The Last Wagon, Chapter 8
by Marti Talbott (c) 2021
Author's note: This is a work in process and is subject to change.
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Reporter Beth Ryquist was about to lose her job, and the only way to save it was to write the story of a lifetime. For years she’d been obsessed with the murder of Senator Forester, and the kidnapping and survival of his young daughter, Jillian. Beth was convinced the Senator’s gold digger wife was guilty of murder-for-hire. She had to be! There were holes in the wife’s story – big holes, and Beth believed the one person who knew the truth was Jillian. Yet, Beth had no idea how to find Jillian - not until a handwritten note finally gave her the lead she'd been hoping for. Edited by Katie Lee Andersen
The wolves got yet another ewe in the night, but this time Mr. Johnson admitted it wasn’t one of ours. The sheep Mr. Aldrich bought and paid for, were separated from the flock and delivered without an argument. When Mr. Aldrich offered to pay for one of Mr. Johnson’s sheep dogs as well, Mr. Johnson sold it.
Sutter didn’t understand he didn’t need to herd the sheep any longer, and helped with the remaining herd anyway. That was okay.
Before he left, Mr. Grover showed us how to use fladry to keep the wolves from getting to our horse and cow. It was simple really. Wolves don’t attack at night if they sense movement. We tied tree branches to the sides of the animals, including Sutter, and adorned them with strips of cloth that fluttered in the wind. We had to use the shirts I found along the way, but it was for a worthy cause. Mary Louise roared with laughter at the sight of Sutter with a tree branch tied to his side. I had to admit it looked ridiculous.
I was especially sad to see the Grovers and the Aldrichs leave, and disappointed that Asbury had not suggested we go with them. I didn’t question his decision, not then anyway. With a heavy heart, I watched until they were completely out of sight.
There we were, alone again with the Johnsons and the Finleys. Fortunately, there was the space of a couple of wagons between us. They wanted no part of us and feeling the same, we ignored them.
While walking through the tall grass north of us, Emery discovered a clear creek that was deep enough for us to bathe. Happily, we took our clean clothes, our bucket of dirty clothes and headed out. Just as he said, the water was clear and looked safe enough to drink. Even so, I intended to boil it just in case. While the boys carried two buckets of water to our wagon, the girls and I washed ourselves from head to toe and put on clean clothes. I felt the hem of my dress to make certain all five gold pieces were still there, and then slipped the Pawnee necklace in my pocket. The big wagon train was sure to come soon and the last thing I wanted was to have to explain the necklace.
With the help of the boys, we washed all the clothes, carried them back to the wagon and while I hung them on a rope we tied from the wagon to a tree, the boys went to bathe. I didn’t mind boiling all that water one bucket at a time. I was just grateful to feel clean again. I did notice, however, that Cory and his brothers were watching our every move, and in time went to see what we’d been up to. I even laughed when I heard Mrs. Johnson shriek with delight when Cory told her he’d found clean water. That kept the Johnsons and the Finleys busy for the rest of the day.
Asbury took Sutter and the horse, went hunting and came back early that afternoon with a Canadian goose. The blast of his rifle tore through some of the meat, and Sutter sat at my feet begging for his share of fresh meat, while I held it in the bucket of boiling water until the feathers easily came out.
Once cleaned, I cut off some of the damaged meat. Before I gave it to him, I wagged my finger. “Next time an Indian comes that close to us, you’re supposed to bark.” He turned his head to one side with no idea what I was saying, but I felt better having said it. I suspected my Indian friend had bribed my dog with enough meat to keep him quiet. For supper, I made rice to go with roasted goose and it was almost like having Sunday dinner at home.
We rested for another full day. The girls played hide and seek while I mended a rip in Emery’s pant leg. Asbury took a survey of our supplies, checked that the spare wheels under the wagon were secure, and carried more buckets of water for me to boil and pour into our barrels.
So far, Nebraska offered more hills, some with sides too steep to plow. Other options for farming were in lowlands, but those might easily flood in spring. Therefore, a man looking for a place to settle down had to choose his land carefully. Also, there were thistle bushes and various kinds of annoying grass that could claim all the fertile land in its path. I surprised myself when I realized I knew all that. Apparently, I’d listened to my father more attentively than I thought. If I knew how to choose good land, I trusted that Asbury did as well.
In the middle of the next morning we watched as a farmer and his wife in a horse drawn wagon came up the road behind us. Until then I had no idea there were settlers in the area.
“Mr. and Mrs. Dollenberg, here,” the woman said as her husband finally pulled his horses to a halt near the Johnson wagon. “Did we miss the big wagon train?”
“Not yet,” Mr. Johnson answered.
