I. Convergence

by Sevenstars

Four days later:

Nathan Jackson and Rain broke their camp beside a little stream running parallel to the Platte and about four miles south of it. They were three days out of Fort Laramie and loafing along at what Nathan estimated to be an easy twenty miles a day, though even a full- sized band with its extra ponies, its dogs and small children and old folk, could do fifty if pressed. Nathan had offered to help take down the tipi, but Rain wouldn't hear of it: that was woman's work. All she would permit him to do was lift her up on his shoulders so she could pull out the wooden skewers, or lodge pins, that held the edges of the skins together in front, like the seam of a skirt. Ordinarily this task would fall to a child--in their case one of her sisters'--who would use them as a ladder, climbing as high up as he could and removing them from the top down, backing his way to earth, so the women could peel the cover off the frame of poles and take them down.

They had left the Sioux almost a full moon ago, after much talk with Rain's family and the elders of the band, and had gone first to Laramie because it was the post best known to the Lakota, many of whom had attended the Great Council of '51 at nearby Horse Creek, or traded there on a regular basis. But a lot of officers in the West were Southern, and one rather arrogant young shavetail had gotten into Nathan's face from the very beginning. He held onto his temper with admirable restraint, but then the man began making suggestive remarks about Rain, and he knew they couldn't stay. The next nearest post was Sedgwick, down the Platte about a week's easy journey. He decided to try that one.

Too bad she ain't got a kid sister we could'a' asked to come along, he thought, watching as his wife deftly bundled the lodge skins. Don't seem right makin' her do everything all by her ownself. Since Indians by custom lived in groups focusing on the wives, it was usual for each woman to have a bunch of sisters and female cousins close by to help with the work, and Rain had grown up knowing there would always be extra hands available. It was June now--the Prairie-Turnip Moon, or Moon of Making Fat, as the Sioux called it--and she was about five months along and just barely beginning to show. He hated to think about her having to do all sorts of heavy work single-handed till October, even though he knew she was nowhere near being the kind of frail, delicate white woman whose doctor would advise her not to work too hard, walk too far or too much, or carry heavy things for fear of losing the baby or her life. She was as tough as a field-hand's wife and would probably bear like one. Despite the slight thickening of her waist and the increased heaviness of her breasts she still moved gracefully, deftly, with economy. But she was his wife, and it was his child growing inside her, and that made all the difference.

He brought in their five horses while she got the lodge down and the furnishings packed up: his own fine roan, the sorrel gelding, the black-maned buckskin mare, the strong bay pony that pulled the three-hundred- pound travois, and Rain's own mount, a red-spotted mare--pintos were the color most favored by the Sioux, considered superior in spirit and much prized--with the saddle pommel and cantle that reared eighteen inches high, the quilled and fringed blanket of soft tanned skins that hung to her knees before and heels behind, the bridle decorated with tiny silver hawk's-bells, the eagle plumes in her mane and the tail looped up and tied with red and yellow buckskin ribbons, gear that told everyone who saw it how proud he was of his wife. More proud even than he was of his abilities as a healer; he couldn't answer for those, they were something for which he'd always had the potential within him, but Rain--Rain had chosen him. He would do whatever he had to, to support her and the baby and keep them safe.

Should make Sedgwick in around three days and a half, he thought. Hope there ain't none of them damn fool young Southron officers there.

Two days later:

JD Dunne was bored. Today was the eleventh of June and he hadn't been able to make a run in almost two weeks.

He'd heard so much, back East, about the warlike Plains tribes, that he'd never expected the Pony to be balked by anything else. It seemed almost humiliating that a people who had been scornfully christened "Diggers" by the early emigrants should have it in their hands to stop the Express cold.

Far to the west, in the Great Basin, the Northern Paiute bands of the Washoe country had resented white intrusion into their territory as far back as the first influx of California-bound gold-seekers in the early '50's, and had been involved in conflicts with white troops. After the discovery of the Comstock Lode, tensions increased. In the Carson Valley south of Pyramid Lake stood two trading posts, Williams and Buckland, which served as stations for RM&W stages and the Pony Express. The latter had barely gotten well started when the traders at Williams Station abducted and raped two Paiute girls, holding them as prisoners at the facility. The warriors of the tribe attacked and burned it, rescuing the girls and killing five whites.

