Chapter 1 A Long Journey Comes to an End
17 February 1866
It seems a lifetime has passed since I left my home in Illinois to begin this new life, though it has only been three months. I did not set out with any delusions of an easy journey. Most certainly, had I known it would be so difficult, I might have stayed home. No. On second thought, I would have done it anyway, because I’m just that hard-headed. If anything, the hardships I have experienced sleeping under the stars, crossing the treacherous Missouri River, being kidnapped by wild Indians and then ransomed have taught me just how resilient I am. Life out west is not for a woman who is faint of heart. I now know that I am not such a woman. My heart is stout!
As I page through this journal, I see that I neglected to write about our crossing of the Missouri River. Oh my! What an ordeal. I remember experiencing a sense of foreboding as the wagon and team of four and provisions were being loaded onto the craft that would take us across. It was a simple, large raft, really~~ approximately twenty to twenty-five long, fat logs lashed together with strips of leather and coated with pitch to make it seaworthy. I certainly didn’t have much faith in it, I would have prefered the comfort of a good, sturdy boat, but what was I to do? It was the last craft left on that side of the river as all the others had already gone across with the rest of our party.
Everything was fine as we pushed off from the dock. A rope was strung from shore to shore at the narrowest part of the river. A leather thong was slung over it and attached to the raft in order to keep it from drifting off course as it went across. The boatmen used long poles to push the raft to the other side.
The weather was compliant and the river was calm. I recall sitting upon the seat of the wagon completely in awe of the density of the conifer trees that awaited on the other side, when, about midway across, I noticed a fallen tree coming fast on the current and headed straight for us. The boatmen saw it, too, and became quite excited. They were in such a panic, they forgot how to work together. Some of them tried to push us on across the river, while the others tried to pull us back the way we’d come. All of them attempting to move away from the oncoming tree. This was futile. The tree collided with our raft, snapping the sun-dried leather thong and causing us to spin out of control and move off course.
The raft pitched to and fro. I clung to my seat, digging my nails into the dried wood so to keep myself from flying off. Then, to make matters worse, we hit a submerged boulder which caused us to careen downriver spinning in circles. The poor horses became nervous. Behind my wagon, a sorrell, the lead horse of the Wilmington team, panicked. Mr. Wilmington held tight to its bridle and tried to calm it, but it broke free bucking its hind legs. It gave my wagon a good kick, pitching me end over tea kettle onto the floor of the raft, landing on my bum! I admit I became ill. A drunken derelict called Mr. Paddington took the ride across with us. He had lashed himself to the wheel of our wagon and sat drinking his hooch throughout the entire fiasco. He didn’t seem bothered at all. He saw me retching and said, “I got some jerked beef if you want to put something back into your stomach” and proceeded to pull a fuzzy wad of leather from his pocket. I spent the next quarter hour heaving and praying for the mercy of Providence.
It wasn’t until we were some miles down the river before the boatmen got control of the raft and brought us ashore. Mr. Mayhew, the driver of my wagon, assured me that Mr. Jackson would wait the wagon train one day for us to rejoin them and that we weren’t so far off track that we shouldn’t be with them by nightfall. Sure enough, he was correct. We found them just sitting down to dinner when we arrived. We supped on boiled potatoes, and corned beef. I must remember to ask Mrs. Jackson for the reci . . .
“Miss Blick, looky yonder,” Mr. Mayhew said. “See that there outcroppin’ of rocks at the end of them bluffs?” I looked up from my journal entry and squinted to look in the direction he was pointing. “Once we come side t’ side with them rocks, we are goin’ to veer off to the south for about a day’s ride. Come mornin’ we’ll ride till noon and that’s when we’ll catch sight of your Mr. Caldwell’s ranch. How ’bout that!”
“Well, I’ll be! We’ve just about made it. We should be there tomorrow then.” I closed the journal in my lap, leaned back on the hard wooden seat and scanned the landscape before me. It was hard to believe there might be any kind of civilization way out here. As far as my one good eye could see, there was nothing but dry scrub brush, mounds of rocks and cactus. The only signs of life, aside from the train of wagons and passengers ahead of us on the trail, was the occasional prairie dog or jackrabbit and the small band of Indians who followed us at a distance.
