At her dying mother’s plea, fourteen-year-old Lulie flees Missouri to escape her lecherous Pa. It’s 1847 and she joins a wagon train bound for Oregon. Pa joins a following wagon train, intending to taunt her for 2,000 miles, before ultimately claiming her.
Lulie’s fellow travelers become her family and vow to help her however they legally can, but Lulie knows the only way to be free of him is to kill him. Does she have the skill, courage and resolve to do so?
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Part One: Leaving
Lately, of a morning, Ma would heave a sad sigh and say, “Lulie, the day’s comin’ when you’ll have to leave home.”
Lest she thought I hankered to set out on my own, I’d smile, shake my head and push her words into my ponder corner.
My right name is Lucinda Lee, after Ma’s good friend, Lucinda Lee Moffitt, but everybody calls me Lulie. The Moffitts moved to Independence right before I was born in 1833. Ma and Lucinda wrote letters back and forth until they left in ’43 with the first big wagon train going to Oregon Country. The last letter Ma got was a year later, when they arrived in Oregon City.
Ma took sick last spring. Her cheeks got hollow and her eyes sunk in to where she hardly looked like the pretty lady she truly was. When we went to the Littlefield General Store, Pa didn’t warn her not to talk with other men.
Pa talked to the ladies. One time, when him and Ma and me were on our way to the General Store, we passed the saloon and a lady leaned out of an upstairs window and called to him. “Rolfe, why don’t you come on up and help me pay my bills?” He grinned up at her and said, “Another day, Belle.” Pa paid our bills, but I never knew he helped anyone else with theirs.
Next day, when Ma and me were alone, she told me about men and their animal instincts. She said all men had them, but Pa was a handsome man, and women were drawn to him, so his were stronger than most. Snap quick, I knew what she was talking about, but I was too embarrassed to admit it. In our family, Pa tended the boys–his sons by his first wife–and Ma tended me. When I was about seven, and they were nine and eleven, Curt and Carl led me to where two of the neighbor’s hunting dogs were mating out back of our barn.
“Look, Lulie. Look at his spike. Near as big as Pa’s.” They carried on, hooting and hollering, and I ran back to the house.
From then on, every time I heard Ma and Pa bed-thrashing, that memory made me shudder. The way the male dog grunted and panted as if possessed. Pa made sounds like that now, even with Ma too sick to have interest in her wife duties.
On my pallet beside the fireplace, I’d hold the pillow tight over my ears and cry. I asked God to make Pa stop hurting Ma. But God didn’t do it.
We didn’t take special notice of birthdays, but on March 12th, when I turned fourteen, Ma and me went to pick sponge mushrooms for supper. They grew close to the trunks of elms in the woods between our house and Littlefield. We hadn’t gone far when she stopped under a big bur oak, to steady herself with an arm that was more bone than flesh.
“Lulie, take a good look at this tree, so you can find it again when you need to.”
“Why? It ain’t an elm.”
She sighed. “Just do it, girl.”
“Well, it’s got a strange scar where a limb broke off.”
She gripped my shoulder with her free hand. “Yes, it’s our tree. Don’t tell nobody else about it.”
“I won’t, Ma.” Whatever was important to her was important to me, even if I didn’t understand why.
The day she died, Pa and my half-brothers were in the fields planting hemp. I was tending Ma, washing her face when she spit up what little medicinal tea I could get her to drink.
“Lulie, quit fussin’ and sit.” She patted the quilt. Her hand barely moved, but her voice was strong. “The time’s at hand when you’ll have to leave.”
“Not now, Ma. Not while you’re sick and need me to tend you.” Why would she think such a thing?
“Hush, girl, and listen. You remember our tree? Out in the woods?” When I nodded, she went on talking. “Dig down where I was standin’. You’ll find an old cook pot with travelin’ goods in it and some money. Where I got the money don’t matter. Use fifty dollars of it to buy yourself a horse and saddle. Ride to Independence fast as you can. Join up with a wagon train headin’ for Oregon City. The Moffitts will take you in.”
