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...The spring of 1852 ushered in so many preparations, great work of all kinds. I remember relations coming to help sew; tearful partings; little gifts of remembrance exchanged; the sale of the farm, the buying and breaking of unruly oxen; the loud voices of the men; and the general confusion. The first of April came. We were on our way to Oregon Territory. The long line of covered wagons, so clean and white...the loud callings and hilarity: many came to see us off. We took a last view of our dear Illinois homestead as it faded from sight....
An open country was now before us. The melting snows had made the streams high; the roads nearly impassable....When we reached Wyoming, this side of Fort Laramie, the passing of dear beloved Mother was a crushing blow to all our hopes. We had to journey on and leave her in a lonely grave — a featherbed as a coffin and the grave protected from the wolves by stones heaped upon it. The rolling hills were ablaze with beautiful wild roses — it was the twentieth of June, and we covered Mother's grave with the lovely roses, so the cruel stones were hid from view. We named the spot Castle Hill.
Duck ran as fast as she could toward the granite outcropping that looked like a great, gray giant slumbering in the middle of the open plain. She lifted the ragged edge of her long skirt and tucked it inside her belt so that she could leap over bunches of prickly pear. She darted around clumps of sage.
Faster! Faster! As she pumped her skinny legs and dug her heels into the dry, brittle ground, she forgot everything that had happened, everything she left behind. At that moment she was aware only of the rush and blur of her own movement. The sun beat down on the top of her head. Her brown hair blew ever which way in the hot wind. Sweat trickled down her forehead into her brown eyes. Her throat ached, but she did not pause to rest or catch her breath.
"Duck!" commanded nineteen-year-old Fanny. "Stop!"
"Wait for us!" pleaded Jenny, seventeen.
Fifteen-year-old Maggie, who straggled farthest behind, called, "I can't keep — " The rest of her words were lost in the howling breeze.
Duck paid no attention to her three oldest sisters — she kept running. She was eleven years old, the youngest of the four girls, and was determined to reach Independence Rock first. She'd climb to the top and use the jackknife she had borrowed to carve a message in big letters for all the world to see.
D. SCOTT FROM ILLINOIS — JUNE 29,1852
Then wouldn't Father and her five sisters and three brothers be impressed?
At last she reached the rock's shadow. Its dark coolness swallowed her. Straight ahead, rising three hundred feet or more — higher than the tallest church spire back home — stood the rock. The rough surface of its enormous wall was scrawled with names and dates scratched and carved and painted in red and black letters. "Independence," "Wm. Sublette," "Moses Harris," "1841" and hundreds more messages from people she did not know — all going west just as she and her family were.
Duck reached out. Closer, closer. There! She slapped her palm against the rock. The sting made her accomplishment feel real. She was first!
She turned and slumped against the rock. She gulped for air. Her knees shook, but she had made it. She smiled and watched her sisters struggling in the distance. How ridiculous they looked! They ran toward the rock in mincing, ladylike steps. Their skirts flapped about their ankles. Their sunbonnets heaved left and right on their heads like ships' sails on a stormy sea.
First came Jenny. She was the most determined of the three. Nicknamed String Bean by their brothers; Jenny was skinny with long legs. She had mischievous blue eyes and dull brown hair.
Next came Fanny. She was tall, just like Father, and had the same fierce, dark-eyed stare. Her brown hair was parted severely in the middle. Her small, pinched mouth rarely smiled at Duck.
Earlier that afternoon Fanny had clearly not been pleased when she noticed Duck trailing her and Jenny and Maggie as they left the wagon train and headed on foot for Independence Rock. "Nobody asked you to come along," Fanny grumbled. "Aren't you supposed to be helping herd cattle?"
"Father said, 'A few can go if you get back before we ford the river,'" Duck insisted. "He didn't say which few he meant."
"What harm is there in Duck joining us?" Maggie asked. "It isn't every day that you get a chance to visit something so famous and grand as Independence Rock."
Good old Maggie.
"All right," Fanny growled. "But try for once to stay out of trouble."
Now Duck watched Fanny stumbling through the sage and found the sight very satisfying. I stayed out of trouble and I beat you here. Duck cupped her hands around her mouth. "Slowpokes!" she hollered.
Fanny refused to look at Duck. Instead, she turned and shouted at Maggie, the very last. "Come on!"
Maggie did not reply. Her arms moved back and forth, as if she were trying her best to catch up. She was the frailest and the prettiest of Duck's three oldest sisters. She had the same brown hair as the others. What was different were her lovely smile and large blue eyes that often seemed very amused or very surprised.
As Maggie ran, something kept sticking to her skirt. Was it prickers? Every so often, she stopped, unhooked the material, and keep trotting. This time she wiped her face with her sleeve, sped a few more feet, stumbled forward, and vanished.
"Maggie!" Duck shouted. When her sister did not reappear and it seemed clear that neither Jenny nor Fanny was going back to help Maggie, Duck left the base of Independence Rock. She ran past her other two sisters to the spot where she had seen Maggie drop from sight. What if she was hurt? "Maggie," she called. "Where are you?"
"I'm over here! " Maggie cried.
