When we reached the next creek, Mr. Finley stopped us for the night so we could water the livestock and let them graze. Any excuse to stop was always welcomed. Cory whistled and pointed, turning all our attention to a small dust cloud in the distance. “Company coming!” he shouted.
I helped the girls out of the wagon and sent them and Emery off to gather wood for our fire, while I began to prepare a meal. Yet, I couldn’t help keeping an eye on the dust cloud. It was definitely coming our way and soon, two teams of mules pulled a covered wagon to the top of a hill and started down. Behind it was a horse-drawn wagon that at first appeared to be empty. I soon realized it was not empty, but held two wooden coffins. The wagons stopped on the other side of the creek to let their teams drink, and then crossed the water.
Instead of passing, the driver of the covered wagon stopped to talk to Mr. Finley. Although I couldn’t hear what was said, I could tell by the way Mr. Finley nodded that he had agreed to something on our behalf. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Finley motioned for myself and Mrs. Johnson to come to him. At the back of the stranger’s covered wagon, three children peeked out. The closer I got, the worse for wear these poor travelers appeared. Their mules looked tired and worn, and their wagon, no doubt once filled to the brim with belongings, was nearly empty.
As soon as Mrs. Johnson and I arrived, Mr. Finley introduced his wife, Mrs. Johnson and me and then explained. “Mr. Gibson’s family has not eaten in two days. He asks not for charity, but to trade for food.” Mr. Finley held out his hand and showed us a small rock that was plain on one side, with specks of gold on the other.
“It’s all we have left to trade,” Mr. Gibson humbly admitted.
I’d never seen gold before, but that wasn’t what held my attention. I saw before me the weather-beaten faces of three hungry children, their clothing filthy, stained, and hanging from bodies that were much too thin. I hadn’t considered sharing our food, but in the Christian way of thinking, I knew it to be the right thing to do. “How much do you need?” I asked.
“We are only a few days from our home in Jefferson County.”
“Jefferson County?” Mrs. Finley sighed. “That’s just north of our home.”
“Where we no longer live,” Mr. Finley reminded her. His wife rolled her eyes and looked away. “Mr. Gibson, ‘tis a fair trade. Have supper with us and we’ll settle up in the morning.”
Mr. Gibson so deeply sighed his relief, that as he climbed out of his wagon, I thought he was about to faint dead away. “Bless you!” He immediately went to the second wagon and helped his wife down. “They agreed.”
I could tell she was struggling to hold back tears, and the thought of our siblings without food tore at my heart.
“Why have you turned back,” Mrs. Johnson asked the Gibsons.
“Let them eat first,” Mr. Finley said.
With everyone helping, we shared our evening meal. Mrs. Finley made flapjacks in the lid of her Dutch Oven, and as soon as the first one was cool enough, she broke it apart and handed a piece to each of the Gibson children. I shared our pot of beans and salt pork, while Mrs. Johnson gave a small sack of dried apples. Mrs. Gibson insisted on helping in every way she could, even though we urged her to sit and rest.
I would have been happy had Mrs. Johnson returned to her weeping. Instead, she had plenty of complaints to recite, and among them was her concern that because the Pemberton children were traveling alone, we would likely be a burden to the rest of them soon enough.
I ignored her and when the meal was finished, helped clean up and put the children to bed. The rest of us gathered around the fire, eagerly waiting to hear why the Gibson family had turned back.
“We left our home because we heard there was gold in the hills of California ripe for the picking,” Mr. Gibson explained, sorrowfully shaking his head. “We were too late. We and several others aimed to take the Mormon cutoff to Californian at Soda Springs. As we rested for the night hoping to get an early start, we encountered several families on their way back. We too hoped to hear what lay ahead. They spoke of a desert with no water for many miles, and once into the mountains, rain and snow made muddy and slick travel over South Pass. More than one wagon slid down a hill, which delayed the rest as they worked to recover the wagon and the family’s spilled belongings.”
Mr. Gibson paused to look Mr. Finley in the eye. “That wasn’t the worst of it. There were Indian attacks, and men killing each other over meager gold strikes, as though life meant nothing at all.” He again hung his head. “Greed does terrible things to a man. We counted ourselves fortunate for having heard the truth and turned back.” Mr. Gibson’s bottom lip began to tremble when he continued, “Tragedy befell us even before we made it back to Independence Rock.”
Mrs. Gibson lovingly put her hand on her husband’s arm. “I’ll tell them.” She waited for his nod before she spoke. “My husband and I were newly married when we set out, with several friends, my father, my younger brothers and sisters, of which there were seven. Sadly, we return with only two brothers and one sister. The black water took father, Lucinda, and Isaac.”
My jaw dropped, “Black water?”
“In the South Platte River,” she answered. “Whatever you do, don’t drink the black water, no matter how thirsty you are. Find a tributary flowing into the North branch of the river, or follow the North Platte until the water clears.”
“Why has it turned black?” Mr. Johnson asked.
Mrs. Gibson glanced at her husband and then shrugged, “Cholera took nearly everyone who drank it.”
