Rachel Kerney leaned on the hoe handle and rubbed her aching lower back. Using her apron, she mopped perspiration from her forehead and gazed enviously at Ralph's bare back. His fringed buckskin jacket, long since cast aside, lay on a stump with his blue cotton shirt. The muscles in his back flexed as he hacked at the ground with a pick. If only they had an ox, or even the horse that had disappeared a week ago. Ralph had blamed her for leaving the gate unlatched, insisting that she had been too frightened to latch it properly. She couldn't honestly deny the fear, but it hadn't stopped her from remaining long enough to make sure the leather thong was snug around the post. Fear had been her constant companion since they had moved to their homestead. The cabin in the wilderness had been Ralph's dream since the Louisiana Purchase. That had been almost twelve years ago, when he was only thirteen years old, but the dream hadn't died. He had made it sound so exciting, so romantic. At first, it was all of that, but the sounds that came from the surrounding forest were anything but romantic. In that shadowy tangle of brush lived bears, pumas, wolves, and a host of biting insects and poisonous snakes. Their nightly visits left tracks in the field, and haunted her dreams at night. They waited for her in vain beyond the perimeter of civilization that Ralph had cut for their homestead.
It wasn't the loss of the horse that had been bothering Ralph, though. Ever since he had returned from Ft. Osage, nearly a month ago, he had been harping at her about one thing or another. Last night it had been about how their frontier home was no place for a woman and a baby. What did he expect her to do about it now? The baby was going to join them in a few weeks, whether he wanted it or not. And why the sudden change of heart? At first he had been happy about the baby.
Her steady gaze attracted his attention and he swung around, thick dark brows hunching over brooding gray eyes.
"We've got to get this crop of winter wheat in before the rains start," he growled.
Rachel moaned. "I know, I know." Lifting the hoe again, she hacked at a clod of dirt and was rewarded with a twisting pain through her back. She dropped the hoe and grabbed at her back, moaning again.
Ralph threw his pick to the ground and glared at her.
"Never mind," he snapped. "Go back to the cabin and start supper."
"You're so kind," she snarled back at him. "You try hacking at this ground while you have a fifty pound sack tied around your waist."
His eyes flashed with spark of humor that sent no more than a wry twist to his lips.
"Fifty? It must be a mighty big baby...or a litter."
She eyed his broad muscular chest. "Well, I'm not as strong as you are, so fifty pounds for you would be like twenty-five for me."
The humor left his eyes and he nodded.
"There's no need for flattery, I said you could go back to the cabin."
She kicked the hoe handle and gave him a sour look
"No you didn't. You told me to get back there and fix your supper."
He swung around and retrieved the pick. "I don't have time to argue with you. Get moving. I'll have to work twice as hard if I'm going to get this part of the field done today."
She headed for the cabin, pitching one last caustic remark over her shoulder.
"Well, I guess that means I was doing my share."
There was no need to look back. His angry gaze was like a brooding storm that filled the air with electricity. She smiled. At least she had the last word this time.
Lately, all they seemed to do was growl at each other. Sure, they were both tired all the time, but it was more than that with Ralph. He rarely smiled anymore. He was no longer the sweet and loving man she had married. Now he was a slave master who gave little compensation for her condition.
Again, the pain coursed through her back. She had probably twisted it somehow, and she'd play the devil sleeping tonight. She paused and waited for the pain to ease before starting out again. Gingerly, she stepped over the clods of broken soil. Ahead, the log cabin offered a few hours out of the late fall sun. Lately the mornings had been crisp, but by mid-day it was warm...too warm for working in the fields.
She glanced up at the sky. It was hazy today; as if something cold lay in wait over the northern horizon. Two years of living in the wilderness had been enough to teach them about the unpredictable weather patterns along the Missouri River. Still, something was different about the air today. Maybe a cold front was moving in.
Movement on the cliff behind the house caught her attention. A bear...or maybe a deer, it was hard to tell. She squinted at the forest shadows and thought she saw antlers. They could use the meat. She turned and called to Ralph. When he glanced up, she pointed at the cliff and imitated antlers on her head by using her hands.
Ralph's attention immediately shifted to the cliff. He watched intently, his brows still furrowed. Was there nothing that could make him happy right now? His expression became pensive, and suddenly he stiffened.
"Get to the house - NOW!" He barked.
The urgency in his voice sent a chill up her spine. As she whirled to obey his order, she had a brief image of Ralph grabbing his shirt and jacket with one hand and the pick with the other. Even without the pick, Ralph was a formidable looking foe - nearly six foot-four and all hard-packed muscle.
