Destiny: A Novel of the Oregon Trail

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Chapter 12: Farewell Mr. Jones

Chapter 12: Farewell Mr. Jones:

We reached Fort Boise on the 30th of August. We had made very good time, and the oxen were in good shape from the lush grass and ample water we found north of the river. We were dreading the crossing of the Snake River again at Fort Boise, but we needn’t have worried, the water level was very low, never deeper than knee deep, and though the current was swift, we had no trouble crossing. We were hurrying now to make sure we didn’t get trapped by snow. It was hard to believe on these hot, dusty days in the desert that snow was not that far away, and we had to keep up our pace to avoid it. We just spent a single night at Fort Boise, crossed the river, and continued to Farewell Bend, where the Snake turns north into what we were told are hellish and confusing canyons.

Shortly after we left the Snake, we came upon Flagstaff Hill. It was not a horrible rise, the oxen had dealt with much worse, but what made it memorable were the mountains we saw when we reached the top. They were so tall, they looked blue in the distance. Some of us thought we were seeing the great Cascades, but Mr. Jones let us all know that these were the Blue Mountains, the Cascades were still over 200 miles away.

The valley between Flagstaff Hill and the mountains was called the Grand Ronde and it was beautiful, but few of us could enjoy it properly with the looming mountains. A couple of families thought this would be a great place to settle, and Mr. Jones said it would, except this was Indian country and they wouldn’t take kindly to people settling in it. We had reached the land of the Nez Perce, the Cayuse, the Walla Walla, and the Umatilla. This valley was used by all four tribes, though we didn’t see anyone here as we passed through. The tribes of these mountain areas had different places to go at different times of year, and just now, they were near rivers like the Shoshone we had seen at the Snake River crossing, to catch spawning fish and to trade with each other. They came here according to Mr. Jones in the early summer months when they could hunt elk and deer, fish, and gather early fruit harvests. They would also use the hot springs to bathe and wash their clothing. They considered this the “Valley of Peace” and even warring tribes would not fight while they were in this valley. It was fortunate for us they were not here, though. These proud people had been decimated by measles and other diseases, and were distrustful of wagon trains passing through. Mr. Jones told us some young Cayuse men had attacked Whitman Mission a couple years before after their people were brutalized by a measles outbreak that killed seven or eight out of ten. The young men thought the disease came from the white people, which was probably true since measles were common back in Iowa. Some of them thought it was done on purpose and attacked the Whitman Mission, but up to this point, there were no attacks on wagon trains that we were aware of, though the anger they felt over the diseases brought by white settlers, was concerning. Our more immediate danger, though, was these great Blue Mountains.

As we began to climb the mountains, the road became broken up and the oxen hard to handle. It was the worst stretch of road we had seen on the trail, and that was quite a statement considering all we had seen. For four days, we climbed, and struggled, and the oxen labored, tempers got short, and we all wondered when we’d reach the top. When we did, we rested for a day, repairing wagons, strengthening our nerve for the trip down the mountain that Mr. Jones told us was just about the toughest stretch on the trail.

As we continued on after that rest day, the slope at first was gentle, the pine and spruce forest refreshing and cool, and the views between forested areas were spectacular. We were at a pretty high elevation, Nathan thought we might be as high as five or six thousand feet based on the trees and the air.

“What is that?” Asked Jim as we rode together through one clearing to the side of the wagons.

As I looked, and saw a triangular shape like a sail or a strange cloud, I realized what it was. “It’s a mountain, far far away.”

“No way”, said John, “that’s gotta be a cloud or something.”

“I think Will’s right,” said Jim as he squinted towards the horizon, “I think that’s one big mountain, far away. Maybe that’s those Cascades Mr. Jones was talkin’ about.”

“Look alive there boys, here comes the slope.” Pa shouted to us from the seat of the wagon.

He wasn’t kidding. The slope was almost a cliff, a narrow road on the side of an almost vertical mountain that twisted and turned back and forth as it wound down the way. Even on horses, we had to be careful of footing. Pa was straining to keep the wagon from getting out of control, and every man among the thirty wagon drivers looked tense and worried. We traveled along in the tense silence of concentration as each of us watched to keep footing for oxen and horses and men alike.

