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Westering Toward my Sixteenth Year

 by Kathleen Kersch Simandl    

 

The crisp rustle of my one best dress was abruptly silenced as I took my seat on the buckboard.  The covered wagon was not my own, of course, as I was but in my fifteenth year.  The Reverend and his wife, however, had agreed to allow me to make the journey to Oregon in their rundown Schooner.  They were childless and penniless; my parents were comfortable in their finances…. and, eager that I should visit my relatives out west.  The manner in which my sister's fiancÚ had assuaged his grief at her death was becoming increasingly obvious.  I was confused by his attentions and my parents' reaction, but I was told that this journey was the best solution for my unseemly state.    

 

At first, I too was eager for the travel.  It seemed an adventure to make the trip across country, and I felt certain I would find a beau of my own in the new west.  Sleeping under the stars!  Prairie dogs!  I tucked my dusty black skirt around my ankles and leaned forward, held back only by a bittersweet remembrance of my poor sister, the sheeted bed we shared, and my family's well-swept hearth.

 

After one month in the wagon train, my dress was grey from the dust, limp from humidity, stained with perspiration, and with tears.  I had moved into the rear of our wagon, where Rev. Amhurst had partitioned off a space for me with a few barrels of grain and lard.  Mostly this journey was hard, dirty, and lonely.  I desperately missed Mother, Father, and little Zeke!  I sat, hunched on a crate, in my tiny private space - hearing their voices, and trying to remember every contour of their faces.  I cried for them, and for my sister, discoloring the taffeta of my one best dress.

 

After three months, I fancied that my family was calling to me.  I spent more and more time under the grease-slicked and mud-crusted canvas roof trying to hear what they were saying.  If I could just put my ear to the jostling floor of the wagon, I felt sure I would be able to make out their words.  Using the sides of my hands to scrape thick, soft cascades of prairie dust off the back of the wagon, I cleared a space to lie, curled around my growing stomach, in the now-baking heat.  The ruffles on the bodice of my dress were frosted with mud and sugared with sand.  "Sweet…"  I mumbled to my family, pressing my ear to the grimy dryness of the wooden floor.  "Sweet…" they surrescently replied, in rhythm with the wheels.  But, what did their words mean?

 

In the fifth month, I took to wearing the Reverend's soup kettle on my head.  My family had whispered to me of a surprise visit to our camp - in celebration of my sixteenth year.  And, I wanted to be ready, to look proper with a hat and maybe even gloves.  I had always worn a hat and gloves when we rode on the wagon in Raleigh.  I rarely left the back of the Prairie Schooner now; we met so many people who were sick and dying.  I had ample time to scrape the mud from the hem of my skirt, to beat the dust from my shawl, and to pinch my cheeks in anticipation of our family reunion.  I even rubbed a bit of the lard over my gritty face, like rouge.  And some in my hair.  I didn't want Mother and Father to find my condition unseemly.  I wanted all of my family to see me as sweet… sweet.

 

The wagon wheels never ceased sighing, sweet… sweet.  Finally - on the day after my sixteenth birthday - I joined my sister, singing sweetly, in the wake of the wheels.

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