She lifted her skirts and ran as fast as she could. Something was wrong - very wrong. Behind her, Ralph's big shoes crunched on brittle clumps of sod as he closed the distance between them. Her heart raced faster than her feet, and time seemed to stand still. Even the forest around them lay silent.
Reaching the cabin, she paused at the door, gasping for breath. Ralph covered the last three steps between them in one bound and pushed her into the cabin.
"Close the shutters!" he barked again.
His tone was like the grasp of an ice-cold hand on her throat, trapping the breath in her lungs. Ralph wasn’t angry, he was afraid! She raced to one window and slammed the heavy oak boards shut. Her back protested as she lifted the beam into its metal cradles, but there was no time to rest. Fighting a wave of nausea, she dashed to the next window. While Ralph loaded his rifle, she secured the last shutter. Finally, she turned to him, gasping a question for which she already had an answer.
"What is it?"
"Indians," he answered tersely. "There was talk at Ft. Osage about Indian trouble northeast of here. The British are stirring them up again." He finished loading the gun and turned a stern gaze on her. "When they move in close, you go through the tunnel and wait in the cave. Don't come back down here...no matter what happens."
She stared at him, panic lurking in the fringes of her mind. Leave him behind? "But I can't leave you alone," she pleaded. You need help. Two people could..."
"Do as I say, Rachel," he interrupted in a sharp tone. "I can fight better if I know you're safe."
Everything was happening too fast to absorb. She swallowed around a lump that threatened to cut off her breath.
"But what if you..." She hesitated, unwilling to state her fears aloud. What if he was killed? What if she was left alone in the wilderness? "Need help loading the guns?" she concluded.
He met her gaze, and for a moment the old Ralph was back. His eyes smoldered with emotion and his bronzed features softened. He reached out and touched her hair.
"Go to the cave, Rachel. I'll try to hold them off as long as I can, and then I'll join you there." His expression hardened. "But if I don’t join you by morning, don't hang around here. Fort Osage is about 25 miles to the southwest, and you can make it in a day if you keep moving." His gaze dropped to her stomach. "Maybe two, he corrected." He tore his tortured gaze from her swollen stomach and determination made a straight line of his lips. "Follow the creek south until you find a place to cross. The creek eventually pours into the river, but where it makes a turn to the east, leave it and head due west. You'll find the road to the fort. The fort sits on a bluff overlooking the river about 5 miles southwest of the creek. Mrs. Titterman will take you in and help you with..." he turned to the gun-port and his voice broke, "the baby," he concluded in that emotionless tone he'd been using lately.
Of course. Why hadn't she realized before now? He had been hounded by guilt for bringing her into this situation; and fear; not only for her, but for the baby as well. And yet, Ralph would never let those emotions show. Instead, he had masked his weakness with a façade of anger. Tears blurred her vision.
"Ralph," she choked out, "we could go to the cave together."
He nodded, his gaze leaving the gun-port only long enough to rake her with stern reproach.
"If they break into the cabin, they'll find the tunnel...and the cave. I can keep them busy until you get to the cave." He turned back to the gun port, his tone determined. "They'll set fire to the house. I can keep them away from the cabin until it gets too hot in here. Then I'll go into the tunnel. If the cabin burns, they will assume our bodies burned inside. Otherwise, they'll be looking for us."
Rachel stared at him. How could he remain calm and composed while making such a statement? But then, what was the alternative? Panic? She gulped down a sob. Nor would tears be of any use. The only way to keep panic at bay was to keep her mind and hands busy with something else.
She carried a bucket of water to the table and placed a ball of clean cotton rags beside it. Then she lifted the other long gun from over the door and began loading it with shaking fingers. Painstakingly, she loaded the powder and ball into the old Hawkins rifle as Ralph had shown her, and chased it with the ramrod. Her fingers ran absently over the brass inlay on the stock. Did they have enough gunpowder? As she leaned forward to place the gun beside Ralph, another pain ripped through her back. This time the pain was instantly followed by a squeezing cramp in her abdomen. She supported her bulging stomach with both hands, suppressing a moan. Ralph didn't need any more problems, and the onset of labor wouldn't make any difference in their plans.
Ralph peered through the gun port and stiffened. Shifting the rifle slightly, he squeezed the trigger. The gun boomed with a deep hollow sound that reverberated off the cabin walls.
