The Last Wagon, Chapter 2

by Marti Talbott (c) 2021

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

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CHAPTER 2

There was a chill in the air that spring morning, though I hardly noticed. In stunned silence, we remained where we were and watched until papa was completely out of sight.

“We best get going,” Asbury said, as he scooped up little Harriett and carried her to the back of the wagon. Boxes full of supplies were stacked almost to the top of the canvas ceiling, but papa had saved just enough room in the very back so the little sisters could comfortably ride.

“I’m going to be six when we get to Oregon,” Harriett bragged.

“Yes you are, and a very fine six you’ll be,” he said with a genuine smile. The attachment between Asbury, the oldest and Harriett, the youngest was admirable, although it greatly annoyed Mary Louise. Emery didn’t mind in the least and I was just happy for any occasion when Harriett was kept busy.

The sky was just beginning to brighten when I lifted Mary Louise into the wagon and helped her sit next to her sister. “You’re in charge of Harriett,” I reminded her.

“Aren’t I always?” Mary Louise scoffed. She lifted momma’s cat off the top of the water barrel and set it in her lap. “When’s momma coming?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “Hang on to the straps like Papa showed you.” I picked up a blanket and unfolded it so I could spread it over both their laps. “Harriett, please be good.” I didn’t laugh when she rolled her eyes, but I wanted to.

As I started toward the front of the wagon, I paused to listen. Emery was doing his best to climb into the forward seat. To help, Asbury put his hand on Emery’s back.

Emery sneered. “I can do it!”

“I know, and you’ll be better at it as soon as your legs grow longer. Watch over your sisters, and … well, you know what to do.”

Emery Insisted on wearing Papa’s spare hat instead of his own, although it was forever slicing down his forehead. He shoved it back and then asked Asbury, “We’re going, come hell or high water, right?”

Asbury frowned and leaned closer to his little brother. “If Haden hears you talk that way, she’ll tan your britches.”

Emery lowered his voice, “That’s how Papa always talks.”

“Papa is a grown man. You’re still a boy. You best hold your tongue until you can out-run Haden.” Asbury ignored Emery’s pout, noticed me and said, “Haden, ride to the crossroads and tell Mr. Finley we’re on our way.”

I nodded, untied the horse papa tied to the back of the wagon that morning, and hoisted myself into the saddle. Just as I walked the horse past the wagon, Asbury picked up a stick with a sharp point. “Hang on!” he called out to the children. Then he poked the rump of the oxen nearest him and shouted, “Come up!”

Inside, the little girls lurched forward and then back as the wagon abruptly began to move.

*

I was halfway to the crossroads when I halted my horse, and turned around to take one last look at our home. I felt bad about lying to Mary Louise, but what was I supposed to say – momma is never coming back? It was better to let the others figure that out themselves when papa came without her. Besides, it was unfair of momma to lay the burden of telling them on me, and the more I thought about it, the more I resented her for it. The least she could have done was to break the news to all of us at the same time, papa included. With a lump in my throat, I pushed back my angry tears, turned the horse back around, and raced toward the crossroads.

Forgive her? Never!

As soon as I was within sight of the other two families, I held my hand up high and waved them onward. With Mr. Findley’s wagon in the lead and both eager to get under way, the men spurred their oxen teams into action, and turned west on the well-traveled road to Kanesville. I looked back to assure myself that my family was indeed coming, put on a friendly face, and went to greet our fellow travelers.

I had always been fond of our neighbors, the Johnsons and the Finleys, not counting Cory Finley, who was barely a year older than me and the bane of my existence. I found Cory to be bossy and annoying on more than one occasion. Momma explained that men were taught to take charge of a situation weather we liked it or not. Explaining and tolerating were two different things, in my opinion.

