the emigrants in Larrimore’s party even bothered to set up a tent.  They just bundled up in blankets and crawled beneath their wagons to sleep as long as they were able.

Most of them slept ‘til noon, some for the first time in their lives; for these were hard-working people, used to rising early.  They knew they’d earned the rest, of course; but more importantly, they knew they had another hard drive ahead.  Reaching the Green River meant they were just over halfway through Sublette’s Cutoff, and the next reliable source of water lay another forty-one miles away.  With the agonies of the previous day about to be repeated, no wonder they slept as long as they could.

Ben had just crawled out from beneath the wagon where Inger, Adam and Eric still slept when he saw Clyde Thomas coming back from the river and motioned him over.  “Gonna be any delay at the ferry?” Ben asked as soon as Clyde reached him.

“Naw, Larrimore got up early to put our names in,” Clyde said.  “Seems like they got it well organized here and take folks in turn.”

“That’s good,” Ben said.  “How long, you figure?”

“Hour, maybe,” Clyde said.  “Wait’ll you hear the price, though.”

Ben frowned.  “Really gonna gouge us, are they?”

“You can say that again!”  Clyde spat at the ground.  “Confounded Mormons aim to bleed me dry before they’re done, I reckon.  They’re charging seven dollars a wagon here, plus fifty cents per animal.”

Ben whistled.  “That’s steep, all right, but we’ve got to cross here.”

“Yup, they know they’ve got us over the barrel,” Clyde snorted, “and plan to milk it for all it’s worth.”

“Milk a barrel?” Ben teased.

“Aw, you know what I mean,” Clyde snorted.  “You still gonna defend their right to make a livin’, Ben?”

Ben chuckled.  “I should have said a fair living, Clyde.  Well, let’s see, that’s eleven dollars for my rig, thanks to Larrimore’s generous provision of eight oxen.  Oh, and another fifty cents for my milk cow, I guess.”

“You’re still gettin’ off light,” Clyde chuckled.  “I gotta pay a total of fourteen-fifty, counting the cart, and Larrimore’s bill will be even higher.”

“Oh, yeah,” Ben smiled.  “Well, I’d better get Inger up, so we’ll be ready to take our turn.”

“I gotta do the same——with Nelly, I mean.  See ya, Ben.”

After rousing his wife, Ben took two buckets and headed down to the riverside to draw some water.  As he passed Larrimore’s wagon, the captain waved him aside.  “We’ve got a problem, Ben,” Lawrence said.

“Yeah?” Ben said.  “Clyde said you had our place in line reserved.”

“I do,” Lawrence said hurriedly.  “The problem is we’ve got one member in our party who refuses to pay the fee.  McTavish insists he’s going to ford.”

“Oh, he can’t be serious,” Ben said.  “It’s too deep, isn’t it?”

“In my opinion,” Larrimore replied, “but he won’t listen to me.  See if you can’t talk sense to the man, Ben.  But hurry; he’s getting ready to make the attempt now.”

“I’ll try,” Ben said.  He spotted McTavish hitching his team and ran over to him.  “I hear you’re planning to ford,” Ben began.

“I am, and I’ll be thanking ye to mind your own business,” McTavish snapped.

“That’s what I’m doing,” Ben said sharply.  “As lieutenant, the welfare of this party is my business.  Look at that river, Robert!  You can see it isn’t fordable.”

McTavish looked at the river.  Much as he hated to admit it, he knew Ben was right.  “Then, I’ll have to float the wagon across,” he said.

“Now, Robert,” Ben scoffed, “you know that isn’t practical, either.  We can’t spare the time.  We have to be across and ready to pull out by four this afternoon.”

“Well, what else can I do?” McTavish demanded.  “Do ye know how much they want for their blasted ferry?”

“I know it’s high,” Ben agreed, “but worth it when you consider the safety of our families.”

“Tell him, Robert,” Maggie urged.

“Mind your tongue, woman!” McTavish ordered.

Ben’s eyes lighted with sudden understanding.  “You don’t have enough, do you?”

McTavish turned fiery red.  “The state of my pocketbook is none of your business, Ben Cartwright!”

“It is if it causes you to make the kind of fool decisions you’re talking about!” Ben shouted back.  “How much have you got, Robert?”

McTavish flinched, then muttered.  “Not enough.  I’ve five dollars to my name.  So, you see, Cartwright, I’m not the fool you take me for; I simply have no choice.”

“Yes, you do,” Ben said quietly.  “I’ll pay your toll.”

“No, ye will not!” Robert cried.  “I’ll not be taking charity from any man.”

“Charity!” Ben scoffed, conveniently forgetting how prickly he’d been on that subject before meeting Inger.  “I’d take it if I had to, to save my family, man; but charity’s not what I’m offering.”

“What else would ye call it?”

“A loan,” Ben stated firmly.  “Don’t you think I know a man with integrity when I see one?  You’re a good, hard worker, Robert, which means you’ll do well in California.  I know you’ll pay me back when you’re able.”

“Aye, and with interest,” Robert said, hope replacing the fierce pride in his eyes.

Ben shook his head.  “No need of that.”

“Aye, or I don’t take the loan,” McTavish said stubbornly.

“All right,” Ben conceded, “but you determine the interest.  I’m not concerned about it.”  He handed the Scotsman a ten-dollar gold piece.  “That should cover your rig.”

“Five’s all I need,” Robert insisted.

“Take the ten,” Ben said sharply, “and use the other for supplies when we get to Fort Hall.  I’ll wager you shorted yourself back at Laramie.”

“You’d be right,” Maggie said.  “Take it, Robert, and thank the man.”

This time, instead of demanding his wife’s silence, McTavish took her advice.  “I do thank ye, Ben, and if there’s ever anything ye be needin’—”

“I’ll be sure to ask,” Ben said.  “Now, I’d better get my water casks filled so we’ll be ready for that ferry.  Big day ahead.”

“It is that,” Robert agreed, “and glad I’ll be to see it end.”

Since the Mormon’s ferry used a large enough scow to carry two wagons on each trip, the Larrimore party all reached the far bank long before four o’clock.  They would, of course, wait ‘til then to start and drive through the night as they had before.

“I don’t have time to bake bread,” Inger said once their wagon was across the river, “but if you vish to make a fire, Ben, I could make cornbread and bacon, perhaps.”

“Oh, let’s not bother,” Ben said.  “It’s too hot to build a fire, and you’ll be better off using the time to rest.  Pilot bread’s all right with you, isn’t it, Adam?”

“I like crackers better,” Adam said.

Ben laughed.  “All right——crackers, then.  You want to split a tin of sardines?”

“Okay,” Adam agreed.

“Ben, I’m a little vorried about the cow,” Inger said.  “She did not give as much milk as usual this morning.”

“It’s lack of water,” Ben said.  “I’d better give her more.  We sure want that milk to keep coming, don’t we, boy?”

“Yes, sir!” Adam said.  “Have we got any butter for my crackers, Mama?”

“No, I’m sorry,” Inger said.  “Ve used the last this morning, but maybe by night there vill be a little churned by the vagon, yah?”

“Okay,” Adam said, “but I was gonna drink the milk, if we had some.”

Inger laughed.  “You cannot have your cake and eat it, too, they tell me.”

“I wasn’t talking about cake,” Adam protested.  Ben laughed and explained the meaning of the expression Inger had used.

Promptly at four by Larrimore’s pocket watch, the train hit the trail.  All night and all the following day the overlanders walked, according to the pattern that had successfully brought them to Green River.  By the time they reached Emigrant Springs at 3:30 Monday afternoon, they were exhausted, having come more than ninety miles in the last three days.  The official end of the Sublette Cutoff was still thirteen miles further ahead, but everyone knew now they could make that.  After what they’d just come through, thirteen miles was nothing.

The Larrimore party rested all day Tuesday, September third.  For the first time in days the men built cook fires, and the women baked bread in their trusty Dutch ovens.  Even salt pork and beans tasted wonderful again after three days of little but hardtack to eat.

Though it wasn’t Sunday, Reverend Wentworth called his prairie congregation together that night.  “Don’t worry.  I don’t plan to preach,” he said.  “I’d just like to read the twenty-third psalm to you and say a word of prayer.”  As the minister read, Ben couldn’t help but think how well the words fit their situation.  What they’d walked through felt like the valley of the shadow of death; and God had truly led them beside waters which, if not exactly still, nonetheless did refresh both body and soul.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

 After the rigors of the Sublette Cutoff, the next two days’ travel seemed easy by comparison.  No great challenges faced the emigrants, just the renewed monotony of the trail:  take a step, take another——walk, walk, walk.  Not even the scenery sparked their interest; it, too, was only more of what they’d already seen.  No one complained about the sameness, however; for as Larrimore’s people made camp that second night, they knew they had challenge enough facing them on the morrow and were grateful for two ordinary days to recover from the last difficulty.

As soon as the wagons circled near the Thomas fork of the Snake River, Adam came bounding up to his father.  “Can I go, fishing, Pa?  Can I, huh?”

“Not sure yet, son,” Ben said.  “Let me check out the river first.”  Ben unhitched the oxen and led them down to the riverside to water them.  Adam, bucket banging against his calf, came along not long after.  “Wait up, Adam,” Ben said as the youngster headed for the river.

“I wanna get the water for Mama right away, so I can go fishing,” Adam announced.

Ben’s hand tightened around the boy’s biceps.  “I know what you want.  You do as you’re told.”  Seeing Adam’s lower lip push out, Ben scowled.  “Don’t start that, Adam, or there’ll be no fishing for you.”

“Yes, sir,” Adam muttered sullenly.

Ben knelt down beside him.  “I’m not trying to be mean, Adam,” he said, putting an arm around the youngster’s waist.  “You don’t realize how slippery those rocks are, and the banks are steep and muddy.  I don’t want you falling in.”

“You mean I can’t go fishing?” Adam mourned.

“Maybe,” Ben said, “but not without me.  If I can finish my chores in time, I’ll try to take you.”

Adam brightened.  “Okay, Pa.  But what about the water for Mama?”

Ben tousled Adam’s black hair.  “That’s my good boy to think of his chores first.  I’ll dip you up a bucket and you can take it back.  Just stay away from the bank.”  Ben took the bucket, filled it and managed to clamber back up the muddy bank without spilling too much.  “There you go,” he said.  “Ask Mama if that’s enough.”

“I will,” Adam said.  “Pa, can Billy go fishing with us?”

Ben smiled.  “I’m not sure we’re going yet, son; but if we do, then, yes.  Billy may join us.”

Adam grinned.  “And Marta?”

Ben laughed loud.  “Don’t tell me you’re getting interested in girls?”

It was Adam’s turn to scowl.  “No.  ‘Course not, but Marta’s not like other girls; she likes to fish.”

“Marta can come, too,” Ben said, “if her mother agrees.”

Ben returned from watering the stock and gathering fuel to see if Inger needed help with anything.  “Just the provision box,” she said with a smile.

“Well, I know that,” Ben laughed.  “Anything else?”

“No, Ben.”  Inger paused, looking worried.  “Adam says you do not vant him fishing alone.  Does the river seem that dangerous to you?”

