I stood there listening spellbound to the young Lady. She had run from the Diner here to that freight wagon parked by the Mexican leather fella across the road. She soon returned carrying a rifle to where I stood watchin’ it all. As she stood there jackin’ shell’s into it, she began telling me her story. Why? I have no idea except maybe she had a premonition she was about to die. Maybe she wanted someone to know she had once lived and breathed on this here celestial ball. I was a nobody, a bystander that’s all. Maybe it was because I was a nobody that she felt compelled to spill her tale, I don’t know. She sure was pretty though, except’n she spoke kind’a funny like.
“My name is Bekke Hillstrand and in a few minutes I’m gonna’ go back inside an’ plug the last of the men I hate. My father. I killed my first one at age seven, pushed him off a cliff as he was makin’ water. He never uttered a word, just made ‘Uh, Uh’ sounds as he went down. I never felt so good, I felt I finally had some control of my life. It took another nine years before number two got it. Him I run over with a freight wagon up in Yavapai County Arizona an’ made it look like a tragic accident. It was hard not to cheer an’ clap as his body tumbled over and over under the wagon bed. He broke four hundred of the two hundred and six bones in his body by the time the wagon passed over him. I’ll tell you about the other four I kilt but first I need to start at the beginning so’s you don’t think I’m a murderess or vile woman. Men do what I’m doin’ all the time out here in the West an’ they simply call it justice served. So why should it be any different just ‘cause I’m a girl?”
One thousand souls, five thousand mix of mules, oxen and horses and almost two hundred wagons left Independence Missouri on a sultry morning in May of 1846. “Wagon’s HO!” was heard up front and the wagon train made up mostly large Conestoga style wagons turned out onto the Santa Fe Trail. It was the second to last train out of Independence that year. The last train was later known as the Donner Party but their fate lay north upon the Oregon trail.
As the wagons forged ahead towards the Big Blue River west into Kansas, hopes were high and folks got along well with each other. Meeting and greeting was the norm at the end of each day. Light hearted Social dances and musicians that had brought along their instruments were the evening’s entertainment. Friendships were formed, help freely given and the spirit of community reigned. It all gave promise to a pleasant if not exciting adventure.
One family in particular had good reason to be hopeful, the Hillstrands. Johan and Uda Hilstrand had been farming outside the small Ohio town of Athens. As children, their families had emigrated from Sweden looking for the American promise of forging one’s own destiny. Sadly, continual disagreements with their neighbors brought misery to their home until Uda put her foot down. Either Johan move the family or she would leave on her own. During this time, Uda’s brother in law had been trying to convince Johan that Texas was where the real future lay. A year later the two families found themselves crossing the Big Blue River in Kansas along with rest of the wagon train heading southwest to Texas.
Although the Hillstrands were a good church going family and pleasant to be acquainted with, Uda was prone to her moods. Even as a young bride in Ohio and in love, Uda began showing signs of dark moments. Johan hoped that in starting a family Uda would be lifted from these depressing moods. The birth of their first born, a son they named Sven, convinced Johan that the days of Uda’s moodiness had passed. She doted on the child and loved him as much as any mother could.
Two years later and the year they would leave for the west, a baby girl was born to the Hillstrand household. In memory of her grandmother, Uda named the child Bekke and she remained happy and free of her disturbing past moodiness.
The family of four rolled and bumped their way southwestward along with the other wagons through the tall prairie grasses bound for New Mexico and Texas. The Hillstrand wagon followed behind that of their in-laws with Uda’s sister Hulda and her eldest son Jesper tending to the two families six cows being driven along with them. All in all, the families were the typical of the immigrant pioneers that settled the West.
One evening at supper, about a hundred or so miles northeast of Fort Smith in New Mexico, they received a visitor to their camp. Johan had seen the man hanging around different camps before but paid little attention to him, other than an aknowledged ‘Hello’.
“Howdy good folks!” Making himself known, the visitor instead of introducing himself, made his way over to the cook fire and leaned over in order to smell the hanging cook pot of victuals.
“Ah, deer meat!” He exclaimed, Then with narrowed eyes asked, “When did you come across a deer?”
Johan was taken back at the familiarity the man displayed since he had not formally introduced himself but Johan still returned an answered in a kind way. “Friend, this is not fresh meat, we preserve our meat as we did back in the old country. You are welcome to take a plate of this stew if you wish”
“Like ‘an Injun does then Huh? I hear they pound berries into their meat before drying so’s they don’t get the scurvy. Uhuh, that might be alright for some but for my taste it has to be fresh kilt.”
Still attempting to be neighborly, Uda came over and handed the man an empty but clean tin plate and cup saying, “There is also coffee that will be up in a minute if you wish for some.”
The man stood looking Uda over as a starved man would stare at a juicy flank of meat. “Uhuh, I’s told from other folks around here that you all hail from Sweden. I also hear tell they grow some beautiful women there. That ain’t no lie as I’m see’in it with my own eyes. Makes a man think he shoulda’ brought himself a blond whore to keep his own urges pleased. Haw haw“
Uda blushed and turned red and so did Johan, but not from any embarrassment but in anger. Putting his plate down Johan rose to face the thin, wiry built man. “I’m forgiving you only once for your language Mister. Seeing as we all come from different parts we all have our own ways. We Hillstrands have our ways also and those include being gracious guest and when we speak of our women it is with honor and dignity. I’d ask that you apologize to my wife for such base talk. Then afterward, if you wish, you’re still welcome to partake your supper with us.
Tossing the unfilled plate and coffee cup onto the ground beside him, the uninvited guest stood glaring at Johan with hands placed firmly on his hips. “Well la tee da!” He sneared, “A bunch of filthy do gooding firiners raisin’ their noses at a born American. Thanks, but no thanks!”
Turning to Uda the man then winked evilly telling her, “Honey, if ever you need a real man to warm your bed, you just look me up.” With that he turned on his heel and strode out chuckling to himself.
“What is wrong with that vile man?” Uda asked.