Both the man and the woman heaved a sigh of relief.
“You heard about that?” Mr. Finley asked.
Just as the other two families did, we Pembertons went to hear any news the strangers were willing to share.
“We got word from Fort Kearney a few days ago, and guessed they’d make it here right about now,” Mr. Dollenberg answered, getting down off his wagon and then helping his wife down. “We brought potatoes and apples to sell. Folks don’t know how to save what they have for the long road ahead, and it’s a mighty long road.” He sighed. “We were among the first travelers and made it to a place called Scottsbluff before we turned around and came back.” He pulled a blanket off of two boxes in the back of the wagon and showed his wares. “You folks might want to get yours now. If that wagon train is as big as they say, these won’t last long.”
“How much?” Asbury asked.
“Two cents for an apple, and three for a potato.”
“Highway robbery,” Mrs. Johnson scoffed.
Mr. Dollenberg grinned, exposing a missing upper tooth, “You won’t find a better price this side of Oregon.”
While Mrs. Johnson chose two apples and two potatoes, I asked, “Do you live around here?”
“Last year, a few of us set up camp a couple of miles north,” Mr. Dollenberg answered. “There’s only thirty-one of us so far, but we’re hoping more folks will join us. We brought Buffalo and elderberries too, what we could find this time of year, that is. Say, you folks know to cook the elderberries so you don’t get sick, right?”
“We know,” said Mrs. Finley. “We’re from Iowa.”
Mr. Dollenberg eyes brightened. “Is that right? What part?”
His wife, Mrs. Dollenberg, giggled and then turned to me. “He’ll talk a leg off if you let him. Have you seen the blue heron migration yet? My husband says I’m a bird watcher and he’s right.”
When Mary Louise and Harriet started imitating the bird’s “frahnk” squawk, everyone laughed. “We get those in Iowa too,” I mentioned.
“Well, they should be here any day now and there’ll be hundreds if not thousands of them. If I were you, I’d move on before they come. From time to time, you might see a bald eagle. I love watching them soar through the air. It brightens my day every time.” She folded her arms and leaned back against the wagon while her husband carried on his business.
I wasn’t’ paying attention when Asbury bought five apples and handed one of them out to each of us. We still had dried apples, but fresh ones were tempting, even those that had been stored after the previous harvest.
“I think you’ve missed the Sandhill crane migration,” Mrs. Dollenberg continued, “but you might see them farther up the road. Pesky birds the Sandhills. They’ll steal bread right out of your hand.”
She was right in the middle of telling me about the birds when I thought I heard singing. I put a hand on her arm to quiet her, but the singing had faded.
“Up there,” Mrs. Dollenberg said, pointing to the nearest hill. Asbury and I helped the children walk through the tall grass and climb the hill, but even then we couldn’t hear the singing or see the expected wagons. At least we were assured that we had stopped at the right place. We chatted about which birds were edible and which were not as we kept our eyes on the road coming from the south on the other side of the river.
“See anything?” Mr. Dollenberg shouted up to his wife.
“Not yet,” she answered. We sat in a row atop the hill and before long, Cory, his brothers, and the Johnson children joined us. Thankfully, their parents stayed away.
It seemed to take forever before we caught sight of a man on a horse riding up the road. He briefly paused at the river’s edge, and then guided his horse into the water. That was our first indication of just how deep the normally shallow Platte had become, now that the two branches had joined into one. The rider’s horse struggled to swim against the current, barely keeping its head above water.
We watched as the rider finally made it across, and then stopped to talk to the Johnsons, the Finleys and Mr. Dollenberg. He paid for an apple, and then rode his horse through the grass and up the hill to say hello to us. That’s when it happened. When his gray eyes met mine my heart skipped a beat. The feeling was so unexpected, it both thrilled and frightened me. Water still dripped off his black leather chaps as he dismounted, tipped his hat to us, and then took a bite of his apple. That made all the children smile.
He sat at the end of the row near Cory and crossed his long legs at the ankle. “I’m Isaac Logan, buffalo hunter, Indian scout, fur trader, and just now, wagon train master – at your service.”
“What sort of service?” a confused Mary Louise asked.
Mr. Logan seemed a bit befuddled, so I offered, “He means he’ll answer all our questions.”
He smiled a relieved smile. “Yes, Ma’am, I mean just that and please call me Isaac.”
“You’re going all the way to Oregon?” Cory asked.
“For as long as there are people wanting to go there. We lost four wagons crossing the Big Blue River and a couple of families have already turned back. There’s no telling how many there will be by the time we make it through South Pass.”
“What’s South Pass?” Emery asked.
Isaac answered, “It’s the road through the mountains. On the other side is Oregon.”
