About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Benjamin Hewitt stared. It wasn't possible.
He blinked to clear his vision. If the man struggling with his oxen didn't look like Abigail's father, he didn't know a cow from a chicken. But it couldn't be Mr. Bingham. He would never subject himself and his wife to the trials of this journey. Why Mrs. Bingham would look mighty strange fluttering a lace hankie and expecting someone to serve her tea in a covered wagon.
The man must have given the wrong command because the oxen jerked hard to the right, yanking the wagon after them. The rear wheel broke free and wobbled across the ground, coming to rest against another wagon. The first wagon leaned drunkenly on one corner. A chest toppled out the back, followed by a wooden table. When it hit the ground the legs snapped and flew in four different directions. A woman followed amid a cascade of smaller items, shrieking, her arms flailing. Ben chuckled. She looked like a chicken trying to fly and she landed with a startled squawk on pillows and bedding.
Ben's amusement ended abruptly. He liked the idea of moving West but there had been times he felt as out of control as that woman.
"Mother, are you injured?" A young woman ran toward her mother. Making the comparison sparked by the wagon driver worse, she even sounded just like Abigail. At least as near as he could recall. He'd succeeded in putting that young woman from his mind many years ago.
She glanced about. "Father, are you safe?"
The sun glowed in her blond hair and he knew, though he couldn't see her face, that it was Abigail. What was she doing here? She'd not find a fine, big house nor fancy dishes and certainly no servants on this trip.
The bitterness he'd once felt at being rejected because he couldn't provide those things had dissipated, leaving only regret and caution.
She helped her mother to her feet and dusted her skirts off. All the while, the womanMrs. Bingham, to be surecomplained, her voice grating with displeasure that made Ben's nerves twitch. He knew that sound all too well. Could recall in sharp detail when the woman had told him he was not a suitable suitor for her daughter. Abigail had told him, with the same harsh dismissive tone, she would no longer see him, after a year and eight months of seeing each other regularly and talking of a shared future.
It all seemed so long ago. He'd been a different person six years back. Only twenty years old, he'd considered himself mature and ready to start life with a wife and home of his own. He had been full of trust and optimism.
Thanks to Abigail, he'd learned not to trust everything a woman said. Nor believe how they acted. Maybe he should thank her for that. Except he no longer cared enough to want to engage her in conversation.
Binghams or not, a wheel needed to be put on. Ben joined the men hurrying to assist the unfortunate fellow.
"Hello." He greeted Mr. Bingham and the man shook his hand. "Ladies." He tipped his hat to them.
"Hello, Ben." Abigail Bingham stood at her mother's side. No, not Bingham. She was Abigail Black now.
Ben darted a glance around. Where was Frank Black? No doubt off spouting his opinions to one and all about everything and nothing. Ben never could see why Abigail would marry the man, though he knew well the reasons. Ben's family had lost their money in the Panic of 1837. Frank Black had not.
He turned his attention to getting the wheel in place. Several men groaned as they tried to lift the heavily-laden wagon.
"Over here." Ben waved to get the attention of half a dozen more and they lifted the wagon enough for the wheel to be put on again.
"The bolts need to be good and tight." He'd been elected as one of the nine committeemen and his task was to inspect every wagon in this section of the assembled group to make sure it was ready for the journey.
Mr. Bingham applied a wrench to the bolts. "I thought they were tight."
"Let me." Ben held out his hand and Mr. Bingham gave him the wrench. Ben turned each bolt a half turn. "Surprised to see you headed for Oregon."
"The economy here isn't what it used to be. I hear it's booming in Oregon. The land of opportunity, I'm told."
"Uh-huh." He checked the other wheels. To his right, Abigail and her mother gathered together their scattered belongings.
"Mother, the table is ruined. Leave it behind."
"My own mother gave me that table. What would she think of this?" Mrs. Bingham clutched a splintered leg. "I'm grateful she hasn't lived to see this day." She tossed aside the leg and stared at the wagon. "How can your father expect us to live in this cramped space? This trip will be the death of me."
"Mother, don't say that. Besides, think of the opportunities in Oregon. A new society will need women with high standards to guide it."
Mrs. Bingham sniffed. "That's so I suppose." Her voice rose a degree. "But why must we crowd into one wagon?"
Mrs. Bingham and her daughter had not changed. They still measured every situation as a means to further their place in society.
