"My last ride in the old covered wagon"

My father lifted me up beside him, and held me tight on a journey that ended in mystery

by Pearl Harsin McMillen,  April 3, 1960

image of Lawrence O. Harsin
Lawrence O. Harsin, above, was the father of the author of the story

T0 THE western pioneer his covered wagon was more than just four wheels, a tongue. and some bows with canvas stretched over them It was a shelter, a protection, and an abode for him and his family Its bulging sides contained not only the family, but all their earthly belongings-all that they held most dear.
    I rode with my parents in a covered wagon from Tapley, Kan. to Silver City, Iowa, 80 years ago when I was less than a year old. Four years later I rode in it again when we returned to Kansas where mother's people lived.
    While living in the midwest two things caused us much anxiety. They were Indians and prairie fires.
    Bands of Indians passed our home once or twice a week on their way to a fishing hole They were called friendly Indians but mother and I could never quite trust them, especially if father was not at home. When we saw the Indians coming we would pile furniture agains the outside doors until they were out of sight. We had no locks on the doors except wooden latches.
    One cold day, however, mother brought a squaw into the kitchen. She tore up strips of rags to wrap the Indian woman's freezing feet and ankles. Then mother gave her a plate of food to eat. The squaw asked for some lean meat for her little dog. Mother told her she was sorry but bacon was the only kind of meat we had. The squaw took it, wrapped it in a piece of the rag, and left. We often wondered which ate the bacon.
    Prairie fires were most dreaded Usually our last thought at night was to scan the horizon for sign of smoke. Most homes had fire guards around buildings, feed stacks and bins Tire guard was a plowed strip several feet wide where men could start a back fire if they saw a prairie fire coming. Most people kept a barrel or tank of water with some gunny sacks near.  These were soaked with water and used to beat out flames. I saw many prairie fires. Once a fire went each way around our home The fire guards turned it and saved us.
    While we lived in Silver City my father often got work on a railroad that was being built there. Sometimes we accompanied him as many families did and prepared camp fire meals for the men.
    In the evenings after supper the families would all gather around one big camp fire and sing hymns and old folk songs. I remember TheLittleRosewood Casket,ButcherBoy, Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage and That L ittle Old Sod Shanty on My Claim
    In 1884 an uncle living at Lyons, Neb., wrote father that there was a good farm adjoining his own which could be bought with at reasonable down paymen
    We then sold all our belongings except a few things we could take with us. Father had accumulated a nice string of horses. These he planned to take to Kearney, Neb., which was then the big horse market of the west. With the money from sale of the horses and what we had saved, he would continue on to Lyons to buy our future home. Mother and I were to visit at grandfather's until he sent for us.
    At last, after a long ride in the covered wagon, we arrived at grandfather's home in Osborne
County, Kansas.
    After spending a few days there to rest himelf and the horses, father continued his journey. I loved my father dearly and the rnornlng he left was a sad one for me I cried and begged him so hard not to go, that he finally said to pacify me, "Oh mother, let her ride down to the corner with me." It was about one-half mile away, in plain sight of the house
    He lifted me to the old spring seat beside him and placed his arm around me and held me tight as the wagon rolled along.
    I do not remember much that was said on our last ride Only this: "Daddy will miss his little girl. You must be a good girl and mind mother till daddy gets back and remember to study hard."
    All too soon we reached the corner. He lifted me to the ground, gave me a little notebook and pencil (which I still have) and kissed me goodbye. I tore away from him and ran with all my might back toward the house.
    For weeks I slept each night with his old felt hat clutched in my arms. It was all I had left of my father.
    Mother received one letter saying he was nearing Kearny and as soon as the sale was made he would send her some money, The money never came and father dropped out of sight as completely as if the ground had swallowed hIm up. A search was made by relatives, who inquired near and far, but no trace of him could be found. Neither could any report be found of the sale at Kearney.
    For 37 years his whereabouts remained a mystery
    In the mean time we continued to live in my  grandfather's home and shared with him both
love and care. The necessities of life were as freely given to us as to his own large family
    Mother worked wherever she could find work to do either housework, cooking or sewing. Grandmother and her daughters took in washings, which they did on the washboard, and ironings, which they performed with old sadirons or charcoal irons.
    The men folks all got jobs when possible and thus we continued to live. We smaller children did our share of gathering both food and fuel. The food consisted mostly of wild fruits. There were gooseberries, raspberries, plums, currants, elderberries, chokeberries and wild grapes. The fruit was made into jams or jelly, and canned in tin cans closed with sealing wax. Corn raised on new sod furnished corn meal for mush and corn bread. also hominy and dried corn.
    Many kinds of weeds made greens and sheep sorrel was made into pies, much like rhubarb in taste. Our meat was mostly wild duck, prairie chicken, rabbit and quail.
    Cane was raised on small patches,then stripped and hauled to a sorghum mill where it was made into syrup. This furnished much of the necessary sweetening .Vinegar also was made from it.
    We usually had a cow or two to furnish milk, cream and butter. These products were kept cool on cave floors or placed in a bucket and hung in the well. Such was our refrigeratlon.
    Kraut was made from both cabbage and turnips and weighted down in large crocks or wooden kegs.
    Our coffee was 15 cents a pound but even at that price ,we made it go farther by pulling in some sweet potato peelings, washed and dried in the ovens
    We had what we called "poor man's" dishes. They were egg-butter custard pie and pudding;  poor man's pie, which was bread and milk with egg flavoring and sugar, something like a custard; vinegar sauce and pie, and minute pudding, which was like corn meal mush, only made with wheat flour.
    For fuel we used corn stalks and sunflower stalks cut in stove lengths, and buffalo and cow chips. Sometimes when corn was cheap, say 10 cents a bushel, we burned some corn.
    I can see grandmother yet, with her kitchen apron full of beautiful ears. She would hesitate before the stove, saying, "I hate to do this. Someone might go hungry."
    Houses were of various kinds - sod, dug-out, bank and log-houses. Most had dirt floors and and roofs of brush and straw with gravel on top. One house we lived in was made of sod with a dirt floor. A ridge log with brush, grass and gravel formed its roof. We fastened unbleached muslin on the ceiling to keep the dirt from rattling down on the table and beds. The walls were plastered with a native plaster from a bank near our home. Then it was whitewashed with lime and was clean and beautiful..We put a homemade carpet on the front room floor and fastened it down with little wooden pegs.

