Jeb fought for every step along the trail as Spring began to take hold and melt the dirty snow drifts. The icy mornings numbed his nose and fingers but walking on firm dirt and ice was far easier. After the sun rose high enough to light the trail, the frozen mud melted into a filthy porridge. Jeb would cajole his oxen as they struggled to pull the wagon through the muck. By mid-day, everyone, man and beast, was exhausted, despite the numerous stops the small family made to milk the goat and feed the baby. Jeb had not named his son. The boy was his, was part of him, as much as Jeb’s hand or heart or lungs were part of him. He felt no need to name his hand and he felt no need, yet, to name his son.
Jeb could see the grooves scarring the trail from the wagons that had gone before him. Beside the deep ruts, he could see remnants of broken wagon wheels mired in the landscape like signposts, marking the way of the Faithful. These were evidence of hasty repairs that hadn’t held. The owner of a broken-down wagon had to make a quick repair if he didn’t want to get left behind; Jeb knew this to be true. And no one wants to travel this trail alone, Jeb thought, that spot between his shoulder blades beginning to throb as it did whenever he remembered the Faithful. His mouth tightened into a grimace while he walked with his oxen. No one should be alone out here. No one should ever be left all alone.
When he departed the midwife’s settlement, he paused at trail junction, looking both ways along the dirty road. He considered going back to Tennessee but his grandfather’s homestead, the Murtry home, wasn’t his anymore. What did he have to go back to? With nowhere else to go, Jeb followed the ruts WEST to the Basin. All hope of catching up to the group fading out with each sunset.
Jeb adjusted the bottom button on his coat and leaned his forehead against the goat’s warm ribs. His eyes closed and the musky odor infiltrated his nose, his mouth, his coat. At least it was a doe, he thought as he wrapped his fingers around her teat and began the morning ritual of getting milk for his son. The bucks smelled so much worse and they weren’t good for much out here. Back in Tennessee, his father had insisted on keeping only one buck, the other kids unlucky enough to be born male were eaten before they were old enough to start peeing on themselves.
The tiny body tucked inside Jeb’s shirt began to squirm, little legs twisting against his empty belly. “Shhhhhh, shhhhh, shhhhh,” Jeb sang, hoping to get the baby to go back to sleep. Sharp little toes dug into Jeb’s ribs as if they were a ladder.
“Hold on there, Goat,” Jeb breathed. He knew what that type of fidgeting meant. The goat would wait, his son would not. Jeb moved the pan of steaming milk away from the goat’s feet and stood up, pulling the wriggling boy out from under his coat. He deftly slipped the bunting away from the boy’s feet and pulled the square of cotton off the tiny bottom while he walked away from the goat. Squatting, Jeb pulled the baby’s back tight against his chest while holding each tiny foot out. A stream of urine shot out, almost clipping Jeb’s chin. Jeb laughed and readjusted his hold. A tiny grunt issued, and Jeb felt those little feet pushing against his hands, then the squirt of pale brown poop hit the frost between Jeb’s shoes. A little ahead of schedule, Jeb thought. The baby began a certain kind of wiggle when he had to pee or poop. Rather than constantly rinsing and drying out the few cotton diapers they had, Jeb kept the baby inside his coat most of the day and whenever the babe began his poop-dance, as Jeb called it, Jeb let him do his business on the grass. The boy didn’t seem to mind and it saved a lot of work on Jeb’s part.
“Yep, Bubba, a fellow has to learn how to aim sooner or later, might as well just start things off right,” he said to the boy while replacing the diaper and bunting. Back at the goat, Jeb placed a practiced hand on her, “Okay, Goat. Let’s finish this.”
The sun had just passed its zenith when Jeb saw the two figures in the distance, outlined against the patchy snow that mottled the red rocks erupting like molars from the flat ground. The figures were coming toward him. He stopped his procession, picked up the goat and tied it inside the wagon, arranging things as he did every night. He adjusted the sleeping babe inside his shirt, tucking the long shirt-tails tight into his pants to keep the boy in place and buttoning his coat tight. Jeb wanted his hands free, not busy holding a baby.
