The Lost Wagon - Jim Kjelgaard - ebook
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The story of Joe Tower and why he and his family decided to venture West along the Oregon Trail. Describes the trials and tribulations he and his family faced in doing so.

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The Lost Wagon

by Jim Kjelgaard

Copyright 1955 James Arthur Kjelgaard.

This edition published by Reading Essentials.

All Rights Reserved.

THE LOST WAGON

by JIM KJELGAARD

For Alma and Rob Zaun

Contents

I

Pondering

II

The Discussion

III

The Destroyers

IV

Mountain Man

V

The Start

VI

The Party

VII

Independence

VIII

The River

IX

Storm

X

Snedeker's

XI

Winter

XII

Barbara and Ellis

XIII

Spring

XIV

The Mule

XV

The Meadows

XVI

The Farm

XVII

Besieged

About the Author

Books by Jim Kjelgaard

The Lost Wagon

CHAPTER ONE

Pondering

When he had guided his plow halfway down the furrow, a bar-winged fly alighted just above Joe Tower's right ear. He felt it crawling, its presence irritating through the sweat that beaded his forehead and dampened his temples, and he knew that he should swat it away. When it was ready to do so the fly would bite him, and bar-winged flies drew blood when they bit.

He did not raise his hand because once again the devils which, at sporadic intervals, tormented him, were having a field day. The fly was a counter-irritant. He wanted it to bite. It was a time to be hurt because, after the fly bit him, there would be that much more satisfaction in smashing it.

At the same time he kept a wary eye on the mules. Though he was sometimes confused by the facts and affairs of his personal world, at the moment he had no doubt whatever about one thing. He hated all mules in general and these two in particular. They were big, sleek roan brutes with an air of innocence that was somehow imparted by their wagging ears and doleful expressions, but was entirely belied by the devil in their eyes. Twice within the past fifteen minutes they had balked, stepped over their traces, snarled their harnesses and kicked at him when he sought to untangle them. He had escaped injury because he knew mules. All his life he had handled animals, and most of the time he knew what they were going to do before they did it.

He felt the fly crawling around, and gloated silently as he awaited its bite. He mustn't harm the mules because a man simply never hurt his animals. But he could swat the fly, and so doing he could relieve all his pent-up anger at the mules and, this afternoon, at the world in general.

Not for a second did he take his eyes from the mules, and they seemed to know that he was watching them. Muscles rippled beneath taut hides as they strained into their collars and pulled as though they had never had any thought except getting the plowing done. Joe Tower's already tense nerves began to scream. The fly didn't bite and the mules didn't balk, and unless something happened very soon, he felt that he would be reduced to babbling idiocy.

Nothing happened except that the already hot sun seemed to become a little hotter on his sweat-drenched shirt and his perspiring head and arms. But he had been scorched by so much sun and had sweated so many gallons that he never thought about it any more. Sun and sweat were a part of things, like snow and ice. Nobody escaped them and nobody could do anything about them, and Joe wasn't sure that anybody should want to. If the sun didn't shine the crops wouldn't grow. Or if the sun did shine, and there was no snow to melt and fill subterranean reservoirs, the crops wouldn't grow anyhow. This basic reasoning should be obvious to anyone at all.

The rich brown earth turned cleanly as the plow wounded it, and the scorching sun burned a healing scab over the wound. Keeping intent eyes on both mules and waiting for the fly to bite, Joe was not one man but two.

One of them felt a soul-filling peace. It was good to plow and to have the nostril-filling scent of the newly turned earth, for these things were symbolic. The earth was a vast treasure house, but the treasure was not yielded freely. It was only for the strong, for him who could sweat and strain and guide a plow. Such a person was blessed beyond any others. But the other man who walked with Joe was angry and resentful. He did not doubt his own strength for he could plow as long a furrow as was necessary. He did dislike the forces, the petty forces that had nothing at all to do with plowing, which kept him from doing it.

Joe's lean, six-foot body adjusted itself perfectly to the rhythm of the plow. Hairy, sun-browned arms gripped the handles with exactly the right pressure, and there was something almost lyrically smooth in the way he could, without using his hands at all, control the reins that were looped over the small of his back. Gray-streaked hair that needed cutting and black beard shadowed a face that might have been thirty years old or fifty, and was thirty-four.

To himself and his work he gave little conscious thought. He had plowed so many furrows that plowing came almost as naturally as breathing, and he had long since ceased even to think about his own physical proportions. What sometimes seemed an age ago and sometimes only yesterday, he had fancied himself as a dashing figure and very handsome. He had been nineteen then and courting Emma, and it was a foregone conclusion that the world was not only to be their oyster, but that it would be filled with the purest of pearls.

That had been yesterday, and yesterday was lost somewhere in the haze that every morning hung like a blue shroud over the low mountains that marched into the distance. This was today, and today meant work. But somehow, yesterday's dreams had not passed with passing time.

Yesterday's dream had become today's dream, and it was made up of things that a man might hope to possess—no unreasonable things, but ordinary things, like a sizable piece of good land, owned free and clear; an extra team of mules; a flower garden for Emma to fool around with, and maybe a small orchard down the side of a hill; some pretty clothes for Emma and for blossoming Barbara, and some toys for the younger ones; and most of all, freedom from the never-ending uncertainty about meeting the next payment. It seemed as though that shouldn't be too much for a man to want, yet most of it was still a dream.

Joe blew his breath upward to see if he could make the fly leave him and, when it did not, he became angrier. He was almost always a creature of the moment, and always the moments were filled with things demanding immediate attention. To the exclusion of all else, this one centered in a team of fractious mules, a fly that must bite soon and a strong sense of restlessness.

