Into the Great Unknown: Chapter Two
Thanks for Returning
I really do appreciate it.
As I mentioned last week, there is very little chance of this series of short stories becoming a book. I’m just scratching an itch and writing about one of my favorite times in history, so I appreciate you traveling along with this young family as they take the adventure of a lifetime.
It’s about time for them to leave, so let’s peek in and see what’s happening.
The first chapter of this story
- Into the Great Unknown: Chapter One
I have a new family for you to meet. Travel with me to the year 1845. Iowa is the place, and dreams are about to become reality.
Loading up the Wagon
“Pa, Bobby Thompson says the Indians will scalp us. Is that true, Pa?”
I looked down at my six-year old, his blond hair blowing in the gentle breeze, freckles dotting his face, worry lines creasing his forehead. He was starting to take on some of my features, or so my wife said, a miniature Joshua, she said, especially around the eyes, robin’s-egg blue, those eyes, the gentlest blue she’d ever seen, she tells people.
I reached down and ruffled his hair.
“Well now, Samuel, has Bobby Thompson ever taken this trip we’re about to take? Has he ever been to Oregon?”
He squinted as he thought about my question. A group of warblers exploded out of the barn. Overhead a Mississippi Kite watched, tracing wide, slow circles, gauging distances and possibilities, always the hunter.
“No, Pa, I don’t reckon he has.”
“Well, there you have it, then. It’s plain hard to know about something you’ve never seen, don’t you think?
More squinting followed. The warblers grew weary of the chase and settled in the old oak.
“But Pa, we’ve never seen God, but Ma says he exists.”
I was saved from more theological questions by the sound of a wagon approaching. George Atkins, his wife, and son approached, crossed our small bridge, two horses tied to their wagon, the wagon drooping low under the heavy load, barrels strapped to the sides, wife and son walking alongside while George urged the oxen on. My wife, Laura, came out of the house, held her hand up to ward off the sun, walked over and stood by my side.
“I guess it must be time to leave our home, Joshua,” she said, putting her hand in mine.
A Final Memory-Catcher
I took a final look around at our fifty acres. The barn looked tired, reflecting my feelings, a few boards missing, the roof sagging, showing its age and not sure if it will stand through another storm. The fence, kicked down by the cows and repaired more times than I could remember, stood waiting for the new owner, as if on guard against unwanted invaders, circling the cabin, the trusty sentry. The old oak, struck twice by lightning, charred but still standing. Fields stood empty, awaiting care, hard to believe six months from then a field of green stalks would all but blot out the sun, their stalks swaying, the constant whisper of those stalks, a sound unlike anything else in life.
“What’re you doing, Pa?” my daughter Lisa asked.
“Just catching some final memories, Lisa. Just saving some visions for my later years. Come on, darlin’, let’s us head south to St. Joe. There’s an adventure waiting for us.”
The sun shone brightly as we took those first tentative steps towards St. Joe, Missouri, about three-hundred miles away, a good fifteen days of travel on decent roads, provided nothing went wrong, fifteen days to get into the rhythm of travel, work with the oxen, get to know their quirks, work out routines which would help us once we turned west and pointed our wagon towards the great unknown. My stomach was clenched and my mind was racing with concern. Indians scalping us? Just one of many worries I couldn’t voice out loud.
The Rhythm of the Road
The sense of a great adventure was gone by the third day. We had decent weather the first two but that third day, Lord God Almighty, it rained something fierce, as if all the angels in heaven were weeping at once. The roads turned to mud, the mud deep enough to suck you down, suck your spirit in the process. The oxen were straining with the load, making progress but none too happy about it. Lisa was sitting next to me as I pulled off the road under a stand of maples and set the brake. I helped her down off the wagon, handed her off to her mother. The four of us were soaked to the bone, feeling the chill, and grateful to be standing still for a spell. George and his family came to a halt behind us, looking every bit as miserable as I felt.
“Joshua,” my wife said. “If you think you can start a fire, I’ll get to fixing dinner. A fire sounds right good, so I don’t want to be hearing any excuses about it being too wet. Kids, you two help your father round up some dry twigs and such. Go on now! The sooner you do that the sooner we’ll stop shivering.”
I married up in life when I married Laura. Married close to twelve years and I’ve never seen her depressed. I wondered if the first time would be on this backbreaking journey of ours.
George and his son, me and my two, we managed to find enough dry wood to get a fire started. No one said a word as the fire roared and we stood around it feeling the warmth, all of us mud-splattered. Not for the first time I questioned the wisdom of the trip. George voiced what I was thinking.
“Three days it’s been, Joshua, every bone in my body hurts, and we’re still in Iowa. I’ve got some concerns about my wife’s health.”
“George, I’ll tell you something my daddy told me, and I suspect you know it’s the truth: womenfolk will always be stronger than the men of the family. It’s always been that way and it always will be that way. While you and I ride in the wagon, coaxing on those oxen, our women are walking behind, one step at a time, never one word of complaint, taking care of the young ones, cooking for us, mending our aches and pains. If I were you, I’d expend more energy worrying about you and not your wife. Now come on, let’s go see if we can shoot us a deer, or at least a rabbit or two. I could sure use some meat in my gut.”
“They say the deer are so plentiful in Oregon that a man would have to be blind not to shoot one wherever he aims.”
I spit on the ground, adding moisture to moisture, looked up at the trees blowing in the stiff breeze.
“They say a lot of things, George, probably half of which are true. I reckon we’ll find out for ourselves, soon enough, what’s truth and what’s a government fairy tale. Remember to keep that gun of yours loaded tonight, and close by. There’re desperate people on these roads, and we may have to discourage some of them along the way.”
The End of a Long Day
We slept under the wagon that night, the kids huddled close, Laura’s hand in mind, the rain pounding out a lullaby, all of us lost in our visions of a land far away, visions of a future hoped for, visions of a better life. On that night, on a lonely road in southern Iowa, we gave no thought to government or exploration. All that was important was beneath that wagon.
2017 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)