Monday, July 18, 2022

Riding in a Covered Wagon – Not all it’s cracked up to be By Donna Schlachter


Please enjoy Donna Schlachter's guest post on Muse Monday for Discover... I love western movies and stories! And please read to the end for your chance at a free book. How cool is that?

Who doesn’t love an old western movie? The long rides into the sunset. Horses that do what you ask. People who help you out of a tough spot. The bad guy always gets what’s coming to him. And, of course, travel in a covered wagon is comfortable, convenient, and carefree. 

What’s that? Wrong!? 

But that’s the way movies show them, isn’t it? Rolling along across the flat prairie. Children skipping alongside. Butter churned by the end of the day. Complete dinners prepared over a campfire. Coffee always available. 

As any of the hundreds of thousands of westward emigrants could attest—and often did, in their journals, letters home, and books—covered wagons and their journeys weren’t as easy a way to journey as we think. 

In research my recent book, Calli, I discovered the following facts which I found very interesting:

n  Although most movies show Conestoga wagons, they were rarely used in the west because they were too heavy to pull up and down mountains. Instead, the small and lighter wagon, often a simple farm or cargo wagon, was used.

n  Oxen were used even more often than horses. Oxen are stronger, can pull for more hours a day, and are more durable than horses.

n  Clambering into a covered wagon involves getting your body up at least five feet above the ground. Step stools were rare, so unless somebody stood on the bed and hauled you up, your path usually involved the wheel hub, the top rim of the wheel, then gripping the side of the wagon and hoisting your leg over. All in a skirt and several layers of petticoats that reached to your ankles, if you’re a woman. 

About Calli:

Calli works as a nurse with the US Army at Fort Bridger, Wyoming in 1880. When a wagon train full of discouraged emigrants passes through on its way east, a pregnant widow delivers her baby then dies. Bradley Wilson, leading this train, has few options. He asks Calli to travel with them until they find a relative to take the child in St. Joe, Missouri. Calli, drawn to both this dark and quiet man and the child, resists. But when she disappears, he wonders if she’s run away or been kidnapped. Can these two put their pasts behind them and move into a new future together? Or will Calli insist on having things her own way? 

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April 30th, 1870

Twenty miles west of Fort Bridger, Wyoming Territory 

Bradley Wilson shielded his eyes from the burning sun and surveyed the trail ahead, thankful to be out of the wagon and stretching his legs. Eastward. He’d traveled this same trail two years before, heading in the opposite direction. What took him back now? Failure? No, more like disappointment. A cloud of dust as big as Kansas, kicked up by the prairie schooners ahead of him, blotted out whatever lay in that direction. Sweat dribbled down the center of his back. He longed to scratch but knew the action wouldn’t satisfy. Instead, he yanked a wrinkled ball of calico from his shirt pocket and swiped at his face. How a body could sweat so much in a land so empty of water was beyond him.

He wished he could guzzle the rest of his day’s ration. Or pour it over his head to cool his fevered brain. But neither would satisfy more than a second and a half. Wasting the precious commodity would haunt him.

Maybe he was too good for his own good.

Isn’t that what those who abandoned the wagon train had said? Right before they broke off on their own, forging ahead instead of waiting for Joe Collins to die? Two weeks it took. Fourteen days of listening to the man keen and holler night and day. And no amount of laudanum eased the pain of his broken back. Of his insides in knots, sewn back into place as best his wife could do.

Who knew a horse could drag a man for more’n three miles, and that person still survive? Even if for only a fortnight.

And Miz Collins, ready to drop her first young’un any minute.

Bradley shook his head and double-stepped ahead of his oxen. No, siree. Joe Collins was too good for this world. Along with his widow, Elspeth.

His oxen followed the team ahead as if he sat in the wagon and held the leads. He patted the muzzle of the one nearest him, Beau. The off-side lead, Bob, snorted.

“I know. You’re jealous. I’ll get you soon.”

The pair, purchased in St. Joseph two years prior, had carried him westward. Away from memories of the war. Hoping to find a better life. Away from his sweet Millicent. And their babe. Both now buried on a hill under a tree in east of the Missouri River. He should never have left them behind. Should have kept them safe. Away from the influenza.

But running wasn’t the answer. As he now understood. And so, he returned east, passing wagon trains of the hopeful and the excited and the naïve going the opposite direction every day. Them heading west, toward the new life he’d sought but never found.


Calliope Jeffers—or Calli, as she preferred—leaned over her patient. “You’re going to be fine.”

The woman, a private’s wife, her hair plastered to her forehead with sweat, panted. “Don’t feel like it. Hurts a lot.”

Calli propped the woman’s legs up so her feet lay flat on the tick mattress. “It will be over soon.”

The door creaked open, and an anxious face appeared in the space. The husband. “Is it done yet?”

Calli shook her head. “No, it’s hardly started. Go outside and wait.” She sat on a stool at the end of the bed and tugged a sheet over her patient’s legs. Even in this, she’d afford her whatever privacy she could. “Now, when you feel the next contraction, breathe through it like I showed you. Quick breaths. Understood?”

“Until the pain gets so bad, and my brain stops working.”

The mother-to-be did well until, as predicted, she stopped thinking. Her toes curled, and she bore down.

Time to distract her.

Calli’s eyeglasses steamed up from her own effort and the heat that had built during the day. Whoever thought that married couples should live on the second floor of a barn-style barracks, with paper-thin walls and a one-layer roof should be taken out and shot. She cleaned her glasses in her apron, then donned them again. “That was good. Next time, when you want to push, scream instead. Sing. Holler. Whatever works.”

Even two short years of experience taught Calli it was difficult to bear down and scream at the same time.

Two years. Is that all it was since she moved here to Fort Bridger and taken on her dream job? After graduating from nursing college, most of her class sought positions in city hospitals, hoping to find a handsome doctor to marry.

Not her. At twenty-one, she already had the man she wanted. And his assignment to Fort Bridger afforded her the opportunity to work with one of the best doctors in the territory. Such plans she had. Work. Learn. Have babies.

But then it all ended. Snatched away by a supposed accident. 

Giveaway: I will gift one lucky randomly-drawn winner with an ebook copy of Calli. Leave your answer to the following question AND include your email address cleverly disguised in this format: donna AT livebytheword DOT com  That way the spammers can’t find you, but we can! 

Question: What’s the strangest vehicle or method of conveyance you’ve ridden/driven in? For me, the moto-taxis in Lima Peru. 

About Donna:

A hybrid author, Donna writes squeaky clean historical and contemporary suspense. She has been published more than 50 times in books; is a member of several writers groups; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, traveling extensively for both. Stay connected so you learn about new releases, preorders, and presales, as well as check out featured authors, book reviews, and a little corner of peace. Plus: Receive 2 free ebooks simply for signing up for our free newsletter!

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  1. I cannot imagine traveling in a wagon across the prairies and up the mountains. It would be most uncomfortable, to say the least. Thank you for sharing this, Brenda. Calli sounds like a fun read!

  2. Hi Jan, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I bet it's why most folks walked the trail, rather than rode it.

  3. Donna, I enjoyed your excerpt--thanks!

    I don't know if this qualifies for your question or not, but when hubby and I were driving 18-wheelers, we thought to cut a few miles by crossing the Mississippi from MO to TN by "ferry." The ferry turned out to be a flat, wooden structure that both cars and trucks used. Another truck took the thing with us. Water sloshed over the back wheels and the bank was muddy and wet on the other side. We've laughed over the incident for years but it was more scary than funny while we were in transit. ;)