The Last Wagon, Chapter 4

by Marti Talbott (c) 2021

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

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CHAPTER 4

Another two days of travel and we came to the cutoff leading south-west to Kanesville. We soon learned we weren’t far from Mosquito Creek, which ran parallel to the road. Thankfully, we arrived early enough in spring to avoid being pestered by hundreds of mosquitos. The creek was lined with shrubs, hackberry, cottonwood, and dogwood trees. We were comforted knowing firewood was within our reach, and the animals could easily graze at night.

For the first time in the evening, Mrs. Johnson invited Mary Louise and Harriet to come to their campfire and play with her little girl, Carolyn. The next evening, I invited Carolyn to our campfire. It became a habit for the three of them to play together, giving both Mrs. Johnson and myself a badly needed time of rest on alternating nights. Other than that, Mrs. Johnson barely said a word to any of us. Yet, we had something in common, she and I. She didn’t want to be there anymore than I did.

On the other hand, Mrs. Finley was friendly with everyone. Her boys, all four of them, were old enough to care for themselves, and Mrs. Finley loved nothing more than chatting about anything and everything. I was becoming used to her heavy Scottish accent, and out of the other two women, I liked her best. She was a faithful wife, often saying she loved her husband and where Mr. Finley was, she would always be also. I greatly admired her devotion, although I didn’t tell her why. If only momma had loved papa that much.

I worried about Harriet and occasionally stopped what I was doing just to watch her. She hadn’t asked about momma in days, and I knew full well she missed her as much as I did. More than once, I had to fight back tears imagining her sad expression meant Harriet was suffering a broken heart.

*

As we drew closer to Kanesville, the road took us past small settlements on both sides of the wide road, with log cabins dotting land that had been cleared and farmed. Yet, there were few people who stopped to watch us as we drove past. As we approached the next settlement, Emery drove the teams, the girls were playing in the wagon, and Asbury had ridden the horse on up ahead to talk to Mr. Finley. With a few minutes to myself, I walk a short distance behind the wagon, trying to avoid the dust.

This settlement was more populated with friendly people who stopped, smiled and waved to us. I smiled and waved back. A boy who looked to be Emery’s age watched our first two wagons pass, and then came to walk beside me. “You just missed ‘em,” he announced.

“Just missed who?”

“The Mormons. They’ve gone to join the others in the Utah Territory. Are you Mormons?”

“No,” I answered, “We’re mostly Baptists.”

“Oh, well don’t fret, we’ve got Baptists here too. Did you come to stay?”

I shook my head. “What is this place?”

“Downsville. Mr. Young said he found good land that no one else wanted, and that the Mormons should come. Most of our folks left three days ago.”

“I see.”

“You should stay,” he urged.

“I’m tempted, but my brother wants to see the Oregon Territory.” When I said that, the boy stopped walking beside me and when I looked back to see what had become of him, he was talking to two curious men and a woman. It was good to see Downsville, although we didn’t stay to talk to the others. At least now I understood why the farms and cabins along the way looked deserted. The road turned due west again and when it took us directly to Mosquito Creek we found a very fine bridge. We easily crossed the creek, watered the livestock and continued on.

As we drove down a pleasant hill, we caught our first sight of the much larger town of Kanesville, White canvas tents and log cabins dotted bluffs, that sloped toward a curve in the Missouri River shaped like an ox collar. Smoke billowed up from a number of campfires, and we could see a patchwork of well-trodden paths between the dwellings. Oxen, sheep, cows and horses seemed content to graze wherever they wished, and it did my heart good to see children playing.

Mr. Finley halted us to speak to a man, which allowed me time to lift the girls out of the wagon. Not long after, Cory stopped first at the Johnson wagon and then came to us.

“We came too late in the day to cross the river,” he reported, “and tomorrow is Sunday. The Mormons don’t believe in working on Sunday, so …”

I hopefully asked, “So we can take a day of rest?”

“Looks like we have no choice,” he answered. “Mr. Marshall, the man my father talked to, said we’re welcome to hold up in the empty cabins and let the teams graze. They won’t stay far here.”

I grinned from ear-to-ear. Two nights inside a cabin sounded like a dream come true.

Cory hesitated to address me specifically, “Seems like there’s a lot to see here in Kanesville. I could walk with you later, if you like?”

I was completely taken aback by his offer and couldn’t think of a thing to say.” “I …”

“She walks with me,” Asbury interrupted.

Cory protested, “I mean her no harm.” When Asbury didn’t back down, Cory’s smile faded, he turned around, and walked away.

Normally, I was the one who found Cory annoying. “What’s wrong?”

“Haden,” Asbury started, “papa never let you out of his sight and neither will I. Many a man will want you, and few will be worthy, Pay Cory Finley no mind. It only encourages him.”

I had seen that determined look in my brother’s eyes before, but never where I was concerned. It was good to feel protected now that papa wasn’t with us. Asbury had taken a lot more responsibility for us on his shoulders than I realized. From that moment on, I was determined to pay more attention to his needs than I had in the past.

