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L'Amour / BENDIGO SHAFTER
WHERE THE WAGONS stopped we built our homes, making the cabins tight against the winter’s coming. Here in this place we would build our town, here we would create something new.
We would space our buildings, lay out our streets and dig wells to provide water for our people. The idea of it filled me with a heartwarming excitement such as I had not known before.
Was it this feeling of creating something new that held my brother Cain to his forge throughout the long hours? He knew the steel he turned in his hands, knew the weight of the hammer and where to strike, knew by the glow of the iron what its temperature would be; even the leap of the sparks had a message for his experience.
He knew when to heat and when to strike and when to dip the iron into the water; yet when is the point at which a group of strangers becomes a community? What it is that forges the will of a people?
This I did not know, nor had I books to advise me, nor any experience to judge a matter of this kind. We who now were alien, strangers drawn together by wagons moving westward, must learn to work together, to fuse our interests, and to become as one. This we must do if we were to survive and become a town.
No settlement lay nearer than Fort Bridger, more than a hundred miles to the southwest . . . or so we had heard.
All about us was Indian country and we were few.
There were seven men to do the building, two boys to guard our stock, and thirteen women and children to gather wood and buffalo chips for the fires of the nights to come, and kindling against a time of snow.
Only now did we realize that we were strangers, and each looked upon the other with distant eyes, judging and being judged, uneasy and causing uneasiness, for here we had elected to make our stand, and we knew not the temper of those with whom we stood.
It was Ruth Macken, but lately become a widow, who led the move to stop while supplies remained to us, and we who stood beside her were those who favored her decision and joined with her in stopping.
My father had been a Bible-reading man and named his sons from the Book. Four of our brothers had gone the way of flesh, and of the boys only we two remained. Cain, a wedded man with two children, and I, Bendigo Shafter, eighteen and a man with hands to work.
Our sister was with us. Lorna was a pretty sixteen, named for a cousin in Wales.
“You will build for the Widow Macken,” Cain said to me. “Her Bud is a man for his twelve years, but young for the lifting of logs and the notching.”
So I went up the hill through the frost of the morning, pausing when I reached the bench where their cabin would stand. A fair place it was, with a cold spring spilling its water down to the meadow where our oxen and horses grazed upon the brown grass of autumn. Tall pines, sentinel straight, made a park of the bench, and upon the steep slope behind there was a good stand of timber.
The view from the bench was a fine one, and I stood to look upon it, filling myself with the quiet morning and the beauty of the long valley below the Beaver Rim.
“You have an eye for beauty, Mr. Shafter,” Ruth Macken said to me, and I kept my eyes from her, feeling the flush and the heat climbing my neck as it forever did when a pretty woman spoke to me. “It is a good thing in a man.”
“It works a magic,” I said, “to look upon distance.”
“Some people can’t abide it. Bigness makes them feel small instead of offering a challenge, but I am glad my Bud will grow to manhood here. A big country can breed big men.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I glanced about the bench. “I have come to build you a cabin, then.”
“Build it so when spring comes I can add a long room on the south, for when the wagons roll again I shall open a trading post.”
She turned to Bud, who had come up the slope from the meadow. “You will help Mr. Shafter and learn from him. It is not every man who can build a house.”
Ruth Macken had a way of making a man feel large in his tracks, so what could I do but better than my best?
The morning chill spoke of winter coming, yet I notched each log with care and trimmed them with smooth, even blows.
There is a knowledge in the muscles of a workman that goes beyond the mind, a skill that lies in the flesh and the fiber, and my hands and heart held a love for the wood, the good wood whose fresh chips fell cleanly to the left and the right.
Yet as I worked my thoughts worried over the problem of our town. We were ill-prepared for winter, although our sudden decision to stop left us better off than had we pushed on to the westward.
Going on would have been simple, for travel is an escape, and as long as our wagons moved our decisions could be postponed. When one moves, one is locked in the treadmill of travel, and all decisions must await a destination. By choosing to stop we had brought our refuge tumbling about us, and our problems could no longer be avoided.
The promised land is always a distant land, aglow with golden fire. It is a land one never attains, for once attained one faces fulfillment and the knowledge that whatever a land may promise, it may also demand a payment of courage and strength.
To destroy is easy, to build is hard. To scoff is also easy, but to go on in the face of scoffing and to do what is right is the way of a man.
Neely Stuart already regretted the stopping and spoke of continuing on to California in the spring, and Tom Croft, who listened to Neely, was a man who never knew whether the course he had taken was the right one. So he was always open to persuasion. Nor was his Mary of a different mind.
Even Webb talked of going on when spring should again bring grass to the hills, yet he had been the first to break off from the wagon train and follow Ruth Macken in her decision. He was a discontented, irritable man, always impatient for change, yet he was also strong and resolute and would stand up in an emergency. He had a son, an arrogant, disagreeable boy named Foss . . . short for Foster.