“I don’t know but don’t ever let yourself get alone with him. I feel he’s more than just an uncouth braggart but is dangerous. The way he was looking at you upset me. I almost wish I had purchased that revolver the wagon master advised us to buy. We will need to keep our eyes open to ones like him and maybe it would behoove us to give warning to some of the other young women you encounter.”
The next two weeks passed uneventfully. Nearing the turnoff to the Upper Road that led into Texas, Johan and Uda were relieved that no further sighting of the man had been noted.
Having traveled well past Fort Smith now, the train camped for the night along a small but clean flowing creek. The next day the train would divide, some going on to Arizona along the Gila trail while others headed into Texas. This evening, watering the livestock was important since fresh water would be scarce for the next couple of days. The rule for watering any livestock on the trail was strictly enforced; one was to take their stock downstream to keep the water upstream clean for drinking and cooking. This ensured no water born diseases and parasites were transferred from stock to man. Water holes presented their own problems.
This evening was no different than any when camped near a stream. Johan, along with his nephew Jesper led their oxen and cows downstream for water. It was on the way back that the two heard a commotion further up the train. A woman was screaming. Immediately Johan told Jesper to keep the livestock moving back to the grassy area near the wagon and hobble the animals to prevent their wandering too far off. As Johan ran toward the sound of the screaming woman a gunshot was heard. “Oh Lord,” He prayed, “What is going on up there?”
Out of breath, he made it to his wagon. Throwing open the rear tarp he saw it vacant inside. Thinking Uda may be assisting the screaming woman, he jumped off the rear of the wagon and ran to where a crowd was gathering. Breaking through the circle of onlookers Johan nearly fainted at what he saw lying on the ground. Uda. Her simple dress had been torn off from around her waist thus exposing her nakedness. Her face was quickly swelling with large black and blue areas. She had been beaten and raped.
Grabbing Uda around her shoulders he lifted her fetal form to his lap. Looking up to the gathering crowd he shouted. “Who did this? Who did this to my Uda!”
One man moved forward through the crowd saying excitedly, “I saw a skinny bearded man jump from the rear of your wagon and then heard a woman screamin’ bloody murder. It was then your lady here appeared an’ fell straight out’a the wagon. I knew right off by the looks of her that the man had been beatin’ her something fierce. My pardon Mister, but I deemed that no woman would tear off her dress volunteer like, so I guessed right off what the man had done. Seein’ as me an’ my boy here was about to go hunt up some rabbit or prairie chicken, I had my gun along with me. I took a quick shot at the man as he run off and he jerked upright like he was hard hit but then he continued to run into them woods where the creek flows. I tried to give chase Mister, I really did but he took to his heels faster than I could. He’s hit bad though an’ won’t git far. I give him a mile or two before he bleeds out.”
It was at that moment in time that the Hillstrand family unit began to unravel.
It was decided after dividing the train, that a new wagon Master be elected for the train heading into Texas. The new Wagon Master, a kind but firm man from Illinois named Johnston was elected. Since the train was only weeks away from their destination he ordered a rest of five days. This allowed the animals to recover, water and fatten up for the continued journey into the desert of western Texas. Johnston also worried about Uda Hillstrand and her mind. Meanwhile a party of men formed and went searching for the man who had perpetrated such vileness upon Uda. True to the shooters estimate, he was found not two miles distant, having bled out from a bullet that struck him in the neck. Already the critters of the plains had found him so it was unanimously decided that no burial would be given.
It was on the third day after the attack that Wagon Master Johnston stopped by the Hillstrand wagon to inquire of Uda’s well being.
“Well, to be truthful, I fear for her mind.” Johan told him, “She’s always been to prone toher dark moods. She’s always recovered but this time she’s different, not saying a word, barely eats and has no interest in the babies. Her sister’s been caring for them when she can but she’s got her own brood to tend to. Once we get to Fort Stockton, if she’s no better, I’ll hunt up a Doctor to examine her.“
Wagon Master Johnston nodded regretfully saying, “ What happened to her is sure a pity. A similar thing happened to my niece years back, she born a child from it then drowned it in the creek. She won’t come near no man no more cuz of it.”
“Well, whatever happens I am not leaving her. She was a good woman, a good mother to our children. If she bears a child from this then we’ll deal with it then. I just pray that it’s true that a woman who’s time it is for bleeding has a lesser chance of getting with child.”
“I ain’t no expert in woman’s particulars but let’s hope” Johnston tipped his hat and walked on.
It was outside Sonora, east of Fort Stockton that the second of two evils occurred.
Johan was half asleep on the driver’s seat. The plodding of the oxen was like a rhythmic lullaby. The babies were inside the wagon with Uda when a man came running up from the rear screaming and waving his arms violently. “Stop! Stop your wagon! Your baby fell out!”
Abruptly Johan jerked backward on the reigns. He had yanked so hard one of them snapped from the strain. Leaping from the driver’s seat, Johan rounded the rear of the wagon fearing the worst. It was worse than he imagined. There, lying on the ground fifteen feet behind the wagon lay his infant daughter Bekke… with a long leather strap tied around her neck. She had been hung and dragged. The man who had given shout was already using his knife to cut the infant free of its leather tourniquet. In his rush to rid her neck of the strap, he deeply cut the child’s throat, but it was either that or the baby would continue to suffocate to death.
Wrapping a torn piece of his shirt around his child’s bleeding neck Johan glanced into the rear of the wagon. Without word he thrust Bekke into the hands of a stranger and leaped into the rear of the wagon.
“Noooooo!” came the cry from within.
By now others had assembled including his in-laws who had been driving their wagon in front of the Hillstrands and had been unaware of the commotion until now. Leaping through the driver’s seat, his brother in law discovered the reason for Johan’s scream. There lay the Hillstrands four year old son Sven. His mother had used a large knife to stab the child’s heart.
Uda sat unmoving still holding the large knife. When Johan began shaking and shouting at her, Uda’s only response was to rock back and forth as if in a rocking chair.
The infant boy Sven was buried near where the train had been halted. A crude cross was placed as his parents were Christian. Uda did not come from out of the wagon nor did she seem to understand the goings on about her. Her only response was to begin rocking when approached.
