The Last Wagon, Chapter 5

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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Chapter 5

We arose early the next morning, hooked up our teams and got in line to cross the Missouri River. Unfortunately, we didn’t rise early enough to beat the gold seeker wagons. I wasn’t disappointed. It was instead, an opportunity to see just what happened when a ferry navigated the powerful currents in the river.

First however, there was a price to pay for crossing the river.

We gathered near the Finley wagon and listened as Mr. Finley read the price list to us. For each person on foot, the cost was ten cents. For a horse with or without a rider, twenty-five cents. The price for each yoked team of oxen plus the wagon driver was seventy-five cents and we had two teams. Sheep, five cents each. If the cow was tied to the wagon, there would be no charge. A four-wheel wagon cost fifty cents, a two-wheel carriage was half the price.

I’d always been good at mathematics and therefore was able to add it all up in my head. “Two dollars and forty-five cents,” I whispered to Asbury.

Mr. Johnson frowned. “We’ve a herd of twenty sheep, and since we mean to share the meat, it is only fair to share the cost of getting them across the river. For twenty sheep, each of us must pay thirty-three cents.

I added another fifteen cents to our total. Joining our four sheep to their herds had not been a good idea after all, but it was too late to undo what was done. The new total came to, “Two dollars and sixty cents.”

“It sounds fair to me,” my brother whispered back.”

I gasped. “Fair? It’s outrageous! For that price we can buy two acres of land with a cabin already on it here in Kanesville, and grow enough food to sell and feed ourselves come winter.”

“Sister, you worry too much. We have more than enough money to make it to Oregon.”

“Do we? How many more rivers will we have to pay to cross between here and there?”

He had that determined look again, the one that made me wonder which of us would lose our mind first. “Haden, I’m going to Oregon. You can stay in Kanesville if you like, but the children go with me!”

Not only did my brother look like our father, he had inherited papa’s stubbornness too. This one time, I decided not to push the issue. It occurred to me that living near Mosquito Creek might not be as carefree as I thought.

Asbury said, “If all five of us ride in the wagon we could save fifty cents.”

Horrified, I glared at him. “Ride in the wagon. What if it falls in the river? The children would never make it out in time. No, absolutely not! The girls ride on the horse with me. Horses can swim, you know.”

“And logs can float, which is what the ferries are made of. Haden, I talked to the oarsmen and the wagons hardly ever fell in the water. It’s not that dangerous.”

“Hardly ever,” I scoffed and walked away.

I left the girls in Emery’s care, joined several others, and went to the water’s edge to see for myself. The gradual decline of the road on the east bank of the Missouri River allowed a view downstream where the Platte River flowed into the Missouri. At the end of the road was a watery cutout that allowed the ferry to dock completely out of the river’s current.

Just as I arrived, the oarsmen were loading their first passengers, which at first appeared to be only a horse drawn carriage and several men on foot. However, soon one of the gold seeker’s wagons was loaded beside the carriage. Even then, there was enough room on the huge ferry to load two more wagons, complete with their teams of harnessed mules and oxen.

Asbury was right, the ferry was made of dozens of logs, tightly secured together so that even the water did not seep in between them. Ropes strung across the water from one side of the river to the other, kept the ferry from drifting downstream, and an oarsman held the end of a long pole which he appeared to use to keep the ferry on course. As soon as wooden blocks were wedged under the wagon wheels, the ferry cast off.

When it reached the other side, the men simply stepped off the ferry, then the horse easily pulled the buggy up the slight incline until it reached a road on top of a bluff, and turned north toward the Florence settlement. Next, the three gold seeker wagons navigated the incline and continued on the road Mr. Hall said would eventually take them to the Platte River.

As there were no customers coming back across the river, by the time it returned two men on board had installed fencing around the outsides to keep the gold seeker’s cattle and our sheep from falling off. Three gold-seekers rode on horses with the cows, and Cory and one of his brothers took the dogs across with our sheep.

I watched as the ferry took on a third load of gold seeker wagons, didn’t see anyone or anything fall in the water, and was beginning to breathe a little easier. Asbury’s idea of all of us riding in the wagon didn’t seem so unreasonable. After all, it would save us fifty cents, and a penny saved was a penny earned.

We were the last wagon loaded behind the Johnson and the Finley families, Asbury and Emery rode on the front seat of our wagon, the girls were inside, the cow was tied to the back of the wagon, and I sat on our horse just in case disaster struck and I needed to pluck someone out of the water. Though my nerves were a disaster, the crossing was not as frightening as I feared. Yet, I was relieved once we were safely across and again on our way to Oregon.

