Rhodes College and Career Academy
Instructor: Natalie Santoro
1 September 1848
Silence. The whistling of the wind blowing through the grass all around us is the only thing breaking the silence. It's a cloudy day today with no sun. As if the earth was as depressed as we were and was expressing it. It's been a month since her death, yet the wound still feels recently inflicted.
The wagon continues to calmly roll past the forest surrounding us, now void of any snow as we leave the mountains farther behind us. I would have thought seeing greenery would be a blessing again after all the blinding whiteness of the snow. But instead, all it does is bring tears to my eyes. I spot bundle of flowers after bundle of flowers, all always ranging from indigo to violet to white. Never any other color; it was almost too much of a coincidence. It was like I could never escape Mary Ann's spirit, even a month after her demise.
After the young girl's death, we dedicated some time to hold a funeral as best as we could in the Blue Mountains and John chose to bury her near the flower patch. He knew that would have been what she wanted and it was unlikely that we could bury her in a proper graveyard. We all knew how much Mary Ann adored that flower patch—more so Lydia, John, and I—as she rarely left it since that day she found it. We did not, however, bury her in the middle of the patch as we knew she would have fretted over the flowers being ruined, so we resorted to instead burying her next to it. Her funeral had been the first one I ever attended in all my life. I never wished to have to attend one again. Seeing her lifeless body…
I shivered and pulled my shawl closer around me. Autumn's gradual arrival also contributed to the chilliness spreading in the air.
The day after her funeral was a great difficulty. For one to sit up after waking, knowing that a special someone in their life will no longer be there when they look around is a challenging task. Even after I had awoken, I refused to open my eyes because at least in my sleep, Mary Ann still lived. But when I opened them, in her usual sleeping spot near the fire lay emptiness. When we decided it was time to begin our walk once more, which was a challenge in itself as no one felt any spirit to, it almost didn't happen. For one split second, John had refused to move anywhere. He spoke to say that he was not going to join us on our travels to Oregon any longer, that he was going to choose to stay there for however long he had left. He would rather choose to freeze to death and succumb to his injury — which became worse after he forced himself to walk on it — than continue on. I could not condemn the man, no matter how much my family might believe in never giving up. To lose a daughter, especially one of such young age who you had so much hope for to live must be a horrifying, traumatizing experience. If it hurt so terribly for me to know Mary Ann was no longer with us, how did John feel? He had to watch as the life of his nine-year-old daughter slowly faded away as he held her in his arms, unable to do anything. Anything to take away her pain or save her from the inevitable black curtain descending slowly upon her.
The only thing we said that was enough to get John to at least walk the rest of the way to Oregon was when it was about Mary Ann. I know John knows that this is not what she would have wanted for her father. To simply perish on his own after quitting a journey that he's more than halfway completed. John might not be talking, eating, or even down to earth right now, but at least he was still walking with us. He hadn't given up.
Everyone has tried so strongly to be optimistic about the idea that Willamette Valley was only days away now. We would be arriving in Oregon City, at last, after such a tumultuous expedition, an expedition that felt like it was never going to end. We were currently walking the Barlow Road, a direct road right into Oregon that had only been built recently. We were very lucky to be traveling to Oregon when we were, or else we would have had no choice but to attempt to reach the City by the rapid Columbia River. If we believed the Big Blue River was an atrocious experience, we would not last a second on the Columbia River. There was a very low success rate from parties who attempted to traverse that river to make it into Oregon. Almost none made it.
So, thankfully, we can completely avoid that monstrosity. The Barlow Road proved to be quite effective.
If only Mary Ann would have been here, walking right next to us in the empty spot that would have been filled by her cheerful figure. I glance over to John's slumped-over and limping body. He barely picks his feet up from the ground as he takes a step, he's more so dragging his feet against the dirt path underneath us. Not once has he muttered a word to any one of us ever since that day when he told us he wanted to stay in the Mountains and abandon the Trail. He doesn't wish to speak anymore, understandably. I'm not sure what he would say anyway.
I observe the miserable man for a little longer before I decide that this disconsolate silence that never drifts away between everyone needs to end. I will ask this question not because I still accuse John, but because I feel after a month, it is time for him to answer it.
I think carefully about my words and take care to talk in a gentle, docile tone.
"John, why did you do it?"
I elaborate no further.
Although he does not move to face me or even acknowledge that I spoke, I did notice the way in which his shoulders stiffened. Everyone else turned to look at me, but I kept my eyes on the back of John's head.
After walking in strained stillness for a few minutes longer, expecting a response of some sort, I sighed when I received none.
That was when a deep, scratchy voice, sounding similar to a faulty bagpipe filled the air so suddenly that I was startled.
"They knew about...Mary Ann. They knew she was sick. They also knew I did not have the money for her treatment from this Dr. Lincoln Malcolm."
He inhales deeply but keeps his eyes trained directly on the ground, even as everyone is now staring at the previously mute man.
John continues, "They struck a deal with me when they found me back in Fort Kearny. If I gave them part of my party's supplies in consecutive quantities, they would fund me the necessary money. They were also traveling to Oregon, but they promised they would stay miles away from my party along the way."
He lets out a sarcastic scoff, "They were never going to pay, I would be surprised if they even had the money they were promising me. I know now they were just using me for supplies, supplies they would never need to pay a single dime for as I gave it to them willingly."
Not a single person talks after John finishes. So I decided to speak up.
"You're forgiven. I also apologize, for making this so difficult for you and assuming you did this with ill intention."
