What if Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were unknowingly...


(Variation Two)

by Sevenstars

Old West Alternate Universe

They had a full $2000 in cash, five heavy wagons, forty-two oxen, three cows in fresh milk and three heifers which would be cows next spring, several horses including a span of good wagon animals, and a pony. Six yoke of the oxen were hitched to a double wagon, leaving thirty of the animals to haul the remaining four. The wagon train they joined had more than 2000 people in it, including over 1000 children, more than a hundred babes in arms, and better than fifty marriageable girls.
Oh, what will you leave your father, my son?
What will you leave him, oh my pretty one?
My wagon and oxen, mother,
My wagon and oxen, mother.
Make my bed soon for I'm sick to my heart
And I fain would lie down...

Ma led the procession in the buggy, driving lean, sure-footed Sam, with Jenny and Mary beside her; the double wagon followed with pots and kettles jangling underneath it, cheese roasters, bread toasters, and Dutch ovens clattering above the squeaking wheels. The sides were walled up with bedsteads and Chris and his little brother John perched on bundles of bedding when they weren't taking turns riding their pony or running alongside picking up chips for fuel. A young sow and her pigs went along too, in a leather belly hung under the wagon. Pa walked alongside to guide the oxen, eldest son Martin had charge of the second wagon, and the hired men took the remaining two. The three oldest girls often rode horseback, holding parasols above their heads.

The trail to Fort Laramie was the easier stretch of the journey, the route well watered, the grade gradual, without stony climbs or alkali deserts to parch the throat and burn the eyes, or mountain snow winds. Yet the trip West was no place for a fragile lady. Women had to be ingenious, healthy, and strong; all the guidebooks agreed that they could expect to eat twice as much as they did at home and anticipate being "subjected to continued and regular exercise, in the open air, which gives additional vigor and strength." Ma dressed neatly, as she would have done at home, in a blue travelling dress with white collar and cuffs, rather than homespun, linsey, or calico, and clung steadfastly to ribbons and bows, starched white aprons and petticoats, even though the dress of the Indian women they occasionally saw was both chaste and practical. She fixed little pockets in the wagon cover to hold small items like mirrors, combs, and brushes; she laid a rag carpet to keep the floor of the tent snug at night. The limited number of cooking utensils presented culinary challenges, but she met them head-on. She used a reflector oven to bake bread and biscuits and potatoes; she was an expert in the use of the Dutch oven, and she served hot biscuits, cornbread, and roast meats done to a turn. She rolled out her pie dough on the wagon seat beside her as they travelled. Occasionally there were special treats: fresh doughnuts, red and white currants covered with sugar, fresh onion soup made from onions grown by a ferryman, a pie made from blueberries the children had picked, trout the boys had caught in the river. A good pickle could be made of the so-called prairie pea. Raspberries and gooseberries grew in profusion and made a tasty tart; grapes and wild plums were to be had for the picking; plates were piled high with buffalo, elk, antelope, deer, and wild fowl. There was time to pick the strange and lovely prairie flowers, to rock babies, play games with the children, knit and sew. During the day she and the other women visited from wagon to wagon, exchanging recipes, knitting and crocheting, or talking of their home life "back in the States," the loved ones left behind, and their hopes for the future. They cooked together and went swimming. The trip was difficult, but, as Ma said, a well-born and -bred American woman was inevitably endowed with the courage of her brave pioneer ancestors, and no matter what the environment she could adapt herself to all situations that women reared in other lands would fear to follow.

What will you leave your mother, my son?
What will you leave her, oh my pretty one?
My house and my lands, mother,
My house and my lands, mother.
Make my bed soon for I'm sick to my heart
And I fain would lie down...