He came almost to the end of the furrow and still the fly contented itself with crawling around his temple and stopping now and again to buzz its wings or clean its fragile feet. Joe's tension increased and, had it not been for the anticipated senses of achievement that swatting the fly would give him after it bit, he would have swatted it anyhow.

They reached the furrow's end, he prepared to swing the team around, and that was the second the fly chose to bite him. It was a sharp and sudden pain, somewhat like the prick of a needle, but the pain did not ebb as a needle wound would have. The fly had pierced a blood vessel and would now bloat itself with blood. Joe Tower's hot anger passed the boiling point but, where another man might have cursed, he said nothing.

He let go of the right plow handle so that he could raise his hand and swat the fly. A surge of purest pleasure shimmered through him, for this was the second he had been awaiting. Just at that moment the mules rebelled.

Expertly, choosing precisely the right time, knowing not only exactly what to do but exactly how to do it, they stepped over their traces and swung away from each other. They plunged forward, dragging the plow on top of the ground. Instead of swatting the fly, Joe grabbed the reins with his right hand and pulled back hard.

The steel bits took hold, and the mule's jaws gaped open. But they were hard-mouthed, and Joe brought his left hand to the aid of his right while he fought back as stubbornly as the mules were fighting him. When he finally brought the team under control, the fly was gone and only a dull ache remained to prove that it had ever been.

For a moment Joe felt weak and spiritless, as though he had conceived some master plan which should have worked well but which instead had gone completely astray. Then, still eying the mules warily, he straightened them out and swung the plow around.

The silliness of what he had intended to do and the way he had intended to do it, struck him forcibly. He had actually made serious plans to relieve his own pent-up feelings by swatting a fly. He grinned and for a moment he rested.

His eyes strayed past the boundaries of his own farm to a green-clad hill where a little herd of cattle grazed. Joe looked wistfully at them. The cattle belonged to Pete Domley, and Joe had a sudden overwhelming conviction that Pete was the smartest man in Missouri. Instead of worrying about a farm, Pete had merely acquired a judicious assortment of bulls and cows and let nature work on his side. Beyond the slightest doubt, cattlemen had all the best of everything. It would be nice if all one had to do was cull his herds every season and sell the increase.

Joe could not let himself rest for long because the sun was shining, the ground was ready for working, and he had problems. He had bought his eighty-five acres for $600, of which he still owed Elias Dorrance, the banker, $400. This fall Elias would expect another payment. If Joe did not get the field plowed and planted he would have no crops to sell and therefore no money, and Elias was not noted for his willingness to wait. It was strange how things never worked out the way a man thought they would.

Joe had understood before they were married that Emma had not wanted to leave her father. Old Caleb Winthrop was a widower of uncertain temperament, gentle one hour and abusive the next. Emma had been devoted to him since her mother's death, and she had been able to forgive his harshness and his tyrannies because she deeply pitied his loneliness. She was even able to persuade Joe that old Caleb "didn't mean anything" and that "things would surely work themselves out" once they were all living together.

Joe had had his doubts, but he laid them aside, and after the wedding he gave up his small interest in a near-by farm and came to work for his father-in-law.

Things didn't "work themselves out." Joe stuck to his job for five long years, chafing all the time under the old man's constant criticism. Caleb had let it be understood that some day the farm would belong to Joe and Emma, but meanwhile it seemed as though there was nothing Joe could do right—or if he did anything right then sure as fate he'd done it at the wrong time. Emma, who'd been able to tolerate the old man's venom easily enough when it was directed against herself, suffered agonies when Caleb would start to mutter and then to shout over something Joe had done.

There had come a day when Caleb shouted at Joe a little too loud and a little too long. Emma asked Joe to step outside with her, there was something she wanted to say to him.

They walked away together toward the big tree over by the barn, and when they got there Emma turned to Joe and looked into his tired and angry eyes, and she put her hands on his arms and felt there the rapid tensing of his muscles as he clenched and unclenched his fists that were dug deep into his pockets.

"Joe," she said, "I was wrong. I should never have asked you to come here to work for Pa." The color rose up into her face. "I can't stand it when he yells at you. Something terrible happens inside of me. I—I hate him when he yells at you, Joe."

He took his hands out of his pockets and drew her close to him, and she put her head down on his shoulder and wept bitter tears. He moved his work-roughened hand tenderly over her soft hair, and he held her gently and rocked her a little because he felt she was trying to make a decision, a hard and painful decision, and he didn't want to influence her one way or the other.

When she quieted she talked again, blurting the words as though she had to get them out quickly—while she dared. "We can't stay," she said. "It's not right the way he treats you. And he won't change, Joe. He hates the thought of you getting his land, and he means to make you pay—not in money or work, but in other ways. Mean ways. It's not worth it, Joe."

A smile came over his face, and he held her away from him so she could see him and how good he felt. "I prayed to hear you say this, Emma. I've been wanting to leave for a long, long time, but I waited for you to come to it by yourself." He looked at her with all the love he felt and could never quite put into words. "I couldn't go without you, Emma, and I wouldn't force you to come—more especially because I can't offer you anything away from this farm. I'll have to work as a hired man till we can get together enough to buy us some land of our own."

Emma put her face down against his shoulder, and the words that came up were muffled. "I've got a confession to make, Joe. I knew you wanted to leave. I knew it a long time ago. But I was afraid to speak out against Pa. I guess I've always been afraid of Pa, not knowing it, thinking all the time I just respected him the way a daughter should. But hearing him yell at you, I found out something I never knew. I can get mad at Pa. I can get so mad at him that I'm not frightened at all any more. I could walk right up to Pa this minute and tell him we've had just about enough!"

