Leaving Missouri, Autumn 1860
Kit pretends not to notice the man eyeing him. After walking through a cold drizzle Kit is finally meeting up with the crew that will make their way west. The men stand along a dirt road in Franklin’s sleepy downtown. All of them look to Kit like they haven’t seen a bathtub in a while. The trail leader, his name is Virgil―a broad-shouldered man with a shock of red hair―has already agreed to bring him along.
This man Bridger hasn’t taken his eyes off Kit since he met up with the group. He circles Kit once, then again, looking him up and down. The man smells of campfire smoke and sweat. Kit tugs on his right ear, a nervous tick he hopes to break on this trip.
Bridger stops pacing, and stands still, his boots caked with mud. He points his thumb toward Kit. “This scrawny kid comin’ with us?” he asks.
Kit squints into the last rays of summer sunshine raising his hands to his eyebrows to see the elderly trapper better. The man is either really old or just seen too much for one lifetime. Horizontal lines run across his forehead. Deep, reddish-colored bags lie under his eyes. His deerskin breeches are dark brown and stained with dirt; they are also ripped at the knees and cracked open in spots. One leg has a length of fringe down the side, but the other has only a few strings intact.
Virgil heaves his broad shoulders up, then lets them drop. He looms over Kit, though most people do, then pinches the bridge of his nose, and claps a paw-sized hand on Kit’s shoulder. “Yes, he’s signed on with us—and he’ll pull his weight. Right, boy?”
Kit nods once, not meeting either man’s eyes.
Satisfied with Kit’s answer, Virgil sidles up close to Bridger. They stand toe to toe. “Bridger, mind your business. Don’t start problems before we’ve even left town.” Bridger snickers then picks up his bag and slinks off. Kit can hear him talking out loud to no one: “Somethin’ ain’t right with that boy. I can feel it in my bones.”
Kit’s seven burly companions wear matching unkempt beards; they’ve stuffed scraggly hair into fraying beaver caps. Kit can’t guess their ages, but he considers them all much older than himself. I got just as much right to be here as the others.
Determined to prove himself, Kit plans to work harder and outpace all the others. All he’s got is a shotgun thieved from his older brother and a meager bag of possessions. These won’t slow me down none.
One of the seven, the men call him Doc, tells Kit to pay no mind to Bridger. He takes a quick hop onto his saddle then nods his head for Kit to follow. Kit grabs his gear and starts walking. A few of the other men mount horses, and several sit atop wagon seats driving oxen, but Kit can’t afford such luxuries. He’ll be walking the entire trail. Kit notices a few of the others will be walking too. Unfortunately, one of those is Bridger.
For the first five days, all Kit can see to the horizon are golden grasses waving with the breeze. No animals, no people, save those in the caravan. The dry desert trail and relentless dusty breeze have parched and enlarged Kit’s throat. It’s been hours since Kit tried to take a swig of water. The last time Kit took a big drink from his sack, but it just came right back up and left him coughing.
Each man carries his own water.
Virgil rides up to Kit. “Once we see the Arkansas, we’ll be all right,” he promises. He looks down from his mount but doesn’t say more. Kit can feel Bridger’s eyes on his back. The old trapper walks up behind him and sneers. “I heard men has been so thirsty on this trail, they cut off the ears of their mules and sucked out the blood.”
Kit ignores him.
A suspicious-looking man named Joseph Doyle sniggers. He and Bridger seem to always be up to something. Doyle’s gaze never quite seems to focus. It could be because his eyes look out in two different directions, like a lizard.
The trail leader shakes his head, clucking for his horse to move.
Tonight, Kit comes off the trail dusty and hot. Normally, he sets up next to the fire; but there’s no need for that this evening. Instead, he flops down on his dingy bed roll—a heavy, wool blanket pilfered from his mother’s closet. He’s lain the blanket near the chuckwagon: far enough away from the others to discourage conversation. But he looks up just in time to see Bridger sauntering his way. “I’s gonna sleep right here boy,” he smirks, then drops his bag on Kit’s bed roll. Leaning down to where Kit sits on the ground, he commands: “Tell me your story, Kitty.” Ever the faithful follower, Doyle stands right behind Bridger all smiles and with at least one eye on Kit.
Kit doesn’t say a word, just pulls the blanket out from under Bridger’s pack then walks to the far side of the fire. Doyle nudges Bridger, saying, “Rumor has it, the kid’s a runaway. He gots a bounty on his head.”
“Do tell,” says Bridger. “Thought he looked familiar. That kid’s in trouble up to his eyeballs.”
Kit pretends not to hear them. No use explaining that his no-good stepfather bound him to a saddle maker. After two years of forced slavery, and brothers constantly needling him, Kit had had enough. The only good thing about that job? It was where he learned about the treks headed west.
Men used to come into the saddlery all the time, telling stories of western adventures. It takes time to fix a saddle, and that time was well spent spinning tall tales. They had Kit hankering to pull up roots and leave town. Ain’t nothin’ keepin’ me here anyhow, he had thought. It would be good to get out from under his brothers’ constant brawls and teasing―they called him the token child or marginal boy―nicknames conjured when Kit never grew taller than the unforgivable height he had achieved when he was barely fifteen. One trapper, a tall guy named Beckwourth, used to come in claiming he was the chief of the Crow Nation. Said he’d been on his own since he was a teenager. He told bold tales, probably a bunch of hogwash, but the man had an honest-to-goodness Wyeth saddle. Tooled leather softer than any Kit had felt. Wide fenders. Real stirrups and saddle strings. Them’s hard to come by for a trapper who ain’t successful, Kit had thought. The lure of the West was even stronger after hearing the man talk. Like the time he saved his captain from going over a waterfall on the Gunnison. Or the one about keeping a bear at bay while the others in his party snuck away to safety. Beckwourth’s stories were awfully exciting.
