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Into the Great Unknown: Chapter Nine

Updated on July 14, 2017

Close Call

The bullet sounded like a bee flying by my ear. It was that close.

Confused panic took over, men scrambling out of bedrolls, grabbing their muskets, women screaming, children crying, the firelight illuminating bodies in disarray, scrambling for cover, searching beyond the camp for signs of attack, the darkness absolute ten feet beyond the wagons, and above the chaos a single voice could be heard distinctly . . . “SORRY, I’M SO SORRY, IT WAS AN ACCIDENT,” and the voice was attached to Pete Mulholland, store owner from Pennsylvania, one of the sentries that night, guarding the east, he had dropped his musket by accident, it discharged, and yours truly darned near died along the banks of the Platte, a story of warning to be told in later years, on other wagon trains, this is what happens when you don’t take care and watch what the hell you are doing.

Mulholland earned himself ten lashes that night. Oddly, I felt bad for him.

The landscape changes
The landscape changes | Source

Fort John

The landscape changed so slowly it was hard to notice at first. We were so accustomed to the flat, then one day we set out and noticed small hills, nothing steep, mind you, just a marked difference in the contour, like rubbing your hand over smooth velvet and noticing imperfections in the stitching . . . and then it was just there, an adobe brick structure on a slight knoll, sitting peacefully at the junction of the Laramie and Platte Rivers, Fort John, owned and operated by the American Fur Company, so we were told, a series of buildings and sprinkled near those buildings Indian structures, teepees they were called, activity apparent from a distance, riders on horses coming and going, the shimmering heat making it difficult to distinguish between human movement and a trick of the eye.

We got there shortly after ten in the morning. Jackson told us to circle up and take care of business. We would spend the night outside the fort, leave the next morning.

“It’s time to restock your supplies, pilgrims,” he told us. “Get rid of what you don’t need, buy what you do. It gets damned tough from this point on.”

“Can’t we spend a couple days here, Jackson?” someone shouted from the crowd.

“Do you think winter will oblige us and hold off on snowing?” he responded. “If we don’t cross the Rockies and Blues by late September, they’ll be digging up our corpses by May. Get moving, now. No time to waste!”

Laura walked up next to me, took my hand.

“Only one night here, Joshua? It doesn’t seem right. These people are beat down and weary. Seems like a couple days of rest is exactly what they need.”

“I understand what you’re saying, but we have to trust Jackson. He’s lived this life for a good many years, and we haven’t. If he’s worried about snow and survival, I reckon we should do the same. Let’s go see what’s in that general provisions store yonder. I’m sure you’ve got a list of things we need, so let’s see if we can settle on a price.”

Just then there was a general commotion coming from the rear of the train. It was caused by a lone rider, dust-caked, wearing a coon cap, musket across his shoulder, riding a painted mare, grizzled face, a look of amusement as he made his way to the fort.

“That’s Bridger!” someone said, and a few minutes later Jackson confirmed it.

“Jim Bridger is his name,” Jackson said. “He’s most likely on his way to his own trading post, Fort Bridger, and he’s as close to a living legend as you’re likely to meet. There ain’t much of this country, or the country to the west of here, that Bridger ain’t seen from atop that pinto or on foot.”

An inhospitable land ahead
An inhospitable land ahead | Source

Meeting the Legend

We were just coming out of the provisions store, me and Laura, when the man called Bridger was entering it. He smiled and reached out a hand to shake.

“Name’s Bridger, pilgrims! Have you seen the elephant yet?”

“Elephant?” Laura asked. “There aren’t elephants in this country, Mister Bridger.”

“Every man, woman, and child sees the elephant on this journey, Missy. I just hope you’re ready for the encounter.” And then he laughed and walked into the store, taking a ripe smell with him.

“What do you suppose he meant, Joshua? I’m pretty certain there are no elephants in this country.”

“I don’t know, Laura. I truly do not know.” But Bridger’s words were unsettling to me, for sure.

