Read an Excerpt
To Charles Stanton, there was nothing like a good, close shave.
He stood that morning in front of the big mirror strapped to the side of James Reed's wagon. In every direction, the prairie unfurled like a blanket, occasionally rippled by wind: mile after uninterrupted mile of buffalo grass, disrupted only by the red spire of Chimney Rock, standing like a sentry in the distance. If he squinted, the wagon train looked like children's toys scattered in the vast, unending brush-flimsy, meaningless, inconsequential.
He turned to the mirror and steadied the blade under his jaw, remembering one of his grandfather's favorite expressions: A wicked man hides behind a beard, like Lucifer. Stanton knew plenty of men who were happy enough with a well-honed knife, even some who used a hatchet, but for him nothing would do but a straight razor. He didn't shrink from the feel of cold metal against his throat. In fact, he kind of liked it.
"I didn't think you were a vain man, Charles Stanton"-a voice came from behind him-"but if I didn't know any better, I might wonder if you weren't admiring yourself." Edwin Bryant came toward him with a tin cup of coffee in his hand. The smile faded quickly. "You're bleeding."
Stanton looked down at the razor. It was streaked with red. In the mirror he saw a line of crimson at his throat, a gaping three-inch slash where the tip of his blade had been. The razor was so sharp that he hadn't felt a thing. Stanton jerked the towel from his shoulder and pressed it to the wound. "My hand must have slipped," he said.
"Sit down," Bryant said. "Let me take a look at it. I have a little medical training, you know."
Stanton sidestepped Bryant's outstretched hand. "I'm fine. It's nothing. A mishap." That was this damnable journey, in a nutshell. One unexpected "mishap" after another.
Bryant shrugged. "If you say so. Wolves can smell blood from two miles away."
"What can I do for you?" Stanton asked. He knew that Bryant hadn't come down the wagon train just to talk, not when they were supposed to be yoking up. Around them, the regular morning chaos whirled. Teamsters herded the oxen, the ground rumbling beneath the animals' weight. Men dismantled their tents and loaded them into their wagons, or smothered out fires beneath sand. The air was filled with the sound of children shouting as they carried buckets of water for the day's drinking and washing.
Stanton and Bryant hadn't known each other long but had quickly developed a friendship. The party Stanton had been traveling with prior-a small wagon train out of Illinois, consisting mostly of the Donner and Reed families-had recently joined up with a much larger group led by a retired military man, William Russell, outside Independence, Missouri. Edwin Bryant had been one of the first members from the Russell party to introduce himself and seemed to gravitate to Stanton, perhaps because they were both single men in a wagon train full of families.
In appearance, Edwin Bryant was Stanton's opposite. Stanton was tall, strong without trying to be. He had been complimented on his good looks his entire life. It had all come from his mother, as far as he could tell. He had her thick, wavy dark brown hair and soulful eyes.
Thy looks are a gift from the devil, boy, so you might tempt others to sin. Another of his grandfather's pronouncements. Once he'd smashed Stanton's face with a belt buckle, maybe hoping to chase out the devil he saw there. It hadn't worked. Stanton had kept all his teeth, and his nose had healed. The scar on his forehead had faded. The devil, as far as he knew, had stayed.
Bryant was probably a decade older. Years as a newspaperman had left him softer than most of the men on the journey, who were farmers or carpenters or blacksmiths, men who made a living through hard physical labor. He had weak eyes and needed a pair of spectacles almost constantly. He had a perpetually disheveled air, as though his thoughts were always elsewhere. There was no denying that he was sharp, though, probably the smartest man in the party. He'd admitted to having spent a few years as a doctor's apprentice when he was very young, though he didn't want to be pressed into service as the camp physician.
"Take a look at this." Bryant kicked a tuft of vegetation at their feet, sending up a puff of dust. "Have you noticed? The grass is dry for this time of year."
