Isaiah Edwards stood running his fingers around his hat and lookin’ down at his friend. After a moment he sighed and then took a seat in the chair by the bed. Charles was sleepin’ the sleep of the sick, murmuring and tossin’ every now and then from side to side. He reached out and touched his forehead. The fever was high. Doc Canby had told him the night before that today would most likely be the one where it broke or got worse. If it broke, it wouldn’t go away right off the bat, but it meant Charles was well on his way to recovery. If it didn’t and it went higher – well, that meant there had been somethin’ got into the wound, either when he fell or from bein’ in the water. Somethin’ that was workin’ to kill his friend.
Isaiah leaned back and ran a hand over his face. He glanced at Laura where she sat at the Shelby’s table. The old man and his son had gone out early to take a walk and talk. They’d be working the lines soon as he was able to take Charles home, and Ben was showing – so to speak – his pa the ropes again to refresh them things that he knew but might have forgot. He felt sorry for Half-pint. She was bearing a terrible burden too heavy for a child. He noticed that she’d been avoidin’ him since that first day when her pa woke up. He needed to find time to talk to her alone, where her pa couldn’t hear.
Maybe later today when he got back.
As he sat there, thinkin’, the Doc came over. The man looked tired, but then he’d been on call for more than four days, and was the kind of a man who put his patient’s need before his own. Canby was a quiet, solid kind of man. Kind of reminded him of Doc Baker back home.
The Doc’s trained fingers sought Charles’ wrist. He held his watch out and counted the beats and then closed it and moved his hand to the sleepin’ man’s forehead. Canby frowned and shook his head. Then he seemed to come to himself and realize someone was watchin’.
“Is it bad, Doc?”
He shrugged. “Yes, but it’s not unexpected. The fever has to run its course. It’s his body trying to heal.” The Doc glanced Laura’s way and then lowered his voice as he finished. “It was close, and he’s still not completely out of danger.”
Isaiah nodded. He thought he’d growed acceptin’ about that kind of thing. But that was before he met Charles Ingalls who wouldn’t let him stay where he was, thinkin’ the Lord hated him and pushin’ everyone away, livin’ his life like nothin’ and no one mattered.
Of course, then he’d been numb. Now
he was feelin’ pain.
“How soon will we know?”
Canby ran a hand over his eyes and then looked at him. “Today. Tonight. It’s hard to tell.”
The mountain man sighed. “I s’pose it ain’t a good day for me to run to the town I brought you from?”
“Are you thinking of doing so?”
“Yep. I’ve been thinkin’. We got us two women and four children back in Walnut Grove, probably worried sick. I need to get word to them.”
Canby glanced at Charles. “And what are you going to tell them?”
He’d thought about that – thought about what was too much to say, and what was too little. Isaiah pursed his lips and shook his head. “I ain’t rightly sure, Doc.”
“Perhaps a note saying only that you’ve been delayed would be best until we...know for certain.”
He nodded again. “My thoughts exactly.”
It was morning. Carrie was still sleeping and Mary was getting ready to go to school. Caroline Ingalls was about her business. Taking care of a house and farm and two children left a woman little time for worry. Too
much, but little time.
As she pressed her knuckles into the mound of dough she was working on, she glanced at Mary who was getting ready to head to school. Since it was harvest time, the children had been off for a few days. That was part of the reason she had let Laura go with her pa. Now, it was time for lessons to begin again and her precious little child was still not home. Mary looked so forlorn, tying up her books and getting ready to leave for the schoolhouse alone. She’d thought about walking with her, but there were simply too many chores. She’d told her she would meet her after school. Hopefully with her Pa and Laura.
They were four days overdue now. Charles had been due at Hansen’s mill today.
He hadn’t showed.
Wiping her hands on her apron, Caroline walked over to her child and straightened an errant lock of hair that was coming out of her barrette.
“Are you almost ready?”
Mary hung her head. “I don’t want to go, Ma. I want to stay here in case – in case Pa and Laura come back.”
She drew her child to herself in a hug. “And I want you to stay, but, well....” She pulled back and looked at her. “If you stay and all you and I do is sit here together and worry, well then, I think the worrying would be twice as bad.” She paused. “If you know what I mean.”
Mary glanced up at her. There were unspent tears in her eyes. “I...guess so.”
Caroline drew her daughter over to the table. “Mary, sit down.” When she complied, she went on. “Do you know that you have a choice to make?”
She shook her head. “What choice?”
“Life is very uncertain,” she began as she took hold of her child’s hands. “Every day when someone we love walks out of a door and out of our sight, we have to trust – trust that God will watch over them and they’ll come back.” She drew a breath and said it as much for herself as Mary. “I’m afraid there are no guarantees.”
“So what’s the choice?”
“You either choose to believe what the Good Book says, or not to. To believe that everything – good or bad – is in God’s hands and He doesn’t make mistakes, or that He’s out of control.” She smiled. “Oh, I know you’ve gone to Sunday school and service since we’ve been here, and your pa and I have taught you right. But the choice to trust in the end, Mary, is up to you.”
Her daughter was silent a moment. “Is that what you believe, Ma? Really?
I mean, if Mister Edwards came in that door and told you pa and Laura, or even one of them, was...dead.... Would you still believe it?”
Her fingers gripped her child’s tightly. “Yes.”
Mary looked down. “I’m not sure I’m that strong, Ma.”