She lifted her face then, startled by her own audacity, and said, "Want to see me do it?" And then, before he could say yes or no, she ran away from him back to the house, quick as a deer. Joe chased her, and when he came in panting through the door there she was standing in front of Caleb with her eyes blazing, and saying, loud and clear, "Pa, we've had just about enough!"

For eight years Joe had worked as a hired hand for other farmers. Being a menial did not trouble him at all, but he worried greatly over the fact that he was seldom able to offer his family more than the basic necessities of food, clothing, and shelter. Within his inner soul was a deep conviction that they deserved more. A great oak could not flourish in a flower pot, and human beings could not grow as humans should if they must always be restricted.

Last year Emma had overwhelmed him by producing $600 which, almost penny by penny, she had saved over the years. Two hundred had gone into the land and $400 into things needed for the land: mules, cows, harness, the plow, the harrow and a host of other things which never seemed very expensive when one bought them singly but which ate up money when purchased together. Now this wasn't working out. Though a part of Joe could be perfectly in tune with what he was doing, another part resented it fiercely. Good land was for good crops, and good crops were a joy to the heart and soul. But Joe looked over what he had already plowed and seemed to see there a row of dollar bills for Elias Dorrance. He thought uneasily of the way he lived, and wondered if his sons and daughters would have to live that way too. Then this feeling faded until it was only a vague irritation, and Joe became the complete farmer.

He guided the plow down another furrow and another. It was hard and hot work, but Joe licked his lips in anticipation as he forced himself to plow one more furrow. It pleased him to work as hard as he could, and sweat as much as he could, before he indulged himself because then the indulgence was appreciated all the more. Swinging back on still another furrow, he halted the mules in their tracks and walked to a leafy sycamore that spread its green branches where the plowed field ended. He pulled a handful of wilting grass aside and revealed a brown stone jug.

For two seconds, wanting to cheat himself of no part of this, he looked at the jug. Its earthen sides were beaded with little globules of water, and as it lay in the sycamore's shade it looked inviting. Joe knelt to pick it up, and the jug was cool to his hand. He pulled the corn cob stopper and held the jug to his lips while he took great gulps of cold water. It was part of the ritual, a measure of things as they must be. A man who had never been sweat-stained from hard labor could not know the true goodness of cold water. His thirst satisfied, Joe put the jug back and covered it with grass.

The day had been hard and somewhat frustrating, but it was with a sense of loss and resentment that he noted the long shadows of early evening draping themselves over the fields. The day couldn't possibly be ended, but as soon as he knew that it was ending he felt a rising pleasure. No man had a right to rest while there was daylight in which he might work, but anybody with half a lick of common sense knew that you couldn't work at night. When it was impossible to work, the whole time might be given to dreams, and dreams were a very important part of life, too.

Knowing very well that their day was over too, and that they were going to pasture, the mules stood meekly and made no attempt to kick as he unhitched them. Free from the plow, they stepped along as briskly as though they hadn't just finished pulling it for more than ten hours, and there was something akin to friendliness in their eyes when Joe drove them into the pasture, stripped their harness off, hung it on the upper railing, and shut the pasture gate behind him.

He turned to watch the mules frisk like a couple of colts across the green grass, then lie down and roll luxuriously in it. Not until tomorrow morning would he have to fight them into harness again, and that made him forget, in part, the trouble he had had with them today. He grinned at the mules.

There was a soft footstep beside him and Joe's oldest daughter was there. She was slim and tall, and almost startlingly beautiful. There was little resemblance to either Joe or Emma; Barbara was the re-creation of some ethereal being who had been in the family of one or the other perhaps 100 and perhaps 500 years ago. She had been one of the really awe-inspiring events in Joe's life. He was not naïve and he knew the ways of nature. But when he had courted Emma he had known only that he was desperately in love with her and that he wanted her always at his side. It had simply never occurred to him that they, too, should produce children; he hadn't thought that far. When Emma told him she was pregnant he had walked around in a half daze for weeks. He hadn't really believed it until Barbara's arrival.

Joe said, "Hello, Bobby."

She said, "Hello, Dad," and she added, as though it were an afterthought, "The chores are done."

Joe frowned. At the same time, since he was tired, he knew some relief. Half the families around put their children to work in the fields as soon as they were big enough to pull weeds, but Joe had never liked the idea and he didn't hold with his womenfolk doing field work at all. Men were supposed to work the fields, but almost as soon as she was big enough to do so, Barbara had taken a hand. She liked to do things, and for all her seeming slightness she was very strong. Just the same, even though he was relieved because he would not have to milk the cows, swill the pigs, and do all the other things that forever needed doing, Joe didn't like it. But he spoke with the gentleness that Barbara inspired in him.

"You shouldn't be doing such chores."

She smiled, the corners of her eyes crinkling, and Joe thought of Emma. "I like to do them and it won't hurt me."

Because he did not know what to say, for a moment Joe said nothing. It was unreasonable because a man always had the right to tell his children what to do, but secretly he was still more than a little overawed by Barbara. Then the silence became awkward and he asked,

"Where's Tad?"

"He—He's about."

Joe frowned. It was a foregone conclusion that Tad was about because Tad, his eldest son, was always somewhere. Joe thought of his children.

After Barbara they'd waited seven years for Tad. Then Emma, Joe, Alfred, and Carlyle, had arrived in rapid succession. If Joe understood any of them he understood Tad, for the eight-year-old thought and acted a great deal like the father. A wild and restless youngster, Tad was wholeheartedly for anything he didn't have. As long as there was something he really wanted he was entirely willing to work like a horse for it.