They reached Independence Rock right on optimum schedule, in time for the Fourth of July, and paused, as the custom was, to celebrate the holiday in company with the other wagon trains doing likewise. It was during this layover that Ma took the four youngest children off exploring, and while they were chipping their names in the Rock and looking for wildflowers she fell afoul of a rattlesnake--or, perhaps more to the point, the snake fell, literally, afoul of her: after she was found, the Larabees' trail guide opined that, liking rock overhangs and rocky flats as all sorts of snakes do, it had dropped out right down onto her shoulders. When you're bitten in the neck there isn't much anyone can do.

Many a westering family of the day ended its journey partway, sometimes because wagons or livestock couldn't go any further, sometimes because an adult (usually a woman) had sickened in heart or body, sometimes because they couldn't bear to abandon the grave of a lost member, most often a child. It was these who first proved that the plains weren't a "Great American Desert" after all, but could be farmed and were perfectly suited to livestock. But Pa was convinced that Ma would want them to go on as they had planned. "It's only her body we're leaving here," he told his children. "Her soul is free, and her memory will live on in our hearts for as long as any of us lives. She dreamed of Oregon too. To give up now would be to betray what she hoped for all of us." And so they left her buried in the shade of the Rock and went on, and in time came to their goal and set to work making a home.

Oregon being not yet officially entered into the Union, all American families there assigned themselves 640 acres each. The later Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 would permit each settler of before that year (Josh Larabee naturally included) to pre-empt 320 of those acres, with as much again for his wife in her own name if he was married, and settlers incoming between December 1, 1850, and December 1, 1853, to take one-half that. Because Martin was legally of age, he and his father between them laid claim to 1280 and worked them together. Soon Virginia and Lucy married the family's two hired men and their husbands staked out farms of their own close by. Sixteen-year-old Grace took care of the house and the younger children, with help from the hired girl until Martin married her. Trees were plentiful and it was easy to find timber enough to make solid, comfortable cabins. Rain fell regularly and in abundance, and crops grew with abandon. It was easy to become prosperous as a Willamette farmer.

Food was seldom a problem at any season, for while Pa and Martin were usually busy with farm work or off taking paying jobs, the "middle boys," Jim and later Chris, had guns, some marksmanship, and the patience to move upon their game, perhaps on their bellies into the wind: antelope on the prairie, deer in a canyon or a buckbrush patch, an occasional bighorn sheep in the lower hills, elk in the breaks, wild turkey, grouse, mallards and brants and geese around the lakes and marshes and at the streams, the peculiar long-eared high-rumped hare their trail guide had called a "jackass rabbit" (abbreviated by the ladies to simply jackrabbit), California quail or cottontail rabbits that were delicious hot from the frying pan with soda biscuits and red gravy. October brought a clouding of migratory flocks: several varieties of geese lordly in their honking V's among the curious winding flight of the sandhill cranes and the swiftly veering ducks. With a gun, powder and lead, and a bullet mold a man could provide his family with meats to be envied by a king. The boys and even Grace learned to snare or trap grouse with string, and catch rabbits in deadfalls or twist them out of their holes with a doubled length of wire armed with a few hooks. There were wild fruits in plenty in the brush along the streams: small oval bluish-orange plums, shiny mouth-puckering black chokecherries, clusters of tiny purple grapes, low-growing wild strawberries, salmon-, elder-, huckle-, and blackberries, black-caps and salal, and in the shortgrass uplands buffalo berries. In open areas grew many tasty and nutritious weeds as well--sheep sorrel, dandelion, pokeberry, wild lettuce, wild asparagus, and the popular purslane and pigweed, all free for the picking. Lamb's quarter, wild everywhere, made a tasty spring dish, particularly when served with homemade vinegar from the wild fruits--flowering currant, plum, or grape --started with mother of vinegar carried west in a bottle. From the countryside, the bays, the rivers they took oysters, clams, salmon, trout.