Caroline laughed. “Oh, Mary, I’m
not that strong either. God is.” She paused. Mary was young, but then she was also engaged and would be facing adult decisions soon. “You remember when your brother died.... Well, for a minute – for just a few heartbeats – I forgot to believe it. I thought God had forgotten me. Forgotten all of us. That somehow he missed the fact that our little boy was sick and needed Him.” She paused to compose herself. “It took your pa to remind me. He’d wanted a boy so badly and yet there he was, trusting in God’s will and trying to comfort me.”
Mary smiled. “That’s Pa.”
That brought a little stab of pain and doubt, but she pushed it away. “You know what we did?” she asked.
Her child shook her head.
“We prayed. Now, before you go off to school, why don’t you and I do that too? We’ll ask God to keep your pa and Laura safe, wherever they are, and to bring them home soon as He can.”
Mary squeezed her hand and then released it and put both of hers together.
Bowing their heads, they asked the Maker of Charles and Laura for grace.
Laura was sitting at Mister Shelby’s table. Mister Edwards had gone and she was alone in the cabin with Doc Canby and her pa. The Doc had laid down on the bed by the window where he had operated on her pa and fallen asleep. He sure was a nice man – just like Doc Baker – even if he was quieter and didn’t smile quite as much. The late afternoon light was streaming in the open door of the cabin. Ben and his pa were due back any time.
If she was going to do it, she had to do it now.
Pa would be all right with the Doc here. He’d take care of him and see he got home. Ma would be so happy to see him and to know he was all right. Laura stopped as another vision came before her eyes – her ma, hearing for the first time that she shot him, that look of love turning to one of blame and hate. It was like when her brother died. Even though Pa had come and got her, it had been her fault. He told her it wasn’t, but deep down inside she knew now – after what had happened – that what Mister Edwards said was true.
She was plain and simple bad
Rising, Laura walked over to her pa and stood by his bed looking down. She shook her head. You shouldn’t look down at your pa. Pas should always be taller and stronger and braver than anyone else. She should be looking up at him like she’d always done since she was born and old enough to know. He should be laughing and swinging her around and putting her on his shoulders, not laying in a bed all quiet and weak.
No way around it. It was her fault and her family would be better off without her.
Laura stood for a moment more thinking, and then she sat on the bed beside her pa. The covers were down and he didn’t have a shirt on. Down near his waist she could see the bandage. There was a single little spot of blood. Careful to avoid it, she gently laid her body on his and gave him a hug.
A moment later she felt his hand on her back.
“I’m sorry, Pa,” she said, sitting up. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“That’s all right.” His fevered eyes strayed to the door. “Looks like...half the day’s gone.”
She nodded. “More than half. The sun’s almost down.”
Her father’s eyes closed and then opened again...slowly. “I...bet your Ma’s sittin’ by the fire...readin’.”
“I bet so,” she agreed.
He raised a hand and she caught it. Looking at that hand – that strong right hand – she wondered now if she would ever be able to see it again in her head without it being covered in blood.
Even though she was holding it, her pa reached up and touched her cheek. He pushed a bit as he said it. “Why don’t you...go get her. I’d like...to talk to her.”
Laura went rigid. “Pa, Ma’s not here.”
He frowned as if puzzled. “No? I was sure...I saw her.... Pretty as...a picture....”
Laura jumped as a hand fell on her shoulder. “Don’t worry too much, Laura,” Doc Canby said. “It’s the fever talking. When it breaks, your pa will be all right.”
“And when will it break?”
The white-haired man looked at her pa and then back to her.
“God only knows.”
Caroline was sitting by the fire reading when a banging on the door startled her and brought her to her feet. She glanced at Carrie sleeping in her bed, who seemed not to have heard, and then at Mary who was hanging out of the loft, night cap on her head. They exchanged glances, both of them thinking and maybe fearing the same thing.
Still clinging to her Bible Caroline went the door. “Who is it?”
“Caroline, it’s Grace Edwards.”
Her breath caught. Grace! Laying her Bible on Charles’ chair at the table, she turned and fumbled with the latch and opened the door.
“Grace! Have you heard something?”
She nodded and held out a telegram. Caroline searched her face as she took it. Nothing seemed to be too wrong, though her friend’s smile seemed to be a little forced.
“It’s from Isaiah.”
“Ma, can I come down?”
The blonde woman pivoted. Whatever the news was, her children would have to know of it soon.
“Of course, Mary.”
Turning back to Grace, she asked, “Did you read it?”
There it was again. That hint of something being wrong.
“Read it out loud, Ma,” Mary said as she came alongside her.
Caroline drew a breath and did.
“ ‘Sorry not home yet. Couldn’t help it. Will be soon. Reasons when we get there.’ ”
Her eyes flicked to Grace’s. There was concern in them – not for herself, but for her.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” her friend said softly.
The blonde woman nodded. “I’m sure you’re right.”
“Ma,” Mary asked, her voice worried. “What does Mister Edwards mean?”
She had forgotten the child was standing there. “He just means it would have taken too long to explain in a telegram. Cost too much money. That’s all, Mary. Something’s delayed them. Maybe a washed out road or something as simple as that.”
“Wouldn’t he have said if a road was washed out?”
“I don’t know! There’s nothing more than what it says. Now, go back to bed!” she snapped.
Mary’s face pinched. “Yes, Ma....”
As her child turned to leave, she caught her and turned her back and hugged her. “I’m sorry, Mary. I’m tired. I didn’t mean it.”
Mary looked up. “You’re worried about Pa and Laura, aren’t you, Ma?”
She glanced at Grace and then looked back.
“I think we all are.”