Thankfully, the neck wound of Bekke had stopped bleeding and was determined not to be a fatal wound. A deep raw abrasion ringed her neck from the leather strap but no other physical harm looked in evidence. The child’s hoarse crying continued through most of the night. As each hour passed Johan noticed the child’s voice growing raspier and raspier, by morning she cried as frog croaks. Whether a result from the hanging or the accidental throat wound no one could say.
Reaching Fort Stockton should have been a joyous affair, but it wasn’t. Uda showed no signs of getting better and now Johan seemed steeped in regrets and misery for leaving his Ohio farm. He decided to let the rest of the train continue on to its final destination without he and his wife. Bekke was taken in by his sister and brother in laws. He would meet up with them later after Uda was either back to her old self or at least able to cope with the world around her once again.
“We decided to head south to Austin instead of San Antonio like we all planned.” Said his brother in law, “Well meet up down there. I’ll write to you here and give you more information once we settle in.”
The plans were pretty basic for meeting up but no one really cared about firming up further details like exactly where in Austin they would settle. They all just figured that finding each other may be a matter of a few days search. Never in his life would he have thought that as the wagon rolled away towards Austin that it was the last he’d ever see of his in-laws.
Uda wasted away even under a Doctor’s care. It turned she had not conceived a child, that at least was a small blessing. She refused to go out outside of the small rental house in town. She rarely spoke and when she did it was in a single word at best. A mixture of heroin and Laudanum kept her from further rash outburst.
Uda grew weary soon after rising and ended up spending the rest of her day once again sleeping or lying in bed looking at the ceiling. She was a shell, a ghost, there was no one home anymore within her. Her mind had snapped and the medicine just seemed to add to her inactivity.
When Uda finally passed it was a mixed blessing. It had been nearly six months to the day upon their arrival at Fort Stockton. The gloom that had settled over Johan was as thick as rain clouds over the Ohio Valley farm they once had. Johan would shake his head in remorse remembering when their only concern was a disagreeable neighbor. At Uda’s funeral he spoke not so much about Uda as he did about how she and he had perceived life. “Sometimes we have no idea how good we had it until the future unfolds to even a worse life. We should be grateful for what the Lord gives us and not go yearning for what others got. If Uda and I had followed this, she’d be here today as well as our children.”
He never received a letter from his in-laws nor sent one himself. He had little desire to look upon the face of his daughter for all it would do is remind him of how much he missed Uda and little Sven. Delay after delay occurred until months turned into years. By the time he did try to contact his in-laws, they were nowhere to be found in Austin, the string that connected them was snipped. He could only assume child Bekke was still with them.
Bekke was lovingly raised within her Aunt and Uncles household until she reached the age of six. The family had moved on to Abilene, some two hundred plus miles north. Word of their move was left with the Sheriff of Austin in case Johan looked for them. It was then that Uda’s sister Hulda came down with the influenza and passed. Her husband Jorn had been recently injured when a mule kicked him in the leg as he was putting on the mule team’s harness. The freighter he worked for had enough sympathy to find temporary shelter for all the children until he recovered. Jorn lay lame in bed for almost a year and even after that needed a crutch due to his crooked leg. He took his own children and returned to Ohio, leaving Bekke behind.
Bekke had been given to a family that desired to move soon after they accepted her under their care. They promised to keep her Uncle Jorn informed as to their whereabouts but months later there still was no word where they had gone off to. Bekke’s Uncle shrugged his shoulders and figured the girl at least was under a roof and was eating so why worry when the child wasn’t his anyway.
What the Uncle never knew nor would he, was that the family that had taken Bekke in had been waylaid by robbers on their journey. A gunfight ensued and the father was killed. His surviving wife immediately sold the young girl to a man for twenty dollars who promised to take real good care of her. “I’ll treat her as my own flesh an’ blood Ma’am, even though the kid don’t talk right”. He took her from Texas and moved into the Mogollon Rim area of Arizona where he worked as a sheep herder.
Unfortunately for the young Bekke, the man was more interested in her as a man would be to a woman than a father. By the age of seven Bekke had had enough of his foul fondling ways and made up her mind to end his night time shenanigans.
The two had been living in a small sheep herders cabin part way up the slopes of the Rim where the pines trees grow tightly together and disguised the steep cliffs they cling to. It was then that Bekke saw her chance to settle the issue of her abuse.
As the man stepped up to an overhang which was part of the Rims bench, he looked down and whistled when he realized just how steep the cliff was he was perched on.“Wee-ooo, Ya’ll wait back there while I take a leak child…unless you all wanna’ watch ‘Ol Uncle Lester’s stove pipe in action! Haw haw!”
“Yes, let me watch and see” she responded eagerly in her hoarse voice.
Her positive response was the last thing “Ol Uncle Lester” expected and found it excited his loins. “Then come on over here and take a look see at what a prize I was blessed with.”
As she approached him from behind he began to relieve himself. The thin yellow stream disappeared into a spray of droplets part way down the steep cliff.
All it took was a small shove to dislodge him but it was no small shove she gave. Bent nearly backward from the force of her hands applied upon his backside he went over the edge in the shape of a back bent banana. All he could utter was a “Uh, Uh” as he disappeared silently over the edge.
She waited and figured on hearing a thud or some other sound saying he had hit bottom but none came. Crawling up to the edge of the cliff on her belly she peeped over the edge and discovered the reason. For nearly two hundred feet the drop was straight down then slowly it began to curve outward nearing the bottom. She could see very faintly a small feature spread out on the slope far below. She mistook it for a small animal or even an ant until she realized the vastness of the cliff’s size and that of the Rim.
Bekke sat there until the sun started lowering to the westward mountain tops. She knew she had just killed a man but needed to place it within her mind that there was no wrong in it. When she finally stood up to leave, she had left behind the seven year old child and walked away as a young girl very much in charge of herself.
She returned to the cabin, gathered up her belongings and what money she found hidden in the man’s belongings and left.
