War and History Fiction posted November 28, 2022


Exceptional
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A tale about first wagon train to California

California Bound

by RodG

Western Writing Contest Contest Winner 

"Don't you dare die on me, Ben Kelsey. We come too fer, and I won't be left alone!" Nancy Kelsey shouted.

Her words hammered off the high bluffs around her and caused tiny Ann, bound in a sling across her mother's chest, to whimper.
 
Nancy knelt on the frozen ground just inside a battered tent. Beside her lay her unconscious husband. The Kelseys' one remaining blanket pillowed his head. Icy winds bit at them through the rents in the faded canvas while outside snow flurried through the narrow canyon where they camped. A few yards away, a broth made from the bones of the party's last horse simmered in a borrowed pot. Nancy had hoped its aroma or a few drops on his swollen lips might awaken her husband. He barely stirred.
 
As Nancy gazed at Ben's withered limbs, bile filled her throat. "He looks older'n Pa and he ain't twenty."
Slowly her eyes settled on her baby who seemed to have shrunk. Nancy had been unable to nurse Ann in days.
 
"There jist ain't no milk left in me, Ann."
 
As Nancy's fingers stroked the hollows of her own cheeks, she knew her face looked skull-like. Was she only eighteen? Had they left Sapling Grove just five months before?
 
Looking again at Ben, Nancy couldn't halt the torrent of words that tumbled out of her.
 
"You remember the night we told our kin we were leavin', Ben?  Married jist two years, Ann barely born, and you yearnin' to head west. Nobody could stick another notion 'tween your ears. 'It's Eden out there, Nance!' you kept sayin'. You wanted to go 'long to California, and send for me later. I hollered 'No! Ain't fergittin' my vows, Ben. I be followin' my man to California. I kin endure any hardships along the trail, but not the pain of havin' no husband in my bed.' Ma blushed, but she understood. When I saw your eyes crinkle and that tenderness in your smile, I durn well knew I was right."
 
Ben's eyes flickered open and Nancy saw a smile playing around his blue lips.
 
"You heard me then, Ben? Don't you go leavin' me ag'in. I need you. We all do." Nancy pressed the pads of her fingers together and thanked her Maker quietly.
 
"Hungry, Nance," Ben groaned. "What's that I smell?"
 
"Broth. Tastes better'n it smells." Nancy rose and returned to the fire to pour the thin soup into the only tin cup they had left. She brought it to Ben, knelt again, and batted away his reaching fingers. "Hot! I'll feed you."
 
Nancy wrapped the cup in a fold of her skirt and used her finger to ladel the broth between his lips. He sipped it greedily.

"Leave me my finger, Ben," she laughed. "Yer worse 'n Ann."
 
"She...?" He stopped sipping and looked at Nancy and his clinging child with tormented eyes.
 
"She's hungry...like all of us, Ben. Nothin' to feed her but what yer drinkin'. Ain't seen sign of deer or elk. Dawson shot an owl a day or two ago 'n Bidwell nailed a wolf. Both et 'n gone. What yer drinkin' is all's left of Dawson's horse. We all be walkin' now."
 
Ben pushed away the cup and pointed a bony finger at Ann. "She's fine fer now. I aim to let her sleep 'til she cries."
 
Ben aimed his quivering finger at Nancy.
 
"No! This is fer you, Ben. We need you strong ag'in."
 
Ben lay back and closed his eyes. A moment or two later they flickered open and he tried to rise.
"Bartleson...t'others...they come back?"
 
Nancy gently pushed his head back onto the matted pillow before answering. "Yes...a day or so ago. A sorrier sight I never seen. All of 'em skinnier 'n any of those mules we lost in the desert and beggin' forgiveness."
 
Ben's eyes met hers and she felt the resentment he bore.
 
"We forgave 'em. No way we couldn't 'n still call ourselves Christians. It's like Father DeSmet and
Reverend Williams never left us. You know what Bidwell says. 'Their sermons float 'round us in the wind.' I think he's right, Ben."
 
The glazed look in Ben's eyes told her he'd heard little of what she said. He closed his eyes and was sleeping before she'd lowered his head.
 
