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Dear Martha,

Another long day of punishment, only today’s punishment was a little better than yesterday’s.

Mama gave me every single chore she could think of. I had to reinforce all the buttons on Pap’s work shirts. I had to clean the lamp chimney and fill the base with oil. I had to sift the sugar to get the lumps out. I had to brush all the dust off the supply boxes in the wagon with a stiff brush, sweep the floor, and cut the mold off the cheese. I had to pour the salt out on a tray to dry in the sun, put lemon juice on the stains on Mama’s apron, and pull the wicks out of the candle stubs.

But no matter what she gave me to do, it was better than just sitting there with NOTHING to do.

Late this afternoon Mama said, “Teddy, I think that’s enough. Come on up here and sit with me.”

I crawled up on the seat and sat beside her. Dylan was in his little seat leaning back against a blanket, sound asleep. Mama said, “Have you learned your lesson?”

I said, “I have. I’m sorry. Real sorry. I’ll think next time.”

We rode for a while. Mama said, “You are so much like me.”

I liked the sound of that. I was going to ask her what she meant, but Travis caught up with us again. He had a package, wrapped in brown paper and tied with white string. I noticed his short haircut again.

He said, “Mrs. Bodain, please, would you let me talk to Teddy today?”

Mama said, “You may say what you’ve come to say, Travis.”

He probably hoped Mama would go back in the wagon, but she stayed right where she was. He handed me the package and said, “Teddy, I never meant to drop your doll in the river. I’m sorry. My ma had Miss Emily Carter fix her as best as she could.” I didn’t answer. I sat as quiet as a mouse. Travis finally realized I wasn’t going to say anything, so he turned and left.

I stared at the package. It could sit there forever. I didn’t want to see Veronica all ruined and dirty. I wanted to fling that package under the wagon wheels.

Mama said, “Well, I see you’ve chosen not to forgive Travis. I think that’s a fine idea. Hold a grudge. Stay mad. Keep all that bitterness bundled up inside. Try to hurt him as much as he hurt you. Isn’t that what the Good Book says?”

I felt ashamed. I hung my head. She was right, of course. Travis had apologized.

It was just that I dreaded so much what Veronica would look like now that she was ruined.

Mama said, “You’ve got to look at her sooner or later.”

I untied the string and opened the brown paper. I stared in amazement.

Veronica was more beautiful than ever.

Miss Emily must be a miracle worker! She made a new dress out of some fancy, blue material. She cleaned and polished Veronica’s leather shoes, like new. Miss Emily made pantalettes and lace stockings.

All the traces of the muddy water had been washed away from Veronica’s porcelain head, hands, and feet. Miss Emily fastened them to a new shapely body, fashioned from clean muslin, and stuffed her with kapok. I examined every part of her. I was totally amazed.

But the thing that I couldn’t figure out was Veronica has hair! It was glued on just so, all lovely and curled, and the same color as before. I had clearly seen her in the river with most of her hair washed away. Just a few strands had been left. Now, she has a full head of hair.

I said, “Where on earth did Miss Emily get real hair?”

Mama and I sat wondering. Then, it finally dawned on us, both at the same time, and we burst out laughing!

Poor Travis. He’s suffered enough.




Dear Martha,

Travis and I are both in big trouble.

Mama is still pretty mad. Last night she had to stay in her wet clothes until we could get the wagon hooked back up to Jeb and January and make our way to the new campsite. She wouldn’t talk to me and didn’t want to hear a word I had to say.

Pap whispered, “Let her stew awhile. She’ll come around.”

At bedtime, I tried again.

I said, “Mama, I really am sorry.”

She said, “Teddy, sometimes you can be a vexation of a girl. You almost scared the life out of me.”

I said, “I didn’t mean to. I just wasn’t thinking.”

Mama said, “Well, you had better think next time.”

I am confined to the wagon for two days. I can’t go anywhere, not even to school, which means I will miss the next installment of Tom Sawyer. Rats! I’m just sick about it, but Mama won’t budge.

She said, “A day or two in this wagon is just the schooling you need.” She won’t let me sketch or read, either. “You just sit there on that wagon seat and think about how to behave properly.”

I was bored out of my mind. I just had to sit there mile after mile, watching the scenery go by. There was nothing to do. Absolutely nothing.

I thought about our life in Mississippi. We had a good life there, but it was a hard life. Pap had to work day and night, and most of his hard work went toward making money for Mr. Albritton. Mr. Albritton was a good man, but Pap and Mama wanted to own their own land.