A month ago, he signed on to this caravan and never looked back. He figured it was best to just work hard, keep to himself, and stay out of trouble until the bounty expired. Heck, most of the men heading west had bounties on their heads. The odds of one of the men in the group turning him in weren’t great—unless he crossed them. Just three more years. Kit reminded himself daily. Then I’ll be free. Maybe Bridger would forget about the warrant once he got moving down the trail.
Walking that trail, there wasn’t anything to do but think. The footpath wide enough for wagons to travel single file, stretches all the way to the horizon, giving his mind time to wander. Low lying scrub grows along browning grasses. Deep, purple-colored thistles stand above it all. Now and then, Kit distractedly bends to feel the softness of wooly lamb’s ears that grow here and there.
Would have been the same if he was riding a horse. Since he couldn’t afford one, he puts one boot in front of the other trying to keep up with those on horseback as best he can.
Kit thought of his ma. It broke his heart to think he might never see her again. Nobody knew he’d left Franklin. When he didn’t show up for dinner that first night, she’d no doubt been worried sick. Anytime Ma got to worrying she’d sit in the rocking chair out on the little wooden porch. Probably there still. Once she got herself into town and saw the posters for his arrest, she’d be worried sick. Gosh darn. Wish things could ’a been different. She has loads more children, but Kit is her youngest.
“How old are you, son?”
Kit hasn’t heard Bridger at first. Too busy looking out at the scenery and dreaming of Ma’s cooking―oh, those fruit pies!
But Bridger being Bridger, he walks up close to Kit, knocking him off balance. The old geezer hovers above Kit as he picks himself back up, reaching for his ear, tugging it to calm himself.
“Ever been away from your mama before?” the man asks, laughing a bit. Doyle stands just off to the side of Bridger possibly looking Kit’s way. From where he stands, Doyle’s eyes are both pointing away from Kit.
George Simpson, another seasoned trapper, who keeps in step with Bridger, is glaring at Kit with both of his eyes firmly planted on him. The man’s jaw is clenched tight. Both of Bridger’s chums stand on either side of Kit who works hard to keep his eyes forward. The trail leader is too far in front to save him this time. When Kit starts walking, Doyle stumbles forward blocking his route. Bridger runs into Kit’s path. “I said, when did you start drawing breath?”
Kit has no choice but to stop dead in his tracks.
“Fifteen? Why you’re just a babe!” Bridger jeers while the other two trappers chuckle. “From now on, you need to stay close to us,” grabbing at Kit’s arm to bring him closer to him. The man is too strong for Kit, no matter how much Kit tries to wriggle free. “Don’t struggle now boy. We ain’t gonna hurt ya. Too much anyways,” says Simpson his hand held high, readied for a good solid punch to Kit’s middle. All Kit can do is close his eyes and let out a low, slow moan in anticipation of the pain. But none comes.
When Kit opens his eyes, he sees a horse’s head hanging quietly at Simpson’s shoulder with the arm that Kit had anticipated delivering a frightful blow wrapped gingerly around the horse’s neck. Bridger is trying his darndest to look innocent. Simpson has a look of fear on his face. Doyle has his face pointed up to the sky. The horse is connected to Doc, who had been riding unseen behind the men and had witnessed the entire scuffle.
“Move along,” is all he says, eyeing the trappers. Bridger starts to walk away, but not before he’s scolded by the doctor. “Not you. Bridger, you, and your buddies can walk along with me. Get movin’ boy.”
Kit stalks away quickly thankful for this man’s intervention. It seems Bridger has a few enemies amongst the trappers.
One night as the group finishes dinner, it must be Doyle’s turn to stir the pot: he sidles up next to Kit and urges him to drink. “Sit down and have a swig! This here’s the finest Taos Lightning this side a’ the Mississippi River.”
Kit merely shakes his head: No.
When Virgil makes eye contact with Doyle, Kit takes the opportunity to stand and head toward his bed roll. He can’t risk landing on the man’s bad side.
“Leave him be,” says Simpson, who then uses the opportunity to head into one of his stories.
Simpson stays close to Bridger and Doyle but can obviously think for himself too. The seasoned trapper tells a good yarn around the fire. Even Kit chuckles at the man’s stories.
The morning of the fifth day, Kit is walking along the trail and dreaming of his ma’s cookin’ when he hears, “You missin’ your mama, boy?”
Kit looks over to see the camp cook driving the chuckwagon. If he thought Bridger looked old, this man is an antique. The wagon’s slow-moving oxen ambles quietly along. He hadn’t realized the chuckwagon was so close. Normally, he can hear that rickety-looking kitchen-on-wheels rattling, but he had been dreaming about the creek behind his house. Sometimes after dinner, he and his brothers would jump into the cool water. A rope tied many years ago swung them out into the middle, where the current carried them downstream. They’d float on their backs until dark, then climb out to the bank and walk home barefoot.
“Nah,” Kit lies.
“How old are ya?” Cookie asks.
