Here is a sneak preview of the first five chapters of my middle-grade novel, Ox Cart Angel.
Ox Cart Angel
Copyright 2011 By J.A. Arnold
If I had known how much my life was about to change, I would have spent that last day in Pembina differently. I would have said goodbye to my friends and visited the places that reminded me of Mama, especially the elm tree where she was buried. I would have sat at her grave telling her how much I missed her, and that I’d come back someday to visit.
But since I didn’t know any of that, I spent most of that day with Freda Two-Feathers, who was a half-breed like me.
Papa hated that word.
“You are Métis,” he’d say, pronouncing it may-tee. “You are not half of anything, Claire.”
But I’d gotten so used to hearing that word – half-breed – that it is hard not to use it.
But for this story, I’ll try.
“I’m tired of this mud,” Freda said, lifting her buckskin dress and stepping carefully through the wet, muddy road that skirted the outside of town. “I’m always cold.”
The winter snows had melted, leaving a thick brown stew behind.
“I wish I could move to
,” she added. “There’s always something going on there.” Her beaded deerskin boot sank into a deep pool of mud up to her shin. “And the streets aren’t nearly so wet.” St. Joseph
I’d never been to
. It was at least a day’s journey away. Pembina was just fine with me. This was where I was born thirteen long years ago, and this was where I would stay. St. Joseph
“It’ll dry up,” I said. The sun had risen only moments ago, and a mist hovered over the ground, hugging the town’s wooden buildings. I smiled as a pair of ducks waddled nearby, their feet smacking the road. They chattered at each other like old women. The smell of river and wood-smoke filled my nostrils. Today was a special day, and I didn’t want Freda’s sulking to ruin it for me.
The town was already awake. People peeked out from their log cabins, pulled coats and shawls tightly about them, and trudged toward the street that ran through the center of town.
I waved as Thomas Bow hurried past. He looked back at us, smiled and tripped, falling on his back in the sloppy mess.
A tow-headed white boy sat on a fence post outside of Joe Roulette’s place, cut hunks off a raw potato with a pocketknife and stuck them in his mouth. He wiped his hand off on his shirt and blew me a kiss. I blushed, feeling my light caramel skin darken.
Today the Métis men, some with their wives and children, but most going alone, were departing on the two-month journey to
and back, their St. Paul Red River carts loaded down with piles of buffalo hides. Few days in Pembina matched the excitement of their departure. The only day more exciting was the day of their safe return, when their carts would be loaded with new goods and equipment.
Everyone here knew someone who was leaving in the long train of slow-moving carts. It was a day of goodbyes and good lucks, a day of tears and anticipation. It was a day for celebration. Most everyone in town showed up to see them off.
But as we headed toward the commotion, Freda grabbed my shoulder and spun me around. She pointed toward the fog rising over the twisting
Red River. “Look,” she whispered. “His door is open.”
Just before the earth dipped down into the river, there was a small, round hut shrouded in moldering buffalo hides. Elk antlers circled the top like a crown, and hanging from the antlers were grouse feathers dyed a fading red. The old man who lived there was known around town as Toad.
People no longer remembered his real name, but Papa said Toad had made the journey to
and back probably more times than anyone. Although we’d seen the old man outside of his hut tending to Bone Bag, his retired ox, the inside of his hut was a source of great mystery to the residents of Pembina. The door was always shut, and since it was also made of buffalo hide, it looked as if the hut had no doors at all. People, even many of the whites, thought he practiced magic. St. Paul
As Freda had pointed out, a rectangle of buffalo hide was thrown back, revealing a dark interior.
“Let’s take a look,” Freda said.
“Are you crazy?”
“Don’t you want to know what’s in there? I’ve heard he’s got two birch boxes full of human heads inside – one for Indians, and one for whites.”
“What about for the Métis?” I asked.
“For Métis,” Freda said, “he only keeps the teeth.”
