Rachel woke in the night and remained still, listening for what had awakened her. The fire had died down to glowing embers. Grant’s breath was soft against her cheek. The night was quiet except for the soft sound of falling rain. She slowly moved her head so that she could see the mouth of the cave.
With a gasp, she came to her feet, grabbing the stick. Two wolves stood at the entrance of the cave, staring at her. When she leaped to her feet, they danced away, lingering a short distance from the entrance.
    Rachel tossed more wood on the embers, blowing on them until the wood ignited. The flames leaped up, and the wolves backed away. She grabbed a large rock and threw it at them, screaming as loud as she could.
    “Get out of here!”
    The rock hit one of the wolves on the hip and he whined, much like an injured dog. The wolves turned and trotted off. Had she camped in their den? No, not unless wolves had progressed to the point of building fires. They probably only wanted in out of the rain.
    Grant started to whimper, so she picked him up and cuddled him close, stroking his soft silky head. Comforted, he fell asleep again, but she remained awake for a long time. The wolves didn't return and exhaustion finally coaxed her to sleep.
    She woke again in the inky pre-dawn darkness with a feeling that someone was watching them. She lay still, breathing shallow and hoping that Grant wouldn't waken and reveal their presence. Had the wolves returned? Outside the cave entrance, water dripped from the leaves of the trees. In the darkness, there was nothing else.
    Gradually the cave entrance became stained with the orange rays of dawn. The new light revealed no wolves or other visitors in the cave. Had it been nothing more than her imagination?
Grant woke suddenly with a wail, startling her. She smiled down at him.
    "We'll be someplace warm and dry by tonight," she said as she scooped him from the sandy impression that had served as a cradle during the night. She changed his diaper, rolling it into a ball. She would wash it at the creek and hang it from her belt to dry. It wasn't the most sanitary way, but it was the only way to make three diapers last several days. She cuddled him to her breast, hoping she had spoken the truth about finding the fort tonight. How far had they come? More important, how far was it to Ft. Osage? How many agonizing steps? How many savages?
    Grant's fingers gradually ceased their clawing, and his suckling slowed to an occasional tug. He had fallen asleep again. She strapped him to her back and carefully stood. She was weak and hungry, but the pain wasn't as bad as yesterday. Not yet, anyway.
    At the creek, she drank deeply before rinsing the diaper. Wringing it out the best she could, she tied one corner to her belt and turned south. The rocks near the creek were wet, and her foot slipped off the edge of a rock, nearly spilling her to the ground. She recovered and continued, only to be assaulted by a bush. She won the battle, but at the expense of her dress. The only dress she owned now had a chunk out of it.
    She followed the creek as much as possible, but there were several places where trees and brush threw up an impregnable barrier. It was on one of those detours that she saw the savage again.
She had reached the top of a steep hill and paused to catch her breath. As she leaned a shoulder against a tree for support, she glanced around. She didn't see him on the first scan, but movement gave away his position on her second sweeping glance. He was crouched, his back to her, looking at something on the ground; a track? Fear clutched her heart with a cold hand. Was the savage stalking her? If so, why would he hang back? The answer was obvious, of course. He wasn’t aware of her presence in the forest - and she intended to keep it that way.
    Fortunately he was ahead of her, so it couldn't be one of her tracks that he had found. Still, he blocked the way to the creek. As quietly as possible, she turned and retraced her steps...or at least, that was her intent. Nothing looked familiar. Surely she would have remembered that gnarled oak tree. Her heart pounded wildly. Where was the creek? She couldn't get lost. Grant was depending on her. She stopped and closed her eyes for a moment; partly to fend of panic and partly to beseech her maker for guidance. Finally she opened her eyes again. Which way? The only answer that seemed advisable was away from the savage.
    She walked for a few more minutes before she heard the creek again. Again she had been traveling in the wrong direction when the savage appeared. Again she had seen him before he had detected her presence. God was watching over them. In spite of the grim situation, she felt comforted. They would make it to Ft. Osage.
    Near the creek, she knelt beneath an arch of honeysuckle to change and feed Grant. Her mouth was dry and her stomach felt like it was eating itself alive. She drank at the creek, which helped, but she needed some kind of food. Were there any berries this late in the year? Her search revealed a few hickory nuts that the squirrels had either stashed or missed. She placed them on a large rock and hit them with another rock. She eagerly plucked the meat from them and savored the flavor. It wasn't much. In fact, it only encouraged her stomach to demand more. Further searching was not only futile, but time consuming as well. Again she drank from the creek and washed the diaper. Hanging it on the other side of her belt, she hefted Grant to her back and continued the journey.
    The day wore on, and her strength abated. The pain wasn't as bad as the previous day, but it lingered, all the same. The longer she walked, the worse she felt. Thirst drove her back to the creek frequently, but after drinking, she was careful not to stay close. Animals, including the savages, needed water too, and she had no intentions of joining them.
    At first the leaves were wet from the night rain, but gradually the leaves dried, announcing her slow progress. She stopped midday to feed Grant and rested on a rock. Grant was hungrily feeding when she heard something crunching through the leaves. It moved for a few minutes, and stopped. Had a savage spotted her?
    She held Grant close and rose from the rock. Slowly sliding her feet so that she made as little noise as possible, she managed to get into a position where a cedar tree was between her and the advancing threat. The leaves rustled, followed by silence. Something was stalking her...seeking out her tracks. Was it the savage she saw earlier? Judging by the sound, it was more than one savage. For several minutes, the sound continued off and on. Finally the source emerged from the forest; two deer, probably a doe and last year's fawn. Rachel let out a breath of relief.

