Episode Thirty-five ♦ Red Cloud

George rode behind Anita on the horse. His hands alternated between her shoulders and hips whenever one position grew uncomfortable. He wondered if people on the plains questioned his masculinity and detested the thought crossing his mind. Putting her needs first mattered.

After a two-hour ride, they were in Friorby. The settlement was located off the road on a bluff overlooking the floodplain. It was similar to Owensville in size and roughness of the buildings, but this settlement lacked the central fixture of windmill and water tank. Friorby had a dusty open area that even chickens ignored. Around it, in a circular pattern, buildings sat under trees, leaves rustling in the slight, late morning breeze.

George dismounted and helped Anita down. She handed the reins to another woman rider; he had not caught her name. Magnus parked the handcart in the shade of a large oak tree.

Egor looked down from his horse. “Pleased join us for our midday meal.”

Looking to Anita, who nodded, George said, “Would like that. Thank you.”

Egor pointed to a small building. “That’s the washhouse.” His hand moved to the next building. “The large one is the hall where we eat.” He looked at the sun. “Make yourselves comfortable. It will be about an hour before lunch.” He rode towards another building. It was not obvious if it was a house or stable.

Anita pivoted then looked to George. “They seem friendly enough. Do you think it’s safe to ask about Red Cloud?”

George hunched up his shoulders, the answer unclear.

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Anita and George sat in wooden chairs on the shade porch of the main hall after lunch. It wasn’t the offer of hospitality that kept Anita and George overnight in Friorby. She was tired of walking and eager to accept Egor’s proposal of a wagon ride to Red Cloud.

Egor said, “It will take you three or four days on foot. If we leave an hour before sunup, we should be able to make it in a single day.”

“Oh, we couldn’t be such a bother,” Anita said. She looked away from him, towards a large pasture where cows grazed, hoping to disguise her attraction to Egor’s strength and confidence. Hating her raging hormones, she tamped down the deep need for security. It wasn’t so much to spare George’s feelings; Egor was married.

“No bother.” Egor’s smile: honest, open, warm. “It’s a bit early for a trade visit since the harvest isn’t in yet, but my brother Tyler’s at that age. He needs to meet marriageable women. But it means leaving your handcart behind.”

“No problem,” George said nodding and smiling.

“Either way, you two talk it over. As long as we’re packed before dinner, we’ll be okay.”

Anita said, “Thank you, Egor. We appreciate your help more than I could ever say.”

Egor left them and disappeared beyond the washhouse. Like Owensville, this was a tight-knit clan; one extended family. She mused over what courtship might be like out here and wondered how far they had to travel to meet someone who wasn’t a relative.

“Thanks for not asking,” George said, “about what happened at our last campsite.”

She smiled at him, but he stared off into the distance. He would talk about it when, and if, he wanted. Remembering her dream, she knew all she needed to know.

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The sun had yet to rise. After a quick discussion, George relented and rode with Egor in the wagon so Anita could ride horseback. “If you have any pain, we switch,” George said.

“Deal. I enjoyed riding yesterday and would like to do it on my own.”

George was happy if she was happy, knowing she was better able to judge what a pregnant woman should and should not do.

“Will ask Egor to teach me to drive the team,” George said. “A good skill out here.”

Egor showed George how to stow the shotgun so he could draw it easily if the need arose. With George and Egor in the wagon and Anita and Tyler on horseback, the small band left before the first glow of morning found the eastern horizon.

In the brightness of morning Egor handed George the reins. “There’s really nothing to it when things are going well,” said Egor. “It’s when the horses get spooked or you’re navigating obstacles, like a river, that experience is important. Not sure that you’ll get any of that on this trip. This road’s in good shape.”

“Appreciate the chance,” George said. “If I may, has your family always lived out here?”

“The easy answer is no. Many generations ago, my people came from Scandinavia to a land called I-oh-way – some place between the two great rivers east of here. After generations on the original homestead, they were resettled east. My grandfather didn’t like the city and came out here as a young married man.”

As he had been instructed, George held the reins firmly in hand and kept his eyes on the road, though his posture was tense. “Wondered if your people avoided resettlement.”

“I’ve never been east but heard tell there are organizations that help people come west. We’re not certain, but have always suspected Grandfather was involved in something like that.”

“Did he join an established community?”

“For a short time, then he found the area where Friorby sits. He convinced his brother to join him, and slowly they built up the community.”

George thought about this. Yes, if people were helped by some UGO predecessor, it made sense they would in turn be willing to help those who came after. This idea George kept to himself, thinking it better to keep his affairs private.