Ben nodded gravely.  “The current’s swift.  He’ll be safe with me, though.”

“Then we are going fishing!” Adam shouted.

“We are,” his father said.  “Run invite your friends.”

As Adam took off, Inger examined Ben’s face carefully.  “You think the crossing tomorrow vill be hard?” she asked.

Again, Ben nodded.  “I think we can ford, although we may have to raise the wagons.  The thing is we have to do it three times, and as I said, the current’s swift.”

“There is danger of overturning?” Inger asked anxiously.

Ben took her hands and squeezed them encouragingly.  “I’ll be careful, sweetheart.”

Inger smiled.  “I know you vill.”  She looked sympathetically toward the next encampment.  “Poor Camilla,” she whispered.

Ben decided to keep his response to himself.  The sympathy he felt was not for Camilla Larrimore, but for a certain neighbor of hers who feared he might be losing another night’s sleep listening to her mournful moans.  No, Ben thought as he smiled at his wife, better not share that with Inger.  He might find himself going hungry, as well as sleepless.

When Adam came back with two eager-faced friends, they all headed down to the riverside.  Ben found a place beneath some willows where they could get close without descending the muddy bank, and the four fishers sat down to angle for their suppers.  Marta started to plop down between Adam and Billy, but Billy gave her a hard shove and threatened to throw her in the river if she didn’t get away from him.

“That’s enough of that, Billy,” Ben said sharply.  “If you can’t get along with the others, you’ll have to leave.  You’ll have some tall explaining to do to your pa, though, if you come back without something for the frying pan.”

Billy waited until Mr. Cartwright’s back was turned, then stuck his tongue in Marta’s face.  She responded in kind, then picked up her fishing pole and sat down next to Ben.  Surprised, Ben looked down into her wistful face and reached out to stroke her cheek tenderly.  He suspected a little fatherly attention was what the orphaned girl needed; and while he felt inadequate to take Fredrich’s place, he wanted to show her he cared.  Marta snuggled closer and Ben dropped a kiss on her blonde head.  “Let’s have a contest, boys,” he called.  “I say Marta and I can catch more fish that both of you put together!”

“No, sir!” Billy yelled.  “No girl can fish better than me.”

“Prove it, then!” Ben laughed.

“I like to fish, but I’m not as good as they are, Mr. Cartwright,” Marta said quietly.

“Me, either,” Ben whispered back.  “We’ll probably lose, but I still think I have the best partner.  And, for sure, the prettiest.”  Marta giggled.  Tomboy as she was, she liked being called pretty.  It was just what her papa used to say.

* * * * *

“Pa, can we fish some more this morning?” Adam asked as he dipped up a spoonful of the applesauce Inger had made from dried apples.

“No, son,” Ben said, cutting off another bite of pancake.  “We have to be moving out this morning.”

“But we’re last in line today,” Adam argued, “so it’ll be just forever ‘til it’s our turn.”

Ben laughed.  “Just forever, is it?  Well, I guess it seems that way to you, my boy, but we’ll be across before noon, if all goes well.”

“That’s still plenty of time to fish,” Adam insisted, “and I bet Mama’d like some for lunch.”

“Don’t pull me into this,” Inger laughed.  “The trout last night vas good, but what your father says is law.”

“So, what do you say, Pa?” Adam persisted.

“I already gave you my answer, Adam,” Ben said firmly.  “I’d like to say yes, for my own sake as well as yours; but I can’t run off to fish when some of our folks may need help getting their wagons across safely.  I have to be there in case of trouble, son.”

“Yes, sir,” Adam mumbled.  “Fish’d sure be good, though.”

“Ben,” Inger said thoughtfully, “there is not much I could do to help vith the vagons.”

“No,” Ben admitted with a smile, “but you are not going fishing either, young lady.  Not with two little ones to watch.  Adam would probably pick the very moment you decided to nurse Eric to fall in the drink.”

“It is Eric who picks when he vill nurse,” Inger laughed, “but I did not mean to fish.  Perhaps Adam vould like to go up into the hills vith me to see if ve can find some berries.  Jam vould be as good as fish, yah, Adam?”

“Yes, ma’am!” Adam cried.  “We can do that, can’t we, Pa?”

“Oh, I suppose,” Ben said, “provided you don’t go far.  We all hope to make this triple crossing by noon, so you’ll have to meet us by then.”

After repacking the provision box and cooking utensils, Inger strapped Eric into his cradleboard and lifted him onto her back.  Then she picked up a tin pail and handed Adam another.  Together, they walked into the surrounding foothills in search of ripe fruit, songbirds twittering in the pine branches above them.  They found a few small bushes and picked them clean of black currants while Inger told Adam about picking berries in Sweden with her brother Gunnar.

“Does Sweden look like this?” Adam asked.

“In some vays,” Inger said.  “Sveden is greener than this, though.”

“Like California will be?”

“I hope so,” Inger said, “but I have never seen California, Adam.  I am not sure how it looks.”

“Pa saw it once,” Adam informed her.  “He sailed there and picked up a cargo of hides.”

“Did he?” Inger asked, surprised.  “I thought it vas as new to him as to us.”

“No, ma’am,” Adam grinned, pleased to share a secret about his father.  “I wasn’t born then, of course, but Pa told me about sailing to Hawaii, then on to Monterey for the hides.”

“Is this Monterey close to Sacramento?” Inger asked.

Adam shrugged.  “I don’t know.”

“Vell, I shall ask your father,” Inger said, “after I give him a spanking for hiding this from me all these months.”

Adam giggled.  It would be funny to see Pa get a spanking, but Adam had a feeling his mother was only teasing.  “That’s all the berries,” he reported.

“Yah, but there is still room in our pails,” Inger said.  “Let’s go up a little further and see if ve find more.”  Adam jumped up readily and ran ahead.

“No, Adam,” Inger called.  “Ve must stay together, and I cannot go fast vith your brother to carry.”

“Okay,” Adam yelled back from the top of the rise where her voice had stopped him.  While he waited for her to catch up, he looked down the other side of the small knoll and caught sight of something red peeking through green leaves.  “Mama!”  he cried.  “I think I see some more.”  Forgetting her admonishment, he ran down the hill and pulled the fan-shaped leaves aside.

Frowning at his disobedience, Inger quickened her pace.  Reaching the top of the rise, she again saw her son.  “Adam!” she said sternly.  “I told you to vait!”

Adam sprang to his feet.  “I’m sorry; I forgot.  But look, Mama!  Look what I’ve found!”

Inger stumbled down the hill as quickly as she could with the load on her back and reached for the bright berry Adam held out to her.  “Strawberries!” she cried with delight.  “Oh, Adam, how vonderbar!”

“And there’s lots,” Adam said.

“Mmn, and they are sveet, too,” Inger tittered, licking the juice running out the corners of her mouth.

Adam popped a strawberry between his lips and grinned.  “Let’s eat ‘em all,” he suggested conspiratorially.

“What a selfish little boy,” Inger laughed.  “No, let us put all the currants in one pail and fill the other vith the strawberries.  There vill still be plenty to eat.”

That plan suited Adam, too, so he quickly dumped the contents of his pail into Inger’s and started to pick every plump berry he could spy.  Soon the pail was full, as well as Adam’s hat and Inger’s bonnet, for they couldn’t resist taking all they could possibly get back to camp.  Adam even started to put some in his pants pockets, but Inger told him not to.  “They vill be all smashed, and make nothing but extra laundry,” she scolded.

Mother and son made their way down the hillside to the river, where they found Ben waiting.  “I thought you could use some help,” he said.  “The water’s running even faster than I thought.”

“Oh, did everyone get over safely?” Inger asked urgently.

“Yeah,” Ben said.  “We put two men on each side of each team to keep the oxen headed straight.  Seemed to help and sure quieted our friend Camilla’s nerves.  Now, what riches have you harvesters brought back from the field?”

“Strawberries, Pa!” Adam shouted, holding out his pail.

“Imagine that!” Ben said.  “I’d read that you could sometimes find strawberries in these mountains, but I thought they’d be gone by now.”

“Ve are good hunters, Adam and I,” Inger teased.

“I’d doff my hat to your prowess,” Ben said, “but we’d better get on to camp if we’re to have time to eat anything.  Let me take Adam across first, then I’ll come back for you.”

“Oh, I can take care of myself,” Inger said.

“No,” Ben said firmly.  “Not with the baby and all those berries, too.  You wait, young lady.”  Feeling Adam needed a good example in the waiting-when-told department, Inger just nodded.

Ben lifted Adam with one arm.  “I can hold the berries,” Adam declared.

“All right,” Ben said, “you do that, then.”  Adam wrapped his arms around the pail of strawberries with his hat and Inger’s sunbonnet resting atop that.  With berries to his chin, he rode in his father’s arms over the Thomas fork of the river.  Then Ben waded back to Inger and with one arm around her waist and the other carrying the pail of black currants helped her cross the river, too.

Reaching camp, Inger threw together a hasty meal of bacon and hoecakes with strawberries smothered in rich cream for dessert.  Billy Thomas, drawn to anything sweet like a bee to honey, showed up just as she was dishing berries into Adam’s plate.  “I sure favor strawberries,” Billy hinted.

“Or anything else edible,” Ben chuckled, winking at the irrepressible redhead.

Inger shushed him.  “Vould you like some strawberries, Billy?” she offered.

“Yes, ma’am!” Billy said.  He lowered his voice quickly.  “Just don’t tell my ma I asked, okay?”

Inger giggled.  “Okay.  I vill not be a tell tale, but you must do me a favor, too.”

“What kind of favor?” Billy asked, suspicious of any bargain made with an adult.

“Just to ask your mother’s help making jam when ve camp this evening,” Inger said.  “If she vill take care of the currants, I vill do the strawberries.  Then, ve vill share some of each.”

“Yes, ma’am!” Billy agreed, excited.  Jam wasn’t quite as good as fresh strawberries and cream, of course, but it sure ran a close second.  In fact, a little jam with his breakfast bread was just what he’d been craving, Billy suddenly realized.

The wagons had progressed only five more miles that day when they came to the edge of a steep downhill grade.  After the exhausting, morning-long struggle at the river, everyone felt they should let the oxen rest before tackling the precipitous descent; so they made camp.  The early stop meant Inger and Nelly had ample time to make their jams, and the Cartwrights and Thomases went to bed that night in anticipation of a tasty treat for the next morning’s breakfast.

Knowing the men faced a more taxing day than usual, most of their wives cooked them an extra large breakfast Saturday morning.  Inger traded Camilla for a couple of eggs to scramble for Ben along with bacon, biscuits and gravy, applesauce and bread spread thickly with butter and strawberry jam.  Adam fussed a little because he hadn’t tasted an egg since leaving Missouri, but Inger told him his father needed extra strength for a hard day.  Ben hadn’t the heart, however, to savor the eggs with those dark eyes staring hungrily at his plate; so he gave a spoonful to Adam and felt more energized by the boy’s elation than he would have been by the supplemental protein.

