Mr. Hutton and a few other men are still gathered by the stream. Not doing anything. Not even gingerly edging down the steep bank, stepping a few paces into the fast-flowing water, poking long staves into the bed and shaking their heads. They were doing this earlier – for ages. Poking – moving a few yards upstream – poking again – moving downstream – shaking their heads.
My husband does not join them, but gets on with a few simple repairs. He tells me he is sure they can handle stick poking and head-shaking without him. Mr. Hutton – our wagon train’s elected leader – presumably knows enough about fording streams not to need advice from a green young Easterner, however opinionated.
Alex calls himself a ‘green young Easterner’ with a wry smile. But, I know he worries lack of experience of life on the trail might stop him pulling his weight. I KNOW full well I do not pull MY weight. I try not to fret – since I see no remedy – but save my energy for trying my best and staying cheerful.
Mr. Hutton strides back. He signals for attention. We move forward.
“We’ve a rapid stream, more’n fifteen foot deep, I reckon,” his slow voice begins. “High, steep banks – an’ real soft. Probably the most difficult crossin’ we’ll get. Which…” he shrugs, “… you COULD call a blessin’ – as the next’ll seem easy as pie.”
I remember reading after disease and careless gun-handling, the next most common cause of fatalities on the trail is – drowning. I glance around. Most stoical faces do not react. Some women – mothers – look frightened.
“Rudd an’ Schultz, here…” goes on Mr. Hutton, “…have experience of fashionin’ make-shift ferry-boats. They’ll lead a team workin’ on makin’ us a float. An’ I need ALL the wagons unloaded an’ fastened down to their axles.” He looks from face to face, “…What we want is a real strong swimmer to carry across the first rope.”
Ben Rudd – Mr. Rudd’s eldest – going on sixteen, throws up his hand.
Mr. Hutton’s grey streaked whiskers curve as he smiles.
“Appreciate the spirit, son – but I reckon we need to let you put on a few pounds before we put you in that current.”
I listen to the stream. I am no judge – but it sounds – fast. My eyes flick to the opposite shore. Over grass, it would not look much of a distance. But – just now, it seems far enough to me. I clench my hands hard to stop them shaking – because, Alex can swim. Not a single part of me doubts he will volunteer. I am only surprised his hand did not beat Ben Rudd’s into the air. My heart swells as he steps forward – though whether from pride or fear I am not sure.
He is not alone. Mr. O’Connor and Mr. Sandweiss also tentatively step forward.
Mr. Hutton looks at Alex ruminatively for a moment.
“You sure you swim well, Heyes?” The ghost of a smile, “You ain’t just read about it – like when you said you knew all ‘bout reef knots an’ slip lines?” It is said kindly enough – even, paternally.
Alex flushes, but – he knows he earned some teasing in the first couple of weeks and has determined to take it in good part.
“Well enough…” His head comes up in a return of the boyish bravado he has tried to suppress, “…I’ve swum more than four times that distance. Against a current too.” The steady grey eyes of the trail leader stay on him. My husband gives a rueful grin. “…Not a current anything like that,” he admits, nodding at the river. I think this last acknowledgment persuades Mr. Hutton.
Turning to the other volunteers, he says, “No offence, gentlemen, but since Heyes here has ‘bout ten years on you, and…” he does not finish. He was going to say – they both have families to support.
I take a few deep breaths and make sure I am wearing a cheerful smile, before I look at the man who has only me to support.
Mr. Rudd and Mr. Schultz supervise proper stoppering of empty water casks to fill a wagon-bed. Barked instructions on tight roping inside and secure lashing of casks outside, float over. Those – and the wind – prevent me hearing everything going on by the riverbank. Though I do NOT want to act the fretful wife, I edge forward until in earshot.
Mrs. Rudd – bless her – comes over, “I’ve crossed a couple of rivers this way,” she says. “Usually see nothing worse’n a few cuts and bruises – and a lot of wet feet.”
I smile back, but cannot think of a reply. She leaves me to eavesdrop – the kindest thing she can do. With Mr. Sandweiss’ advice, Mr. Hutton is choosing the best spot for the wagons to enter – and exit from the river.
“We’re tryin’ to pick a spot both sides where the bed’s firm enough to support the animals without bogging – AND where it ain’t so steep we hafta spend hours excavatin’ first,” Mr. Hutton explains to Alex.
“We think the spot Mr. O’Connor marks now – this side,” goes on Mr. Sandweiss. “It will still haf to be gifen a – a…”
“Foundation…” supplies Mr. Hutton.
“Danke. Foundation of earth and – brush. But…” he shrugs, “…is best we haf.”
