Old Joe - Chapter 5
 By mosquito   •   10th Nov 2012   •   3,604 views   •   1 comments
Old Joe Horse StoryI couldn’t believe my eyes. For having been so little there before, it looked like a whole town had been turned inside out. Ben shook his head, and walked down to the trail slowly, carefully, picking out way around what was now debris but doubtless once had been the treasures of a family. Luke hopped off Snowy, and started to scurry around and pick up whatever he could salvage. Snowy followed him closely, and stood quite still while Luke loaded up the saddle with what he’d collected. I’d never seen Snowy so agreeable to anything, but even he sensed this was serious. Ben stopped us on the trail, put on the brake, and unhitched us carefully. He left us loose near the wagon, to rest and nibble on the grass.

Ben spoke to Mary quietly, and pointed off at some folks who were knelt down in the grass. You could see one lady rocking slowly and you just knew it was a sign of something woeful. Mary nodded, and headed in their direction. Amy peered out from the wagon cover, and Ben rebuked her sharply to stay inside. She’d seen enough though, and that plus her Pa’s sharp tongue sent her into floods of tears and she crawled back into the wagon. Ben lifted a shovel off the side of the wagon, put his hand on Luke’s shoulder as he walked past, and headed off down to the swirl of trouble that had just passed.

I had never seen a tornado, but we had heard of them from other horses we’d met on our trips to the markets over the mountains. The most remarkable part was the swathe of dirt carved out like wide trail through the grass. It seemed to come out of nowhere, pass this way and then head behind up to nowhere, but for something that comes out of nothing and ends up as nothing it sure does a whole lot of trouble. I nudged Bess and encouraged her to eat, even though neither of us felt much like it. Bess had spied the outlines of some mules, some horses, some oxen that had been torn from their wagons and thrown to kingdom come. They lay quiet and still in the grass, just like molehills. I didn’t know what would happen now; without anything to pull a wagon – or even a wagon at all – how would these folks get anywhere now? There’s no way me and Bess can haul them and all their belongings. Even what’s left of them.

We waited for hours, until it started to get dark. Ben slowly came back, covered in dirt and streaked with sweat, and looking more tired than I’d ever seen him. I figured he’d set up camp and we’d settle in for the night, but he climbed into the wagon, straightened out what he could do – after a sweet little apology to Amy, who was now fast asleep – and then came out to hitch us up. We knew he’d been working hard, and as Mary came up she looked twenty years older than when she’d walked away that morning. Ben reached out her hand to help her up to the wagon, but she just stood there.

‘No, Ben,’ she said softly, a pleading look in her eyes, as much to Heaven as to Ben. ‘How can we? How can we leave these folks here? Children? Women? Sick and injured, nothing to save them?’

‘Now Mary, listen’ Ben said gently, but with a touch of authority to his voice usually reserved for the children. ‘There’s not much we can do. We can’t take ’em with us. They won’t go anyway; not yet. They’ll rather stay here with all they’ve lost – or are losing.’

Mary looked at the ground and wrung her hands. You could see she’d never been more torn over anything in her life. She was so full of compassion, that woman. Asking her to walk away from anyone suffering was like asking a mama bear to walk away from a newborn cub.

‘Mary, love, you know I’m right.’ Ben said, reaching down again. ‘They’ll settle tonight, they’ll get by, they’ll recover. Before you know it there will be another wagon train along. Some will go back, some will go on. We don’t have that choice. If we’re going to make it – on our own, we have to go now.’

Mary looked one last time over her shoulder, her eyes settling on a few solitary folks grieving quietly; near where Ben had dug. She sighed deeply, and reached up to take Ben’s hand. Luke and Snowy trotted up, having returned what they could to the rightful owners. Luke could see the fatigue and frustration on his Ma’s face.

‘We’ve not been gone far, Ma.’ He said. ‘Why don’t I ride back with one of the others and make sure we get some help sent out? Me and Snowy can catch you up tomorrow.’

‘No!’ Ben snapped. ‘Absolutely not! There’s no way you’re old enough to make it back to St Louis on your own, and no way I can be sure you’ll find us again. That’s my word. No!’

Another man from the train rode up, a small child lying sleepily across his saddle.

‘I’ll go back with him. It’s the only chance this poor we girl has – to get back to the city. We’ll head straight back, rest the horses, then I’ll see your boy gets back to you in a day or two. Just stay on the trail and we’ll find you.’

Ben shook his head, but I flicked my ear when Mary spoke up.

‘Ben, how can we say No? We’ve lost nothing but time. How can I just roll away from here and make no sacrifice of my own? You told Luke this trip would be the making of him; and so it is.’ With two of them heading back they’ll be able to carry more supplies. That’s the least we can do for these folks, and I mean the least!’

Ben looked slightly startled at Mary’s tone, but her determination and her commitment to the care of others was what drew him to her years ago when he saw her stand up in church and holler at the congregation about something – men included. He couldn’t even remember what it was now, but he admired her disrespect when it mattered, when it was necessary.

‘Alright. But Luke, listen up. We’ll travel no more than two days then we’ll wait. We’ll mark our route every hour or so, and anytime there’s a fork. And as for you-‘ he glared at the man, and I could feel his fists tighten on the reins. ‘You get my boy back to me or I’ll send every demon I pass back to find you.’

The man touched the brim of his hat and looked down in deference. ‘I will, sir. He said. I’ll look after him; like he was my own.’

Ben gave him one last look, softening a little as he recognized the sincerity he was looking so deeply for. He grunted slightly, and with a ‘JoeBess, hup!’ we were off. I turned me head as far as I could and saw Snowy, looking pretty unsure himself. I tried to whisper some reassurance to him, but Snowy couldn’t hear. This was pretty big step for him in growing up too...

I could hear Snowy’s little hoof-beats, twice as quick as those of the big horse the man rode, disappearing behind us. Mary never once looked after them, but rested her head on Ben’s shoulder and started to softly sing. Her tones carried us on into the sunset, the dusk closing slowly around us.
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