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Manassas

By Bruce Bullen

A young man dressed in a butternut uniform and carrying a rifle is looking out my window, waiting for Yankees. He was standing in my bedroom when they brought me up. There were others like him at the windows on the first floor. I guess they thought we had left for good and wouldn’t be coming back. I know that John and Ellen meant well. They wanted to move me out of harm’s way, so when the shooting quieted down a bit they carried me downstairs with Lucy Griffith’s help and took me to the spring house. I was holding on to the sides of the mattress trying to keep from rolling off the whole way. When we got there I told them I couldn’t bear to leave my house after so many years. The sound of the guns and the smell of smoke were as bad at the spring house as they were up here. I begged and begged until they took me back home.

I’m just an old woman, frail and sickly. I live in Henry House on Henry Hill. Their real names are Spring Hill Farm and Spring Hill. We never say Henry House or Henry Hill, but that’s what people around here like to say. I’ve lived on the farm for close to forty years, and there isn’t a more beautiful piece of property in the Commonwealth to my way of thinking. The farm itself has been fallow for years, cedar and pine are taking over, but the pastures dip as gracefully as always, the catbirds mew, and the scents are fresh, or at least they were until the shooting started.

It’s hot today, it has been for days, and the noise is enough to make you deaf. I’ve been bedridden so long I don’t remember the farm in summer. I’ve lost track of everything but the sounds. I hear the birds, the wind, and Ellen’s voice when she’s outside tending to things. Now, the familiar sounds are gone.

We heard guns in the distance at 5:30 this morning. I was dreaming of my Althea flowers, my pride. Some call them Rose of Sharon. The guns startled me and I woke up. Every so often a hunter comes by, but these guns weren’t hunting guns. The din was like nothing I ever heard before, and it kept up all morning. I could see that John and Ellen were upset. They kept running back and forth to my bedroom from the first floor asking if I was all right, talking to each other about what to do, thinking that I couldn’t hear them. What is it, I said? What is it? Yankees, they said.

I don’t fear the Yankees. My husband, Isaac, was a Yankee, and I’ve always been comfortable up north. It’s been a long time since Isaac died, 1829, not long after we moved here. We didn’t get to enjoy it together long. After Isaac died, I tried keeping up the farm, raised the children, and tended the garden, but it wasn’t the same without him.  My daughter, Ellen, lives with me now and has been such a help. My son, Hugh, is here when he isn’t at school. My son John happens to be visiting, while Hugh is away. I hired Lucy, a neighbor’s slave, to help Ellen with the chores, since I’m such a burden. Everyone is so worried and anxious, pacing about and wringing their hands. The soldiers tell me that I should leave because it’s too dangerous, but I’m not leaving again. I’m staying put no matter what happens. I worry about John and Ellen though, and of course Lucy.

The railroad junction is why they’re fighting. The RF&P line runs from Richmond to the Potomac –  the link between North and South, some say. That “link” meant something different a few months ago. Ellen has been telling me for weeks that Confederate soldiers were gathering at Manassas, but I didn’t believe her. The fight is about controlling the station, otherwise why come to Manassas? The Yankees want an easy run to Richmond, and the Confederates want to stop them. It’s very odd, having two Capitals so close together. It’s enough to make a person dizzy. I hope the fighting moves to Manassas, where it ought to be.

I don’t get many headaches, but my head has been pounding like the dickens all morning. It must be the guns. They sound closer. Ellen has been so kind, asking if I want anything like the good child she is, but when she tries to bring me water or tea her hands shake so much she has trouble holding the cups. Ellen, I say to her, it’s going to be all right. She doesn’t want to believe me. Lucy does her best to act brave, but I can see in her eyes that she is terrified. John tells them both to calm down, but he’s beside himself. I guess I’m not worried as much as they are. Who would harm a bedridden old woman and her family in such a beautiful place? Hugh sent Ellen a letter a while back, when rumors about Manassas first started. He said that our helplessness would make us safe if the troops ever passed through. I think he’s right. This war is nothing but a dispute between people who don’t see eye to eye on a few things. We’ve had trouble like it before, from the beginning in fact. When both sides see how determined the other is, they’ll sit down and work things out like gentlemen. I do wish this pounding in my head would stop. It hurts like the devil.

