I sat down in my seat and turned to stare out of the window. A two-hour train ride. I was not looking forward to this. I wanted to already be there, eager to see my best friend. Why did she have to attend a college two hours away?

I felt someone bump my arm. I glanced up into the face of an elderly woman. "Excuse me, dear. I was just trying to get into my seat."

"No problem. Do you need some help?" I asked, seeing her large carry-on. 

"Yes, thank you." She passed me her carry-on, and I held it while she got situated in her seat. Putting her things away, I sat back down.

My name is Mrs. Perkins. What's yours?"

"Elizabeth," I replied. "A pleasure to meet you."

"You too, dear."

We sat in silence, watching the scenery out of our windows when she began to speak again. 

"I love train rides…" she said. "I thought they were just the best things ever invented when they came to our town. They could take you just about anywhere without worrying about a horse or buggy."

I smiled.

"As a girl, we traveled a long way in our covered wagon. My parents were eager to build a life for our family, so we headed west. 

We loaded up everything we owned, which wasn't much. A few clothes, the family bible, Momma's rocking chair, blankets, and such. 

I packed them into a little chest that Papa had made for me. Didn't have much in it, a few dresses, a doll that Momma had made me one Christmas. I had my reader and letters from Grandma and Grandpa. 

They sent one to the boys and me every season, telling us about the wonderful things they had done in Virginia over the last few months. They asked about us and how tall we were getting. Were we learning a lot in school? Were we being sure to read our bible daily? What was our favorite thing about the season that had just passed? 

In the winter, they wrote about snow-covered hills; in the spring, they talked about all the fresh vegetables they had planted and baby animals that were born. In the summer, they talked about swimming in the creek and eating watermelon from the garden. In the fall, they talked about the mountains. As the temperatures cooled, the colors would sweep across them.

Grandpa would make beautiful carvings in the fall, sitting by the fire. He would send the boys ones he thought they would like, and Grandma would send me pretty fabrics she would find for Momma to make our dresses with. She would tins of our favorite cookies she had baked. 

I remember being frightened of the unknown. Going to a land we had never been to. I had heard stories of attacks by bandits who surrounded your wagons.

I mentioned it to Papa, and he just chuckled. "Awww, bunny, you do have to worry about that. We'll just be passing through the land on trails others have been before us. It will be just fine. Don't you worry your pretty little head about it none." He had tousled my hair and then went outside to load the wagon. 

I didn't know how we would fit all of our stuff into this thing, but Papa seemed to know best. He and Momma had two chests. The boys had one they shared. They were so close in age and size that they shared everything from clothes to toys. There was a chest with the household goods like Momma's skillet and soup pot, and coffee pot. We didn't have a whole lot of dishes. What we had, we would share. Momma also had her bread pan, where she made the best biscuits. She had stayed up late the night before baking biscuits to wrap up in a towel for us to eat along the way. 

Papa said we would only stop once a day for camp and cooking. That would be at night. During the day, we would stop when we came across a stream or a creek so the horses could get a drink or stop in a town when we came across it. 

Momma had packed a large basket full of biscuits, eggs from our chickens, oats, lard, and apples off our tree. There were jars of pinto beans, green beans, and apple butter from the cellar. There were tins full of dried beef and fish and a big sack of potatoes. 

The chests lined the wagon's sides with the food toward the front, behind Papa. I used a chest as a seat while Momma sat in her rocker, wedged between chests so it wouldn't move. The boys sat on the floor between Momma and me, playing with some rocks they had collected. 

Papa sat in the driver seat and guided the horses with bales of hay stashed beneath his feet for the horses and his gun propped next to him. The journey was a long one, for sure. We passed a few small towns, just starting up, along the way. We would stock up on anything we needed whenever we came across one. I got a second-grade reader and Tommy and Tony each got a small wooden horse from one of our stops. Momma picked up a few pieces of fabric she liked, and Papa picked up a new hat. His had worn thin over the years and proved it after riding in the sun for hours. 

The horses got to rest when we got to the towns too. Papa would tie them up outside the town eatery, and they would drink and eat some hay while we filled our bellies. Then we would be on our way again, not stopping until night to set up camp. 