Inside, I was screaming – Cholera? We left home to escape cholera, and now we were heading straight for it! I managed to collect my thoughts long enough to say. “I am so sorry for your loss.”
Mr. Gibson nodded his appreciation and then motion toward the second wagon. “Before Jesse, and Albert died of the fever at Fort Laramie, they begged us not to leave them in such a desolate land.”
I could think of nothing more to say. None of us could. After a moment of thoughtful silence, Asbury mercifully changed the subject, “Did you fight Indians?”
Mr. Gibson answered, “Once we decided to turn back, Indian hostilities delayed us for a time at Fort Laramie, but after we came away from the protection of the soldiers, we saw them but they did not threaten us. One morning we awoke to find a team of mules missing, but they were back the next morning.”
“There,” said Mr. Johnson to his worried wife. “Indians aren’t as frightening as you imagine.” Before Mrs. Johnson could argue, he continued, “We can spare enough salt and flour to see you home.”
“Mr. Finley turned to his wife, “Betsy, what can we spare?”
“Well … well …,” she hesitated until she saw the disapproval in her husband’s expression. “Let me think. Oh, I know. We have plenty of cornmeal and I don’t suppose we’ll miss some … a few oats.”
I understood her hesitation for Mrs. Finley had a husband and five growing boys to feed. “We can spare some coffee,” I offered. “Neither Asbury or I care for it anyway.”
“Oh no, my dear,” said Mrs. Gibson. “Coffee is hard to come by on the trail. You must keep what you have to trade.”
“Then,” I asked, “how can we help?”
Mr. Gibson stood up and then helped his wife stand. “You have offered more than we could have hoped for. Thank you.” He started to walk his wife to their wagon, but she stopped, turned around and looked at me. “Can you spare a bit of baking soda? Before we ran out of flour, I made our bread with alkali salts. It tastes awful.”
“Of course,” I sighed, happy for the suggestion. “We have plenty to share.”
Mrs. Gibson paused to think for a moment. “I’ve two spools of thread to trade for the soda. As you will soon see, men are prone to tear their shirt sleeves. There’s money to be made in mending.”
“Really?” I asked, encouraged by the idea.
While Mrs. Gibson returned to their wagon, Mr. Gibson turned to Mr. Finley. “We left logs on this side of the West Nishnabotna River. The water level is still low enough not to drag you downstream. Tying them to the wheels will ease your crossing.”
“And the water level in the East Nishnabotna River?” Mr. Finley asked.
“The lowest I’ve ever seen it. You are well ahead of the spring thaw.”
In her wagon, Mrs. Gibson fussed with something in the back, and then returned with the thread and a small metal box. She followed Asbury and me to our wagon, and as I started to fill the box, she put a hand on my arm. “Just enough for a few days. You’ll need all you have.”
I nodded, added another spoonful, and then closed the lid.
“Where are you going,” she asked.
“Oregon,” Asbury answered.
“You’re not headed for the gold rush in California?”
“No,” he answered.
Mrs. Gibson turned to him and sighed. “Good. While we were not accosted by Indians, it is a constant worry for those going to California. As my husband said, greed turns a good man into one ruthless enough to destroy Indian villages and make Indians work in the mines. Just last year, four tribes banded together and raided the Fresno River Post. Many died on both sides.”
I thanked her for the advice and when she hugged me and then walked away, I fought back tears, having been reminded of how much I missed my mother’s hugs.
At last, it was time to sleep. I was exhausted, but sleep didn’t easily come. My mind imagined starvation, wagons floating downriver, and terrifying Indian attacks. Where was papa? Why hadn’t he caught up? I want to go home! When I looked at the bed roll next to me Asbury was sound asleep. Sutter came to lay beside me, and when he did, Harriett woke up, turned over and began to rock herself back to sleep. I put my hand on her back and she stopped rocking. Dearest, sweet, Harriett? She had even less say in her destiny than me. If she died, would we take her back to be buried in the Pemberton cemetery? I pushed those thoughts away and vowed to talk to Asbury about going back the next morning. Oregon was not our dream – it was papa’s.
The next morning allowed little time to talk to my brother about anything at all. As had become our custom, all the men Asbury included, helped see that the livestock and the first two wagons got across the creek safely. Waiting our turn, I sat with the girls on my horse and respectfully hung my head, as Mrs. Gibson drove the wagon carrying their dead past ours.
“I’ll pray for you!” she shouted.
I watched until the Gibson wagons were out of sight, and then looked once more to see if papa was coming. I saw no sign of a rider or the dust that would have been apparent if one was coming.
For the next two days, one hill looked just like the last, and one creek held more or less water than the one before it. Always vigilant, it was Emery who spotted danger, “Prairie fire!” he shouted, pointing North. In the distance, smoke was billowing high in the sky and appeared to be rapidly spreading eastward away from us. We weren’t strangers to prairie fires, having seen them all our lives, but the men stopped the fires before they reached our farm. To be safe, I helped the girls out of the back of the wagon, in case the Oxen smelled the smoke and started to stampede. A Pony Express Rider passed going in the opposite direction, and hardly noticed us as he kept an eye on the fire.
