Read an Excerpt
Eda peered through the opening in the canvas at the back of the wagon. In the yawning valley below, the line of other white-topped wagons looked no bigger than a struggling parade of tiny pale bugs. She hunched forward and scribbled secret code into the journal in her lap:
Woh raf seod a nogaw llaf erofeb ti sehsams ot stib?
Translated, this meant:
How far does a wagon fall before it smashes to bits?
"Get out and push, Eda!" her sister Belle shouted.
Eda tapped her pencil on her knee, stalling for time. "Harriet Adelle Hitchcock." Ma paused, out of breath from using Eda's full name. "We're all walking. You walk, too."
"What about Lucy?" Eda whined.
Her oldest sister gave her a glare that meant trouble. Lucy, who seemed impossibly ancient at age twenty, sat ramrod straight inside the wagon beside Ma's precious melodeon. The pump organ was shrouded with canvas and trussed with ropes. Lucy's pale folded hands gave the impression that she was seated on a hard pew at church rather than in a wagon balanced precariously on the edge of a cliff.
"You know Lucy can't get out and push!" Belle roared.
Eda avoided Lucy's hawklike eyes and wrote:
Belle does not sound one bit like the sweet selfless maiden everyone admires so much at home. Rolling bandages, knitting socks for soldiers. A seventeen-year-old saint.
"Eda!" Pa boomed. "You may be the youngest, but you're adding weight."
Eda scowled. She didn't like to be reminded that she was the youngest. Was it her fault that she was thirteen and everyone else was older and seemed to live in a different, and larger, world? Her sisters and parents worked together to make her life miserable. It was so unfair. She sighed, closed the journal, and slipped it into her dress pocket. There was no escape now that Pa was angry, too. She had to get out.
Lucy snickered. "Spoiled brat-baby."
Eda smiled angelically, not wishing to give Lucy the slightest hint of how she seethed with anger and terror. She gripped the back of the wagon and lowered herself to the ground, knees shaking. She tried not to think about her nightmares. She tried not to think about the drawings in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, which had made the impossibly narrow tip of Pikes Peak look no bigger than a pen mark. What would happen if her family's two wagons and all their belongings crawled up an equally tall mountain and became stuck at the top?
It was a horrible question she wished she could ask someone. But who? She couldn't ask Pa. He was too busy. She couldn't ask Ma. That kind of question always gave her a fit of nerves. Eda couldn't ask Dick or Harry, the hired men, because they would surely make fun of her. As for her two sisters, she knew better than to ask them anything.
Eda kept her eyes straight ahead. Was this the way the Rocky Mountains would be from now on -- all uphill? Her heart pounded in her ears and she could scarcely breathe. She held tight to the wagon and pretended to push. All the time she kept planning what she would do if the wagon started to tip over. If it went off the edge, she'd let go right away. Then she wouldn't be dragged into the valley with Lucy. Eda practiced opening and shutting her hands to make sure they'd come ungripped. She couldn't take any chances.
"What a view!" Belle said, almost laughing as she walked beside Eda in the thin, bright sunshine. Dust coated her curly brown hair. Dirt and sweat streaked her pretty face.
Eda refused to look at the view. She wanted to go back to flat, predictable Erie County, Pennsylvania, where there were no dizzy mountain passes to make her hands sweat.
Suddenly a rear wheel skittered out into thin air. The wagon groaned and pitched. Lucy screamed. Dirt and rocks cascaded downward and vanished over the cliff. Pock-pockety-pock. Pebbles and loose stones hurtled down from the wagons on the switchback above them. Ping-pock-pock-ping. Eda hunched her shoulders forward. Rocks bounced and ricocheted. She imagined wagons tumbling, twisting, and splintering as oxen writhed and lowed piteously. And beneath the wreckage she saw herself and her family squashed flat.
"Steady!" Pa commanded.
Harry, the bowlegged hired man who drove the first wagon, cracked the whip. The oxen plodded forward, pulling all four wheels back onto the trail. Red-haired Dick, the hired man in charge of the second wagon, threatened the oxen with colorful oaths. Miraculously the wagons kept moving.
Eda forced her legs to work again. She trudged up the endless incline. Hours seemed to drag by. Hot sun bored through the top of her floppy bonnet. Her throat was parched, and her teeth felt gritty with dust.
"How much farther?" Lucy whined from inside the wagon.
"Shut up, Lucy," Eda said in a low voice. "At least you don't have to walk."
Lucy thrust her head out of the back of the wagon.
"What did you say?"
Lucy turned and spoke to Ma as if Eda had suddenly become invisible. "I hope Eda is not making fun of my infirmity. That would be very un-Christian of her."
Ma sighed. She adjusted her crushed feathered hat. Her fashionable blue hoopskirt fluttered in the wind like a dirty kite. "Apologize," Ma rasped at Eda. Even though they were 12,000 feet above sea level and barely able to breathe, Ma seemed determined to keep up appearances and maintain her dignity. She was, after all, a Derleth -- a member of the finest, oldest family in Erie County.
"Why do I have to say I'm sorry?" Eda squinted and pushed harder. Maybe with enough muscle, she'd shove Lucy right over the edge.