I often think about Isaac. He was a surgeon on the Constellation under Commodore Truxton, one of the first US Navy Captains commissioned by George Washington himself. Isaac was born and raised in Philadelphia, but he went all over the world, or so it seemed, serving his country on the Constellation. He was a good man who always did his duty, and he was a loving husband and father. We met after the country had fought to be free and were so proud to be on our own, thanks to the courage of great men from different states (colonies, I guess they were then) – George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton – half of them Virginians, I’m proud to say. Isaac and I felt lucky to be alive at such a time. I wonder what he would think if he were here today?

I’m 84, older than the country itself. I’ve had a full life. A few weeks back was the anniversary of the Declaration, but not too many noticed. If they did it was to claim the Declaration for themselves, depending which side they’re on. Times have surely changed. Who would have thought Virginia would leave the country it worked so hard to shape? But I’m a Carter. Virginia is my state, and if we can’t be part of the Union then I guess we’ll have to be on our own like we were before. It’s too bad, and awfully confusing.

I’m tired and nod off occasionally, even though the sound of gunfire shakes the bedroom. I dream about old Virginia. My great-grandfather Robert “King” Carter was one of the great men around here in the early days. He had the biggest tobacco plantation and more slaves than anyone else. My grandfather Landon wrote a famous journal about life before the Revolution called The Diary of Colonel Landon Carter and lived just long enough to see the country win its freedom. My father Landon Jr. built Pittsylvania. It’s a grand place, but he had a hard time keeping it up. He used to say there was nothing those British wouldn’t try to tax and no price they wouldn’t try to squeeze. Was he ever glad to be rid of them! I had eight brothers and sisters. Daddy was a great family man, a real gentleman. He liked everybody, and everybody liked him.

The young man with the rifle is shooting out my window, and I can hear more shooting downstairs. John is shouting at him to stop, but he says he’s got his orders. If they shoot at Yankees from the house, won’t the Yankees shoot back? I’m sure they have respect for private property and must know that we Henry’s are peace-loving civilians, but if there are shots coming from the house won’t they be confused? I can hear shouting, gunfire, and tramping outside, as if it were in my backyard. The smoke is so heavy you’d think the day had clouded over.

I worry about the Robinsons and how they are faring through all the noise and commotion. I hope they’re safe. Gentleman Jim is hard-working and resourceful, so I suspect they will be. Ellen told me he moved the whole household to the Van Pelt’s and came back to secure his house. That would be like him. I hope he doesn’t get caught up in this turmoil. Jim and I are like family. We care deeply about each other and our families. Both of us were born at Pittsylvania. I feel bad for him, having two sons sold down south like they were, but it didn’t stop him from working extra hard to care for his family. Ellen says the roadhouse is doing better and better every month.

Jim’s mother was a free woman – she was a slave of my Daddy’s, but I guess he decided to make her free. At any rate, Jim was born free. We had the same tutor at Pittsylvania, so I know he’s an educated man. Being born free also meant that he was automatically landed, and he was able to buy the house near Bull Run in the 1840’s. He raised eight children in it and owns even more acreage now. When he married Sukey, she wasn’t free, and he had to find a way to buy her freedom and freedom for as many of their children as he could afford. He nearly succeeded, but for Alfred and James. He just couldn’t buy their freedom fast enough. Jim is a determined man, everything he touches seems to pay – his farm, his businesses. He’s a regular tycoon. People say he’s one of the richest freedmen in Virginia. Jim was a special favorite of my Daddy’s, and he treated Jim and his mother with great respect. To me, Jim is like a little brother. I’m proud of him. I wouldn’t want this war or anything else to keep him from being able to make a good life for himself.

John keeps running back and forth, up and down the stairs. He says the armies are getting closer to Spring Hill. Why don’t the Confederates make their stand at Manassas, I ask him?  It’s what they’re fighting over after all. He says they tried to stop the Yankees at Bull Run and now it looks like they decided to stop running and are making a stand. The shooting outside is growing steadier, and John says that reinforcements are being brought up. He says we should have left when we had the chance. Why would they want to fight over Spring Hill, I ask? What use could it be to them? John says he doesn’t know, it’s just where they want to fight. The aching in my head is getting worse. It’s like everything I ever took for granted is breaking into pieces. I’ll lie here quietly and try to put them back together again when the fighting’s over.

