High Mountain Winter: A Novel of the Trail West
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by Ardath Mayhar
Category: Historical Fiction
Description: Based on a True Story of a Pioneer Woman's Courage! Written by Western Writers of America Spur Award finalist, Ardath Mayhar, High Mountain Winter is a gripping novel with the ring of truth, because it actually happened. Left alone in a covered wagon in the most desolate, snow-bound mountains in the US, a young woman survives all that nature can throw at her. Here is how the author describes the genesis of this stunning novel. "With the westward journey of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman in 1836, expansion of the United States to the Pacific began in earnest. That first trek proved both women and wagons could make the almost two-thousand-mile migration, and by 1850 the ruts were already worn deep. Starting at either Westport Landing, Missouri, which was later to be named Kansas City, nearby Independence, or at Kanesville, Iowa, now Council Bluffs, the emigrants set off across the plains toward their goals. In 1848, unsuccessful revolutions took place in several kingdoms of Europe, and . displaced people fled the turmoil of their own country and went west to America. Heat and cold, dust and floods and catastrophes didn't stop their progress across the wide land. Those spared by cholera and accidents and occasional Indian raids became the ancestors of at least some of those now living in the West. Maryla Stoner's winter sojourn is based upon an actual occurrence. There was, indeed, a young woman who survived a high mountain winter, all alone in a covered wagon, after her father and brothers went away to hunt and failed to return. Now go with me and follow the Oregon Trail, in 1850, with the last wagon train to leave Westport Landing before the season was too far along to allow safe passage. Meet the assortment of people who set their faces toward the setting sun, in pursuit of a dream that our kind has never quite lost." Ardath Mayhar lives on a ranch in East Texas.
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner, 2005
eBookwise Release Date: November 2004
11 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [365 KB]
Reading time: 247-346 min.
With the westward journey of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, in 1836, expansion of the United States to the Pacific began in earnest. That first trek proved both women and wagons could make the almost two-thousand-mile migration, and by 1850 the ruts were already worn deep.
Starting at either Westport Landing, Missouri, which was later to be named Kansas City, nearby Independence, or at Kanesville, Iowa, now Council Bluffs, the emigrants set off across the plains toward their goals. Some headed for the rich valleys of Oregon, while others, lured by the promise of the 1849 gold rush in California, turned west, past the Rockies, toward the Sierras.
Both routes involved crossing long miles of plain, seemingly endless stretches of desert and mountain terrain. At the rate of ten to twelve miles a day (on good days), that journey required just under six months to cover, and families walked, most of them, the entire distance in order to save wagon-weight that might overwork their precious oxen. Although mules were tougher and stronger than horses and were sometimes used, the patient ox could live off sagebrush, and because of that was most often the chosen animal for the teams that pulled the wagons west.
Many kinds of people ventured along those trails. Easterners, Southerners, Europeans from many nations turned their faces westward and set out to make their fortunes, to find good free land, or simply to see country that none of their kind had known before. In addition, the United States government was encouraging its citizens to colonize that distant country, in order to secure it for their nation.
But there were other kinds of people, too. In 1848, revolutions took place in several areas of Europe. Austria was the site of one such upheaval, and it is quite possible that displaced Austrians fled the turmoil of their own country and went west to America. Perhaps some of those even journeyed along the Oregon Trail as a result of being uprooted from their normal lives.
It must have been a rich brew of cultures that trudged along behind the overloaded wagons, eating dust and stepping into cattle dung and wondering, probably, why on earth they had risked everything on this drastic venture. Yet few turned back, though many died along the way and never saw the Promised Land toward which they moved.
They were stronger than modern people tend to be, tougher, and less spoiled to the easy life. Heat and cold, dust and floods and catastrophes didn't stop their progress across the wide land. Those spared by cholera and accidents and occasional Indian raids became the ancestors of at least some of those now living in the West.
Maryla Stoner's winter sojourn is based upon an actual occurrence. Years ago, while researching some articles for a colleague who was compiling an anthology of nonfiction about the early west, I ran across an account of just such an adventure.
Sadly, I cannot recall her real name, but there was, indeed, a young woman who survived a high mountain winter, all alone in a covered wagon, after her father and brothers went away to hunt and never returned. She walked out, the next spring.
Now go with me and follow the Oregon Trail, in 1850, with the last wagon train to leave Westport Landing before the season was too far along to allow safe passage. Meet the assortment of people who set their faces toward the setting sun, in pursuit of a dream that our kind has never quite lost.
Albert Stoner straightened his back and stared across the rocky field. In the harsh light of late spring, yellowish shoots of corn were prying their way painfully out of the ground, a poor stand of what promised to be an even poorer crop, he thought.
He and his father had claimed this mountainside when he was a young man. Then the undepleted soil seemed to rush seeds into sprouting and stalks into reaching for the sky, bearing six ears each. He thought of the dark leaves rustling in the breeze off the mountain, the rich promise of the fat ears.
Now if he got two scraggly ears or corn to the stalk it was considered a good year, and the rest of his hillside farm suffered from the same problem. As the soil washed away down the plowed slope in the heavy winter rains, every year it became harder to feed his brood of children. And there was no fresh land, this side of the Rockies, where he might do better.
