by T. Gene Davis
Gusting face-freezing wind displaced Sister Wendy Riley’s bonnet, pushing it nearly off her dirty brown hair. No matter how many steps Wendy made toward Zion in the Great Salt Lake Valley, the wind seemed determine to blow her back to Liverpool. The annoying and ill timed gust that finally dislodged her bonnet came as she pulled her handcart up a rise. Releasing one hand from the crossbar to fix the errant bonnet meant losing the cart and her few belongings to the hill. With hair whipping her face, she prayed the tie string kept the bonnet around her neck until she reached flat ground ahead.
Wendy stood to one side while pulling the handcart, as though her husband still might join her on his side of the cart. She turned down offers, even from the Wilson boys, to help her pull the handcart. She did not want anyone in his spot. It was silly, but a week was still too soon.
The Sweetwater River filled with floating ice chunks caught in its eddies, but mostly it still ran along, refusing to freeze. A thin layer of snow covered everything else, and the ground gave up the last of its summer warmth and froze solid. To Wendy, the Sweetwater looked more like a stream than a river. Stream or not, she still dreaded every crossing required by the trail.
Wendy whispered, “What I wouldn’t give for a nice log cabin with a big potbellied stove. I’d love to be warm all over all at once.” The wind carried her wish out over the Sweetwater unheard. She pulled the two-man handcart alone as yet another widow in the handcart company. Her husband died from the same cold and exposure that threatened Wendy and possibly her unborn child. She tried staying positive, but the best she came up with was, “At least I’ll never have to sail across the Atlantic, again. This is much better than down below on that ship.”
Wendy looked at her swollen red fingers on the crossbar, searching for signs of blackness—signs of frostbite. She she saw her fingers holding the crossbar, but no sensation came from them. She wondered if she would ever weave or play piano again. She hoped she would not lose any fingers, a few toes or even a foot was okay, just not any fingers.
Wendy and her husband had come by train to Iowa City, and other than sailing the Atlantic for six weeks, the trip was pleasant enough. Sleeping in an abandoned rail car with her husband and several other families didn’t even sound bad at this point. Her swollen feet pressed painfully against her shoes. She refuse to take her shoes off and wrap her feet in strips of rawhide. “I am not giving in,” she muttered, taking another step. In the modern year of 1856, you’d think they’d have a rail line out to Zion. Wendy sighed inwardly, taking another pain-filled step.
The wheels creaked as she pulled the handcart reminding herself to take another step, and after that again reminding herself that one more step meant one less step left to take. Uphill. Downhill. Fatigue filled pain. Sometimes downhill hurt worse that uphill. During steep downhill sections of the trail, she placed a tree limb in the spokes of the wheels for a brake and then dragged the handcart like a sled over the rocks and dirt. She hated trusting the wheel spokes while braking; their green wood shrank daily. Several handcarts already lost their wheels because of green wood.
The company captain sounded a bugle signaling the handcart company to a halt in a hillside cove. The cove offered some shelter from the never ending wind. Wendy did not hear him, but she heard the bugle and saw all the carts ahead gathering. She pulled her handcart into the circle.
After setting down the handles and crossbar of the handcart, Wendy felt her stomach through her dress. She prayed for a child to remember him by. “It’s too soon to tell,” she muttered. “He’ll be born after I reach Zion and see the Great Salt Lake.” Relief filled her at that thought.
She paused, deciding whether to set up her small two-man tent, or start a fire and cook something barely better than gruel. She resisted the urge to eat the raw ingredients and collapse under the cart. Motion kept the cold from overpowering her.
Wendy tried keeping food and dirt off her clothing. She wore her best dress. It was her warmest. “Why bother?” She muttered. Looking down, she clearly saw her ankles, and blushed.
Wendy preferred to push snow away from where she slept, instead she stamped it down a bit. Her hands, too numb to push snow, crossed under her arms as she tromped back and forth a few times flattening out a spot for her tent. Brother Sandy Rebar and Sister Edith Rebar pulled their heaping handcart next to Wendy. As she set up her thin cotton wedge tent on the flattened snow, Wendy frowned at the unnecessary stack on their cart. Wendy had left behind every unnecessary item (and some necessary items) when her husband died. Her stack of possessions now sat by the trail about a week’s walk back.
Brother Rebar went off with other men to bury Brother Peter’s child, leaving Sister Rebar to set up camp by herself. He was gone long after Edith had finished setting up camp. Wendy noted that Edith finished setting up camp before her. Of course, she hadn’t had to pull a handcart by herself like Wendy had. Wendy finished setting up camp and cooking her own meal before Edith’s husband showed his face again, proclaiming something in a loud obnoxious voice—not a word in English. By his hand rubbing his stomach, Wendy guessed he was demanding food of his wife. He doesn’t help one bit making camp but wants food, Wendy shook her head and pretended they were not feet from her own campfire.