The men had determined the night before to set up a windlass and ease the wagons down the hill.  None of them, except Larrimore, had ever used that method before; and they couldn’t help feeling nervous about it as they attached fifteen yoke of oxen at the bottom of the hill to a chain wound around the axle of Clyde’s cart at its top.  The oxen were slowly walked up the hill while a wagon attached to the opposite end of the chain was eased down foot by foot.  No one truly wanted to use a windlass:  not only was the maneuver time-consuming; it was also considered more risky than simply locking the wagon wheels and skidding the wagon downhill.  If the chain broke, the wagon could break loose and splinter when it hit bottom.  On a descent this steep, however, there was no other choice; the wagon would roll too fast if they did nothing but lock the wheels.

The men’s combined efforts brought the eight wagons safely to the bottom of the hill, and it was a simple matter to lock the wheels of the little cart and skid it down to join the other vehicles.  Ordinarily, of course, they would have hitched the oxen at that point and continued on their way.  Since the sun stood high overhead by the time the job was done, however, they took their customary noon break at the foot of the hill.  The oxen were tired, and the men more so; therefore, they took their full two hours’ rest, then hitched and headed out on the trail, reaching Smith’s Trading Post later that afternoon.

The ladies, of course, had to see what was available but soon learned the answer was not much.  The fiftyish man who ran the post greeted the new customers eagerly, though, and didn’t seem overly perturbed when they purchased little.

“Howdy, folks,” he called warmly when the Cartwrights entered the little cabin where he kept his goods.  “Look around all you want.  We got some supplies you might be aneedin’ out there on the trail.”

Ben had to smile.  The shelves were practically bare.  Of course, that might be due to the lateness of the season.  “Would you be Mr. Smith?” he asked as the proprietor offered him a drink of whiskey on the house.

The whiskered trader bobbed his head jovially, his graying hair brushing against his shoulders.  “Yup, that’s me.  Born Thomas Smith, but after living so long in these hills, folks started to call me Rocky Mountain Smith.  Nowadays, most folks call me Pegleg, on account on this.”  He reached down to tap his wooden leg.

“Tell them how you got that leg,” Larrimore called from another part of the store.  “It’s quite a story, Ben.”

Pegleg lifted Adam and set him on the counter.  “Yes, sir, it is quite a story, one to make the eyes of a little youngun like this bug right out.  You ain’t got a weak stomach, have you, boy?”

“No, sir,” Adam assured him, his eyes lighting in anticipation of an exciting tale.

“That’s good,” Pegleg said, giving the boy a solid slap on the back, “‘cause this yarn gets a mite gruesome.  I thought I knew these here mountains inside out, and there weren’t nothing could make me afeared.  Then came that black day when I learned I wasn’t sich a knowin’ man nor sich a brave one as I thought.”

“What happened?” Adam urged, leaning closer.  “Indians?”

Pegleg laughed heartily.  “Injuns, you say?  You hear that, Shining Moon?”  A dark-skinned girl of seventeen looked up at him and smiled, then went back to cuddling the Cartwright’s fair-haired baby boy.  “Not hardly,” Pegleg said, turning back to Adam.  “Me and the Shoshoni get along fine, son.  My wife there is Shoshoni.  ‘Course, we wasn’t married then.  If we had been, I might still have my leg.  It was bein’ alone that made the accident so bad.”

“What kind of accident?” Adam asked.

“Well, sir, a fool kind.  I was running my trap line and lost track of where I was.  Stuck my foot in my own beaver trap, I did,” Pegleg said.

“That was a fool kind of accident,” Adam agreed.

“Adam!” his father remonstrated.

“No offense meant, sir, and none taken,” Pegleg chuckled.  “The boy’s absolutely right.  I knew better, too, but I was trappin’ in a part of the mountains that was new to me.  I just let myself get caught up in lookin’ at the countryside and didn’t bother to watch where I put my own foot.  Like I said, a fool way to act, but you can believe I never made that mistake again!”

“Did the trap pinch your leg plumb off?” Adam asked, his face screwing up at the grisly picture in his head.

“No, son,” Pegleg explained, “but them teeth went in deep.  I pried ‘em apart and got my leg out; then, I tied my belt around it for a tourniquet and hobbled home best I could on the bloody stump.”

“But you still had your leg,” Adam said.  “How’d you lose it?”

“Let the man tell his own story, Adam,” Ben suggested.

“That’s all right,” Pegleg said.  “I kinda like younguns.  Got one of my own now, you see.”

Ben smiled at the dark-eyed toddler hanging to his mother’s beaded buckskin dress.  “He’s a fine lad, sir.”

“My pride and joy,” Pegleg said.  “Let me get you another shot of whiskey, sir, in honor of our two fine boys.”  The trader refilled Ben’s glass and turned his attention back to Adam.  “Well, there ain’t much more to my story, son.  I tried to doctor myself best I could, but that leg just kept swellin’ up and festerin’ ‘til I knew there weren’t no savin’ it.  There was just one thing to be done if I was to save my life, so I done it.”

“What?” Adam asked breathlessly.

“Why, cut ‘er off, of course,” Pegleg said matter-of-factly.

“Yourself?” Ben asked, his eyes as big as Adam’s by this time.

Pegleg shrugged.  “Weren’t no one else here.”

Ben shook his head in amazement.  “Well, that took grit, sir,” he said with evident admiration.  “I doubt I could perform an amputation on myself.”

“Sure you could!” Pegleg said.  “A man does what he has to when it comes to a matter of life and death.”

“Well, I still say not many men could have done what you did,” Ben insisted.

“You never know,” Pegleg countered.  “No man knows what he can handle ‘til it’s pushed on him.”

Ben cocked his head thoughtfully.  He supposed that was true, but he hoped he’d never have to face a test as hard as the one Thomas Smith had passed.

Although Inger enjoyed visiting with Smith’s Shoshoni wife and playing with her copper-skinned baby, she didn’t find anything she needed at the trading post.  Ben purchased a pound of tobacco.  The price was high and the quality poor; but Ben figured he owed the hospitable trader something for sharing his story and his liquor, an expensive commodity to freight into the mountains.

There was some discussion that night about resting on the Sabbath, but the majority voted to continue their journey.  After all, it was less than a week since their last rest; and though they would have welcomed a day off after the arduous river crossings and mountainous terrain, the season was growing late.  If anyone had told Ben when he left St. Joseph that he’d still be east of Fort Hall a week into September, he’d never have believed it.  Here they were, though, at least a week short of that goal.  So Ben, like most of the other men, voted to push on; and they pushed hard, driving a better-than-average seventeen miles that Sunday.

Another full day’s travel brought the Larrimore train to Soda Springs, a sight many of them had been eagerly anticipating.  Payne, in the lead that day, gave a shout when the twenty-foot tall conical mounds of white lime came into sight a little over half a mile north of the trail.  He pulled off the road and headed for one of the more popular campsites along the Oregon Trail.  The clear brook babbling nearby offered good water for the oxen, but the phenomenal springs themselves were, of course, the main attraction.  No one could pass by without tasting a drink of the effervescent water bubbling with carbonic acid gas.

When the wagons circled for their evening camp, the first thing Inger did was demand the provision box.  “Don’t you think I should unhitch the oxen first?” Ben teased.

“That can vait, for once,” Inger said.  “I need to get my lemon essence out.”

“By all means,” Ben laughed, lifting the provision box down from the back of the wagon.  “As we all know, lemon essence is one of the staples of our way, so we must get it down without further delay.”  Adam giggled at the singsong tone in his father’s voice.

“I don’t hear you complaining about its use in dried apple pies,” Inger said saucily.  “I vant to see if this soda vater really makes fizzy lemonade like the books say.”

“I know what you want,” Ben chuckled.  “Be sure to save me a glass.  I, for one, still have chores.”

“Not me,” Adam piped.  “I have to help Mama make lemonade.”

“Yah,” Inger tittered.  “I cannot make it properly vithout Adam to taste it for me.”

Ben gave the two of them a mock scowl.  “Go on and play then, children,” he growled.  He winked at Adam to make sure the boy understood he was joking, then left to care for his team.

When Inger had the proper ingredients assembled, Adam took her hand and pulled her over to the springs.  Letting go, he immediately dipped his tin cup full of the bubbly water and held it out for the lemon essence and sugar his mother stirred in.  Adam took a tentative sip and grinned.  “It’s good, Mama!” he announced.

“Not too sweet?” Inger said.

“Nope!  Just right.”

“Then, I must try some.”  Inger dipped her cup into the water and prepared her own drink.  Looking up, she saw Marta Zuebner eyeing the bottle of lemon essence with longing eyes.

“That sure looks good,” Marta hinted.  “We run out of lemon essence awhile back.”

“Marta, for shame!” her older sister Katerina rebuked.  “Please forgive my sister, Mrs. Cartwright,” Katerina asked.  “She has been taught better than to beg.”

“Oh, it is not begging to ask a friend to share,” Inger said congenially as she measured a little lemon and sugar into Marta’s cup, “and I have plenty.  Vould you like some, too, Katerina?”

Katerina was torn between her concept of what was mannerly and her desire for lemonade.  Since she was only eleven, the latter won.  “Yes, ma’am,” she said politely, “and thank you most kindly for sharing.”

“You are most velcome,” Inger replied, placing the ingredients into the German girl’s cup.

“How is it?” Rachel Payne, baby in her arms, asked as she sat down next to Inger.

“Very good,” Inger said as she took Susan’s dainty finger and wiggled it back and forth.  “Shall I fix you a drink?”

“I brought my own fixings,” Rachel laughed, nodding toward the basket she had just set down.  “I’ve got something for you, though.”

“For me?” Inger asked, surprised.

“Well, more for Hoss, I suppose,” Rachel replied as she rummaged through the basket.

“You mean Eric,” Inger said with a smile.

Rachel decided on an artful answer since she was caught between Inger and Adam at the moment.  “For your son,” she said and pulled out a glass bottle with a nipple.

“You brought baby bottles on the trail?” Inger asked.  “I am surprised, Rachel.”

“Well, it was just a precaution,” Rachel admitted, “and I only have the two.  I wasn’t sure how my milk would hold up with the roughness of the journey.  That’s why we brought the cow, too.  So far I haven’t needed the bottles, but I thought these babies might like a taste of lemonade.”

“Oh, yah, that vill be a treat for them,” Inger agreed as she took the bottle and filled it with carbonated water.  She added the lemon essence and sugar and shook the bottle to mix it.  “Can you help me get Eric out of this thing?” she asked, gesturing with her head at the cradleboard.

“I’ll help you, Mrs. Cartwright,” Katerina said, reaching to loosen the straps holding the baby to Inger’s back.  “Can I feed the baby?”

“Yah, sure,” Inger said.

Katerina slipped the nipple between the baby’s lips.  His little brow wrinkled at first, but once the sweet refreshment touched his tongue, he began to suck greedily.  “Oh, look!” Katerina cried.  “He likes it.”

“Yeah, we know what’s good, don’t we, Hoss?” Adam said, tickling his baby brother’s chubby chin.  The baby gurgled and kicked his feet at his big brother.

“Oh, you do like lemonade, don’t you, my little Hoss?” Inger cooed as she patted his undulating belly.

“You called him Hoss, Mama!” Adam cried exultantly.

“Oh, dear, I guess I did,” Inger said, touching her fingers to her lips.