Laura had told the doctor she was going out to relieve herself. As she left the cabin, he went over to sit with her pa. He’d probably forget that she’d even been there, he’d be so busy looking after Pa. She’d put together a bag with some food and tied it on a stick. She didn’t know where she was going, but wherever it was, she’d have to get a job to pay for somewhere to live and for more food. Mister Shelby and Ben were due back in the morning, and Mister Edwards too, so no one should notice she’d left until it was too late to follow her.
She’d miss her ma and pa and Mary, but it was for the best.
As she entered the trees at the end of Mister Shelby’s yard, she stopped. She had to choose a direction. The only one she knew was the only one she didn’t want to take, but she’d take it anyway – back past the pine with the low hanging branch and past the Schoolmarm tree, along Morgan Creek to the camp where it had all happened. Back to where she’d shot her pa and almost killed him.
Back to the beginning of the end.
Doctor Robert Canby rose to his feet and turned toward the door as it opened on the new day. Sam Shelby and his son came in, followed closely by Isaiah Edwards. He’d come to know the three men over the last week and admired them all. From what little he knew of Sam, he’d been well on his way to becoming a bitter old man due to the loss of his sight. According to Ben, this...incident...had made him into a new man.
The Lord did indeed
work in mysterious ways.
Isaiah Edwards was a type he had often seen – gruff, unschooled, but honest as the day was long, and loyal as a dog to its master when it came to kin and friends. There was a bond between him and the sick man that was easy to see, like brothers.
“How are you, Isaiah?” he asked as the mountain man took a seat at the table.
“Never mind me,” Edwards countered, “how’s your patient?”
It was the first time in a long he had been able to smile when he answered a question about Charles Ingalls. “It was rough, but his fever broke last night.”
The mountain man started to ‘whoop’, but then caught himself. Isaiah’s eyes went to his friend and then came back. He winked and said quietly, “Yippee!”
Canby laughed. “Where’s that child? She’s been so worried about her pa. I think she needs to be the first one to talk to him when he wakes up.”
Isaiah Edwards looked around the cabin. “Half-pint!” he called softly. “Half-pint, where you hidin’?”
“You know, now that I come to think of it, I don’t think I have seen Laura or heard her stir since around eight or nine last night. That’s when Charles’ fever reached its pitch.” The doctor frowned. “You don’t think....”
The mountain man shook his head from side to side.
“It’s Half-pint, Doc. I don’t think – I know.”
Mary was off to school again and Carrie was in the yard playing with Jack. Caroline looked at the table with the unpeeled apples and other kitchen chores that awaited her and sighed. She hadn’t slept well and she was tired. Her sleep had been disturbed by nightmare visions of her husband and child. In one, a sudden storm had come up and the mountain they were walking on had suddenly run like a river, carrying them both away. She’d been there, but she hadn’t been able to stop it. Her hand had almost reached Charles’. He’d been holding onto Laura and she’d had to watch as both of them slipped away.
Caroline sucked in a breath and fought a sudden rush of tears even as her fingers clutched the worn leather volume in her lap.
She’d told Mary to trust.
She had to do the same.
The trouble was, Isaiah’s telegram had only made it worse. She had kept it – it was under that leather cover now – and read it a thousand times. It was easy to see that it said next to nothing on purpose. ‘Couldn’t help it.’ “Reasons when we get there.’
At least he had said ‘we’. At least someone else was...alive.
Caroline shook herself and stood up, leaving the book on her chair. She went to the door and checked on Carrie and then returned to the table and sat down. Charles would be the first one to chide her for worrying about things she couldn’t change. As the image of her smiling husband standing there behind his chair, looking on her with amusement and affection came to mind, she reached out toward him – only to have the image vanish as if it had been nothing but a dream.
“Dear Lord,” she whispered as she picked up the first apple and the tears wet her cheeks, “let me touch him again.”
They were out, the three of them, lookin’ for Laura – him, Ben and the Doc. Sam Shelby had volunteered to remain in the house and watch Charles. Since he was blind, he knew he couldn’t be of much help to them in coverin’ a lot of terrain as quickly as they could. Charles was sleepin’ peacefully for the first time since the accident. He still had a fever, but it was low and the Doc said it wouldn’t be too many days before he could be up, and then another one and he would probably be able to set a horse and head home. Isaiah Edwards spit and shook his head. He was still kickin’ himself for leaving the wagon back in town. But then when Laura had found him and told her that her pa had been shot, all he could think of was fetchin’ the doctor and making it back to where Charles was as fast as he could.
The Doc had told him he’d done the right thing.
They’d agreed between them to let off a shot if they found anything. So far the woods were silent. Laura had a good six hours lead on them and knowing Half-pint, she was movin’ like the wind. The Doc had headed off toward the crick where they’d found Charles that first time, and Ben was riding through the nearby hills. He’d started off in one direction but then changed his mind. He ‘d stopped and asked himself, if he was a frightened little squirt tryin’ to run away, what direction would he go in? Well, the only one in these parts he would know was the one Laura had traveled with her pa.
Isaiah knew the path to Morgan Creek as well as the back of his hairy hand. He’d make it in half the time she could. That should put them both there ‘bout the same time, which was just about noon. He knew she and her pa would‘a camped by the creek, so the spot shouldn’t be too hard to find. In fact, it was probably the same place he and Charles had bedded down when they’d made the trip together the year before.
It took him about another half hour. As he approached the spot, he moved quietly as a man stalkin’ a skittish deer. If that little ornery thing heard him comin’ she was bound to hop off as fast as a jack rabbit! Drawing near, he pushed aside a low branch of leaves and looked toward the crick.
Half-pint was there. She was sitting beside the water with her hands locked around her drawn-up knees.