It’s madness that a country would pull itself apart over a few disagreements. Especially when it had such a hard time coming together in the first place. We were more tolerant of each other in the early days. There were differences of opinion, of course, but we knew we had a job to do and had a long struggle ahead of us. People set aside their differences and realized they had to make sacrifices. I hated that Isaac was away on the Constellation for as long as he was, but I knew it was necessary for the good of the country. I can’t believe that in a few short years, in my lifetime, people could have forgotten what happened back then and what makes our country so great. Too many of us let our differences get in the way. The people of Virginia are struggling, I know, and they aren’t happy with the way things have been going. The plantations aren’t what they used to be, and the slave question never gets settled, but there are people like Gentleman Jim who know how to make their way. We should give them a chance. They could show us something, help get us back on our feet. But the Yankees are stubborn. They won’t recognize that we’re Virginians first, that we have a proud history and our own way of life. They forget that we had the idea of bringing all the states together in the first place. I’m sure both sides will see the danger before it’s too late. I’m too old and too loyal to Isaac to think any other way. If they were here now, I know both Isaac and Daddy would tell me not to worry, to have faith.

John is back upstairs. He says that a Yankee soldier entered the hallway downstairs and that one of the snipers shot him dead. Ellen was standing there when it happened and is hysterical with fear. Poor Ellen. She needs to pull herself together. John says he wants to move me someplace safer, but he doesn’t know where and thinks it’s too late anyway. I tell him not to worry, I’ll be fine where I am. Poor Lucy Griffith looks like she’s about ready to faint.

John went downstairs and came back again, anxious and at loose ends, saying that both armies are bringing up cannon and preparing for some kind of confrontation. The gunfire outside just doesn’t stop. I tell John and Lucy to let me be and turn my face to the wall, wondering if the precious innocence of our country could actually die here at Spring Hill. I can’t believe it will be so.

We’re a peaceful, law-abiding family living in our own house, a patriotic family. The land the house sits on is abundant and undisturbed. The house and the farm are known to everyone in Virginia. I’m an old woman, a Carter, the wife of Isaac Henry, lying bedridden on the second floor, hoping the country will come to its senses. If Spring Hill turns out to be the place where the two armies meet, I know in my bones that all of us will be fine. Common sense is going to win out, and they’ll let us be. They cannot be intending to destroy our traditions and beliefs. I’ll just lie here and hope. I believe it’s my duty. Both sides need to remember the promises our fathers and forefathers made.

The big guns are booming, and the house is shaking. Smoke and fire are visible outside my windows. Ellen comes running upstairs with her hands over her ears. John is holding my hand, trying to comfort me, but his head is hanging down and he’s not doing a good job of it. John, I say to him, be proud, everything will be all right. I look into his eyes and see a fear that I’ve never seen before.

I wish Isaac were here. He would know how to take charge of things, how to deal with the Yankees and the children’s fears. He was never one to be afraid of a little pressure. But he’s not here, and I need to be strong for Ellen, for John, for Lucy and myself. We’ve worked too hard to let fear get the better of us. Isaac used to tell me about the many dangers he faced while serving on the Constellation. I couldn’t understand how he endured them. Now, it’s my turn to be strong. I’m not leaving this house, ever again. I won’t show that I’m afraid. I trust in our people and our traditions. The armies can fight over the railway junction at Manassas all they want, but I’m sure there are plenty of good young men on both sides who will have the decency to honor the sanctity of our farm and family. I may be a bedridden old woman, but I know when to stand up for what’s right.

The shooting is louder and faster now. I can hear the rumble of cannons. A ball struck the side of the house. It must be an errant shot. Who would intentionally shoot at our house? The jolt from the impact upset John tremendously, and he has gone downstairs to to tell both sides, if he has to, that there are civilians inside. I hope he’ll be all right and won’t do anything foolish. Ellen looks paralyzed with fear. She doesn’t know what to do and keeps leaping back and forth, unsure whether she should try to help me or cower in the fireplace. Another ball strikes the side of house, this time higher up. Ellen, I say, stay put in the fireplace. Lucy is running from one corner of the room to another, startled  by the booming of the cannons. It’s enough to make one lightheaded. Lucy, I say, get under the bed, if you’re scared. Under the bed.