As soon as a habitable house was made, Pa's first thought was to lay out a garden and plant the vegetable seeds they had brought from home: beans, peas, squash, pumpkins, turnips, cabbage, white and sweet potatoes, beets, and of course corn. He had brought with him some dwarf fruit trees, which would bear early, and also he got some larger ones. He tried to fix up a pen for the chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese which would keep out the coyotes, who were attracted to fine sweet watermelons as well as to dominecker pullets; the best protection against them was an alert mongrel shepherd dog or a boy armed with the delight of his life, an old shotgun, even if it kicked as hard backward as forward. He raised a pigpen--far enough from the house so it would not offend their nostrils, near enough to discourage marauding bears from stealing the pigs--and so gave himself the promise of pork. He grazed beef cattle, horses and oxen and sheep; he cultivated wheat, hops, vegetables, and fruit. A small but growing herd of dairy cows provided milk and butter. They learned the Indian way of "jerking" meat, preserving it even in the summer heat. Jerked meat kept for months and was good with a touch of prairie onion or garlic in the boiling kettle, or lifted out and marinated in spices and wild-grape vinegar for pot roasting; with vegetables it made an excellent boiled dinner or pie. All in all, they ate well.

Winters they could take wolves, coyotes, striped and spotted skunk, badger, short- and long-tailed ermine and fox for their furs. There were otters, some beaver and a quantity of mink along the streams, and always muskrats by the thousands in the lakes and marshes. The children served as running scarecrows against birds and deer, and learned the flying and feeding habits of grouse, partridges, quail, pigeons, cowlinks, and shrikes. They learned the colors of thrushes, curlews, finches, and swallows, and the blooming sequences of wild roses, lupines, phlox, shooting stars, and other wildflowers. They explored the low grass-covered hills, the rockier knobs and buttes, and the white river cliffs full of fossils. One of their favorite "thinking spots" was Indian Hill, rich with arrowheads and dotted with the ashpits of old signal fires. Long-stemmed yellow sweet William and wild pink geranium grew in abundance on the plowed fireguards; the big waxen golden blooms of the pear cactus and the pink ones of the cushion cactus were like nothing they had seen before. Almost without realizing it, they came to know every weed, every curious flower, indeed every living thing big enough to be seen from the back of a horse, and enjoyed it all too, even the boys, without so much as calling it beautiful.

From the first there were diversions: house-raisings; church, Sunday-school picnics, prayer meetings and play-parties if feet were "Methodist;" sorghum boilings, taffy pulls, and walnutting in the fall, after the berrying and the plum, chokecherry, and grape gatherings were over; in winter pie and basket suppers, literaries with spelldowns and debates, shivarees for newlyweds, and feather strippings where goose, duck, and chicken feathers were separated from their stiff and prickly quills. There were church festivals, fish fries, camp meetings, debates at the schoolhouse, temperance lectures, spelling matches, and fiddling contests where the fiddlers did their best to win a set of harness, a whip, or a five-dollar gold piece. Occasionally there was a political orator. Quarter horses were raced for money and pride. As soon as there were three people in a community, political gatherings started, and later meetings to organize schools, churches, and counties. All country youths knew the pleasures of nutting along the wooded creeks, of going camping, of hunting rabbit and quail over the snowy fields, and of box suppers in the country schoolhouse. The Fourth, the circus, and the county fair provided the great festivals of the year. There were gay dances to "Money Musk," "Napoleon's March," and "The Devil's Dream," and revivals by itinerant exhorters. Baseball nines sprang up. Life was by no means unrelieved drudgery. Farmers added ells to their houses and painted their barns; in a surprisingly short time they were discarding overalls for broadcloth, buying pianos and organs and ingrain carpets for their wives, silks and satins for their daughters, blooded horses and spring wagons or fancy phaetons for their sons, even taking their families on trips abroad.

Oh, what will you leave your brother, my son?
What will you leave him, my pretty one?
My horn and my hounds, mother,
My horn and my hounds, mother.
Make my bed soon for I'm sick to my heart
And I fain would lie down...

