Destiny: A Novel of the Oregon Trail

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Chapter 4: John Anderson

Chapter 4: John Anderson:

On the 15th of April, we started early in the morning. Pa was determined to make up for some of the slow time in the mud. The day started off cold and misty, but there was no real rain like we’d been seeing, and with an early start, we were moving along well. Late in the morning, we came to a creek. On the far bank of a creek sat a soaking wet woman in a bonnet, and a small boy. They had no wagon or horses, and apparently no man with them.

By this time, we had crossed several creeks and rivers, but this was a nasty one. The creek was a tricky bit of work, slow on top but with a faster and swirling current underneath. We also had a few logs to dodge, and the crossing took longer than any we had done so far. The woman hadn’t been focused on us, staring downstream, and hadn’t watched our crossing. She almost seemed surprised as our wagon stopped in front of her.

Pa stopped and asked her “Are you ok, ma’am?”

She looked up mournfully, “My husband brought us across first. Then, he was crossing with our wagon. One of the oxen got tangled with a log driftin’ down the river and it knocked him out. The other oxen weren’t strong enough with the dead weight pulling them down. John tried to cut the dead one loose, but then he got pulled underneath it. All we could do was watch as they all tangled and the wagon rolled. I don’t know how far downstream it went, but I know my husband died. I never saw him come up.” By the end of her story, she was crying and the little boy was pressing his face into her skirt, hiding his own silent tears.

Pa looked at the position of the sun behind the clouds, sighed but then said “John, you and Will go downriver and look for the wagon. See if a miracle happened and her husband is alive, and see if there is anything for the family to salvage.”

Ma and Nancy got out of the wagon with the boys. The boys were both wide eyed at the tale they heard. Even with the mud and some swollen streams, we had seen nothing to compare to their ordeal so far on our trip. As John and I rode downriver, we saw Ma lead the woman toward our wagon while Nancy set up a camp and prepared to get a fire going.

We were silent as we rode downriver, scouring the swollen creek for a wagon or its remains. We saw lots of wood in the water, and we saw some eddies and whirlpools, but the slow looking muddy water was deceptive, as we knew from when we had crossed it.

About 2 miles downstream, we found the wagon in the shallows on the edge of the river, tangled in some roots. All four oxen were dead and hopelessly tangled together. The wagon had rolled quite a ways, and most of the contents were soaked and ruined. As we pulled the wet canvas back, we found her poor husband, his body mangled and bloody from the beating he had taken. His head and chest were partially under the wagon and under the shallow muddy water, his legs tangled with one of the wheels. We took a hatchet we found and cut the spokes of the wheel loose. Then we pushed the rest of the wheel aside and removed his body from the wagon wreck and set it to the side, covered it with some canvas we cut off of the wagon. Neither of us had seen a dead man before, and it was disturbing to see his glazed eyes appearing to stare, but once we had it covered, we were able to go to work with less discomfort.

We also used some canvas to make a sort of tent to put things under shelter that we found. Then, we began to salvage. We found a big package of flour and another of bacon that had not been damaged, then we found some clothes and kitchen utensils that were useable. There were other smaller packages here and there of clothes, food, or supplies that had no damage, but most of the goods in the wagon were ruined and useless. The last thing we found, when we thought we were almost done was a whole set of tools. It looked like this man had been a carpenter, he had all he would need to set up a cabinet making shop here, and it was undamaged. We made two travois out of the canvas and some cottonwood branches we cut with the hatchet we found, one to pull behind each horse. On one, we put all the belongings the family could salvage, the food, the clothes, and the tools, and on the other we put the wrapped body of the man so we could give him a proper burial.

It took longer going back dragging the travois and it was near suppertime when we got back to our wagon by the trail. We saw that Ma and Nancy and the woman were working around camp. Jim was skinning a rabbit he must have snared or shot, and Ma had the Dutch oven out and was getting ready to cook. The woman was washing and cutting up potatoes and carrots and Nancy had the three little boys all gathering wood along the creek bank. Pa was leading his horse and carrying a string of fish. After he saw us coming, he headed over in our direction.

“We’ll camp here tonight, boys, we can’t leave them alone.” He glanced at our travois, “What did you find, Will?” He asked me.

“The wagon washed up about 2 miles downstream” I started off, “It is not fixable. He was underneath it drowned, and all four oxen were dead as well. There was a small amount of food and some clothes that were still good, and we found the man’s carpenter tools. We brought them all here. We brought him too, but we left the dead oxen.”