Where the field joined the forest, a white and black dog of mixed ancestry panted into sight and stopped to look expectantly back over his shoulder. Joe stiffened, waiting for what he knew he would see now, and a moment later Tad appeared with Joe's long-barreled rifle over his shoulder and a cluster of squirrels in his hand.

Joe's anger flared. Tad loved to hunt, which was not unusual because all normal boys did. But nobody eight years old had any business running around the woods with a rifle and more than once Joe had forbidden Tad to use his. Joe's face became stormy as the youngster drew near.

"What you been doing?"

Tad stopped, every freckle on his multifreckled face registering total innocence and his eyes big with surprise. Joe fumed. The boy was like him and yet they were not alike. Never in his life had Joe faced anything in any except a direct way. He did not know how to pretend, as Tad was pretending now.

"Huntin', Pa," the youngster said.

"Haven't I told you to leave that rifle alone?"

"You didn't tell me today."

"I don't have to tell you every day!"

"I didn't use but six shots."

Joe roared so loudly that the pastured mules looked curiously at him, "It's no matter if you used only one!"

"I got six squirrels," Tad explained. "Mike, he put 'em up a tree and kept 'em there. I just shot. Smacked every one of 'em plumb through the head."

"Give me that rifle," Joe snatched the weapon, "and get in the house before I tan your hide!"

"Yes, Pa."

The squirrels in his hand, the dog beside him, Tad trotted toward the house. There was nothing meek or subdued in his squared shoulders and upturned head, and for a moment Joe had an uncomfortable feeling that he had been tested by an eight-year-old. He scowled and shrugged the thought away while he felt a rising pride. Six squirrels with six shots was good shooting anywhere, and young ones wouldn't be all they should be if they didn't have a bit of the devil in them. He must keep the rifle where Tad couldn't reach it, though. Maybe this fall, or as soon as he could spare a day from the fields, it would be a good idea if he took Tad hunting with him. He really wouldn't mind Tad's using the rifle if he could be sure that it was safely used.

Barbara went to close the chicken coop. The rifle in his hand, Joe walked to the spring house, leaned the rifle against it, and dipped a pail full of water. He spilled some into a wooden bowl that stood on a wooden bench and sighed deliciously as he washed his face and hands. This, the final act of his working day, was one to which he always looked forward. It was as though, in washing away accumulated sweat and grime, he also washed away the troubles that plagued him. The end of the day was almost like being born again.

There was a new spring in his step and a fresh tilt to his head as he walked toward the house. He remembered Emma, not too clearly, as a lovely young girl. Now her figure was mature. Hard work, childbirth and worry had traced their own lines on her face. But to Joe there was something completely fitting and even refreshing about that. A tree could not forever remain a graceful young sapling. It had to grow, and became strong with growth, in order to withstand winter blasts, summer storms, fire, and other hazards that menaced it. Joe found in the mature Emma a solid strength and assurance that he could not remember knowing in the girl, and with it had come a deepening love. He met his wife and kissed her. Emma stepped back and smiled.

"Did you have a good day?"

"It was a good one."

Her eyes dwelt on the rifle, and her brows arched in question. "Did Tad have it again?"

Joe grinned. "Yup."

He took the rifle into his and Emma's bedroom, and hung it high on two wooden pegs driven close to the ceiling. For a moment he looked at it, frowning, and then he was satisfied. He could reach the rifle but Tad couldn't unless he had something to stand on. If he tried that, Emma would hear and stop him. Still, the boy was devilishly clever when it came to sneaking the gun out.

Tad was outside dressing his squirrels, and Barbara had gone down to the creek to gather a little knob of wild flowers for the table. As soon as Joe had settled himself in the chair, the four youngest children were upon him. Joe reached down to lift baby Carlyle into his lap with the other three, and they cuddled there like soft kittens.

"When I was out in the fields today," Joe began, "I met a big grizzly bear. He had a mouth this wide...."

He spread his hands to show the width of the grizzly bear's mouth and his fingers to demonstrate the length of its teeth. Gently, to their squealing delight, he tickled the four little ones and nibbled their hands and feet to show how the grizzly bear had mauled and bitten him.

Behind him, Emma stood at the window enjoying, as she did each night, the pure pleasure that Joe took in his children. She had loved Joe almost from the day she first set eyes on him, in the store where they had come together at the counter, she to buy calico for an apron, Joe to buy some nails for the repair of a fence. Something about the set of his shoulders and the powerful but easy way he moved caught her attention. Here was a man slow and sure and strong—slow of speech, slow to smile, but with an imp of mischief that could dart out unexpectedly from his eyes. When the storekeeper had held up for his attention a small jug of maple syrup from a shipment newly arrived, and had inquired, "Like one of these?" Joe's eyes had strayed to Emma and he'd replied, unblinking, "Sure would." Joe took the jug of syrup in his hand, hefted it for weight and again, looking into Emma's startled eyes, said "Sweet, no doubt of it." Then, absolutely over-come by his own impudence, he had slapped his money on the counter and run from the store, jug in hand, nearly falling over a box that stood in his path.

She smiled now, thinking of that casual beginning. Their marriage had not been easy, but it had been rich in tenderness and in sharing. The five years that they had lived with her father had been troubled and barren. Barbara's arrival had given them a center of relief away from Caleb. Barbara had been like an oasis in a parched land. Their feelings, that withered and died in Caleb's presence, could grow and flower when they were alone with their baby girl.

