Escape From Lexington - Cover

Escape From Lexington

Copyright© 2024 by FantasyLover

Chapter 7

Tuesday April 11, 1843

Twelve days later

After having the Niobrara River as our traveling companion for almost two weeks, today we turned southwest, away from the river.

The weather had turned cold again, with half the nights below freezing. We were all tired this morning, having gotten up shortly after midnight to crosstie the wagons between nearby trees. The rope we had left from using the raft came in handy. Still, the wind howled much of the night, making the wagons rock worse than some of the stream crossings we’d made.

At some of the worst stream crossings on our trip, I tried digging down the lip of the bank to make the entrance to and exit from the streams easier on the wagons, drivers, and mules. They should still be easier next year when these guys make the trip again.

We debated laying over another day until Samuel told us we should reach the fort tomorrow afternoon. I couldn’t believe it as I did the math in my head. Twenty-three days we’d spent on the trail since leaving Council Bluffs! I’d figured we had another week or two to go. Samuel explained that we hadn’t had any breakdowns or mishaps, and the animals were all still in good shape. Well, the cows were a little tender of foot by now, but they could handle a few more days. He explained that having so many people who were already savvy about the wilderness and used to driving wagons made a big difference. Many times, they had to hire someone who had never even camped out before, but who thought they could earn a living as a trapper.

Nawaji seemed to know exactly where we were headed this morning, so I let her lead yet again. She easily found our final campsite beside a large beaver pond. She insisted that I come with her to see the beaver dam, so I went, even though I’ve seen dozens of beaver dams. She pointed to a number of larger rocks that seemed purposely lined up across the wide streambed. The beavers had founded their dam on those rocks.

“Mule put those rocks there,” she said proudly. “I helped,” she added, smiling nostalgically at the memory.

“He has about fifty ponds within a ten-day ride to make trapping easier,” she explained. I held her as she stared silently across the pond at the beaver lodge for several minutes.

“Even before I agreed to marry him, he warned me that he eventually planned to go home to his family,” she said emotionally. “I hoped I could change his mind. I didn’t want to marry an Indian man. I saw how much better most of the white men treated their wives,” she reflected.

Not knowing what to say, I kept silent.

“Thank you,” she finally sighed emotionally, turning to kiss me. We went back to tonight’s campsite where we collected firewood. I tried to make sure we collected enough firewood so there was some remaining at the campsite when we left each morning. That would help whoever made the trip next year.

While we waited for the wagons, we laughed as the dogs renewed their game of coursing in a circle around us. When they first started, Wizzer tried to keep up with them. He quit after half a lap and came over to us. Sitting in front of me, he cocked his head and looked at me as if asking, “Are they crazy?”

Everyone was excited as we ate supper, each of us looking forward to the trip being over. Well, the missionaries still had a long way to go, but the rest of us would be home. The trappers would be back at Fort John--or Fort Laramie as they called it--where they lived and worked. My group would still have to make the short trip to the cave, but we’d be within spitting distance.

Reverend Walters approached me right after dinner. “I’d like to do something for your group to thank you for everything you’ve done for us and for me,” he said. “You scouted and hunted for us, and may have prevented a Pawnee raiding party from attacking us. Samuel says they probably wouldn’t have, but it was always a possibility. The hunting you’ve done has helped to stretch our food supplies so we should have more than enough to reach Oregon Country.

“In addition, you and Nawaji have helped me to understand the Indians better so I don’t insult any of them when we start our mission. The Negroes in your group helped me see that they are God’s children just as much as white people are.

“We were told before leaving that we’d encounter many unusual circumstances and would have to rely on prayer and the bible to guide us. There is nothing in the bible preventing me from performing marriages for you and the others in your group. From what Samuel tells me, since there is no territorial government, there are no laws governing the Indian Territory except federal statutes. The laws of each tribe of Indians are the closest thing to state laws.

“Neither federal laws nor Indian laws prevent me from marrying a white man to more than one wife, even if one of them is an Indian and two are Negroes. Neither do they prevent me from marrying two men to three wives, although it is extremely unusual. If you’d like, I’m willing to perform the marriages now. I know we’re going to be busy tomorrow and it will probably be chaotic once we reach the fort.”

I was stunned. “I’d love it and I’m sure everyone else would, too. Let me go check with them,” I said excitedly as I got up to let them know. They were all excited. We’d already discussed having our own informal wedding ceremony once we reached our destination. The girls had been sewing each evening for an hour or so and they each had a simple, white dress completed. Well, Nawaji chose to wear a new buckskin dress that she was still sewing beads onto. They all rushed off to change into their dresses and I found the small pouch with the extra rings. Isum and Jimmey had tears in their eyes when I gave them each three rings. I suggested that both brothers put the ring on each of their women at the proper time, even though it would be a bit awkward.