"What will we do, Ben? T'other men run out of ideas and Bidwell's map don't show no way to git through these mountains. I crawled up the trail a piece 'n saw one ridge 'hind another. Made me think of Dawson's poor horse and all its ribs stickin' through its brown hide. What's left of it is in this here cup. Nothin' left to lick or chew. You rest and mayhaps dream a way over them mountains. Like I said, Ben, we need you...bad."
***
 
The next morning the Kelseys were awakened by shots and a few minutes later John Bidwell stuck his head through their doorway, grinning from ear to ear.
 
"You won't believe what happened. A deer...a young doe...loped into camp and six of us saw her t'once. You heard the shots? Her hindquarters be roasting a'ready. Git yerselves up and join the party!"
 
Nancy saw that her husband's eyes were open. "You heard that, Ben? I be gittin' to the fire 'fore there's nuthin' left. I'll bring you back a meaty bone or two."
 
"No!" His voice sounded surprisingly deep. "Git to that deer, Nance, and grab me a hunk o' venison. I'll be 'long...soon."
 
Nancy nodded sleepily, having tossed and turned most of the night while entwining herself in her shawl. She escaped her snare, brushed off the clothes she'd slept in, and squirmed out of the tent with Ann. Her knees and ankles were stiff from the chill, and feeling the need to relieve herself, she limped away from the boisterous group already celebrating at the fire pit. She found a few minutes of privacy in some underbrush near a pine grove. After hiding her thick mass of dirty curls under her bonnet as well as she could, Nancy trudged to the site of revelry.
 
Several of the men stood as she approached. John Bidwell, still grinning, offered Ann and her a seat on his log, a prime spot close to the blazing fire. Nancy nodded her thanks and sat. She'd been the only woman among thirty men for two months now, ever since the expedition split off in two directions. There had been several women originally, but the others, including her sister-in-law, had chosen to go to Oregon. Ben never wavered from the direction he'd chosen, whereas Nancy shared her feelings openly.
 
"I be yer wife, Ben Kelsey and I won't lie to you. I don't hanker to be the only woman, but I won't be quittin' you now. We're goin' to California just like you said."
 
As John Bartleson, the train's captain, used his long knife to carve her a healthy portion, Nancy glanced around at the other men sitting in groupings of two or three. Nobody sat alone. She sensed the camaraderie they felt after spending so much time and enduring so much together. They treated her kindly, courteously, but none of them could she call a "friend" in the same sense she could any of the women who were long gone now. Jessica or Sadie she could tell anything. The three of them spent their evenings by the fire or near their wagons gossiping, laughing, confiding. Since half of the train had split off for Oregon, her only real friend the past two months was Ben who was too busy, too tired--and now too sick--to talk to.

As she accepted a plateful of roasted meat, placing it listlessly in her lap, a wave of homesickness surged through her. It took several moments for the aroma to penetrate her revelry, but when it did, she ate ravenously, pausing only to poke a morsel into Ann's mouth.
 
Suddenly the din of hungry men eating and talking slackened. Knives clattered in tin plates and there was a collective gasp.
 
"Ben, over here," said Bidwell.
 
Everyone gawked at the scrawny appearance of Ben Kelsey. Nancy, seeing some of the men avert their eyes, knew it was only because Ben mirrored them. He was upright, barely, and staggered to the circle of comrades with the aid of a long stick. When he stopped an arm's length from Nancy, she saw mirth in the darkened craters of his eyes and the upturned crescent of his lips. Her throat tightened and her breathing quickened, a sensation she hadn't experienced in months.
 
Ben bowed clumsily and doffed his hat. "This seat taken, m'lady?"
 
As the other men guffawed, Nancy felt her cheeks burning, but she couldn't help smiling. "Sit--sit, Ben, afore you 'barrass me to death."
 
For awhile the sun stuck to its place just above the treetops and not a cloud blemished the pale blue sky. The wind barely stirred the fire's embers and fragrant wisps of smoke brushed softly across the faces of the famished eaters. Gazing at her husband gnawing at bones on his plate, Nancy felt a contentedness she had not known since the early days of their trek. He looked up, his face shining with grease, and grinned at her.

Oh, Ben, I do love you!
 
Nancy wanted to shout the words. It was the first time she'd even thought them in months. Could she say them aloud? It had been so long. Perhaps tonight, away from the others, she and he...How would he respond? Did he love her?