He thought a person should be measured by their worth. This trip from Independence, Missouri to Oregon would be four to six months long over mostly unmapped territory. It would test all of them. Reveal their worth. Perhaps change many. Or it might destroy people unprepared for the challenges of the trail. People like the Binghams. Checking the wagons was one way Ben could ensure everyone made the trip safely.
He turned to Abigail. "Why don't I look at your wagon next?"
Her mouth dropped open.
Mrs. Bingham's lips pursed tight.
"She's traveling with us." Mr. Bingham spoke softly at Ben's side. "I guess you didn't hear that Frank died six months ago."
Frank dead? She was a widow? The words blared through Ben's head but he couldn't take them in.
"I'm sorry." He managed to get the words out, then hurried to the next wagon. His heart went out to her. He knew what it was like to lose people you were close to.
But apart from that, her situation didn't mean a thing to him.
The noise of the gathered crowd assaulted his eardrums. Tin plates rattled as the women washed dishes. Babies wailed. How were the little ones going to endure the trip? Hopefully the moving wagons would lull them to sleep.
Five excited young fellas were shooting their pistols into the air and shoutingyoung men, thirteen to fifteen likely, on the cusp of adulthood.
"Oregon here we come."
"I'm gonna get me a buffalo."
"I'm gonna fight a bear."
Someone should warn them they should save their bullets for bears and buffalos. But he understood the excitement that almost crazed them.
A child screamed.
"You shot my baby," a woman screeched.
Ben straightened to see a little one in his mother's arms, a dark-haired little boy of about a year, if he didn't miss his guess. Blood stained both their clothes.
Women picked up their skirts and ran toward the pair. Abigail was among the first to reach them and knelt at the woman's side. "Let me see him."
She eased the woman's fingers from her son's side and lifted the little shirt. She glanced toward Ben.
Across the space her gaze found his. "It's just a graze but he needs it tended to." She obviously meant for him to take care of the problem. Did she see him as a man she could order around? He should inform her that he was one of the committeemen and as such, had some authority. He didn't intend to jump at her command.
But her opinion didn't matter because a child was injured and he knew who could help.
Ben grabbed the nearest man. "Go back to the wagon at the corner. Ask for Emma Hewitt. Tell her to bring her medical supplies."
The man took off like a shot.
Ben pushed through the crowd of women to Abigail's side. He spied a clean diaper and grabbed it. "Press this to the wound until my sister arrives."
He looked around for the youths who were responsible.
They saw him and began to slink away.
"Hold up there." He strode toward them.
Forced to face him, all but one of them put on defiant faces. "We ain't done nothin' wrong," one said.
"You could have killed a child and you don't think there's any reason to be apologizing?"
"I'm sorry, mister," said the only repentant one.
"Glad to hear it, though it's not me you should be apologizing to."
The boy took a step toward the bleeding child.
Ben caught his shoulder. "Hold on a minute. What's your name?"
"Jed. Jed Henshaw."
Ben would be remembering Jed. A lad willing to admit his wrongs could prove to be an asset in the months ahead. He held out his hand. "I'll take those firearms before someone else is hurt."
Jed immediately dropped his gun into Ben's hand.
"My pa ain't gonna be very happy with me." He hung his head.
The four others grunted and shuffled their feet but did not offer up their guns. The biggest, loudest, most belligerent of them spoke. "You ain't gonna take my gun."
For answer, Ben reached out and wrenched it from his hand. He reached for the others and they were released grudgingly.
"Here now, what do you think you're doing?" A big man edged between Ben and the boys. "You ain't gonna take my son's gun."
A crowd of men pressed close arguing about whether or not the boys should be allowed to retain their firearms.
"A baby was shot," Ben pointed out, but others said each male old enough to carry a gun should do so in case of some kind of attack. Ben pushed aside the big man crowding him and realized he was every bit as big. The man moved despite his attempt to stay planted. He addressed the boys. "I'd like your names." Only Jed had told Ben his name.
Three gave theirs, but the fourth only scowled.
"You don't need to tell him," the man at Ben's side shouted.
Ben cringed as the noise swelled. "There'll be a meeting of the committeemen at noon. Attend it and make your case. We'll all abide by the ruling as to whether or not you get your guns back."
Jed left the raucous crowd and broke through the cluster of women around the injured baby.
"Ma'am." He addressed the woman holding her baby. "I am truly sorry for behaving so foolishly. I hope your little boy will be okay."