As soon as the danger was behind us, I put the girls back in the wagon. Harriett was being exceptionally good, playing with her twin dolls, staying in the wagon, and trying not to bother her sister more than was necessary. Both were unusually quiet and so was Emery.
In nearly every valley, there was a bog with dry grass tall enough to hide a ferocious animal, or an Indian. Twice, we lost sight of the sheep in the tall grass, but the dogs managed to herd them onward. The cow was still following Sutter, and Mary Louise was resigned to the idea that momma’s cat had gone home to deliver a new litter of kittens.
It was not until the evening of the second day that I decided to bring up the subject weighing heavily on my mind. I put the children to bed, and then asked Asbury to walk down the road apiece in the light of a full moon. By the age of twelve, Asbury had grown two inches taller than me. Now, I had to look up to see into his eyes. “I want to go home.”
He wrinkled his brow. “To what?”
“To find papa. If he could, he would have caught up by now.”
“He’ll come.” Asbury started to walk back. “We’re tired, we need our rest.”
I grabbed his arm. “We need papa. Suppose he never comes? Asbury, Oregon is papa’s dream, not ours. We have papa’s money and we can start over somewhere.”
“And say what when papa comes and finds we’ve turned back?”
“He’s not coming!” I said more forcefully than I meant to.
“How do you know?”
“I know because he’ll keep looking, but he’ll never find momma.”
My brother stared into my eyes. “You know something – what?”
I thought about mentioning the coins momma gave me, but decided against it. “I was awake when she left. She asked me to try to forgive her, and this morning, I remembered something else.”
“Momma insisted we go to church in Des Moines to say our goodbyes. Afterward, I saw her talking to Mrs. Jannack.”
“She always talks to Mrs. Jannack after church.”
“Yes, but momma wouldn’t have left us without a place to go. Suppose Mrs. Jannack hid momma from papa.”
My brother lowered his gaze and stared at the ground for a long moment. “He’ll find her.”
“And if he can’t?”
“Haden, we can’t go back and start over. Have you forgotten? We can’t build a cabin without wood and there aren’t enough trees in Iowa.”
“Are there trees in the Nebraska Territory?”
He chuckled and headed back. “You’re wrong, sister. Oregon is not just papa’s dream. It’s mine too.”
I watched him walk away and then released a forgotten breath. In all those many months, I never once imagined that!
The days were long, and the nights were short, but we seemed to be adjusting. Occasionally, Asbury would let Emery handle the oxen, which wasn’t a major task since all the oxen did was follow the wagon before them. Still, it made Emery feel important. The next time Mary Louise wanted to walk with me, she finally asked the question I’d been dreading, “Did momma and papa die?”
I stopped, knelt down and wrapped my arms around her. “Oh, sweetheart, no one died that I know of.”
“Then why haven’t they come?”
“I wish I knew. Tell you what, as soon as I can, I’ll send a letter inquiring after them, okay?”
She brightened right up. “Okay!” After that, Mary Louise returned to her old self, being forever annoyed with Harriett.
As we crested the next hill on our way to Oregon, we came upon our first hint that we were not completely alone in that part of Iowa. There was a cabin, a grain field and a grist mill in which to grind the grain. The farmer boasted of good soil, told of other families that would soon settle nearby, and boasted that land could be had for as little as five to ten dollars an acre.
When I turned my hopeful eyes on Asbury, he shook his head. With no need of buying grain or flour from the farmer, we moved on.
Cory Findley was becoming less of a bother than in the beginning, although he did glance back occasionally to make certain we were following. Mrs. Johnson kept to her own sorrows instead of fretting over us, and Mr. Finley often rode on ahead to make certain we faced no unexpected challenges.
We crossed the East Nishnabotna River with no trouble at all, just as Mr. Gibson predicted. As soon as we reached the west branch of the Nishnabotna River, we found the logs, tied them to the wheels of one wagon at a time, and let the oxen pull them across. The men herded the livestock across, and true to my word, Mary Louise and Harriett rode across the river on the horse with me. Our wagons were not carried downstream, no one fell in the river and died, and we had yet to see an Indian, friendly or otherwise.
I began to relax a little.
According to Mr. Finley’s estimate we were halfway to Kanesville. We thought we had progressed quite well, but he said with a road as passible as this, we could do better. Oxen were known to pull a wagon two or even three miles an hour, and the sooner we crossed the Missouri, the better. However, with just a few hours of daylight remaining, Mrs. Finley suggested the men spend the time hunting and fishing, while the women washed clothes. To our delight, Mr. Finley agreed.
Mrs. Johnson found a shallow pool at the river’s edge that was perfect for bathing, and was thrilled to take off her shoes and step in. However, she was soon reminded that the seasons had not yet passed from winter to spring, and she quickly stepped back out. I covered my mouth to hide my amusement.
To my surprise, there actually were trees in Iowa, we just had to find them and what better place to look than near a river. We happily gathered dry wood to build our fires, and strung ropes from tree to tree on which to hang our wet clothing. With Emery guarding us, his back to us naturally, we quickly washed ourselves and the children.
That night, we wore clean clothes and ate our fill of catfish.
Author's note: This is a work in process and subject to change.
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