The sun seemed to melt right into the ground as it set against the desert sky. Then, of course, everything out here seemed to melt. Janet sighed and stared at the giant, gray sagebrush as the wagon scraped by its gnarled and dry branches. The brush was taller than the side of the wagon, making Janet and her twin brother, Jonas, often jump back in retreat from the scratchy invaders. Janet sighed again.
“What’s wrong?” asked Jonas, ducking to miss another tall branch.
“Everything,” answered Janet. She gathered her skirts around her ankles and sat back against the mound of cloth-covered trunks behind her in the wagon.
“What do you mean everything?” Jonas asked, mocking
his sister’s depressed tone. “Aren’t you excited that we are going to live in a real fort?”
“An abandoned fort. It’s just a regular trading post now,” Janet responded.
“Yes, but it still looks like a fort,” Jonas defended. “Besides, it’ll be good for us--better than our old house.”
“Will not!” Janet said angrily.
“Will so! Besides, you aren’t being fair to Pa,” Jonas pointed out, motioning to the front of the wagon where their parents were quietly guiding the bouncing wagon along its way.
With the mention of her father, Janet grew quiet. Jonas crossed his arms in a defiant sign of victory. For the next twenty minutes, the only sounds heard were the creaks of the wagon, as it labored along the old trail, and the snaps of the overgrown brush as it gave way.
“I can see it,” Ma said excitedly. Her announcement broke the silence, and the twins jumped up to see their new home. They climbed on top of the mound of belongings in order to see past their parents and toward what lay ahead.
Beyond another mile or two of gray-green sagebrush, a rocky plateau seemed to fill the horizon. A series of flat-topped foothills made a kind of uneven staircase up half the east side of the plateau–then nothing but sheer rock continued the climb to the top.
“Wow,” said Jonas, looking at the immense size of the plateau. “We’re going to live on top of that?”
Ma laughed lightly and shook her head. “No, son. We’re going to live on Thunder Ridge. That’s one of the steps there on the side that looks like a staircase,” she explained, pointing out the rocky level about three steps up from the ground.
“That’s where they originally built the fort several years ago. It was very strategic because it is protected by the steep sides around it.”
The twins squinted to see where their mother was pointing. As the wagon made its way closer, they began to make out the silhouette of the walls, flags, and guard posts that sat snugly on the ridge.
"This is going to be so great!” Jonas said, his smile lighting up his dusty and dirty face. Janet merely smirked and strained her eyes again to see their destination.
“It looks small,” she said.
“Well, only about ten or so families live there. Isn’t that right, Jacob?” Ma asked, turning to her husband.
“Eleven,” he gruffly answered, keeping his eyes steady on the trail and his hands tightly wrapped around the reins.
“That’s too small,” Janet said, wrinkling her forehead in frustration.
“Too small?” exclaimed Jonas with an amazed look on his face. “We were the only ones for miles on the ranch. And even when we went to school or church, there were only five other families who came. How can eleven families be too small?”
“Leave your sister be, Jonas. She’s got to work through things in her own way,” Ma said, giving Janet an encouraging yet firm look.
Jonas sat back down and stared intently at his sister. He didn’t understand where all her anger and bitterness was coming from, but he did know that it was annoying him.
“I think you are just plain scared,” he finally said, after analyzing the entire situation.
“Scared? Scared of what?” Janet asked defiantly.
“We’ve lived on the ranch for as long as either of us can remember, and now we are moving some where new. Admit it, you are scared crazy,” Jonas said with great emphasis on the word crazy. He felt rather proud he had figured out his sister.
“Oh, please,” Janet responded in a casual but somewhat unsure voice. “You know that nothing scares me. You’re the one who always runs away from trouble, and I’m the one who stays and handles things. Always has been that way.”
“Oh, ya! Name one time,” Jonas challenged, waving his finger in her face.
“What about when Pa had his accident?” Janet sneered.
The reminder of that event quieted Jonas and put an uncomfortable feeling into the air around the twins. The wagon continued its bumpy journey, and Thunder Ridge grew ever closer as Jonas finally hung his head and turned away from his sister.