“Yes, Ma’am, tomorrow afternoon, to be exact, Lord willin’ an’ the crick don’t rise, haha!” Mr. Mayhew spit tobacco juice out the corner of his mouth, a shiny, brown drip clinging to his beard. His tobacco spitting was something I had to come to terms with on this journey, as it was a spectacle that turned my stomach. Other than this nasty habit, Mr. Mayhew was a good and kind traveling companion. He did his best to make sure I was comfortable and safe and he was full of stories to keep me entertained. I daresay I will miss the old man when this trip is over.
That night, as I lay beneath the wide open sky for the last time, sleep eluded me. Memories of the last conversation with my parents played out in my mind, piercing my heart like long, dull knitting needles:
“Hazel, if you do this thing, do not expect to be welcomed back into this house ever again,” my father said, his face red, the long, white whiskers on his chin quivering as he shook with anger. “I will no longer recognize you as my daughter.”
“I’m sorry, Papa, but you have left me no other choice.”
Mother, standing behind Papa, as was her place, cried silently into her handkerchief.
This thing that I chose to do, moving across the country into the wilds of the West to be married to a stranger, is not the acceptable thing for a proper young woman to do; however, the war between the North and the South depleted the supply of eligible bachelors from which I was meant to choose. Being Hazel Blick did not exactly make me a choice bride either. My mother says I am headstrong and a headstrong woman does not make a good wife. I tend to speak my mind and the things I have to say are not always acceptable in polite company. In addition to that fatal flaw, I am also nearly blind in one eye. My right eye has a tendency to roll haphazardly when I am overly excited or when I’m especially tired. I suppose it would be disconcerting to any young man to be looking into my eyes while approaching me with a romantic kiss and then to see one eye roll off to the side. Papa’s solution was to arrange for me a marriage with a merchant friend of his, a man thirty years my senior whom I had met on several occasions. He was not a good match for me and I told my father so, yet he insisted I would be married to his friend before the year was through.
I found my solution when I went to deliver some correspondence at the post office. Posted on the wall was an advertisement for mail-order brides.
Mrs. Fowler’s Morally Upright Brides
Seeking Only Morally Upright Young Women To Provide
Proper Companion Wives for
Good Fellows Blazing Trails To The West
Men of Business Merchants Miners Trappers
Trackers Cowpokes Settlers Ranchers
Preachers Teachers Farmers
These lonely fellows need good, Godly, upright women to provide the loving comforts of home as they settle the rough and tumble western territories. Mrs. Fowler seeks those women who are pure of heart, if not of body. Lovely in spirit, if not of feature. The Candidate must not be married or betrothed at present. She must know how to cook, clean, garden, crochet or knit, sew, darn, churn butter, and provide genteel company. She must not be one who makes a habit of committing the sin of laziness. All Candidates must be prepared to pay a $10 fee and arrange her own transportation to her final destination.
Mrs. Fowler guarantees satisfaction For all
To Apply For Candidacy, Please Present Yourself to Mrs. Fowler At Mrs. Fowler’s Boarding House on Flint Street.
I was up at dawn with a mug of strong coffee to watch the sun rise. Long swathes of clouds on the horizon created bursts of pink and yellow rays which shot skyward as the sun made its sleepy ascent. A prairie rabbit crept from its burrow with a furtive nose to scout for an early breakfast, only to scurry back in when a hawk swooped from above to make breakfast of it. I took note. I was no longer a privileged young lady of Springfield, Illinois. I was now a similar prairie creature among other wild beasts and must comport myself accordingly.
After breakfast and coffee were taken and cleared away, the wagons repacked and formed into line, I took my seat beside Mr. Mayhew and settled in. This would be the last day of my journey into a new life. In a matter of days I would be the wife of a western gentleman rancher. I felt the need to put these thoughts in paper and so I pulled my journal from my essential bag, felt around inside for my quill pen and bottle of India ink. I shook the little bottle before I opened it. I could see there was not much ink left in it and realized it was my last bottle. I would have to find a general store before long. I dipped the tip of the pen into the black pigment and began to write.
