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Answer Creek: A Novel

Answer Creek: A Novel

by Ashley E. Sweeney


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From the award-winning author of Eliza Waite comes a gripping tale of adventure and survival based on the true story of the ill-fated Donner Party on their 2,200-mile trek on the Oregon–California Trail from 1846 to ’47.

Nineteen-year-old Ada Weeks confronts danger and calamity along the hazard-filled journey to California. After a fateful decision that delays the overlanders more than a month, she—along with eighty-one other members of the Donner Party—finds herself stranded at Truckee Lake on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, stuck there for the entirety of a despairing, blizzard-filled winter. Forced to eat shoe leather and blankets to survive, will Ada be able to battle the elements—and her own demons—as she envisions a new life in California?

Researched with impeccable detail and filled with imagery as wide as the western prairie, Answer Creek blends history and hearsay in an unforgettable story of challenging the limits of human endurance and experiencing the triumphant power of love.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781631528446
Publisher: She Writes Press
Publication date: 05/19/2020
Pages: 344
Sales rank: 746,702
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Ashley E. Sweeney is the winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for her debut novel, Eliza Waite. A native New Yorker, she is a graduate of Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, and resides in the Pacific Northwest and Tucson. Answer Creek is her second novel.

Read an Excerpt



May 31, 1846

Big Blue River, Indian Territory

From sundown to sun up, the Big Blue River thunders through the night. Torrents of debris twist and collide as the river races downstream: upended roots, splintered boards, trees the size of an ox. Guards posted at the river’s edge swing lanterns, measuring the river’s depth at thirty-minute intervals with mud-coated poles. By dawn, the Big Blue subsides eighteen inches.

The Russell Party, a day delayed because of high water, wakes to bugle call. It’s a rush of oxen and horses and mules and milch cows to get the wagon train across—a cold hitch, they call it, fording a river before coffee or bacon or beans.

“Steady, now,” Ada murmurs. Her jittery mules whimper as she leads them toward the roiling river. Wet to the knee, skirt plastered to her calves and ankles, she goads Rosie and Bert onto the rough-and-ready rope ferry. The air is oppressive and there’s no hint of wind. Ada wipes sweat from her forehead. I just want to get to the other side.

The angry river still flows at twice its normal rate. Root balls and branches bob and heave in the foam. Carcasses of deer—their antlers reaching out of the water like ghastly arms—pitch and roll in turbulent water. Ada plugs her nose. The river smells of ruin.

After the risky pull across, the sullen ferryman dislodges passengers to return for the next set of wagons. Ada waits there on the steep, muddied riverbank for Augustus and Inger Vik to ferry across. They’re still three wagons back on the opposite side, biding their time with a yoke of travel-weary oxen.

Inger’ll be grousin’, Ada thinks. Like she does about everythin’.

Ada strokes her mules. Her stomach grumbles—it’s near noon, for God’s sake, and no one’s eaten yet today. Minutes later, Ada squints toward the eastern bank. Can it be? Sure as salt, it’s the Viks, passing wagons waiting their turn for conveyance. They plow into the Big Blue like marauders.

Are they plum crazy? Ada isn’t sure if they’re impatient or frugal, or both. But the river’s running too fast, and anyone with eyes in their damned heads can see it’s still choked with debris. No wagon can expect to ford the Big Blue River today without assistance.

“Wait for the ferry!” Ada roars, her arms waving wildly. Her words dissipate in humid air that hangs, heavy and full, like a thick bedspread that covers the vast, treeless prairie.

“Haw!” Augustus Vik yells, as he whips his yoke of oxen. The oxen’s bellies disappear in swirling water as Vik attempts to dodge oncoming wreckage. Inger Vik holds tight to the splintered wagon seat, her mouth set like a rattrap. The oxen lose their footing, and their massive, long-horned heads plunge below the river’s dark surface.

Clutches of reeds slide around the Vik’s wagon, but leafy branches cluster and mount against sideboards, unable to dive beneath. When the wagon is a quarter way across the swollen river, Augustus Vik swerves to avoid a gnarled root ball barreling downstream.