The mountain man stopped to think a moment before stepping out. Now, if he was a little child what thought he’d almost killed his pa, what would he be thinkin’ that had made him run away? Would he be afeared that it would happen again? Or that maybe his Ma would blame him? Maybe sisters and brothers too if he had them? Maybe he’d be thinkin’ that he was just plain bad luck....
Isaiah felt a sick go from the top of his head to the toes of his Mule ear boots.
It was him. He
was why Laura’d run away.
Grace had warned him that one day his particularity toward joshin’ would rise up and bite him in the rear – even though she hadn’t exactly put it in those words. ‘You forget, Isaiah,’
she had warned, ‘a child doesn’t think like an adult.’
It was a lesson he was learnin’ every day with his own young’uns.
Isaiah thought a moment more and then walked out of the trees whistling a jaunty tune.
Laura’s head came up as she heard a familiar voice whistling ‘Old Dan Tucker’. She turned and saw Mister Edwards stepping out of the trees with his rifle perched on his right shoulder and a fishing pole in his left hand. When he saw her he stopped, and then came over.
“Well, fancy meetin’ you here, Half-pint. I thought you was still in bed.”
She frowned warily. “You mean you ain’t been back to the cabin?”
“No, Ma’am. I decided me to come out here and do a little fishin’ for supper.”
“So far away?”
“Pshaw. It ain’t that far.” He grinned as he plopped down beside her. “‘Sides, the fish bite better here.” He looked at her. “What’re you doin’ out here? Fishin’ too?”
Charles’ girl lowered her head. “No, sir. I.... Well, I....”
She couldn’t help it. It all came tumbling out. “I was.... I’m leavin’ for good. I didn’t want to come here, but it was the only way I knew, and then when I got here all I could do was see that gun fallin’ and pa rollin’ into the trees and...the blood....” She shivered and her voice diminished with the tale. “Mister Edwards, there was so
much blood. I though Pa was gonna die right then and there.”
It was a terrible thing for a child to have seen. Isaiah drew a breath and got to it. “You ever figure out why it happened?”
She grew very still. A second later, Laura nodded. “Because of me and because you were right – I was bad luck.”
He thought a moment. “Well, that’s as it may be, but I don’t think that’s why it happened. You know luck only happens to folks who ain’t Christian.”
She frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I’m sure your Ma’s told you what the Good Book says about those who love Him.”
Laura nodded. “All good things work together for good.”
She thought hard. “For those who love Him and who are called according to His purpose.”
“So, you’re sayin’ this thing that happened – you knockin’ your Pa’s gun over – was somethin’ that God sort of...missed?”
“Oh, no.” She shook her head. “God doesn’t miss anythin’. He knows everything before we do.”
“Then He must have known your pa was gonna be shot. So, maybe...just maybe there’s a reason that He allowed it to happen.”
Her young face was all screwed up. She was thinkin’. He knew it was a hard lesson. It had been one her pa had had to learn him.
Finally Laura looked up at him. “Pa told me somethin’ kind of like that, when he was laying on the side of that mountain after the horse threw him. He said these things come into our lives to show us what we’re made of.”
“Did you find out what you were made of? And don’t tell me bad luck, ‘cause there ain’t no such thing.”
“But you said –”
“Laura,” he told her, reaching over and touching her hair, “I was joshin’ you. You gotta think it through. If you hadn’t been there and your Pa had been hurt –”
“That’s what Mister Shelby said! But Pa wouldn’t have been hurt if I hadn’t been there. He wouldn’t! I knocked the gun over.”
“How come it went off? Didn’t your Pa have the safety catch set?”
“And he left it loaded?”
“Now suppose your pa had been on his own, and suppose’n that gun had still slid off that tree? It’d have gone off whether you were there or not. So suppose your pa’d been shot and you hadn’t
been there?” He paused. “You know what, Laura?”
“I think God knew that gun was gonna go off and your pa was gonna be shot, and He put you there to save him. Now if you want to believe in luck, believe in that.
That’s good luck.”
“Before the bullet...hit him, Pa said I was just about the best luck he ever had.”
“Well, there you have it!” Isaiah stood and held out his hand. “Now, come on, let’s go back.”
She shook her head. “I can’t.”
“Why ever not?”
“I can’t face Mary or Carrie, or...Ma.” Her head dipped and she looked at her hands. “Ma’s gonna hate me.”
“Now don’t you go sayin’ no such thing. Your Ma ain’t gonna blame you for what happened. Caroline Ingalls knows the Good Book better than most.” He paused. “You, know, I think you’re kinda insultin’ your Ma by sayin’ such a thing. Anyhow, I gotta get me back. You comin’?”
“But you didn’t catch any fish.
He snapped his fingers. “Dang it, and I ain’t got time now. Here,” Isaiah held the pole out. “You catch ‘em and bring ‘em in. You know how your Pa loves fresh fish.”
She let out a shuddering breath. “You think he’s gonna be able to eat?”
“If not tonight, then tomorrow. The fish’ll keep.” He tipped his hat and began to walk away. “See you soon, Half-pint.”
When he reached the edge of the trees, the mountain man stopped and looked back. Laura was standin’ by the water’s edge with the pole in her hand. He thought he knew her well enough to know she’d come to the right conclusion, and so he started back toward the cabin to see what was up there.
He hadn’t walked ten minutes when he heard a small pair of feet runnin’ to catch up.
Laura halted beside him, fishing pole in hand. “Do you think we could get the fish tomorrow, Mister Edwards? I’d... I’d like to see how Pa’s doing.”
He rubbed her head.
“Tomorrow it is.”
