Saturday, August 11, 2012

A Sad and Lonely Camp, Chapter 36, Part 1

After a couple hours of travel, the dog began to peer toward the rock ridge to the north and whine anxiously.  After a while further he began to try and scramble out of the moving wagon.  Afraid that he might hurt himself in his weakness, Slade stopped the wagon.  The dog immediately jumped down.  He stumbled and fell but got up immediately and began walking as quickly as he could toward the ridge of rocks.   He would go a way and then stop to look back. It was evident that he wanted them to follow him.

Other than the clumps of sage that the tall wagon passed over easily, the open field was only slightly rougher than the road ruts they followed so Slade turned off the track to follow behind the dog.  As the rocks drew closer the dog turned slightly and began to parallel them; soon he turned into an gap. 

Slade was beginning to be suspicious of the dog’s leading so pulled the wagon into the rock opening and stopped the mules. 

“Wait here a minute while I go see what he wants.”  Before Ellen had a chance to respond he had jumped down and, with his rifle in one hand, ran after the dog. 

In a small wind shelter amid the rocks, he found a sturdy wagon and the remains of a camp fire. Beside the dead fire there was a body huddled in a pile of blankets.  As he moved closer he saw that it was the mummified remains of a woman who clutched a rifle to her chin. 

“What is it?” Ellen called from their wagon.

“Just a minute.  I’m still looking.”  He gazed around the rocks.  Off to one side there was a long pile of smaller rocks, obviously a grave.  There were cooking utensils and empty containers beside the fire.  Slade walked around the fire to the wagon.  He checked the inside of the wagon and the empty straps on the outside.  They were empty.  The boxes and barrels they had held were gone.

The desolate campsite told its own sad story.  The husband had evidently died through some mishap.  The woman, not knowing what to do or how close she was to help had held out until the food was gone and all the wood she could break up for fires was gone. Then she had taken her own life.  Her dog had guarded her body faithfully with no regard for finding his own food.  The ground was gouged and scratched around the body where he had evidently fought off predators.  There was an impression against the back of the woman’s body where he must have slept through the days and nights.  He stood there now, looking at Slade expectantly.

Slade walked back to their wagon.

“I suppose you had better come on in.  There’s no way around it.”  He quickly outlined what he had gathered from the pitiful camp. 

“We need to at least bury the body and decide what to do with the belongings.”

They made their way back to where the dog stood waiting. 

“I wonder when the man died,” Ellen said.

“I would guess at the beginning of winter.  People get fooled by the warm weather that comes off and on at the end of fall. They think they can make it some place or other.  I’d think these folks were heading for Albuquerque and got off lost.  Then the man died somehow and the woman was left alone.”  He shook his head.  “It’s sad.  We were just a little ways off.”

Tears welled in Ellen’s eyes.  “It could have been me,” she said.  “I must have come right by this way.  Only I had good range-saavy horses and God’s grace with me.

“Can we bury her beside her husband?”

Slade looked in the wagon, still bearing its heavy canvas cover and found a pick and shovel.  He took them to the husband’s grave and set to work digging a shallow grave in the rocky soil.  Then he wrapped the woman tightly in her blankets and carried her to the depression.  Once she was under ground they piled rocks over her burial place.

Ellen took a flat rock and with a broken fork engraved the little they knew: “Unknown couple. Died Winter 1888-89.”  Slade positioned it at the head of the two graves.

They stood briefly at the site and Slade asked the Lord’s grace on the two who had died so sadly.

The dog sat by quietly as they did all they could do for the woman.  When Slade replaced his hat and Ellen turned away, it stood up and shook its fur then walked after Ellen to lean against her leg. From that time it followed her where ever she went.

They started to look in the wagons to find some indication of the name of the people, but Slade soon pointed out that they shouldn’t waste time when they needed to be getting home themselves.  He picked up a pair of oxen yokes and straps from the ground and hung them over the wagon seat.  Perhaps he could come back later.

But when the dog saw him with the harness in his hands it sprang up and hurried into the rocks. Slade looked after him in surprise, but as they went about organizing the empty camp they heard him barking; then he appeared around the rocks herding two oxen and a milk cow ahead of him.

“Well, I’ll be switched!” Slade exclaimed.  “There must be a spring up there someplace!  He not only took care of the woman, he took care of the livestock, too! No wonder the dog was starving.  He didn’t have any time to hunt.  I guess he thinks we need to take the wagon along!”

Slade stood with his hands on his hips for a bit. “What do you think?” he asked Ellen. 