I remembered the day Pap came home with the news of the land deed. He said, “Grace, you know things have been hard. Since the crops failed, Mr. Albritton has taken a terrible loss. He can’t pay me in money, but he gave me something that might mean a new life for our family. It’s a deed for some land. Not here in Mississippi. In Florida. But it’s 40 acres, and it’s ours.”

I thought about how it had been to prepare for the new adventure. Leaving Mississippi for Florida meant giving up our friends, our school, our church, our life. I thought and thought, mostly about those things and about leaving you. And about the adventures we’ve had so far.

About mid-afternoon, Travis Lark caught up with our wagon. I was shocked to see how short his hair was. His mother must have cut it this very morning. He was going to speak to me, but he saw the look on Mama’s face.

“Mrs. Bodain, I’ve come to apologize, ma’am. I am truly sorry for the terrible trouble I caused you and your family yesterday.”

Mama said, “You children put a terrible scare in us. But I accept your apology. I appreciate the fact that you came over.”

Travis said, “May I speak to Teddy, please?”

Mama said, “No, you may not. Teddy is being punished.”

Travis said, “I’m being punished, too. My ma only let me come over so I could apologize.”

Mama said, “Well, you have apologized. Now, good day, Travis.”

I told myself I would not talk to him, ever, ever, ever again. He ruined Veronica, my most prized possession. He was acting like a big old show-off, and now he’ll have to pay for it.

But I couldn’t help but notice how sad he looked, how ashamed. I almost felt sorry for him.





Use clip art or digital photos you take yourself to create sets of words for primary writers. If you produce the word cards by topic, such as Weather Words, Rain Forest Words, Musical Instrument Words, etc., you can match these to words on your word wall that are also grouped in sets. The colorful pictures help with memory and decoding.


Dear Martha,

We crossed the river today. I sat on the bank again with Minnie, Hallie, Jasper, and Travis, only today, I had Dylan with me. I had to watch him, so Mama could help make sure all our things on the wagon stayed tied down and weren’t damaged. After our wagon was locked in place on the ferry, Pap swam Jeb and January across the river. I was so proud. They swam over as pretty as you please and scrambled up the bank. Mama stayed with the wagon as it crossed on the ferry.

Minnie and Hallie held Veronica for me, so Dylan wouldn’t ruin her or get her dirty. I wasn’t about to leave her on the wagon. Captain Walsh said that, once in a while, the ferry might tip over if the load wasn’t balanced just right, and our belongings would all be swept down river.

While we were sitting on the bank, Travis asked, “Whose doll is that?” and pointed at Veronica.

I said, “Mine.”

He asked, “How did her hair get so real looking?”

I told him about how your mother used cuttings of your real hair to make Veronica’s hair.

He said, “Oh, Jasper, will you cut my hair, so I can glue it on some dumb doll?”

I said, “Hush up, Travis.”

And of course, he said, “Hush up, Travis,” in a girl’s voice.

He said, “And we can dress her in frilly clothes and have a tea party.”

I said, “Just remember that I whipped you in the slingshot competition.”

He said, “I taught you everything you know!”

I said, “I’m not sharing any more of my jerky with you!”

Before I could realize what was happening, Travis snatched Veronica from Hallie and ran down to the river. He held her over the water and said, “How would you like it if I dropped your precious doll baby in this river? Then, would you share your jerky? Huh? Huh?”

I screamed, “Stop! No!” I reached for Veronica. Travis tried to hold her up over his head, but she flew out of his hand and sailed into the river.

We both had the most astonished looks on our faces. I was furious! I screamed, “My baby! She’s in the river!”

Travis was in a panic. He shouted, “Jasper, help! I dropped her in the river.” He dived in and began searching. When he came up for air, he called to Jasper again, “Help me!” I’m sure Travis knew he had done something terrible.

I stood there frozen to the spot. I heard some adults start shouting. Folks came running from all directions. I heard Mama scream. I turned my head just in time to see her jump off the ferry into the water. She swam like her life depended on it. I thought, what on earth is she doing?

Captain Walsh shouted, “You men! Come help here!”

Mama staggered through the shallower water, her arms reaching out. She screamed, “Where is he? Where is he?” I had no idea what she was talking about. She looked more frightened than I had ever seen. She screamed, “Where is my baby? Where is my baby?”

I yelled, “Mama, Dylan’s right here with Minnie. Travis threw Veronica in the river!”

Mama’s face changed immediately. She found Dylan with her eyes, sitting on Minnie’s lap. She glared at me. “What were you screaming about? I thought the baby had drowned!” Mama burst into tears.

I said, “Travis threw Veronica in the river.”

Everyone standing there looked over at Travis. He held Veronica in his hands. She was dripping wet and most of her hair had come off.