"Say it," Ma commanded. Her mouth moved, as if she was going to gasp something else, but no words came out. Still, Eda knew exactly what her mother wanted to say. She would tell Eda how poor martyred Lucy suffered her lameness like a true saint, how her sister had to be respected and protected from life's discomforts. Lucy was, after all, living proof of God's goodness, the most pious young woman in all of Erie County. Lucy was never allowed to leave the house or travel alone or visit anyone, for fear someone would comment on her unfortunate condition. Her lameness was a cross she would bear all her life.
"Mother! Make Eda say she's sorry!"
Sorry...sorry...sorry! Lucy's peevish whine echoed among the mountains.
"Must you always fight?" Pa shook his head. He stared at his wife and daughters as if they were strangers. Then he retreated to safety at the front of the first wagon.
"Sorry," Eda said in a squeezed-lemon voice. But deep down in her brat-baby heart, she wasn't sorry in the least.
Late that morning they finally arrived at the top of the pass. "Here we are!" Pa cried and waved his hat in the air. His shiny pink bald head gleamed in the sunlight.
The wagons stopped, and the exhausted oxen were unharnessed. Eda staggered a few feet away from the wagon and flopped down on the ground, breathless and glad to have solid, flat earth beneath her. When she opened her eyes, she saw miniature flowers that seemed to hug the mountaintop. Some were bright yellow with fat furry stems and quivering petals. Others were as sturdy as reeds. They shivered in the wind smelling of hot sun and something spicy, like sage and Christmas trees and dust.
Eda lifted her head and looked about. A clear, cold breeze cut right through her. She sat up, hugged her elbows against herself, and surveyed the strange treeless meadow flecked with rocks covered with orange lichens. To her amazement, she spied familiar white heaps. Snow -- in summer!
Cautiously she stood up. More snow-topped mountains gnawed the horizon and rolled away one after the other in shades of gray and blue and black. She could see forever. She turned, marveling at the way the galloping clouds headed for distant valleys. It seemed like a strange, secret landscape that no one else had ever seen. Deep in the valleys, miles and miles and miles away, she could just make out spindly white gashes she knew must be roaring rivers.
Splat! Something stinging cold smacked Eda on the back of her neck. She screamed.
Belle shrieked with laughter. She packed another snowball and let it fly. Eda leaped to her feet and scooped up her own handful. She stuffed the crusty snow down her sister's dress, then ran away before Belle could catch her.
"Girls!" Ma called. "Don't go near the edge."
The edge! Eda stopped. She had forgotten about the edge. She shielded her face with her arms as her sister pummeled her with more snow. "Stop!" she cried. "I give up! You win!"
Belle pelted her hard with one last icy snowball.
"I said stop!" Eda said. She didn't want her sister to see her cry. It was foolish to cry now. She hadn't fallen over the edge. She was safe, wasn't she?
"All right, all right," Belle said in a gentle voice. She brushed the snow from Eda's hair as if she were a very young child. Then Belle sat down on a flat rock and patted a grassy place. "Sit here and rest," she said. "I won't throw any more snow. I promise."
Before she sat down, Eda quickly looked away so her sister wouldn't see her wipe away her tears with her sleeve.
From her pocket, Belle produced a folded piece of paper. "I'd like to hear what you think about my first column for the North East Gazette. I want you to be completely honest -- but please don't tell Ma. I'm getting paid one dollar, Mr. Mead said, for every hundred words I write. Ma wouldn't approve."
Eda rested her elbows on her knees and her chin in her palms. A dollar sounded like an incredibly large amount of money to her. "Does she think Mr. Mead should pay you more?"
Belle laughed. "Ladies don't write for newspapers. Ma says it's unseemly."
Eda sighed. Belle seemed to have all the luck. She was writing and getting paid. What more could anyone ask? I won't tell Mother."
Belle glanced quickly over her shoulder and read aloud:
July 14, 1864
We have traveled across the plains and are well on our way into the rugged mountains to find riches in the Pikes Peak region. We have taken a roundabout way, which I will take pains to recount. We journeyed from our Pennsylvania home near the New York border by train to Cleveland. Having heard that the steamboats on the Great Lakes are quite luxurious and used by the best people, we boarded a boat named Dean Richmond. This splendid craft, costing $100,000, was 280 feet long. Immediately, it ran into a sand bar. Once we freed ourselves, our conveyance took us safely up the Detroit River, where we could see Canada.
Our voyage took us through Lake St. Clair and River St. Clair and arrived in Lake Huron. Heavy fog forced us to don life jackets. We did not make good time as we had to stop constantly for wood. Finally, we passed through the Straits at Mackinac and made the long uneventful journey south to Milwaukee. The cost of this lake trip was nearly $400, but worth every penny for a group of travelers who have no servants yet wish to be surrounded by the finer things of life. I can not recommend Chicago -- a filthy swamp town. Gratefully, we left Chicago and made our way by train posthaste to the tiny burg of Quincy, Illinois. We crossed the Mississippi River on a boat named the Rosa Tyler. On the opposite shore we again found ourselves traveling by noisy train to St. Joseph, Missouri. Here our covered wagon adventure began.
