Under the distant sky, p.1

Under the Distant Sky, page 1


Under the Distant Sky

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Under the Distant Sky

  This book is lovingly dedicated to my precious sister, “Honey,”

  who is like a mother to me…my friend…

  and in memory of my sweet little sister, “Hauna,”

  who is now in the presence of the angels.

  I love you both with all my heart.


  A Word from Al Lacy

  It is with great pleasure that I introduce my precious wife JoAnna to those readers who have followed the Battles of Destiny, Journeys of the Stranger, and Angel of Mercy series. As I’ve written the books in these series, she has given valuable input on story ideas, and she has helped me with descriptions of feminine things and with the way women think and react under certain circumstances.

  What a joy now to have her coauthoring our new Hannah of Fort Bridger series.


  In 1802, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson had his eye on the great expanse of land west of the Mississippi River, known as the Louisiana Territory. His desire was to purchase the Territory from Spain, which had purchased it earlier from France. When the disturbing news came that Spain had secretly retroceded the Territory to aggressive Napoleonic France, Jefferson dispatched Robert Livingston and James Monroe as diplomats to offer the Frenchmen $2 million for New Orleans and West Florida.

  The French, to whom the Louisiana Territory was of diminishing importance, offered to sell the entire Territory to the surprised diplomats for $15 million. The treaty of cession was dated April 30, 1803, and the U.S. flag was raised over New Orleans on December 20, that same year.

  The Louisiana Purchase, extending from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and from the Gulf of Mexico to British North America, more than doubled the land area of the United States.

  On the far edge of this unexplored Louisiana Territory was a vast section dubbed “Oregon Territory.” This section included the present states of Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and Oregon.

  In May 1804, President Thomas Jefferson dispatched a group of explorers, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to find a land route to the Pacific Ocean, strengthen U.S. government claims to the Oregon Territory, and gather information on the country and its Indian inhabitants.

  The group started up the Missouri River from St. Louis in May 1804. In 1805, Sacajaweah, a Shoshone Indian woman, led them across the Rocky Mountains. She guided them to the Clearwater, Snake, and Columbia Rivers, and they wintered on the Pacific Coast.

  When Lewis and Clark arrived back in St. Louis in September of 1806, their glowing reports sparked tremendous interest in the vast new land to the west.

  Word spread into the eastern states that there was fertile soil, better climate, and acreage for the taking in Oregon. “Oregon,” according to Lewis and Clark’s crude maps, meant the Willamette Valley between the western coastal range and the Cascade Mountains.

  Hardly had Lewis and Clark made their report to President Jefferson when explorers, fur trappers, hunters, and other audacious men packed up and headed west, braving the hardships of the wilds in search of adventure. Among them over the next few years were such men as Jedediah Smith, David Jackson, Kit Carson, William Sublette, and Jim Bridger. Others followed them by the hundreds.

  In the early 1830s, missionaries headed west, some to try to civilize the Indians, and others to preach to them the gospel of Jesus Christ.

  In 1838 the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers was formed by order of President Martin Van Buren. The Corps was a body of military explorers made up of surveyors and map-makers—thirty-six intellectual elite of the military led by John C. Fremont. Congress had allotted Fremont—who became known as The Pathfinder—some $30,000 to survey and map the Oregon Trail. It took them until 1842 to finish the job.

  When the maps were published, there was more enthusiasm than ever among the people in the east to move west. Thus, 1843 became known as the year of the “Great Migration.” Eight hundred seventy-five in two hundred wagons—now including women and children—headed west.

  In that same year, adventurer Jim Bridger established a fur-trading and supply post at the 1,026-mile point from Independence, Missouri, the main “jumping off” place onto the now mapped-out Oregon Trail. For some unknown reason, Bridger called the trading post “Fort Bridger,” though there were no military personnel established there.

