Pioneer Women

Feb. 3, 2016

Pioneer women were not always tough.
Sometimes they yearned for the starched crocheted doilies and rosebud-painted china they left Back East.
Here is Jane Hughes, pioneer--tall and slim, young, with long black hair and china-blue eyes.
Jane was raised in a cozy village, with oiled dirt streets and trim white frame houses with glass windows.
She went to the Methodist Church and learned how to keep house properly. She married Amos last year, at church.

One day just before Yankees started killing Rebs, Jane got into a 2x6 splintery wooden wagon that Amos had built yesterday.
The planks of green wood smelled like a pine tree.
Amos, chivalrous, gave her a boost up over the shoulder-high front wheel.
He climbed up beside her and jiggled the leather reins.
The yoke of oxen (two oxen, joined all day with a creaky piece of wood, so they had to agree on every move) set off west from Elmira, NY.

Jane stepped down from the wagon, a couple of months later, onto a level grassy plain that would one day be Des Moines, Iowa. 
A few miles further on was a falling-down fort from which the US Army had just exterminated the Sauk and Meskwaki.
What was left of that fort: some rotten timbers, a tea-kettle with a big hole in the bottom, and some broken blue plates, scattered in the grass that already nearly hid it.

Amos pulled the tarp off the wagon (covered wagon! So adorable, pure Americana!)
and looked around for trees to tie it to. No trees; he fixed the tarp at a slant next to the wagon.
He and Jane unloaded their pitiful boxes, quilts and pots, and stowed it all under the tarp.

Amos walked off to find some firewood.
He found it miles away at the Raccoon River (so quaint a name!); he cut willow branches, green and leafy, and dragged them back to the wagon.

Jane had gone quietly frantic—where was Amos?
All around her was nothing but tall, undulating grass.
She stood by the wagon, one arm slung over an unyoked ox that was chowing down on the virgin grass.
She cried into the ox’s thick, smelly neck. Flies buzzed. The sun was almost gone. The sky was endless orange.

Amos returned. To save the wood for winter, he didn’t build a cook fire.
They ate some weevil-writhing bread and stinking cheese, and got under the tarp to sleep.

People told them that in Iowa, people lived like animals,
in burrows, in the clay ground.
The next day, they dug their burrow.
When it was big enough to crawl into (but not stand up), they put a door over the top.
The door was a few green planks that Amos took off the wagon sides.

They couldn’t bear to sleep in the burrow, a kind of bigger grave.
That night, the skies poured forth a majestic and epic rain.
It soaked their stuff, which they had carefully moved into the burrow from the tarp.
It soaked their hungry, aching bodies under the tarp.

They had no words for any of these startling occurrences.
Biblical rain, earthen burrow, no single other human being or thing in sight.

Next day, a fellow came by their wagon on horseback.
He told them about Iowa.
“That rain was nothing, just a shower. The real weather will start in the fall.
It will snow, but not downward. Sideways, bushels at a time.”

“You’d better get what you need now: lard, candles, dried beans, sugar, kerosene, salt, flour, bacon.
When it starts to snow, you’ll be in that burrow for months.
Hay, grain for your oxen—they’re a fine yoke.
Want to trade them for some beans?”

“If you live through the snow and terrible cold,
till May or so,
then there’s the hordes of bugs, the flash floods, the drought in high summer.
Got anything you want to trade?”

Jane closes her eyes. She hears her mother call her to dinner.
There’s ham, green beans and tomatoes from the garden, milk just extracted from Bessie.
Coconut cake for dessert—Jane made it herself. The plates, from England, are covered with tiny pink rosebuds.
Her mother lights the glass-chimneyed oil lamp as cozy darkness settles over their cozy house in Elmira.

Jane opens her eyes and sees
golden grass, slanted in the sunshine.
A man, very dirty and smelly,making her fear for her life.
Amos, looking at the toes of his broken boots.

No point to cry.
Jane gathers her courage.
Better get tough, or die.

----Sara Tusek


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