Sunday, September 30, 2012

XXIV. Wherever we are, we're here

The night of October 21-22 would be a long ordeal for Sadie, Fred and Lucile. In their little grove of timber with torrential rain lashing the canvas and running like a river down the rutted road, the horses took umbrage at each other and screamed and fought like the wild animals they were. Huddled inside their tiny quarters the sojourners awoke to the racket and wondered at the cause but none dared venture forth into the liquid night but instead shouted imprecations until the horses wearied and fell back into a dazed somnolence. The cold rain was misery enough without the ceaseless wind moaning through the trees, reasons enough to burrow deeper into their blankets which they did until Fred bolted upright with a groan.

“What’s wrong?” Sadie asked, heart pounding.

“Sick,” Fred whimpered, and hunched over in agony.

There was nothing Sadie could do but rub his back and try to keep him warm. Purdy would have a doctor but the two miles separating them were as good as a hundred, impossibly far under the conditions. Fred’s guts knotted and spasmed as if an internal war were being fought. The precariousness of their situation was not lost on Sadie nor was the certainty of their isolation. She felt utterly alone as she tended her husband as best as she could, softly crooning a lullaby more for Lucile who watched from the covers with eyes wild with fright while the others eavesdropped in their respective wagons. And so the night passed at its own protracted pace until dawn lightened the clouds and a dripping world emerged from the darkness.

Fred staggered from the wagon to a smoldering fire the others hastily assembled, teeth chattering but seemingly better though Sadie hovered over him like a mother hen. Suggestions that they return to Purdy were nixed by Fred who swore they would continue toward Butterfield. It wasn’t much farther than Purdy and anyway he wouldn’t hear of a backtrack. Their way was forward and forward they would go, and forward they went after a lukewarm breakfast.

They forded Pogue Creek and forded it again several miles further along on their approach to Butterfield. For the most part the road held the high ground allowing for good time, though once past Butterfield the land fractured at the descent into the Flat Creek drainage. Every vale, every hollow embraced its own tiny rivulet or crooked stream, the water clouded and foaming from the night’s deluge. What few bridges they encountered were crude structures of roughhewn oaken timbers, and where nonexistent they approached each crossing with trepidation. The men studied the waters as if seeking divination before committing the wagons and their possessions to the riverine flow, and then goosing the horses with a sharp flick of the whip to impart a sense of haste. On either side the woods closed in in solid ranks. Unlike the wooded thickets back in Kansas, those on the edge of the Ozark Plateau were all but impenetrable and darkly shadowed even as their canopies blazed in hues of scarlet, gold and bronze. Here and there the ground was littered with hickory nuts which they gathered by the bucket. 

It was afternoon when they entered Cassville. At the time it was a sleepy little hamlet of less than 800, its downtown ringed with two-story brick buildings each bristling with its own disparate awning. Sidewalks were fashioned from limestone blocks and the streets dirt or mud depending on the season. It wasn’t until the 1930s that an effort was made to pave the streets, and then only after concerned citizens engaged in the nationwide “Good Roads” initiatives. The city, engorged now to almost 4,000 residents, bills itself as the Gateway to the Ozarks, and seemed every inch the gateway with traffic-choked streets.

From Cassville the road began its ascent onto the plateau. The road was surprisingly stable from the underlying stone, a fact Sadie noted several times. “We have had pretty good roads today but our last few miles were rocky,” she wrote that evening. “We have forded lots of streams and came through lots of puddles of water. It has not been muddy, too many little rocks for that. We had some hills.”

Fred felt better but remained very sore, as if someone had beaten his stomach with an axe handle. Their spirits remained high, however, as they climbed out of the valley. Each mile brought them nearer to the Arkansas border and their destination of Eureka Springs, and here, at last, was the Ozark Plateau. It was a milestone of sorts that left them feverish with haste, and only reluctantly did they call a halt as the sun westered behind distant ridges hazy with humidity.

After their evening chores the men built a roaring bonfire. The heat felt good as the day had been cool, but Sadie withdrew as was her custom, opening her notebook to the last entry and settling down to her thoughts. The diarist’s first obligation is to separation, not merely from others but from the anarchy of one’s own introspection. Linearity follows chaos only by entering into a state of stillness. Within that quietude words become form. 

The day had been an emotional rollercoaster for Sadie. From worrying about losing Fred to an unknown illness and the idea of being stranded in a strange land so far from home, to being poised on the edge of the Ozarks with the end of the trail almost in sight, the ups and downs had been but mirrors of the terrain itself. From here on verticality would dominate. Until they reached Eureka Springs the wilderness would swallow them whole. The idea filled her with dread even as it quickened her pulse.

She wrote of Fred’s sickness, of the road and the towns they’d passed, and chose as her final thoughts a little candor. “I don’t know where we are, but we are here,” she penned, here being in a stand of timber illumined by the bonfire, alive with the elongated shadows of the men spinning their tall tales. Where that might be was anyone’s guess; Cassville was behind them, that’s all she knew. Here being good enough description, here with the night sky ablaze with stars and the caterwauling of barred owls, here with the sound of a stream bubbling over rocky shoals, here with her family and closest friends, here where she confided she would like to live.

(To be continued) 

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