  The 1843 migration gave birth to the “wagon trains” that followed in the years to come. Many of the Indian tribes were angered by the white man’s continual encroachment on their land, the killing of their buffalo and other big game. The wagon trains were often attacked, as well as the homes of the emigrants who left the trains to take up residence on land they fell in love with along the way. The government found itself obligated to protect the wagon trains and the settlers. Thus, forts began to be erected along the Oregon Trail so the U.S. army troops could stand as threats to the hostile Indians. Though the presence of the army often hindered the Indian attacks, the forts were spread too far apart to stop them.

  The California gold rush, in 1849, demanded that a trail be cut straight west to northern California. Thus, the California Trail was established. Some sixty-six miles northwest of Fort Bridger, the new trail was blazed due westward at a point called the “Parting of the Ways.” Those going to Oregon would continue northwest toward the Snake River and head for Oregon City. The California-bound wagons would head west toward the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and beyond them, Sacramento.

  In 1857, the trading post that bore Jim Bridger’s name burned to the ground. In 1858, the U.S. Army took over the site and actually built a fort there, calling it Fort Bridger. A few years afterward, a settlement was established next to the fort, and by the late 1860s was on the verge of becoming a town. In view of this, the people of the settlement decided their town would go by the same name as the military post—Fort Bridger.

  As stated above, Independence, Missouri, was the main “jumping off” place to the Oregon Trail. Some wagon trains, however, crossed the Missouri River at St. Joseph, then joined the established trail a few miles west of the river.

  From Independence, the Oregon Trail followed the Santa Fe Trail (established in 1822) some forty miles, then veered north to cross the Kaw River (now known as the Kansas River). It continued west across the windswept prairies to the Platte River, then followed along the Platte to the fork. It then wound along the North Platte to Fort Laramie. From there the trail moved deeper into Wyoming Territory to Fort Caspar.

  Still following the North Platte out of Fort Caspar, the trail led in a southwesterly direction until it reached the Sweetwater River. It followed the Sweetwater past Devil’s Gate in dangerous rattlesnake country to the main range of the Rockies and across the Continental Divide at South Pass. The route turned southward across the Green River, then dipped down to Fort Bridger.

  Travel on the Oregon Trail, and whether to stop and settle along the way or follow it to its eventual end in California or Oregon was not for the faint of heart. Death stalked the trail in the form of Indians, disease, severe weather, and sometimes thirst and starvation. Though relatively few were killed by Indians, massacres were highly publicized and instilled fear in the hearts of those who followed the trail westward.

  Travelers were warned of the graves that lay beside the trail, and the terrible dust, knee-deep mud, flooding streams, buffalo stampedes, mosquitoes, and snakes. Still they set their sights toward the western sky and pressed forward to realize their dreams of a new life on the American frontier.

  They were a hardy and determined people, the likes of which, on the whole, are unmatched today.


  The wagons! It’s the wagons!” Five-year-old Patty Ruth Cooper squealed with delight and ran toward the open door of he
r father’s store.

  “Patty Ruth! Don’t go into the street!” Hannah Cooper’s voice floated from the back of the store just as the little girl, her auburn pigtails bouncing, skipped outside and jumped off the boardwalk into the soft dust.

  She held tightly to her best friend, a stuffed bear named Ulysses, as she tried to get a closer look at the wagons and their occupants. She was caught up in the excitement and didn’t see the man on horseback riding alongside the wagon train. His attention was on a wagon farther up the line, and he was equally oblivious to the child’s presence.

  Raymond Wilson, who owned the saddle shop next door to Cooper’s General Store, saw that Patty Ruth was about to be run over. He bolted across the boardwalk and scooped her up in his arms, narrowly dodging the horse and rider. Patty Ruth saw the horse thunder by and gasped. She wrapped her arms around Wilson’s neck, her heart pounding.

  Wilson was still holding Patty Ruth when the man skidded his horse to a stop and wheeled about to ask anxiously, “Is she all right, sir?”

  “Yes,” Wilson said. “Just a little frightened. It was a close call.”

  “Yes…I’m really sorry. I wasn’t aware that she was there until I saw you whisk her out of my path. I—”

  “Patty Ruth!” A breathless Hannah Cooper dashed across the boardwalk and reached for her little girl. “Is she all right, Ray? What happened?”