Mary had asked if Alicia Edwards could come home with them and she’d agreed. Anything to keep her girls mind off their missing sister and their pa. The two of them were outside playing with Jack and Carrie now. She’d talked briefly with Grace in town, hoping there had been a follow-up to Isaiah’s first telegram. The other woman told her ‘no’ before she headed for her own home. The line had been stone silent.
She’d also managed to avoid Harriet Oleson, but only barely. She’d spotted the woman coming out of the mercantile with Nellie in tow and had hidden to the side of the building. Still, she couldn’t avoid Harriet’s rumor-mongering. She was explaining to Nellie – and anyone else who would listen – how certain
people thought they were woodsmen but weren’t, and would be better off working harder and spending more hours at the mill than going off into the wilderness where they could make mistakes and die and leave their poor wife and children on the dole.
out something to that woman the next time she caught up with her!
Once they got home she set about fixing supper. It had been so strange these last five days, putting plates and cups at only three places. When she and the children sat down, she was staring straight at Charles’ empty chair. She had to turn to see the other empty one next to Mary but it was there too in her heart, waiting for its occupant to return.
They’d been gone near a week now. From Saturday to nearly Friday. Charles had said it would take them two days.‘Reasons when we get there.’
After supper Caroline bedded the girls down upstairs in the loft and then descended to sit by herself again by the fire. When she closed her eyes she could hear Charles playing the fiddle, serenading the girls to sleep.
Oh, how she longed to hear that fiddle play again.
Charles smiled up at Ben Shelby. He’d helped him out of bed and into the chair that was pushed up beside it. Doctor Canby said he could only sit an hour or so. After that he would have to rest again. Still, no matter how long it lasted, it was like Heaven to be upright.
The Doc explained to him that he’d come very close to dying. The bullet had passed clean through from front to back, but its path had wrecked havoc with the veins and vessels inside. It was why he had bled so much. When he wandered off and fell into the creek, it had done two things – cooled him down so the fever remained at bay until he was found, and allowed something foreign to enter the wound that made the infection worse. He’d passed the crisis the night before and, while he felt weak as a day old pup, the medical man assured him that with time and care he would regain his strength.
It was autumn. There was so much to do. It had better return fast.
“How’s that, Charles?” Ben asked as he lifted his hand so he could settle against the chair back.
“Feels good,” he said with a nod.
“How ‘bout that side? You need anythin’ to prop it?”
He shook his head. “I’m fine. Thanks.” If the truth be told it felt like every muscle in his back was screaming, but he knew that came with lack of use and would get better – as the Doc said – with time. Looking toward the door, he asked, “Did you find Laura?”
“The Doc said she went fishin’ with Pa and Isaiah early this morning. They should be back soon.” Ben grinned. “She’ll sure be happy to see you sittin’ up.”
“No happier than I am
to be sitting up.”
A sound drew his attention and Charles looked up to see Sam Shelby enter using his walking stick to feel the way. Behind him came Isaiah. And behind Isaiah....
“Pa!” Laura’s face lit up like it did when she reached into her Christmas stocking. “Oh, Pa!”
Charles steeled himself as his daughter ran across the room, heading for him at full tilt. At the last moment she remembered and skidded to a halt and looked at him shyly.
“Is it okay if I hug you, Pa?”
“I’ve been waitin’ on it,” he said with a wink.
As Laura fell into his arms, he noticed Isaiah taking Sam Shelby by the arm and walking him over to the door. Ben was with them. His friend looked back as they stepped out and nodded, letting him know they would give him some time alone with his child.
Charles placed his hand on her head. She was trembling.
Her hug was gentle, almost tenuous. As if she was afraid she’d hurt him. “Oh, Pa,” she said between sobs. “Oh, Pa. I’m so sorry.”
He’d told her before it wasn’t her fault. She hadn’t listened. He didn’t think she was going to listen now. Still, he had to try. “You remember, Half-pint, what I told you on the mountainside about these things being allowed to come into our lives?”
She nodded against him.
“There’s reasons. We may not know what they are until we’re years older, and maybe never this side of Heaven, but we have to trust that God knows what He’s about.” He stroked her reddish-brown hair. “Sometimes, we forget what’s important, and the Good Lord knows it makes a thing more precious when you come close to losing it.”
“I know how important you are, Pa.”
He caught her face and made her look up at him. “I wasn’t talking about you. I was talking about me.”
“I don’t understand.”
He laughed gently. “You know when you came out to ask to go huntin’ with me, I was so busy all I thought about was getting you back in bed so I could go on with my work. If you hadn’t kept asking, I would have missed bringing you along and we would have missed the time we had together.” He stopped, considering what life would have been like for Caroline and all his girls if he had died. “When you get big, Half-pint, there’s so much pressing at you that it’s hard to stop.” He touched her cheek. “This happenin’ reminded me that I need to stop and take time to appreciate you and your Ma and sisters more, and to give you more of my time.”
She was silent a moment. “Mister Edwards told me.... You won’t get mad, will you, Pa?”
He shook his head.
“Mister Edwards said you left the rifle loaded and that it might have fallen and gone off anyway and that if it had and you’d been shot there wouldn’t have been no one to help you if I hadn’t come along.”
She did that all in one breath.
Charles hid his smile. He nodded, looking serious. “Isaiah’s right. It was my mistake and I would have made it whether you were there or not.” He touched her face again.
“So you see, Half-pint, you didn’t shoot me, you saved
Caroline dropped into the chair before the fire and laid her head in her hands. She’d just returned from the Edwards. Alicia had wanted Mary and Carrie to sleep over and she had agreed. Not only was tomorrow Saturday, so there would be no school, but she needed some time alone.
