In the warm sunshine of the mild Tennessee Valley winter day, the squeals of children playing hide-and-seek amongst the covered wagons filled the sparkling air. Above them, the calls of the Faithful rumbled through the small community as they hoisted and strapped cargo to their wagons. The excitement of finding a permanent home surrounded by other Faithful Brethren and the fear of persecution after Brother Smith’s death lent a sense of mania to the morning.
Jeb, Martha, and the rest of the small town’s Faithful packed up their few remaining items and moved out. They were walking toward the trail of those who headed WEST before them. A harsh early spring storm halted the caravan in Missouri and the people hunkered down in wild country with a group of Irish Catholics who were also escaping persecution. The storm lasted five days before the temperatures climbed above freezing and the caravan resumed. The trek was much slower now, the slushy snow blinding during the bright cloud-less days, turning to ice overnight. The oxen slipped and heaved as the wagon wheels sunk in the wintry mire.
Now their group was late. They were supposed to meet Elder Young’s group and go to the Basin together. It was safer, Elder Taylor said, having one large group. Safer against the natives who harassed and attacked, taking some of the Faithful as slaves and killing the rest, the stories told. Young had agreed to meet them at the next juncture, they could not delay. The Faithful pressed on through the difficult trek. The mild Tennessee winter had changed its mind. It now followed the Faithful, pelting them with snow and hail in the daytime, then freezing the slush into slick ice every night, just to watch the Faithful and their wagons slip and stumble. Just to test their faith.
Martha walked with her mother and sisters, her face shining as her belly grew. Jeb walked with the oxen and looked at his bride; they were making their own family. He pushed the wagon through the slush and ice without complaint, he pulled others out of the mire. They were all family and together they were stronger. What was there to complain about?
Jeb looked up from helping repair Brother Wilson’s split wheel and saw Martha walking toward their wagon. His chest grew tight. There was something wrong about how she was walking, her usual smile was replaced by lips pinched like a scar across her face. Her mother and sisters surrounded her and all stopped and hovered, hands fluttering, as Martha bent over. The thud of the mallet hitting the ground was unheard by Jeb as he ran to his tiny bride.
“She is having pains,” her mother said. “She needs to lie down.” Jeb made the bed in the wagon as comfortable as possible, but the trail was rough and Martha was tossed about inside. The pains did not stop. Every cry she whimpered peeled away a layer of Jeb’s heart.
They met Elder Young’s group at the base of the large bluff where the bones of the old fur trader named Scott lay. A small settlement marked the main trail for the fur traders, boldly daring the harsh winters and wilderness to make them leave. The Faithful swarmed the ragtag people, excited to purchase or trade for dried meat and warmer clothing before heading into the great mountains that divided the waters.
Jeb relaxed. Now that everyone was together, they could slow, they could rest, and they would be safe. Jeb followed the Faithful all the next day as they pulled up and through the pass and the storied Rocky Mountains came into view. While other Faithful murmured in appreciation of the spectacular sight, Jeb was silent. His ears heard only Martha crying out frequently, her mother and sisters fretting as they checked on her. That night, when Martha began bleeding, her mother pulled Jeb aside.
“She must rest. This trip is too hard on her.” The worry in her tight eyes contrasted with her calm words.
“What else can I do?” Jeb’s earnest tone was tinged with apprehension. “I don’t know what to do. Maybe we can stop at the fort that is two days ahead? Maybe someone there can help Martha?”
“Jeb, Martha can’t wait that long. She can’t rest with the wagon moving, you must find refuge and stop. There’s no other choice.”
But the Elders would not stop. Jeb was sent back to the scruffy settlement alone. He and Martha could rest with the Faithful at Scott’s Bluff, the Elders said, there was a midwife who could help. But no one would go back with Jeb and Martha; he would have to travel alone. For a full day Jeb drove his oxen back along the trail they had traveled, hearing the cries from his wife grow fainter as the hours passed.