Miners at Carson City, Virginia City, Gold Hill, and Genoa organized a posse of some 105 volunteers under Major William M. Ormsby, and marched toward Pyramid Lake in May. A Paiute chief named Numaga had fasted for peace, but in the light of recent occurrences he foresaw the inevitable, and set a trap at the Big Bend of the Truckee River Valley. The warriors hid behind sagebrush on both sides of the pass and killed as many as forty-six miners in the original ambush and subsequent panicked retreat through the Indian gauntlet.

The uprising made the trails so dangerous that the owners of the Express called for government protection, and when they didn't get it, shut down service the length of the route as of May 31. The stages continued to go through, each having several armed men on board to give the Paiutes pause, and by these some word reached the prairie stations of the progress of the war. Reinforcements out of California had soon joined the fray, as did a number of Regulars, bringing the force up to 800 men. Colonel Jack Hays, who had been a Texas Ranger, was given the command. At the beginning of June, they encountered the Paiutes near the site of Ormsby's defeat. An indecisive skirmish took place, but Hays was made of sterner stuff than his predecessor. He led his men in pursuit of the Indians and engaged them at Pinnacle Mountain, killing twenty-five warriors. The survivors scattered into the hills. There had been no word of further hostilities, but RM&W was understandably reluctant to risk its investment any further than it had to, and no announcement had yet been forthcoming about when service would be resumed.

JD filled in the time as best he could, helping with the stock and the chores and riding with Vin Tanner, who still stayed on. He found the prairie at the tag-end of spring a beautiful place, with the brush-lined gullies and waterways white not with snow but with fragrant plum and chokecherry blossoms, the trees in filling leaf, fawns staggering after their mothers, yellow buffalo calves bucking awkwardly, white trumpeter swans cruising the waters among lesser fowls, lines of fluffy young paddling after them. Everywhere the land was a riot of flowers: trailing and climbing buffalo pea with its bluish-purple blooms, large prickly-leafed bull thistle with purple heads, long- stemmed gaillardia (Vin called it blanket-flower) in bright yellow and red, brilliantly colored rose moss whose single or double blossoms opened only in bright sunlight, little clusters of lavender sweet Williams, white buttercups in damp areas along the streams, golden coreopsis growing out of the shallows of lagoons, dwarf aster standing six to eight inches high over acres of ground, evening primrose covering the hills and plains with a sulphurous yellow glow, false scarlet mallow that carpeted the ground in reddish-orange, small brick-red wild geraniums with silvery gray-green foliage, sometimes in patches as big as an Indian blanket; shoestring, ironweed, and snow-on-the-mountain in the bottoms of draws and gullies where the land was drier; deep pink blossoms of ball cactus, waxy silken yellow of prickly pear, and candle-stems of yucca in the arid shortgrass country. The pealike pink catclaw covered the sandstone outcrops, and in the moist depressions were blue flag, water hemlock, meadow rue, smartweed, swamp milkweed, blue five- petalled prairie phlox on stems that ranged from a foot to two and a half in height, and the tall yellow-flowered prairie dock, cup plant, and compass plant, the last standing sometimes ten feet tall, its leaves tending to align themselves in a north-south plane, hence the name. The little prairie roses wouldn't appear till July, and the small yellow snow anemones and profuse patches of bright blue crocus were long gone, but there were plenty of others: little yellow- hearted daisies, shallow pale-pink primroses, blue and white phacelia, yellow-petalled brown-eyed Susans, white shooting star, purple-flowered wild onion, pink and lavender loco weed, blue pentstemon, lavender Pasque flower, yellow and lavender prairie smoke, deep-blue wild delphinium, magenta wake-robin, white Mayflower, green-red Indian cucumber, yellow dogtooth violet, pink wild garlic, brown-purple ginger, flaming paintbrush, yellow and white mustard, bright blue larkspur, white boneset, azure-blue chicory, lupine in white and blue and purple, asters golden and purple and gold-centered blue, rose-purple stalks of gayfeather, yellow bladder pod and the greenish flowers of the rabbit bush. Wheatgrass, little bluestem, big bluestem in the bottoms along the creeks, and occasional patches of buffalo grass and blue grama grew in profusion, offering rich grazing to the herds both wild and tame. For a time, in May, the frogs had been in full voice--a deafening din of snorts, trills, whistles, the low-pitched snore of the pickerel frog, the twanging plucked-banjo string of the green, the sonorous roar of the bull, and from every wet spot bigger than a bucket the dry r-r-rack-rack! rack-rack! of a little spotted fellow--but the weather was getting too warm and dry for most of them now. Vin had shown him marvels uncountable: mother bears joining in the play of their cubs and cuffing them when they didn't do what was wanted of them; young badgers gambolling about and even seeming to dance; river otters sliding down streambanks, parents and kits together in gay abandon; a red fox gorging itself on raspberries, and a father wolf (wolves, he said, took their mates for life, just as people did) keeping his whelps immaculate with his big rough tongue, just like a housecat; once a prairie-dog town that he said stretched a hundred and fifty miles in each direction; jackrabbits fleeing from coyotes in twenty-foot bounds, clearing five-foot obstacles with ease; four-day-old antelope calves that could outrun a man; buffalo travelling in loose formation, the bands sometimes separated from each other by hundreds of yards, and when disturbed going directly from a walk to a rocking gallop, which looked slow but covered plenty of ground. He had shown the boy how to make a fish trap, how to find the eggs of wild turkeys and prairie chickens, how to raid the vegetable caches of gophers and mice, and how to "flag" antelope, concealing himself in the grass and raising a cap or handkerchief on the end of a ramrod stuck in the ground, or lying on his back and waving a foot in the air. Antelope were curious; they'd circle the bait, drawing nearer on each turn, until they were within range. If you had the ammunition to spare and were pretty sure there were no enemies within earshot, you could even fire off a few rounds, and the antelope, who didn't associate sound with danger, would come running up to see what all the noise was about.