Everybody calls the man Cookie; Kit never caught his name. He’s an old codger, rough around the edges, with a snarly look in his eyes.
“Come on, boy. Just making conversation. I been out here for years, and these ox ain’t talkers.” A smile curls up at the sides of Cookie’s lips. He sits in the driver’s seat behind the slow-moving oxen. Kit easily keeps pace with them, walking even slower than normal.
“I’m sixteen,” Kit says, hoping he sounds manly. “Left home to get in on the adventure.”
Kit had noticed early on Bridger and Cookie don’t like one another. At chowtime, they eye one another and move in wide circles around each other. Having a friend like Cookie, Kit suddenly realizes, might be a good thing on the trail.
Kit must have slowed himself because he has to trot to keep up with the wagon. Could be the constant wind that tries to push the group back toward home, blowing the sandy gravel into Kit’s face, planting itself in every nook and crevice. Is the wind warning him to turn around? Despite the gusts, the hot, Kansas summer sun has blistered his bare head. It’s burned so bad flecks of his scalp come off in his fingernails whenever he scratches too hard.
“Hop on up here, boy,” Cookie says. “What’s your name again? Kit? What kind ’a name is that?”
Kit grabs for the wooden frame then easily swings his legs up onto the wagon. Once he’s seated next to Cookie he says, “It’s short for Christopher.”
Cookie nods. “You know how to cook, Kit?”
Kit mumbles a faint yes, fearing he’ll be made fun of yet again. Men aren’t supposed to cook, except on camps like this. Back home, Kit loved to be in the kitchen watching his mama cook. He would bring in kindling then stoke the oven’s fire. While it got hot, his mama mixed flour, a little sugar and salt. She’d let Kit cut in the lard. Then mix in a little buttermilk left over from making butter. Ma would set out a kitchen towel, flour it and pat the biscuit dough atop it. Using an old tin can, she would cut the biscuits before baking them. While they cooked, she and he would take turns cranking the butter maker until the cream fluffed into butter. Meanwhile, he felt safe sharing his stories and dreams with her. If he was the only one in the kitchen with her, she’d give him a hot biscuit straight from the oven and slather fresh butter on it before his brothers took them all.
“I need some help,” the old cook says.
Kit rolls his eyes instinctively. Another apprenticeship where he’d get treated like a slave.
Seeming to read his mind, Cookie shakes his head. “Not no damn servant boy. I need help fixing the fire and getting the grub out in the evenin’. I’ll pay ya.” Kit grows excited at the prospect of being paid cold hard cash in exchange for serving a few measly dinners. Not sure how to act, Kit nods his head thoughtfully. He’d like to bargain for his wages but doesn’t know where to start. Too nervous to make a fool of himself, he settles for just knowing he’ll have pocket money at the end of the trail.
At day seven Andrew Broadus removes his rifle from the wagon and accidentally discharges it, shooting himself in the arm. Broadus is a strong, reliable trapper, but when his arm begins to blacken, the wagon train halts for the day.
Kit finally gets to see what’s in Doc’s long wooden box he’s been conveying tied to his saddle all this time. The wooden case is a surgical box. Doc opens it to display a set of knives and a long metal saw, all stacked neatly in blood red velvet casing. Doc pinches along the length of Broadus’ arm as the injured man grimaces in pain. Doc confirms the bones have been shattered and verifies the arm must be removed.
Broadus is carried down to a trickle of a stream and propped up against one of the nearby cottonwoods. No easy task because the man must weigh 250 pounds. Kit gets stuck holding onto his middle which is squishy and fleshy. There aren’t any good hand holds, so Kit is forced to put his hands and forearms under the man’s back. Broadus’ stomach wobbles back and forth like jelly as the group makes their way down to the streambed. The wind has gone still. Kit smells the drying grasses all around―musky, like yeasty bread. The men lay Broadus in a crook of the tree―the Cottonwood’s roots meander and extend above ground creating a nook that can hold his head like a hard pillow.
Kit is asked to make a fire along the sandy beach of the stream. He collects sticks and pieces of the cotton dropped by the tree earlier in the season.
It is decided the arm should be cut off at the elbow. Broadus sucks down a good quantity of Taos Lightning given to him by old, nosy body.
“Ready?” asks the man doctoring the arm. Virgil and Doc seem to be the only ones ready. A length of what looks like a belt is secured just above the elbow. Virgil begins turning a screw that tightens the belt squeezing Broadus arm. The men have surrounded the amputee all holding different body parts, preparing for the inevitable kicks and thrusts as the saw bears down.
Bridger stuffs a rolled towel fast between Broadus’ teeth. Kit takes in a deep breath and holds tight to Broadus’s good arm. Doc reaches for a scalpel to cut away the flesh just above the elbow. The flap of skin hangs down alongside blood pouring from the cut. Kit must look away as his vision goes fuzzy. Doc reaches for a Caitlin knife and begins to cut away the muscle on Broadus’ underarm. The curved knife is so sharp that Doc removes most of it in one swipe. The bloody muscle falls to the ground and several of the men groan. It reminds Kit of the infrequent portions of beef his ma cooked. All this time, Broadus has been howling in pain and it takes all they must hold him in place. Kit is practically laying on Broadus’ good arm.