Momma would rise before everyone else and stoke the fire brighter, put on the coffee, and fry up some eggs once the pot of oatmeal was done. 

We would run down to the creek, where the horses would drink and wash our faces and hands. Momma would comb our hair after we ran around playing tag for a bit. 

Once the horses were done drinking, Papa would strap them to the wagon, and he and Momma would start loading our things back in, and we would set off again. 

When the traveling was the least bumpy, Momma would read to us from the bible, and then I would read from my new reader with Momma helping me with the hard words. The boys would fall asleep shortly after, and Momma and I would sit in silence together, watching nature pass by around us, or we would talk about all sorts of things. 

Momma would tell me the proper way to make bread or stew. She'd tell me about the curtains she was going to make for the new home and how Papa was going to build us a new table, a really big one this time where we would have room to do everything. 

I asked her if we could have purple lilies in the yard, and she would tell me how we could, and we could even have a pink rose bush right by the front stoop. Maybe even one on each side. Then she would tickle my sides and wrap me in a hug when I would start to giggle. 

At night I would dream of fields of wildflowers in front of a house and fields of corn behind it. I dreamed of chickens running around my feet, each with a name I had lovingly given them. 

I dreamed of trips into town to eat at that town's eatery, of getting a sweet treat from the general store for the walk home. 

I dreamed of going to school and learning everything I possibly could. I would grow up to be a woman who did something amazing. Maybe I would be an inventor or a researcher who found a cure for an illness. Or maybe I would become a teacher who helped my students become their brightest selves, and they would go out and change the world!

After a few weeks, we finally made it to the destination. It was beautiful! Wide open space as far as the eye could see. Wild grasses swayed in the breeze, and beautiful rock formations with the same amazing colors as the sunsets. Mountains in the distance stood majestically, guarding everything within view. 

We met up with a man named Ronald, who showed us where our land was. He and his sons would help Papa set up our first homestead. While we waited for the house to be built, we would stay in his barn, with a wood stove and plenty of hay bails to sleep on. 

He and his wife had us in for dinner every night. Momma helped Mr. Ronald's wife, Amelia, with feeding the animals, horses and chickens, and cows. Mr. Ronald and Papa cleaned the stalls and turned the animals out to pasture. 

Momma helped with the washing after breakfast, and we helped weed the vegetable garden and pull laundry off the line at night. 

Our time with Mr. Ronald and Mrs. Amelia was good. They were warm and caring, and we were happy to help with the chores. Once in a while, Momma would put me on a horse with her. We would ride out to the homestead and see their progress on the house. 

At first, it didn't seem like much, a bunch of trees lying on the ground, some cut into smaller-sized logs, some still with branches on them. 

The next time we went, they were all logs, and a square was taking shape in the middle of the flattest, clearer section of the land. Momma said that was the beginning of our house. 

I marveled that it seemed so big, and I remember her laughing her beautiful laugh and kissing me on top of my head.

"Just enough room for us, my girl. Just enough room for family, warmth, and happiness. It's the beginning of our adventure here." I remember her dreamy smile as she sat staring out over the square on the ground for a while. 

We went and looked at it again a month later, and I was shocked. There were walls! Four of them! And a roof! How did they do that so fast? 

I could see the rock chimney coming up out of the roof, and there were holes where the windows would be. Momma said we were going to have real glass in them. 

The next weekend Momma wanted us to help her with a project. She brought all of us outside and gave us each a paintbrush. She had built two boxes, about four inches deep and shaped in rectangles boxes she had built. We painted them the prettiest blue color you've ever seen. She said we had to let them dry, and then we were going to take them somewhere. 

The next day she loaded us up in the wagon, and we went to the homestead. It looked so beautiful and now had a stoop in front of the door. Momma said we couldn't go in because they were still putting the walls together. She pulled the blue boxes from the back and, one by one, walked them up to the stoop, where she placed one on either side of the door.  

"These are for your lilies, Olivia." My face lit up. We were going to have lilies!

About a month later, we moved in. Mrs. Amelia gave us jars of jam and some dried herbs for Momma to use in her stew. Papa got to work right away on planting for the season, and Momma got to work making curtains and mending our clothes for summer.  

