1879 Santa Fe Trail
A wagon leaving the safety of a wagon train to strike out by itself is a lonesome sight.
Its occupants, Patrick and Janie Benedict were headed west in an old Conestoga that complained at every bump and jolt in the road. The wheels squealed a high-pitched, irritating sound. Still, it was marginally dependable. More dependable were the four Missouri mules, which drew it, depending on their mood and disposition at the moment
The young couple looked the part, him tall and handsome with the sincere brown eyes appropriate for a young minister. The prairie heat made shirtsleeves mandatory and he peered out from under a flat-brimmed black hat indicative of those who pursued the avocation of a circuit-riding preacher.
His bride of only a year sat next to him, simply clad in a checked dress and plain white bonnet. Her hair peeked out from the bonnet and lit up scarlet red when the sun touched it. Both their faces were brighter from the barely contained excitement and enthusiasm than from the rays of the hot summer sun.
They made the trek west because Patrick had been called to the ministry. More specifically, he had felt himself called to do missionary work in what he referred to as the wild, wild west. Not that he had to go so far to find sinners; there was certainly more sin right there in certain sections of St. Louis than would be found in the entire west.
Yet many of his seminary classmates knew that in the secret compartments of his mind, Patrick saw himself in a saintly pose, surrounded by a throng of half naked savages kneeling about him as he converted them in droves by the power of his magnificent oratory. Such ambitious visions were certainly encouraged at the seminary.
Still, some of his teachers thought him very naive. Others thought him to be headstrong while the more optimistic conceded he had a unique evangelistic drive. The term the wagon master came up with when a couple of young people still in their twenties left the train alone was . . . well . . . to be truthful . . . stupid.
Quite a distance back up the wagon trail, pint-sized Ruben Dunn had his own ideas. He had these ideas on virtually any subject you could name, and he didn't mind sharing them with anyone inclined to listen.
Ruben's alter ego and long-time saddle mate was a tall drink of water by the name of Frank Walker. Had Frank ever been caught asleep at the wrong place, someone might have mistakenly used him to try and repair a length of split rail fence. Frank had dark hair that defied any comb in existence, chocolate brown eyes, and was unfailingly good humored and easy going.
More important, and absolutely essential to have a friendship with Ruben, he knew his own mind and did not feel it necessary to debate various points with his confident, but diminutive companion. Once Frank made up his mind, he simply went ahead and did what he wanted without much, if any, discussion.
Ruben on the other hand could debate the finer points of doing something different the entire time he calmly followed Frank's lead. The fact that he espoused one course of action while he did another never seemed to be a problem, it was merely how life worked. It certainly had nothing to do with diluting the opinions Ruben might hold.
At the present time the pair drifted with no particular destination in mind. Ruben did have some thoughts on where they should go and what they should do, however. He tipped his hat back on his head to reveal a shock of blonde hair with the look and consistency of prairie straw. He squeezed off his ever-present grin to compress his face into a more thoughtful expression, closed both hands on top of his saddle horn and ventured his opinion.
“What I think,” Ruben said, “is we could get us a ranch started down Texas way. There's loose stock, mavericks they call them, all over the place, and they're ours for the taking if we want to put up the hard work. There's land available that can be had mighty cheap. The land of opportunity, that's what they call it, and that's what it is. We could call our ranch the Dunn-it ranch. I can almost see the sign over the gate,” he looked off into the distance as if he could see the very sight he was describing.
“You being the Dunn and me being the IT, I suppose.” No trace of emotion showed on Frank’s face to indicate whether he might be kidding or not.
Ruben grimaced, “Aw, Frank, it ain't like that, it ain't like that at all, it's just a catchy name.”
“If we branded cows with Dunn-it, they'd be barbequed while they was still on the hoof.”
“Dang it, Frank, you got no imagination.” Ruben let go of the saddle horn and poked the air vigorously in his partner's general direction to emphasize his point.
“That ain't so, and you know it. I ain't even hung up on a name, I just like to twist your tail a little ever' now and then. Keeps you humble.” Frank may have had a hint of a smile on his face. With him it was hard to tell.
“I don't think it's possible to keep me humble, me being so nacherly great and all.”
“On further thought, I kinda like the name. It'd make people feel sorry for me with what I have to put up with. You know, me being an ‘it’ would be plain enough for anybody.”
Ruben only looked at him as if unable to comprehend as he shook his head slowly side to side.
“Janie,” Patrick rested his hands on his knees, keeping gentle pressure on the reins. “I can hardly wait. I know I've been called to do great things. I tell you I'll convert so many of these heathens—“
Janie smiled, she had heard this day and night for a year, but she didn't mind. She was proud of the man she thought of as her young knight, and believed in his quest as strongly as he did. She had no doubt but what he would do exactly as he said he would do.
All the way down through Kansas he practiced his oratory, and he wrote sermons, moving, and powerful if flowery sermons. His only congregation for these epistles, besides Janie, were four Missouri mules. There was no record as to whether he converted them or not, as they were notoriously uncommunicative. The evidence certainly proved him to be a patient and pious man, however, as any one who can drive a brace of such animals without the fortification of stout teamster cusswords, was a man of strong character, indeed.
Clearing the Kansas line took them into Indian Territory. It was intentional. The wagon train had been primarily commercial and they felt out of place. The word going around was the railroad to Santa Fe was nearing completion and would soon replace the wagon trail entirely. Too much civilization, surely the unchurched Indians he searched for would be down in the territory.
Had they come straight down from St. Louis, it would have put them over in the country occupied by the Five Civilized Tribes. The tribes in that part of the territory were known for establishing farms and towns, and had centuries of beliefs and customs of their own which did not conflict strongly with Christian beliefs. It would have been fertile ground for Patrick's work.
But they didn't come directly south. They had consistently veered off to the right, and by the time they got through Kansas, they were well into the part of the territory known as no-man's land. It was a land inhabited by outlaws, and the roving Comanche and Kiowa who roamed across the plains of Texas all the way up into western Kansas. Here, indeed, were exactly the inveterate sinners and naked savages Patrick had envisioned, and in quantities sufficient to fulfill any dream he may have had.
It was mid-morning when they met their first opportunity to start his ministry. They topped a small rise in the sea of blowing grass they had been in for days. Suddenly, ahead of them were two magnificent mounted warriors on painted ponies.
They were tall, and naked to the sun except for a breechcloth and moccasins on their feet. Their faces were painted, and on their heads were feathered bonnets, which trailed well down their backs. They held shields with bright painted symbols on them in their left hands.
Patrick was elated. His first prospects! And exactly what he had envisioned in his dreams. He pulled the team up about 50 yards away, dismounted and tied them off to a ground hitch weight. The warriors watched curiously. He slipped into his black frock coat, picked up and clutched his Bible to his chest and started toward them with his hand held up in a sign of peace.
His smile was still fixed on his face when the arrow drove deep into his chest.
The great sermon he had practiced so long remained caught in his throat. He thought, No! No!. I can't be denied my destiny. Janie,. what will—
But then he fell over on his face, and the last of his air gently left him as he went on to his reward.