John Sampson, my brother Cain, and I were for staying on, which left only Ethan Sackett, a single man who had been guide for the wagon train but had chosen to leave it when we did.
“What has he to do with us?” Webb demanded, when I wondered aloud if Sackett would stay on. “He’s a drifter, not one of us.”
“He chose to stay with us, and that makes him one of us.”
“He chose to stay because of Mrs. Macken. Would he have come with us had it not been for her? I say he does not belong here.”
It was our first night around the fire, the first after leaving the wagon train, and we huddled close to the flames for there was an autumn chill in the night. The truth was we were all a little frightened at what we had done, and our nerves were on edge because of it.
“He won’t be with us long,” Neely Stuart said. “His kind have no stability. He is more like an Indian than a white man.”
“Who among us,” John Sampson asked mildly, “has wintered in this country? I think before the winter is gone we shall be glad he is among us.”
“We could have been miles from here,” Stuart complained. “We were fools to stop.”
“Mrs. Macken,” I told them, “will open a store, come spring.”
“To sell what?” Stuart scoffed. “And to whom?”
“She will sell boots and clothing she and her husband packed against that purpose and vegetables we ourselves will raise. Whenever possible she will accept goods in payment, goods to be sold again.”
“A silly woman’s dream!”
“There might be good trade with the wagon trains,” Webb admitted, “but no matter. When it is warm again I shall move on.”
“I shall stay.”
It was the calm voice of my brother, to whom all men listened. Until then he had remained silent, watching the leap of the flames and thinking his thoughts.
Cain’s face was square, massive, and might have been hewn from oak. His body was also square, but large and powerful. He moved easily, as one who is in complete command of himself and his every muscle. He was not a man given to talking, speaking only when his mind was made up, not as many men do who shape their thoughts as they speak.
“I shall open my smithy and a shop for the mending of guns. I believe the Widow Macken knows what she is about.”
“Stay on if you wish,” Stuart said defensively. “I shall not.” Yet his tone had weakened before the weight of my brother’s decision.
“I shall leave with the first grass,” Tom Croft said. “The wilderness and the thought of Indians distresses my wife.”
The sickness of disappointment lay upon me, for if they left our strength would be pared to nothing, and we must also go. We were too few as it was, and if we were attacked by Indians our chances would be slight.
This valley we had chosen lay upon a highroad for the Shoshone, but it was traveled by the Sioux as well and occasionally by the Ute or Blackfeet. Our presence invited trouble.
On the morning I went up the slope to build for the Widow Macken. There was a fringe of ice along the stream’s edge, and the meadow was white with frost. My breath showed in a cloud, and the bodies of the cattle steamed as they worked, hauling down the logs after I felled the trees.
The morning air sang with the hum of axes, a fresh and lovely sound on a chill morning. Looking down from the bench to where the town would lie, I could see my brother pacing off the limits of his cabin site.
The blade of the double-bitted axe sank deep, and chips as large as a man’s palm fell into the needles under foot. From time to time I paused to listen to the squirrels, scolding from the pines nearby, yet the pauses were few for the time was short. There is a pleasure in working with the hands and muscles, a pleasure in the use of good tools, and I gloried in the grip of my hands upon the axe and the smell of honest sweat and fresh pine wood.
When I went up the slope with Bud beside me, I chose the trees with care, choosing not only for size and straightness, but to leave the forest as it was, to give the trees room to grow taller and thicker.
“Trees are a crop, Bud Macken,” I said, “to be taken only with care and a thought for the forest.”
“But there are lots of trees,” he protested.
“A forest is a living thing like a human body,” I told him, “each part dependent on all the other parts. A forest needs its birds, its beaver . . . all its animals and plants. The forest gives shelter to the birds, but they repay the debt with the insects they eat, the droppings they leave, the seeds they carry off to plant elsewhere. The beaver builds dams for himself, but the dams keep water on the land, and although the beaver cut trees to use and to eat, their ponds provide water for trees during the hot, dry months.”
For a moment I held still. “Listen,” I whispered, “and you can hear the forest breathe.”
This was a lesson my father had taught me, that we only borrowed from the land, and borrowed with discretion and a thought for the years to come.
He taught us that to live in the wilderness one must live with it. Live from it, but allow it to live also. Such was my intention now, and so I explained to Bud Macken my reasons for choosing trees as I did.
What I had received from my father and Cain, this I would pass on to Bud and perhaps someday to sons of my own, for a bee that gathers honey must pass the honey on to those who can best use it. Yet it was little enough that I had to teach and much I had to learn.
When I had felled my third tree, I put Bud to trimming the limbs, watching him first to be sure he knew the use of an axe, for this was no country in which to be left without a foot. I was beginning the fourth tree when Ethan Sackett rode up the hill to draw rein beside me.
