The Oldham Train got off to a good start and did pretty well during the first couple of days of shake out. Most of the people of the train got along well, except there was one man, Omar Singer, who seemed to be taken by Maria Oldham, even though she was so obviously Billy's wife and a nursing mother.
Singer was a alone in his wagon. He didn't socialize much, except that he was always within a few yards of Maria whenever the train was not actually on the move. Singer was unusual, physically. He was close to 6'-4" tall and weighed almost 300 pounds, very little of it fat. He claimed to be a blacksmith, and the tools in his wagon verified that. Most people accepted that his huge size was attributable to him being a blacksmith—he certainly looked the part.
Singer did eat with everybody else at the communal meals. He contributed some of the food and was served from the same pot that everybody else ate from. He drank a lot of coffee, but he supplied most of the coffee used at meals, so he was not criticized for his thirst.
The second day out from Independence, the train did run into a problem from Bushwhackers. They wanted to charge a toll for using the road they were on. John Whipple, the wagon master, told them to move out of the way—he was taking the train through, and he was not paying a toll. To the surprise of everybody on the train, the Bushwhackers gave in, and the train proceeded on its way.
However, that night after most people had gone to bed, the train was attacked by 13 Bushwhackers. The wagons were in their box defensive formation, and the men of the train woke up to join in the defense in plenty of time to repel the attack. As far as anybody could tell, no one from either side was injured in all the shooting. But the Bushwhackers were lucky not to have come within the reach of the tongues of the wives, for they would have been lashed to the bone by the complaints about them waking the children, especially the babies.
However, an even stronger guard was mounted at night from then on, just in case there were more night raids. The Bushwhackers seemed to be distracted by something, as that was the only sign of them. However, the train crossed into Kansas the next day, and now they had to watch out for Jayhawkers.
During the midday "nooning," some men rode into camp and demanded to see the wagon master. They were directed to where John Whipple was sitting and talking with Billy Oldham, the captain of the train. The men rode up and demanded a toll of $5 per wagon to cross into Kansas. Billy was shocked at the exorbitant price, but John merely laughed. This really irritated the Jayhawker doing the talking, so he reached for his gun. That was the last conscious move he ever made!
Ann Oldham had picked up one of the special repeating rifles modified from a .51 caliber Mississippi Rifle, and she put a bullet through the fool's chest. The other three Jayhawkers were shot from their saddles by the wagon train security people before the intruders had a chance to draw. This seemed to settle the question, and no more "toll takers" showed up.
The next few days went along with nothing but the drudgery of the trek, though it wasn't too bad as the people learned the new things they had to know to live through the trip. The one disconcerting note was that Omar Singer just could not stay away from Maria. At first, she just ignored him, but he would not stop stalking her. He even followed as she went to the latrine to relieve herself. This was the final straw as far as Maria was concerned.
Maria complained to Billy, who, as was common with most husbands, had not noticed that his wife was uncomfortable. However, once he knew of the problem, he ordered Singer to stay away from his wife; otherwise, he was going to be thrown off the train.
This seemed to work for a while, but Singer was back following Maria within a week. That did it! Billy was lenient enough to allow Singer to stay with the train as far as Grand Island, Nebraska, but he ordered the man to leave the train at that major town. Billy figured that Singer could find another train there, because that was where the Oregon Trail crossed the Platte River, and all trains had to go through there.
Billy was so incensed with Singer that he sent him across the river on the first ferry run just to get him off the train that much quicker. Maria was very relieved when she did not see Singer in camp any longer.
It took three days to get everybody across the river along with all of the livestock, so Billy was away from his wagon and his wives for that length of time. In the middle of the third morning, a very distraught Ann rode up to him with startling news: Maria had disappeared!
Both of the children had developed a mild case of colic, and it was Ann's turn to look after the children during the night. She had taken them both a little distance away from the wagon so that they would not disturb Maria while she slept. The children fretted more and more, so it was dawn before she finally returned to the wagon. When she got back, she noticed that Maria was not in bed, but assumed that she had made a trip to the latrine. The children had finally quieted down, and Ann was exhausted, so she lay down, too. Ann dropped off to sleep, and, when she woke up to help with breakfast, Maria was still gone.