Today was not a good day.




Dear Martha,

Pap startled me awake today with the words, “Teddy, you got to get up, girl, ’cause we’re crossing the river today.” I was so deep asleep that, at first, I was confused. My mind was hazy and full of cobwebs, but then I remembered one word—ferryboat. I jumped up, so I wouldn’t miss any of the excitement.

Fortunately, we were camped near the river. But we first had to secure everything in the wagon or, as Pap said, “batten down the hatches.” Mama always chuckles when he says that. Pap said it’s something sailors say.

The pushers and the rest of the men struggled to line up the wagons in front of the ferryboat. They unhitched a team of oxen and moved them out of the way. Then, they pushed one wagon at a time on board the flat deck of the ferry. The ferrymen lashed down the wagon wheels to large planks nailed to the ferry deck, so the wheels were locked in place. The wagons were floated and pulled across the river by ropes and pulleys. A team of mules on the other side were driven away from the river, pulling the ferry across. Great buckets of butterbeans, was that ferry sitting low in the water! The men in front got splashed as the river churned up and gushed over the bow.

One of the pushers led the oxen to the river in pairs, unyoked them from each other, and a man on horseback swam them across. When he got them to the other side, they were herded into a corral. I couldn’t imagine how those huge oxen could swim, but they were as graceful as horses.


Once on the other side, the men had to unlash the wagons, unlock the wheels, and push the wagons off of the boat. Sometimes, it took as many as ten men to push those heavy wagons. The oxen were yoked together and hitched back to the wagons. Each wagon that crossed went to the new camping area on the other side. The men then had to get back on the ferry and ride back across, being pulled by another team of mules on our side of the river. Sometimes, there were people, horses, carts, dogs, wagons, and supplies coming back across from the other side. They had to be loaded on and secured in place, as well. Not the people, of course. They just held on to whatever they could. Minnie, Hallie, Jasper, Travis, and I sat together on the bank of the river and watched all day. Little did we know that we were about to see the worst thing you can imagine.

The animals could get pretty skittish on the ferry. Late that afternoon, a mule got scared and started kicking. A man who was not from our caravan was standing nearby. The mule kicked him in the chest, and he went flying right into the river. They threw him a lifeline, but he was too badly hurt to hold on. Martin, Miss Emily’s husband, dived into the river and swam after him. The man was unconscious and coughing up blood by the time Martin got him to shore.

There was no doctor, so Mrs. Carter examined the man. She said, “It might be too late, but this man needs a doctor.” The way she said it, we all knew he might die. The farmer who owned the mule offered to take him to a doctor.

Of course, all the excitement completely stopped the river crossing for the day. It was about dark, anyway. This wagon crossing takes a long time. Ten wagons did cross today, but ours wasn’t one of them.

Tomorrow, the remaining wagons will cross, and we will become a train again.




   Who doesn’t love a good game to play with a crowd, especially when it involves writing?

At a recent workshop in San Antonio, the teachers and I played a fun writing game with the teachers from Briscoe and Stuart Elementary schools. Each team was given a different category, such as the names of children’s books, soap names, candy names, etc. Each group’s mission was to write a short, funny story incorporating brand names or titles from their categories. Well, you’ve never heard teachers laugh so much. We had a blast. Here are the results for you to enjoy.


   On a beautiful IRISH SPRING morning, DAWN was approaching. PALM OLIVE WHISKed out of her IVORY sheets and reached with her ARM & HAMMER to SAFEGUARD her DIAL LEVER 2000 from the SURF. At the COAST as the TIDE came in, the salty sea water CASCADEd down the LAVA rocks. The FABULOSO twins, JOHNSON & JOHNSON, CARESSed her HEAD & SHOULDERS. “OLAY!” she CHEERed. Her PUREX was ALL gone.

    AVEENO at home, they sipped the FAB HERBAL ESSENCE tea. It was an ELECTROSOL experience.


Dear Martha,

We are camped on the banks of the Apalachicola River. Today is a day of rest. Folks are visiting, cooking together, and tending to the stock. There’s going to be a singing after a while.

Tomorrow, we will wait for our turn for the ferry. It will take two days, maybe, for all 24 wagons to cross the river, if all goes well. Crossing the river can be dangerous. Captain Walsh met with us today and explained how the crossing will take place. The ferry can take just one wagon at a time since the wagons are so big and heavy. Pap and the other pushers will help each family roll their wagon onto the ferry without any oxen. The ferry will float the wagon to the other side of the river. The men will swim the oxen across the river, one team at a time.

Crossing is expensive. We have to pay the ferrymen to take our wagon across. We have to pay the stockman to corral our team on the other side of the river. We even have to pay to camp here, and we’ve never had to pay for camping before.

