From the Children’s Friend, 1945-46 –
Dennis and the Mormon Battalion
By Mabel Harmer
Chapter 1 – On the Prairie
Dennis lurched back and forth on the high seat of the covered wagon, trying to adjust the lines to the strange pair of animals that pulled the heavy outfit.
“An ox and a cow,” he muttered half aloud. “That’s worse than our toothless ox. Whoever herd of teaming up an ox and a cow?”
“Nobody before my ma did,” boasted Nancy Abbott, who was bouncing about on the other half of the seat. “Ma thinks of everything. She said, ‘I’m going to the West in this year of eighteen forty-six along with the rest of the folks whether I have a full team of oxen or not, and as long as the cow has to go along anyway, she might as well help pull the wagon.’ She sure is a dandy.”
“Who – the cow or your ma?” grinned Dennis.
“Oh, the cow. Well, both of them,” answered Nancy. “Ma is a real go-getter. She gets about everything she wants.”
Oh, she does,” repeated Dennis, somewhat to himself, as a startling thought flashed through his mind. Just what did the Widow Abbott want right now? He hadn’t thought much about it when she came back to the wagon where he was riding with Uncle timothy and said, “Want to drive my team for a change, Dennis? I’ll ride here with your uncle for a spell. There’s a little matter I want to talk to him about.”
That was hours ago and he had been driving the Abbott outfit ever since. The widow sat back there laughing and talking with Uncle Tim, who was too shy to look out for himself. Not that the widow wasn’t all right. she was nice and jolly and could turn out a rabbit stew like nobody else on the prairie.
The train came to a slow halt and Dennis seized the opportunity to hand the reins over to Nancy and climb down. “I think I’d better be going back,” he explained. “Pa might want me for something. I’ll send your ma back to take over here.”
“You needn’t bother,” said Nancy, with a toss of her head. “I guess I can handle a team all right. I’m nearly fourteen – almost as old as you are.”
“Yeh, but you’re a girl,” drawled Dennis, as he swung himself down over the big wheel and onto the ground.
Without pausing to stretch his cramped limbs, he ran on past the several wagons that separated the Abbott outfit from the two driven by his father and uncle. He arrived just in time to see everyone piling out.
“Are we stopping for lunch, Pa?” he asked hopefully.
“My goodness, no. I’d say from the sun that it isn’t eleven yet. There’s a swamp ahead and we’ve got to build a corduroy road or the wagons will sink through to the rims. You take the ax and join those men over there at that clump of trees. I’ll unhitch the team. It’ll take three or four teams to a wagon to get them through no matter what we lay underfoot.”
Dennis seized the ax eagerly and started off for the trees. It always pleased him to be given a man’s work to do. He knew that there weren’t many fourteen-year-old boys in the wagon train that were entrusted with the same kind of jobs that he was. That was one of the best things about Pa. He always treated a fellow like an equal.
“Hey! Dennis,” welcomed Tom Winn, a plump, jovial fellow, who always seemed to make light of the toughest job on the trail. “Looks like we’ll have to lay down some stocks for those pampered cattle of yours to walk across that mud on. Seems that they’re afraid of getting their feet muddy.” Swinging his ax at a young tree he took it off clean in a couple of strokes and then burst into one of his endless number of songs. It was made up on the spur of the moment and sung to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.”
Heaving the tree over onto the fast growing pile, he sang:
“Iowa’s a land of mud,
Thick and black and slimy.
If we do not build a road
Our teams will sink to Chiny.”
“Do you think this pile will be enough?” asked Dennis, looking about and noting that there were no more trees for some distance.
“No, but it might have to do. I never saw enough trees yet to fill one of those Iowa swamps. All I hope is that we don’t have to put them down straight and drive our teams over the tops,” answered Tom cheerfully. “You’d better start hauling some down now and don’t brush off any valuable twigs by the way.”
Dennis tucked his precious ax under one arm and the end of a tree under the other. He wondered if the rain was ever going to let up. This business of riding half the time under a dripping sky, sleeping on ground that never dried out, and dragging outfits through mudholes was sure getting tiresome. Well, some day they’d be out of Iowa and then perhaps they’d have sunshine again.
He sloshed over the trees that were already laid and put his down at the end, noting with satisfaction that the trees could be laid lengthwise and didn’t have to be stood up in the mid as Tim had pretended to fear.
“You can run and get some brush now, son,” said one of the men, ‘and we’ll try to fill in with that.”
Dennis took the ax back to the wagons and joined the other young people of the company in gathering brush. It was not hard work, since the roots gave easily in the soft earth, but it was very dirty. before the corduroy road was filled in enough to be considered safe for the wagons, the children looked like a flock of mud hens, as one mother put it.
The women and children crossed over the newly built road first, before the oxen should make it all muddy again. Then the wagons crossed over, slowly, clumsily, with two or more teams to each heavy load.
Dennis had no doubts about it being lunch time now. For the past hour his stomach had been crying for food. He left the anxious business of watching each outfit struggle over to the safe side of the swamp to wander over to where the women of the camp were making stew in kettles swung over a dozen campfires.
He found his mother busily preparing their meal while the two younger boys, Sam and Bobby, were scampering about trying to help by bringing in brush for fuel.
“Come, Dennis,” she called. “You’ve been doing a man’s work today and you shall have a man’s portion. We’ve half a rabbit left from last night’s supper, and some flapjacks. Or don’t you care for corn flapjacks?” she asked, her eyes twinkling.
“Say, I could eat ‘em if they were made of wood shavings,” answered Dennis.
