So I must do my best.
Things got off to a bad start this morning. The children were up even before I was and woke me with their fighting. Jessica was showing off her doll and her brothers were jealous that she had gotten a gift and they hadn’t. The middle child, Jeremy, was threatening to take the doll away while David tried to pin her arms to her side and make her release her grip. Jessica, of course, was screaming her head off.
A fine way to start the day.
Catherine tried to restore order, but the boys remained sullen and Jessica clutched the doll to her chest and sobbed.
“What’s the matter?” I asked the boys. “You want me to give you dolls? How about dresses, too?”
“Your father would be ashamed,” Catherine added.
David, as the oldest, saw reason and soon settled down. But Jeremy remained in a bad mood and went stomping around the room, kicking at things. He refused breakfast out of spite, and by the time Catherine gave up trying to get him to eat and loaded the wagon, the sky had clouded over again and a light rain was falling.
After having spent the previous day in the wagon bed with a tarp over their heads, all three children were unhappy at the prospect of doing the same today. They whined, they complained, and Catherine had a terrible time with them. We were still two, possibly three, days from Oklahoma City. We needed supplies, and I said to Catherine, “Why don’t you stay here and let the kids run around for a little longer. I’ll go see if some of the shops are open and if I can get us some more food.”
And so I did. I got potatoes, nuts, jerky, oats, cornmeal, and some dried fruits and vegetables. I also got candy for the children and some wooden tops for the boys. The treats and toys went a long way toward convincing the children to get in the wagon under the tarp again, since by the time I returned it was raining in earnest.
In spite of the bad weather, I couldn’t help being pleased at the look of the land we were riding into.
It wasn’t as flat as before. There were creeks and trees, and the first hints of hills. If things kept on like this, we would be in very pretty country in a few days. So in spite of the dreary day, I felt optimistic.
Catherine seemed dejected, though, slumped over the reins and snapping at the children whenever one would poke a head out from under the tarp to ask a question. And when officials stopped us in the early afternoon and diverted us onto a smaller road, I thought she would lose what was left of her patience.
“I’m sorry, m’am,” the man said. “But there’s only one good lane for the rest of the way into Oklahoma City, and we need to keep it open for supplies. The other road will get you there.”
I could tell she wanted to say something hostile in reply, but she appeared to think better of it, and turned her mule onto the detour.
“It’s okay,” I said, pulling alongside her. “We’re still making good time.”
“This road isn’t as good, though. And I bet it winds all around and takes twice as long.”
Around late afternoon, the rain started letting up. The children were by now wild with impatience for fresh air, so we pulled back the tarp. Jessica immediately demanded to sit with her mother on the wagon seat, while the boys begged to walk.
“No,” Catherine said. “It’ll just slow us down more.”
“Oh, let them walk for a little while. They need the exercise, and they’ll sleep better for it tonight.”
I wish I had kept my big mouth shut.
Soon after I had convinced Catherine to let the boys walk beside the wagon, we came upon a bridge.
It was long, consisting of multiple spans. Some were in very poor repair, and pieces of the guardrail were missing, as if rust and scrap metal thieves made this a regular stop. I turned to Catherine. “I don’t know how stable this is. How about I scout ahead and make sure it’s okay. I’ll signal if you need to stop and turn around.”
Catherine nodded. I touched my heels to Flecha’s flanks and moved on ahead.
I was going slowly, looking carefully at each span and each hole in the asphalt. I was checking for evidence of instability, and finding none. Far behind me, Catherine was yelling at the boys. Poor kids. They were just bored, as who wouldn’t be after a day and a half under a tarp?
“Jeremy! Come back here!”
It was amazing what scrap metal thieves could accomplish with only primitive tools. Several feet of railing were missing from one section. Thieves are a determined bunch, with an oddly rigorous work ethic.
There was a note in Catherine’s voice that hadn’t been there before. I jerked on the reins and turned Flecha around. From where I stood, I could see the wagon, with Jessica alone on the seat. David stood near a missing bridge railing, and for a moment I could see no one else. I kicked Flecha into a trot, and now I could see Catherine, wedged against a strut, bent over and reaching over the edge. She was shouting words that I couldn’t make out because I realized now what was happening and it made me so sick with worry that all I could hear was the blood pounding in my ears, and the clop of Flecha’s hooves on the chipped asphalt. I kicked her again.
Catherine shifted position, reaching a little farther with one hand, holding onto a strut for balance.
She straightened up and looked at me. Her mouth opened and she said words I couldn’t hear. Then she crouched and leaned down again, stretching out her hand.
David took a step toward her, and now I was close enough to hear him. All he said was, “Mother,” but this seemed to annoy her, and she snapped her head around.
“Find me a rope,” she said. When David didn’t move, she said it again. “Find me a rope. Now.” Then something below must have caught her attention, because she turned suddenly. Too suddenly. I saw her fingers slip, saw her body vanish over the side, as quickly and smoothly as a hawk diving after prey. I'm sure she must have screamed, and there had to have been a sound when her body hit the water, but I was in such a state I didn't hear it.
