Independence Rock
As Told By Hank Taylor

I'd say I'm pretty unlucky. The best thing that ever happened to me was when Captain Jed and his wife agreed to take me to Oregon with them. I don't know what I'm gonna do once I'm there—since Mrs. Applegate and the Captain will probably be going back to take another party—but that don't matter too much. I'll find something to do, somewhere to stay.

That's what I've been doing since two years ago, when I lost my parents and siblings (three older brothers, one younger, and one little sister) to the ague. A lot of families got sick. I got it too, only I survived. So now it's just me on my own, living with the Applegates.

Yesterday was Independence Day. The party decided to wait until we reach Independence Rock to celebrate. According to Captain Jed, reaching the rock coincides with the fourth of July for journeys that are on-time. That means we're only a day behind, which isn't bad, I reckon.

Now that we're here, there's a lot of celebration. I'm not exactly a holiday kind of person—I've lost family on Easter, a friend on All Hallow's Eve, even animals gone on Christmas—but there's some excitement besides Independence Day to be celebrated, too. Dr. Eisenberg had to cut Mitchell O'Connor's leg off 'cause of the snakebite, but the Hart brothers have been working on a wooden leg for him. It's finally ready, and Johann, Jerek, and Jan are going to help teach him how to use it.

For his role in saving Mitchell's life, Jan has been real humble about it. When somebody brings it up, he blushes and tries to say that "It was nothing." Missus O'Connor baked a pie and divided it between him and Zofia Konopka and me, insisting that we get thanked for helping her son. Jan got half the pie and Zofia and I split what was left. Seems fair to me, since Jan actually sucked out the poison and all Zofia and I did was tie off the leg and give a knife and hold him down. Mickey says he don't think it's fair that he doesn't get a reward for helping, too, but I think he's just glad his brother survived.

He don't have a cause to be jealous, though, because there were about a hundred pies and cakes at the Independence Day celebration. Most of us kids left our adults after we got some food and went off on our own. Paul, Quentin, and Adam got out their instruments (guitar, fiddle, and harmonica) and played for the party, but it was mostly the adults dancing. Well, some of the girls—Zofia and Cassie Freeman—danced with their Pas, but the rest of us sat with our food and ate and watched the adults. We were talking about the upcoming wedding between two of the Mormons who were traveling with us.

"When I get married," sighed Camilla Rosa, and I could practically see the stars in her eyes, "I'm going to have a big wedding with veils with pearls for all the bridesmaids, and I'll have my necklace green for luck, and…"

It was nice to see how Camilla had recovered from her parents' death; she acted normal, so different from her brothers. The whole party could hear Alonzo crying at night, even though he tried to be brave during the day. Timoteo, on the other hand—he ain't said more than a few words to anyone, 'cept Zofia and Lora.

I didn't have heart to tell Camilla that this wedding she had planned wasn't going to happen. Who would pay for it? Not her family, for sure—but of course I wasn't gonna mention that. She'd just cry, and I wasn't keen to deal with that. "…and we'll do the Venetian Hour right, how it was at Susanna's."

"Susanna?" Jerek asked.

"Our cousin," Timoteo said. "She didn't cross with us, but Camilla was a flower girl for her wedding."

I grinned; that was the most I'd heard out of him since South Platte. "I don't ever want to get married," I said. It was the truth—I don't see no point in settling down. Once I get to Oregon, I want to explore the beyond. North or south—it don't matter to me. I'm not choosy. But farming's not for me, and I'm not keen on the idea of mining.

Lora's eyes went round like wheels, but her brow scrunched up a little. "Never?" she asked.

"Never," I confirmed with a nod. She didn't really like this answer, I found out soon.

"Well—why not?!" she exclaimed. "You'd just—you'd just always be alone, then! Do you want that?"

I opened my mouth to talk back, but the only thing I got out was "There's no point—" before Lora blew up at me again. She said a lot about ending up alone, and I think she called me selfish. Then she ran off, like she'd been grabbed and carried off by a desert wind. Jozef raised his eyebrows at me, muttered some excuse, and sprinted after her.

Now, let me say that I like Lora. A lot. I mean—I don't wanna get married at all, but if I had to, I'd like it to be Lora. She's real sweet, and sometimes when the sun is behind her and her brown hair frames her face just so, she looks like an angel come down… Sent by God, I guess, but I don't really believe in all that religion stuff. Her smile…

At any rate, I could tell Jozef Konopka was fond of Lora. I don't have a cause to be jealous, I guess, since I'm not going to marry. I guess it is selfish of me, to want Lora and Jozef not to spent time together.