“Well, they’re not. They’re made of good Iowa corn that Father got at a village last week in trade for my grandmother’s ear rings. Poor Granny! She set such store by those ear rings; but I’m sure that she’d rather you children had corn than I should be dangling jewelry in my ears.”
His mother spoke lightly, but Dennis wondered if she hadn’t been just a bit sorry when she had to part with her pretty earrings. He also wondered what they would do when there was nothing more to trade and no one to trade with, except maybe the Indians. Oh, well, he mused, something would turn up. It always had so far, even if it was just a squirrel.
He hesitated when his mother offered him a second flapjack and asked, “Are you sure there’s enough for Pa and Uncle Tim?”
“Quite sure, go ahead and take it,” she answered cheerfully. “Besides, they’re going hunting today while I wash. Goodness knows we need a wash day. I didn’t know there was so much mud in the whole world.”
At the mention of a hunt the boy was all interest. A hunting excursion was the only really bright spot in the journey. If there could have been one every day Dennis would have walked twice the distance to the Rocky Mountains without complaining.
When his father came in sight he ran out to meet him, calling, “The men are going hunting, Pa. Can we borrow a rifle somewhere so that we can both go?”
“Well, we can try,” said the elder Martin, rumpling his son’s light brown hair. “but if we both go, how are we going to get any washing done? One of us should stay and carry water, you know.”
“Aw, shucks,” protested Dennis, “we can get along. A lot of mud will shake out of this shirt after it’s dry. And anyway, I still have a clean one.”
“Well, I guess that takes care of you,” agreed his father with a chuckle. “But I’m afraid your mother won’t let me off that easy, so you run along and I’ll stay here to tote water and keep the fires going. Tim’s working down on the bridge.”
“Thanks, Pa. I’ll get enough for both of us,” promised Dennis gratefully.
It was near evening when the hunters returned to camp, worn out with tramping but jubilant over their success in having bagged a score of jack rabbits. Dennis’ mother had already cooked their simple evening meal and the family had sat down near the campfire on a piece of old carpet and the tongue of the wagon. They had begun the journey with a couple of camp stools but these had long since been traded for food.
After everything had been cleared away Dennis went out to gather some feed for Jenny, the toothless ox. Later the ox was put out to graze with the other animals. Dennis could never turn her out with a clear conscience unless he knew that she had had a pretty fair feeding beforehand.
As darkness settled over the covered-wagon train the flames of the big central campfire shot into the air, signaling everyone to gather for the evening entertainment. Dennis hurried through the last of his tasks so that he could enjoy every minute of the campfire gathering. Almost every evening, no matter how far they had traveled during the day or how tired they were, they came together for singing, dancing, or other light amusement that helped them forget the trials of the day.
Even before Dennis reached the group he heard peals of laughter and on coming closer saw Tom Winn sitting on a log telling the story of how a bear had chased his grandfather up on a roof and kept him there for three days. Tom declared it was a true story even if it was different every time he told it. But nobody seemed to mind. One version of the story was enjoyed just as much as another.
“What did your grandfather do all the time he was up on the roof?” one lad was asking.
“He made up songs,” answered Tom. “Later he taught them to me. That’s how I come to know so many. Did I ever sing this one to you?”
“Henry Johnson fishing went,
Fishing for a minny.
‘Twas the only fish that he could eat
Because he was so skinny.”
When he had followed this with two or three more, his wife Martha interrupted him. “It’s a good thing for us that bear didn’t keep your grandfather up there for a week. There’s only one way to stop him, folks, and that’s for us all to sing.”
And sing they did, starting in with “Dixie Land” and ending with the saga of the plains, “Come, come ye Saints, no toil nor labor fear.” Before the last echoes of the song had died away the fiddles began their lively tunes and soon sets were forming for a Virginia reel.
Dennis sat by quietly watching the fun. he had never yet joined in the dancing; he felt too awkward and shy to ask any girl to dance with him.
He looked over to where his friend Neil was laughing and talking with a set of young people. It was no wonder everyone liked Neil, he thought – so handsome and always making people laugh. With himself now, it was different. Nobody would ever look twice at a boy who had a shock of light hair and too many freckles. Well, shucks, who cared? He could shoot a rifle as good as anybody and that was what counted on the plains.
He was wrong about nobody looking twice at him, though. While the fiddlers were still warming up, Nancy Abbott ran over to him, and reaching out a hand called out, “Come on, Dennis. We need someone to fill up this set.”
“But I – I don’t know how,” he stammered, feeling his face grow red with embarrassment.
“Come on, Dennis,” shouted Neil. “You don’t need to wear out your pants on that log.”
With everyone watching him and waiting, Dennis had no choice but to get up and join the others. He had seen the reel a hundred times, but seeing was different from doing, as he soon found out. He would dance out and bow to the girl from the opposite end long after she had bowed and returned to her place. when they were supposed to go around each other in the “do-si-do ” he almost knocked her down, and when it was his and Nancy’s turn to whirl down the line he became so hopelessly mixed up that everyone started to laugh. Poor Dennis wished that he could find a good deep hole to crawl into – after pushing Nancy Abbott a good one on the nose for getting him in this jam.
It was over at last and he returned to his place by the older folk, where no one molested him for the rest of the evening.
After the dancing had come to an end, the captain of the camp gave a short talk of encouragement and advice, and all the people returned to their wagons for their evening prayers.
Long after he had crawled under his covers at the end of the wagon, Dennis lay awake thinking of the journey ahead. Soon they would leave the last of the scattered white settlements and be in Indian country. he fell asleep dreaming that the Indians had captured him and were making him do a war dance which strongly resembled a Virginia reel.