Early September 1847
I stride toward the encamped wagon train. Still a good fifty yards away I notice a dark young man, seated on a rock. A rifle is propped between his legs; a greasy rag lies beside him. He is not, however, oiling his weapon. He is not doing anything – simply staring, dreamily, into the distance.
“Top of the morning to you,” I hail him, civilly. Nothing. “Good morning,” I repeat, louder. I am about to walk away with a disgruntled shake of the head, when he looks round. A pair of deep-brown eyes meet mine.
“Sorry – were you speaking to me?” The voice tells me clearly enough, he is from back east.
“Just said – good morning,” I say. “Does this wagon train have a…?”
“Better than ‘good’,” he smiles. “Wonderful! It’s hard to believe after all that rain. ‘Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive.’ Huh?”
I blink. “Uh huh. Can you…”
“I’ve read how beautiful land to the west of the Missouri can be,” dimples appear under the dark whiskers. “And…” he gestures widely, a book clasped in the sweeping hand, “… the reality certainly outstrips even the most glowing descriptions.”
“Uh huh. Do you…”
“Truly a ‘Season of mist and mellow fruitfulness’.” A beat. “Or perhaps, sir…since I guess from your accent, you hail from the Emerald Isle – fair Erin – should I rather reference Moore – ‘The Last Rose of Summer’?”
He gives me a friendly, quizzical smile. I gather – I am expected to answer that!
“This wagon train – does it have a leader?” I say. Quickly. Before he gives me any more – blarney.
“Sure, Mr. Hutton,” Again, he stares at the scenery. “The vista brings to mind the words, ‘Fair seed-time…'”
“Can you point him out?”
“The tall man,” pointing, “Grey jacket…greying hair.”
“Obliged to you,” I touch my hat. Walking away I roll my eyes. Under my breath, I mutter “He’ll head back soon enough after winter! Sheesh!”
Mr. Hutton listens to my enquiry.
“No doubt someone’d be more’n glad to help out with some’n that only takes a second pair of hands an’ muscle,” he says.
“You’re a sight closer than my nearest neighbour…” I explain, “…Besides – he’ll be harvesting. It’s not fair to ask.” I feel myself flush. “I can’t pay. Not in money. But …fresh vegetables? Eggs? Maybe a broiler?”
Mr. Hutton waves this aside.
“The wagon train moves on in a day or so. BUT…” a slow smile, “…one or two families plan to stay. Settle hereabouts. I’m sure a little local knowledge an’ advice’d be more’n payment enough.”
“Sure – and won’t I be glad enough to share that, anyhow?” I offer.
“As for your other request,” he purses his lips, “…We’ve no wheelwright nor carpenter along, Mr. Curry.” My shoulders droop. The nearest skilled man is at the Fort. A long ride – and, probably, a long wait too. Without my wagon, I am losing harvest time I can ill afford. Still – at least someone will help haul the dang thing out of the rain-swollen creek. Mr. Hutton has not finished. I follow as he walks along, still talking. “We DO have a fella who’s built up kinda a knack for wagon repairs. If it’s not too complicated – he can probably help.” I give a hopeful smile. “Worth a try,” says Mr. Hutton. “AND – he’s one of the fellas hopin’ to put down roots here.” He stops. “Heyes!” he calls.
I look. My smile falters and I feel my face fall. The brown-eyed easterner – so full of fancy talk and blather, I doubt he knows which way round to hitch a horse – is striding over.
“I think wedge this side up another couple of inches… then throw a lariat round that overhanging branch – start getting leverage on the back-axle, huh?” says Heyes. Despite being – like me – dripping-wet, cold and muddy, he still has the same cheerful tone as before.
“You see…” I explain, not wanting him to think me a clumsy fool, “…The wagon fords here easy enough – as a rule. But…the wheel must have hit a rock at a real awkward angle – and the rains…”
“Uh huh?” Heyes smiles. “Take the side strain on three… three!”
Once more, he disappears beneath the surface. I – back and thighs braced – strain to lift the wagon-bed an inch or two, while Heyes works under-water. My reservations about this fella have – pretty much – disappeared during the last hour. Sure, he talks fancy. And – talks a lot. But, I like to talk myself – and Heyes takes fair turns listening. AND – he shirks neither hard work, nor discomfort. Smart fella too – when it comes to figuring ways and means.
