For as far as Polly could see, there was nothing but endless prairie, stretching to the horizon, following the arc of the earth. Waves of undulating wild wheat and grasses, brown in the late September sun, surrounded the trail, leaving just enough room for the covered wagons in single file, a few feet on each side for walkers, drovers, or horses. The trail was rutted and dusty, billowing clouds of silt reaching up from the ground, threatening to strangle her with unrelenting and merciless punishment.
The mules pulling the wagon were headstrong . They snorted through sullen nostrils, as their hooves took slow, laborious steps , leaving a trail of feces and flies. Polly sat on the buckboard, holding the reins from dawn to dusk. Although progress was slow and tedious, if she let up on the pressure for even a moment, the mules stopped altogether, or veered off into the grasses, helping themselves. She knew it would take at least 4 men, and whips, to get them back on the trail again, and she wanted to avoid that at all cost. Last week, she had cut her petticoats into strips, winding them around her calloused, bleeding hands. By the end of the day, they seemed frozen in position, taking all night to stop aching and loosen up, only to be tortured again by first light.
Her bonnet was pulled as far forward over her eyes as possible, a scarf looped over nose and mouth, but still the smell and the dust permeated every fiber of her being, sticky sweat trickling under her dress in rivulets.
She was one of the lucky ones. When her husband Sam died one month back, the trail master put her wagon up front, behind his, for safe keeping, as she was the only widow on the journey, so far, and the dust in the front of the caravan wasn't as bad as behind her.
When she and Sam left Independence, Missouri, heading west , it was with reluctance. Sam, the third son of a grocery merchant in Carthage, had no fortune, nor opportunities presenting themselves. Polly was a clerk in his father's store, working long hours to support herself, after her parents had died of the flu. She decided to marry Sam after he pursued her for months, although it wasn't what she had dreamed. Casting her future with him, their wagon left Missouri with a caravan, swaying across the miles like a ship at sea. The mules' hooves rang out on the rutted trail, their haunches rising and falling with the hills.
Sam had been a business man, growing up in a house in town. He had little experience outdoors, and certainly not the wilderness. He lasted a month and a half on the trail before succumbing to a wagon accident, pinned beneath a rutted wheel as the mules lurched forward, leaving him broken, and in agony for three days, before he finally passed. He was buried off the trace on a little knoll that disappeared entirely into the landscape before the wagon had even lurched a mile down the trail.
Polly was then faced with a decision. She could pull out of the caravan at the nearest town, try to sell the wagon, and hope to purchase fare back to Carthage, traveling alone, or continue on, through the Great Plains and on up into Montana territory on the Bozeman trail, in hopes of starting a new life.
How deeply she regretted, now, the choice to move on.
There were over 30 wagons, a large caravan, pulled by oxen and a few mules, gypsies traversing the miles of grassland and prairies on their way to higher elevation. It was slow going once they left civilization and hit the prairie, as nobody was allowed to stay behind to fix a broken axle, or heal a sick ox, then catch up later down the trail. If one member had a problem, the entire company stopped and waited until it was fixed. There was safety in numbers, now, because they were deep in Indian territory.
Two nights ago, Mr. Parker, the trail boss, stopped by her wagon. His weathered face was weary, old scars raised along his cheek like a map to a hard life, his wiry body slumped as he leaned against her wheel and spoke solemnly. "Polly, you're alone here on this trail, now, a widow woman. We all try to watch out for ya, but you have to understand that if we're under attack, most folks here will be protectin' their own families first. The Indians have been tracking us for days now. I've seen scoutin' parties among the hills sometimes at sunset." His eyes softened a bit as he placed his hand on her small shoulder. "Look, Polly, there's no easy way to say this. The Indians, if they come—they ain't looking for your oxen or the weeviled flour in the barrels. They want our horses, our mules, and our rifles. And sometimes ..." now his eyes slid to the ground, as he whispered "the women. We best all turn in at night with our clothes on, at the ready, and no leaving the wagon after dark, ever. Sleep with your rifle by your side. But Polly, it may not be enough. Do you have a pistol, too?" She shook her head. Slowly he pulled an old Colt revolver from his waistband and handed it to her along with some ammunition. "Save these bullets in case they find you. Do you understand what I mean?" Polly did. She felt the autumn breeze along her collar bone like dark fingers, rustling her skirts, lifting them, swirling them about against her will . Far off in the distance, the hills were rent with an unearthly howling sound, like a wolf finding its prey.
A week later, the caravan hadn't gone more than 50 miles. Off in the distance, barely peeking above the horizon, stood the blue beginnings of the Great Rockies. When Polly stepped out of the wagon that morning, there was heavy frost on the ground, black clouds billowing down from the mountains like an angry God. Her heart sank. They had been going so slow that now they risked being on the trail when the early snows came, the oxen and mules already belligerent and unwilling to walk, turning their backs to the great North wind, heads low and eyes closed. Grave danger whistled through the prairie grasses and slapped at her cheek with cold spitting drops of rain.
That evening, there was a meeting. Mr. Parker was grim. "We've gone too long gettin' out of this prairie. And winter's startin' early. I don't need to tell you what the risks are if we keep goin' towards them mountains. We may make it, we may not. Now, about 5 hours from here there's a trail that crosses this one. It drops down towards Texas, but there's another cross trail in a couple of weeks' time, that can take you back to Dodge City, where you might be able to winter over." He sighed. "But the most hostile Indians are down that way, and the trail ain't near as good as this one." Parker dropped his chin and stared down at the ground. "Look, I was hired to take this caravan all the way West, so that's the way I'm gonna go. You can follow me, or turn off the trail tomorrow and head back, without a wagon master. Either way, it's dangerous. I won't lie to ya." His gaze met the weary travelers. "I'll need to know what you all are wantin' to do. Raise your hands if you're turning back."
Several people raised their hands. At least 12 families were going to take their chances on the trail back to Dodge City. Many decided to continue on to Montana, and several didn't know what to do.
"I'll need all your answers tomorrow mornin' when we break camp," Parker said, his thin hands folded in front of him like a corpse. "Either way, it ain't pretty. God bless ya."
That night, Polly found a page from an old, tattered book inside a worn chest. She carefully tore it in two. There was no ink, so she cut open a blister on the tender part of her hand, then squeezed out a drop or two of blood on one piece. "Home," she whispered, as the blood spread across the paper. The other scrap was stark white, like a mountain snowstorm. "Montana," she sighed. Closing her eyes, she put one piece of paper in each pocket of her filthy dress, then lay on the palette behind the flour barrel, checked the rifle and pistol, and waited for dawn. Through the small opening in the back of the wagon, she watched the stars, listening to the sounds of indecision carried on the wind that fluttered through the groaning boards.
The next morning, the sun streamed in through the canvas, a deceptive warmth flowing through the wagon, birds singing on the rush of the breeze, the world indifferent to the caravan, becalmed in a sea of regret.
Polly stepped down from the wagon, looked up to heaven, then slowly reached her hand into a pocket.