It had been a week since Charles and Laura had left. A week
She was trying to hold herself together for the children, but for some reason today she had felt like shattering. She’d been in town at a meeting of the ladies society. Since it was about an upcoming fundraiser most of the women had their husbands with them. As she looked at the empty seat next to hers, she had suddenly been overwhelmed by a sense of loss so deep and profound that she had risen from her seat and fled outdoors. Harriet Oleson had come outside after her, and Grace. She heard the two women exchange a few words, the last of which was a loud whisper, meant for her ears.
‘Poor thing. I wonder when she’ll finally face up to the truth.’
Caroline’s breath caught in her throat and a sob escaped her. “Dear God, help me....”
Almost as if in answer to her prayer, there was a knock at the door. When she failed to reply it came again, this time with a voice.
“Caroline, I know you’re in there. Open the door.”
It was the Reverend Alden. He hadn’t been at the meeting. Someone must have told him.
She rose and went to the washstand and ran a quick cloth over her face. Tucking her hair back as she walked, Caroline headed for the door. “Just a minute.”
When she opened it the Reverend asked, “May I come in for a minute?”
“Of course,” she said, stepping back. “You’re out late.”
“Just finishing my rounds.”
“Would you like some coffee?”
He smiled. “Since I have a long ride back to the church, I would be pleased to accept your kind offer, Caroline.” He looked around. “Are the children here?”
“Mary and Carrie are at the Edwards visiting with Alicia.”
“So you’re all alone.”
She was standing with her back to him, moving the coffee pot to the heated grate. His words struck her like a hand. Her shoulders shook and she dropped the pot so it made a loud clanging noise.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” she whispered as she righted it.
She felt him take her by the shoulders. “Caroline, what is it?”
Burying her face in her hands she admitted, “Oh, Reverend Alden, I’m so afraid.”
He turned her and took hold of her hands and lowered them. “About Charles and Laura?”
“They’re six days overdue!”
“Now, Caroline, you know all kinds of things can delay someone on the road. Charles is a more than competent woodsman. And he has Isaiah with him. I’m sure they’re fine.”
“I know. I know, but –”
“But Harriet Oleson put the notion in your head that something might be terribly wrong.”
She nodded. “Yes.”
“Caroline, come to the table and sit down.”
“What about the coffee?”
“Leave it.” He took her hand and drew her to the table and placed her on one of the chairs. “Caroline, you’re a fine Christian woman. What does the Bible say about worry?
“That we’re not to do it.”
“Yes. And why?”
“Because God knows best?”
He patted her hand. “Caroline, what it the worst thing you can imagine? That something has happened to Laura and Charles? That one, or maybe both of them is dead?”
A shiver ran the length of her. “Yes,” she breathed.
He closed his fingers over hers. “What will you do if it’s true?”
It came out as a sob of despair. “I don’t...know.”
“Yes, you do. You’ll survive and you’ll go on for your children – yours and Charles’.” He squeezed her fingers. “Now, I don’t for a moment think anything has happened to either him or Laura, but if it has – if
it has – remember this, God has not abandoned you. He will never
Caroline remained silent for a moment. Then she nodded. “Thank you, Reverend. Thank you for coming.”
“It’s my pleasure, Caroline. Would you like me to stay with you tonight?”
“No. I’ll be all right.” She smiled. “I have my Bible for company.”
He patted her hand. “All right. If you’re sure.” The older man rose then. “I’ll come back in the morning to see if there is any word.”
“Thank you.” She smiled. “I’ll be here.”
He held her gaze. “So will God, Caroline. Never forget that.”
The Doc had come and taken her pa back to bed not too long after they’d had their talk. Laura sat with him until he fell asleep and then tiptoed out and went to sit out front of the cabin where she could look at the stars. A little while later Sam Shelby came out. He stood in the doorway, facing toward the moon almost as if he could see it.
“You out here, child?”
“Yes, Mister Shelby.”
He turned toward her. “Laura?”
She heard his stick strike the ground as he advanced. “The Doc says your Pa’s doing good. That maybe he can sit a horse tomorrow or the next day.”
“You mean...you mean we can go home?”
There was so much contained in that word – all of her heart and everything she could hope for.
The older man came to stand behind her. He felt about and when he found her head, put his hand on it. “You ready to go home, child?”
She didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but she was. “Yes, sir.”
Sam Shelby lowered himself to the ground and sat beside her. “You miss your home, and your ma.”
She nodded. Words wouldn’t come.
“That’s only right, girl. I bet your ma misses you somethin’ fierce – you and your pa.” He paused and then said, “Isaiah told me you was thinkin’ your ma would blame you for what happened to your pa. You still thinkin’ that?”
It was hard to let it go, but she had to. “No, sir. I know I was right foolish to think that.”
“You wasn’t foolish, child. Just human.”
Turning, she reached out and took hold of the older man’s hand. “Thank you, Mister Shelby. Thank you for all you done for us.”
“It weren’t nothin’, child,” he answered as he reached out and took her hand. “Nothin’ compared to what you done for me.”
That night Charles felt a small form climb into the bed next to him. He held very still, not wanting Laura to know he was awake. She came along his good side and snuggled in close, pressing one small hand against his cheek and wrapping the other one around his chest. He waited until her breathing had grown quiet and even, and then shifted and drew her in close. So much had happened since Saturday the week before it was hard to take it in. Doc Canby had told him that he would make the decision in the morning. That if he passed the night well enough and there was no sign of fever, he’d let him go home.
Home to Walnut Grove. To Mary and Carrie. To Caroline.
