Only in Kirsten's Promise
Kirsten is walking to school on a chilly October day when she tries to get Caro to stop following her, but he wouldn't go back to the cabin. Caro cocked his head, hearing something Kirsten couldn't, and ran down the wooded hill beside the road, barking excitedly. Kirsten heard another dog begin to growl and bark and Kirsten, fearing a dog fight was going to take place, ran after Caro.At the bottom of the hill was a clearing where Kirsten saw a large black dog crouching on a pile of rocks, a canvas-covered wagon tipped over to its side, and a small boy holding a rifle straight at Caro. The boy yells at Kirsten to get her dog away, and she pulls Caro back. The black dog growled, but he didn't leave the pile of stones. Kirsten looked over the wagon and saw a spotted horse grazing in the distance. Boxes and various items from the wagon were strewn around the ground next to a split wagon wheel.
Kirsten comments that it looks like the wheel broke, but the boy dismisses it. The boy wasn't much bigger then Peter, and Kirsten felt more curious then scared of him. Kirsten asks where he's from. The boy said they both came from up north, and Kirsten looked around to see if there was anyone else. Kirsten asks who else was with him and the boy says his mother was. Kirsten asks if his mama had gone to get help, but the boy says it was none of Kirsten's business and to continue to wherever she was going.
Kirsten was too curious to turn away, and she explains she was going to school. She again asks where the boy and his mother were going. The boy says they were going to California to join his father. Kirsten warns that they shouldn't travel west during the winter as snowdrifts would close all the roads in the mountains. The boy shouts that he already knew that. Their plan was to stay with friends in Red Wing for the winter and then join a wagon train downriver when spring arrived. They would be at Red Wing by now if their wagon wheel hadn't broke.
The boy claims this was all he would say, but Kirsten urges him to tell her his name and introduces herself to him. The boy says his name was Ezra and tells her again to leave. Kirsten wants to help, however, and she tells Ezra her Papa would be glad to fix the wagon wheel. Ezra and his mother could stay at their cabin while he worked, and she offers to go get him. Ezra gets angry and yells for Kirsten to leave him alone. He raises his rifle and the black dog growls again in response.
He states they weren't going anywhere, and Kristen had to promise not to tell anyone they were here. He points the rifle at Kirsten, hissing to her to promise or else he'd "fix her." Kirsten felt frightened and wasn't sure what he meant by "fixing" her. Ezra repeats himself, and Kirsten says, "I promise" because she doesn't know if Ezra would actually try to shoot her. She Caro run back to the road.At school, Kirsten couldn't get her mind off Ezra, and she worried about his situation. Kirsten wondered where his mother had gone and why Ezra didn't want Papa's help or want anyone to know they were there. The promise felt like a weight in Kirsten's chest, and after school she looked for her older brother Lars for advice.
Kirsten reminded Lars of when he carved a little deer for Mama and made her promise not to tell about it. Lars remembers, saying that Kirsten had kept her promise and Mama was very surprised by it. Kirsten asks if someone told him a secret and he promised not to tell, would he ever break that promise? Lars immediately says he never would. Kirsten persists, asking if he couldn't think of a single thing that would make him break it. Lars stopped working and thought carefully. He said if Peter had made him promise not to tell he was doing something really dangerous and he might be hurt or killed because Lars kept his promise, then he would tell. A person's life was more important then a promise.
Kirsten asks if he had ever been asked to keep that sort of promise, but Lars says he's never been asked to make a promise he couldn't keep. He asks Kirsten if she kept her promises and Kirsten hesitantly says she kept them. Lars smiles, reminding her how Papa says no one would trust them if they weren't as good as their word, and he returns to work.
The next morning, Kirsten shut Caro in the barn before going on her way to school. Curious to see if Ezra's wagon got fixed, Kirsten crept down to the clearing. Everything was just as before, and the dog on the stones quickly noticed Kirsten and began to bark. Ezra stumbled out from under the canvas with his rifle, asking who was there. Kirsten quickly showed herself, not feeling afraid of him after seeing how thin, tired, and scared he looked. Ezra sighs and sets down his rifle, spitting something he had been chewing on the ground.
Kristen explains she wanted to see if he had gone on his way, and she asks what he was chewing on. Ezra explains he was trying to eat dried beans, but it was like eating gravel. Kirsten takes out her lunch tin and gave Ezra some bread and pork, which he took without hesitation and ate quickly. Kristen held out a scrap of pork fat to the dog and it sniffed hungrily, but it crouched down on the stones instead of coming forward and Ezra walked over to give it the scrap.Kirsten notes Ezra's mama hadn't come back, but Ezra simply glares at her. For the first time, Kirsten, noticed the streaks of white on his dirty cheeks and wonders if he had been crying. Kirsten urges him to come with her to her cabin and stay until his mama returned, but Ezra says he wouldn't leave. Kirsten keeps insisting, saying they could come back as often as he wanted to see if his mama returned and assured him no one would steal their belongings. Ezra clenched his fists, saying his ma had told him "don't leave." Kirsten suggests when his ma said that, she didn't know how long she'd be gone, but Ezra hugs himself, shivers, and says that she knew.
