On The Banks Of Swartz Creek : A Novel By Alyssa Tillett Chapter 1

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Chapter 1

Michigan 1852

Wells B. Miller looked out the window towards the supplies and horses that were ready for the trip. California. A place where dreams and gold could be found. His Uncle David was hugging his family goodbye. His father, Daniel Miller, came over and handed him a small package wrapped carefully in brown paper. “A gift for my son on his adventure” Daniel said as he handed his son the package. Wells took the package from his father and gave him a hand shake. “Thank you Father”.

His mother, Ann, came over and gave her oldest son a hug. “We will be praying for you.” His mother, always praying for her children. “Thank you Mother” he said as he returned her hug.

“We should head out, we have to get to John’s house before dark” David secured his saddle bags and swung up in the saddle.

Wells put the package in his saddle bags and swung up on his horse. His younger siblings, and his parents waved as the two men and their horses left the yard. They had 30 miles to go today to make it to Uncle John’s house in Fenton. Wells was a tall young man at age 19. This trip west was his chance at proving himself a man, to make a name for himself. He sat and thought about the stories he had heard of the gold out west. Nuggets so big and so many all you had to do was pick them off the ground. Of course he didn’t believe it would be that easy. Things were exaggerated these days, especially when it came to the west.

He remembered as a boy of 6 years moving from New York to Michigan Territory. The long trip was an adventure to him as a boy. They had moved to a small logging settlement in Genesee county. He loved Michigan and the beautiful trees that would turn to vibrant oranges, reds, and yellows in the Autumn. But he longed for more adventure than the small settlement had to offer. He wanted to experience for himself the wild west. His father, Daniel, was a preacher. He rode all over the country side preaching to different settlements and towns. Once in awhile Wells would ride with his father and accompany him, but the longer trips he had to stay home and help out with farm chores and the logging business.

 Wells looked around him to take in the landscape. The trees were still bare from winter, the air still crisp with a hint of spring in the April air. It was going to be a long trip going west on horseback. He didn’t know when he would be back in Michigan. They arrived at Johns house late that day. They ate a simple dinner and headed to bed. Wells woke up the next morning a little sore from sitting in the saddle. Since today was Sunday, they would rest, and talk about their trip west. In the morning two other men were joining them west, Jim Davis and Cole Jenkins. Monday came around crisp and clear as the men headed towards Chicago. The two other men who joined them were quiet, but Wells didn’t mind the silence.

One night between Fenton and Chicago as they set up camp under the stars, Wells remembered the package his father had given him. He opened the brown paper carefully and took out the book. A Bible. His father had given him a Bible. He gently put the paper back over the Bible and slipped it back in his saddle bag. His family had always read the Bible and prayed. His father was a reverend and made sure of that. He supposed he believed in God. But that was as far as it went for him. Exhausted from the day of travel, he laid back his head and dreamt of summertime on the banks of swartz creek.

~

They rode into a swampy town called Chicago. Mud was caked onto the boots of men and the hooves of the horses. Chicago was bigger than Wells had imagined. Compared to the settlement he came from, this place was filled with people. Buildings were being constructed, wagons full of lumber passing by, construction workers yelling back and forth. So much noise, people, and mud. Made him miss the wilds of Michigan, the quiet, serene trees, and his family. But he knew once they left this boisterous city the trip would be fairly quiet. The men stocked up on more supplies for their trip and camped outside of town. The mosquitoes were just coming out, and Wells couldn’t wait to get out of the swampy town.

As they got closer to Council Bluffs, Iowa, they passed through rolling hills and farms. They spent the next two weeks in town waiting for grasses along the trail to grow to feed the horses. Multitudes of men traveled across the plains in search of their dreams, of land beyond measure, and gold so rich you could pick it up off the ground. Most of these men though would never reach this land that held their hopes and dreams, they knew little of the hardships of traveling west, of disease, thirst, and hunger. 

