Thursday, 21 August 2014

" Six Jutlands and a Conestoga" One of my short stories.


June 03, 1833

The six Jutland draft horses strain as they pull the Verhoeven family over the last rise of their 1,200 mile journey. Bram Verhoeven walks beside the team, just ahead of the heavy wagon, using the long leather reins to guide the lead horse, front left. The tireless leader, Hercules, with his mate on the right, the grand dame, Ellen – named after President Arthur’s wife – guides the team of sturdy horses. Both are fifteen hands high, large quartered, relentless workers. The hill they are climbing has long grass swaying in the wind that urges them on. The lowering sun is partially hidden behind the crest, casting bright rays.
The groomed heads of first Ellen then Hercules break out of the long shadows into the golden waves of the western sun. Small sharp ears, thick beige manes with loose strands turning bright yellow. Their chestnut fur turns redder still as the animals walk into the sunlight, exposing the short neck, the muscled shoulders, the wide withers and the strong back of these willing animals. Bram watches the horses as they rise, pair by pair, into the brilliance. His dusty face splits with a smile of pure joy. Time almost slows down in his anticipation of the view his family is about to encounter. He’s seen it before. He owns it now.
Wiping the sweat from his brow with his right forearm, he looks back at his wife, Lena, who is standing up inside the front of the Conestoga, awaiting the horizon he has talked about for the last two years. Her right hand is raised above her head as she grasps the outer rib that holds the coarse hand-woven fabric of the wagon’s bonnet. Veronica, the youngest, is beside her, wrapped in Lena’s left arm. Her head, which rests upon her mother’s stomach, is covered with the same dark red curls; her face, with the same orange-ish freckles and the same mischievous eyes he has. Sheila, the oldest girl, leans on the front board, a smaller version of Bram’s wife, with a thin pretty face, straight brown hair tied up in a bun, eyes that study everything and a smile that artists search for. They all catch his movement and wave at him.
 
His oldest, Jonas, rides their quarter horse, Fancy, bringing up the rear, towing their Jersey, Cinderella.

Aron, who is ten years old today, is a year younger then Sheila, two years younger than his brother and two years older than Veronica. He is perched on the lazy board on the left side of the wagon. He braces himself by hanging on to the ropes that hold the water barrel. His father had promised him they would make it by his birthday. Looking at his Pap, he waves a free hand when he sees him looking back.

 
“Happy birthday, Aron.”
Concentrating on the team, Bram yells out just before he walks over the crest, “Gee, Hercules. Gee now.”
The powerful animals follow Hercules’ lead and pull to the left as the wagon navigates the top of the rise. When all wheels are on level ground, Bram pulls back on the strong leather.
“Whoa, Hercules. Whoa, team.”
The horses, snorting and breathing heavily, gladly come to a complete stop. The clatter of the chains and leathers relaxing is almost a sigh. The horses shift in the harnesses while shod hooves paw at the ground as they back into the single trees to take the strain off their bodies. Aron jumps up on the plank he was sitting on to pull back the heavy iron brake lever, locking the wheels in place. Bram drops the heavy leathers to the ground. Fancy trots up beside the wagon and Jonas jumps off to stand a short way behind his father. The whole family is bathed in sunlight. No one speaks.
The sward is a carpet of tall, untamed grasses, colored with the yellows, whites and purples of wild flowers undulating in the breeze, making a soft swishing sound. The aromas of the coarse earth, of the raw vegetation, fill their noses when they breathe deeply. The field sweeps to the left and right, south and north, for 1,500 feet to meet a wide glimmering river that looks alive. Shimmering rays of the setting sun scatter across its surface. It bends back and forth several times before disappearing around a neighboring hill that is covered with forest. The bluffs they are on curves north like a bowl for half a mile, where it has been gouged by another river that is narrower and in more of a hurry. The waters meet to form a deep swirling pool before the flow continues south, eventually spilling into the Mississippi. To their left, the rise tapers to the tree-lined river for almost the same distance.

The hills around them are varied in both height and covering. Many of the southern ones are barren of growth, composed of brown and reddish dirt exposed on cliffs that the water has created by its passage. Jagged mountain peaks are visible a hundred miles in the distance. The northern portion is mostly knolls capped with coniferous trees. The deep green of the forest facing them is as dark as their elongated shadows. Save for the sun, the sky is empty. The blue is rich as a new ribbon, just turning pink on the horizon. Small birds weave among the grasses looking for insects or seeds, calling or complaining. Two deer stand at the junction of the rivers; they were drinking but now stare at the family, bewildered by the odd interruption, not knowing they will need to fear the strange animals they see. A large bird circles above the tree line on open wings, looking for prey.

