The Scent of Lilacs


“I’m hungry,” Becky grumbled as she plodded along behind the wagon.

“Me, too!” Jonathan said. “Do you think Pa would mind if we stopped to pick some berries?”

Becky shook her head. “We’d better not. Pa says that if we don’t keep up with the rest of the wagons, we won’t be able to get down the mountain.”

“I wish Ma were here.” Jonathan’s eyes filled with tears. “She’d find us something to eat.”

From the front of the wagon came the sound of music, and Jonathan perked up a little. “Jacob’s hungry, too,” he said. “He always plays that harmonica when his stomach growls.”

Laughing, they hurried along. Sure enough, Jacob Brewster was tapping his foot and playing as hard as he could. With one hand he guided the oxen; with the other he played “Old Dan Tucker” on his mouth organ.

Jacob Brewster was seventeen years old and an orphan. He had asked to join the wagon train in North Platte, and Pa had offered him meals and a place on their wagon if Jacob would help with the oxen.

Soon the signal came to stop, and Becky made a thin gruel from a small handful of cornmeal sweetened with a few drops of carefully hoarded molasses. Pa cut each of them a small piece of hardtack, and they dipped the pieces of tough biscuit into the gruel.

“Brother Snow says that we’re almost there,” Pa said. “He thinks that we’ll make it in the next two days.”

Jonathan jumped up and down. “Really, Pa? Does he really mean it?” Pa just smiled and nodded.

The noon meal over, Becky and Jacob quickly repacked the wagon and stomped out the small campfire.

Just after the family had left Omaha, Nebraska, Becky’s mother had taken a bad fall from the wagon. Within a week she had died. Now fifteen-year-old Becky had to fix all the meals, take care of the wagon, and help young Jonathan get over their mother’s death. It wasn’t easy when she still missed Ma terribly herself.

Hurriedly Becky filled the water cans from the small stream. With a gentle touch she watered the lilac slips that her mother had so carefully tended. In her mind she could hear her mother’s sweet voice tell Pa: “Why, it won’t be home without lilacs around the door! Don’t you worry, Becky and I will take care of them.”

“Time to go, Becky.” Pa’s shout broke into her reverie.

“I’m ready, Pa. Jonathan, why don’t you ride for a while.” She helped her seven-year-old brother into the back of the wagon, knowing that in a little while he would be asleep.

The trail up the mountain grew steeper, and the pace began to slow. Anxiously Becky watched the darkening sky. A thunderstorm is one thing that we don’t need today, she thought.

The huge clouds grew darker. The slight breeze gusted fiercely, then became a stiff wind. From the north came the first flashes of lightning.

“Becky! We’ll have to lighten the load if we want to get up this mountain.” Pa’s words were all but lost in the wind. “Wake Jonathan and unload everything that we can possibly leave behind.”

“Yes, Pa.” Becky hurried to obey.

Out went the extra washtub and the small chest of linens that her mother had so carefully packed for Becky’s hope chest. Jonathan tearfully dumped his precious rock collection, and Becky resolutely removed the extra bedrolls and cooking pots.

What a loss! she thought as she carefully set the pots on the ground. We’ll never be able to replace them.

“What about these?” Jonathan asked.

Becky turned to see the bucket of lilac slips in the young boy’s hand. “No, not those, Jon!” she cried. “I promised Mama that we’d plant those by our new home.”

Pa put his arm around Becky’s slight shoulders and gave her a hug. “Yes,” he said. “The lilacs stay.”

The sky became an angry black, and the thunder rolled from mountain to mountain.

“We’ll have to pull off and stop, Brother Webster,” Jacob called. “The trail will turn into a slippery mud slide as soon as the rain hits.”

Looking around, Jacob spied a level clearing off to the left of the trail and guided the wagon over to it. The other wagons followed.

As if on signal, the rain began. Great, heavy drops splattered here and there at first, then came down in a torrent. The north wind blew the rain in sheets, the thunder roared, and the lightning blazed continually across the sky.

Inside the wagon the four shivered as they listened to the storm. Jonathan’s eyes were round with fear, and Becky held him close. They could hear trees being split by the lightning, and the wagons creaking with the wind.