This was alarming, so she dressed quickly, left the children with Nancy, her step-mother, and Josh, her father, while she went looking for Maria. Maria was nowhere to be found, and that's when Ann decided to find Billy to get him to help in the search.
Billy and Ann hurried back to the wagons, and Billy sent Josh to take over for him in supervising the last of the river crossing. Billy grabbed a cup of coffee to clear his head and went to look at the wagon where Maria had been sleeping.
A thorough search showed that Maria had dressed in her riding clothes before she left the wagon. Other than that, there was nothing special or unusual to see there. That just didn't make sense! Even when Maria was taking her turn at driving the oxen, she still wore a dress, simply because it was cooler. Why would Maria wear her riding clothes, and where could she be going?
They had no answer to this question, but they did ask at some of the neighboring wagons. That's were they got some disturbing news. Maria was seen riding out of the camp on the same horse as Omar Singer. She seemed reluctant to go, but nobody interfered, since it was none of their business.
Dammit, that Omar Singer had kidnapped Maria, and there was no telling where they went. Well, it was a cinch that they would not go far on one overloaded horse. Billy quickly told Whipple what was going on and appointed Josh to take his place until Billy returned. Nancy agreed to look after the children while Ann was gone. Nobody expected them to be away for more than two or three days, and they could easily catch up to the wagon train. Josh could hire one of the boys on the train to drive Billy's wagon until they returned.
Billy grabbed up their weapons and Ann packed some food and sleeping bags in case they got caught overnight and had to rough it. All of those years as a hunter back in Alabama had made Billy an excellent tracker, so he had no trouble following the tracks of the overloaded horse. Before long, they found that the trail led to the ferry, so they had to assume that Singer and his prisoner had crossed the Platte River and were headed to Grand Island.
Billy picked up the trail as soon as they debarked from the ferry. Strangely, the tracks did not head for the town, but angled off to the northeast. Within a mile, they found the exhausted horse standing near where a wagon had been parked. It was apparent that Singer had switched to horses or mules and had sold his oxen. There were four animals pulling the wagon, so they were going to make much better time than Billy and Ann had counted on.
Billy and Ann saw immediately that this might be a longer chase than they had planned for, since the wagon could move as fast as their horses could, and might even move faster for a short distance, a couple of miles or so. At least, a team of four horses was not very common, so they would be easy to follow, even on a busy road.
However, Singer had cut off the main road onto a side trail which led away from Grand Island. The trail seemed to head approximately northeast, and that was a puzzle. Neither Billy nor Ann had any idea what led in that direction, except that it was Indian Territory. Singer had the choice of turning more easterly and entering Iowa, or he could cut northerly and enter the Dakotas. The problem with heading north was the Sioux, who were currently very unhappy with Whites.
Yes, for no obvious reason, the wagon veered more to the north after a mile or two. Was Singer headed toward the rumored gold fields in the Black Hills. If he was, he was a fool. All of the current talk of gold in the Dakotas was purely rumor. Nobody had actually produced any proof, and the Sioux were lifting the hair of any Whites they found there, especially those looking for gold.
The longer they followed the wagon, the more it looked like he was, indeed, headed for the Black Hills. If that was the case, they needed to catch the wagon very soon, for Maria was in grave danger of being captured by very unfriendly Indians. They had no way to be sure what would happen to Maria if she was involved in a confrontation with Sioux. They might kill her out of hand as a worthless nuisance, or they might make her a prisoner.
If she were to be captured, then there were several possibilities. She could be made a slave, she could be made a very low level wife, or she could be tortured to death by the women of the camp for their amusement. A fourth possibility was that she could be traded to another group of Indians, making her trail even harder to follow. Being made a low level wife was probably the best that she could hope for under those circumstances, but Billy and Ann hoped to save Maria from any of that.
Singer's trail was swinging more westerly, making it certain that he was headed for the Black Hills. By the third day on the trail, Billy was regretting not bringing remounts with them. They were pushing their horses very hard in their effort to catch Singer, but the animals were tiring. Before long, the horses would spend most of their time walking, simply because they had run out of stamina.
Three days more, and Billy was actively looking for a way to acquire more horses. Not only that, their rations had run out, and they had to find more food somewhere. Finally, fortune smiled on them and they ran across a trading post that catered mostly to Indians, but did have a reasonable variety of goods for sale, though at an exorbitant price.
