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Into the Great Unknown: Chapter Five

Updated on June 2, 2017

North, Northwest

All gaiety was gone by the time we crossed the Little Blue River.

A child was trampled during that crossing, a spooked horse reared up, hit her alongside the head, underwater she went, not a damned thing anyone could do. The parents were devastated, their tears at odds with the brilliant blue sky, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, an old wooden cross with her name, Josephine, carved in it for other pilgrims to find and reflect upon.

Two dead on the trip, us barely out of Kansas, heading northward in search of the Platte River, our fate dependent upon the water, easy enough to follow, trees lining the river banks, the only trees in sight, follow the trees, follow the river, a pretty simple contract with Life. If you venture one-hundred yards away from the river you’re standing in the middle of nowhere, that’s what it feels like, Laura mentioning exactly that one night under the stars, that feeling of insignificance, of not being real damned important in the grand scheme of things.

We took turns driving the oxen, Laura and our daughter for four hours, then me and our son, on and off, two shifts each, sixteen hours of traveling, barring a catastrophe, end one day, begin the next, a giant cloud of dust following our train, announcing our arrival wherever we went, choking dust stark against the sky, discarded furniture along the trail, skulls along the way, remnants of previous trains, a chair, a piano, a stove, white crosses occasionally, the final resting place for another lost dream, from Iowa, from Pennsylvania, from Maine, and from Virginia. “Is it worth it” dominating my thoughts as one step followed another, one yard at a time, one yard of the past behind us, one yard closer to an unknown future, and the heat rising with God’s own furnace ahead of us still.

Laura wrote a letter one night, to her folks back in Iowa, telling them not to follow us, sending her love, telling them she would see them in heaven, good Lord willin’.

The Little Blue
The Little Blue | Source

Routine Established

Twenty lashes one morning before we headed out, twenty lashes to Tom McCormick, farmer from Missouri, fell asleep during guard duty the night before, the men of the train voting on his punishment, the lashes administered by Jeremiah Jackson, harsh treatment in a harsh land where an unplanned sleep could mean death for the entire traveling party.

“Why’d they whip him, Pa?” my son asking from the seat next to me.

“We gotta be able to count on a man doing his chores,” I told him. “You pull your weight, they all pull their weight, and by doing so we all make it to Oregon safe and sound. That’s the way it has to be on this trip, son.”

Our traveling companions were mighty quiet that morning, not a one of us happy about the punishment, but knowing it was necessary to send a message to every person. An unforgiving land requires immediate correction of harmful actions, as simple as that.

Not more than an hour into that morning a mighty cloud formed, seemingly from nowhere, rising from the flat land, towering thousands of feet in a vertical column, the wind blowing something fierce, frightening the horses, and then the lightning began, brilliant electrical knives stabbing at the ground, trees exploding upon contact, the air tingling with electricity. It must have gone on for a solid hour, the rain horizontal, all of us hiding under wagons, the oxen seemingly ignorant of the fact that hell’s own fury had arrived, and then as suddenly as it arrived, it left, and steam rose from the river, from the very ground, and the sun returned and all was quiet.

All eyes scanned the horizon, looking for more, but there was none to see, leaving us questioning our sanity and praying to God.

“Get used to it, folks,” Jeremiah shouted, riding the length of the train on his midnight black horse, smiling as he rode, an untamed man in an untamed land, totally at home amongst the fury. “They come and they go, and there’s a damned-sight worse ahead of us.”

Insignificance
Insignificance | Source

The Platte

Six days of traveling after that sudden storm gained us the first view of the south side of the Platte River, our natural guide west. I wasn’t much impressed by it, and I could tell my companions weren’t as well. For a river we were staking our lives on, it wasn’t much, a half-mile to a mile in width, the water wasn’t deep enough for a good bath, and its color was a reddish-brown. The water didn’t appear to be moving on its own accord, but rather steered along by nature’s force of will and nothing more. Scoop out a handful of that water and you could see insects swimming in it, making it none too appetizing for man, but plenty welcomed by the oxen and horses.

“Is it all right for us to drink, Joshua,” Laura asked me as we stood on the bank looking out at the unnatural color.

“I’m not sure I see us having much choice,” I told her, but I was none too happy with my statement.