“It’s harder to judge the other side,” says Mr. Hutton.
Alex scans the opposite bank.
“You only need look left, Heyes,” puts in Mr. O’Connor. “WE usually work WITH the current moving wagons. Course…if you know better?”
Alex shakes his head. Then, with a grin he says, “If I want to swim upstream just for exercise – I’ll do it afterwards, huh?” I try and see his expression. Is he confident? Or – was that just a verbal ‘brave face’?
“I’m thinking – there – for you to make a first fix,” says Mr. Hutton, pointing. “Once we have a rope across – we’ll attach and float a coupling-pole, spades an’ your boots – O’Connor and Sandweiss’ll join you – the rope’ll make their swim pretty safe…and the three of you can start digging over that side.” He sucks in his breath, “…About 100 yards of rope’ll be well on the safe side, huh – Sandweiss? There’n back an’ some over – even with the diagonal?”
“More than enough,” confirms Mr. Sandweiss.
“Don’t tie it round yourself,” admonishes Mr. Hutton. “…If it catches a rock – do you really wanna be fastened to it?” Alex looks confused. Then, a second after I imagine him jerked under the surface by a suddenly taut rope – he understands the warning. “The light cord loop is to hold in your mouth. So you CAN let go – IF you REALLY hafta. Try not to. But…” He pats Alex’s shoulder. “…no need to go down a hero, son, hanging on. We can always have a second try.”
Alex has stripped to his pants and looks – chilly. Many of the group gather to watch the rope go across. Alex takes the loop and edges – gingerly – into the water. The stones look – sharp. Another step, the water is over his knees now. Another – the water gushes around the top of his thighs. He flinches.
Mrs. Rudd is beside me.
“Hal said it’s icy in there,” she murmurs, sympathetically. “Still – your husband’s a fine, strong, young man.”
I can see Alex is trying not to show fear. Mrs. Rudd is right – he IS strong. But still, he sways as the current catches him. Alex has a beard now – as time, hot water and soap for shaving are all in short supply. His teeth show white as he takes the loop between them. The muscles of his back brace – under the smooth skin usually only I see – then, he plunges into the water.
The dark head bobs above the surface. Alex swims diagonally against the current. It carries him downstream anyway – but that is fine. They planned on that. As long as he makes progress towards the other bank – it does not matter much how far he is carried. As long as he moves forward as well as sideways. As long as…
I stop thinking. He has disappeared. Seconds drag by. Nothing. Nothing. A minute. More. I am NOT thinking. I stare so hard where I last saw him that my eyes hurt.
“There he is,” comes Mrs. Rudd’s kind voice.
Heart pounding, I drag my gaze left. Still swimming – though the stroke is much less controlled. I am sure he IS making progress. Nearly sure. Bobbing. Bobbing. Gone again. Or – is it a trick of the foam? No – gone. It seems longer than last time. Nothing. My nails dig into my palms. Nothing. It IS longer than last time.
“He’s bound to have dropped it,” says Mr. O’Connor. Nothing. Nothing. Then, “Do we go in after him – or…?”
Mr. Hutton looks – tense. He does not answer the question. Then, I see him relax. He points.
Even I – who adore him – would hardly call what Alex is doing now, swimming. He is flailing. But – still, ‘flailing’ closer to the opposite side.
He has touched bottom. He goes under again – but it is just a stumble. He comes up – a flailing step – over again – but at knee level now. He stays on hands and knees as he pulls himself onto the steep mud bank – slithering flat at one point. There are shouts of congratulation, applause, from our side – but he does not turn. He takes the cord from his mouth – loops it round his wrist. He does not get up. He is – shaking. We cannot hear – but I realise he is retching. He throws up – and again – and again. The river looks no lower – but he clearly swallowed a good bucketful! My poor, proud, darling! He will not want to turn and face the group after that.
“That shut him up!” breathes Mr. O’Connor, though I hear warm relief in his voice. “Gotta hand it to him, though – he didn’t let go the rope!”
Alex seems very clumsy and slow when – after pulling himself, bedraggled and filthy, up the bank – he tries to fasten the rope to a tree. Immediate danger over, I approach our leader without risking being seen as – ‘complaining’ – the ultimate crime on the trail.
“Alex CAN tie a double hitch,” I say. “He practised and practised, when you had him shown – after that first week, when…” I blush.
“I know ma-am. He’s too cold to feel his fingers – that’s all.” His eyes are kind as they meet mine. “He showed real pluck hangin’ on to the rope after goin’ under twice. This is one mean crossin’.” A beat. “You should be proud.”
“I already was,” I say, simply.
