In TAKEN, the main character, one of the protagonists (yes, there are two) could not have survived without the other. I enjoyed writing this story, particularly the importance of the animal protagonist. Part of the story is reproduced here. There are more surprises along the way. If you want to read the rest of it, contact me and I’ll be happy to share it in exchange for a review.
This is how we begin….
We gather songs of the wind, the mountains, the trees. In honor of Old Man Coyote we sing war songs. We wear a fine war shirt. We have war honors. We do brave deeds. We count coup. We will rid the plains of the white enemy and his children and his children’s children. The chosen people will see again the White Buffalo.
Apache War Chant
The dry unbroken expanse of valley floor is sunbaked, hot as a griddle, like fire under coyote’s paws. He left the cave after the morning heat inside became unbearable. Now he stands in the blistering sunlight listening to his stomach. He needs food. He lifts his muzzle to the sky and smells water. Instinct tells him there will be life in the reeds around the watering hole. What he is looking for will be there, peeping from behind the rushes that line the banks. If he is patient, silent, he will eat. Slowly, tentatively a chipmunk appears. In one sharp squeal, he complains to the weeds around him that he has suddenly become prey. Coyote will eat. It is only enough to give him strength to move on to the woods beyond the water where he will find rabbits and shade. Sated, he will lie quietly beneath the arms of a tree until the sun wages a futile battle with fast moving dusk and sinks in a blaze of color behind the buttes.
Armond Froelich scans the horizon before turning back to the wagons with his decision. Will they move on so nearly night as it is? Or will they circle and stay in relative safety until light appears across the trees?
Froelich is a man of responsibility, bravely shouldering the task of shepherding a wagon train of settlers moving west, chasing a dream. It can be daunting. Atop every butte hostiles could be waiting to swoop down on the travelers; the Apache who deeply resent the incursion of the white man. Sudden downpours could mire the wagons in muck that hardens with the first hot sunlight of morning. Or trap them in deep ruts left by those who traveled this way before.
Froelich decides it would be safe to circle for the night. Fix a cooking fire in the center of the circle. Make a supper of hardtack, dried venison and coffee before joining hands for prayer and falling sleep under the arched temple of stars. Tomorrow they will journey on to open land beyond the mountains where they have prayed that God will grant them the strength of purpose to build homes and till the land.
The sun is gone; the distant eastern mountains, empty silhouettes against a backdrop of emerging moonrise. Coyote stretches one thin leg at a time, arches his back, points his muzzle into the cool night air. Listening, ears cocked, for a rustle in the small patch of weeds beside the mouth of the cave. It is there. A snake, its flat head poking through the weeds, slithering into the open until too late it sees the animal. In one pounce, it becomes dinner forOld Man Coyote. The delighted animal whirls and leaps, the dying snake clutched in its mouth, wriggling in a futile death dance.
He gnaws leisurely on his night meal, finishing just before a chorus of his brothers and sisters sweeps up into the night sky from beyond the buttes. And smiling, the satisfied animal responds with a long and plaintive howl. Soon, the night is filled with calls and answers, shouts and whispers, accompanied only by the scratchy sounds of crickets in the bushes beside the cave.
The travelers are accustomed to night noises along the trail. Tonight, with the crackling atmosphere and a breathless wind, the sounds are magnified. Even the creaking of the wooden wagons as they settle in the cold night air intrudes on sleep. The children are restless. Four-year-old Maggie Hazen clings to her mother at the first song of the coyotes. “What is that, mother? Are they close to us?” Her mother smiles and holds the child close. “No, my darling. They are miles away beyond the buttes. Now, go to sleep. Sunrise will be here soon and we have many miles to go tomorrow.”
Axel Froelich and his father sit around the fire watching embers fly free into the night sky and disappear among the stars. Axel, seventeen, eldest of the five Froelich brood, sharp-eyed, broad shouldered, called by duty to be a man before his time. He rides at the rear of the train scouting behind the wagons, keeping an eye on the raised places and the forested, places hostiles can hide.