“That’s his name for sure now!”  Adam jumped up and down in a victory dance.  Inger laughed, knowing in that instant that she’d lost all hope of calling her child by his grandfather’s name.  Legally, her son’s name might remain Eric Cartwright, but in common usage he would be Hoss from that time on.

When Ben returned from watering the stock, he set a bucket full of water at Inger’s feet.  “Here, I’ll trade you,” Inger said, handing him a cup of cool lemonade.”

“More than adequate repayment, ma’am,” Ben said after taking a long swallow.  “Sure tickles the nose, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, Pa,” Adam agreed, “and Hoss likes it, too, doesn’t he, Mama?”

“Yah,” Inger laughed.  “I am afraid Hoss likes it better than Mama’s milk.”

Ben arched an eyebrow at his wife.  “Hoss?”

Inger giggled.  “I have become a convert, it appears.”

Ben laughed and reached for his younger son, who lay on a blanket in the shade of the wagon.  “Well, Hoss, my boy, you like lemonade, do you?  Well, your pa agrees; yes, he does.”  Ben brought the boy to his shoulder and patted the sturdy little back.  “I shouldn’t have started this,” he told Inger as he cuddled the baby.  “I still need to get you some firewood.”

Inger stepped across and put her arms around both her husband and their baby.  “It vill vait,” she said.  “For this, ve must alvays make time.”

“Yah, and for this, too,” Ben said and kissed her forehead.  Feeling left out, Adam squirmed between them, and Inger stooped to give him a hug.

Ben laid the baby back on his blanket.  “I’d better get that wood,” he said, “if I expect dinner.”

“Yah, you must earn it,” Inger laughed.

Ben let his hand rest atop his older son’s head.  “You want to come help, Adam?”

“Sure, Pa,” Adam agreed readily.  Adam couldn’t carry much, of course, but he did his share.  As the two Cartwrights headed back to camp, each with an armload of dry wood, Adam looked up at his father.  “Are you dead set on going to California, Pa?” he asked.

“Why do you ask, son?”

“‘Cause I like it right here, Pa,” Adam announced.

Ben chuckled.  “Oh, you do, do you?  Enough to settle here?”

“Yeah,” Adam said enthusiastically.  “We could call it LemonadeLand.”

Ben roared with laughter.  “That, my boy, is the most unique name for a homestead I’ve ever heard.”

“Well, I like it here,” Adam insisted stubbornly, “and so does Hoss.”

“What you mean is that you boys like lemonade,” Ben said.

Adam shrugged.  “Well, yeah, I guess so.”

“You know, they grow lemons in California, son,” Ben pointed out.  “You can pick them right off the trees.”

“Yeah?” Adam said.  “That’d be good, all right.  Maybe we ought to keep going.”

“Maybe we should,” his father agreed with a smile.

* * * * *

“Well, Inger Cartwright, are you ready for day one hundred of our journey west?” Ben asked as they took their place behind Larrimore’s two wagons.

Inger smiled up at her husband.  “Has it been so long?”

“To the day,” Ben replied.

“I am ready,” Inger said, slipping her arm through the crook of her husband’s.

Larrimore gave the shout to start, and Ebenezer Wentworth led the way through a fragrant grove of cedar trees.  Inger breathed deeply.  “Ah, that smells good,” she said.  “I do love the smell of evergreen.”

“See, Pa?” Adam said, scampering at his mother’s side.  “Mama likes it here, too.  Maybe we should stay.  We could call it Christmas Tree Country, instead of Lemonade Land.”

“Inventive boy!” Ben exclaimed, chucking Adam under his chin.  “I bet Mama’d rather go on to California.”

“Yah,” Inger agreed quickly.  “It is lovely here, but I think land vill be better in California, mine son.”

“Oh, okay,” Adam said, taking a last yearning look back toward Soda Springs.

It wasn’t long, though, before Adam’s sights were set ahead once again.  The wagons rolled easily through a branch of the river they’d camped near the night before, and not long afterward Adam heard a deep, rumbling sound.  “What’s that, Pa?” he asked.

Ben listened and a grin split his face.  “I’ll bet it’s Steamboat Springs, Adam.  Doesn’t that sound remind you of the wharves at St. Joseph?”

“It sure does, Pa!” Adam yelled.  “It sounds just like a steamboat boiler, hissing and spewing.”

They rounded a bend and to the right of the trail saw hot water spouting from a limestone cone every fifteen seconds, regular as clockwork.  “Look, Pa,” Adam laughed.  “It even looks like steam off a riverboat.”

“Yeah,” Ben said, “that looks so much like home, I’m just about ready to turn around and head for dear old St. Joe.”

Adam’s face wrinkled.  “You’re joshing, aren’t you, Pa?”

“I’m joshing,” Ben assured him.  “Ho for California!”

“Ho for California!” Adam yelled in response, and his decision was confirmed by the terrain they passed through that morning.  Leaving the phenomenal springs and aromatic evergreens behind, the train moved through barren mountains that tempted no one to settle nearby.

Five miles into their drive the wagons rumbled past Sheep Rock, where the trail divided once more, with the Hudspeth Cutoff splitting off to the left.  Having discussed this option the night before, the men turned the wagons north to follow the main trail.  Since the cutoff would save them only thirteen miles, no one wanted to bypass Fort Hall, their last chance to overhaul their wagons and stock up on supplies for the remainder of the journey.

As they moved away from Sheep Rock, Adam shook his head in perplexity.  In spite of all Pa’s explanations, there surely must be a better way to get west than going north again.  Sublette’s Cutoff, though, had left a bad taste in the boy’s mouth for shortcuts of any name.  He trusted his father, and besides that, forts were fun to visit.  Adam could hardly wait to reach Fort Hall.

He had to wait, of course, but five days of good mileage brought the emigrants within sight of the final fort on the trail.  It seemed fitting that McTavish’s wagon was in the lead that day, for of them all he most needed supplies.  He responded by setting a pace that brought them to their destination well before nightfall.  That last day was, of course, Sunday, but everyone preferred to defer their day of rest until they reached the fort.  The travelers gathered for a brief message from their minister that evening and went to their tents to make lists for their visit to the sutler’s store.

As Ben and his family approached the entrance to Fort Hall the next morning, he stopped to admire the setting.  The fort stood on the left bank of the American fork of the Columbia River, five hundred feet wide at this point.  To the west nothing but a barren plain met the eye, but gazing northward, Ben saw buttes and mountains so high they brushed the clouds.

“Is something wrong?” Inger asked.

“Oh, no,” Ben assured her.  “I was just noticing what a good spot this is for a trading post.”

“Surely, it is more than that,” Inger said.

“Not much more,” Ben chuckled.  “The stockade seems smaller than the one at Fort Laramie.  It’s situated well, though.”

“The river, you mean?”

“That, and the fact that the trails to Oregon and California divide a few days past here,” Ben explained.  “Hudson’s Bay Company chose well when they built here.  Of course, they did take unfair advantage of the location.”

“How is that?”

“Well, you know they’re a British company,” Ben said, “and, of course, they wanted Oregon to stay in British hands to ensure a monopoly on the beaver trade.  To discourage Americans from going there, the agents here used to magnify the dangers of the Oregon Trail——the hostile Indians, rapid rivers, winter storms——and try to talk people into going to California, instead.”

“They don’t have to talk us into going to California, though, do they, Pa?” Adam asked.

Ben laughed.  “Since the discovery at Sutter’s Mill, Adam, no one has to talk anyone into going to California.”

“I think I may have to talk you into going into the fort, though,” Inger teased.  “Really, Ben, I have a long list of supplies I hope they have.”

Ben took her arm.  “Let us enter forthwith, my lady.”

“Pa,” Adam said, pointing to an Indian encampment just outside the fort’s walls, “can I go see them Indians?  I don’t want to shop.”

“No, you can’t go see those Indians by yourself, Adam,” Inger said hurriedly.

“It’s probably safe enough this close to the fort,” Ben said, “but I agree you shouldn’t go alone, son.”  Adam kicked at a pebble in the path.  The Indians looked friendly to him, and he didn’t see why his parents had to be so doggone careful.

When they left the sutler’s store an hour later, Inger looked embarrassed.  “I didn’t realize I’d run up such a bill, Ben; I am sorry.”

“I don’t mind the price,” Ben said.  “We have the money, after all.  But do you really think we needed that much?  We should reach Sacramento in another six weeks or so.”

“Oh, dear, I probably did buy too much,” Inger sighed, “but something in my heart said ve might need it.  Forgive me, Ben.”

Ben wanted to put an arm around her, but he didn’t have one free.  “There’s nothing to forgive, Inger,” he said tenderly, putting into his voice the consolation he couldn’t express physically.  “You didn’t buy anything we won’t use.  My only concern is the oxen, but since we have enough to let some of them rest each day, anyway, I think they’ll do well enough.”

Inger’s face flamed.  “After all your talk of not overloading the vagon,” she chided herself.

Ben chuckled.  “We’re not carrying a stick of furniture,” he pointed out.  “You wouldn’t even let me buy camp stools, remember?”

“Ve did not need them,” Inger said firmly.

“I agree,” Ben said. “My point is we’re not carrying much besides tools and food; and frankly, I’d rather have too much than too little to eat.  You know how people suffered along this part of the trail last year.”

Inger nodded.  “I think that fear vas in the back of my mind there at the store, but ve can take some things back if you think—”

“I think I’ll just follow your woman’s intuition, instead,” Ben murmured.

“Pa,” Adam interrupted impatiently, “can we go see those Indians now?”

Ben looked at his armload of supplies and thought of the ones he had to return for later.  “Not now, Adam,” he said with a tired shake of his head.  “Not now.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

 Refitted, restocked and ready for the most arduous part of their journey, the wagons rolled out of Fort Hall Tuesday morning, September 17th.  At first, the road seemed easy enough.  Six miles below the fort, though, the emigrants arrived at the bank of the PanackRiver, a tributary of the Columbia that was one hundred and fifty feet wide here just above its junction with the AmericanRiver and so deep they were forced to raise the wagon beds to ford it.  Everyone chafed at the delay, but only the Larrimore wagons found the crossing difficult once the time-consuming job was done.

“It is a shame to make the poor beasts vork so hard,” Inger sighed, coming as close to criticism of her neighbors as Ben had ever heard.  “See how they must turn their heads to keep their nostrils above the deep vater.”

“You’re right,” Ben said.  “That must make it much harder to pull that heavy load.”

No one could have convinced Camilla Larrimore, however, to leave her keepsakes behind just to spare the draught animals.  Somehow, the oxen managed to trudge through to the other side and ascend the steep incline that followed to a sandy plain where nothing but sage and greasewood grew.  Seeing the lifeless landscape, Inger again sighed, already missing the aromatic pine forests behind them.

“Don’t worry,” Ben comforted her.  “Plenty more pines ahead, my love.”

Inger smiled and slipped her hand into the crook of his arm.  “And ve vill build our house in the midst of a grove of them, yah?”

“Yah, I promise,” Ben said.  “In the midst of a whole forest of pines if you like.”

“I like,” Inger laughed.

“Me, too,” Adam cried, “and we’ll string popcorn from every one of them for Christmas, huh, Pa?”

