13. November 2011 · Comments Off on To Truckee’s Trail – The Very Roof of the Mountains · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book, Uncategorized · Tags: , , , , ,

Chapter 12 – The Very Roof of the Mountains

 From E.S. Patterson Interview, University of California Local History Archival Project 1932: “There was snow falling every day that we moved the wagons along the river. I don’t think we knew how bad things was, until Ma told Mister Stephens to kill the milk cow. We were only children, you see, but my little sister Sadie, she cried and cried. We all cried, even Ma, I think. That was the one milk cow we took from the old farm inIowa, and Ma, she still scolded us for crying. The men and Ma had consulted and decided to leave six wagons at the lake, and continue on with the teams that were still fit.”

From Dr. Townsend’s diary: “Twentieth of November, 1844 . . . still encamped at a lake in the mountains, endeavoring to find a way over the rampart of the mountains. There are three notches in the mountain wall to the west, the lower of the three appears to offer the clearest path. Captain Stephens has called another meeting.”

* * *

It seemed to John almost a twin of the meeting a week before, when Elizabeth and the others had drawn straws for the fast-moving party to go down the south fork, instead of carrying on west with the wagons: the fire burning on a bed of cherry-red coals, throwing up a shower of sparks, as another armload of wood we tossed into it, Stephens looking like a grim, bearded gargoyle.

“Folks,” he said, quietly, “Thanks for coming round. It’s too cold for a long palaver, so I’ll bite the bullet first. It’s been brought up before; we ought to leave the wagons –” He held up his hand, at the murmur of disagreement around the fire, and Isabella cried out, “We can’t! How can we manage with the children!”

“Miz Patterson, we already been all over that ground. I already know how some of you would be in a passel of trouble, trying to pack out enough to keep everyone fed an’ sheltered. So here’s my thought. Leave five or six wagons here, pack the rest with just what we’d need. Pool the fit oxen to double-team those wagons. And,” he looked serenely around the group of faces gilded by firelight, half in flickering shadow, “I’ll be the first to say I’ll leave my wagon here and put my team in the pool and come back in the spring to bring it out. Anyone else?”

“Yes.” John said. “Mine also.” He felt half-defensive about it, especially looking at Moses’ face. “While I value the property in it, I valued the wagon more as it sheltered Mrs. Townsend. Since she is gone with the horseback party, my team might better serve those of us who still need shelter.”

“I’ll add in my team,” Joseph Foster spoke up. “I’ve only got but two yoke left, and there’s not much left in the wagon anyways. But she’s a stout little bit of carpentry and just about the only thing I own. I’ll sweeten Captain Stephens offer; I’ll stay here to watch over the property and wagons that any of you care to leave here. I’d build a little cabin and hunt for my supper.”

“I’ll stay, as well,” Allen Montgomery spoke up abruptly. “I’d just as soon bring my wagon out in the spring – if my wife may travel on under yours and your fathers’ protection, Mrs. Patterson.”

“She has it,” Isabella protested warmly, at once, and put her arm around Sarah, whose expression transparently warred between anger and relief. “Sarah, you are dear and welcome. You should move whatever small things you need to our wagon, and stay with us as long as necessary.”

“I’ll stay, also.” Moses spoke up, suddenly.

Stung, John cried, “No, lad . . . what shall I tell your sister?”

“That I stayed to guard our family’s property,” Moses pointed out with perfect assurance.

Meanwhile, Old Martin had been consulting in whispers with Young Martin and James, Patrick Martin, and James Miller. Now he said heavily, “Patrick and I have agreed to leave our wagons also. Martin and James have little childer, and Mary has the baby. I think it a good plan, Stephens — the only thing we can do now.”

“Some of the oxen are not fit enough, even double-teamed,” Young Martin said. He looked troubled, and Stephens replied, “That’s the other part of it. We’ll have to cull the ones that are failing. It’s cold now enough to keep the flesh wholesome for weeks . . . we can even leave some for the boys to live on until they can hunt proper.” He sat back, his big hands dangling over his knees. “Well, those are my thoughts . . . shall we go ahead and vote proper on it?”

“No,” Old Murphy replied. “I think we’re pretty much agreed.”