    Gradually the land began to flatten and the creek became wider and deeper. The fort would be on the other side of the creek, so she watched for a safe place to cross. It was late evening before she found it.
As the sun sank on the horizon, the air had a cold bite. The trees had offered both shelter from the wind, and security up until now. To get to the creek, she would have to descend the open slope. At this point the creek was wide and the water looked shallow. It would be cold, and the idea of getting wet this close to dark wasn’t exactly appealing. Still, this might be the only opportunity.
    She stood inside the tree line for a long time, watching to see if anyone followed. Finally, satisfied that there was no one around, she made the last adjustments to her shawl. This time she secured Grant in the front, so that she could hold him in her arms while they crossed the creek.
    She took one step and stopped, fear clutching at her throat. At the edge of the creek, the savage was kneeling for a drink. He cupped his hand into the water and drank while he surveyed the country on the opposite side of the creek.
    Rachel shrank back into the shadows of the trees. In doing so, she bumped Grant against a branch and he began to fuss. She hastily pulled the shawl from her shoulders and crouched, cuddling the baby against her breast. He grunted and made baby sounds for a few minutes. Finally he yawned and stretched his tiny arms, instantly falling back asleep.
    The Savage stood and looked around. Had he heard the noise? If so, he obviously didn’t know the source, because he was looking the wrong way. He stood beside the water for a few minutes. Finally he began wading across the creek. The water climbed to his knees, and then on to his chest. He held his gun over his head so that it wouldn't get wet. The sun reflected off the brass inlay on the stock.
    Rachel smothered a startled cry with her hand. That was Ralph's gun! He had won it in a shooting match and he was proud of it. There was only one way that he would let it out of his sight. She sank to the ground, tears welling up in her eyes, and spilling over her cheeks. A deep sob tore her throat as the blurry figure left the creek and disappeared into the forest on the other side of the creek.
    She sat there for a long time, crying until she felt weak and numb. "Ralph." The word was torn from her lungs in an agonized sigh. Roused by her sobs, Grant began to whimper. In spite of her soft-spoken words of comfort, his crying rose to a lusty wail.
    Fearful that the savage might hear and return, she drew back into the forest. Grant was wet and hungry again. Unfortunately, neither diaper was completely dry. Using the one that felt the least wet, she changed his diaper again and fed him. He would probably get a rash if this kept up, but maybe they would reach Ft. Osage tonight.
    She sat quietly for a few minutes, resting while Grant nursed. If the savage hadn't come along, would she have drowned in that creek? Would Grant have drowned? The thought was nauseating. Unwittingly, the savage had again been an instrument of God, warding her away from disaster.
Long eerie shadows warned of the advancing darkness. The sun winked slyly at her through the trees on the horizon, and the evening breeze tugged at her hair with icy fingers.
    She stood, cold, hungry and more alone than she had ever felt in her life. Which way? When it became dark, would she be able to see the lights of Ft. Osage? She had to find shelter. Maybe she could shiver through the night, but Grant would become ill. That was when she saw it - a huge old oak tree with a hollow trunk. There wasn't much room, but it would be protection from the wind and moisture. She collected an arm full of the tall grass and tucked it inside the tree. Climbing in, she sank into the softness of the grass, facing the opening. Surely tomorrow she would reach Ft. Osage.

Continue to Chapter 6

​      A Frontier Novella by L.L. Rigsbee