Tim Burton trudged slowly alongside the dusty covered wagon. The company had been on the trail only two hours, but his legs were sore already.
Tim knew the others must be tired too. There was little of the laughter and high spirits Tim had known during the first weeks on the trail when everything was new and everyone was eager. Now there was just the constant push westward.
Tim was surprised by the sudden stop of the wagon and the mutter of dismay from Grandpa. He turned to see the wagon tipped toward its right side.
Grandpa pulled off his hat and ran a calloused hand through his thick white hair as a crowd quickly began to gather around the wagon.
“Hit a rock and something must have broken,” the old man explained. “The rest of you had best go on.”
“Go on?” someone echoed. “But you and the boy—”
The words broke off as Grandpa said quickly, “I thought maybe one of you might take Timothy.”
Tim was too startled to do more than stare at his grandfather in disbelief, but at last he found his voice. “I wouldn’t think of going on without you. Why, we haven’t been separated since Pa and Ma died. No, Grandpa! If you stay, I stay—same as always.”
Grandpa smiled proudly and turned to the others. “Timothy’s near thirteen now, and he’s a great help. We’ll fix the wagon and catch up in a few hours.”
Some of the company protested, but Grandpa stood firm. He looked around thoughtfully. “My oxteam is in better condition than most of the others. We’ll catch up before long.”
Tim and his grandfather watched the company move up the slope amid the squeal and creak of dried-out wooden wagons and worn leather. There was an empty feeling inside Tim, and he didn’t move until he felt the old man place a hand lightly on his shoulder. “Come along, Timothy. There’s work to be done.”
Tim swallowed hard. “Are you sure we’ll be all right, Grandpa? Do you really think we can catch up with the train soon?”
Grandpa’s expression was grave. “We have a good chance if we stop looking and get working.” He moved toward the wagon, and after a moment Tim turned to follow.
“You see to the oxteam,” Grandpa instructed. “Move them to new grazing now and again. And keep a sharp lookout, lad.”
Restlessly Tim moved from one spot to another around their lonely little wagon. The morning seemed to stretch out endlessly. It was far past noon before the old man straightened. “Best we take time for a quick bite to eat,” he announced.
Grandpa ate hurriedly and turned back to his work.
“I wish I could help,” Tim said.
“You are helping,” the old man assured Tim. “More than you know.”
It was late afternoon before Grandpa straightened again, a satisfied smile replacing the worry in his face. “I’ll be finished by the time you’ve taken the oxteam to water at the stream, Timothy,” he said, stretching hard to ease cramped muscles. “With the good rest and feed the oxen have had, they should be ready for a long steady push. There’s going to be a moon the early part of the night. We can catch up with the others before daybreak.”
Tim moved quickly to bring the oxen from grazing near a small stream. But suddenly his heart began to jump. He stared in terror at an Indian who was crouched back in the willows.
With his throat closed up with fear, all Tim could do was stare. Then he gulped. He’d been too frightened before to notice, but the Indian was just a frightened boy too. His buckskin clothes were torn in many places, and there was a clumsy makeshift bandage across his left shoulder.
“Me Running Elk,” the boy said shyly. “Son of Long Bow.”
“You speak English?” Tim asked in surprise.
“Little bits,” Running Elk answered.
“Where did you come from?” Tim asked. “Are you alone?” He stepped back cautiously as the boy moved from his crouching position in the willows.
“Alone,” Running Elk answered.
Tim learned the boy had received a deep wound in his shoulder three days ago. Now he was feeling better, but was still quite weak. When he heard Tim and the oxen he crouched in the willows to hide.
Just then Grandpa shouted, “Timothy? What’s keeping you, lad?”
“I’m coming, Grandpa,” Tim answered. He turned back to the Indian boy. “I guess you’d better come with me.”
Quickly Tim told Grandpa what Running Elk had said. Grandpa nodded thoughtfully. When Tim finished, Grandpa’s first question was, “How long since you had something to eat, boy?”
“Three days. Few berries only.” Running Elk swallowed hard and turned away.
“No time for a fire,” Grandpa said. “But there’s still a bit of corn bread from breakfast and some jerked buffalo.”
The boy swallowed painfully again at the sight of the food, but he made no move toward it until Grandpa said, “Go ahead, boy. It’s for you.”
While the boy ate, Grandpa and Tim reloaded the wagon. “There’s just nothing else we can do but take you with us,” Grandpa finally announced.
Grandpa bandaged Running Elk’s wound before putting the boy in the back of the wagon. The sun was setting by the time they pulled away. It seemed a long time ago since the wagon train had left them alone.
Into the growing dusk Grandpa urged the oxen on as fast as they could go. Darkness came, and still they pushed on with only brief stops to rest the animals. The moon Grandpa had promised came nudging its way up from behind the hills, making their travel easier.
They walked much of the way to keep the load as light as possible. Even Running Elk left the wagon and walked with them.
Finally the wagon came to an abrupt halt. “Time we stopped for the night,” Grandpa said kindly. “We’re all dead on our feet.”
Tim was sure he had barely fallen asleep when he felt a sharp tug at his blanket.
“Come on, Tim,” Grandpa whispered. “It’s time to get going. It’s nearly light already.”
In spite of his eagerness to catch up with the other wagons, Tim wasn’t sure it was wise when his grandpa agreed to take a shortcut the Indian boy suggested.
“Running Elk says this way will save several miles,” Grandpa explained. “Maybe we’ll find the others before dark.”
An hour later Grandpa called a short stop. Restlessly Tim glanced around as he had done so often.
“Grandpa!” he cried in alarm.
Indians had appeared from behind all the boulders and trees. The wagon was surrounded!
Tim felt a strong knot of fear. Ahead of him, Grandpa was standing still and watchful. Tim jumped in surprise when Running Elk stepped away from the wagon and began shouting in a strange language.
The circle of Indians stood impassive for a moment, and then one of the tallest warriors stepped forward.
In a moment Running Elk turned and came back to the wagon. “This Swift Eagle, brother of my mother,” he explained. “Many hours they watch. Wonder when wagon turn from big trail. Few white men know this way through mountains.”
There was a lot of talk and laughter as the Indians expressed their thanks to Tim and Grandpa. “I tell of wound, big hunger, and how you help,” Running Elk told Grandpa. “Now my people wish to travel with you. Make sure no trouble comes for lone wagon.”
As they traveled together, the Indians made many jokes about the plodding oxen. They called the wagon a “mighty rolling tepee,” and each one came near to peer inside or to watch the wheels turn.
It was late afternoon when the wagon pulled back onto the main trail. It was dusk when the welcome sight of the circled wagon train lay just ahead.
Tim couldn’t help grinning at the flurry of excitement and alarm in the wagon camp at first sight of so many Indians approaching. A short distance from the camp, the Indians stopped.
“We turn back now,” Running Elk said.
“We sure do appreciate your help,” Grandpa said warmly.
The Indian boy smiled. “Running Elk also glad for you.” He grew more serious. “A message goes ahead through our country. Say friends travel this camp. No trouble.”
Before Tim went with Grandpa to join the other wagons, he stopped to say goodbye to Running Elk. He hoped he would see him again some day, but if he didn’t, Tim knew that even brief friendships can last for a lifetime.