Suddenly the glow inside her vanished. A gust of wind chilled her, prickling her hands and cheeks. Masses of heavy-bellied clouds crept over the Sierras, making the sky look like scorched bark.
 
Ben, staring quizzically at her, asked, "Nance--?"
 
Her reply, if one was forthcoming, was interrupted by John Bartleson who clambered to his feet and gave voice to what all were fretting.
 
"We're in fer it, folks. A real blow by the looks of it. My nose tells me sleet's a- comin' an' likely snow. Batten down them tents of you'rn. Make a lean-to if yer a mind to, but git the job done quick. She'll be blowin' down on us quicker'n Noah's flood."
 
"C'mon, Nance. I be needin' yer help. We still got an axe?"
 
Nancy nodded. She felt a bit unbalanced holding Ann in her sling with one hand while while trying to pull Ben to his feet with the other. He might be skinny, but he was still heavy-boned in the chest and shoulders.
 
"I'm fine, woman. Gimme my stick."
 
The angry tone he'd used on her and others throughout the trip had returned. Ben was a restless, impatient man who stubbornly refused to rely on others. Physically there were others taller, stronger, but no one was more obstinate or had his will. He'd vowed to reach California come hell or high water, and the Kelseys had already experienced much of both. They had crossed flooded rivers in a downpour and several hundred miles of waterless, sun-baked desert.
 
Ben pushed her away and stumbled toward the tent. Watching him, Nancy whispered, "I still love you, you ornery cuss...but...but do you love me?"
***
 
Fortunately, Ben Kelsey didn't have to go far from his campsite to find wood for a lean-to. The copse of timber Nancy had used for her needs earlier provided an abundance of deadfall and saplings. Ben insisted on using the axe, but his strength diminished quickly. As he swung feebly at several limbs, the blade only nicked the soft wood.
 
"I kin--" pleaded Nancy.
 
"No! Take the baby an' drag what I've a'ready chopped back to camp."
 
"Ben, there ain't time! Let me!"
 
"Arrrgh!" he yelped as she grasped the axe from him. "Yer a blame sorry excuse fer a wife, woman. I told you what to do. Listen to me!"

"Take it then, husband! Take it!" Nancy spat the words at him, and turned away before he could see the hot tears in her eyes.
 
Still snarling, Ben lunged for the tool and fell. The blade of the axe grazed his thigh and bounced off the toe of his boot.
 
"Ow...!"
 
"Ben--?" Nancy spun around to see her husband sprawled on the ground.
 
"Nuthin', wife," Ben snapped. "Do as yer bid!"
 
She hesitated before fleeing his wrath and watched him touch the darkening rip in his trousers. He withdrew his fingers sticky with blood and bellowed, "Damn, yer as clumsy as a three-legged cur, Ben Kelsey."
 
Looking up, he saw Nancy staring at him. "Git, woman!"
 
Angrily she plodded toward the camp, Ann pressed tightly to her chest. "Yer pa is more stubborn 'n any mule fer sure. If I'd any sense, I would ha' left him an' gone to Oregon with Jessie. We be there by now, I reckon, not stuck in this...this wilderness. God knows how fer we be from that big blue ocean and all them orange trees, Ann. Mr. Bartleson says snow's comin' an' we may git buried in it. Doubt yer pa will care. I'm jist property to him and you'rn not much more."
 
Nancy didn't try to wipe the tears plunging down her cheeks until she came within sight of her tent. Then she spotted several men hovering nearby, obviously proud of a makeshift lodge they'd fashioned from a few branches and the remains of the Kelseys' tent. She hastily blotted her tear-stained face on the crown of Ann's silky head.
 
Joseph Chiles, a man about a dozen years her senior, grinned through his greying beard. "Built this fer you and Ann. Might be a bit of room fer Ben, but I'd not wager what few goods I got left," he chuckled. The others laughed too.
 
"Oh, thank you." Nancy tried to smile but could only blubber. "Ben...we..."
 
"Shucks, ma'am. What 'r friends fer if we cain't help in times like this?" Chiles stammered.
 
John Bartleson wandered up in a hurry, roaring, "She's comin'! You an' that babe git inside, Mrs. Kelsey."

"Yes, Captain," Nancy shouted. She despised the man. "He ain't got no business callin' himself captain," Ben claimed.

