I woke at dawn feeling like my body had aged ten years overnight.
Apparently the hard floor of the wagon was terrible after all, and coupled with a full day yesterday of bouncing around on that wagon seat, I was incredibly stiff and sore from my eyebrows all the way down to my toes.
I wasn't accustomed to sleeping on anything other than the old straw-ticking mattress in my room back at the Kirkman Hotel and Restaurant. But even as worn and lumpy as that mattress was, it had felt like a fluffy cloud compared to that wagon floor!
I dragged myself up to a sitting position, every bone and muscle in my body protesting at the movements.
Gingerly I stretched the kink in my neck and shook my arms out.
Working through the soreness, I shimmied out of my nightgown, dressed in yesterday's undergarments and blouse and skirt, and crawled out of the wagon.
Halfway out of the wagon, I suddenly realized that in my haste to create my sleeping space last night I'd neglected to clean any of the plates, spoons, or pots that were used for last night's supper.
They were probably still sitting in a dirty heap on the ground where I'd left them.
With a sigh, I went to collect them.
But they weren't where I'd left them.
In sleepy confusion, I turned in a circle, scanning the whole campsite. If coyotes had hauled them off, I was going to be in trouble.
But coyotes wouldn't have carried off the heavy cast iron pot, and that was missing too.
"Lookin' for dishes, I reckon?"
Startled, I whirled around.
Logan stepped past me with a bucket of water and flung its contents into the trees.
"Yes, I am."
"They're washed and dryin' on the wagon seat."
Feeling thoroughly ashamed that he'd done my work for me, I apologized. "I'm sorry, that was my job. You shouldn't have had to do it."
Logan gave me one of his handsome, friendly grins. "You may not believe it right now, but I'm no stranger to a bucket of soapy water."
His easy forgiveness was very nice. I suspected his father would not have been as pleasant to deal with. "Well, I appreciate it. And it will not happen again."
Logan simply nodded. "Good." And handed me the empty wooden wash bucket.
"We'll be wanting breakfast before headin' out," he added pointedly, reminding me of my purpose there.
My benevolence toward him vanished at the sudden abrupt authority in his voice.
Bucket in hand, I stalked back to the wagon to take care of things.
I thought about making pancakes for breakfast, but I could only cook one at a time in the skillet and making enough for six people would take far too long.
So I settled for the same thing I'd made for noontime dinner yesterday: biscuits. Quick and easy.
But instead of smearing them with blackberry preserves again, this time I drizzled a little bit of honey over each cut biscuit half.
As we ate our simple breakfast I silently worried about what to make for noon dinner today. I couldn't keep feeding them just beans and biscuits for every meal – that was almost as bad as the campfire-baked potatoes they'd been surviving on before I came along.
I wished for meat. Good meat, not that dried-out shoe-leather jerky. A nice stew would be lovely, with meat and potatoes and carrots and onions...
But we didn't have good meat. Or carrots. Or onions, for that matter.
Of course — the bag of rice! I'd forgotten it already, even though I'd laid my head on it all night.
Rice, salted and buttered, would hopefully be a decent enough dinner and provide a small respite from the beans we would have again for supper.
Oh, the beans! I still needed to renew my second pot of beans to soak for tomorrow night.
Thanks to Logan MacBride I had a clean pot to use. Two cups of beans went into it, and just enough water to cover them over. Then it was lidded and shoved securely into its place in the wagon.
I was not looking forward to that hard wagon seat again. If I'd had a blanket, I could have sat on it for a cushion.
Alas, the only blankets available were those filthy bedrolls that I didn't even want to touch with a ten-foot pole.
Aside from the physical agony on my backside, driving the wagon all day wasn't difficult at all. As long as I kept the horses following the scout in the lead and kept a sharp eye out for his arm signals, I was free to let my mind wander and daydream.
And daydream I did. What would the city be like when we finally reached it? Would it be warm? Cold? Dark? Sunny? I would probably have my pick of a dozen restaurants to work in. And I would earn so much money!