She said I would be able to go back to school again after the harvest was done. I was so excited. I had been studying my second-grade reader as much as possible and hoped the teacher would let me go in as a third grader this year. 

We lived in that house the whole winter and through the next summer. The harvest was good that year, so Momma bought fabric and sewed her and my new dresses and the boy's new trousers. She made curtains for the windows by the door and a rug in front of the door. Our house looked so pretty, with purple wildflowers in a jug on the table. Momma was so proud. 

She began making all of us new blankets for our beds. We never got rid of the old ones; we just added another on top. Winters could be cruel in the prairie, so the more blankets, the better.  

The night she started working on my blanket was extra cold. The wind had been roaring all day, the bare trees swayed, and the fallen leaves churned in circles around the house. Papa made sure the animals had plenty of hay to bed on, and the barn was warm and came inside for dinner. He hung his coat and hat by the door, kissed Momma's cheek, and we all had some warm stew. The boys were out like a light soon after. I kissed Momma and Papa goodnight and went to bed myself.

Momma sat in her rocker by the fire to work on my blanket. Papa started cleaning the mud off his boots. 

Suddenly I was shaken awake by Momma. She was frantically calling my name, telling me to put on my boots, NOW! Half asleep, I did as I was told. She grabbed my hand and pulled me to the steps where Papa stood looking up, holding the boys wrapped in blankets. 

He looked terrified. Momma looked terrified. I suddenly felt terrified. I suddenly realized it was hot, stifling hot! Momma scooped me up, as big as I was, and carried me down the stairs, running for the door. The heat became even more intense. As we ran across the room, I realized the reason for their fear. Our house was on fire. 

There was smoke everywhere, burning my eyes and making it hard to see. I could barely make out what was left of Momma's rocking chair and the corner of my blanket Momma had been working on. They said a log had popped in the fire, and sparks had lit the blanket on fire. 

We all made it out of the house safely. Papa led us to the barn where it was warm and told me to watch the boys, to keep them in the barn. Then he and Momma grabbed watering buckets and ran for the pump. 

I could see the Johnsons riding in hard on their horses, buckets in hand. I could hear Mr. Johnson yelling to my dad that more people were on the way. 

They worked for hours, filling those buckets and sending them down an assembly line of folks to dump on the blaze. It was pointless in the end. The whole place burned to the ground. Ironically the only piece left standing was the rock chimney. 

I had never seen my Momma cry, but she did that night. We all went back to Johnson's farm. Mrs. Johnson helped the boys wash up, filled their tummies, and tucked them into a bed.

Momma helped me wash up but let me stay up with the adults for a bit. I think she knew I needed to be near her and Papa. 

We ended up spending the next year with them. The neighboring farmers all came out that spring. They helped Papa fall some trees and cut them into logs. They rebuilt our house using the same chimney. Momma worked diligently at making new curtains for it and clothes for the boys. 

Mrs. Johnson gave me two new dresses. They had belonged to her girls when they were younger. They had both married by then. I thought the dresses were beautiful! 

Momma let me ride with her one day to take the men some lunch. She and Mrs. Johnson had put together a basket full of biscuits, jam, dried meat, fried tomatoes, and some sweet tea. 

Watching all of our neighbors helping rebuild our house and making sure we had a roof over our heads was a wonder to see. These strong men were hauling logs and lifting them into place, knowing this wasn't even for them. Yes, what a sight, and I will never forget it. 

My parents lived in that house for the next 63 years. Once Momma passed, the city took possession of it and what was left of the land. It's now a campground for troubled teens. It sure was strange when I last went there to see all of the trees cleared in some parts and the house gone. Now there are bunkers and fire pits. They even built a large pier to go out into the pond we used to water the horses when we had them out in the fields. You know, it's funny how life changes. It just keeps moving forward, and you can't stop it."

A screech swelled up in the air as the train put on the brakes to slowly pull into the station. We were already here. Two hours went by in a flash. I wonder if that is how Mrs. Perkins felt her life had gone, in a flash, and here she was. 

We both stood, her a bit slower than I did. I looked into her tired, kind eyes smiled, and leaned down to embrace her in a warm hug. She returned the hug, then smiled up at me, touched my cheek, and turned to depart the train. 

October 20, 2022 23:45

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RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

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