Joe had been bewitched by Barbara from the beginning. And each of his children had seemed miraculous to him in birth. He was a good man, a good father. True, there was a restlessness in Joe that sometimes frightened her. He liked to work, but to work for himself, for his own family. He had endured Caleb's domination with an inner rage that had seemed like a bottled-up tornado to Emma. Though he managed to conceal most of it, the fury of it had at times been revealed in his bloodshot eyes and white, set lips, in the way he strode out to the plow or pulled open the barn door—and it had caused a tight little knot of worry to harden inside of her. He wanted then, and he wanted now, to be on his own, his own man. The obligation of his debt to Elias Dorrance sat heavily upon him, more heavily than it did on Emma, because the furious independence that burned within him raged against the naked fact that the land was not his own, would not be his own until he had paid back every last dollar he owed on it.

Emma sighed a little, wishing that Joe did not chafe so under his debt. If Joe were less restless, she would be able to enjoy even more fully the home that in this one year had become so precious to her. Her eyes strayed now from the little mass of squirming and giggling humanity gathered about Joe's knees, and she re-examined lovingly, for the thousandth time, every bit of furniture in the room. Most of it had been made by Joe, and they had talked about it and planned it for where it would stand and how it would serve them. The little cupboard that held their best dishes had been polished with such energy that it gleamed as brightly as a copper pot. The curtains blowing in the soft breeze had been stitched by Barbara and herself after the young ones were tucked away for the night. The lamps were polished, their chimneys spotless. Everywhere in the room there was evidence of labor and tender care. Emma loved the room and everything in it. Her whole life was here in this room, with Joe, with her children. Life was hard, but it was rich and full, and if Joe did not have these flashes of restlessness, it would be well-nigh perfect.

Barbara came in and put her handful of flowers into a cup on the table and then, with quiet efficiency, she and Emma put the meal on the table and the four youngsters slid from Joe's lap to crowd hungrily around. Tad came in, his face and hands clean and his black hair slicked back with water. He carried the dressed squirrels on a piece of bark. Laying them on a wooden bench, he almost leaped into his chair. Emma smiled with her eyes and Joe smiled back, and the words they had whispered a thousand times to each other were heard, unsaid but understood.

Emma asked, "Did you get a lot done?"

"Quite a lot. But those darn mules—."

He told her of the trouble he'd had with the mules, but even while he spoke it seemed to be someone else talking. He could not understand it because it was past his understanding. To plow the earth and grow new crops was always good. By such deeds people lived and had lived since the beginning. But....

His every nerve and instinct, and his heart, told him that good land had magic in it. It had been maddening, as a hired hand, to be able to feel and touch this magic, and not to have it for his own. He had thought that having his own land would change all this, but it hadn't. Previously he had worked for wages while his employer reaped the benefit of his labor. Now he was merely working for Elias Dorrance. As before, all he could offer his family were the basic necessities. Joe looked down at his empty plate.

Emma's understanding eyes were upon him. She said, "Why don't you take a walk, Joe?"

"Now say! I might just do that! I might go down to Tenney's!"

"Why don't you?"

"I think I will."

Joe sought the star-lighted path leading to Tenney's general store, which was the center of half a dozen houses at Tenney's Crossing and the unofficial clubhouse for every man from miles around. Except for the church, which most men would think of visiting only on Sunday if they visited it at all, Tenney's store was the only meeting house. Joe looked at the star-dappled sky, and he was struck by what seemed the odd thought that he had never seen stars crowd each other aside.

Out in the shadows a bird twittered, and Joe stopped in his tracks. He knew all the local birds by their songs, and he could give a fair imitation of nearly all, but this one he could not identify and it mystified him. He decided to his own satisfaction that it was a vagrant mocking bird that had uttered a few off-key notes.

He was so absorbed in thinking about the bird that he reached Tenney's Crossing almost before he realized it. By the thin light of an early-rising moon he saw a man leaning at a slight angle against Frawley Thompson's house. Without too much interest he recognized a local Indian known as Lard Head, a nickname he had acquired from a passion for slicking his black hair down with lard. Lard Head's other consuming ambition in life was to get as drunk as possible as often as possible, and obviously he was drunk again. He was fast asleep standing up, and doubtless he would go looking for something else to drink as soon as he awakened.

Yellow oil lamps glowed behind the store windows, and Joe set his course straight. He saw Elias Dorrance come out of the store and linger in the shadows, waiting for him, and he felt a rising irritation. He disliked nobody simply because they had more than he, but he wouldn't have liked Elias Dorrance under any conditions. Elias, who lived by the sweat and toil of others, was an alien here in this place where most men lived by their own labor. The banker spoke,

"Hi, Joe."

"Hi."

"Got your seeding done?" Dorrance asked casually.

"Why don't you come see for yourself. Elias?"

He brushed past and into the store, not thinking about the fact that he had rebuffed the man to whom he owed money—and not caring. Elias Dorrance was not being neighborly; he was just checking in advance to find whether he'd get a payment this fall or whether he'd have to foreclose on Joe's farm. Either way it made no difference; no amount of sweet talk would keep Elias from getting his due and no other kind would insult him if he saw money in the offing. Elias was a sponge. He absorbed everything but had an amazing facility for disgorging whatever would not benefit him.

Joe put Elias from his mind and went into the store. A kerosene lamp burned in front and another in back, and in between was all the amazing variety of goods that a store such as this must stock. Lester Tenney sold everything from pins to farm wagons, and he always had exactly the right amount of goods. This was no coincidence, and anywhere except here Lester Tenney might have been a great merchant. He had an amazing insight into his customers' exact needs. Nobody had ever had to wait for him to put in a special offer or to bring goods from St. Louis.

