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Walking West by Noelle Sickels







from Chapter 2


After a week of waiting, it was finally the Muller party’s turn to ferry across the Missouri River. As their five wagons got in line, Alice Muller walked to the lead wagon at the river’s edge. She looked across the broad backs of the oxen at her husband Henry and their daughter Sarah side by side on the wagon seat. She was just pondering how similar their profiles were, with long, straight noses and high cheekbones, when Sarah suddenly screamed and clasped her hands together beneath her chin in a childish gesture of fright that Alice hadn’t seen for years.


Alice looked quickly in the direction of Sarah’s horrified stare. Shouts and other screams came from the river and from both shores. In midstream, a flatboat that had been overloaded was canting dangerously. The three small wagons on board listed toward the lower side of the flatboat. The men were rowing furiously to reach the landing, but crossing the strong current was slowing them.


Alice pressed her hand against her flat belly. So far, her new pregnancy had inspired only fears for herself. Now, watching the desperate struggle in the water, Alice felt a surge of protectiveness towards the baby she had not acknowledged aloud to anyone, not even Henry.


The tilted flatboat was nearing the opposite shore at last. Then, as if the river everyone called Old Muddy had its own watery intelligence and a mean sense of humor as well, the boat hit an underwater snag. Seven men, three women, and all their belongings toppled into the river. The crash panicked their animals, who had been swimming behind tethered to the boat. One horse and an ox broke free and were carried off downstream. Two men at the landing jumped into the river to help the unlucky passengers.


Alice kept watching until the last sodden person, who had grabbed hold of a swimming horse’s tail, was pulled up onto the bank, and the disaster seemed done. She wanted to remember it clearly, as clearly as she remembered her friends’ voices across the quilt frame or the feel of the wood floor of her Indiana house beneath her bare feet when she rose in the night to tend a sick child. Since she could not spare her unformed baby this journey, she decided, she’d store up for him all she saw and heard on the road west, the family’s course through the days and nights of this shifting time.


“We’ll bide together,” Alice whispered to her baby. “Every mile.”


The Muller party’s wagons moved forward to the ferry landing, and the work of unharnessing the stock was begun. The wagons were rolled onto the flatboats and the wheels locked. Under the anxious stares of onlookers, loading was accomplished with only a few shouted directions among the men. Other loadings that morning, prior to the accident, had been accompanied by more banter.


The women and children sat on the floors of the rafts. Alice had never been on a boat of any kind. She disliked the insubstantial feel of it. It was as if she had fallen from a tree and been halted in midair by some unknown, dizzying force. She tried to push out of her mind the awareness that this was only the first river crossing. Ribboned across their plotted path, five other rivers waited to be forded or ferried over in the weeks ahead.


The men began rowing. The river rushed against the boat’s side, pushing it downstream in spite of the guide rope. Alice pressed her hands hard against the boat’s damp bottom. Its solid feel did not reassure her.


The river was all around them now, red-brown and noisy. It was like a living thing, a rampant animal heedless of anything in its path. Alice was grateful for its muddiness. She didn’t want to see beneath the choppy surface, where she imagined smashed wagons lay tangled with dead trees and worse.


She looked towards Henry, who was partly hidden from her view by the corner of a wagon. She could see only his head, which was pointed to the approaching shoreline, and at intervals one rigidly muscled arm. Briefly her trepidation was blunted by his display of strength and determination. He had raised the buildings on their land back home; he had assembled the stalwart wagons. He would bring them across this torrent and across the continent, too.


In the past, Alice’s faith in Henry would have come forth spontaneously. Now she spun it deliberately, as when at her spinning wheel she coaxed tufts of combed wool between her fingers into twisted strands of thread strong enough to weave together into warm and useful cloth. More than once during the last days in Indiana, Alice had wondered, before she could stop herself from thinking it, what lay under the years of her marriage if she could remain so displeased with her beloved husband over his decision to move west, a decision it was his right to make, a decision that should bring greater prosperity to both them and their children. She held fast to the promise of California Henry had laid before her, but it did not quell the anguish of leaving her home, could not still her worry over the dangers of the journey.


Suddenly Alice felt that she wanted Henry to know about the coming baby. Somehow, she felt, his knowing would wrap the child in an extra layer of safety, like a husk around her womb. She would tell him tonight.


Finally they reached the bank and were towed upstream to the landing. It needed two more boats to get the rest of the group over. As each boat landed, the passengers climbed out and, after unloading, set themselves to face the river and watch the next crossing. There they stood without speaking or moving, as if they were at a graveside. Even the children were subdued.


From horseback, four of their men swam the stock across---thirty-two oxen, eight mules, a milk cow, and another horse. The men left their reins slack to make the swimming easier for their mounts. The two dogs needed no herding, but paddled along exuberantly beside the riders. After passing the river’s midpoint, as if it were a set signal, the men began to show some enthusiasm for their task, shouting at the animals more loudly and more often than strictly necessary, waving their hats in the air.


Once ashore, their high spirits increased and infected the rest of the group. The re-harnessing of the oxen and mules to the wagons was accomplished quickly.


No one looked back as they ascended the bluffs and left the river. Relief drove them forward without a stop until the noon halt. Even then they paused only long enough for bread, cold coffee, and eggs that had been hard-boiled the day before. Both far ahead and to the rear all day they could see the swaying white tops of rolling wagons. Farther on, they knew, as companies varied in their pace and the trail diverged into cutoffs and alternate routes, the migration would string out more, and they’d feel, and be, on their own in the wilderness.



May 26, 1852


I begin this diary all aware of my shortfall as a writer, but pure memory’s an untrustworthy thing, and I want the events of this time to survive all of a piece because I wish my new child to know what went before him in this life, in my life.


Henry is much taken with history-making and says we are all doing it. But that grand notion does not help me grab hold of the journey. Perhaps, with the aid of this humble diary, I can catch the simple acts of our true days and nights like a prism catches sunlight and bends it into colors you can see and name. Then, won’t it be fine, later, to open these pages and point up what really passed on such a day or at such a turn in the road?


I told Henry of the child tonight, and a grin splayed over his features as if I had brought him a wonderful gift all free of any trouble. Then he clasped me so tight, it was like the gift echoed back again to me.


We have met other parties on the road, but each group is marked off from every other. So independent are we from our fellows, we didn’t even stop to help a family with an overturned wagon, as we surely would have in Indiana. No one did. Our men are as neighborly as any, but they agreed that there must be no delays if we are to meet good weather in the far-off mountains and make our supplies last. And though none said it, I know there is the fear that those who tarry too long in one place are prey to Indians. So I did not try to persuade them. I only wish I could harden my heart as readily as I hold my tongue. It grieved me not to aid those people.


Sarah remarked on the beauty of the sunset tonight and the wideness of the sky. Yet it is a beauty too large for my tastes, too empty of comfort and shelter.




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