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Into the Great Unknown: Chapter Six

Updated on June 8, 2017

Author’s Note

Welcome back to my Oregon Trail tale. Since there is no way this will be a book, we will follow it to its natural conclusion, when our Party reaches the Oregon Territory. I hope I can keep you interested that long. I’m trying to make this as realistic as possible, so don’t plan on the misery ending anytime soon. The Oregon Trail, for most travelers, was a miserable experience. It was 2,000 miles of torture, the ultimate test of man’s will against all manner of hardships. The fictional family in this story has hope, they have dreams, and they have love, but that won’t in any way lessen the pain they are about to experience.

I just thought I’d warn you.

Let’s find out how Nebraska is treating them.

Deceptively fast!
Deceptively fast! | Source

The Majestic Beasts

We had been following the Platte for two days when we saw our first bison. It was a hot morning, no wind to speak of, the dust from the wagons rising and then seeming to just float in the air, head high, making breathing a chore, everyone with their heads down, hoping to lessen the effect of it.

Laura was the first to spot it, a giant cloud of dust off to the south, maybe a mile away, maybe further, and the longer we looked at that cloud, the larger it became until we could see a black form under it, a moving black form, stretching for hundreds of yards in every direction. Jeremiah Jackson, our guide, halted the train, yelling up and down the formation to stay with the wagons, everyone up onto the wagons, no sudden moves now, easy as she goes, pilgrims, it will be all right, and then we saw them, thousands of bodies, maybe tens of thousands, racing towards us, that cloud following them, and then by God the ground started shaking under us, so great was the herd, so powerful they were, there seemed no stopping them as they came closer, two-hundred yards, one-hundred yards, fifty, moving faster than I thought possible for an animal that size.

Women started screaming, children crying, men grabbed their rifles and took aim, Jackson doing his best to calm our nerves, but calm was in short supply by that time. I could feel the fear in the air, thought to myself it was one hell of a place to die, twenty yards, and then some unheard message signaled to them all as they veered, as one, south, a majestic turn of majestic beasts, like a flock of geese in formation, the southern horizon blotted out by the mass, all screaming and crying silent as we collectively held our breaths, the cloud of dust washed over us, and then it was over.

My heart was in my throat. I willed myself to calm down, no worries, the excitement was over, looked around at our fellow travelers, amazingly no injuries, no trampling, only tears of thankfulness, looks of wonder, some saying silent prayers, their mouths moving but no sound escaping, a conversation with God, giving thanks for sparing us all as the sun continued to beat down and the smell of fear floated north with the dust.

“There were so many of them, Pa,” my son said, his tiny voice at odds with the vastness surrounding us.

“Yep! I reckon more where they came from. I’m told there are millions out here on the flat land, trapped between the Rockies to the west and the Missouri behind us, over a thousand miles for them to roam free.

“Are they friendly, Pa? Maybe we could have a couple pull our wagon instead of the oxen.”

“I don’t think so, son. The wild isn’t meant to be tamed, only admired. Seems to me God would frown upon any attempts to put a harness on an animal such as that.”

Don't drink the water
Don't drink the water | Source

The Illness Spreads

Five sick as of that afternoon. Fierce diarrhea, stomach cramps, we could hear the moaning as we stopped for a spell under a rare canopy of trees along the Platte, the shade so comforting while the mosquitoes snacked on our dust-caked arms and necks.

“Nobody knows what’s wrong with them, Joshua,” Laura said to me. “They can’t keep any food down, water flows right through them, and I’m told two are near death right now. Doc Adams is giving them all whiskey and vinegar, supposed to help with stomach ailments, but so far it’s making no difference.”

I looked up at a sky so bright blue as to hurt my eyes. Heat shimmered on the land, as if it were a living thing, rippling in waves, distorting my vision, making me rub my eyes and question my own eyesight. A hawk flew overhead, a small rodent in its beak, brown wings against the blue sky, gracefulness and death locked together over a land as unforgiving as hell itself.

