(may be abridged)
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 water; yet when is the point at which a group of strangers
becomes a community? What is it 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 buildings, 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
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
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?
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 the winter, although our sudden
decision to stop left us better off than had we pushed on to the
Going on would have been simple, for travel is an escape,
and as long as our wagons moved our decisions could be postponed.
By choosing to stop we had brought our refuge tumbling about us,
and our problems could no longer be avoided.
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
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.
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.
The blade of the double-bitted axe sank deep, and chips as
large as a man's palm fell into the needles under foot.
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
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 him too.
He's a mean, cantankerous man, but come fightin' time, he'll be
"You are right, I am thinking. You keep shy of that man, Bendigo.
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
to 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
often 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
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 grass
lands 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 catching up with Sampson.
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.
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.