Two days before they were scheduled to cross the river, Wells strolled down the dusty road towards the sign that read “barber”. His long brown hair needed to be cut before the next leg of their journey. He didn’t know when the next time he would run across a barber. A little bell jingled as he walked through the door. He took off his dusty hat and held it to his side as a older gentleman walked to greet him.

“Howdy, what can I do for you?”

“Just needing a good haircut sir.”

“Haircut and a shave is 75¢

Wells counted out 75¢ and handed it to the man. The barber talked about the west and all the men traveling the plains. He rambled on until he was finished with Wells. He thanked the man and walked back onto the busy street. After he crossed the river, there was no turning back. Wells thought of home, of Swartz Creek and the maple trees. He thought of his parents and siblings and suddenly remembered the letter to his sister Martha and his mother. He walked over to a shade tree and sat down to finish the letter.

My dearest sister Martha,

In just two days we will cross the great Missouri River. We have stayed in Council Bluffs for nearly two weeks waiting for the grasses on the prairie to grow so our horses will have food for the long journey ahead. I will admit I am a little nervous. I hear stories of the dangers of the prairie and the storms that come suddenly. But we should be fine, do not worry to much about us. You would like it out west, where the sky seems to collide with the ground. Sky and prairie, and a few hills, are all that’s out here. I am sorry I missed your birthday in April. With you being 15, soon the young men will be coming to court you. You tell them though that I will have to approve before you decide to get married. Hopefully that day is still years to come though. The heat here has almost been unbearable, and it is only the middle of May. I am sure the last of the frost has finally given up it’s hold there in Michigan and the flowers and leaves have come out.

Out here they do things differently, talk differently. The other day I was walking by a corral with a wild looking horse. A man with an equally wild look to him got on the horse. The horse bucked and tried to get him off but he held on until the beast was tired and gave up. I have never seen anything like it. It is different than the way we train horses back home, but maybe that is why they call it the “Wild West”?

Well it is getting late and I still need to pen a letter to Mother and Father. Stay well my little sister. It may be awhile until I can mail you another letter, until then don’t worry to much, and give my other siblings a hug for me.

Love Your Brother

Wells Miller

~

Wells woke as soon as the sun had risen. Today was the day to cross the wide Missouri River. The last chance to head home. He dismissed that last thought quickly. He needed to go west. He needed to earn money and make a name for himself. He got up and rolled his bedroll and packed it away. There was coffee sitting by the fire and he poured himself a steaming cup. His Uncle David handed him a plate of eggs with a biscuit. The last warm breakfast he would have in awhile. Wells savored the eggs and biscuit. But they needed to get over to the ferry soon so he gulped down the last of his coffee and put the cup in his pack.

They loaded all their things on the ferry. The horses would swim beside them. Wells heart was in his throat as they boarded the ferry and they started moving. He looked back at the town that was growing smaller, and turned around to face the other side of the river. No looking back now. This is it, the only way to go is forward now. 

Soon the wet horses and all their supplies were on shore. Wells wiped down his mare, Sandy, and saddled her. They loaded the tents and supplies on the pack horses they had gotten in town to help carry their extra things for the long trip ahead. They whinnied in anticipation of being on the trail and moving away from the flies and mosquitos. 

When they were ready they started off on a well worn path west. The gentle rolling hills were starting to smooth out as they got further away from the river. The sun beat steadily down on their heads and shoulders as the day got warmer. Clouds gathered in the distance to the south, building into what could be a thunderstorm. Uncle David urged his horse into a faster pace. “We need to increase our speed if we want to make camp before that storm hits.” Wells listened to his Uncle’s wisdom. His uncle was his father’s youngest brother, and full of adventure and spunk, but he held wisdom and understanding too. He was thankful that his uncle had joined him on this trip. In the evenings, they would talk of the gold fields, adventure, and of course, home. Home, where the trees and the Michigan breeze would have you closing your eyes and enjoying the songs of the birds in seconds. Where the cry of the hawk could be heard along with the sawing of logs. He opened his eyes and saw the prairie around him, barren, dusty, and hot.

