The Last Wagon, Chapter 7

by Marti Talbott (c) 2021

Author's note: This is a work in process and is subject to change.

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Chapter 7

As we waited to see if we were about to be attacked or run over, I couldn’t help but resent not having papa with us. He would know better what to do since he and several other men fought off an Indian raid in Iowa. Instead, we were completely at a disadvantage. We hadn’t circled the wagons, we hadn’t stacked boxes to hide behind, and the river offered only a few trees. Of course, stacked boxes wouldn’t stop a herd of stampeding buffalo.

As the dust cloud moved closer, Mr. Finley, Cory’s brother, Lucas, and the oldest Johnson boy, Jessie, came to stand and fight with us. None of them seemed to be as terrified as I felt, which made me feel just a bit better.

It was then that we heard gunshots in the distance. With Emery’s help, I got in the wagon with the girls, and pulled the canvas drawstrings, leaving just a slight opening through which I could see, and insert the barrel of momma’s pistol. The sound of gunfire frightened Mary Louise and when she began to whimper, Harriet joined her. I didn’t blame them – I was certain my heart would burst out of my chest at any moment!

Finally, Cory shouted, “Tis the Calvary!”

“The Calvary,” I muttered, at last releasing my deeply held breath.

“What’s a Calvary?” Mary Louise asked, brushing the tears off her cheeks.

“Soldiers.” I answered as I put momma’s pistol back in the box. When I loosened the drawstrings, Emery helped the girls and I out of the wagon. By then, Sutter had left his duty with the sheep and come to beg a drink of water. Several days after we left the Elkhorn River, Harriett decided Sutter could drink from papa’s coffee cup until papa came. No one complained, so I filled it, and to make certain he didn’t knock the precious water over, I held the cup while our beloved dog drank. I smiled when I noticed the cow had followed Sutter to the wagon.

“You’ll have to beg your water from Asbury,” I whispered to the cow.

Just as Cory said, horsemen wearing dark blue uniforms and blue wide-brimmed hats were riding up the road. Except for a lone rider in the front, the men rode two-abreast, and behind them were six mule-drawn wagons. Two of the wagons were covered and four were uncovered, with stacked boxes roped together and several water barrels.

They were nearly upon us when the lone rider in the front held up his hand to stop the troops. His uniform, adorned with brass buttons down the front of his jacket and gold insignia on his sleeve shoulders were quite impressive. His leather boots came up to just below his knees and a long sword in a sheath hung from his gold tassel waist belt. The long cuffs of his white gloves covered nearly half his shirt sleeve, and he wore a well-trimmed graying mustache.

Instead of dismounting, he laid one hand atop his other hand on the horn of his saddle, leaned forward, and glared at Mr. Johnson. “Name’s Colonel Downing of the Fourth Cavalry Division assigned to Fort Kearney. Those your dead back there?”

Just as Mr. Johnson was about to answer, Mr. Finley interrupted, “Nay. There’s a train ahead of us, mostly men, heading for the gold fields in California. Didn’t the express rider tell you?”

The colonel frowned, “We haven’t seen an express rider in two weeks.”

“I wonder what happened to him,” Mr. Johnson muttered.

“Who’s your wagon master?” Colonel Downing wanted to know.

“I am,” Mr. Finley answered.

The Colonel turned his glare on Mr. Finley. “Couldn’t be bother to bury them?”

Mr. Finley stuttered, “Well, I … I mean we…”

“Dirty shame to leave a man to …” The Colonel stopped short remembering there were women and children listening to his every word. “I left a detail behind to bury them.”

“We heard gunfire,” said Mr. Johnson, drawing the officer’s attention away from Mr. Finley. “Indians?”

“No,” Colonel Downing answered, “wolves. Where you folks headed?”

“Oregon. We’re hoping to meet up with a big wagon train at Grand Island,” Mr. Johnson answered. “Have you heard anything about them?”

“Not lately,” the Colonel answered.

Still seated on his horse, Colonel Downing turned his attention to me – looking at me in a way that made me very uncomfortable. Until then, I hadn’t cared what I looked like, and it wasn’t as if I had time to wash up and put on my best dress. The Colonel’s apparent disapproval served to annoy me, and my annoyance soon turned to defiance. “Why do you so rudely stare at me?”