We laughed. “Come on,” Freda said. “Go peek in old Toad’s hut.”
“Why don’t you?”
“We’ll do it together.”
“Then we say goodbye to the ox-carts,” I said.
Freda nodded. “If we’re still alive.”
The old brown ox tied to the oak tree next to Toad’s hut was missing a horn. One of its eyes was a dead, milky white, and jagged scars ran across its back. Its left ear was split down the middle. The children of Pembina called him “Bone Bag” although I’d heard him called other names, such as “Glue” and “Steak” and “Turd Maker.” It was rare to see the beast move, except to slowly bend his massive head down to reach for hay and grass laid out across the trampled mud. Passing children often fed him apples, potatoes, or whatever else they were tired of eating, and the piles of manure behind the creature varied greatly in color and texture.
Mama once told me that when Bone Bag was a young bull, it belonged to a farmer named Ren Charbonneau. But one day, Bone Bag’s stable caught fire. Crazy with fear, the young bull crashed through the flaming stable wall. Splintered, burning wood raked across his back during his frantic escape.
Bone Bag turned crazy, Mama said, so Toad bought him cheap and fixed him, and some say cussed him into becoming a good ox. They made many trips to
and back, the ox pulling the buffalo hides while Toad walked alongside, cussing and singing and smoking his pipe. St. Paul
But that was long ago. For as long as I remembered, Bone Bag stood tied to the oak tree, wearing away the bark with its one dull horn.
Now the old beast didn’t even flick its tattered ear as Freda and I approached the hut. We crouched low, trying not to make a sound as we neared the entrance. What if Toad grabbed us and yanked us inside?
We stood on each side of the dark entrance, hardly breathing, staring at each other. The strong odor of boiled potatoes wafted out. Freda raised an eyebrow at me, as if to say, You go first.
I shook my head. You go first.
Over the shushhhh of the river below, I heard a voice inside. No, not one voice, but two voices!
Freda leaned forward to look inside. But as I recognized one of the voices, I frantically waved at her. She stopped short and looked at me curiously.
What? She mouthed.
My heart fluttered up into my throat. “Run!” I hissed.
“Why?” She hissed back.
Then she heard it, too.
The familiar voice. His loud laughter.
“Papa!” I yelped.
We ran through the mud, forgetting to hike up our dresses.
By the time we got to the main street, we breathed hard and fast. We were filthy. But no one noticed as they waited for the ox-carts to arrive.
A man dressed in a faded blue Union uniform called out to the crowd, “Come fight for your country! Fight for the preservation of the
Union! Good wages! Adventure! Make your parents proud!” His voice changed tone. “The envy of every young woman.”
The older women in the crowd scowled.
What did the War Between the States have to do with us? It was so far away.
“What was your father doing in Toad’s hut?” Freda asked, catching her breath.
My body was hot from the run. I shrugged without answering. I had no idea. But I was more worried of what Papa might do if he thought we’d been spying. Surely he heard me cry out when I realized he was inside.
A loud, squeaking noise interrupted my thoughts and sent shivers down my back. Heads turned. People whistled and cheered. Freda and I stood on our toes, looking down
The squeaking grew louder. A chorus of squeaks. The sound reached deep into every bone of my body. It made the tiny hairs on my arms and neck rise up.
It was the squeak of giant wooden wheels turning on wooden axles.
One by one the
Red River carts appeared. They gathered in single file, each cart pulled by an ox, and in each cart sat a Métis man, his face full of anticipation. Some sat with wives and children. Many drove alone.
They called themselves gens de libre. Men of freedom.
While the wheels squeaked, the beds of the carts creaked with the weight of buffalo hides.
They kept coming, the giant wheels flinging up mud behind them. The oxen chewed as they walked, their hooves squishing into the muck. While the first carts stopped to wait for those behind, the drivers jumped from their carts and greeted one another. They slapped each other’s backs, lit pipes, waved and smiled. They chatted with family members and friends whom they wouldn’t see for over two months.