The land was changing. Not far in the distance, no more than a day or so, stood the first mountains we had seen since leaving our home, dark walls of granite guarding the west, warning all comers to consider well their decision to continue. George Atkins certainly took notice of them, came up and stood beside us.

“Ain’t seen nothing like that back home, that’s for damned sure,” he said, pointing west. Seen the Alleghenies once, but they were damned hills compared to those jagged bastards. I sure hope Jackson knows a way through them, cuz I’d hate to try and go over them.”

They were tall, that’s for sure, and they signaled the beginning of some tough times ahead.

Death and live all around
Death and live all around | Source

Back on the Road

We finished up at the trading post. Laura said we needed more flour and I was in no position to argue with her, so we paid money we couldn’t spare for it and hoped for the best. We spent the night twenty yards outside the fort, and that night was filled with wolves howling and the steady beat of drums from the Indian camp, a steady sound much like a heartbeat, as lonely a sound as the wolves, mixed with the wind. Sometime during the night clouds blew in from the west, and we woke to a steady, warm rain, the dirt turning to mud, making the animals uneasy, the whole camp muttering displeasure in the gray of dawn.

“Next stop Warm Springs, pilgrims,” Jackson yelled as we were lining up for travel. “Fresh water, that, good for drinking and bathing. Then Independence Rock and shortly after that, I reckon a few of you will be seeing the elephant.” He then laughed, no humor in that laugh, spit on the ground, and rode off to the head of our column.

“Even Jackson says there are elephants, Joshua,” Laura said by my side.

“I don’t think he’s talking about the animal, Laura. You take the reins on the wagon. Let the kids ride with you through this rain. I’ll walk behind for a spell. That way I’ll appreciate Warm Springs that much more when we get there.”

There was no sighting of wolves as we began that day, despite their constant howling during the night, but rounding a bend two or three miles outside of Fort John, we came across a mother bison and two of her young, dead by the side of the trail, torn open, purely gutted, and overhead birds of prey awaited our passing.

A prairie fort
A prairie fort | Source

Author’s Note

The Fort John mentioned in the story became Fort Laramie in 1849, the U.S. Government purchasing the trading post from the American Fur Company so soldiers could protect that portion of the trail.

The landscape changes drastically after Fort John. The land rises, gently at first, and the flatness gives way to rising spires. This is present-day Wyoming, and for the next thousand miles the trail will spend as much time rising vertically as it does moving horizontally.

The elephant waits!

2017 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)


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    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 10 days ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      More, more, more more and more. I just love this series Bill and I must admit it makes me a little excited on Friday mornings to learn more or the journey. Thank you great story teller.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 10 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you so much, Eric! That's music to this old history teacher's ears. Next up, the Civil War...but first we have to get these fine folks to Oregon.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 10 days ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Bill I just hate usurpers of hubs but I am just so struck about the similarities of your story of the Vet headed back home to Washington and how the major battle of such a journey is mainly in one's spirit.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 10 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Oh man, Eric, ain't that the truth? I am totally there with you, buddy. We are all so capable of doing miraculous things. Why do some fail so easily, while others succeed? You said a mouth full with that simple observation. I hope that's in your upcoming book.

    • breakfastpop profile image

      breakfastpop 10 days ago

      Your description of this historic trip is so well done, I can feel the dust and hear the drumbeats. Keep them coming, billy.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 10 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Pop! You can't keep an old history teacher down.

    • Carb Diva profile image

      Linda Lum 10 days ago from Washington State, USA

      What a way to begin a Friday. Your story, and THEN Eric's observation. I've got goosebumps. Thank you both.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 10 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you, Linda! My job is done! Goosebumps achieved! :)

    • Tamara Moore profile image

      Tamara Yancosky 9 days ago from No Idea Where

      "Get rid of what you don't need" is a wise statement for many aspects of living more simply, and not having what we carry be too burdensome for us; also, I liked when you mentioned about the man laughing a "humorless laugh"- very descriptive! And, when you mentioned the gutted Bison, mother and children, a feeling of motherly sadness came over me, but I also wondered what such a sight as this would look like, as they are such large creatures. I wondered if the guts were all dried up, or still wet and slimy? Maybe this is weird... I have always been very inquisitive.