Hard decisions had to be made before they left Michigan headed west, knowing that Elise Froelich would give birth along the trail. Should they stay or should they go? Many voices spoke against the trip. His own father had told him that he and his family should never leave. “Once you have gone, Armond, you will not return. Too many miles will separate us. Think of your mother and me. Of Elise’s mother. You are leaving so much behind.”
But Armond was determined. He had a vision and in that vision, there were acres of land to be tilled, crops to be planted, winters that would not be as harsh. It would be a place of family solidarity, everyone working together for a better life. With so much land, his children would never need to leave but could have land of their own, living close to their parents perhaps forever. This was his dream.
“This journey will be our last chance to have land of our own, papa. It is the final organized wagon train to the west. After this, there will be no more. At least from this part of the country.”
His only hesitation was that Elise would be traveling so far while with child. He carefully scrutinized the manifest for the trip. His wife would not be the only woman. Many wives, each also a mother, would make the trip. Two had declared themselves midwives. Childbirth along the trail would perhaps be as safe as at home.
Armond and Elise decided they would make the trip. The boys–Axel and his younger brothers Leo and Jake–excited but fearful not knowing what they will discover on the trail west. They have heard stories of hostile Indians, unwelcome storms of rain and snow, of ferocious wild beasts. How many of these stories are real; how many are tales told around a campfire–no one who hasn’t been west and returned knows the truth.
Early morning and coyote must face again the summer’s heat and the never-ending plague of the flea. He flops in the dirt and raises a hind leg so he can chew away the niggling bite of the tiny insect. It is incessant and the heat only worsens the annoyance. He finished demolishing the flea and growls. This will not be a good day. More than food he needs water and he needs it now. His throat is parched from the sing-along with his brothers and sisters the night before.
He is angry. At what, he doesn’t know but a general irritation surrounds him. He considers climbing to the top of one of the buttes where there is, at times, a breeze. Where he can find shade beneath the sparse growth of trees. He lopes toward the upward trail stopping at a watering hole on the way. He ignores two chipmunks on the other side of the pond drinking. His mind is on making the steep climb to the top. Maybe the view from the butte will improve his mood.
Rosalee Froelich, pink and healthy, was born early one morning on the trail, her birth accompanied by the swing and bump of the wagon, the screech of wheels in need of grease and the clomp of oxen hooves on the hard trail. The train could not stop for the event; every mile mattered.
Word spread quickly delivered by her eldest brother. Axel rode the line shouting. “She’s here. Rosalee is here.” Her birth was greeted with a cheer from the entire wagon train. It was more than joy. It was defiance. In the worst of circumstances, life had triumphed. For one brief moment of delight, the challenges of the long trail were ignored, the daily trials subsumed by joy. A new life is on the journey with them.
Tonight before the night fire dies, Armond and his son must plan tomorrow’s route along a trail with no markings, no directions. Yet they must push on…summer would be dying and the prelude to fall would signal colder weather. They must have homes…at least shelter against the cold sting of winter. Before he slept, Axel would pull from his saddlebags the journal and pen his mother had given him for his sixteenth birthday. Painstakingly, he would record the activities of the small band of settlers just as he did every night. Tomorrow, they will travel as many miles as the horses and oxen will allow before exhaustion threatens to drop them in their tracks.
It is a hard journey. We must travel so many miles before the bite of winter. I cannot stop and think of the lives we left. And yet, every day from my lonely post at the rear of the train I have flashes of what my life was like in Michigan. My father promises that the territory ahead is far better than what we left. We will see. For now we are a band of weary travelers each one seeking the same thing: a new life in a new land. I look up at the night sky and think to myself this is the same vast sky sprinkled with pinpricks of starlight that is seen by those we left behind. And I know we are still bound together by heaven across a broad expanse of earth. It is the empty miles that make me sad. Between what was our life and what lies ahead, we have no home. We are rootless. It is not a good feeling. I pray for a safe and swift journey. Once we are there beyond the mountains, we will have a home and our new life will be complete.