Doc grabs the saw from his surgical box and begins to hack at the elbow until the arm is severed. He holds onto Broadus’ upper arm while sawing back and forth across the bone until the stump falls to the ground. The sound of bone breaking is making Kit’s stomach flip, but he retains his composure. A quick peek at the elbow, where Broadus’s flesh hangs off white bone, causes him to yak once. He swallows it down before any of the others notice.
Virgil removes a metal wagon wheel bolt and stuffs it into the fire. When the bolt is red hot, the doctor uses his fingers to scoop tar from inside a spare wagon wheel then smears it over the wound. Broadus howls in pain. “Easy, easy,” Bridger says, and all the men hold on tight. Maybe Bridger has a good side? Kit thinks…For some reason, he can’t look away. But the next moment, he hears, “Hold him, men…” Cookie passes a pair of old tongs to the trail leader, who extracts the heated bolt from the fire. Then the leader turns and presses the hot bolt to the tar covering the wound. The heat quickly binds the tar to the open flesh, and Broadus shrieks in pain. The towel between his teeth falls to the ground.
Then, suddenly, he falls quiet.
“Must’a passed out,” Kit hears.
While Broadus is carefully laid to the ground, the stump arm is secured with an old shirt that has been ripped into rags.
The men settle in for a few days to see if Broadus will pull through. Cookie sets up the chuckwagon just on the bluff of the overhang where Broadus had surgery. He remains in the same spot although the men collected dried branches from the tree to make a lean to. Some of the men make leantos of their own, spreading out between where Broadus has been set up and the wagon. There are enough dead branches from the trees to make a few shelters. Kit couldn’t be bothered making a shelter. That is until the rain comes. Although the days had been hot and dusty up to this point, once the men settled in for a few days, the rain decided to visit. Every afternoon, he watched the clouds gather toward the west and move their way. At first, it just came in a mist, but then picked up so that the drops were so fat and so many that he couldn’t stay dry. He tries to stand as close to the cottonwoods as possible to find a bit of relief.
At the same time, he is so thirsty that he often tries to stick his head out, lean back and open his mouth to get as much water as possible. The rain dribbled onto his face, but he didn’t care. He was so parched that what little water got into his mouth, he thought he might not be able to swallow it as his throat is so dry.
Some of the men, including Doc dance in the rain with their mouths hanging open too. Cookie scurries around the wagon grabbing pots and pans to set out and collect the water.
Kit learned the hard way the rain will go wherever is easiest for it. He’d had to seek cover under the wagon and got absolutely soaking wet when rivulets of water, trails of it meandered through the parched ground through tiny cracks, running down to the nearly extinct stream.
But, when the hail started, he was bombarded regardless of his protection. It flew from the sky nearly sideways, as if someone up above was pelting him as hard as they could. It hit him everywhere―his ears, his eyes and it even went down his shirt.
The storms lasted only about fifteen minutes at the most each day, so there was little chance the nearby stream could gain any strength.
Kit is tasked with collecting large rocks from along the near dry stream to build a sturdier fire pit. It is staged next to the wagon so that Cookie can use it, and the men can sleep nearby in the evenings. He collects the cotton that blows off the trees at this time of year to store and use as fire starter.
Cookie keeps Kit busy cleaning cooking tools, organizing, and reorganizing the wagon’s many tin cans. He found more bits and bobs, tiny cupboards and stolen away items more than he could believe. Kit already knew the back portion of the wagon folded down to make a flat work surface for him and Cookie to work. When it was folded down, it revealed cupboards that held most of the cook’s everyday tools of the trade―spatulas, spoons, forks and of course his set of knives. But then he found so much more. Climbing into the box of the wagon, Kit found even more cupboards. These held tins of peaches, pears, and a few of corn. Although Cookie liked to hang his Dutch oven and skillets over the side of the wagon, Kit found even more of them in a variety of sizes, all darkened black from use.
“You cleanin’ or leanin’ up there boy?” Cookie yelled up to him one day. Kit swung a leg over the wagon and hopped down holding one of the cans of peaches he’d found. “Hey Cookie, why ain’t we never had none a’ these for dinner?” he asked.
Cookie just chuckled and shook his head. “I been savin’ them for a special occasion. Grab a few more a’ them cans and I’ll show you how I make my peach cobbler.” Kit just smiled at the thought of a sumptuous dessert.
True to his word, Cookie had Kit mix up some biscuit batter, but let him put in more sugar than usual. They hung the Dutch oven over the fire, emptied the cans of peaches in and let them get bubbly and gooey. Kit spooned the sweet biscuit batter over the fruit and covered the pan. By dinner time, when he lifted the lid, the biscuit mixture had browned nicely. Some of the peach juices had run up over the dough in pink and orange streaks. When he and Cookie served it up to the others, there wasn’t any talking, just happy mouths chewing and enjoying the cobbler.
While Kit and Cookie cleaned the dishes and put all the utensils away, Kit couldn’t help but smile. This was one of the best nights he could remember on this trip. Even better, Bridger left him alone.
Kit’s mouth is full of dust. Again. No matter where he walks in the pack, the man or horse in front of him kicks up enough dust to make him want to cry. Sometimes Cookie lets him ride in the wagon. “We gonna make it?” Kit asks when he gets one of these wonderful rides. The accident set the caravan back a few days; like everyone else, Kit is anxious to get to the Arkansas.