He had been an employee of Russell, Majors, & Waddell for sixteen and a half weeks now, and since his pay came by stage, weekly, he had four hundred dollars stashed in the bottom of his trunk in a buckskin bag Vin had made for him. Over eleven and a half of those weeks Wells Ranch had been his principal home, though when he was on a run he stayed half the time at Knutson's, ninety-five miles up the trail. Through Casey, Josiah, Agent Knutson, and eventually Nettie he had begun to get some picture of how such road ranches were born. Though the Plains were still chiefly a highway, they had been so for seventeen years--ever since the beginning of the great overland emigration to Oregon in 1843--and by 1850 not only were there settlers in sufficient number as to warrant a demand for hired help, but people were actually beginning to head west with the view in mind of stopping short of the Coast. Not until the Kansas and Nebraska territories were organized in '54 had it been possible for them to get legal title, but under the Distribution-Preemption Act of 1841 "squatters' rights" had been officially recognized: its provisions allowed a man to file a claim upon any 160 acres of land not yet opened for sale by the Federal Government and still have the first chance at the tract he claimed when surveys were made. Thereafter, if he had lived on it for six months, he could purchase the land directly from the Government at $1.25 an acre, one-quarter of the total payment being due during the first year of residence, the rest to be paid any time before it was surveyed or offered at public auction by presidential proclamation; a down payment of ten per cent would hold the title. To many people, particularly those without large amounts of money to spare, this was still out of reach, which was why the new Republican Party supported the concept of a law that would make homestead tracts free for the claiming. But, in the meantime, the law had come along just in time to make the plains attractive. Military land-bounty warrants were also used to acquire land, in part because there was no residence requirement attached to them; these had been distributed to veterans of every war since the old French ones of a hundred years ago and more, and although they hadn't become legally "assignable" till a Congressional act of '52, enterprising speculators and big land companies had been buying them up in wholesale lots since the 1770's, usually at about fifty cents to the acre, acquiring huge areas of the public domain. This scrip had been awarded on a graded basis, with higher ranks getting more of it: in the Revolutionary era the bounties typically ran from 200 to 1000 acres for privates, five to ten thousand for officers; under one system by which North Carolina veterans were to be compensated, a private was awarded 640 acres, a brigadier general 12,000. For most trading it was valued at the same price as the land, $1.25, but the price varied from eighty cents to $1.50, and it was sometimes even taken for gambling debts at a heavy discount. Other such scrip had been distributed to Indian tribes like the Sioux and Chippewa or to some halfbreeds, obtained by the states as a result of Federal swampland acts, granted to them to support common schools, or given to wagon-road and canal companies, all of which promptly turned around and sold it for operating capital. Frequently it changed hands two or three times before the land was actually claimed, but even so it was likely to be cheaper than the going government price. One way and another, the settlers acquired holdings that ranged from a mere quarter-section to 1800 acres.

