Authors: Gary Schanbacher
A squall blew up at sunset. Winds carried a drenching rain, slanted and malevolent, as if seeking out every dry space, every comfortable nook. Campfires extinguished, paths mired, blankets soggy. They scrambled for cover under the canvas, under the wagons themselves. The rain sought them out and saturated them. Wet and chilled, they passed the night. Thompson crouched by his cold fire, the charred remains not even smoldering, stone cold. A flashing in the west, thunder. He nodded off sometime during the darkest watch.
Martha was dead by morning.
Thompson heard keening from the Lights' wagon at daybreak, and Captain Upperdine came to him shortly thereafter. “It's the diphtheria, I think,” he told Thompson. “Comes on fast, can take the little ones hardly before you know it.”
“Others?” Thompson asked, thickly. The word stuck in his throat. A glutinous, ugly sound. He feared the reply. The air heavy with mist, a veiled world. Where was he?
“None that I know of. The older boy, Joseph, shows no symptoms. A few others was around their camp yesterday. I will check on their condition, but I believe them to be spared. Thus far. But we should not tarry.”
Thompson registered the salmon smudge on the eastern horizon. He focused on that thin line of color beneath a bruised sky. Concentrated on the far distance while hearing himself speak. “I'll see about a spade, maybe a place on the rise over there?” He vaguely pointed to the crest of a small hill.
“Not too close to the river,” Upperdine advised. “And afterwards, make sure the men tamp it firm. River rocks, perhaps. Keep it from the prairie wolves.”
That morning, Thompson and Ned went to high ground, to a level spot that had a nice view of the creek, and dug the hole. As he labored, Thompson found himself in Deep Woods, Indiana, digging beneath the persimmon tree, full summer now, the oval leaves providing shade from the high sun, the fruit just beginning to set. He looked down the hill toward his cabin, hoping to catch sight of Rachel hanging wash, but instead saw only the charred remains of his home, the chimney stones still in place, rising from the blackened heap. Of course, he thought, and he could imagine it perfectly. After he'd been gone a week, a committee from town, the pastor, the merchant Henderson, and Constable Fletcher went to the farm. They found the dried-off milk cow in the pasture but never did locate the horse they knew he owned. They sopped grain from the bin and fed the hogs, and untethered the mule from the lean-to, and between them determined a schedule to look after the livestock. After Thompson had been gone a month, they voted to keep the mule and the plow as community property, to divide the hand tools and the chickens, and to draw lots for the hogs. From outside, they covetously inventoried the farm house interior, the furniture and tableware, but none dared enter. Caution outweighed cupidity. Instead, they burned it. Burned it to white ash and black cinders in hopes the perdition that inhabited the rooms might leave them in peace.
“They burned it,” he said aloud.
“Come again?” Ned asked.
Thompson, returned to Kansas Territory, shook his head. “Nothing,” he said, and resumed digging.
Shortly, Ned set aside his shovel and went in search of a tree and felled a middling cottonwood, which he hauled back to camp with a borrowed mule. He cut a four-foot length, hewed out the core to form a coffin, and used his saw and adze to cut and shape rough planks for the lid. Some in the company debated the wisdom of keeping the girl and her disease above ground until the coffin could be finished, but Ned would not be dissuaded. “No, sir, this here girl to be seen off right. Need a coffin to cross over in.” While he worked, Obadiah hacked limbs from the tree and with rawhide lashings pieced together a cross upon which he carved his girl's name.
Hanna would not be consoled. She sat by the fire, silent, staring into the embers until Thompson came with Obadiah to collect her for the service. She went with them silently, wrapped in a cloak Obadiah brought from the wagon. Even though the skies had cleared and the sun was throwing down heat, she shivered. After that first pre-dawn wailing, she had not spoken, neither at the grave nor after Captain Upperdine read a few verses from the Book nor as the men filled the hole that held her child. She did not speak but neither did she allow Obadiah to lead her from the grave. She would not be comforted and she would not be moved. She sat by the grave through the day.
aptain Upperdine decided to lay over an additional day even though the stream had receded to fording level. Early the following morning, storm clouds again building in the west, he could wait no longer. Hanna Light had stayed the night on the hill beside a fire Obadiah built for her and she showed no sign of giving up her post.