The floating wagon – bottom upward – makes its third laden journey across, heaved by the men on the far bank. They sent a small party of men first – to help pull. I am in the next group waiting to cross.
As baggage is roped on, Mrs. Sayers approaches, newborn in her arms, four of her other children gathered round her skirts.
“Mrs. Heyes, would you hold James on the way over?” Suddenly worry makes her trip over the words, “John,” – her husband – “…took the older boys and carried Mary, but…” She stops, restarts. “The children are SO used to you – he’ll behave – I could relax.” So far, the rocking float has lost only a soldered tin of butter and a spade to the river – but I can understand a mother’s anxiety to keep it that way. And – the most careful parents can still muster only four arms between them!
I nod eagerly and squat down to bring my face level with three-year old James.
“James,” I smile, “…I’m taking Ellie …” Ellie Rudd is just two. “…over on the next trip. Would you come with us – keep us safe?”
James removes his thumb – just long enough to ask, “Willya tella story?”
Alex receives warm words of thanks as the float grounds – I suspect every group disembarking has done the same.
“Stay till I get back,” he orders, holding his arms out for James.
Since he usually basks in appreciation, I am surprised how subdued he still is. Mind you – even after all that digging and hammering – he is trying not to shiver.
“No! Shoulders!” demands James. I am sure Alex is close to exhausted, but he lets James ride his shoulders as he delivers him.
“You made a rod for your own back starting that habit, Heyes,” says Mr. Sayers. Then, simply, “Thanks. And – thanks to Mrs. Heyes, too.”
Alex comes back – passes up Ellie to a waiting Mrs. Rudd – then swings me ashore.
“You’re freezing!” I protest – without thinking – as he touches me.
“I know! That’s why I can’t risk YOU slipping in!” he snaps.
I blink. Alex rarely snaps at me. But, since he strides back down the bank, I try to put it out of my mind and be as useful as I can. Soon I am making shifting the lighter baggage a game for some of the younger children.
I fail. Not in the game. ‘Stealing the giant’s treasure’ – is a great success. I fail to stop worrying about Alex.
“…The horses in their stalls fell asleep. The stable-boy – gave a great yawn – like this…” I demonstrate how vast the yawn was, “…then another…” I do it again. James yawns back and lays his head on my lap, next to his sister, whose eyelids flicker shut. “And…snuggled down in the soft warm hay…it was SO comfortable…” I let my voice gradually sink. “…that very soon, he began to snore. Even the little sparrow – pecking for corn dropped by the horses – even he felt drowsy. He nuzzled his head under his downy wing and – began to doze.” I catch Mrs. Rudd’s eye and nod. She comes over. Voice lower still, I go on, “…Out in the courtyard – the fountain ceased to run…” Mrs. Rudd takes Ellie and leads an eye-rubbing Rachel towards their wagon. Mrs. Sayers passes me baby Charles – picks up James.
“I ain’t tired!” he mumbles. But his head nestles on her shoulder – and blue eyes close. Laura Rudd – just past fourteen – takes Mary Sayers and offers a hand to her own little sister Carrie.
“Guess that leaves just you and me?” I smile at Charles, as they walk away. I let him suck the tip of my little finger – as this sometimes stops the grizzling.
It was dusk by the time the wagons were reloaded. Now – stew heats on the campfires and wet clothes hang to dry. I share supper preparation with Mrs. Rudd and Mrs. Sayers. We have become a regular threesome now. Which – I am all too aware – means one of them makes the fire and the other supervises food preparation.
Mrs. Rudd returns. Alex – clean and in fresh clothes now – comes over. We have been busy in what I suppose you would call ‘separate spheres’ the whole afternoon. Seth Sayers and Kurt Sandweiss – both around ten – follow him.
“We’ve been oilin’ Mr. Heyes’ rifles!” boasts Seth. “An’ – he’s gonna teach us to swim!”
“IF,” puts in Alex, quickly. “IF we find a stream a lot calmer than today’s, IF Mr. Hutton calls a halt – and, IF your Mothers agree.” He ruffles Seth’s hair, “That’s a lot of ‘Ifs’, Seth.”
Alex looks hopefully at the stew-pot – then at me.
“Is that – anywhere near ready?”
I have not the slightest idea. Usually I would make a joke of this, but…
“Afraid this batch’ll be a good half hour – or longer, Mr. Heyes,” says Mrs. Rudd.
“Not a problem ma-am,” he smiles – but so faintly, we do not even see dimples. “Just smells pretty tempting already.”
Mr. Hutton strides over.
“Heyes – I took a look at the axle on Croft’s wagon.”
For a moment Alex looks blank, then – flushes.