Old Man Coyote lay on the rim of a butte in the late summer sun. His belly was full and though he had plenty to eat–now– instinct told him that soon it would be different. The small animals that satisfied his hunger would be underground and the ground would be under snow. He would have to dig not knowing exactly where he was going to find his meal.
Something else bothered him. Not just the everyday disposition of animal hunger. He knew no name for it. He knew simply that he was lonely, isolated from his brothers and sisters. Coyote also knew if he started now, he could make it across the mountains, to the other side of the buttes, to the pack he sang with every night. Perhaps he could reach them before winter set in. They would be together, hunt together. They could survive.
But now, drowsing in the sun, looking down on a long string of wagons snaking across the barren landscape below, he lost the will to make the journey. Wild intelligence spoke to him from the hot, coarse air above. It told him that winter will come. That it would be best for him to join the pack across the mountains so they can hunt together when snow covers the ground and food is hard to find. But today he is lazy. The sun is still warm. Winter seems far away.
The dark retreated diagonally, evenly, across the valley floor, chased by the early morning sun. Slowly the buttes came alive in the light. Today, the settlers have many miles to go. Already the mornings began cooler, the afternoons ended earlier. They knew the dangers of being on the trail if the first blast of winter should catch them unaware.
The wagons were packed, the load balanced carefully in each. Traveling the rutted trail, the weight could suddenly shift and topple the wagon, spilling contents and settlers across the valley floor. Wagons that could not be righted were unloaded and the load distributed to the other wagons. The draft animals injured some so severely they could go no further were left where they fell. The westward trails were littered with the carcasses of wagons and oxen, testimony to the indescribable terrors of life on the trail west. It was a warning to those who are unwary.
Armond braced himself for another day. Axel, at the rear of the train, keenly aware of dangers that could appear in an instant, kept a sharp eye out across the buttes and the hills between. They would need to make many miles again today, the land of plenty still days ahead.
With a shout of “Ho!” and a forward motion of his right arm, Armond moved the train from the safety of their circle into a long, halting single file. The ponderous wagons creaked and groaned. The oxen snorted. The few horses–some travelers preferred the saddle to the hard, unforgiving wagon seat–would whinny to one another.
This was not the glory road to anywhere. It was not a joyful parade of travelers going between towns. It was a tedious, slow journey fraught with danger.
We made good progress today. The trail was smooth. The ruts were shallow which caused my father some concern. “Is it possible,” he asked, “that we could have somehow strayed from the trail? It appears that this is less traveled.” Just beyond the strange unmarked road the deep ruts again appeared. My father does not understand but he has an answer, simply: This is the American west. Anything can happen. Best not to question.”
Tonight my mother Elise and the other women in the train made hoecakes in hot skillets, sprinkled some of them with sugar. It was a happy treat. After we feasted on hoecakes and dried venison, we had coffee around the fire while Tom Hazen played the accordion and Mrs. Evans took out her fiddle. With lusty voices we sang “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair” and “O Susanna.”And as the fire began to die, we held hands around the embers and sang “Blest Be the Tie That Binds”. There were tears before we made our beds and slept. God, please watch over this lonely band of travelers and bring us safely to our home in the new land. Protect those we left behind. Grant that we might see them again.
Coyote had a good morning. Already two unsuspecting rabbits nibbling on the grass in the foothills had been his breakfast. Full, happy, he made the long climb to the top of a butte where he could survey the valley below. Today, he found a tree and flopped down in its shade.
Suddenly, he lifted his muzzle into the fresh morning air. He smelled humans. He sprang to all four bony legs, sniffing. There was no mistaking it. They were humans and whomever they might be were coming closer. He would need to make a swift retreat down the butte to safety. Just below the rim in the tall weeds, he paused and looked back where he had been.
A band of the Apache on horseback came riding up scattering dust and rocks. Coyote watched them closely. They spoke quietly among themselves as they kept watch on the wagons crawling across the valley below.
