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Into the Great Unknown: Chapter Eleven
Not Much More in This Series
I have another series I’m itching to write about, so I’ll wrap this one up soon enough. Maybe two more installments will be enough to get these folks to Oregon.
They just left Fort Bridger which is in modern-day Wyoming. They still need to finish up the Rockies, traverse over a desert near Boise, Idaho, cross the Blue Mountains before navigating the Columbia River to the Willamette Valley.
No piece of cake at all!
Let’s see how they are doing.
Water Running in the Opposite Direction
It was Laura who first noticed it. I had too many things on my mind, and I was too blasted tired to notice, but sure enough, one day she said the water was flowing west instead of east, and damn if she wasn’t right, it was, we had crossed the Great Divide, and once pointed out to the rest, there was a general subdued celebration in camp. We were on the Pacific Ocean side of the mountains, a victory for sure.
A short-lived victory.
It snowed that night, the last week of August.
“That’s right, pilgrims,” shouted Jackson the next morning, the ground covered with a fresh mantle of four inches of snow. “Winter ain’t a’waitin’ for the weak or the stragglers. Get a move on, now. We break camp in thirty minutes and we wait for no man.” He rode away, leaving his sharp odor behind.
Up one hill, down another, a constant give and take of elevation, some of those hills so damned steep we had to tie off the wagons onto the biggest trees and slowly lower them down the slope with ropes, slow going for sure, and dangerous, damned dangerous, my ears never forgetting the sounds of screaming as the ropes broke on Turner’s wagon, he and his wife hurtling down the hill, unable to make the upcoming curve, airborne they were as they sailed off the cliff, landing a couple hundred feet below in a swift river, their oxen following them to a rocky and watery grave.
With mountains behind us and mountains in the distance ahead of us, we arrived at Fort Hall late one afternoon, white adobe brick surrounding a fairly-large fort, log buildings inside the fortifications, Shoshone teepees outside, a welcome sight for sure. The Shoshone were friendly enough, more curious than anything else. Abandoned wagons sat along the wide banks of the swift Snake River, each in various stages of disrepair. We soon found out why.
The chief trader of the Hudson Bay Company’s fort, a Mister Grant, was discouraging at best.
“Too rough ahead, folks, you’re better off turning around or going on with your animals but no wagons. I’ll be glad to trade you flour for your wagons, but only a fool would take those wagons through the Blues.”
Jackson approached us as Grant finished his appeal.
“Still singing that stale song, Grant?” Jackson said. “You said the same thing last year when I came through with twenty-five wagons, and twenty-four of them are safely settled in the Willamette Valley as we speak. Just trade for what’s needed, Grant, and let the politicians do battle over who owns this country and who has a right to it. I’ve got no beef with you British, so let’s keep this nice and friendly.”
“I’m just trying to do what’s right by these folks, Jackson. It wouldn’t be right to let them continue without knowing the dangers that are waiting for them.”
Jackson spit on the floor of the trading post.
“We’ve lost twenty-two men, women, and children, Grant. You don’t think these folks know about the dangers?”
There was nothing to be said after that. Our wagons moved west the next morning, aiming for the distant mountains, the snow forgotten as the desert heat pounded down upon our spirits.
It didn’t seem right, a desert, sun pounding down, two days after snow, snowy peaks ahead of us, what kind of godforsaken mess were we heading into? Our children, dammit all to hell, our children no longer smiled, dirt-caked faces looking at me each night, silently begging me to make it right for them.
“How much longer, Joshua?” Laura asked me one night as we made a slight shift to the northwest.
I told her I didn’t know.
“I guess we should be happy just to be alive,” she said, no happiness in the sound of that statement.
Later, after dinner.
“The children, Joshua . . . I worry so about the children.”
“Say the word right now, woman, and we’ll turn tail and go back to Fort Hall,” and I heard the anger in my voice and felt instantly sorrowful.
“I’m sorry, Laura,” and I took her in my arms. “I’m sorry for the whole damned mess. For what? For free land and constant fear, and it’s all my damned fault.”
“Stop your cussin’, Joshua. You’re a God-fearing man and I won’t have you changing because of this country. We’ll make it and we’ll be better for it, and that’s the end of that discussion.”
Why Do They Call Them the Blues?
My daughter cried that night, but God bless her, she woke up the next morning to jays calling with a smile on her face.
“The birds are happy we are here, Papa,” she told me, and it damned near broke my heart.
In the distance mountains rose, at first a light shade of gray, but as the sun rose they turned black and then an unnatural blue.
“The Blues up ahead, pilgrims,” Jackson told us. “That odd color means a forest fire, God’s own way of keeping the population manageable,” and he spit on the ground and laughed at his humor. “We’ll be hoping that fire burns itself out by the time we get there, or we’ll have one hell of a time crossing through those peaks.”
“He’s an uncouth man, Joshua,” Laura said as Jackson rode up ahead.
I looked down on her. I didn’t like her color that morning.
“You feeling all right, Laura?”
“A little under the weather, husband, but don’t you be worrying. Let’s get those oxen moving. We have a new home to settle.”
I looked at the Blues, then at my ashen wife. The jay kept screeching, and twenty yards to our right two elk broke cover and jumped a stream.
“Everybody and everything is a little jumpy this morning,” I said mostly to myself. Saying it out loud didn’t rid me of the unease.
Two To Go
I’m feeling two more chapters to go. I’ve got new stories to develop, and I’ve taken these pilgrims just about as far as I care to at this time. See you next week as our fearless family crosses the Blues and lowers down into modern day Eastern Washington. The Mighty Columbia awaits them!
Thank you so much for following along on this journey. It is my first real attempt at historical fiction. I feel like I rushed it a bit, but I can always go back and expand later.
2017 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)