His oldest three children worked with him, trying their best to grow enough corn to ferment into whiskey and grind into meal for the winter. The whiskey he distilled, his method based on his great-grandfather's Old World recipe, sold for the only cash they saw from year's end to year's end.
Albert Stoner's method still produced prime cornjuice, and he blessed his sailor father for preserving the formula that had been passed down in his family through the generations. Many a hard-earned coin came into Albert's hands only through its sale, though he sometimes wondered how one of his own scholarly bent had ended up as a farmer and distiller instead of a schoolteacher.
Cornmeal, pork from their hogs, beef from slaughtered steers, as well as fruit, peas, beans, and squash that Elizabeth dried in the sun on their shed roofs, kept them going through the winter. Life seemed to get harder all the time. Without rich soil, even the best of farmers could not grow good crops, and he was never quite as dedicated to the task as his father had been.
All the talk, when the circuit rider came through to hold services at the church, had been about the rich land people were taking up in Oregon. He'd looked that country up in his big leather book of maps, although the names and ownership of whole areas of the world had changed since it was printed.
Much of the western continent except for the coast was marked UNKNOWN; still he could trace the seacoast and the mountain range running parallel to it. The Rocky Mountains were sketched in inaccurately, he knew from talking with occasional mountain men who drifted through the area.
The long expanse of desert country that ran down the length of that territory was a blank space. Now even people he knew were heading in that direction, crossing the flat, dry country, seeking for new land. Free land. The landless generations of his ancestors in Europe had waked in his blood at last, matching the soil-hunger of his sailor father.
That hunger filled his heart and his long, square-shouldered body. Land that was flatter than this and would grow just about anything you planted--that was the dream that had brought his father to Missouri. It had been impossible for Albert to let his parents come alone, so he had brought his own growing family along.
People surely needed someone to teach their children, he had hoped, but that had never been needed here. Those already here had a teacher, he found when he arrived.
They'd stopped in the edge of these mountains because his father fell ill and could travel no farther into the rich country he coveted. This land was open for homesteading. It was not bad soil, at that time; the underlying rock had not been obvious at first. Once the forest was cut away, allowing the heavy rains to erode the topsoil, life became harder than they had planned or wanted.
Now the farm was worn out, the soil washed away down the stony slopes, all but useless. Elizabeth might look martyred, but one day he would pick up stakes and follow those of his neighbors who had already made plans to emigrate. His sons would have good land to farm, when he was gone, and surely in that new country there would be need for a teacher.
His daughter never entered his thoughts. She was a woman. Some man would marry her and take her off his hands; until that happened she'd be working beside him, matching his abilities more than either of the older boys. Albert seldom allowed that thought to enter his mind.
She was useful, there was no doubt of that, but only a woman, when all was said and done. All the books, all the preachers, all the ancient writings said she was of no worth.
Maryla came up behind him and paused. "You tired, Papa?" she asked. "If you want to go sit in the shade, I'll finish weeding your row."
She was a good girl, and he was fond of her. Still, she lacked a lot. She had no feminine graces, though she was pretty enough, though entirely too tall and strong ever to be considered feminine. Her large, bony frame, in addition to her mane of coppery hair, was enough to put off almost any suitor.
Working in the fields, she insisted on wearing his old clothes, for skirts were impractical for hoeing or cutting and raking hay. It wasn't proper, but she got her hard head directly from him and his mother, he knew. There wasn't much he could do about that.
In a girl, it was inconvenient. He sometimes wondered that his father had never objected to that trait in his own wife. Mama had been different from any other woman he ever knew; most men had disapproved of her, as well as just about all women. Maryla was too much like her for comfort.
Maryla looked like a gawky boy, in her loose linsey-woolsey shirt and baggy pants, held up with a length of rope. She even wore her hair pulled back into a single pigtail, as he and the boys wore theirs. >From a distance, nobody could tell the difference between the male Stoners and the female.
It would be nice to have a sweet, gentle daughter like the Fosters' girl. Josephine was soft-spoken, her skin pale, her eyes properly downcast. He knew Elizabeth envied Mrs. Foster her daughter, and so, at times, did he.
Yet as he turned back to work he admitted to himself that Josie'd be no earthly use weeding a cornfield. Better the bird in hand, the one God put in your nest, he supposed, than the bright-feathered one perched in someone else's bush.
He smiled at his daughter. "No, I'm not tired. Just worried, perhaps. If your mother could bear it, I'd buy that big wagon John Wilden has for sale and set out westward. I saved enough of last year's whiskey money to manage that.
"Good land ... new schools ... " He stopped, unwilling to sound disloyal to Elizabeth.
Maryla was busy again, moving steadily up her own row, her hoe scraping out weeds without touching one of the young sprouts. She was a good hand. Better, if he was honest, than either of her brothers, who tended to daydream and cut corn along with weeds.
He thought again of the words of Brother Sam, the circuit rider. "Folks are thinking about moving out," he'd said. "A good half dozen families have already headed for Westport Landing to join up with trains that are organizing.