In 1850, Chris's sister Grace, now twenty, took to herself a husband who had waited almost two years for her consent, and once he had it determined to join many another Oregon settler in the goldfields of California. Twelve-year-old Chris, weary of farm chores, asked to go with them. A year and a half later word reached them that their father had resolved to marry again. The bride he chose was Emma Rose Gibbs, the daughter of a family of prosperous Missouri farmers who, in 1849, determined to rid themselves of their seventeen slaves and remove to the Willamette Valley. Like the Larabees, the Gibbses were Cumberland Presbyterians, which was how Josh had met her. They didn't accept the Westminster Confession touching predestination and infant damnation, and preferred to hear of the work of the spirit. Their preacher didn't assail his hearers with fear, or judge those who hadn't come into church. He spoke rather of mourning man who could find consolation in the tenderness of Christ. There was no ritual of salvation, no creed except to believe in Jesus as the Savior. They read the Psalms and the poetry of the Bible, sang the hymns of Watts and those perennial Methodist favorites the Wesleys. Like primitive Christians they stood for moral virtue and good will as the means of accomplishing what they regarded as the supreme object of life, the eternal salvation of the soul. Truth-telling, honest dealing, neighborly kindness were their religion, and they were for the most part gentle, devout people with an abiding belief in Christ's teachings and the all-encompassing love of a heavenly Father. They saw no harm in dancing (hadn't David danced before the Ark?) or drinking in moderation (Christ had served wine at the Last Supper, after all, and for His first miracle had actually transformed water into wine) or tobacco or playing cards, theater or novels (the Bible hadn't one word to say about them).

Josh at this time was sixty-five but worked and behaved like a man fifteen years younger. He had only three children remaining at home: Jenny and Mary, who were going on sixteen, and John, who was ten. Emma Rose was twenty. Her father, Columbus Gibbs (more generally known as Lom), was a Kentuckian by birth and had eight young besides herself, including three rising sons in their middle and early teens. He had foreseen the war that was to come and hoped, by his wisdom in emigrating, to make it possible for his boys to avoid its terrible slaughter. Chris, Grace, and Grace's husband Tom were unable to make it back to Oregon for the wedding, but they sent presents and good wishes. Not until Chris was eighteen would he find the opportunity to go "home" for a visit and really meet his stepmother, by which time she had already presented Josh with a son.

Unfortunately for the hopes of Lom Gibbs, Josh Larabee, and many another Oregon emigrant, it proved impossible to leave sectional disputes behind at the Missouri River crossings. Like most Northerners, Josh would have been content to put the entire question of slavery into a deep freeze and let the nation abide by the great compromises of 1820 and 1850. But a moral issue as volatile as this one couldn't be stabilized and fixed for all time. Not only would the fugitive slave and the abolitionist Congregational minister keep the issue alive, but the ordinary American--especially the Midwestern farmer--in seeking further territorial expansion and a transcontinental railroad, would serve as an agent of agitation for a continuing controversy over slavery. Like an evil incubus, the issue lay on top of and penetrated every issue of national importance from 1846 to 1861. Any proposal to dredge the Mississippi River channel, to build a railroad across the Great Plains, to open the trans-Missouri lands to white settlers, or even to offer the nation's thanks to the victorious general who had stormed the heights of Chapulpetec must be confronted with the leering visage of slavery. Escape was an impossibility, though many continued to cling to the illusion of it until the last possible moment.