18 February 1866
In just a few hours I will arrive at my new home and meet my intended for the first time. I trust, from the correspondence we have shared, that he is a good, capable and kind man, only ten years my senior. That is still rather old, but it wasn’t as old as the codger my father intended for me to marry. Oh! How the fireflies are buzzing in my belly! Did I do the right thing? I’m so silly. Mother told me my headstrong ways would get me into trouble. Dare I say she was right? What do I know about being a rancher’s wife? I’ve never milked a cow. However, I can plant a decent garden and I’m just as good a cook as Mother. I can sew and needlepoint. What else would I be expected to do? Butcher cows and chickens? I could do that, but I would rather not. Well, it’s too late now to turn back. Or is it? I could ask Mr. Mayhew to allow me to ride back to Illinois with him after he makes his deliveries in town and then I can pay him when I arrive home. Oh, but Papa said I could never go home again. I’m sure he didn’t mean it, really. No. He did. He will never take me back unless I allow him to marry me off to Mr. Duckworth.
Oh for the love of God, no! I cannot and will not!
I have to stay. I have to make this marriage work. I have to be a good wife and try to mind my place. I can learn to do the things a rancher’s wife is expected to do. Oh dear, I hope he’s not a man who will beat his wife for being headstrong. I will have to try to be good and act a lady. Blast these infernal fireflies! I fear I may vomit. I must put my mind on something else.
The Lakota have been following us since we entered their territory. Mr. Mayhew says they are following to make sure we don’t kill any of their buffalo or do anything else that might desecrate their land. They stay well away from us and don’t appear as though they will approach. Still, we stay on guard (especially after what happened in Missouri). Every night we circle the wagons and the drivers take turns standing watch. The first few weeks I could hear Mrs. Johnson crying and praying in her wagon for fear the Indians were coming to get her. The poor dear. I tried to assure her she had nothing to fret. After the experience I had with the Ojibwa, I know they won’t take the old ones. They don’t want them. Young women make a better trade for horses.
I was a hostage of the Ojibwa people for a fortnight. We had been warned never to wander away from the safety of the wagons on our own. If we had to relieve ourselves, we were instructed to go in groups and not to go too far. One evening after we made camp, Marcia Lassiter, June Blankenship, Louisa Lawless and I went together into the woods, not twenty feet from the camp. Before we knew it, they were upon us. A dozen dark-skinned fellows had us bound and gagged and spirited away before we could even squat. I am sure I was not the only one of us to lose control of her bladder in fright.
They took us to their village. It was not a large village, just a couple dozen dome-shaped wigwams made of birch bark and willow saplings, a few were cone-shaped. There was one very large dwelling, approximately forty to fifty feet long. The people wore clothing of buckskin. They were not naked or even half-dressed as some journalists would have us believe.
Our captors deposited us in a dome-shaped wigwam where they left us, still bound and gagged. Louise Lawless promptly passed out while the rest of us cried and trembled in fear. After an hour or so, several women came into the wigwam and untied us. One of the women spoke fairly good English and explained that we would not be hurt in any way. She also assured us that if we attempted to escape, we would promptly be shot.
As I expected, my wandering eye created quite a stir among the ladies. They exceptionally curious and whispered amongst themselves. The one who spoke English asked Mrs. Lassiter if I were a fool or if I ate my food off the ground. I did not wait for Mrs. Lassiter to answer, but told the woman in my own words, that I am not and do not. They left the dwelling and, shortly thereafter, a group of men entered. One was, clearly, the chief, accompanied by several elders. Another was a shaman who wore the head of a buffalo like a hat on his head and a necklace made of bones and animal teeth. He had pictures painted on his face depicting birds and fish. He was most interested in my eyes.