Returning to the settlement, Jeb drove the wagon directly to the midwife’s cabin. The weathered woman stood on the porch watching the young boy and his oxen coming through her fence. She brought the pale and tiny girl into her own bed and gave Jeb a list of tasks to accomplish. The tasks were to keep Jeb’s mind and hands busy but they weren’t enough.
“I left everything for them, and they leave me alone with a wife in need,” was the refrain that repeated itself in Jeb’s mind. “Please, God, let her be okay.”
Jeb waited in the midwife’s kitchen for two days. Her husband would return at dinner and grunt at the intruders who took over his home and his bed. They were Faithful, too, but that didn’t make them hospitable, Jeb noted.
“It’s a boy.” The midwife called from the bedroom. Jeb stood, turning from his task at the fireplace as the midwife brought the tiny baby into the kitchen and wrapped it in Jeb’s coat. Jeb and Martha did not have a crib or bedding or any soft clothes to wrap the baby. They were supposed to have the whole summer to build a home and a crib and get ready with all the family and Faithful around them at the Basin. The young man stared at the tiny baby. How could anything that small be real? The baby waved his tiny, skinny arm out of the coat and bellowed. Tiny but fierce, Jeb smiled.
The midwife washed the baby and Jeb stood next to her, gaping as the sagging skin turned from blue to pink. The midwife lifted the little boy, turning him over to wash the tiny wrinkled back, and a stream of urine hit Jeb’s shoulder.
“He is a fighter, this one.” The midwife breathed.
She finished bathing the blood off the newborn and handed the baby to Jeb, then walked back into the bedroom. Jeb clutched the impossibly small miracle to his chest and stood near the fire. Waiting. He could hear nothing coming from the bedroom. He was afraid. He stood for hours, for days, for years, holding the baby who was sleeping now, and waited.
The baby woke and began to cry. Jeb did not know what to do. He started to walk toward the bedroom, the baby screaming now, when the midwife stepped out of the room. Jeb looked past her, taking in the still form amid blood and rumpled sheets. So much blood. So still. He stared at the arm and the stretch of thigh that were showing above the crimson sheet, willing them to rise, to come to him, to take the baby.
“I am sorry,” the midwife whispered.
Jeb returned to the kitchen with the baby, the midwife followed with small, quiet steps. He sat in the dining chair and held his screaming son tight to his chest. The midwife opened the cold pantry and took out the milk Jeb had gotten from the goat this morning along with an elk horn and piece of cloth. She warmed the milk on the fire and then took the baby into her arms.
“Watch,” she said as she dipped her fingers into the warm milk, then rubbed them gently across the baby’s lips. She repeated the action until the baby began to suck on her fingertip. She handed the boy to his father and instructed him to do the same. Jeb gasped at the strength of suckle his son had.
The midwife took the cloth and wrapped it over the pointed end of the elk horn, tying it in place with jute, then poured the warm milk into the hollow horn. She knelt beside Jeb and placed the horn to the baby’s lips.
“The cloth should be tight enough weave to let the milk drip out slowly and wrapped loosely enough on the horn that the baby can suckle,” she instructed.
Jeb held the horn and his son. He watched his son twitch and push the cloth nipple out of his mouth with his tongue. The baby’s face turned red as he screamed in frustration until Jeb pressed the cloth nipple back in to the eager lips. The baby quieting as he suckled the elk horn bottle and filled his belly with goat milk. The new father stood enrapt at the marvel in his arms.
“He will learn, as will you. He will live and so will you,” the midwife declared. She patted his shoulder, then went into the bedroom to begin the chore of cleaning and sent her husband to get help. He returned with three men and another woman. The woman disappeared into the bedroom with the midwife as the sun dipped behind gray clouds.
The husband spoke to Jeb, “We can help you. There is a cemetery three miles up the road. Eli and us, we can prepare a spot ifn’ you want.”