He comes up, spluttering out water and pushing back the dark hair.
“If we just get some earth and brush under the front wheels – for grip…” he gasps, “…then – each take a side – try edging forward.”
As we cut brush, I carry on.
“…the rains had swollen the waters – d’you see that, Heyes?”
“I suppose – I was trusting to luck a touch…”
“The luck of the Irish, huh?” he says, pleasantly.
“Usually works!” I grin. “But…sure and didn’t it desert me right enough this time? And – then the dang rain…”
“Became a multitudinous sea incarnadine?”
“Uh huh,” I let it pass, with a tolerant roll of my eyes. “Before I could catch me breath – I was in this mess. And I didn’t dare just rope up the horse and heave like Billy-ho – because, didn’t I know sure as eggs is eggs – something had broken.”
“Reckon you’ve damaged the tongue,” he nods.
“Can you be fixing it, d’you think?”
“Depends,” Heyes hesitates. “We need to keep it even as possible till we get back. If we stop it getting worse, I reckon I can fashion something that’ll last out the harvest.” I start to thank him. He forestalls me, “I said – IF…!”
“Please, please come in,” I urge, settling six-month old Nate more firmly on one hip.
“It’s so kind of you to invite us,” replies the plain, little woman before me. She bends forwards, “Hello,” she beams. Her face lights up, as an inquisitive podgy fist explores her bonnet-strings. Suddenly, she is – not so plain after all.
“Sure and isn’t it the LEAST we could do after Heyes managed to mend me…” Nathanial stops. Blinks. “Heyes? IS that you?”
“Oh,” puts in Mrs. Heyes, “Since we’re to eat supper at an actual TABLE – for the first time in months – I suggested Alex shave in your honour!” An impish smile lifts one thin cheek. “I trimmed the rampant mane a touch too!”
“Sarah uses the word ‘suggested’ in the marital sense of – ‘commanded’!” grins Mr. Heyes. I have to admit he was handsome before, but I agree with his wife; clean-shaven is an improvement.
“Sure and don’t all we married men know the wisdom of following ‘suggestions’ if we want a mouthful of peace and quiet once in a blue moon?” teases Nathanial, with a mock-rueful shake of his head.
“Then, I suggest – you take Mrs. Heyes’ bonnet and shawl – and offer her some tea!” I say.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” says Mrs. Heyes, as Nathanial obeys his first instruction.
“No. Unless…” I see her, once again smiling at the baby, “…unless you’d like to hold young Nate here, while I get supper on the table?”
“Lizzie,” grins Nathanial, a few moments later watching our son chuckle in pleasure at an improvised game of peek-boo with Mr. Heyes’ filched bandana, “…I think Nate’s found a friend!”
I wait until all are served and the first compliments on my cooking are over before asking, “What did you think of the spot Nathanial told you about, Mr. Heyes? Do you still think of settling nearby?”
My husband, I know, rather hopes this well-spoken Easterner, with whom he struck up a rapport during the day, will become a neighbour. I too was drawn to the charm of the man, who worked away with a good will until the wagon was fixed, despite having been soaked to the skin.
“It looks real fertile land, ma-am. Plenty of water. The ground will take some clearing, sure – but, that’ll be true anywhere,” he answers, “And – we’re keen to bed down somewhere in plenty of time before winter sets in.” He reaches for his wife’s hand.
“I – I don’t want to hole up for another winter,” says Mrs. Heyes, quietly. “Well – I want to ‘hole up’ in – our own place. Settle. Make a home.”
Nathanial and I exchange a glance.
“We can understand that,” I nod.
“I think I misled Sarah a touch,” says Mr. Heyes, squeezing her hand, “…when I told her there were the remains of an old cabin in place.”
“You remember, Lizzie,” explains Nathanial, “…Mueller told us he heard it was an Osage Trading Post. But – before his time here, let alone ours.”
“When Alex promised to sweep me across the threshold in his arms, I did rather picture a door,” confesses my guest, “…or at least – a wall still standing! Still,” she fondly rubs her thin, sunburnt cheek against her husband’s tanned hand, “…he always was all talk!”