The shaman, or medicine man, did not say a word, but inspected my eye very closely. In my state of nervous agitation, I am sure it was lolling about in a most grotesque manner. I tried to move away from him and told him to leave me be, but two of the elders held me down and made me sit still. Finally, the shaman spoke to the chief. To my surprise, the shaman’s voice was distinctly feminine! They spoke to each other in their own language, so I have no idea what was said.
Then, the shaman directed questions at me.
“Do you have second sight?” I said, “no.” “Can you see out of your right eye?” I see only shadows. “Do you dream?” Of course. Who doesn’t? “Do you remember your dreams?” At times I do. Again they spoke amongst themselves.
When their conversation was complete, I was lifted off the ground and directed to another tent. My companions kicked up a fuss when I was removed, not knowing what was to be done with me or where I was going. I was terribly frightened, as well.
I was taken to the wigwam of the shaman. I was astonished to discover under all those furs was, indeed, a woman! I had read in the periodicals and books about medicine men, but I never knew that a woman could also hold such a position. I was to bunk with her for the remainder of my stay. During the two weeks it took the elders to negotiate our release, the shaman, who was called Iron Sage Woman, taught me much about healing herbs and medicinal teas. She tried to teach me how to interpret my dreams and the dreams of others. She believed my right eye did not look into this world, but, instead, it saw into the the spirit world.
As I say, we stayed only two weeks. We were treated very kindly and fed well, the Ojibwe people being quite generous. Finally, we were traded back to our people for four horses, a dozen blankets and several pounds of tea.
Mr. Fitzwilliams, one of our scouts, just rode up to inform me that “my” homestead has been espied in the distance. Oh dear, the time has come to meet Mr. Jasper Caldwell who will be my husband. The fireflies in my belly have kicked up another jig.
When we came to a crossroad, the wagon train came to a stop, everyone climbed down from their wagons and horses and we said our farewells, for the other members of the train would be going on into town and points beyond, while Mr. Mayhew and I would carry on to the homestead, which was only a few more miles on.
Mrs. Johnson came hobbling up to me with her two teenage boys in tow, each carrying a wrapped-up bundle.
“Miss Blick,” she said. “Don’t think yer goin’ to runnoft without saying goodbye. Come here t’ me!”
“I wouldn’t dare run off without saying goodbye to you, Mrs. Johnson,” I said. She wrapped her chubby arms around me and kissed me on both cheeks. “It has been such a pleasure making this trip with you.”
“Yer sweet, beautiful smile brightened the days, my dear! Truly, truly. I want you to know I will ‘member you in my prayers every day. I will never forget you. And, if ever you git out to Cal’fornie, you come and look for me an’ my boys in San Francisco, ya hear?” Tears glistened on her eyelashes.
“I will, Ma’am, I promise.”
“I have some things for you. Add these to yer trousseau. Michael? James? Put those in the back of Miss Blick’s wagon.”
“Oh, you didn’t have to . . .”
“I done it so it’s done! The good Lord blessed me with five boys but didn’t see fit to give me a single girl, so I have none to pass these lady things on to. You can use them. I want you to have them.” She wiped the tear that escaped her lashes and trickled through the deep grooves that lined her face.
“Thank you, Mrs. Johnson!” I could feel a thick lump forming in my throat and tears burning at the back of my eyes. My own mother had not given me any trousseau. Papa forbade her.
“No, no. Knowin’ that you will get use out of these things will be thanks nuff for me. You go on now. On up in the wagon with you!” She blew her nose on her calico apron. “Come on boys, quit fiddlin’ around! Michael, help the lady up. Mr. Mayhew, you take care gettin’ Miss Blick to her husband!”
“Don’t fret yer none, Mizuz Johnson,” he assured her from his seat behind the team of four. The old man clicked his tongue, told the horses to “giddap” and then spit a wad of tobacco at the whiffletree.
As we drew nearer to the homestead, I experienced the same sense of foreboding that came over me just before we crossed the great Missouri River. Something wasn’t right though I wasn’t sure what.