“We’ll need to work on it pretty brisk now,” Stephens said, “before another storm comes in on us. Sort out the supplies tonight. Tomorrow we cull the oxen and repack.”

“No other thoughts then, gentlemen . . . and lady?” John asked.

No one had, and he lingered behind with Stephens as the others scattered to their various bedrolls. “Captain . . . it’s about the only way we had out of this mess, a compromise like that.”

“Aye, well, I hope I didn’t leave it too late,” Stephens sighed. “We might be in a real pickle yet, Doc. If anyone sets up wrangling about staying or leaving, or fighting over this or that – I leave it to you to settle. I ain’t real good at soothing over folk, and tomorrow’s not a day I am looking forward to.”

Nor am I, either, thought John, nor am I either. Now I have to think on what little I can take with me, since I must beg for space in someone else’s wagon for it.

After the meeting, he sat in his wagon, turning over one ofElizabeth’s shawls in his hand; perhaps if he folded it small, and tucked it into a bedroll. There was so little he could take now — a change of clothes for himself, and his rifle, and ammunition for it. The writing desk and diary, of course. Those were small, and so was the box of surgical tools and medicinal supplies. He drew out another box, the one with Elizabeth’s grandmother’s tea set. It was not something he wanted to leave behind; they had left so many things behind in taking part in this great adventure; this was the only frivolous, unnecessary thing they had left that he valued at all, and only because Liz loved it so. He sat with her shawl in his hands, looking at the boxes that he must find a place for.

A quiet footfall on the wagon step, and Moses’ anxious voice; “Dr. John, are you within?”

“I am here, lad, what’s the matter?”

Moses pushed aside the canvas flap and climbed into the wagon.

“Nothing, Doctor John . . . I was just. Oh.” Moses let the flap fall behind him. “You miss her.”

“Terribly,” John replied. The wagon bed jostled slightly, as Moses stepped across the small space of it, and sat down next to John on the edge of the platform of boxes and trunks where their bedroll had been, where he and Elizabeth had slept curled into the shelter of each other all these months since departing St. Joseph.

Moses rubbed a fold of Elizabeth’s shawl between his fingers. “I miss her also, Doctor John. I cannot recollect my mother; only Liz.”

“You cannot? Truly? But you were . . .” John thought back to that awful summer of epidemics in Stark County, the summer after the spring when he and Liz had married. “You were well-grown when you came to live with us, a boy of six or seven, if memory serves. Surely that is old enough to remember your mother?”

“But there were a good many of us, Doctor John; Liz the oldest, and me the youngest. Haven’t you noticed that with the Pattersons? Mrs. Isabella is so taken up with the management of the team, the business of the trail, and preparing meals, that the care of the youngest goes to the older children and so little Sadie is cared for day to day by Nancy and Eddie. They are the ones who take her by the hand, and comfort her when she is frightened. So Liz was to me. She took care of me until your marriage, then she was gone for a little while, and then she was there again, and I thought nothing of my mother and father at all because it seemed that you were both all but my parents. Truly, I can not remember my mother, and Father Schallenberger only a little; it has always seemed to me that you and Liz were all the family I needed or desired.”

“So have I often felt,” John replied, “that you were as much a son as we would ever have wanted.”

“So, then,” Moses answered, “I must do this; I must stay behind with Joseph and Allen, and look after my families’ property and interest.” He looked down at his hands, rubbing the folds of the shawl together. “I am nearly grown, Doctor John. I owe something, after my bad temper at the camp on the other side of the desert when I nearly brought down a massacre on you all. I owe it to you all to stay behind. You said yourself I had to consider others.” 

“So I did, so I did.” John set his arm around Moses, as if he was still the little lad of six or so. “Back on the desert, I promised your sister that wherever one of us should go, the other would follow after in a few days as soon as we could. Whatever am I to tell her, that you are left behind in the mountains?”

“Tell her that it was my choice and my duty, Doctor John,” Moses replied.

“I shall have to do that,” John sighed. “Well, I will leave my library behind, so the winter will not be wasted as far as your education is concerned. Read of them as you can; those books will not serve you wrong.”

