Where the wagons stopped we built our homes, making the cabins tight against the winter’s coming. Here in this place we would build our town, here we would create something new.
We would space our buildings, lay out our streets, and
dig wells to provide water for our people. The idea of it filled me with a heartwarming excitement such as I had not known before.
Was it this feeling of creating something new that held my brother Cain to his forge throughout the long hours? He knew the steel he turned in his hands, knew the weight of the hammer and where to strike, knew by the glow of the iron what its temperature would be; even the leap of the sparks had a message for his experience.
He knew when to heat and when to strike and when to dip the iron into the water; yet when is the point at which a group of strangers becomes a community? What it is that forges the will of a people?
This I did not know, nor had I books to advise me, nor any experience to judge a matter of this kind. We who now were alien, strangers drawn together by wagons moving westward, must learn to work together, to fuse our interests, and to become as one. This we must do if we were to survive and become a town.
No settlement lay nearer than Fort Bridger, more than a hundred miles to
the southwest … or so we had heard.
All about us was Indian country, and we were few.
There were seven men to do the building, two boys to guard our stock, and 13 women and children to gather wood and buffalo chips for the fires of the nights to come, and kindling against a time of snow.
Only now did we realize that we were strangers, and each looked upon the other with distant eyes, judging and being judged, uneasy and causing uneasiness, for here we had elected to make our stand, and we knew not the temper of those with whom we stood.
It was Ruth Macken, but lately become a widow, who led the move to stop while supplies remained to us, and we who stood beside her were those who favored her decision and joined with her in stopping.
My father had been a Bible-reading man and named his sons from the Book. Four of our brothers had gone the way of flesh, and of the boys only we two remained. Cain, a wedded man with two children, and I, Bendigo Shafter, 18 and a man with hands to work.
Our sister was with us. Lorna was a pretty 16, named for a cousin in Wales.
“You will build for the Widow Macken,” Cain said to me. “Her Bud is a man for his 12 years, but young for the lifting of logs and the notching.”
So I went up the hill through the frost of the morning, pausing when I reached the bench where their cabin would stand. A fair place it was, with a cold spring spilling its water down to the meadow where our oxen and horses grazed upon the brown grass of autumn. Tall pines, sentinel straight, made a park of the bench, and upon the steep slope behind there was a good stand of timber.
The view from the bench was a fine one, and I stood to look upon it, filling myself with the quiet morning and the beauty of the long valley below the Beaver Rim.
“You have an eye for beauty, Mr. Shafter,” Ruth Macken said to me, and I kept my eyes from her, feeling the flush and the heat climbing my neck as it forever did when a pretty woman spoke to me. “It is a good thing in a man.”
“It works a magic,” I said, “to look upon distance.”
“Some people can’t abide it. Bigness makes them feel small instead of offering a challenge, but I am glad my Bud will grow to manhood here. A big country can breed big men.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I glanced about the bench. “I have come to build you a cabin, then.”
“Build it so when spring comes I can add a long room on the south, for when the wagons roll again I shall open a trading post.”
She turned to Bud, who had come up the slope from the meadow. “You will help Mr. Shafter and learn from him. It is not every man who can build a house.”
Ruth Macken had a way of making a man feel large in his tracks, so what could I do but better than my best?
The chill spoke of winter coming, yet I notched each log with care and trimmed them with smooth, even blows.
There is a knowledge in the muscles of a workman that goes beyond the mind, a skill that lies in the flesh and
the fiber, and my hands and heart held a love for the wood, the good wood whose fresh chips fell cleanly to the left and the right.
Yet as I worked, my thoughts worried over the problem of our town. We were ill-prepared for winter, although our sudden decision to stop left us better off than had we pushed on to the westward.
Going on would have been simple, for travel is an escape, and as long as our wagons moved, our decisions could be postponed. When one moves, one is locked in the treadmill of travel, and all decisions must await a destination. By choosing to stop, we had brought our refuge tumbling about us, and our problems could no longer be avoided.
The promised land is always a distant land, aglow with golden fire. It is a land one never attains, for once attained one faces fulfillment and the knowledge that whatever a land may promise, it may also demand a payment of courage and strength.
To destroy is easy, to build is hard. To scoff is also easy, but to go on in the face of scoffing and to do what is right is the way of a man.
Available this month at www.CappersFarmer.com/store is the new book LOUIS L’AMOUR’S LOST TREASURES: VOLUME 1, which features a number of never-
before-seen, unfinished stories from America’s favorite author. A second volume is set to be released in 2019.
Excerpted from Chapter 1 of BENDIGO SHAFTER by Louis L’Amour. Copyright © 1979 by Louie & Katherine L’Amour Trust. Reprinted with permission from Bantam Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. To get your copy of the book, visit www.CappersFarmer.com/store or call (866) 803-7096.