The Lonesome Gods

I sat very still, as befitted a small boy among strangers, staring wide-eyed into a world I did not know.

I was six years old and my father was dying.

Only last year I had lost my mother. She died longing for that far-off, lovely California where she was born, and of which she never tired of talking.

"Warm and sunny," people said when speaking of California, but I knew it as a place where fear lived.

Now we were going there. We were crossing the desert to face that fear, and I was afraid.

My father sat close beside me trying to sleep, but torn occasionally by violent spells of coughing that caused the other passengers to turn their heads, some in pity, some in irritation.

Our wagon, drawn by six half-wild mustangs, plunged into the night, rocking and rumbling over a dim track that only the driver seemed to see. Ours was a desperate venture, a lone wagon with two outriders attempting the crossings from Santa Fe to California.

Lying awake in the darkness, I remembered what people in Santa Fe had said. "It's a crazy idea! One wagon? Even if they can slip by the Apaches, the Yumas will be waiting at the crossing of the Colorado."

"I'll say one thing. If anybody could take a wagon through alone, it would be Doug Farley."

"Maybe. But he's only one man. As for me, I'll just wait until spring and go through with a wagon train."

When I told my father what they had said, he nodded. "We have to go now, son. I cannot wait." He hesitated, then continued. "Some folks would think me wrong to tell you of this, but you must be prepared.

"I cannot wait until spring, Johannes. The doctors say I haven't that much time. They say I am going to die. You will have to grow up without me, and growing up is never easy. People only talk about how wonderful youth is when they have forgotten how hard it was."

We had gone together to see the wagon. Doug Farley had built it for the purpose, and the planks were not only tightly fitted but caulked so it would float if need be. The side walls were lined with a double thickness of buffalo hide to add more protection from bullets.

Eight people could ride in the wagon in some comfort, but on this trip there would be but six, including me, and I wasn't very large. Each man and woman was required to have a rifle in good condition and at least two hundred rounds of ammunition. Each was required to demonstrate that he or she knew how to load and fire his or her weapon.

"We will travel by night," Farley warned us, "wherever possible. No loud talking, no noise. No shooting unless we are fired upon."

"What about hunting?" The question was asked by a thick-necked, powerful man in a black suit. His name was Fletcher. He had a square, brutal face with small eyes. I did not like him.

"There will be no hunting," Farley answered. "We have supplies enough, so there will be no need. A shot would only attract the trouble we're trying to avoid."

"You've been over this trail?"

"Five times, and I've scouted it just for this trip. Every stopping place is chosen now, and I've selected alternatives if something goes wrong."

"How'd it go before?"

"The first time was with a party of mountain men. We had one hell of a fight--five men killed, and we lost all our furs."

"The other times?"

"The army survey party was strong and we had no trouble except for losing some mules and one man who just wandered off and was lost.

"Another time, with a wagon train, we got through to Los Angeles, losing only two wagons and some stock."

"Los Angeles? What's that?"

"It's a little cow town about twenty miles from the sea. Used to be an Injun village. That's the place we're heading for."

"What's this here trip goin' to cost?"

"Three hundred dollars each. Cash on the barrel head."

"That's a lot of money."

"Take it or leave it. If you wait until spring, you can go through for half that. Maybe less. I am taking people who wish to go through now. He paused. "We leave at daybreak."

"How about my son?" my father asked.

Farley glanced at me. His eyes lingered for a moment. "He's small. He can go for one hundred dollars."

"That's not fair!" Fletcher was irritable. "You asked for people who could handle guns. That boy certainly can't."

My father turned slowly to look at Fletcher. "As to that, my friend, we shall see. In the meantime, I believe I can shoot well enough for both of us."

"What the hell does that mean?"

Father glanced over at Farley. "Mr. Farley? I am Zachary Verne."

Doug Farley lit his cigar and dropped the twig back into the fire. "That's good enough for me."

"But--"

Farley ignored the interruption. "He goes," he said, and walked away.

The wagon went westward in the morning, driving over a hard-packed trail, simply one wagon alone, that might be going anywhere. Only when we neared the lava bed did we begin traveling by night.

After that there were usually no more campfires at night, and those by day were brief, for cooking and coffee. By day the horses grazed and the men slept, always in carefully selected places where they were hidden from observation.

Steadily we moved westward, keeping off the skyline by using the high, wide-open country of a night when it was possible. Before daybreak we'd be holed up in one of those hideouts Farley had scouted long before. There we would sleep, read, play cards, or wonder the hot days through, waiting for the blessed coolness of the night.

Inside the wagon we talked little, and Papa least of all. Papa was a sociable man most of the time, but on this trip he kept to himself. Maybe it was his illness, but maybe it was something else, something that worried him more and more as he drew closer to California.