Ellie trudged along after her younger sister, her skirts bouncing against her ankles, baby John in her arms. He felt as heavy as a full water bucket, and Ellie was hot. She pushed her bonnet off her head and watched enviously as her sister played with the Petersen girls. Mary was five and too small to carry a baby.
She turned to look at Mama. Something was wrong! Mama sat hunched over on the wagon seat, her hands clenching the reins.
“Mama?” Ellie called, holding the baby close as she ran back. “Mama, are you all right?”
Mama straightened slowly. Her face was pale, and her eyes looked wide. “I’m fine, Ellie. Are you looking after your sister?”
“I am, Mama. She’s right up ahead.” Ellie reached up and touched her mother’s clammy hand. “You’re ill, Mama. Let me drive the wagon.”
“You’re too young. Tending Mary and John is plenty for you. I’ll be fine.” Mama flicked the reins to keep the oxen moving, and Ellie backed away.
Mama won’t let me do anything but tend children, Ellie thought. I’m old enough. Well, … maybe not. The oxen take a strong arm. But Mama isn’t strong right now, either. Ellie hurried back to where her brother and the other boys were herding the extra oxen. “Harry, Mama’s sick. Can you drive the wagon?”
Harry gave his stick to another boy and ran ahead. Ellie ran after him and settled the baby in a corner of the wagon, then made a bed for Mama. “You rest now, Mama. Evening stop will be soon.”
Mama smiled. “I think I will sleep a little, Ellie, but you wake me when we stop. I’ll need to fix supper.”
Ellie kissed her mother’s cheek. It was hot and dry. She worried as she climbed down with the baby. Mama needed rest—lots of it. Ellie would handle the evening chores on her own.
Mary and the Petersen girls skipped alongside the wagon, laughing and chattering. Mama needed quiet, so Ellie sent them to gather buffalo chips for the fire. There was still a basketful in the wagon, but she didn’t want to be caught short.
“Don’t go too far, now—only up to that rise.” Ellie pointed, and the girls scampered off. Baby John had fallen asleep in her arms, so Ellie laid him next to Mama and carefully poured a cup of water.
Her mind worked as she gently sponged Mama’s face. Papa had gone ahead with some other men to hunt and wouldn’t be back for a day or two. Brother Cooper, the company captain, had said that they might reach another creek tonight. If they did, would he call a wash day? Mama needed to rest in one spot. If they stopped for a wash day, maybe it would be enough time for Mama to get well.
Shouts interrupted Ellie’s thoughts. Harry stopped the wagon, then started, then stopped again. Ellie peered ahead—trees! They really had reached a creek! “Time for evening camp,” she said to Mama, but Mama and John slept on.
Ellie waved to the girls. They returned, laden with wide, flat buffalo chips, and dumped them where Ellie pointed.
Ellie lifted the heavy oaken bucket and followed Harry and the oxen down to the creek. Her arms ached by the time she got the water back to the wagon, but Ellie was too busy to think about it. She started the fire, then mixed the biscuits. After giving her mother a few sips of water and sponging her face again, she put a pot of beans on the fire. Then Ellie cut up a piece of dried meat and put it into a kettle with some wild onions and water. The broth would strengthen her mother, and she’d thicken the rest for stew tomorrow.
When the fire had died down and was glowing bright with hot coals, Ellie put the biscuits on to bake. She stirred the beans again as she glanced around at the camp. What else? What else would Mama be doing? She couldn’t sweep out the wagon without disturbing Mama, but she got the bedrolls down and laid them out beside the wagon. Then she went to look for the Petersens.
“Sister Petersen,” Ellie asked politely, “have you heard if we’re going to have a washing day tomorrow? Or should I try to do some tonight?”
Sister Petersen smiled. “Helping out, are we? Well, Brother Cooper says that we’ll stay here the day, so tell your mama not to worry about any washing tonight.”
“Thank you, Sister Petersen. But Mama has a fever, so I’m doing it.”
“A fever? I’ll come over.” Sister Petersen bustled back with Ellie to check on Mama. On the way, she offered, “Do you need any help, girl? I’ll fix—”
“No, thank you, Sister Petersen. Dinner’s fixed and the beds are ready. Harry took care of the oxen, and I’m going to do some mending tonight. We’re doing fine.”
Sister Petersen looked Ellie up and down intently. Then she nodded and climbed up to Mama.
Ellie listened to their murmuring voices as she dished up beans and biscuits for Harry and Mary. Then she ladled some broth into a cup and headed for the wagon, just as Sister Petersen climbed down. She nodded again at Ellie as she left.
Ellie took the broth and a spoon up for Mama. Her skin was still hot, but her eyes weren’t so blank. “Here, Mama.” Ellie spooned the warm liquid into Mama’s mouth. “This will help.”
Mama took a few sips, then smiled wanly. “I’m sorry, Ellie, that I can’t do much.”
“That’s all right, Mama. Everything’s set for tonight.”
Mama nodded. “Sister Petersen told me. You’re a good girl. But tomorrow, I—”
“No, Mama,” Ellie said firmly. “I can take care of things tomorrow. You need to rest while we’re stopped.”
“But that’s so much for you, Ellie,” Mama protested.
Ellie was silent as she fed Mama the rest of the broth. Then she wiped her mother’s face gently and said, “You taught me well, Mama. I can do it, even the washing. I’m old enough.”
Mama closed her eyes and smiled. “You’re a good girl.”
Ellie quietly climbed down from the wagon and looked at the children eating and at the bedrolls. “I’m old enough,” she repeated, then got herself some supper and went to join the others.