We saw no buffalo as they have been driven south by Indians. We passed Kearney City and on through Julesburg on a road filled with emigrants -- all bound for the same place and the same object: gold. We spied quite a number of Indians on the Great American Desert. They appeared friendly but they are an ignorant miserable race of beings. Once in Colorado, however, the Indians became more brutish. We camped at one spot where a family was massacred only two weeks ago. I did not relish my dinner much on account of fear, but we were not molested.
Once we reached Denver, the great metropolis of the West, the sight of some decent buildings seemed very cheering after our long journey through a barren, empty land. Some buildings were made of sod; others are made of brick. There are ten thousand people in Denver from different parts of the world -- from the well dressed lady to the barefoot beggar. My sister and myself were invited by a young gentleman of my father's acquaintance to attend a concert in Denver given by the Colorado band (as this gentleman read the advertisement). We looked in at the window before entering and found it was a colored band. Since we did not wish to be seen in such an establishment, we walked around the city instead.
This morning we commence our first experience climbing mountains -- an adventure which I will save for my next installment...
Faithfully submitted by
"Not bad," Eda said.
"Not bad? That's all you have to say?"
"You forgot to tell about the rattlesnake under the wagon," Eda said, trying to be as completely honest as she could. "And what about the time we threw a bucket of water down a hole to capture a prairie dog? Remember how the prairie dog walked away, dripping wet and glaring at us? I bet he never had such treatment from girls before."
"That was childish," Belle said coldly. "I'm writing for grown-ups, you know."
Eda flashed her sister a conciliatory smile. She didn't want to upset Belle, especially when for once she was treating her like a real person. "The part about the Indian massacre was very vivid. Your readers will certainly enjoy that."
Belle folded her paper and tucked it back inside her pocket. "You think so?"
"Absolutely. All the papers are full of Indian massacre stories. But" -- Eda paused cautiously -- "why don't you use your name at the end? Why don't you write 'Sarah Belle Hitchcock' instead of 'S.B.H.'?"
"Because," Belle said, leaning back on her elbows, "lady writers sign just their initials. And of course I don't want Ma to know about my splendid new career."
"Of course," Eda mumbled. She was sure that if she had a splendid new career like Belle's, she'd sign her whole name in big letters, just for the thrill of seeing it in print. She wouldn't care what Ma said.
Eda and Belle sat together in companionable silence watching from a distance as Lucy climbed clumsily out of the wagon. Pa helped her down to the ground. When Lucy stood up, she was almost as tall as Pa. He was a small man with broad shoulders. He had fine laughing blue eyes and a ruddy beard, which he kept trimmed and neat. "Pa would look very handsome in a soldier's uniform, don't you think?" Belle asked.
Eda nodded. But deep down she didn't care what anybody whispered back home. She was glad that Pa had not gone away to fight.
"From here Lucy looks like anybody else," Belle said. She plucked and twirled a little yellow flower, gazing at it the same way she admired her lovely reflection in a mirror.
Eda had to agree with Belle. From a distance, Lucy appeared almost pretty. Her thick auburn hair somehow looked lustrous against her somber gray dress. It was only when Lucy gripped her walking stick and took a few steps that she revealed her handicap. Lucy rocked in an exaggerated way when she walked. Since birth one of her legs had been shorter than the other. One foot was so badly deformed she had to wear a special shoe.
Eda could not see Lucy's expression, but she knew that her pale face was tense and concentrated. She could imagine how Lucy's mouth looked, screwed tight and hard and determined, and how she shifted her brown eyes every which way, hoping desperately that no stranger was watching.
"Eda, you must be kinder to our eldest sister," Belle announced, sounding suspiciously like Ma.
Eda frowned. "I think everyone is kind enough to Lucy. I think Lucy should be kinder to us."
"Something's wrong with her heart."
Eda looked at her sister quizzically. What was she talking about? It was Lucy's leg not her heart that was damaged. Eda was silent for several moments desperately trying to think of something interesting to say so that her sister wouldn't become bored and walk away. To Eda, Belle seemed like a creature from a more fortunate sphere. Belle had her own interests, her own pleasures. She seemed so grown up and self-assured that sitting beside her made Eda feel small and insignificant. Now that Belle had shared her newspaper column, Eda wanted to share one of her two deepest, darkest secrets. "Someday," she said and took a deep breath, "I'm going away to college."
"College? Whatever for, little one?" Belle said, smiling unpleasantly. She reached over and twirled the yellow flower under Eda's chin.
Eda pushed Belle's hand away. She jumped to her feet and gave her skirt a fierce shake. When would her sisters stop treating her like a baby? She stomped away.
"Where do you think you're going?" Belle called after her.
"As far away as I can," Eda replied and kept walking. She was on an important errand. She needed to be alone so that she could write something right away in her journal before she forgot:
Thoughts by the way. And why not! Others think and why not I! Artists are wrong. When you look at the top of a mountain from a distance, it seems like a sharp point but when you arrive, you discover there's a good deal of land. A perfect place to strand all the older sisters in the world.
Copyright © 1999 by Laurie Lawlor