“That I will,” and at those brave words, John felt as he had when he watched Elizabeth riding towards the turn of the south-bound river branch, and turning back to look at him one last time. All of his family was gone, or about to go from him, leaving him alone. All he would have after that would be his obligations to the party and his duty as a doctor.

In the morning, he took the box with the tea set to Isabella, fixing breakfast, and bluntly asked if she had room for it.

“Of course,” she said, heartily. “Mind you, there’s some things I’d like to store in your wagon, in return. Nothing like this little box, several times that size, but we’ve room enough for all your supplies and things. We’ve been friends all along this long trail, you’ve only to ask.” And then suddenly he thought there were tears in her yes, but she seemed to force them back by sheer will, saying then, “There’s only one favor I would ask. And that’s to come with me when they shoot the milk cow.”

It was a doleful, melancholy scene, under the grey granite mountains and the sweet-scented green pines, culling the herd; the drovers and the wagon-owners standing about, as John, and Stephens, and Young Martin went one by one among them; poor, pathetic creatures, wincing as they stood on their tender feet, slab-sided and the hollows of near-starvation under their gentle and bewildered brown eyes.

These were the oxen bought with care and consideration in the markets of St. Joe, or Kanesville, or brought from the home farm inOhioorMissouri, patient and trusty, obedient and gentle enough that little boys like Eddie and Willie Miller could drive them, bring them to harness even. They were bought and used well, and sometimes used hard, doctored with turpentine and tar, most of them with affection of a sort . . . and now some of them were at an end and the rest to be used even harder, but they all had names, and their character and history well known.

 Isabella held the halter close and petted the nose of Goldenrod the milk cow, “There, there, my sweetie, there, there,” she crooned, just as she must have done all those mornings on the trail, and those morning before in Ohio, before poor Goldenrod became a pathetic wreck of a cow with her ribs standing out and all the plump flesh rendered off of her. Isabella gave her a handful of withered green grass, gathered from the meadow where the main herd was pastured, where they stamped the snow aside and had thrown down armfuls of cut rushes, where John and Young Martin were examining them, one by one.

Isabella led her gently aside from the meadow, trailed by the puzzled children, away from the other oxen and towards the ice-water lake with John, where Stephens waited with some of the other men and commanded in a harsh voice, “Now, do it.”

Stephens took aim with Isabella’s dragoon pistol, and shot the gentle animal through the forehead. The cow folded up in a tangle of limbs and bones, while the children cried out, bewildered and Isabella turned towards them and shouted, “Don’t you dare cry, any of you. It had to be done, and there’s an end to it! Go back to the wagon, now! Do you hear me! Go back to the wagon!”

The children fled; Eddie, his sisters and Johnnie holding each others’ hands and sobbing, and Isabella stern and furious, like one of the ancient goddesses demanding a blood sacrifice. John went on, his heart heavy within him, working with Young Martin, examining this ox or another, pronouncing this one fit, or fit for a little while longer, or this other one to be led gently around to the lakeside, and dispatched.

One of his own, a couple of the Sullivan’s, one of Isabella’s, another of the Murphy’s . . . it went on, and on, only it was not all that many, truth be told. It just seemed like it. The slaughter-field presently became sodden with blood splattered against the trampled snow, the bloody hides thrown in one heap, the reeking viscera raked into another, scraped bloody bones in a third; grim work, not with much honor in it, John felt. Perhaps there was some kind of atonement one could make for a sacrifice of this kind. He had heard that the Indians had some sort of ritual, maybe there was something in Old Martin’s beloved church rites. He almost hoped that merciful nature would cover it all in snow, make it vanish as if it had never happened, even if such a happening would be to their disadvantage.

And suddenly he wanted to go back to the wagon, that tranquil little place where he and Elizabeth had lived, near to where Moses and Joseph and Allen were marking out where their little cabin should be, cutting logs and using the best of the culled oxen to drag the logs. It would be a tight, trig little place, calked with brush and mud, and roofed with cattle hides . . . the hides from the cull, and thick-piled brush over top of it. They would be warm, sure enough, with all the bedding left behind in the wagons, and well-fed, with their rifles and ammunition left to them. Moses might very well be safe, snowed in for the winter in this valley just below the mountain pass, safe in the care of two trusty men like Allen and Joseph.