“Has it gone wrong? I did exactly what the book…” he stops. Before we started, he purchased a manual on wagon construction – with tips on repairs. But – he had enough teasing about ‘theory versus practice’ at the start to regret mentioning the word ‘book’.
“No,” Mr. Hutton reassures him. “It’s a fine job. Reckon you’ve a knack! I was gonna ask – d’you mind havin’ a look at Schultz’s front wheel?”
“Sure,” Alex begins to get to his feet, “- Can but try.”
“Don’t mean NOW,” smiles Mr. Hutton. “I reckon you must be about spent?”
“I’ll take a quick look now,” says Alex, “…work on it first thing, huh?” He rubs his back as he straightens – strides away. Seth and Kurt scramble up – scamper after him – then, they too adopt a stride.
I am delighted to hear Alex has ‘a knack’. He will be so pleased to be useful. I just wish… I bite my lip. I just wish I had a knack for something useful too.
Mrs. Rudd gazes over at Alex standing with Mr. Schultz, staring at a spoke. He pushes back his hat, his hands go to his hips. Mutual masculine head-shaking. Behind him – two smaller hats are solemnly pushed back – two sets of boyish hands go on hips. Alex squats down and points – he is explaining something to Kurt and Seth.
“What a good father he’ll make!” Mrs. Rudd says.
I drop my eyes. I have given up hoping that being ill in the mornings means anything other than that wagon motion makes me seasick.
Mrs. Sayers reappears.
“Oh no! He’s settled!” she says, to my unspoken offer to return Charles. She moves the rail holding Alex’s clothes back, turns the pants around. “Don’t want them to scorch,” she says. “There’s a button off – do you want me to…”
“For heaven’s sake!” I hiss – tone low because of the baby, “I CAN sew on a button! I may not have a knack for lighting fires, nor making stew taste of anything but water! I may not be able to carry a forty pound kettle in each hand – nor even spot when my husband’s clothes are about to scorch – or…” my lip wobbles, “…or make him a father! But, I think I can stretch to a blessed button!”
Two sets of eyes widen. A beat. I gulp.
“I’m SO sorry! I don’t know what came over me. You’re both so generous – all the time. And I’m so…so useless. I’m so…”
“Hey…” Mrs. Rudd’s motherly arm circles me.
“It’s alright – you’re not snapping at us! You’re snapping at that dang river for dunking Heyes! We know! It’s been a rough day all round!”
“I didn’t mean nothin’,” says Mrs. Sayers. “Sheesh! You’re not useless! You’re a godsend, Sarah! I’d swap sewin’ buttons for two settled, sleepy toddlers an’ a quiet baby any day o’ the week!”
“Same here!” chimes in Mrs. Rudd.
They are SO kind.
“Just – just making games and telling stories – that’s easy,” I demur. “It’s not – not work!”
The mothers exchange a glance.
“I find getting the fire to catch easy,” says Mrs. Sayers. “It’s a knack.”
I see what they mean. They are not JUST being kind. “As for that other worry…” Mrs. Rudd checks no one is listening – moves closer.
Undressing at the same time – however much or little we bother depending on tiredness and temperature – is a non-starter inside the wagon. So, I lay waiting for Alex. He stayed quiet – for him – all through supper.
The wagon creaks as he climbs in. I hear boots come off and watch the dim shadow of my husband first pull a shirt over his head, then – awkwardly in the tiny space – step out of his pants. The baseboards squeak as he settles – with a smothered ‘ow’ – at pulled muscles, beside me.
“Sarah,” very low, “…are you awake?”
His arms circle me.
“Thank heaven! I’ve been aching to be alone with you, all day!”
Oh! Is this ‘rough day’ about to take a turn for the better?
His face nestles in my – ribcage. I hesitate to say ‘bosom’ as – although Alex has used the phrase ‘perfect, just a mouthful’ – I do not HAVE a bosom.
The muffled voice – shakes.
“Could everyone tell? I didn’t – didn’t embarrass you TOO much, did I?” Then – a boyish mumble, “I didn’t mean to let you down, Sarah. Please – please hold me.”
I take care of the last part. Hug him tight, stroke him. This is not my self-confident Alex!
“You NEVER let me down. And – today – you were wonderful. What’s wrong, darling?” I kiss his hair. “Everyone thinks you’re a hero. I think you’re…”
“Everyone’s wrong then!” He wriggles still closer. “Oh Sarah – you MUST have seen! I was scared witless! When that undercurrent pulled me down, the rope got fast. Then, the weeds caught me – I thought I was going to die. I couldn’t see a thing! Didn’t think I’d pull free before I passed out. Didn’t know which way was up when I did!”