David stood in confusion, mouth open, staring at the spot where she had been as I rode up and leaped to the ground. I shoved the boy out of the way and peered over the edge. Below me was nothing but the fast-moving river, swollen from the rains. No sign of Catherine anywhere. While my mind was trying to come to terms with this, I heard a small sound. I leaned out a little more, my fingers tightening on the rain-wet steel of the bridge. Below me on one of the supporting struts was Jeremy.
“What the hell are you doing down there?”
His eyes had been wide with shock, but now his face seemed to collapse inward like a crumpled bag, and he opened his mouth and wailed.
“Stay there. Don’t move. Yell all you want, but don’t move.”
From one of my packs I took out a coiled length of hemp rope and tied it around one of the bridge struts. Then I made a sort of noose at the other end and lowered it to Jeremy. It took a lot of coaxing, but I finally convinced him to slip the rope around his middle, under his armpits. There was enough slack in the middle of the rope to loop around the horn of Flecha’s saddle, and I used her strength to pull Jeremy back up onto the bridge. I heaved him onto the asphalt, where he lay for several minutes gasping and crying.
By now some other travelers had come along, and while a few went down to the riverbank to look for signs of Catherine, others helped me with the children, who were in shock over what had happened. We must have spent an hour at the bridge before it became clear that there was no point in continuing to search or wait. Catherine was gone.
Jeremy and Jessica cried, but David sat on the wagon seat like a stone, too stunned to react, or maybe just not ready to believe the evidence.
“Do you need any help with these children?” a woman asked me. “The girl is right cute, and I’d be happy to take her.”
This seemed to wake David out of his complacency. “We stay together,” he said.
I gave a faint nod. “They have a grandmother in Oklahoma City. She’s expecting them.” I turned to David. “You know how to drive that mule?”
He nodded, but made no move to pick up the reins.
I could easily guess what he was thinking. As long as he stayed here and didn’t move, he could pretend for just a little longer that he still had a mother, that she hadn’t fallen off the bridge, never to return.
“It’s okay,” I said. “You don’t have to do it.”
I tethered Flecha to the rear of the wagon and climbed up onto the seat beside him. “We’ll only go as far as we need to in order to find a place to shelter for the night. First place we see, okay?”
We found a place not far from where the bridge ended. It was very small and hidden behind some trees. I think it used to be a sort of storage shed, but it would have to do.
I built a fire and made supper, but none of us had any appetite. And as darkness fell, the questions began.
“When is mother coming?”
“Won’t she want some supper?”
“Is she dead, like Father?”
I thought back to my own childhood, trying to remember what Auntie and our surviving neighbors had done for me after the raid, but drew a blank. My mother’s death had not been in doubt. But Catherine had been carried downstream. It was unlikely she survived, but with no body to prove it, of course the children would wonder. They would likely spend their whole lives wondering. All I could remember from my past was that Will had held me and comforted me, and Auntie had read from the Bible and she never told me a lie.
I had no Bible, but I had my memory. So with Jessica on my lap clutching her doll, and the boys sitting close by, I told them the truth as simply and kindly as I knew how. Their mother was gone, most likely drowned. They took it better than I had expected. “I want to take you to Oklahoma City,” I told them. “Do you know where your grandmother lives? Do you have an address?”
“We have letters," David said.
“Good. Letters always have addresses on them. If we get up early, we can be at your grandma’s tomorrow night.”
“But what if Mom comes looking for us?” Jeremy asked.
For a moment I wondered if he believed in ghosts, but then I realized he meant what if she was still alive and came back to the bridge. “I don’t think that will happen,” I said. “But just in case, we’ll leave notes on the bridge so she’ll know where we went. How’s that?”
This seemed to satisfy him, and I told the children Bible stories from memory, adding to them as seemed appropriate, until Jessica fell asleep in my arms. I put her to bed, and David dragged his blankets off to a corner of his own to sleep. That left Jeremy, who seemed reluctant to lie down. “It’s my fault, isn’t it?” he finally whispered to me.
“No,” I said. “You did a very foolish thing, but your mother wasn’t as careful as she should’ve been. That wasn’t your fault.”
“I was tired of being in the wagon. She was going to make me go back in.”
“Well, you could’ve behaved better, but your mother also could’ve asked for help. So don’t feel bad. We can’t see the future. We do things that seem right at the time, and sometimes we find out later we were wrong. That doesn’t make us bad people.”
He nodded like he understood, but I don’t know if he really did. One of the travelers who had helped look for Catherine had given me a flask of corn whiskey, and now I made Jeremy drink a little. I hated to do that to the kid, but he and I both needed to sleep.
Once I got him settled beside his sister, I went to check on David. I could tell from the rigid lines of his body that he was still awake. I sat down and rested a hand on his back.
“I hate my brother,” he whispered. “I’ll never forgive him.”
I had been afraid of this. So I had to go over everything again, just like I had with Jeremy. “You’re head of the household now,” I finally said. “Like it or not, you’ve got to be a grownup. And grownups forgive children like Jeremy for not being grownups, too.”
I gave David a shot of whiskey.
So now I'm alone with three children who I have to somehow deliver to a woman in an unfamiliar city. I found the letters from Catherine’s mother, so at least I have a name and address. Finding the house shouldn’t be too hard, as long as the locals are friendly. But finding the words to tell her what happened to her daughter won’t be as easy.
God must really hate me.
I guess I need some of that whiskey tonight, myself.
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