"This is the time of year to head west, to get over the mountains before the snows stop up the passes. If I hadn't my circuit to ride, I'd consider heading that way myself. Folks are going to need preachers and teachers, as well as farmers." There had been the ghost of a dream even in the preacher's eyes.
His words haunted Albert, even while he finished his work and led his weary children homeward for supper. This was no land, no work for a scholar. He could teach the children of those who went west, leaving behind the years of bone-wearing toil he had known here in Missouri.
There had been a schoolmaster here before he arrived, and the old fellow seemed bent on living forever. There had never been any opportunity for Stoner to show his abilities, except in teaching his own young ones. He had to admit he'd done pretty well with them.
The boys had been apt scholars, loving the classics and poetry and history. Maryla--he sighed. She should have been his son, he realized. She certainly wasn't studious. Though quick to learn, she had never shown any hint of his own love for reading and mathematics.
Rags, the ancient dog, wagged up to greet him as he stepped onto the back porch of the log house and poured the wash-pan full of water from the bucket standing full of water still cold from the well. He scrubbed his arms and hands, face and neck, and finally submerged his head and let the soapy water rinse the sweat from his scalp. Rubbing heartily, he gave place to Jon and went into the house, toweling his wet hair, while his sodden red pigtail dripped down his back.
Elizabeth stood beside the fireplace, stirring the contents of the iron pot hanging from a hook that swiveled from an iron arm. As she looked up to see him, she pulled the Dutch oven out of the coals and lifted its lid. The smell of hot cornbread filled the kitchen.
Albert sat in the hickory splint chair at the head of the table, resting while he waited for the others to come. He felt his wife's eyes on him, pleading silently, he knew, that he forget his notion to move away from this familiar place. She could read his mind, after so many years of marriage, and she understood as well as he that one day he would make that decision.
A wave of irritation swept over him. Since his wife began to ail, she had not been the brisk, determined woman he knew. That bright-eyed wife had come willingly, infant in arms and pregnant again, as he helped Papa search for good land on which to rear his brood.
Now she was pale, thin, sometimes querulous. Her unspoken resistance to any change had worn him down to the bare nerve. She was obedient, it was true, and said almost nothing when she disagreed with him. Yet her gaze could carry more messages than any words were capable of, and he knew her thoughts, no matter how he tried to ignore them.
As his sons and daughter entered the kitchen, he made a sudden, angry decision. "We'll finish the crop, what there is of it," he said. "Then we'll pack up and go. I'll see John Wilden tomorrow to trade for his wagon. He might just take whiskey in lieu of part of the money. We can put everything we need and more into that thing; it was built to carry a couple of tons."
Lizzie sank into her chair, her hands pressed hard over her heart. Tears filled her eyes, but they didn't fall. She still had a lot of control, he admitted grudgingly.
Maryla's eyes were wide, bright with excitement. "We don't have enough oxen to pull it. Takes a half-dozen, from what I heard Preacher say. Is there enough money to buy that many?"
"We've got four. I'll trade those for three younger ones. We can sell all the livestock but a cow and a riding horse--it'll be Petronius of course--for enough to buy everything we need.
"We'll make it without spending any of the whiskey savings. The wagon will take all the coin I can spare at this point." He was already doing mental arithmetic, calculating weights and distances.
They'd need some cash in hand when they got to Oregon, whatever happened, and he didn't intend to arrive in that new country without a penny in his pocket. For the thousandth time he blessed that recipe for corn whiskey his father had evolved from his own father's Old World method. That was the most reliable money crop possible.
His sons plopped onto the bench where the youngsters had always sat, two on either side of the table. Though they were too shocked to speak, yet, he could see by their expressions they were fully behind this move.
Lizzie couldn't know the discouragement of working yourself into the ground in the blazing sun, only to see the crop dwindle every year. Since she felt too poorly to do field work any longer, she had lost touch with the farm. Their sons and Maryla, who worked beside him, realized as she could not the change this would make, the hope it would give them all.
Albert felt suddenly guilty. "It won't be so bad, Lizzie," he said. "We'll do all the hard work, packing up and such. And maybe you can ride in the wagon most of the way to Oregon. The five of us will take care of you and the baby. You'll see."
But early summer still stretched before them, filled with farm work and the added burden of deciding what to take and what to sell or give to neighbors and friends. Although the decision was made, it would be next season before they could take the trail, for by harvest time would be too late to catch a train heading west.
It seemed, sometimes, that the time to go would never arrive, as groups of wagons or single families passed along the road, heading for Westport Landing and the trailhead. Those who lived farther to the east and north would take off from Kanesville, Iowa, where there was a ferry to take the wagons across the Missouri River. Albert seemed to feel in his very bones the movement of endless strings of wagons across the land.
Every time another group paused to water their stock at his creek or to share a meal, Albert envied those already on their way. But the time would come, he knew. The time would come, and he would take his family west into that Promised Land that would change their lives forever.
Just knowing he had decided, that a fresh start lay before him, made Albert feel younger, less dragged down by the work and worry of the farm. It was good to feel free, even though at this point that freedom was only a dream.