Axel spotted the Apache as they approached the rim of the butte. A cloud of dust rolled over the edge preceding the war party. At first he could make out heads, then horses, then a full and frightening array of hostiles across the top of the butte. He urged his horse forward at a gallop, pulling up breathless beside his father. He pointed upward. “There are hostiles. I can’t tell how many, father. We’re in plain view.” Squinting into the sun, shading his eyes with a hand, Armond looked up. Yes, there were Indians in a line, obviously watching, waiting. High atop the butee.
He must make a decision. Circle the wagons thereby alerting the spying Apache that they had been spotted, possibly provoking them to attack. The route to the valley floor from their present elevation atop the butte would take the Apache an hour–perhaps longer. Armond had no idea what topography lay behind the butte. Flatland? Hills? He knew the Indians on horseback could not climb down the steep face of the butte. If he urged the train forward as fast as the oxen could go, they might reach a more defensible position, circle the wagons and prepare to face the enemy.
He closed his eyes, perhaps in prayer. Then, slowly, deliberately: “Son, we’ll go forward. Alert everyone along the line that we need to move fast, as quickly as our animals can carry us. At the first sight of a haven, we’ll circle and prepare for an attack. “Axel nodded. “Yes sir.” He wheeled his horse around. Galloping down the line of wagons, he shouted “Urge your animals forward as fast as they can safely go. Watch carefully. Be alert.”
Coyote was angry. His morning had been disrupted just when he was about to rest in the shade of a tree, stomach full, eyes trained on the travelers below. They might leave something behind that would be of use to him. He would approach in the dark, sniffing the trail for food dropped from the wagons. Now the Apache had taken his place forcing him to clamber down the steep side of the butte to safety.
He retreated, snarling. He would get even somehow. He would visit their encampment at night and drag away all the precious buffalo meat they left on the drying racks. With his urine, he would spoil blankets left to dry outside. Yes, Old Man Coyote was very angry with the Apache. He would seek revenge. He would somehow wreak havoc on them.
Between two hills, in a small clearing fronted by scrub bushes, Armond elected to circle the wagons, dusk and the dying of the day only an hour or two away. It was not an unusual time to stop for rest. They would wait quietly for dark, listening for sounds, watching for signs of an attack.
There were no fires that night. No singing. Tom Hazen could not play his accordion or harmonica. Priscilla Evans kept her fiddle in its case. Tonight, mothers and children gathered, huddled–fearful–inside the circle. Men with rifles at the ready stood between the wagons until the morning sun slipped fingers of light through the scrub bushes.
The travelers had been safe for one more night. Armond knew this was only temporary. They were bound to face the hostiles somewhere along the trail. Tomorrow, with a short prayer of thanks, the settlers would move out onto the open trail again, trekking slowly toward a destination yet weeks away.
We received our first fright from hostiles when an Indian war party watched us from a butte. Father made the wise decision to move on beyond the place we were spotted to a haven where we could more nearly defend ourselves should we need to. At sunset although we had heard nothing from the hostiles we armed ourselves for an all-night vigil. We sheltered most of the women and children in the center of our circle. Women from families with more than one rifle also took up stations with the men. If it had become necessary to defend ourselves we would have been ready although we do not know much about our hostile adversaries. We are not familiar with their weapons. We can only hope our rifles will prevail. It was a long night for all of us. We cheered the daylight. We are safe in the loving arms of Jesus again for another day. Our families are strong. I would not want to live outside my family and the love that surrounds me every day. I cannot imagine how life could continue without their circling strength.
Coyote had reached flat land. He followed a narrow foot trail toward his cave. He would rest there for the night while he planned his revenge on the Apache village. Behind his golden eyes, fundamental coyote logic told him to be patient. There would come a time. It would be before winter snows so they could not track him as he dragged away their winter horde of drying buffalo meat.
Silently, he pounced on an unaware ground hog. Then two field mice preparing nests for oncoming winter. Full and happy, he loped along the trail, nose twitching to pick up the scent of one more prey he could save inside the cave for his dinner.