We chose three empty cabins near the southern end of Kanesville and gratefully accept firewood from several kind strangers. They invited us to join them in the Mormon Tabernacle for Sunday services, but Asbury made our excuses. I didn’t argue although I was curious.

*

After we finished supper, Mr. Daniel Hall, an older man with graying hair came to visit with us. I offered to make him a cup of tea, but he declined. “If you’re going on to Oregon,” he told Asbury, “then this is the place to replenish your supplies. The next opportunity is Fort Laramie, but with so many having gone just a few days ahead of you, supplies there will be limited.”

“Thanks for the advice,” said Asbury. “What can you tell us about the land before we reach Fort Laramie?”

“Well, the road will mostly be straight until you reach the North Platte River. Then it follows the North Platte River across the Nebraska Territory and on into Wyoming. The headwaters of the Platte are in the Rocky Mountains and it runs into the Missouri below where you’ll cross in the morning. There won’t be many steep hills to climb until you reach the mountains.” Mr. Hall paused to thoughtfully stroke his trimmed gray beard. “Now, some of the water in the Platte isn’t safe to drink.”

“You mean the black water?” I asked.

“Oh, you’ve heard.”

I answered, “We shared a meal with the Gibson family and they warned us about it.”

“Are they the ones taking their dead back to Iowa?” When I nodded, he continued, “Then you know what can happen if you run out of food and money. Most folks don’t understand and spend money on things they don’t truly need. Food runs out, there’s no place to buy more, they have nothing left to trade, and … well, you’ve seen what can happen.”

I hung my head, “Starving children.”

“It’s the worst thing this world can do to a child.” Well, I best get back to the family. We’ve got a mercantile that’s pretty well stocked with goods if you have a need. We’ve got everything here. You can send a letter east, west, north or south by pony express, or you can catch a stage heading east if you’ve changed your minds about Oregon.” He chuckled when he saw the perturbed look on Asbury’s face. “I suppose not.” Mr. Hall tipped his hat and then started up the hill.

Just then, I was reminded. Before I spoke, I looked to see if the girls were paying any attention. They weren’t, but I whispered anyway, “I promised Mary Louise I would write a letter to papa.”

“And send it where?” Asbury asked.

“Home I guess, unless you have a better idea.”

“I see no harm in it.” He dug in his hidden inside pocket and handed me a nickel. “Postage.”

“Thank you.”

*

That night was the best rest we’d seen in eleven days. We were inside, we were warm, and the people before us had left two big beds and a small table with one chair. Earlier, I borrowed a pencil and paper from Mrs. Finley, who was keeping a diary of our travels to send to her family in Philadelphia. As I sat at the table to write, Emory wanted to know what I was doing.

“I’m writing to papa.”

Harriet caught her breath, shoved her blanket aside, climbed out of bed, and rushed to my side. “You know where papa is?”

I put my arm around her. “Not exactly, but I’m hoping this letter will reach him. Would you like to help me write it?” When she nodded, I pulled her into my lap, and after I finished writing where we were and that we were all safe, Harriet put her ‘H’ at the bottom next to my name. I thought later that it might have been cruel, giving Emery and the girls a thread of hope when I didn’t believe there was one. But then, it was possible papa was hurt and laid up at home waiting until he healed enough to follow us. It was possible. Either that or he was still trying to find momma.

*

The next morning while most of the townspeople went to church and others were coming and going this way and that, Asbury brought a bucket of water to the cabin so we could wash ourselves and change into clean clothes. The girls were thrilled to have time to play and soon made friends with a little boy living in the next cabin. Asbury went to check on the oxen, while Emery and I put the dirty clothes in a bucket and took them to the edge of the river.

My first up close look at the wide, fast moving river with its dangerous looking current swirls took my breath away. I shivered when a breeze coming off the cold water made me hang on to my bonnet. If ever fear was to tempt me to run back to Iowa, it was that morning. I couldn’t imagine how we would ever survive such a treacherous looking crossing. Emery gave me that look – the frustrated one he always made when he thought girls were just senseless scaredy-cats.

In spite of myself, I smiled.

It was the first time he and I had been alone together since we left home, and out of the blue Emery said, “Papa will come.”

I suspected he was just as afraid of the river as I was, and would have felt more confident if papa had come with us. Emery being old enough, I was determined not to give him false hope. “Will he? It’s been …”

“I know, but he would never run off like momma did.”

I put a loving hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry momma ran off.”

“Me too,” he said, bowing his head. “Mostly for Mary Louise’s sake.”

“Why mostly Mary Louise?”

“She cries sometimes when she thinks you won’t see her. She’s scared and she misses momma. There’s nothing we can do about it, is there?”

“No, there isn’t. Thank you for keeping an eye on Mary Louise. She needs a big brother just now.” He nodded and then knelt down on the river bank and started to wash a pair of stockings.

*

With Emery’s help, we carried the two buckets of wet clothes back to the cabin where the previous residents had strung ropes between cabins perfect for hanging them out too dry. I was eager to see all that Kanesville had to offer, and as soon as Asbury was ready, we joined the Finleys and the Johnsons, walked down the hill to the main road, and turned toward the heart of town. We soon learned Kanesville had a school, several shops, a blacksmith who worked in a three-sided barn, and several supply houses where parts for wagons and tools were being sold.