The older Métis who were done with their yearly travels, waved from the open doorways of saloons and yelled out light-hearted warnings about the women of
. St. Paul
The line of carts stretched as far as I could see.
A young boy with a bright red cap walked behind us, calling out, “Peanuts! Roasted peanuts!” Bags overflowing with this salty treat filled a box dangling from his neck. My mouth watered.
More carts came. More gens de libres.
They wore brightly colored sashes around their waists. Broad-rimmed hats kept their faces shaded from the sun. Their coats and vests were made of buckskin or black wool. Bright beads decorated their leggings, and many carried the bold red flag of the Métis on their carts.
I’d seen most of them before. Many had their photographs taken in Papa’s studio. They lived in wooden huts and cabins on the edge of town most of the year, but now was the time for travel. It was off to
to sell and trade their piles of buffalo hides. St. Paul
Freda and I counted 42 carts.
An old man as wrinkled and ripe as a rotten apple stumbled out of a saloon with a drink in hand to wish the travelers well. Family members of the drivers hugged their loved ones and wouldn’t let go. Faces were wet with tears, some bright with smiles. A woman played a lively tune on a fiddle while a young boy clapped and sang along. More children surrounded her, dancing a Métis jig.
Freda and I walked up and down the boardwalk, waving at the drivers. Joe Chambeaux rode the lead cart. I recognized him from Papa’s studio. He winked at me when I passed. I reached up and gave him the yellow tulip I had tucked in my pocket earlier that morning. He leaned over and kissed my hand.
“The photographer’s daughter,” he said in the Mitchif language.
I blushed. He tucked the stem of the flower in his bright red and orange sash. He turned around and lifted the bold red Métis flag with it’s gold lazy eight in the middle, and waved it back and forth in great arcs to signal the other drivers. He put his thumb and forefinger in his mouth and gave a loud whistle. “Allons!” he shouted. Let’s go!
There was the sound of cracking whips and men shouting “Haw!” to their oxen. The giant wheels – taller than most of the men – began to turn and the great chorus of squeaking started once again. The sound set my teeth on edge, as if I’d bitten a tin plate.
We clapped and cheered and walked alongside the slow moving carts, blowing kisses to the men and laughing at their bad jokes. One of them – Jean Clemente – tossed Freda a shiny silver dime. He winked at us. “For candy and sweets and nothing else!”
Freda and I laughed.
“I’ll share it with you,” Freda promised me.
Mud stirred up by the oxen and by the great wheels coated our skirts, but we didn’t care. When all the commotion was over, we could soak them in the river.
Outside of town, we gave one last wave to the brave travelers, watching the rising sun turning the men and their carts golden. Finally we turned and hurried back to town. We had a dime to spend!
But as we neared Roulette’s Trading Post, a hand clamped on my shoulder and spun me around.
Papa’s steel blue eyes looked me up and down.
“Filthy,” he said, his voice thick with his French Canadian accent. He dismissed Freda with a nod of his head. “Go on ahead. I must talk to this young eavesdropper.”
Papa wore a black wool coat over a white shirt and suspenders. He wore buckskin pants pulled down over his leather boots. He held my shoulder. His eyes bore into mine.
“Why were you at Toad’s?” he asked. “To spy on your papa?”
“No,” I said. “Freda and I – ”
“What did you hear? Can I have no secrets?”
“Sorry, Papa, but we saw his door open – ”
“You think that means you can sneak around like a snake and listen to private conversations?”
“No, Papa.” I looked down at my muddy skirt.
He patted my shoulders. His voice softened. “So you heard about our trade?”
I looked up. Papa’s mouth had turned into a smile.
“Trade?” I said. “No, Papa. We heard nothing.”
Papa watched me a moment, then said, “Toad and I – we made a trade.”
His eyes sparkled. “For his ox-cart. And for his ox.”
