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Into the Great Unknown: Chapter Five
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’.
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.”
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?”
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)