Read Crossing Purgatory Online

Authors: Gary Schanbacher

Crossing Purgatory (5 page)

Thompson stood and kicked up the fire with the toe of his boot. “I promise you this, Captain Upperdine. I will sleep on it.”

Upperdine left and Thompson sat facing the woods, staring into the maw of darkness.

A
GOOD NEIGHBOR
, O
BADIAH SAID
. Back in Deep Woods, when finally he resigned himself that the fever would not take him as he had prayed, he searched for blame and found a target. They should have looked after Rachel and his children, he'd asked as much of Edwin Fletcher the day prior to his departure. Look in on them? Of course, it's what neighbors do. Anger stirred him from his cabin. He willed himself upright, drank deeply from the water bucket, forced down a piece of stale bread. He strapped on his knife, took up his musket, and walked into the township of Deep Woods. He approached Fletcher's drygoods store. Fletcher also served as town constable, the first person Thompson thought to hold accountable for his family's neglect during his absence. Thompson stood unannounced before the store for several minutes until Fletcher appeared at the door and approached Thompson carefully, edging sideways, as if maneuvering around a rabid dog encountered unexpectedly in the road.

“Saw you was back,” Fletcher spoke first. “Can't tell you how sorry—”

Thompson went for the knife on his belt. Fletcher extended both arms, hands palm out.

“Wait. There was nothing to be done.” At Thompson's pause, he began to back away, pleading. “George sent his oldest out to your place, to help muck out the pens. Boy got there, looked in, the fever already on them. We put the boy up there in the shed off to his own self,” Edwin pointed to the small rough-slatted hut beside the blacksmith shop. “Until we know it ain't got hold of him too. You know how fast it come on, how it spreads.”

Thompson's intent had been to gut this man, to plunge his blade into the soft flesh below Fletcher's belly and slash upwards, opening him like a pig hanging from the bleeding rack. But he was not used to gutting a man, of course, and in the time between the willing and the doing, Fletcher fled into the mercantile. It would not have mattered had the constable remained standing before Thompson. The pause of indecision broke his spell, and the delicate balance within him between fury and grief shifted, and he was filled with a muscle-numbing sorrow. He could not lift the knife from its sheath; he could not move his legs. When next he came to his senses, the shadows had lengthened.

Thompson walked back to his empty farmhouse. The following morning, he took up what few belongings he determined essential, and he abandoned his land. He left the mule loosely tethered next to the feed trough in the lean-to that also sheltered his plow and equipment. He left the horse and the cow grazing in the near pasture. He left the chickens scratching in the dirt, left unfed the Duroc Reds: the boar and six sows. He left all the household effects, the iron cooking pot, the family Bible resting open on an oak reading stand, two patchwork quilts. He left the crops to fail, the tidy garden to wither, the new well he'd recently dug to fill with debris. He left the silent cabin to the miasma yet haunting its tight confines like a specter.

T
HE FIRE HAD DIED DOWN
to embers. Thompson could not sleep. Memories too near the surface. Indecision about Upperdine's offer. His mind drifting from past to present and back again. After a time, a full moon rose and washed the meadow in soft lambency. On impulse, Thompson retrieved the traveling Bible from his rucksack to test the moonlight. The passage he randomly opened to read clearly, “Two are better than one … woe to him that is alone when he falleth.” A prophecy? Thompson decided to join the company. Two may in fact be better than one. For how long he had no idea, but for a time at least. He pulled his blanket close and fell almost immediately asleep. Sometime during the night he awoke to the sound of a cannon booming far in the distance. Independence Day in Westport? A groggy question, and he fell back into undisturbed rest.

Thompson woke later than was his custom, made coffee and stood watching the camp stir: three women returning from the stream hauling buckets; a man emerging from the woods with a fowling piece over his shoulder and carrying a turkey by the neck. In the pasture a clutch of men stood closely bunched. The stiffness of their postures, their gesturing, captured Thompson's attention. He set his cup on one of the firestones and walked to the men. As he approached, he recognized Obadiah. Ned and Joseph stood behind him. Confronting them were four men Thompson did not recognize. One of the strangers poked a finger in Obadiah's chest.

“Enough. I'm taking that there beast.”

