As he cinched the last saddlebag, he heard the front door slam. Four shrill voices shouted, nearly in unison:
"Pa! Pa! Are we goin' west today?"
Red turned to see his children rounding the side of the house at full speed, their eyes widening as they spotted the loaded wagon.
"Mm-hm, we're headin' out. Carrie, thanks for fetchin' the youngsters. Where's your Ma?"
"I'm a-comin'," came the exhausted reply from the other side of the wagon. Red peeked around to tarp to see his wife, Sadie, carrying two large baskets of hardtack and jerky. She gave a smile despite her obvious discomfort.
Red heart swelled at the sight of his brave, beautiful wife. He waved off the children for a moment so that he could speak to her privately, then he took the baskets from her and placed them with the rest of their belongings.
"Are you ready, Sade? We're really goin'. Our new life waits out west."
She leaned against him as he wrapped his arms around her. "I didn't think this day would ever come." Then, in a hushed, reverent tone, as if she was afraid to let the universe know her plans, she whispered one word: "Oregon."
"That's right. Oregon." He felt himself beaming.
"Are you sure we'll make it, Red?"
Red kissed her forehead gently. "We'll make it, dear. I done prayed on it."
She nuzzled him gently. "Me, too, Red."
After savoring the moment a little longer, Red realized it was time to summon the children.
"Carrie! Jessa! Lee Dan! Grab Little Red and hop on board! We're a-headin' out to Oregon!"
They came clambering over a nearby knoll, somewhat dirtied but just as energetic as before. Red had them turn and say goodbye to their Missouri cabin before loading everyone up securely. Once he had them all settled in the back of the wagon, with Sadie cradling Little Red against her chest, he walked to the front of the cart and took his seat at the reins. He took a deep breath of prairie air, then released it slowly.
"Hey now! Let's hit the road, ladies 'n' gents!"
With that, he snapped the oxen into motion. The wagon lurched ahead along the trail, and the whole family was off to--
Red was suddenly tossed from his seat into the mud. He heard the screams of Sadie and the girls, and Little Red began to cry.
"Are y'all okay?!" he shouted as he scrambled to his feet. The back left wheel of the wagon lay in a splintered mess on the road. It looked like they'd hit a deep rut that he hadn't seen before.
"No, Red, please come back here. It's bad."
Red sprinted around to the back of the wagon to find his younger daughter Jessa rolling around, cradling her arm while she sobbed.
"It's broken! It's broken, Pa!" she moaned, her body wracked with fearful spasms. Red knelt over her and began to comb the hair out of her face.
"Shh," he whispered to her. "Be still, Jess."
He had only a second to calm her before he heard Sadie cry hysterically.
"Red! Oh, Red! Little Red's just died of dysentery!"
Red's blood ran cold. "My ... my boy?"
"Pa!" came the shout from his other son, his only living son, who was curled up in the corner of the wagon. "I ... I've got cholera, Pa." With that, Lee Dan gave a death rattle and passed into the next world.
Red had only a moment to mourn the deaths of his two sons and the maiming of his daughter before he heard a hacking noise from just behind the wagon. Broken, defeated, he crawled to the edge and peered over. Carrie was on her hands and knees, shaking violently.
"Pa ... it's ... measles. And ... diphtheria. At the same time. Measles and diphtheria, Pa." She dry-heaved and then fell to the ground, lifeless as a stone.
It was all so disorienting. His head began to spin, and he felt his stomach twist into knots. He nearly fainted, but a weak plea from his wife cut through the noise.
"Red ... Red, my love. I'm exhausted."
Red whirled on the spot. Delirious, he lurched over to his true love, the mother of his children. He cradled Sadie in his arms and wept. "No, Sade, not you. Not you, too."
"I ... I thought we were goin' to make it to Oregon," she stammered between harsh breaths. "We were ... supposed to start over. I ... I prayed on it."
"Be still, my dear," Red whispered. But it was too late. Sadie died in his arms from exhaustion.
Red felt his world drop out from beneath him. He slid to the floor of the wagon, paralyzed with grief and loss. He was also paralyzed, he soon realized, with snake venom, and he saw the patterned scales of a copperhead slither into view.
"Snake bite," he moaned. "Damn." And then Red closed his eyes and knew no more.