Walking past a thicket on the way to his wagon, he thought he heard a sound, a half-stifled moan, as if someone were hurt and trying to keep silent. Thinking it was one of the children, John paused and looked closer into the cluster of barren branches growing at the base of a large tree. Seeing nothing, he was about to move on when he heard it again. The snow at his feet was printed with many footsteps, but a pair of them seemed to go straight within the thicket’s clustered bare branches. He shouldered through them, and there was Isabella, leaning against the tree trunk with her balled-up fist at her mouth, stifling her own agony of grief by biting so hard on her own fingers that she had drawn blood. There was more blood dabbled on the hem of her dress, from the slaughtering field.

“Mrs. Patterson, are you taken ill?” he ventured, uncertainly, and Isabella shook her head, her eyes overflowing. She took her hand from her mouth, but nothing came but terrible, gasping sobs, and John put his arms around her, and held her close, while she stifled them in his coat front. No, not ill, just grief, which he had seen and coped with it before, although it always made him feel particularly helpless.

They stood so, Isabella leaning against him, as if she were relieved to have someone to lean against for a moment, and John realized that she was really a very tiny woman. Her shoulders felt as narrow as a child’s. It was just that Isabella was so masterful she appeared larger, a force of nature. Now she leaned against him, wracked with grief and guilt and fear besides, and all the worse because she must not let any of it show. There was no privacy in the camp, and she had no one else in the train to carry a burden like this with, no one at all except her old reprobate of a father. Silently, John held her, until the storm of it passed: Liz’s good friend, messmate and wagon owner, voting member of the company and for him even a kind of a professional colleague; for all of that, they would make no mention of this, ever. Finally she straightened up, saying in her usual abrupt manner, “I’d raised her from a calf, you know.”

John gathered up a bit of clean snow, wrapping it in his handkerchief, and she held it against her eyes, until she was well composed and her eyes less red. Then he took up her bitten hand, and looked at it critically. “I’d see to that, if I were you, Mrs. Patterson . . . this kind of small injury can go septic very easily.”

“Of course, Dr. Townsend,” she said, and she even managed to sound light. “My thanks.”

“Yes, ma’am,” And he touched the brim of his hat, and ducked back out of the thicket.

* * *

From Dr. Townsend’s diary: “Twenty-fourth of November, 1844. There is now two feet or more of snow on the ground. This day with little difficulty, our party moved five wagons from our last camp, around the margin of the lake to begin our ascent of the pass. Double-teaming with all our surviving animals has proved of some worth. Moses, Joseph, and Allen have accompanied us, leaving their winter camp half-built. They will assist us as far as the top of the pass tomorrow. It looms above us, a steep grey-granite tumble.”

From E.S. Patterson Interview, University of California Local History Archival Project 1932: “Oh, it looked terrible high, all bare knobs of grey rock, with some pine trees and low bushes growing in the spaces between. We went as far up as we could, and then commenced to unloading the first wagon, Young Martin Murphy’s I think was first. They had double-teamed it up the slope, to about halfway, then emptied it out, and commenced looking for a way up.”

* * *

The footing on the lower slopes, John decided almost immediately, was too uncertain for riding; either bare rock, bare rock with snow on it, or collections of gravel tenuously wedged into the spaces between. He roped a bag of flour on one side of Ugly Greys’ saddle, balanced by the box withElizabeth’s tea set on the other, and led him after Joseph Foster, who led a single ox with the sole burden a newly felled tree. A straggle of women and children preceded them up the mountain, all but the smallest carrying some kind of burden on the back or in arms.

Isabella and her boys and Mary Miller waited for them, halfway up, sitting on the burdens they had carried so far, for there was a barrier there; a ledge too steep, too precipitous for any but the strongest and most adept to climb. John Greenwood, finding small crannies and toe-holds, had swarmed up it as spry as a lizard and let down a rope, anchored to a tree. Bernard Murphy and John Sullivan had used the rope to join him.

“Best we can do is to build a ladder, for the women and children,” John had reported to Stephens, down with the wagons.

