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Wagons West OREGON!
By Dana Fuller Ross
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 1980 Book Creations, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMartin Van Buren, eighth President of the United States, stared gloomily out of his office window. The glorious spring weather of Washington City was perversely responsible for his sour mood. Daffodils were blooming in the garden, the grass was a fresh, green carpet, and the White House itself was dazzling in the bright sunlight. A fresh coat of paint hid the last of the scars made a quarter of a century earlier when-during the War of 1812-British invaders had tried to burn down the building.
"Every morning as I look out there," he said, waving a pudgy hand, "I can't help wondering how soon spring will come to the Rocky Mountains, how soon our wagon train can resume its journey to Oregon."
Major General Winfield Scott, the army's dashing Deputy Chief of Staff, was beginning to acquire presidential aspirations of his own, but nevertheless he felt sorry for his superior. Walking in the footsteps of the enormously popular Andrew Jackson, Van Buren had been suffering the burden of an unexpected, severe financial depression. In addition, the expedition to Oregon was a constant source of concern to him. "The last letter we had from our representative, Colonel Blake, said the severe winter weather was beginning to moderate," Scott responded. "So I'd guess the wagon train is either on the move again or soon will be."
"It can't be soon enough," Van Buren grumbled. "It's essential to our national future that we establish a firm claim to the Oregon country without delay. A second train is already heading toward Independence, Missouri, from the eastern states, and a third is being organized."
"I'll grant you it will be a catastrophe if the first train doesn't reach the Pacific and if our settlers fail to set up their farms and a town, Mr. President," the General replied. "But there's no cause for despair. Lieutenant Colonel Blake is highly competent, and so is the train's guide, Whip Holt. The man they elected as their president, Ernst von Thalman, is also an able executive. They've survived Indian attacks, floods, sabotage, and God knows what. So, I'm confident they'll reach Oregon."
"There are developments since I last saw you, Scott, that make me apprehensive."
"Our legation in London reports on excellent authority that Great Britain is in the process of strengthening her garrison at Fort Vancouver, her port near the mouth of the Columbia River. Please keep in mind that the British claim to Oregon may be as valid as our own. The nation that takes the greater amount of land-and holds it, developing it rapidly and successfully-will make that claim real."
"Are you asking me for a recommendation, Mr. President?"
"I am," Van Buren said.
"My colleagues at the War and Navy Departments and I have anticipated this problem, sir. We'll make our recommendations official by putting them through the departmental secretaries. But the generals and commodores are already of one mind. We want to send a sea expedition of our own to Oregon. One or more warships, carrying as many army troops as they can comfortably hold. We'll set up a fort of our own, with Blake in command. He already knows what we have in mind, and he's eager to accept the responsibility."
The President frowned. "When two nations set up garrisons in close proximity to each other in disputed territory, the chance that sparks will be struck rises rather dramatically. We're still feeling the effects of the Panic of '37, even though it's been two years since that disaster first struck us. We simply can't afford another war with the British. What's more, I don't believe the public would support such a war. Most people know very little about the rich Oregon country and aren't aware of its potential."
"According to the most careful analysis the War and Navy Departments have been capable of making, sir, the British don't want another war with us, either. We've beaten them twice, and we'd beat them again for the simple reason that they can't maintain supply lines that far from home. Remember that London is six thousand miles from Oregon. Oh, they may bluff us, if they can, but two can play at that game."
Martin Van Buren sighed. "I'm inclined to accept your recommendation, Scott, because I can see no practical alternative to it. But I'll discuss it first with the Cabinet and with the leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives before I give my final approval."
"We have little choice, Mr. President. The United States has an obligation to the members of the first wagon train that we must fulfill. They have the right to expect the government to give them full support and all the help that can be mustered."
The officer had touched a raw nerve, and the sensitive Van Buren reacted strongly. "I need no lectures on my responsibilities, General," he said, his voice stiff.
Winfield Scott flushed and ran a hand through his prematurely gray hair. "I meant no personal criticism, sir. I was merely speaking in terms of the overall situation."
Well aware that his subordinate was by far the most brilliant of his generals, the President allowed himself to be mollified. "The British constitute only one phase of our problem. I'm worried also about Imperial Russia, Scott."
"Oh, the Russians have sabotaged our wagon train and have renewed their claim to Oregon after abandoning the country, but the Czar's claim is theoretical."
"There's nothing theoretical about his government's most recent actions," Van Buren declared. "Our legation in St. Petersburg has sent positive information to the effect that Russia has also sent a colony of volunteer settlers to Oregon."
