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Authors: Stephanie Grace Whitson

Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Fiction

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BOOK: Walks the Fire
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The women’s attention was drawn outside by the sound of angry voices.

Everyone in Illinois who knew Homer King knew that when he had set his jaw against an idea, no one could change his mind. And Homer had set his jaw.

“I durn near sweat blood buildin’ the finest wagon ever to cross the territory in. And I will not have those mangy critters hitched to my wagon! Give ’em to somebody else, that’s what I say!” He stood in the dusty street and stared up at the trail boss. “Our horses’ll do just fine. Why, they won first place last year in the wagon pull back home.” Homer swatted the broad rump of Gabe to emphasize his point. The horse patiently nodded, half asleep despite the hubbub around him.

From inside the mercantile, Jesse listened anxiously. Homer’s voice had the strained tones she had come to know well. Words shot out in short bursts. Each sentence ended in a low rumble, the words drawn out for emphasis. Jesse did not need to look out to know that his jaw was set, his head tilted to one side. The gray eyes would be partially shut in an intense squint

Marshall Applegate, however, would not retreat as Jesse always did. His voice came back, strained, but hard and uncompromising. “Mr. King, if your horses bolt, I will not waste the other settlers’ valuable time to help you round them up. If they turn up lame you will have to beg passage from another wagon. Now, sir, I have other duties to attend to. Once again, I urge you, this trail is no place for horses. Buy a team of oxen.” The last warning given, Applegate strode away.

Jesse unconsciously hugged her sleeping child tighter and turned back to the counter to order the last of the provisions.

Lavinia rushed to change the subject from pulling teams, “Well, now, aren’t we going to be on an adventure? When my George asked me what I thought about going to Oregon, I just said right back, ‘George Wood, I can’t think of a more exciting thing to do!”’

Jesse responded, “Well, Homer’s never been a man to talk his plans over with me much. If it were me, I’d have stayed closer to the home place. But after Dr. Whitman spoke at our church, Homer’s mind was made up. It was nothing but Oregon after that. He built the wagon, sold off the livestock, and here we are…” The child on her shoulder lifted his head and then snuggled into her shoulder once more. Homesick tears had started to dampen Jesse’s eyes, but she forced them back, lifting her chin stubbornly and smiling a tight, prim smile that barely curled up the edges of her mouth. “… and little Jacob here will have a chance to make his way in a whole new world. That’s worth crossing the plains for—I guess.”

Lavinia patted her shoulder as she passed by. “Well, dearie, you just stay close to me, and we’ll dance all the way to Oregon!” She bustled out the door, calling over her shoulder to Jesse, “My name’s Lavinia, but my friends call me Vinnie. So you just call me Vinnie and let’s thank the Lord we made a new friend so soon on the trip!”

Jesse nodded gratefully.

And Homer King set his jaw and left his horses in harness.

Three

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything… let your requests be made known to God.

Philippians 4:6

Jesse and Homer
had been in Independence only a few days when Homer began to grumble about what he called unnecessary delays.

“They say we have to wait—the grass is too short to support the stock. If they didn’t have to take their whole darned herd along, there’d be plenty of grass!”

He complained bitterly about the organization of the train. “Fifteen platoons of four wagons each… as if we were back in the army. And the way they elected the platoon leaders! All bunched up like cattle—the would-be ‘captains’ in a line, marching off ahead. Then the rest of the fools ran out to get in line behind their choice for captain… Hmph! A bunch a grown men lookin’ like school boys playing ‘crack the whip’!”

“And whose line did
you
choose, Homer?” Jesse’s voice was soothing, gentle. “Did George Wood win a place?”

Homer would not calm down. “Choose?
Me?
Huh! Let
them
choose! I ain’t no school kid! I’m forty-two years old, and I don’t set store by such nonsense. We’ll make our own way!”

Marshall Applegate had won neither Homer’s respect nor his trust. His insistence that Homer replace Beau and Gabe with oxen was not their last disagreement. When Applegate realized that Homer was determined to keep his horses and was ignoring the elaborate wagon train organization, he came back, insisting that Homer buy feed. Homer resisted, and Applegate lost his temper.