“We will not!” Ben said, swinging his older son into his arms and giving his ribs a thorough tickling.  “One popcorn-bedecked tree is quite sufficient for me, my boy!  And don’t even mention carving birds and bells for an entire forest of Christmas trees!”  Adam giggled, begging for respite from the tickling; and with a swat that barely raised the dust on the boy’s britches, Ben swung him to earth again.

Though the terrain through which the train traveled that day was bleak and barren, the next morning brought them once again to a breath-taking scene.  Since they arrived at American Falls around the time for their noon break, everyone took a long look at the horseshoe-shaped ledge of black rock that crossed the river and made its water plummet almost straight down.  After the dryness of the previous day, just the sight of so much water was refreshing; and the rumbling sound it made as it cascaded to crash in the stream below was music to weary souls.  How soundly they would have slept with such a lullaby to soothe their ears——if only they could have afforded the time to stay the night.

Along the beach, tall currant bushes grew, some as much as ten feet tall.  Disappointingly, the crimson berries were almost all gone.  Ben picked some of the round fruits, but though they were large as cherries, the few he found didn’t even fill his hat.  Adam munched them happily, while Inger lamented that there weren’t more.  “They vould have made such sveet pie,” she said, sucking the flavorful juice.  “I suppose ve vill see no more fresh fruit until ve reach California.”

“I doubt it,” Ben said.  “We’ve been lucky to find all the fresh things we have along the trail; but the country between here and the mountains is pretty arid, according to all I’ve read.  We may have trouble finding enough grass for the oxen, much less berries.”

“I know,” Inger said and put another succulent fruit into her mouth.  If this was to be her last treat for weeks to come, she intended to savor it without wasting further time bemoaning the days of salt pork and cornpone that assuredly lay before them.

On they traveled, pushing hard to cover as many miles as possible each day.  In each emigrant’s thoughts loomed the specter of snow in the Sierras.  Ben felt almost certain they would make it through a pass before November, when the first snowfall ordinarily dusted the mountains with a thick blanket of white powder.  In the back of his mind, though——and those of his fellow travelers——was the haunting memory of the winter of 1846, when the snows came early and the ill-fated Donner party delayed one day too long before crossing.  Just one day, but what a tragic difference it made!  Not wanting to repeat that mistake, the Larrimore train pressed their teams; but it was hard to cover many miles each day when most of them were up and down.

River crossings, too, continued to slow their daily progress.  After two hours travel on Friday, the train reached the high, rocky banks of the RaftRiver.  Fortunately, it was only two feet deep, so the wagons forded it easily and made their noon camp on the far side.  They had gone only one mile further that afternoon when Ben called Adam, who came running to his father’s side.  “Know where we’re at, boy?” Ben asked.

“No, sir,” Adam said.  “Just on the trail somewhere.”

“Ah, but there’s a fork in the road just ahead,” Ben said.  He pointed to the right.  “There’s the main trail, and to the left is the cutoff.”

“We’re staying on the main trail, aren’t we?” Adam asked anxiously.  “I don’t like cutoffs, Pa.”

Ben laughed.  “I think we’d better take this one, son; it’s the California Cutoff.”

“Oh!” Adam exclaimed and gave his father a big grin.  “Yeah, I guess we better take that one, all right.”  The wagons soon turned southwest away from the route that led to Oregon; but as far as Adam was concerned, there wasn’t much difference except for the direction.  Both trails looked pretty much alike.

Nothing out of the ordinary caught the youngster’s eye through the remainder of Friday’s drive, nor as he walked along the trail Saturday or Sunday.  Monday morning, however, presented an attraction Adam felt warranted exploration.  They had been traveling west through a narrow valley along willow-fringed Cassia Creek when Adam first noticed the huge masses of marble and begged his father to let him visit them.

“You know you can’t take off by yourself, Adam,” his father said sternly.

“I’d take Billy with me, Pa,” Adam pledged, “and we’d be real careful——honest.”

“Adam!” Ben said sharply.

“Oh, Ben, why don’t you take the boys over to see the sight?” Inger suggested.  “I can handle the team.”  Adam’s darkening countenance brightened hopefully.

Ben frowned thoughtfully.  “The trail’s rough here, Inger.  I don’t like to leave you alone.”

“You didn’t mind leaving me alone to go hunting,” Inger said with a smile.  “How is this different?”

Ben pinched her nose.  “The countryside is different, my love.  What if you have problems?”

Inger shrugged.  “Then I vill call on Clyde to help me.  He vill be glad to, I am sure, for the pleasure of sending Billy off for a few hours.”

Ben guffawed.  “And saddling me with him, is that it?”  Seeing Adam’s pleading face, Ben gave him a sympathetic smile.  The trail must get mighty boring for a lad Adam’s age, and the boy had been plucky enough for months now to earn a reward.  He took Adam’s hand and headed back to Clyde’s wagon.

When Ben explained Inger’s proposition to Clyde, it was Nelly who answered.  “Lands, yes; if you’re willin’ to put up with my ornery youngun, take him and welcome.  We’ll look after Inger.”

As Ben and the two boys headed toward the cluster of fantastically-shaped rocks, they found themselves the vanguard of a column of other youngsters.  Ben rolled his eyes heavenward, wondering what he’d gotten himself into.  He hadn’t officially agreed to take charge of all these children; but as the only adult present, he felt responsible.  Matthew, Mark and Sterling kept to themselves, still too proud of their advanced years to associate with Adam and Billy; while Roberta McTavish led a trio of girls for a closer inspection of the rock pillars.  Evidently, only little Mary Wentworth and Jewel Larrimore had been left out of the expedition.  Stefán, of course, no longer had time for youthful exploration; he had a team to manage.

“Hey, Mr. Cartwright!  Lookee here!” Billy, running ahead as usual, called.

Adam trotted after his friend, and Ben lumbered behind to read the makeshift sign Billy was pointing to.  “City of Rocks——July, 1850” the words scrawled on a scrap wagon board proclaimed.  Ben laughed.  “Looks like someone before us has already given this place a name, boys.”

“It does look like a city, doesn’t it, Pa?” Adam said enthusiastically.  “See, there’s a street over there with buildings on each side.”  He pointed toward a narrow aisle of parallel rocks on the left.

Billy ran to a small post jutting upward at the edge of Adam’s “street.”  “Yeah, and here’s the town pump,” he announced.

He and Adam, with Ben following, walked down the street of their rock city, pointing out and naming each building as they went.  “Here’s the jail,” Billy announced as he shoved Adam into a narrow opening between two rocks and planted himself as guard at the door.

“What’s the charge, Billy?” Ben laughed.

“Too much reading!” Billy chortled.

Ben’s voice rang with authority as he reached past Billy to pull Adam out of his cell.  “Case dismissed!  Reading’s no crime, you ignorant scamp.”

Law officer Billy took off at a run with his recent prisoner close behind.  Ben followed, chuckling at the capers the boys were cutting.  Ah, to be that young and full of wonder again!  Or that full of energy this late in their cross-country journey.

Looking up at one of the higher rocks, Ben’s chuckle turned into a full-throated laugh.  “Come see this, boys,” he called.  Adam and Billy trotted back obligingly.  Seeing the rock Ben pointed out, they laughed, too; for someone, possibly the same wag who had named the entire town, had painted “Castle City Hotel” over an arched cleft in the rock that resembled a door.  Adam held out his hand, palm up.  “That’ll be a dollar a night, mister,” he informed his father.

“I’ll bunk in the barn,” Ben responded wryly.

At the end of the main street of the stone city stood a rock whose top narrowed to a point that reminded all three explorers of a church spire.  “And here’s the graveyard,” Billy added in sepulchral tones as he walked through a group of small, upright rocks nearby that were, indeed, shaped like headstones.  Billy promptly lay down in front of one and, folding his hands over his chest, tried to lie as still as a corpse.

“Rest in peace, Billy,” Ben intoned solemnly.  Then he stooped down to grab a handful of dirt.  “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” he added mournfully as he let the grains of sandy soil drift down onto Billy’s belly.

Billy tried to lie still, but his lips began to twitch.  He sat up, leaning back on his elbows.  “How’s a body ‘sposed to rest with you throwin’ dirt in his face?” he demanded with a grin.

“Most dead bodies don’t have a problem with it,” Ben commented dryly, and Billy grinned even broader.  “Well, this has been fun, boys,” Ben went on, “but it’s time we were heading back to the train.”

“Aw, Pa,” Adam whined.  “Can’t we stay awhile longer?”

“I’m afraid not, son,” Ben said sympathetically, but firmly.  “We need to catch up with the others at the nooning place.  You don’t want to miss lunch, do you?”

“I sure don’t!” Billy declared.

With an arm around each boy, Ben headed back down the stone city’s avenue.  Passing the other children, he called to them that it was time to rejoin the train.  Roberta immediately gathered her little flock and fell into line behind Mr. Cartwright.  The older boys, of course, had to assert their independence by dallying a little longer.  When Ben looked back, though, he saw that they, too, were making their way back to the train.  He let them keep their manly pride intact, but checked over his shoulder from time to time to make sure everyone was still with the group.

The line of children marched up the valley of the City of Rocks, passing between two tall, sharp-pointed columns two to three hundred feet high.  “Steeple Rocks,” Ben told the youngsters close enough to hear.  “The train shouldn’t be much further now.”  As Ben predicted, the circle of wagons soon came into sight; and the children scattered, running eagerly to tell their parents about their morning’s adventures and refuel their bodies for the monotonous afternoon of travel ahead.

Inger was glad to see Ben return, for the terrain had grown steadily rockier throughout the morning.  She was glad to return to domestic duties and let him manage the livestock.  The trail continued rough throughout the afternoon, so the overlanders only managed to cover thirteen miles before stopping at Rock Spring.  Actually, they had time to go a bit further; but Granite Mountain, one of the most difficult climbs they’d yet encountered, lay just ahead.  It seemed wiser to face it at the beginning of the day, rather than its end.

Tuesday began a series of difficult days when the trail led over hill after hill, some of them higher than the continental divide at South Pass, and crossed creek after creek.  One challenge was scarcely conquered before the next presented itself.  The first, Granite Mountain, necessitated painful decisions; for when Jonathan Payne, in the lead wagon, couldn’t reach the summit without double-teaming his oxen, his problems spelled trouble for more heavily loaded wagons behind him.

Sadly the others began to evaluate what supplies were essential and what should be left behind.  Rockers and bedsteads, even bacon and flour, joined the pile of goods left by earlier emigrants.  Her face tracked with tears, Maggie McTavish laid aside the small hope chest that had belonged to Joanie and packed the contents of Robbie’s into used flour sacks.

Inger looked apologetically into her husband’s face.  “Oh, Ben, I shouldn’t have bought all those supplies at Fort Hall.  It is hard to leave food behind, but what else have ve?”

“We’re not throwing out food unless we have to!” Ben said sharply, then put his arms around his wife.  “I think you’re crossing bridges before you get to them, Inger,” he said more softly.  He intended to say more, but stopped when he felt a small tug on his shirt.

“Pa,” Adam whispered, his voice shaking.  “We—we could take out my schoolbooks.”