Duck followed the sound of her sister's voice beyond a fragrant clump of sundrenched sage. She looked down. There was Maggie, crumpled in a heap in a shallow hole, laughing. "What are you doing down there? " Duck demanded. "Is your leg broke?"
"I'm perfectly fine. Help me out," Maggie said. I didn't plan on paying any calls on prairie dogs today."
Duck giggled. She extended her hand to her sister and pulled with all her might. Maggie scrambled out of the hole and brushed dirt from her skirt. "That was very kind of you to rescue me. But do you know you look very unladylike?"
Duck looked down at her skirt, which was still tucked inside her belt so that her worn, patched breeches were plain as day. "Oh, well," she said and shrugged. "If Father would let me, I'd wear overalls like Sonny and Harvey. A dress makes no sense when you have to ride a horse all day."
"Don't be silly. Girls don't wear overalls." Maggie leaned over and adjusted Duck's skirt. She tied Duck's sunbonnet in a proper bow under her chin. "When are you going to start acting civilized?"
Duck sighed and didn't answer. She didn't enjoy it when Maggie pretended to be her mother. All fussy and bossy. She liked Maggie better when she was her friend, the person who listened to her secrets and dreams and jokes. The one who told her scary stories and helped her fly kites decorated with fierce dragon faces. "Come on," Duck said. She took Maggie's hand and began walking. "Uncle Levi let me borrow his knife. We can climb up and carve our names on Independence Rock. Someday someone will — " She shielded her eyes and looked up at the very top of Independence Rock.
"What's the matter?" Maggie asked.
"Is that Jenny and Fanny up there?"
"Slowpokes!" two figures taunted. "We're first! We're first!"
Duck scowled. Fanny and Jenny were cheats. She had been first, not them, and they knew it. They had purposefully not gone back to help Mag le so that they could scramble to the top before Duck. Why did her oldest sisters always manage to get their own way? It wasn't fair.
"Hello, Jenny! Hello, Fanny!" Maggie called and waved good-naturedly. "How did you get up there? "
"It's our little secret," Jenny said. She laughed and disappeared.
"Independence Rock is much taller than I imagined," Maggie said. I don't know if I can climb that high."
"If those two made it, there must be a way," Duck replied. "Come on. Let's look around on the other side."
She and Maggie followed the base of the rock and found a well-worn path that led up along a broken ridge of boulders. "We'll climb up here. It's as easy as walking up the courthouse steps back home." She scrambled nimbly atop the first rock.
"I don't know. It doesn't look safe," Maggie said. "What if the wobbly slabs come loose? What if the whole thing tumbles apart? We'll be buried alive."
"Don't be such a coward," Duck said. She kept climbing higher and higher. She stopped every so often to show Maggie a secure place to step. "Look over there, Maggie." She pointed east, the way they'd come. "Do you see that purplish ridge? I bet that's Castle Hill."
"Maybe." Maggie replied and blinked hard. "And what's that?"
In the distance Duck could see a cloud of dust churned up by hundreds of wagons, some moving six abreast. "More travelers," Duck said. Together, the girls watched the approaching oxen and wagons that seemed as small as a trudging army of ants.
Duck shifted her gaze west toward the pale, shimmering plains. Overhead, shiplike clouds passed, casting enormous shadows on the ground below. It seemed to her as if the whole world around Independence Rock had become a circle of sky. The outer edges, where the sky touched the ground, seemed to bend and waver — always Just out of sight, out of reach. Somewhere farther west beyond these endless plains she had heard that there were mountains so high, the snow never melted. There were deserts so wide, it took days to cross.
"More than a thousand miles. Father said that's how far we still have to go before we reach Oregon," Duck said. "That's a very long way, isn't it?"
Maggie nodded. "You must be brave, Duck."
Duck bit her lip. A thousand miles. How will we make it without Mother? "Do you miss Mother terribly, too? "
"Of course," Maggie said slowly. "Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and pretend nothing's different. Nothing's changed."
"Does that make you feel any better?" Duck asked hopefully.
"No," Maggie admitted.
Duck frowned. "Do you think we'll ever be able to find her grave again?"
"Castle Hill is a beautiful spot," Maggie said. "Remember how the view from up there overlooks the ravine? We'll never forget where Castle Hill is. Never."
Duck did not feel so certain. All along the trail to Oregon she and her sisters and brothers had counted fresh-made graves — sometimes five or six a day. All victims of the dreaded cholera. Most had no markers. Others were simple scrawled boards that said: OUR ONLY CHILD. LITTLE MARY or BELOVED. 1852. The shallowest ones were dug up by animals. Sometimes skulls, bones, grave clothes, and old shoes lay scattered beside the wagon ruts. What had once been a curiosity now filled her with a new kind of terror. What if the same thing happened to their mother's grave? What if it were lost forever?
"Don't look so sad, Duck. Everything will be fine," Maggie said. "You'll see." She reached out and briefly rested one finger beneath Duck's upturned chin — the same way Mother would have done. She smiled at Duck, but Duck knew her sister too well. Maggie felt just as scared and worried as she did.
Copyright © 1998 by Laurie Lawlor