“The threshold was the sunken flat stone I carried you over!” protests Mr. Heyes. “You have to understand what a start that – and the corner stones – and the sill stones set between will give me. It may look overgrown – but the site’s been cleared once. It’ll knock days off the task of clearing it again. And – the site itself…”
“I know,” smiles back his wife, “I DID listen, Beloved. Good drainage. Sheltered from the wind. Fine soil.”
I understand how Mrs. Heyes – used to established farmland back east – might feel a touch intimidated seeing rather than just ‘knowing in theory’ – how wild the country on which she intends to make her new home still is.
“Plenty of old growth trees left for Heyes to build from,” encourages Nathanial. His friendly, freckled face beams encouragement. “Sure – you’ll be living under canvas still for a while yet, ma-am, but…”
“I remember how keen I was for a – a proper roof,” I sympathise. “After so long on the trail – once you DO settle, you yearn to get out of that wagon straight away.” Then, seeing the pucker of concern still on her brow, I add, “This spot was pretty much as wild, eighteen months ago.”
“I know it will all take time!” she hastens to assure me. “And – I found SO much to like. There are plum trees close, wild blackberries and, in just the perfect place, there’s a wild…” she blushes.
“No need to feel embarrassed, Light of my Life,” grins her husband, “…I’m sure a practical couple like Mr. and Mrs. Curry agree – putting up a trellis for the wild rose you intend to train over a wall, takes precedence over being watertight before the cold sets in!”
I give Mrs. Heyes an understanding smile.
“Life’s hard enough out here, Mr. Heyes. If the earth’s kind enough to give us something beautiful to look at while we work – I don’t think it’s frivolous to enjoy it!”
She smiles back. I believe she – in fact both of them – are touched by the reassurance and by the underlying message. We want them to stay.
“I won’t pretend there’s anything easy about the life…” I continue, “… but, nor is it all bad. Not by any means.” A beat. “If you’ve managed to stay – well – as cheerful as you seem, through a year of living on the trail, you shouldn’t worry about…” I stop, not wanting to say anything tactless.
“About not being tough enough to cope?” finishes Mrs. Heyes. The last trace of the pucker vanishes. She grins, mischievously, “I DID use to worry. Now – I just assume I’ll muddle through. I make up for my lack of inches and muscle with,” a mock-modest look, “…my incomparable, incredible, incandescent ingenuity and…” a teasing glance is thrown, “…telling Alex he’s SO lucky to have the pleasure of my company – anything in the way of domestic comforts is to be considered an unexpected bonus!”
“I’m a lucky man,” nods her husband, ruefully, “…True, I’m treated like a serf and fed only on scraps. But – as I’m frequently reminded – it’s more than I deserve.”
“Far more!” she agrees, firmly. She glances around. The teasing tone disappears. “I guess – the truth is, I want what you have, Mrs. Curry.”
“You certainly give it a welcoming feel, ma-am,” admires Mr. Heyes, warmly. Turning to Nathanial, he adds, “I see you’ve gone for a real deep eave too, Curry. Best plan! Takes a little longer while you’re working on the roof purlins – but, worth it. Means when you do add a loft – you can actually stand up in it!”
My husband beams at this admiration.
“It’s small, but…” his voice betrays his pride in our home, “…sure an’ it saw us safe and dry through our first winter. I shall add to it, once harvest is over.” His brow darkens. “Not that I’ll get all the harvest in…” He stops, seeing our guests’ concerned looks. “…Your help today means I’ll only lose a quarter of what I feared this morning. But…” he shakes his head, “…that dang rain…”
“It was a ‘foul bombard shed its liquor’, last night, huh?” sympathises Mr. Heyes.
“‘It could not choose but fall by pailfuls’,” agrees his wife.
We exchange a bemused glance then – a wryly-tolerant smile.
“Uh huh,” allows Nathanial. “Some of the crop will rot before I get to it.” A beat.
“Would – would a second man harvesting help?” asks Mr. Heyes.
“Sure,” grins Nathanial, “But…” he casts a quick glance at Heyes’ wife, reluctant to grasp straightaway at this generous offer, without seeing her reaction, “Don’t you want to get on building.”