Suddenly the tether holding the oxen snapped. The freed animals took off, heading for the meadow below. Pa and Jacob leapt from the wagon. “Stay here with Jonathan, Becky!” Pa called. “Jacob, you go straight down, and I’ll circle around behind them.”

The men disappeared into the driving rain. Becky and Jonathan anxiously waited. Finally the rain began to lessen, and the thunder grew more distant. When Becky peered from the wagon, she saw limbs strewn like kindling and several trees completely uprooted. Although most of the other wagons had weathered the storm well, some of the smaller ones had lost canvas. There was no sign of Pa or Jacob.

Night was approaching, and Jonathan was hungry. “When’s Pa coming, Becky?”

“He’ll be here soon. Don’t worry.” Becky tried to sound calm, but inside she trembled at the thought of a night alone. There were other wagons nearby, but those folks had troubles of their own, and Becky knew that Pa would want her to stay put.

She gave Jonathan some beef jerky and tried to bed him down for the long night ahead. It was chilly in the wagon with its damp canvas, and Becky wished that she still had the discarded bedrolls. Finally she managed to get Jonathan to sleep.

Overhead the stars gleamed brightly. All traces of the thunderclouds were gone. Samuel Walker came over to check on them and, when he found them alone, wanted to take them back to his wagon.

“No, thank you, Brother Walker,” Becky said bravely. “Pa told us to stay here. He’d be worried sick if he came back and we were gone.”

Around midnight Jacob returned, leading one of the oxen. “I had a terrible time getting up the mountain in the mud,” he said weakly. “Where’s your father?”

“He hasn’t come back yet. Oh, Jacob, do you think he’s all right?”

Jacob could see the worry in Becky’s face. “He probably holed up when it got dark,” he said consolingly. Then he added as he slumped wearily onto the wagon floor, “Be sure to wake me when he comes.”

Morning brought no sign of Pa. Search groups were hastily organized, with Jacob leading the main one. “We’ll find him,” he said, patting Becky gently on the arm. He gave Jonathan a loving hug and was on his way.

At midmorning Jonathan spotted the first searchers returning. “Here they come, Becky. Do you see Pa?”

Becky squinted into the bright sunlight and carefully scanned each group as it appeared. The men were downcast and returning slowly. Suddenly she spotted Brother Snow’s brown mare being led by Jacob. Across the saddle, like a huge rag doll, lay the form of a man.

“No! Oh no!” she cried and broke into a run with Jonathan right behind her.

“Pa, Pa,” Becky moaned. “Oh, Jacob, how did it happen?”

Jacob’s eyes were red with grief. “Lightning.” He held Becky close. “At least it was quick.”

Becky gazed at the still form, then quietly slipped to the ground in tears.

Pa was buried near the edge of the small clearing. Becky planted two of the precious lilac slips near the makeshift marker, just as they had planted two on Ma’s grave a few weeks earlier.

Becky stood in the mountain sunshine with Jacob and Jonathan as the simple service was completed. Tears streamed down her face as she held Jonathan’s hand. Jacob’s hand under her elbow steadied her. “Oh, Jacob,” she murmured. “What will I ever do? How can we manage without Pa?”

“Don’t you worry, Becky. I’ll take care of both of you.”

The rest of the afternoon was spent repairing the damage wrought by the summer storm. Wheels were mended and canvases tightened. Bedrolls were laid out in the sun to dry.

About dusk one of the scouts arrived leading the other ox. “Found him a good three miles up the trail,” he said.

Jacob gratefully tethered the animal next to its mate. Women from other wagons prepared a dinner from their own precious food stores for the grieving trio.

As Becky helped Jonathan prepare for bed, she watched Jacob bank the fire and check the wagon. We’ll arrive in the valley the day after tomorrow, she thought. She didn’t know what the future would bring, but she didn’t fear. She had faith that Heavenly Father would watch over Jonathan and her. As she carefully watered the remaining lilacs, she thought, Soon we’ll have a home, and these lilacs will remind us of Mama and Papa. She pulled her shawl tighter around her slim shoulders and went to sit with Jacob in the glow of the dying campfire.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Virginia Sargent