"Good Lord! How are they traveling all that distance?"
"They've gone overland through Siberia, and our St. Petersburg legation says they're currently sailing by the short northern route to their North American colony, Alaska. There, I presume, they'll be transferred to another ship."
"The poor devils! How many of these so-called volunteers are there, Mr. President?"
"The original party consisted of about two hundred and fifty settlers, Scott."
"The Russians will be lucky if as many as one hundred survive a journey of that length, sir."
"I know." Van Buren nodded gravely. "And even if they reach Oregon, it will be a terrible strain for the Russians to send them supplies and reinforcements. We have the natural advantage. Not that I'm decrying the hardships our trains must undergo, but at least they're making the entire journey by land across territory that we've either incorporated within our borders or claim."
"Then you don't see the Russian expedition as a threat to our own activities and plans?"
"Not at present, although there's no telling what Russia may do. The Czar is responsible to no one and requires no public support for any venture he chooses to undertake." Van Buren folded his hands across his paunch. "All the same, the Russian settlers-if they ever succeed in reaching Oregon-will create complications and problems for our own settlers."
"I have confidence in Lieutenant Colonel Blake and the civilian leaders of our wagon train, Mr. President."
"So do I," Van Buren said. "But the stakes are so high in the Pacific Northwest that I stay awake nights. Our people will need to be more than courageous, more than determined, more than clever if they're going to win and keep Oregon!"
Spring came late to the upper reaches of the Rocky Mountains, but now the wagon train was on the move again after spending the bitter winter at a place they had called Little Valley in the trackless wilderness of the Wyoming country. More than five hundred strong, these pioneer men and women-and even their small children-knew they were making history. Those who had come from the Eastern Seaboard had crossed the entire continent of North America, and now they were on the last lap of their long, seemingly endless march to the promised land of Oregon. If all went well they would reach their destination by late summer, and 1839 would be recorded as the year when Americans first established a settlement near the shores of the Pacific Ocean.
They were ordinary people, these hardy, trail-stained travelers, and that was what made their feat remarkable. In the main they were farmers and artisans, along with a few professional men, merchants, and adventure-seekers; and the majority were poor, having lost their homes and savings when the Panic of 1837 had struck the economy of the United States a sudden and unexpected blow. All were conscious of having survived natural catastrophes, vicious Indian attacks, and internal feuds, as well as the efforts of agents employed by the governments of Great Britain and Russia to force them to turn back.
The stakes, as every member of the company had learned, were enormous. Oregon was a vast land where there were almost limitless forests, the land was fertile, and fish and game were abundant. The journey-financed by the United States government, with the aid of Colonel John Jacob Astor and others who had become wealthy through the Pacific fur trade-held the promise that every householder would be given a free tract of six hundred acres, property that would enable those willing to work to live in comfort and dignity.
International politics were far from the minds of the members of the wagon train company. The horsedrawn vehicles of the easterners and the wagons pulled by oxen of the pioneers from the Middle West were strung out in single file for more than a mile.
Looming high above them on all sides were majestic, soaring peaks, the thick snow that crowned them a reminder of recent perils. But the sun, shining in a brilliant, cloudless sky, was actually hot-one of the miracles of the mountains-so greatcoats and knitted hats were shed. The men rode in their shirtsleeves, the women in their dresses of homespun wool, and everyone thoroughly enjoyed the rare treat as they made their way across the base of a rock-strewn valley.
Best of all, as they well knew, they were approaching a cut in the solid wall of the Rockies known as the South Pass. When they reached the far side, they would have crossed the Continental Divide and would know for certain that the welcoming shores of the Pacific lay ahead. After all that had happened on their almost interminable journey, that knowledge was almost too good to be true.
At the head of the caravan, as always, mounted on his stallion, was the former mountain man, Michael Holt, known to his companions as Whip. Lean and sinewy, familiar with every inch of this desolate wilderness, he was a natural leader, the man to whom everyone in the company instinctively turned in a time of crisis. Early that morning he had sent his scouts fanning out ahead of the column, a maneuver that had become routine. And riding incessantly up and down the line, reporting to him regularly, were the monitors who prevented wagons from straggling, protected the rear, and called a halt whenever a wagon broke down.