They picked up some food and managed to trade their horses. However, they did find something even more important: Singer had come through and stopped for a while just the day before. The proprietor of the store knew nothing of a woman with him, but it was possible. Singer did buy more food than one man would normally need.
It was so late in the day by then, that they stayed overnight at the trading post and left the next morning at first light. They could not travel at night for fear of losing the trail. The pushed their mounts as much as they dared, but were frustrated by not catching up to Singer that day.
The next day, they were crossing a ridge when they saw smoke in the distance. The smoke could not be more than two miles away, so they hoped that they would be in luck. Well, they were in luck, sort of. When they finally got close enough to see the source of smoke, they saw evidence of the worst sort of bad luck.
There was the wagon stopped in a small glade. A number of Indians, probably Sioux, were standing around or sitting on horses. A quick count put the number at 30-35 warriors, and they were all in a good mood. The body of a man was draped over a wagon wheel, and the man was so large that he had to be Omar Singer. He was naked and he had obviously been tortured to death, accounting for the good humor of the Indians.
Standing to one side was a naked White woman with a rope tied around her neck. It was not possible to tell if she had been raped by the Indians, but it was certain that they had that in mind for the evening, whether or not it had already happened. One glance through their binoculars showed that the woman was Maria.
Before Billy and Ann could come up with a plan of action, the standing Indians mounted their horses and left the wagon, but not before setting it on fire. The horses were held to a slow walk, and Maria was forced to walk behind one of the Indians because he was holding the rope around her neck. This man had probably collected the booby prize, because four other Indians were leading the horses that had been pulling the wagon. Given the propensity of Indians for gambling on anything and everything, the loot had probably been distributed by some complex game of chance.
"What the hell are we going to do, Ann? There are too many Indians for us to kill quickly enough to keep them from harming Maria."
"I don't know. I guess that the best we can do is to follow along and hope that something will come up. As long as they force Maria to walk, they are not going to be moving very fast."
"We have a deadline, though. Not being a woman, I can't be certain, but I would think that being raped by 33 men is enough to be fatal. What do you think?"
"Yeah, I have to agree. Maria is sure to be the evening's entertainment after supper tonight. The question is how to rescue her before that happens."
"Well, I have an idea, but I don't know if it will work. Suppose we try an ambush and run tactic? We could hide in the trees and fire off a couple of shots. Then we could run before they could spot us."
"I like the idea, Billy, but how will we hide the powder smoke? I think that we are stuck with taking one shot, each, and lighting out."
"A good point. Let's add insult to injury by shooting the horses. That could make them mad enough at us that they could forget all about Maria."
"I like that. Let's get started. It's still going to take a few minutes for us to get ahead of the gang."
Their first ambush was set in a grove of trees that were set so close together that there were few routes for horses to use. They positioned themselves on opposite sides of the trail in an effort to confuse the pursuit. On the assumption that the leaders of the gang would be in front, those were the two targets they selected. They arbitrarily decided to let Ann shoot first with Billy following her shot with his own as quickly as he could manage it. Considering the nature of the terrain, they did decide on firing two shots if the situation allowed.
The Indians approached so slowly that both Ann and Billy decided to shoot the man instead of his horse. The opportunity was just too good to miss. Ann fired when her target was only about 20 yards away. The Indian fell with a gaping hole in his chest, but without an exit wound. There was a good chance that the bullet had rattled around inside his chest, doing even more damage than initially expected. Their bullets were the conical-point type, so they had slightly better range, but there was less experience with the kind of wound they made, so it was open to guess.
Billy fired so soon after Ann that the sound was one continuous roar. His shot had the same result as Ann's, and they both cocked their rifles to fire again. This time, Billy was slightly faster than Ann at getting the shot off, but that was a trivial item. Both targets fell, and they now had 29 Indians to kill. That was way the hell too many for a face-to-face conflict, yet, but they were making progress.
The Indians had begun to react to the attack by this time, so Ann and Billy ran to their horses and headed for the agreed upon rendezvous point. They both arrived at almost exactly the same time, and they circled around to see what might have happened to Maria.