Half the murmurs were accepting, half condemning.
At that moment, Emma rushed up with Rachel at her side. They made their way through the ladies and Emma dropped her bag and knelt to examine the injured child.
"It's only a flesh wound. It needs to be kept clean and covered." She sat back and glanced around. She saw Abigail at her side and gaped.
"Hello, Emma, Rachel." Abigail nodded toward the sisters.
"You're traveling with us?" Rachel asked. She stared at Abby. "Why on earth are you on this wagon train? Doesn't your husband's business keep you in the manner you prefer?"
"My husband is dead." Abigail kept her voice low but even so the women watched and listened curiously. "I am traveling with my parents." She nodded toward them. Her mother sat in a high-backed chair perched on the ground beside their wagon, her back rigid, disapproval written in every line of her face. Mr. Bingham stood at his oxen, looking like he was having second thoughts about this journey.
Emma hid her surprise better, focusing on the injured baby. She leaned back on her heels as if thinking what to do. If it had been a man injured, she might have cleansed the wound with alcohol, but knowing how much it hurt, he understood she was considering other possibilities.
Finally she turned to Rachel. "Would you bring me some warm water and a clean cloth?"
Rachel hurried to the nearest fire where a kettle of water stood and poured a little into a bowl. She glanced about for a cloth.
One of the women reached into her wagon and pulled out a square of pure white. "For the little one yet to come." She patted her stomach.
Rachel hustled the items over to Emma who carefully sponged the area then wrapped a dressing over the wound. "Keep it clean." She would be worried about infection. Emma grasped the mother's hands. "I'd like to pray for the baby. What's his name?"
The baby stuck his thumb in his mouth and clung to his mother.
"His name is Johnny. I'm Sally Littleton. And I thank you." She squeezed Emma's hands. Then they bowed their heads.
The women circling them also bowed their heads and Ben and the men removed their hats.
"Our Father in heaven, thank you for sparing Johnny's life. And grant our deepest desire that he recover from this wound with no ill effects. Amen." Emma opened her eyes and patted little Johnny's back. She straightened.
All this time, Abby sat beside Mrs. Littleton, one arm wrapped about the woman's shoulders, comforting her.
A man rushed up. "I heard my son was shot." He threw his hat on the ground and knelt before his wife. He ran his hands over the baby. "Is he is he?"
Mrs. Littleton pressed her palms to her husband's cheeks. "It was only a flesh wound. Miss Hewitt tended it."
"Thank you. Thank you." He shook hands with everyone around him and introductions were made. "Thank God. Johnny is all we have left. Our other three died of swamp fever last year."
Ben's throat tightened. So many bore the pain of loss yet faced the great adventure full of hopes and dreams. Ben and his sisters, Emma and Rachel, shared the excitement. They'd eagerly sold the ranch and most of their possessions, bought three teams of oxen, outfitted their wagon with enough supplies to carry them across the continent to Oregon where they'd join their brother, Grayson. Grayson had gone out two years ago to escape the memory of his young wife's death in childbirth. He wrote often, urging his siblings to join him and for Ben to consider working at his store. After the death of their father late last year, they made plans to do so. Ben would do his best to see that everyone else on the train made the trip safely, as well.
As he continued inspecting the wagons in the section he'd been assigned, he overheard bits and pieces of conversation.
New beginning. Fresh start. Opportunity. The final word rang throughout most of the conversations. It was the promise that filled them all with hope and determination. For a new beginning almost a thousand people were prepared to face the dangers this journey held.
Soon he was again engulfed by the noise of the camp as he went from wagon to wagon. Men yelled at oxen. Women shouted at children who raced about excitedly. Metal rang on metal as wagon wheels were prepared for the journey. Over it all hung the smell of hundreds of animals.
The poor oxen had to endure inexperienced men ordering them every which way without any real idea of how to direct the animals. Ben had taken the time to instruct both his sisters on how to drive their oxen. He planned to drive most of the time, though being one of the committeemen might necessitate he ride his horse along the wagon train to help convey instructions down the line.
He assessed those he was destined to travel with. An assorted lot to be sure. Many wore the clothes and had the markings of farmers. Others, like Mr. Bingham, appeared to be businessmen hoping for better times. There were small groups traveling together but most of the emigrants were meeting each other for the first time. There'd be plenty of friction as strangers were forced to learn to work together.