My ears hear, my mind comprehends a message my heart denies. Such is the tale of Henry Waters.
We'd just buried my pa. Three days ago our spirits were high; today it was all I could do not to turn the wagon around and head back to Fort Laramie. It was 1853 and my family had left Missouri to travel west on the Oregon Trail. I was a fourteen-year-old boy when we left. Now, my boyhood days are behind me, fading from sight much like the tall Hickory trees we had left behind at home.
A rattler had crept into Pa's boot during the night, striking him with it's venom-filled fangs when Pa
pulled it on before daylight this morning. He was dead within hours.
Ours is a small wagon train, seven wagons in all. The suffocating dust, hot sun and limited food and water supply is hardship enough. Now this. The oxen-drawn wagon moves noisily as pots hanging on hooks clang together.
Ben Stone, our wagon master, said a prayer over Pa's shallow grave before he ordered the wagons back on the trail to make a few more miles before sundown. He is a cold, hard man. I begin to wonder if seeing all the death and sickness on these trails has done that to him, could do it to me.
The sun is low in the sky before Ben rides by on his horse yelling to circle the wagons for the night. Ma's in the back of the wagon, has been since we started up again after burying Pa. I can hear her cryin' over the wagon's clangor.
As soon as the wagon's in place I jump down to unhitch the team. It's been my job to see to the watering and feeding of the oxen, our horse and the milk cow. Tonight it's no different. The animals must be taken care of. Without them we couldn't go on.
By the time I get back to the wagon, Ma has a fire burning and is frying salt-pork. The only difference I see is that she's not makin' coffee. Only Pa drank coffee. I wonder if Ma thought about makin' it and then realized there was no need.
“Ma, I'll ride out in the mornin'. Maybe, I kin get us a rabbit. It'd be mighty good to have sum of yer rabbit gravy.”
Ma wiped her face on her apron. “Yore Pa loved my rabbit gravy. Never seen a man eat like Jake could. Do you want me to brew you sum coffee?”
“No, ma'am. I'm gonna eat and turn in. It's been a hard day. You need yore rest too, Ma.”
The dirty muslin dress and faded bonnet concealed Ma's age; thirty-two is so young to be a widow.
I wanted to say more. But, I knew Ma understood how hard it was for me. We always understood each other. Ma could look at me and I knew what she was thinkin'. Her words were few.
At first light I took the rifle, mounted our horse and rode out in search for game.
Just as I have a fat rabbit in my sights I hear rifle-shots, then screams coming from the direction of the wagon train. At first, I just freeze and listen. I can tell something is wrong. Very wrong.
I leave my horse where I tied him out when I started hunting and race by foot toward the wagons. The settlers are under attack and greatly outnumbered by a group of renegade Lakota. I watch in horror as I see grown men struggling to get away from their attackers only to be killed. I see men scalped. I creep unnoticed behind the trees, searching for Ma.
I want to shoot them all, but if they see me I'll be killed too. There's so many of them.
When I finally get close to our wagon I see her. She is tied to the wagon wheel and three Lakota are laughing as they pile limbs and grass around her. One has a torch. She's praying aloud when she looks up and sees me coming out of my hidin' place. Her look stops me and I dart back into the brush.
I know what she's asking of me. Without a word she speaks to me. My mind knows what she wants me to do; my heart and my soul are screaming No! Please, God. No!.
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