I made sure to let Reverend Walters know that we had rings for the women.

That evening, as the half-moon peered over the eastern horizon and played peek-a-boo with the scattered clouds, we said our vows in front of the rest of the people in our group. The girls were happily surprised when I slipped a ring first onto Mahala’s finger, and then Sallie’s, and then Nawaji’s.

Edy, Cisley, and Lucey were even more surprised when the brothers began slipping rings onto their fingers and grinned at me figuring that I bought their rings, too. I’m glad I didn’t have to hunt in the morning because each of my four wives insisted on consummating our marriage and made no pretense of trying to be quiet about it. From what I heard, Edy, Cisley, and Lucey were doing the same with the brothers.

I found it odd that our marriage was exactly one month after Tara and I were married in St. Louis but decided that it would make it easier for me to remember the date in the future. One thing Dad warned me about was to always make sure I remembered my wife’s birthday and our anniversary. Even if I couldn’t afford to buy her a gift, I needed to make her something thoughtful and pay even more attention to her than usual that day.

Wednesday April 12, 1843

When I awoke this morning, I was again glad that I didn’t have to hunt. When I opened my eyes, the four grinning faces of my wives greeted me in the dim pre-dawn light. “Good morning, husband,” they said in unison, and then giggled.

Tara kissed me and passed me off to Mahala, who passed me to Sallie, who finally passed me to Nawaji. While all the kissing had me thinking other thoughts, the girls reminded me that we had to get moving this morning.

“You don’t look none the worse for wear after last night,” Samuel laughed at me when I got to the fire that someone had already started, as well as the pot of coffee.

“They were gentle with me,” I retorted, even though I was blushing clear down to my toes.

“Sounded more like you were set upon by a pack of wildcats and put up a valiant fight,” he shot back, grinning.

The wagons left about 6:30, half an hour later than usual, not that I was ever there when they actually started the wagons moving. Samuel explained that we would only make a brief stop at the primary stream we would cross so the animals could drink and graze briefly, giving them a short rest before finishing the trip. Nawaji and I would find a spot where the stream was easy to ford, which should be almost everywhere, and where there was still dead grass available for the animals to graze.

Nawaji helped me load one of her mules with trade goods, including the tobacco she would present to her father as a gift from me. She also rode one of our horses. She brought the one she usually rode to trade for the right to farm the valley surrounding the cave we intended to live in, as well as one of the long rifles and the necessary accoutrements for it. We rode out just as the front wagon started moving.

Shortly after 8:30, we reached a north-south stream that eventually fed the Platte River. It took us half an hour to find a spot with dried grass left and we rode back until we intersected the tracks we had left earlier. Leaving a dry stick pointing them along the southernmost of the two sets of tracks, we headed southwest again. After letting our animals drink and graze, we continued southwest, headed towards a series of ridges that rose about four hundred feet above the gently sloping ground well beyond the far side of the wide stream bed.

While crossing the wide streambed, we passed four distinct rows of cottonwood trees within a few hundred yards of each other. Looking north and south, I could see that the fourth row was along an older course of the stream we had crossed earlier and realized that the streambed was nearly a mile wide, even though the water was only two feet deep and ten feet wide right now.

When I commented on it, Nawaji explained that the stream frequently flooded during heavy downpours like the one we were in the day we left St. Louis. Occasionally, the streambed was half-full of raging water as it rushed towards the Platte River. At Nawaji’s suggestion, we stopped and gathered dry firewood, loading one of the empty pack mules we always took with us.

Rounding one of the many ridges we saw earlier, we were suddenly greeted by a thick hedge of evergreen bushes that were about fifteen feet high. An Indian brave stood just inside the four-foot-wide gap in the hedge. Next to him was what I can only describe as a rudimentary gate of dead saplings and branches tied together in a framework with thorny branches woven through the framework to cover the entire front of the gate. He grinned at Nawaji and nodded at her in recognition as we rode through, leading our other animals.

Once we were through, he closed the gate and braced it by rolling two rocks behind it and then supporting the top of it with four long saplings. “There are only two openings in the windbreak, one at each end where it meets the rocks,” Nawaji explained. “We built up the rocks on each end, setting them in place with what you call adobe. That makes it more difficult for predators or enemies to reach us.”

I had noticed as we passed through the gate that the evergreens were three deep, not just a single row, and the rows were offset.