The noise outside is deafening, but I’m at peace. The worst is underway. We need only brave it, endure it, outlast it, and we will save ourselves. Isaac and Daddy would be proud. I’m Judith Carter Henry, and I won’t be banished or exiled. This is my land, my country, my family. Everything will survive. It must. But my poor hedge… my bushes… my red and white Althea flowers….

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Bruce Bullen is a retired health care executive. He is unpublished and recently returned to writing fiction full-time. An avid reader of American history, particularly the period between the Revolution and the Civil War, he found the link between the two periods and the paradox inherent in the Judith Henry story both interesting and relevant. In addition to historical fiction, Bruce has produced several collections of short fiction, including fifteen fables and ten stories about the inner workings of government.

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Pale Bird Woman

By Dennis Humphrey

Wehnd’kehto of the Fisted Foot scanned the foaming edge where the Great Water beat against the stony land. The gray wet of the sky spirits spread out upon the dark stones as well, falling from their home in the mists above, not heavy, as in the warm moons long ago, but in small, stinging drops, driven by the wind that touches frost. White birds turned and laughed their shrill derision above, “Kay-ah, kay-ah!” Wehnd’kehto  paid them little attention as he limped along on his gnarled foot. He knew their cries were meant to distract him. Sometimes, gifts waited at the water’s edge, placed by the Great Water himself, and the jealous birds wanted them for themselves. Other times flippered beasts dragged themselves from the water to bellow, and he could pierce one with his spear for meat and furs. This day, he did not know what to think of what he found.

He had been alone on his tiny, water-circled land for more round moons than he had fingers, since the day his people set him here upon these same stones. They drove him from the raft of logs at the stone points of their spears. They spoke no words. None were needed, and words were not to be used lightly. Not then. He cast a last look that asked if there were another way. He knew there was not. Since the raft had gone beyond seeing into the mists, he had seen no other people. He looked at his feet, one straight, one crooked. There, in the sodden earth between them was a track that was not his own. He tightened his grip around the shaft of the simple spear he had cut from a green sapling with the edge of a broken stone. His small, water-circled land had none of the stone that was good for chipping into spear points. His spear was tipped with a tooth from some beast of the sea, one of the gifts left by the Great Water at the foaming edge. It was as large and as sharp as any stone point. He breathed out, and his breath showed white as the wind bore it away, a small part of Wehnd’kehto’s spirit given to the wind and sky. For luck. He followed the tracks, leaning on spear as he would a walking staff as he limped toward a group of great stones that stood near the water.

As he neared, he heard a soft cry. He felt his hairs stand up off his skin beneath the furs he wore. Between the stones, out of the wind, he saw a woman, face down on the sand. He hobbled to her, rolled her over. Dark water plants tangled all around her. Her skin was as pale as a fish belly, her hair like the setting sun. He shuddered to touch them. She opened her eyes, and made as if to speak, but her words, barely a sigh, were as the talk of the white birds riding the air above, “Kay-ah, kay-ah!

“Pale woman!” he said in the sacred tongue of his people. “Why do you cry with the tongue of the birds?” These few words were an extravagance, and in the dark recesses of his mind, his shadow self cowered, expecting reprisal from the wind spirits. But it had been long since he had last spoke any words at all. So long.

The woman brought one hand to his bearded face. “Kay-ah, kay-ah!” she sighed again. Though her tongue spoke only to the birds, her eyes bade him help her. He draped the furs from his own shaggy shoulders over the woman and carried her by the worn path to his dwelling. There, in a hollow of the mountain, he had kept alive the fire he had found after a storm, fed it dry wood day and night. He regarded it as a beast he had found, barely alive, that he had nursed back to health and domesticated. Now they lived together, sole companions, he feeding it to keep it alive, it giving him warmth, roasting his meat to make the fat drip and flesh brown. Wehnd’kehto placed the pale woman by the fire’s warmth, covered her with more furs, and with a vessel carved from the bones of the flippered beast, he fed her those rich drippings that run from meat placed before the fire to brown. Soon, she fell into a deep sleep.

