The next morning, we loaded up, hooked up, and set out once more on the road to Oregon. By then, the ground was dry and the wheel ruts were worn down some by the wagons that had gone before us. That meant a return to the problem of choking dust, especially for those of us in the last wagon. Having long hair in those circumstances was a bother and even pinned on top of my head, it always seemed to be falling down and in need of more pins – which I didn’t have.
The Platte River was unlike any river I had ever seen. Instead of being one wide river, the water splintered into several creeks that ran alongside, repeatedly flowed back into the main body, and then splintered again. As spread out as it was, the river was four times wider than the Missouri, yet it was shallow enough to see the rocks on the bottom. At least on this day it wasn’t black or even brown. It was clear, yet we had been warned and I wasn’t willing to trust drinking it.
Our animals, on the other hand, were happy to drink their fill each time we stopped.
We had not been on the road long when we came to a settlement which consisted of only seven cabins, spread out enough to make it clear some were attempting to farm the land. The gold seeker wagons were out of sight, and I could think of no reason to stop, but Mr. Finley spotted a sign on what appeared to be a small mercantile. It boasted of having the first telegraph machine west of Omaha. With so many delays, I feared we would not make it to Grand Island before the larger wagon train arrived from Missouri. Nevertheless, we stopped, we watched the Finley and Johnson families go into the cabin, and waited for their return.
“They’re homesteaders,” Mrs. Johnson announced when she came back. “It’s fine Nebraska land, close to the Elkhorn river that can supply all the fresh water a farmer could ever need.” She sighed and aimlessly stared across the Platte River.
“Does Mr. Johnson think of homesteading in Nebraska.”
“No, but I have my hopes that something somewhere along the way will entice him. If only Mr. Grays’ letter had not made Oregon sound so glorious. If I could, I would spit right in Mr. Grays’ face.”
“So would I.”
Mrs. Johnson’s eyes widened. “You would?”
“I would. So far, Nebraska looks just like Iowa, and I expect Oregon to be the same. Land is land, some good and some bad. This land looks just as good as any other I’ve seen so far.” I spoke a little too loudly, and just then noticed the look of disapproval on Asbury’s face.
Asbury insisted, “Oregon will be glorious. The letter said it is green and fertile land, with plenty of fresh water and it’s near an ocean which I intend to see.”
There was no point in arguing with him, and hoping to avoid witnessing a disagreement, Mrs. Johnson hurried back to her wagon. There wasn’t time to argue anyway, as the Finley wagon had already begun to leave.
I quickly checked to make certain the girls were safely seated in the back of the wagon, and then stopped as it pulled away, resigning myself to another day of walking as far behind the dust as possible.
I was wrong about Nebraska. In the distance, there were hills taller than any I’d seen on the plains in Iowa. The weather was the perfect temperature, flocks of birds landed and then took flight, and I saw a buffalo. I imagined the rest of the herd was not far from us. By the way the men and older boys kept watching the hills, I suspected someone at the settlement mentioned Indians.
His rifle in hand, Emery untied the horse from the back of the wagon, mounted it and took up a position between our wagon and the hills. The ruts in the road made it a bumpy ride for my sisters, but it was better than letting them walk now that we were in Indian territory.
The next two nights, we kept going until it was nearly sundown, hoping to make it to Grand Island in time. I milked the cow, made dinner, put pinto beans in a bucket to soak, covered it, and hooked the pail to the bottom of the wagon. I made beds inside and outside the wagon for everyone.
In the last rays of sundown, I was about to slip into my bed on the ground next to my sleeping brothers, when I spotted a white horse standing not far from where our animals were grazing. Mesmerized by the horse’s beauty, I wrapped my shawl around my shoulders, and slowly and quietly walked toward it. When the horse turned its head and looked at me, it had red and blue markings on its neck and jaws.
My heart stopped. They were definitely the kind of Indian markings I’d seen as a child in Iowa, before the Indians were moved off the nearby lands. I slowly turned all the way around and carefully examined my surroundings. I didn’t see anyone or anything that didn’t belong. Cautiously I continued my approach. It was then that I heard a child moan. In the bushes not far from the horse lay an Indian boy who looked to be about the same age as Mary Louise. He wore leather pants, no shirt and by the way he was holding his arm, it was apparent he was in pain.