For ten minutes the family remains mute, surveying their surroundings, the place where they are going to live. Lena breaks the silence with a sigh of delight.
“Oh, Bram, it’s as beautiful as you said. It’s breathtaking.”
Aron can’t stay still much longer and jumps down to run up beside his father. Placing a hand upon his father’s brawny arm, he pushes his floppy hat back as he looks up and says, “Where we gonna build our house, Pap?”

Bram hesitates. He is too full of emotion to speak, so full of pride in being able to purchase his own land. When he and his partner, Jean-Pierre Poirier, a French Canadian from the east coast of Canada, had trapped animals and traded furs each winter, he had discovered this glen. That was over two years ago. The demand for fur was great due to men’s fondness for hats made from the beaver’s sleek pelt, and they had made a small fortune. More than enough to outfit himself with the wagon and horses to move his family west. A blacksmith by trade, Bram hopes to establish his own foundry here in the small valley, two miles from where the government is building a new fort, which will also be a trading post. 
Looking back at his wife and the girls, all visibly pleased, then over to his other sons and then down to Aron, he turns and points toward the joining of the waters.
“Right on top of the rise where the rivers meet. It’s good and flat on top, lots of trees close by, lots of good fields around it.”
He reaches to embrace his son and adds, “A good place to work and lots of room to play. It won’t be all work, only in the beginning.”
Bram feels a burst of pure pleasure and can’t help but laugh. Aron can’t help but join in. Veronica loves to laugh at everything and bursts into girlish giggles. Jonas and Sheila soon add their glee. Lena has a quiet, elegant way of laughing that only makes her prettier. The merriment lasts but a moment and is followed by a flurry of questions.
“Are there fish in the river?”
“Can we pick some of the flowers?”
“Is there anybody living close to us?”
“Is there cedar in those woods?”
“What about Injuns?”
The last question, spoken by Aron, brings silence. The Lakota are generally not pleased with the intrusion of white settlers upon what had been their land for centuries. Bram’s encounters, except for one, were all friendly. Jean-Pierre could speak their tongue and the men traded for many furs with them. Bram Verhoeven felt he had nothing to fear if he treated people properly. He will learn to be as leery as the deer.
“We will put our trust in the Lord, Aron, and be fair to people. We won’t pre-judge them. There’s plenty that are friendly. No more questions now. Tomorrow there will be time as we make our plans.”
He claps his big hands. Pointing at a copse of trees beside the river to their left, he announces with a soft smile,

“The sun’s gonna set in two hours, and we must eat. We will camp beside the river tonight by those trees. When we get there, Veronica, you can help your mother with the meal.  Sheila, you peg Cinderella, give her a bit of feed and milk her. Aron, you get the saddle off Fancy and give Mam a hand with the table. Jonas you get the fire going. I expect there’s nuff dried bush inside that dense wood yonder. I’ll tend to the horses.”
By now, the family is familiar with the usual chores associated with the end of their day. They never question Bram’s commands. Their survival depends on his decisions. Once Bram brings the team to a halt under the protection of several old evergreens, he drops the reins once again. He turns to proudly watch his family for a brief moment. Jonas runs toward the of trees behind him, the top of his dusty boots exposed by too-short pants. He is growing too fast. The ladies are in plain grey cotton dresses, the girls with a ribbon around the collar – Veronica’s a soft blue and Sheila’s a bright yellow. Lena dons a red apron and commands the two youngest. Pleased with what he sees, Bram tends to the horses.
The six Jutlands have long manes and are feathered about their lower legs. Anxious to be free of the leather and chains, they greet their master with aplomb, lifting and lowering their heads as if in agreement with what he is about to do. After he removes the pins from the single trees that attach the horses to the double tree on the wagon, he reaches down for the reins.
“Get ahead there, Hercules. That’s enough now, boy. Whoa!”
Starting at the rear, he undoes the six-horse hitch. While he removes the paraphernalia, he talks lovingly to each horse. The first horses unburdened are the wheelers, the biggest horses, nearest the driver. Willie and Anton are each a couple of hundred pounds heavier than the leaders. When Bram takes off the traces, the breast collar and the driving halter of each horse, they are free to move on their own. He pats each on their heavy cheek before resting his head against their wide necks for just a moment to offer a special note for each animal....To be continued.


I hope you enjoyed meeting the Verhoeven family. Please drop by for Part 2  next Friday.
Thank you so much for visiting the Scribbler.

 
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