Many early settlers of Kansas and Nebraska were disappointed California gold seekers or Pike's Peak '59ers who turned back and established ranches; others, themselves bound for the treasure strikes, were met by such seekers and persuaded to stop and squat in a favorable location. Some, compelled to tarry by the long sickness of a member of the family, learned the value of the country and decided to stay; or, having buried a child on the "lone prairie," couldn't bring themselves to leave the little one there alone, and decided to remain and make their home nearby. Some of these settlers confined themselves to small-scale farming, but many set up trading posts, which came to be called "road ranches," and of these in turn a goodly number sold hay, grub, and liquor to freighters and immigrants (for whose convenience they usually abutted on creekside campsites) or went into the very profitable business of exchanging sound for worn-out cattle, mules, and horses, on the basis of one road-ready beast for two footsore ones; they also picked up stock wandering loose on the range after stampedes, or bought it from the Indians. Such traders sometimes accumulated large herds of a mixture of cattle--mostly shorthorns from Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Illinois, but a considerable number of Texas longhorns trailed north to Independence and Westport, often as work oxen; those of the latter that were fertile willingly crossed with the larger, beefier Eastern animals, and their hardiness and self-sufficiency produced a get of tough, sturdy, good-sized cattle ideally suited to free-ranging life, as settlers in Oregon had likewise discovered. This traffic had been given impetus around 1852, when one Seth E. Ward, a Fort Laramie freighter, being prevented by unusually early fall storms from driving his oxen back to the Missouri River for wintering, was forced to turn them out in the Laramie Valley, hoping at least some would survive. Much to his amazement, when he went searching for them in the spring, he found that all were not only still alive, but in better shape than they'd been the winter before. Once word of this fact reached the East, the practise became widespread among all freighting concerns, owing in part to its economy: Russell, Majors & Waddell alone had wintered 15,000 head over the winter of '57-8. After stagecoaches began to ply the plains, the early settlers were very naturally approached by the line owners to furnish relay stations, since that spared the companies the expense of building such facilities a-purpose.

The boom in settlement had been ended abruptly by the Panic of 1857, though the discovery of gold around Denver kept a steady trickle of newcomers arriving. Many of the settlers, Knutson among them, were Mormons, who cannily realized that emigrants would be in the market for food and supplies as they got further west. By the '50's these people, who knew and used irrigation and efficient crop rotation, had some of the most prosperous establishments along the overland route, raising hogs, cattle, chickens, corn, wheat, and all kinds of garden truck, selling grass hay to passersby or allowing them to graze their lush fenced meadows for a fee. Others were mountain men caught by the collapse of the beaver boom; often they had done interim work guiding emigrant trains west, and observing the greenhorns' cattle becoming lame and footsore, they set out to provide replacements; frequently these had Indian wives. Most of the ranches were in pleasant spots along streams, where the softer, less equipped emigrants began to drop off too, with an animal dead, overdriven, sweenied, lamed, stolen, or too heavy with young to go on, a woman sickened in body or heart, a man very ill or crippled--or sometimes dead: though the widow was expected to soldier on and make a new home for her children, and the laws of Oregon and California provided that she could claim land in her own name once she got there, some felt that the conquest of the mountains and desert was more than they were up to facing alone. And there were also, increasingly, those who set out, from the beginning, with no real intention of going all the way, seeking only the first likely quarter- section of public domain; sometimes several of these came together. They kept close to the trails for "protection," even if it was just an occasional detachment of troops passing by, and found ready markets in gold camps and frontier forts, both of which required a steady supply of foodstuffs. With the capture and breaking of wild horses, the shipment of barrels of frozen ducks and grouse and of roasted, salted, or pickled passenger pigeons to jobbers in Omaha, Kansas City, and Chicago, and the sale of small furs, buffalo robes, and dressed deerskins, apart from the food a family could raise for itself or obtain from the land, it was possible to make a very decent living.