Late last night, while Mama rocked Dylan, Pap and I opened the secret compartment under the wagon to take out money for the crossing. Pap held the lantern while I opened the hidden drawer. Something sparkled in the light.


“What’s that?” I asked.

“That’s my pap’s pocket watch,” Pap said.

I saw a thick paper, folded. “What’s that?”

Pap said, “That’s the deed to our land, Teddy. That paper is going to make a new life for our family.”

I said, “Tell me again how we got it.” Pap counted out some money and put it in his pocket. Then, he carefully shut the drawer. Now, the drawer was invisible again.

“Come sit a spell,” Pap said. We sat by our fire, which had burned down to just the coals.

“Times were hard in Mississippi. I’d been working on Mr. Albritton’s land since before you were born. I always wanted to buy land of my own, but there never seemed to be enough money after we paid all of our bills. You remember when the corn crop failed two years ago?”

I nodded. That had been a hard year. The year Dylan was born. The year we hardly had enough food. The year Mama made our clothes from feed sacks.

Pap said, “Mr. Albritton lost big when the crop failed. He called me in and said, ‘Bodain, here’s the truth of it. I have little money to pay you. However, I can offer you a land deed for 40 acres down in Florida. If you work for me one more year, I’ll deed that land over to you.’ It was a shock that he couldn’t pay me in cash for my work. But land! I told Mr. Albritton, if he would throw in Jester and Jingo, he had a deal.”

My heart was sad again when I heard the names Jester and Jingo.

Pap said, “We barely made it through, but Mr. Albritton was a man of his word. He presented me with the deed, signed over to Mr. Dalton Bodain.”

I said, “Where did you get the money for our wagon and all the supplies?”

Pap said, “Captain Walsh took me on as one of the pushers for this caravan. He advanced me the money for the wagon and for our supplies in Dothan. That’s why I work every day to pay him back.”

Pap’s story made me think about our life in Mississippi. There are things I miss there. I loved living near you, Martha. You will always be my best friend. But I am happy that Mama and Pap will have a chance to own their own land.





            What is it about pumpkin pie? Why don’t we have it every day of the year? Why do I have to wait until fall? And who made the first pumpkin pie anyway? Who looked at a giant orange squash and said to him or herself, “Hey, if we scooped out all of the horrible webby stuff in the center and boiled the rind, we could add sugar and spices and make an incredible dessert!”

            Whoever this person was, wherever that momentous occasion occurred, I thank him or her. Eating a piece of warm pumpkin pie is like having your grandmother’s arms wrapped around you. Big, fleshy arms that smelled like Avon’s Here’s My Heart and could churn hand-cranked ice cream for an hour without slowing down. There should be anthems written to pumpkin pie. Soliloquies. Sonnets. Eating pumpkin pie is something that must be done with the eyes closed, in a room full of people who love you. You can’t be completely quiet when you’re eating pumpkin pie. Oh, no. There must be sudden gasps and quiet moans of appreciation.

            I think I’m going to keep one in the freezer. Hey, maybe I’ll freeze a couple of them. And then, all during the year when there isn’t enough money, or I get paint on my favorite slacks, or someone says something that hits me the wrong way, I’ll thaw my pie, pop it in the oven, and seek refuge in its savory goodness.

Click the Play button to listen.

Sorry, flash is not available.

Dear Martha,

This morning, it was my turn to drive. Our train moves so slowly that I could work on some of my sketches. I drew Mrs. Carter as a girl, gathering herbs and plants in the forest with her mother. I sketched some of the plants and berries she had shown me. I drew the bundles of herbs hanging upside down from the rafters in the barn while they dried. I drew Mrs. Carter crushing some of the herbs in a mortar and pestle to grind them into a fine powder. My favorite drawing was of the cute little glass bottles she uses for storing her liniments, tonics, and tinctures.

After her piano lesson, Mama slid up on the seat beside me. “What are you drawing?”

I showed her my sketchbook.

She said, “You never told me you could draw so well, Teddy.”

She flipped the pages, looking this way and that. I felt a little shy about her seeing my sketches.

I said, “How are your piano lessons coming?”

She smiled from ear to ear. “I love learning to play.”

 “Miss Melman said I’ve taken to it like a duck to water. Teddy, I’m learning a beautiful new piece. It’s difficult, but I’m taking it slow. It’s called ‘Narcissus.’”

I said, “By Ethelbert Nevin.”

She said, “How did you know? Girl, you are a sponge!”

I said, “Will you play it for me?”

Mama acted shy. “Maybe—when I get a little better.”