At age nine she was once again faced with a dilemma when the Sheriff of Payson saw her wandering through town and by her looks knew she was a vagrant and homeless child. The Sheriff handed the girl over to his sister to care for until he could locate the child’s parents. The Sheriff was taken back when he heard the hoarse voice coming from such a beautiful face when asked of her parents. “They was kilt dead” she hoarsely told him but he didn’t believe her saying, “Somewhere you got a Mama and a Pa who’s lookin’ for ya’. It’s gonna be my job to locate and return ya’ to ‘em.”
Weeks passed and every inquiring telegram returned with the same reply. Negative. Little did the Sheriff realize he was looking in the wrong State.
Her stay with the Sheriffs sister was prolonged but after a year the woman finally faced the Sheriff. “Look Howard, you either get me some funds to help raise the child proper or I’m gonna’ have to ask that you take her back. I ain’t wealthy and getting’ no younger either. She’s a little hellion of a child. Seems way too grown up for a child that young.”
Leaning close and to a near whisper she confided, “A few days back I caught her and little Tommy Dolan playin’ Doctor…well Tommy was playin’ anyway. Little Tommy stood there with his drawers to his feet and she went an’ pointed at his peter an’ began laughing in that hoarse laugh she has! Do you know what she then told him? She said, “You bess close up them drawers boy or than tiny noodle you gots gonna catch a cold ‘an sneeze itself right off, then how’s you gonna make love to your woman when you’s a man?!” Now I ask you Howard, what normal child talks like that?”
The Sheriffs eyebrows rose in surprise to what was just told him and replied, “Ok, OK. I’ll find a place for her somewhere. She does seem a bit too precocious even for a self learned child. Give me a few weeks an’ I promise she’ll be gone.”
A week later Bekke found herself at the front steps of the Yavapai Indian children’s home holding a small satchel of belongings. Though she was not Yavapai nor of any other Indian tribe, they accepted her right off. To not accept her might be getting themselves on the wrong side of the Sheriff. Little known to the Sheriff however was that the children’s home was a clearing house for child field labor…and ‘other things’ as they grew older. By now Bekke spoke with a distinct rasp but somehow there was a musical chime somewhere hidden in the rasp. A number of male visitors to the home commented on how charming this made the girl.
Bekke stayed until the age of sixteen. It was at that age that the ‘other things’ forced onto the older children became evident. The cute light skinned, blond haired child with sky blue eyes was told by the overseer of the Home that her time to become a ‘lady’ was soon going to be upon her.. Bekke had actually relished the hard work she had been forced to do. She had been made a teamster hauling freight for the Homes side business. Being outdoors again was a blessing to her and the hard work gave her the self worth she had lacked earlier. She grew strong loading and unloading freight and became resilient in her ways and took no guff from any of the other children.
When she was informed that soon she either become the nightly pleasure for ‘gentlemen callers’ or be sold off into ‘marriage’, she left… but not before she ‘accidentally’ drove a runaway freight wagon over the overseer of the Children’s home.
Bekke traveled south towards Globe on foot. In Globe she befriended a boy named Jethro Clemens a few years her senior. He worked at the copper mine there and was making himself a good living doing so. Bekke was impressed, not with his money but with his work ethic. Truth be told, she fell head over heels for the young man. Wide of shoulders, strong chin, clear complexion and the most wonderful brown eyes she’d ever looked into. She was hooked.
The man boy had strong feelings toward Bekke from the beginning. They had met when Bekke had entered a prosperous looking mercantile in town which had posted a ‘Help Wanted’ sign on its door. She entered and inquired about the job. She was told it was a freighters job that traveled daily between Globe and the town of Phoenix. “Well young lady,” the owner replied, “If you was a man I’d say yes right off but seein’ as you’re a little lady, you couldn’t possibly do the job.”
“Why not? Bekke asked. “I can drive a team of mules better’n any man can! I drove a wagon all over Yavapai county for the last three years! I’m more than capable.”
The owner laughingly guffawed at her claim. It was then that a handsome young man spoke up from near the shelves displaying boots. Looking at the blue eyed wonder, the young man winked at her and told the older man, “Hey Pops, why not see if she’s pullin’ your leg? Let her hitch the team if she can!”
Bekke knew what the boy was up to, it wasn’t to humiliate her by seeing her fail the test, it was to help show the man she was what she claimed to be.
“Ha ha! Sure son, we need a good chuckle, let’s go out back. I gotta get the team hitched presently see’n as I’ll most likely end up haulin’ this load to Phoenix myself.”
Bekke was led around back where the man and boy opened the doors to the carriage house revealing inside a large freight wagon and stalls housing four mules. The owner stood looking proudly at the powerful beast and turning to Bekke told her, “Let’s see you work your magic on these here four Missouri Mules sweetheart!”
Without saying a word, Bekke inspected each mule as careful as if she were to purchase them. Using her own skill, she determined which were lead and which were the wheelers, right side and left. Then she inspected the harnesses, yokes, rings, hames, collar and traces. When finished, she went over the wagons gear. Satisfied they were in good condition, she quickly had all four beast harnessed and ready to haul.
The owner and the boy stood there silently watching her. Finally the man stepped up to the mules and exclaimed, “Well I’ll be danged if you didn’t choose the right mule for the exact position they belong in. Let’s see how you can handle these four honey’s of mine.”
Bekke first backed the mules then turned the rig in a complete circle. She then lined up the wagon and backed the wagons tail gate flush to the building without bumping it.
“Sweetheart,” the man exclaimed, “if you was serious about wantin’ the job then they’s all yours to drive! C’mon back inside and let’s talk.”
“The young man walked up to Bekke and whispered to her, “I knew you could do it!” he then turned and once again winked at her as he strode away.
Bekke stepped back inside the mercantile and asked the owner, “That young man who was with us, is he your son?”
“I wish! Nope, he’s a loner now. Parents passed last year with the influenza. Best folks you’d ever meet. I kinda took a liking to him. He’s a good boy an’ see’n as he has no parents no more, I keep a close eye on him for ‘em.”
Bekke looked at the man with sympathy. I understand, My Aunt who helped raise me passed from the same.
