The Indifference of Tumbleweed

BOOK: The Indifference of Tumbleweed
12.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub



Praxis Books


ISBN: 978 09559517 25

Copyright © Rebecca Tope 2014

For Leonie


Author's Note:

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five


Author's Note:

The impetus for this book came during a drive across the western states of America in 2012, and in particular a visit to the museum at Independence, Missouri. There I purchased a copy of
Desperate Passage
by Ethan Rarick, which charted the whole story of the Donner Party in 1846. The idea came to me of writing an imagined account of what happened to those in the original wagon train who stayed on the tried and tested trail to Oregon, instead of risking an unknown cut-off down to California.

There are a few real people here: Francis Parkman, who wrote
The Oregon Trail
in the 1840s, for example. And Virginia Reed herself, whose account of the Donner Party's disaster is pivotal. There were two brothers in the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-5 named Fields, whose later lives remain obscure.

Several books and websites helped with the historical background, as well as the geography.
Seven Alone
by Honoré Morrow;
The American West
by David Lavender;
Soiled Doves
by Anne Seagraves are the most noteworthy.

The Tennant Party

The Collins family. (8 in all)

Patrick Collins

His mother.

His wife.

Children: Charity, Reuben, Fanny, Lizzie, Naomi (Nam)

The Bricewood Family (9 in all)

Mr Bricewood.

His wife.

Children, Benjamin, Henry, Hannah, Martha, Letitia, another unnamed, Joel (adopted)

The Tennant Family (12 in all)

James Tennant

His sons, Luke and Barty, and their wives, Elizabeth and Esther.

Abel, son of Luke.

Twin boys, sons of Barty. Also a baby boy.

Two unnamed girls, and a baby boy, children of Luke and Elizabeth.

The Franklin Family (10 in all)

Mr Franklin

His wife

His sons, Allen, Jude, Billy, two unnamed girls, baby daughter Emily

His sister-in-law, Hope Gordon

Her son, Tommy

The Fields Family (5 in all)

Moses Fields

His wife, Jane

Three children, Jimmy, Ellie, Susanna


Chapter One

We watched Grandma shaving her chin, nudging each other and smothering our giggles, like two much younger girls. She thought herself well hidden behind the wagon, a small mirror propped on top of a molasses barrel, pulling a bare razor carefully over dry skin. It looked sore and dangerous, and I knew it wasn't really funny. We were laughing because our lives had become so intensely exciting and different in recent days. Where only a month before we had been living in a big house, with a well out in the yard and a lamp in every room, now we were nomads, all our belongings in a wagon pulled by four oxen at a pace even the smallest child could match. Everything was bright and thrilling and hopeful. We were part of a great movement into the mysterious West, where we could fashion life as we wished, far from the changing face of the east coast, with the many thousands of drunken illiterate poverty-stricken Irish who had been arriving over the past few years. To be Irish – as we were - carried an increasing stigma, which offended and alarmed my father. He had made his way in business, drank sparingly and was as literate as any fancy Protestant up on the Beacon Hill in Boston. But after a number of years in that fair city, we relocated to Providence, a much more tolerant place. There were Baptists, Quakers, Catholics and others all peaceably rubbing along together. We might never have given a thought to packing up a second time and migrating westwards if it had not been for a government man urging families to seize the opportunity without delay. Land would be freely given, in a fertile valley where crops and livestock would flourish. There would be an urgent need for businessmen of every sort, and my father with his special skills with horses was just the man to avail himself of the chance.

Ahead of us were mountains and a huge ocean, great herds of buffalo and strange solitary men who lived by trapping animals with thick soft fur. We had listened avidly to the tales that never ceased, fitting them to our history lessons in which the French and the British and the Spanish all wrangled over great unexplored tracts of the new country and rights to trade furs and create settlements. Our heads were bursting with the adventure of it.

There had been no question of leaving Grandma behind, despite her age. Born in 1775, in a tiny Irish village, she was accustomed to privation. At the age of five, she
had been whipped by a priest for insisting that her best friend was a leprechaun named Seamus. It had achieved nothing but a precocious scorn for the clergy, she said. Seamus had remained faithful until she turned twelve, when he vanished in a green mist in the heart of a clump of bracken, never to be seen again.

In 1826 she had sailed to the New World with her single surviving son – my father. ‘I was already too old then to learn new ways,' she reported; a starkly obvious untruth. Even her Irish brogue had changed and expanded to embrace the variety of language heard on the streets of Providence. But she clung to many of her earlier ways, including disdaining the American habit of frequent washing, which she regarded as Puritanical and unhealthy. Her hair affirmed her opinion – iron grey, thick and vigorous, despite seldom experiencing water or lye. The hair on her chin and neck was almost as luxuriant – hence the shaving. My youngest sister had been heard to mention Grandma's beard, not so long ago, leading to an uncharacteristic embarrassment on the old lady's face.

During his twenty years on the east coast, my father had acquired five children and a restless zeal to see the great expanse of the continent to the west that had been readily sparked into action by the urgings of the government men. So here we all were, assembled with many hundreds of others, preparing to embark on the long-awaited adventure.

