by Rhinehart Ashe
We left Fort Henry by wagon train one week before the troubles began. I tended Zach, my little brother, and my three step-siblings. I was big enough by then to be a real help to Mother, but Mr. Stanley would check on me from time to time. He was a nice man and I’m glad Mother found him. He took good care of us and once, he bought me a fancy sundress that I loved to wear, but now that I’m a little bigger, the dress doesn’t fit as well as it should, and Mother says if I can see my knees, the dress is too old.
I often stepped in to help Mother cook and clean and chipped in to help with my new siblings, Jed, Samantha, and Eliza. I often held Mother’s hand as she read a story to me and the little ones while Eliza would blankly stare at our clasped hands. Later, while sleeping with the other girls, I would hear gentle sobs coming from Eliza and I would cry too. I would try to sing songs to her, but she would grunt or snarl at me.
Last year, Eliza was playing with a small axe that Father used to chop up kindling. Mother told us not to play with the axe. But Eliza found it one day and promptly lost it. She came to me and told me that she had lost it beside a pile of wood that still wasn’t stacked up after having been split. I was trying to be a good big sister and took to finding the axe. I had been feeling around for it down a crevice and slipped just as my fingers felt the cool steel. I lost the tip of my finger to that axe and still to this day I am missing the nub on the end of my small finger. And still, she snarls.
There were eighteen men and boys in our train that were old enough to work and handle a rifle, not counting my brother Jed. There were sixteen women and children, and most of us could help in some way, except for the Ferguson family. All they did was pray and complain.
We stopped to restock and rest a few days at Fort Henry. It struck me as a lonely place, having been largely abandoned, with many soldiers still living in tents at the edge of the fort. They were at “the end of the trail,” seemingly forgotten with their military careers wasting away in the shadows of worn-down buildings, but it wasn’t really the end of the trail. It just happened to be the end of the nicest part of the trail and the beginning of the troubles. Samantha, Eliza, Mother, and I were invited to a dance with the colonel on our last night before pulling out in the morning. We left early after breakfast. One platoon of soldiers accompanied us for six days before they had to turn back. One soldier deserted and stayed with us. He was a blacksmith and insisted we call him Smitty. He was constantly on guard as a scout for our wagon train, and we were happy to have him remain with us.
Except for some minor changes in our surroundings, most days were the same. We created small spaces in the back of our wagon for us children where we would read or sing, if the terrain wasn’t too bumpy.
At night, when there wasn’t dancing or singing, Mr. Stanley and I laid outside the wagon and stared at the sky. And I looked at the endless sky and imagined flying above the wagons, stretched out and lofty. He offered a little prayer and often talked about the immensity of creation. We opened our eyes and he told me to float, to feel the wide-open space beyond our earth. I enjoyed the feeling of floating beyond the clouds and past the sky, above every worry and care, to feel like a shooting star, rushing from one side of the sky to another. I felt my body lift off the dusty ground and float. I rose up higher and higher and even felt that I might lose my balance if I turned my head too swiftly. I imagined I was a constellation, my elbows and knees and ears becoming stars. I drew lines in the sky between my stars and looked down on our planet knowing that there were little girls staring up at me, wondering if they too might become as grand as me. I flew and mingled with the stars, feeling a deep power surging around me, growing each time I extended myself into the heavens. Oh, how I enjoyed floating!
One day on the trail, the wagons in front of us slowed. Our parents called back to those of us in the back of the wagon to not look out. Moments later, we passed a man being hung on a tree. We were horrified to see such a sight. Mother said there was a plaque by the dead man, saying that the wagon train in front of us had been attacked and that the hanged man was a thief and a brigand. Without much law out here, the earlier wagon train extended their own hand to settle matters in a most grotesque but necessary manner. And so, we passed the tree, a silent monument to his crimes.
Just a day later, we stopped to graze the livestock, taking in a little rest. I was working on making balls of the churned butter and heard Smitty, who had been tending the sheep, yell, but couldn’t discern his words. With a glance, I could see several people had stopped their goings-on to see what he was shouting about. Smitty pointed in the distance. Three men sat on horseback on the top of a ridge about a mile from where we were resting. Clearly outlined against the backdrop of the blue sky, they sat and watched us. Losing interest after a minute or two, some of the men in the train slowly went back to their work, their sidelong glances showing that they were keeping a wary eye on the three strangers. After some time, I looked up and the men were gone. They never came closer from what I know.