The owner sat Bekke down at a small table used for cutting strips of leather and asked, “It’s none of my business, maybe it is since I’m hiring you on, No matter but do you have a story I need to know about? Any crimes committed that might draw the law on you? That sort of thing.”
“None that I’m aware of. Truth be told, I ran away from the children’s home over in Yavapai County ‘cause they wanted me to start whorin’ for them.”
Stifling a gasp, he declared “Don’t tell! The Indian home up by the rim?”
“The very one. I guess they get away with it ‘cause for the most part it’s only Indian children and the Sheriff and other white folk don’t care what goes on there.”
“Dang me! Sweetheart, you got a place to stay? If’n you don’t, we can make up a bed here in the back room. It’s cool as anything possible here in the summer. Oh, by the way, my names Billy Irons, an this here is my business free an’ clear!”
“Much obliged, thank you Mister Billy Irons. My names Bekke, Bekke Hillstrand, that’s all I’ve been told of me. No one cares anything for me as I’m probably an orphan anyway. I was too young to know how I got the way I did with this scar around my neck an’ all but I was told my Daddy had a lot to do with it. I was told he was a no good and had no use for me so he sold me off. At least that’s what I was told by a sheep herder that bought me from some lady who’s husband was shot an kilt. ”
“Bought you? What do you mean bought you? Like a slave is bought?”
“I guess you could say that. He fed me but handled me too. He was an evil man an’ I was only a child.”
The owner sat staring wide eyed. “You mean by ‘handled’ he touched you?”
“Uhuh, an’ woulda been a lot more if I didn’t fight him off every time he come back to the cabin drunk.”
Irons face turned beet red. “Why if that no good ever shows his face around here, you come ‘an get me understand? He’ll rue the day he ever touched you. There’s bullets made in hell just for men like him”
“There’s no need Mister Irons”
“Why’s that child?”
“I killed him. I pushed him off’ a cliff at the Rim up north of here when he stopped to take a pi…” Sorry, I mean when he went to relieve himself.”
Billy Irons eyes widened even further, “What? You did what girl?”
“I kilt him. I ain’t sorry none about it neither.” She rasped, “ He deserved all he got. I hope every bone in his body broke as he hit bottom too!”
“Well dang my hide child! Keep that information under your hat an’ to yourself from now on. That could be a hangin’ offense… but between you an’ me, you done good alright!”
The weeks passed and Bekke learned each and every twist and turn through the mountain trail into Phoenix and back. Folks began to know her up and down the trail. Sometimes she was asked to haul freight to some of the local general stores along the way. Billy Irons took advantage of having the only large freight wagon in the area. If a trip could be made more profitable by throwing on someone else’s freight to drop off, then all the better.
One late October day on her return trip to Globe, Bekke noticed she had been being followed for the last couple of hours. Making sure her rifle was within easy reach she continued as if unawares. The keenness of her eyesight and with the use of a small mirror she kept tabs on the lone rider behind her. Something seemed familiar about the rider, the way he sat in the saddle, straight and tall. It suddenly dawned on her who the rider was… her new friend, the young man named Jethro Clemens.
Pulling her rig over to the side of the trail she searched and found a good hiding spot for it in a nearby small box canyon. Less than a half hour later she heard the clippity clop of Jethro’s horse. Suddenly he stopped. Looking over the top of the boulder she had hidden behind she watched as he looked down the road to where she should be. Jethro removed his hat and scratched his head. “Where the dickens’s did she go to?” She heard him say. ”She should be plain in view right now.”
Meanwhile Bekke had found a small stone the size of a birds egg. As Jethro turned away from her, she rose and threw it, hitting him on the shoulder.
“Ow! What in the heck!” At that moment Bekke showed herself and began laughing.
“Come over here Jethro, “she shouted, I got some jerky an’ water if you wish for some.”
Laughing, Jethro swung his horse off the trail and dismounting, led the horse to the small box canyon where the wagon was stashed. Bekke meanwhile had lowered the tail gate and reaching inside for her grub bag sat upon it.
“I guess I couldn’t fool you no way huh?” He asked her. “I tried to be sneaky like an’ follow you unseen but I make a terrible Indian. When did you notice I was behind you?”
“A couple hours ago, back by the turn off leading to the Superstitions.”
As Jethro sat next to Bekke on the wagons tail gate he exclaimed, “That far back? Darn, you must be part Injun yourself!”
“Truthfully, I didn’t know it was you until just a bit ago. All I could make out was a lone rider was trying his best to stay hidden from me.“
“Yeah, I did real good huh? All I did was make a fool of myself in front of the girl I got the sweets for.”
Bekke looked sharply at him. “Did I just hear you right? You got the sweets for me?”
“Oh darn! I’m sorry, I shoulda just kept my mouth shut. Forget I ever said that!”
“Why? I think that’s sweet of you to say that. No one ever told me they had feelings for me before. I got feelings too, I just don’t know what to do with ‘em.”
“Has a boy never loved you then?”
“None that I knowed of. Truth be told Jethro, I’m a hussy. I’ve been handled by evil men. I doubt I’ll ever be loved the way you is thinkin’ of. No man deserves a used woman like me when they can find a girl raised proper like.”
Jethro moved closer to Bekke. “Bekke, I had my share of times, both good n bad. I got to know what makes folks do things. I know you better than you think I do. You liked me right off, I could see it in your eyes when you looked my way the day we first met. Then I heard your story. Not meaning to, I overheard your tellin’ Old Bill your story.”
Saying that, Jethro gently took Bekke’s hands in his. “Bekke, see how clean your hands are? I know in the past they got dirtied up a mite an not on your own account. But you went an’ washed ‘em clean after they was dirtied. Life is like that too Bekke. We get dirty sometimes but we wash ourselves clean an’ go on. I hold nothin’ against you for what you done in the past. If you call yourself a hussy it’s only cuz you want to be one an’ I know that ain’t what you is or want to be known as. So no matter what happened in your past, you’re as clean as a newborn babe to me. Can you understand that?”
