Fredrick W. Boling
Fort Laramie lay far behind Joel -- the fort, the crowded cemetery and his twin brother who had welcomed him to this raw, naked western frontier. The woodcutter's wagon train had forded the North Platte River after leaving the rutted Oregon Trail. No longer could they see Register Cliff covered with carved messages, nor even the snow-crowned Laramie Mountains. The land had changed. Grassy hills covered with rocky outcroppings and scrub conifers that were bent and twisted by prevailing winds had given way to basins surrounded by cliffs of gray stone. Beyond these basins, they had followed the ascending trail of John Bozeman across high plateaus toward the Bighorn Mountains and the hunting grounds of the Lakota.
Their wagons had crossed Willow, Brown's Spring, Sand and Antelope creeks, all dry with stone and gravel beds, winding like serpents around sandy hills covered by a scattering of smooth stones. Groves of cottonwood, willow and box elder, whose leafy limbs moaned in the wake of ever-present winds, sheltered their banks.
The taste of this new frontier lingered in Joel's mind like heather honey. He gazed at the blue sky broken with clouds puffed like cotton spilling from open bolls. He watched racing herds of pronghorn antelope, their white rumps flashing in the bright sunlight. He savored the tangy scent of sage and the mellow aroma of sweating mules and horses. He watched bald and gold eagles circling high in the sky and listened to the clatter of steel-rimmed wheels grinding along rocky ruts. These had lulled his senses and buried his fear. The ever-present fear, planted by Red Cloud, seemed far away like the snowcapped Bighorn peaks lying jagged along the western horizon.
Joel glanced at the leather-clad figure of Jim Bridger slouched in his saddle. Beneath the floppy brim of Bridger's hat, hawkish eyes searched and keen ears listened for danger, reminding Joel of Joshua's words the morning the wagon train left Fort Laramie. "Trust Mister Bridger," Joshua had said, "he thinks like the red man and knows their habits and how to survive in their land."
Aye, Mister Bridger and Almighty God, Joel thought.
Far away, barely audible above clopping hooves and creaking wagon wheels, came the winsome strains of a melody being played on a harmonica.
Bridger glared back at the wagon train. "Who's playin' that confound harp?"
"A frightened woodcutter, I imagine."
"Reckon so. Feared of cholera and Injuns most likely."
"Aye, most likely."
"Well, ain't in Lakota country yet, but we will be soon enough."
"How much farther is it to Fort Reno?"
Bridger pointed back at the flat crowns of several towering buttes they had passed during the morning. "Them's Pun'kin Buttes. We got five, maybe six more miles afore we reach Reno."
"That is comfortin'."
"I reckon," Bridger said, "but after we leave Reno and cross Crazy Woman Crick is when that feelin' will fly away like pissin' in the wind."