“It seems a shame to leave a good serviceable wagon here to rot to pieces when we have the means to take it with us. Except for the food, everything seems to be in it still.”  Ellen answered him.  “And there may be some indication in it of who this couple was.  I think we need to take it with us.  But how to do that is what I want to know.”

Slade stood thinking on the problem for a bit longer.  “I suppose I can drive the oxen, if you think you can drive the mules.  They do go pretty well, not like some mules.  The milk cow is probably used to being tied to the wagon and following along.

“Let’s get these few things packed up.  I’d better grease the wheels before we start.”  He peered in the back corner of the wagon and came out with a closed bucket of grease.  “If it’s set here all winter the wood is dried out.”

Ellen set to work collecting the skillet, Dutch oven and other cooking things scattered around the fire putting the utensils back into the box of the wagon.  Eli greased the wheels.

When he had the oxen hitched to the wagon, he walked to where their mules stood patiently in their harness before their own open wagon.  The horses too waited where they were tied behind.

“I think it might be a good idea to water our animals before we go on.  They didn’t have much last night. If there’s a decent spring in those rocks, it will just take a minute.  Let me go check.  I’ll hurry.”  He grabbed his rifle and hurried toward the rocks.  The dog saw him leave and ran to lead the way.  Ellen shivered and looked after them until they walked behind an upthrust of rock.

Slade found a small pool, badly trampled by the cattle but still holding an appreciable amount of water.  He thought there would be enough for their animals to have some each.  As he turned around and walked back to their camp he thought that with just a tiny bit of work he could clear the pool and widen it so it would hold water as it had before the oxen’s big feet had muddied it out of shape. 

He collected the mules and horses and, carrying the shovel from the covered wagon, led them back.  While they drank at the side he dug out the trampled rim of the pool and when they finished, he opened the deeper part of the pool, piling the mud up along the edge and leaving a low place for the water to run out and down through the rocks.   By spring there would be a cluster of green. He laid a couple flat rocks on either side of the opening.  On a sudden inspiration he scooped two small cottonwood slips out of the slope down hill from the pool and moved them to either side of the opening where they would help support the bank as the water ran out.

Then he brought his animals back to Ellen as she stood scratching the big oxen with a broken stick.  They seemed to enjoy the attention.

“Now,” he said to her.  “The animals should be set for water until we get home.  You climb up here and we will get started.  Just hold the reins and flip them over their back, clicking your tongue.  You’ve heard me do it. They will start moving.  When you want them to turn, just tug the reins on that side.  Easy.  They will probably follow along after the big wagon anyway.”  He grinned at her.

“I’ll do fine,” she said. “You just do your job.”

Then she teased, “You have a long way to walk.”

Slade waved at her.  “Wait till I get them turned and started back toward the trail before you start.  Oxen don’t move very fast.  The mules should be content to plod along in their wake.” 

“I love you!” He told her once more before he called to the oxen, snapping the long whip in the air.  The team leaned into the yoke and traces and the wagon, after sitting still for so long, creaked and rolled behind them.

Ellen watched him and then started the mules.  What a strange train they must make she thought, remembering the organized train of wagons and animals she had traveled with her parents in.  Their two wagons and mismatched sets of animals were strung among the sage and grass hummocks. And the huge dog ran back and forth between them until he was exhausted and Ellen called Slade to come and help him into the wagon with her. 

They had lost time with the burial and the teams and all the work at the lonely site, but once back on the rudimentary road they made decent time again.  In all actuality, the wagon the mules pulled was having more difficulty than the one with the oxen. Sometime during the day Ellen came up with the brilliant idea of transferring some of their wagon’s weight to the heavy covered wagon.  When they stopped for the evening, Slade was pleased with her idea.

They worked together to get the animals staked and hobbled and tied.  Then, while Ellen fixed their dinner, Slade moved some of the heavy bags and boxes to the emptier wagon.  The additional weight would make little difference to the oxen and removing it would be a big help to the horses and mules.  When he had about half of their load moved and distributed evenly he tied the canvas back down and closed the back of the covered wagon again.  The big black grizzled dog ran between Ellen and the wagons trying to keep track of everything that was happening.  He seemed happy to be relieved of his long vigil and gladly transferred his loyalty to Ellen. 

Slade came and sat beside her as she finished up the potatoes she had sliced into the skillet with slivers of ham she had taken from their stores as Slade had moved their supplies.  She had also gotten a dried chili.  The fragrance of the chopped chili in the potatoes was mouthwatering.  Ellen put the lid on the Dutch oven and sat beside Slade with her coffee cup to wait a few minutes while the potatoes finished cooking.  Slade slid closer and pulled her against his side.

No comments:

Post a Comment