Leaving Iowa painfully tugged at my heart. As soon as we reached the flat road, I turned the horse around and looked one more time for papa. He wasn’t coming, of course, and it was time to stop watching for him. We were headed for a new life, whatever that might become, and it was better to look forward and not back. We were five Pemberton children, we were together, we loved each other, and that was all that mattered.

*

It wasn’t long before the Florence and Kanesville settlements were well behind us. Mr. Hall had been right when he said the Nebraska Territory looked a lot like Iowa, although there were fewer hills for us to climb. There were hills north of us and higher ones than we had seen in Iowa. We soon began to lag behind the gold seeker wagons, which was fine with us. We made enough dust all by ourselves without their wagons and cattle adding to it. Besides, they were in a hurry to get rich in the California territory.

In some ways, it was easy to fall back into the routine of rising, eating, hooking up the teams, and being on our way each morning. Nevertheless, it was hard for me to put the easy life of having a cabin to sleep in behind us. How I wished we’d stayed in Kanesville.

Mrs. Johnson must have been feeling a measure of regret as well, for she changed back to her former complaining self. Little girls don’t always get along especially when there are two corncob dolls and one fancy store-bought doll involved.

Of an evening when Mrs. Johnson brought Carolyn and her doll to play, I suggested a remedy to the problem. “Perhaps it would be better if Carolyn left her doll in her wagon when she came to play.” I could tell by the way Mrs. Johnson put her hands on her hips, that we were about to have an unfriendly conversation.

“Children must learn to share!” she grumbled.

“Yes,” I pointed out, “but it’s Carolyn who isn’t willing to share.”

Mrs. Johnson grabbed Carolyn’s hand and stormed off.

I couldn’t actually blame Carolyn for not sharing a new doll that could so easily be damaged in the outdoor circumstances we found ourselves in. The next night when Mrs. Finley came to visit, I learned a whole lot more about Mrs. Johnson’s circumstances than I ever wanted to know, although it softened my heart somewhat.

There was a thing I’d never heard of before called the ‘curse.” According to Mrs. Finley, Mrs. Johnson married late and was likely well on her way into the dreaded mood swings of on again off again friendliness. There was nothing anyone could do about it, even Mrs. Johnson herself, but we could be a little more patient and understanding. Mrs. Finley’s message was clear and I had to agree. The road to Oregon was long – too long for Mrs. Johnson and I to be at odds.

Though I didn’t mention it, I wondered if the curse was the reason momma ran off.

*

The next creek we came to was shallow enough to easily drive our teams across. We stopped to water the animals, helped ourselves to cups of cold fresh water, and replenished our water supply. Asbury said at the next water source, we should completely empty our water barrel and refill it before we got to the Platte River – just in case the water in it was black.

By the afternoon of the third day, we discovered the gold-seekers were not that far ahead of us after all and had stopped before crossing the Elkhorn River. Dark threatening storm clouds loomed in the distance, and without my noticing, we had passed from April into May – the beginning of the rainy season.

At the edge of the river stood a small cabin in which two men with French accents offered to ferry us across – for a price. However, it was too dangerous to cross until morning since the rain upriver would soon make the river swell. Seeing my look of distress over the cost of another river crossing, the Frenchman assured me it was the last deep river that had to be crossed before the California cutoff. I was somewhat relieved to hear that, although we were going to Oregon, not California.

Mr. Harbrink, a fur trader who had agreed to lead the gold-seekers to the California Territory, came to talk to us. He reminded us of what we already knew – lightning and thunder would spook the livestock. Therefore, he suggested we circle all the wagons and put the animals in the middle. He said we would need to know how to do that anyway – in case the Pawnee or Omaha Indians attacked us.

I’d forgotten about the Indians.

Mr. Finley agreed on our behalf, although later he suggested we let our animals graze in the morning and allow the gold-seekers to once more get a head start. “I don’t like the looks of them, not around our womenfolk,” he mumbled as he went back to his wagon.

Asbury and I exchanged worried looks. Not only were we in danger from a swollen river and an Indian attack, there were white men to worry about as well. Even so, there were wagons to circle, mouths to feed and wood to fetch so we could build campfires.

Except for those near the banks of Elkhorn River, the clumps of trees in Nebraska were far enough away not to prevent us from seeing Indians if they did decide to attack. On the other hand, I estimated there were enough trees and bushes lining the river to hide at least three full tribes. I privately scolded myself for letting my fears get the better of me. It was unlikely we would see an Indian attack during a storm, there was safety in numbers, and as the gold-seeker men were busy circling the wagons and roundup the livestock, I could rest easy.