Jeb stared at the men; the fullness of their offer unable to be comprehended. “Yes, thank you.” Jeb watched the men exit the cabin as he stood in the kitchen with his son. Time stood with Jeb in the dank room. The sun did not cross the sky, the world did not turn; all of life had blown away and left Jeb to stand here alone, empty. When the baby cried, Jeb warmed the milk and fed him. When he soiled his rag diaper, Jeb wiped him clean and took a fresh rag from the hook by the fireplace where it hung to dry. The still-warm cloth soothed the fidgeting infant as Jeb wrapped it around the tiny buttocks and tied it over the pink belly. At times, the midwife moved Jeb into a different room as she made preparations for the funeral.
She offered Jeb a bowl of stew, not surprised at his refusal. The boy just stood there, holding his son, and not speaking a word. She worried for both of them as she instructed Jeb in how to care for his baby boy. Jeb held his son tight to his abdomen under his coat, happy to have the coat back even though it needed laundering from the blood his son had left on the day of his birth. Had that been only a day ago? The midwife asked the few families in the settlement for donations and presented Jeb with two buntings in which to wrap his son.
“As soon as one is dirtied you must wash it, do not wait. You will want to get it clean and, most importantly, dry as soon as possible. Babies get sick, they make messes. You need to have something clean and dry to protect his skin and keep him warm.”
The husband came around the front of the cabin, his sway-backed mule pulling a small and timeworn cart. A yellow pine box was on the porch, tiny drifted hillocks from last night’s snow leaned against it. The midwife reached out her hands and Jeb placed his son into her arms. The husband walked up to the porch with Jeb. The two men lifted the small box and loaded it onto the cart. The husband drove the cart to the cemetery. Jeb and the midwife walked the two miles in silence.
A fence surrounded a small patch of manicured grass dotted with wooden crosses. Outside of the fence, the land was half-wild with scrub and tangles of wild rose thorns; proving just how feral the land could be if not held in check. The thorns and the crosses were outlined with a fresh blanket of snow. Entering the gate, Jeb saw the bright yellow pine box on the cart, gleaming in its newness. Rude to be so bright when everything was gray. The husband and two other men stood near the fresh black dirt piled to their knees. The husband affixed four ropes to the box and then each of the four men took hold of a length. Jeb had forgotten gloves. He watched as the rough rope twisted around his hand, then squeezed tight as the men lifted the box off the wagon and walked forward six steps. The other two men maneuvered themselves to stand on the opposite side of the deep hole. The yellow box filled Jeb’s vision, the scent of the pine, freshly cut and nailed crept into his nostrils.
“Ho,” called the husband. Each of the men began to lower their rope, the box bumping its way down into the hole. Jeb saw the rope sliding through his hand, rubbing first a welt, then drawing blood. He watched the blood welling and staining the rope until the rope slackened. Jeb continued to hold the rope, staring at the yellow box in the black hole. Staring until the husband handed him the shovel. Jeb knew what this meant, the significance of the first dirt thrown over the box. He had done this before. He walked to the pile of dirt and pushed the spade through its frozen crust. The shovel held only two handfuls of dirt, yet the weight threatened to break Jeb’s arms, to pull his shoulders from their sockets, to topple him into the dark abyss after the yellow box. He looked at the dark earth, the frozen crystals managing to reflect light in the gray winter day. He heard the crackle of the crust breaking, fighting his shovel as he speared the dirt. Everything protested. Everything was broken. No. No. No. No. No.
His son squirmed in the midwife’s arms, cold and hungry. He howled at the unfairness of a bitter wind biting through his bunting, at the pain of a hungry belly. His face squeezed and reddened. Jeb looked at his son and decided. He threw the dirt onto the coffin and walked over to the baby. Jeb took him from the midwife and tucked the howling boy into his dirty coat which held him tight against Jeb’s chest. The boy quieted.
The other two men each had shovels and began filling the hole. Jeb stood with the midwife and watched. The black hole vanished, replaced by a black mound standing starkly against the white smooth manicure of land surrounded by fence, surrounded by half-wild land.
The husband came to stand next to Jeb and his wife when the two men finished and tossed their shovels onto the wagon. “I’m sorry, son,” the gruff man spoke. Jeb stared at the dirt, his arms crossed tightly over his chest, holding his son against his heart.
“Charlie and Elmer, they volunteered their time to take care of this for you. But that wood, it wasn’t free.” The husband gestured at the pile of earth.
