Destiny: A Novel of the Oregon Trail

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Chapter 7: Nathan Smith

Chapter 7: Nathan Smith:

One wagon that was left behind belonged to a schoolteacher named Nathan Smith. He had been teaching in Ohio for years, but like the rest of us, looked at Oregon as a chance to try something new. He traveled alone and had very little in his wagon to start with and only two oxen, but they had both been among the ones that died. We did not know him well, but when Mr. Jones came to our wagon with him and asked Pa if he could keep his meager belongings with ours, Pa said yes over Ma’s protest.

Mr. Smith was a small balding man in his late thirties, and he wasn’t much good on the trail, he didn’t know a lot about making camp, hunting, or much of anything useful. He did quote books a lot and know poetry and which stars were which, and sometimes, even recognized edible plants the rest of us didn’t know about. He had an English accent, though his family had left England when he was young and all he could remember was life in Ohio.

Sometimes, when he wasn’t driving, he’d sit next to the driver and try to draw scenes from the trail and the surrounding country. He was pretty good at it, but a bouncy wagon seat wasn’t the best place for drawing. Nancy taught him some about camping, and us boys tried to teach him how to hunt and fish, and soon he seemed like part of the family and even Ma was glad he had settled his belongings in our wagon.

As he sat on the seat, driving with John or James, I noticed Nancy sitting in front more often. She smiled a lot more when he joined our wagon, and chatted sometimes for hours as they drove along. It occurred to me as I watched them that I had never seen Nancy act this way before. I mentioned it to John when we were riding together.

“You notice how Nancy acts around Mr. Smith?” I asked him.

John laughed loud enough to startle the horse, “Are you kidding? Look at him, he’s got no hair, and he’s got to be at least twice her age.”

“Maybe that’s the way she likes them.” I said grinning, “She never paid much attention to the boys her own age.”

Later on, I knew John must have said something to James. He was the trouble maker in our family, always up to something. “Hey Mister Smith,” he said one of the first nights at campfire after he joined our wagon, when Pa and John were out fixing someone’s wagon and Ma and Nancy were at the cook fire. “You see these holes?” he said pointing, “They are rattlesnake nests. If you put a rock over each one, they won’t come out at night and crawl into your bedroll.”

Nathan played it up at first and we all thought he was fooled, “Really, well then I will make sure and cover every one when we stop at night.” He began gathering rocks and placing them over holes while Jim snickered by the fire. Jim whispered something to Warren and soon he was in on it too. We were all giggling and laughing, thinking that this man was clueless and we could have lots of fun pulling pranks on him.

“Hey Mr. Smith, you missed one over there” Warren laughed as he said it. If Mr. Smith wasn’t playing dumb, he probably would have been suspicious by this time.

“What are you boys up to?” said Nancy as she brought the food over. “Nathan, are they bossing you around?”

“Not at all Nancy, they are teaching me about the wildlife.” He winked at her as he spoke, and Nancy smiled at him.

She looked suspicious at James and then handed around the tin plates of our eternal bacon and beans and muddy biscuits. It wasn’t until bedtime when we discovered that he knew we were laughing at him and we learned how he got even. As we were getting into our bedrolls under the wagon, James was squirming and wiggling around.

“What’s wrong with you?” asked John irritably. He was worn out from helping Pa all evening and kind of cranky. “Would you stop moving so much? I wanna sleep.”

From up in the wagon, we could hear Warren. “Allan, why you got all these rocks in here?”

“I didn’t do it, stop picking on me” Allan whined.

I glanced over at Mr. Smith and he grinned and me and I grinned back. James and Warren learned that Mr. Smith wasn’t an easy target as they tossed and turned all night on the rocks he had placed under and in their bed rolls. Every time they’d throw one out, and lay back down, they’d find another as they squirmed and shifted in their sleep. Every so often one of us would still try to pull a prank on Mr. Smith, taking advantage of his inexperience, but we had to be more creative about it, and he usually got even.

A few days after the cholera went away, the sky grew dark and threatening in the middle of the day. The oxen and horses got skittish as the storm approached, and when it hit us, it was hard to keep them from bolting. The rain came down like it was poured from buckets, the thunder crashed and lightning sizzled all around us. We had seen bad storms in Iowa and even in Missouri before that, but this storm was like nothing we had ever seen. Eventually the heavy rain gave way to hail. Jim was knocked from his horse by hail the size of a biscuit, and we circled the wagons to keep the oxen from running off and hurting themselves or tipping over wagons. One horse actually was hit by lightning, and two people were hurt by hail hitting them like it hit Jim. The storm was quickly over, but there had been so much rain and hail that the mud left behind slowed us down for days.

