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Prairie's Children, Chapter 1
Submitted by Starla Anne on Fri, 02/22/2008 - 15:33
By Starla Anne Lowry
It was a very difficult time for Ruth as she sat watching her mother taking her last few breaths. Ruth had done all she could to keep down the fever, using wet washcloths to wash her mother's face and placing some on her forehead. Asiatic cholera, known as "the plague", had already taken her father and now only an occasional breath kept her mother in the land of the living. No one knew what had caused the plague, but Ruth had heard that it had taken many lives in Ellsworth, Kansas.
"Ruth," the mother whispered as Ruth bent over to hear what she was saying, "I want you to meet me in Heaven. The angels have come for me. See them over there?"
Ruth looked in the direction that her mother's bony fingers pointed, but she could see nothing but the darkness that escaped the dim light of the lamp. One last deep breath and her mother was gone -- gone somewhere into the glories of Heaven. Ruth was sure that is where she went and, although there was some comfort in that knowledge, she realized sadness with the departure of the last member of her family. She covered the empty shell with a sheet, turned her face toward the wall and began to weep.
Morning seemed slower than usual in coming, but in time the sun rose over the horizon. Ruth dug a shallow grave next to where they had buried her father, wrapped her mother in a couple of sheets and placed the body into the cold earth. Ruth searched out huge rocks to cover the grave to keep out the scavengers that would soon be trying to dig into the ground without respect to the innocent victims that had fallen to the plague.
Ruth slowly made her way to the barn. She scraped what little crushed corn she could obtain from a bin. This had been used to feed the milk cow, long gone, having been sold to purchase necessary items for her family as they spent their last days on earth. She was going to make a little cake with the corn meal and water and -- then what? There wasn't any more food. Neither were there any horses for transportation. She knew that somehow she would have to make her way across the wide prairie and seek out some kind of help for herself.
When she finished eating, she wrapped a couple of her best dresses with appropriate underclothing and her mother's Bible in a sheet, filled a canteen with water from the well, picked up her daddy's gun belt containing his revolver, took one more look at the barren shack she had called home, and began walking in an uncertain direction, not knowing which way to go. The only resource she had was to trust in the God her mother had told her about.
As she walked, she thought about her mother. She had been a good mother with a strong faith in the Lord and the "good book." Ruth remembered how her mother told her about Samson, David and Goliath, and other Bible stories when Ruth was a little girl. As Ruth matured, mother had told her about Jesus and told her that, someday, she would realize she was "lost" and when that happened, just trust the Lord and ask him for salvation.
Ruth was already seventeen years of age, almost eighteen, and she was wondering about getting "saved". She wished her mother was here to tell her more about it, but she figured in due time, God would reveal it to her.
One thing her daddy had taught her was how to skin a jackrabbit. That was the reason she strapped on the gun belt, hoping that she could at least find one to provide food for what she figured would be a long time in the "wilderness."
Strange that the word "wilderness" came to mind. She remembered her mother telling about Moses and the children of Israel being in the wilderness for forty years and how God took care of them. Ruth hoped that her stay would not be forty years in length, but that she would find her "promised land" in just a very short time.
Not only did she know how to skin a rabbit, her mother had taught her how to roast on an open fire. Mother had always told Ruth that she might find herself in a position sometime when such knowledge would be useful. Such a wise mother -- that time had come.
Ruth made her way along trails that had been made by animals, fearing rattlesnakes that sometimes lay on the edge of a trail under the shade of tall grass that covered the prairie along with God's gift of beautiful flowering plants.
It was thought to be good farming land, which was the reason her parents had settled there, but the plague had arrived around planting time and the year before had produced a crop failure -- the reasons there wasn't anything left for Ruth to eat. Although Ruth's mother knew how to farm, Ruth knew very little. Besides, she had been needed at Mother's bedside.
As the sun rose higher, the temperature did, too. Ruth only occasionally sipped water in an effort to conserve as much of it as she could. With the slight rolling hills, she hoped to see something on the other side, such as a house, a person, even a horse, although she knew that she could not tame a wild one.