    We hung pictures in fancy homemade frames with wreaths of yarn flowers and other handwork under the glass. Sod windows were ideal for houseplants, especially geraniums anf fuschias.
    Clothing was scarce and even if new calico was only 10 cents a yard, we children could not expect new dnesses very often. My youngest auntie, Viola, who was about my age, asked her mother for a new dress one day. Grandmother replied:  "I'm sorry but we don't have anything to make dresses of unless we should make them from a flour sack or a gunny sack." Viola thought it over a minute and then said in an earnest tone; "I will wear one made f'rom a flour sack but I won't wear one made from a gunny sack."
    Thus the years rolled by
    Finally after 37 years, my uncle Robert KirkendalI, my mother's brother, recelved a call one day to go to the deathbed of a man he had never known. When he arrived the man was very low, but rallied his strength to tell this story:
    "I cannot die with this on my conscience," he said,  'Thirty-seven years ago, I was a sheriff and headed a posse to overtake a group of men believed to be horse thieves and thought to be headed for the Kearney market with a large herd of horses."
    "Our second day, out we came on seven men, with a large numher of horses. They were at their breakfast campfire. We surrounded them and shot them down like so many dogs. Then we' threw their bodies into a gulch and covered them over with dirt. As one man was dying he called to me and said, 'You have killed an innocent man, for believe me, I am no horse thief. I came upon these men yesterday. They asked me to join them to drive the horses on in. I have a wife and baby girl at Corinth, Kan. Please let them know what has happened to me. My identification is this broken front tooth and a severed forefinger on my right hand.
    The sheriff s last words were "All these years I have wanted to tell the truth but was not man enough to face it. That mans innocent pleading face has haunted me ever since."
    Is it any wonder that my eyes grow moist and mr heart is stirred by sight or mention of an old covered wagon?
    I'm nearing 80, but if I live to be 100 I shall never forget that last precious half mile ride with my father in just such a wagon.