“That way, at least they can keep moving stores and goods to the top of the pass, while we figure out how to get the wagons up past the ledge.”

“The wagons is no problem” Stephens squinted at the slope looming above them. ”It’s getting the teams above to pull them.”

“I seen a lot in my time,” Old Hitchcock agreed, “but I ain’t seen any ox that would climb a ladder.”

“Put a frill on it’s neck and call it a circus,” suggested Joseph Foster irreverently. “Now, I can build us a hoist and we can take them up, one by one.”

“No time for that,” Stephens shook his head gravely. “That’s fifty, sixty beasts. Takes time, and time is something we may not have much more of. Rough out a ladder, Joe, but there’s no need to make it fancy . . . the rest of us will cast about for a way around that ledge.”

So Joseph and Patrick Martin had quickly felled a tree and cut a couple of poles and some anchoring stakes, and now they dragged it all up the ledge that blocked their way. The boys hauled from the top on their rope, pulling the top end into a small break in the ledge, while Joseph and Patrick labored to anchor the bottom end with stakes and rope, well pounded into a seam of earth between rocks below which offered a good purchase. Patrick took his hatchet and carved out a set of notches, a couple of quick vertical blows, and another set horizontal. He climbed up, and carved out another set, and then another, until the log had foot-holds in it, all the way to the top,

“Needs a bit of a banister, like,” he remarked with satisfaction, sweating from exertion even in the cold. “Joseph, my lad, have we another place to anchor a rope, close to the bottom end, y’see? There’s a fine sturdy little tree up here, for the top end. Now, ladies, I would advise a bit o’ care in using this fine staircase we have built for you — you best consider passing your burdens one to another, rather than each of you carry it up and down. Who’s going to be first, venturing up this excellent bit of speedy craftsmanship, worthy of the finest noble house inEngland, so ‘tis! Ah, Mrs. Patterson, right ye are then. One step, then another. Don’t ye be looking down, now, look ahead. Faith, Joseph, we should rig a small hoist, anyway. I’ll fetch some more rope, and one of Captain Stephens’s fine pulleys.”

John carried up the flour and Elizabeth’s tea set, and left them in a growing pile at the top of the ledge. He and Isabella assisted Mary-Bee Murphy up the precarious ladder, Isabella reaching from the top, and he from the bottom, and left her to rest.

“We’re looking for a way to bring up the oxen.” He took her hand as a way to surreptitiously check on her pulse, for she looked very grey and exhausted by the struggle so far. “And we’ll see about having you ride the rest of the way, will that suit you? Until then, just rest here for a bit.”

There was already a convergence on the bottom of the ladder — Old Hitchcock’s two surefooted mules, and the few saddle horses and pack ponies left to them, laden with burdens from the wagons. He went down the ladder and picked up Ugly Grey’s reins.

Isabella joined him; she was as nonchalant as one of the children going up and down, but now she said, “Are you good at mathematics, Doctor? If you have worked out how many trips up and down it will take to bring up all of the supplies and bedding please don’t tell me. I do not want to be discouraged.”

They met Stephens and oldGreenwood, climbing up the slope, as they descended.

“We’re going to scout along the ledge for a place to bring the wagons up,” Stephens said. “Doc, if you can keep everyone moving . . . we can camp cold in the open for one night, but I’d mislike doing it more than once.”

Patrick Martin passed them with a coil of rope over his shoulder, and the light of inspiration in his eyes; Mary Miller with a bundle of bedding on her back and the baby in her arms, and little Willie and his two sisters. The girls carried some small cook-pots, and Willie his father’s toolbox.

 “We can pack some of it on horses and mules,” John allowed cheerfully. “At least, as far as the ledge; why don’t you take the horse down for the next load, and the boys and I will begin packing it from the ledge to the top?”

At the bottom, Old Martin and James directed the empting out of the Murphy wagons; everything into two piles; that which could be easily carried, and that which would have to be packed onto one of the beasts. The Patterson wagon stood nearly empty, and the Sullivan’s had but little in it to start with. Little by little, what was left went up the granite rampart; half a sack of dried beans and a lantern, carried by Young Martin’s little son Jimmy; a pair of casks of flour, strapped to the pack-saddle of Old Hitchcock’s mules, a carpetbag of clothing and three or four bedrolls piled onto the other. Nancy Patterson had two baskets of pemmican and Isabella’s box of salts and medicinal herbs.

