The moment she saw Harlan, Louisa knew. In her heart she prayed it was not Thomas, but before Harlan spoke his name she felt the swift, cruel agony of loss. This knowing surprised her, as it always did when she sensed something before it happened. She climbed into the wagon with Harlan and called Tilly to watch Dan and Mattie. A strange numbness filled her, as he shouted through the encampment, “Well shaft collapsed. Buried Thomas. Bring shovels. Come quick!”
In an emergency like this, no one needed to think twice. The community responded immediately to the disaster. Horses, wagons, and some on foot raced to the well shaft. They decimated what remained of the structure above ground and dug furiously. The sun set before they had made much progress in the pit that remained.
Louisa knew it was hopeless. Even if Thomas had survived the impact and had a pocket of air to breathe, by morning he would be dead. Since the support structure had collapsed, there was no way to dig the shaft out fast enough. With every shovelful removed, the sodden walls caved in like a sand castle eroded by the sea.
“Take me back to camp, Harlan,” she told the boy. “He’s gone.”
Daniel and Mattie were waiting for Louisa at the campsite. They watched her every move and expression with inquiring eyes, as she solemnly climbed down from the wagon. Wordlessly she held them close, breathing in the baby smell of Mattie’s soft skin and the boyish scent of Daniel’s hair. Her beating heart slowed a little with the comforting touch of their bodies against her own.
When she could get her breath, she took each child by the hand and led them into the tent. She had to sit down. Telling the children would be the hardest thing she’d ever done.
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“Daniel … Mattie…” She paused, searching for words through the broil of loss and anger churning inside her.
“Papa went to fix the well, you know.” They both nodded solemnly, waiting for more. “He was down in the well when it caved in.” Her mouth dried up and she couldn’t speak.
Finally she croaked, “He couldn’t get out. Everyone came and tried to dig him out, but it’s no use …” She covered her face with her hands and sobbed in low guttural moans.
“Will he come back?” Mattie asked in a small voice.
“I’m afraid not, sweetheart.” Tears streamed down Louisa’s face and she clutched the children tighter. “He’s gone to heaven.”
Daniel’s face tightened as he stared at her. “Papa’s dead?”
“Yes, son. And you are the man of the family now.”
Mattie clung to Louisa, but Daniel abruptly ran out of the tent. She saw him heading toward the mountains, and she let him go.
The sky was overcast; a cool breeze swept across the dry fields. Once again the family gathered at the gravesite. This time Thomas was not with them. Buford, Tilly, and Harlan came, along with some of the townspeople. But Louisa felt like she was standing on a little island isolated from the rest.
The local minister intoned Bible phrases, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death …”
He gave a eulogy for Thomas, but he didn’t know him. His words, though kind, did not describe the man Louisa loved.
She stared at the baby’s grave and at the new marker on the upturned earth. Could this be real? Surely she was dreaming. Where was he? Where was her Thomas? Just vanished, with no trace left behind? No body to wash and lay out—Louisa had not been able to carry out the death rituals tended by women.
Buford suggested a service at the well site, but Louisa couldn’t bear that scene. For once he backed off. It was the least he could do after all that had happened. She had not spoken to him since the catastrophe. She didn’t trust herself to be civil, and she felt vulnerable with Thomas gone.
She desperately wanted something bad to happen to Buford—she no longer thought of him as Uncle; he had never been her uncle anyway. He had explained “the accident” in the most cursory terms. She knew he was driving the team, but what exactly had happened? No one else but Harlan had been at the well that afternoon. When questioned, the boy had no idea what occurred.
In her heart she believed Buford had created the disaster. He was responsible for the engine’s deadly fall. He was impatient and wanted to get home to have his brew. She felt sure that his self-interest had caused her husband’s demise. But no one in the community would blame Buford; an accident was part of life on the frontier….
Cleaning up after supper one night, Louisa paused for a quiet moment to gaze at the sunset. Shades of purple and rose glowed through the clouds above the horizon, like a beacon sending her a message. Remembering how she had shared the beauty of the sunset with Thomas, she was struck by a wave of sorrow. Tears ran down her cheeks and her shoulders shook. Buford had been pulling at the bottle as usual and was feeling no pain. Noticing her alone and vulnerable, he took the opportunity to put his arm around her shoulders. As soon as he touched her, Louisa wrenched away from him with fire in her eyes.