A tall man whose gaunt frame made him seem even taller, Tenney was rearranging goods on a shelf when Joe entered. Wispy brown hair fought desperately for a hold on his balding head, but after the first wondering glance few people noticed anything except Lester Tenney's eyes. They were clear and blue, and very deep, and oddly similar to two pieces of clear blue sky. The storekeeper gave Joe a friendly nod and a cheery greeting.

"Good evening, Joe."

"Hi, Les. What's new?"

The storekeeper inclined his head toward a little knot of men gathered under the second lamp at the rear of the store.

"Bibbers Townley came back. For the past hour he has been enchanting we peasants with his adventures in the west."

"So?"

"Go back and listen," Lester Tenney advised. "It's worth it. The way Bibbers tells it, compared to him Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus and Daniel Boone were strict amateurs."

Joe looked with interest toward the men in the rear. Pete Domley, five feet two and taciturn, stood against the pot-bellied stove which, at this season, needed no fire. There were Yancey and Lew Garrow, lean and sun-scorched. Joe saw old Tom Abend, wild Percy Pearl, John Geragty, Fellers Compton, Joab Ferris and Lance Trevelyan. All these men he had known for years, and the years had brought them closer together. Side by side they had fought forest fires, battled to keep rain-swollen creeks within their banks, built a new house or barn for some unfortunate whose building had been destroyed by fire, hunted and fished together. Not one of them was the enemy of any other.

Joe saw them almost as he would have seen his family, and he felt pleased because they were present. His eyes strayed to the young man who sat on the counter, with his right leg cocked nonchalantly over his left knee, and he reflected that Bibbers Townley had changed very little.

Three years ago, then in his late teens, Bibbers had left Tenney's Crossing. But there had been some preliminaries attending his departure.

For days preceding his final farewell he had absented himself. He returned riding a fancy thoroughbred with a new saddle and he had also got hold of two new Colt revolvers and an apparently endless supply of ammunition. For two weeks, the guns prominent on his hips, he had swaggered around announcing to anyone who would listen that no hick town was big enough to hold him. He was, he said, a man of parts and he was going into the west where there was room for men. At the slightest provocation, and sometimes at none, he had drawn either or both of the revolvers and shot at any convenient target.

Joe edged unobtrusively up beside the Garrow brothers and looked with interest at Bibbers Townley. Before Joe was born, settlers had started going west. Four families from Tenney's Crossing had gone, and Joe himself had considered going. But a man didn't pull up stakes and move that easily. At least, he didn't when he had six young ones to think about.

"And how do you think," Bibbers was saying when Joe joined the group, "I got this?"

He held up his right hand so the assembled men could see a white scar running diagonally from the base of his little finger across the palm to the base of his thumb. There was an uncertain silence, and Joe sensed a rising scorn among his friends. He chuckled silently. Tenney had told him that Bibbers had been talking for an hour, and evidently he had also been lying for an hour. But he could still hold his audience partly because he interested them and partly because, never having been west, they could not completely distinguish Bibbers' fact from his fiction. Then,

"You stuck your hand in the church poor box," Percy Pearl said smoothly, "and the parson had left his knife in it. You grabbed the knife instead of the money you thought you'd get."

Hot rage flashed the other's cheeks, and he braced his hands on the counter as though he were about to jump down. Percy Pearl stood cool, unflinching, and Bibbers settled back. Nobody knew how Percy Pearl earned his living. He never worked and he never farmed and he was often gone for long periods. But he always had a good horse and everything else he needed. However, since he never did anything questionable around Tenney's Crossing, it was just as well not to ask questions. Rumors were current that Percy was good with a knife and equally good with a gun, and nobody had any reason to doubt it.

"Do you want," Bibbers blustered, "to make something of it?"

Percy's shrug was cold as ice. "You asked me."

"Shut up, Percy," Lew Garrow urged. "Let him talk."

"Yeah," Fellers Compton seconded. "Let him talk."

"All right," Percy agreed. "Go ahead and talk, Bibbers."

"I got this cut," Bibbers said, sure that he had won an encounter which he had not won at all, "in a fight with Apaches. It was in Arizona territory...."

For a couple of moments Joe listened with great interest to a lurid tale of a battle which Bibbers had had with eight Apaches. He shot six of them, and with the last two it was knife to knife. At that point the story became so absurd that Joe lost himself in his own thoughts.

Bibbers was a liar, had always been one. However, select ten groups of men from ten parts of the country and they would average out about the same. The fact that any part of the country could produce its quota of asinine braggarts was not necessarily a reflection on the country. Joe unleashed himself completely.

Suppose a man owned everything on his land and the land too? He'd still have to work, but he wouldn't have to work until his whole insides tightened into a hard knot, and inner forces built up so tensely that he seemed ready to explode! When things got that bad, if it were not for Elias Dorrance, a man could take an hour and go hunting or fishing or just walking. Would it ever be that bad if land was something between a man and his God, and not between a man and his banker? Would it be bad at all if he knew that his children were going to find opportunities which they could never have here?

Then there was the rest of it; the eternal wondering about the unknown! Wouldn't a man rid himself of that burden if he went to see for himself?

"One time in Sonora," Bibbers Townley was saying, and Joe listened with little interest while Bibbers regaled his audience with another improbable adventure. Joe stared beyond the stove, and saw only the vision that arose in his own mind. He broke into Bibbers' account of what he had done one time in Sonora.

"What about land," he called.

"Land? Land, my friend? Do you want to know how they measure land in the west? I'll tell you."

Immediately he started telling, all about how he had staked out land by riding for three days straight west, then three south, three east, and three north. Finally he came back to the starting point and all the land he'd ridden around was his. Joe spat disgustedly.

"You thinkin' of goin'?" John Geragty asked Joe.

"I've been pondering on it."

"So have I."