Patrick and his sons rigged a highly efficient hoist, and much of what had been transported to below the ledge moved briskly to the top of it. John gave Ugly Grey’s reins over to Isabella and scrambled up the ladder, where a scattering of men and boys began packing things up to the top of the pass.

“Don’t look like much this way.” Joseph joined him there, and they looked at the west for a moment, a tangle of pine trees and a gentle down-slope. “But it’s down hill, and that’s all that matters.”

John turned from it, and looked the other way, looking back at the little alpine valley which they had traversed with so much difficulty, cradling its jewel-blue lake like a precious stone, and the steep granite slope below. The winds had scoured much of the snow away from the stone, or perhaps it had melted because of exposure to the sun. If he looked hard enough, he thought he could see back along the defile where they had come and find the canyon where Elizabeth and the others had ridden south. He could easier see the field where they had culled the oxen, and where Isabella grieved for her milk cow. The place where they had camped last, and where Moses, Allen, and Joseph had begun their winter camp, was clearer yet for the piles of felled and trimmed logs. A burst of shouting came from down below, Stephens’ voice chief among them, calls for an ax, for a shovel, and for someone to bring up one of the oxen.

“I think someone has found a path about the ledge.” John clapped Joseph on the shoulder. “Which is fortunate, as I was not looking to walk like this all the rest of the way.”

Stephens met him, at the top of the ledge with an ax over his shoulder, Dog capering after him and a look of triumph on his gargoyle face. “It ain’t like what we was hoping for Doc, but it’ll do good enough . . . just wide enough for one at a time, from the top to the bottom. Had to clear out some brush wood blocking the bottom.”

“How did you find it?” John asked, “The boys looked all along for a break or a gully, and didn’t see a thing.”

“Hard to find . . . providential, I’d say. I was wondering about this big pile of scree at this end, started wondering where it had washed down from, wondered why there was enough soil to sprout some pretty good-sized pines, right at the bottom of the ledge . . . sure enough, there’s a break in the ledge, runs almost sideways. I cleared out some brush, and Hitchcock and I stamped it all down good and tight . . .”

John whistled in amazement, although it was easy enough to see from the top, a narrow defile cutting down from the ledge-top, opening at the bottom. “Well, Captain, it’s a good thing the best of our beasts are so skinny now, if they were in good flesh they’d stick tight here like a cork in a bottle.”

“You’d think?” Stephens flashed a rare smile.

“We can always grease ‘em down and hope for the best,” John replied. “So, the plan would be double-team a wagon up to the bottom of the ledge . . .”

“Five, six yoke,” Stephens nodded. “Unharness them, lead them up single-file through here, bring them around to that level place, harness them up again, and let down chains to the wagon below . . . and haul it straight up. Best have everything tied down fast.”

“Ropes,” John mused. “Something to brace the wagons with, while we lead the teams through the cleft . . .”

“It’s a lot of work, Doc.” Stephens said.

“It beats the alternatives,” John replied. “Whose wagon first?”

“Sullivan’s. It’s the smallest.”

* * *

From E.S. Patterson Interview, University of California Local History Archival Project 1932: “Such a sight to see! They double-teamed that empty wagon up that pass, as far as that tall ledge, and a lot of work it was too, for even though the wagon was emptied out, it was a powerful steep grade, and those pore oxen was plum wore out.”

* * *

“Brace the back! And chock the wheels nice and tight, boys,” Patrick Martin sang out. “If this beggar gets to rolling back and we lose hold, she’ll be back in the desert before we even pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off.”

They worried about the unhitched wagons rolling backwards, once the last yoke of oxen were unhitched. But a couple of poles braced from ground to the back axle seemed to be holding, as well as a couple of thick wooden wedges pounded in behind each wheel. Still and all,  it was tedious work — unhitching the animals, one by one, for the boys to coax them up through the defile, to hoist up the ox yokes and re-hitch them, pair by pair, and to let down the chains. Young Martin took charge on top with the double-teamed animals, Patrick down with the wagon, he and Stephens together, fastening the chains, making sure that everything was equal and the wagon would be evenly pulled straight up the ledge face. Patrick and Joseph had cut a number of stout but slender poles, and laid them by, and he and Stephens held a quick parlay with the men and drovers.