Nothing was amiss with the house itself. It could be described as a single story ranch house with a wrap-around porch, windows on either side of the front door. A chimney stack on the sloping roof. A full garden grew some hundred feet or so from the house. There was no fencing except for what partitioned the corrals. A red barn and a woodshed were the only outbuildings. There didn’t seem to be any activity on the property.
I inspected the garden as we drove passed. Something about it was very odd. Greens, corn, pumpkin and squash, beans all growing wild. The corn had not been tended and it appeared the crows had happily helped themselves to the harvest. Why hasn’t Mr. Caldwell brought them in?
Another thing caught my attention. In his letters, Mr. Caldwell had told me he owned 250 head of cattle and four bulls. The corral stood empty. Surely the barn wasn’t large enough to hold that many bovine at one time.
“Mr. Mayhew, tell me,” I queried. “Would this be the time to take one’s cattle to graze another pasture?”
“I spose it’s possible, Miss Blick,” he replied.
“Would it be a good idea, Mr. Mayhew, to bring in one’s harvest before doing so?”
“It would, Miss Blick, if a feller wanted victuals on his table when he come home.”
Yes, this was it. Something definitely was not right.
“And, Mr. Mayhew, if a man knew his intended bride would be arriving soon, should he not be home to greet her?”
“He most surely should, Miss Blick, if he was any sort a gentleman. I cain’t say I’m feelin’ quite right leavin’ you out’chere on yer own.”
Mr. Mayhew pulled the wagon in front of the ranch house and set the brake. I pulled off my hat, rearranged the mop of curls on top of my head, and then replaced it. In my nervousness, I accidentally jabbed the hatpin into my scalp. I swallowed my cry and rubbed the sore spot. All the while, I remained in my seat atop the wagon and peered around the place for any signs of life, even a lonely hound or a cat (he said he kept several to keep the mice in check) or a chicken. Shouldn’t there be chickens?
Mr. Mayhew assisted me from my seat and I smoothed the front of my dress.
“Well! Shall we, Mr. Mayhew?”
“Let me git yer satchels.”
I walked up the steps to the porch and called, “Yoohoo! Mr. Caldwell?” Then tapped on the door. I waited, but there was no answer. I tried to peer through the window, but it was covered in dust which obscured my vision. “Yoohooo!” I called again and walked around the side to try another window. I rubbed at the glass with my gloved fingers and found I could see into what must be a sitting room. There was a writing desk and quill to one side, a rocking chair and a large trunk. I could see no cook stove, so the kitchen must be to the other side or in the back.
Mr. Mayhew had retrieved my bags from the back of his wagon and stood waiting for me at the front door.
“Should we just walk in?” I asked.
“Might a’swell,” he said.
I tried the doorknob and found it was unlocked. The door creaked open. I peeked into the sitting room and called, “Hello? Yoohoo, Mr. Caldwell? It’s me, Miss Hazel Blick.” I heard some sort of shuffling sound from another part of the house. There was a closed door opposite the writing desk. I approached, cautiously, and again called, “Mr. Caldwell?”
I opened the door and found a short hallway, two doors on the right side, a door at the end of the hall that opened onto the back porch, and a door on the left that opened into the small kitchen. I opened a door on the right and found it to be a large room with crates and burlap sacks scattered about the floor. In the corner stood a dusty old wardrobe with one door missing. I closed the door to that room and approached the remaining room. This must be a bedroom, and the place from where I heard the shuffling sounds.
I tapped on the door. “Mr. Caldwell? Are you inside?” Again, I was answered with silence. I tried the knob and it opened. As I opened the door, my senses were assaulted with a most vile odor. I brought my hand to my nose and caught my breath as the familiar stench immediately took me back to the butcher’s tent where I aided the doctor’s in sawing off limbs that had been half blown away by rebel gunfire during the war.
I took a tentative step into the room. Lying on the bed was the rotting corpse of a man. What was left of the flesh on his face was a pale shade of blue. Maggots feasted on his eye sockets while flies buzzed and crawled over the open, bloody torso. Bits of intestine and other organs were strewn around the bed and the floor.