The Colonel sat up straight, slowly surveyed the distant hills, and then returned his attention to me. “You wear a Pawnee necklace. Where did you find it?”

I closed my weary eyes and deeply exhaled. Why, oh why didn’t I take the necklace off? When I opened my eyes, he wasn’t the only one staring at me. Mrs. Johnson’s glare was even more hostile than before.

“I didn’t find it; it was a gift?” I answered.

Just then, Asbury came to stand beside me. “She saved a little Indian boy.”

“I see.” Colonel Downing removed his hat, ran his fingers through his gray hair and then took time to carefully surveyed the prairie and the hills on both sides of the shallow Platte river once more. He put his hat back on and then said, “The Pawnee don’t give their gifts lightly. The boy was probably the chief’s son. Miss…”

“Pemberton,” I answered.

“Miss Pemberton, that was a brave thing you did. By now, all the tribes know of your kindness and that necklace might just save the lives of you and those you love someday.”

I tried not to act too pompous, but when I looked, Mrs. Johnson had turned her eyes downward.

Mr. Finley quickly changed the subject, “How far are we from Grand Island?”

“Oh, about thirty miles, I suspect,” the Colonel answered. He raised his hand, signaled for his men to follow, and nudged the side of his horse with his heels. To avoid the coming dust storm, I took hold of my sister’s hands and walked them into the prairie grass. It wasn’t long until the others in our little wagon train had the same idea. There we were, all sixteen of us with the wind to our backs watching as the Calvary rode past.

More than one handsome man caught my eye, though I tried not to let on. Yet it was the man driving the last team of mules that grabbed all our attention. When he tried to tip his hat to us, the wind ripped it off his head. He jumped off his wagon, chased his hat down the road, and finally grabbed it. By then, he had to run to catch up with the wagon he was supposed to be driving. He hoisted himself up, climbed back on the wagon seat, and just before he reached us, he thought to tip his hat again. He changed his mind, grinned, and saluted us instead.

It made all of us laugh.

We were on our way again when the six-man burial detail caught up with us. They respectfully slowed their horses but they didn’t stop to talk. Most of their expressions were somber, although the last two smiled at me as they rode past, one of which I found particularly handsome. A moment later, the detail sped up and went out of sight. The slight encounter made me think about what Asbury said – ‘many a man will want you but few will be worthy.’ How was I to know if a man was worthy? I made a mental note to ask Asbury the next time we had time to talk


The next morning, dark clouds hid the sun from us and when it began to rain, it didn’t let up for two whole days. I began to envy the sheep and the thick wool that kept the rain from reaching their skin. The leaves on the trees were beginning to sprout, but offered very little shelter. The girls got tired of staying in the wagon, I got tired of wet muddy shoes, and while I would have given up by the end of the first day, Asbury kept us moving.

When we did stop, we set our buckets out, collected rain water, and refilled our barrels. Of course, a hot meal was out of the question and most of what was edible without cooking didn’t look very appealing. By noon of the second day when we stopped to rest, I tugged on Asbury’s arm and made him stop what he was doing and pay attention to me. Water dripped off his hat and he looked as tire as I felt. “I’m worried about Emery.”

“What’s wrong?”

“He’s bone tired. If you tell him, he’ll ride in the wagon with the girls and rest.”

Asbury started to argue, “More weight in the wagon?”

“We can replace the oxen – we can’t replace Emery.”

Asbury slumped. “You’re right. I’ll see that he rests.”

I took advantage by riding our horse while Emery slept. Not even the constant movements and voices of his sisters kept him from sleeping the entire afternoon. Sometime in the night, the rain finally stopped.

At sunrise, we were greeted by a beautiful red and yellow sky and soon the warmth of the day began to dry the road. The animals had strayed in the night, and it took time to get the wagons hooked back up. Following the other two wagons meant deep ruts that increased the burden on our oxen and slowed our travel. There was nothing we could do about that except pray that we would soon reach Grand Island. Mr. Johnson estimated that we had only traveled ten miles in each of the last two days.


It had become Asbury’s habit to let the other two wagons get a good distance ahead of us so we could avoid most of their dust. I was grateful for my brother’s thoughtfulness. However, that meant less communication with the other two families, which bothered me not at all.