When Mrs. Finley and I took the younger children to look for dry wood, Emery whistled for Sutter and brought his rifle to protect us. I was happy when Mrs. Johnson and Carolyn joined us. Mrs. Johnson smiled specifically at me, so I hoped our little upset over Carolyn’s doll was forgiven. Unfortunately, most of the dry wood had already been scavenged by the Mormon wagon train that left just a few days ahead of us. Thunder in the distance made us turn back.

After the wagons were circled, Emery and I arranged the same-size boxes inside the wagon making a place for us to sleep. Lightning began to brighten the darkening sky, and claps of thunder sounding not more than a few miles away, made us pull the canvas drawstrings in the front and back or the wagon to keep the rain out. That night we ate dried beef, dry oats, and a handful of dried apples.

It had not yet begun to rain when Asbury volunteered to be among the men taking the first watch. When he put on his long oiled canvas coat and then tipped his hat to me, he looked just like papa. Everyone said papa was a very handsome man, and seeing the resemblance made me smile.

With Emery inside to protect us, I spent the early part of the night with one arm around Mary Louise and the other around Harriet protecting them – if such was possible, with only a canvas between us and the lightning. The increasingly loud claps of thunder frightened even me, finally passed and at last we were left with nothing but the wind and the pounding rain. When I looked, Emery had finally fallen fast asleep. I was reminded that he was only twelve years old and already taking on the chores of a grown man. Did he resent it? He didn’t say, but then Emery was more likely to confide in Asbury than in me.

Suddenly, frightened horses began to squeal, and men began to shout. I quickly loosened the canvas drawstrings in the back of the wagon and looked out. I was shocked to see a man I had never seen before so close to us. He stood between our wagon and the next with both his arms straight out. In one hand he held a rifle. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Three horses jumped the wagon tongue and got out. Stay in your wagon Miss, it’s not safe out here.” I took his word for it and re-tightened the drawstrings. It seemed to take considerable time for the animals to calm, but when I peeked out a second time, the man was gone.

Asbury finally came back, climbed inside and rested. “Mud,” was all he said before he curled up next to Emery and went to sleep. I reached over, spread a blanket over the two of them, laid the sleeping girls side-by-side, covered them, and then tried to sleep in the midst of a howling wind and driving rain. Mud meant slow and arduous travel, especially for oxen that had to pull a heavy wagon up and down a hill, and people like me who were destined to walk behind it.

*

Already three times wider than the last creek we crossed, it appeared the Elkhorn River had swollen to twice its size by the next morning. As Mr. Finley suggested, we stayed behind to let our animals graze and to watch the gold digger wagons ferried across the river. Instead of the huge ferry that took us across the Missouri, the Elkhorn River ferry was short and barely the width of one wagon. The wagon teams had to be unhooked and taken across first, thereby being ready to be hooked back up once the wagons got there. With nine gold digger wagons waiting, the crossings promised to take most of the day.

This ferry had two teams of horses, one on each side of the river that pulled the ferry back and forth. How the ropes kept the ferry on course was beyond my understanding, and once the fifth wagon was loaded, I began to feel sorry for the horses.

The charge for getting us across, said the Frenchman, was nearly half what we paid in Kanesville. This time, there was no point in complaining to Asbury. With just our herd and three wagons to take across, there was still enough daylight and the Frenchmen were happy to oblige us. One promised good pasture on the other side of the river, and from there, we would finally see the Platte River.

“How far is it from here to Grand island,” I asked.

“A hundred miles or so,” the Frenchman answered.

By my calculations, that would take us another five days at least, proving the road was more dirt than mud. Already, the teams were having trouble pulling the wagons up the incline on the other side of the river.

This time when it was our turn to cross the Elkhorn River, the girls rode in front of me on the horse. Asbury didn’t say a word, and just like before, he and Emery rode in the wagon. Once across, being last meant deeper ruts and more loose mud on the incline. I held my breath as our oxen teams struggled, until at last the oxen, out wagon, the horse and all five of us were safely a mile or two down the road. Just as the Frenchman said, south of the road was the best pasture I had seen in days – and our first glimpse of the Platte River. It was not black, but it wasn’t clean water either.

I was glad when Asbury completely emptied our water barrel that night and refiled it with fresh, Elkhorn River water.

The end of chapter 5

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