Authors: Shelley Pearsall
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TROUBLE DON'T LAST,
LETTERS FROM THE OVERLAND TRAIL
LETTERS FROM THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
The two principles on which our conduct
towards the Indians should be founded are
justice and fear.
—Thomas Jefferson, 1786
it is the time when the leaves
are small on the trees.
hunt for us.
run, i whisper to Little Otter.
run like a fast-melting spring river.
do not look back.
he is quick
and slips like a soft fish
through their hands.
but Ten Claws and i
are not so lucky.
of the white man's gun
and he is dead.
i am caught.
Pa never told us he would capture an Indian and bring him back across the river. Never breathed a word that he would march an Indian right into our cabin and make him a prisoner while we were gone away. Only thing he told us was that he was going across the Crooked River to see about a few savages who were causing trouble.
Now, if our poor Ma had been alive, I don't expect he would have ever dared to do such a shameful thing. Not if she had been standing in the doorway with her Bible clutched to her chest, he wouldn't have. But Ma was gone, and me and my sister Laura had set out in pouring rain to help the Hawleys, who had all taken sick with a fever.
The Hawleys lived up the road from us, where it was mostly uncleared woods. And truth to speak,
they were the kind who were always falling sick, or getting bit by a snake, or being thrown off their miserable horse. Never should have come out to the Ohio frontier in the first place, Pa often said.
We had been on the frontier for nearly twelve years, so we were as seasoned as salt. The Evans family, who lived in the opposite direction from the Hawleys, had come from Vermont not long after us. Right past the Evanses’ log house was old Vinegar Bigger's cabin—he was as old as the saints, folks said.
And if you kept on going, past Mr. Bigger's cabin, past the woods where the pigeons were fond of roosting, past the muddiest part of the road, past a thicket of greenbriers on your left, you would reach the small settlement on the Crooked River. It had about fifty more people who, in late summer, were often as sick as the Hawleys on account of the fevers caused by the swampy river.
“You coming, Laura?” I hollered as we made our way toward the Hawleys’ cabin. I pushed back the hood of my cloak to look for my sister, who was lagging somewhere behind me in the rain.
Laura was seventeen, four years older than me, and she had always been big for a girl. No matter how much our Ma had added and mended, Laura's clothes kept up a never-ending tug-of-war around her body, and her dresses were always too short to cover up her thick ankles and wide white feet. Pa called her “our horse.” That's what he said when folks came to visit.
“This here's Laura. Our big horse,” he'd laugh, in
that loud way of his. “Gonna have to turn her out to pasture if she keeps on growing like she is.”
Then he'd nod at me. “And this here's Rebecca,” he'd say. “She looks like her Ma did, but she's slow in the head, and lazy, and don't do a quarter of the work.”
I was not slow in the head. Or lazy.
But we would just keep our heads down and not say a word whenever Pa was talking to folks. No matter what he called us.
Since our Ma had died, me and Laura had only ourselves for company. Our three-year-old sister, Mercy, was nothing but a babbling pester. And our two brothers, Amos and Lorenzo, along with our miserable cousin George, who lived in our cabin, had no use for us except for the three meals we set in front of them every day.
Breakfast, noonday dinner, and supper. That's all we were to them.
Sometimes after the supper meal was through, me and Laura would set by the hearth, and if she wasn't too awful tired, Laura would brush the bird nests out of my brown hair, same as Ma had once done. And often, I did Laura's mending in the evenings because my fingers were small and quick. And my eyesight was good, where hers wasn't. So that's the way we filled in some of what was missing without Ma.
As me and Laura drew closer to the Hawleys’ log house, I noticed there wasn't a whisper of smoke coming from their chimney, a bad sign, surely. “No fire going.” I pointed.
Laura tugged her wet cloak tighter around her shoulders. “Well, we are just gonna knock on that door and see what we find,” she said, casting a jumpy look at the cabin and taking a deep breath.
Turned out, poor Mrs. Hawley was nearer to death than life. I reckon it was a good thing we had come when we did because she couldn't even stir from her bed to fetch a cup of water or a crust of bread for her ailing husband and children. And the smell in that place could have nearly kilt you.
Laura sent me back to our house to fetch some hot coals to start a fire, and she said I should gather up a full basket of food for the Hawleys. Even though it was still pouring rain, I ran part of the way back just to get the smell of the Hawleys’ place out of my head.
My brother Lorenzo was sitting inside our cabin when I returned. He had been left to keep an eye on little Mercy, but he had himself pulled up to a big platter on the table, and he was picking out the leftover pieces of cold pork from breakfast with his fingers instead. Pick. Chew. Pick. Chew.
One of the fresh loaves that me and Laura had baked the day before was sitting on the table with its end crumbled in where he had tunneled through it with his fingers.
I glared at him. “We was saving that bread for supper.”
Lorenzo was eleven, two years younger than me, and he was named after my Pa, so that showed you something right there. He could do whatever he pleased. Always acted like he was the biggest toad in
the puddle. Always grabbed the biggest piece of meat from the supper table and took the warmest part of the hearth for his seat.
“No one told me a thing, and I was hungry,” he said, sticking his greasy fingers back into the pile of pork again. Pick. Chew.
Nobody vexed me as much as Lorenzo.
I pushed the basket onto the table. “Make your lazy old self useful and help git some things together for the Hawleys. They've all got the fever bad.”
“Ain't that a pity.” He grinned. “Poor Hawleys.”
Anger pinched my throat and squeezed my ribs.
Reaching out, I dug my fingers as hard as a horse's teeth into his left arm, trying to make him mind me. Who was gonna make him listen if me and Laura didn't? “You go on and git a string of beans from the loft so we can make a soup for the Hawleys.”
Lorenzo yanked his arm away. “Can't,” he said. “There's a murderous savage up there, and I ain't about to set one foot in the loft. But you can go on up if you've a mind to.” Lorenzo gave me one of his half-crooked grins and brushed a lock of brown hair out of his eyes.
Now I didn't know a thing about the Indian right then. Not one thing. I figured Lorenzo was just spinning another miserable lie to get himself out of doing any decent work, same as he always did. I remember hollering at him, “I'm so awful sick of your stories—I'll go up to the loft myself and look for your killer Indian just to prove what a lazy yarn spinner you are.”
Snatching the basket off the table, I started up the narrow stairs furiously, not even taking care to watch
the edge of my dress. It would serve Lorenzo right if my feet got tangled in my skirts and I fell down the steps, cracked my head on the plank floor, and died.
Below me, I could hear the sound of Lorenzo's chair scraping back from the table. “You best take care,” he called out.
Although I went up to the chamber loft nearly every day to fetch something, I never took much of a liking to it. The long, low-ceilinged room had only two small windows, one at each end, and you could hear mice rustling about in the shadows. Each time I reached my hand into an apple barrel or cut down a string of beans up there, I was tormented by the thought that one of those mice would go skittering up my arm.