They had been traveling on a flat plain for days now, the horizon a long stretch of tall prairie grass and scrub. Flanking the trail on either side in the distance, sand hills of gold and coral rose and fell, some craggy as fingers, pointing directly to heaven. Stanton crouched low and pulled a few strands of grass. The blades were short, no more than nine or ten inches long, and were already faded to a dull brownish-green. "Looks like there was a drought not too long ago," Stanton said. He stood, smacking the dirt off his palms, looking toward the far-off hazy purple scrim. The land seemed to stretch on forever.
"And we're just entering the plain," Bryant pointed out.
His meaning was clear: There might not be enough grass for their oxen and livestock to eat. Grass, water, wood: the three things a wagon train needed. "Conditions are worse than we thought they'd be, and we've got a long way to go. See that mountain range off in the distance? That's just the beginning, Charles. There are more mountains behind those-and desert and prairie, and rivers wider and deeper than any we've crossed so far. All between us and the Pacific Ocean."
Stanton had heard this litany before. Bryant had said little else ever since they had come across the trapper's shack at Ash Hollow two days ago. The empty shack had been turned into a frontier outpost of sorts for the pioneers crossing the plains, who had taken to leaving letters behind for the next eastbound traveler to carry to a real post office for delivery onward. Many of these letters were simply folded pieces of paper left under a rock in the hope that they would eventually reach the intended recipient back home.
Stanton had been strangely comforted by the sight of all those letters. They had seemed a testament to the travelers' love of freedom and desire for greater opportunity, no matter the risk. But Bryant had gotten agitated. Look at all these letters. Must be dozens of them, maybe a hundred. The settlers who wrote them are ahead of us on the trail. We're among the last to head out this season and you know what that means, don't you? he'd asked Stanton. We might be too late. The mountain passes will be closed off by snow come winter, and winter comes early in higher elevations.
"Patience, Edwin," Stanton said now. "We've barely put Independence behind us-"
"Yet here it is the middle of June. We're moving too slowly."
Slinging the towel back over his shoulder, Stanton looked around him: The sun had been up for hours and yet they hadn't broken camp. All around him, families were still finishing their breakfasts over the remains of their campfires. Mothers stood dandling babies in their arms as they swapped gossip. A boy was out playing with a dog instead of herding the family's oxen in from the field.
"Can you blame them on such a fine morning?" he asked lightly. After weeks on the trail, no one was anxious to face another day. Half the men were only in a hurry when it came time to break out the jug of mash. Bryant only frowned. Stanton rubbed the back of his neck. "Anyway, Russell is the man to talk to."
Bryant grimaced as he stooped to retrieve his coffee cup. "I've talked to Russell about it and he agrees, and yet does nothing about it. The man can't say no to anyone. Earlier in the week-you remember-he let those men go off on a buffalo hunt, and the train sat idle for two days to smoke and dry the meat."
"We might be happy for that meat farther down the trail."
"I guarantee you that we'll see more buffalo. But we'll never get those days back."
Stanton saw the sense in what Bryant said, and didn't want to argue. "Look. I'll go with you tonight and we'll speak to Russell together. We'll make him see that we're serious."
Bryant shook his head. "I'm tired of waiting. That's what I've come to tell you: I'm leaving the wagon train. A few of us men are going ahead on horseback. It's too slow by wagon. The family men, I understand why they need their wagons. They have young children, the old and sick to carry. They have their goods to worry about. I don't begrudge them, but I won't be held hostage by them, either."
Stanton thought of his own wagon, his pair of oxen. The outfit had cost nearly all the money he made from the sale of his store. "I see."
Bryant's eyes were bright behind his glasses. "That rider who joined up with us last night, he told me that the Washoe were still south of their usual grazing territory, about two weeks down the trail. I can't risk missing them." Bryant fancied himself to be a bit of an amateur anthropologist and was supposedly writing a book about the various tribes' spiritual beliefs. He could talk for hours about Indian legends-talking animals, trickster gods, spirits that seemed to live in the earth and wind and water-and was so passionate that some of the settlers had become suspicious of him. As much as Stanton enjoyed Bryant's stories, he knew they could be terrifying to Christians raised solely on Bible stories, who couldn't understand that a white man could be deeply fascinated by native beliefs.
