Elizabeth squirmed in her seat earning a stern look from the headmistress. Only one more day until her family joined the wagon train to head west. She twirled her rope-like braid around her arm. She turned around to peek at her best friend Rebecca, her family were headed west also, but not for six more months. “Ouch,” she yelped loudly, as she felt the sharp pain on her knuckles. She looked up to see the headmistress, Miss Thomas, standing over her with a punishing ruler. “Sorry, ma’am,” she whispered repentantly. She heard the church bell ring twelve times and hurried out of her seat with the rest of her classmates.
“Rebecca,” she cried, as she ran up to her friend, “I thought class would never end. I am glad all this will be over soon and we will soon be on our own time.”
“Me too,” said Rebecca, “You’re lucky you’re leaving tomorrow. I wish we were going with you.”
Tears flooded Elizabeth’s eyes as she put her arms around her friend and gave her a tight squeeze. “The only thing that makes it bearable is the fact you will be joining us. That, and the fact that Ben’s family is joining the train,” she sighed as they both turned to stare at the tallest boy in their class whom they both wanted to marry.
“Another reason you’re lucky,” Rebecca lamented.
“I’ve got to get home,” said Elizabeth. Mother is waiting for me to pick four dresses to pack. I have to give the rest to cousin Violet,” she explained.
“See you tonight at the church,” yelled Rebecca after Elizabeth as she lifted up her skirts and ran home.
Elizabeth looked through the big chest slowly, she held up frock after frock. Her grandmother had spared no money when it came to clothing her granddaughters. She placed the fanciest dresses in a pile and picked four that were her favorites.
“Elizabeth,” called her mother from the other room, “We need to stop by grandmothers before we head to the church.”
“Coming, ma’am,” Elizabeth called. With all the last minute errands to run, time flew by. The church potluck and prayer meeting was an exciting blur in Elizabeth’s mind as she woke before dawn the next morning. Elizabeth and her three younger sisters were to ride in the wagon with mother. Her two older brothers were riding horses with father. Elizabeth climbed up into the back of the wagon with her sisters. Her mother took the reins and gave the horses a telling tap to move. The horses slowly picked up their feet and began to pull the wagon forward on the journey west.
The sun was hot and the air was humid, Elizabeth adjusted her bonnet to shield her face from the sun as she squinted to see through the dust the horses were trampling up in front of her. This area they were traveling through hadn’t seen rain in quite some time, she thought. The reins jerked in her hands pulling her attention forward. She pulled back slightly to let the horses know she was still there. Her mother had moved to the back to quiet the arguments between her sisters. She heard the sound of thundering hooves hammering on the dry ground closing in on the wagon. The horse slowed beside the wagon. Elizabeth blushed as she looked up and recognized Ben’s horse.
“Howdy!”, said Ben, “It sure is hot, I am looking forward to reaching water soon.”
“Me, too,” agreed Elizabeth. They had been on the rutted wagon trail for four days and were looking forward to reaching the river by nightfall. Ben fell silent and rode beside the wagon for a while with Elizabeth sneaking glances at his profile. Ben and she were the only ones beside her brothers that had reached their teen years who were traveling in the wagon train. Elizabeth felt a secret thrill go through her as she thought about it. She was close to the marrying age, especially as they moved further west where she had heard of marriages as young as her age at fifteen.
All of a sudden there was a commotion up ahead and Ben took off at a gallop towards the front of the wagon train.
“Did you bring an extra wheel?”, Elizabeth’s father Jacob was asking Daniel the oldest member of the train.
“I believe I have one buried in the back,” said Daniel with a sigh lifting his hat and running his hands over his bald head. They all proceeded to help unload the tire as Jacob told Ben to tell the others to set up camp here for the night.
The sound of the harmonica permeated the dark night as pots were being cleaned and children put into the wagons for the night. Elizabeth sat by the fire by her brothers and Ben. Ben looked at Elizabeth and then looked away. Back home, she had seemed like a young school girl. Here on the wagon trail, with her bonnet hanging back, her braid loosened and hair flying around her face, he found her quite attractive. She turned to look at him and Ben shifted his eyes quickly.
“Elizabeth,” called her mother. Elizabeth quickly stood up and hurried to the wagon with Ben staring after her.
The night grew fierce as the air crackled with electricity. Heat lightening tore across the sky. A baby wailed as the sounds woke her from her sleep. The baby’s cries soon turned into sounds of a mother comforting her child and then there was the quiet of night again only to be interrupted by yet another thundering bolt of lightning. The horses neighed and stomped their hooves into the dirt, restless, and warning of an impending storm.