Jeb closed his eyes briefly, then dug his hand deep into his pocket. He studied the coin that warmed in his palm, the woman with flowing hair, a soft cap with LIBERTY written across it, thirteen stars danced around her head. He held the coin out in his hand and felt the husband’s rough fingers scrabbling across his bloodied palm, taking the round silver piece.
Jeb turned then, and left the unmarked grave in the small cemetery. He left the midwife and husband and walked back to the house; his son still tucked tightly inside his coat. The warmth of their two bodies made the metallic scent of old blood waft up to Jeb’s nose.
He retrieved the oxen from the pen in back and hooked them to his wagon. He climbed inside and dug out all the clothing and blankets his wife had stowed in the small boxes, then piled them onto the mattress. He arranged the empty boxes in a circle on the mattress and tied them to the sides of the wagon to keep them secure. The small enclosure was no crib but it would hold his son in place.
Jeb heard the slow crunching steps of the sway-backed mule and creaking of the old cart. Through the opening in the back of his covered wagon, he watched as the midwife disappeared inside the small cabin and returned with more milk. She went to the pen in the back and brought around a goat. The husband placed a small bale of hay onto Jeb’s wagon and stood beside his wife. “You will need this,” she stated.
Jeb reached into his pocket again and withdrew a gold coin, the eagle spread proudly across it. “I pray this will cover the goat and your services,” his voice flat and lifeless. She nodded, met his eyes, then looked away. Jeb’s eyes had shown such pain this morning. Now they were dull hollows like the hole he had lowered his wife into. Eyes that were void of anything visceral, they almost ceased to be human. “Snake,” the midwife said to herself. His eyes reminded her of a snake’s eyes.
Jeb placed his son into the makeshift crib and tied the goat to the back of the wagon. After a couple of days, Jeb knew, the goat would follow without being tied on, but for now, Jeb had to listen to her plaintive bleating as she was forced away from her herd and home.
Jeb led his oxen to the outskirts of the settlement and toward the main trail, his son tucked tightly into his coat against the gray winter wind. He would keep the goat in the wagon with him at night, he decided, to keep her warm and safe from predators and ensure his son had milk to drink. He stopped in a thicket of pine trees that marked the turn from the rutted trail to the settlement behind him and made camp as the sun began it’s early decline. He milked the goat that night and fed the thin liquid to his son. The goat had not given very much milk, Jeb thought. She was alone without family just like him, but his son would need more in the coming days. He decided to milk the goat every three hours, feeding it during each milking. She would give more milk with more frequent demand and she would adjust to her new family more quickly.
The single wagon had to stop repeatedly during the chilled march so that Jeb could care for his son. He began the habit of holding his son in one hand while milking the goat with the other. He would then pour the warm milk into the elk horn bottle and it saved the effort of building a fire to heat it. The goat would curl into the lee of Jeb’s body as he fed his son, resting her chin on his knee like a favorite dog.
Winter held onto the land like a miser. Jeb thought of the farm in Tennessee, how March was so muddy his mother would insist that everyone strip down to their underwear when they came inside. Sure, there was an occasional snow day in their sunny little valley but it melted off fast and the ground was well on its way to warming up enough to plant.
But here, in the mountains, the days came in two flavors, snowy or windy. The snow days covered all view of the trail, leaving Jeb to stab his staff into the snow like a blind man’s cane looking for the deep ruts of the wagons that had gone before. The windy days scoured the flat trail of snow, opening up the path while the wind-blown snow battered the canvas wagon cover and the animals tied to it.
The days that had both flavors mixed together were the hardest and Jeb would free the oxen and horses to huddle in the lee of the wagon while Jeb curled inside the wagon with the goat and his son. He would watch the wooden arches bend and flex with each heavy gust while the wind tried to shred the canvas. Jeb would look into his coat at his son and tell him the story of the three little pigs and the big, bad wolf but he would change “wolf” to “wind”. “You can huff and you can puff all you want,” Jeb would end the story, “but you will never blow my house down.”
What’s that you say?