From the Wagon Train Diaries
It was several days that went by before the Wagon Master Alastar Brown felt assured that an armed band of Mormons led by the sheriff of Valley Poet Junction would not rain down upon them. Alastar and his scout White Deer sat together on the far end of Linh Hi Lee’s cooking wagon. They looked around at the three families that just joined the wagon train. That group consisted of eight men, twelve women and twenty three little ones. None of them had spoken a word during the past hour. The women, who appeared to be middle aged, had leathery, worn out faces. It must have been caused by years of hard work and suffrage. The men appeared expressionless and emotionless. The children however, were very well behaved.
Suddenly a scream ripped through the silence and attacked Alastar’s ears. Lee came rushing toward the Wagon Master as quickly as she could, and her panic was now growing in proportion to the amount of time that was passing.
“Linh, what’s the matter?” White Deer asked as he grabbed her and stopped her from running past them.
Alastar helped White Deer calming her and sitting her down on a wooden box used as a chair. Linh Hi Lee sat on that box and wept. She wiped her hand on a cooking cloth and wondered, really for the first time since she joined the wagon train, whether heading west was worth it.
“Okay now,” Alastar started. “What is it?”
“Father Richards,” she quivered. “Father Richards was shot in the back of the head in front of his church wagon.”
“What!” The Wagon Master and the scout said simultaneously.
White Deer shook his head, “why would anyone on this wagon train kill a Catholic priest?”
Alastar and White Deer looked around the area at those families. They were still quiet as they just looked on.
“White Deer go check it out and report back to me ASAP, I’ll get the doctor to help Linh Hi Lee out,” said the Wagon Master. “Maybe give her something to calm her down.”
White Deer nodded and shot off toward the church wagon. By the time he arrived the body was gone. All that was left was the pungent smell of burnt flesh, unraveling in the wakening breeze to shrill protest of the neighboring wagon train passengers. However, none of the passengers came out to help.
The scout stood up straight with his hands on his hips. Turning toward the church wagon, he grimaced through his sweat.
“Where in hell is the body,” Whispered the scout as he continued looking around.
The idea of someone moving the body was a festering wound in White Deer’s soul. His face grew raw with anger. Shaking his head, he surveyed the patch of disturbed earth that once plated the body of the white man’s religious figure.
The gun smoke and burnt flesh still stung his nostrils. The scout knelt down and picked up a handful of earth. It was stained with blood. Allowing the loose earth sift though his fingers, White Deer stood and brushed off his palms.
The scout walked back toward the back of the church wagon. His heart began to pound as he realized what he had stumbled upon. His eyes began to hurt as if stabbed by what they had seen.
Two men and three women were piled up in back with their hands tied behind their backs and their throats slit. He hesitated for a moment, his head feeling as if it would burst. He had never in his life seen such a sight. It was a horrible way to die. He hadn’t realized it, but his hands were clenched into fists.
Any softness left in Linh Hi Lee’s face had now totally disappeared. She was frozen at the sight of what was staring down at them. The three families that had joined the wagon train had guns trained on them. The oldest moved closer to Alastar Brown still mounted on his horse and pushed the barrel of his rifle against his chest.
“What the hell?”
“We don’t need your services anymore,” he grumbled.
“What are you talking about?”
“We’re going to ride out of here and you will not come after us,” he said. "We have the children of the families we slaughtered and we will release them in about ten miles. If we see anyone following us, they will die horribly.”
“What the hell…”
“Opium,” said White Deer as he joined the group. “These families are carrying Opium to the west.”
“We needed your help to get through the Indian Nation,” said the older man. “Then that priest saw the opium in our wagon and he was going to report us. We traveled too far to be stopped by an old man so we killed him and the witnesses. We kept their children as hostages, and we will kill them.”
Alastar Brown heard that large shipments of Opium were being transported from the east to the west, but he thought it was only rumors. “So you slaughtered families and a priest? Why don’t you just kill all of us?”
The old man thought for a moment, then bringing the rifle toward the Wagon Master’s face, never attempting to unlock his eyes from Alastar. Finally he said slowly, “There are too many of you and we cannot risk loosing our Opium. We will take the hostages and we will go. Remember, ten miles and we will set them free. You just better remember, if we see anyone close to our wagons, we will slaughter the children.”
The Wagon Master Looked at the old man and said, “I believe you. I think you will slaughter those children. But let me warn you. If we head out there and find no children, we will hunt you down and kill every single one of you.”
“And I believe you,” said the old man as he signaled his three wagons to move on ahead. “Thank you for helping create an Opium Trail. I think many who come now will do as we did. Opium will be very profitable as it was in Britain, China, and the east.”
The Wagon Master just stood there as he watched them ride off. His heart was hovering helplessly, defying gravity, hair streaming in the breeze like a banner. He realized that no man ever felt so troubled, so unsettled, so pierced to the heart.
Alastar Brown turned and found himself facing the wagon train scout, who was walking toward him through the clouds of despair as if there was invisible soil beneath him.
“We can’t let them get away!” He half shouted. “They’re murderers, let’s go after them and shoot them all down!”
“We can’t,” Alastar replied somberly. “They have the children, and they will kill them.”
Both men paused and lifted their heads as the sound of horses scraping the earth was heard in the far distance.
© 2013 Frank Atanacio
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