“Let’s get the oxen some water, Laura. Make sure the children don’t go anywhere near the sick wagons. If we don’t know what’s causing it, we best be staying far away from its source. It’s a tough land, wife, and I aim for us to be tougher and smarter. We’ll gather water for us to drink from fresh streams that enter the Platte. I don’t much like the looks of that Platte water, so make sure the children know not to drink it.”

She nodded.

“How much longer before we see a fort, Joshua?”

“Jackson was saying last night that Fort John is about three-hundred miles dead west from here, so say twenty days, maybe, if all goes well.”

I could tell from her beautiful face she didn’t much like that answer. I couldn’t rightly say I blamed her for those feelings.

Wildlife in abundance
Wildlife in abundance | Source

The Magnificent Oxen

We had named our oxen Clyde and Gert, no particular reason, just names the children liked. Oxen are magnificent creatures, certainly not in appearance but more so in temperament. They are gentle giants, docile, but as strong as you could ever hope for. I had no concerns about the children being around them, none at all, not like a spooky horse or an unpredictable cow. They demanded little, water on the breaks, grazing when the day was done, a handful of grain as their reward for a job well done. We treated ours well, our hopes and dreams riding along their strong backs, for dead oxen meant the end of the journey.

Lisa and Samuel pointed out a small colony of prairie dogs, one standing sentry while the others looked for food, curious little creatures, reminding me somewhat of squirrels without tails, a high-pitched chittering coming from their colony as they watched us from a distance, and a good hundred yards away six antelope broke cover from the brush, spooked by something, their thin legs carrying them at speeds hard to imagine, not so much running as hopping and flying, over a swell in the land and they were gone in a blink. Several minutes later we saw the reason for their alarm, two coyotes came into view, ragged, scrawny, on the hunt, hoping to find the weak or infirmed, nature’s reminder that the death of one meant life-sustaining for another, just the way it was and always will be.

Two shots rang out, members of the train hoping for a fresh kill, not much chance of hitting anything with their muskets from a hundred yards, more a distraction from the tedious nature of the journey, and then Jackson signaled the rest was over. In formation the wagons began, once again, to kick up dust and announce to the other inhabitants of that inhospitable land that visitors were coming, invited or not, welcomed or not, following the sun one step at a time.

AUTHOR’S NOTE

It is estimated that over 400,000 people traveled over the Oregon Trail from 1843 to 1869, making the 2,100 mile journey in approximately six months. Most walked. Many died. This series of short stories is in no way a glorification of their journey, but rather an attempt to make sure they are never forgotten and always appreciated.

2017 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

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    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 6 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Aww, thank you Ann! This series was an easy one for me. I've been fascinated by the Oregon Trail for a good many years.

      I hope your Monday was everything you wanted it to be.

      bill

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      Ann Carr 6 days ago from SW England

      Amazing what these people endured in the name of hope for a better life. Hardship is a cruel test but courage can be greater.

      I like this series. We are there with them. I can feel the heat, taste the dust and feel the pounding of those bison; that's because you are such a good writer.

      Brilliant, bill!

      Ann

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

      Well my goodness, Marlene, thank you! I'll try to continue to live up to such praise. You made my day.

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 7 weeks ago from Northern California, USA

      You are the greatest storyteller, ever! I don't know what is in store for this family. I hope it is all good. But, it's your story and I'll just have to read and see. I'm getting geared up for the next episode.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Missy, you are going to give me a big head. :)

      I was a popular teacher, Missy. I am a storyteller, and I think storytelling bridges generational gaps and makes learning fun and interesting. Plus, I just like kids. :) Thank you for your kindness.

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      Missy Smith 2 months ago from Florida

      Although your calling is a writer, with these types of stories that you write, I know there is a section of your heart that will always belong to teaching as well. I bet you were your students' favorite. :)

      I like how your stories stay on topic and add elements to the theme. This part of your story, to me, is all about the wildlife encountered while making their journey across many landscapes.

      There is so much to learn in all the stories you write, Bill. Whether it be a folk tale from history, or simply a love story with noticeable life lessons written in between the lines. I always get something out of your written visions. :)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Jo! I wish I had more time with this story; I could have developed images like that throughout.