“Don’t you touch me, you lousy excuse for manhood. Your promises and lies are responsible for Thomas’s death! He believed in you. You and your harebrained scheme. We spent all our money, and now we’re broke like you are, and Thomas is dead!” She lashed out at him, her arms swinging wildly. He held her shoulders while she flailed; she was helpless against his strong grip. This made her even madder, and loosened her tongue more.
“Damn you, Buford. Philandering with young women, forcing yourself on your own kin, killing my baby and now my Thomas! If I were a warring woman, I’d kill you with my own hands. You scum, you don’t deserve to be on the ground Thomas walked on. I wish you were dead!”
Day by day, Louisa squirreled away essentials for a surreptitious departure. She carefully smoothed and patted the signature quilt and placed it at the bottom of the small trunk. Running her fingers along the stitching, she thought of the women in her family who had sewn it; for a moment she felt connected to her past. On top of it she placed personal items such as clothing, hairbrush, soap, and towel. She tried to focus her mind on the future, instead of the swirling, endless grief that engulfed her heart.
Tilly surprised her one morning when they were alone, with a crumpled slip of paper bearing a man’s name: John Lawson.
“He’ll take you away from here—to Fresno.” Tilly spoke with uncharacteristic certainty. They regarded each other in silent understanding.
Mr. Lawson, a neighbor, sold produce in the city. He agreed to transport her and the children in his farm wagon. He was a kind man, and she thought he could be trusted. Tilly helped her carry the trunk to the Lawsons’, where it would be kept until time for departure.
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Louisa didn’t tell the children until the night of departure. “We’re going on a journey.” She reached out to both of them and held them close. “It’s a secret … just between us.”
“Where are we going, Mama?” Mattie shrank into the fold of Louisa’s embrace.
“It’s a surprise.” Louisa tried to smile and make it a game. “You’ll find out when we get there.”
“When are we going?” Daniel’s eyes were bright with excitement and alarm.
“Tonight in the middle of the night. We’ll go to bed in our clothes, so we’ll be ready. Now go to sleep; I’ll wake you when it’s time.” Nervousness gave her an urge to keep talking. She wanted to explain her reasoning, but inherently knew the less said the better.
The children tossed and turned, too excited to go right to sleep, but they finally nodded off. Louisa was unable to relax; her mind ran in every direction like a circus monkey. Around midnight she heard Buford come home after carousing. He bumped into the table, cursed, flailed around trying to find his tent flap, and finally made it inside with much belching and farting. Louisa listened, alert and tense as a mother bird protecting her young.
Several hours later a low melodic whistle sounded in the square. That was her signal.
“Daniel, Mattie. It’s time to go,” Louisa whispered. “Put on your jacket and shoes. Be very quiet. We don’t want to wake Aunt and Uncle.”
As she pushed aside the tent flap, a shaft of moonlight fell at her feet, directing her out beyond. It formed a white path toward the shimmering Sierras to the east. She caught her breath sharply as it bathed her in a white, hot glow. With a shivering in her gut of what might happen, she hurried the children away. Her fear of the unknown was coupled with an intense excitement that seized her muscles, almost paralyzing her fleeting steps. But she pushed on past her dread of Buford and followed the light toward the shining mountains, a beacon for her wavering heart.
The three figures moved noiselessly, past the tent with Buford’s snores echoing into the night, to the darkened tree in the center of the encampment where Mr. Lawson waited with his horse and wagon.
“Your trunk’s under the tarp.” He motioned them in beside it, clucked to the horse, and the wagon rattled up the road.
Lulled by the swaying motion, Daniel and Mattie fell asleep in their mother’s arms; but Louisa was watchful as a wide-eyed cat. Suppose Buford woke up and followed them? Suppose somebody saw them and told him? Would he come after her?
Pat Jurgens, writer and retired librarian, has published numerous articles in local and regional magazines. She also dabbles in memoir and poetry, has contributed to several anthologies, and won awards from Denver Women’s Press Club, Poetry Society of Colorado, and Jefferson County Historical Commission. She lives in an old mountain cabin in Colorado and walks the trails with her husband, Carl. “Falling Forward: A Woman’s Journey West” is her first novel. Visit the author at: https://patjurgens.com