Into the Great Unknown: Chapter Seven
A Little Historical Perspective
By 1845, when this story takes place, the Oregon Trail was fairly-well established and easy to follow. The Platte River provided visual guidance for quite some distance, and then other landmarks and rivers did the same as they moved towards the Rockies and beyond. Getting lost was not a concern. Still today, some of the original wagon ruts can be seen along the preserved sections of the Trail.
My sense, from the reading I have done, is that those who crossed the trail did not battle fear daily as much as they battled boredom and weariness. The summer weather was unforgiving, each footstep was tiresome, and the land of the Great Plains seemed to stretch to infinity, giving one the impression of not making any progress from day to day.
That’s where our travelers are now, the Great Plains, where present-day Nebraska is, to be exact, one step in front of the other, really a metaphor for us all.
Life Along the Platte
The wind never seemed to stop in that great, flat land. It accompanied us each step of the way, the first sound we heard when we awoke at dawn’s break, and the last sound we heard as weariness overcame us at night, a low, mournful sound, as though the land itself had lost a loved one and we were on a funeral march. It was constant, uncaring, and unforgiving, blowing fine particles of dust into our faces, a cloud of dust following us, sprinkling our food, coating our drinking water, no escaping it for damned sure.
Every day began with the sound of birds along the great river, calling to us, telling us it was time to mark off another twelve, fifteen miles of the journey, eat a meal, gather our thoughts around campfires, listen to the coughing and muttered curses, half-hearted laughter, sometimes weeping, the smell of coffee and bacon prominent, pack up our bedrolls, water the livestock, and then westward we went, each day our strides a little shorter, our shoulders slumped just a little bit more, the wind, at times, I swear to God holding us up as we kept at it.
Those first few weeks there wasn’t much to break the monotony. The landscape never changed, making me wonder how that was possible, the weather never changed, the wind, the river, the footsteps, the dust. We didn’t see any other bison after that giant herd, not for a couple weeks, but their droppings were everywhere, as though they silently visited us at night, left their reminders, and snuck off into the darkness.
A hawk swooped down one afternoon, snatched a rabbit, and returned to the skies, the anguish cries of the hare giving us pause. Carcasses of antelope dotted the Platte shoreline, an occasional deer, bleached bones picked clean by coyotes and wolves, glaring white under the pale yellow sun, a marker at times, white cross and a mound of stones, the final resting place, dreams of a better life buried three feet below the surface, here lies Caleb or Marcus or Elizabeth, God bless their souls.
“It’s an unforgiving land, Joshua,” Laura said one morning as we looked west before setting out.
“It is that, Laura. Never seen anything like it and hope to God I never will again. The sameness saps the life out of you, leaves a man feeling bleached out like those bones behind us.” The dawn illuminated the western landscape for me, confirming my suspicions. “It’s hard to believe there’s mountains and an ocean beyond what we can see.”
Storm Clouds From the West
That same day, I don’t remember the date of it, but May something, storm clouds rose in the southwest, a giant wall of darkness on a sunny, bright afternoon, like a physical barrier refusing us passage. The wind picked up in power and sound, spooking the horses, truth be known spooking men and women as well. From that wall rose a dark column, tens of thousands of feet straight up, and electricity could be felt in the air, hair standing straight up on heads, a strange smell in the air, the sky turning from black to bluish gray, a slight tint of green, otherworldly, as if God himself was painting the scene, and then the hail fell, rock-sized, pelting the ground, us all diving for cover under the wagon, the oxen strong and brave, not twitching a muscle. A good mile ahead of us a twisting column of air descended, and before a prayer could escape our lips trees could be seen being uprooted, rising into the air, soaring off as if the hand of God tossed them aside, and then in the blink of an eye it ended, the clouds and winds calmed, and the sun returned.
The guide, Jackson, rode the length of the train, checking on people, assessing the damage, and luckily no one was injured.
“Good God Almighty, Joshua!” was all Laura had to say.
We continued on then, as if nothing had happened, white balls of ice melting among the grasses, the wind, in fact, gentler at that moment, as if tired from the earlier ruckus.
The next day a wagon approached from the west, heading east, four horses pulling it, the man with the reins having a full beard, long hair, bandana across his face, whooping and hollerin’ as he approached us, his wagon heavy with bison skins. We all stopped our wagons as the strange man spoke to our leader, shook hands, pointed to the west, spoke some more and then departed. Not much after that Jackson came along slowly, speaking loud enough for us all to hear.
“One day out from Courthouse Rock, pilgrims! Something to look at, scratch your names in it, tell your grandkids about the great adventure!”
“Who was the man in the wagon, Jackson?” I asked him.
“Man by the name of Thompson, a skinner, hauler, travels from Fort Joe to Independence, back and forth, all year long. Skins to the city, supplies back to Fort Joe. Says we’re still a good two weeks out of the fort, which sounds about right. Pretty soon now we’ll be having a meal inside the fort’s walls, and then we’ll begin the slow climb out of the Plains and into God’s country, mountains so high you’ll swear you can hear the angels singing.”
There was shouting then, towards the rear of the train, folks pointing to the north. Following their fingers we could see ten, maybe twelve Indians on horseback, sitting on the top of a small rise, maybe five-hundred yards away, just watching us. There weren’t nothing threatening about them, just a small band of the locals watching as strangers entered their land. It was the second group of Indians we had seen since we left Elm Grove. Jackson rode out to talk to them, conversed for a half-hour or so, and then rode back to us.
“Don’t pay them no mind, pilgrims. They mean no harm. More curious than anything else. We’ll stop in a few hours and then invite them to join us for dinner. Maybe do a little trading, coffee and tobacco for fresh meat, a touch of civilization in this God-forsaken land.”
And so It Was
The Indians did, in fact, share a meal with us all, trading was completed, and a certain degree of understanding passed between us all. The Indians were mighty curious about our friend, George Atkins, he being a black man. They all approached him, touched him, looks of confusion on their faces, George finding it pretty amusing that he was the star attraction after years of quiet anonymity.
“It seems the Indians don’t have a problem with my color, Joshua,” George told me as the onrushing darkness signaled the end of another day.
“Seems they are good judges of character, George.”
That day ended with a feeling of hope. We were all looking forward to seeing Courthouse Rock, something different from the flatness, something signaling progress at last. As I closed my eyes that night, I wondered if George was experiencing that same feeling of hope.
2017 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)