As the sun set, there was music, singing, speeches and an impromptu dance. Wendy hid in her small wedge tent, laying on her back looking at the dark peak of the tent, listening to it all. She watched her breath rise in the darkening tent. She imagined it forming an ice sheet on the inside peak of the tent. Her husband never hid in the tent. He loved the nightly camaraderie. The tent seemed bigger now. She thought about leaving the tent behind, too. She thought of the unborn child. If it existed, it had to live. All he left her were useless tools. Nothing says love like an unused tool. She imagined it all back there by the pile of rocks that covered him. If she was pregnant, that was enough.
Even over the others making merry at the dance, she heard Sandy, Edith’s husband. He spoke no English, and plenty of it. His loud foreign voice and ego were as big as he was. She did not have to understand him to know she did not like him. Eventually, night prayers said and everyone including Sandy settled down, Wendy lay in the dark wondering who would die in the cold tonight.
Wendy became aware of Brother Rebar’s plight well after she had given up any attempt at sleeping. Sister Rebar fussed over him with none of his normal loud responses. At first Wendy heard Edith’s harsh whispers, then a soft moaning in her native tongue. Wendy knew that sound. Every woman on the trail knew that sound no matter what language it took, and prayed never to feel it welling in their own breast. As the minutes and hours passed and the desperation in Edith’s voice began to peak, Wendy relived her own husband’s passing. In the distance the wolves howled at the setting moon, finally sleeping after the moon left the sky with the knowledge that they’d have full bellies in the morning.
Brother Rebar gave up the fight some time in the quiet after moonset. Edith took the place of the wolves howling a banshee scream of despair. She screamed for help from anyone in her broken English, but everyone else was busy fighting the cold and trying to stay alive in their own tents. While the cold wind carried her cries away, Wendy imagined Edith in her tent inches away from her cold stiffening husband, just as Wendy had lain next to her husband just days ago.
Edith said something unintelligible between sobs. Wendy moved her fingers, trying to warm them. In the dark laying on her back, she began fingering a piano sonata. She smiled slightly, revealing chattering teeth. In her tent she repeated her last piano performance from before leaving Liverpool. In her mind the melody played sad and slow, matching tempo with Edith’s fading sobs.
Someday she might play again, if she did not lose any fingers from frostbite. Her fingers ached. That was progress. Feeling meant life—life for her and her unborn child. Please be a boy. A boy that looked like him.
The menfolk had tried for a proper burial for Wendy’s husband. There was nothing to do for it, except try to dig the frozen ground, give up, and pile rocks on him hoping it slowed the wolves from getting their meal.
Suddenly, next to Wendy knelt Brother Rebar. He looked alive enough. Light surrounded his body. Wendy let out a barely audible scream. Eyes wide open, she did not move.
“Sister Riley. I did not return your spade.” He spoke perfect English.
“Your husband’s spade. I borrowed it the night before he passed.”
How could he know English? “I don’t think he’ll be missing it.” Edith still quietly sobbed only a few paces to Wendy’s left.
“I’d feel better if you collected it. I left it by the boulder where we buried Brother Peter’s child.”
“You die; your wife’s in hysterics; and you’re worried about a tool?” Typical. Menfolk and their tools.
“Please, go get it for me. I’d feel better if you would.” With that he was gone. It was dark again. Wendy muttered about Edith’s husband every time Edith let a straggling sob escape.
Eventually, the east became less dark. As the sun began its rise, men and women folded makeshift tents, placing them on the carts. Morning prayers paused the rustling around camp, and meager breakfasts slid almost welcome down throats.
The men moved Brother Rebar off the trail a few paces, but not all the way to the boulder where they laid Brother Peter’s boy. They made no attempt to dig the solid ground. Sister Rebar found smooth stones to place over him. She gently placed them as menfolk tossed small boulders over the corpse.
Wendy wanted to help—to put an arm around Edith. She stood silently spectating, instead. She did not like Brother Rebar, but she did not wish this on him. I might enjoy tossing the rocks on him, she thought, then chastised herself. Where is that signal to move? It must be time. She unconsciously rubbed her stomach. Was it growing?
The signal came to queue up and leave camp. Creaking and clumping of handcarts falling into line over old wagon ruts passed Wendy as she continued pretending not to watch Edith straighten up Brother Rebar’s grave.