Joe slipped away from the group and his feet were light on the starry path. The curtains had parted, at least for the time being, and he had seen the bright promise. He must hurry home at once so he could tell Emma about it too.

CHAPTER TWO

The Discussion

For a Moment after Joe had gone, Emma sat silently at the table. She was lonely and a little depressed, as she always was when Joe left her. Even when he went to work his fields in the morning, she looked forward to the noon hour when he would be home for lunch. If he did not care to stop working long enough to come home but wished to eat in the fields instead, Emma carried him a meal whenever she could think of a plausible excuse for so doing. It was not always possible because Barbara insisted on doing it. Emma smiled wistfully. Barbara thought she was saving her mother work when in reality she was robbing her of a privilege.

"What are you smiling about, Mother?" Barbara asked.

"I was thinking of your father."

Barbara looked curiously at her and Emma made no comment. For all her lovely girlhood Barbara was still a child. She must live a few years before she could even hope to understand some things, and it would be futile to try to explain them now. Love was always a fine and beautiful thing, but the quick, fierce passions of youth were only the first flames. The smoldering fires that were fed by years of working and struggling together really welded it so that two, in actuality, did become one. But no young person would ever understand that. Only experience could teach it.

Emma glanced with studied casualness at her lovely daughter. Approaching her fifteenth birthday, for more than a year Barbara had had a large contingent of suitors. All were gawky youths who stumbled over their own feet, never knew what to do with their elbows, and were apt to stutter or stammer when disconcerted. Barbara accepted them with an almost regal poise the while she interested herself seriously in none, and that pleased Emma. She herself had married at sixteen, which was early enough. Emma thought with mingled pity and amusement of Lucy Trevelyan, whose fifteen-year-old Mary had been urged upon every eligible man in the neighborhood and who was now going around a second time. It was more than a question of just getting a man. It had to be the right man and, for Barbara, Emma wanted as much happiness as she had found with Joe.

Emma looked again at her daughter, who was staring dreamily across the table. After a moment, the youngster spoke,

"Why didn't you go to the store with Dad?"

"With all those men!" Emma was half horrified.

Barbara said thoughtfully, "I suppose it would be awkward. But you work very hard, too. If it relaxes Dad to go to the store, it should relax you."

Emma laughed. "I'd be as out of place there as your father would at a sewing bee!"

"When I get married," Barbara said firmly, "I'm going everywhere my husband goes. Everywhere!"

Tad snorted derisively, and left his chair to hone his beloved knife.

"Don't make fun of your sister, Tad."

"I didn't say nothin'," Tad protested.

"'I didn't say anything,'" Emma corrected.

"Yes, Ma."

"Let me hear you say it."

"I didn't say anything," Tad mumbled.

Emma turned from him and the incident had come, passed and was forgotten. She had about her a quality that demanded respect and attention, but which never left a sting.

In passing, Emma sometimes wondered at how much she herself had changed during the years of her marriage. From a gentle girl, much in awe of her father, admiring Joe from a distance and struck quite speechless when he asked her to marry him, she had acquired over the years both firmness and authority in her dealings with the children. Joe loved to play with his children when they were little, and he admired them as they grew older, but when it came to discipline he didn't appear to know how to go about it. With Tad he sometimes exploded, sometimes cuffed his ears and sometimes turned his back in despair. With the others he somehow subtracted himself, so that Emma was left in charge of discipline. Perhaps the trouble was that an ordinary reprimand would have seemed unsuitable to the wonderful creatures he thought them to be. Whatever the reason, over the years Emma had found that while all decisions regarding the children were discussed between Joe and herself, with Joe often playing a larger part than she did in the actual deciding, it was usually Emma alone who had to put the decisions into effect. She smiled ruefully. Nobody, not even Joe—especially not Joe—realized that Emma still had safely hidden away, some of the timidity of her younger years. Within the home, in relation to the children, she was undoubtedly a tower of strength.

Baby Emma slid from her chair to climb upon her mother's lap and lay her head on Emma's shoulder. Emma encircled her with a gentle arm.

She knew that Joe was in awe of Barbara, stood on just about an even footing with Tad, and regarded the other four as lovable, cuddly beings who were still too young to have any real identities of their own. But it was Emma who understood their hearts and, much of the time, their minds.

Proud of Barbara's grace and beauty, she still saw beyond it. Barbara was not, as Joe thought, fragile of body. She did have a generous nature and a delicate, sensitive mind that must either encompass all or reject all. There were times when Emma trembled for her and what the future might do to her. To Emma she was an opening bud, almost ready to bloom, and if blossoms were not tenderly nurtured they faced certain destruction. Emma hoped and prayed that the common sense and almost mature judgment which Barbara was already displaying would come to her aid when she most needed it.

Tad was a reflection of Joe, and yet he was not Joe. Behind Tad's wild impulses and rash acts, Emma saw the man to be. Tad would be a good man, like his father, and Emma knew that she was guilty of no heresy when she hoped that he might be even more capable and talented. Joe himself hoped that. He wanted everything for his children.

Baby Joe was a child of infinite patience. Given a problem, such as a knotted piece of string, he kept doggedly at it until every knot was untied and the string straight. Emma was grateful and happy for him, for she knew that the world never had enough people who were not afraid of problems. One day Joe would be outstanding.

Alfred was the soul of mischief. Quick and alert, he missed no opportunity for fun or pranks. Once, in all innocence, he had offered a present to Barbara and put in her outstretched hand a large black beetle. He had gone into gales of laughter when Barbara, who shrank from all insects, flung the beetle from her. Imaginative, Alfred was forever inventing games that he could play alone or in which all might share.