From the beginning of the trip Bartleson's judgment had been faulty, often causing the emigrants unnecessary hardship and costing precious time. Then he convinced several men to desert the train with him, claiming, "Winter's comin' an' we cain't wait fer the wagons." Barely alive, he'd crawled into camp several days later, begging for forgiveness and only a tad more humble.
 
Fool! Hadn't got lost, you'd never returned fer us. I know that and so do the rest.
 
But Nancy didn't have time to think of Bartleson anymore. A violent gust nearly knocked her down. She pulled Ann into the shelter and leaned against the hastily-constructed door. Invisible knives pushed into her back and stabbed at the two of them through unchinked gaps. In minutes her fingers numbed and her toes disappeared.
 
Shivering, Nancy tried to bury the baby in her garments, but her arms shook too much. Too exhausted to stand any longer, she hunkered on the ground with Ann. There had been no time to spread pine boughs or needles, and the packed dirt beneath her was as frigid as the air pressing in around her. Suddenly, remembering Ben, fear, not cold, made her quake.
 
"Git in here, Ben! You be dumber'n any ox stayin' out there."
 
She pressed her ear against the nearest wall, but heard only the wind howling through the cracks and battering the door. Snow had begun to sift inside, powdering the floor and her flimsy homespun dress and jacket. She brushed some off Ann and strained to listen.
 
"Where are you, husband?" she screamed.
 
"Here!" The door burst open and Ben tumbled in.
 
In the dim light, Nancy spotted the blood on Ben's hands and trousers immediately. "Yer hurt," she whimpered while pawing at the wound in his leg.
 
"Tain't but a scratch, but I fell an' twisted my durn ankle near off," Ben said. He winced as he rolled onto his rump.
 
Nancy gingerly rolled his pant leg up. "It's right swollen...as big as your thigh."
 
"Cain't be too bad then," Ben chuckled. "My thigh's little more'n bone."
 
Nancy did not laugh. "Ben, you cain't walk, they'll leave us...ag'in."
 
Ben gaped as two tears coursed down her cheeks, glutinous by the time they reached her chin.
"Nance," he said, cupping her probing fingers in both hands. They were stone-cold and as grey as the cliffs surrounding them. "They won't leave us. And if'n they did, we'll make it on our own. Ain't we got each other?"
 
Nancy glared at her husband. "Are you fevered too? Today you ain't needed me t'all. 'Fore then, jist to cook yer meals an' crack a whip over them oxen."
 
"Ain't true, Nance. I--I've always needed you." A ray of sunlight slipped through a crack to halo Ben's head. His blue lips were smiling. "Jist too proud to say it."
 
Nancy sagged into Ben's outstretched arms, bawling.
 
"Crowded here, wife," he chuckled. "Leave a smidgen fer Ann."
 
In minutes as Nancy's fingers defrosted and she rediscovered her toes, another kind of warmth surged through her .
 
"I know you, husband. I'll be hearin' more cross words from you 'til we git over the mountains, but I surely pined to hear them you jist said."
 
The lodge was almost too warm now and stuffy, but Nancy Kelsey was not complaining. Smiling, she lay her head on Ben's chest, closed her eyes, and napped away the afternoon.
***
 
The storm lashed the Kelseys' shelter most of the night, but near dawn the wind died to a murmur and daylight rushed in through the cracks. Leaving Ann swaddled in her shawl in Ben's arms, Nancy emerged from the lodge and surveyed the snow-clad world around her. Branches and limbs were strewn everywhere, but otherwise the camp site looked unscathed. A few men sat talking quietly around the fire pit with Captain Bartleson, plumes of pipe smoke spiraling lazily into the cloudless sky.
 
"So blue," murmured Nancy, gazing upwards. "Bluer 'n that mountain lake we seen." She turned and headed toward her lavatory in the trees, trudging through slush and mud. When she returned, the remnants of her shoes were soaked. Deliberately, she stripped the tatters from her feet and threw them into some brush.
 
Ben poked his head out of the lodge and saw Nancy rubbing her feet. "What are you doin', Nance?"
 
"Givin' my feet some air," Nancy replied. She fingered the tiny slices in the sole of each foot.
 
"Where yer shoes be?"
 