“It's not yours to take,” said Obadiah. “The ox is mine.”

“Get hold his nose rope, boys,” the stranger said.

Obadiah stepped forward to claim the rope and another of the men pushed him aside, a beefy man, low to the ground and barrel-chested, himself resembling the ox he commandeered. Ned came up beside Obadiah and one of the men put his hand to the hilt of his knife and said, “Just give me the excuse, nigger.”

Joseph sprang at the man who had pushed his father and the man cuffed him on the ear, knocking him to the ground. Joseph rose and lunged for the man again and the man knocked him down again. Joseph bled from the nose and his lip was split, and he stayed on his knees.

While the men were distracted, Thompson took the rope and led the oxen by the nose ring away from the ruckus.

“Hold on there,” one of the strangers called. “Just what in the hell do you think you are doing?”

“Removing the cause for disagreement,” Thompson said, and kept walking.

“The hell you will,” said the ox-like man, and charged Thompson, head down like a battering ram. Thompson let drop the lead rope, sidestepped the man, and brought his knee up into the man's face as he passed. The man dropped, stunned, to all fours, and Thompson kicked him in the ribs, tilting him onto his side. Thompson suddenly felt rage, unfocused, not directed at this man specifically but at some unseen torment, and he kicked again, a cracking sound from the man's midsection. Another man advanced on him and Thompson's elbows flailed, finding nose, cartilage, an eye socket. Again he sensed an assault from behind him and attempted to swing, to kick, but he could do neither. Arms like staves encircled him, held him tight and immobile. He waited for the blows, but they did not come. Ned talked to him quietly. “Easy, sir. It's done. Easy.”

Thompson relaxed, and Ned released him. Two strangers lay on the ground, groggy and bleeding. The two others showed little inclination to pursue the confrontation.

“I don't know who you are, but it is not finished. That ox is ours.”

“Do you belong to a company?” Thompson asked.

The man jerked his chin in the direction of the larger congregation.

“And have you a wagon master?”

“Solomon Crank.”

“This issue is best left for the wagonmasters to sort,” Thompson said.

The two men on the ground were up now and the four started back to their side of the meadow. The one who had been talking said to Thompson, “You take up with their kind, no good will come of it.”

“We shall see.”

Thompson walked the ox to the vicinity of the Lights' wagon and set its picket.

“You will inform Captain Upperdine about the dispute when he returns?”

“I will,” Obadiah said.

Thompson nodded and walked back to his fire to re-heat his coffee. He worried about Obadiah's lack of assertiveness with the men. He feared for a timid soul in this territory.

Upperdine returned to camp late afternoon. Thompson watched him ride in on his horse and saw Obadiah Light approach him before the Captain unsaddled and watched the Captain ride off in the direction of the larger camp. He thought about following but decided against it. Captain Upperdine appeared more than capable of managing for himself. Thompson instead took up his rifle and stalked the border between wood and meadow and returned in an hour with a cottontail. While it was grilling over the coals, Captain Upperdine walked up.

“Heard you had a little set-to this morning,” Upperdine said.

“I regret losing my temper.”

“Solomon Crank bemoaned your lack of restraint.”

“I do not believe I initiated the skirmish,” Thompson said.

Upperdine chuckled. “I've adjudicated the matter.” He did not elaborate, and Thompson thought it advisable not to inquire further. “The stock is grazed and the streams are down. We depart early.”

Thompson informed Upperdine of his decision to join them and Upperdine nodded in approval.

“I want to be on the trail ahead of the Crank party,” Upperdine said. “Would hate to suck their dust, and we need to secure good grazing ahead of them. Grass been chawed out over the summer.”

“Sounds reasonable.”

“Our oxen are slower than their mules, but we are a smaller group by far and will be in motion long before they can organize their numbers.”

“You do not use mules?” Thompson asked.

“Not for the trail. Oxen hold up better on the rough forage and they travel well over sandy soil.”

Upperdine glanced at the grazing mules, spread out over the pasture. “We'll strike camp quietly. Pass the word wagon to wagon. Two in the morning, full moon, we should make do.”

“I'll be about. Lend a hand where I'm needed.”

“It would be appreciated.”