It wasn’t until the first two wagons abruptly stopped in the middle of the morning. When we also stopped, we could clearly hear Mr. Finley and Mr. Johnson yelling at each other. Asbury and I exchanged confused glances, helped the girls out of the wagon, and used the time to sit down and rest.

At length, Emery came and slid down off his horse, to tell us what was happening. “Wolves got two sheep.”

I moaned, “Oh no.”

Asbury nodded toward the two shouting men. “Is that what they’re upset about?”

“Mostly. Mr. Finley says two of us should guard the sheep at night. Mr. Johnson says he’s not walking all day and guarding sheep at night. It’s too much to ask of man or boy.”

“He’s right,” said Asbury.

Emery continued, “Mr. Johnson says we’re at least a day behind schedule.”

I sighed. “I didn’t know there was a schedule.”

“Only in Mr. Johnson’s mind,” said Asbury. “I figure we’ll get there when we get there.”

Emery took off his hat, got a kerchief out of his pocket, and wiped the sweat off his brow. “Looks like we’re not going to have much of a spring. We’re going right into summer.” He laid down on the ground, covered his face with his hat, and then crossed his feet at the ankle. He made us laugh. Our little brother was growing up fast. We all were.

When the first two wagons began to move again, Asbury groaned, struggled to get to his feet, and grabbed his poking stick. “Let’s just pray we get to Grand Island a few days ahead of the big wagon train. We all need time to rest.”


Two days later, the hills seemed farther away, the two river branches seemed to have spread farther apart, and tiny streams in the middle crisscrossed several times before flowing into the larger ones. Mr. Finley was right; we should have guarded the sheep at night. In the morning the men discovered that the wolves had gotten to more of the sheep. Wolves – that’s something else the letter that tempted papa to go to Oregon didn’t warn us about.

However, there was a bit of good news. I found two discarded shirts, both dirty and torn, but with enough cloth to begin to make the dolls I promised the girls. That night, I washed them in the river, hung them over a tree limb to dry, and the next morning added them to the clothes box.

I was delighted – until I heard we’d actually lost six sheep. Thankfully, the horse, Sutter and the cow remained untouched, but I wondered just how long that would last. Just how many hungry wolves were there in Nebraska?


At last, we arrived at what had to be Grand Island. Located between two large branches of the Platte, the island and the outer bank of the river was dotted with tall dry grass, although a few tall trees and clumps of bushes thrived a short distance away. When we stopped to make dinner, we unhooked the oxen, and tried not to worry when they headed straight for the brown water in the Platte. Could animals die of cholera? I didn’t know and neither did anyone else in our party.

Among the trees We found enough dry wood to build a respectable fire. For the first time in days, I was able to make bread and a good sized pot of oats smothered in cream and sweetened with sugar. The evening air was warm. The animals had plenty to eat, and it was almost like being at home. Nevertheless, we couldn’t be certain if we had arrived before or after the big wagon train, so Mr. Finley volunteered to ride south and see if he could find them. I worried that we would have one less man to guard the animals and us, from the wolves.

Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. Less than an hour after sunrise, we saw in the distance another cloud of dust, this time coming toward us instead of from behind us. We armed ourselves and put the children in the wagons. By the time we gathered and were prepared to protect ourselves, the first and then the second wagon appeared.

“Someone’s coming back,” Asbury guessed, leaning his rifle against the wagon while he helped the girls down.

“Gold seekers?” I asked, my eyes held to the approaching wagons. Mary Louise pushed her way through the others so she could get in front and see, while Harriet stayed close to me.

“I hope not,” Mr. Johnson answered. “We don’t need their kind of trouble.”

As they drew near, the Finleys and the Johnson’s returned to their wagons. I was even more relieved when a woman raised her hand and waved. Eager to have some friendly conversation with someone other than Mrs. Finley and Mrs. Johnson. I hoped they would stop to talk, but the first wagon passed right by the Finleys, then the Johnson and were about to pass our wagon. When the first one did, the woman on the other side of the wagon who had waved, stopped. She waited for the second wagon to pass, and then she and a second woman came to talk to me.