She did manage to shoot a couple of small animals, so as the night fell, she had a campfire started and prepared a sustainable meal. She covered herself with the blanket and used her other clothing as a pillow as she bedded down. She kept the fire burning because of wild animals. She was fortunate; also, that she had learned how to be a light sleeper when necessary.
She was awaken in the early evening by the sound of something moving around. She reached for the revolver, pulled the hammer back, ready to shoot if it wasn't friendly. When she pointed the pistol in the direction of the sound, she heard a voice.
"Whoa, there," she heard a male voice say. "I don't mean any harm. I saw your fire and hoped I would find a friendly face."
"Come near the fire so I can see you. I know how to shoot this thing," answered Ruth.
As he came nearer, she saw the young face of a young man, probably about eighteen years of age. Strange to find a young person like herself out here in the middle of nowhere.
"Did I smell some food? I shore am hungry," said the young man.
"I have a bite or two left -- were going to eat it in the morning for breakfast, but you are welcome to some of it."
"Be mighty grateful, ma'am. By the way, my name is Josh. I guess you know yours," smiled the youngster.
"Ruth -- like Ruth in the Bible."
"Pleased to meet you, Ruth -- like Ruth in the Bible."
"I have a little water to drink -- not much of that, but you can have a swallow after you eat."
Josh replied, "I have a little water, too. Found a spring a little piece down the ways and my horse got a good drink, too."
Ruth handed him a couple of pieces of meat and watched him gobble it up like he had not eaten in weeks.
"When was the last time you ate anything?" asked Ruth.
"Day before yesterday -- when I ran out of supplies."
"Don't you have a gun to shoot something?"
"Nope, just my ole horse over there and I figured I needed him to find civilization. Besides, I never learned how to cook. I can make flapjacks, fry eggs, and make coffee, but that is about all.”
A horse? Just the thing Ruth needed.
"Is your horse big enough to carry two of us?"
"Yep. Be mighty glad to have you ride along with me -- particularly since you can cook out here in the open.”
Ruth had second thoughts about riding with him. It might be best to send him on his way. However, if she did that, what would keep him from circling back to do some mischief -- but, would it be safe now to go to sleep with a strange man around?
Well, what was done was done. She had invited herself along on his journey. It would not be polite to back out now, so she decided that she could doze as long as she kept her hand on her daddy's pistol. After all, she had learned to be a light sleeper and was awaken when he walked up.
Finally she spoke. "I only have this one blanket. I don't have any cover for you to bed down for tonight if you want to wait till morning to travel.”
Josh, perceiving that she was a little fearful, answered, "Thank you, ma'am, but I have a roll on my horse -- and if it will make you feel a little safer, I will sleep on the other side of this fire and help you keep it going."
So, that was settled, but Ruth had a problem dozing off again. When she did, she jumped at the least sound. With her thumb positioned on the hammer of the revolver, she would carefully survey the area, moving only her eyes. Most of the time it was only Josh putting some extra wood on the fire.
Once he saw her staring at him and grinned. “We gotta keep the varmints away.” That being one of the reasons for the fire, she smiled and said. “Okay.”
The sun was just rising over the horizon when she opened her eyes again. She had heard Josh stirring around and continued to be prepared for anything unusual, but had begun to trust him a little more.
As she rose, She saw that Josh had the remaining meat over the fire, warming it for breakfast. She was surprised to see some fried eggs on a tin plate and a coffee pot to the side.
“Found some eggs in a prairie hen’s nest, had a frying pan and coffee pot in the saddle bags. My uncle seemed like he was prepared to go somewhere,” explained Josh.
“I haven’t had eggs in days,” stated Ruth as she sat on a rock near the fire. “And you mentioned an uncle?”
“Yep,” answered Josh. “I ran away and that is why I am out here.”
“Yep, he beat me so many times that I got tired of it, so before daylight about three days ago, I helped myself to one of his horses and gear and lit out of there.”
“Three days ago? Well, I left yesterday morning after burying my mother, so we must not have been very far apart,” replied Ruth.
Josh answered, “Well, I dunno. I rode pretty fast to get some distance away in case my uncle started tracking me. He could care less about me, but he might have wanted his horse back.”
