The tall, young man sat upon his horse and gazed down the trail that he’d been travelling on. The trail was steep and rough and it wasn’t the best road for anyone to journey on, especially someone in a wagon. A man with a good team of mules and years of experience could navigate it but he’d have to do it slowly and carefully. For a homesteader it was suicidal. Still it was the only route up out of the valley and down into the foothills of western California and out of necessity people used it.
The covered wagon had lost a wheel. The wheel had come off on the down slope side of the trail. The wagon had pitched towards the open precipice that was there. The only thing keeping the wagon from going over was the team of four mules still harnessed to it. The mules were standing as still as they could; given the situation they were in. They looked like they hadn’t budged a muscle since the accident. It must have happened just recently. There were cries of fright, panic, and pain coming from inside the wagon. The rider put his heels to his mount and rode on.
The rider tethered his mount about twenty feet down the trail from the disabled wagon. Once he’d done that he stood for a moment and assessed the situation. He could tell that the mules weren’t very happy bearing the weight of the wagon as they were and he also knew that sooner or later something would give and that wagon would go over the side. He needed to do something about it and he needed to do something fast. He reached for the coil of rope that hung from his saddle and then he headed towards the mules and the wagon. As he slowly advanced toward it, he called out to the occupants of the wagon.
“Hello the wagon,” the tall man shouted, “I’m a friend and I’ve come to help. For now though, don’t move about where you are. I’m going to try to tie off the wagon to keep it from going over the side.”
The mention of the wagon going over the side started some high pitch shrieking and wailing. The man shook his head and called out again.
“Calm down and don’t move about,” he told the occupants of the wagon. “If you shout and scream and make a fuss then you’ll spook your mules and that’ll just make matters worse. Just be calm and give me a few minutes to tie off the wagon and maybe get a brace under it. Then I’ll give you a hand getting out of the wagon.”
This time there wasn’t as much wailing and crying but there was some whimpering heard. The man just accepted that it was the reality of the thing and pressed on a best he could. He slowly walked by the mules, trying not to startle them and he headed towards the driver’s box of the wagon. As he did, he started looking for some place to tie off his rope. He quickly decided not to tie it to the inside front wagon wheel opposite the one that had come off. He didn’t think the axle hub would take the strain. He’d have to find a more secure spot on the body of the wagon that wouldn’t give way once the weight of everything was transferred to it. It took him a few minutes to find such a spot but he eventually did.
Once he had the working end of the rope tied off and cinched, the man turned and headed towards the uphill slope of the trail. There were plenty of trees lining the slope and some of them had a good size trunk. As it was, luck was with the man and his rope was long enough to reach one of the big pines. He was able to wrap the length of his rope around the base of the tree a few times and to cinch it tight before he finally tied it off. He hoped it would be enough. Brushing his gloved hands together he looked back at the wagon and assessed the situation again. That was when he spotted another length of rope hanging from the side of the wagon box. He also spotted an axe. Immediately he found a use for both items. As he walked back towards the wagon he called out again.
“Hello the wagon,” the man said calmly and firmly, “I’ve tied off the front of your wagon to a big old pine tree so you should be okay now. Still I don’t want you moving about in there. I’m going to put another rope onto that wagon of yours and then I’m going to borrow your axe and cut me a post to use as a brace. It’s going to take a bit of time so you’re just going to have to be patient. Once I’ve done that I should be able to get you out of the wagon and safely onto the ground.”
In reply a weak okay came from within the wagon. It sounded like a woman’s voice but the man couldn’t really tell. It could have been a young girl’s voice instead. It still had a considerable hint of fear still in it. The man decided he needed to hurry up.
Finding a spot to the rear of the wagon to secure a rope took a little time and effort. Eventually the man tied it around the rear axle hoping that it would hold when the weight of the wagon shifted. He then played out the rope once more as he walked back up slope in search of a stout anchor point. Again the man ended up tying the rope about a tall pine tree. Once that was secure the man went in search of some saplings that he could use to brace the down side of the wagon. It didn’t take him long to find a small stand of birch trees. With the axe taken from the wagon he cut down a tree that was about three inches in diameter. Then after eyeballing the wagon and the terrain it was sitting on the man chopped the trunk into three segments. Once he’d done that he pulled each segment over to where the wagon stood. Once all three pieces were lying on the uphill side of the disabled wagon the man called out to the occupants once again.
“Hello the wagon,” the man said once more in a loud and clear voice, “I’ve secured the back end of your wagon and I’ve cut myself a few braces. I’m asking that you stay patient inside that wagon for a few more minutes I’m going to be slipping around to the other side of the wagon and that might prove dangerous for me. I don’t need any wailing and crying to distract me or to frighten your mules. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” a reply came from within the wagon. It was definitely a woman’s voice.
“All right then ma’am,” the man responded with confidence in his voice, “this should only take a few more minutes and then I’ll get you out of that wagon. You just hold on and keep patient.”
With that the man slid the three pieces of trunk under the body of the wagon. He also slid the axe that he’d used under it as well. There was plenty of clearance even with the wagon leaning the way it was towards the down slope side. There was at least three feet. Still he didn’t dare crawl under after the wood and the axe. There was just so much that he was willing to risk. Instead he worked his way about the rear of the wagon and then along the down slope side, holding onto the wagon as he went. There was room to move about but there wasn’t much and the precipice dropped off sharply. It was then that he spotted the driver of the wagon.
The driver had obviously been pitched from the wagon when the wheel had given way. The man had been flung out into open space and he’d fallen to the bottom of the precipice. The distance wasn’t that great; no more than thirty feet or so but the terrain was rocky at the bottom and the man had hit hard. It was obvious that he was dead. The young man sighed upon seeing the dead man but he kept the information to himself for the time being. Instead the young man focused on the job at hand.
It wasn’t a professional job but the young man did the best he could. He jammed two of the braces up forward of the front axle and the third one directly behind it in such a manner that he hoped that they would keep the wagon from tipping over once the young man tried to shift the wagon away from the edge. He used the back of the axe head as a mallet to help pound the braces into the ground. Then he worked his way back along the side of the wagon until he was at the rear again. Once there he called out to the wagon one more time.
“Hello ma’am,” the young man said in a normal voice, trying not to shout this time. “I’ve got the wagon tied off and I’ve got the front end braced. I want you to remain where you are while I lower the tailgate and see how best to get you out of there. We need to do this nice and slowly. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” the woman’s replied a moment later. In addition to the answer the young man could hear some whimpering and sniffling going on. It was obvious that the woman wasn’t alone in the wagon. From the sound of it there were young children with her. With a sigh the young man got back to work.
Dropping the tailgate of the wagon took a little effort. Who ever closed it up last time had lashed the backend of the canvas cover to it to help keep out the elements as they travelled. It was a bit of an inconvenience but the young man dealt with it with the help of his bowie knife. Once that had been tended to, the young man unhooked the tailgate and dropped it. The first thing he saw was disarray. A wide variety of items were strewn about in the back of the wagon. The second thing he saw were three faces looking at him filled with fear and with hope.
“How do you do ma’am?” the young man asked politely, just as if he’d just met the woman at a church social or something. “My name is Benjamin Hart. My friends just call me Ben. Now I know you don’t know me from Joseph but I’m a friendly fellow and I don’t mean you any harm. My plan is that I’m going to help your kids out of the wagon first and then I’ll give you a hand. What do you think about that?”
“I think that would be a very good idea Mr. Hart,” the woman declared in a trembling voice. “Just please don’t delay it any longer. I fear I might be going into labour.”
.... There is more of this story ...