“Happy Sunday,” she said. “We’ve been looking for an excuse to take a day of rest, and Sunday is as good an excuse as any!”

I wrinkled my brow. “It’s Sunday? I was certain it was Wednesday.”

“Sunday, Wednesday, what difference does it make out here?” She leaned forward and gave me a quick hug. “I’m Mrs. Madeline Aldrich, but please call me Madeline. What’s your name?”

“I’m Haden Pemberton and these are my sisters, Mary Louise and Harriet.”

“Sisters? I thought you looked a little young to have children. Your men folks are?”

I pointed to each, “My brothers, Emery and Asbury.”

“Asbury,” Madeline laughed, “That’s my brother’s name too. “This is my sister, Joan. We call her Jolly because she hasn’t known a bad day in her whole life.”

“Not until I found out you were my sister,” Jolly teased Madeline.

I hadn’t smiled that broadly in weeks. Just when it appeared the wagons were continuing on without Madeline and Jolly, the men pulled to the side of the road behind our wagon and stopped. I expected our new friends to be as journey weary and near starvation as those that we met coming back in Iowa, but these people looked healthy.

When the men came to join us, we soon learned that the Aldrich family consisted of husband and wife, and one young boy the same age as Mary Louise. Jolly was newly married to Mr. Grover, and was expecting their first child.

The Finleys and the Johnson came back and Mr. Finley could hardly wait until the introductions were finished before he asked, “Did you pass a large wagon train on your way here?”

“We did,” Mr. Aldrich answered. “We passed two wagon trains to be exact. The first were Mormons, and the second were a rowdy bunch about to reach Fort Kearny.” Mr. Aldrich exchanged looks with Mr. Grover. “The next morning, our last six head of beef were gone. We suspect rustlers.” He paused to remove his hat and brushed a lock of dark brown hair off his forehead, before he put it back on. “Of course, it could have been Indians, but last I heard, Indians don’t put metal shoes on their horses.”

Mr. Finley seemed totally uninterested in the plight of our new friends and asked, “So you haven’t seen a much larger train, perhaps in the last day or two?”

“No,” Mr. Grover answered.

That brought smiles to all our faces. “We’re not too late,” I sighed and then turned to Madeline. “We hope to join up with them when they get here. Why did you turn back?”

“Well,” Madeline answered, “We never did intend to settle in Oregon, we just hoped to find good farm land in the Nebraska Territory. The more we saw the less we liked it. Now you take that settlement near the Elkhorn River. We kept thinking about it and thinking about it, and one morning we just turned around and started back.”

“All of you agreed to go back?” a hopeful Mrs. Johnson asked.

Jolly giggled, “Down to our only child. We’re not the travelers we thought we were. We’re more the homesteader type.”

I glanced at Asbury, but I didn’t say a word. Instead I asked, “We heard when the water in the Platte turns black it’s unsafe to drink. Do you know why?”

Mr. Grover rolled his eyes. “Seems people don’t know better than to discharge themselves in the water, them and the animals.”

Astounded, I asked, “You mean …?”

“Droppings,” Jolly volunteered. “People who drank the water died within the day. Others took a day or two and some got over it. Some of the soldiers at the fort got it and died. We did our best to stay away from the sick. It’s cholera, you know.”

“What about the animals?” Mr. Finley asked. “Can they get cholera?”

It was Mr. Aldrich who answered, “They can, but Animals don’t get it as bad. From here on, you’ve little choice but to let the animals drink any water they can find. If you keep a careful watch to the north, you’ll find little streams that run into the Platte. Be sure to go upstream until the water runs clear.”

“And, if you have no choice, boil the water,” Jolly volunteered, “then it’s safe to drink.”

“Boil it,” I muttered. “What if we can’t find enough wood to build a fire?”

Mr. Aldrich put a hand on my shoulder, “My dear, didn’t you folks buy one of those trail guides before you set out?”

“We got a letter,” I scoffed, “that contained very little truth.”

“Well, you can burn buffalo chips if you have to, and if you can find them.” He grinned when I turned up my nose. “You’ll be surprised at how little the smell of dried chips will offend you when you’re hungry.”

“I see,” said I.

Mr. Grover turned his attention to Mr. Finley. “I see you brought sheep.”