Pa nodded, motioned towards the shovels, and walked back to his own horse leading my horse with the tools and equipment dragging behind on the travois to tell the woman what we’d found.

John and I began digging a grave on the little rise south of the wagon road.

“What’ll she do now?” John asked me, glancing across at the woman, “What’ll she do with a little boy and no husband?”

I shrugged. “Mr. Jones said that a married couple gets twice the land in Oregon. I’ll bet she’ll marry someone in St. Joe’s and comes across the prairie with him.”

John looked surprised. “Really? Would a lady really do that, marry some man she hardly knows so he can get more land.”

“It’s hard to tell.” I said shortly.

Pa and Jim joined us and we finished digging the grave just as the sun was going down.

“She won’t come to the grave.” Pa said, “She told us his name was John Anderson and asked if we’d speak over the grave when we bury him. She said he was 24 years old and a good man, he’d been a carpenter in Illinois. His son is named for him.”

We lowered the body into the grave and looked down at the poor man who just this morning had been as full of hopes and dreams as we were. This morning he had set out on just another day of travel, following his dreams to Oregon, and today, he was in a hole in the ground, leaving his wife and son to do the best they could. We stood there for a minute looking down, at the canvas covered body. We could see a spot of blood where the leg wound had soaked through the canvas, and see the vague outline of his face under the canvas nearer us.

After a minute, Pa said a brief prayer and we began to fill in the grave. It was dark by the time we had finished. We walked silently, leading the horses pulling their loads, then sat at the fire and ate what Nancy gave us. We were silent and thoughtful as we ate.

“If you folks are willing, I would appreciate if John and I could ride with you to St. Joe’s. I may be able to get work there, or sell John’s tools to pay for passage home if we decide not to go on.”

I looked up at her voice. She had the most beautiful voice I had ever heard. She was younger than I had expected, eighteen or nineteen at most, and very beautiful though sadness and tiredness creased her face like a much older woman.

“You’re welcome to travel with us.” Pa said, with a glance at Ma who nodded, “Our wagon is packed pretty tight, but I think we could carry your belongings in it or on our horses.” She nodded and turned back to her plate.

I was numb, struck by the sight and sound of her. I knew I was just turned fifteen, a kid to a grown woman with a baby, but I had never seen a girl before to make me look twice. I kept stealing glances at her. Knowing what she had been through that day, I didn’t say a word, but I knew I would never forget her beautiful face and sad blue eyes.

After I ate, I went down to the riverbank and found a couple of good solid pieces of cottonwood branch. I went to the wagon and cut off a small piece of rawhide and lashed them together into a cross. I began to carve onto the crossbar of the cross the name John Anderson. Pa watched me for a while, then without saying a word went off to feed the oxen and lead them to water. John and Jim silently did the same with the horses, and soon, everyone was in bed except me. I stayed by the fire, carving the cross. When I had finished, it was hard to fall asleep. I was tired to the bone, as tired as after a full day of travel, but I kept seeing those glazed eyes, and that spot of blood on the canvas.

In the morning, I heard Ma getting the fire going, getting an early breakfast so we could make good time. I grabbed my horse and saddled him up. Pa was already at work loading up some of Mrs. Anderson’s belongings onto the back of his horse and the extra horse. I joined him and loaded the carpenters tools onto my horse and Jims horse. All four horses were pretty heavily packed, but they were strong and stood the load well.

The water level was lower this morning too and it looked like the sun might make a good showing today. I motioned to Pa to wait for me and ran up to the grave with my cross. I looked down and the freshly turned mound of earth, tried to remember which direction we had laid him, and planted the cross on the end I thought was his head. I grabbed a few rocks to put around the base of the cross, then jogged over to my horse.

I prayed to God that John Anderson would find rest and that his wife and son would be protected, then came back down to the camp. Pa glanced back at the cross, but didn’t say anything. We packed the cooking outfit into the wagon while we ate our breakfast. This morning was looking like a sunny day, and Ma sat up front with James while the boys and their new little friend John piled into the much more crowded back. Nancy and Mrs. Anderson walked along the side of the wagon and we were off.

As we walked away from the tragic creek, she kept looking back as the tiny cross and the freshly turned grave grew smaller and smaller. After an hour or so, we had travelled far enough that we could no longer see the trees and she kept her eyes straight ahead. Those eyes were full of tears, but had a determined look that reminded me of Pa whenever we lost a crop. I had no doubt she would be a survivor, no matter how hard it might be.

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