“Herregud!” His wife’s piercing cry carries across the muddy ribbon of water.

Vik grimaces, pulls tight on the reins. In the chaos of managing oxen and detritus and screams—and with what he himself would have termed rotten luck—Augustus Vik mistakes a tree bowling down the middle of the Big Blue for a dark shadow on the face of the river.

Ada gasps. She can’t form any words that resemble prayer, so she’s left to watch and worry.

“To the left!” someone yells from the near shore.

Too late, Vik cannot change course mid-stream when the trunk is upon him.

“Mamma! Pappa!” Ada screams. Seconds slow to hours as the monstrosity broadsides the wagon. Even above the whoosh of the river, Ada hears desperate bellowing as oxen thrash in their futile attempt to right themselves. Tree, wagon, and oxen entangle and spin, and then the wagon rolls, driven by the river into deeper water.

“Quick, man,” one of the teamsters yells. Ada can’t recall if his name is Foley or Dolan or Moran. Panicked men run down the banks after the Viks.

“You, on the ferry, take us back across. We’ll pay your damn fee,” another teamster hollers.

Ada stands, rooted like an oak, eyes wide and wider, dry and dryer, until everything blurs.

In what could have been two minutes or two hours, Ada feels a gentle tug on her arm. It’s Margaret Breen, a stout Irishwoman in the Russell Party. “This way, Ada. Come and sit. There’s nothing to be done standing there. I’ve got coffee on.”

“My mules . . .”

“Edward! Now!” Mrs. Breen yells to one of her sons as she leads Ada to a three-legged campstool. Rosie and Bert follow the Breen boy to a shaded spot away from camp.

Ada sips black coffee and waits. And waits. “My mamma always says: ‘Our vays are da best vays, Ah-dah.’” Ada does her best imitation of Inger’s Norwegian. “I’m not so sure of that now.”

“Don’t give up hope,” Mrs. Breen says. “St. Jude is always with us.”

Edward Breen ambles into camp and loiters by the campfire. Ada estimates he’s twelve or thirteen: all arms and legs and fine-looking, like his Black Irish brothers.

“You got a notion why your folks didn’t wait?” Edward asks.

“Enough!” his mother scolds. “Give the girl her peace.”

“Hell bent for leather, I guess,” Ada answers. “I got no other idea.” She looks down, shakes her head. “Our vays are da best vays.” She eats what’s offered, and thankfully (she’d eat anything, she’s that hungry). She mops up juices with a heel of bread.

“Thanks for the fixin’s, ma’am.” Ada hands Mrs. Breen her plate and holds out her mug.

“More?” Ma Breen asks.

Ada nods. By now, she’s downed seven cups of strong, bitter coffee.

At nightfall, the Breen’s teamster strides into camp. “They’re gone, I’m afraid.”

“What do you mean, gone? Where have they gone to?” Ada asks.

“Scoured both banks of the river,” the Irish teamster reports. “Found the . . .”

“You found them?” Ada sits forward on the stool, her eyes crazed.

“No, miss. Found the wagon about a half-mile downstream snagged on a sandbar.” He accepts coffee from Mrs. Breen and nods his thanks. “Wagon was half above water, on its side, tangled with that giant of a tree,” he continues. “Sorry to say the oxen were still snarled in their harnesses. We put them out of their misery.”

“But what about my pappa? And my mamma?”

“Couldn’t get to the wagon, miss—water’s way too high. We called and called, but got no answer. Maybe got knotted in the bonnet. Or pinned underneath. Might never know.”

Ada drops her head into her hands and rocks back and forth. Mamma. Pappa.

“Even went another two miles downstream, Baylis Williams and Milt Elliott and me,” the teamster continues. “But all we recovered was this.” He hands Ada a soggy blanket. “Wish I had better news.”

Every minute or two, Ada cranes her neck and checks the riverbank, as if, by some miracle of St. Jude, Augustus will lumber up the bank with Inger in tow. After all, they had survived a harrowing ocean voyage from Norway as newlyweds (Ada had heard the story countless times). Surely they can survive this unremarkable river, she thinks. But all she sees is debris—and more debris—careening down the Big Blue on its race toward the Missouri.