“A man’s a fool who won’t take the advice of those who have gone before him! I’m telling you for the last time, King, plains grass is too dry for horses to forage much. They’ll be pestered by insects and likely get distemper from the waters of the Platte. If you don’t haul grain to help ’em out, they’ll never make the trip. You’d better take along horseshoes and nails and plenty of clinches, too… and if either of ’em gives out, we’ll leave you!” Applegate stormed off, determined to stay as far away as possible from this cantankerous emigrant.

Jesse was not oblivious to Applegate’s logic. She ventured an opinion. “I heard today that oxen aren’t very expensive, Homer—only $50 a head. Couldn’t Gabe and Beau just follow along hitched to the wagon?” She added convincingly, “Then they’d be fresh for plowing in Oregon.”

“We are
not
buying oxen!” Homer snapped back. “And I’ll thank you to remember yer only twenty-one years old and you don’t know nothin’ ’bout nothin’ outside o’ Illinois. Jus’ keep your attention on women’s work and don’t butt into things that don’t concern you!” He turned his frustration with Applegate against her, re-inspecting everything she had packed for the trip. He complained about the “luxuries” she demanded. “Bread, bacon, and coffee’s all a man needs for crossing the plains, woman! Don’t know why you gotta’ take along dried peaches and apples. There won’t be no parties along the way.”

“I just thought a peach or an apple pie would taste awful good, Homer,” Jesse replied. “And it’ll be a reminder of home when we’re lonely.”

Homer retorted that
he
planned on being too busy to feel lonely and that she’d better get a more realistic idea of life on the trail.

As the time to leave grew near, Homer’s temper grew shorter. Jesse avoided him as much as possible and prayed for patience to deal with his uncertain moods. Jacob took the adventure in stride, giggling and babbling about every new sight and sound. The family camped just outside of Independence waiting for the time to leave.

Finally, after a meeting with Dr. Whitman, it was decided they would depart on May 22.

“Finally!” Homer said, “And it’s about time too!”

“Finally,” Jesse whispered with dread in her heart and a prayer on her lips.

The sun rose, whips cracked, men shouted, and dust flew as the wagon train headed west. Overwhelmed by the great throng of emigrants, Jesse clutched Jacob and leaned back in the wagon seat. They passed a young girl dressed in her Sunday best, tripping lightly through the dust of the road with an open book before her. Jesse wondered if she could really be reading.

The girl caught the admiring glances of many a young gentleman, one of whom called out, “Nymph, in thy orisons, be all my sins remembered!”

Jesse blushed at his forwardness and leaned a little closer to Homer than usual.

They were traveling in the great Santa Fe trace. Again and again they passed long trains of merchant wagons loaded with goods headed for Mexico. In a few hours they had crossed the western boundary of the state and entered the territory of the Shawnee Indians. The land was beautiful and fertile, and many of the Shawnee had good farms and comfortable homes. Some even spoke English, but that brought little comfort to Jesse, who viewed the Indians as godless creatures to be feared and avoided at all costs.

Jesse soon gave up the thought of riding to Oregon. The jostling and bumping of the wagon made it impossible. As soon as she had nursed Jacob, Jesse jumped down from the wagon and walked alongside for the morning. By noon, when the wagon train stopped to “rest,” she was more tired than she had ever been. Beau and Gabe were unharnessed and led to cool water and fresh grass for the nooning. Homer checked the harness, greased the wagon axles, and sat down to watch Jesse build a fire and cook their lunch. The hour went quickly, and they were soon bumping along the trail again.

Jesse carried Jacob some of the time, but he seemed impervious to the bumping of the wagon and squealed with delight most of the day, peeking at Jesse over the back of the wagon box, pointing at birds and rabbits that popped out from behind bushes or rocks.