“One question?”

“Of course,” Upperdine said.

“One of the men today cautioned me about mixing in with ‘those types'?”

“Abolitionists.”

Thompson turned the rabbit on the skewer. The Reverend would approve. He must write his father about the events in Deep Woods.

“So, the larger company is pro-slave?” Thompson asked.

“Free-soil republicans,” Upperdine said. “Want the territory free of slaves but free of the Negro as well.”

“I see.”

“Pro-slave ruffians are a sight rougher lot than you met today.”

“That is not comforting news.”

“I don't expect trouble. But I'll tell you this. Until I have this company a goodly distance from the Missouri line, I'll swear an oath to either side to see us safe on our journey.”

Thompson tested the rabbit by poking and took up the skewer and offered a leg to Captain Upperdine. He declined. “Tomorrow, then,” Upperdine said.

After dark, men went into the pasture and led the oxen to their wagons and yoked them while women and children loaded the cookware, tents and awnings, washbasins, churns, and other equipment that had been set out during layover. They slept lightly for a few hours in the open, and at two, Upperdine set the camp in motion. By first light the fifteen wagons had already covered several miles, and Upperdine continued to push them until late morning when they nooned beside a stream with good water. Far in the distance they could see dust raised by the large train, and Thompson was grateful they were making trail ahead of them.

Upperdine set the order of travel. Up at five, moving by six-thirty, nooning during the heat of high sun, resting the oxen, letting them graze unharnessed for a few hours, pushing on to a stopping point by early evening. They continued to catch sight of the larger wagon train by the dust signature, but each day it grew fainter until finally disappearing altogether. Their wagon train alone now on the prairie, a town on wheels, a town rolling inexorably westward with each passing day, it struck Thompson that he traveled with a community approximately the same population as the one he had abandoned. At ease with the idea or not, he'd rejoined the living.

4

T
hey walked over rolling prairie and the unimposing flint hills of eastern Kansas Territory. It seemed impossible to imagine, those first days, that lack of good grazing could ever become a concern. Big Bluestem and Indian Grass grew as tall as a man's shoulder. When Thompson rested with Obadiah and his family, they had to keep watch on Hanna's little one lest she wander just a short distance and become lost entirely in the thick growth.

They walked beside their wagons at the slow, even pace of the oxen that pulled their every possession westward. The driver walked at the flanks of his team barking commands, “haw,” “gee,” his stock whip, or a prod, ready encouragement. The small children rode in the box. Older children at turns rode and walked with their parents or together in groups. The company: fifteen wagons, seventy-five Durham oxen, cattle, a few mules and horses, an assortment of dogs, fifteen families, sixty-seven people.

Even with so small a party, oftentimes the train spread out for a mile or more—a sore hoof, an axle in need of grease, an obstinate team—and Thompson found himself drifting from one family to another to help out, and he learned their stories. The emigrants were men who had made a go of it, for the most part, in the East but dreamed of more. They had to be well off enough to outfit the crossing and afford a year's stake in the new land before their first harvest. The Barksdale family, old Tom, fifty-four years, grizzled, a gray beard reaching down his shirtfront, widowed, led his five boys, stair-stepped in age. He planned to send for his young second wife and two infants in Springfield once the second crop came in. Hiram Calderwood was a wheelwright bound for Bent's new fort with his two oldest sons. Burrows Grissom traveled with his wife, Susan, and two oldest, but had left their three younger ones in Indiana with her sister. He first had come west in '48 for the California adventure and had lost his left arm at the elbow. He'd sliced his forearm while trying to separate a land turtle from its shell for stew. Infection. The West had gotten into his blood, but Susan refused to let him come alone again. Said she couldn't afford to lose any more of him than she already had.

Much of the walking was spent in silence, the creaking of wheels, the squeal of the brake lever on steeper downgrades, an occasional shouted command. They made good time, twelve, fourteen miles a day, dust always with them, coating their clothes, hair, beards. Although raw country, they still traveled within the bounds of civilization and they passed through land in places broken by fields of corn growing in ordered rows, an odd and incongruous sight in this unordered country. Log and wood shanties dotted the hills, fenced gardens growing root vegetables and bush beans.

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