Janet’s feeling of triumph over her brother’s argument wasn’t as comforting as she had hoped. Jonas had his arms wrapped around his legs, which were bent up under him, and his chin rested slightly on his knees. As Jonas rocked back and forth with the wagon, Janet’s triumph turned to shame and regret for bringing up such a painful memory.
“I’m sorry, Jonas,” she whispered, leaning close to his ear. Jonas swatted her away and merely looked out into the sagebrush.
Several minutes passed by in silence until, once again, Ma’s voice broke through the air.
“Children, look! We’re here,” she said, sounding tired but relieved.
Jonas and Janet turned around and, right in front of the horses, they saw a dirt road leading up three rather steep hills, that eventually ended at the walls of the fort.
“Everyone will need to help,” Pa said as he handed the reins to his wife. He jumped down from the wagon and dusted himself off a little. Ma motioned for the twins to do the same.
Once on the ground, they took their places on either side of the wagon. They had been up enough steep hills in this old wagon to know what was expected of them. Pa went to the back and placed his hands on the wagon. With everyone in place, Ma shook the reins.
“Git, you two,” she commanded the horses. Pa pushed at the back, and the twins watched for any large rocks or other debris that might get in the way of the wheels. They were also ready to give the wheels a shove if they got stuck in a rut. Steadily the wagon climbed up the hill. The going was slow but surprisingly smooth. They reached level ground, but it was only temporary. It was the first step in the foothills. They had two more to go. Again they headed up, and soon they reached another level area. This time, they stopped to allow both Pa and the horses a short rest.
As they stood waiting, Jonas looked past an outcrop of rocks and saw what looked like cabins around the outer edge of the step. He hadn’t noticed the little structures as they were coming up the hill and realized they were almost perfectly hidden behind the natural rock formations.
“What’s that?” he asked, pointing in the direction of the huts. “Is that part of the fort?”
Everyone looked to the small opening and beyond to the small village.
“I don’t know, Jonas,” answered Pa. “Maybe it’s a... “
Pa stopped mid-sentence and then stood up straight and rigid.
“Let’s go,” he quickly said, pushing at the wagon. “Now!”
Ma urged the horses on, and the twins again took their positions. They all knew better than to ask what was wrong with Pa pushing as hard as he was. He would tell them in time. They reached the last of the steps and pulled up at the gate of the fort. Ma looked back at her husband with a questioning look but said nothing as he climbed back into the seat, and the twins jumped back into the wagon. With everyone in place, they entered Thunder Ridge Fort.
The walls were mostly stone and mortar with some wooden posts every couple of feet to add to its strength. The entrance was a small opening in the wall with a huge double gate. As they entered the courtyard, Pa stopped the wagon, and they all looked around.
The fort was a lot bigger than it had looked from far away. At the opposite end stood a large white building that looked like a church. Along both sides of the walls, which led to the church, there stood about six or seven two-story buildings. The town was tightly built, but safe-looking, within the high walls, and was overshadowed by the towering ridge of stone behind the church.
“Where are the houses?” Janet asked in a hushed voice. The fort’s setup looked constrictive and unsettling. She didn’t like the idea of living behind high walls.
“These are the houses,” answered Pa. “Store fronts, or what have ya, on the bottom, and people who run them live on the top floor.”
As Pa talked, the twins noticed they were being looked at by several curious faces looking out from behind windows all around them.
“People are staring at us,” Jonas told his parents.
"Well, hello and welcome to Thunder Ridge!” a loud but friendly voice boomed from the closest building, and several people came pouring out of the door of the General Store and walked toward the wagon.
“Thank you,” Pa answered back, slightly tipping his hat. “I’m Jacob Johansen, and this is my wife Crystal, my boy Jonas, and my daughter Janet.”
As Pa pointed out the members of the family, each one in the small crowd nodded a friendly hello.
“We’re looking for Bishop Stewart,” Pa continued. “Bishop Barker from Hollow Creek told us we’d find him here.”
“And that old rascal was right!” the man with the booming voice answered with a large smile. “And here I am! We’ve all been waiting for you to come.”