A tear rolled down Bekke’s cheek. “You make everything sound so right. Is it really?”
“Yes, it is for sure.”
With Jethro still holding her hands she leaned into his chest. “I’m glad I met you Jethro.”
He replied softly. “So am I Bekke, real glad.”
There the two sat unspeaking for the longest time. Bekke knew the day was getting on and daylight was needed to traverse the twisting roads safely back to Globe. Looking up at Jethro she quickly kissed his cheek. Telling him, “I’ll be right back, that water I drank is beggin’ to see daylight!”
“Oh, you gotta p.., relieve yourself? OK, I’ll stay here with the wagon an’ you can head into the mesquite trees over there where I can’t see ya. Oh, take your rifle with ya, never know when a rattler will slither out.”
Grabbing the rifle, Bekke headed off to the thickest part of the mesquite cover.
It was while Bekke was busy that Jethro heard the sound of horses approaching. A group of three hard looking men rode up to face him. “What’s this all about boy? You find an abandoned wagon here? Maybe someone left it for us to go through, Haw haw.”
Two men dismounted and threw back the canvas of the wagon. “Jackpot boys! Look at what we got here!”
Jethro regained his composure and shouted angrily, “Hey, get your hands off of that wagon Mister!”
Without warning the mounted man pulled and raised his revolver from its holster. Just as Jethro realized what was about to happen he went for his own gun. The advantage was to the no good and he fired striking Jethro. Jethro fell to the ground and cried out loudly in pain. Once again the man raised his revolver and began lowering its barrel towards Jethro.
Before he could pull the trigger a second time, Bekke’s rifle bucked from its deadly duty. The top of the riders head exploded in a red mist. He slowly teetered back and forth as if unsure what to do, he then tumbled sideways off of his saddle which ended in a sickening thud in the dust. Faster than the two others could pull iron and return fire, Bekke had sent into each of the men a deadly heart piercing slug of lead. Round after round she sent forth into the expired trio of no goods until her re-cocking of the rifle produced no further live rounds.
As sudden as it started it was finished. The sound of her last shots still echoed through the distant canyons then all was silent.
“Bekke, Help me!” Jethro moaned painfully. I’m shot in the chest somewhere’s. Bekke ran to him and dropping the empty rifle, laid him on the ground to examine the wound.
“Oh it hurts bad. I never been shot before Bekke, I’m sorry if I’m bein’ like a child.”
“No, hush now Jethro, let me get your shirt open. You’re bleedin’ all over the place”
With shaking hands Bekke undid Jethro’s shirt exposing a long deep bleeding gash across his chest. “No wonder it hurts so bad. It plowed a deep crease along the entire front of your chest. A straight in shot woulda’ been a lot less painful for sure!”
Bekke ran to the wagon and tore away a piece of cloth from one of the bolts she was to deliver. “Here, this will help with the bleeding but you’re gonna be in some mighty powerful pain. You better lay inside the wagon whiles I tie your horse to the back of it. We need you to get to a Doctor right quick Jethro.”
“Am I gonna make it? I mean am I dyin’?”
“Not yet anyway, I think we’ll be celebrating your next birthday without too much worry. You may pass out though on the ride back, it’s not a smooth one and you’ll get bumped around a lot.”
“Bekke? You kissed me?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Thank you, that was real nice of you.”
Helping him into the wagon nearly cost him his consciousness but after a moment his eyes cleared again.
Bekke wrapped the tarp around him snuggly and for a moment rested her head on his arm. She then climbed up into the wagon and carefully placed his head between her palms. She then lowered herself to him and kissed him with a gentle but passion filled kiss. “If you pass out,” she told him, “I want the last thing you remember is this kiss.”
“Oh Bekke, I could never forget it even if I was to die.”
The way back seemed to take ages. Finally the mercantile in Globe came into view just as the sun set over the mountains. As she pulled up, Bekke screamed to Bill for help and he came out running like an old buffalo.
“What’s going on Bekke? What…Oh my God, it’s Jethro! Is he dead?”
“Not yet, he’s been shot but I thought by the time we got here he might die of old age!”
Inspecting the dressing and wound Bill glanced up at her.
“Uhuh, says the girl with a sense of humor. Glad you kept your cool. He seems a mite torn up but he’ll live as long as infection don’t set in.”
The two unloaded Jethro into the bed Bekke had made for herself inside the back room of the mercantile. She ran up front to the customer counter, grabbed Bills chair and retured with it. Placing it next to the bed she reached over and placed Jethro’s hand in hers. Bill Irons stared down at the sight of her holding Jethro’s hand and smiled knowingly to himself.
Jethro’s recovery took a turn for the worse the next day when fever struck him. For three days he tossed and turned and talked out of his head. When Bekke had finally turned in to sleep, Irons took over watching him. Suddenly Jethro awoke with a start. Bill could tell the boy was still talking out of his head but the pleas for another of Bekke’s kisses was not from any fever dream, the boy was in love with Bekke. Bill Irons kept a cool cloth on the boys head and soon the young man drifted back to sleep.
On the third day of Jethro’s fever it broke. Jethro awoke shaky but hungry, a good sign. Bekke was excited and continually had to admonish Jethro for trying to leave his bed.
“C’mon Bekke, I’m fine! Why I feel better every hour.”
“Now listen Jethro, I need to get back to work drivin’ Bills freight. He’s startin to get short on supplies an’ they need to be gotten. Plus there’s a few general stores along the way that I drop other supplies off to. I’m needed an’ I like the feeling. Besides, every time you try to crawl outa bed you start oozing blood again.”
Jethro rolled slowly onto his side and looked longingly at her, “I need you Bekke, be safe, OK?”
Bekke leaned over him and tenderly kissed him on the mouth. In her musically raspy voice she told him, “I’m glad you need me Jethro. This is hard for me to say all that’s spinnin’ in my mind but I want you to know this before I leave. I don’t know how it happened or even why but I’ve fallen in love with you.”
As she turned to leave Jethro called out to her. “I love you too.”