That night, Mr. Stanley and I floated again. I really can’t describe the sense of calm and peace that I found, but it became so much more. Rising again and stretching out my limbs, I became the constellation. I felt a tingling in my toes and fingers. This strange new sensation buzzed and crept up my arms and legs, concentrating in my chest. Radiant warmth washed over my head and trickled down my spine. I imagined reaching out and looking down to earth, through the clouds and past the mountain ranges, down to a little girl lying on the ground, drifting off to sleep.
I craved the floating with every day that passed. I began to lose interest in our songs and wished to exchange the dust for the beyond. I found that although the trail was unknown to me, I came to learn and understand other depths and heights through soaring along with the stars at night.
We headed off again in the morning down the trail. Everyone seemed rested. A few men scouted out ahead and the rest of us obediently followed. In the afternoon, our scouts stopped and looked off to the south. One man pointed and another turned back, galloping toward us just as a dozen or so men on horseback emerged from behind the southern hill not a mile away. I don’t think any of us doubted what they had in store for us.
As one of our scouts arrived at the head of the train, the lead driver pulled his wagon off the trail and circled back to the north. The two wagons in front of us followed closely, looping around to form an encirclement, meeting up with the last of our wagons at the rear of the train.
The bandits stopped a few hundred feet away from us. They seemed to be shouting, waving their hands, trying to intimidate us. On some level, even the cattle knew these men were trouble and groaned with the additional work of pulling the wagons out of the ruts in the trail to bump over the landscape.
The rest of our scouts arrived, shouting out demands to be quick. Wagon drivers chained their oxen as other adults rushed about with impassioned determination, offloading bags of flour and other larger, bulkier supplies from the wagons into the center of the circle. Mr. Ferguson gathered the smaller children and we all knelt, hiding behind the cover provided by the supplies in the very middle of the circle. I felt as if I couldn’t catch my breath and poor Eliza clutched a small rag doll to her chest. Most of the adults armed themselves and moved to the perimeter while a few of the older boys stood by, providing an inner ring of protection from the apparent marauders. Every single one of the Ferguson family, even the father, huddled down with us in the inner ring.
The wind carried the voices of the bandits to us as time slowly crept by. I twisted my hair, glancing up occasionally to look around. Mother came to check on us from time to time, ensuring the smaller children had trail bread or jerky to snack on. I overheard one of the older men say there would be no fire tonight since it would only serve to highlight our location for the bandits. I grabbed some wheat berries and chewed on them nervously, passing the time, trying to avoid becoming too anxious. The adults remained calm and talked gently amongst themselves about our situation. I could tell they were planning for eventualities.
A few thick clouds moved in while the sun descended toward the horizon. We were about to lose our light.
Mr. Ferguson told me that the bandits had spread themselves out to avoid becoming too much of a single target. They were in twos and threes, maintaining their distance, yet still within range of some of our better shooters. Smitty made himself a firing position under one of the wagons and two other men followed his lead by spreading their lanes of fire to the far sides of our encirclement. There wasn’t much talking. Some of the children had taken to playing quiet games in the dirt, as Mrs. Ferguson told stories to the smaller children. I listened in a little, but mostly I held hands with Mr. Ferguson’s youngest daughter.
Around dusk, Father came back and whispered that he wanted us all to be quiet and remain calm, that if we heard shooting, stay where we were and not wander off or try to hide all the better. They told us we were well-protected and to not worry.
A gunshot cracked the calm. I covered my head and ducked as Mr. Ferguson shouted to get down. I could hear Father among a few other voices yelling to see if anyone was hurt. Mrs. Ferguson’s deafening scream was almost as shocking as the gunfire. Her face was blanched.
A shot here and one there. One from us and one from them. It seemed that for every report, there would be an answer from one of our group.
Some of the adults stood close to the wagons, trying to keep a watch on the bandits, looking from side to side. If some of those thieves made their way around us, they might catch us with our backs turned. Another bandit fired our way. It sounded closer this time.
I looked up and saw dim pulses of light in the sky. The stars were starting to show through. I wanted to float. To fly away to the safety that they could provide.
Another shot rang out from the bandits and one of the adults yelled. He was pulled off his wagon and another shot rang out. I could smell the gunpowder now. Our side started to concentrate fire off to what I thought was our southwest. More gunshots. Without much light, I could barely see Smitty working to reload his rifle before sighting in and returning more fire.