Ben immediately knelt down to take the boy in his arms.  To most boys, textbooks would have been an easy item to toss aside; but Ben knew the offer represented true sacrifice to Adam.  “I’ll get those books up the hill if I have to carry them myself,” Ben promised.  “That was a good boy to offer, though, Adam.  Pa’s real proud of you.”  Adam flushed with pleasure.  In the end, though, the books rode up in the wagon with all the other supplies.  Double-teaming the oxen provided the necessary power to get the Cartwright wagon up Granite Mountain.

Extra draught animals, however, hadn’t helped the Larrimores, who immediately preceded Ben’s family.  After two futile attempts Lawrence faced facts.  “We’ll have to lighten the wagons,” he told Camilla.

“Oh, no, you don’t, Lawrence Larrimore!” his wife announced.  “I told you I wouldn’t come west with you unless I could bring my things.”

“Camilla, I’ve tried to keep that promise,” Lawrence pleaded, “but you can see we’re in trouble here.”

On and on the argument raged, while four families clustered discreetly back from them, waiting impatiently for their chance at the mountain.  Finally, Lawrence began angrily pulling from his second wagon some of the heavier goods he’d intended for sale in California and transferring part of his wife’s treasures into it.

“Oh, how can he?” Inger commiserated.  “It is his livelihood he leaves behind.”

“Be better off leaving the woman behind,” McTavish grumbled.

“She’s his wife,” Ben said.  “Would you leave yours?”

“No,” McTavish snapped, “but I’d make her do what I said.  No woman will wear the pants in my family.”

“Or mine,” young Stefán Zuebner said quietly.  “Mrs. Larrimore does not do well.”

“Generous way of puttin’ it,” Clyde Thomas muttered as Ludmilla Zuebner dragged her son back to their wagon for further instruction in respect for his elders.  While she agreed with the boy’s assessment of Mrs. Larrimore, she still felt Stefán should not have voiced criticism of an adult, even one he obviously exceeded in maturity.

“Oh, please, do not be unkind,” Inger begged the men who remained near her wagon.

Ben put an arm around his wife.  “Face facts, Inger.  The woman isn’t cut out for a pioneer’s life.”

“Nor did she ask to become one,” Inger pointed out softly.

“That’s right,” Nelly added.  “You men make the decisions, and we’re expected to live up to them.”

“As you should,” McTavish retorted sharply.  “A woman’s place—”

“Is at her husband’s side, as Rachel said once,” Maggie said, smoothing her hand down Robert’s muscular arm, “and it’s glad I am to stay there.  Camilla is of a different view, I fear.”

“She’d change her views if I had her in hand,” McTavish grumbled once again, but his wife’s gentle touch had soothed him and he said no more.

After the lengthy reapportionment of his goods, Lawrence again urged his oxen up the mountain.  This time they reached the summit, though they began to show signs of strain as they pulled the second wagon to the top.  The remaining four families found the steep uphill pull hard, but achieved it without half the problems Larrimore had encountered.  They’d made their sacrifices earlier.

The wagons rumbled for six miles across relatively flat tableland, then prepared for a descent from the mountain that was as precipitous as its earlier ascent.  The Paynes and the lightly loaded Wentworth wagon had no great difficulty getting down, but everyone held their breath when Larrimore’s first wagon, wheels locked in place, started downhill.

As the still heavy wagon picked up speed, Inger buried her head against Ben’s breast.  Feeling her trembling, Ben enclosed her in his arms and stroked her neck soothingly as he watched the wagon hurtling faster and faster until he was sure it would tip over as Clyde’s had earlier in their journey.  The wagon stayed upright, though, and rattled onto level ground.  “It’s all right,” Ben whispered in Inger’s ear.  “They’re down.”

Inger exhaled slowly and turned around.  “Only half down,” she said, nodding toward the second wagon.

“That one’s lighter,” Ben said.  “I think they’ll make it; and if they do, the rest of us should, too.”

“Good point, Ben,” Clyde muttered, spitting a stream of tobacco juice.  “We oughta make them go first every time, just to test the waters, so to speak.”

“Oh, Clyde,” Inger chided.  “You are impossible.”

“Never claimed otherwise, ma’am,” Clyde responded, giving her a good-natured grin.  Ben smiled at the banter between his wife and his friend, but his thoughts were sober.  Granite Mountain was high, but not as high as the peaks they’d have to scale in the Sierras.  Larrimore’d been lucky so far, but would his luck hold out?  Ben had a feeling Lawrence was probably asking himself the same question.

Those behind Larrimore in line today had little to do but grumble as he unhitched his animals and brought them back to use with the second wagon.  “Again they cost us time,” McTavish complained loudly, and no one contradicted him.  Considering the number of hills to be climbed and the creeks to be forded along this stretch of trail, everyone found the needless delays galling.

Not long after the wagons reached the bottom of the hill, they had to ford a branch of Goose Creek, a stream they’d follow and ford numerous times before they finally left it.  On the branch they found scant grass for the oxen; but once they’d passed between some sharp-angled bluffs, the land greened up a little and there was more forage for the oxen.  They scaled another steep bluff and finally camped near another part of Goose Creek after a long, laborious day.

Ben unhitched his team and led them to the water.  While the animals quenched their thirst, he walked up and down the creek bank in anticipation of Adam’s usual pleas to go fishing.  The water seemed shallow enough and the current not overly swift, so Ben felt he could trust the boy here alone.  Suddenly, though, he caught sight of something that changed his plans for supper.

“Adam!” Ben called, his voice echoing back to the camp.  “Adam!”

Water bucket banging against his leg, Adam came running at the sound of his father’s voice.  “I was gonna get the water right away,” he defended himself breathlessly.  “Honest, I was.”

“That’s all right,” Ben said.  “I wasn’t upset with you, boy; I just wanted you to see what I’ve found.”

“What?” Adam asked eagerly.  “Is it a good place to fish?”

“Oh, probably,” Ben said, “but there’s something even more rare here, my boy.  Fresh water clams and crabs!”

“Clams and crabs!” Adam squealed.  “Oh, Pa, I love clam chowder!”

Ben chuckled.  “You and me both, but I’m not sure Mama knows how to make it.  She’ll need milk, too.”

“I can milk the cow,” Adam said proudly.

“Yeah, I know, but I think you’d better ask Mama to do that tonight,” Ben said.  “You run back and get a couple of pails and let’s see what we can harvest here.”

“Okay!” Adam said.  “Is there enough to share?  I mean, can Billy go clamming with me?”

“Sure, more the merrier,” Ben laughed.

Soon a coterie of clam diggers arrived at the creek.  Ben showed the newcomers how to find the crustaceans and mollusks.  “Just put the crabs in your pails alive,” he instructed.

“Alive!” Katerina screamed.  “But we cannot eat them alive, Mr. Cartwright.”

Ben laughed.  “No, Katerina, but they must be killed at the last minute or they could be poisonous.  Tell your mother to boil a big pot of water, then drop the crabs in.  The hot water will kill them and cook them, too.”

“Oh,” Katerina sighed.  “Maybe I better leave this clamming to Marta.”

“Go ahead, ‘fraidy cat,” Marta scoffed.  “I can do without you.  Do we cook the clams like the crabs, Mr. Cartwright?”

“There’s more than one way to fix them,” Ben replied.  “You can steam them or fry them or boil them in chowder.”

“That’s what we’re doing,” Adam announced.  “Mama said her chowder might not taste like what you remember from New England, Pa, but it’ll be good.”

“I’m sure it will,” Ben agreed.  “Mama’s quite a cook, isn’t she, son?”

“Best in the world,” Adam declared.

“Yeah, well, there won’t be any chowder if you don’t get to clamming, boy,” his father teased.  Adam grinned and went to work.

That night the Cartwrights and Thomases sat down to a feast of boiled crab, Inger’s clam chowder and Nelly’s fried clams.  The men and boys praised the meal lavishly, but the ladies knew the truth.  While the food was good, its chief value lay in its variety.  Along the trail fresh food was always welcome as a change from the ever-present salt pork and beans or bacon and cornbread.

Wednesday’s drive duplicated Tuesday’s frustrations.  The wagons moved up Goose Creek, crossing and recrossing it, climbing hills only to descend again.  Despite the natural barriers to their path and the irritation of repeated delays, the emigrants covered a more than respectable seventeen miles before they came to rest that night near the creek again.  During the day, however, ominous murmurs of discontent had rippled up and down the line of wagons.  Only Ebenezer Wentworth was ahead of the Larrimores in line today, and that meant everyone else had ample opportunity to sit and stew and try to come up with solutions to the constant delays.

Adam and his friends eagerly spent the first half of Thursday morning harvesting more crabs and clams from Goose Creek, for the train didn’t break camp until 10:30.  Because the ground ahead was virtually void of grass, the men worked to lay in a supply of hay for the animals and returned for an early lunch.

“I tried to make the chowder more like you described this time,” Inger said as Ben slurped the hearty soup.  “Is it better?”

“It was good the other night,” Ben said, “just different.”

“Yah, vell, is it more like New England now?” Inger persisted.

“As much as it could be out here in the wilderness,” Ben chuckled.  “I especially like the special ingredient you added.”

Inger cocked her head.  “What special ingredient?”

Ben blew her a kiss.  “The love, sweetheart; I can taste the love, and that makes it better than New England’s best.”  Inger laughed.

The train moved out as soon as possible after the men had eaten.  Due to the late start, they would make no stops today.  Even so, they covered only ten miles, and the rumblings of dissatisfaction grew louder.

Since a daily diet of clam chowder could become monotonous, Adam had gone angling for trout as soon as the wagons had circled and he’d finished his evening chores.  Inger wouldn’t start supper until he returned, so she and Ben were sitting together, enjoying a quiet cup of coffee, when Jonathan Payne approached their campsite.  “Could I have a word with you, Ben?” Jonathan asked.

“Sure,” Ben replied readily.

“You vould like some coffee, Jonathan?” Inger asked.  “There is plenty.”

“No, thanks, Inger,” Jonathan said, his face strained.  “Uh, Ben,” he stammered.  “I really need to talk to you alone.  Could you walk out with me a ways?”

Ben’s brow furrowed, but he immediately stood and handed Inger his cup.  Putting an arm around Jonathan’s shoulder, Ben walked beside him past the ring of wagons to a secluded spot where two boulders sat side by side.  Ben sat down on one and motioned Jonathan toward the other.  “This far enough?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Payne said tautly.  “I’m sorry, but this needs to be private.”

“Sure,” Ben said, intent brown eyes trying to read his friend’s problem in his face.  “Sometimes, men need to talk alone.”

Jonathan smiled weakly.  “It’s not Inger I was trying to get away from.”

“Who, then?” Ben asked, his expression clearly puzzled.

“Larrimore,” Payne said bluntly.  “Some of us have been talking, Ben, about these constant delays Larrimore and his wife have been causing.”

“Oh, yeah,” Ben sighed.  “I know it’s a problem, but what can we do?”

“What we need is a new captain,” Jonathan said bluntly, “one who has the courage of his convictions and the willingness to act on them.”

Ben chuckled.  “And have you decided what paragon of virtue fits that description?”