Elizabeth awoke to the smell of smoke and confusion. “Girls, out of the wagon, it’s on fire!”, her father voice screamed at them through the smoke as he frantically pulled her and her sisters out of the wagon. Elizabeth shook her head and her eyes opened wide in terror as she watched their belongings and the wagon burning from the lightening that had touched down on the wagon. The lightning and thunder that had caused the fire soon faded away and Elizabeth lifted her face to the sky to feel the rain trickling down her face. The rain was slowing the fire but it had been so dry that it was merely a fight who would win out the fire or the rain. The rain eventually won but it was too late. The wagon was already damaged.
Her father ran over to them as they huddled by a nearby wagon. “Come, Daniel and his wife Irene have offered to let us stay in their wagon.”
Elizabeth ran with her mother and her sisters to Daniel’s wagon to escape the rain. She passed Ben who had been standing outside his wagon and he shouted, “Are you okay?”. She turned and gave him a little wave and ran on.
The next morning dawned bright and sunny. Jacob had accepted Daniel’s offer for his family to ride with them since Jacob was the leader of the wagon train. No sense trying to head back when some of their things in the trunks were salvageable, the wagon was unusable but at least the horses were fine. The wagon train packed up and started forward once again leaving the burnt black ribs of the wagon behind them.
Two weeks passed of the same routine, travel during the day, circling up the wagons by nightfall. The men in the group were extra cautious now. They were traveling through Indian country and this was not a safe part of the trail for pioneers. Soon they would reach the military fort and were looking forward to resting before heading further west. The wagon trail took them through a narrow path with high, scraggy mountains on all sides. They went higher in altitude along the path, as the path grew even narrower, when they felt the first arrow pierce the side of the wagon. Daniel who was guiding his wagon along the trail, jumped up and yelled to the rest of the group behind them, “We’re being attacked!”. He slapped the reins down hard onto the back of the horses causing them to move faster along the treacherous path. The horses went faster, as the trail curved around the mountains. Daniel felt another arrow whiz past his ear and knew it was just a matter of time. The next arrow caught him right in the heart; Daniel slumped over, his body bouncing ruthlessly on the wooden seat as blood started to seep from both sides of his body. “Irene!”, he gurgled and then he was gone.
Jacob filled his rifle and held it steady. He shot a round towards where he had gauged the arrows were coming from up higher on the mountain. He waved for his two sons to do the same, the shots echoed through the mountains, sounding like six shots instead of three. He reloaded and fired again. He saw two horses skidding up the mountains and felt a sigh of relief, only two Indians. He knew they were fighting for land as much as he was trying to find a homestead himself. He couldn’t blame them but he was sickened by their tactics.
Jacob threw his oldest son the reins of his horse and jumped onto Daniel’s wagon to guide the wagon until they reached a safer spot to stop. They set up camp somberly and Jacob and the other men went to work digging Daniel’s grave. The funeral was quiet only interrupted with the muffled sounds of Irene’s sobs. Elizabeth and her mother stood next to Irene with their arms around her. That night, the men took turns guarding the wagon circle, with no one really resting.
Before dawn, the wagon train packed up and left early. Everyone wanted to reach the fort by nightfall. The trail stretched on, this time facing the brutal desert as they felt the heat burning into their skin. Ben pushed his hair back under his hat and felt the sweat pouring down his back. It had to be over 102 degrees today, he thought. He scouted ahead of the wagon train and topped the edge of a hill. He felt relief to see the fort in the valley. He cantered back to tell the others, when he felt the arrow whiz into his left leg. The breath escaped his body as he felt intense heat and pain rip through his body. He looked down and gritted his teeth, then he yelled back to Jacob, “I’ve been hit!”. Jacob and the others started firing and took the wagons full speed down the hill. They hit the fort at full speed and the gates opened for them, closing behind them with a loud thud. Men in uniforms poured around them, and helped Jacob off his horse. Elizabeth hurried out of the wagon and knelt over him. “Oh, Ben!” she cried, “Please be okay, you have to be okay!”. Ben put a hand to her cheek. “Honey, it’s just my leg, we are going to be okay.” Jacob watched the exchange then came forward. “Elizabeth, why don’t you and your mother find Ben a place to stay and we will get the doctor to look at his leg.”
“Yes, Father,” Elizabeth said obediently. She gave Ben’s hand a long squeeze then went off to look for her mother.
“Seems you and my daughter have been getting along mighty fine,” he smiled at Ben to let him know he approved. “This may be something that we handle before we head further west.”
A wide grin spread over Ben’s face as he felt something that overpowered any pain he felt from his leg. “Yes, Sir, that would be mighty fine, mighty fine indeed.”
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