I hated wagons.
If I never had to ride in one ever again for the rest of my life, I would be fine with that.
They were useful, sure. A necessity, even.
But oh my goodness, they were dreadful to sit on! Especially for an entire day.
It was actually more comfortable on that packhorse with all the parcels digging into my legs, than it was on that horrible wooden wagon seat.
My backside was even beginning to grow numb, and I couldn't decide if that was a good thing or a bad thing!
Mercifully, we finally stopped for the evening.
I climbed down from the wagon seat on tired, weak legs and somehow managed not to fall on my throbbing rear end.
Stiffly I made my way to the back of the wagon to retrieve one of my pots of beans.
Everyone had their own job to do, and they went off to do them without a word to me or anyone else.
Mr. Santos collected some sticks of wood and built a campfire.
Mr. Wiley unhitched the wagon horses and tethered them to a long rope he'd strung between two trees.
Mr. Burns and both MacBrides skirted their horses around the perimeter of the cattle herd, making sure none strayed.
Then they, too, tied their horses to the rope among the trees. Saddles were all removed, horses curried down, watered, fed, and left to rest.
I was pleased to see that they took proper care of their horses. I hadn't seen a lot of neglected or abused horses in my lifetime, but I'd seen enough to make me despise their owners for it.
Focusing my attention on the task at hand, I dragged the nearest pot of beans out of its spot and lifted the lid to examine the soaking batch.
The beans had doubled in size, swelled and softened a little from the water.
I added two strips of the dried jerky meat, broken into small pieces, and stirred them in with a wooden spoon. Then I added some brown sugar to make it sweet instead of salty.
Carefully I set the heavy lid-covered iron pot of beans into the fire that Mr. Santos had made, crowding it against the burning sticks as well as I could without getting burned myself.
While that cooked, I set about mixing up some batter for the cornbread I'd promised.
I didn't have all of the ingredients I needed to make it properly – I was missing milk and eggs – but I hoped it wouldn't make a significant difference in the finished product.
With a bit of lard I greased the same frying skillet I'd used for the dinner biscuits earlier, and I poured my batter into it. I wiped the inside of the bowl thoroughly with one forefinger to get every last bit out.
Leaving that to bake next to the bubbling pot of beans, I climbed inside the back of the wagon to search for some cloth suitable for protecting my hands from the heat when it was time to drag the bean pot and cornbread skillet out of the hot fire.
But the only fabric I could find was in the form of canvas food supply bags – and all the bags had supplies still left in them.
For a long moment I contemplated what to do.
Not coming up with any immediate solution, I looked around the wagon again for another option.
I found it on the outside of the wagon box.
Near where the metal dinner triangle and striker were stored, there was also hung a long stick of black iron. It resembled a fireplace poker, with a handle on one end but a hook on the other end.
Smiling in triumph, I lifted the iron stick off its nail and went to test it out.
Lord, I'd thought that bean pot was heavy when I was setting it down in the fire. But it seemed even twice as heavy when I tried to pull it back out with that hook!
I braced my feet, digging the heels of my shoes into the ground, and pulled with all of the strength that my arms had.
The pot lurched toward me a little bit in the dirt and ashes, but fortunately did not tip over.
Satisfied that the long-handled hook would work, I left the pot there to continue cooking and pulled the skillet of cornbread close to examine its progress.
Not very much longer and the cornbread would be perfect. I pushed it back toward the fire to continue baking.
Finally I decided the cornbread must be ready, and I dragged it out of the fire once again.
Leaving it sitting there on the ground since I still had nothing with which to lift the hot pan, I cut the cornbread into 6 large, equal wedges and placed one wedge on each of 6 plates.
Then I carefully pulled the pot of beans away from the fire again and lifted the lid off with the hook.
Thick juices bubbled up within the beans, a pleasantly sweet aroma coming off from the brown sugar I'd added earlier.
I stirred the batch before ladling the beans onto the plates. The syrupy juices ran into the cornbread, soaking the yellow crumb with a darker brown color.
I emptied the pot, scraping the bottom with the ladle and depositing the very last of the beans on the very last plate.
With the plates lined up on the back of the wagon, I added a spoon to each one and then rang the triangle to signal that the food was ready.
The men eagerly flocked at the plates. I waited until they all chose theirs, and I took the last remaining one and found a large rock to perch on near the campfire with the rest of the group.
The beans were still a bit firmer than I would have liked, and the cornbread was darker on the bottom than I'd expected.
But still, it was a good meal.
I'd never seen anyone enjoy food so much as these men did tonight. Neither a crumb of cornbread nor a single bean remained on the plates.
They'd seemed to have stopped just shy of actually licking the plates clean!
I hoped I'd made enough food to satisfy their hungry bellies. Should I have made more? Or made less, to stretch the supplies out?