  “She’s fine, Hannah. She ran out of the store, shouting something about the wagons, and jumped into the street right in the path of this gentleman, who was moving at a good clip beside the wagons.”

  “I’m sorry, ma’am,” the rider said, touching the brim of his hat. “I was trying to catch up with a wagon at the front of the line. I shouldn’t have been riding so fast. I just didn’t see her.”

  Hannah looked at Patty Ruth and then at the man. “She shouldn’t have been in the street, sir. I’ve told her not to step off the boardwalk unless she’s with an adult or her older brother or sister.”

  “Well, the main thing, ma’am, is that she’s not hurt, thanks to this quick-thinking gentleman.”

  Wilson stepped close to the man’s horse and extended his hand. “Name’s Ray Wilson, friend. I own the saddle shop here.”

  “Bob Ross, sir,” the rider said, as they shook hands. He turned his gaze back to Hannah and said, “I heard you call her Patty Ruth, ma’am.” He reached his hand into his pocket. “Is it all right if I give Patty Ruth some money to buy some candy?”

  “That’s very nice of you, Mr. Ross,” Hannah said with a smile, “but since her parents own the store, she can have all the candy we allow her.”

  Bob Ross looked up at the sign beneath the false front on the store. “So you would be Mrs. Cooper? Well, I’m glad to meet you, ma’am. Would there be anything else I could do for Patty Ruth to make up for her scare?”

  “It wasn’t your fault, Mr. Ross. Anyway, she’ll be fine now.”

  “All right, then, ma’am. I’ll be on my way. ’Bye, Patty Ruth.”

  “’Bye,” Patty Ruth said in a weak voice.

  When Ross was gone, Hannah Cooper turned to Ray Wilson and said, “There are no words to express my gratitude, Ray.” Then she looked toward the sky and spoke in a low tone, “And thank you, Lord, for having Ray here at the right time to rescue my baby girl.”

  “Mama,” Patty Ruth said, watching the wagons go by, “are we gonna buy a covered wagon and go west like you and Papa talked about?”

  Hannah avoided Ray’s inquisitive gaze as she said, “Well, honey, I’m not sure. Papa and I have talked about it some, but that’s as far as it’s gone. There are a lot of things to think about when a family leaves their home and moves west.”

  As Hannah eased her daughter to the ground, she noticed that Patty Ruth wasn’t holding the bear. “Honey, where’s Ulysses?”

  Patty Ruth glanced around in a panic. “Where’s Ulysses? Oh, Ulysses?” she wailed.

  Ray Wilson’s eyes flicked to the spot where he had rescued the little redheaded girl. He stepped off the boardwalk, picked up the bear, and dusted it off as more wagons and riders passed by. “Here you go, sweetheart. I hope Ulysses isn’t hurt.”

  Patty Ruth took the bear, checked his black shoe-button eyes, turned him over twice, and said, “He’s not hurt, Mr. Wilson. Thank you.”

  “You’re welcome.” He patted her head as he said, “That little bear seems to be pretty special to you. I don’t think I ever see you without him.”

  “I take him everywhere ’cept to church. Mama makes him stay home when we go to church.”

  “Is that because he can’t sing the hymns?”

  “He can sing ’em! Mama just can’t hear him, so she makes him stay home.”

  “Ulysses is Patty Ruth’s best friend and most prized possession, Ray,” Hannah said. “Her Grandma Cooper made him.

  She’s no longer with us.”

  “Oh, I see. That does make him special then, doesn’t it?”

  Hannah looked down at her daughter, who was holding the bear close. “Patty Ruth…”

  “Yes, Mama?”

  “What do you say to Mr. Wilson for saving you from being trampled?”

  The little redhead smiled and said, “Thank you for saving me from bein’ tramped, Mr. Wilson.”

  “Trampled, honey,” Hannah said.

  Patty Ruth raised her free arm toward Wilson, indicating that he was about to get a hug.

  He bent down and let her wrap an arm around his neck. “You’re a mighty sweet little girl, Patty Ruth. Say, did you give Ulysses his name?”

  “Well-l-l… Papa helped me a little bit.”