Harriet got up and went to the stranger. “I’m going to be six when we get to Oregon!”
He grinned and wrapped an arm around her. “Is that so?” He waited for her to nod. “In that case, we’ll have a big celebration. Children only turn six once, you know.” She giggled and then hurried back to climb into Asbury’s lap.
Harriet liked Isaac Logan and so did I.
“We thought we heard singing,” Mrs. Dollenberg mentioned.
“You did,” he answered. “You’ll hear more of it soon, depending on which way the wind is blowing.”
“What’s the Oregon Territory like?” Cory asked.”
He glanced at all the children eagerly anticipating his words. “Well, I’ve been there twice and it’s a place like no other. On the far side of the territory, you can see the Pacific Ocean and if you’re very fortunate, you might see a tall ship or two sailing up the coast. The Columbia river is as almost as wide as the Missouri, and a man can never catch too many fish. There are forests …”
“I hear them!” Jessy Johnson shouted. He stood up, and put a hand across his brow to block the sun.
“Can you see them yet?” Mr. Johnson shouted from below.
“Not yet!” Jessy shouted back. “But I can hear them singing.”
I tried not to look at Isaac, but I was curious. If he’d already seen Oregon twice, was he older than he looked?
“They were about three miles back when I left them,” said Isaac. “We’ll be camping here for the night. It’ll take most of the day to get everything all sorted out.”
“What does that mean?” Mary Louise asked.
“Well,” said Isaac, some will take the road along the South Platte to Fort Denver in the Colorado Territory. Others will do the same because they think they’ll find a better place to cross upriver. I doubt they will, especially if we get more rain. I’ve seen the Platte swell up to twice its size when the rain in the mountains comes flooding down.” When he noticed that some of the children looked concerned, he added, “You need not worry, though. You’re already on the right side of the river.”
Finally, the first of the wagons came into view. Isaac explained that there were over three hundred people in the wagon train when they left Independence, and that didn’t include the children. The animals were too numerous to count.
When the singing grew loud enough for us to hear, we quietly listened:
There's a land that is fairer than day
And by faith we can see it afar
For the Father waits over the way
To prepare us a dwelling place there
In the sweet by and by
We shall meet on that beautiful shore
In the sweet by and by
We shall meet on that beautiful shore
It wasn’t long before the wagons in the front kicked up a sizable cloud of dust behind them. “More dust,” I groaned.
“It’s a problem, that’s for sure,” said Isaac. “That’s why we rotate the wagons each morning, letting those in the back come up to the front for the day.”
I couldn’t help but glare at Cory Finley, “We’ve been eating your dust all the way from Iowa, and your father never once let us go in front.”
“He’s the leader,” Cory argued. “Besides, who wants to follow a bunch of orphans.”
“Cory Finley, you watch your mouth!” Mary Louise shouted. “We’re not orphans.”
“You are now!” Cory said, getting to his feet. “Come on brothers, there’s more to see down there than there is up here?”
When the Finley children left, the Johnson children followed, leaving us alone with Mrs. Dollenberg and a puzzled Isaac. “I best go back and help my husband,” she said. She stood up and then walked down the hill behind the children.
“Cory’s right, you know,” Asbury admitted more to himself than to anyone else.
“How old are you?” Isaac asked.
“My sister and I are the oldest. We’ll be seventeen come winter. Emery is twelve, Mary Louise is eight and well, you met Harriet already.”
“And your parents?”
I answered as quickly as I could, “Momma ran off and papa went to find her. “How old are you?” I wasn’t expecting Isaac Logan’s grin to be so wide, nor that he would ignore the question.
He turned his attention to Asbury. “I left home when I was fourteen, by then, I already knew what people in the east were about. I wanted adventure, so I joined up with a fur trader and … well, I’ll save my stories for later. What I mean is, sixteen isn’t too young to get a family all the way to Oregon. I’m not with the first wagon train, I’m with the second. Join with me and you’ll do okay.”
“So there is a second wagon train?” I wondered aloud, watching the long line of wagons I could already see.
“There is indeed. Like I said, some will follow the South Platte road and that will be good for us, especially if we can stay ahead of the ones crossing the Platte upriver.”
“There are so many people. Just how big is Oregon?” I asked.
“Big enough.” He pointed. “Do you see that woman in the horse drawn carriage? She boasts of her wealth by intending to ride all the way to Oregon. She’s bringing with her two overloaded wagons. The journey is long and hard, and a heavy wagon can wear her teams out a month too soon. All the money in the world won’t buy her more mules if there aren’t any to buy. I told her, but she won’t listen – not yet anyway.”
The end of chapter 8
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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