He leaned on the pommel of his saddle and watched for a moment before he spoke. “Bendigo, at this time of year there will be few Indians about, but do you take a walk up the ridge now and again to look over the country. If they are about we must know it, so keep your eyes wide for a sign.”
“You believe they are holed up for the winter?”
“Soon . . . but a body can’t be too caring. Bendigo, I count on you. I cut little ice with those men down yonder, but neither do I pay it much mind. But if there’s trouble comes I figure you’ll stand. You and that brother of yours.”
“Webb will fight. I have a feeling you can count on him, too. He’s a mean, cantankerous man, but come fightin’ time, he’ll be around.”
“You are right, I am thinking. You keep shy of that man, Bendigo. He’s dangerous.”
He rode away then, and as I worked I gave thought to what he had said and began to gather the sense of it. There was a temper in Webb that flared sudden and often. At first I had thought him only a sullen, disagreeable man, but as the days passed on the westward way I saw him change. He took no pushing, and when somebody moved toward him he pushed back . . . hard.
The westward way had a different effect on folks, and many of them grew in size and gathered in spirit. John Sampson was such a man. Back home in the States he had been the village handyman, and nobody paid much mind to what he thought about anything. He did his work and he took his pay, and that was the sum of it. Folks turned to teachers, ministers, storekeepers, and bankers for opinions.
But once you got out away from home on a wagon train, a minister or a banker wasn’t much help; a handyman could keep your wagon rolling. Time and again, on the trip west, Sampson helped folks out of trouble, and finally they began to ask his advice on things. When they got it, it was good advice.
When we crossed the Mississippi and rolled out over the grasslands some folks were scared of the size of it all. Miles of grass stretched on all sides, the vast bowl of the sky was overhead, and there were a few who turned around and ran for home, their tails between their legs. There were others, like John Sampson, who began to grow and to take big steps in the land.
Webb grew, too, but in another way. There had always been a streak of violence in him, but fear of public opinion and fear of the law had toned it down. Now a body could see the restraint falling away. Nobody had a reason to cross him, so all had gone smoothly so far, but Ethan Sackett had read him aright.
The work was hard, but none of us had led easy lives, and we buckled down to it. John Sampson and Cain were the first to start their cabins after I began on Mrs. Macken’s place. Neely, he sat on his wagon tongue talking to Tom Croft about what fools they had been to stop. Webb sat listening for a spell, and then he went to whetting his axe.
Come noontime he was close to catching up with Sampson.
My eyes kept going to the hills, and my ears reached out for sound; we lived with fear.
This was a savage land, a lonely land, yet here the foundations of our homes would be laid, and here we would sink the roots of our lives. Here, for some of us, our children would be born.
We accepted the danger but took no unnecessary risk. It is a fool who invites trouble, a child who is reckless, for life holds risks enough without reaching out for more.
There would be cold, there would be hunger, there would be snow, and no doubt before spring brought life to the plains again we would suffer hardship. We had not enough food to last a long winter, and when our cabins were built the hunting and the cutting of wood must begin.
A day passed and then another. Three or four times each day I went up the slope, then scaled the sheer white cliff above it, finding several ways a man could climb easily and swiftly, almost as though steps were built for him. Each time I scanned the country for Indians, and also to know the country. In my mind I measured the steps to the next creek, to the tall, lightning-scarred pine, to the swell of ground.
In a blinding snowstorm or the dark of night such knowledge might mean the difference between life and death, and later when I could walk the ground I would know it better.
John Sampson and Cain were placing their cabins so the ends could be joined by a palisade. Stuart and Croft were building opposite them and Webb a bit further along, yet all could be joined by a wall or the wagons to make a fortress of sorts.
Stuart came up the hill to watch me work. “She’s crazy,” he said, “to build so far from us.”
There was something in what he said, for her house would be all of a hundred yards from the others, and such isolation could be dangerous. Yet I knew she built for tomorrow, and she accepted the risks. But I, who must do the building, planned the house strong and true.
The logs I chose were thick and heavy, and I fitted them snugly together. There would be no chinking in this cabin, for I worked each log smooth with a broadaxe and adze, and laid them face to face. Eighteen inches thick at bottom was each wall, tapering to twelve under the eaves, and the fireplace was built of stones artfully chosen.
On the fourth day Ethan Sackett came down from the hill and took up an axe and worked beside me. He was a strong, lithe man, easy with his strength, and he handled an axe well. He worked with me an hour or more, then went down the hill and worked with John Sampson, who was the oldest among us.
Twice during the week he brought in game. The first time it was two antelopes. “Not the best of eating,” he said, “but it is fresh meat.”
The second time it was a deer that dressed out at nearly two hundred pounds. He cut it well and passed it around, leaving some meat at each fire.
Tom Croft, who was a good worker when he put his back into it, stayed on the job better than Neely Stuart, who was forever finding something else that needed doing to keep him from work. He’d be going to the bucket for a drink, or talking to his wife.
And then it began to snow.