The Last Wagon, Chapter 9
by Marti Talbott (c) 2021
Author's note: This is a work in process and is subject to change.
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Based on an Actual 1909 Colorado Train Wreck!
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I watched as Isaac Logan got back on his horse and rode down the hill. Instead of crossing the river in the same place he had before, he rode upriver for a time, and made his way across the north branch of the river. To avoid being sucked into quicksand, he slowly and carefully walked his horse across the island, and then crossed the south Platte. I could tell the water in both the north and south Platte was half as deep at where he crossed the first time, by how far it came up his horse’s legs. Once on the other side, he dismounted and used a stick to make a mark on the shore.
Isaac got back on his horse, went to the first wagon preparing to cross the Platte and exchanged words with an older man. We couldn’t hear what they were talking about, but the man driving the wagon abruptly stood up and harshly waved Isaac away.
“Brother,” said I. “If we are behind so many others, how will we find firewood?”
Asbury looked at me through the corner of his eyes and grinned, “Buffalo chips.”
“Ugh,” I moaned. “How many buffalo do you think there are in the Nebraska Territory? I’ve only seen one so far.” I didn’t wait for an answer and instead turned my attention back to watching Isaac. He rode past the wagons coming up the road from Independence, and then went over a hill and disappeared.
We stayed on the top of the hill and just watched all the people. As the wagons drew closer, the people began to sing a different song, and somewhere someone played a harmonica. Their raised voices were as joyful as I had felt having finally reached Grand Island. Some people rode in the wagons, but most of the men controlled their animals walking beside their teams just as Asbury had. Both women and men rode horses, but most of the women and older children walked in the grassland. Still more men and boys on horseback tended the cattle and the milk cows. There were even a few goats, but no one else thought to bring sheep that needed to be sheared. I counted ourselves fortunate for having sold ours.
The first wagon had just reached the edge of the river when the second and third went around it, and turned down the South Platte road. When more wagons stopped in the line with those who wanted to cross, wagons behind them pulled out of line, passed and followed those making the turn off toward Fort Denver. At first, Mary Louise tried to count them, but soon lost count and had to start again. Harriet had her eye on a boy and a donkey that was refusing to move. Harriett roared with laughter.
Before long, those eager to cross the river decided not to wait in line, pulled up alongside the one in front of them, and made the road impassable for those further back. I watched to see what the people who had taken the cut off would do, and they too stopped to wait for the others. It was becoming a tangled mess and all anyone could do was wait until someone sorted it all out.
Like ours, the wagons were covered with cotton duck tarps that had drawstrings on each end of the wagon. Their work animals ranged from mules, to horses, and oxen, and it reminded me of the discussion we heard in Kanesville about which was the most desirable. I supposed we were about to find out. When I looked, our oxen hadn’t wandered too far away now that there was plenty to eat near the wagons. I could barely see him, but our cow let me know that Sutter was taking a nap in the grass, and not far away, our horse was grazing.
Soon, the singing stopped and was replaced by shouts as the people concentrated on crossing the river. The first wagon to cross was pulled by three teams of oxen, and even though the water was deep, the crossing did not appear to be difficult. The driver of the next wagon must have thought the same, because he started across even before the first one made it up the embankment. The first wagon turned west, went a considerable distance up the road to Oregon, and then pulled his wagon off the road and into the grass. The man waved for the second wagon to keep going on up the road.
I turned my attention back to the river crossings just in time to see that a tall man with a scruffy beard had already ridden his horse across. Instead of following the first two wagons, he stopped to talk to the Johnsons and the Finleys.
Asbury abruptly stood up. “Stay here, all of you!”
A little alarmed, I asked, “What are you going to do?”
He didn’t answer. Asbury was becoming more like papa every day. Harriet climbed into Emery’s lap instead, making me realize she probably hadn’t seen this many people in her whole life. Neither had the rest of us and there was plenty to see. As for me, I watched my brother approach the man and listened to what he was telling the Johnson’s and the Finleys.
After a time, Asbury came back, sat down beside me and answered the question my eager eyes were asking. “His name is Mr. Jamison Thorton Moss and he’s the master of the first wagon train. The first wagon across is his and the man driving it is his cook. Mr. Thorton claims to have led two other wagon trains to Oregon in the last three years. The Johnsons and the Finleys have signed on with him.”
“Thank goodness,” I sighed.
“He’s a fur trader too, and knows all the Indian tribes. He charges a dollar per person to guide the train to Fort Hall.”
I gasped. “Five dollars!”
“We don’t know what Mr. Logan charges,” Asbury continued, “but I suppose it will be the same.” Asbury patted me on the head, “Don’t worry, little sister, at least we won’t be eating Cory Finley’s dust anymore.”
“What’s Fort Hall?” Mary Louise asked.
It was Emery who answered, “It’s an army post, probably.”
“With soldiers and everything?” she excitedly asked.
“It wouldn’t be a fort without them,” Emery smugly answered. “I’m thinking of becoming a soldier myself someday.
I ignored Mary Louise’s questions and Emery’s remarks, while I watched two more wagons start across the river. The water seemed a little lower, but for those with mules, the crossing wasn’t an easy one. The moment those two families made it across, the next two started in. It was as spell binding as the puppet show that came to Des Moines two years ago. I expected getting all the wagons in the first train across would take the rest of the day. Now I wasn’t so sure as more wagons began crossing at the same time. Amazingly, the tangled mess was actually beginning to look organized.