The hills roll endlessly to the horizon, never changing even though the group is walking twenty miles each day. In Missouri, the trail started in the lush green banks of the Mississippi River. When Kit began this walk, his boots steps around puddles of freshly fallen rain that created a slimy muddy walkway. The heavy oxen didn’t have a problem, their giant hooves dug through the mud, but the wheels of the wagon they pulled weren’t so lucky, sliding sideways on the downhills and threatening to slide the wagon sideways. Farther from Kit’s hometown, the trail became less damp. The tamped down earth felt almost soft to walk on. The farther west the caravan traveled the drier the conditions have become. The trail is dry and cracked and stony gray. The small particulate dusts up at the least breeze.
Cookie nods in answer to Kit’s question, but he won’t meet Kit’s eyes. “Why don’t ya get out and walk a bit?” Before Kit could register Cookie’s request he was unceremoniously made to walk. Kit can’t figure out what’s bothering the generally easy going cook. He’d seen too much in his days on earth to be bothered by too much.
As Kit walks, he’s soon mesmerized by the green and gold grasses, waltzing in the wind, slow, like Ma and Pa used to do. Before. Heat shimmers on the horizon and blurs his vision. Yet far off he can make out what looks to be a large billow of cotton floating in midair. Of course, he can recognize clouds. But that’s not what he sees exactly. These are closer to the ground, appearing dull colored, not reflecting the sun like a cloud might. Kit stops walking altogether when he realizes what he sees. Yes! Apparently, Bridger has made the connection too because he starts yelling, “Saved! We’re saved!”
Dropping his rucksack, the busybody dances a jig, leaping and smiling through yellowed teeth. Twirling around first Simpson and then Kit, the man looks mad.
Kit can feel the other men’s apprehension melt into the sky. There are five cottony billows, all willing to share a bit of water. Enough to allow them to get them to the river alive.
“Another two days and you’ll be there,” the wagon driver says. “Look for them trees.”
Sure enough, after another two days of travel, Kit sees them: big cottonwoods that he was told will flank the river. Leaves that still hold onto their green color fluttering from the dark branches off in the distance.
As the caravan approaches the stand of trees and the river, Kit sees lush green in a strip that cuts up the gray dry ground all around like a zipper. Tall cottonwoods with trunks so big around it would take three of the trappers holding hands to reach all the way around them. The thick trunks are furrowed into ridges and gray as the trail he’s been walking. High above him, maybe 80 feet up, branches sway in the unending breeze sending long slender leaves aflutter. The sprawling branches provide what seemed like unending shade from the brutal sunshine.
“This is my fifth trip along the Santa Fe. Each time I get to these trees my heart finds happiness,” said Virgil, who has ridden up next to where Kit stands.
“How old do you think these trees are?” Kit asks.
“Oh boy,” he says, scratching at his scraggly beard and rubbing his chin back and forth while he thinks. “Must be upwards to a hundred years,” Virgil says finally.
Farther along the river Indians are making camp. The first Kit has ever seen. The caravan keeps its distance choosing to camp upstream of the Indians.
Kit can imagine the fresh, cold water of the river. Just like the creek back home. So, first thing he does is stop imaging and jump in. He drops his bag and walk waist deep into that flow shoes and all! He lies back into the cool water and floats along with dapples of sunshine intermingling with shade. Some of the others have waded into the water, pant legs hitched up as far as tanned hide can go. Their legs and feet are so white, like the color of clouds. Others lead their horses down the bank for a drink. Oh, that water makes his sunburned skin and head feel so much better. Heck, it seems to make everything better.
For a few weeks, the trail follows the river with spots of roaring rapids then lightly flowing clear water over smooth pebbles. On either side of the river is parched Earth, but right here along that waterway, Kit feels like he’s back home. The ground is muddy and the plants along the shore are green. Shade from the big old cottonwoods keeps them enormously cooler than walking along through the open prairie.
Doc and Virgil take their horses to the river each night and watch as the animals go in up to their knees in the cool water, drinking their fill. Cookie and Kit unhitch the oxen every day.
“Take Matilda down for a drink would’ya?” Kit groans as the thought of directing the oxen who was named after Cookie’s ma. She’s so ornery and stubborn. If she gets the better of Kit, the men will laugh at him. So instead, he quickly grabs the other two around the halters. “I’ve already got Louise and Sarah,” Kit yells to Cookie. Neither of them likes to walk Matilda, but the other two are docile as puppies. Kit learned that Louise was his sister’s name, God rest her soul. The old man said Sarah was “the best darned painted lady this side of the Rockies,” Kit couldn’t imagine why some gal would want to paint herself. What color would she use anyhow?
All along the route to the river, the oxen ate the dry golden grasses without complaint. But now that there are cool, water-filled green stalks everywhere, Matilda will try to make a beeline for the grass. Kit looks back to see Cookie scowling, but he just smiles.
Most nights, the wagon train stops before all the others. Once the oxen are watered and fed, Kit pickets them together then gets to work on dinner. He’s in charge of collecting kindling and splitting wood for the evening fire. Cookie calls out the night’s menu: “Makin’ beans and corn bread tonight!” That is Kit’s signal to start hunting through the cupboards of the chuckwagon for the ingredients. “Get them taters in water,” Cookie commands. “Didn’t hear nothing about taters,” Kit grumbles under his breath. “What?” the old man asks. Kit doesn’t answer, just grabs the potatoes. After fetching a pot of river water, he does a quick scrub and then settles the lid on tightly over the pot. He sets up the three-legged contraption, hooks the pot to the chain just near enough to the flames for it to heat up. Kit can hear the water boiling in the big pot―no need to peek inside.