Small trees and scrub brush lined the shore. Islands dotted the river, inhabited by thousands of ducks and other birds I didn’t recognize. Deer could be seen from where we stood, and an increasing number of bison pies gave evidence to the great animal of the Plains, although we still hadn’t seen any. The sun was low in the west, announcing the end of the day, and our guides told us this would be our campsite for the night. I was struck with the enormity of it all, the Plains stretching before us, unimpeded, a land so large as to leave a man feeling insignificant, meaningless, and helpless. Laura stood closer to me, touching me, and the children stood in front of us, none of us speaking, each one of us asking silent questions for which there were no answers. Our daughter Lisa, completely caked in dust, finally broke the silence.

“What will it look like in Oregon, Pa?”

Dreams in the far distance
Dreams in the far distance | Source

The Promised Land

“Well, Lisa, I’m told by those who have seen it that the green never ends, that trees soar to the heavens, and the water flows swiftly and clear. I’m told that a man can grow crops from March until late October, and I’m also told the rains will continue, at times, for weeks without end. I’m told there are snow-covered mountains which seem to reach up and touch God’s own kingdom, and the soil is so rich a plain fool could grow the best crops ever seen by human eyes.”

“I sure hope it’s prettier than this river, Pa,” she added.

“So do I, Lisa. So do I.”

I’ve never seen so many stars as I saw that night along the banks of the Platte, and I’ve never felt so small. Shortly after we all lay down under those stars, as the breathing settled into a rhythm, I felt, rather than heard, Laura crying next to me.

JOIN ME NEXT WEEK

The travelers are about to encounter their first bison herd, so join me next week as the giant beasts of the Plains pay a visit.

And thank you for following along!

2017 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

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    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 7 weeks ago from New York, New York

      Truly enjoyed and can't wait now for the bison to show up for the first time in the next installment. Happy Friday now, Bill!! :)

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 7 weeks ago from USA

      Excellently crafted. I continue to love this story.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 7 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you so much for the encouragement, Flourish. You are appreciated.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 7 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks Janine, first on the spot every time. Have a great weekend my friend.

    • Carb Diva profile image

      Linda Lum 7 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

      Bill, I love your description of Oregon. It sounds like home, doesn't it? The size of this land of ours amazes me--it seems to go on forever. I'm loving this journey, and looking forward to next week. Thank you.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 7 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Linda! I may be a bit biased, but I love the Pacific Northwest and think it's about as close to heaven as we are likely to get in our lifetimes. :)

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 7 weeks ago from Brazil

      Well Jeremiah isn't doing a lot to boost moral, is he?

      I feel like shouting to them, "you're going to love Oregon, just hang in there."

      I have always wondered why people didn't travel more on moonlit nights. Often even by starlight, it is quite bright enough to see and much cooler for the animals.

      I sure wish they would have captured some of that rainwater, I don't like the thought of them drinking that silt.

      Be kind to those weary travellers!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 7 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      it's an interesting question you raise, Mary! I suspect it had to do with the fear of Indian attacks, wolves, bison, etc, although I don't know for sure. And after a lot of research about the subject, the consensus about the water is they simply didn't know it could kill them, and kill them it did, in the form of cholera, by the thousands. Anyway, I agree, they will love Oregon. :) Thanks my friend!

    • Homeplace Series profile image

      William Leverne Smith 7 weeks ago from Hollister, MO

      I'm sure I've read more than an dozen books about the Oregon Trail and these travelers...you have captured it so well. I'm enjoying your story as much as any other. Great writing, great story. Can't wait for the next installment. Thank you, so much, for sharing this series with us!! ;-)

    • Tamara Moore profile image

      Tamara Yancosky 7 weeks ago from No Idea Where

      Yes, I am awaiting the Bison herd! I felt bad that Laura was crying. Lisa is cute in the way she is hoping things in the near future will look prettier than the river :-)

      Hugs,

      Tamara

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 7 weeks ago from london

      Great! You speeded up a bit in the first half then settled down. Difference in tone but smart move. Your story is flowing very well. Continue, Bro. Excellently written as usual.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 7 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Manatita! I'm practicing with pace and tone, so I appreciate you commenting on that.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 7 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Tamara, thank you! Anything would be an improvement over the Platte River. :) Oh, the bison...coming soon!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 7 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      I appreciate that, Bill. I'm trying to make it as authentic as possible, and your approval means a lot to me.

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 7 weeks ago from Hyderabad, India

      The story is very interesting and alarming with those elaborate descriptions of the scenery and places. Your narration makes it everything appear before the eyes. Waiting for the next episode.