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Anita enjoyed the morning ride and took a shorter turn after lunch. The exercise moved her blood in a way that pushing the handcart didn’t. Now riding in the wagon with Egor, he didn’t seem to mind when she dozed off in the evening heat. She woke with her head resting on his shoulder. The sun had already set. “Excuse me,” she said, hoping her cheeks weren’t red.

“My wife naps when she comes along. Besides, your timing is pretty good. We’re almost there.” Egor pulled the team onto a spur which rose out of the valley and approached a town more like Concordia or Saint Jo than Owensville or Friorby. “That’s Red Cloud.”

She turned to George, who rode with Tyler a distance behind the wagon. Pointing at the town she gave a thumbs-up. Even with the summer warmth it gave her the chills. Thinking their long journey was finally at an end, she hadn’t prepared herself for this moment. Since leaving Hannibal, and especially after crossing the Missouri, it had only been about the road. The never-ending road.

Red Cloud was an island in a sea of grass. Something, or someone, had drawn them here. She expected to soon understand why. Her thoughts turned to Willem and she practiced ways of telling him their news. It had been many years since anticipation so flooded her; she wanted to fix herself up, like for a first date.

“Are you okay?” asked Egor.

“Yes. Why?” She looked at him.

“I said it was nice to meet you and George. I only wish it had been for a happier reason.”

The incident he referred to was distant, closer in recalled time to the ferry than to now.

She said, “Yes, I’m glad we met. Hope we’ll get the chance to visit again.”

“It’s likely if you’re staying in Red Cloud. We visit each other a lot.”

“Then I’m sure we’ll see you again.”

Egor eased the wagon along the road that ran west into the community. They passed grazing animals – goats, cows, and horses – and farmed fields. The town was larger, but Anita thought it might appear larger since the buildings were arranged on actual streets. After crossing a couple north-south roads lined with houses of varying sizes, mostly single story, they turned right along the town square. In the middle was a single building that was neither shop nor home, surrounded by some open patches of short grass, a flower garden, and clumps of trees. She had never seen anything quite like this town. In appearance, it was what she wished Hannibal would have been.

Egor pulled on the reins. The horses halted. Bells rang. One was more immediate, coming from near the building in the square. Others rang around the town. As they dismounted, people, ranging in age from young to old, came from all directions to the town square. Some carried torches. Like Concordia, this was not the home of a single clan. Many families lived here. Some were blond and fair like Egor but others were very dark, like Kent, and there were varying skin tones in between.

“Egor!” a woman said. “We weren’t expecting you for at least a month.”

“But you are always most welcome,” said a man. He carried four tankards. “I’ve ale but can get water if you’d rather.”

Egor took a tankard and a long slug. “Best in these parts. Before I forget my manners, this is Anita and George Winston. We met them after they’d run in with some Black Miners.”

Gasps from the gathering crowd. A woman pushed a plate of bread and cheese in front of Anita. A man asked, “Anyone hurt?”

“No, we’re fine,” answered George, shaking one hand before accepting a tankard of ale.

“Happy to say it wasn’t the same for the Miners.” Egor took some bread and cheese as someone took the reins of the horses from him. “But it works out for the best. Seems the Winstons were headed to Red Cloud.”

“Oh?” echoed around the gathering circle of people. With the young ones, they easily number over a hundred residents. Anita wondered if the entire town was assembling in greeting.

“We believe a friend is here,” she said before realizing that just as she’d been introduced with an alias, Willem might be using a different name. “He’s about Egor’s height though quite slender and more of a golden blond.” She looked around the crowd, hopeful but realizing that if Willem were here, he’d have recognized her quickly.

“Well, it might be some time before everyone responds to the bells.”

“If your friend lives outside of town, he might not come tonight.”

“True. It wasn’t an alert.”

Anita lost track of who was speaking.

“We’ll find a place for you in the meantime.”

“I can put Egor and Tyler up.”

“We’re happy to make room for the new people,” an older woman said. “But you’ve undoubtedly been traveling some distance. Maybe you’d like to freshen up. Come with me dear.”

Anita turned and looked at George. He was content to eat, drink, and shake hands with the crowd as it grew around him and the wagon. The old woman led her away. Taking a bite from his piece of bread, he waved goodbye.

“It’s hard to be a pregnant traveler. How far along are you?” The woman smiled and nodded. “I’m the midwife, you see. Please call me Margaret though most call me Auntie Meg.”

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