The place of honor at the head of the caravan was held, as it had been from the start of the march on Long Island, by a young, exceptionally pretty, blue-eyed blonde, Cathy van Ayl Blake, whose romance with Whip, everyone had been certain, would lead to marriage. To the surprise of the entire company, however, Cathy had exercised her woman's prerogative and during the winter had married Lieutenant Colonel Leland Blake of the United States Army. Sent as the government's representative on the expedition, Lee Blake was specifically charged with the prevention of sabotage by British and Russian representatives. But he did far more; as a professional soldier he had taken charge of the train's defenses, and his contributions to the company's safety could not be measured.
Watching her husband as he rode his gelding, coordinating the efforts of the monitors, Cathy returned his waves and warm smiles. He looked handsome and lithe in the buckskins that, on the trail, he preferred to his uniform, and Cathy knew he deserved the universal respect and admiration he had earned. Then why did she feel an occasional twinge of uneasiness?
Surely her marriage was solid, and she knew Lee loved her. He had told her in confidence that when the train reached Oregon he would be given command of a military post the army would establish there, so their personal future was assured. All the same, she knew what was troubling her.
"Cathy van Ayl Blake," she told herself aloud, "stop being such a romantic, adolescent idiot!"
The truth of the matter was that she found herself looking ahead at Whip and allowing her gaze to linger on him. Well, she could have had him if she had wanted him, but she had elected to marry Lee instead.
Very well. Leave well enough alone, and put Whip out of your mind! Besides, he's married now, too, although I still can't believe it.
Driving the second wagon was a young woman who found Whip's altered status even more difficult to believe. His bride of a week, Eulalia Woodling Holt, was still stunned. So much had happened to her! An imperious, spoiled Carolina heiress, she had accompanied her father and her brother, Claiborne, on the long journey when their plantation had been forced into bankruptcy. Her father, Major Laurence Woodling, had lost his life the previous fall, when the Cheyenne Indians had attacked the wagon train in force. He had been a good and kindly man, and his death had left Eulalia destitute.
In that same raid Eulalia had been captured by the Cheyenne, and her months in captivity had been a turning point in her life. Humiliated and sexually exploited by her captors, she had acquired a new set of values, and her arrogance had become a thing of the past. In fact, one of her closest friends was Cindy, a former Louisville prostitute whom Claiborne was courting. Eulalia hoped with all her heart that they would marry.
It was her own situation that was so disturbing. A ravishingly lovely brunette, she had long been accustomed to the attentions of men. But Whip had failed to respond to her, even after she had fallen deeply in love with him, and she had become convinced he had eyes only for Cathy, in spite of her marriage.
Only a few weeks earlier a disease called the mountain fever had swept through the company, killing many, and Eulalia had been one of the survivors; however, the ailment had left her crippled. Whip had astonished her by proposing to her, and in a moment of weakness, because of her love for him, she had accepted.
That had been the worst mistake of her life, she reflected as she changed her position on the buckboard in the hope that her crippled leg would stop aching. Whip had married her only because he had felt sorry for her. She realized that now.
Oh, his tender, considerate lovemaking on their wedding night had astonished and delighted her, and he had been just as passionate the next night. But the following morning, when they had left their winter camp and resumed the journey, everything had been changed. Whip dutifully joined her at the communal meals, and at night he slept beside her in her wagon, now their wagon. But he had retreated into his shell, and once again had become remote and uncommunicative with everyone, including his bride.
Certainly it was no accident, Eulalia thought, that he had carefully refrained from making love to her ever since they had been on the trail. It was possible he was devoting himself to the well-being and safety of his charges, but that wouldn't prevent him from reaching for the woman who slept beside him. It seemed likely to Eulalia that he had changed his mind and regretted the charitable impulse that had led him to marry her.
She could try to break the impasse herself by reaching out to him when he joined her beneath the blankets, but something in her nature prevented her from making the gesture. The pride of someone who had been reared as a lady was partly responsible, but her reasons for holding back were far more complex. Had she been healthy, her beauty would have caused many men to want her, as she knew from experience. But in her crippled state she was capable of inspiring only pity, so she couldn't and wouldn't use the remains of her sex appeal as a means of holding Whip. Either he wanted her or he didn't, and if he was rejecting her, which seemed likely, she couldn't blame him.
What made Eulalia's dilemma such hell was the forty-eight-hour honeymoon she had shared with Whip. She had been his woman, he had been her man, and all had been right with her world. But his desire had ebbed so quickly she felt positive he had found it impossible to pretend he wanted a girl who was lame.
Excerpted from Wagons West OREGON! by Dana Fuller Ross Copyright © 1980 by Book Creations, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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