Indians, Jeb thought to himself. Two Indians coming this way. He saw the figures resolve; two men, riding horses the same red-brown as the mesas behind them. The wind had stopped today, and Jeb was glad not to have it gritting his eyes and blurring his vision. The oxen stood quiet with heads low, nosing the dead grass and puffs of snow for any food they could find.
The two deer-clad men cut across the snow-covered scrub and stopped their horses thirty feet from Jeb’s wagon. One seemed to be about Jeb’s age, the other looked much older. They spoke in a language Jeb didn’t understand and he couldn’t tell if they were addressing him or talking between themselves.
The older of the two rode his horse in a circle around Jeb and his covered wagon, it’s black tail twitching as it came near. Jeb stood as still as the oxen, not saying a word, not turning to watch the circling stranger, but looking resolutely ahead along his path. The older Indian finished circling the wagon and stopped his horse in front of the oxen. Jeb heard his goat bleating and saw from the corner of his eye the other Native edging his horse closer to the wagon to reach inside, to take his goat. Still, Jeb did not move. He stood firm and unwavering, even as the younger man’s red horse began snorting and pawing. The horse could feel the tension mounting.
The older man in front of him dismounted and walked to the white boy who was foolish enough to be out here alone. The boy stood next to his oxen and looked at the Indian, his goat continuing her bleating in the wagon. A cry, a baby’s cry, came from somewhere and the Indian tilted his head at the unexpected noise. He walked to the oxen, and put his hand on one, then began to unhitch the beast from the wagon, never taking his eyes off the boy. The boy shook his head “No” and the Indian snorted. He could kill the boy and take everything. Instead, he was taking just the beasts.
The boy didn’t speak as he watched the brown fingers work the knots and buckles. A baby’s cry again and the boy patted his coat. The Indian thought the greater kindness to the boy would be to kill him now. A boy and a baby out here alone would die a miserable death. But it was the boy’s decision to make; the Indian would take the oxen and leave him with his choices. The baby cried again, louder, and the boy patted his coat again, doing a slow bounce from one leg to the other.
The Indian looked down to unfasten the cinches on the oxen and heard a thud. He looked up sharply to see his companion on the ground and a glint of metal as a knife was flying towards his neck. He spun his head away and the knife sunk deep into his cheek. The boy took the staff he was using to drive the oxen and, taking one step toward him, the boy smashed the staff across his bloody cheek, rocking the Indian’s head back with a harsh crack. The weathered man heard a sound from deep within, the sound of a pine branch snapping in a windstorm, and fell to the ground. He lay there, looking up at the oxen, unable to move, his breath coming shallowly, his feet refusing to kick and his hands ignoring his command to lift, only his eyes would obey.
His deep brown eyes held fast to the scene before them as they watched the boy come around with his strange, bouncing walk, and stop at his immobile feet. The Indian willed his feet to kick, to swing, he willed his hands to reach. He lay there, blinking as the boy stared at him. He willed his mouth to say, Kill Me! The boy did not respond, he looked at the Indian with eyes that were flat and dark, his mouth lax. The boy did not speak, the only sound he made was the soft squish of his ragged boots on the muddy trail. The Indian saw the boy walk out of his field of vision, he heard the boy make clicking noises and then saw the swish of his horse’s tail as the mesa-red animal walked past him.
The Indian could not feel the coldness of the ground on which he lay, he could not feel the rocks that he knew were beneath him, he could not turn his head to follow the horse. The Indian heard the nicker and snort of the two horses, saw birds flying high, high in the gray sky, then he saw the boy standing over him again, looking at him with eyes flat and cold, a snake’s eyes, the man thought. He saw the boy walk away with that bouncing walk as a baby cried. The oxen and the wagon slid past his sight; their two horses tied to the back of the wagon.
The Indian knew he would die. He hoped he would die tonight when the sun went down and the icy winds picked up. He hoped he would fall asleep and not wake. He hoped for this death to come quickly. He did not want the wolves to find him while still alive.