      Your story leaves me wanting to read more...!


    • RoadMonkey profile image

      RoadMonkey 9 days ago

      Just amazing to think they have so far still to go, with winter's start always uncertain and any number of possible delays, possibly more deaths and sickness. You certainly know how to hook us in - now I'm waiting for the elephant.

    • lambservant profile image

      Lori Colbo 9 days ago from Pacific Northwest

      This is a riveting story, and a genre I've always loved but haven't read in years. If you put this in a book I'll be your first customer.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 9 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Lori, I'll remember that,and thank you! I don't know if I have the time to do that, but I'll try.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 9 days ago from Olympia, WA

      RoadMonkey, the elephant was always with them. Some saw it early, some late; some ran from it, some stood their ground. :) How's that for a riddle?

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 9 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Tamara! It's strange, really, but I've seen gutted animals, and the site always leaves me feeling sad but at the same time feeling like nature is just doing what nature does, and so be it. Wolves gotta eat too!

      Anyway, I'm glad you like my story. I love your inquisitive mind!

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 9 days ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Getting closer to their destination would be far more exciting I'm sure if these weary travelers could have a much-needed rest & put some of the tragedies they've endured, well behind them. The fatigue, exhaustion & sadness only adds a heaviness to their burdens.

      It does make sense though, to keep moving, in an effort to avoid the gruesome weather ahead. They really don't have another option.

      Pete's mishap was fortunately not a deadly one! A bullet whizzing past one's head will wake you up better than a strong cup of coffee, that's for sure. Every single moment of an adventure like this one, must be spent on your toes, ever vigilant for any number of perilous situations! Yet these determined, sturdy folks just kept mile after mile.

      I wonder if the "elephant" was the beginning, so long ago, to that "pink elephant" of today when we speak of the human mind that has been somewhat compromised by stress-induced (or occasionally, alcohol-induced) hallucinations?? That's the impression I get of the elephant mentioned.

      OK...we stocked up on what we needed Bill.....wearily, we travel on.......Till we meet again. Love, Sis

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      MizBejabbers 9 days ago

      What a journey! But I'm kinda mad at that Jackson. Accidents do happen, especially among weary exhausted folks. Poor Pete. To give a guy 10 lashes for one may be too harsh a lesson. He's opening up that guy's hide and exposing him to infection. Making Pete vulnerable when the train needs all the able-bodied men it can get shows a lack of common sense. What an idiot! I'm anxious to see the elephant, so travel on, my friend.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 9 days ago from Olympia, WA

      It was a harsh way of life, MizB, no doubt about that. A man's mistakes, which may affect others on the Train, were dealt with quickly and decisively....without a doubt, brutally at times. As for the elephant, some have already seen it...others will see it soon.

      Thank you always! Have a great weekend!

    • shanmarie profile image

      Shannon 9 days ago from Texas

      I feel like I've been trying all day just to finish reading this! Kids keep interrupting me and things to do. But now, at last, I am off to see the elephant, whatever that is! I think it's awesome that you are incorporating some of actual history into your tale. More than just the trail itself, I mean. I didn't know Fort Laramie had a different name at one point. And you even found real life historical people to use as characters. I look forward to more.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 9 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Shannon, thanks for battling through those interruptions to read this. Historical fiction wouldn't be very historical if I didn't add some....wait for it...history to it. LOL Glad you enjoyed it! Now, back to those darned kids. :)

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 9 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Sis, this time in history fascinates me. Having said that, I'm not sure I'm made of the stuff necessary to survive such a trip. Maybe I am. Physically I could have made the journey but my God, those people lived under constant stress and fear along the Trail. I seriously don't know how they did what they did.