The hail stirred up the water too. The Platte River was nasty, thick, silty, bad tasting water, but as nasty as it was, it was drinkable. Whenever possible, we drank from creeks and rivers flowing into the Platte. But after the storm, the mud and sand that was stirred up got into everything. Food tasted even more like mud, water was so thick, it was more like eating than drinking.

It was our greenhorn school teacher who taught us that if you added corn meal to the water and then let it sit, the sand would mostly settle out and the water tasted much better. Pa was impressed and Ma was much more welcoming to Mr. Smith after he taught her that trick. Nancy beamed as Ma now called him Nathan and truly welcomed him for the first time.

Nathan Smith was a natural teacher. He’d take turns driving now and again, and as he drove, he’d point things out to Nancy and the younger boys sitting next to him, from why the leaves were green to how the rivers and rains helped create the strange rock formations we saw. Sometimes, us older boys would ride close to the wagon if we saw something we were curious about and before long, we all had respect for our teacher wagon mate.

There were a few more lightning storms as we went on, but none with the hail and wind of that first one. If a storm were bad enough, we’d circle up and wait it out, if it looked to be shorter, we’d try to keep going.

We were approaching a ferry, the first time we saw buffalo. We had been building buffalo chip fires for weeks, the smell seeping into our food and clothes seemed to always be with us. We were a couple of days camp from the ferry, when we woke to the sounds of smashing and screaming. Ma and Nancy abandoned the tents and got up in the wagons as Buffalo wandered through camp in the dawn hours. Mr. Jones sent word to hitch up and form a wedge, so the buffalo would go around us rather than through us. The horses and extra oxen were herded behind the point of the wedge and held there. As buffalo passed through and around us, we formed the wedge and wondered if it would work when the herd got thicker. It was a tense morning as we sat there waiting, hearing a crash or a smash as they’d hit a wagon and break a tongue or wheel. The wedge helped, though, when the herd got thick enough to be a wall of brown smelly hides, the buffalo were forced by the wedge to push around our wagons and stock.

Us boys wanted to shoot one, but Pa said wait for the stragglers, if we shot them in the beginning, it might spook them into a stampede. We spent a day waiting for the herd to pass, it seemed like weeks. When the herd had thinned out enough near sunset, Pa took us out to shoot. It wasn’t real hunting, they didn’t move really fast and even when they heard gunshots, they didn’t respond much. And skinning and cleaning was nasty work, much harder than skinning a deer or elk, which we’d all done.

Our first taste of buffalo meat was memorable, as memorable as our first shots at them. It had a strong taste that was a nice break from beans and bacon. But two days after buffalo herd passed, with all the grass trampled and grazed down to nothing, the dust came back and the oxen got hungry and hard to handle. It took a day and a half to repair all the damage the buffalo had done to the wagons, even with the wedge.

Once we were on our way, the dust along the trail was worse than it had ever been before. It was blinding when you were in the back of the wagon train, but at least it didn’t kill anyone. It felt like you were breathing sandpaper, it coated your throat until swallowing was tough, and on top of all this, it made it so hard to see, that wagons would collide or hit gopher holes or cross the ruts wrong and break an axle.

Dust also usually meant we were further from water, and just when we needed to be moving fast, we were slowing down. When the oxen would get thirsty, they would plod slower and slower, then once they caught scent of a river or creek, they would threaten to take off running. It took a strong arm to hold back a thirsty ox with the scent of water. Our wagon train had a couple of injuries from run away oxen. Once a wagon tipped another as its oxen rushed past. Once when our own team went running for water, the bouncing and jostling caused things to fall inside the wagon, hurting Allen as he rested in the back. Fortunately these injuries were not severe.

The last few days before Fort Kearney were like this, dusty, hot, miserable, and plagued with cranky oxen until we got to water and grass along its shore. We paid a toll to cross the river on a ferry, and slowly made our way northwest to the fort.

It was June 3rd when we pulled into Fort Kearney, the first civilization we had seen since leaving St Joe’s. We had been on the trail for about a month. We found the fort a collection of ramshackle adobe and sod buildings, surrounded by tents and wagons. Several wagon trains were stopped there when we arrived, as well as a camp of Mormons. There were soldiers stationed there to protect the wagon trains, but not very many, and we weren’t too confident that they could really do much protecting. So far, the Indians had not been a threat, they could be seen off in the distance, but hadn’t approached us at all. At Fort Kearney, Pa was able to send a letter back to his brothers telling them that we were safe so far, and warning them that the biggest problems for this first month had been cholera and dust. Ma saw the poor civilization of Fort Kearney as another proof that the whole trip was a mistake, and again begged to go back. But again, we all let her fuss. We were all in it now and committed.

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