All at once, after about an hour on this slope, we heard a loud snap, like the crack of a whip from the front of the wagon train. We looked ahead and saw a horrible sight, the second wagon, its front axle broken was tipping off the narrow road. As the oxen scrambled to keep from being drug over the side, they hit the lead wagon and it too began to tip. It appeared almost slow how the wagons tipped off the road and over the slope, dragging the oxen with them. They were far enough ahead we could barely hear the screams of the family inside the second one, and the crashing as the wagons rolled down the slope, speeding up and breaking into pieces with each turn. By the time they came to rest over a thousand feet below, it looked like spilled splinters. Even the bodies of the family, a man, woman, and their two sons from the second wagon, and Mr. Jones from the lead wagon were not visible from this height.

The whole train was at a dead stop on the steep and precarious slope. No one seemed to know what to do next. Pa, as the blacksmith, was well known and respected. He realized he’d have to take the lead with no one else stepping up.

“Will, you’ll have to drive, hand your horse over to Nathan and get up here.”

I slowly dismounted and walked towards Pa, nervous in light of what I’d just seen.

“The most important thing is to keep a light hand on the reins, trust the oxen, but don’t let the wagon ride up on them. Don’t overuse the brake but keep a hand on it if the wagon starts to build up speed.” Pa said quickly before he left for the front of the wagon train. I had driven enough by now, I knew what he meant, but so had the driver whose wagon lay below, and Mr. Jones, whose wagon he took with him.

Pa left and rushed forward. All eyes were on him as he reached the third wagon, now the lead wagon. We couldn’t hear what he was saying from 28 wagons behind, but we saw men nodding and soon, the wagon train was moving again. Pa was driving the lead wagon, and the man who had been driving was walking ahead, directing Pa towards the smoothest and flattest parts of the narrow trail. The wagon train spread out, each wagon had a leader on foot, guiding the oxen, and looking for rough spots, and we were far more separated than we usually were. Nathan was my lead man, guiding me and the oxen with his calm demeanor and sharp eye. Sitting on the wagon, relying on his guiding, he no longer seemed a clueless school teacher, but truly one of us, indispensable in his calm. I rode with my back and shoulders tense from the strain, trying to trust the oxen and not pull too tightly on the reins, a hand on or over the brake, trying not to overuse it and wear it out. Foot by foot we traveled down the steep, narrow, winding path that way, taking hours to reach the bottom without any mishaps.

The strain was more exhausting than the hardest day of work I had ever done. It took us all day, straining to keep the wagons from getting out of control for the whole seven mile descent. There were no more incidents, but it was turning dark as I pulled our wagon, the last, into the dry camp at the bottom of the mountain.

We took the next day slow, Pa leading, and me on our wagon bringing up the rear. Without Mr. Jones, none of us had ever been to Oregon before, but the trail was before us, the worn ruts clear as day and we all knew that we were supposed to head west, northwest, until we reached the great Columbia River, which we would follow to The Dalles, where we would have to decide whether to float the river or go through the mountains. In some places the ruts were shallow and hard to see, while in others they were deep and obvious to guide us. I was sure Pa at the front of the wagon train with a practiced eye and more experience would see more than I did as he led the way. The land on this side of the mountains was dry and dusty, the wind strong and in our faces.

After the second day off of the hill, the Umatilla river was a welcome site in the desert, both for the water and because it sat in a valley that eased the wind. We followed it for three days until it turned north. That last night by the river, we debated whether we should follow the river north or continue northwest following the ruts of the trail. After a debate into the night, we decided to strike out northwest, following the dry shallow wagon ruts. Before we left the river, we filled up canteens and barrels, because the next section of road looked dry and desolate.

The next few days were made up of rolling dry hills of sage and a bitter wind that blew hot in the day and cold at night. Autumn was upon us, but there were no trees with leaves to change color in that sage desert, just the cold of night to let us know time was getting short. Driving through the dusty monotonous rolling hills, with that wind blowing in our faces all day and howling past our ears most of the night, was something I wouldn’t care to repeat. The wind here on the sage covered hills was even stronger than it had been before the Umatilla River. The oxen were so tired, they just stood there when we took their yoke off at night with hardly the energy to eat.

After several days of this, wondering if we’d made a mistake, we got to a small river named John Day, and the relief of seeing water again brightened our spirits considerably. A few days later, we rode over a rise, and saw the Columbia River for the first time. It was wide, blue, and beautiful, a welcome site in the desert.

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