But my fears were quickly laid to rest, as one of the men gave a loud belch of satisfaction and loosened his belt by one notch.
"Mighty good, ma'am," he nodded at me. "Good an' fillin'."
The others chimed in. "Best I've et in weeks."
"Lookin' forward to tomorrow night."
Ah, the sweet sound of success.
Now that I'd proved my place of worth in their traveling group, the men seemed to accept my being there a little more easily.
That is, until the sun went down and the moon rose above our camp.
Mr. MacBride left the campfire and disappeared into some trees. His son Logan meandered off in the other direction past the supply wagon.
The three hired ranch hands remained in their places near the fire, seemingly waiting for something.
The foreman, Mr. Burns, reached into the inside pocket of his vest and started to pull something out. Then he glanced at me and his hand came back out empty.
Mr. Wiley did something similar, but with something hidden from my sight behind a fallen log.
Mr. Santos shifted in his seat, a frown starting to creep onto his otherwise cheerful face.
That was odd. Were they trying to keep me from seeing something? I hadn't meant to intrude on their circle, and I certainly didn't want to put them ill at ease.
Not knowing what else to do, I rose to my feet with a simple bid of "Goodnight".
The men returned the phrase, and I left the campfire. I walked around the wagon, as if I were retiring for the night, but crept back to peer around the corner.
Mr. Burns put his hand into his vest pocket again, and this time withdrew a small silver flask. And the other men each pulled from behind the log a bottle of brown liquid.
Each took a swig from his own container and then kept them out in plain sight.
They didn't seem to care if the boss saw them drinking. But why hide it from me?
"Don't you know it isn't polite to spy on people?" a voice said low at my ear.
I jumped slightly, grateful that the moonlight wouldn't show the startled redness that I was sure was on my face.
"It isn't polite to sneak up on people, either," I chastised primly.
Logan MacBride grinned at me. "Well, I won't tell if you won't."
His smile was contagious. I couldn't help but return it with a modest glance at the ground.
I peeked over at the campfire again.
The men were drinking openly.
"Why do they do that?" I asked Logan seriously.
"Why does who do what?" he responded, moving past me to reach over the side of the wagon and poke around for something under the canvas cover.
"The men don't drink until I leave. Why?"
Logan paused in his movements, looking over his shoulder at me. "Does it bother you that they drink?"
I shook my head. "No, I honestly don't care." I'd heard before of women who were dead-set against their men touching even a drop of alcohol, but I'd never had any reason to count myself among them.
So long as they didn't harm anyone else, what did it matter?
My answer appeared to surprise Logan, for he gave me another glance as if he wasn't sure he'd heard me correctly.
"Well…" he answered easily. "Their women do mind it, so they've learned to hide it. And since you're female too…well, I imagine you can figure out the rest."
He finally found what he was looking for and pulled it from the wagon box.
I watched him shake open a dirty bedroll and lay it directly on the ground alongside the wagon just beyond the wheels. He stretched out on top of it fully clothed — boots and all. The only things he removed were his gun belt and his hat, which he laid within easy reach by his head.
Up until now, I hadn't given any thought to where I'd be sleeping. Would I have to sleep in the dirt too? I didn't even have a blanket!
"The wagon might be more comfortable for you," Logan voiced in the darkness. "You'll have to clear a spot, of course."
My cheeks burned again as I realized I must have ventured my thoughts out loud.
"Might even be a spare blanket in there."
I looked at the filthy one he was laying on. No way was I even going to touch something that dirty, much less lay on it and sleep!
I could make do with the bare wood of the wagon box. It had to be cleaner than those bedrolls were.
Hitching up my skirts, I climbed into the wagon to assess the situation. I couldn't see much in the darkness, of course, but I'd seen it in daylight too and I could vaguely make out the shapes of the barrels and boxes.
There was a little bit of room straight down the center of the wagon box, and if I moved a few things around I was pretty sure I could make enough room to lay out straight without having to bend my legs up all night.
I pushed and shoved and stacked crates and bags and barrels, organizing while I made space to sleep.
Dusty, sweaty and exhausted, I finally collapsed onto my tiny new "bed". I had neither mattress nor blanket nor pillow, but I did have my shawl to lay over myself and a small bag of rice upon which to lay my head, and the hard wooden floor wasn't too dreadfully intolerable.
In the darkness and privacy of the canvas wagon cover I changed into my nightgown, relieved to get the dusty fabric of my skirt and blouse off of my skin.
My undergarments were less dusty than the outer ones, but I shook them out too before folding everything up and laying them on top of my closed suitcase for quick re-dressing in the morning.
Closing my eyes, I listened to the soft breeze outside the wagon, to the buzzing of insects and the occasional lowing of cattle mixed in with scattered snoring from the men.
My first day on the cattle drive was over. And what a day it had been!