Under the Pre- Emption Act, the claimant had to swear that he had never obtained a pre-emption grant previously, that he didn't own over 320 acres in any other state or Territory, that his intention was not to sell the land, and that he had no commitment to transfer it to anyone else. But there was no practicable means of checking up on any of this, so abuses were common, and the vast distances which separated many claims from any government land office (even in the East) made it highly inconvenient for officials to verify that a dwelling had been constructed and the claimant was actually living on the land. Over the last couple of decades, enterprising speculators had originated a number of tricks, hiring dozens of rascals to pre-empt the land and later deed it back to them, using portable houses on wheels and even miniature foot-square houses that allowed the claimant to swear to the existence of a "twelve by twelve" dwelling. In fact there was no real legal limit to the amount of land that could be acquired. Meanwhile, settlement was spreading out from the overland routes, with cattle going from Fort Hall into what was to become western Montana since the mid-'50's. And in Nevada alone, by the time of last year's Comstock strike, several thousand farmers, ranchers, and trading-station personnel had located along the emigrant trails, while the country reaching a hundred miles or so out from the Missouri River was thickly settled.

Nettie and her husband Luke had come out in the first wave of '49ers, bringing with them five sons--Benjamin, twenty-three; Samuel, twenty-one; John, twelve; and the ten-year-old twins, Ethan and Paul--and accompanied by Luke's younger brother Caleb, his wife, and their five young ones, three boys (Cyrus, eleven; Thaddeus, six; and Nathaniel, fourteen months) and two girls (Mary, nine, and Casey, three). Most emigrants feared Indian attack beyond any other peril, but in that year not one outfit along the Oregon trail suffered it. Far more deadly was Asiatic cholera, which was very bad: late the previous year two shiploads of German immigrants, bound for New York and New Orleans respectively, had left Europe with the disease aboard, not to be discovered till they were well at sea, and by January New Orleans was panic-stricken as deaths increased, while the infection had also gotten on the riverboats and spread up the Mississippi, killing 60,000 in St. Louis alone. The '49ers carried it onto the plains, where it quickly proved a scourge. From the very first, disease had been the greatest killer of overlanders: the migration was a congested human stream, most pioneers having never before come into contact with so many people in so short a time, owing largely to the fact that the bulk of them came from farms or small towns where contact with others was limited. Parties travelled at different rates, often camping near a new group almost every night; campsites were frequently littered with the refuse, human waste, and dead draft animals of previous users; outfits heading eastward were encountered at intervals; and inevitably some excrement seeped into the streams that everyone used for drinking and cooking. In addition, the trail diet offered few greens and almost no fresh fruit, which might have fortified people against infection, and many parties, instead of letting their sick rest in some isolated, comfortable place and treating them symptomatically, pressed on out of fear or to keep a schedule. Though cholera became almost unknown after the five- or six-hundred mile mark, it killed some five thousand travellers, ten per cent of the year's total. It was especially deadly to children, whose smaller bodies dehydrated more rapidly than those of adults. Such was the fate of Thaddeus and Nathaniel Wells, and Casey and her sister missed it by inches. Their grieving parents couldn't bear to go on without them, and so they settled, and Luke and Nettie with them, but the big boys, Benjamin and Samuel, soon pressed on alone, to make their way to California and remain in intermittent contact with their kin. Luke was kicked to death by a mule in '54. Cecilia never really recovered from the deaths of her sons or adjusted to the prairie life; just before an early snowstorm in November of '55 she wandered off, and not till spring was her body discovered in the bottom of a ravine. John and his cousin Cyrus, twenty and nineteen, were set upon by a Sioux war party while out hunting in '57, killed and scalped. The following year Caleb died in a fall from the roof of the house, Ethan and Paul took out for Denver, and Mary married a neighbor's son and moved to Oregon. Only Casey, Nettie, and a neat row of seven graves in a far corner of the stockade remained of what had once been a large and close-knit family.