When she awoke, the sun had gone to its long sleep. Wehnd’kehto sat on the far side of the fire from her. She looked quickly about, much as the small furry beasts that dart among the rocks when the cry of the taloned bird pierces the air.

“Pale bird woman,” he said, daring to use words again. “You can stay with me.”

She looked like she did not understand, but she calmed, though still remaining wary. She looked him over, but then saw the gnarled foot, and stood. “Kay-ah-ah-ah!” she cried, and darted out into the dark. The sky flashed, rumbled, and he lost sight of her in the dark wind and rain. Wehnd’kehto’s shadow self taunted him then. He tottered over to a small cache of dried leaves he kept in the dry of dwelling, but out of reach of the fire’s hungry tongue. He cast a handful into the flames, which eagerly devoured them and breathed out the sweet smoke. Wehnd’kehto hoped the wind spirits would forgive him.

As the sun’s first light spread across the sky, Wehnd’kehto set out to look for the pale woman again. The wind spirits’ rage and sky fire had calmed, and a quiet breeze was all that remained to remind him the wind spirits were still watching. Weakened as the pale woman was when she had run from his home, he did not need to look for long. He found her again at the water’s edge, soaked, cold, but alive. Though weak as the softest breeze, the living wind still flowed into and out of her. Perhaps the wind did forgive him. He puffed out a white cloud of breath in a long, warbled cry in the cool morning air to express his thanks, but he dared not speak words and risk angering the wind again.

He lifted her head from the cold sand. She sought to pull away, but was too weak. He took her pale hand, and placed it against the brown skin of his arm. She saw the pale against the dark that was the common color of the people, and her gaze fell to the sand. He stroked the pale skin of her hand gently, and she raised her eyes again. Then he placed her pale hand on his twisted foot. He moved her hand so it stroked the gnarled foot. Her eyes met his, a light in them now. “Koo-oh,” she cooed, as the plump, soft-gray birds do in the first light of dawn. Wehnd’kehto thought about her bird speak, and thought about those creatures, so favored by the winds that they were permitted to ride high upon them, above all other creatures. The birds were permitted to sing. Perhaps she spoke as the birds because the winds loved to hear them.

“Koo-ooh,” he cooed back to the Pale Bird Woman, and he lifted her from the wet sand. She stroked his beard with her pale hand and cooed and cooed to him in a long soothing song as he hobbled back up the worn path toward the warm fire.

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Dennis Humphrey teaches writing and literature at Prince William Sound College in Valdez, Alaska. He has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and his fiction has appeared in storySouth, Prick of the Spindle, BloodLotus, SN Review, Toad Suck Review, and Collateral.

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The Trail

By Katie Frankel

By the time we even reached the jumping-off place in Missouri, we had been traveling for what I naïvely thought was quite some time. Though my sisters – even Sarah, who had dreaded leaving Tennessee almost as much as I – had slowly yet steadily let the sadness of leaving fade away, I myself felt I could not. I was silent, speaking nearly not a word the entire way to the jumping-off place in Missouri, my heart feeling heavy in my chest. None of my family members could lure me away from my broken heart and sullen mood, and they eventually stopped trying.

I knew hardly a thing about the Oregon Trail, only that it led to both Oregon and California where land was free despite the Indians who surrounded it. Though he wouldn’t admit it, I did not think that Jack knew very much about the trail either, only what his friend knew and had told them. My brother had warned us all that, at times, the journey would prove challenging, but our trouble would be well worth it to reap the reward that would await us.

There were very many other wagons already in Missouri, far more than I had imagined. So many families awaited their departure that we could not even leave right away, instead having to wait for several days before finally being able to start out on the official trail. Even with waiting, our wagon train was long, wagons following ours as far as I could see.