“We have,” Jonathan announced.  “We’d be more than satisfied to make Lieutenant Benjamin Cartwright captain of this train.”

Ben stood up quickly.  “You’re not serious,” he said, shocked.

“Who else, Ben?” Payne asked.  “You’ve demonstrated good sense time and again on this trek.  We believe you’re the man for the job.”

Ben started to pace nervously.  “You keep saying ‘we.’  We, who?”

“McTavish, Thomas and me,” Jonathan said, “and the Zuebner boy feels the same, even if his mother won’t let him speak out.”

“Wentworth?”

“He doesn’t want to get involved,” Jonathan admitted.  “Says he’s minister to you both and can’t afford to take sides.”

Ben’s big head swung from one side to the other.  “I—I can’t, Jonathan.”

“But, Ben—”

“No,” Ben said firmly.  “I can’t do it.  I agree we have a problem, but I can’t give the back of my hand to a man who’s shown me nothing but kindness and generosity.  Don’t ask it of me, my friend.”

“Ben, don’t you understand?” Payne persisted.  “It’s our lives we’re staking.  It’s September twenty-sixth, for the love of mercy.  We should have reached Sacramento by this time, and if the snows come early—”

“I know, I know,” Ben interrupted.  “We have a problem, but this isn’t the way to solve it.  Think, Jonathan, of how many hardships we’ve been spared because of Lawrence’s experience.”

Jonathan spread his hands in a gesture that was at once conciliatory and pleading.  “I agree his leadership hasn’t been all bad, but he has this one fatal flaw:  he can’t control his own wife!”

Ben closed his eyes.  It was true; he knew it was true, but he couldn’t accept the solution Payne suggested.  “I won’t be a party to stripping Lawrence of his captaincy,” he said firmly.  “I’d be obliged if you communicated that to the others.”

Jonathan noted the unyielding set of Ben’s jaw, the inflexible straightness of his spine.  “Are you sure, Ben?” he asked quietly, knowing the answer before he spoke.

“I’m sure,” Ben said.  “Even if I were to take over, I couldn’t interfere between a man and his wife.  You know that, Jonathan.”

“You could speak to him,” Payne said, “make him see sense.”

Ben smiled.  “It’s not sense he lacks.”

“You’re right; it’s backbone,” Jonathan muttered.

“Jon,” Ben chided softly.

Payne held up a restraining hand.  “All right, Ben, but something’s got to be said.  Will you talk to the man?”

Ben grimaced.  “Oh, I don’t know.  That’s touchy territory you’re asking me to enter.”

Jonathan looked his friend directly in the eye.  “You’re not lacking in backbone yourself, are you, Ben?”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “Are you?” he asked stiffly.  “Why can’t you do your own talking, Payne?”

“You’re second in command,” Jonathan said, ignoring Ben’s sudden switch to his more formal patronymic.  “Besides, Larrimore’s more likely to listen to you.”

“I’m not sure I agree with that,” Ben scoffed.

“Will you talk to him?” Jonathan pressed.

Ben stared heavenward, as if requesting guidance.  “I’ll think about it,” he said.  Seeing he’d get no more definitive response, Jonathan thanked Ben for his time and made his way back to camp.  Ben pulled up some extra greasewood to give him time to compose his face and returned to his own campfire.

Inger looked up from dredging Adam’s newly caught trout in cornmeal.  “Is something wrong?” she asked anxiously.

“Later,” Ben muttered, jerking his head toward Adam, who was reading his primer next to wagon.  Understanding, Inger nodded and continued to prepare supper.

Late that night, after Adam and Hoss were asleep, Ben told Inger what Jonathan had proposed.  “I’m proud of the men’s confidence in me,” he said, “but I just couldn’t accept, Inger.”

“Of course, you could not,” Inger said, stroking his cheek.  “It vould have been wrong.”

“Are you sure?” Ben asked quietly.  “Payne has a point.  We are racing a deadline, and if we miss it because I didn’t have the backbone to take over—”

Inger sat up abruptly.  “It is not a question of courage, but of right and wrong.  What our friends ask is wrong, Ben.”

“You’re sure?” Ben questioned again, his voice barely a whisper.

“I am sure,” Inger said firmly.

“What about talking to Lawrence?” Ben continued.

“About Camilla?”

Ben nodded.

“Oh, I don’t know, Ben,” Inger sighed.  “I think Lawrence already knows anything you could tell him.”

“Except how disgruntled the others are,” Ben pointed out.

“You can hardly tell him that!” Inger exclaimed.  Seeing Adam stir restlessly in his sleep, she lowered her voice.  “If you tell him that, the damage is done, Ben,” she said.  “You might as vell take his position then, for he could not do the job once he knew.”

“You’re right,” Ben whispered wearily.  “Maybe the land levels out further on.  I could ask about that, I guess.”

“Yah,” Inger said softly and lay down again in Ben’s arms.  Like Ben, she knew the answer to that question was meaningless.  No matter how level the land became, sooner or later they’d have to face the Sierra Nevadas, and from the moment they began that ascent every ounce of excess weight could jeopardize their chances of survival.  Still, they had wrestled long enough with the problem for one night.  Tomorrow would be another strenuous day; they needed rest if they were to face the new challenges it would bring.

The sweltering heat seemed the greatest obstacle to be overcome as the train moved forward on Friday.  The land did level out a little and the wagons made better time.  That morning they moved through the northern edge of an area known as Thousand Springs, the three-acre expanse taking its name from the numerous springs——some hot, some cold——that dotted the terrain.

The guidebooks said you could boil an egg in the hotter pools of alkaline water.  Only the Larrimores and Paynes, however, had started out with chickens and the Paynes’ were all dead now.  The Larrimores still had three scrawny hens left, but after the long months on the trail they produced so few eggs, they scarcely seemed worth their feed.  Camilla had saved back two eggs, though, for the children to boil.  The other youngsters crowded around, eyeing the eggs hungrily, but none ill-mannered enough to ask for a taste.  They contented themselves with watching the process and felt rewarded just seeing an egg boil without benefit of fire.

As reported, the waters were hot enough to cook the eggs solid.  When he was sure they were done, Sterling took both and plunged them into one of the cooler springs so he and his sister could peel and eat them.  Jewel shared her egg with her friend Mary, but Sterling ate his with a smirk on his face that even his closest companions found hard to take.

Boiling the eggs didn’t delay the train, for the wagons continued to move, and the youngsters caught up as they had when they visited the City of Rocks.  At the western end of the trail that passed through the cluster of springs the travelers saw for the first time a small stream edged with blue grass and willows.  It was a climactic moment in their journey west; for these were the headwaters of the Humboldt River, the waterway that would be their lifeline and their guide through the arid country of the Great Basin.  They would follow it for the next three hundred miles until it simply died in the sand and they faced the greatest challenge of all.

Step by step, the emigrants plodded through deep sand, pushing themselves and their animals.  By the time they made camp Friday they had covered eighteen miles, and Saturday’s progress was even better.  The dissatisfied grumbling faded away, and Ben took heart.  Perhaps, if they continued to put this kind of mileage behind them each day, they could make up for the delays they had experienced and those that might lie ahead.  He stopped debating whether he should speak to Lawrence and began to hope there would be no need.

Rest, however, the travelers did need.  Having driven twelve days now without a break, the last two long and hard, rest was essential; and since they were camped near a cold spring, the vote to lay over for the Sabbath was unanimous.

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

 “Ooh, you’re getting to be a big boy,” Ben cooed to his younger son as he gave him a parting squeeze after breakfast Monday morning and handed him back to his mother.  “I don’t think you’ll be able to carry him on your back much longer, Inger.”

Inger kissed the baby and smiled up at Ben.  “What else can I do?  At two months, he can scarcely valk by himself.”  Hoss squirmed in her arms, and Inger laughed.  “But if you keep that up, Mama vill drop you, you heavy thing.”

“He’s just eager to hit the trail, aren’t you, Hoss?” Adam grinned, reaching up to wiggle his brother’s fat little foot.  The baby rewarded him with a gurgle that sounded almost like a laugh to Adam.

“I’m glad one of us is,” Ben commented wryly.  “I, for one, have seen all of the HumboldtValley I care to.”

“Best get hitched up, then, so ve can leave it,” Inger giggled.

“Yeah!” Ben chortled.  “If I hurry, it shouldn’t take more than three or four weeks.”

Inger rolled her eyes.  “Then, by all means, Ben, do not dawdle.”

Ben didn’t really need the admonishment.  The Humboldt, with its strong alkaline waters, encouraged no one to tarry; and considering the date on the calendar, perhaps that was well.  Feeling the constraint of time, the Larrimore train moved steadily along the river’s serpentine path.  Around 9 a.m. the trail divided.  On Larrimore’s advice, his party took the left fork.  “The other way’s seven miles longer and a lot rockier,” Lawrence told them.

At noon they stopped near Humboldt Springs, grateful that the water they found to the left of the road was somewhat better than what they could draw from the river itself.  After lunch the wagons continued over rolling ground——sometimes near the river, sometimes not——until they came to a valley with a good supply of coarse grass and decent water.  Regardless of their desire to press on, the emigrants had to stop for the night.  It would take them three hours to reach the next reliable supply of acceptable water, and the sun was already dropping on the western horizon.

Tuesday’s journey looked much like that of the day before:  at times the trail ran close to the river; at others it headed directly over intervening bluffs, only to return to the river once again.  Where they walked, however, made little difference to the emigrants.  Wherever they were, the same sand sifted into their shoes, the same dust blanketed their faces until they all looked like highwaymen wearing masks of dirt.

The waters of the Humboldt worked well enough for washing.  In fact, Clyde Thomas joked that you didn’t even need to apply soap.  “The lye in the water’s strong enough to scour you clean all by itself,” he cackled, but Nelly slapped a bar of soap in his hand anyway.

Unfortunately, the water was more fit for washing gritty bodies than for quenching thirsty tongues.  Coffee helped disguise the bitter taste, so even the children started to drink that instead of water.  Adam had been excited about his first taste of the grownup beverage, but soon decided the grownups were welcome to it.

Ben laughed when his son expressed that opinion.  “You’re not getting a fair introduction, Adam,” he said.  “The Humboldt makes mighty poor coffee.”

Half past nine Wednesday morning the train prepared to ford the Humboldt for the first of four times, according to the guidebooks.  Larrimore had told his party that the river rarely ran deep, but as the others looked at the crossing, they began to question his memory.  “It’s deeper than last year,” Lawrence admitted.  “There must have been more rain here than usual this season.”

“Oh, dear,” Camilla moaned.  “You promised me the Humboldt would have nothing but shallow fords, Lawrence.”

Lawrence put his arm around her, speaking more for her benefit than that of the emigrants to whom he directed his words.  “I still believe we can ford across without problem; and if there really has been more rain than usual, there’ll probably be more grass.”

“That will be good for our teams,” Stefán asserted.

“Right you are, son,” Larrimore agreed enthusiastically.  “The water may be less alkaline, too, from the rains.  The other men nodded.  Better water and better forage would definitely be advantages; they’d gladly put up with slightly deeper river crossings in exchange for those benefits.  Most couldn’t help thinking, however, that if what they’d tasted so far represented less alkaline water, they wouldn’t want to drink from the Humboldt in a dry year.