One wagon wheel hit a significant bump, roughly jerking me out of my thoughts. The big city buildings and brick-paved streets vanished from my mind's eye, replaced with the all-too-real prairie which stretched around us in all directions. There was not a building in sight here, much less a brick-paved street.
With a sigh, I stretched my arms, my back, my legs. Would there never be an end to my driving this danged wagon?
In my mind I heard an echo from the past, my mother's voice sternly scolding me for using a cussing word. Even if I hadn't said the word out loud, even thinking it gave me a little bit of guilt. And a little bit of a rebellious thrill, too.
Mama had tried her best to bring up her daughter to be a proper lady, on the outside as well as on the inside. I wondered what she'd have thought of me now, driving this wagon on a journey with only men and no other women, and sitting on this dreadful wagon seat without my ankles decently crossed or my knees jammed primly together.
I deliberately crossed my ankles now and sat up straight and tall with my knees touching, but my muscles were just too aggravated to hold that ram-rod stiff pose for very long. Besides, I almost tipped sideways in that pose as the wagon lurched awkwardly.
With a mirthful chuckle to myself, I returned to my very unladylike (and much more endurable) position on the hard wooden bench seat.
Sometimes it was just not possible to be a perfect lady.
I wondered how Mrs. Kirkman was faring in my absence. I wondered if she would hire on new help for the hotel and restaurant. I wondered if the new help was any good at pie-making.
Pie. It seemed odd that I hadn't made a single pie in almost three days. I didn't miss it yet.
Idly I attempted to compose a letter to Mrs. Kirkman in my head. I would have to wait until tonight to put it on paper, but arranging it in my head now wouldn't hurt a thing.
There wasn't much to tell, of course, this being only my second day on the cattle drive.
But I knew she would still appreciate knowing whatever I wrote her, regardless of the quantity of words.
The sun was high in the sky and burning brightly on my face by the time we stopped for the noontime dinner.
I'd been driving with my brimmed hat tilted oddly on my head to shield my face, but now I could take it off and let the top of my head breathe in the shade of the wagon as I worked.
My rice dinner turned out pretty well. It had scorched just a little bit on the bottom from the heat of the fire under it, so I tried not to scrape up too much of the burnt bits as I spooned out the servings.
But I heard no complaints from anyone if they didn't favor the taste. I'd put in extra butter and salt to compensate for the scorch, so maybe that helped.
I would have to watch the pot a little more closely next time I cooked rice, to avoid burning any more. Wasting food was sinful.
With everyone fed, I now scraped out the burned rice and threw it under a little bush growing alongside the river we'd been following.
And since riverwater was aplenty, I could give the pot a thorough scrub and rinse without using a single drop of the rainbarrel water.
The river was tame, but sadly not deep enough and greatly lacking privacy for any kind of adequate body bathing.
Even so, I enjoyed a few minutes of barefoot wading in the cool fresh water. The cattle herd had already drank their fill and were now resting and grazing until it was time to move on again.
I was not looking forward to climbing back onto that wagon after dinner. I would almost rather walk the entire way to our destination as the cattle were.
I just couldn't stand that hard wagon seat any longer — I had to get something between it and my near-petrified rear end!
Racking my memory for every item in the wagon, I meditated on what I could possibly use for relief.
But the only solution that came up was those nasty bedroll blankets. And I didn't even know if there really was a spare one for me anyway.
Still, if I had one...I could at least put a cleaner piece of material on the part that would be touching my clothes.
There were burlap sacks in the wagon, but they were still full of beans and potatoes and rice.
Ah, yes, the rice.
That sack of uncooked rice had made a nice pillow for my head...and if it cushioned a head, it could also cushion a bottom.
But there wasn't a lot of rice left in the sack anymore, and if I kept it for my own personal comforts, it wouldn't be available to feed the hungry men.
But there were plenty of beans! Several sacks, if I recall. And I didn't need a whole fifty-pound sack — even just one quarter of a sack would probably work.
Energized, I abandoned the river and ran barefoot back to the wagon with my shoes and stockings in hand.