The Johnson family consisted of Ben, his wife Allison and their three children Jessie, William and Carolyn. As I rode on to speak to Mr. Finley, and neared the Johnson wagon, it was clear Mrs. Johnson was weeping. I suspected she suffered the same second thoughts that were currently plaguing me. Unfortunately, neither of us had a choice in the matter since the other two husbands had also sold their Iowa land.

As papa had mentioned the week before, he and Mr. Johnson designated Mr. Finley to be the wagon master, since he’d been to Kanesville and back several times. He’d even been across the Missouri River. Therefore, it made perfect sense for Mr. Finley to lead us.

In the first wagon, or rather riding his horse in front of it, was Tavish Finley. His wife Betsy, and their sons Lucas, Cory, Alexander, and William. Being the oldest, Lucas was in charge of the Finley oxen teams. When he saw me, Cory broadened his shoulders as if to imply that the son of the wagon master held authority over us as well. I scoffed at that idea, nodded to Mrs. Findley, and went to talk to Mr. Findley.

“Momma ran off,” informaed him as soon as I pulled my horse up next to his. He didn’t say anything, so I continued. “Papa means to find her and catch up with us.”

He looked troubled when he said at length, “You are alone then?”

“Not for long,” assure him. There was nothing more to say, so I went back to ride behind our wagon to see that my sisters were safe and to stay out of Cory’s sight

We were the last wagon in our lonely little three-wagon train. Originally, it was to be an exciting and happy time, but on that spring morning with both our parents left behind, my heart was filled with a deep sense of dread.

*

Our first few hours on the well-traveled, yet bumpy road caused our first near tragedy. Having no springs on the wagon, momma’s cat would have none of the bouncing, clawed her way out of Mary Louise’s arms, and jumped out of the wagon. Before I could prevent her, a distraught Mary Louise left Harriett, climbed out of the moving wagon, and ran after the cat.

Fortunately, I managed to lean down, catch her around the waist. and haul Mary Louise into my lap on the horse. “Mary Louise, you are not to leave Harriett alone no matter what! Suppose she tried to get out of the wagon too.”

“But Momma loves that cat!”

“Momma’s cat can take care of itself. It will either follow us or go back home. Your sister is far more important.” Mary Louise refused to look at me, so I put my hand under her chin and lift her face. “Right?”

“I suppose,” she mumbled.

“Next time you leave your sister alone, you’ll be getting a sound thrashing.”

The child stuck her lower lip out. “You’re not my mother!”

“And no one is happier about that than me.” I hugged her as I always did after a scolding. It was my way of forgiving her and making things right between us again. After all, I’d never laid a hand on any of the children, and wasn’t convinced I actually could. That was papa’s job.

Instinctively, I looked back to see if he was coming. He wasn’t.

Getting Mary Louise into the back of a moving wagon proved to be quite challenging, but I managed it somehow. Just in case Mary Louise made a second attempt at finding the cat, I tied the horse to the back of the wagon, and decided to walk for a while. As soon as Emery joined me, the girls wanted to walk too. We were used to hard work, and took walking up and down the rolling hills right in stride. However, it didn’t take long for the dust kicked up by the oxen and the wagons to become annoying, so we took to walking in the grassland beside the wagons.

I had not often felt sorry for Asbury, but since he had to control the oxen, he had no choice but to walk in the dirt and dust. He did, however, cover his mouth and nose with the scarf momma made for him. Also in the grasslands, Sutter kept our herd of four sheep moving. We thought it was normal, but as the dog and our milk cow grew up together, our cow had a habit of following Sutter wherever he went. So far, there was no need to tie the cow to the back of the wagon.

As the sun warmed the day, we were delighted by the sights along the way. We Pembertons had never been that far west, and were intrigued by the pleasant countryside. Most of it was plains, but in the distance we could see a timber line with trees that were spaced far apart, with patches of bushes between them. Most of the grass was still winter brown, but in the lowlands the grass was becoming lime green, and gave off a sweet smell that hinted at phlox blooms. More exciting still was watching a herd of wild horses grazing not far from the trees. Some had coats as dark as night, some were dapple gray, and still others had light blonde hair, the likes of which I had never seen before. If ever I could afford my own horse, one of the lighter ones would be to my liking.

Several flocks of bird flew over, some we knew the names of and some we didn’t. Harriett got distracted each time she spotted a butterfly, which thoroughly annoyed Mary Louise, who had to either wait or go back for her. Harriett, insisted on wearing her new shoes, already had blisters, and was glad when I put her back in the wagon. That pleased Mary Louise immensely.

Just before Mr. Finley stopped his wagon, Cory walked back to say we were to stop for lunch. Anyone could see it was high noon, and we hardly needed to be told when to eat. I frowned and Cory went away.

For our first meal on the way to Oregon, we ate beans and bread Momma and I prepared the day before. We didn’t talk much. Twice I caught Asbury looking back down the road to see if momma and papa were coming. Funny thing about Asbury. He seemed much more grown up that day. Perhaps it had been a long time since I actually took notice of my twin brother’s approaching maturity. Perhaps he hadn’t taken notice of mine either.

As I got up and gathered our tin plates, I spotted Cory Finley standing beside his wagon watching me. He had his arms folded and that silly grin on his face. I went to the back of the wagon where he couldn’t see me, put the plates away and wrapped the leftover bread in cloth.

*

“Come up!” all three wagon drivers shouted at the same time – we were off again. Just in time, I pulled Emery back before the wheel ran over his foot. Mary Louise spotted a coyote, which prompted Emery to grab his gun out of the back of the wagon and put the carrying strap over his shoulder. The coyote ran away.

When we came to the first creek, a small tributary that fed into the Missouri River, we stopped. Just as we would at every water source, we allowed the livestock to drink as much as they wanted.

Naturally, Cory came to repeat his father’s instructions. “At every opportunity, replenish your water barrel, even if ‘tis not low.”

“We know, Cory,” I sarcastically said. In a lower tone, I muttered, “You are not the boss of us.” He heard me, shrugged and went back the way he came. I grabbed a bucket, filled it with fresh water, and carried it to our water barrel. In truth, I hadn’t thought of that, but I wasn’t about to confess it.

In a place where the road was wide enough for oncoming traffic, we encountered a horse drawn carriage driven by a man who seemed in a mighty hurry. He beat his horse and shouted, “Clear the way!” as though he believed we could easily pull three heavy wagons off the road for his benefit. As it was, he had plenty of room and thoughtlessly added more dust to our already dusty day.

A second passerby was far more interesting as well as pleasant. He was a Pony Express Rider with a large satchel tied behind his saddle, no doubt filled with Des Moines mail. As he approached, he slowed enough to advise us of clear weather and low-water creeks ahead, just as we hoped there would be at that time of year. We would see several Pony Express riders in the coming weeks, rain or shine, who became the object of my complete admiration. I might have married one of them, had he asked and promised to take me back to Iowa.

*

Seated atop his horse where he had been all day, Mr. Finley raised his hand and stopped us just as we reached the next creek. Cory came to tell us we were to stop for the night, as if we were of insufficient sight. I was beginning to dislike him intensely. Perhaps if he said the same to the Johnsons, I might have been a bit more tolerant. Those of us who walked most of the day took the opportunity to sit in the dirt and rest our weary bones. As for me, I suffered a serious cramp in the calf of my left leg, and spent the time trying to rub it out. Without my notice, Cory stood not far away grinning at me. “Drink more water,” he smugly advised before quickly walking away. He was right, I supposed.

Just ahead of us, I could see that Mrs. Johnson was still in tears. However, there was far too much to do, to spend time comforting her. The four of us, even little Harriett, gathered wood so we could build a fire. Asbury unhooked them, and then tethered the hind legs of our oxen teams together so they graze without straying very far away. The cow needed to be milked, the horse fed, and I set about making our first evening meal of hot tea, boiled rice with dried beef, the last of the cooked beans, and the last of the bread. I made more food than we needed, and quickly realized that I was feeding only two adults instead of four. Sutter went off to hunt for his dinner, and the cat had not come back. Fixing meals, taking care of the livestock, worrying about them running off, and hooking and unhooking the oxen each morning and night, became such a routine, we hardly had to think about what we were doing.

It was silly, but after I filled the pot with beans and set them to soak for our next night’s dinner, I actually looked down the road, remembering all the belongings we left behind, wondering if I would soon regret not bringing this or that. Indeed, it was silly, for there was no going back. Momma’s last smile suddenly came to mind and tore at my heart. I was still perturbed, but just then I missed her so very much. Still, giving way to tears would only upset the children, so I turned my thoughts to saving the leftover food for the next day’s lunch.

We were about to lay out our bedding when Mr. Finley asked us to come to his campfire. With darkness quickly closing in, I let Harriett sit in my lap, and Asbury allowed Mary Louise to fall asleep in his. Emory, still pretending to be all grown up, stood behind us with his hands clasped behind his back, and his hat pushed off his forehead.

Mr. Finley was a tall, thin man who was stronger than he looked. He had bright red hair which he passed on to all four of his sons. His wife’s hair was also red, although a darker shade. I liked her, at least in the beginning. Her family was terribly Scottish and we were terribly English, with a touch of Scottish on our mother’s side. The difference was that they spoke Scottish and we, well we spoke English. I enjoyed their accents in the beginning. After a time, I no longer noticed or cared even after Mrs. Finley spoke what could only be described as gibberish.

As did all the men of our acquaintance, Mr. Finley wore denim overalls held up by suspenders with his shirt tucked inside. Papa was not fond of overalls and wore long pants instead. Except for different shirts, all the Finley boys, including Cory, were dressed exactly like their father. My first notice of it made me smile, and then quickly look away when Cory spotted me.

Mr. Finley cleared his throat. “I estimate,” he began as he stood before us rubbing his own weary brow, “that we have covered a good ten miles this day, with another hundred or so to go before we reach Kanesville. As you likely know, we have several creeks and another river to cross before we see Nebraska. Fortunately, we can hire a ferry to carry us across the Missouri River.

I heaved a great sigh of relief over that news.

He continued, “Mr. Johnson, Mr. Pemberton and I agree that I would make all the important decisions. Of course, you are free to voice your objections, but I will do what I believe is best for us all. Asbury, since your father has not yet caught up, are you in agreement?”

“I am,” Asbury answered.

Apparently, I was not to be consulted. Mr. Finley went right on talking about combining our livestock to make it easier for the dogs to keep them contained, resting when he said we would rest, and helping each other along the way. We were neighbors, after all and hoped to remain neighbors in Oregon.

Tears were running down Mrs. Johnson’s cheeks again and Mr. Finley noticed. “Are you ill, Mrs. Johnson?”

“No,” she sniffled. “It’s my parents. I left them behind with no one to care for them.”

Mr. Johnson rolled his eyes. “Allison, you know very well Jack and Sarah will see to them.”

Mrs. Johnson’s frame of mind instantly turned to spite, “Jack is lazy and Sarah cares for no one but herself.”

“That’s not true,” Mr. Johnson shot back. “They…”

Mr. Finley watched the exchange between husband and wife with keen interest before he interrupted them. “I suspect we are all too tired to see clearly just now. If there are no questions, let’s all go to bed.”

“I have a question,” Mrs. Johnson said, turning her ire on Asbury. “If their parents don’t catch up, are we to take care of the Pemberton children too?”

Asbury held his temper. “We can take care of ourselves.”

Mrs. Johnson sneered, looked at her disapproving husband, and turned her eyes downward.

“Get a good night’s sleep,” Mr. Finley advised.

No happier words had I ever heard, though getting up was no easy task, especially with Harriett clinging to my neck. Apparently, Cory noticed, took my arm, helped me up and then grinned as though his moment of thoughtfulness had earned him a crown. Since everyone was watching, I was forced to pleasantly thank him.