With that, Pa got down off the wagon to shake hands with the Bishop. The twins looked him over while they chatted. He was a rather big man with a bald head and a crooked smile. He seemed loud and boisterous, too.
“He’s the bishop?” Janet quietly asked her mother.
“Hush now, child. Judging one from the outside shows no character,” she reminded her daughter. Just then Ma felt a gentle tug at her skirts.
“Hello, I’m Sister Anton. We’re oh so glad you made it safe and sound.” The welcome came from a tiny woman who was bent over and was leaning on a cane for her support.
“Why, thank you, Sister Anton,” Ma responded, smiling at the five or so women who all stood around the old woman.
“You’ll be coming to our home for dinner tonight,” one of the other ladies said. “I’m Sister Stewart, the Bishop’s wife, and we’re excited to show you around the fort and your new home.”
Ma started to respond, but then Pa climbed up next to her and nodded a hello to the group of women on the other side of the wagon.
“Good afternoon, sisters,” he said. Then turning to Ma, he motioned to the far right of the fort. “The Bishop says that’s our place right over there. We better get over there and get settled in before dark.”
As Ma talked a bit more to the group of ladies, the twins looked over at their new home. It was a two-story wooden building, just like all the other ones in the fort, but it looked a little more run down and in need of a paint job. The sign that hung on the outside of the building said “Gunsmith.”
Pa headed the wagon over to their home, and hitched the horses to the rail in front of the board sidewalk that ran along the front of the building.
“So this is it,” Janet mumbled as she glared at the windows on the second floor. Jonas had already made his way to the door and was peering inside before Janet got down from the wagon. Janet kicked at the dust-covered ground as she walked up to her brother. The Bishop was standing inside, with their parents, as both of the twins stepped through the door.
“We cleaned it as best we could the last day or so since we got Bishop Barker’s note. It still needs some paint and loving care, but I’m sure you’ll find plenty of hands to help you,” the Bishop said in his loud voice.
“Thank you, Bishop,” Ma said, looking around at the tiny but clean room. “You and everyone here have been so kind to agree to this arrangement.”
“Nothing kind about it, Sister Johansen,” the Bishop responded with a twinkle in his eyes. “It was pure selfishness that drove us to the decision. Our gunsmith moved on months ago, and we are in need of another one, and the extra help you’ve agreed to give me in the store is mighty welcome as well.”
“We’ll move our things in and get settled now, Bishop,” Pa said, moving towards the doorway.
“I’ll alert the men to help you bring in your things,” the Bishop said. He was following Pa out the door when Pa turned and quietly looked at the Bishop for a moment with a stern face.
“I know Bishop Barker told you about my accident and my legs not being so good any more, but I ain’t helpless, and I can move my own things, thank you.”
The tone and intensity in Pa’s voice made even the boisterous Bishop back away a bit. He stared at Pa for a moment and then nodded.
“I understand, Jacob,” he calmly said. “But you let me know if we are needed. No shame in that.” He smiled at Ma and the twins. “Maggie will be expecting you for dinner this evening. Come when you are able.”
With that, he turned and left. Ma gave her husband a displeased look but said nothing about the conversation. Instead, she motioned for Jonas and Janet to follow her. They took a quick tour of the house while Pa went out and started to unload the wagon.
On the bottom floor there was a small front room that had various benches and tools scattered around. The small bellows and fire pit in the corner made it clear that this was the working room and storefront for Pa.
They went through a door to the back of the house and found a kitchen and eating area. There was a small table and a set of four chairs already there, and behind them was a door that led to the tiniest backyard they had ever seen.
“I don’t think we could all even fit back there,” Janet complained. The yard was nothing more than a few feet of dirt and weeds, with an outhouse standing against the fort wall that towered so high over the house that its shadow blanketed the yard.
“It will do for our needs,” Ma said. Closing the back door, she went to the staircase that led up from the kitchen to the top floor. As she continued her tour, the twins followed her.
Upstairs they found three small bedrooms, one in the front of the house and two smaller ones in the back.
“I get the one by the stairs,” Jonas quickly said, noticing that the view from the other room only overlooked the outhouse. Janet shrugged and looked around her very small room.
“Welcome to Thunder Ridge,” she whispered bitterly.