Tonight, he would sing once again with this brothers and sisters far away beyond the buttes. And once again, they would invite him to join them for the winter so they could find prey together. He would invite them to join him. He had a cave for shelter from the snows. Their calls and answers tonight far from the travelers’ hearing floated on the air only as far as the Apache encampment.
Whistling an off-key tune as he rode along ahead of the train, Armond smiled. One day closer to the fertile land that lay behind the hills in the valley below the mountains. Only two wagons lost on the way. No attack by hostiles. Once they neared the land that would be theirs, Cavalry protection would be as close as Fort McKearney.
This was a good day. Armond could almost see the end of the journey. Axel rode at the rear of the train, talking with little Maggie Hazen and her mother perched on the back of their wagon in the sun. Suddenly, Maggie cried out “Mother, I’ve lost Dolly. She isn’t here.” Emma Hazen searched near them for her daughter’s precious toy, the only one she brought on the journey. The doll could not to be found. But lying on the trail perhaps two hundred yards behind the train, barely visible in the dust, a small white spot. Dolly.
Laughing, Axel wheeled his horse around and galloped back to retrieve the doll. It was a careless moment. In the unforgiving west, one blink of an eye, a turn of the head, leaving the train even for an act of kindness can bring with it sorrow and regret.
Swooping down from the trees, four Apache warriors surrounded Axel. Grabbing the reins from him, their horses rubbing again his as they ran, their bodies so close he could smell them, Axel was their captive. With a loud “Ayieee” they raced into the woods. Armond, hearing the commotion at the rear of the train, the chilling screams of Emma Hazen splitting the noontime air, raced to the back of the train. “Oh, dear God,” she screamed. “The hostiles took Axel.” Her screams turned to sobs.
“Where…which way…how many…”Armond, distraught, could only follow a short trail of broken weeds that led to the edge of the trees. Beyond that—impenetrable darkness.
He crashed through the underbrush. Several yards behind him, men from the train now armed with rifles followed in pursuit of the Apache warriors. Axel’s screams and cries grew fainter until there were no more sounds ahead. “What do we do now, Armond?” Tom Hazen, voice breaking, shook his head. “Where do we go?”
Armond Froelich allowed himself one moment of grief. Drying his eyes with a coarse shirt sleeve, he said: “Tom, you will have to lead the train. I will ride as fast as I can –day and night–to Fort McKearney and the Cavalry. Only they can save my son.” His words suddenly caught in his throat, coming out in one wrenching sob. “I do not know where to go. I cannot find him by myself. We cannot all leave the group unprotected and hunt for Axel. Please tell Elise I have gone for help.”
With only hard tack and a compass in his saddle bags, his rifle in a scabbard by his side, he whirled his horse around and at a gallop took off down the trail. If my horse gives out, he told himself, I will run on foot the rest of the way. I will not give up until I die. And if I die on the trail, so it will be. I must save my son.
Outside the Apache encampment, coyote lay quietly in the weeds. He had not come for his revenge. Not yet. He was tracking a very large chipmunk. It would make an entire meal!
Sudden whoops and hollers from the Apache frightened the chipmunk and it ran, burrowing into the weeds beyond coyote’s reach. The noise unnerved coyote. Customarily, the village was quiet, especially in the late afternoon. Now, there was noise. A strange scene unfolded in front of him.
Peering unseen through the weeds he saw a group of warriors riding into the village with a man obviously not Indian–a young man with white skin and blond hair. From every teepee, the Apache poured out into the center of the village, shouting. The warriors leaped from their horses. Roughly, they pulled the young white man from his. They beat him with their fists, with coup sticks.
Coyote turned away, slinking back toward his cave. He had not seen this behavior before but he knew that would be his fate if they caught him stealing from the village. And yet, his determination for revenge grew stronger. The wisdom of the wild told him somehow he would prevail. He is strong. He will seek the help of his brothers and sisters from the land behind the mountains.