12. April 2024 · Comments Off on From – West Towards the Sunset, the new W-I-P · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

(This will be a young adult adventure, about a family going west on the California trail in 1846.)

I think it must have been two weeks after leaving the big company that Jon and I became lost on the prairie late one afternoon. We were gathering buffalo chips, while Pa and the other men made camp, and Ma and the other women sorted out what they were going to cook for supper, especially if the menfolk had managed to hunt some fresh meat and as soon as we brought more chips – and wood for the fire, assuming that we were able to find any.

Jon and I walked away from camp that afternoon, each of us with an empty pair of big tow sacks. We were with some of the others at first – the Herlihy boys and Shiboone. It was one of those days with a clear blue sky arching overhead, spotted only with little shreds of cloud, like bits of rag and clumps of lint torn or scraped from some larger fabric. The rolling prairie stretched out all around, almost completely featureless, save for the distant thread of the Platte River and the range of low bluffs that ringed it. The trail at this point meandered along parallel to the river, but not really close to it. It seemed hardly any time at all before we had wandered farther and farther from camp, deeper and deeper into the grasslands. I can’t recall why – only that the air seemed clear and fresh, the wind stirring the grass at the tops of the low rise, and I wanted to see what I could beyond. Then there was a good, well-dried spread of buffalo chips, and another higher hill that promised a better view, the grass waving in the light breeze as the sun slid father down in the west … and Jon suddenly looked around and said, tremulously,

“Sally … where’s the camp?”

We were well out of sight of the wagons, I realized with a horrible sinking feeling in my stomach. That feeling sank even farther when I realized that I didn’t know which direction to go. I could not hear – as hard as I listened – the clamor of our company setting up camp. The clank of harness chains, the men calling to each other, Boomer and the other dogs barking, the cattle lowing to each other as they grazed … nothing, only the whispering rustle of the wind in the tall grass.

But I knew better than to panic. I couldn’t let it show that I was nearly frightened to death, all alone on the wild and trackless prairie with my little brother.

“We have to sit down and think,” I said finally. “And not run as if we were being chased by wolves…”

“Are there wolves here, Sally?” Jon’s lips trembled. I was afraid that he was going to cry and I wished that I hadn’t mentioned wolves.

“There are, I think – but they only hunt at night … and it’s still daylight,” I said – and that was the first thing that gave me a notion. “See … there is the sun, in the west. If we keep it to our left as we walk… then we aren’t going in a circle. If we walk in a straight line, Jon, I think that we’ll come to the river. But before then, we should see the trail.”

“All right,” Jon answered. He already sounded reassured. I didn’t tell him that if we found the trail … we should have to examine it very carefully, to see if our party had passed over it, or were the tracks from one ahead of us? Would we walk to the west … or back along the tracks and hope to find our company, before it got dark. If night came … I didn’t want to think about that. I hoped that Pa, or Mr. Glennie and Oscar would be sent out on horseback to find us, but as Grandpa Reverend always said, ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ I couldn’t build a plan on hoping that someone would find us. I had gotten us lost – and it was up to me to get us un-lost. I hoped that we could find our camp before Ma would begin to fear that she would lose us the way that Aunt Rachael had lost our Cousin Matty. I took Jon’s hand, hoisted our two sacks of buffalo chips in my other hand, and we set out walking. I tried to set our path in as straight a way as was possible, hoping that every moment we would see the thread of smoke from our campfires rising into the air, and then the pale canvas wagon covers.

Straight as a rule, we walked, although it did take us a tiresome way, up the side of a low hill, and down the other. I didn’t see anything but more of the same rolling prairie grasses – but reassuringly, the line of bluffs, far and away on the far side of the river. So – at least, we were walking the right direction.

How had we managed to walk so far? It was as if everything had been swallowed up by the sheer vastness of it all. Jon and I walked up another rise, down the far side, up another … and then I was reassured of the value of my own good sense. We finally came upon the trampled tracks of a cattle herd, scored briefly here and there by the deep ruts of wagon wheels – a track that went towards the setting sun.

“Look here, Jon,” I said to my brother. “I think this must be the trail. Whether it was made by our company or another … I can’t really tell. Look around – and do you think we came this way, today?”

Jon frowned and shook his head. “It all looks the same to me, Sally. The same hills and grass. Nothing – all the same. It’s not like back in Ohio, with different trees, different hills.”

I sighed. “Let me think, Jon – about whether to go east or west. There might be a party ahead of us. I just can’t tell how old the marks are. I think … I hope that we have crossed our own track, and everyone is towards the west of us. I just don’t know…”

It was at that moment that I nearly jumped out of my own skin. A party of Indians appeared, as if out of the very air – not a sound, not a warning. At least a dozen of them, all men – on horses with unshod hoofs. They didn’t make a sound on the battered grass where a wagon party had passed. The Indians were just suddenly there.

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