“Look, you,” Patrick said. “We have chosen the strongest and best conditioned of the oxen, for we shall be using them to draw up all the other wagons until they tire which Joseph Mary and Jesus hope they won’t, at least not too soon. As each wagon comes up to the ledge, unhitch them and bring them up to the passage and lead them through. Take them straight up to where we will draw the wagon up, and re-yoke them. Then drive the wagon up to the top of the pass, where I think we shall be spending the night, though I like it not. We had hoped to be farther along. Now, when the team on top draws the front wheels close to the ledge, we’ll be needing to lift up the front just so – and as it goes up and up and up, then we must push at the pack, even lift the back axle, using these poles when it has been pulled out of reach of our hands, so that the back wheels can rest on the ledge, just so. And all the while the team is pulling away most heartily from the top. Well, there we go, boys. Once we get over this pass, the angels themselves will waft us down the other side, for it will be down the hill, all the way.”

“One thing,” Stephens added, quietly to John. “Doc – you stand aside lessen something goes wrong. If the wagon should fall, or the ledge crumbles, it’ll go badly for those below. We’d need a doctor then, not another strong back now just to shove a wagon up a cliff.”

“Mrs. Patterson is a most excellent . . .” John began, a little stung. He had always taken full part in the most onerous labors attendant upon moving the wagons.

“She’s a midwife, and good with herbs and such, but you’re the trained doctor. We’ll need you for that.” Stephens spoke softly. “You gave us a good scare in the desert, Doc. We were affeered there’d be no doctor for the rest of the trip.”

“Besides,” added old Martin just as quietly, on John’s other side, “Who’d stitch up Patrick himself, the next time he gets into a fight with an Englishman, hey? If the boys are ready for the Sullivan’s rig, let’s the Doctor and me go and ready the next.”

But John and Old Martin paused for a moment, a little way down, to watch at a safe distance.

“Pull away!” Stephens shouted from the top of the ledge, where he could see both Young Martin and the team above, and the wagon and the men below. “Steady now, steady now . . .”

Now the front of Sullivan’s wagon lifted up, wheels clearing the ground. John and Old Martin watching below could hear Young Martin shouting, his whip cracking over the backs of the team, a shower of grit and rocks crumbling from the ledge as the chains bit deep, falling onto the arms and faces below. Higher, higher, Sullivan’s wagon rose, until it hung entirely vertical against the ledge face.

“Mother Mary, Jesus, and Joseph,” Old Martin breathed softly, murmuring almost to himself. “Steady now, steady now, haul away home.”

The wagon inched slowly, higher and higher against the cliff face.

“Now lift away, lads, lift away!” shouted Patrick, and the men below converged on the rear of it, bracing against the back gate, reaching for poles as it was steadily drawn out of reach of hands.

“Steady pull now, Martin, steady as she goes!” Stephens shouted. “Front wheels over the ledge! Hold her steady!”

For an agonizing instant, Sullivan’s wagon teetered on the edge, the front axle well up on solid ground, but the rear hanging in mid air, the wagon box balanced for a moment on the cliff edge.”

“Pull away lads, pull away!” Patrick roared, and in one mighty heave from the oxen hitched above, and the men laboring below, Sullivan’s wagon lurched up safely onto the ledge, all four wheels on solid grounding. Old Martin grinned like a maniac, and waved his hat, shouting, “Huzza, boys, huzza!” before turning to John and saying, “Oh, well done . . . now all we need do, is that again . . . four more times!”

* * *

From Dr. Townsend’s diary: “Twenty-fifth of November, 1844. Encamped at the top of the mountain pass, having with great labor lifted five wagons to the top of this precipitous incline. Moses, with Joseph Foster and Allen Montgomery took their farewells before dark, and returned to their campsite by the lake below. We fear that a winter storm may be on the way, and hope now to be able to move more swiftly, now that we are over the highest pass . . .”