Thompson was helping Upperdine hitch the wagon when Obadiah approached from the hill.
“We must strike camp,” Upperdine explained to Obadiah. “The weather threatens to strand us and we cannot afford another indefinite delay.”
“I understand, of course,” Obadiah said. “We'll catch up as soon as we can. Sometimes it's hard for a person to let go.”
Upperdine gathered the wagons and directed the ford without incident and as the company reconvened on the western shore and assembled for departure, Thompson approached Upperdine.
“I'll be staying with the Lights until Hanna can see fit to be done with it,” he said.
“I don't like being short another man,” Upperdine said, “but I'd guessed your intentions.”
“It's what a neighbor does.”
“I'll not attempt to turn your mind.”
“I'll push them hard as soon as they are ready to travel until we overtake the company.”
Upperdine went into his saddle bag and retrieved a six-barreled Allen pistol. “I believe Obadiah carries only a fowling piece with him. Take this.”
Thompson took the blocky pistol and a bag of caps and shot. The gun felt awkward in his hand, unbalanced. He held it at arm's length and appraised it with disapproval.
“It is an unsightly piece, and inaccurate at any distance,” Upperdine said. “But it will do in close quarters, and may discourage someone from evil intentions.”
The Captain stood his horse and took leave. The collection of wagons passed from view and the prairie grew still. Without dust rising above the trail to betray their proximity, once the creaking of the wheels and the clanging of the gear died away, the vast and empty expanse seemed to Thompson at once both utterly lonesome and intimidating. Although dark clouds rose in the west, the breeze did not pick up. Rain and wind held off and throughout the afternoon only the whirling of the grasshoppers and the occasional caw from a crow interrupted the silence. Obadiah and Hanna kept watch over the grave. Thompson and Ned minded the animals and Thompson cooked for them, a pot of beans and rice. They ate little and conversed less and evening fell solemnly on the camp. Joseph kept off to himself most of the day. Toward evening, Thompson carried food to Obadiah and Hanna but did not sit with them. He stood apart on the hill and looked out over the still plains until night closed in around him and he returned to the wagon. Ned busied himself with his tools, sharpening, oiling. The silhouettes of Obadiah and Hanna faded into the night and without speaking Thompson and Ned and Joseph rolled themselves into their blankets and rested with their private thoughts.
Next morning, Obadiah came down the hill to sit with Thompson and drink a cup of coffee.
“She cried last night,” Obadiah said. “A weeping so deep I was brought low. Brought down as low as a believing man might be expected to fall.”
“It's hard,” said Thompson.
“I fear that some sin of the father has been visited upon the child.”
“I've wondered the same before.”
“She blames herself. And me, perhaps, for bringing us out here.”
“Perhaps,” Thompson said.
“I came to tell you, though, that she is ready to let go. I don't know if from weariness or resignation, or from the tears, but she allowed so to me.”
Thompson stood and nudged a smoldering stick deeper into the embers of the fire with the toe of his boot.
“At daybreak, I saw some antelope down creek, watering. I'll see about getting us some fresh meat for the trail. Maybe ford the creek midday. Put this place out of sight before camping.”
Thompson took up his rifle and set out across the creek, now shallow running and slow, so different from a few days earlier, and up a low bluff on the far side. From the crest, on his belly in the tall grass, he caught sight of the small antelope herd, fourteen he counted, grazing below. Perhaps a half-mile distant. He kept low in the grass and moved toward them in a duck-step. As he approached, an antelope raised its head from the grass and looked in Thompson's direction. Thompson waited motionless for several minutes until the animal returned to grazing, and then he inched forward. For an hour he crept in this manner. Finally he approached within rifle shot of the near animals. Back and knee joints stiff, he eased into a kneeling position, gun just even with the top of the grass, and sighted down his barrel and cocked the hammer. An antelope's flank twitched and its ears pricked but it did not bolt. Just as his finger cupped the trigger, the herd was spooked by a sharp popping sound, then another and a third, like firecrackers in the distance, and they bounded away.