The mass of people was beyond anything I had seen in my life, the sense of all being crowded together with a common purpose utterly different from the disparate lives of city dwellers. Children became lost, dogs skirmished and livestock bellowed from hunger. Horses and oxen jostled for every last blade of spring grass on the flat plains around us. The air was thick with the smells of food and fresh-cut timber and the secretions of so many thousands of bodies – human and animal. Wagons were steadily filled with the necessities of life, the packing a science for which advisors came in useful. Not everybody understood that it was essential to place items not required until the end of the trail in the centre, with food stocks and clothes where they could readily be reached. Not only that, but the positioning of objects according to their shape could make a great difference to the quantity the wagon could be persuaded to contain. Fragile or awkward items should be secured to the hoops over which the cover would be drawn, to avoid being crushed. There should not be an imbalance between the two sides, since there would be times when the whole
equipage might tip drunkenly one way or another, and undue weight might cause it to twist and fall, with terrible consequences.

My mother was initially unprepared for any of this work. Certainly she had no intention of laying her own hands on the boxes, barrels, trunks and crates that were to be loaded onto our wagon. She looked to the bands of working men, most of them black, who roamed around the camp offering their services as porters and packers. But when they named their fees, she thought again. ‘That is extortion,' she said flatly. ‘My husband and son will manage, thank you very much.'

She was right, it seemed to me. All our personal possessions were already accumulated under a large leather tarpaulin, having been unloaded from a cart several days earlier. Once we had acquired our wagon and oxen, Reuben and my father positioned them close to the stack, and began to argue as to precisely what should go in first, and how the weight must be distributed. My mother and I both had ideas of our own on the subject, so that very soon all four of us were shifting heavy objects back and forth until we could agree that all eventualities had been considered. My three younger sisters came and went, showing a sporadic interest that only strengthened when one of their own boxes was involved. The thought of instructing hired packers and porters in this complex task was not appealing.

In the previous months, countless other details had been debated between my parents and Reuben and now and then myself. How many horses should we take with us? Would we need mules? How much meat were we likely to consume, and was it best transported alive or dead? Would we need spare rifles and a great quantity of cartridges, to shoot wild animals and perhaps Indians? How would we manage for water? What was the most sensible footwear for many months of steady walking? Advice was sought, but was not always easy to find. Our project was not wholly original, but a trek of two thousand miles over a massive mountain range, in the company of hundreds of other migrants, was not a common experience.

The words
two thousand miles
were heard every day, spoken with wonderment or pride, as well as plain disbelief. The distance was a known fact, to be beaten into familiarity by repetition. It would take half a year of travelling, give or take. We had all done the calculations, based on averaging seventy-five miles each week, making it out to be a full six months. I would turn twenty on 25
September, and the hope was that we would have crossed the worst of the mountains by then.

None of us would ever forget the crazy scenes that unfolded when we began to move out of town. Wagons jostled for a more forward position, so as to find easier pasturing for their stock, jamming together and upsetting their puzzled oxen, who had yet to learn exactly what was required of them. It took three chaotic days for the last of the long train of wagons to leave the great assembly area outside Westport. We finally took our first steps on the morning of the third day, delayed by the refusal of an ox in the party ahead of us to be yoked. The poor animal was beaten cruelly by a man who my father said had only himself to blame. ‘He got the beast cheap, and never thought to train it to the yoke,' he told me with a bitter look. Our own oxen had been with us for ten days already, meekly accepting the heavy wooden bar across their necks, and extremely tame after hours of attention from the children.

My father said it was expected that some people would abandon the idea of migration completely when their oxen baulked, or ran free and were lost. I thought about that for a long time. How terrible to change the plan, to go back to a hotel in Saint Louis or the empty riverside camp to wrangle over when might come next. We had a family who had belatedly joined our own party, of which the mother was utterly against the whole emigration plan. We heard her shouting in the night, then pleading that her health was too poor for such a lengthy trek. Fanny and I were in a tent close to theirs and heard her lower her voice, telling her husband that she was with child again and would be terrified to give birth on the trail. ‘I told you already how close to death I came with the last one,' she hissed.

‘Surely he knows that already?' whispered Fanny in my ear. For all she was younger than I, Fanny seemed to have a much better knowledge of such matters. I merely shrugged.

The man, it seemed, was implacable. ‘There's nothing for us here,' he told her angrily. ‘The die is cast. In Oregon we can make a fine life. Would you hold your children back with such selfishness?' He had a deep musical voice, which carried great conviction – at least for me.

‘Poor woman!' My sister sighed, plainly taking a different view from mine. ‘She sounds so afraid.'

I hoped the man would make allowance for his wife's fears, but more than that I hoped she would find courage from somewhere and join the migration. What alternative did she have? Returning east, against the tide, settling in Kentucky or Tennessee where all the best land was already under firm ownership? The sense of
failure would be with her forever. And was she not culpable in permitting the family to reach this final stage of preparation, and still remaining reluctant?

BOOK: The Indifference of Tumbleweed
12.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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