I climbed inside the wagon and seized the half-empty bag of dried beans. It was easily manipulated into a round shape with a slightly dented top.
I sat on it to test it. And it was perfect. The beans shifted around a little, but they stayed thick and supportive in the burlap sack beneath me.
It was my salvation.
I nearly cried with relief and hope from that simple solution to an agonizing problem. I would live through this cattle drive after all, just so long as the beans held out!
After re-dressing my feet in stockings and shoes, I hauled my new cushion up to the wagon seat, and this time when I climbed up to sit, it was with a smile of satisfaction on my face.
My sack of beans made all the difference in the world for my journey in that wagon.
Now that I wasn't so preoccupied with how badly my backside was hurting, I was able to focus more on the landscape around me.
Since the sun was creeping further behind us now, I was able to tilt my hat brim back without being scorched or blinded anymore.
The blue sky ahead was lovely, dotted here and there with fluffy white clouds. Lush green grasses grew tall and thick along the riverbank. Short patches of purple clover and wildflowers adorned the green ground. Trees were dense in the distance, and even further away, rugged mountain peaks stood grand and proud against the sky.
I mentally documented these details of the scenery, intending to describe them in my letter to Mrs. Kirkman in order to bulk up the sparse content it was sure to have. And maybe it would help to ease her fears about my eastbound journey.
Directly up ahead on the trail, Mr. MacBride scouted the way, keeping a lookout for any dangers before the herd was driven into them.
And behind the lumbering wagon, the other four men perched on their horses kept the noisy herd of cattle moving along steadily and prevented any stragglers from getting left too far behind.
My second night on the trail after supper was much the same as the first: the men all waited until I left before openly enjoying their evening libations.
It probably shouldn't have bothered me, but it did nevertheless. I didn't want to make anyone uncomfortable, or feel like they had to hide their customary routines solely for my sake. The last thing I wanted was to be a burden to anyone, or make them resent my presence as a woman on their drive any more than they already might.
I thought about what I could do to put the ranch hands at ease with me, and by the third evening, I knew how to fix it. Or at least, I had an idea that I hoped would fix it.
As with the two previous nights, I joined the men around the campfire after supper before turning in for the night. All five men were there this time, and nary a bottle was visible as soon as I came near again.
With a tin cup in one hand and a deliberately obvious bottle of whiskey from the wagon in the other, I sat down on a makeshift log seat where all five men could plainly see me.
"A bit chilly tonight, isn't it?" I said to nobody in particular. It wasn't really, but it sounded like a good enough excuse for the practical warming qualities of alcohol.
I casually tipped a few drops of whiskey into my cup, making sure that everyone saw me do so. "Would anybody else like some?"
Absolute silence met my question.
Finally the boss spoke. "Wouldn't mind a sip."
I handed the bottle over.
Mr. MacBride accepted it, and after a hesitant glance at me, he put it straight to his lips and drank a good gulp. He offered it to his neighbor, Mr. Burns, who mumbled, "Got my own," and took out his silver flask.
My bottle was passed along quietly, each man taking an obliging swig from it, until it finally arrived back at me.
I re-corked it and set it on the ground at my feet. I still had the daub of untouched whiskey in my cup, and I wasn't about to drink from the bottle now that five other mouths had been on it.
Not that I even liked whiskey anyway. It was a foul liquid, and wholly repugnant to my feminine senses. I only pretended to sip mine, but the pretense was still enough to crumble the wall of tension between me and my fellow travelers.
I glanced over the rim of my cup and met Logan's gaze across the campfire. He looked steadily back at me, offering a slight little smile.
He seemed pleased by the effort I made on behalf of the others. Or maybe he was amused at the sight of a woman drinking alcohol (or pretending to, anyway).
Whatever the case, I was pleased myself. One conflict — as small as it was — was averted, and six people were now relieved of it.
I stood now, more than ready for the sleep that awaited me in the back of the wagon. "Goodnight, gentlemen," I voiced politely before retiring from the campfire.
When I was sure I was out of sight from the group, I dumped the few splashes of whiskey out of my cup and into the bushes.