Winter Rain: A Family Story
Five days out the rains began. The first one caught Washington off guard. What started as a gentle snow turned to a hard rain in a heartbeat. His hat brim only gave it a basin to pool in as it ran down the back of his neck. He dug his oil slicker out of his pack, but by then he was soaked to the bones. The wet wool of his winter coat seemed to be holding the damp cold inside of the oil slicker, rather than warding it off. Then that first night there no place to get in out of the weather. He tried to get comfortable under the wagon, but the makeshift campsite was on the slope of a hill, and in short order, a small rivulet was running through his bedroll. Finally, he propped his back up against a wagon wheel and huddled there as best he could until a wek and pathetic sunrise told him another day of rain was setting in.
There was nothing to do, but hitch the orses up and hit the road again. By then he had a dripping nose and a hasty cough. Occasionally, the rains would stop that second day. He took advantage of one break in the weather to get his inside clothes changed. Since the coat was wet he put on layers of clothing and stretched it across the wagon tarp, hoping it would dry out a little. At noon he forced himself to stop and light a fire so he oculd make himself some chamomile tea. He had little appetite, however, and it was almost more effort than it was worth.
Towards evening that second day he caught himself dozing on the buckboard seat while the horses followed the meandering dirt road through the heavy mountain forests. An insidious chill seemed to be creeping over him. He stopped and put the damp coat back on, but it didn't phase the shivers rippling across his skin. At dusk he crawled under the tarp that covered the supplies in the wagon. He didn't have the strength to unhitch the poor horses, so they grazed on small patches of spring grass that peeked through the remaining snow that bordered the side of the road. Sleep was a long time coming as the icy chill of fever wracked his body. Digging through a package the trading post clerk had wrapped in brown paper for Gracie's medicine chest, he found some powder made of willow bark and mixed it with what remained of the tea he had brewed and saved back in a blue enamel pan. Finally, he dozed off into a deep restful sleep, the cough temporarily subdued.
It was high snoon the next day when he woke from a deep sleep, feeling like a weak-kneed baby. Heating water for tea, he dosed himself up with more willow bark and looked seriously at the warm hollow he had made for himself in the supply wagon, but he shook that idea off. He had to be three days away from home at the most, and Gracie and George Wesley had no clue when to actually expect him, only a general date he might be arriving, give a week or two. Noe, he had to move on. Tkaing some beef jerky with him, he climbed onto the hitch wagon, coaxing the horses inaction with a gentle tug on the trains and a coaxing sound from his hoarse throat..
The tea and willow bark soothed his cough, but it continued to wrack his throat and chest with clinging persistence. The rain had slowed to a cold drizzle and the oil slicker caused it to sluice off of him and drain through cracks and hoes in the floor of the wagon. He was forcing himself to eat and drink, but it seemed to require more and more effort to even swallow a sip of tea. That night, when he crawled under the wagon tarp, he dreaded the very idea that, eventually, morning would come.
But come it did, and with it came more hard rain. Washington's hands shook as he poured the water into the blue enamel pain. He didn't even bother to light a fire. He just put the tea in the cold water, and sat it on the hitch wagon seat beside him to see what would happen as he clucked to the horses to move out. The beef jerky made a huge wad in his cheek as he forced himself to suck on it for osme nourishment, but the whole process made him want to gag. By then he knew there were moments when he was delirious, unaward of what was going on around him.
Sometimes through the fog in his brain, he though he was talking to Gracie, Gracie with her pansy blue eyes smiling at him, warm with affection. 'Gracie, I'm coming...Gracie, I've missed you so much...Gracie, I wish I could feel your cool hand on my hot skin right now...I would give the sun and move to give those children a hug and kiss this very instant.' Sometimes the delusions were monstrous nightmares, creepy spiders crawling on his parched skin, or images of him sinking into the muddy red depths of the pond, weighted down by his heavy wool coat. The only thing that kept him moving was the warm images of home beckoning to him just hours away.
When the rains came hard and fast late that evening, Washington never even knew it. He was slumped in the floor of the buckboard, the reins pinned against the side of the box by the weight of his body as the horses continued to plod along. Who knows what kept them moving. Maybe they recognized the lay of the land or familiar scents on the spring wind. Maybe whatever since of homecoming animals have was beckoning to them as well.
Somewhere shortly before sunrise they turned towards the open barn doors and walked on it. The slight jerk of the wagon as it came to a stop jarred Washington to semi-wakefulness. Momentarily dazed, but recognizing the sights and scents of home, he drug himself over the side of the hitch wagon and burrowed into the sweetly scented mound of hay beside the horses' stall. Home sweet home, he sighed and he surrendered to the blessed comfort of sleep.
An hour later, George Wesley found him there. Washington's body was already stiff and cold.
While I took poetic license with the details of this story, because Washington didn't survive to tell what happened to him in the last days of his life, the bare bones facts of this story are true as they were passed down from one generation to the next. The team of horses found their way home and were waiting there, stll in harness, for Washington's brother to find them at dawn, but Washington was already dead. Thomas Miller was born in 1853 to Washington (1822-1855) and Grace Broyles Miller (1823-1912). Washington died in 1855. Thomas was my great grandfather. So Thomas was only 2 years old when Washington died, and then Grace married Washington's brother, George Wesley Miller.
The Legend of Mars Hill