Lord, how he missed them!
As he lay there thinking and stroking his child’s hair, Laura stirred. She raised up and looked at him and smiled.
“I love you, Pa.”
Charles choked with emotion.
“I love you too, Half-Pint.”
Caroline awoke early on Saturday and set about her chores. She had plenty to do before Grace brought Mary and Carrie home. With Charles gone she had taken on the extra responsibility of caring for the barn animals and that took most of the morning. Dear sweet Mary had been giving her as much help as possible and she really missed her. Still, it was good for her oldest to get away both from the extra chores and the reason for doing them. Though her talk with the Reverend Alden the night before had given her some peace, there remained the nagging feeling that something had gone terribly wrong with Charles’ and Laura’s hunting trip.
She couldn’t imagine any other reason he and Laura would be almost a week late.
As soon as the animals were fed and watered, she headed inside. Tomorrow was Sunday and she needed to press the girls’ good dresses. It might be foolishness, but she had laid Laura’s out as well as Mary and Carrie’s in the hope that she would see her child soon. Closing the door behind her, she went to the hearth and placed the irons near the fire to warm, and then crossed to the stove and stoked it. She really had little appetite but she knew she had to eat in order to keep up her strength.
To face whatever came.
As soon as the eggs were finished cooking, she took them and a glass of milk and sat at the table. Bowing her head, she thanked her Lord for the bounties He had bestowed upon her and for the protection He gave to those she loved. She ran through the list of the prayer requests she addressed daily, finishing with her own.
“Protect Charles, Lord, and Laura. Bring them both safely home.”
The words were barely out of her mouth when she heard the whinny of a high-spirited horse. A moment or two later there was a rap on the door. Rising, Caroline walked to the door, opened it, and looked out. It was no surprise to see the Reverend Alden, for he’d pledged to come, but Grace Edwards was with him.
Her heart fell to her toes.
Caroline drew a sharp breath. “Charles?”
The two exchanged a look. It was Reverend Alden who answered. “Caroline, he’s at Doc Baker’s. Laura’s there with him. Charles was injured, but he’s going to be fine.”
She caught hold of the doorjamb. “Injured?”
The reverend reached out to steady her. “We came to take you to town.” He turned to the woman standing beside him. “Grace, why don’t you help Caroline get her hat and coat and we’ll be on our way.”
The trip into town was a blur. Days later she remembered little of it. Grace had explained how Isaiah had shown up at their farm with Charles and Laura. Charles had been so weary that Isaiah had been worried for him and took him in their wagon to town to see the doctor, rather than having him ride so much farther to reach home. Mary and Carrie had been in the house with Alicia and hadn’t seen him come. Grace had decided not to tell them about their father’s return, believing it would be best coming from their mother.
Before the reverend could halt the buggy Caroline was out of it and racing for Doctor Baker’s door. He must have been watching, for he opened it at her approach and caught her elbow as she came inside.
“Charles is in the back room, Caroline, with Laura. He’s been through a lot, but he’s been tended well. Rest easy, he’ll be all right.”
“What happened?” she breathed.
The doctor shook his head. “All I know is he was shot.”
Caroline gasped. “Shot?
The physician placed a hand on her shoulder. “God has preserved him for you and your family, Caroline. Let that be enough for now.”
She nodded as she turned toward the room at the back. Before she could enter it the curtain lifted and the precious little face she feared she might never see again appeared. Laura looked exhausted. She was filthy. Her hair was strewn with nettles and tiny dry branches and hanging in hanks, like she hadn’t washed it the entire week. Her dress was nearly in tatters.
She had never seen anything so beautiful.
Dropping to her knees, Caroline opened her arms. “Laura!”
When her child saw her, she burst into tears. “Ma! Oh, Ma....”
She had no way of knowing what her daughter had been through, but she didn’t miss the dried blood on the side and shoulder of her dress. There was a tale here to be told, but not now. Now, it wasn’t important. The only thing that was important now was that they were both alive – and home.
“Ma. Ma, it was so awful. Pa got hurt, and then he got sick and fevered. I had to get Mister Shelby to help me get him back to the cabin and then go get Mister Edwards.” She shook her head from side to side. “We wanted to come home so bad
, but pa couldn’t travel. Not until yesterday. Ma, we – ”
She placed a finger across her child’s lips. “Hush. It’s not important. What’s important is that you’re both home now.”
Laura caught her hand between her own, and then intertwined their fingers. Her voice was tiny. “I was so scared, Ma.”
She nodded. “So was I, but now there’s no need to be scared anymore. You and your pa are home.”
She looked up to find the Reverend Alden standing beside her. “I’m going to take Grace and Isaiah out to their place and pick up Mary and Carrie. Do you want me to say anything to them before we head back?”
She looked at her child. “If it’s all right with the Reverend, would you like to go along to get your sisters?”
Laura cast a glance at the closed curtain, as if she’d held the responsibility for her pa for so long it was near impossible to let it go. “Ma, I can’t....”
She touched her face. “I’ll look after your pa now. Thank you for doing such a good job when I couldn’t.” As her child nodded, she looked up at the reverend. “Is that all right with you?
Her little girl drew a deep breath and released it. It seemed she released some of that burden with it as well. “You take care of Pa, Ma. He’s still hurtin’.”
Caroline bit back tears. “I will. Now you go with the reverend and Grace.”
She rose and watched the pair of them leave and then turned back to the curtain, hesitating a moment before going in. As she did, she felt a hand on her elbow. It was Doctor Baker.
“Yes?” she asked, sniffing back tears.
“Remember, things often look worse than they are.”