Carlyle had been born to laughter and an appreciation of the beautiful. From the very first, a bright butterfly, a stray sunbeam, a bit of colored ribbon, a colored leaf, had caught and held his fascinated attention. The first word he'd ever spoken had not been the traditional "mama," but "pretty." Emma treasured him greatly, and there was a tradition in her family that one of her ancestors had painted some of the world's outstanding masterpieces. Though she knew that she would never attempt to dictate the lives of her children, Emma had more than a faint hope that artistic talent would live again in Carlyle.

But it was the raven-haired child in her lap whom Emma cherished just a bit more than the rest. It was not because Emma saw her own image there, but because baby Emma was the sickly one. She was subject to sudden, raging fevers that left her pale and weak. More than once they had despaired of her life. But she had always come through and no night passed that Emma did not offer up a prayer that she would always continue to do so. The child turned to smile sleepily at her mother.

"Time for bed, darling?" Emma coaxed.

"Yes, Mama."

Emma carried her into the living room, put her on a chair and returned to the kitchen to dip a pan of water from a kettle warming on the stove. Tenderly she removed the clothing from baby Emma's fragile little body, washed her daughter, put her night dress on and carried her into bed. She leaned over to kiss the child twice on each cheek and watched her snuggle happily beneath the quilts. This was a ritual that Emma herself must always perform. Barbara could put the other young children to bed, but Emma always had to take care of baby Emma.

Barbara had the giggling Carlyle in her arms when Emma went back into the kitchen. In passing, she patted the child's curly head and started to wash her dishes. Her china was carefully stored in the new cupboard and there it would remain until the children were big enough to respect it. Emma remembered poignantly one of her minor heartbreaks of years ago. The Casper family, departing for the west, had decided that their china was too frail to stand the trip so they'd given it to Emma. It was lovely, delicate ware that had come across an ocean, been used by the Caspers in New York, and brought by them to Missouri.

Emma delighted in its feel, and her heart lifted when she merely looked at it. Often she speculated about its history. It was ancient and expensive, the sort of china wealthy people of good taste would buy. Had it come from some castle in England, or perhaps Spain? Who were the people, now probably long dead, who had made merry over it? Delighted and thrilled, Emma had set the table with it. But Barbara, at the time their only child, was a baby then and she had pushed her cup and plate onto the floor where they shattered.

Emma put the rest away and used her old dishes until they, too, were broken. Joe, always handy with tools, had made her wooden plates, bowls, and cups. He had used hard, seasoned maple, and had worked endlessly with it until it was polished almost to the consistency of china. As each new baby arrived, Joe had made more table ware. They were almost alike, but not exactly so, and Emma had handled and washed them so often that every line in every piece was familiar. She knew by touch which plate, cup, or bowl, belonged to whom, and that gave her a good feeling. Just as it was part of Joe's life to respond intimately to the goodness in new-turned earth, it was part of hers to care for the various things that meant security for her family. Security, to Emma, meant no one big thing but a host of little ones.

She soaked her hands in the warm water, liking the feel of that too, while she washed the dishes with a soapy cloth. Rinsing them in clean water, she stacked them on the table beside her. She did it carefully, meticulously. Wooden dishes could not break, but it was part of her nature to be meticulous and nothing at all was so easy to get that one could afford to be careless with it. Besides, the dishes were precious. Joe had spent long hours, night hours when he could not work in the fields, making and polishing them. Where a less particular man would have called them good enough, Joe had worked on. He did not, he said, want to take the chance of any slivers finding their way into baby mouths.

Barbara brought the pajamaed Carlyle out for his good-night kiss and took him in to bed. She stooped for Alfred. Quick as a deer, he darted behind a chair and made faces at his sister. When Barbara went to the chair, Alfred, howling with glee, ran to his mother and clasped both arms about her. Emma turned to him. She herself was tired, and a bit out of patience, and she spoke more sharply than she ordinarily talked to any of the children.

"Go to bed now, Ally."

"Do' wanna."

"Alfred, go with Barbara!"

Meekly Alfred surrendered himself to Barbara's arms, and was carried into the other room for his bath. Emma shook her head to dislodge a wisp of hair that had fallen over her eye. There were rare occasions when she worried about Alfred too. She imagined that Percy Pearl must have been a great deal like him when he was a baby, and though she liked Percy, she would not want any of her children to imitate his way of life. Like everyone else, she really did not know how Percy lived. But there were rumors, and Emma suspected more. She comforted herself with the thought that there was really nothing to worry about. Thousands of children were mischievous. If all of them turned out badly, the world would be made up largely of bad people.

Emma dried her dishes as carefully as she had washed them and stacked them in the cupboard. She poured her dish water down the drain, an ingenious wooden spout that Joe had also constructed and which led into a cesspool beside the house. Vigorously she began to scrub her table and the wooden sink. In all their years together, except to praise her cooking, Joe had never once commented on the way she kept house. That had been a cause of minor dissension at first. Emma had worked for hours, hand-stitching the new curtains. Proudly she draped the windows, and when Joe came in he didn't even appear to notice. But the years had taught her much.

Joe regarded the house as exclusively her domain and the fields as his, though he always wanted to know what she cared to have in the family vegetable garden and sometimes asked her advice as to what crops he should plant. She warmed to him because he did, for it proved that he respected her. Concerning the house, his very lack of comment was approval. Emma poured clean water into her dish pans and scrubbed them while Barbara brought Alfred in for his kiss and took Joe. Carefully, Emma swept the floor and emptied the trash into the kitchen wastebasket, a hollow stump that Joe had further hollowed and so arranged that it had both a dust-tight bottom and a hinged cover.