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Was, Is, and Will Be
It was hope undid them. Hope, and the certainty that Providence had made them suffer enough for their dreams. They'd lost so much already along the trailchildren, healers, leaders, all takensurely, they reasoned, God would preserve them from further loss, and reward their griefs and hardships with deliverance into a place of plenty.
When the first signs of the blizzard had appearedclouds that had dwarfed the thunderheads of Wyoming rising behind the peaks ahead, slivers of ice in the windthey had said to each other: This is the final test. If we turn back now, intimidated by cloud and ice, then all those we buried along the way will have died for nothing; their suffering and ours will have been for nothing. We must go on. Now more than ever we must have faith in the dream of the West. After all, they told each other, it's only the first week of October. Maybe we'll see a flurry or two as we climb, but by the time the winter sets in we'll be over the mountains and down the other side, in the midst of sweet meadows.
On then; on, for the sake of the dream.
Now it was too late to turn back. Even if the snows that had descended in the last week had not sealed the pass behind the pioneers, the horses were too malnourished and too weakened by the climb to haul the wagons back through the mountains. The travelers had no choice but to go forward, though they had long since lost any sense of their whereabouts and were journeying blind in a whiteness as utter as any black midnight.
Sometimes the wind would shred the clouds for a moment, but there was no sign of sky or sun.Only another pitiless peak rising between them and the promised land, snow driven from its summit in a slow plume, then drooping, and descending upon the slopes where they would have to venture if they were to survive.
Hope was small now; and smaller by the day. Of the eighty-three optimistic souls who had departed Independence, Missouri, in the spring of 1848 (this sum swelled by six births along the way), thirty-one remained alive. During the first three months of the journey, through Kansas, into Nebraska, then across 487 miles of Wyoming, there had been only six fatalities. Three lost in a drowning accident; two wandered off and believed killed by Indians; one hanged by her own hand from a tree. But with the heat of summer, sicknesses abounded, and the trials of the journey began to take their toll. The very young and the very old had perished first, sickened by bad water or bad meat. Men and women who had been in the prime of their lives five or six months before, hardy, brave, and ripe, became withered and wretched as the food stocks dwindled, and the land, which they had been told would supply them with all manner of game and fruit, failed to provide the promised bounty. Men would leave the wagon train for days at a time in search of food, only to return hollow-eyed and empty-handed. It was therefore in an already much weakened state that the travelers faced the cold, and its effect had proved calamitous. Forty-seven individuals had perished in the space of three weeks, dispatched by frost, snow, exhaustion, starvation, and hopelessness.
It had fallen to Herman Deale, who was the closest the survivors had to a physician since the death of Doc Hodder, to keep an account of these deaths. When they reached Oregon, the glad land in the West, he had told the survivors they would together pray for the departed, and pay due respects to each and every soul whose passing he had set down in his journal. Until that happy time, the living were not to concern themselves overmuch with the dead. They had gone into the warmth and comfort of God's Bosom and would not blame those who buried them for the shallowness of their graves, or the brevity of the prayers said over them.
"We will speak of them lovingly," Deale had declared, "when we have a little breath to spare."
The day after making this promise to the deceased, he had joined their number, his body giving out as they ploughed through a snowfield. His corpse remained unburied, at least by human hand. The snow was coming down so thickly that by the time his few provisions had been divided up among the remaining travelers, his body had disappeared from sight.
That night, Evan Babcock and his wife, Alice, both perished in their sleep, and Mary Willcocks, who had outlived all five of her children, and seen her husband wither and die from grief, succumbed with a sob that was still ringing off the mountain-face after the tired heart that had issued it was stilled.
Daylight came, but it brought no solace. The snowfall was as heavy as ever. Nor was there now a single crack in the clouds to show the pioneers what lay ahead. They went with heads bowed, too weary to speak, much less sing, as they had sung in the blithe months of May and June, raising hosannas to the heavens for the glory of this adventure.
A few of them prayed in silence, asking God for the strength to survive. And some, perhaps, made promises in their prayers, that if they were granted that strength, and came through this white wilderness to a green place, their gratitude would be unbounded, and they would testify to the end of their lives that for all the sorrows of this life, no man should turn from God, for God was hope, and Everlasting.
At the beginning of the journey west there had been a total of thirty-two children in the caravan. Now there was only one. Her name was Maeve O'Connell; a plain twelve-year-old whose thin body belied…