When Cookie realized Kit could bake, he shows him how to use the Dutch Oven to make biscuits. Kit dips a cup into flour just like Ma, mixes in soda, then cuts rounds that he lines on the bottom of the blackened cast iron pot. He nestles the pot in the coals, then pulls it out just as the tops of the biscuits get browned and crunchy. He enjoys the work; it keeps him away from Bridger, who has gotten to calling him Little Mary, mocking him for helping the cook.
A month into the walk, Kit sees the brown adobe walls of the fort. The building isn’t like anything he has seen before. Squared off on all four sides, the walls look like somebody made a thick, flat mud pie and stuck it upright in the grass. As he approaches, anxious thoughts swirl in his mind. Would men be awaiting his arrival, wanting to arrest him and bring him home? Maybe Bridger will collect the ransom money by letting on he knows the runaway. Brief waves of fear nauseate his stomach. Sweat trickles down his forehead.
The fort occupies the crown of a low hill overlooking the Arkansas River. Wildflowers and grasses grow knee high and wave along with the tall grasses in the flat fields that surround the building. Far off toward the west, Kit can see the Rocky Mountains, but here the land is mostly flat. Here and there, Indians have set up teepees to trade with the men who frequent this place. Kit walks toward the fort and decides to stay in the shadows of the place―collect his pay for the trip, trade a few of his meager belongings and head out to Santa Fe alone. The fort sits two stories high. All the windows and doors are in the interior of the structure so that no one sneaks in through an outward-facing opening. The only way in or out is through a gate. An assortment of rooms―the trade room, the wagon wheel mender―all connect inside. Around back are the stables and farrier’s fire. Upstairs are rooms to rent.
Entering the fort, however, is no small task. There’s barely enough room for one man to fit through the entrance after the gate is opened. Kit watches as the others dismount and tie up their horses outside the walls of the building. A hitching post is set up parallel to the building with a wooden trough of water just below the wooden bar. At this time of day, the sun is in the western sky, so this side of the building has plenty of shade. Cookie hops off the wagon, tying Matilda, Louise, and Sarah, to the hitching post, still attached to the wagon. He hurries with unexpected exuberance ducking quickly into the entrance. Kit follows the cook, then watches while a man rushes through the dust of the old square, scurrying toward the old geezer. The two men exchange pleasantries as if they have known each other a long time. “Hello there, Mr. Bent!” the cook says, bowing in jest over his large stomach. William Bent laughs at the shenanigans. “Benjamin,” he says, “what a treat to see you. Why, wasn’t it just last month you came through?” The two stalks off shaking hands, leaving Kit alone. He runs ahead, trying to follow them into a shop built into one of the long arcades that lines the interior walls of the fort. William stops short in the doorway then turns to scrutinize Kit, blocking his way into the building. “Boy, your name?” William Bent says. “Christopher.” Kit stares him down, but he can see the knowing in the older man’s eyes.
Rubbing his scruffy beard William Bent asks, “You Christopher Carson, the runaway?” Kit’s palms go sweaty, and he realizes his mouth is hanging open. Puzzled how to handle this, he stands there frozen. Has Bridger already told him?
Again, the trail leader saves him. He has walked across the dusty plaza, following the other men. Pushing past the fort owner, he leads Kit by the shoulder, guiding him into the shop. “Horse feathers!” he says. “Bill, leave him be. Most of the men you have here are on the dodge from the law. This here boy just wants what the rest of us want. To be left alone.”
William Bent follows them into the shop, not bothering to close the door behind him. “He’s free when I say he’s free.”
Cookie makes himself scarce. Kit sees his back end moving quickly into an adjoining room.
“If he intends to spend another minute in these here walls, he’ll do as I say,” William continues.
Kit looks to the trail leader for further help, but he shrugs his shoulders. Kit stands as close to the small window that looks out to the square as possible. If he could melt into the walls he would. As William ducks his head under the wooden counter at the back wall he demands, “He’ll cavvy on the caravan to Santa Fe.”
“What? No!” Kit says, reacting before he can think clearly. The fort periodically sends provisions down to Santa Fe to trade with the Spanish. Usually, there are more horses than riders, so a cavvy accompanies the traders, wrangling the unridden horses, walking them behind his own horse until a rider calls for a mount.
“Son, you work for me, or I’ll turn you in,” William says matter-of-factly.
Cavvy boy? Kit thinks. Enslaved again! At least this time he’ll have a horse to ride.
Kit will only spend one day at the fort as the next caravan is heading out in the early morning hours after his arrival. He knows he’s lucky. William Bent could have turned him in and sent him right back to ma. And his dead-end life.
The others, including Cookie, will hang around a few days, selling their wares. Then, they’ll join up with another caravan heading back toward Missouri and further west. As Kit ponders his fate, he hears someone calling to him from a doorway.
““Haven’t you never been here before? Nearly everybody passes by the Bent brothers’ fort at some point.”
“I seen you before.” Kit stops short. “You Kit Carson the outlaw?” Turning around Kit sees a boy about his age, standing in the doorway to the stable. “Huh?” Kit asks playing dumb. The boy walks toward Kit. His feet are bare and nearly black from dirt. His breeches are rolled up just below his knees. The boy’s hands and face are nearly as dirty as his feet.