“Oh, so you are a horse thief. I have heard that you can be hung for that sort of thing,” Ruth said with a smile.
“Well, maybe so – but, I just had to get away.”
“Understood.” Ruth received the eggs and coffee that Josh handed her. She continued, “I had to leave. My folks passed away of the plague and I had nothing to eat. I could have hunted for food like rabbits and such, but I thought it best to just make a life somewhere else.”
“Going any certain place?” quizzed Josh.
“Nope, just some place where I can live and make some money.”
“That may be hard – for a girl, I mean.”
“Maybe I can keep house or something.
“Or be a saloon girl.”
“No, I don’t think I could do that. My momma would roll over in her grave.”
Josh stated his plans. “I thought I might find some kind of work in Ellsworth. I understand that the railroad is going there and it is expected to be a big cattle town. Also, it is on the edge of Fort Harker, which would be added protection. Maybe my uncle will not track me that far.”
The couple broke camp and slowly headed out toward what they thought would be Ellsworth. They came across some buffalo skinners and cautiously approached the four men to ask for directions.
The rough bearded hunters were very polite, probably because of the young age of Ruth and Josh, and directed them toward Ellsworth. Ruth had to close her eyes at the sight of the skinned buffalo and almost lost the little food she had in her stomach. Somehow a buffalo and a rabbit did not look the same after being skinned.
The couple arriving in town was an unusual sight for the townspeople. Not only were Josh and Ruth very young, Ruth was wearing the gun belt and Josh did not seem to be carrying a pistol or rifle.
“Well, here we are,” said Josh. “I am going into the saloon to ask about work and you can go wherever you want.”
“I dunno what to do,” replied Ruth. “I need a job, too.”
“I don’t think you would want to go in the saloon. Why not check out for a boarding house and see if they know of anything.”
“Good idea,” agreed Ruth.
When Josh pushed open the swinging doors of the saloon, he did not realize that the men were already talking about him. Walking up to the bar, he asked, “Where can a man find a job around here?”
“Well, there may be a few jobs for men, but not for little boys,” laughed one of the men.
“I am not a boy. I am twenty-one.” (Josh was really eighteen years of age, which was considered a man in many places.)
“Well, I ain’t seen MEN who let their little girl friend wear the guns and they go unarmed,” replied the man.
“She ain’t my girl friend and the gun belonged to her dad. I just found her out on the prairie and she rode into town with me ‘cause I had a horse.”
The bartender, feeling sorry for the way the young man was being treated, suggested, “You might try the livery stable, son.”
“I thought this was a cattle town, so I was hoping for some kind of job helping with the stock yards, or something like that.”
“Son, we are working toward being a cattle town and think that we have a good chance because of the railroad, but we ain’t got there yet,” answered the bartender.
“So, shoveling horse manure is the only thing?”
“Yep, ‘fraid so – and taking care of the horses, too – you know, rubbing them down and feeding. Of course, that job may not be open, but I think they need someone.”
A very disappointed young man, Josh made his way toward the livery stable.
“Well, can’t pay you much, but you can sleep in the hayloft and come over to my house for meals,” was the answer he received. Well, that was better than being beaten by his uncle, so he accepted until something better came along.
Meanwhile, Ruth was asking about work at the boarding house.
“Where are your folks?” asked Mrs. Wellington.
“They died from the plague and all the food was gone, so I buried them and came here,” was Ruth’s reply.
“How old are you, girl?”
“I am seventeen – but I will be a good worker. I promise!”
“I think you are a little too young for a saloon girl. Besides, that might ruin you. I think I could use a little help around here. I can’t pay much, but I can fix you up with a small room and give you your meals – after the guests eat, of course.”
“Yes, I understand.”
"Come on, I will show you your room so you can wash up and get some rest. I know you are tired after such a long trip -- and, by the way, I understand why you are wearing a gun belt, but now that you are here, please put it up and show yourself to be a lady and not a gunslinger."
Mrs. Wellington and Ruth smiled at each other as they climbed the stairs.
Copyright 2008 by Starla Anne Lowry
All characters and places (other than historical persons and the name of towns & states) are fictitious and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or other places are coincidental.