The river was running about three and a half feet deep, so the wagon boxes did get damp.  No one, though, felt the situation warranted taking time to raise them as they had earlier.  Let their goods get a little wet; it was better than losing time this late in the year.  Anyway, the river wasn’t wide here, so the wagons shouldn’t take in too much water.

The travelers had learned their lesson well at earlier crossings:  they took none for granted, however effortless they appeared.  This one, though, proved to be just as it seemed; and the wagons rumbled through the stream with time enough to put a few more miles behind them before they stopped for lunch.  By the time the wagons stopped again that evening, they had covered fifteen miles, which, taking a river crossing into consideration, seemed satisfactory.

The emigrants reached the next ford the following day about eleven and decided to take their noon break before crossing.  “Two down and two to go,” Adam chirped as he munched his second piece of cornbread.

“Well, not exactly,” his father said.

“Four minus two is two, Pa,” the mathematically inclined boy insisted.

“I know, Adam,” Ben said, “but I’m not sure the folks who wrote this guidebook are as good with figures as you.”

“What do you mean, Ben?” Inger asked, lifting Hoss to her shoulder and rocking him back and forth to soothe him to sleep.

“Well, it’s confusing,” Ben admitted.  “We crossed the first ford yesterday, and the one after this is called the third in the book, so this has to be the second, but it’s not exactly the Humboldt we’re crossing here.”  Ben pointed north.  “You see, this stream comes down the valley and flows into the Humboldt down that way.”  He pointed the opposite direction.

“So, what does the book call this?”

Ben opened the book and flipped through its pages.  “North fork of the Humboldt,” he read.

“So, it’s still part of the Humboldt, right, Pa?” Adam asked.

Ben shook his head.  “I guess so, but here,” he added, pointing to a line on the printed page, “it describes the fourth ford and then on the next page it has one called Gravely Ford.  That’s on the Humboldt, too.”

“So, there’s five?” Adam asked, his face wrinkling with bewilderment.

“Looks like it to me,” Ben said, “though I couldn’t say whether this one is the extra or that gravely one.”

“Does it matter?” Inger asked.

“Probably does to Camilla,” Ben said waggishly.

Inger gave his hand a light slap.  “Behave yourself,” she whispered.

By whatever name, this ford of the river posed no problems.  The waters weren’t quite as deep, and Lawrence promised they would continue to diminish.  “All the rivers in the Great Basin dwindle down the further they get from their source,” he explained.

That seemed evident.  The depth here was no more than three feet, and the waters rippled only slightly in the gentle breeze.  The wagons easily maneuvered the thirty-six-foot width, and their boxes weren’t even dampened.  Almost immediately after leaving the river, the road climbed over a high bluff to avoid the narrow river canyon, but it soon returned to bottomland again.  The pattern repeated itself three times within the next five miles.

Rolling near the river after the third ascent to the bluffs, the Larrimore train pulled to a stop behind another party of emigrants.  Lawrence and Ben went forward to see if there were trouble, for a wagon train stopped at mid-afternoon always raised questions.  They found the other emigrants busily butchering some of their oxen.

Seeing the broken arrows lying near one of the carcasses, Ben paled.  “Indians?” he asked anxiously, in his concern forgetting to let Lawrence, as captain, take the lead.

“Consarned Diggers!” the other traveler snarled.  “Been sniping at us since noon.  Finally hit a couple of oxen.  I’ll be blamed if I’ll see them get the use of the beef, though.”

“Any people hurt?” Lawrence queried.

“Naw, it’s food they’re after,” the man said, wiping his butcher knife on his pants leg.  “If you folks got any loose stock, better pull ‘em up close.”

“We will,” Lawrence said.  “Any objection to our train passing you?”

“None at all, mister.”  The man gave a rough laugh.  “Matter of fact, I’d just as soon them Diggers had some fresh targets out front.”

Ben and Lawrence each made an obligatory smile at the man’s joke, nodded in farewell and headed back to their own wagons.  “I didn’t like the sound of that,” Ben said.  “Did you have any trouble with Indians last year, Lawrence?”

“No, but I heard some of the stragglers on the trail did,” Larrimore admitted.  “I’m afraid this year we fall in that category.”

“Yeah,” Ben muttered.  One more reason to rue their late departure and the irritating delays, as if they’d needed another.

The other men gathered around when their two leaders returned and listened to the grim report.  “I’ll have Enos close up with the loose stock,” Larrimore said.

“You think they’ll attack?” Wentworth asked.  “Should we circle the wagons?”

Lawrence shook his head.  “These Indians don’t work that way, from what I’ve been told.  They won’t make a full scale attack; but if they get a chance to shoot an animal, they will, hoping we’ll leave the crippled beast behind to provide their supper.  We’ll do it, too; those folks ahead are fools to waste time salvaging the meat.”

“You tell them that?” McTavish snorted.

Lawrence shook his head.  “No point.  They’re too far into the job, but we won’t make the same mistake.”

“You think we’ll be attacked, then?” Stefán asked, his fair face paling a shade lighter.

Ben put his arm around the boy’s slender shoulders.  “We’ll hope for the best, but prepare for the worst, son.  I’m sure that’s what our captain means.”

“That’s right,” Lawrence said.  “Now, let’s get these wagons rolling, men.  The Indians may have scattered, but I think it best we leave this vicinity.”

“And hope they ain’t waitin’ ahead,” Clyde muttered.

In grim silence the men returned to their wagons and reported the incident to their wives.  “You stay close to the wagon, Adam,” Ben ordered.  “No more ranging out to explore the countryside.”

Adam’s black eyes grew big with awe, for he’d never heard his father speak so seriously before about the danger of Indian attack.  “Yes, sir,” he promised.  “I’ll stay close.”  Ben smiled and smoothed the boy’s straight, dark hair.  He knew he could trust Adam to keep his word; he was that kind of boy.

Though the men kept watchful eyes on the land around them, they saw no Indians that afternoon; nor, as they approached the third ford of the Humboldt, had they seen any sign of trouble on Friday.  The water level had dropped another half-foot; so, like the other crossings, this one was easy.  Even Camilla Larrimore seemed to be taking them in stride now.

When the travelers made camp on the far shore, Ben watered the stock and let them forage for grass before penning them in the corral of wagons for the night.  Not wanting Adam to leave that protective circle, Ben then drew water for cooking and cleaning.  He had just returned from the river when Billy Thomas came screaming toward the wagons, his hands clutching the drawers he’d evidently just dropped to relieve himself.  “Injuns!” the boy hollered as he stumbled toward camp.

Ben dropped the bucket and ran to the wagon for his rifle.  Similar clatters echoed around the camp as other men dropped whatever was in their hands and grabbed their weapons.  “Get down by the wheel, Inger!” Ben shouted.  Inger snatched Hoss from his blanket and cowered behind the scant cover of the wagon wheel.

As the men raked their eyes across the sage-dappled sand in search of assaulting savages, the sudden silence was broken by loud, continued laughter.  Turning, Ben saw the red-headed Thomas boy rolling in the dust near the center of the encampment.  Ben lowered his rifle.  “That scamp!” he sputtered.

Inger gasped.  “Oh, Ben!  There are no Indians?”

“Don’t think so,” Ben said tersely.  “There’s one fire-colored scalp I wouldn’t mind handing them right now, though.”

Inger stood up, still trembling.  “He’s yoost a boy, Ben; he meant no harm.”

Ben couldn’t see Billy’s antic quite that generously; nor, clearly, could Clyde.  As soon as he realized the hoax his boy had pulled, he stomped over and jerked Billy up by one arm.  “It’s all right, folks,” Clyde called.  “False alarm, but I’m about to turn this young imp into a redskin—leastwise, his bottom parts!”

Removing his belt, Clyde dragged a suddenly contrite Billy behind their wagon.  The intermittent yelps that drifted back to the camp were sweet music to adult ears, for none of the grownups found Billy’s joke a laughing matter.  It could too easily have been the truth.  Clyde finally emerged and headed for Ben’s wagon.  “Sorry about the scare, folks,” he said.  “I don’t know what gets into that boy.”

Ben nodded his acceptance of the apology.  “We should have known better,” he said.  “From all we’ve been told, we should have known not to expect an all-out attack.  The Diggers are more given to arrows out of nowhere.”

“Yeah, but I ain’t trustin’ my life to what we been told,” Clyde said.  “We just might run into some injuns what ain’t heard the same tales.”

Ben gave a short laugh.  “True enough.  Better safe than sorry.”

“Amen to that!” Clyde said.  “Well, I’d best get on around the camp and make amends.”

As Clyde left, Inger giggled and Ben raised a questioning eyebrow in her direction.  “That Billy!” she tittered.  “Who else vould have thought to keep his pants down like that to make the story look more real?”

Ben laughed.  “He’s inventive, all right.”  He wagged a finger under Adam’s nose.  “Don’t you go taking after any of his ornery ways, boy.”

“I won’t, Pa,” Adam grumbled, offended that his father even thought him capable of such devilment.  The mood lifted a moment later, though, replaced by curiosity.  “Pa, why do they call these Indians Diggers?” Adam asked.  “I never heard of that tribe before.”

“That’s not their tribal name, Adam,” Ben explained, “although I don’t what is.  That’s just what the white men call them because they get most of their food by digging in the ground——roots, grubs, whatever they can find.”

“Ugh!” Adam declared.  “I sure wouldn’t want to be a Digger.”

“How sad!” Inger sighed.  “They surely can’t feed very vell on such things.  No vonder they shoot the oxen.”

Ben gave her a quick embrace.  “Inger, my love, only you would worry about the Indians’ food supply while they’re trying to steal your only means out of this infernal basin.”

“But they must be starving, Ben,” Inger said.  “Perhaps, if ve offered them some food—”

“No!” Ben said sharply.  “Get it out of your head, Inger.  There’s no safe way to make the offer.”

Inger nodded, her eyes pained.  “I suppose not, but I hate to think of anyone going hungry.”

Ben kissed her cheek.  “My tender-hearted little wife,” he whispered.  “You always did want to mother the whole world.”

By 9 a.m. Saturday the wagons had to ford the Humboldt once again.  The water here was two feet deep and readily forded, so the train rolled on with little loss of time.  Along this stretch of trail the mountains sometimes crowded so close to the river that there was barely room for the wagons to pass between them and the Humboldt.  The wagons rumbled over ridges and through small creeks, finally stopping near an especially cold one for their noon break.

Having driven later than usual, the emigrants had few hours of daylight left, but they had managed to cover six more miles when those in the lead began to hear cries for help from the rear of the train.  Grabbing rifles, the men ran back, firing in vain at the dark-skinned natives disappearing over the last ridge the wagons had crossed.  Leaving Jonathan and Clyde to keep watch, the others went back to assess the damage.

McTavish and Wentworth were already at work taking their wounded oxen from the yoke.  Each had lost one.  “Must we leave it behind?” Wentworth asked.  “I don’t have extras.  If there’s a chance this one could recover—”

“Tie it to the back of your wagon,” Lawren