Looking back once we were beyond the hedge, I could see that the hedge filled an opening that was no more than two hundred feet wide. From above, the enclosed area would look like the center of a “C” as the ridges surrounded this small valley on three sides and part of the fourth side. More of the evergreens grew along the steep slopes surrounding the valley, starting about ten feet from the top of the ridges, with two more rows between there and the top of the ridges.

The valley was nearly circular and roughly three hundred yards in diameter. A small creek ran along the northern edge of the valley. It was only three feet wide and a few inches deep. The straight path it followed told me that the course was manmade. A row of mature cottonwood trees near the center of the valley made me think the original course of the creek had been near those trees. Once the stream reached the windbreak, it was diverted south to water the entire windbreak before continuing on its way to meet the stream we crossed earlier.

The brave at the gate had obviously alerted someone before we reached the gate, and we had a welcoming party.

“This is unusual; Father has come out to meet us,” Nawaji commented with a bit of a question in her voice. As we got closer, I could see a questioning look on her father’s face, too.

“Didn’t he know Mule was going home?” I asked Nawaji. “He seems surprised to see us together.”

“He knew and reminded me that I was welcome to return home,” she replied.

In the two minutes it took us to reach them, the crowd grew considerably. As per Nawaji’s instructions, once we dismounted, I hung back and let her greet her father first. She hugged him and kissed him on the cheek. When she stepped back, he took her left hand and pointedly looked at the ring on her finger.

“Father, my new husband asked me to give you this gift,” she said, handing him the pouch of tobacco leaves.

“Is this the man known as Strong Hand?” he asked her as he sized me up.

Nawaji’s face broke into a huge grin. “Yes, Father, his name is Lewis Clark, and he was named Strong Hand by a Pawnee war chief after easily defeating their best fighter,” she explained proudly.

“Welcome Strong Hand. Word of your exploits arrived two days ago, and I sent messengers to spread word to the Cheyenne and Arapaho,” Nawaji translated as he spoke rapidly and clasped my arm.

“Thank you,” I replied, relieved by his acceptance. “I would like to ask permission to plant crops and raise horses and cattle around the cave your daughter and Mule used for their home,” I continued.

“I understand that you wish to grow beans, corn, and squash. That will help us a great deal as we have to trade with tribes far to the south or west of us, to get those items. Many times, we are unable to trade for as much as we need to get us through the winter,”

“If I am allowed to plant crops, I will grow lots of corn, beans, and squash to trade with the Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne,” I promised.

“Then you have my permission to use the land to plant your crops and to raise your animals,” he said, surprising me that he didn’t ask for anything in trade. “Just remember that permission to use the land does not make the land yours, like the white men seem to think is necessary. The land still belongs to The People.”

“Thank you,” I replied. “I will strive to be a good neighbor and a friend of the Sioux.”

“We need to go,” Nawaji told her father. “We have to meet the supply wagons returning to the trading post. Lewis’s other three wives are with them, as well as five missionaries who plan to continue west,” she said with a sly grin.

“Other wives?” her father asked.

“He has three more wives who will live with us. All four of us married him in a white man’s ceremony last night. There are also two dark-skinned men and their three wives who wish to be Lewis’ slaves,” she explained.

After we said our goodbyes, Nawaji led me back to our horses and we were quickly on our way to meet the wagons. “Why don’t they stay in the caves I saw in the hillside?” I asked her. Seeing so many buffalo-skin teepees, I assumed they lived in those.

“Tipis are comfortable in all but the worst weather,” she explained. “During the worst rain and snowstorms, everyone moves into the caves, and they put the horses in another cave to protect them. The ridges and the trees we planted on the ridges help protect us by greatly reducing the worst of the winter winds.”

The wagons were halfway to the Indian village when we found them. “I take it that you met Nawaji’s father,” Samuel commented when we got there.

“I did, and they heard two days ago that we were coming, and about us returning Wakiya to her people,” I replied.

My other three wives were excited that we had permission to grow crops and raise cattle on Sioux land. Now we just had to see the cave we had heard so much about.

We had crossed the Platte River by early afternoon. Samuel explained that the river would be wider and deeper when the snow melted, and spring rains began. Sometimes it was wide enough and deep enough that crossing the Platte was dangerous and crossing with a wagon would be impossible. Less than a mile later, we crossed the much smaller Laramie River close to the junction of the two. The men from the fort pointed out an almost bare patch of ground, explaining that it had originally been another trading post, Fort William, but it had closed two years ago. The cottonwoods used for the stockade and buildings had been used for firewood or building elsewhere.

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