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Sunday, June 4, 2017

Short Story- A Girl on the Oregon Trail by Renee Lake

* I've always been in love with the Oregon Trail, a little bit too romanticized to be honest.  I also know many people died on it, that is was all consuming and awful. This is just a short little story to appease my fascination.  I did research, but it might not be 100% historically accurate.

The packing made it the most difficult. Mama said I could have one large trunk and she gave me a list of things I had to take with me.

She painted a purple L on the lid for me; Lydia.

Mary Anne got a yellow M.

George a green G.

Little Eva got a pink E.

The list said; three wool dresses. They were pretty, but not what I was used to. Two sets of under clothes, no more silk for me. 4 pairs of woolen socks, scratchy- but Mama said I will get used to it. One pair of shoes and one pair of boots. One overly large waterproof coat- heavy and ugly. One pair of white gloves and two bonnets.

After packing her list there wasn’t much room left for the things I wanted. I cried when Mama told me we’d be selling or giving away anything left over.

Mary Anne scolded me, that I was being a baby. I turned 15 last August, how could she call me that? She’s only two years older.

George was silent and solemn through the whole conversation, as he always is. Papa will depend on him more than us girls. He’s 13, practically a grown man.

Eva is four, I don’t know if she fully understands what’s happening.

I packed my silver comb and mirror, my favorite novel and a set of writing quills Grandma gave me for my birthday. I chose several colored silk ribbons, my pearl bracelet and a bottle of my favorite perfume. I could barely close my trunk, but I did.

Our relatives are in awe about the trip, most think we’re crazy, some brave, but none are coming with us.

We left Independence in early April, it was still cold. I’ve never been a spoiled child, I spent many afternoons helping Papa on the farm, but this was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.
Eva sat with Mama as she drove the six oxen, Mary Anne and I named them after places we passed on the trail.

George and Papa road horses far behind us with our cattle.

Mary Anne and I had to walk along side, with most of the other children. We gathered fire wood and flowers, we talked and sang, trying to keep ourselves busy. It only worked for a few days before we were tired and sick of the trip.

Why had Mama and Papa decided to move to Oregon? There was nothing out there, no real towns or shops, no restaurants or proper schools. How would we live, eat, work and play? We weren’t the only ones upset by the change, most other girls forced to come along had similar complaints.

Most of the boys, over the age of ten, helped their fathers, so the girls helped their mothers. We tended the younger children, sewed, helped cook meals and simply wandered the plains. We braided flowers into each other’s hair as our skin grew darker under the sky.

Mary Anne’s hair began to turn an odd shade of blonde with all the sunlight and Eva’s nose seemed to be forever red at the end.

By middle of May I was hot, tired, achy, almost never as clean as I would like. I wished I could curl up on the side of the road and stay there. Maybe the plains could be our home? I imagined how we would build a house and live, but I didn’t dare say anything to Mama.

Mama was much firmer and harsher as she drove the wagon. I watched her hands grow tough as she cleaned and cooked for us out in the wilderness.

Mary Anne said she’d heard awful things about what happened to women and children on the trail, that Mama must be stressed all the time. I vowed to try and make it easier on her.

We went two days with barely any water. Mary Anne, Eva and I sat in the back of the wagon, pressed against our supplies, almost cramped, hoping our spit wouldn’t dry out. I prayed for rain or a river. Mary Anne’s lip cracked, it began to bleed and Mama put castor oil on it, which made Mary Anne gag.

In June the heat was nothing compared to the bugs. George was constantly bitten all over and nothing Mama did could stop it. It was too hot in the wagon to ride so Eva, Mary Anne and I walked with the other children, we were able to stay farther off from the wagon train so the dust and bugs were lessened.

I wished it was the fashion that girls could have short hair. For mine was heavy, braided and long and was becoming tiresome to brush let alone keep clean.

The number of graves we passed began to multiple the farther we went. I was terrified and began to have nightmares that my whole family would be buried in those sad road side graves and I would be the only one left, what would I do then?

In July there was no fire wood and we had to cook our meals over dried buffalo dung. As if it wasn’t awful enough to eat stringy rabbit meat over smoldering feces, two people also died.

A man died as we crossed a river, taken by the currents and drowned. It was so horrible to hear the sounds of his kin wailing. Papa said he was lucky that there were two strong sons in his family to drive their wagon the rest of the way. When Mary Anne told Mama she thought his statement was callous she got a quick hard slap to the face.

I held Mary Anne as she cried behind the wagon that night. Mama has never hit any of us before. I don’t like the people we are turning into on this trip.

I miss ice cream and scones. I would kill for a hot bath, clothes that don’t scratch and a proper bed, but I won’t complain. I can’t.

A child was trampled by one of the wagons. I threw up when Mama told me. What else could possibly go wrong? Children die, I know that, but this child wouldn’t have if his parents hadn’t selfishly decided to take him from the comforts of his home. Are we next? I am so fearful, what if we all don’t make it?

I was so grateful that in August we reached Fort Hall. The first real civilization I’d seen in months. It was a bustling place full of people and things. Mama was relieved as well, we were running low on a few basic supplies like flour and potatoes.