Mama took over the driving, so I could fix our noon meal.

At breakfast, I had made oatmeal while Mama milked Girlie. While the oatmeal was cooking, I made some corn cakes and fried them in a skillet over the fire. I wrapped the corn cakes in brown paper, so we could have them later and not have to stop and build a fire. Mama had given Dylan a cup of milk and put the rest in her “ice box.” Leave it to Mama to think of something good. She had bought an enormous chunk of ice from the supply wagon two days ago. She lined our wood box with sawdust and buried the slab of ice down in the shavings. When she wants to keep something cold, like Girlie’s milk, she exposes part of the ice and sets the milk pitcher on top of it. Then, she covers it with a woolen quilt, folded thick.

“That quilt’s too hot to use as cover, but it will make ice last almost a week,” she said.

For our noon meal, I buttered two corn cakes for each of us and stuck them together with syrup. I put Mama’s cakes on a tin plate with two strips of jerky. I put Pap’s meal in the tin box Mama and I carry to him each day. I cut an apple for Gabriel and one for Girlie and poured a cup of milk for Mama and Dylan. I poured Pap’s milk into a canteen and another canteen for me. I wrapped my lunch in brown paper.

When I took Pap his lunch, he said, “What’s that you’ve got with you?” I told him it was my lunch. He said, “Get on up here with me. I’ve got an idea.” He took our lunches and hauled me up behind him.

Pap told Captain Walsh that he would go ahead and scout awhile.

Captain Walsh said, “I see you’ve got company.”

Pap and I rode ahead until our wagon train was out of sight. We stopped for a picnic.

“See that line of willow trees?” Pap said, pointing. “They’re telling us where the river is. Willows like water. Captain Walsh says to watch for willows if you want to find water.”

When we finished our lunch, we rode ahead, and sure enough, there was a river. There were people, too. Several men worked a flat, wooden ferry that was surrounded by ropes and pulleys. Pap pulled a folded map from his pocket and studied it.

He said, “Yep. This is the Apalachicola. This is where we’ll cross with the wagons.”

I wonder what it will be like to cross a river.



Click the Play button to listen.

Sorry, flash is not available.

Dear Martha,

I’m supposed to be drawing pictures of Mrs. Carter for my interview report, but I can’t help myself. I’m drawing the plants and animals we saw in the swamp yesterday. It’s not that I don’t think Mrs. Carter is interesting. It’s just that I saw so many fascinating new animals, I want to sketch them before I forget a single detail. I could draw forever.

Yesterday, while Captain Walsh was telling us about ospreys, eagles, and other birds of prey, which means they are hunters, all of a sudden he stopped, right in the middle of his sentence, and pointed.

He said, “Well, would you look at that! We’ve got company.”

Two darling little brown animals were swimming and doing tricks. They had big brown eyes, whiskers, and long sleek bodies. I was just going to ask what they were when Captain Walsh said, “Otters are usually found in rivers, but this swamp is fed by a river, so they’re using it as a playground. They’re funny little creatures and about as cute an animal as you’ll ever see. But don’t let that fool you. They bite, so keep your distance.”

He pointed to the woody “knees” that jutted out of the water. “Anyone know what these are?” We studied them.

“These are cypress knees. They come from the roots of the cypress trees you see all around here.”

Cypress knees. What a strange term. They looked like the hats of strange little gnomes living under the water. They were everywhere, out in the water and along the banks of the swamp.

All of a sudden, something stung my leg. I slapped at it, but another one bit my arm and another bit me under my chin.

I was not alone. Folks started slapping themselves all around. It’s funny, thinking back on it.

Captain Walsh said, “Mosquitoes! It’s a swarm! They love the swamps. We’ll have to go back. They’re all around us.” Was he ever right! We were surrounded by clouds of mosquitoes, buzzing and biting like crazy. We were slapping and scratching like maniacs as we ran back to the wagons.

I told Mama all about our trip to the swamp because she had to stay home, so Dylan could nap in the wagon. I told her about the otters and the ospreys and the alligators and the cypress knees. Mama made me promise to draw them all for her in my sketchbook, so she can see what they looked like.

Now tonight, I can’t stop scratching. I draw a little, and then stop to scratch. I have lumpy bug bites all over my body. I hope I never see a mosquito again, as long as I live!

I’ve drawn the otters, the osprey, the alligator, and the sleeping snake that scared me. I want to draw the cloud of mosquitoes that surrounded us so suddenly. But I’ve got to stop drawing swamp critters and start my sketches of Mrs. Carter and her herbs. Vexation.

I wonder if she has a cure for itchy mosquito bites.