An image flashes before my eyes. A soldier, his eyes red-rimmed and his face ghostly white says to me in a thin, simpering voice, “Please, ma’am, would you please put this back where it goes? I don’t know where it goes,” and hands me his stomach. Just as quickly, the image is gone.
I felt, rather than saw, movement from under a chair against the wall. A calico cat, blood brown and caked to its whiskers and white patches on its face and paws, stared at me, the fur on its tail puffed out. It glared at me, hunched low to the floor, looking ready to pounce. I then saw that there were several more cats, also caked with blood, surrounding the body possessively, protectively. Mr. Caldwell’s mouse hunting cats? I wondered. The calico hissed and began to growl, low and menacing. I slammed the door and ran.
“Did you find him?” Mr. Mayhew was just stepping into the house with my bags as I flew past him through the door.
Once on the porch, I gripped the stanchion to hold myself up, the world spinning before my eyes.
“Oh my heavens!” I gulped air into my lungs. “Oh! Oh my!” I felt the juices in my stomach surge, I leaned over the railing and heaved.
From inside the house I heard Mr. Mayhew say, “From the smell o’ this place, I’d say you got yer work cut out fer ya, ha h--Oh, dear me . . .”
He came back out, my satchels in hand.
“Welp . . . my condolences to ya, Miss Blick.” He proceeded to load my bags back into the wagon and then returned to the porch where I had lowered myself to sit on the top step. I no longer had anything left in my belly, but the Nevada landscape still reeled.
“Oh! Mr. Mayhew! What the hell happened to him?”
“I’m none too sure, Miss Blick. But, from what I could see, it’s gonna be hard to sort out just what done it.”
Mr. Mayhew sat beside me while I sucked great gulps of air into my lungs, in an effort to steady my nerves. We sat there for some time in silence.
“Pardon me for having such a strong reaction, Mr. Mayhew,” I started. “I don’t know what came over me. I witnessed scenes like that many a time during the war. I told you about that. About nursing the wounded soldiers.”
“Never you mind, Miss Blick. ’Twern’t the welcome you was ‘spectin’.”
We drifted into silence again. I willed my stomach to calm and my heart to stop racing.
Before long, Mr. Mayhew said, “Welp, we orter git back on the road, Miss. I’ll take you into town an’ git’cha settled then I’ll find the sheriff and fill him in on our Mr. Caldwell. I ‘spect he’ll want to send out the deputies an’ the undertaker.” He looked at me closely. “You feel ya got yer sea legs back?
“I think so.”
Mr. Mayhew helped me up and supported me with one arm as we walked back to the wagon. For a skinny old fellow, he was strong, as I am not delicately built.
“There’s a nice eatin’ establishment in town what makes a good fried chicken. Best coffee in these parts, too! I’ll take yer there and you can make arrangements to go on back to yer folks in Illinois. Orter be another train headed back in a day or two.” He lifted me into the wagon seat, then climbed up and took the reins.
“I . . . I can’t go back, Mr. Mayhew. My father won’t take me back. He made that clear.”
“You got any other kin what’ll take ya?”
I thought for a moment. I had an aunt in New York who might take me in. But then another thought occurred to me.
“Mr. Mayhew, I won’t be able to leave for at least a week or two. I had the rest of my belongings; my furniture, my piano, shipped to San Francisco. I can’t leave until I arrange for their return. But, how will I pay for it? Oh dear!”
A sudden, overwhelming sense of desperation dropped across my shoulders and I felt tears spring up behind my eyes.
The words of Iron Sage Woman came back to me.
“What does white woman do when husband dies?”
“She finds herself a new one.”
“What does the Ojibwa woman do?” I asked her in return.
She answered, “She becomes the husband.”
“Now, now, darlin’. Don’t go a-frettin’ and a-cryin’,” Mr. Mayhew admonished. “We’ll figger it all out.” He pulled his handkerchief from his shirt and handed it to me. I took it and saw that it was covered with brown tobacco stains. I handed it, wordlessly, back to him and took the clean, lacy kerchief from where I kept it tucked inside my sleeve. I dabbed at my eyes and gently blew my nose.