"Here they come," he commented grimly as he reached for the other rifle.
Outside, the war hoots and howls of the savages mingled with the explosion of the second rifle. Rachel stared at the smoking muzzle of the rifle, horrified. Ralph glanced around and saw the rifle still empty on the floor. Without a word, he grabbed it and began loading it. His calculated movements shook her from the hypnosis of terror and she grabbed the other empty rifle. Holding the hot barrel with her apron, she loaded the rifle again.
Before long, the rotten smell of sulfur filled the cabin, burning their lungs and bringing tears to their eyes. Ralph remained focused, each shot carefully calculated, until even he realized it was a losing battle.
"Get into the tunnel," he yelled through the din without looking at her. A bullet smacked near the porthole and he ducked involuntarily. Undaunted, he resumed firing.
Rachel reached for his gun. "Let me load your gun again before I leave."
Ralph shook his head. "No. Go now."
She reached out and touched his shoulder. "Ralph," she begged, her voice almost a whisper. "Please be careful...and don't wait too long."
He turned to her, his expression tender. He kissed her lips quickly. "Now go." His voice was stern again. Another lead ball plowed into the thick logs beside the gun port, and Ralph turned back to the battle.
The idea of leaving him alone in the house was agonizing. Yet, staying would only distract him; maybe even cause him to get injured. And now there was one more thing to consider. The longer she waited in the cabin, the greater the risk for their unborn child. She reluctantly crossed the floor and threw back the rug, exposing the trap door. She gripped the rope handle and lifted the heavy door, exposing a dark hole. There were no stairs; the tunnel wasn't deep enough. Carefully she lowered her heavy body into the hole. As her knees touched the cool soil, another labor pain tore through her body. She gritted her teeth and waited for the pain to pass.
"Hurry up," a voice spoke above her. "There's nothing in that dark tunnel worse than what is up here."
Actually, she hadn't had time to think about that factor. Could there be snakes - spiders? She hesitated.
"Just a minute," Ralph said, moving away from the tunnel
In a few seconds he returned with a lit candle. "Use this. Now get out of here." With that, he lowered the trap door.
The candle flame danced with the draft of the closing trap door and then leaned away from her, its only source of oxygen now coming from the other opening. The tunnel smelled of musty earth and burning wax. Only a faint light indicated that there actually was an exit. She began crawling toward the exit. Her stomach felt like a huge growth, and no matter how careful she was, the buttons on her shoes always seemed to catch in the hem of her dress. At times it seemed prudent to snuff out the candle and continue without that burden, but what if there was a snake waiting up ahead? It was a moot question at this point. Savages behind or snake ahead? She sure wasn't going to turn back.
Behind her, the trap door couldn't completely shut out the sound of war whoops. The intermittent boom of Ralph's gun gave her the courage to continue. Her hand was already sore from the sharp little rocks on the tunnel floor. If only she could stand upright.
A heavy thump came from the cabin. She paused, holding her breath so that she could hear any movement in the cabin. Had Ralph been injured? Killed? After a few minutes Ralph's gun boomed again. She let out her breath and continued. Maybe he had dropped something.
Half way through the tunnel she was struck by another labor pain. This time she didn't pause. The baby was on its way and the sooner she could get to that cave, the better. The idea of giving birth in that cave wasn't exactly appealing. There was no bed, no fireplace; nothing but a sand floor surrounded by cold rock walls. It would have to do. It was a stark and lonely place, but Ralph would probably arrive before the baby did. They had placed a few supplies in the cave and built the tunnel for an escape in case of an Indian attack. It had seemed unlikely at the time. At this point it was surreal.
Hopefully, the savages would be unaware of the cave. In fact, she and Ralph wouldn't have known about it if they hadn't stumbled onto it the first winter. The opening was small, and it was hidden behind some brush. They had widened the opening and then placed some rocks in front of it.
These thoughts occupied her mind as she made her way down the tunnel. There were no snakes and the end of the tunnel was finally visible. It, too, was masked by brush. She snuffed out the candle and waited, listening for any indication that savages waited outside the opening. Far behind her, the battle still raged. Ralph wasn't one to give up without a good fight. She huddled in the cool air of the tunnel, shivering from more than the cold. Would Ralph wait too long?
A gray squirrel scampered down a nearby oak tree and dug in the ground for its cache. Retrieving a hickory nut, it scurried back up the tree. Surely it wouldn't be so bold if savages lurked near.
