Authors: Nancy Radke
THE TRAHERNS, COLLECTION #1
Included, an exclusive short story
about Charlie Web,
THE BEST FRIENDS IN THE COUNTRY
It took me a long time to learn
just what lovin’ was all about. You'd have thought anyone that dumb would've
missed it altogether, but I had love...in all its shapes...and for the most
part was too blockheaded to realize it.
Those were hard times, just after
the Civil War, with the country restless and all, men moving about from place
to place. You couldn’t tell if a man was friend or enemy. A hard-faced gent
might be one mighty fine man down on his luck, while a slicked-up well dressed
pleasant looking hombre might be a thieving carpet-bagger with no regard for
other folks’ rights. Trouble was, there was no way of knowing till you'd been
around ‘em for a spell and by the time you figured out who was who, you
could've lost your all.
Folks that used to be right
friendly to strangers just naturally got touchy and me and my folks were no
exception. Pa had struggled back from the war, one eye missing and with a
half-healed head wound, to a wife and seventeen-year-old daughter trying to
keep a Tennessee hillside farm together for him.
Ma and I had hidden many a night
while the soldiers and nightriders swept through the place, helping themselves
to whatever we hadn't time to hide well enough. They took our mule and
destroyed our crops. We lived from hand to mouth, foraging in the woods, eating
squirrels and planting corn and beans in small hidden patches where we had a
chance to harvest some of it.
Pa came back, a broken man, to a
broken-down farm and a broken-spirited wife and a land full of thievin'
strangers moving through. Ma's health had never been too good before the war
and sometime during it the life went out of her. She was still living, but
barely; sick in bed for three months before Pa arrived.
I thought it might perk her up to
have him home, but it was too late. She died three weeks after he got back. The
sight of her dying, on top of the state of the farm was too much and he shot
himself that same night. I looked at his pistol, wondering why, with peace
coming soon on the land, my life should be thus shattered.
Our nearest neighbor was Abigail
Courtney, a widow woman who had raised a passel of boys. There was none of them
home to help her, what with the war and the restlessness that comes over
near-grown boys when they see others going off to war or westward to the new
lands. She come to help me get my folks ready to bury and since it was just the
two of us, we dug the graves and buried them ourselves. She took our Bible and
said the words I was too choked up to say.
A good woman, Abigail was too old
to be deserted by her young whelps and I said as much. At least one of them
could've stayed. But she wouldn't have none of it, said that young men must
wander free for a spell before they were ready for the yoke of responsibility.
Otherwise they'd not settle down contented when they were forced to; always be
wanting to move on.
She had married a roving man; one
that always had to see what was over the next hill—I couldn't recollect
her husband. But I didn't agree with her at all.
Me, I'd felt the yoke early,
helping Ma survive. And if responsibility didn't hurt a girl, it sure as
shootin couldn't hurt a boy. I'd grown up around those boys, and fine young men
they'd been. I’d dreamed of marrying Gage, the most handsome of them all, but
my bubble of romantic dreams burst when they all skedaddled and I was left
"You gonna stay on,
Mallory?" she asked. It would be a comfort to her if I did, for with my
leaving she'd be all alone on that part of the mountain.
"No, ma'am, I can't. Pa told
me to leave Tennessee and go to my Uncle Demesyon and Aunt Edith in
I told her to help herself to
anything she wanted from our place before the mice destroyed it. I was leaving
everything behind; my ma's quilts and our few books and all the little things
that make a house a home. I couldn't carry it and told her I doubted if I'd
ever be back. If I did, Ma’s things would be better off with her using them.
She said, "Thanks, Mallory. I
always did put store by your ma. I'll take care of her things, and if you ever
want ‘em, I'll have ‘em for you." She was a kindly woman, and I almost
cried when I left, but I'd promised Pa I'd go to Uncle Dem and a promise made
must be kept.
She had to leave right away, it
being a far distance and her with a cow to milk. I had nothing to keep me, so I
walked with her back to her place where I spent the night. I had Pa's Sharps
rifle he'd brought back from the war and a pistol almost too heavy for me that
I'd used to hunt squirrels; a canteen, his long blue coat, some dried apples
and a spot of cornmeal.
As I was getting ready to leave,
Abigail looked at my kit and said she'd give me some pickled meat to take
along. That sounded mighty good, but when we went down to the meat house to get
it, we found a skunk drowned in the brine. So I thanked her anyway, figuring
I'd rather eat squirrel.
My plan was to travel northwest,
through the Cumberland Gap to Kentucky and from there on to St. Louis. It had
to be done. Waiting or wishing wouldn't make it easier. If I could keep away
from bad company, I'd a chance to make it as I was used to hiking long over
mountain trails and traveling on little food.
I traveled slow, hunting as I
went, avoiding the settlements 'cause I didn't have no money to buy with
anyway, and didn't intend to beg. I could bark a squirrel by holding that
pistol with both hands, and the fish just naturally sought my hook. Several
days passed before I had to drop down off the mountain trails to the flatlands
where there were people about, and it scared me more than I wanted to admit.
It was the first time I'd ever
really been out of those mountains, and when I looked down on the fine farming
areas of the Kentucky lands, it struck me that there was a whole lot of world
out there I didn't know beans about, so had better be mighty careful where I
planted my feet.
So far I hadn't run into much of
anybody, skirting around farms like an outlaw on the run. Ever so often I
checked the trail forward and back. By putting my ear to the ground I could
hear riders before they got close enough to see me. I came across a few
walkers, traveling the trails, but mostly I saw them first and stepped in the
bushes before they got near. My pistol was loaded and stuck in a belt under my
coat, out of sight but quick to hand.