“Giddap! Yeeeah!” The horses remained where they stood. “What the devil . . . yeaaaah. Giddap, ya ign’rnt sinners!” Still the horses would not start. “Giddap, giddap, giddap!” he shouted and spit a long stream of tobacco juice which landed with a splat on the whiffletree. With that, the horses began to move, the wagon creaked and rolled into motion.
“Well, I never seen such . . .” Mr. Mayhew muttered, flicked the reins. My stomach lurched and I had to breathe deeply and close my eyes to stave off another round of heaving. It was no use. I leaned over the side of the wagon and let go another bout of vomit.
It wasn’t more than twenty minutes later when we arrived in the big, dusty town called Dun Glen in the state of Nevada. As we rolled into town, I was shocked at the hustle and bustle of the place, considering the vast wilderness we’d just traversed. I felt myself bewildered, disoriented and, for lack of a better word, quite frightened. The dirt road was crammed with horses and buggies, buckboards loaded with crates and tools and blasting equipment. Unattended children and stray dogs dodged between horse-drawn wagons, drivers shouting at them to get out of the way. Women in calico dresses, their heads and shoulders wrapped up in shawls, baskets hanging from the crook of their elbows, led their children along wooden footpaths, admonishing them to keep up and stay off the road.
Men outnumbered the women. These were rough-looking men, large and stout, their clothes and beards caked with dust and mud. They wore their hats pulled low on their heads and their trousers tucked into their boots. In addition to the miners and ranchers roaming about, I also saw men dressed in army uniforms. And, oh, everywhere I looked, a man was spitting tobacco between his teeth. My head began to swim, my throat constricted and I felt I might throw up yet again. If I am meant to spend any amount of time in this town, I determined, I must steel my stomach.
Whitewashed wood-sided buildings lined the streets. Roughly carved and painted signs identified the mercantile, millinery, chemist, physician, and post office. As we continued, slowly, through the crowded street I counted seven saloons, one bank and three stamping mills. Where was the church, I wondered as I looked around.
Mr. Mayhew brought our wagon to a stop in front of an establishment with “Mrs. Thornhill’s Eatery” painted in white and gold on the window.
“You can go in here and get some coffee and a bite to eat, Miss Blick,” he said as he set the brake and climbed down from his seat. “I’ll get you settled and then go on over to the sheriff’s.”
As he helped me off the wagon and set me on my feet, my knees suddenly buckled beneath me.
“There now, hang on, Miss,” Mr. Mayhew said as he threw a sinewy arm around my middle to hold me up.
“Oh dear!” I gasped.
“Probably all that retchin’ you been doin’ has got yer constitution outta whack. Let’s get yer inside. Mrs. Thornhill’s black coffe’ll fix ya up. Easy does it now, nice and slow.”
Mr. Mayhew led me into the restaurant where the aroma of freshly baked bread and strong coffee welcomed me like a warm hug. As he sat me down at the nearest table, a shriek from the kitchen area assaulted my raw nerves.
“Mayhew! Is that you? Well, I’ll be! It is!” A woman with hair the color of flames came sweeping from the back of the restaurant, her arms thrown wide. Before he could react, she scooped the scrawny Mr. Mayhew into her plump arms and squeezed him to her ample bosom.
“Myrrff,” his voice was muffled in her chest. She was at least two feet taller and a hundred pounds heavier than he. I was aghast. I didn’t know where to look, I had never seen such a public display of affection.
When she finally released the squirming fellow, he said, “Myrtle! What in tarnation! Don’t do that!” He brushed the dust and flour from the front of his shirt and turned to me. “Miss Blick, may I introduce my sister, Myrtle Mayhew Thornhill. Myrtle, this is Miss Hazel Blick. She’ll be staying in town fer a spell, and I’d be much obliged if you would bring her a cuppa strong coffee and any biscuits you got back there. Miss Blick ain’t in a good way presently, and needs something in her stomach.”