“Please,” chirps Mrs. Heyes, trying to swallow a mouthful of hot, gravy-soaked biscuit, to get her words out quickly enough, “don’t even think of that! I’ll happily stay in the wagon as long at it takes Alex to help you out.” The mischievous smile returns. “Well…maybe not ‘happily’. But, I’ll only complain – loudly, loquaciously and at lambasting length – to Alex here. In front of you – my new neighbours – I’ll rival Griselda as a model of wifely patience!”
“Roughly translated – Sarah approves,” smiles Mr. Heyes.
“I could pay you back…” Nathanial forestalls our guests’ half-offended denial, “I mean with a few days labour on your cabin – once the crop’s in. And – given just a touch of the luck of the Irish – I’d still have time before winter to add something to this place. Just a start on what we’ll be needing when…” he grins at me, “…when Nate, there, has a dozen or so strapping brothers!”
Both guests’ eyes linger a moment on the cradle where Nate lays playing happily with his toes. I see Mr. Heyes again squeeze his wife’s hand, as she replaces the fleeting wistful look with her usual smile. From conversation earlier, when I took out hot tea to the men as they worked on the wagon, I know the Heyes have been married a month or so longer than Nathanial and I.
I feel a pang for them and count my blessings.
It is not just the brightly gleaming utensils hanging over a well-blacked stove, nor the snowy scrubbed table, nor the cosy rag-rug, nor my few proudly displayed possessions, that this young couple hope to have in common once – settled.
After a reproving glance at Nathanial, I clear the plates.
“There’s pie to follow,” I say. “Blackberry! As Mrs. Heyes noticed – they do grow hereabouts!”
“Smells wonderful,” sniffs Mr. Heyes. A moment later, “It looks wonderful, too, ma-am.” A – savouring – beat. “There’s something else – besides blackberries.” He treats me to a charming, dimpled smile. “Will you share the secret with Sarah – so she can reproduce it for me?”
“Pfffttt!” she laughs. “It’ll take more than sharing a recipe, Beloved. I lack the knack with pastry.” She gives me a cheerful smile. “Still – it’s generally acknowledged I can pluck a duck quicker than any other woman on the wagon train – so, we all have our gifts! Flexible fingers, fast whippy wrists!” she explains, demonstrating.
I blink and laugh. I DO so – like her! I respond to Mr. Heyes’ original request.
“To save on store-bought sugar – I use honey,” I say, “But – the credit for that ingredient – goes to Nathanial.”
This of course offers my dear husband a perfect opening. Which, as I love to see Nathanial enjoy himself, is pretty much what I planned.
“Heyes,” he offers, expansively. “Would you like me to pour you a second mug of tay – and tell how I discovered the trick of finding and bringing a honeycomb safely home?”
“Er – yes and – yes,” answers Mr. Heyes, with a grin.
“First of course,” says Nathanial, pouring tea, “…I’ve to be telling you how I learnt – the WRONG way to carry off filched treasure from the bountiful bees. I learnt this lesson as a green lad – back in green, green, Ireland.” He takes down his bottle from the shelf and raises his tawny eyebrows questioningly.
Our guest nods. A generous tot is added to the steaming tea.
“More pie, Mr. Heyes?” I offer.
Another nod – with a grateful smile displaying – the dimples. Mr. Heyes settles back, comfortably, to fulfil one of the expected duties of a guest, listening to his host’s favourite anecdotes.
Mrs. Heyes throws me a glance of wifely understanding and also settles back, to fulfil the role of admiring supplementary audience.
“You were asking about Ireland, Heyes?” begins Nathanial, genially – if not entirely accurately. “A wet land – I won’t deny it. Mostly with a cap of mist on the granite hills – and a skinning wind coming off the bleak ocean. But – green. A verdant, fruitful, lovely land. And – everywhere gorse and heather, purple and gold. It almost made up for being bare and poor – almost.” He takes a good swallow of enriched tea – and tops up his and Mr. Heyes’ mug. “You think these blackberries in me darling Lizzie’s pie are lush? In Ireland they grow big as your fist!” He shows the ample size of his freckled fist. “Pick half a dozen – an’ would you have room for more in your pail? Indeed you would not! D’you believe that Heyes?”
Our guest nods, in the spirit of the tale and drinks more of his own – ‘tea’.
“There was I,” continues Nathanial, hitting his stride, “…a lad of fourteen summers – and I sees a swarm of bees, all laden with nectar, heading homeward in the height of summer…”