The boy finally got his mule across, and Harriett turned her attention to a woman who had just walked out of the river and stood on the shore wringing the water out of the bottom of her skirts. I on the other hand was still concerned about how much going to Oregon was actually going to cost. Five dollars was a lot of money, and I wondered if I should tell Asbury about the gold coins momma gave me before she ran off. I decided to wait. What my brother didn’t know about, he couldn’t spend.
My eyes widened as drivers shouted and slapped reins on the back of animals, women screamed and frightened children cried, as three wagons came across at the same time. All three safely made it. A short distance down river, the men on horseback began to herd the cattle across. I watched in horror as the water in the Platte turned a darker brown.
When I tore my eyes away from watching all the strangers, I noticed that the Johnsons and the Finleys had managed to sheer nearly half the flock since our arrival at Grand Island. The question of what to do with the wool appeared to be answered as well – Mr. and Mrs. Dollenberg was putting the wool in their wagon. I wondered if Mr. Johnson managed to cheat them somehow too, but it wasn’t any of my business.
The wagons continued to cross the Platte and then pulled on up the road toward Oregon. By then, there were wagons, people and animals on both sides of the river. I caught my breath when a wagon made it up the river bank and instead of dripping off the sides as usual, the water gushed out the back.
“Oh no,” I moaned. “their tar leaked.”
Transfixed, we watched as instead of turning west, the driver turned the opposite way, pulled in behind our wagon, and stopping. Soaked up to their waists, a woman and a girl bailed out of the back of the wagon. By then, water still pouring out was turning the dirt road to mud. The man quickly hopped down, went to the back of the wagon, and helped the women pull their belongings out, carry them a few feet off the road and set them on dry land.
Asbury sighed, “I say we go help them.”
“Might as well,” Emery agreed. “I’m tired of sitting here anyway.” He lifted Harriet over his shoulders and headed down the hill.
That was the day I met the best friend I would ever have. Her name was Josie Cabot, she was a year older than me, and she was the daughter of Verlin and Lucy Cabot. When we offered to help, they could not have been more grateful. I sat my sisters on the dry ground to watch, and in just a few hours, we had their wagon completely unloaded and everything set out to dry. We saved as much of their food supply as we could, but they were left with a little more than half. Water got in their second barrel of flour and reduced it to heavy glue. It took Mr. Cabot, Emery and Asbury to carry it to a place where the glue could be dumped without running onto the road.
They hadn’t heard about the water in the Platte being deadly, but as more wagons and animals crossed, the proof was obvious. Fortunately, we had already discovered clean water and Emery was pleased to show Mr. Cabot the way. They washed the flour glue out of his barrel, and then brought it back to dry. I didn’t say it, but I hoped the Cavalry at Fort Kearney would be willing to sell some of the supplies we had seen on their wagons.
The first wagon train continued to cross the river, other wagons turned down the road on the south side of the river, and then as the sunlight began to fade, wagon master Jamison Thorton Moss halted the crossings. What a glorious sight to see all the campfires, both from those on our side of the river, and those who had yet to cross. Never had we seen such a sight.
Cows up and down the line cried to be milked, including ours, so I went back to our wagon to grab the bucket and stool.
“May I go with you?” Josie asked.
I grinned, “Only if you bring a bucket. We always have more than we can use and I hate drinking spoiled milk.” Josie hurried back to her spread-out belongings, got an empty pail and followed me through the tall grass to our cow. Sutter, who wasn’t normally over friendly when it came to strangers, took a liking to Josie right away. Naturally, I had to explain the stick tied to his back with the fluttering strips of cloth, and tell her about the wolves. The mention of wolves didn’t seem to bother her. I was impressed. Bravery was a requirement if we hoped to reach Oregon in one piece.
“I love dogs,” Josie purred as she rubbed Sutter behind the ears.
“He’s a good dog.” I set the pail and the stool next to the cow. “Our cow follows him everywhere.”
“Really, I can’t wait to see that.” Josie finally sat on the ground and laid her hands in her lap.
“You’re an only child?”
“I have two older brothers, but they’re married and decided to stay behind. At least we have a place to go back to if we turn around. I counted five families that turned back after only the first week.”
“Do you think your folks will turn back?” I asked.
“No, I think they’ll keep going until they find the perfect valley. It has to be filled with flowers, of course, and has a creek running down the middle. It must have friendly Indians too. When we find such a place, we’ll start a farm and then my brothers and their families will come to us, hopefully.”
“I like that plan.” When Sutter got that pitiful look in his eyes, I squirted milk into his mouth. When he begged for more, I rolled my eyes and gave him another squirt. As soon as the cow ran out of milk, I poured half into Josie’s bucket. I was a little concerned because the cow didn’t give as much milk that evening as before. I feared all the walking might make her dry up and that someday we might have to eat Sutter’s best friend. I quickly pushed that concern out of my mind.
That night, we shared a meal with the Cabots. Josie’s mother told the most fascinating stories about the people she had met along the way. She had a way of noticing everything about someone, such as an uneven beard trim, and told it in her stories. I decided right then and there, that I was going to be a people-watcher too, so I’d have fascinating stories to tell my children someday.
Harriett blurted out that we were orphans, so Asbury gave a short explanation, which made the Cabots and Mary Louise sad. I just then realized Mary Louise was holding out more hope that papa would find us than I thought. We changed the subject by telling about Mr. Johnson’s crooked way of counting sheep, and how we suffered daily dust being the last wagon all the way from Iowa.
Because of the wolves, the Pembertons and the Cabots put all our beds on the dry ground near our wagon. As exhausted as the Missouri families were, no one stayed up late, the singing and shouting stopped, the fires were put out, and the sky provided a full moon and thousands of stars to count as we fell asleep.
The end of chapter 9
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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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