“Bone Bag?” I asked, disgusted at the idea. “Why?”
Papa stroked my hair. “We are moving,” he said.
“Moving?” I remembered what Freda had talked about only an hour ago. “To
?” St. Joseph
Papa laughed. “No, ma chere. We are moving to
. We will open up a photography studio, eh?” St. Paul
What? This couldn’t be. “But you already have a studio,” I said. “Business is good.”
“Ah,” Papa said with a wave of his hand. “This town is dying.”
“But it’s our home.”
“We will have a new home.”
“For how long?”
“For good, I suspect.”
“No, Papa!” I could not believe this! How could we leave our home? My home? Mama’s home?
He wiped away the tears from my eyes with a swipe of his thumb.
“There’s nothing for us here. This is not a town for a young lady like you.”
“But I have friends here. And Mama – ”
“Mama would’ve wanted this, too.”
No! Mama was buried here. Our home…
“I am sorry, Claire. But I have made up my mind. We leave tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow!” I was horrified. Why was there no warning? “How can you do this to me?”
“We pack tonight. We must leave most of our things behind, because we only have the cart, the ox, and our backs.”
How could I even think about packing? My mind reeled. I couldn’t breathe. “How could you do this to me?”
“It is for the best,” Papa said.
Fresh tears filled my eyes. “Papa,” I said. “Oh, Papa.”
He hugged me. “We will have a new life. You will make new friends. You will see. It’s what is best for us.”
When Mama was alive, we lived in a wood cabin with a sod roof. At night, Papa often clapped and stamped out rhythms on the dirt floor, while Mama played her fiddle and sang songs like Money Musk, Buy a Broom and Old Aunt Sally Put a Bug On Me which she learned from the missionaries who taught her how to read. I sang along and danced, too. Mama also taught me the songs of the Ojibwa – her people – and I sang along with her while Papa listened and smiled and rocked in his rocking chair with his pipe clenched in his teeth.
“You have the best of two peoples,” he often said. “That’s much better than just one, eh?”
Now Papa and I lived in a room we rented above Cleve Lacrue’s tack shop. The room next to ours was Papa’s photography studio. There were many days when his fresh photographs hung to dry on a rope that hung from one side of the room to the next. I’d often have to duck beneath it to get from my bed to the kitchen.
Now I sat on my narrow bed clutching my rag-stuffed pillow. How could I sleep?
I stood, stomping the wood floor with my bare feet. I found a piece of cloth, wet it and dabbed it in a box of baking soda. I rubbed it rapidly over my teeth and gums. My mouth tingled as I rinsed with a dipper of cold water and spat out our window into the dirt alley behind the shop.
“Only one item,” Papa reminded me.
I was allowed to only bring one favorite item plus the clothes I had on my back. The rest of the cart was to be used for his photography equipment and the other supplies necessary for the long journey ahead.
I groaned. How could I choose?
“We will catch up to them,” Papa said, growing more excited with each passing minute. “Then we shall travel with them side by side. It will be fun, no? An adventure!”
“How will we catch up with Bone Bag leading us?” I asked.
“Bone Bag still has much life in him,” Papa said.
“But he’s blind.”
“In only one eye.”
“He’s so old.”
“And so wise,” Papa said. “He knows the trails by heart.”
“But the others are a whole day ahead of us.”
“That is nothing on a journey like this. And with so many of them, there are bound to be problems slowing them down – carts needing repair, oxen getting sick.”
I threw up my arms in defeat. “I hope you didn’t pay much for that beast,” I said.
Papa looked away.
“Papa?” I asked. “What’s wrong?”
He turned back at me, the excitement gone from his features. He smiled wearily. “I traded what I could. It will be worth it in the long run.”
“What did you trade?” I asked.
He patted my knee. “It is for the best.”
“Papa? What did you trade?”
“Come, Claire. We must pack.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *