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Into the Great Unknown: Chapter Eight

Updated on June 29, 2017

Imagine If You Will . . .

Day after day you walk. You look to the west, your intended goal somewhere off in that direction, but all you see is flat grassland, stretching to the horizon, the tall grass leaning with the wind, small swales the only break in the flatness, an occasional group of trees along the river providing a bit of shade during breaks in the traveling.

Every . . . single . . . day . . . the same thing. There was no way to judge distance. There were no landmarks to gauge anything by. From sun-up to sundown, the same scenery . . . it must have been disorienting as hell and more than a bit discouraging.

So when an honest-to-goodness landmark did appear, like Courthouse Rock, it was a big deal . . . and that’s where our travelers are in this chapter . . . the first sighting of a really big deal!

Endless landscape
Endless landscape | Source

SURPRISE

We didn’t see it until we were almost at its base, some trick of the geography, some false horizon, I’m not sure which, but we came to the top of a small rise and there, about a mile ahead of us, was the much-anticipated Courthouse Rock. There was whooping and hollering all along the wagon train, people joyous over the prospect of finally marking one trail marker off of the mental map, allowing us to temporarily forget about the two poor souls we buried the night before. The stomach ailment, which had followed us since we reached the Platte River, was just too much for a mother and her son to endure. They died miserably, and were buried quickly, along the banks of the river which cost them their lives.

Such a strange sight it is, three or four hundred feet in height, perhaps two hundred yards in length, a stark sandstone sentinel rising from a perfectly flat landscape. Just to its east another monolith, known as Jail Rock, more of a vertical pillar in shape, the Courthouse and the Jail telling us, without words, that we were making progress.

We stopped along the Trail and men, women, and children walked to the towers and stood, craning their necks, in awe, mouths open. Some touched the bases; some climbed as high as was safely possible; many carved their names in the sandstone with knives, Joshua and Laura, 1845, or similar words, immortalized for future generations to gaze at.

The wind blew with relentless determination, the sun baked a tired land, and eventually the wonder of it all wore off and we resumed our singular mission westward.

The base of Courthouse Rock
The base of Courthouse Rock | Source

Look Yonder!

That day took us from sadness to excitement to the mundane and then expectation. Shortly before we stopped for the night, as the sun approached the distant horizon, our trail guide, Jackson, told us to “Look Yonder!” and there, to the west where he pointed, another tall spire could be seen.

“Chimney Rock ahead, pilgrims,” he told us. “We’ll camp here for the night and tomorrow morning we’ll be at its base. Five or six more days to Fort John. Then the trip gets right difficult.”

Laura grabbed my arm.

“We’ve buried seven already, Joshua. How much more difficult can it get?”

We would find out soon enough.

Mrs. Foster, from Ohio, three young ones and a farmer-husband, felt the first pains shortly after a meal of rice and bread. By seven the diarrhea had begun, with vomiting following by eight. When we awoke at five she was dead.

The Oregon Trail, I decided, was the nation’s longest cemetery.

Bud Weathers got himself kicked in the ribs by his horse. He was coughing up blood by the time we reached Chimney Rock. We buried him at its base.

“How many more, Joshua?” my wife asked me. Her lips were cracking from the intense heat, axle grease spread on them for soothing.

But the Lord taketh and giveth in equal measures, and by noon that day a young mother from Kentucky, not much older than sixteen, gave birth to a healthy baby boy, the women of the train fussing over her, providing care, one big extended family welcoming a new member.

A visitor along the Platte
A visitor along the Platte | Source

The End of Another Day

Chimney Rock was nothing more than a memory as we came to the end of another day at seven that evening. Instead of immediately circling the wagons, it was suggested by Jackson that we all pull our wagons into the river to cool off the iron rims.

“The heat will cause some problems with those wheels and rims, pilgrims,” he said. “Best we cool them off each night from here on, as long as this heat continues.”

By eight we were in the accustomed circle, and meals were eaten without much enthusiasm. Tin on tin was about the only sound that evening, spoons scraping plates, the sighs of the exhausted making no sounds. After the meal, several families commenced to empty items from their wagons, considered dead weight unnecessary for the remainder of our trip. Someone broke out a harmonica, and the mournful sounds of Amazing Grace rolled across the great prairie as hawks soared relentlessly in search of the weak. That song was followed by one I didn’t recognize, a tune suitable for dancing, and by the firelight folks got up and danced, flames jumping, tired bodies swaying, coyotes singing, the newborn crying, desperate smiles keeping the fear at bay for an hour or so until exhaustion finally had its way and the camp, as one, broke out the bedrolls and prepared to settle down. The smell was not a pleasant one as a hundred or more folks did their natural duty, squatting amongst the reeds along the river, cleaning off in the tepid waters, one eye ever watchful for snakes.

The western horizon faded from view. The blackness covered us as a blanket.

“Get some sleep, pilgrims,” Jackson shouted from the center of the circle. “Community meeting at six in the morning. We’ve got some matters to discuss.”

Guard Duty

I kissed Laura goodnight, said the same to our children, grabbed my musket and walked out to the western perimeter of the train for guard duty. Another man would relieve me at two. Within an hour the sounds of the train had disappeared and the wind dominated the scene, competing with the constant flow of water, the coyote and prairie wolf howls, the heat releasing its grip on the land for a few blessed hours. Occasionally some coughing could be heard, or someone talking in his sleep. Straight ahead, as I stood watch, the prairie spread out under a million stars. I struck a match, lit up my pipe, inhaled deeply, felt the stress of the day wash out of me, and . . .

A gun fired and a bullet buzzed by my ear!

TO BE CONTINUED

Authors notes: the early Trail was littered with items, considered too valuable to leave back east, but discarded early on to make the wagons lighter to pull. In fact it is reported that the Mormons, during their trek west, made considerable profit from those discarded items, carrying them west and selling them at forts along the Trail.

Easily the number one cause of death on the Oregon Trail was accidental death. Remember, these were mostly farmers who had no experience with survival on a grueling, six-month trip. Crossing rivers was a dangerous undertaking. Simple guard duty was dangerous as rattlesnakes became active as the cool of the evening settled in. Many fell from wagons, some were run over by wagons, and some were shot accidentally by discharged weapons.

And if the accidents didn’t get you, chances were good that cholera would. The unsanitary conditions along the Trail were abhorrent, and it was not unheard of for a traveler to feel fine in the morning and be dead by nightfall because of intestinal ills.

But still they continued westward!

2017 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

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    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 3 weeks ago from New York, New York

      So true that even after all is said and done, these people did continue westward on. Thanks for the continuation and the great story telling here once again and now Happy Thursday to you, Bill!! :)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Janine, I wish I had that sort of determination. I think it is a thing of the past, my friend.

      Happy Thursday to you, and thank you always!

    • Carb Diva profile image

      Linda Lum 3 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

      Bill, I can't fathom the bravery of these souls. It would be akin to your family and mine heading to Mars. Bless them, and thank you for sharing your knowledge of the history with us. It's a sad story, but nevertheless an important part of our land that should not be forgotten.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Linda, I'm with you on this one, and that's why it fascinates me so much.....how could ordinary people do such things? How desperate were they? It's amazing to me.

      Thank you and Happy Thursday to you!

    • RoadMonkey profile image

      RoadMonkey 3 weeks ago

      They could have absolutely no idea of what lay ahead of them when they set out and once they did, it was too late to turn back! Those pioneers were tough!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Tougher than me, RoadMonkey, and that's a fact. :) Thanks so much for being with us.

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 3 weeks ago from Hyderabad, India

      The story going much interestingly. Your narration is great making the scenery alive in front of us. The ending has sparked more excitement.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you very much, Venkatachari M. I will try hard to continue to make it interesting.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 3 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Bill my mom was a spectacular lady. She would load up us six kids in an old/new to us, white Ford station wagon. We would drive a bit and all get out and dump. No I mean scavenge old dumps. Dumping as it were. Wagon wheels to fine china was found. An occasional ironstone piece or ink wells.

      A place between Tuzigoot and Jerome AZ was a spectacular find in a sand dune. A big old Scooner wheel poking up out of the dune.

      It drove home for all of us just how tough Americans are.

      Thank you for your story.

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      MizBejabbers 3 weeks ago

      Bill, I simply can't imagine people this tough to make a scary journey like this one. It must have been heart-breaking to leave valuables behind, but even more so to drive off leaving dead love ones. But then, they weren't softened by air conditioning and refrigeration like we are. Just wait until they get into the Rockies. I'm still enjoying riding along, my friend.

    • DrBill-WmL-Smith profile image

      William Leverne Smith 3 weeks ago from Hollister, MO

      By far the best episode, so far, Bill. Excellent. You are setting a high standard. I have a 1952 crossing to write, to the California gold fields. I stopped just across the Missouri, stymied by how much detail to share. Perhaps, one day, I'll get back to it. Looking forward to your next episode. Where did that bullet come from???

    • Homeplace Series profile image

      William Leverne Smith 3 weeks ago from Hollister, MO

      I meant 1852 crossing to the gold fields, of course... Weston Wagons West... with my Great-Grandfather, James P. Preston. Got to get back to that story... Thanks for the inspiration!! ;-)

    • abbaelijah profile image

      Abba Elijah aka elijagod 3 weeks ago from Nigeria

      Wow ! .....cool article

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Abbaelijah!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks so much, Bill! I guess we'll just have to wait about that bullet. With any luck we'll find out next week.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      I figured that's what you meant, Bill. You are very welcome for the inspiration. We all need it.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      MizB, the Rockies are going to truly test their mettle, as if it hasn't been tested enough. Thanks so much for continuing on with us.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      That, Eric, would have been a spectacular find. I would love to have an old Schooner in my back yard. Not sure the neighbors would appreciate it as much as I would. :)

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 weeks ago from USA

      Wow, Bill, this is as real as it gets. I still think this is your best work. Excellent.

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 3 weeks ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Brother bill....How you pull me in to your scenes. Each chapter has me right there and perhaps even more, I find myself "relating" to something in my own life, that creates a sense of awe about these fellow-humans during an entirely different time and place. Your opening hit me squarely in my "directionally dysfunctional" gut. Just walking, horses pulling those wagons toward what, how, which direction, how much longer? Such faith & trust. Please don't let anything happen to Jackson.

      More and more lives lost. Thank you for presenting us with a newborn! Life ends yet life goes on and new life comes along....we dry our tears and smile again.

      Keep us movin, bro....excitement of Courthouse Rock and Chimney Rock ahead.....I'm looking forward to the journey's end.

      Great story as we move along, bill.......Sis

    • shanmarie profile image

      Shannon 3 weeks ago from Texas

      Finally caught up to you! Not sure I can keep up with the way my time is going around here. But.....reading your stories are not only interesting but educational. Learned a new word earlier today reading this series and now I learned that that journey west took around six months. Neat video of Chimney Rock. I always imagined it more accessible than it looks to be in that video. Thanks. :)

      Now.....my rambling thoughts for the day. LOL......First, I am watching my son's pet mouse in its cage pushing its bedding around...well, throwing it is more like it. Not sure what she's really trying to do. She's mastered spinning the wheel at just ther right angle so that she can climb on top of it and then hang upside down from the top of the cage. She's an escape artist, which is why we had to do away with her wire cage. She used to escape and then try to run back inside whenever we'd enter the room as if we hadn't noticed she'd been out. Quite lucky the cats didnt find her first. She's also currently pushing her food bowl around and has it upright in the corner with her food scattered all over the place. Smart creatures though....and, anyway, my point you may ask....wondering about the little field creatures along the trail. . .

      Second...what was my second thought agai.....dang it.....it will come to me after I close my laptop for bed if I can't think of it now......Oh....the longest cemetery....I wonder what became of many of those graves along the trail. I can assume that they were lost long ago and built over. Kind of sad, actually. I like to walk through old cemeteries. Sound strange? But seeing the headstones makes me wonder about the lives of the people from well over a century ago....what their stories may have been.

      Okay....so feel free to ignore my random thoughts. LOL. But just remember you inspired them. Ha!

    • lambservant profile image

      Lori Colbo 3 weeks ago from Pacific Northwest

      Writing about monotony is difficult. You pulled it off with the last chapter and this. It was cool to see photos and videos. I particularly liked the photo of the Buffalo (or Bison? don't know the difference). I can't think of anything detest more in the way of sickness is gastrointestinal. Poor people. Yeah, don't kill of Jackson.

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 3 weeks ago from Riga, Latvia

      The journey gets harder and I realize that patience is also at an end. Looking forward to what happens next.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Rasma! As I've said before, I have no idea how these people did what they did.

    • Maira Kulsum profile image

      farahnaaz 3 weeks ago from hyderabad

      It`s amazing to know about these unknown people. They are just recognized to be unknown but i must say they have courage and loads of hidden talents to display and Bill wonderful description about these forests land.I have never been to these places but i felt like iam visiting right now after reading this post.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you very much, Lori...it's bison by the way.....and dying in a strange land...horrible...no help anywhere....very sad.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you very much, Maira! I'm so glad you are enjoying it.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Shannon, two weeks ago Bev and I were walking through an old cemetery, reading headstones. No, not strange at all. There's a lot of interesting history in cemeteries. As for that mouse....my money is on the cat! LOL

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks Sis...thanks a bunch! I was going to hurry this along but that would be a disservice to those who took the trip. The story should drag on, just as the journey did.

      After much debate I have come to the conclusion that no, I could not do what they did.

      Hugs

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      I really appreciate it, Flourish. Thank you very much.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 3 weeks ago from The Caribbean

      "Then the trip gets right difficult.” Laura echoed my question. The author's notes gives some explanation. However, I am touched by a new birth in the midst of deaths. I'm following all the way.

    • phoenix2327 profile image

      Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon 2 weeks ago from United Kingdom

      Oh, my good God, I can actually feel the fatigue that overtook them by nightfall. Still, it speaks volumes of their resiliency that some could actually dance and find some joy.

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 2 weeks ago from london

      Some truly brave souls! More 'passing' in this one bro, but handled well. We had a new arrival also. Nice! I'll see the Indians next week, perhaps. sshh!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Shh, Manatita...perhaps not! Who knows what is lurking around the next bend in the road? :) Thanks my friend.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Zulma, I can't even imagine. I've felt weariness before climbing mountains, but I could always see the finish line, and knew there was a cold beer at the end waiting for me . . . not so these folks.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Dora! There is always hope, my friend. I choose to believe that.

    • Tamara Moore profile image

      Tamara Yancosky 2 weeks ago from No Idea Where

      Wow, you have a lot of Accolades!

      Anyway, this new chapter left me waiting excitedly for more! I like the rugged pictures, as well. As I read, I imagine myself in these same conditions as you have described so very well. I feel that I am on this journey, too. I like it when the cool evening sets in. I felt bad when my friend was run over by a wagon. The Cholera is a very scary prospect! My stomach actually hurts, right now, due to thinking about it. Loved this! Thank you!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Tamara, thank you very much, and thanks for finding me on Facebook. As for the accolades, I just stuck around long enough and they felt like they had to give me something. LOL

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 2 weeks ago from Brazil

      This story of hardship is one which we see with people who are searching for a better life even today, it's timeless.

      You've left us with a dandy of a cliffhanger, I'm sure all will be revealed.

      I never knew about cooling the wheels, that's interesting. I sure hope they make it to the fort without losing anyone else.

    • Tamara Moore profile image

      Tamara Yancosky 2 weeks ago from No Idea Where

      LOL, your reply to my comment made me smile :-)

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 2 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Your story continues to be both dramatic and sad, Bill. What a difficult journey for the real-life travellers along the Oregon Trail.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Alicia! It's hard to imagine much happiness on that journey, so I'm trying to keep it true to life.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      And for that I am happy, Tamara!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Mary! Just a little fact I came across the other day. Makes sense and I'm not sure why I never thought of it before.

    • Michael-Milec profile image

      Michael-Milec 2 weeks ago

      How fast the group gets educated on provision of hope for what is ahead , " then the trip gets right difficult." All-right my friend, you are leading your readers into a analogical reality of a life-long-journey many of our own. Have we had any idea what to expect on the road of our following the desirable destination of our dreams. Not me... The pilgrims heroes we are following are great encouragements for to endure until the final destination is reached. The ''final" destination ?!

      Happy and blessed the Independence Day celebration .

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Michael my friend, you are far ahead of the learning curve in this short story. Yes, an analogy, and a metaphor, and toss in a history lesson while you are at it. Bravo my friend, and thank you...Happy 4th of July to you and yours.

    • Michael-Milec profile image

      Michael-Milec 2 weeks ago

      Oh, Bill, I only read what you wrote, and I try to express my best as I know.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      And you do it well, Michael my friend.

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 12 days ago from Massachusetts, USA

      I cannot express in adequate terms my admiration for your writing, these early settlers, and the hardships they had to endure in a harsh and unforgiving land. At the same time, the sense of adventure and the beauty experienced by those who survived the journey by grace, love, luck and determination, and those who were left behind with their dreams underground, like some of the wildlife, is a legacy that cannot be forgotten. You wrote a few chapters back that "Into the Great Unknown" is an attempt to make sure the travelers of the Oregon Trail during those years are never forgotten and always appreciated. You have more than succeeded. This story is part of our national epic.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 11 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Well Genna, I cannot express in adequate terms my appreciation for your kind words. Thank you my friend. Growing up, a next door neighbor of mine had traveled the Oregon Trail as a small child. His story needs to be told.

    • marcoujor profile image

      Maria Jordan 8 days ago from Jeffersonville PA

      Dear Bill,

      This story is even more special knowing that you are keeping your former neighbor's legacy alive.

      Riveting, sobering - I'm glad you're not rushing this. Love, Maria

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 8 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Maria! Special people deserve to have their legacy kept alive, don't you think?

      love to you

      bill

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 30 hours ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Bill

      A dangerous trail for sure, but the possibility of a better life drove them on.

      So happy the musketball missed

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 14 hours ago from Olympia, WA

      Missed this time, Lawrence! :) who knows if the next one has his name on it or not? Thanks my friend!

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 8 hours ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Bill

      Sometimes a soldier will carry a bullet with his/her name engraved on the casing. The idea being if they own the 'bullet with their name on it' then no one can fire it at them!!

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