The Western Trail – G. L. Snodgrass

It was enough to make her soul shake. Six months and two thousand miles. A hundred ramshackle wagons filled with farmers and their families. Or worse, shopkeepers. Did these people have any idea of what lay before them? Hanna Parker sighed as she stared at the western horizon then turned and examined the long line of wagons camped along the Missouri River. They needed to get started if they were to beat the mountain snows. At least that was what everyone said. But the council insisted they wait until the grass was ready. That was the problem. Too early and there wasn’t enough grass to support the stock. Too late and the wagons would be trapped in the mountains. A delicate balance between success and death. A cold shiver ran down her spine as she remembered the stories about the Donner Party. It was enough to make a girl wonder about her father’s sanity. They said one in ten pioneers didn’t make it to the end.

Disease, Indians, accidents, they all whittled away ten percent of the company. It was so far, she thought with a shudder. Turning around she looked across the river at Independence and then back east at what they had left behind. Friends, family. Her father had a good practice, a respected doctor who the town relied upon. But he’d given it all up to cart her and her two brothers across a continent. Her heart squeezed tight as she thought about her father. He hadn’t been the same man since her mother’s death. Lost, searching for something. Unfortunately, she doubted he would ever find it.

Instead, he had launched them on this foolish adventure. Gritting her teeth, she pushed down the bitterness building inside of her. Her opinion had never been asked. Instead, her father had dictated what they would do. A small regret filled her. Perhaps she should have accepted James’ proposal. A woman of twenty should be married with children after all. Unfortunately, there had been no love, no passion. But at least he was safe, she thought with a laugh. She would never have to fear being forced into an adventure like this.

Hanna smiled to herself as she tried to imagine James ever doing anything adventurous. The man had never been more than a few miles from the farm he was born on and was perfectly all right with that. To him, risk was to be avoided at all costs. It was amazing he’d ever gathered the courage to ask for her hand. Not exactly an attractive quality in a man. But safe. She had to give him that. Sighing to herself, she turned for the wagon so that she could start dinner. “Man coming,” Jacob called out. Hanna lifted a hand to shield her eyes as she followed her littlest brother’s gaze to see a big man on a sandy dun leading a packhorse.

Coming from the west, the sun cast him in shadow. Something, made her heart jump. As he slowly came into view her insides tightened. Wide shoulders, tall, dressed in lightly tanned buckskins with fringe and a wide-brimmed gray hat creased on top. He sat his horse as if he’d been born there. This man was not a farmer. Obviously one of those mountain men she had heard so much about. Hanna held her breath as the man grew closer. He wore a gun on his right hip with another pistol shoved into the waist of the gun belt and a large knife on his left side. Then there was the long gun in his scabbard.

Why so many weapons? she wondered with an uneasy feeling. While some men had guns in her Ohio town, never in public and never three of them. No, this was most definitely not a farmer. Slowly she looked up to meet his gaze and froze as her heart turned over. In his late twenties. Handsome in a rough, manly way, beard stubble that looked like it was a few days overdue from his weekly shave. light brown hair peeking out from beneath his hat. It was as if Natty Bumpo had stepped from a James Fenimore Cooper novel. Rough, powerful, and competent. But it was the man’s eyes that trapped her.

The eyes of a wolf. Gray, piercing as if they could read a person’s thoughts. Eyes that had seen more than most men would see in a lifetime. A shiver ran down her spine. Not of fear, but of interest and excitement. Their eyes remained locked for the longest moment as her mind raced and her insides quivered. Who was this man? He continued to hold her gaze then tipped his hat and said in a deep voice, “Zion Campbell, ma’am. I was told you might be have’n a doctor about.” For a brief second, she couldn’t remember what to say then pulled herself back to some semblance of civility and nodded, “My father. He should be back in a moment.

” The man simply nodded then swung down from his horse. He was even taller than she had thought. What an unusual name, Zion, but somehow it fit. He nodded to her younger brother, Jacob, and held out the reins, “Mind tak’en ‘em down for a drink? They’re only half tame but too tired to give you trouble.” At eight-years-old, Jacob looked up at the man as if he were meeting the world’s greatest hero. The boy had always been enamored with stories about the mountain men and their adventures. The entire country couldn’t get enough of their wild tales. Now to finally meet one, the boy would be in the clouds for days. “Won’t you have a seat, Mr. Campbell?” Hanna said as she pointed to their only chair positioned close to the campfire.

Her insides turned over as she suddenly forgot what to do with her hands. He studied the chair for a moment then shook his head, “Been sitt’en on Bud all day, ma’am. Besides, my ma would rise up out of her grave and skin me alive if’n I was to sit while a Lady stood.” Hanna bit back a satisfied smile. A lady? A woman could get used to that. “What seems to be the problem, Mr. Campbell? Perhaps I may be of assistance. I serve as my father’s nurse in most matters.” She watched as his brow furrowed for a moment before he shrugged. “Got myself a cut that’s become corrupted,” he said as he pointed to his right forearm.

Her heart jumped. Infection was a doctor’s worst enemy. She had seen more than one minor wound turn septic and take a hearty man’s life within days. Suddenly she felt almost normal again. Once more on solid ground. This was her world. Something she knew about. Spinning around, she found her brother Lucas approaching from the woods. At thirteen he was the sullen, silent one. “Luke,” she called out to him.

“Find Papa, tell him he has a patient.” Her brother studied the man then nodded and turned to go find his father. Once she was sure her brother was doing what he’d been told to, she reached out and took the man’s hand, slowly twisting the arm. “You will have to remove your shirt or I’ll need to cut your sleeve to get to it.” He frowned. “Ma’am, I ain’t got but this shirt left. That lion done ruined my other one and I don’t particularly want to walk into St. Louis half-naked. People might talk.” She looked up at him and lifted an eyebrow.