The months passed and Bekke continued to drive the freight wagon for Bill Irons. Jethro recovered enough to return to work but the mine declined to take him back as work had slowed and layoffs were imminent so Irons took him on.
“I was hoping you’d join up with me here at the mercantile long ago,” Bill told him, “but, I figured you’d think I was given’ you a hand out an’ I know you wouldn’t cotton up to that. But truth be told, I ain’t getting’ any younger and am really lookin’ forward to someday takin’ some time to go east an visit my daughter an’ grandkids back in Virginia. I’d consider it my good fortune if you’d step in my place for a spell an’ run the place while I’m gone. What d’ya say son?”
Without saying a word Jethro stuck out a man’s hand and grasped Bills in it. A quick shake and the deal was done.
“I’ll draw up the paperwork given’ ya’ access to the bank and all rights to operate the place as you see fit. I’ll make sure it’s done all legal like so’s to avoid any trouble.”
In Phoenix, Bekke’s last stop was at a small leather workers shop owned by an elderly Mexican and his plump happy wife. There Bekke was to pick up some bridles, halters and leather britchens for mules and two beautiful hand tooled saddles. While waiting for the old Mexican craftsman to load the goods onto the wagon, Bekke ran across the road to a small café to grab a mid day meal. Inside, the cafe was dark and cool. No sooner had she entered than a girl named Lois who was busy waiting on tables looked up and waved to her. “Hiya’ Miss Hillstrand! I see you finally returned. What’s been keeping you away?”
Bekke found an empty table and pulling up a chair to it sat down. “Oh, too much to tell in one sitting Lois.” She raspingly laughed.
“Well Bekke, I’m all ears as soon as dinner is over, will you be around then?”
“Afraid not, I gotta get back to Globe before dark.”
While the two friends chatted gaily, an elderly looking man rose slowly from the table he had been sitting at and approached the girls on teetering legs. To any patron in the cafe, the old man appeared aged not so much from years but from the burdens of life that had taken their tolls. Where most men seem to grow old gracefully, this fella missed the stage by months.
Reaching them, the old man bowed his head in apology. “Excuse me for interrupting the two of you.” He said.
Looking at Bekke his moist blue eyes softened and he quietly asked, “Did I hear right that you are called Bekke Hillstrand?”
“Yes, who wants to know?”
“May I see your neck please?”
“Please, it’s important to me. May I see under your kerchief?”
“Suite yourself,” she chuckled, “but I’ll charge you for a second look.”
Bekke removed the red kerchief she had tied around her neck. Underneath the old scar from being hung and dragged by a leather strap was plainly in evidence.
The old man began to shake visibly. “And your voice, it changed when you received that scar?”
“Mister, I have no idea, I was only a few months old at best.”
The old man’s lips began to quiver, subtly at first but in trying to speak his lips took on a noticeable tremble. “B-Bekke?”
“Mister, I’m not sure what the problem is or what you want but please, I have only a short time to eat before I drive my freight wagon back to Globe. It get’s dark early this time of year and I don’t particularly desire to drive my team blind. What is it you want from me?”
“I want nothing, I just wanted to introduce myself, that is all.”
“Well why didn’t you say so, I’m Bekke Hillstrand and you are?”
The old man looked sheepishly down at the girl and quietly said, “Johan, Johan Hillstrand, I’m your father.”
Bekke stood as if made of stone. Suddenly she spun on her heel and made for the door. Behind her the old man cried out, “Bekke!”
Slamming the cafe diners screened door, she stomped outside where the customers could hear her raspy voice scream the word “NO!”
“So this is it Mister. End of story I guess. I promised myself if ever I ran across the dirty dog I’d kill him. It’s gonna be for a different reason than all the others I kilt dead. They all wanted somethin’ from me an’ for that they paid for it. I’ll go in an’ face him, let him know what he did to me, then I’ll punch a hole clean through his liver and watch him bleed out! It’ll for sure be cold blooded murder but justice needs to be served an’ if I’m hung for it fine, I’ve been hung once already.”
She turned to the café and I followed her inside hoping she wouldn’t do what she said she would. She seemed such a nice girl.
“OK old man, out with it. I promised myself I’d let you speak your piece before blasting you. I got too much of my life missin’ an’ out of plain ol’ curiosity I want to hear what you gotta say to me. Of course most all you tell me will be lies, but I’m keen enough to see through them. Still, I might get a few nuggets of truth and for that your still standin’ here breathin’.”
I noticed the man kind of wobble back n forth dizzy like as if he was unbelieving on what he was hearing.
“Daughter Bekke, what is wrong? This should be the happiest day of our lives, yours and mine. I don’t understand why such hate for me is within you. Please, first tell me what grieves you then I’ll answer any question you have with truth. I am old and ill of health, I have no reason to speak falsely.
“OK, first off. In truth, I know only what’s been told to me. I have no memories of you, my mother, nobody! I’ve been told bit’s an’ pieces over the years by different folks. How they knew anything about my past is beyond me but I had no choice but to add their stories together and decide for myself what occurred when I was a babe.”
I saw the girl step up face to face with the old man, then she laid into him with all her grievances.
“I’m beholding to what I come up with. I knowed we arrived safe and sound as a family off a wagon train from the East somewhere’s. I figure Missouri. Then for some unexplained reason you got it in your head that you could do better without a family draggin’ behind you all the time. So first off, I was told, you refused to seek a Doctor or any medicine when my brother fell ill with the grip. He died to your pleasure. Then later you decided I was too much a bother too an’ you ended up hangin’ me in a horse stable by my neck. You thought I was dead but I lived because I weighed so little my neck didn’t snap! When my mama found me hangin’ there gasping for life and faced you for what you did, you kilt her with arsenic pisin you got from your friend the druggist. Before it kilt her though it ad you drove her insane! Ya then left me abandoned on a strangers door stoop. From then on I been handed down from one vile no good to another with few moments of happiness in between. I was forced to be a play thing for men as a child. Now, let me hear your lie’s an’ if I can’t stand them no more I’ll drop you where you stand old man!”