Doc Baker’s words stuck with her as she entered the small room at the back of his office. Charles was there on the examining table. Like Laura, his hair – that beautiful mass of curly brown hair – was filthy. It was matted with mud and blood and had lost its sheen. His face was gaunt – he had obviously lost weight – and his skin was as pale as winter painted it. But he was there.
Drawing a breath against the intense emotion she felt, both at seeing him alive and realizing just how close to death he had come, she crossed over to her husband’s side and stood by the bed. Charles was sleeping, worn out by the long journey back from Morgan Creek. She reached out and touched his arm gently, tentatively, almost as if she was afraid he would vanish or prove to be nothing more than a wishful fancy.
A second later he stirred. Charles opened his eyes and turned toward her. For a moment he was confused, then a slow smile spread across his face.
“Caroline,” he said as he reached for her hand.
“It’s good to be home.”
Caroline looked up from her sewing. It was late – after supper – and even though the children should be in bed she had let them stay up. Their father was in his bed and was sound asleep, but the wish – the need
to be near him was something she understood only too well. It was still hard to believe that he and Laura were home after so many long, unexpected nights away. Laura was there too at her father’s side, fighting to keep her eyes open, checking on him every so many minutes. While she wouldn’t let that go on too long, she understood her child’s attachment and let it be.
Isaiah had filled her in on what happened.
Caroline dropped her sewing in her lap and closed her eyes against the images that kept playing through her mind. Charles returning from the hunt, leaning his rifle against a tree. Laura, sweet helpful Laura, unfurling a bed roll, accidentally striking the gun and knocking it over. The gun...going off. The bullet taking Charles in the side, ripping through muscle and tissue – thankfully not breaking any bones. And then Laura.... Caroline drew a sharp breath. Pa’s little Half-Pint of Cider, facing what she had done.
A tear escaped her eye to trail down her cheek.
A small hand fell on hers at the same time. “Ma? Are you okay?”
She opened her eyes to look at the face she had been envisioning. Was it her imagination? Did Laura look older?
She put her hand over her child’s. Words failed.
“Doc Baker said Pa’s gonna be okay, didn’t he?”
It was there and would be for some time – that fierce protectiveness and fear for her Pa’s health. “Yes, Laura. Your Pa will be fine. I’m just tired...and happy you’re both home.”
Laura ducked her head. She shot a look at her sisters who were quietly playing near the entrance to the back bedroom and then raised her head, a question in her eyes. “You don’t...hate me, do you, Ma?”
Caroline blinked. “What? Hate you? Whatever for?”
She sucked in a breath and straightened her back, as if ready to face a firing squad. “For shootin’ Pa.”
The blonde woman put down her sewing. “Laura, come here.” She gestured toward her lap and waited until her child had climbed into it. “I could never hate you, no matter what happened. But this – what happened to your Pa – was an accident. You know that.”
Her child sighed again. “To tell the truth, Ma, I didn’t at first. I thought it was all my fault.”
That didn’t surprise her. In many ways Laura was like her father – thoughtful, sensitive, and too
deep a thinker.
“But you don’t now?”
She shook her head. “No, Ma’am.” After that, she frowned.
“What? What are you thinking?”
“You know, Ma, I ain’t never been with only men for so long. They were smarter about things than I expected.”
Caroline tried to hold it in, but she couldn’t – she laughed out loud. “Yes, yes, they are.” Reaching out, she pulled her child close and kissed her on the head. “Now, Laura Ingalls, it is time you got to bed. Go and get your sisters. This house needs to be quiet so your pa’s not disturbed.
An hour later the girls were asleep and all the night time chores were done. Caroline finished the last of them and then slipped into her nightdress. For a moment, she stood by the bed looking at her husband – still amazed at what he and Laura had come through and how close she had come, really, to losing them both. Even though Laura had not been hurt, if Charles – if her pa had died
– it would have been a wound that would never have healed, worse than death.
Caroline shuddered. She closed her eyes and whispered, “Thank you, dear Lord, for their safe return.”
Then, as softly and as quietly as she was able, she pulled the covers down and slipped into the bed beside her sleeping husband, careful to leave some space between them in case he was hurting.
Only he wasn’t sleeping.
Charles turned to look at her and reached out. When he spoke, his words were languid. Doctor Baker had given him something for the pain from the wound.
“What...took you so long?” he asked.
She caught his hand. “What else? Chores and children. The same as usual.”
A slight smile curled the edge of her husband’s lips. “It’s nice to have...usual.” His eyes closed for a moment and then he turned and looked at her with more focus. “Caroline...I’m...sorry.”
“Sorry? Whatever for?”
“I..shouldn’t have left...the gun loaded. Or taken...Laura....”
She squeezed his fingers. “Charles Ingalls, you just stop that. If you aren’t just
like your child – ”
His finger went to her lips as he pursed his own. “Shh.”
She stopped and then laughed. “I guess arguing on your first night home is not what the Lord brought you home for.” She smiled too. “Is it?”
Her husband shook his head. After a moment he said, “I...got one more...question....”
She leaned in toward him. “What is it, Charles?”
“What are you...doing so dang
far over there?”
Caroline laughed again and then, with a bigger smile on her lips, snuggled in against him. They lay there for a few minutes, savoring each other’s presence and then she thought Charles fell asleep. She was surprised when he stirred again and opened his eyes.
“Say, Caroline, what...day is tomorrow?”
Her head was on his chest. “Sunday,” she answered quietly.
Charles shifted so she fit even more neatly into the crook of his right arm.
“Oh, good,” he murmured, his lips against her cheek. ‘The day of rest.”