"I know these people are your friends. But for God's sake," Bryant continued. When he was excited about a subject, it was hard to get him to drop it. "What made them think they could bring their entire households with them to California?"
Stanton couldn't help but smile. He knew, of course, what Bryant was referring to: George Donner's great, customized prairie schooner. It had been the talk of Springfield when it was built and had become the talk of the entire wagon train. The wagon bed had been built up an extra few feet so there was room for a bench and a covered storage area. It even had a small stove with its chimney vented through the cloth canopy.
Bryant nodded toward the Donners' campsite. "I mean, how do they expect to cross the mountains with something like that? It's a behemoth. Even four yoke of oxen won't be enough to haul it up the steep grades. And for what? To carry the queen of Sheba in comfort." In the short time since the Springfield contingent had joined up with the larger Russell party, Edwin Bryant had developed a healthy dislike for Tamsen Donner, that was plain enough. "Have you seen inside that thing? Like Cleopatra's pleasure barge, with its feather mattress and silks." Stanton smirked. It wasn't as though the Donners were sleeping inside; their wagon was packed with household goods-including bedding-like every other wagon. Bryant was a little prone to righteous exaggeration. "I'd thought George Donner was a smart fellow. Apparently not."
"Can you blame him for wanting to make his wife happy?" Stanton asked. He wanted to think of George Donner as a friend, but he couldn't. Not knowing of Donner's connections.
And now, to make matters worse, he was having a hard time keeping his eyes off Donner's wife. Tamsen Donner was a good twenty years younger than her husband and bewitchingly beautiful, possibly the most beautiful woman Stanton had ever met. She was like one of those porcelain dolls you saw in a dressmaker's shop, modeling the latest French fashions in miniature. She had a cunning look in her eyes he found himself drawn to, and the tiniest waist, so small that a man could circle it with his two hands. Several times, he'd had to stop himself from thinking about how that waist would feel in his hands. It was a mystery to Stanton how George Donner had won a woman like that in the first place. He assumed Donner's money had something to do with it.
"A group of us are heading out tomorrow," Bryant said, more quietly. "Why don't you join us? You're your own man, no family to worry about. That way, you could get to . . . wherever you're going that much quicker."
Bryant was obviously fishing again, trying to learn the reason why Stanton was making the trip west. Most people were only too eager to talk about it. Bryant knew Stanton had owned a dry-goods business and a home back in Springfield, but Stanton hadn't shared with him-hadn't shared with anybody-why he'd decided to walk away from it all. His partner, the one with the business sense, had died unexpectedly, leaving Stanton to manage the store on his own. He had the head for that kind of thing but not the spirit for it-waiting on the endless stream of customers, haggling with the ones who didn't like his prices, trying to stock the shelves with products that would appeal to the citizens of Springfield, neighbors he barely knew and certainly didn't understand (exotic toilet waters? bright satin ribbon?). It had been a lonely time and was certainly one of the reasons he'd left Springfield.
But not the only reason.
Stanton decided to hedge. "What would I do with my wagon and oxen? I can't just abandon them on the trail."
"You wouldn't need to. I'm sure you can find someone in the group to buy them. Or you can hire one of the drivers to see to your wagon and make sure it gets to California."
"I don't know," Stanton said. Unlike Bryant, he didn't mind traveling with families, the noise of the children, the high-pitched chatter of the women on the trail. But it was more than that.
"Give me time to think about it," he said.
At that moment, a man on horseback came galloping up, his arrival announced by a swirl of dust. George Donner. One of his jobs was to get the wagon train started on its way in the morning. Normally, he went about it cheerfully, urging the families to pack their campsites and get their oxen hitched up so the great caravan could get under way again. But this morning his expression was dark.
Stanton hailed Donner briefly. It was time to go, then, at last. "I was just about to chain up-" he began, but Donner cut him off.