Join a wagon train bound for Oregon? And why would the Moffits need to take me in? She was scaring me with such wild talk. Maybe mixing up real life with that little book she liked so much, Carrie Murrel’s Overland Journey.
She’d rested a minute, but now opened her eyes and gave me a fierce look. “Listen to me, Lulie.” Her near-black hair tangled around her face on the old, flat pillow. She squinted, clenched her teeth, and swallowed hard. I’d seen her do that many times since she took sick. After a bit, she grabbed my hand and held it tight while she told me exactly what I needed to do and how to do it.
“Do you understand, Lulie?” Her expression begged me to say I did.
“Yes. But truly, Ma, I don’t see why–”
“Here’s why!” She spat the words as if they tasted bad in her mouth. When I heard her whole story, I sat dead still, heavy as if I’d swallowed a big rock.
“No, Ma.” I shook my head, not wanting to believe her. She was sick and her mind was exaggerating things.
“I’m dyin’, Lulie.” Her fingers clutched mine, and she lifted her head off the pillow. “You’re fourteen. I’ve kept your pa away from you by doin’ every disgustin’ thing he wanted me to do. But soon’s I’m in the ground, he’ll come lookin’ for you. For something different than he can get in town. Don’t look for help from the boys. They’ll play like they’re asleep.”
I couldn’t draw a deep breath. “None of that will happen, Ma. You’ll get better and–”
Her words loosed unsettling memories. I wore my brothers’ hand-me-down clothes and sometimes walking past behind me, Pa would grab and squeeze my backside. Or stroke my suspenders up and down over my flat chest, until I pushed him away. At those times, his half-lidded eyes smoldered with a Peculiar Look.
I slumped, my body turned to mush.
“You got to run soon’s I’m gone,” she said softly. “Not one day longer. Don’t fail me, Lulie. I love you.”
The morning after Ma’s funeral, I baked biscuits, and fried bacon and eggs for Pa and my half-brothers. They were shadow shapes, sitting at the table, eating, drinking coffee. The house was dark. The only light it ever had was gone.
Pa pushed back from eating breakfast, hooked his thumbs in his suspenders and looked me up and down. “You are a sorrowful sight. Mopin’ and cryin’ won’t bring your ma back.”
His face took on that Peculiar Look I had not wanted to recognize. The biscuits and eggs rose up in my throat. I swallowed hard, unable to speak.
He got up, came around the table and put his hands on my shoulders. Under my shirt, my skin shriveled away from his touch.
“You’ll be all right,” he said. “You’ll keep busy, doin’ all your ma’s chores.”
…all your ma’s chores. My whole body caught fire, my stomach clinched, my eyesight blurred. I leapt up, the chair crashing over behind me as I bolted for the front porch. Pa followed and watched while I emptied my breakfast into the dirt. I leaned against a porch support, spitting.
“You ain’t gettin’ sick, like your ma, are you?”
“I wish I was. I’d as soon die as live here without her.”
“That’s crazy talk. Do your mornin’ chores, then sit for a spell.”
“Goin’ to the bog.” My voice sounded thick. “To cut cattails.”
He was so quiet, I thought he’d gone, but then he said, “Suit yourself.”
Through eyes bleary with hate and revulsion, I watched him harness Big Brown and head around the house toward the field. He yelled at my half-brothers to come along. Their voices faded as they walked out of sight. Normal as if they buried a loved one every day of the week.
As if sleep walking, I set out to do what Ma had said. Fetched a flour sack to hold what was in the cook pot. I couldn’t take extra clothes or Pa would notice. I would leave wearing a hand-me-down flannel shirt–it being early in the spring–and twill pants. Curt and Carl didn’t wear anything under them, but Ma sewed cotton drawers for me.
Clutching the sack and Ma’s scissors and hand mirror, I went into the woods, to our tree, and the buried cook pot. Stuffed inside it was a change of clothes and a leather pouch, tied with a leather strip. When I opened it, out plunked two gold double eagles, two gold half-eagles, two gold quarter-eagles, and three silver dimes. Where had she got that money? How had she slipped it past Pa?