JD plopped down onto the main house porch and sighed deeply. The money might be good, and the Company zealous about paying its people, but he'd lived most of his life working at something or other, and he didn't like the concept of getting paid for sitting around and waiting. If they don't start the service up by end of the month, he thought, I'll resign. I'll have almost five hundred dollars by then, that ought to be enough to get me started in the diggings.

The kitchen door opened and Josiah came out. He paused, sensing someone's nearness, for a look around, and then walked over to join the young rider on the steps. "You're looking like a man with a burden, John Dunne," he said.

"I just don't like gettin' paid good money to sit around and do nothin'," JD told him. "It's okay for you, you've got your smith work, and Miz Nettie can cook for the stage people, and Vin can hunt, but what can I do? I've been thinkin' if the Company don't put the Pony back on in the next couple of weeks or so, I'll move on."

"Well, I can't say I disapprove of your honesty," the big man observed. "It's good for a man to want to give a day's work for a day's pay. Of course we'd miss you, but each person must do what his conscience bids him, that being the voice of God within him." He lifted his head and gazed toward the gate. "Nettie and I have been just been talking about taking a trip into Jamesburg."

JD looked around. "What's in Jamesburg? I mean, that Miz Nettie would want?"

"A bigger store, for one," the smith explained. "What between the supplies Company sends out, the foodstuffs we can produce for ourselves, and being able to take groceries from our shelf stock at wholesale, we don't need to go there for food, and my bar and strap iron is supplied too. But Indian trade goods are limited in quality and quantity, and there are some things the tribesmen just don't want and that aren't worth Nettie's keeping on hand. Besides, even with all the folks passing by for company, it gets lonely for her and for Casey; they know they're never going to see or hear from most of those people again. Jamesburg has a regular population, not a big one, but Nettie likes to keep in contact. She drives in a couple of times a year and stays for a few days, stocking up on whatever she needs and exchanging news."

"Great," JD muttered. "Not enough I gotta be bored half to death, now Nettie and Casey are gonna be away from home for who knows how long. And I guess you too, huh?"

"Yes, there are a few things I'd like to look for. But you don't have to stay here if you don't want to. The westbound stage is due in this evening; if there's no bulletin on it from Company about restoring the Pony, Nettie thought you might like to ride along, and she hopes Vin too, just in case of Sioux. With the big buckboard we can make the trip in a day and bring back as much as a ton of goods."

JD's interest was immediately engaged. So far he'd seen nothing of Jamesburg but a quick in-and-out impression as he changed horses there, but he'd heard enough about the reputation of the place to grasp eagerly at the opportunity to find out if it was deserved. Besides, if he did end up moving on, he didn't want to go without leaving the people who'd been so good to him some presents to remember him by, and he certainly had money enough to get them. "I'd like that fine," he said. "When does she figure to leave?"

"First thing tomorrow morning. That will give us a minimum of two days in the settlement before we have to come back to be here for the westbound-- not that Ned and the boys couldn't scrape some sort of meal together for it, if they had to. Are you with us?"

"You bet!" JD jumped to his feet. "I better oil up my sixguns. They say Jamesburg is a tough place, I don't want anybody catchin' me unprepared."

Josiah chuckled. "I don't think you really have to worry, but if it makes you feel better and gives you something to do with your hands, go ahead."


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