But now I was coming down to lots
of people and I'd have to be right careful; there were some mighty mean men
about and I had a sweep of long red hair that Pa said men would die over. I
didn't quite know what he meant by that, but I took it as a warning and covered
it up with a scarf, putting my old hat on top to keep off the weather.
It was spring, still cold out, and
I'd been sleeping wherever I could crawl into. Dressed in that long dirty coat,
I was a sorry sight for anyone to gaze upon. I knew it, but it couldn't be
helped and if it made people steer shy, then so much the better. I didn't fancy
having to shoot anybody and it's easier to avoid trouble than to have to figure
a way out.
Whistling to keep up my spirits, I
It was May and the mud was still
in the roads but the worse ruts had been smoothed out by the many wagons
passing over. I came across a road that was wide and heavily traveled, going my
way, so I set off to follow it. No sense trying to stay on the back roads with
this laid out before me like an invite to a dance.
There was all kinds of folks
traveling that road. A lot of them had their possessions piled up in wagons,
mule drawn and canvas covered. I wasn't the only person headed out of this
About noon I stopped to rest near
a wagon pulled up at a stream, the woman feeding her six young’uns while the
man let the mules drink and graze a little. We got to talking, her husband
throwing in comments as we did so.
Her name was Hedda Gunther. She
and her husband, Axel, were headed to Oregon to the rich farmland they'd heard
was there for the taking. They planned to join a train of wagons in
Independence. According to them, there were lots of trains leaving and you just
joined up with any that'd have you, the bigger the better, up to a point. The
bigger trains were more easily defended, but the smaller trains had less
livestock, so the grazing was better.
They were shocked to hear I was
walking to Missouri, alone, with no one to do for me. Right away they offered
to take me with them, but I was refusing, not wanting to burden them any. They
disagreed. Seems their youngest was a girl, not over three months old and
Hedda was having a hard time
nursing her, keeping the two little boys in hand and helping Axel. They would
be glad for my help. The older children were all under twelve and hadn't yet
learned enough camp routine to help her much. She and Axel planned to hire
someone when they joined the wagon train, but this would benefit the both of
It sounded just what I wanted and
I said so. I hadn't any idea how much the strain of constant vigilance had
taken out of me until I got to sleep that night with Axel guarding the family.
I just passed out and although I'm an early riser, I slept right through until
Hedda called me for breakfast.
Ashamed, I apologized, not wanting
to be found lacking my first day with them. It didn't seem to bother them any,
and from then on to Missouri, I made sure I was a help and not a bother.
We crossed the Ohio River and then
the Mississippi. There was a string of wagons at the Mississippi over a mile
and a half long. I'd never seen so many wagons, all of them waiting to be
ferried across. We got there in the forenoon, took our place in line and moved
up as the wagons moved over. We stayed there all that day and camped there that
night. Next morning we got over.
Axel put out word that I was
hunting for Demesyon Buchanan and would wait in Independence. We kept asking
for Uncle Dem, but no one had heard of him. When Uncle Dem heard, he would
contact me...if he and Aunt Edith were still alive. My folks hadn't heard from
them for several years—and they'd been war years—so I might be
looking for what wasn't there.
It had given us and the mules a
good rest. The men got together while they were waiting and began to form the
nucleus of a train. One man knew a guide, Charlie Web, who was willing to
travel along as he was headed back to Oregon anyway. Axel hired a young man by
the name of Barney Ashley to help him and Hedda. Barney was fifteen, traveling
with his parents, Duncan and Madge, and figured to help both families out as he
Without the faintest notion where
my Uncle Dem lived in Missouri, I didn't know where to start looking. Axel said
it would be best to stay in Independence or Kansas City and send out word. That
sounded fine, but with no money and little city skills...who in Kansas City
needed a girl who was a good shot?
There were wagon trains leaving
every day, and Axel and Hedda joined some other folks. Unbeknownst to me, Axel
had sent word up the line that I was with them, and one day there was Uncle Dem
and Aunt Edith looking for me. Uncle Dem was Pa's brother, as like him as two
peas in a pod and the tears came as he hugged me. He had managed to come
through the war intact; but his farm, like ours, had been destroyed and now he
was moving on.
He and Aunt Edith had started out
with a train yesterday when someone had recognized his name and told them about
me, so they pulled out of line and came back to look. It was the first they
knew about Pa and Ma being dead and it shook them, but news like that was
common during those times and was accepted because it had to be.
They were headed to Oregon. Now
Oregon sounded fine to me; I had no wish to linger around the hoards of people
near the river and the talk of miles of empty land didn't frighten me like it
might those who had never walked the mountains. Uncle Dem decided to join the
group with Axel and Hedda and that made it even better.
We had about twenty-three wagons
in our train. We started out with more, but the first day out we had us a wind
and lightening storm like I'd never seen before. The hailstones were big as
rocks and deadly. The storm knocked us around considerably, ran off and killed
some of the stock and blew the canvas covers off a few of the wagons, drenching
The more unfortunate turned around
and headed back, deciding to get better equipped and join a later train. Some
of them couldn't have lasted a week where we were headed anyway, much less three
months, and that storm probably saved their lives. As least they discovered
early on it wern't no picnic they were taking.
Uncle Dem had been thinking of
going west for several years and had been making inquiries into what was
needed. He had him a solid built oak wagon, extra wheels, heavy canvas well
tied down, large water barrels, six sturdy mules and a riding horse.
He'd planned to take only the bare
necessities plus his plow and some seed grain, but at the last moment Aunt
Edith wouldn't part with her belongings and had heaped them on the wagon till
it pulled mighty hard. After the storm had passed, the mules could hardly move
it through the mud, and right then Uncle Dem off-loaded her piano and cast-iron
cook stove, giving them to some folks living nearby who said they could use