Rachel pushed the brush aside and pulled her body from the tunnel. Rearranging the brush to cover the entrance, she stooped low and darted for the cave entrance. At that moment another pain struck. She stumbled and fell heavily to the ground. Curling into a ball, she gritted her teeth against the cramp. Gradually the pain subsided and she rose to her feet again, glancing around. Convinced that no one was near, she entered the brush in front of the cave entrance. Pushing the rocks aside, she forced her body inside another tunnel. There was no room to turn around and arrange the rocks again. She pushed on through the sand, following the tunnel as it made a sharp turn and then rose to a large room. Once inside, she pushed and tugged on a large rock to cover the entrance.
All that straining brought on another labor pain. This time she clamped her hands over her mouth to silence a scream. The pain lingered a little longer, before it finally abated. Gasping for breath in the enclosure, she turned her face to the shaft of light that peaked from a crevice above. Closing her eyes, she softly voiced a prayer.
"Lord, please watch over Ralph, and see that he doesn't wait too long before he leaves the cabin." She pause a moment and then added: "And please make this birth easy."
She opened her eyes and tipped her head to one side, listening. The shooting had stopped. She waited breathlessly for what seemed like five minutes. Finally, straining awkwardly to her feet, she waddled across the sand floor to a small opening in the cliff wall. Leaning her face against the cold stone, she peered out the opening. Brush and trees blocked the view of the cabin, but couldn't hide the fact that the cabin was on fire. Like the tongue of a dying serpent, orange flames darted into the air, forking and then retreating. Ralph would be coming through the tunnel now.
Time and labor progressed without the appearance of Ralph. The pains came closer together and steadily increased in intensity until she resorted to cramming a rag in her mouth each time. If the savages were still close, they might hear her scream. Where was Ralph? The tunnel opening from the house wasn't visible from hole in the wall, but the forest had been silent for a long time. There had been a brief exchange of gunfire, and then the awful silence. The evening shadows were growing long. Maybe Ralph was waiting for darkness. After all, how could he know she was in labor?
She knelt beside the trunk and sorted through the baby things. A few blankets, some diapers, a couple of baby gowns...some aprons. She pulled out a clean white apron and removed the soot and dirt smudged one she was wearing when she crawled through the tunnel. Somehow, it made her feel better.
The pain caught her by surprise and the rag wasn't quite in her mouth before the scream began. She clenched the side of the trunk until her knuckles were white. Was it always this painful? Slowly the pain abated and she gasped for air. She stood and began pacing the room. Why was it taking so long?
The next pain doubled her up, and she sank to the floor, shuddering. She gasped as her fingernails bit into her palms. Was something wrong? Panic pumped energy to her legs and she stood, ready to run from the cave.
Something warm rushed down her leg, and before she could determine whether it was blood or water, she was in the grips of the worst labor pain yet. She squatted, involuntarily straining. The pain gradually abated, but was instantly replaced by another of equal strength. She strained again, realizing that the baby was finally close to arriving. What should she do? Her breath came in gasps as she desperately glanced around the room for something to hang on to. There wasn't time. She untied her apron and placed it on the sand at her feet. Sweat rolled down the side of her face and red lights flickered in her eyes as she strained again and again. She couldn't faint. Not now. Panting and groaning by turns, she made her way through another labor pain, and then something seemed to give. She gasped for air and then strained with another pain. The pain shifted to her back, and she tried to stand, but her legs were too week to support her weight. Her knees trembled uncontrollably. Another pain, another strain, and suddenly she felt as though all her insides were being wrenched from her body. She cried out as pain ripped the baby from her body.
For a moment she stared mutely at the tiny purple form that lay silent on her apron. Shouldn't he be crying? Why wasn’t he moving...breathing? She snatching him from the apron and held him by his feet, as she had seen a midwife do once. The baby still didn't move. Was he dead? NO! He couldn't be! She lifted her hand and, for a fraction of a second she hesitated. Should she slap the baby and make him cry? What if the savages heard? But in the end she had no choice. Her hand swooped down, smacking the infant across his back and buttocks. Nothing. Frantically she slapped him again, this time harder.
As though suddenly awakening, the infant jerked its head and hands. A gurgling sound bubbled from his mouth as he sucked in his first breath. His chest slowly expanded, and finally he let the breath out in a long silent wail. Another quick ragged breath, and then a crackling cry. Were his tiny lungs filled with fluid? Was something wrong, or did babies learn to cry, just as they learned to laugh? On his third try, he finally managed a healthy wail.