They traveled nearly twenty miles that day. At sunset, four platoons circled to form a small corral. The animals were unhitched, and the tongue of each wagon was chained to the rear wheel of its neighbor’s wagon. Oxen and horses were allowed to graze until sundown when they were driven inside the corral.

Jesse thought she had been tired at noon, but by nightfall she was close to tears from exhaustion. Homer seemed to be in better spirits. Beau and Gabe had performed beautifully that day, stepping lightly and pulling out ahead of the other wagons. Compared to the plodding oxen, the horses were grace in motion, and many an admiring glance was shot their way. Homer saw them all, and his stern countenance softened a bit. By nightfall, he felt that his decision to keep Gabe and Beau was vindicated. Homer spoke pleasantly to Jesse and even accepted George Wood’s invitation to pair up with them for the remainder of the trip.

Lavinia took care to make certain that Homer did not see her wink at Jesse when the invitation was proffered and accepted. Jesse smiled back shyly.

At last the evening chores were done. Jesse sank onto the featherbed in the wagon gratefully. Jacob had been asleep for hours. When Jesse tried to awaken him to eat, he nursed half-heartedly for only a few seconds. Jesse fell asleep even as she buttoned the bodice of her dress. Homer kept watch from beneath the wagon, lest his horses be harmed by some belligerent ox.

As the days went by, the land became more barren. Wooded strips still abounded along the creeks and streams, but there was a stillness about the land that filled Jesse with a longing for home. Her dread of the unknown ahead increased. Homer was intent upon Oregon. He seemed to have no regrets for what they had left. Each morning when she awoke, Jesse listened for the familiar honking of her mother’s geese or the cheery cry of the cardinal. Here on the prairie there was none of that. The light of dawn brought only stillness broken by the sound of the wagon train and its animals.

Only Jacob filled the vast emptiness around and within her. Jesse walked alone much of the day. She tended to Jacob, prepared Homer’s meals, mended his clothes, and fell into an exhausted sleep where she dreamed only of what was behind her. She awoke to be reminded that home was very far away, to walk unfamiliar barren hills, and to long for the deep woods that flanked her father’s farm.

Added to the loneliness of the prairie was the terror of Indians. Jesse heard the many tales around the evening’s campfires. They had now left the land of the peaceful Shawnee and were in the territory of the Kansaz, who lived in huts made of poles and bark. Somehow they curved the roofs, and Jesse thought their dwellings looked like iron rendering pots turned upside down. She saw with horror that these Indians were almost entirely naked.

“They’re thieves,” George Wood expounded, adding, “and they love children… especially
blond
children.” Lavinia hushed him, but after that, whenever the Kansaz came close, Jesse would climb into the stuffy wagon and pull Jacob down beside her.


Be anxious for nothing,
” she read, “
but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”
Jesse read and reread the passage by the light of every night’s campfire. It comforted her enough that she could sleep. Yet each new day brought renewed fears.

Jesse was nearly in despair on the day that her friendship with Lavinia Wood was cemented. Lavinia had been too involved with her own brood to think much about Jesse. The wagons had been beside one another, and yet Lavinia had done little to reach out to Jesse other than to shout encouragement to her, occasionally laugh at Jacob, and frequently scowl at Homer.

Finally, Lavinia had organized her family into an efficient platoon. Emily, the oldest, was assigned to baby Esther. “Keep her away from the wagon wheels and snakes, and I’ll try not to demand much more,” Lavinia ordered.

Amanda, next in line, tended the cow while her mother made lunch. They had brought only one cow along, but by milking her in the morning and hanging the milk pail on the back of the wagon, they had butter for supper.

Amelia and Ophelia were four-year-old twins. They helped gather firewood, aired out bedding, and performed tasks that amazed Jesse as she watched them all from her own fire.

Each day at noon, the Woods had their fire going and lunch eaten before anyone else. By evening, when everyone else on the trail seemed to have become the color of the brown dust that covered everything and everyone on the trail, Lavinia had unending energy. She cleaned and mended and cooked and still had time to laugh and play with her girls.

BOOK: Walks the Fire
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