    • jo miller profile image

      Jo Miller 2 months ago from Tennessee

      I'm bringing up the rear with your story, Bill, but enjoying traveling along with your group. I like some of your imagery very much, like 'and the smell of fear floated north with the dust'.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you so much, Susan! Bison fascinate me. I've seen them in Yellowstone several times and I think they truly are majestic.

    • Susan Sears profile image

      Susan Sears 3 months ago

      I grew up camping in Traverse City, Michigan. Our welcome to TC came as we went over the hills to see a large herd of Buffalo - to me as a child they were a majestic looking animal. I can imagine the fear to see such a large herd coming toward you. Once again, Billy, you have painted a great picture.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Jackie, I'm with you. A part of me knows that I would have seriously considered taking this journey.

      Thanks so much for catching up.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 3 months ago from The Beautiful South

      You show it for real and that is good. It could not have been enjoyable for anyone but a fool...and maybe I am one to think I would have ever liked this life!

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

      Thank you so very much, Sha! Let's see, those shots were taken eight years ago when Bev and I drove to Yellowstone.

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      Shauna L Bowling 4 months ago from Central Florida

      Bill, you bring the experience to life, even though all the blood, sweat and tears these folks poured out happened well over a hundred years ago! I feel this is a very emotional write for you. Your passion spilleth over my friend!

      I love the photos you've chosen for this tale. When did you take them?

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

      Well I surely do appreciate that, Lawrence. Thank you!

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 4 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Bill

      I enjoyed this so much I've read it three times this week, so I thought I'd better tell you how good it is

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

      Bison in the United States...buffalo elsewhere in the world. The American bison is unique to this country only...little known fact. Everyone calls them buffaloes but they are, in fact, bison. So there! Thanks for the permission to use your pic....I used to have great pics of prairie dogs from Wyoming but I don't know what the heck happened to them. Sigh!

    • shanmarie profile image

      shanmarie 4 months ago

      You had me holding my breath as the stampede raced toward everyone! How terrifying something like that would be! I don't think I've ever seen a bison in person. Is that the same thing as a buffalo? No? I don't think so....I have seen those....and had buffalo burgers. There's a buffalo ranch back in IL, if it's still there, near where my grandma lived and when I was in high school, a friend and I went to a celebration the ranch hosted. It celebrated the culture of a particular Native American tribe and there were, of course, buffalo.

      Oh.....I have a prairie dog picture on Facebook if you want to use it here. You can grab it there or I can send it or if not, that's okay too. Just a thought. LOL. I took pictures at a part in North Texas. There were mounds all over the place and the little critters running around until people tried to get too close. Then they scurried away to hide and I had to be sneaky to catch one poking its head out of a hole. haha

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

      Maria, my wish is that I would have started writing sooner in life. I have so many novels I want to write, and not enough years remaining to write them. Sigh!

      love,

      bill

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      Maria Jordan 4 months ago from Jeffersonville PA

      Hi Bill,

      This chapter is packed with the real perils these trail blazers faced - ranging from an averted (whew) stampede and 'water sickness'.

      I would love to see this published and shared with our kids in English and / or History class. Textbooks miss the human touch - your writing gives the total picture of the men, women and children who lived this reality.

      Moving on to #7... Love and thanks, Maria

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      RoadMonkey, thanks so much for reading so many chapters in one sitting. I really appreciate it, and I'm so happy you are enjoying the story. More to come next week.

    • RoadMonkey profile image

      RoadMonkey 5 months ago

      It was certainly a hard journey and it must be very difficult to write as if you were writing IN those times but you make me feel I am right there. We know now about germs and many illnesses but they did not but many must have felt, as you got Joshua to say, that water that did not look good, might not do you good.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Michael my friend. Bison are terribly unpredictable creatures. I've seen them do some very odd things for seemingly no reason at all.

    • Michael-Milec profile image

      Michael-Milec 5 months ago

      Unheard of. A twenty yards in face off. Perfectly arranged moment of truth, the other creature then human beings heard and obeyed the Creator command thus avoiding a sudden calamity. Awesome author's utterance my friend.