    • marcoujor profile image

      Maria Jordan 7 weeks ago from Jeffersonville PA

      How we take drinking water for granted these days - what a powerful reminder in this chapter, filled with both faith and fear.

      Will join you soon to meet the bison, dear Bill.

      Have a peaceful weekend. Love, Maria

    • Debangee Mandal profile image

      DEBANGEE MANDAL 7 weeks ago from India

      This too is just excellent.I will look forward to the next.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 7 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Debangee! Your comment is appreciated.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 7 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Isn't that the truth, Maria! So many died from cholera on that journey because they just didn't know the dangers or how to boil the water first.

      Thank you dear friend!

      love,

      bill

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 7 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you very much, Venkatachari M. I appreciate your loyal following.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 7 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      I saved this for my Saturday morning reading and quiet time. This one pretty much sets me straight to enjoy the easy wonderful life I have.

      Thanks guy.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 7 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      My pleasure, buddy! Enjoy that Saturday of yours, and thank you!

    • breakfastpop profile image

      breakfastpop 7 weeks ago

      Considering the hardships, I am amazed that this part of the country was ever settled!

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 7 weeks ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      This becomes more and more of a frightening struggle with each day, every disaster by nature & man, as we move through this journey. I wonder too, as pop has....it could be nothing short of a miracle that the settlers arrive at their destination. The courage, determination and tenacity of human beings "in those days" can only be compared to that of the brave men & women of combat who face potential capture, torture, explosions or death...for the firm belief in a cause of great magnitude.

      I am with this brave crew, in the deafening silence as I weep with Laura..........Gosh bro....emotions are high, fear is relentless yet hope abounds......you have tied my being to these settlers and I'm holding on.

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      MizBejabbers 7 weeks ago

      Poor Laura, she is already regretting her decision to travel to Oregon. I can understand why she would advise her parents not to come. Change of pace, may be the calm before the storm?

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 7 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is a gripping and moving story, Bill. I love reading it.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 7 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      I'm so happy you are enjoying it, Alicia. Thank you so much!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 7 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Oh MizB, I promise some storms for sure. :) This will not be an easy trip at all. But it will be realistic and that I promise. Thanks, as always, for being here.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 7 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Sis! You leave the best comments. I can only imagine what it was like back then, and my imagination, I'm sure, falls far short of the reality. Sheez, I wonder if I would have made it to Nebraska....I guess once you've sold everything and committed, it is pretty hard to turn back and head for....nothing. Might as well keep moving west and hope for the best.

      Anyway, thank you dear friend!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 7 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      True words, Pop! True words! Even the promise of 640 acres seems like a weak incentive.

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 7 weeks ago from Dubai

      Following the journey and wondering what is going to happen next. The bison herd encounter is going to be a tough and scary one for them.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 7 weeks ago from Southern Illinois

      Bill, your story gets more exciting as we travel the ' Great Unknown ' I could almost feel the wind as the storm blew over. Looking forward to the next installment...

    • Ronna Pennington profile image

      Ronna Pennington 7 weeks ago from Arkansas

      Bison?! Can't wait!!

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 7 weeks ago from The Caribbean

      Excellent story-telling Bill. I felt it all: the sadness, the tiredness, the uncertainty and the hope. Great read!

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 7 weeks ago from Oklahoma

      Great read!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 7 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you very much, Larry!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 7 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      I appreciate that very much, Dora! See you on the Trail!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 7 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Me too, Ronna! Thank you very much!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 7 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks so much, Ruby! I hope you are well and enjoying the summer.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 7 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      The wonder of nature, Vellur! That's what they are about to encounter. Thanks for riding along with us.

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 6 weeks ago from Riga, Latvia

      Whew sure glad we got to the Platte. Looking forward to the bison.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 6 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Every mile they make, Rasma, is good news. Thanks for riding along.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 6 weeks ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      A well told tale. Did you say in an earlier chapter what the system was for getting mail between those traveling in the wagon train and their family, friends, and associates back home? Did the US government provide postal service? Or?

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 6 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Brian and no, I did not mention it. Mail was sent back to cities via horseman....periodically some messenger would head back east and handle that chore.

    • phoenix2327 profile image

      Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon 6 weeks ago from United Kingdom

      This is starting to get really grim. Another death, a child no less, and a man whipped for falling asleep on watch. I suspect it will get worse before it gets better.