"Ooh, Hank, looks like you're in trouble," Johann laughed. "Time to go beg forgiveness."

Marcin and Jerek laughed. Jan just rolled his eyes. Timoteo—what a shock!—said nothing. Camilla looked intently at me and said, "You should make up with her, Hank."

That wasn't fair. I hadn't even done anything! Had I? Nothing I could remember saying shoulda upset her that much. I wasn't up for dealing with Camilla and the others, so I walked off. Girls.

Found myself sitting by the musicians. Quentin Hart's fiddle told a story with his brother's guitar in the background, but it was Adam Crosser's harmonica I was most glad for. It was louder than my thoughts, blocking them. Still, I could see Jozef and Lora dancing with the other pairs.

I'd made a real mess of this.

"Penny for your thoughts?" said someone next to me.

I looked up. It was Roger Booth. I'd met him a little—he and his brother seemed nice, like the kind of people you'd want for your neighbors. They were always willing to help the other members of the wagon party. There was that time Dennis stopped Susie Summers from getting trampled in a stampede. I looked at the copper coin he was offering.

I told him the whole story—Roger was just the kind of person you can trust, y'know? Like no matter what your secrets are, you just wanna tell all of them 'cause you know he'd understand. "I don't even know what I did, and I'm sorry," I finished, pushing my stupid hair back. It was getting too long, getting in the way. I need to take a knife to it someday soon.

"Alright, Hank. You want to know how to get Lora's forgiveness?"

"Yes," I said desperately, glancing over at her and Jozef.

"Zofia."

I turned back to the red-haired man. "What?"

"Listen. Zofia is as good as a sister to Lora. Become close to Zofia to show Lora that you can act nice. Then she'll forgive you."

The musicians broke into a quick jig—a reel of sorts, I think. Roger looked across the dance circle and caught someone's eye. I looked over to see who it was, but I didn't pay close attention. Probably Chloe Crosser. I heard she and Roger're likely to court. "Excuse me. They're playing my song," he said, smiling and standing. "Good luck with Lora, Hank."

I watched Lora for a minute. She was smiling and dancing with Jozef now. God (or whatever), I wanted her to smile at me again. And dance with me, for the first time. Hell, I do like her. That's why I stood and walked over to where Zofia and her pa were dancing—and pretended not to notice Lora watching me over Jozef's shoulder, even as he twirled her.

"Excuse me," I said to Mr. Konopka, and bowed because that's proper or something. I don't know—I mean, I know it's proper to ask a gal's dance partner (and/or father) if you're gonna dance with her. Maybe not the same with Zofia, since she's so young and all, but I didn't wanna take any chances. "May I cut in?"

Her father studied me for a moment, and then said something in Polish to his daughter. He nodded and stood aside. I bowed to the ten-year-old. "May I have this dance, miss?" I asked, bowing to her again.

She giggled and curtsied. "I would be delighted, sir," she said, and we danced. Zofia was quite good for only having ten years to her name.

And I could feel Lora watching the whole time.

After a few songs, the music stopped. I bowed again to Zofia and moved back into the forming circle. Mitchell O'Connor and the Eisenberg triplets had come to the center, and I could see everyone was setting down to see Mitchell walk. Jan helped him put the leg on and stood beside Mitchell at one end of the circle, making sure that the kid wasn't gonna fall. Johann went to the other side and squatted down, like a parent might when teaching their own kid to walk.

"Show us what you can do, Mitchell," Jerek said, and he walked beside Mitchell as, slowly, like he didn't know what he was doing—he probably didn't, I guess—the kid began to walk across to Johann. When he got there, two minutes later, a cheer went up.

That kid's a fighter. He's gonna be fine.

As Mitchell crossed the circle for the third time and the sunset began to start, I felt someone beside me put their hand on my arm. Yes. Please, please…

Yes. It was Lora. I gave a small nod. "Lora. How c'n I be of service to you?"

"That was real sweet of you—asking Zofia to dance."

Well, damn. Roger was right. I shrugged and told her, "T'ain't nothing. I just thought she might like to dance…y'know, with someone other than her pa."

"It was still nice of you." She didn't move her hand from my arm.

And I'm starting to think that maybe I do like holidays after all.


Author's Note: My huge apologies for the delay. Much thanks to wolfprint and zeusfluff, for their reviews, which got the first half of this chapter written. (The other half was completed much later as a result of my time-managing incompetence.) Thank you, readers, if you have stuck with this story. One note: statistics show that reviews resut in faster updates.