      Peace and blessings.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Not a problem at all, Tamara!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Very true, Vellur! I would have loved to make that trip with them . . . I think! LOL Thank you!

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 5 months ago from Dubai

      Another great chapter. Those who traveled the Oregon Trail were brave people who kept going come what may.

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      Tamara Moore 5 months ago

      Oh, I am sorry :-(

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      It's ongoing, Tamara, so the next one comes out tomorrow. The bison? They just kept roaming for another ten years until the U.S. Government decided to slaughter them all to starve the Indian population.

    • profile image

      Tamara Moore 5 months ago

      Is #7 ready, yet? I don't know how to find Authors latest posts. Kind of curious what else happened... Oh, this was the last chapter!

      Well, I was still curious what became of the bison. Oh, I must be having one of my "outer-space" moments. My favorite show used to be Little House On The Prairie!

      Tamara

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I read a journal once, Zulma, and the pioneer described it as hundreds of hours of monotony interrupted by intense fear....that's probably pretty close to the truth of the matter.

    • phoenix2327 profile image

      Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon 5 months ago from United Kingdom

      Love the description of the buffalo herd and the other wildlife. Then you jar us back to reality with sickness. I wonder if that's how these pioneers felt.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Dora! It's important, to me, that this is as realistic as possible. I'm so happy you enjoy it.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      It's okay to come out now, Rasma! All is safe! LOL Thank you so much for the comment about the realism of this chapter.

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 5 months ago from Riga, Latvia

      OMG you scared the daylights out of me just imagining those bison heading toward the wagons. I know if I was there you'd find me in the back of the wagon under a pile of blankets until I was sure everything was alright. Looking forward to the next.

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      Dora Weithers 5 months ago from The Caribbean

      Liked the intrusion of wildlife. You are indeed keeping it real with the inclusion of sickness and fear. Good read. Genuine!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      That's my goal, Larry, so thank you!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I appreciate that, Linda! Thanks so much!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I'm so glad to hear that, Tamara! Thanks again!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Venkatachari M! It's always a pleasure having you stop by.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Janine, it was bizarre having your comment among the missing. I'm just happy you are all right. Thank you as always and Happy Friday to you.

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 5 months ago from New York, New York

      I am not sure how I missed this one, but glad I checked in here this morning as I enjoyed the latest installment, as always and look forward to more to come as this time in history always fascinated me in all honesty. Happy Friday and have a wonderful weekend ahead now, Bill!

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 5 months ago from Hyderabad, India

      It is very interesting. The description of the thousands of wild bisons running towards the trail is very scary and hair-raising. Glad to see they didn't harm them. Looking for the next episode.

    • profile image

      Tamara Moore 5 months ago

      Oh, that's okay! I do not mind. It is fascinating to read this!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is another great chapter, Bill. Your descriptions are wonderful.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 5 months ago from Oklahoma

      Always entertaining:-)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      A little John Wayne for sure, Manatita....triumph of human spirit for sure...and definitely thanks for reading.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Eric, and I agree, and that's what I wanted it to be.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I really appreciate that, Flourish. Just not enough time, and a bunch of books in front of it....hey, I only have a very limited number of years yet to live, my friend.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Well shoot, Tamara, now I feel bad since they are your nightmares. :) So sorry to bring that nightmare to the printed page, but thank you for reading nonetheless.

      bill

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks a bunch, Sis! Vinegar and whiskey....it will either cure you or kill you. No in-between. LOL Can you imagine picking 200 people at random from today's population and making them take that journey with no conveniences at all? It's one way to keep the population numbers down....fight overpopulation by taking the Oregon Trail!!!!!

      Hugs, my friend!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Ruby! It really is amazing, isn't it? Less than 10% died on a journey that would kill off half of today's population. :) I'm happy you like this story, my friend.

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      Ruby Jean Fuller 5 months ago from Southern Illinois

      I'm happy you are going to complete this story. I love reading about adventures of olden times. It's amazing how so many survived....Thank you for sharing this..