"Don't need 'em. All that walkin' leathered both feet."
 
"Nance, you ain't thinkin' of barefootin' into California?"
 
"Reckon so."
 
Ben slapped both ears and shook his head violently. "Wife, you--your'n somethin'."
 
Nancy glanced up from her toes and smiled. "Now thet's nice t' hear, Ben."
 
John Bidwell marched up frowning, eyeing the ground and obviously unaware of the discussion the Kelseys were having. "Ben...come over to the fire and talk reason to these buffoons. They're not listening to me. Bartleson's got 'em all worked up again."
 
"They ain't hearin' you, school teacher, they won't be hearin' me."
 
Bidwell laughed weakly and pulled Ben by the shirt sleeve toward the fire.
 
"Go, Ben," Nancy said, eyeing both men sternly. "They be hearin' you out. Who's goin' to listen to a man whose word's proved worthless as a water keg riddled with buckshot?"
 
Moments later Ben and Bidwell were sitting at the fire while Nancy busied herself inside the hut with Ann. The deer was gone, but the men had cooked a thick gruel for Ann before picking the carcass clean. Nancy sang to her child, hoping Ann would listen to sweet melodies, not the heated words of her father, Bidwell, and the others. Mama Kelsey had just finished feeding and cleaning Ann, when Ben returned, his face flushed and his eyes aflame.
 
"I seen jack rabbits with more sense 'n that man!"
 
"Bartleson?"
 
"Yes!" Ben spat into a corner. "He's talkin' of turnin' back to where we branched off."
 
"Oregon! He wants to go to Oregon?"
 
Ben nodded. "Or back to those meadows 'long the river we camped at."
 
"That was a month ago, Ben, and t'were little game or fish. What would we eat?" Ben shrugged. "He figures we kin fort up there and take our chances. 'Cain't do worse'n here an' mebbeso a whole lot better,' he says. Man's loco. Desert fried his brains and gittin' lost up here left him senseless."
 
"What you proposin' to do, Ben?" Nancy's hands were busy with Ann, but her eyes fixed on her husband.
 
As Ben glared out the door, his mouth thinned severely like water in a desert creek. Then he turned and shot a glance at Nancy she'd long remember. An amber light glowed in his eyes.
 
"We keep goin' an' we don't stop 'til we're at Sutter's gate."
***
 
The sun, slanted just above the closest peak in the cobalt sky, had quickly warmed the valley floor and melted the snow. Balmy breezes swept across the camp site, drying the evergreens and leaving the boot-stomped circle around the fire pit a morass. Yet what would be construed as a perfect fall day in Kentucky or Missouri dismayed Nancy. All morning the men had argued. By the time Ben convinced them turning back was foolish, it was too late to head onward.
 
Now, high overhead, soared three, sometimes four, black birds in lazy arcs. The last time she'd seen them was in the desert. For days they had flown above the train, circling closer and closer when a mule or ox dropped. From dawn till dusk the emigrants staggered on but a few miles across the flat, endless expanse of rock and sand. Plodding near her wagon, weakly flipping her whip at their one remaining ox, Nancy would glance backwards, following the wagon tracks with her eyes. Squinting, she could see in the blurry distance a flock of huge black birds squatting on a mound of hide, strings of flesh hanging from their beaks.
 
Nancy feared Ann or Ben could still die in this mountain wilderness. Her own personal fears had ended when the emigrants had reached what Bartleson called "the foothills to California." She had almost drowned early on crossing the Blue River and again at North Fork when the wagon tipped over in the swirling current. That scared her plenty. Worst was the trek across the desert which lasted for days. They'd run out of water and she thought she'd choke to death on her swollen tongue. Game did not exist in the desert and proved scarcer in the mountains. They ate their worn out oxen and mules as soon as they dropped. Eventually they butchered their horses. Despite yesterday's miracle, the thirty California-bound emigrants were close to starving.

Survive, Nancy, don't die! Fer the sake of your baby, fer Ben.
 
Hour after hour, day after day she'd repeated this credo in her head, outloud, and in her dreams. She'd prayed endlessly, and perhaps God heard her prayers. The Kelseys did not die. They, and the others, abandoned their goods and wagons, ate their animals, and somehow reached this valley alive.
 
