Eight: Across the Big River

“Yes, I reckon this is it,” said Pa, as he carefully rolled the map back up.

It was not what Laura expected. She had imagined in Pepin they would find the ruins of another Merican village like the one where they had found Jack. But here there was nothing. Just trees and rocks and the endless frozen water.

Laura and Mary had thought it another lake at first. They had been arguing about what to name it when Pa explained that the barren white expanse stretching before them was no lake at all but a giant river. The Misisip River. They had reached it at last.

In recent days, with nearly every stream and river they encountered, Laura would ask if that was the Misisip. Now she saw how silly that was. Not even the biggest river they had seen so far on their journey could be compared to bigness of the Mighty Misisip River.

Standing there, gazing out at the icy expanse, Laura could not even see the river’s other side. Yet, as they travelled along the Misisip’s rocky banks, the handcar clattering over the smooth round stones that peeked up out of the snow like buried eggs, Laura saw that Pa was right. This was no lake. The bank curved this way and that, but it never seemed to take them around to the other side. The Big River just kept rolling along.

By late afternoon, they came to a wide flat beach by a bend in the river. Pa brought out his map and compass and declared they’d reached the place the Mericans had called Pepin. Somewhere on the other side was the Old Sixty-Three Road that they would follow to Davenport. This was where they must cross.

“Charles, are you sure?” asked Ma. She looked from the frozen water to the stony beach to the low trees that crowned the top of the riverbank, as if she could not quite believe that a town had once stood here.

“We’ll be able to orient ourselves a might better once the stars come out, but, yes, I reckon this is it. I just pray we’re not too late in the season.”

They made camp that night right on top of the stones by the river’s edge. Laura was worried it would be too bumpy for sleeping, but Ma helped her dig out a place for her sleeping mat. When all the big pointy stones were gone and all the tiny flat stones were laid out just so, it was like a nice cozy cradle.

Pa said that he wished he had his pick and saw with him. He would cut a hole in the ice and catch them some fish. He didn’t have those things, though, and so supper was a saltmeat and vegetable soup once again. It felt warm and good flowing down into Laura’s stomach, but she noticed that the broth was thinner than it had been.

As the cookfire dwindled, Laura asked about Pepin. Had there really been a town here once? Pa said he reckoned there had been. What happened to it? Pa said he didn’t know. Maybe the river had changed course and washed it away. Maybe someone had come through and scavved everything away, bricks and all. Or maybe it had just slowly fallen apart, year by year, until there was no trace of it left except a name on an old map.

The next morning, Pa went out onto the ice. Laura and Mary and Ma and Baby Grace and Jack all watched from the beach.

The surface of the river was jagged in places. Waves had frozen in place and now jutted out like snarling teeth. But here beside their camp it was flat and smooth. Convoys liked to cross here during the winter, Pa had explained, because they knew the river was shallow and calm and the ice would be thick.

That made Laura feel better as she watched Pa walk out onto the barren whiteness of the Misisip. Still, there was a knot in her stomach, and she clutched Ma’s hand tight as Pa’s figure grew tinier and tinier in the distance.

To keep them occupied, Ma had Laura and Mary search the riverbank for the prettiest stones they could find and gather them up in a nice pile by the handcar. Mary threw herself into the task. She would pace up and down the beach and return, her coat pockets filled with the most perfectly shaped little pebbles, all shimmering in hues of purple and rose. Laura tried to participate in the game, but she found herself lingering by Ma and Baby Grace, looking out over the frozen river.

Ma said that when she was a little girl, about Laura’s age, she had lived for a time in a displacee camp near the Misisip. In those days the river seldom froze over. When it did, the ice was too thin to walk across safely.

“But the winters have been getting colder,” she told Laura. “People say the Misisip freezes solid nearly every year now, all the way down into the Illinoy. Bad for ferrymen and farmers. But good for the winter convoys I suppose.

“I heard my gran once say it used to be so in olden days. Colder in winter. That’s the way of things I suppose. The world goes one way and then after a while it goes back the other.”

Laura thought on that a while. She rolled one of her pebbles in her palm, tracing its purple veins as they wound round and round the stone and back round again.

Suddenly, Jack began to bark. A shape had appeared on the horizon. It was Pa. He was walking back to them.

“Well, thank goodness,” Laura heard Ma mutter under her breath.

Pa nodded when he returned. The nod didn’t seem to satisfy Ma, and she handed Baby Grace to Mary before pulling Pa aside. They walked away from the car, towards the edge of the beach. They talked in hushed tones, but the wind carried their words right back down to Laura’s little ladle ears.

“You’ll hear some crackling,” Pa was saying, “but the surface still seems mighty solid to me. We can cross, I’m confident of it.”

“Confident?” said Ma, her voice rising so high and sharp that it caused Laura and Mary turn to look at one another with uncertain eyes. “That car’s as heavy as a bisox. If the ice should break . . .”

“What would you suggest, Caroline?” Laura heard Pa answer, his tone controlled. “That we doubleback the way we came? Try to follow the river’s edge north until we find a better spot? Cut our way blindly through the bush down into the Illinoy? The ice is solid, I say. We can make it.”

The winds shifted, and Laura could not hear the rest of her parents’ discussion. But a moment later they were back, Pa’s arm around Ma’s shoulder and both smiling, as if nothing could be amiss. The way that Ma hummed as she knelt down to pull Laura’s hood tighter around her cheeks and tuck her scarf snug down under her coat, you might have thought she was preparing them to go sledding on a jolly Crismis morning, not to walk out across the big empty Misisip River.

