Precious Little Without Them

In the span of a breath, everything changed. The bees chirped. The birds buzzed. And I sat reading a letter next to a gnarled tree. Alone.

I had watched as Eleanor packed our things, only leaving six chickens, the contents of the root cellar, my clothes, and my razor and strop. What precious little I had in my life without them. I held my chin steady as she picked up my youngest, adjusted her bonnet, and walked down the drive. She took my sons and my daughters with her. All ten of them pitied me as they lifted their valises and hefted them onto the stagecoach. I saw a joy inside each of them waiting to be loosed like the voices of a chorus during Easter services. My children were eager to start their adventure.

I picture them as they were in the stagecoach before Charles set the horses in motion. Helen, oblivious, demanded a gum drop and Sarah, my young lady, bent down to Helen’s ear. “Not now,” Sarah whispered. “We’re saying farewell to Papa.” My quiet Aileen held Felix’s hand. Mary Ellen, Langham, and Millicent sat lined up in a row, their legs dangled over the edge of the stagecoach platform. Standing up front, lanky William soothed the horses after the jostling and ruckus of loading their things. I said a silent prayer asking the Lord to watch over each one of them. I knew once they left my sight I was powerless to protect them.

Charles held the reins tightly and gave me his most solemn good-bye. The steeliness in his eyes reassured me that he knew what I expected of him. Man of the house. Settling a family in the frontier wouldn’t be easy, especially without their father; I hoped in that moment that I had sufficiently prepared Charles for the months ahead: the river crossings, the Indians and thieves, the unpredictable weather. All forces set on punishing my loved ones for aspiring to a better life. The thought of it has brought me to my knees more than once these past months.

Eleanor, my faithful wife, was the only one of them that looked peaked. I worried after they departed if I had witnessed the specter of illness on her face. Now, with this first letter, I know what I saw that day wasn’t illness. It was a secret. It was fear.

She had stepped onto the stagecoach that day knowing she was with child. I will meet my new son or daughter when I join them. They arrived the first week of July and I did not lose a one, praise God. Now all that’s left is the selling of the farm,  the wait for warmer weather, and my own journey west.

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19 Replies to “Precious Little Without Them”

  1. Like Meg and others I also thought the family was leaving him and it caused me to feel sympathy but also a bit of distrust. I think that is a GOOD thing – somehow you have balanced it just right so that we do feel relief to find out that he will be following them. But I also wanted to know why he wasn’t going. You could probably have it both ways by adding the necessary information late in the story during or after you’ve revealed that he will follow. Great story. Now I want to look up homesteader diaries!

    1. Thanks for the advice. I’m deciding whether I want this to read as a journal entry or a story. A journal entry wouldn’t explain his reasons for staying because he’d already know them. A story would. But your comment helps me see what I need to do whichever way I choose to go, so thanks SE!

  2. The poor guy! Your narrative is pitch perfect, relaying what must have been a common scene in the 19th century. (I could imagine that one gum drop — haven’t had one in years.) At the beginning, I also thought the family was leaving him and I felt a mix of distrust of the narrator and a sympathy for him. But I was relieved to see that they were only leaving earlier.

    1. Did it seem overly manipulative to you, Meg? I was just trying to enforce that the family leaving did feel like an abandonment to the father in the moment. Even though it was of his and his wife’s design. I wasn’t trying to bait and switch.

  3. This is brilliant, Nate! I love the history, and the way you tell it. I could feel his loss and worry as he sat there, letter in hand, beside the tree.
    I also thought she was leaving him and taking the children with her, but I was happy to find at the end that that wasn’t the case. To answer your question above (sorry, I can’t help myself!) I think it depends on what kind of effect you want the story to have. If you’d like the reader to think that she is actually leaving him, but then to be relieved to find that’s not the case, then you may not need to change anything. Otherwise, you could explain about the necessary things he must do before he leaves. They do provide interesting information and a bit more context. You could also say in the last sentence “my OWN journey west.” That might hit somewhere in the middle.

    1. I’ve been working on my misdirection lately. So I intentionally wrote this to make it seem like she was leaving him because of marital problems to build tension and then resolve it with the idea that they’re just leaving him behind.

      Thanks for your input. I’m going to think about how I want this to go. It would be pretty easy to insert the fields and selling the house at the end, I think.

  4. Oh, Nate, I love this! The details make it all so real. From your tags it looks like it’s based on stories from your actual family research?

    1. I’m fascinated with homesteaders. Giving everything up to move somewhere else and start up all over again with only the hope that it will be better than what you have. They were so brave. I will google homesteader diaries in my free time just to read what it was like. So, yeah, this is a compilation of what I’ve researched in my family and what I’ve researched on-line. The list of families in my tags are the parts of my tree that I knew homesteaded.

    1. He needed to finish harvesting his fields and sell his property. And he had two adult sons to handle the journey. I had it in there and then edited it out. Do you think it’s necessary info?

      1. Not really in the sense that it came across that it must have been something really important to keep him back. You could tell his family meant the world to him. I was just busting with curiosity! The emotions were so powerful.

  5. James, you did this wonderfully! I began the piece thinking it was the wife leaving him, out of anger/betrayal. How well you turned it on its head. I am speechless. Such tender shoulders of William to bear all that responsibility. Beautiful work. Beautiful.

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