When he saw me, his terrified eyes widened. Afraid he might call out and alert the others, I put a finger to my lips to silence him. To let him know I wasn’t going to hurt him, I knelt down and lightly touched his arm and said, “Owee?” I smiled when he wrinkled his brow. Next, I tried touching higher up on the arm he was holding. When he jerked it away, he winced and again moaned. That’s when I saw it – there was a lump on his left collarbone.
He definitely needed more help than I could give him, so I took off my shawl and laid it on his chest. “I don’t suppose you can tell me where you live,” I softly said, as I put my arms around him and raised the boy to a sitting position. “No, probably not. Is that your horse?” I asked as I made a sling for his arm and tightly tied the ends of my shawl around his neck. “Well, let’s see if I can get you on the horse.” He had no idea what I was saying, but he didn’t seem frightened of me.
“Ready?” I asked as I stood up and went around behind him. With my arms around his waist, I pulled him up. He was heavier than Mary Louise, but as soon as I got him high enough, he managed to loop one leg over and straddle the horse. Even then, I held on to him until I was certain he had his balance and a firm grip on the horse’s mane with his good hand. It was too dark by then to see if he smiled or nodded. The last I saw of him, his horse made it up a hill and disappeared down the other side.
I sighed. “I hope he doesn’t fall off again.”
“Haden, where are you?” I heard Emery shout.
It was morning again. Asbury and Emery were still sound asleep when I pushed my blanket aside and sat up. To my amazement, my neatly folded shawl lay at my feet.
I quickly glanced around expecting to see an entire tribe of Indians, but no one was there.
On my shawl lay a beautiful necklace made of white beads and small white animal bones. Never had I seen anything so beautiful. Without thinking, I put it on, and tied the strings around my neck. It was when I walked around the back of our wagon that I saw him. On the top of the hill, an Indian sat on that same white horse. It wasn’t the boy, but the man who I supposed had brought my shawl back. I smiled, touched the necklace with my fingertips and nodded. At length, he returned my nod and then he too rode down the other side of the hill.
“What was that all about,” Asbury asked, suddenly standing beside me.
Putting on the necklace was a mistake I was beginning to wish I’d hadn’t made. I went about my morning chores as usual as I explained. “Last night I saw the most beautiful white horse I’d ever seen. It was just standing there, so I went to see if I could catch it. Beside the horse was a little boy, he’d fallen off and hurt himself. So I helped him get back on the horse.”
“An Indian boy?”
“Yes. I think he broke his collarbone.” I turned and showed Asbury the necklace. “For saving him, the father, I think it was his father, gave me this necklace. It was laying on my shawl when I woke up.
“You mean an Indian came that close to us?”
I shrugged. “I suppose he must have.”
Asbury was more than a little upset. “Haden, you need to tell me before you save little Indian boys. It’s too dangerous! Suppose his father thought you were going to kill him?”
I stood my ground. “If his father had been there, the boy wouldn’t have needed my help.”
Asbury glared at me. “Promise you won’t do that again. Promise and mean it!”
“Okay, I’ll be more careful next time.”
“There better not be a next time! Think of the girls. You might have put them in danger.”
I dropped my defiant expression. “You’re right and I’m sorry.”
Asbury went to round up the oxen, and I went to milk the cow.
Unfortunately, Cory Finley heard the whole thing and went to tell the others. By the time I returned with a bucket of milk, everyone had gathered beside our wagon, and none of them looked very happy. I frowned at Cory for telling on me, and then answered all questions,
“You are a very foolish girl!” Mrs. Johnson spat through gritted teeth. “I knew you and your family would be trouble sooner or later. You might have gotten us all murdered!”
I blinked several times, reeling from her scolding, and then scratched the side of my neck. I didn’t feel foolish.
It turned out that Cory was the only one on my side. “I think you’re very brave,” he said, intentionally waiting until all the others had gone back to their chores.
It wasn’t much of a victory. “Thank you,” I managed to mutter. Even so I remembered Asbury’s warning and tried not to encourage Cory’s attentions.
That same day, we met the first Pony Express Rider we’d seen since leaving Kanesville. This time, instead of riding past, he stopped and quickly dismounted near the Finley wagon.