That moment finally arrived in 1854, when Senator Stephen A. Douglas reported from the Committee on the Territories a measure for the organization of the Nebraska Territory. This lay both wholly within the Louisiana Purchase and above the Missouri Compromise line, and thus slavery was prohibited there by the terms of the latter document. Southerners had voted down previous bills for its organization for that very reason. Douglas was under pressure from his constituents to resolve the stalemate and so increase the odds for a proposed transcontinental railroad routed across the northern plains. Now, in language copied from the Compromise of 1850, his bill declared that when Nebraska was ready for statehood it would be accepted into the Union as the inhabitants decided--with or without slavery. There followed a complicated series of political maneuvers, culminating in an amendment introduced by Senator Dixon of Kentucky which explicitly repealed the Missouri Compromise. Douglas had wished to avoid so direct a statement, but he reluctantly accepted it, and pressured President Pierce into backing it as well. Early in March, after acrimonious debate, the bill passed the Senate by a majority of 37-14. It faced tougher sledding in the House, but finally was approved there by the narrow margin of 113-100. It opened those territories to slavery, reversing the policy that had been followed ever since Jefferson established the principle that slavery should be prohibited in new territories. Its suggestion of squatter sovereignty appealed to Southerners, who saw an opportunity to extend the institution into heretofore forbidden territory. When they suggested that Douglas's measure provide for two new territories, Nebraska and Kansas, he readily agreed. Implicit in the discussions was the double intention that Nebraska would be organized by free-soilers and Kansas settled by slaveholders.

Douglas was a national character, mighty in politics, invulnerable in the armor of his oratory. Far and wide he was known as "The Little Giant." Those he failed to conquer with his logic were impressed by his person, or perhaps more accurately his personality. He was also a gentleman, a strong man, and a patriot. He was magnanimous. He put down the mightiest thing that was in him--his ambition for himself--and set up in its place his ambition for his country, and on a day before the Capitol in 1861, he was to hold his rival's hat while Lincoln took the oath of office that he had hoped to take. He declared that slavery had been nationalized by the Constitution, and therefore it was unconstitutional to prevent the extension of slavery if the territories wished it. He was a convinced believer in democratic self-determination for the territories, and he looked with distrust on the centralized power, assumed by Congress in the Missouri Compromise, of scrutinizing and even dictating the provisions of the constitutions of would-be states applying for admission to the Union. But his proposal aroused the opposition of the North and gave the abolitionists and other social and political radicals, like Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, a welcome excuse for pouring fresh fuel on the fires of abolitionism. Even though the charge was without foundation, these were suspicious of a sinister slave power trying to dominate the Union. They weren't about to accept the reversal of the long-standing Missouri Compromise and allow slaveholders to dominate Kansas Territory simply because Southerners assumed that Kansas was to be slave. Bitter debate followed, out of which arose a notion, widely accepted in the North, that popular sovereignty meant a race between free-soil and slaveholding settlers for control of Kansas. Victory would belong to the side that was there first with the most. Indeed it seemed that this was to be the case, for opposing factions rushed to settle Kansas, and a bloody civil war followed.

Josh Larabee had no ideas about the larger issues of slavery. But the tradition he inherited and his natural instincts were "ag'in' " it. He had got along pretty well in York State without slaves. He had made his way in Indiana and Oregon the same. He saw no need for a race in bondage. Using his own hands to build and expand his estate by himself was more satisfying. As for his new father-in-law, Lom Gibbs was no Abolitionist. He'd owned slaves himself, a goodly number in fact. But neither was he a convinced and committed pro-slavery man. What he did believe, very strongly, was that the Union was a compact freely arrived at between the several sovereign States, that each new State as it entered the Union became at once possessed of the same rights which had been owned by the original thirteen, and that the Federal government had no right to meddle with the internal affairs of any state or the private lives of its citizens. Washington existed to provide an army and navy and a postal service, to regulate interstate commerce and affairs, and to deal with foreign countries. Everything else was to be taken care of by the states and their people. Emma Rose, like her brothers, had grown up absorbing these sentiments with the food she ate and the air she breathed. Of course she couldn't vote, but like many another woman she saw no let or hindrance to the notion of making her opinions known at home and trying to influence her husband into sharing them. Josh was truly fond of her--perhaps even a bit besotted, as old husbands are often likely to be with young, pretty wives--and never raised his hand to her, but he was, as he said, "too blamed old of a leopard to change my spots now." The result was that within a couple of years the marriage had become most wondrously turbulent.


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