So caught up had she been with his inability to cry, that she had forgotten about the hole in the wall. She quickly plugged it with the rag. The savages might still hear the sound, but maybe it would be diverted to the top of the cliff, where the orange glow of dusk dimly probed the cave.
Hours later, the baby cleaned, fed and clothed, Ralph still hadn't arrived at the cave. Had his son brought the savages close to the tunnel exit? Was Ralph waiting there? Had he been wounded? Was he unable to make it to the tunnel? Another thought was as agonizing as any labor pain. Had he died in the flaming cabin? No, she wouldn't think such things.
Candlelight caressed the tiny sleeping form in her arms. Grant, they had agreed to name him, making use of Ralph's middle name. Wrapped in a yellow blanket, his ruddy face was creased with dry cracks. What little blond hair he possessed stood straight up from the top of his head. Hopefully it would turn dark like Ralph's, rather than red like hers. Like all babies, his head was too big for his tiny neck to support. His large heavy lidded eyes were deep blue. Would they turn gray, or would they remain blue, like hers?
She gently lowered him to the sand and struggled to her feet. Carefully stepping around the flaming candle, she gingerly made her way to the hole in the wall. Extracting the rag, she peered out. Darkness. Only the sound of night insects met her ears. Surely Ralph could have made it to the cave entrance under cover of darkness. Was he waiting on the other side of the rock she had pushed over the entrance? She cradled her aching stomach and walked to the rock.
"Ralph?" she queried softly. Nothing. "Ralph, are you there?" she asked louder. Still nothing. He wasn't there? Maybe he was asleep. Could the savages be waiting on the other side? She strained to hear any sound of movement on the other side of the rock. Nothing.
She lay down beside Grant and blew out the candle. She must rest. She moaned as she tried to find a comfortable position. Would she be able to walk tomorrow? The idea of walking was bad enough, but making her way alone through the wilderness was terrifying. She'd rather stay in the cave…but that wasn't an option. There was food enough in the cave to last a few days, no more.
Rachel woke suddenly with the feeling that Ralph had called out to her. Light flooded the cave with false security and a blanket of cold air lay over them. Grant lay asleep against her stomach, his tiny perfect fingers curled against his cheek. Now and then his face twisted with something similar to a smile. Taking care not to wake him, she crawled over to the rock that blocked the entrance of the cave.
"Ralph?" she called softly. But there was no answer. She stood, and was surprised to discover that the pain was not nearly as bad as it was last night. She slowly walked over to the hole in the wall and removed the rag.
A tendril of smoke drifted up through the trees, but the only sound was that of birds calling to each other. Surely the savages wouldn't hang around for only two people.
Ralph should have arrived by now. His absence underlined an agonizing probability. Ralph wasn't ever going to join her. It struck her as if she had never considered the possibility. Never? She sank to the sandy floor, leaning against the rock for support as she surrendered to deep sobs. Never had she felt so completely alone and without hope. On those occasions that Ralph had left her alone in the cabin, she had been comforted by the knowledge that he would be home in a few days. If she had gone with him that last time, would he be alive now? She wiped the tears from her face with her last clean apron. What would she do without him? Why had they fought so much in the last few months? If only they could have that time back. She’d do it right this time. But the time was gone, and so was Ralph. Nothing was left but Grant.
She stood and walked across the cave. Staring down at the sleeping infant, she was consumed with one thought; get him safely back to civilization. But how far could she carry him, feeling as weak as she did? Again her throat constricted. Tears would only sap her strength. It was time to go - time for the long trek to Ft. Osage. Grant was depending on her. He had no one else. Giving up wasn't an option at this point, nor was staying in the cave.
Determination gave her strength. Kneeling beside the rock that blocked the entrance, she took a deep breath. Gathering all her strength, she pushed against the rock - all the while praying that savages wouldn’t be waiting on the other side. Slowly the rock slid in the sand. The opening gaped; empty and inviting. On the other side of that short tunnel lay freedom...and a heartbreaking journey, no doubt.
She forced herself to eat some of the canned meat and peaches. It would be wise to carry some of the food with her, but the weight would only burden her down. Grant would be all, maybe more, than she could carry. Besides, it was only twenty miles. Ralph had believed she could cover the distance to Ft Osage in a couple of days. Of course, his calculations had considered a woman heavy with child, not one who had delivered that child only the night before.
She scooped Grant, blanket and all, from the sand. Not that it was necessary to carry food. She no longer had an appetite. There would be water from the creek, and right now that was a most inviting thought.