18. June 2024 · Comments Off on A Bit From West Towards the Sunset · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

(Wherein Sally writes a letter to a friend, to be carried by a traveler going east – from California to the States…)

The trail turned harder after we left from Fort Laramie; no more the easy travel across the open sea of grass that it had been in the first weeks. But rough hauling over rockier ground slowed us down; the oxen had to pull much harder, and sometimes there was danger for them from pools of bad water – alkali water, Choctaw Joe told us. Warned about this, we tried to keep the oxen from drinking at those springs, because such was pure poison. One of Mr. Herlihy’s oxen got sick from it, but Pa and Mr. Herlihy doctored that ox by forcing it to swallow a big wad of salt pork. I didn’t know why it should be such a cure, but Ma explained that likely the fat bacon coated all it’s stomachs, and let the poison pass all the way through.

Ma also collected up some of the white alkali powder from a poison spring that had dried up – and told us that Choctaw Joe said that it was as good as saleratus for making biscuits, although we were at first in two minds about eating them! But Ma’s biscuits tasted as good as they always did.  Ma gathered up some more of that white dust, saving it in an empty tin against the day when we ran out of soda. Ma and I had also discovered a patch of pea vines growing in abundance near a natural spring of sweet water – we had picked a good apron-full, and when we stopped to make camp for the night, Ma and I would shell them for supper; green garden vegetables was something that we missed very much – gleaning wild fruit and greens from beside  the trail hardly made up for it.

The very day that Ma and I found the wild pea patch, we encountered a small party of travelers coming east. Mr. Glennie and Oscar encountered them first, as they were scouting ahead of the party, looking for a spot with sweet water, plenty of wood and pasturage for the oxen. Jon and I were walking along with Pa – Jon was holding Pa’s ox whip and trying out his command of the team, for all that he barely came up to Star’s nose.

“They’re camped about three miles ahead,” Mr. Glennie reported to Pa. “I know we wanted to make another five miles today … but I believe that we would find it to our advantage to consult with the gentlemen; a Mr. Clyman and Mr. Greenwood – both old hands as regarding the trail. They have come from the Sacramento settlements in California, returning east by way of Fort Hall with a mule pack train and a couple of wagons, to visit kin and friends back in the States. And …” Mr. Glennie added, with a significant look. “They have come from Sacramento in company with Mr. Lansford Hastings, assaying the difficulty of his recommended shortcut from the established trail. Mr. Hastings has come east, expecting to personally guide any companies willing to travel by his new route.”

“Indeed,” Pa replied, “Indeed, I would very much like to hear what these folk have to say … not only about the situation in California, but what advice they have to offer us regarding the trail.”

Mr. Glennie nodded, his expression one of relieved agreement. “I judge it would be worth a couple of miles, listening to what Mr. Clyman has to tell us. Not only has he come across from California just this season, but he has spent many years in the mountains.”

“Joe Bayless may vouch for him, in that case,” Pa’s own expression brightened. “Any friend of Choctaw Joe is a friend of ours.”

“We can spare the time to consult with Mr. Clyman and Mr. Greenwood,” Mr. Glennie agreed. “Mr. Clyman says there are only three companies on the trail in advance of us … less’n they have taken another trail.” Mr. Glennie hesitated, before he added. “He is making a count of all the travelers on the trail this year, as a matter of natural curiosity, I suppose. But Mr. Clyman is also well acquainted with Captain Sutter – a Dutchman long-settled in California. Captain Sutter encourages all men with an urge to prosper, especially if they are of good character and stable trade, to come and settle in the valley of the Sacramento. He has asked Mr. Clyman to encourage any Oregon-bound parties which he might encounter along the way, to come to California instead – and paid him a small retainer to do so.”

“Sounds like a man hoping to be the big man in those parts,” Pa scratched his jaw. I think that he forgot that Jon and I were there and listening to this exchange, as quiet as mice. “Well, I’ll talk with both gentlemen tonight. Thank’ee kindly, Glennie. If I hear anything of substance, you and the other men will know of if it within the hour.”

“Good,” Mr. Glennie saluted Pa with a touch to the brim of his hat and rode off. In the meantime, a thought occurred to me.

“Pa,” I asked, and Pa seemed a bit startled out of his thought. “Do you suppose I could ask Mr. Clyman for a favor? As he is traveling east on the trail?”

“Depends on the favor, Sugar-Plum. What favor would you ask of him?”

“Would he carry a letter for me – to my friend Ginny? She and her family are traveling with a company somewhere behind us on the trail. I’m certain that if Mr. Clyman can take my letter with him, he will encounter Ginny’s family! Their home wagon was biggest that I had ever seen; it took six yokes to draw it, Ginny told me! I do not think anyone could miss that wagon. They intended to travel to California too – they could not be more than two or three weeks behind us.”

“Sure, Sugar-Plum! Write your letter and ask Mr. Clyman. I am certain he will oblige. A letter doesn’t weight very much, and if he is making a count of all the companies along the way.”

I was heartened by the thought of writing to Ginny; we had only been together as friends for those few days at Independence. I really did miss having a friend of my own age in the wagon company; Shiboone McCarty was almost grown and had almost nothing in common with me. All the other children in our party were either boys or very much younger, almost babies, really.

“Of course you should write a letter,” Ma said, warmly, when I asked her, as we set up camp early that day. “It will be excellent penmanship practice for you.” Her writing desk was wrapped in a heavy quilt underneath the wagon set; Ma had written letters at Fort Laramie and intended to write more when we reached Fort Hall, so had kept her paper and ink handy. I would have time to write, since we had stopped so early in the afternoon, Ma would not need my help in fixing supper for some hours.

Dear Ginny; Pa says that Mr. Clyman will carry my letter to you. We are nearly to Independence Rock, which Mr. Bayless, our guide, tells us is a notable monument, where all who pass by write their names. My brother and I will write ours, so Mr. Bayless promises. I hope that this finds you and Patty in good health, just as we are.

There has been much to see along the way. We did part from Major Clayton’s party, just before we crossed the Kansas River. They wished to shoot all the dogs and to travel on Sundays, and of course many in the company objected. So we separated from that company, and our Pa was elected captain. Since when we have gotten on tolerably well. Henry S. and his father are still with us – you will recall Henry from that day of gathering wood by the river.

There are many interesting sights to be seen along the trail. The Chimney Rock is to be seen for many days but do be warned that it is not as close to the trail as you might think. Mr.  Bayless said that it was once much taller. We also saw an enormous gathering of buffalo. They passed among our wagons for many hours, one day – buffalo by the hundreds of thousands. Ma traded with some Sioux women at Laramie Fort for a pair of buffalo robes. They are so comfortable and warm to sleep under, since it is now quite cold at night. Mr. Bayless says this is because we are higher into the mountains, and there it is cold, even at midsummer. There is even snow to be seen on the highest mountains!

I wish that you were with us; I have missed your company all these weeks. I hope that we can meet again in California.

All my best wishes to you and Patty and your family.

Yours in affection,

Sarah Elizabeth Kettering

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