I lay awake under the wagon with my dog, Swisher, close by. Once in a while I could hear Ma moving restlessly in the wagon bed above me. I wondered if it was because Ma was hungry too.
Thinking about it brought a lump to my throat and an even deeper feeling of emptiness to my stomach. She had given me her share of the thin flour soup that had been passed around the small circle of wagons at sunup. I had gulped it down before I learned it was the last of our food until relief wagons from Salt Lake were to reach us.
I planned to stay awake until the relief wagons rolled in. I would be the first in line to get Ma a share of food. And maybe there would be something for Swisher too.
When Swisher began to growl softly, I listened for the sound of wagons. Suddenly Swisher leaped to his feet, staring into the half-light night. My heart pounded.
“Shush your dog, Sam,” a voice whispered. “It’s me, Dirkin.”
I didn’t much like Dirkin. He had kicked at Swisher more than once. I raised up on one elbow and put an arm over Swisher’s neck. His growl settled to a nervous rumble in his throat.
“What are you doing here, Dirkin?”
“I’m going after some wheat.”
“Shhh!” Dirkin cautioned. “Folks say old man Crowley has a whole sack of it. He keeps it hidden in the daytime and sleeps on it at night.”
I had heard about Brother Crowley’s wheat. “That’s for planting when we reach the valley,” I told Dirkin. “He doesn’t even eat any of it himself.”
“Yeah? Well that wheat should belong to all of us. I don’t aim to starve while he has it handy.”
“Brother Crowley wouldn’t let anyone starve clean to death. Anyway, the relief wagons are on the way. That rider who passed through camp this morning brought the word.”
“I only aim to fill my pockets,” Dirkin whispered. “It’ll be easy. Old man Crowley is at that meeting the men are having over at the main campfire.” Then in a warning voice, he added as he turned to go, “Keep your dog quiet!”
I felt sick. What Dirkin intended to do was wrong. I wished he hadn’t told me. Somehow, just knowing about it made me feel guilty.
“He’s lots bigger than I am,” I reasoned to my dog. “He’s older, too, and mean. Remember how he kicked at you for no reason?”
Swisher licked my hand. Then he wiggled out from under the wagon, and I followed. I only intended to sneak along behind Dirkin, but when I saw him moving through the half-darkness, something made me holler out. “Dirkin!”
He lunged at me. I felt his fist hit me in the eye, and I yelped. It hurt. I dove at his legs, and we tumbled to the dirt. I aimed a fist at Dirkin’s eye. He turned his head, but not fast enough.
Swisher barked and growled and jumped around us. In spite of the hurting, I felt pleasure in knowing that the noise would spoil Dirkin’s plans.
“Hey now—what’s going on here?”
I knew it was Brother Crowley even before he lifted me off Dirkin’s back.
“What’s this rumpus all about?”
My mouth was full of dirt, and I kept busy spitting it out so I wouldn’t have to say anything. I couldn’t rightly tell Brother Crowley. Dirkin wasn’t about to explain, either.
“All right, if you’re not talking, I guess the best thing is to keep you fellows separated until morning so that the rest of us can get some sleep.”
He lifted me by my galluses (suspenders) and pushed me toward his wagon. “Up against the wheel, Sam. Sit tight until daylight. I’ll put young Dirkin up against the other wheel. … Well, look at that! He’s slipped away.”
My back was sore where Dirkin had pounded me. I leaned enough away from the wagon wheel that my back wouldn’t touch it. My stomach hurt more, and I rubbed at it. I wanted to get back to my bed. Maybe if I told Brother Crowley. …
“Brother Crowley,” I began, “about the wheat you have …”
“Good wheat for planting.” It was as though he read my mind. “When those relief wagons head back to Salt Lake, I’m going along to get it planted.”
“I hope those wagons hurry,” I said.
“Hungry, are you? Well, I’m a mite hungry myself. But we can stand it a few more hours, can’t we, Sam?”
I hoped I could. And I hoped Ma could. I was glad when he added, “You may as well go roll up in your own blankets, Sam. No need sitting here without young Dirkin to talk to.”
I wasted no time getting back to my bed, but I couldn’t sleep. My eye was puffed up and hurting.
I was awake when the relief wagons pulled into camp near first light. I heard the shouting and the laughter and the welcoming. Out of one eye, I saw Ma running to join the crowd. Even Swisher left me to follow.
I pulled Ma’s old patchwork quilt up over my face. I wondered what she would say when she saw my eye.
I threw off the quilt, rolled out from under the wagon, and jumped up with my fists doubled. Dirkin blinked at me, and I almost laughed. He had a swollen eye too.
“I brought you something.” What he handed me was tied up in a cloth. I could tell by the feel of it—wheat!
“Dirkin, you didn’t—”
“Nope,” he said with a grin. “Old man Crowley sent it. It’s sort of a reward.”
I stared at Dirkin, trying to puzzle it out.
“I told him. He said to make it right I’d have to go with him when the relief wagons leave and guard his wheat.”
“Yeah—I’m going to help get it safely to Salt Lake, then help him plant it.” He paused. “Sorry I kicked at your dog, Sam.” With that he left.
All of a sudden I didn’t mind the smarting, swollen eye he had given me. “Dirkin,” I called after him, “see you in Salt Lake.”