None of the Kelseys had been sick or stricken, till now. Ben was so thin, so weak. How could he lead any party in his condition? They must ascend range after range of mountains whose peaks were ringed with clouds, then descend steep inclines, treading cautiously as a trip or stumble could--and had--send a man or beast into rocky chasms hundreds of feet below.
 
Was love the strength God provided? Was this His final test of my devotion? Ben's? And if I--we--failed?
 
She glanced again at the birds above and trembled. She wouldn't dwell on what she could not control--a lesson hard-learned over five months. She must help Ben ready for what she prayed was the final leg of this endless trek.
 
There was little to pack and no creatures to bear their belongings but themselves. When their horse died a week ago, she'd converted the saddlebags into backpacks for Ben and her. Now she struggled to stuff the few goods they had into hers. Too weak, Ben would be lucky to carry his own weight across the mountains.
 
The next morning Ben had everyone up and ready to depart by sun-up. No one spoke of breakfast as there was none to be had. Gaunt-faced men strapped on their gear. The designated hunters, those with guns still functional, checked their weapons and powder. There was always hope another deer would prance into sight. After refashioning Ann's sling so the baby would snuggle even closer to her chest, Nancy sought Ben to help her with the bag.

"Ben?" she yelped, thinking he was just outside the hut. When he didn't answer she peeked outside and saw him squatting near the fire pit, staring at some papers.
 
"C'mon, Ann, let's join yer pa."
 
Nancy strode quickly to the fire before Ann could yowl. "I need yer help, Ben."
 
"Yuh...gimme a moment. I need to git a fix on where we're headin'."

"That there a map?"
 
Ben glanced up briefly and nodded. "Ol' Broken Hand give it to Bidwell 'fore he led the others off to Oregon."
 
Nancy smiled as she remembered the old mountain man Tom Fitzpatrick who'd been their guide. Father DeSmet had hired him, so he'd been obliged to stay with the other group. Nancy liked him for the "windies" he told the children by the night-time fires and his candor. Some mornings, after scouting ahead, he'd ride beside her wagon and answer her endless questions about the wild flowers and edible plants she'd found, the herds of buffalo they'd seen, and the Indians she feared. Quiet-spoken with her, he'd patiently explain how the Indians used some plants as medicine or bluntly describe how a scalp was taken.
 
"Has he been to California, Ben?"
 
"Don't doubt it. Many of them 'coons' as he called 'em know these mountains better'n their own faces. Looked ever'where fer beaver an' found 'em tucked into rivers an' creeks. Mos' likely they found 'em here, too. Some of 'em jist seen a place once an' know'd it evermore. This here map made by 'nuther coon named Bridger who, if'n you believe Broken Hand, seen it all."

"Kin you tell where we be?"
 
Ben shook his head and looked at her sadly. "This," he pointed to a spot on the map, "be the pass we crossed early this week...I think... Ah, Nance, we could be anywheres. We've crossed streams...rivers...mountains not marked t'all."

Nancy lowered her eyes a moment, watching her frosted breath cloak Ann's small head. She looked up at Ben and spoke quietly.

"We're lost."
 
Ben looked balefully at her and slowly nodded. Nancy sighed, knowing they both understood the full meaning of her words.
***
 
Nancy paused by the swift-flowing stream and dipped her feet. They were bruised, but not bleeding and the cold water numbed the ache. She wished she could throw herself into the creek. Maybe that would deaden the pain in her back and legs. She felt she was wearing a double-yoke with Ann hanging from her front and the rucksack jolting her shoulders with every step. But she knew from watching him closely that Ben hurt far worse than she. He was dragging his leg now and each step was costly. He trudged ten paces ahead, but she knew from his loud, ragged breathing she could catch up easily.
 
They had been hiking for the better part of a week since leaving their camp site, but by her reckoning the black birds above flew further in a single circle than the Bidwell-Bartleson party hiked in a day. Each valley or ridge looked alike and the terrain seldom varied. She tried desperately to not think about her aching back and chest, or the sharp spasms in her stomach by singing to Ann, but the dry air made her croak.
 