We rested for a week, enjoying the small comfort of being near something almost like a town. I found out people lived at the fort and asked Mary Anne why we simply couldn’t just stay there.
There is a tightness around her eyes of late, and her face has thinned out. She just looked at me with disdain and walked away. I didn’t think my question was stupid, but maybe it was. Has she grown up and I have not?

Mary Anne hasn’t been walking with me as much anymore. She hangs back with some girls her own age near where the men are. Several nights these past few weeks she’s been out walking with a young man, I think his name is Richard. His parents are farmers several wagons a head of ours. He is their only son.

My birthday came after we left Fort Hall, my mother made a skillet cake for me, but there were no presents. What would I ask for that they could actually give me? What would there be room for?
It began to get cold in the evenings around the middle of September, but Papa said it’s only a few more months until we reach home. Home…I don’t know what that word means anymore. How can a place we have no house and that I’ve never seen be home?

I really thought Papa’s dreams of Oregon would have died a little these past few months, but it hasn’t. If anything he’s more excited. He’s older too, both he and Mama seemed to have aged a decade in less than six months.

George broke his ankle. He’s no good to anyone right now, just rides along with Mama, silent and brooding. I wonder how he likes it now that the tables are turned, now that he has nothing to do and is bored.

I caught Mary Anne and Richard kissing. I promised not to tell anyone, but I’m hurt and annoyed. Doesn’t she know she’s not allowed to grow up without me just yet? She can’t go and get married and have children until we’ve reached Oregon and established ourselves. She’s my sister and my best friend.

Sure I made other friends, how could I not. There’s Ruth who likes to chew the ends of grass blades and Edna who constantly quotes poetry. Martha who cries because her older brother chose to stay behind and Caroline who really wants to see an Indian.

All great girls, but nothing like my Mary Anne. In my mind I think of Richard like a thief who stole her away in the night.

Eva died and we buried her in her chest, empty of all her things. She wasn’t the only one, several children contracted Cholera in October, right after Fort Boise. It seemed as if one day she was fine and the next she was dead. I tore my nails covering her grave with the largest rocks I could find. I didn’t want to leave her there, in the ground, by herself.

I don’t understand death and I don’t understand my parents or this trail. How can people choose to do this? It isn’t fun and it isn’t necessary! Eva was a sweet child, funny, messy and loud. Always with a smile and a laugh. I held her right after she was born. Mary Anne and I swore a pact to protect our baby sister and we’ve failed.

Mary Anne hasn’t spoken to me in days. She does her chores in silent grief. Mama sobs as she guides the oxen, it is almost like a literal storm cloud hangs over Papa and George’s heads. I’m not sure what to do, can I feel anything aside anger and sadness?

Papa did not want to waste time at the Whitman Mission and decided we would forge ahead to The Dalles. It’s November and again he says we are almost home. But can we ever really be home when our family is no longer complete?

Our wagon train started with almost 30 wagons and over 120 people. We are down to 25 wagons and 15 people have died. Some families who lost members combined to make the travel easier, or maybe to appease loneliness. I heard Mama talking about how she wouldn’t know what to do if Papa died, he answered by telling her to marry one of the men whose wives either passed on or refused to come.
A wife could refuse to come? I wondered then, did my mother actually want to make this journey, or did she do it simply because she loved my father?

I have never been so hungry in my life. Papa says it will get better once we get home, there’s that word again, but I don’t believe him. Unless the grass on Oregon is made of bread and the rivers run with milk, I think I’ll be just as hungry.

We are all sleeping in a tent together now, with as many furs and blankets as possible and the nights are painfully cold. Though the terrain is becoming prettier and prettier with each day. I’ve seen so many new things on this trip and written them all down. I will take away at least something positive from this.

It has been raining for days, you can’t cook anything when everything is wet. My teeth will wear away from all the jerky and hard bread.

Richard came and asked Papa for his permission to marry our Mary Anne. Mama wasn’t totally happy, but Papa was excited at the prospect of a son in law. They are to be married once we get to Oregon. His family is claiming land near us so that Mary Anne won’t be far from Mama and me.
I congratulated her, but I am angry and jealous. I might be a little happy too. But only just.

We reached Oregon City just before December, at least there wasn’t snow. Papa claimed a beautiful and green piece of land that a small river intersects. I am relieved, but still… it doesn’t feel much different than before. We’ll still be living out of the wagon and tents until a house can be built, but I guess I can get used to thinking of this place as home.

Mama says Mary Anne will be wed as soon as Richard has a home of his own on his parent’s property and that next year George I will be able to attend a real school with other children. We left most of Eva’s things on the side of the trail, all but some sentimental items like her favorite doll. I’ll put it in the window of my room so no one can forget her.

The land is really appealing, so much green and so many things growing. Our cattle seem to love it as well, they have good food and fresh water. I am dreaming off milk and pound cake and when I can heat enough water for a bath.

All that can wait, however. Right now I just want to take a big breath and thank God I am alive and….home.

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