Jack told me that for the first part of our journey we would be traveling on land that was long and yellow, allowing the river to guide us until we finally reached the mountain region. It was May now and the weather was mostly warm and pleasant, save for some slightly cooler nights. There was always a lot going on during our time on the Oregon Trail, both while traveling and while resting at night. Even after a long day of travel, Jack and Carissa both had things they had to tend to, with Carissa leaving two-year-old Joshua in my care during the time. There was always seemingly endless amounts of work to be done while traveling both in the wagon and out, from changing and oiling the wheel axels to taking care of the oxen and horses, and then finally, taking care of the people.

I was surprised to see that Carissa by no means was the only woman traveling with a young child; there were actually quite a few expectant mothers and mothers with children much younger than Joshua. Depending on how long each family decided to travel, I knew that some mothers would be giving birth on the trail and, recalling Carissa’s difficult birth, I was very grateful that she was not due to have another child.

Despite the large number of children traveling on the Oregon Trail, Jack had forbidden my sisters and me from wandering off with them; though I did not have desire to do so, I knew that my other sisters did. My brother warned us that children could get lost for days among the long wagon train and we witnessed this first hand only about ten days into our journey. A family traveling just two wagons up from ours became frantic one evening during rest when they could not find their five-year-old son. The mother was inconsolable, and although Carissa would not admit it, I knew that the other mother’s grief struck fear in her. The boy was not found for two days later when he finally reappeared, dirty and hungry. I knew it could have been much worse.

Many of the other families on the trail had oxen to pull their wagons but no horses, and although I feared Jack would consider them a burden, I was grateful that we had our three horses. I felt that Scout was a part of Connor always with me, though I continued to mourn for him every day. Just like three years prior when we had first moved to the Smiths’ farm, I rode Scout bareback on the trail often, and he seemed happy to oblige as he walked forward proudly. Each time I sat on the Paint’s back I felt a mixture of comfort and sorrow, my longing for Connor so overwhelming sitting aboard the horse who was so dear to him.

Sarah was friends with a family of seven children from age three to fifteen, and the older ones filled my head with countless terrors of horrible things that could happen to anyone on the Trail; we could be attacked by Indians, drown while crossing water, freeze to death or die of thirst, and an abundance of other terrible fates. Despite these warnings, Jack still seemed confident and I trusted his judgment completely, sure he wouldn’t knowingly put any of us in danger.

We were roughly halfway between our jumping-off place and Fort Laramie when something horrible happened.

We had been traveling for many miles and the sun had grown extremely hot at times during the day, but the weather was unpredictable. At times, we were pelted with hail bigger than the hoof of a horse, or had to wait out rainstorms that seemed to be never ending. However, the challenging weather was nothing compared to what happened to Annie.

She was nine, and her family drove the wagon that was usually in front of us. All of us children, even me, had become comfortable and accustomed to traveling and admittedly a bit careless. All of the older children frequently got off and on the wagons even while they were in motion to walk, meet up with other kids, or ride horses if they had any.

Jack used to allow Sarah and me to jump off the wagon at any point, but Hanna and Gracie were still too small. One day when Sarah jumped off, she landed hard and badly twisted her ankle, unable to walk for two days. After that Jack, forbid us from jumping off while the wagon was in motion, but Annie’s parents didn’t mind so much and allowed her to continue to do so.

I’m not sure what Annie planned to do when she jumped off that day, but in the end, it didn’t matter. As Jack stared ahead while driving, Annie jumped off the wagon as she usually did, but this time, the skirt of her dress became snagged on part of the wagon as she did so. The fabric did not rip but instead, drug Annie underneath.

“Stop! Stop!” Jack screamed at the top of his lungs, startling me so badly I leapt up from my seat in the wagon. Annie’s father immediately pulled back the oxen, but by the time he was able to fully bring them to a halt, it was too late; the wheels of the wagon had already completely crushed Annie’s body, the sound of her bones crunching sickly recognizable.

She didn’t die right away. The screams were atrocious, bloodcurdling; not only from Annie, but from her mother and father and siblings. The noise was deafening and brutal and the rest of us wept inside the wagon, even Carissa. By the end of the day, Annie was dead but the nightmare was far from over.