“Nearly everybody passes by the Bent brother’s fort at some point,” the boy tells Kit. Thinking he could outsmart the boy, Kit tries to throw him off the scent by asking, “Why did the brothers build the fort in the first place?” The boy seems eager to talk and sits down cross-legged in the dirt and starts his story.
“I’ll tell ya, but don’t think I forgot about you and the warrant for your arrest.” Kit shakes his head and sits down across from the boy. “The Bent brothers and their friend Ceran St. Vrain started this fort years ago. They’s trappers too. Seein’ a need for a tradin’ post, they set up here.” “You seen a lot here?” asks Kit. “Sure. I seen loads ‘a mountain men come through here,” says the boy. Then, he leans in close, “I might’a met a few outlaws too. None as young as you,” he says then winks at Kit. Kit heaves a sigh and reaches for his ear but stops short. “Look, I’m just trying to find some adventure. Why are you here?” Kit asks. The boy looks down at the ground and sniffles. He takes so long to answer, Kit wonders if he even heard the question. All of a sudden, the boy stands up and turns to go. He mumbles, “I ain’t gotta tell you nothin’.” And that was the last Kit would see of the boy who ducked back into the stable. For the rest of the night, Kit makes himself scarce choosing to sleep outside the fort. Sleep didn’t come easy. Mostly because his stomach grumbled somethin’ fierce. He propped himself up against the outer wall until daybreak.
“Gimme the roan,” says one of the eighteen men on the caravan.
Kit hasn’t bothered to learn anyone’s name. Best to just do his job and avoid arrest. The trek from the Bent fort to Santa Fe will take just over a fortnight.
Kit grabs a blanket and saddle then rustles up the horse from the herd that has been corralled between wagons all night. This is how it always is, at the end of each day, the men hand over the reins. Kit removes the tack from each horse, then lets the horses loose to graze. When the wagons are circled, Kit leads each horse to safety for the night. First, however, he has to catch them. The buggers like to run away from him every damn night. It seems the horses play keep away, because as soon as they see him coming, they trot just far enough away from him. Kit has to run to catch them before they bolt. By the time Kit gets back to his sleep mat, he’s exhausted.
One evening, as Kit finally leads the last of the horses in for the night, a buckaroo stands guard at the entrance to the wagon circle. “You ain’t too smart, is ya?”
Kit stares at the cowboy, too tired to complain. When the buckaroo asks, “Can I give you a piece of advice?” Kit nods.
“These horses are scared of being eaten,” the buckaroo explains. “They’s prey out in the wild. ’Stead a sneakin’ up on ’em, come right in front so’s they can see ya. Shake a bit of grain in yur hand and you’ll nab ’em every time.”
“They’re so dang stubborn,” Kit complains.
“Look, these horses, they’s thinkin’ all the time. Jus’ watch ’em. If he don’t want to go one way, you probably don’t either. They can see a snake in the grass before you. They’ll teach you and keep ya safe,” he concludes, clapping Kit on the back.
Once everyone gets their mount for the day, Kit ropes the unridden horses and walks at the back of the pack. He’s been riding a gelding he selected because the horse is pretty: the color of buckskin with a black mane and tail. Nobody’s noticed that Kit has been saving the best, in Kit’s mind, saddle for himself. Each morning, he swings a striped saddle blanket that’s in better shape than his bed roll over the gelding’s back. Once he’s secured the saddle, he drapes a length of elk fur over the seat, letting it hang past the high wooden cantle. The horn is positioned way up high; soft leather covers the pommel. The seat jockey fits his small stature just fine. Thick wooden stirrups keep his worn-out boots in place.
Most of the horses are smaller than what he’d seen back in Missouri, where Easterners rode tall horses with long legs. These were horses that stood maybe fourteen hands at their withers. Rather than walking straight on, their back hooves splay out. Their eyes are deep set with strong, heavy bones over each eye socket.
Kit has learned the hard way that none of the mounts will withstand a beating. Before this trek to Santa Fe, he had little experience with horses other than fitting saddles to their backs. These ponies will nip at him if he shoves them into the corral at night. A sharp nip in the shoulder also tells him he’s secured the saddle wrong. He’s also noticed they love affection. If he strokes the neck of one of the ponies, the others will nuzzle his neck and draw close for cuddles.
A few afternoons back, on a particularly hot day along the trail, one of the horses just wouldn’t move. The animal had stopped in the middle of the trail, not moving no matter how much Kit dug in, standing in the middle of the trail, and pulling at the reins.
The horse looked ill. His head hung down, nearly touching his lips to the ground. Then the horse looked back to his barrel, as though he’d lost something. Then he stretched out his whole body.
Kit didn’t know what to do. If he got one of the horses’ sick, he’d pay a hefty price. Not just for stopping the caravan, but from the buckaroo who owns the horse. Kit was learning the horses mean everything to these men.
Just as Kit had begun worrying about what to do, the horse promptly got down on his front knees, rolled over on his back and swung his legs back and forth.
“Aw!” Kit said. “Is you just needin’ a back scratch then? You old bulldog!”
Kit knew the horses could be moody and would be stubborn until they got what they wanted. But then the horse just stopped moving and slowly collapsed to one side. The other horses nickered and moved away from the animal.
Oh no, Kit thought. I’ve killed him!
Kit stood frozen in place, but a buckaroo ran to the animal, yelling, “Help me boy! Get this horse up to standin.” He had jumped out of his saddle so fast…Kit had never seen anything like it. The man appeared to be running in midair. “Hey, fellas,” he yelled, waving down his companions, “we got a colicky one!”