The sound of crunching gravel snapped her alert. Earlier that day, John Bidwell, their scout, had brought them to this trail. Possibly made by deer or elk, it followed the stream bed, often crossing from one side to the other. Flash floods had lined it in silt and not-so-fine gravel. Glancing ahead, Nancy saw Bidwell had returned and was babbling something to Ben. Suddenly Ben spun toward her, waving his arms wildly. As she approached, Ben threw down his stick and almost skipped toward her. She grasped him with both arms to keep him from falling.
 
"Nance!" he hollered in her ear. "We're there!"
 
Beaming as he pulled himself away from her, Ben waved his hat at the others. Joseph Chiles was the first to join the little circle of celebrants.
 
Then Nick Dawson asked, "Cal'forny, Ben?"
 
"Yes! Yes!" yelped Bidwell.
 
Others started cheering, and the noise that filled the valley scared away the vultures. They did not return.
***
 
"How much further, Ben?" Chiles asked.
 
After Bidwell had delivered the news, he and several others itchy to see the Promised Land had argued about who would take the point.
 
"Jist on the other side of that rise John says." Ben's face glowed, but his breathing was more labored after pushing himself to stay stride for stride with the leaders.
 
Chiles glanced back at Nancy who was picking her way up the trail several yards back and almost shouted, "Damn, but that woman of your'n got grit, Ben Kelsey. My feet ache and I still got boots on 'em."
 
"That she does, Joseph," Ben replied. He let Chiles and a few others shoulder by him, while leaning on his stick smiling at Nancy. He knew from her lowered eyes and the pink blotches on her cheeks she'd heard them both.
 
"Thinkin' we should git our first peek at this new land together, Nance," he said as she approached.
 
"Ann's awake," Nancy grinned at him. "We all hankerin' fer a sight of it."
 
Ben, about to spread his arm about her shoulders, hesitated. Nancy's smile faded. "Ben, don't be afeard of leanin' on me. I'm yer partner, ain't I?"
 
The biggest smile he'd ever worn broke across his face as he grasped her. His unexpected weight tossed her off balance and they all stumbled a step.
 
"Nancy Kelsey," he whispered. "Yer much more'n that. Yer my wife...my partner...and my best friend."
 
Nancy was crying softly as the trio crested the ridge and joined the others staring mutely at the huge, wide-bottomed valley below.
 
"Oh!" Nancy gasped. "Looka the color on them trees, Ben. Kin that be oranges tucked into them bushy leaves?"
 
"Could be," Ben roared. "Let's find out." He leaped away from his family and hopped crazily down the hill, leaving the others laughing and racing to catch up.
 
The End



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Painting is courtesy of Google images

According to Doyce Nunis, "...the Bidwell-Bartleson party had successfully made the first planned overland emigrant journey to California, bearing with courage and great fortitude the vicissitudes of their ordeal. These hardy pioneers were the harbingers of many thousands to come."
1841
� 
The Bartleson-Bidwell party of 34 people was the first emigrant group to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains from the east. When they passed through this area during late October 1841, some of the party tried to follow the river. The impassable canyon to the left of the vista forced them to rejoin the party on the ridge trail across the canyon. Finally, starved and worn out, they arrived in the San Joaquin Valley.
FORGING A NEW PATH
The� Bidwell-Bartleson party started out on May 18th, 1841 and joined forces with a group of Jesuit priests and renowned mountain man, Thomas â??Broken Handâ?? Fitzpatrick. Following the path of the Oregon trail initially, the parties separated at Soda Springs in Idaho. The Jesuit priests and Fitzpatrick split off to Oregon, and the 34 California trail pioneers followed vague directions and carried on with determination to reach California. The party was now made of up 32 men, and 18-year-old Nancy Kelsey and her infant daughter.
DISCOVERING WONDERS
There was no established trail, and barely any guidance for these brave emigrants. We would not know the path they had taken today, or the sights they encountered had it not been for the meticulously kept diary of John Bidwell. He wrote upon reaching Soda Springs, â??The water is strongly impregnated with soda, and wherever it gushes out of the ground a sediment is deposited, of a reddish color, which petrifies and forms around the springs large mounds of porous rock, some of which are no less than fifty feet high.â?? The party saw many other now-famous sights. Nancy Kelsey is credited as being the first white woman to see Utah. Some of the landmarks included:
Soda Springs
The Great Salt Lake
Bonneville Salt Flats
Donnell Reservoir (Stanislaus River)
Giant Sequoias of Calaveras
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