Because we were traveling in the middle of nowhere, the men had no choice but to dig Annie a shallow grave right on the side of the trail. There was not time to dig it extremely deep, and I knew now from what other children had told me that scavengers were attracted to fresh graves, whether they were animals looking for flesh or humans trying to steal the very clothes off of the deceased’s body. The thought made me so sick that I vomited over the side of the wagon.

Annie was not my first experience with death, yet her death was so extremely different from my mother’s and unlike anything I would have ever been able to imagine. Jack and Carissa were among some of the people who desperately tried to console Annie’s mother and father, and over the next weeks Annie’s mother’s grief was so brutal and crushing that I truly wondered if someone could die from a broken heart.

Everyone in my family dramatically changed after Annie’s death. Jack no longer spoke of traveling to Oregon with excitement and enthusiasm but became solemn, neither he nor Carissa speaking much at all. My sisters and I had lost the desire to explore with the other children, and we oftentimes felt we did not even want to leave the safety of the wagon, packed with supplies as it was. Additionally, I knew that the land we traveled on now was mostly flat and consisted of just tall grasses and streams; up ahead was the mountain region and places that not only put us at higher risk from Indian attacks, but had much more challenging terrain than what we had navigated so far. I suddenly was terrified of continuing to travel on the Oregon Trail, feeling sick the further we traveled and wanting to beg Jack to turn around. Some families did, with Annie’s death by no means being the only tragic occurrence that had happened in our wagon train so far.

 

We travelled for weeks longer. The Platte River was brown and full of silt, yet when there was no other source of water, we had to make due by collecting water from the river, letting it sit for an hour, and mixing in cornmeal to try and sink the silt to the bottom. Even so, the water tasted horrible and because of this, everyone in our wagon train preferred to set up camp near some of the fresh water streams that drained into the Platte River. Although the water tasted better, it held deadly, unknown dangers.

Sometimes after drinking the water, a man, woman, or child would become severely ill with no explanation and die within a day. No one, including my own family, connected the sickness with the water.

We continued to drink the water because it looked so much fresher than the brackish water of the Platte, and it tasted better. We drank this water for weeks as we continued traveling until one day, Carissa, Sarah, and Hanna all become horribly ill. The symptoms were exactly the same as the cases of sickness we had been seeing; the sickness that seemed to kill nearly half of those infected. Though it was morning, we could not continue traveling because they were so ill, quickly becoming extremely dehydrated, their faces and bodies slick with sweat.

“It’s the water,” Annie’s father told us gravely, pursing his lips and shaking his head.

Jack was panicked. “But they’ve hardly drank any of the muddy water. They—”

“Not the Platte water,” the man interrupted impatiently. “The clear water, from the streams. It looks good but it has disease in it. I know it does.”

He didn’t elaborate, but Jack didn’t care; half of our family was dying. Gracie and Joshua clung to me, crying and afraid as my brother desperately tried to keep his wife and our two sisters alive. Despite the fact that they wanted nothing to do with it, he brought them the muddy water to drink, forcing the three of them to continue to drink it because he said their bodies had become so dried up from the inside.

We stayed camped at that one spot for days, the wagon train moving on without us. Jack forbid us to continue to drink from the streams, and the fresh water was no longer so tempting. Once when I went to check on my sisters and Carissa, I thought they were dead, lying pale, sweaty, and motionless in the dirt.

After what seemed like months but was really only about a week, the three began to slowly recover. The process was difficult, with all of them having lost a great deal of weight and strength in the one week they had been sick, barely able to move much at all at first. Finally, though, one by one they did recover, and a few days later, we joined another much smaller wagon train that had come by to resume our journey; only now, Jack no longer wished to.

The challenges of the Oregon Trail had proven torturous and fatal so far, with Jack claiming it was only by God’s grace that all three had survived the sickness. the journey all the way to Oregon was supposed to take only four months, yet we had not even reached Fort Laramie and had been traveling for two months already. Despite the great difficulties that presented themselves ahead, Jack was afraid to turn back. Too late into our journey, Jack decided that bringing us onto the Oregon Trail had been a horrible mistake.

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Katie Frankel is a senior at Texas Wesleyan University majoring in English with a writing concentration. She enjoys writing and reading pieces of historical fiction, browsing antique stores, and riding her horse. She currently lives in Fort Worth and hopes to write professionally.

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