Elijah looks at John with a face of equal remorse, "If we are apologizing for making assumptions then I, too, should apologize."
"I second what my brother says," Jeremiah said.
"And I," Lydia adds grimly.
Kathryn simply nods, opting to not speak.
Lucian was the only one who stayed silent, not making a face of any sort, not speaking a word.
"Lucian?" Kathryn asked him with a certain tone to her voice.
He clears his throat and says something finally, "I don't like that we went through endless suffering because you went behind our backs."
Before anyone can react he quickly puts his hands up, "Hold on, hold on now. I wasn't finished."
"But, I understand why you did what you did. If I were in your shoes, I would do absolutely anything to ensure my daughter got to live to experience her wedding day. You are forgiven, John."
Lucian offers a hand to John and smiled warmly at him, showing his willingness to forgive the man. John doesn't smile but he does shake Lucian's hand, ending this tension between everyone that needed to be ended.
Although I was nervous to say anything, I am glad I did. For days it had been like that. No one talking to anyone, only speaking when absolutely necessary to communicate. It was high time we talked things through.
"Why is it always the bandits that ruin things for innocent people?" Elijah spits out.
"They're bandits, that's what gets them up in the mornings," Jeremiah answers his brother.
"Wait, sh, sh," Kathryn attempts to shush the twins and get them to stop talking.
It's to no avail though, as they continue their idle conversation.
Lucian sharply whistles before I could step in to assist my friend, "Boys, Kathryn is trying to talk. Appreciate it if you stopped yapping your mouths for a second."
Kathryn smiled at Lucian in thanks and directed her next words to the entire group, "Up ahead. We're almost there everyone."
The biggest smile appeared on her face and spread to everyone else, excluding John, when we saw what she saw. There looming over us was the Barlow Tollgate. Our very last obstacle before we would enter Oregon City officially.
A worker dressed in uniform who looked as if he would rather be anywhere but keeping post at a toll gate was seen. I noted the long sigh he let out when he saw our party approaching.
He sounds as if he was emotionlessly reciting words from a paper when he speaks. "Welcome to the Barlow Toll Gate. Congratulations. You are almost there," he pauses, "to Oregon."
I made eye contact with Kathryn and we both struggled to contain our smiles.
"Prices are $5 for each wagon, 10 cents for each animal. Your total is $5 and 40 cents. Please pay now," he holds out one flat hand expectantly.
"Oh!" We all jolt in place when we realize he was finished speaking and was waiting for our money. His voice was so monotone that the words bled together and cause you to lose focus.
Lucian steps forward after he retrieved the group's money bag containing our combined savings.
"Here you are, good sir," and he places the proper amount on the man's still outstretched hand.
I see the muscles in the worker's hand twitch as he clutches the money tightly and places it in a box he has on his stand. He walks to the center of the gate and pulls it open to allow us passage.
With a deep inhale, he speaks to us as he gestures to the opened gate with little energy.
"Enjoy. You are almost there."
That was…questionable. In his defense, I'm sure standing in the cold autumn weather for hours on end during his shift, seeing party after party of emigrants can be quite tiring. Especially if he has to close and open a large and heavy wooden gate every time.
"Let's go, everyone. Oregon awaits us," Lucian says with a small smile.
As we pass by the emotionless man and bid him adieu, we walk through the gateway. I could feel my heart start to beat faster and my lungs start to tighten in anticipation as I imagined what is to come. It was only a matter of a few days now. A few days. I remember when we had departed from Independence, farther than that actually. When I was told by my parents that they wished me to travel to Oregon, I had immediately come to the conclusion that I would not make it. But here I was, only a hundred or so miles away. 1,900 miles later.
9 September 1848
Our feet begin to increase speed subconsciously, growing faster and faster. The number of wagons on the side of the park grew more and more, furthering our excitement. Lucian's map had instilled this excitement when we saw that we would be arriving today. No one spoke as we began to walk with a purpose. There was light at the end of the natural tunnel created by the large oak trees with sagging and long branches surrounding us. A light so bright, it looked surreal. When we, at last, make it to the end of this tunnel made by nature, we could not even see what was there as the sudden and luminous sunlight blinds us. It took some time for our eyes to adjust but once they did, my jaw dropped. Lucian immediately stopped the oxen, subsequently stopping the wagon as we all just stood and stared. Including John.
We were standing on a grassy hill with many other travelers who were just as awestruck as we were. It was the sight the hill was overlooking that was more fantastical than the actual hill. There, below us, was the vastest and clearest lake I have ever seen. It was so blue and so reflective, the sky above it could be seen in its reflection. A colorful and vivid rainbow sprouting from some unknown beginning stretched all the way to the end — right behind Oregon City. The land stretched on for miles and shows a few houses, emitting light grey smoke into the air above it. Although buildings could be seen ranging on, there was still so much empty green land awaiting its future owners. Wildlife from birds to butterflies to rabbits were spread around us, each enjoying the view as much as we humans were. The smile on our faces could rival the sun itself in brightness. Kathryn begins to cry breathlessly in happiness. Lucian sinks to his knees on the ground below us, staring at the view in disbelief. Elijah and Jeremiah start whooping and hollering, clapping each other on their backs and jumping around in absolute joy. Lydia and John on the other hand simply stare in bliss.
I observed the numerous flowers within the green blades of grass beneath our feet, but this time there were no tears of sadness. My eyes began to well up with tears of happiness, as I thought of Mary Ann. I knew she was here with us right now in spirit, smiling up at me while holding on to her father's hand tightly. I could tell John felt it too as a single tear drop fell down his face.
We made it.