      The elephant shall be revealed, or you can just look it up...."seeing the elephant." I'm sure Google will help you.



    • phoenix2327 profile image

      Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon 9 days ago from United Kingdom

      Could the elephant be some sort of rock formation that resembles an elephant? Is it the point of no return. It's after midnight now and my brain is too tired to puzzle it out at the moment. Perhaps in the morning. I mean later in the morning. Good night, Bill.

    • marcoujor profile image

      Maria Jordan 9 days ago from Jeffersonville PA

      Thanks, Bill - Google did explain this Americanism that was new to me.

      On to Warm Springs - I trust Jackson's instincts.

      Have a peaceful weekend. Love, Maria

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 9 days ago from Hyderabad, India

      A great description of the long, unending trail. The details make it very interesting. Waiting for the next episode.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 9 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Venkatachari M. It is not easy to write chapters which continue to detail the same scenery, but in order to adequately describe that journey, it is important to convey how boring and tedious that must have been.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 9 days ago from Olympia, WA

      You are welcome, Maria! I'm not sure of the origin, but it was a uniquely American phrase used quite often for about 100 years.



    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 9 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Zulma, give your brain a rest and just Google was a common saying during the 1800's. :) Have a relaxing weekend.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 7 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This chapter is very interesting, just like all the other installments in the story. I love your photos and art, Bill.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 7 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you very much, Alicia! I appreciate you greatly.

    • Harishprasad profile image

      Harish Mamgain 7 days ago from India

      Great write ! Every time I come to the end of an episode, suspense surfaces in the mind what next ? Looking forward to read the coming events in you fantastic story.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 6 days ago from Olympia, WA

      I appreciate that, Harishprasad. Thank you very much!

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 6 days ago from The Caribbean

      The author's note makes the story so authentic. Not that I needed that to help me like the series. I like the adventure. I'm already hooked. Good read!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 6 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you so much, Dora! I love telling a story. It's a real trip for me to develop characters, bring them to life, and tell you what they are experiencing.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 6 days ago from USA

      Elephant indeed. I can imagine their fear and the way you described Bridger, I can almost smell his ripe scent.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 6 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Can you imagine, Flourish, what those mountain men would smell like? I don't think I came close. LOL Thanks for the comment.

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 5 days ago from Riga, Latvia

      I am so enjoying this journey. I just cannot wait to find out about that elephant. I figure most likely it will be a mountain or cliff or something like that in the shape of an elephant.

    • Michael-Milec profile image

      Michael-Milec 4 days ago

      Speaking of tough times how much more tougher time these travelers to endure my friend? All the world is expecting them to survive the most heroic journey, to my senses beyond my wildest dream. On the other hand, isn't it just the unpredictable road to glory that every free man has to go through ?! Just pondering.

      Thank you again for splendid history lesson. Blessing to you and yours.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Michael my friend, on the best of days on that journey, there were hardships. Heroic indeed.

      Thank you always and yes, every free man goes through such a journey.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Ahh, Rasma, if only it were so easy. :) Coming soon, my friend.

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 3 days ago from Brazil

      They are already weary and now have mountains to climb. Jackson may be the man to get them through but I don't think he'd win a popularity contest.

      I wonder how many turned back and opted to return home?

      This is a great story and you've got us all rocking all in the wagon with them.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Mary, I don't think there are any figures on how many turned around. In all my years I've never seen that statistic. I would love to know as well.

      Anyway, have a great weekend and thank you!

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 days ago from Oklahoma

      Just fascinating trying to wrap my head around getting to see the world at 3 miles an hour in a wagon versus 75.

      As always, a great read.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 days ago from Olympia, WA

      It is amazing, Larry, that more of them didn't go crazy on the journey. That kind of slow motion would drive some people nutso, I think.

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