Eight: Across the Big River

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, 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 its rocky banks, 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 Misisip. There, Pa set down the handcar. Then he pulled out his map and compass and squatted down amongst the stones.

The beach’s stones were smooth and round. The ground was covered with them. They emerged from beneath the frozen river and spread out all the way to the steep mud embankment that enclosed the beach. Some were as big as Laura’s fist and poked up from the shore like buried eggs. Most were pebbles, thousands upon thousands of them, all packed together in a dense carpet that critch crunched beneath Laura’s boots.

Further up the beach, the stones had been stuck together by ice and frozen mud, but here, sheltered by the embankment, they were loose. As Pa consulted his instruments, Laura dug her foot into the pebbles, feeling the satisfying crackle of the tiny stones giving way.

A flash of color caught Laura’s eye. She peered closer down at the pebbles she had turned over with her boot. Amongst the ordinary stone-colored stones were sparkles of green and rose and blue, glossy and translucent.  At that very moment, the sun seemed to come out from behind a cloud, making the little gems shine all the brighter. Laura looked around her. Suddenly, the entire beach seemed to glitter.

Laura quickly plucked up several of the gemstones and showed them to Ma. They were bits of old lectricmade glass, Ma told her, polished down into little round pebbles by the river. Laura held her handful of glass pebbles up and let them roll around in her palm, catching the light. They were so pretty.

Laura began to collect more. She found one that was turquoise and one that was amber and several that were clear as diamonds. As she hunted, she also began to come across pebbles made of hardmold. They did not sparkle like the glass pebbles, but many were just as beautiful in their own way. Their vibrant, lectricmade colors jumped out amid the drab grays and browns of the natural stones. Oranges and purples and colors that Laura felt she had never seen before, colors for which she had no name.

Soon, Mary had joined the hunt, and together they scoured the beach, stuffing glass and hardmold pebbles into their pockets.

Meanwhile, Pa rolled his parchment map back into a skinny tube. He stood. He traced the river’s bend with squinting eyes.

“Yes, I reckon this is it,” he said.

This was the place the Mericans had called Pepin, Pa explained. This was where the winter convoys crossed on their way to Great Mishgan Lake. Somewhere on the other side was the Six Three Road, the old number road that would lead them to Davenport.

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

“Charles, are you sure?” asked Ma. She looked from the frozen water to the stony beach to the gnarled trees that crowned the top of the embankment, as if she too 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 pebbles were flattened out just so, it made for 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 once more a soup with saltmeat and pickled vegetables. The broth seemed thinner than it had been, but it felt warm and good flowing down into Laura’s stomach.

As the cookfire dwindled, Laura asked about Pepin. Had there really been a town here once? Pa said he reckoned there had been. Laura wondered what had happened to it. Pa said he didn’t know. Maybe the river had changed course and washed it away, he said. Maybe someone had come through and scavved everything away, bricks and all. Or maybe it had all 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 shore.

Elsewhere, the river’s surface was jagged, where waves seemed to have frozen mid-crest, reaching up out of the ice like grasping talons. But here beside the stony beach where they had made camp, the Misisip appeared flat and smooth. That was why trade convoys liked to cross here during the winter, Pa had explained. 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 Big River. 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 beach for the prettiest pebbles they could find and gather them up in a nice pile by the handcar. Laura threw herself into the game, trying not to think about Pa and the ice. She paced up and down the beach, plucking up the most promising looking gems. Eventually, she happened upon a hardmold pebble that was especially striking. It was nearly perfectly round, and a whole rainbow of colors swirled round and round its surface. Laura took it back to Ma.

Ma admired Laura’s pebble and said that it was indeed very beautiful, but Laura could tell that her thoughts were elsewhere. Mary seemed to have already given up on the pebble-hunting game. She was sitting beside Ma and Baby Grace, her head resting on Ma’s shoulder. Laura balled her pebble up in her fist and sat down at Ma’s other shoulder. All four of them gazed out upon the frozen river.

When she was a little girl, Ma told Mary and Laura, 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.

“My grandmother said 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 spun the hardmold pebble around in her fingers, tracing its veins of color as they wound round and round 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 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 to turn to one another. “That car’s as heavy as a bisox. If the ice should break . . .”

“What would you suggest, Caroline?” Laura heard Pa answer. “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. Ma hummed as she knelt down to pull Laura’s hood tighter around her cheeks and tuck her scarf snug down under her coat.

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 immediately 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, who waited on the stony riverbank with the big heavy handcar.

“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 out onto 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, brittle layer of 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 deep dark ice, streaked in tangled cracks. 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 gray 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 tall trees and the steep hills of the Big Woods.

There was another loud boom and a ferocious crackling. It seemed to come from somewhere nearby, down beneath Laura’s 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-tick-ing 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. It rose up at an angle, its bottom half-sunk down into the distant riverbank.

“I think that’s the boat,” said Mary.

Laura supposed that Mary must be right, but it was hard believe a boat could be so big. Laura thought of the boats she’d seen anchored in Mishgan Lake. Those boats had been wood. The monstrous shape before them seemed to be made of iron, dappled in the same oranges and browns as the lectric cars that slept along the old number roads. Its gigantic prow hovered high in the air, scraping at the sky like an enormous spoon. Laura could not imagine how such a thing could float, let alone how many sailors it would take to row it.

Laura was so wonderstruck by the enormous 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. There, they found a dry spot to sit amid a group of young birch trees, sheltered from the wind by a long box-shaped 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 sister in her arms, she walked up beside Ma. Mary followed. They all looked east, back out over the frozen expanse they had crossed. The stranded iron boat lay some ways upriver, and Laura could see its shadow creeping across the ice.

Finally, Laura located the dark shape of the handcar. She watched it weave in fits and starts over the treacherous terrain. Her fear returned for a moment, but soon it was clear that Pa had made it into the river’s shallows. He 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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