Thompson lowered the hammer and watched the herd disappear into the grass. Then it registered. Gunfire. He took off at full sprint back toward camp. He almost fell splashing across the creek, and bloodied a hand on an exposed root while stumbling up the bank. He crested the rise leading down into camp and pulled up short at what he saw below him. A man's body lay prone on the ground beside the oxen. Another off to the side of the wagon. Three men were horseback. One held a rope that had been wrapped around the pommel of his saddle. At the end of the rope Joseph had been tied and had fallen and the man was dragging him in the dirt. As Thompson watched, the boy's head struck the wagon's rear wheel and the man continued to drag him. A fourth man had dismounted and stood hunched over Hanna Light, whom he'd bent face-down over the traveling trunk they had pulled from the wagon.
Some unrecognizable and horrible animal sound came from Thompson and he charged down the hill. One of the men on horseback raised his rifle as Thompson dropped into a buffalo wallow. Thompson saw a puff of smoke from the barrel and a shot buzzed past his ear, a sound like an angry insect. He propped his elbows against the lip of the wallow and aimed for the man reloading his rifle and fired before it even registered with him what it was he was aiming at. The hammer plinked against the nipple without discharging his load. He'd lost the percussion cap during his scramble. He pulled another cap from his pouch and jammed it onto the nipple and raised the rifle as the man in the distance fired again. Grit flew up into Thompson's eyes just as he pulled his trigger, and his own rifle resounded in answer to the stranger's muffled report. For a second, Thompson could not see. He set aside his rifle and rubbed at his eyes and through a teary film, he frantically struggled to reload. He glanced up expecting another round to come at him, but the man just sat motionless, staring in Thompson's direction as if trying to locate him hidden in the wallow. Then he let fall his weapon and rolled backward from his horse onto the ground.
The others in camp had stopped to watch the exchange of fire and now the one who had been assaulting Hanna mounted his horse and the remaining three set off at full gallop toward Thompson. They were wielding pistols, and their shots missed wildly, kicking up dust far from the mark. When they had advanced to within sixty yards of him, they seemed to a man to notice that Thompson's rifle had leveled on them and they lost resolve and all three wheeled their horses away from him and made for the creek. Thompson sighted his rifle on the back of the man who had been dragging the boy. A length of rope still flapped from the pommel where he had cut it free to take up the chase for Thompson. Thompson shot, and the man slumped forward and clutched his horse's neck but did not fall and the three riders splashed across the creek and up the far bank and down away from view.
Thompson reloaded and waited for a renewed assault, but after just a moment he climbed from the wallow and ran down into the camp. He approached the man he'd dropped from the horse cautiously, with his rifle at ready. The man was dead, eyes glazed and staring at the sun. Thompson had caught him just above the collarbone and the ball had blown away his throat. Blood flowed from the wound and pooled in the dust, and Thompson wondered at the amount a body held. He'd never shot a man before and although he viewed these riders as less than human, still he paused by the corpse, unable to look away. Just for a bit. Then he went to the wagon. Obadiah lay dead, shot through the forehead. The Allen pistol by his hand. Thompson bent and closed Obadiah's eyes. He passed by Ned lying alongside the wagon. He had been shot in both knees and was battered so badly about the face that he was unrecognizable except by the color of his skin. His adze was imbedded into the top of his skull as if someone had stood over him and used his head as a chopping block. He turned to Hanna. She had crawled to Joseph and held his head cradled in her lap. Blood trickled down her exposed thighs. He noted the faintest rise and fall of Joseph's chest. He watched for several seconds and the breathing held, shallow but steady. He ran to the water barrel but they had taken an ax to it, so he continued to the creek and filled a pail. He thought he heard a horse snigger and froze there for a minute, but heard nothing more so he returned to camp. He wet a cloth and cleaned Hanna's face and took Joseph from her and laid him in the bed of the wagon and placed the wet cloth across his forehead. To what purpose, he had no clue. He went to Hanna. She had wrapped her arms around her swollen belly and now moaned low and rocked forward and back, forward and back. She did not acknowledge Thompson's presence when he smoothed her dress over her legs or when he asked her where it hurt and what he could do. He wondered if the baby in her womb yet thrived. He knelt beside her and talked softly.