I saw the old man’s tears tumbling down his horrified face as the girl laid into him. I couldn’t for the life of me understand how she could watch his pain an’ yet be so unfeelin’ but I guess when you been through what she’d been through you get a mighty hard heart. When the old man finally spoke all the ears in the café diner was wide open, not a clink of a plate was to be heard.
“M-My heart lies heavy in my chest Daughter,” He sobbed.”What you have been told are lies, all lies. Why someone would say what they did confounds me. Kill me if you wish when I am finished speaking, it will be a blessing to me. To hear what you have endured because of my naivety and dereliction will be added to my sins in hell.”
At this point the old man stopped to wipe his tears with an old kerchief he pulled from his vest pocket.
“Your mother, Uda was her name, was the love of my life. We were both emigrants to America from nearby villages in Sweden. We met one day at a church social in the small town of Athens back in Ohio. it was as they say, love at first sight. We became inseparable friends and soon lovers. Though we had more than two decades separating our ages, no one thought it improper, least of all your mother’s family. Their love for me was overwhelming. We married in the same church that we had first seen each other. Your beautiful brother Sven was soon born and he lit up our lives as the sun lights the day. In truth, your mother had suffered previously to a spell of dark moods. Upon your brothers birth though these moods fell by the wayside. We had been having problems with our neighbor so we decided with the encouragement of your Aunt and Uncle to start over and move to Texas. That is when you were born. How could we not have been the happiest family? Two beautiful children, a new future ahead of us and loving relatives to travel with.
You were partially correct though, we left by wagon from Missouri but we were not from Missouri. Part way to our destination an evil and vile man brutally attacked and had his way with your mother while I was away tending the livestock. The man was shot and killed by a fellow traveler when he took flight. We found him a short distance away expired, we left the man unburied for the animals to feed on! What your mother went through no one can explain. I believe she lost her mind at that moment and wanted nothing more than to no longer exist. She was the one who killed your brother Sven. He was never prone to illness but was a healthy strapping boy. Driven by her delusions, she ended his life unknowingly to me as I drove the wagon. Mercifully it was a quick death. He is buried alongside the trail where a cross marks his grave. It is still be standing, it was m-m-made of h-heavy wood and over the years I’ve revisited his little grave n-n-numerous times.”
Again tears flowed freely but this time I noticed moistness in the girl’s eyes. I also noticed the tip of the rifle barrel had drooped towards the floor a mite. Wiping his eyes clear once more, the old man cleared his throat and continued speaking.
“And you… my dream come true, my precious little Bekke. We can only assume what happened as no one saw the act. A man in the wagon behind us saw you dumped from the rear of the wagon. A leather harness strap had been tightly twisted around your neck. You were dragged with your tiny limbs flaying about as you fought for your life. A stranger arrived in response to our yells and lifted your blue body from the earth. Using his large hunting knife he cut away the noose from around your neck. In his rush to free you though he cut deeply into your throat but not so much that your wound did not eventually heal. To all of us present, we praised God when you sucked in your breath and began crying. Such a strange cry you gave, it was as a frog croaking but it mattered little to me for you were alive. When we reached Fort Stockton your mother’s delusions worsened. A Doctor began to treat her but his experience was with the body, not the mind. In giving their support, your Aunt and Uncle promised to care for you until we all met up in Austin. I found out years later that sometime after they had left, your Aunt passed from the influenza and you were given to another family to be cared for. Your Uncle left with his children to return to Ohio but apparently never made it. No one knows whether they came to an early demise or stopped to settle elsewhere along the way. Our family in Ohio knew nothing of his return. At the time, I knew nothing of all of this and assumed y-you were s-s-still s-s-safe with family.
By now most of the folks in the café diner were in or near tears. I think at that point the pendulum swung from believin’ the girl to believin’ her Dad. I truly believed that if she had pulled the trigger then and there that the entire group of diners would’ve jumped atop her.
“When I realized you and my family were not to be found, I spent the next seventeen years traveling throughout Texas trying to find you and that is the honest to God’s truth. It is by pure coincidence that we meet here today for I had come across a story of a young girl found wandering the desert years ago by a Mormon missionary. I was on my way to Utah to find this missionary to see if it was you he had rescued when in my travels I stopped into this cafe for a meal. My joy would be complete and all of my years of prayers answered except that my precious daughter is pointing a gun at me and wishes my death. I am finished, I can add no more. If you still disbelieve me then I can only say that those who have harmed you are having the last laugh in your killing of the father who truly loves you. What can an old man say to prove he is telling the truth? Nothing. If you feel must kill me to rid yourself of the demons that have tormented you all these years, then you have my blessing to pull your trigger.”
It was then I saw the old man stand tall and erect as he waited for the inevitable punch of the bullet. Tears were streaming like a spring thunderstorm down his face but I knew the tears were not from any fear of his death but the from irony of finally findin’ his baby girl, only to lose her in the end. He slowly closed his eyes an’ then spoke to her one last time.
“I love you my precious Bekke…”
The girl stood misty eyed an’ unmoving for a solid minute. What was transpirin’ in her head only the Good Lord knowed. She slowly bowed her head. Closing her own eyes her tears dropped to the floor as did the rifle. Then stepping forward and putting her arms around the old man, sobbing, she hugged him.
“I love you too Dad.”
The place went bizerk in cheerin’! As she and the old man passed by me goin’ out the door to the thunder of congratulating applause, she reached out an’ gave my arm a good squeeze and whispered, “Thank you.”
I stood lookin’ out after ‘em as they headed across the road to the Mexican leather place hand in hand. If I heard correct like, I believe I heard her tellin’ the old man about a young man who had asked her to marry him. Then like two old friends they chattered their way till I could no longer make out what they was sayin’.
Well, I best be getting back home. The wife sent me out to pick up some staples an’ I’ve yet to get ‘em. It’ll be a dickens tryin’ to explain all the happenings here an’ why I was so late in getting’ on back home. I believe the easiest out is to just tell her I stopped in at the saloon and downed a few cold ones an’ lost track of time. Yup, I do believe she’d go for that. Besides, it won’t be no lie, for I sure could go for a cold one right about now!