The rule was simple. At the sound of the bugle, the company of handcarts moved no matter who didn’t. Creaking carts left the cove pulling their staggering owners with them. The wind blew through the remnants of fall grass that poked through the snow. Grating of stone on stone as Edith’s shifted rocks broke the quiet. Edith’s handcart, loaded with personal items stood waiting for her. They were alone with their carts and a pile of stones covering a dead man that lay between them.
Wendy walked around the grave and stood over Edith. “Sister Rebar.”
Edith pushed another stone to a more stable position. In her thick swiss accent, Edith begged, “Please, just Edith. I am not an old lady at church.”
Wendy looked at Edith and realized she might be nineteen or younger. Wendy smiled despite herself. She enjoyed Edith’s accent. “Edith, then. It’s not safe for us alone without the handcart company. We need to get moving.”
Wendy pictured her own husband’s remains scattered by scavengers not more than seven days behind them. “It’s hard to leave him. I know.”
“No, … Yes. I mean, it is not that. I am too weak to pull that cart. I do not know what Sandy was thinking. The only thing not on that cart is a log cabin. The captain emptied it down to the necessities five times, and Sandy loaded it back up, right in front of the captain—such a strong will.”
Wendy looked back at the cart then down at Edith. She was a little thing. “We can share. Grab your food and some clothes, and put them in my cart. We can pull together. The load should be light enough. You’ll have to leave everything else.”
Edith stopped fussing with Sandy’s grave and stood. She brushed snow, sticks and burs from her apron and dress. They moved the small cask of flour, a couple of dresses and two blankets. Then they stepped into place, picked up the cart’s front bar, and pulled the cart into a slow bumpy roll. With the first steps Wendy prayed she did not dislodge the child in her stomach.
After a few steps Edith broke the silence between them. “I am sorry.”
Edith tried pronouncing the words in better English almost eliminating her thick accent. “About your spade.”
Wendy stopped, dropping her grip on the handcart. The cold made her rub her arms and shiver. Her legs wobbled a bit. “What about my spade?”
“I did not mean to upset you.” The cart quickly stopped with Edith pushing alone. Her great effort meant nothing to the handcart. Edith gave up, letting the handles and crossbar drop to the ground in front of her. “I feel terrible. We borrowed it the night before, … your … Well. We meant to give it back. I made Sandy promise to give it back in the morning. He said you would not want it, but I made him promise.” Edith continued despite an escaping sob. “It is the only promise to me he ever broke.”
Wendy watched Edith wipe her cheek with her apron. “He was right. I don’t want it.”
“We should have returned it.”
“If it makes you feel better. Let’s get it.”
“I looked already. It is not anywhere.”
“Let us take another look.”
Wendy led Edith away from their handcart—past the abandoned cart. Edith hesitated at her old cart, but seeing that Wendy meant not to stop, caught up with a few quick paces. Silently, except for the rustling of skirts in the trampled snow and sage, they continued to the boulder where Brother Peter’s child lay.
“There it is,” Edith spoke before Wendy. Wendy smiled. Just another dumb tool. “Why on earth would I ever want a spade,” Wendy mumbled to herself.
Wendy walked up to the spade leaning next to the boulder and the child’s grave. The tip of the spade was slightly damaged from attempting to dig the frozen ground. Behind Wendy, Edith gasped and began sobbing. Crying over a chipped spade seemed a bit much. “Honestly, I don’t really even want the spade.”
Wendy turned, looking at Edith. She held a small leather bound book that she must have just found in the snow. Edith alternated between brushing white flakes and ice from the cover, and glancing at the wind turned pages. “What is … ?” Wendy began, but decide to look over Edith’s shoulder instead.
Edith looked up as Wendy stepped over to see. “It was right here,” she motioned at the snow at her feet. Edith thumbed through more pages—none written in English. The only word that Wendy could make out on the pages was “Edith” over and over on almost every page. Edith explained, “This is Sandy’s handwriting. These are love poems.” She spoke through her hand on her mouth.
Perhaps jealousy prodded her, but Wendy knew they had to catch up to the handcarts. “Bring it with you. There will be time to read after we break for lunch.”
“Yes. Of course.”
After an hour, they found themselves with their handcart pulling up a hill within sight of the rear of the handcart company.
“Wendy. Thank you for letting me share your cart. You are a good person.”
What makes me a good person? Wendy wondered. She silently prayed for help living up to the compliment and leaned into the cart’s crossbar. She thought of the spade left back at the boulder, then focused on another step, and worried about dislodging the child she hoped was growing within her.
T. Gene Davis writes … My wife and I both had relatives that suffered bravely across Wyoming in 1856. “Not a Spade” never happened, but stories that resemble it still circulate around our family gatherings. I often wonder if our relatives knew each other, and maybe even hated each other as they slowly froze in the barren wastes along the Sweetwater.