The storm rolled in as the men finished their supper for the evening. They secured the horses so they wouldn’t be able to bolt if the thunder spooked them. This summer thunderstorm wasn’t as intense as the ones Wells had heard stories about though. He had heard of storms so strong it could lift a wagon in a blink of an eye. Storms that howled and tore a path through the ground as if trees were just twigs, and houses playthings that could be tossed around. This storm was just a light summer rain storm that was welcomed. The more rain, the more grass that the horses could eat on their journey.

There was a light drizzle the next morning as Wells saddled his horse. But the rain let up once the men started out again. The gloomy clouds gave way to blue skies and hot humid sunshine. The bugs came out with a ferocity after the rain and wouldn’t give up on the horses. A light meal of salt meat and hard tack was their breakfast, lunch, and supper too. Wells missed his mother’s cooking of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and green beans. Water was getting scarce the further west they went. What little water they did find was cloudy, not comparable to Michigan’s clear water. The days grew longer, and hotter. The graves on the side of the trail increased also. Wells stopped counting after 75 graves. His heart was heavy for the people who lost their life on the prairie, and the families that never made it to their dream land out west. 

Is this worth it? Is a dream worth dying for? What if my time comes before I have the chance to have my own family. What will happen to me after I die? These thoughts plagued him as they traveled silently along. What if all that my Father has taught me is true? Is there really a loving God out there?

Wells had grown up in church, it was expected of him. They always said their prayers each day. But that was his parents faith. Did he have a faith of his own? Wells didn’t yet know the answers to these questions, but it was something to ponder and think about.

~

They were almost halfway through their journey. Uncle David predicted they could be in Oregon City in late August or early September. The landscape had changed from rolling hills with a few trees to no trees at all. The sky met the ground, and flat prairie land was all you could see.

The wind started to pick up, which concerned Wells. With no trees to help break the wind, it could stir up the dust until you couldn’t see beyond the head of a horse. He hopped off his horse and grabbed a jacket from his saddle pack, the others did so as well as dust swirled around them. The horses pranced in fear and snorted at the howling wind. Wells took the jacket and covered his horses eyes and nose to prevent the dust getting in his horses lungs. He covered his own face with his bandanna and slowly walked the horse forward. He finally had to stop and wait it out because he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face. The wind and dust swirled about him, his horse whinnied in fear, but he held on as tightly as possible. As quick as the dust and wind had come it left just as quickly. He removed his jacket from his horse’s head and checked to make sure she was fine. Uncle David, Jim, and Cole were dusting off their clothes the best they could.

“Quite the windstorm eh Wells?” Jim spoke as he hopped back into his saddle. Cole coughed into his bandanna and swung into his saddle as well.

“Uncle David, are you alright?” Wells could see he was having trouble breathing.

“Yeah don’t worry about me, just got some dust up my nose is all”

They rode until the sun was sinking on the horizon. As they made camp Wells and his Uncle took the horses near the small creek to get water. After a refreshing drink, they tethered the horses and built a small fire from cow chips they found along the trail. Cole made some weak coffee, Jim played his harmonica, Uncle David read his Bible, and Wells wrote a letter to his family. It would be weeks before he could send it, but he wanted to tell them about the dust storm while it was fresh in his memory. He described the landscape, the long hot days, and the adventure of it all. Leaving out some of the things that would make his Mother worry though like the lack of vegetables, or fresh food in general, and the murky water they had barely been able to find.

Wells put his writings away and settled on his bedroll. As he closed his eyes he thought about what it would be like to have a family of his own. Would he ever find a woman who would follow him through all the adventures he wanted to do? He didn’t know why these thoughts suddenly came to him, maybe he was just missing his family. He closed his eyes and dreamed about green grass, tall trees, his family, and that small creek with cold clean water called Swartz Creek.

Thank you for reading Chapter 1! I hope you enjoyed it. Don’t forget to keep your eye out next week for chapter 2.

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