  “Uh-huh. And is he named after President Grant?”

  Patty Ruth nodded. “President Ulysses S. Grant used to be a soldier in the Cibil War. My papa was a captain in the army. He fighted for President Ulysses S. Grant when he was a gen’ral.”

  “I know, honey, and your father was a real hero, too. He—”

  At that moment, Solomon Cooper appeared at the door of the store and stepped onto the boardwalk. “What’s going on out here?” he asked, putting his arm around Hannah.

  Solomon was a slender, clean-shaven man, standing an inch over six feet. His thick, reddish-brown hair was like Patty Ruth’s. He walked with a limp—a souvenir from the Civil War at the battle at Shiloh.

  Hannah tilted back her head to look into her husband’s eyes as she said, “Ray just saved our baby girl from being trampled by a horse.”

  Hannah briefly explained the near tragedy, and Solomon breathed a prayer as he took his little daughter into his arms and thanked Ray Wilson for his quick thinking.

  Just then, several customers entered the general store, and the Coopers excused themselves.

  As Ray Wilson turned to enter his saddle shop, he met the gaze of a man who had witnessed the brave act.

  The man nodded and smiled. “I was right here and saw it all,” he said, lifting his hat. “Mighty fine thing you did. You could’ve been trampled, yourself, you know.”

  “I’d risk life and limb for that little girl anytime,” Ray said. “They don’t come any better than Patty Ruth Cooper.”


  The Cooper family lived on a small farm half a mile north of Independence. The schoolhouse was situated on the north edge of town, making it a relatively short walk for the three older Cooper children.

  The three-room schoolhouse allowed a division of grade levels that separated the Cooper children—first through third grades in one room, taught by Miss Stone; fourth through sixth in another, taught by Miss Powers; and seventh through twelfth in another, taught by Mr. Barrick.

  Mary Beth loved her teacher, Miss Henrietta Powers, who was a Christian and always started the day with prayer. Mary Beth’s goal in life was to be a teacher, and she wanted to be exactly like Miss Powers. She paid close attention to Miss Powers’s gestures, how she walked, sat at her desk, wrote on the blackboard. She was especially intent on the way Miss Powers spoke. Sometimes, when she was alon
e, she practiced trying to sound like Miss Powers.

  At the end of lunch period, while the teachers stood on the porch, a wagon rattled into the schoolyard. The teachers recognized elderly farmer, Jess Pemberton at the reins. He spoke to Misses Stone and Powers first, then to Barrick. “You folks hear about Patty Ruth Cooper?”

  The trio exchanged glances, then Barrick replied, “Guess none of us have, Mr. Pemberton. I hope something bad hasn’t happened to her.”

  “Almost did. ’Bout an hour and a half ago, she just about got trampled by a gallopin’ horse. I just thought I’d come by and tell it like it happened so’s if the other Cooper kids heard about it before goin’ home, they’d have the facts. You know how secondhand information can get twisted.

  “Well, I just didn’t want Chris, n’ Mary Beth, n’ B. J. to hear somethin’ that would make ’em think their little sister had been hurt. I saw the whole thing, and she’s fine.”

  Hannah Cooper and her youngest daughter left town in the family wagon at about two o’clock. Hannah seldom worked at the store, but this morning she had filled in for their full-time worker, Randy Chase, who had gone on family business to Kansas City. He was the oldest son of their pastor.

  When they pulled into the Cooper yard, Biggie, the family dog, bounded off the porch, tail wagging a friendly welcome. Biggie—short for “Big Enough”—was a small black-and-white short-haired terrier, and the special object of affection in the Cooper household. He ran alongside the wagon as Hannah drove toward the barn and corral.

  The big bay gelding in the corral with the white blaze face and four white stockings was Papa’s horse, Nipper. Patty Ruth had ridden Nipper lots of times while Papa held the reins and walked in front of him.

  The smaller gelding was a strawberry roan named Buster. He was Chris’s horse. Patty Ruth had never ridden Buster because Chris said he and Buster understood each other, and if someone else rode him, it could mix Buster up.

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