My husband, so recent I still thrill at calling him so, chews thoughtfully.
“You see,” I say, “I’m practising. Every ingredient is from the provisions list the book suggests for the trail.”
Shortly we intend to join a wagon train heading West. My ‘practising’ stems from genuine qualms over the coming journey’s demands. I do NOT want to let Alex down.
His family ‘washed their hands of him’ when he married me – I lack dowry, expectations and useful connections – instead of the expected ‘good match’. Although I proved impervious to the first appeal to my better nature,
‘If you truly love him why ruin his chances?’;
I was given a second chance to redeem myself.
‘At least dissuade him from moving West.’
I have no intention now – or ever – of dissuading my adored Alex from following a dream. If he wants to live on the ocean-bed or at the North Pole – so long I stay within arm’s reach – when do we leave and what do I pack?
Once more – hands were ‘washed’.
Since his family neither appeared at the wedding, nor called since, we both assume their hands are now – clean.
I have no doubt Alex thinks me worth the loss. I have no doubt, I AM worth the loss. But, you understand my eagerness to measure up as ‘fitting helpmeet’ in the arduous months to come?
“There’s bacon,” I explain, “…which we’ll pack in bran to prevent the fat melting away. So – I added the bran too. It’s fried in butter – which we’ll need to…” my finger runs down the instructions in our well-worn guide, “…‘boil, skim off the scum – solder into canisters.’ Apparently…” I assure Alex, “…the flavour is ‘but little impaired’.”
He raises his eyebrows to indicate surprise.
“Uh huh?” he manfully takes another mouthful.
“It has desiccated vegetables,” I enthuse. “Well…” I temporise, “I did my best. It says to ‘cut fresh vegetables thinly and subject to a powerful press, which removes the juice leaving a solid cake. Then, dry in an oven, until almost hard as rock.'” I smile, “We don’t have a press, so I put them between sheets of newspaper and – kind of – danced on them, while I did laundry this morning.”
“Oh,” I look apologetic, “…sorry. I’d already read it.”
“It worked,” I say, “they certainly came out – hard.” He nods, chewing stolidly. “We can buy the real thing at the start of the trail,” I continue. “The rest,” I finish, “…is mostly beans.”
“I did guess – mostly beans,” grins Alex, holding up a bean-filled fork.
“So – what do you think?”
He sprinkles a little more salt.
“I’m mulling over the correct adjective.”
I savour my portion.
“Bland?” I suggest. He hesitates. “I don’t MIND bland!” I reassure him, eagerly. “Bland is a real step up for me!”
“It’s perfectly edible, Light of my Life – and undoubtedly nutritious. But…” he kisses the tip of my nose, “…it does need – something.”
“Maybe – onions?” I muse. “There’ll be wild onions – and wild garlic. Or perhaps – horse mint. That grows on the trail.” I squeeze his hand. “There’s plenty left. I’ll experiment again tomorrow!”
“Careful – don’t want to spoil me!” he grins.
The last dish stacked, Alex hugs me from behind, as I hang the cloth to dry. “I’ve got something for you,” he says, nuzzling my neck.
“The usual,” I smile, “…- or a surprise?”
“A surprise – first,” he smiles. “Move the tablecloth – I need a flat surface.”
He strides over to rummage under his overcoat, emerging with a long roll of paper he had carefully concealed.
“Tah-dah!” he unfurls it.
“A map,” I say.
“Well spotted, Magellan!”
“You shouldn’t have,” I laugh, “…I’d be perfectly happy with dull, traditional jewellery!”
“It’s not a present,” he explains, “…you can’t KEEP it!”
“Be still my breaking heart,” I murmur.
“I borrowed it,” he places pots to hold the corners, “…to let you track our journey.”
“Now who’s spoiling whom?” I lean over, to join Alex as he enthuses over the adventures to come.
He opens the guide.
“No one should journey West without anticipating many rough knocks and much hard labor; everyone must expect to do his share of duty faithfully and suffer hardship without a murmur…”
“Am I allowed to murmur when we’re alone?” I check. “Because – I’m sure I’ll have a few choice words from time to time.”
“We’ll agree a schedule,” he smiles, “…You murmur Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays. I grumble Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays. On Sundays – the poor beasts pulling the wagon have a turn!” He turns a page, “…Now – the positive side. … there is much to interest and amuse one fond of picturesque scenery, and of wildlife in its most primitive aspect.”
“I’m not sure I like wildlife – primitive,” I demur.
“Remember you’re riding with ‘one-shot Heyes’,” he grins. “You’ve nothing to fear from the fiercest bear or stealthiest cat!”
“Suppose they work in pairs – ONE shot?” I tease.
“We throw them your bean stew to chew on!” he decides. “Now let’s start with what we can expect to see in Illinois.” I peer closely at the map. A beat. “Have you found Illinois?” he asks.
“Well – find the Mississippi – and follow it.”
“It’s a river,” he says, patiently. A beat. “Lots of bends.”
“I’ve found Massachusetts!” I offer, happily.
“Marvellous, darling,” he says, “…Remind me to tell the leader he has a blood-sister to Hawkeye the pathfinder along!”
“It’s a start!” I protest.
He points with precision.
“Here’s where we’ll cross the Mississippi!” Tucking the book under his arm, he touches a second spot. “Roughly – where we’ll cross the Missouri.” I suck in my breath. “You disagree?” he asks.
I shake my head, doubtfully, “…I wouldn’t start from here!” I tease.
After a mock frown, he places my finger on the map and begins.
“The prairies of mid-Illinois offer many beauties…”
“Listen, Sarah… ‘On the bank grow sycamore and plum trees. Grape-vines clamber from branch to branch. Ravines and creeks yield raspberries and running blackberries. Lower down climbing roses and geranium-like vines interlace the shrubs. Underfoot bloom beds of flowers – May-apple, adder’s-tongue, violets, splendid verbenas. Plentiful water; springs bubble from every dell, brooklets from every gulch.'”
My husband’s face glows in the soft lamplight. “Think – wide open spaces – room to breathe – each other.” His arm circles me.
“It does sound appealing,” I say. I snuggle close, hoping to instigate the activity promised AFTER I have enjoyed my cartographic surprise, I let my fingers tease the soft down on the nape of his neck. “… Anywhere will be bliss – in your arms, Alex,” I hint.
He kisses the top of my head, but…
“Gooseberries abound and harvests of nuts fall…”
Sighing, I firmly remove the book from his grasp and use it to cover the Missouri. “Don’t you want to hear more about the land west of the river?” he asks.
“No,” kissing him, softly, “…Nor about gooseberries, nor about nuts…that can all wait.” My fingers twine in his hair, “Right now, I desire my beloved to come into his garden – taste its rarest fruits.” Alex returns my kiss. Gentle at first – then deeper, deeper. The guide falls to the floor as he lifts me onto the table and presses me back into – ‘unorganised territory’.
The Guide Alex and Sarah are reading from is fictional. However it appears (smile) to paraphrase heavily from:
‘The Prairie Traveller’ by Randolph Barnes Marcy, Captain, U.S.A.
And (for the descriptions) ‘Went To Kansas’ by Miriam D. Colt