Mackenzie had come to take the ponies and guns. The ponies were to be saved, no matter what. They would mean the future of the family, their ability to travel, for sure, and to escape if necessary. The guns were either for self-defense or for hunting or, in an ideal world, for throwing away. But for right now they were still necessary, so the guns and everything else that could be carried by the four children was loaded into the wagon. They hopped on board and left as quickly as the horses, Archer and Daisy, would take them, and they didn’t look back. That home had never really been much of a home for them anyway, at least, not since Ma died. Pap had left them long before, dying in the field of a rattler bite before anyone even knew he was in trouble. Apparently, he’d tried to wrestle the beast and the exertion of it had made the poison work faster than normal – – plus, it was a hot day, no breeze, and he hadn’t taken enough water with him in the morning, trying to conserve what little was in the well behind the barn.
They didn’t know where they were going. They barely knew what direction they were going, much less have a destination in mind. They only knew that the Pawnee would burn their home to the ground as soon as they realized Ma was gone, imagining the children were too young to fend for themselves. Which was true, for sure. They’d buried her in the night, on the opposite side of the barn from the well, and covered over the shallow grave with straw, then walked one of the horses back and forth over it to tamp down the soil and make it less obvious. They didn’t think the Pawnee would scalp someone who was already dead but after Caitlin asked the question it seemed a good idea to make it look more like a horse’s resting place and less like a human’s.
Mackenzie held the reins while Caitlin, Sherman and Deedee rode behind him, under the cover of canvas and surrounded by pots and piles of clothing. Mackenzie knew to go west, but keeping his terror and uncertainty hidden from his siblings took all of the effort that he wasn’t spending on guiding the horses. “Where are we gonna go, Mack?” wondered Deedee. Mackenzie thought to himself, “I’m only 11, how am I supposed to know where we’re gonna go?” but he knew better than to say it. As the second-oldest child and the oldest girl, Deedee had always been naturally bossy and demanding of answers. It had been her idea to cover Ma’s grave with straw and horse prints.
“You remember that visitor we had a while back?” Mackenzie asked, looking over his shoulder so his voice wouldn’t get lost in the wind, along with their dreams.
“You mean that man with the crooked nose and big mustache? The one who fixed Archer’s foot and slept with him overnight?” piped up Sherman, who was the most observant 8-year-old Mackenzie had ever known.
“Yeah, that’s the guy.”
“What about him?” demanded Deedee.
“I overheard him talkin’ to Ma when she walked him out to the stable and I was just finishing putting up the horses for the night,” he replied. “He said something about a fort, and soldiers, in someplace called Kansas.”
“Kansas!” exclaimed Deedee. “But we’re already IN Kansas! So it can’t be very far, right?”
“Well, of course, I knew that, silly,” said Mackenzie, trying to cover his tracks with his own brand of straw and hoofprints. “But this was a different part of Kansas than where we live.“
“What part, Mackenzie? How long until we get there?”
“I don’t know how long it will take us to get there, Sherm, but I’m sure this is the road and it can’t be too much longer. See where the sun is? We’re about halfway between high noon and sunset right now, so likely we’ll get there before dark.” Mackenzie tried his best to sound authoritative.
“Will the Pawnee be at the fort, Mackenzie?” wondered Deedee.
“For sure there won’t be any Pawnee inside the fort,” said Mackenzie, with feigned certainty.
“What’s a fort?” asked Sherman.
Cover photo by Stephen Hui on Unsplash