It’s a cool evening in late May. Goose bumps cover your skin, so you reach into your covered wagon for a coat. The sun has just set in the Lone Elm Campground. Around you, the other thirty-nine wagons in your train rest close by. You hear laughter and music and smell the mouthwatering scent of meat and sweet fruit pies.
You let out a yelp when your little brother accidentally drops a tin plate right on your foot.
You groan. “Benji, you have to be careful.”
“Sorry,” four-year-old Benji mumbles. Your dog, Tippet, sits beside him, wagging his tail.
It’s not really Benji’s fault. He’s only hungry—and so are you. “It’s fine, Mukki.” You call him by his Pequot nickname. “I didn’t need that toe anyway. Here, bring these plates to Mama.”
Mama is pulling supplies out of the back of your covered wagon, getting ready to cook a hearty dinner. You run over to help her. It’s been a long day. You’ve been traveling for about twelve miles on the Trail to reach Lone Elm Campground from Independence, Missouri. You can’t wait to sink into your bedroll.
“Just in time.” Mama kisses you on the forehead. “Could you do me a favor?”
She nods over to a covered wagon some yards away in the corral. “Invite Mr. Southworth to join us, will you? We have plenty to share.”
Although Mr. Southworth has been in your wagon train since the start of your journey, you’re still shy. You’ve seen Mr. Southworth fix many bent iron rims, including one for your own family’s wagon wheel. But you don’t really know him that well beyond his great blacksmithing skills. Until now, he and his mother, Pauline Hunter, had been traveling, enslaved by the man you know to be their master. Half of your original wagon train—forty wagons out of eighty—split off a few miles back. The others wanted to take a northern route. Mr. Southworth stayed with your wagons while their master went north with Mrs. Hunter.
“All right, Mama.” You start off to Mr. Southworth’s wagon. “I’ll be right back.”
When you arrive at Mr. Southworth’s site, he’s preparing his own dinner.
“Hello, Mr. Southworth.” You fidget and wipe your hands on your clothes, then relax as you smell the sweet aroma of baked apples in the air. “My mama asked if you want to join us for dinner. Though what you’re cooking smells tasty!”
Louis Southworth is in his early twenties. He has a kind smile framed by a thick black beard. A pocket watch hangs on the vest of his gray woolen suit. “That’s quite kind of you. I’ll bring some food to share and be right on over.”
You nod and skip back to tell Mama.
Mr. Southworth arrives and Papa and Benji are preparing supper alongside Mama. Mama cooks a juicy chicken over a spit while you and Papa peel potatoes. Benji runs around the camp with Tippet.
“Mr. Southworth! Glad you could join us.” Papa rises to meet him.
“Thank you, Ben. I brought an apple pie to share. My mother’s recipe.” Mr. Southworth sets down the pie and shakes Papa’s hand firmly. In his other hand, he holds an oblong wooden case.
“I hope your family likes apple pie, Kutomá.” Mr. Southworth smiles at Mama.
You cook up a delicious meal of roast chicken, potatoes, cornbread with dried corn from your garden back in Connecticut, and fresh milk from Mr. Southworth’s cow, Dilly. You wish you had a cow. Instead, you have three goats, two fat sheep, and a stubborn horse named Spot to herd them. Of course, you’ve got oxen to pull your wagon, too. After you eat and enjoy Mr. Southworth’s warm apple pie around the campfire, Benji points to the funny-shaped case near Mr. Southworth.
“What’s that?” Benji’s eyes widen.
“Come and have a look for yourself.” Mr. Southworth flips open two silver buckles.
You gently pry the case open. “A violin?”
Mr. Southworth laughs and picks it up. “I’d call it a fiddle, but ‘violin’ works too. Would you like to hear it sing?” When you and your brother nod in excitement, he fits the fiddle underneath his chin and plucks the strings to test the sound. Pleasant twangy music echoes through the campground.
“Excuse me,” calls a new voice. All of you turn to see Fergus McAllister, another neighbor, approaching. He looks worried. His shock of red hair sticks up on all ends, and his thick red brows are furrowed. “Sorry to interrupt.” He has a thick Scottish brogue. “But I just hoped to have a word with you folk.”
“What seems to be the trouble, Fergus?” Papa’s brow furrows.
Fergus rubs his beard. “Well, I’ve been talkin’ to a few other families and they’re packing up and heading out. They heard from a local passerby that there’s been a nasty pack of bandits called the River Rush Gang lurking about the Trail . . . and they’re headed this way.”
Papa and Mama exchange worried looks with Mr. Southworth.
“Will we be robbed?” Benji jumps to his feet.
Mama hushes him and holds him tightly to her chest.
You cup your hand to Papa’s ear. “Maybe we should talk to Captain Beauregard. Tell him we should leave. Now.”
“Hmm. I think we should,” says Papa, troubled.
You go with him, Fergus, and Mr. Southworth to find the captain of your wagon train, John Beauregard, sitting at his own campsite with his wife, Stella, and their son George, who made a mean face at you earlier. You stay behind Papa, just in case.
“Excuse me, John.” Papa steps into the campsite. “We need to talk.” He tells John and Stella about the potential danger nearby.
“What are you suggesting?” John puts his hands on his hips. “We just camped down for the night. We can’t up and leave now.”
He’s right: everyone is exhausted after the long day. The last thing you want to think about is walking more. But after hearing about the bandits approaching, you don’t want to be robbed, either. You’d have...