Kirsten's heart beat faster as she realized something terrible must have happened for his mother to leave him behind like this. Fearing that Ezra's mama is lost or injured, she asks if she should get everyone to search for her, but Ezra shakes his head violently. Kirsten exclaims that she could be in trouble and they could save her, but Ezra says it was too late. Kirsten fearfully asks what he meant, begging him to tell her.
Ezra explains that Kirsten already knew that their wagon crashed over. When it happened, one of the trunks fell on his ma and crushed her chest. She grabbed Ezra's hand, telling him "Don't leave," and he promised he wouldn't leave her. Ezra began to tear up, saying that his ma died and he buried her, nodding to the pile of stones the dog sat on. Kirsten reached out to Ezra's shoulder, but he jerked away. Ezra says his last words to his ma was that he wouldn't leave, and he wouldn't break his promise, no matter what.
Kirsten felt terrible for the boy and knowing that he was left completely alone, she pleads for him to come home with her. Ezra refuses, but Kirsten explains that Papa had seen a haze around the moon, a dog moon, meaning that a bitter cold was coming and Ezra would freeze out in the open like this. Ezra folded his arms, saying he was going to stick to his promise and Kirsten better stick to hers. He tells Kristen to leave him alone as he crawled back under the wagon top.
Kirsten returned to the road, but paused, thinking hard. Ezra could die of cold or wolves could get to him. Ezra needed help and she was the only one who knew he was there. Kirsten had promised not to tell, but this looked like a time when a person was more important then a promise. Kirsten turned back home to get Papa instaed of going to school.
In a short while, Papa walked ahead of Kirsten into the clearing, and the dog barked fiercely and Ezra came out with his rifle. Papa held up his hands, telling Ezra it was okay, that he just came by to have a chat. Ezra looked at Kirsten angrily, saying she had broken her promise, but Kirsten urges him to just let Papa talk to him for a minute. Ezra lowered his rifle and let Papa talk, but he looked stubborn.
Papa got close to Ezra and crouched down to his eye level. He tells Ezra he was a very brave boy and not many others would be able to do what he had done for his Mama. Papa says when Ezra gets to California, his papa was going to tell him how proud he was. Ezra says if Kirsten had told him he was going to California, she was wrong. Papa says he knew Ezra was brave enough to stay here, but he didn't think that's what his mama was asking him to do. He thinks she was asking him to stay until he had done all he could for her, and Ezra had done all anyone could do. The only thing left was to make a marker for the grave, something Papa could help him with, and then Papa could take him to Red Wing. Ezra shook his head, but Papa insists his mama would have wanted him to go to his friends at Red Wing.
Kirsten could see that Ezra might cry again, and he was desperate not to. Ezra asks if Papa was sure that's what his ma would want, and Papa say she was sure she'd want him to join his papa. He offers to hitch up their wagon and get his belongings, but Ezra says she was worried about his dog, Pal. He explains the dog was guarding ma and refused to leave her grave, but he couldn't go on without him. Kirsten grabbed a dress from one of the smashed trunks, suggesting if the dog smelt his mother's clothes, he'd follow the scent.Ezra was doubtful, but he put the dress by the dog's nose. The dog whined and wagged his tail. Ezra hugged his dog, softly telling him he's done all he could for ma, but they've got to go on their way. The dog followed Ezra, stepping off the grave, and the two walk up to Papa and Kirsten. Papa picked up Ezra's rifle and put a hand on the boy's shoulder, saying they needed to get him some warm food and get his horse fed. Ezra asks if they could feed his dog too, explaining he had hardly eaten anything for days. Kirsten assures him they would give their dog a very good meal.
Kirsten's chest felt light with relief. She mentions that she's never seen a dog as loyal as Ezra's dog, and Papa agrees, adding he's never known a boy so young to have such a strong heart. As they started for home, Papa squeezed Kirsten's shoulder, adding that he's never known a girl to make a better choice then Kirsten did today.
Meet the Author
Janet Shaw talks about visiting a pioneer village museum as a young girl and wondering how wagons so small carried settlers and all their belongings to the West.
Looking Back: Wagon Trains in 1854
Discusses wagon train life during the 1850s and the Oregon Trail. Topics covered:
- Wagon trains, or a long line of covered wagons that traveled together for protection
- What settler children saw and ate while they traveled in a wagon
- Wagon train corrals, food, and storytelling
- Challenges of preparing and storing food for six months
- Physical labor required of children on a wagon train
- Chores and responsibilities for girls and boys and how children made games out of them
- Activities children did for fun, such as singing, making up stories, and making flower crowns
- Native American interactions with settlers in the 1850s and 1860s and how they changed
- Illnesses, accidents, and deaths of children and adults
Activity: Make a Flower Crown
Learn how to make a crown of fresh flowers.