The flash and almost simultaneous thunderclap jolted me from my Saturday nap. The lights flickered and thankfully went back to full brightness. It was always this way in spring in Kansas – thunderstorms that threatened the power grid if we were lucky, a tornado if we weren't.
It was time I got up anyway, although I couldn't do anything outside. Maybe I should look over the household expenses, I thought. When I sat down at my desk, another flash of lightening shattered the dismal afternoon sky.
The checkbook was already out, right in front of the old tintype photo of my great grandparents. I had to smile. I was here because of a thunderstorm. Grandma told me so, later in her life when she wasn't quite so careful about what she said to me. She's gone now, but I still remember her telling me the story like it was only yesterday...
The storm had been brewing all that May day, the tall, billowing thunderheads turning an ominous black as they rolled in angry waves across the sky. By noon, the seething black mass was split by a lightening bolt, then by another. The thunder that followed was still a ways off, but on the horizon Daniel could see the dark gray line that marked the front of rain coming his way. He started looking for a place to weather out the storm.
Daniel was alone because he wanted it that way. The last four years of his life had been filled with people. Most of those people had been men. Most of them were now dead. Mannassas, Seven Pines, Antietem, Fredricksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and then the siege at Petersburg, all had claimed the lives of men he'd once called friends. Now they were faces that visited his dreams. Sometimes, they screamed, or maybe that was him. He was never really sure.
It had been a righteous quest, or so they told him, and his side had won, or so they told him. But, how could there be a winner when so many lay in the ground far from home? Did the mothers and wives who lost sons and husbands consider themselves winners? In the end, he decided, the winners were the ones who stayed safely at home and sold supplies to both armies, and the politicians who were now planning how to turn the outcome of the war into personal profit.
On the day he was mustered out, Daniel decided he'd had enough of war, people, and everything else, and started walking west. There was no plan running through his mind except to put as much distance as possible between him and the acrid smoke of gunpowder and the stink of dirty men.
Winter found him in St. Louis living and working in a livery stable. He scrimped on everything, saved his money, and by spring had enough for two horses and supplies. On the first of April, Daniel started for the Kansas territory. There weren't many people there, he'd heard, but there was land to farm and game to hunt. For a while, he followed the wagon ruts left by settlers on their way to Oregon, but there were too many other people going the same way and they asked too many questions. He began riding parallel to the trail, but a mile or so away.
Another bolt of lightening shattered the sky, close enough this time that he caught the smell of it on the wind. If he didn't find some place soon, he was in for a wet night.
The wide, shallow stream had been swollen almost to a river by the spring rains, but he found a place to cross with the horses. In the trees that lined the opposite bank, Daniel found his shelter. The massive oak lay, fallen, on a small rise and two large limbs almost parallel to the ground formed a natural support for the canvas tarpaulin he carried on his packhorse. Satisfied his bedroll probably wouldn't get wet when it rained, Daniel draped the tarpaulin over one of the limbs and staked it securely at the bottom, leaving a flap he could tie shut. After moving his perishables inside, Daniel hobbled Duke and Bill so they could graze, then chopped some of the deadwood from the oak and built a small fire in front of the open flap. A trip to the river filled his coffee pot and canvas water bucket.
He started the coffee first, then cut two thick slices from the side of bacon in his pack and dropped them in the cast iron frying pan. While the bacon slowly fried, he mixed a handful of corn meal, a little salt and water together and dropped the batter in the skillet. His meal was done about the same time the first raindrops fell, so he moved inside.
The storm came on quickly and fiercely, but didn't last long. The flashes of lightening threw flickering light through the opening to the shelter, and the crashing thunder that followed seemed to shake the very ground on which he sat. Nature could be frightening, he thought, but he'd been through worse and still come out alive. Daniel sipped the last of his coffee and then stretched out on his bedroll for some sleep.
He woke sometime later thinking he'd heard a cry, then decided it must have been just another of the dreams that haunted him at night. He stepped outside to relieve himself before going back to sleep.
The storm had passed, but the lightening in the distance still cast occasional flickers of light on the river and trees. Daniel listened for a few minutes and heard nothing except the water drops falling from the trees and the crickets that always sang after a rain. He'd started back to the shelter and his bedroll when he heard the voice.
It was more of a loud moan than anything else, and it took him a while to find the source in the dark. Finally, during one of the infrequent flashes of distant lightening, he spotted a boy floating near the riverbank about ten feet down river from his camp. As Daniel made his way through the thick willows that lined the bank, the boy slipped away, floated about ten more feet, then stopped. Another lightening flash showed Daniel the hand desperately holding to the brush on the riverbank.
The river was deeper here than where he'd crossed, and Daniel was up to his waist in the strong, swirling current when he reached the boy. He grabbed the first thing he could reach, the boy's hair, made sure his face wasn't in the water, and started back up river. Twice, he slipped on the muddy bottom and almost lost them both.
As soon as Daniel stepped out of the water, he began to shake from the cold. The nights were still chilly, and his teeth were chattering. He could only imagine how the boy he'd just pulled from the water must feel, that is if he was still alive. Daniel felt the boy's wrist for a pulse and finally found it, slow and not very strong, but it was there. They both needed heat and dry clothes and they needed them now.
Daniel pulled the boy into his shelter, covered him with a blanket from his bedroll, then went outside with dry tinder and his flint and steel. Although shivering from the cold, in a few minutes he had a small flame flickering through the thin splits of oak he'd kept in the shelter. He laid larger sticks over these, and when they caught fire, put two small logs on either side. Now for some dry clothes.
Daniel stripped to the skin and let the growing warmth of the fire bring life back into his chilled limbs, then went to the shelter for his spare set of clothes. After dressing and adding more sticks to the fire, Daniel went to help the boy.
The boy was still alive, but unconscious and convulsing with shivers. Daniel raised him to a sitting position, sat down behind him and pulled the loose homespun shirt over his head. He was laying the boy back down when the fire flared and cast a faint light through the flap of the shelter.
Daniel drew back. This was no boy, not unless boys in Kansas Territory grew breasts. Another shuddering convulsion shook the body lying on the blanket. She was freezing too. He'd have to apologize later.
He pulled off her shoes, then untied the rope that served as her belt, and pulled the pants off her body. Daniel had no way to dry her, so he wrapped her in the blanket as tight as he could. Her pants and shirt joined his on the frame of branches he placed beside his fire.
Hot coffee would help revive her, so Daniel filled the coffeepot again. The coffee was almost ready when he heard the moan from inside the shelter.
Her face was warm to his touch. That was a good sign at least. She moaned again. In the flickering light of the fire, Daniel saw her eyes open. She looked up at him questioningly and then her eyes took on the look of a terrified animal.
"Don't worry, Miss. You're safe and sound now. Had to pull you out of the river a bit ago, but you'll be all right as soon as you warm up some. I'll go get you some coffee to help with that."
He was filling her cup when she shrieked. Daniel rushed back to the shelter, spilling the scalding liquid on his hand in the process. He swore under his breath, then entered the shelter.
"My clothes, where are my clothes?"
"Outside, drying by the fire."
"Who took them off?"
"I did. I thought you were a boy at first, but after I ... well, it was either that or you'd've caught pneumonia from the chill."
The look of terror was still in her eyes. Daniel reached behind his bedroll for his Winchester and laid it beside the girl.
"Miss, I'll just stay outside until morning and I'll leave you my rifle if that'll make you feel safer, but you needn't worry about me. As soon as I can get you someplace with other people, I'll be on my way, and nobody but you and me'll ever know this happened. Now, I'll just leave you this coffee and take my bedroll and you can stay in here by yourself."
.... There is more of this story ...