Asbury made a bed for the girls in the back of the wagon, while Emery and I untied our bedrolls, laid them on the ground and added our pillows. In summer, we older children often slept outside watching for shooting stars before falling asleep. On this night, I was so tired I didn’t care if all the stars fell out of the sky.

With momma gone, Harriett started rocking herself to sleep, to Mary Louise’s annoyance. Thankfully, both of them soon fell asleep.

*

The next morning came far too early. Mr. Finley woke us before dawn and said we would be on the move by seven. If we weren’t ready, he was prepared to leave us behind.

I milked the cow, and added the milk and a touch of sugar to our dry oats. The last of the bread was dry, so we dipped it in the milk and oats. While Asbury and Emory rounded up the oxen and hooked them back up to the wagon. I hung the leftover bucket of milk on a hook under the wagon so the bumpy and sometimes road would churn it into cream, and then rolled up the bedding and put everything away.

Harriett’s feet were blistered, so I let her ride on the horse, which I again tied to the back of the wagon. It meant walking beside her – in the dust, to keep her from falling off. When I’d had enough of that, I put her back in the wagon. Asbury sent Emery and Sutter off to join our four head of sheep to Mr. Johnson and Mr. Finley’s larger herds. After that, there was no way to tell which were ours and which were theirs. Asbury supposed it didn’t matter, since the sheep were to be slaughtered for food and shared among all the families along the way.

Mary Louise wanted to put on clean clothes, but I said no. She hated being dirty and so did I, but that was to be our daily condition. I soon became just as upset at having to say no, as Mary Louise was at hearing it.

Our second day did not go as smoothly as the first. An oncoming stagecoach nearly caught the front corner of the Johnson wagon, making Mr. Johnson fear for his life. Just in time, he put his back to the wagon allowing as much room as possible for the stagecoach to pass. Thankfully, his wife and children were walking on the other side of the wagon, and no harm came to any of the Johnsons. It was a frightening sight to behold, and in the future all three wagons made as much room as possible for oncoming traffic.

A light rain from a quickly passing storm made us all glad to have oiled our hats and bonnets. Twice, the wind blew Papa’s hat off Emery’s head which made him choose to wear his own hat. When we crossed the next creek, which had a good bit more water in it, the wheel of the Finley wagon rolled up on a large rock and nearly tipped the wagon over. After that, Mr. Finley scrutinized what was under the water far more carefully. Fearing what might happen if our wagon tipped over, I vowed to always take the girls across the rivers on horseback instead of letting them ride in the wagon. As much as I hated the smell of tar, I was happy to take note that it kept the water out of our wagon.

It was just as we were nearing the evening hour that we approached the town of Summit Grove, which was situated on the top of a hill near the timberline. There were few inhabitants and no reason to linger, although we did wave as we passed. By then, Mrs. Johnson had completely stopped crying and also managed to smile at me a time or two. She was apologizing, I supposed, for her unkind outburst the night before.

Mr. Johnson seemed more at ease too. The Johnson children were not much other than our younger ones, and more often than not, Jessie carried little Carolyn on his back, while William carried a rifle and kept an eye out for Indians and wild animals. The last we heard, the Indians didn’t live in southern Iowa, but Mr. Johnson wasn’t convinced they knew that.

By the end of the third day, Asbury and I reorganized our morning and nightly routines, so we wouldn’t waste as little time and energy as possible. A weasel snuck up on Mary Louise, tried to steal the bonnet she held in her hand, startled her, and enraged her enough to run after it. Harriett thought it was hilarious. After three days of walking, I was surprised Mary Louise had the energy to move, let alone run. Fortunately, she recovered her bonnet.

That night, we were to meet a family on their way back to Iowa, and hear of the heartbreaking troubles they faced on the Oregon Trail.

Chapter 3

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