“I didn’t know you’d been caught! No one told me!”
“I’m not likely to tell anyone but you – am I?” he blurts. He clings tight, “Sarah – I was SO frightened, I think I …” even though we are already keeping our voices low, he raises his head to my ear – whispers.
I cuddle him close.
“Doesn’t matter,” I soothe, “…it’s not as if you could get any wetter!” He manages a tiny laugh. “Alex,” I point out, seriously, “…you still held on! So no one else had to risk a second try. The more frightened you were – the braver that was.”
“I didn’t think I’d find the guts to climb out if I let go!”
“Mr. Hutton told me it was the meanest crossing he’d seen. He told me…it took real pluck to keep hold of a rope when you went under. Said I should be proud!” I kiss him again, “I am!”
“Didn’t he – didn’t he see my hands trembling while I tied the hitch? I couldn’t stop them. I tried – but, I was too shook up. I felt such a fool!” His voice drops still lower to a whisper, “I felt such a – a coward.”
“We just thought you were cold.”
The voice perks up a touch at this reassurance.
“Cold! Cold isn’t close! I was – frozen to the marrow.” A beat. “I’m still cold,” he says.
I wrap my legs round his…try to be a human warming-pan.
“Feeling better too?”
“A bit.” I make soothing sounds and keep up the stroking. A beat. “Make that – a lot. Give me twenty-four hours, I’ll be unbearable – boasting how I crested the raging torrent.”
“Fighting off alligators – carrying an anvil,” I add.
“I’m glad you remember it the way I – intend to,” he says, nuzzling in. A beat. “What the Sam Hill were you ladies discussing, when I walked up? Why all the – shushing?”
“Oh,” I admit, “I broke the golden rule – I’ve been complaining.”
“What about?” He looks up, “You weren’t showing them your fleabites?” This is how I usually use ‘Sarah’s turn to grumble’ time, when we’re alone. “Because – much as I adore you – the topic soon palls.” I poke him, hard. “OW!”
“About my shortcomings as a wife.”
“You HAVEN’T any shortcomings as a wife!” he avers, stoutly.
“Oh – WE decided that!” A beat. “I’m wonderful!”
“Good. Even the fleas agree you’re the best thing since…OW!”
“Too good for you!” I tease.
“Yup. Lucky for me you’d been on the shelf so long and were desperate…Poor, raddled, fading spinster… OW! STOP poking!”
“Stop deserving it!”
“Why was this ‘Sarah’s wonderful’ conversation so – secret?”
“We’d moved on.” The teasing note leaves my voice, “Mrs. Rudd said I shouldn’t worry I’m not – that no baby’s on the way. She says – it’s not been that long.” Alex nuzzles again, makes comforting sounds. “She says – try and gain a few pounds.” I pause.
“They both say – being jolted silly by a wagon every day doesn’t help.”
“But, once I settle – I’ll probably get myself pregnant real easy.”
“Get YOURSELF pregnant?” he checks, yawning.
“I MAY let you participate,” I smile. A beat. I snuggle up, slide my hand inside his Henley – caressing. “Alex?” I murmur. My other hand explores downwards. “Alex?”
“I thought you just said – ‘make babies’ was OFF the chore-list till we’d settled?” he mumbles.
“We can – practise.”
An appreciative ‘Mmmm’ at what I am doing. His hand slides to my waist. “Practice makes…” he stops. “Sarah – what the Sam Hill is – THIS?” He tugs, gently.
“Twine,” I say. “Holding up my drawers. Well…YOUR drawers. They were so lovely and warm straight from the rail, I couldn’t resist. I put the socks on too. And – a couple of spare Henleys.” More tugs. “May I keep the socks and Henleys on? It’s chilly.”
“Sure. Don’t want you TOO alluring if we’re only practising!” A beat. Hands fiddling with twine. He sits up. “Sheesh Sarah, how many knots did you tie?” Another tug. A smothered cuss. “Alexander the Great couldn’t unravel this.” He bends down – uses his teeth.
“You’re making it tighter,” I protest. “…shall I do it?”
I set to work, wishing I had practised slipknots more assiduously, wishing I had a nail left to prise up a loop.
“It’s coming,” I chirp, after a minute, “I’ve found an end.” Loosening. My forehead creases in concentration. “Nearly there!” Unravelling. I wriggle free, snuggle back down. “Done it!” I triumph. A beat. “Alex?” Nothing. “Alex?” Slow, even breathing. “My hero!” I murmur, as I too settle down to sleep.
The procedure described for fording this type of stream reflects that given in: ‘The Prairie Traveller’ by Randolph Barnes Marcy, Captain, U.S.A.