The next morning, Patrick Breen cobbles together a small wooden cross with wagon slats and twine. He pounds it into a high spot on the riverbank near the place the Viks disappeared. Ada stands by the cross, a slight breeze rustling her red wool skirt. There’s no time to waste. They’d buried old Mrs. Keyes a couple of nights ago and moved on in the morning.

Ada sweeps clutches of dark brown hair from her face and casts her eyes down. Ordinarily, emigrants don’t leave grave markers along the Oregon-California Trail. Instead, they trample over gravesites and leave no trace; it’s the only way to ensure the dead aren’t defiled. If grave robbers seek to despoil this gravesite, they’ll come up woefully empty. There are no bodies buried beneath. Ada dribbles a handful of dirt over the phantom graves. “Gud velsigne deg, ha det bra,” she whispers. God bless you, goodbye.

Ada accepts condolences, a piece of cake, more black coffee. She’s nineteen and stripped bare: no parents, no wagon, no oxen. She’s hardly skilled at driving mules, nor does she have funds enough to hire a mule driver. And tomorrow, wagons roll again, no rest for man or beast. All she’s left with are a hotchpotch of supplies buried in two mule packs.

What of her oversized trunks heavy with clothing and commodities? And food enough for the five-month journey? Gone are sacks of flour, barrels of bacon. Cornmeal and pickles, coffee and tea. Guns and powder and lead and flint. Choke chains and ground cloths. Laudanum and bandages. Seeds and starts, boxed in Indiana soil, and books on animal husbandry. In short, everything she and her mamma and pappa jam-packed into their wagon when they forked over one thousand dollars, pulled up stakes, and banked that this train of hope would deliver them to the Promised Land.

Paltry offerings straggle in the next morning: an extra trunk (missing its lock), two wool skirts (colorless), a handful of rags (thank goodness for rags). Ada doesn’t know what she’ll do with a trunk; after all, she doesn’t have a wagon, or anything to fill it with. What she pines for most is a new pair of boots, but there are none to spare. She’ll have to tie her flapping soles together with odd bits of string, whether she goes forward to California or turns back to Indiana.

But why would Ada go back? Noblesville, Indiana, is the gateway to nowhere. She has no sisters or brothers, no aunts or uncles to take her in. And what would she do there anyway, an orphan with no connections? Take a room? Apply as a teacher? Work as a clerk? No, she’ll press on toward California and take her chances there.

“Could use your help,” Margaret Breen says. “Got six rambunctious boys and the babe. Travel with us, we’ll see to your rations.”

Ada nods. It’s as much of an assent as she’s able to offer.

“Father, heft up Miss Weeks’s trunk.”

Patrick Breen grunts and heaves the chest into his wagon. The Breen’s teamster hands Ada a long rifle. “The way I see, it, a girl traveling alone’s got to have a good piece,” he says. He tips his grubby hat. “Name’s Dolan, Pat Dolan.”

“I’m obliged,” Ada says. Dolan. “What do I owe you?”

“No need to pay, miss,” Dolan says. “Here, take it.”

Ada takes the heavy Hawken in her rough hands. She’s never shot a rifle before, but no one needs to know that.

“Wait. Don’t have any use for these.” Ada reaches into Bert’s pack and pulls out a pair of worsted wool trousers, a blousy shirt, galluses, socks, and a handful of handkerchiefs. “Belonged to my pappa,” she says. She bites her lip. “In case he had to go on ahead for any reason.” Before she hands the bundle to Dolan, she shoves one of the hankies in her apron pocket.

Later that evening, after more salt pork and beans and dry bread and coffee, Ada spools out her bedroll under the Breen’s wagon and extracts Augustus’s handkerchief from its dark hiding place. She fingers the large embroidered V stitched onto the corner. Before they left Noblesville, Inger Vik sewed their initials onto all their clothing. Maybe it was her way of ensuring posterity. Maybe it was nervous habit. Either way, it’s all Ada has left of her pappa. She presses the hanky up to her nose. It smells of tobacco and turpentine.

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