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      Paula 5 months ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      So, I'm reminded I can read and hold my breath at the same time, providing I read fast! Whew! Thanks bill, no need to use my elliptical today to get my heart rate up. I'm good. So relieved everyone else was too. (I've visited farms where buffalo are bred & raised for their meat.....not quite the same scenario!)

      We need to be so grateful to the unlimited huge strides in medical science through the century. A drink of whiskey & vinegar would kill me if the illness didn't. I shuddered imagining it. It is such a stretch to get into how these people survived, carried on, kept their hope & tenacity. You bring it to us as real as possible...real enough for each powerful visceral reaction I just described. Nothing like facing head on that we (many of us) are a bunch of true "softies!')

      Amazing, just amazing what that 2,100 mile, 6 month journey entailed. This tale is a fascinating education! Hugs, Sis

    • profile image

      Tamara Moore 5 months ago

      This is very scary! Panic rises within me as I read your words. I knew that Bison were frightening creatures, but I never thought of them as in a herd before, and creating such a ground-shaking force as to knock the earth off its foundation! Bison are my nightmares. Thank you for writing this!

      Hugs,

      Tamara

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 5 months ago from USA

      So Bill why not a book? I think there's good stuff here.

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      Eric Dierker 5 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Awesome. What a great tribute to the American spirit.

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 5 months ago from london

      Yes, Bro.

      I like how it ended. It took courage, no small feat and I guess they were all heroes, knowing or believing, that some would not make it. A John Wayne kind of grit, if I may say so. A real triumph for the human spirit. Another awesome bit of writing here.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Clive, kind sir!

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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Aww, thank you MizB! I could only guess at what it must have looked like....some herds were estimated at a million bison...can you imagine? That's what I tried to portray, the sheer wonder of it all, coupled with the sheer terror of it all.

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      MizBejabbers 5 months ago

      Oh, Bill, great description. I just wish I could have seen that herd in person. I've seen the small herd in our state that is growing, but nothing compared to that.

      Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, too. You can make it come alive. I'm sure there'll be heartbreak to follow. There usually was on these migrations. Have a great day, my friend.

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      Clive Williams 5 months ago from Nibiru

      All Hail the Great Billy...Nice Write.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Lori! I have Bruce Catton to thank for my love of historical fiction.

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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I think you did, Nadine, and I thank you for the suggestion. I just wish I had started writing sooner in life. I have limited time remaining on this planet and so much I want to accomplish. Anyway, thank you!

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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      It's hard to nail down a figure about that, Mary. Best estimate, about 30,000 died making the journey. I've seen as low as 20,000 and as high as 40,000, and most died by accident and secondly cholera. So maybe 10% or a little less.

      Thanks for the kind words, Mary! Have a great upcoming weekend.

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      Lori Colbo 5 months ago from Pacific Northwest

      Great story. I could see, feel, taste, and hear all that you described. I love historical fiction. Nice job Bill.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Sorry about the goosebumps, Linda, but I'm secretly happy you got them. :) Thank you very much, my friend.

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      Linda Lum 5 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Bill, it might be the change in the weather (a drop of 20 degrees from yesterday to today), but as I was reading about the bison stampede I got goosebumps. I can see and smell and feel every inch of this journey. Some of your best story-telling.

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      Mary Wickison 5 months ago from Brazil

      That stampede must have been frightening. Impending death coming nearer and nearer. Like standing on a railroad track as the train races towards you.

      Scary stuff and gripping.

      You say 400,000 made the journey, any idea how many made it?

      I can only recall meeting one person who was a generation older than me, who had been born in California. In the 1950's there was a mass migration but before that, I was curious about the numbers who decided to stay.

      Great read.

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      Nadine May 5 months ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      I loved reading this short story. My visions of the whole journey was right in front of my eyes. One day you must try your writing skills on scrip writing. ( I think I might have suggested that before?)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I appreciate that, Pop! Thank you and have a great adventure!

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      breakfastpop 5 months ago

      I am happy I got to read this before I take off for a couple of weeks. It's great writing, billy.

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      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Debangee, I greatly appreciate your very kind words. Thank you!

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      DEBANGEE MANDAL 5 months ago from India

      Another masterpiece. It is beautifully described. I would love to follow it.