He shrugged again then pulled his pistol from his waistband before unbuckling his gun belt. Such evil tools of destruction, Hanna thought as she stopped herself from openly disapproving. After putting the weapons aside, he reached back and pulled the buckskin up over his head. Hanna bit her lip to stop from gasping. The man was so large. A wide chest corded with solid muscle and arms like railroad ties. She noticed an old slash scar on his lower left ribs and what looked like a long, healed bullet wound on his left shoulder. A warrior’s badges, she thought as she took his arm and turned it so she could examine his latest wound. A seven-inch gash ran down from the crook of his elbow to the middle of his forearm. Her insides clenched.

Red, with yellow infection seeping out. Eight sloppy stitches attempted to keep the skin closed, failing miserably. Reaching up, she felt his forehead then looked deep into his eyes. No sign of fever, a minor miracle in her experience. “Who sewed this up?” she asked as she examined the wound more closely. “It has to be the worst job I’ve ever seen.” He scowled down at her. “I did, I ain’t ever been no use with my left hand. Not for close work.” Her heart went out to him.

All alone out there in the wilderness. Hurt days, maybe weeks, from the nearest help. Fighting off a mountain lion then sewing up his own wounds “Sit,” she demanded. “Ma’am, …” “Miss Parker,” she told him, “Hanna Parker. And I won’t have you fainting on me. I’d never get you up off the ground and you’d just be a big lump in the middle of my camp I had to step around.” He studied her for a long moment then smiled and her heart shifted. The smile changed his entire countenance, no longer the wild mountain man. No, now there was someone behind that harsh exterior. Someone almost human.

“Sit, Mr. Campbell.” He continued to study her for a long moment then nodded before sitting in the chair. Hanna tried to calm her racing heart. The man was so large that even sitting down he seemed to take up half the outdoors. Suddenly, she realized she was staring and what was more, he had caught her at it. Her cheeks flushed with heat as she turned to retrieve her father’s bag from the wagon. “You said a mountain lion did this?” she said to him as she returned. “Animal wounds can be particularly dangerous. I’m surprised it isn’t worse.

” He hung his head and sighed heavily, “I weren’t no better than a tenderfoot. Left my fire without my guns. Walked down to the creek for some water. He tried for my back, but Bud’s whinny turned me in time to catch the bas … the cat. Used my arm to hold him off until I could get to my knife and end his … miserable life.” Hanna smiled to herself. She was sure that he had wanted to curse there, but he’d forced himself to stop from doing it. Again, curious. She had always heard that men like this were uncivilized. Unfit to be around respectable women.

“Where did this happen?” she asked as she removed her father’s tools and tore a cloth into bandage strips. “Just this side of Fort Kearney,” he replied as he looked down at his wound. “I probably should have gone back to the fort, they got a good sawbones there, but I have a hankering to see Saint Lo.” Hanna shook her head as she glanced at him. Men, they could be so ridiculous at times. “And let me guess,” she said to him, “you thought you could fix it yourself.” He laughed, “Wouldn’t be the first time.” “Well, Mr. Campbell, that wound is going to have to be opened again and cleaned out, packed with a poultice, and then closed by someone with two hands. Do you want to wait for my father or let me get started?” He shrugged.

“Feel free, can’t make it much worse.” She shook her head as she began to cut away the stitches. Within moments she was lost in her task, focused on cleaning out the wound. She noticed that the man didn’t even flinch when she pulled at the skin. Who was this man? What was his story? Not just the encounter with the mountain lion. But where did he come from? Did he have a family? A wife? “Is that where you are from, Fort Kearney?” she asked him as she continued to work. “Fort Boise, ma’am. Over in the Oregon territory. Scouting for the Army mostly. A man can’t make a living on furs no more.

” He paused for a moment and stared off into the distance. “I was born a dozen years too late, I guess. But I done some trapping before the beaver got too hard to find and the price dropped to almost nothing.” Oregon, this man had been there, she realized as her heart jumped. If he was from Fort Boise then he had been over the trail. Probably more than once. Her heart raced as she pushed back a thousand questions. Now was not the time, she needed to get this wound cleaned. As she worked, she became very aware of just how close she was. He smelled of woodsmoke, leather, and something else, a hint of wild.

His size made her feel small and feminine, a feeling she enjoyed. “Have you lived in the west for very long, Mr. Campbell?” she asked, determined to take her mind off the bare chest and strong shoulders. “Go’en on ten years,” he said as he watched her work. “Turned fifteen and left my Pa’s rock scrabble farm in the Clinch Mountains of eastern Tennessee. Once I crossed that Holsten River I never looked back.” She noticed the tenseness in his brow and wondered why. Obviously, he had a good reason to not miss his home. “Hooked up with a teamster driving supplies out to the Army,” he continued. “Then broke off and started trapping.

But mostly I just wandered, seeing new lands.” “You never wanted to settle down?” she asked as she pulled the first stitch of catgut. He laughed, “Never could abide four walls. Got to see what’s on the other side of the next mountain. Pa always said our side of the Campbells were born under a wandering star.” Her brow creased as she stopped for a moment and studied him. “It sounds lonely.” The big man scoffed then looked off into the distance again. “Spent a winter with the Nez Pierce in the Bitterroots once. Trapped the Yellowstone of course.

Did some time in the goldfields and a stint in the logging camps around Oregon City. Spent a summer in San Francisco, but mostly I wander. That’s why I like scouting for the Army, they don’t trap a man where he don’t want to be.” A small sorrow filled her for some unknown reason. These silly thoughts were ridiculous. She had known the man barely a half-hour after all. The man was passing through. Going east while she was going west. West! Six months and two thousand miles. It seemed so far and suddenly, so lonely.


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