The pot also held chew sticks. A comb. A pocketknife. Every boy carried one. Ma had told me that I was to pretend to be a boy. That part would be easy. I wasn’t pretty like Ma.
A looser leather cord held together what looked like a bundle of rags. When I undone the bundle, I couldn’t make sense of it. One piece was a wide band, like a belt, with tie tapes and buttons, two in front and two in back. Other pieces were narrower strips, with buttonholes in the ends. They must fit together, but what for? Didn’t matter. Ma had prepared the bundle for me and I would take it.
At the bottom of the pot, was Carrie Murrel’s journal. I held it close for a minute. It would be the only reminder of her I could take with me.
Tears threatened. I wouldn’t ever be able to put flowers on her grave. In my mind’s eye, I saw her marker: Celia Amelia Weidemann. October 6, 1811 –May 6, 1847. Celia Amelia. Too pretty a name to be followed by Weidemann. And ten times worse: Beloved Wife of Rolfe Weidemann. Beloved! The biggest lie ever, chiseled in stone.
I shoved everything into my carry sack. Time to cut my hair. The final step before I left.
I picked up the scissors to cut off my braids, which brought memories of Ma and me, looking at an advertisement in a tattered copy of a magazine. Women wearing bonnets, with little springy curls sticking out of each side. It was real hair, but it wasn’t theirs. It was switches of hair sewn into the sides of the bonnet. Sun blond hair like mine was the most popular. That’s why she’d told me to save my braids to sell.
Pa’s voice shattered that memory. My heart peppered up. Why had he come back to the house? Ma had made it sound possible, to run away, but here he was, checking up on me, after less than an hour. Snap quick, I buried everything and covered the dirt with leaves. I got to my feet, and brushed dirt off my pants as I cut through the woods to the path from the privy.
Pa stood on the front porch, looking this way and that. When he spotted me walking out of the woods, he said, “I thought you was goin’ into the marsh.”
“After chores.” Talking and walking like I was half-dead was easy. That’s how I felt. I let the chickens out of their coop and headed for the shed to milk the cow. Pa watched, like he’d never seen Ma or me do that a hundred times. Had he searched the house and noticed Ma’s hand-mirror missing?
I milked the cow and turned her out to pasture. By then, Pa was gone. Watching sideways until my eyes hurt, I poured the milk into stoneware jugs and took them to the spring house.
Chores done, I went back to the buried pot and dug everything up again. This time I didn’t hesitate to whack off my braids up close to my head. Looking in the mirror, I managed to make my hair look like the boys’. I reburied the pot, scattered the hair trimmings amongst the leaves and stuffed the braids into my carry sack.
After cleaning the scissors, I went back into the house, holding them like a knife. If Pa showed up again, I’d stab him right in the heart. I surely would. It was like someone else was inside me, moving my arms and legs.
I put away the telltale items and grabbed an old hat that had belonged to Carl, the youngest of my half-brothers. I’d wore it before in the marsh and it was part of Ma’s plan.
I picked up a little oil painting of Ma and her Aunt Nettie. Ma’s parents had died in a flood following the last of the New Madrid earthquakes, on February 7, 1812. Ma had been only four months old and she’d been raised by her Aunt Nettie.
In the painting, Ma was sixteen, and already beautiful. With her near-black hair tied with a wide bow, and wearing a simple dress, she stood slightly in front of her aunt. Her eyes stared solemnly at me, but her mouth had that little smile that I loved so much. I swallowed a sob and wiped my eyes.
I couldn’t take the painting with me. It sat on the mantel in plain sight, and Pa would surely notice if it was gone. All I had to remember Ma by was Carrie Murrel’s Overland Journey.
Flour sack in hand, I took off walking toward the marsh. My feet went faster and faster, until I was bounding along like a rabbit on the run. I was never coming back. Not alive, anyways.