What’s colicky? If it meant stubborn and lazy, the man was right.
Kit helped the man to get the horse back up on four feet. But the horse looked just as sick as before.
“You hold him here,” the man demanded of Kit.
Kit did as he was told, watching the man intently. The man looked to be about forty-five years old, and as rough-looking as they come. A no-nonsense kind of guy. First thing he did was open the horse’s mouth and look inside. “Gums are blackened. This ain’t good.”
Kit nodded his agreement as if he knew exactly what the man was saying. I wonder what the inside of a horse’s mouth should look like. Before Kit can ask, the man put his ear up to the horse’s belly. “Don’t hear nothing,” the man said.
Kit nodded again.
The man felt the horse’s neck. “Pulse ain’t too strong.”
“Well, that’s the trouble,” Kit whined. “He’s been lazy, itchin’ his back. Been doin’ it all morning.”
Kit believed the man was about to give it to the horse; but to his surprise, the man shook Kit by the shoulders as if he was mad. “You nuts, boy! Why didn’t you holler for us sooner? This horse is sickly. If he don’t stay upright, he’ll twist his insides all to pieces.”
Kit was surprised at the man’s outburst. Should I have known? But he was downright astonished by what the man did next. Removing his coat and rolling his shirt sleeves up to his shoulders, Kit watched in horror as the man lifted the horse’s tail and plunged his bare hand into the horse’s rectum. The horse didn’t like that one bit: he started to walk sideways. “Hold him!” was all the old man said, still elbow deep in the horse’s backside. When his arm finally came out, it was covered in a liquid brown substance. White mucus coated the brown liquid like raw egg.
Kit started to gag, trying everything possible to stop the reflex. The man held feces in his hand and yet bent his head forward to look at it more closely. Kit’s eyes were wide as saucers. What’s happening?
“Poop looks dry,” the man said, not looking too bothered by what he had just experienced. “Take him down to the water. Let him drink his fill. We’ll walk him until the rest comes out.”
Kit wondered if the man would come down to the river too. A wash up the arm wouldn’t hurt.
After the horse had drunk his fill from the cool water of the river, Kit took a quick peek inside the horse’s mouth. It is pink. If the horse died, Kit would hang.
The caravan halts for two days to nurse the horse back to health. Kit has been trying to look important the whole time, as if he had been the first to discover the issue then notified the men as quickly as possible; but he and the buckaroo know better. There isn’t much to do except laze about in the shade unless Cookie finds him. “There’s always work to be done boy,” he’ll tell Kit as he drags him back to the chuck wagon. Kit had just fallen asleep when he felt somebody kick his boot. “Cookie, just let me sleep!” he begs.
“It ain’t Cook,” says the deep voice that hovers just above where Kit lay. Kit startles awake to see the buckaroo who helped him with the sick horse. “Do you mind?” the man asks pointing to the ground next to where Kit has sat up straight. Kit nods and the man stretches his long legs out straight and lays back onto his back. The silence is deafening. “Should I say something?” Kit wonders to himself. Maybe he should apologize. As he moves to speak, the older man says, “I know you ain’t got a lot of experience with horses. It wasn’t right of Bill to put you in charge ‘a their health with no knowledge,” the man says. Kit has no idea what to say. “I’m Kit,” he says knowing the man only knows him as cavvy. “I’m Jim,” the man says with a chuckle. Jim and Kit sat and talked for much of the afternoon. Jim gave him a few pointers in caring for horses. When Kit was asked why he was out here at such a young age, Kit just stared at the ground. “Don’t worry boy. You’re lookin’ at me like I’m gonna arrest you or somethin’,” says Jim. Kit just stares at him. “I understand. This is the most adventure any kid or man could ever have. Don’t worry none,” Jim says as he stands. He claps Kit on the shoulder and walks away.
Occasionally, the caravan stops in the small towns along the trail: Chimayo, Española, Las Vegas, Pecos. Most of the men hand over their horses to Kit and quickly make their way toward trouble. Some find the houses of ill repute. It was like them soiled doves know just where to find the men coming into town. The girls hang around outside the establishment, looking coy. Once they’d locked eyes with a man, he walks up to her, big ol’ grin on his face. They head indoors—and aren’t to be seen again for some time.
Other men get their fill of rotgut, slugging it down at the local saloon. Sometimes a man springs for a cold bath. Already-used water and a towel cost less than fifty cents. Kit stays to himself though—and out of trouble. He chooses to sleep in a barn with the horses or find a quiet doorstep to lie down on each night. In the mornings, with the wages he earned helping Cookie, Kit buys a tin cup of coffee mixed with a small bit of sowbelly. He dips a small piece of bread. It isn’t good to taste but keeps his stomach from grumbling most of the day.
Once he reaches Santa Fe, Kit doesn’t stick around long. He takes time to buy himself his first John B Stetson. Then, while the others trade or drink away their money, Kit gets paid and heads north, sneaking out of town on a horse named Cedar. The horse isn’t his to keep, but he figures by the time anyone finds it missing, he’ll be long gone. The horse already knows him, and folks have said he’s pretty to look at. Kit renames him Taos, after the town he hopes to see one day. A new beaver trap is secured to his saddle too. It was pilfered from the Bent fort as well.
He plans to head north and then turn west along the Arkansas River, where beaver are plentiful. Finally, after almost two months, he is free.