And I floated. I rose up gently, looking down on the Fergusons and the other children bunched together. I floated higher and could see flashes of light from outside the wagon circle. I stretched out, looking up to the stars that were pushing themselves into existence. I gathered speed, pushing ahead, as if I were speeding down a snowy hill in a fancy sleigh. As I reached out, I passed the moon, turning as I did and let my elbows and knees explode into light.
I looked down and saw the bandits moving closer. Some had already fallen, but there were now more than a dozen of them. A couple of our adults had forsaken the safety of the outer perimeter and were moving closer to the children. The bandits pushed in.
The tingling in my hands and feet grew stronger. The energy moved inward, toward my chest and I felt an overpowering warmth flowing down from the crest of my head.
A strong feeling of dread was dawning on me, fear for my loved ones and the friends we’d made. I was overcome by an unimaginable force, coming to me from the cosmos. Waves of power flowed through me, enlivening me, enriching me. And I saw the little girl that I was. Down on the ground amid prairie hills and valleys and could see Mother’s limp body in a heap, her arm stretched out in front of her. And the little girl was terrified. With Mother gone, I felt as if I might never go home again.
The raw terror I felt enabled me to push, forcing my existence outward, past any boundary I had experienced before. A humming from deep inside me roiled forth. My fingertips exploded with the hiss and snap of lightning, extending ever throughout the emptiness of space.
I was a celestial force, united with the wonders of the expanses of the heavens. I became Virgo. I blended with Leo. Melded with Taurus. And they flowed through me.
But no matter how strong the pull, I couldn’t fight the thought that Father fought on. Jed and Samantha and Eliza still begged for deliverance. In that instance, I turned my attention back to that little girl who was so frightened. She and I were one.
Sitting on the ground, cowering in fear, I pulled and tugged at the force above me. I drew on it, filling myself up with its ferocity and power. My skin started to tear apart and crack, scales forming and falling away as light burst forth in a glowing aura of blinding light. I lifted off the ground; charges of electric fire stung the earth below me.
I screamed in terror and in response to the energy flowing into me. The gunfire from within the wagon train suddenly ceased as all eyes fell on me in awe. Children and adults alike. But not the marauders. They didn’t stop. They didn’t slow down. And my rage towards them was too much to contain.
As I stood, I saw the first bandit come from behind a wagon off to my left about 30 feet away. I raised my hands in his direction and simply pushed at his face. His body froze, locked in place with one foot in mid-step, neither moving nor breathing. A line of fire formed, running from his forehead past his chin, crevassing open, flames flicking out like tentacles. The inflamed gash ripped down his body, rending flesh, consuming his clothing; his body arched in response and hung ablaze in that state. His charred scent carried in the breeze, stinging my lungs.
The brightness bursting from within and around my body illuminated the night. Through every enhanced sense I saw everything in perfect clarity, from the most distant hillsides to the small grains of sand below me. I sensed the wind gusting through the valley, tiny particles of dust flowing past me. Every pore of my skin breathed in the surroundings and I was aware of every living being between these hills surrounding us.
I saw the other attacking men already on us and tilted my head to the sky demanding, begging, reaching out my arms and I pulled. I clawed the air, screaming as a blinding strike of lightning arched from beyond and cascaded over me. An eternity passed in that fleeting terrestrial moment and I aged beyond years, traveling across horizons, through oceans of darkness and light.
I looked around to see that no one was moving. It was difficult to tell if all time had stopped or if everyone was in a state of shock. Mouths hung open, astonished at what they beheld. Gently twirling in the air, with energy snapping from my fingers, I looked out on everyone in our wagon train and promised retribution to the men who would harm us. I could sense their fear, but I knew they trusted me. Eliza smiled up at me.
As I met the gaze of my friends and family, my eyes fell on Mr. Ferguson. I could see his lips feverishly stammering out his prayers, worried about the coming troubles in the night.
I looked around to see two bandits crawling beneath a wagon and raise up their rifles to fire on me as another man shot down one more of our own.
The storm at the core of my being erupted into vast brilliance over the landscape as I surged forward, unleashing my fury, devouring my enemies in a vengeful tide of flame as their screams bled across the vast prairie. The troubles had arrived.
About the Author
Rhinehart Ashe is a published author in non-fiction and has self-published three historical titles and one science fiction short collection. He earned a Master’s degree in education from the University of Kansas and wrote a non-fiction history book on alleged survivors of the Battle of Little Bighorn for his graduation project. He is a retired Army medic who served for 13 years before being disabled due to injuries sustained during service in Iraq.