Shock registered on Mrs. Thornhill’s face as soon as she got a good look at me.
“Oh dear me! Yes, indeed. Be back in a moment.” She turned back to the kitchen, but stole a look or two in my direction as she went.
I must have looked quite a mess to her. My bad eye was most likely roaming off on its own. I noticed a mirror on one wall and caught a glimpse of myself. Good heavens! My sunbaked skin was blanched to a pasty white and dark circles enhanced the red rims around my eyes. Sure enough, my right eye was off inspecting something on the floor to the right of me while the left was gazing straight into the mirror as it was meant to.
“Your poor sister! What a terrible first impression I have made.”
“Now, that’s alright. Don’t fret. After you get some vittles into ya, she’ll show ya where ya can clean up. Yer in good hands with Old Myrtle. I’m goin’ off ta find the sheriff and then I’ll be back to check on yer. Alrighty?
“Thank you, Mr. Mayhew. I’ll be fine.” I tucked a few stray hairs back under my hat and pinched my cheeks to add some color. There was nothing I could do about my wandering eye until I got my nerves back in control. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to breathe deeply. I felt Mr. Mayhew pat my shoulder and then he was gone.
I took three deep breaths and blew them out slowly, each one slower than the previous. This always worked to calm my nerves. It worked now. I opened my eyes and took a good look around the room. I was alone, but I could hear Mrs. Thornhill busy in the kitchen. Five long wooden plank tables with benches on either side were lined up, side by side, across the room. The hardwood walls were stained and polished to a shine. There were four horseshoes hung side-by-side above the entrance to the restaurant. Beside the kitchen door was a large slate with a list of the day’s specials written out in white chalk. Other than the mirror there was no other decoration in the room save for a framed needlepoint sampler that read,“Friendly advice offered free of charge. Food and beverage you pay for.”
Mrs. Thornhill swept gracefully through the kitchen door with a steaming pot of coffee in one hand and a pair of mugs in the other. She set these on the table before me, smiled with a girlish giggle, and then dashed back to the kitchen. When she came back, balanced on one arm was a large platter which held two plates loaded with food, the other arm was wrapped around a large bowl; I was not able to see what it contained. Over her shoulder was draped a white rag.
“Here you are,” she panted. With a great amount of skill, she was able to set down the platter and the bowl without spilling a single thing. She took the towel and handed it to me. “I thought you might like to wash your face and hands.” It was then I noticed the large bowl was, in actuality, a wash basin and it was full to the brim with hot water.
“Oh, right here?” I glanced at the large picture window. “In front of the street . . . and everybody?”
“Don’t you worry none, Miss Blick. I just have to set this sign out what says I’m closed and won’t nobody come in here to bother you,” she said. I couldn’t help but notice she tried not make eye contact with me, but, in spite of herself, she kept glancing at my right eye. I sighed. I’d been through this all my life. “You go ahead and wash up and then you can eat and we can get to know each other.”
Mrs. Thornhill placed a small slate in the window and then closed the canvas curtains to block the view from the street.
“There now,” she said. “That’s better.”
I took the thick cotton rag and dipped it into the wash basin, wrung it out and then pressed it to my face. Oh my, but it felt so good. I rubbed behind my ears and around my neck. It was glorious! On the journey from Illinois I’d had only a few hot baths and I had but a thin linen cloth to wash with. I was grateful for this small bit of luxury.
As I scrubbed the filth from my hands, Mrs. Thornhill arranged the plates on the table before me and poured us both a cup of rich-smelling coffee.
“Thank you, Mrs. Thornhill,” I said. “This is lovely and smells so good.”
On one plate was a large pile of mashed potatoes and brown gravy, a thick pork chop, green beans and three fluffy biscuits. The other plate held an array of fruits: green and red grapes, melon, slices of apple and oranges and some other types of fruit I did not recognize. I didn’t think I could possibly eat everything.
I need not have worried. Mrs. Thornhill helped herself to a melon and said, “So, tell me. What brings you out to these parts?”