“SHOULD BE OUR LAST DAY,” Papa said when they stopped to make camp. He unhitched the tired horses from the wagon, then led them down a little draw to water, while Hanna began clearing the ground for a fire.
They had journeyed for almost a month since leaving Cheyenne, their most recent stretch in near three years of travel. Three years without a real home. Tomorrow they would reach their destination: LaForge, a railroad town in Dakota Territory.
Hanna was looking forward to cooking supper. They had been able to buy groceries in North Platte, but since then, it had rained for almost a solid week. They’d had to make do with meal after meal of stale biscuit and cold beans.
She had put dried codfish to soak the night before. Soup, she thought. With onions and potatoes.
Papa returned with the horses and a bucket of water. He fastened the horses to their picket lines, then left again to gather some brushwood.
“I’m going to make soup,” she told him when he returned to start the fire.
“About time we had a hot meal,” he said.
Hanna bristled at the note of petulance in his voice; the dreary weather of the past week was hardly her fault. But she said nothing, not wanting to start a row.
“Sky’s clearing,” he said. “Maybe it’ll be easier to scare up a rabbit or something.” He went off with his gun on his arm, his long-legged strides covering ground quickly.
Hanna watched him until he vanished behind a low rise. The endless prairie looked flat at first glance, but the land was never completely level. Rain had rinsed the gray and beige plains, leaving behind a translucence of green that was growing denser every day.
She went into the wagon and opened her trunk. She took out a piece of plain brown wrapping paper, a pencil, a rubber eraser, and a well-worn magazine.
The paper had been folded accordion-style several times and folded across twice. Opened out, the creases formed rectangles about two inches wide and three inches tall—three dozen of them.
Hanna had used up about half the rectangles on one side of the paper. In each was a small pencil sketch of a dress. Housedresses, visiting dresses, dresses for church, even ball gowns. She had seen pictures of ball gowns in the Godey’s Lady’s Book magazine, and it was fun to draw the elegant garments, even though she would never have a chance to see or wear one.
Now she leafed through an issue of Godey’s from last summer, the latest she had been able to get. On page after page, there were drawings of every kind of garment. Some were available ready-made; for others, paper patterns and instructions could be mail-ordered.
She found pictures of two gowns that interested her. She took up her pencil and began to draw, combining the bodice of one dress with the skirt of the other. She also added a trimming of braid around the cuffs and hem of the bodice.
She eyed the drawing critically. Something wasn’t quite right. The skirt was too full for the length of the bodice. She erased the skirt and drew it again, this time with a slimmer profile.
For the past three years, Hanna had done all the family sewing. Papa bought his coats and jackets; she made his trousers, overalls, shirts, drawers, and nightshirts, as well as her own dresses and undergarments. Using paper patterns that had belonged to Mama, she knew how to adjust measurements to the correct size. She could backstitch, whipstitch, sew buttonholes; when she hemmed a garment or added trimming, her stitches were nearly invisible. With all that experience behind her, she was confident that she could make a dress of her own design, and she intended to try very soon.
She loved sketching because it took all her attention; she could stop thinking about the rest of the world for a while. As for sewing, most of the time it was both soothing and satisfying. She hadn’t been able to draw or sew for several weeks now; riding in the wagon, it was too bumpy for fine work, and by the time they stopped to camp, it was almost always too dark.
Before long, she had to put away her drawing things to cook supper. She lifted the three-legged cast-iron spider from its hook on one of the wagon bows; it was deep enough to make soup for two people. Spider in hand, she jumped to the ground, took a few steps, and stopped in mid-stride.
A group of Indians stood in a loose semicircle between the wagon and the fire.
Hanna had seen Indians from the wagon several times, but always at a distance. At such moments, Papa seemed watchful but not particularly worried. He told her that the government had forced the Indians in this region, most of them members of the Sioux tribe, off the wide-open prairie and onto tracts of land reserved for them. They were not allowed to leave that land without special permission from the reservation’s Indian agent.
Hanna looked over the group quickly. Three women, the eldest with gray-streaked hair. A girl a few years younger than Hanna, and two little girls. The women were wearing faded blankets or shawls. They carried cloth sacks or bundles; one had a baby tied to her back.
Mothers and daughters. Hanna thought at once of Mama. What would she say or do if she were here?
“Hello,” she said. “I was just going to make soup. Would you like some?”
Mama had been a great believer in soup. She could conjure delicious soups from nothing but scraps and bones, and she had taught Hanna the secret: One strongly flavored ingredient could make the whole pot of leftovers tasty, and you didn’t need much of it. Dried mushrooms, cabbage, and garlic were all good. So was dried fish.
Hanna used the big pot instead of the spider. She cut up the potatoes smaller than usual, so they would cook more quickly. The Indians sat on the ground near the fire. Hanna was anxious to serve them, but she forced herself to wait until the potatoes were properly cooked through.
She also found herself hoping that Papa wouldn’t return anytime soon. He might frighten them. Or maybe the other way round.
Hanna had enough spoons for her guests, but only four bowls. The oldest of the Sioux women seemed to be the group’s leader, so Hanna served her first. She glanced down at the soup in her bowl, then looked up, pursed her lips, and motioned with her chin toward Hanna.
Hanna understood at once. She wants to be sure that I eat too.
She filled two more bowls and handed them out for the rest of the group to share. The fourth ...