“There’s trouble ahead!” I heard him shout.
“Haden, stay with the children!” Asbury ordered as he and Emery hurried up the road to see what was happening,
I did as he said and watched the men gather in front of the Finley wagon. The Express rider lowered his voice so much that I couldn’t hear what he said, and at length, he got back on his horse and swiftly rode past me.
Asbury looked annoyed when he and Emery returned. “Five men dead,” he reported.
“Indians?” I asked.
“No, more likely the gold seekers. The express rider doesn’t know what happened, but five men lay dead beside the road just a mile or two from here.”
“Are the gold seekers still there?” I asked.
Asbury shook his head. “The rider said he passed by them, but sister, they didn’t bother to bury their dead.” He leaned close and whispered in my ear, “The wolves have gotten to the bodies.”
My jaw dropped, “Oh, no,” I moaned. “We can’t let the girls see that. What does Mr. Finley say we should do?”
Asbury turned his gaze downward. “We thought the gold seekers were a good two days ahead of us, but the express rider says they’re only half a day. Mr. Johnson thinks we should bury the dead and let the gold seekers get further ahead of us, but Mr. Finley says we need to keep going. He reminded us that we agreed to leave the decisions up to him. Mr. Johnson isn’t happy, but …”
Still horrified, I asked, “So we are to drive right past them?”
Asbury didn’t answer. He went to the side of our wagon and grabbed his poking stick. “When Cory comes to tell us we’re getting close, get in the wagon with the girls. Emery, I’m sorry but we need you to watch for Indians, so …”
“I’ll be alright,” Emery assured his brother. He got back on his horse and went to do what had become his appointed daily chore – protecting us.
“Come up!” Asbury shouted, poking the nearest oxen with his poking stick.
Asbury didn’t have to convince me not to look, nor did I wait for Cory to give the word. I got in the back of the wagon with the girls, and tightly closed the canvas. Harriet laid down in her bed and fell asleep. Thankfully, her time of rocking herself to sleep had, for some reason, come to an end. Mary Louise heard just enough to know what was happening, cuddled close to me, and had enough questions to keep me busy answering them until we were well past the dreadful sight. It was good to have time alone with Mary Louise, and I wanted to stay, but my weight added to the burden of our oxen, and we needed them to last for at least two or three more months.
We were exhausted, dirty and most of us didn’t have much to say to each other in the days it took us to get closer to Grand Island. That was fine with me. The less I saw of Mrs. Johnson the better. After so many wagons had gone before us, firewood was very difficult to find and normally took us the better part of the evening to find barely enough. We gathered what we could find along the way, which helped some. At least we had enough food, just not always a way to cook it.
Evidence of those who had gone before us seemed to be everywhere. There were burned out campfires and antelope or deer carcass thoughtlessly left in the grasslands attracting hordes of swarming flies. They might have shoveled dirt on the carcasses, but apparently no one considered those of us who would come after them. It took time just to get the flies out of our wagon.
More often than before, Mary Louise left Harriett in the wagon to play with her dolls, and walk beside me. She was becoming quite the chatterbox, constantly asking questions and being slightly annoyed when I didn’t know the answers. She asked about momma, papa and if I thought the cat had made it home safe. I assured her I thought it had. Once, she spotted a rabbit and tried unsuccessfully to catch it. When she was about to pounce and the rabbit outsmarted her, she roared with laughter. Harriet wanted out of the wagon, tried to help, added her laughter, and soon Emery got in on the fun. It did my heart good to hear their laughter.
On a day when the sun was high in the sky and we had stopped to have something to eat, Mary Louise excitedly pointed and shouted, “Look!” Behind us was a rising cloud of dust. Was it Indians or a buffalo stampede? There was no way to know. However, the amount of dust implied it was more than just a lone rider or even a stagecoach. Asbury shouted to the others, and faster than I imagined possible, all the men including Asbury and Emery armed themselves. Cory and Mr. Johnson came to stand with Emery and Asbury, while Mrs. Johnson and the Finleys got their children inside the wagons and also armed themselves.
I got momma’s pistol out of the clothing box, and was prepared to get inside our wagon with the girls as soon as we could see who or what it was.
After that, there was nothing we could do but wait.
Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7
Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 coming soon.
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