      It will get better, won't it?

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 6 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      It will get better, Zulma. I promise! :) How much I won't say, but they will find the Promised Land.

      Thanks for spending part of your weekend with me.

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 6 weeks ago from Massachusetts, USA

      I'm sorry it's taken me so long to finally catch up with this story. The inspiration of the original founders of the City of Tumwater who made shelter and a communal home out of "forty sixteen-foot logs felled, limbed, shoved and pulled into place by human willpower and muscle…no modern machinery, no nothing" is just plain jaw-dropping. So was Dr. White's warning about the days to come, and what it would take for them to finally see Oregon and the Promised Land.

      Your writing is so compelling; we are in that " tall grass swaying, mournful howl of the warm wind, hawks overhead..." the chilling dust storms and tornadoes, the endless Plains and night skies pocked with stars. I just love your characters... their need for each other in order to survive and succeed, and their courage of the human spirit.

      As readers, we couldn't possibly ask for more. :-)

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 6 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Genna, you just took a mundane morning and made it bright and sunny. Thank you for the kindness of your remarks. I don't know why this time period speaks to me so clearly, but I'm happy to hear my writing speaks to you. Blessings to you always.

    • lambservant profile image

      Lori Colbo 6 weeks ago from Pacific Northwest

      So many hazards and hardships along such trips, I wonder which ones they dreaded the most. This is an exceptional story.

    • Michael-Milec profile image

      Michael-Milec 6 weeks ago

      "Via suffering into glory "- written somewhere once I read as a little boy never had chance to comprehend it fully as I am seeing it now following the settlers into the "Promised Land". It would be good to know what words would had been revealed through the tears of Laura ?! What a determined generation. It seems to me as the post settlers generations would never understand the values of livelihood acquired by very own sweating and callused hands. I do applaud to your comprehensive writing.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 6 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Michael my friend, you have packed great truths in your comment. The value of livelihood by very own sweating.....indeed, my friend, indeed! Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 6 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you very much, Lori! Ordinary people doing extraordinary things...I love stories which show that side of our species.

    • RoadMonkey profile image

      RoadMonkey 5 weeks ago

      I really feel that this story gives the true picture of what it was like to travel into the west in those days. much more so than any number of films!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 5 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      I really appreciate that, RoadMonkey....thanks so much!

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 4 weeks ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Bill

      One tough journey to make, and a high price to pay. It's great that we can look back and see it was worth it, but I fully understand their doubts.

      I too can't wait to read what they make of the bison.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 4 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks a bunch, Lawrence! I often wonder how I would have done on this journey.

    • shanmarie profile image

      Shannon 3 weeks ago from Texas

      I have to say that I am a fan of historical fiction. I always have been....though my taste in reading is really all over the map. These kinds of tales draw me in. I can't think of anything a normal citizen, in this country especially, faces that even comes close to the perils of the likes these people faced and those that came before them.

      You also had me thinking about the way the rivers must have been back then. Back before man started damming them up with their fancy high tech motors. You mentioned red water and that's what got me thinking. The Red River is on the border of Texas and Oklahoma. Depending on where you cross it, you can see the red color of the water, which I assume comes from the soil underneath it and surrounding it. You can also see how deep this river must have been a century or so ago with what look like canyon wallas now. And now. . .now you can see that it is shallow compared to how mighty it must have once been. I might go look up the depth then as compared to now because now I am curious and when I get my mind going on something, it's hard to stop me. . ..LOL.....Do you think I used the word now enough?

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Now, now, Shannon...LOL....you use now exactly as often as you should use it for a Shannon discussion.

      I learned to love historical fiction from Bruce Catton, a writer of the Civil War. Brilliant!

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 2 weeks ago from Wales

      Another great read Billy. Even after a little break I almost at once rekindled the connection I felt with Joshua and Laura. Brilliant and now wondering how things will turn out when they meet the Bison.

      Take care

      Eddy.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks a bunch, Eddy! I appreciate you traveling along with my family.

      bill

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      Shauna L Bowling 12 days ago from Central Florida

      Bill, you tell this story as if you were there. You draw your audience in to the scene and the emotions of those brave travelers. I'm thoroughly enjoying this. Now I'm going back up to finish watching the Trail video.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 11 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Aww, thanks Sha! I have seen a great deal of the Trail, so that helps immensely in writing it. I appreciate you following along.

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