When they were ready, Ma took Mary in one hand and Laura in the other. Baby Grace was wrapped cozy across her back. They all stepped carefully out onto the ice, while Pa wheeled the handcar up the beach to find a separate spot to cross.

“Slow and steady, girls,” Pa called after them. “It can be slippery in places. Don’t worry. I’ll see you soon on the other side.”

Pa was right. Laura felt her left boot slip out to the side. She waved her arm around to keep her balance. But she didn’t fall. With Ma helping to steady her, Laura soon regained her footing, and together they made their way further out onto the river.

“Oh, and girls?” Pa called again when they were almost out of earshot. Laura turned back to look at Pa, waiting on the stony riverbank with the big heavy handcart.

“Keep your eyes out for the boat,” he said.

Laura and Mary looked at one another, wondering if they had heard him right.

Step by careful step, they journeyed deeper into the desolate whiteness of the frozen Misisip. Laura looked behind her towards the receding shore. In the distance, she could see Pa, dragging the car behind him, a small dark shadow against the featureless ice. She tried to wave.

Whoops! Laura slipped again. She hadn’t been minding her steps, and her feet slid out in opposite directions beneath her. Ma lurched forward, twirling to a halt as Laura’s weight pulled against her arm. After that, she made Mary and Laura walk ahead on their own. It wouldn’t do for Ma herself to topple over, not with Baby Grace on her back.

Laura tried to be careful, taking tiny steps and sliding her feet back and forth without even lifting them. But before long that slippery ice stole her feet out from under her again, and she crashed all the way down onto her bottom. It didn’t hurt much. Her long thick coat cushioned her fall. Still it took a few moments sitting on the ice, telling herself to be a big brave girl, before she was able to push herself back up to her feet. No sooner was she upright than she saw Mary, who had continued walking on ahead of her, slip and fall just as hard onto her own bottom. Instantly, Laura felt better.

On they went. Sometimes, a thin layer of brittle snow crunched under Laura’s boots. Then walking on the river was easy. But sometimes the wind swept the river clean and smooth. Then there was nothing beneath Laura but the dark deep ice, streaked in tangled cracks like a spider’s web. That was when it was most treacherous. Laura walked especially slowly across these naked patches of ice, arms held high out to her sides.

Suddenly, a noise made Laura stop in her tracks. It started as a low rumble and ended with a creak and a pop. Mary gasped and turned back to look at Ma, but Ma just waved her hand.

“It’s nothing,” she said quickly. “That’s the ice settling. Like the floorboards back home on a winter evening. Just keep moving, girls.”

At the mention of home, the flat grey landscape suddenly seemed all the more alien and formidable to Laura. She found herself wishing she were safe and warm back inside their little house, sheltered by the big trees and the steep hills.

There was another loud boom and a ferocious crackling. It seemed to come from somewhere nearby, down beneath their feet. Laura bit her lip.

For a moment, she was too scared to continue. Then, she felt Mary next to her. Mary squeezed her arm. Together, they walked forward.

The river kept on making its alarming sounds, tick-tick-ticking beneath them before erupting in a terrible crash. Laura tried not to think about it. But then she remembered Pa and the heavy handcar, and she was more frightened than ever. Would the ice be thick enough to support all that weight? Despite herself, she imagined a chasm opening underneath the handcar and swallowing her father up, sucking him down into the freezing depths of the Misisip. She dared not even glance back behind her. Instead, she kept her mind on her feet, telling herself that if a whole trade convoy could cross the river, then so could their little family.

“Laura, look,” Mary suddenly whispered, yanking at Laura’s arm.

Laura looked up. With relief, she realized she could see the other side of the river approaching. But there was something else, something giant looming before them. At first, she thought it was the ruins of old lectric building. One end rose up at an angle, the other dove downward, half-buried in the distant riverbank.

“I think that’s the boat,” said Mary.

It was hard to imagine a boat so big, but Laura supposed that Mary must be right. The upper end was curved, scooping up the sky like an enormous spoon. It reminded Laura of the fronts of the trade boats she’d seen anchored in Mishgan Lake. Those boats had been wood, she remembered. The prow of this monstrous boat seemed to be made of iron, dappled in the same oranges and browns as the lectric cars that slept along the old number roads. How could such a thing float? And just think how many people it would take to row it!

Laura was so wonderstruck by the gigantic metal boat that she hardly noticed when the ground around her began to change. First, rocks appeared, poking their heads up out of the ice. Then, the brown skeletons of bushes and brambles and small trees popped up here and there. Soon, her feet were not walking on ice at all but hardened, snow-frosted mud. They had reached the other side of the Misisip at last.

Ma led them up the side of the riverbank, not far downriver from the stranded lectric boat. There, they found a dry spot to sit amid a group of young birch trees, sheltered from the wind by a long flat hill. Ma wiped a hand across her face, and her muscles seemed to relax ever so slightly as she loosened her cloak and unbundled Baby Grace. She fussed over each of the girls in turn. Then, she stood and hurried back out to the edge of the embankment.

Grace had started to cry, so Laura picked her up. Bouncing her in her arms, she walked up beside their mother, followed by Mary. Together, the four of them looked back out over the river.

It took a moment, but then Laura located the dark shape of the handcar, weaving uncertainly over the ice. It was almost to the other side! They had all crossed the big river safe and sound! Laura held Baby Grace high in the air, twirling and shouting in excitement.

“He’s going to make it! He’s going to make it!” she told her little sister, who was so startled she stopped crying and looked at Laura with big eyes.

“Well,” was all Ma said. “There’s that done.”

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