A stagecoach driver was loading passengers and luggage when we came to the post office. I playfully looked at Asbury, nodded the side of my head toward the stagecoach, and made my brother roll his eyes. While the Finleys and the Johnsons went on ahead, we waited for the stagecoach to leave, and then I paid the price and mailed the letter to papa. Harriett could not have been more pleased, and after that, her manner changed back to the happy little girl we all knew and loved.

As we approached the mercantile, six teams pulling covered wagons came down the road and stopped not far from us. Mr. Hall came again to greet us and watched as several men climb down out of their wagons. “Gold seekers would be my guess. You can tell by the lack of wives and children they bring to Council bluffs with them.”

“Council Bluffs?” Asbury asked.

“Yes Sir, it used to be called Council Bluff on account of the Indian councils, but the Mormons called it Kanesville. Now that they’re gone, most of them anyway, there’s talk of changing the name back again.”

Asbury nodded. “I see.”

“Yes sir, they’re gold seekers right enough, looking to stock up before they head for the California Territory,” Mr. Hall continued. “We want them to come. We even advertise in the newspapers back east.”

“Where do you get the supplies?” I asked.

“The fastest way is by stagecoach, but what they can’t carry a steamboat brings up the Missouri.”

“A Steamboat?” Emery gushed. “I’ve never seen one of those!”

“I’m afraid the next one isn’t due for a month.”

Seeing the disappointment in his brother’s expression, Asbury asked, “Do they have steamboats in Oregon?”

Mr. Hall grinned when he answered, “If they don’t they soon will.”

Emery was relieved, and turned his attention to a flock of birds flying overhead.

“It’s a pity you’re not thinking of staying,” Mr. Hall continued. “Many of the Mormons sold their land and their business before they left, those that could find a buyer, I mean. Some just let the squatters sit right down on their land and when they refused to leave, the Mormons did nothing about it. What did they care, they weren’t staying anyway? Just the same, some folks want to move on like you do, but can’t until they sell their land. Let me know if you change your mind. They’ll give you a fair price if you’re interested.”

*

Just as Mr. Hall said, the mercantile had everything anyone could want. I never said a word when Mrs. Johnson bought a doll for Carolyn. The doll was hand made from scraps of leftover cloth, including the head and body and stuffed with sawdust. Both Mary Louise and Harriett looked upon the purchase with envy, but I consoled them with the promise of making dolls for then along the way. I hardly had time to spare as it was, but the promise seemed to satisfy them.

On the way back to our wagon, several men were gathered in front of the blacksmith’s three-sided barn. I recognized one as a man I had seen climbing down off the first gold seeker wagon.

“Which is best to pull a wagon, a team of oxen or mules?” he asked.

The blacksmith wiped his hands on his apron and rolled his eyes. He was about to answer when another man interrupted.

“That’s the same question every easterner asks, and the answer is always the same - Oxen!”

The easterner was about to ask why, when a third man said, “If’n you don’t have mules.”

“Why mules?” the easterner asked.

“Because Oxen have cloven hooves and have to be tarred and shod with two curved pieces of metal, one on each side of the hoof. When it comes time to shod them the dumb oxen lay down with their feet under them. You’ll need twenty strong men to lift up an ox just to add more tar.”

The second argued, “While mules have to be fed and Oxen do just fine on prairie grass and sage.”

“A mule will outlast an ox seven ways to Sunday,” another argued.

“And a mule would likely kick you as look at you! Besides, they cost thrice the price of an ox.”

“Thrice,” the easterner gasped.

I would have stayed longer, but Asbury took my arm and urged us to walk on down the road.

When I glanced back, Mr. Hall was hurrying to catch up with us, so I stopped and turned around.

“I just heard,” said Mr. Hall, taking a moment to catch his breath. “Word is, there’s a wagon train on its way up from Independence, Missouri. It left last week, and it’s so big the wagon master split it into two trains with one several miles ahead of the other.”

“Are they coming here?” Asbury asked.

“Not likely,” Mr. Hall answered. “They’ll follow the Little Blue River up and cross the Platte at Grand Island.”

“There’s an island?” I asked.

“Indeed there is,” he answered. “I’ve seen it myself. It’s between the south and north Platte and goes on for several miles.” He turned his attention to Asbury. “I’m thinking if you can get there ahead of those wagon trains, you can latch on to one of them. There’s safety in numbers, you know, especially in Indian territory.”

“How far are we from Grand Island?” Asbury asked.

Mr. Hall removed his hat and scratched his head. “Another hundred and some miles or so.”

Asbury asked, “And the wagon trains are how far away?”

“At least two weeks, maybe more.”

Asbury profusely thanked Mr. Hall, shook his hand, turned and hurried off to tell Mr. Finley and Mr. Johnson.

Whether we beat the other wagon train to Grand Island or not wasn’t what was on my mind – first, we had to survive crossing the Missouri River.

Chapter 5 coming soon

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

(c) 2021

HOME Contact Marti Sign up to be notified when the next chapter is posted.

Based on an Actual 1909 Colorado Train Wreck!

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