Into the Great Unknown: Chapter Nine
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 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.”
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.
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.
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)