“That’s what we do,” answered Mr. Finley. “We’re sheep herders.”

“You might have done better with beef and if we still had ours, we’d gladly trade.”

“I’d be tempted to trade too,” Mr. Johnson admitted. “Wolves have already killed six.”

“When were you planning to shear them?” Mr. Grover asked. “It’ll get hot soon and if they’re not sheared, they’ll die in the prairie heat.”

“Well,” said Mr. Finley, “We thought to shear a few each night after we stop.”

“How many head have you left?” asked Mr. Aldrich,

Mr. Johnson answered. “Twenty-four at last count.”

“I can offer $2.50 a head and not a penny more,” said Mr. Grover.

Mr. Finley sneered, “The wool is worth more than that.” He scratched the side of his scraggly beard. “Two fifty a head?”

“It sounds fair to me,” said Asbury. We couldn’t have known, but we were about to reach the breaking point in our friendship with the Johnsons and the Finleys.

“Of course it sounds fair to you,” Mr. Johnson Huffed. “You’re just a boy and you know nothing about sheep. “I’m keeping mine. We need them for food along the way.”

“I can let you have five,” said Mr. Finley. “Mr. Johnson is right; we might need the rest for food.”

“Excellent,” said Mr. Grover. “How many head have you, Asbury?”

“Four,” my brother answered.

Mr. Johnson chuckled, “You had four – the wolves got six, and it’s only fair that we each claim a loss of two.”

I couldn’t believe my ears and I looked to see what Mr. Finley thought of the idea. Mr. Finley nodded and agreed with Mr. Johnson. The crooks!

Asbury’s muscles stiffened. “First you made us pay one third of the fee to get the flock across the Missouri River, and now you cheat us by saying two of our four were lost? If papa were here, he’d …”

Mr. Johnson narrowed his eyes, “Well, he’s not here is he? He’s run off after that worthless wife of his, and left his children in our charge.”

“You’re charge?” Asbury asked, raising his voice. “You’re not in charge of us. We haven’t asked you for a thing this whole way!”

“You will. It’s only a matter of time,” Mr. Johnson defiantly argued.

“From this day forward,” said Asbury, raising his voice a little more, “You are free of any responsibility for our wagon, our cow, our dog, our only horse, and especially the five of us. We Pemberton’s will find our own way to Oregon. We are finished with the likes of you.”

Hearing their brother raise his voice, Mary Louise held tight to one of my legs and Harriet the other. I put an arm around each to comfort them. When I looked, Emery had gotten back on the horse and was behind our wagon listening to every word.

Asbury calmly turned to Mr. Grover. “I’d rather let you buy our sheep than to have Mr. Johnson cheat us out of …”

Mr. Grover quickly interrupted, “Son, I could use a little help unhooking the mules. It’s Sunday – a day of rest, remember? Mules need rest too.”

It took a moment, but Asbury nodded, turned around, and headed for the Grover wagons, “Especially the mules behind me.”

I couldn’t help but laugh, which offended both the Finleys and the Johnsons. I didn’t care, took my sister’s hands and started to follow Asbury.

Mrs. Johnson shrieked, “But what will we do without the necklace to protect us? Mr. Johnson, make her give the necklace to me!”

Asbury stopped and then slowly turned back around. “Speaking of worthless wives!” He came back, pulled Harriet up into his arms, and took my hand. Soon, Emery had hold of Mary Louise’s hand. “No one is in charge of us but us! Right?”

“Right!” Emery and I shouted. I’d almost forgotten our new friends, but they hadn’t forgotten us. They too left the company of the Johnsons and the Finleys and spent the evening with us.

After supper, I still had a smile on my face. The idea that I no longer had to put up with Mrs. Johnson suited me just fine. No nicer people had I ever met than the Grovers and the Aldrichs. Jolly offered to keep an eye out for papa and let him know she saw us in good health. That delighted Harriet who still had hope. I so enjoyed their stories of life on the prairie. Madeline had a way of looking at things in a most entertaining way.

Asbury didn’t say much. I hoped he was thinking about going back and settling near the Elkhorn river too. After all, we were farmers and this was the perfect time of year to plant corn.

The end of chapter 7

Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7

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Based on an Actual 1909 Colorado Train Wreck!

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