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And Then We Shot the Ox

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Blue Mountains, June 8

Your brother told me I should start a journal. I called him several names I need not repeat here, but I will write it anyway. We're on our way east, out of Williamette Valley, away from the fools and beggars that cling to the idea that their settlement will ever amount to anything. Leaving wasn't as easy as you would think. I thought they would be happy to see the last of me. Instead, Jonas and I had to trade most of what we owned to get supplies from the stores and oxen farmers at prices that were balanced towards their benefit, not ours. The payment from our passengers, a quiet woman and her son, helped some. Another man intended on joining us, making our party five, but he changed his mind last night. I wonder if he was the wisest of us all.

We went for a final drink before we set out and we had our answer about the hostility. They were glad to be rid of us, to be sure, but our departure in their minds was a reminder of how close they were to failure. I never want to see Oregon again. One way or another, whether we get to Missouri or die trying, I think I'll get my wish.

It's warm out. Not that there's such thing as in out here, with only the wagon for shelter, but we should expect more hot days. That means more water, more strain and more trouble as the grass dries up. I hope we'll reach the halfway point in our journey before the end of summer and we'll be able to resupply with hunting if we haven't reached civilization by then. With all of the stories out of Oregon and no more travelers coming their way, I don't know if civilization even exists out east anymore.

I don't know if it even matters.

Weather: warm
Health: good
Pace: strenuous
Rations: filling
Next landmark: Fort Boise (160 miles)

Snake River, July 2

Boise was a bad idea. They used to be a decent trading post for settlers heading towards the western states, but now they're in lock down and anyone who gets too close is shot at. The boy and his mother turned out to be good in a crisis and handy with a rifle. Were it not for them, our trip would have ended sooner than any of us would have liked. The map and notes we've been working off say Snake River is the best place to cross, but that we need a local guide to deal with the river. There are no locals here anymore, but there's a sturdy bridge within sight. It looks like it's in disrepair, but seems clear enough to get the wagon across. I knew the map and notes would be outdated, but I wonder if the advice within the pages will lead us astray. How much time would we have wasted looking for someone to get us across the river if we hadn't seen the bridge? I'm going to keep relying on them for now, but with a healthy dose of skepticism so we don't end up in Texas.

No sign of fellow travelers, only settlers who aren't willing to share. I don't blame them. They have everything they need, and these days travelers usually mean bandits and idiots who didn't plan far enough ahead. We should reach Fort Hall within a month and be out of Idaho soon after. If there aren't any travelers between now and then we're going to have to hunt more and stock up on preserved meat to get us across Wyoming. We know from the group that came in to Williamette Valley three months before we left that there's nothing good between Soda Springs and Independence Rock. It's probably best if we take the old trail rather than the highway. The last thing we need is to come across baited food on an empty stomach, or we'll join the butchered remains the travelers told us all about in detail.

Wyoming isn't safe anymore. The old notes don't tell us that, but they do give me an idea of the original trail that we can follow to get to Independence Rock. I don't think they'll find us there. If they do, we have plenty of ammunition and some explosives if we need to take a stand, but I would rather not waste what we have if it can be avoided. Besides, if the lack of people coming west is anything to go by, whoever or whatever patrols the main road through Wyoming probably has more ammo than we do. I don't want to find out.

Weather: heavy rain
Health: good
Pace: steady
Rations: filling
Next landmark: Fort Hall (57 miles)

South Pass, August 31

We made good time. I should have realized that there was a reason for it. I've been looking back at what I wrote last month and I feel like a fool for my lack of foresight. We shouldn't have come through Wyoming. I wanted to go through, sure that taking the old trail would set us right. It had worked for everyone who originally came west, after all. As long as we'd stayed off the main roads, we should have made it to Independence Rock by next week. We weren't the first people to think the road less traveled was safer. After smelling the first wagon, we should have headed north to Montana and arced back down. It would have taken longer and I argued against it. I'm sorry.

It wasn't the bullet wound that killed your brother Jonas. Sarah, the woman who set out with us, treated it like a professional medic. But with the attacks came the need to travel faster and harder and quieter. With the stress and strain came more stops for water and not enough time or supplies to sterilize it. If we'd had the right medication to treat him after he fell ill and started to bleed, if we'd been able to find someone to trade with or raid an old hospital or fort, he might have made it. We didn't have time. We had to keep moving or we'd all be worse than dead if the people (if you can call them that) found us. I've seen the bodies, or what's left of them. It's almost as if this depravity has become the official state sport. I don't understand why they do it. I don't think I want to.

I'm sorry I didn't take better care of him for you.

His gravesite is marked carefully. We didn't want the butchers to come and dig him up. There's a small marker near the Old Oregon Trail by Pacific Creek (Pacific Springs on this old map). We left off his name to avoid attention, but his date of birth is there – you'll know it. The only words we left for strangers I hope will both remember him and scare them away. 'Died of dysentery.'

We've lost over half of our supplies and are down to four oxen. I've started rationing. We'll hunt again once we've cleared Independence Rock. I have to believe we'll make it there, otherwise there is no point.

Weather: hot and humid
Health: fair
Pace: grueling
Rations: meager
Next landmark: Independence Rock (102 miles)

Independence Rock, September 19

Independence Rock seems to be the edge of their territory. There are people here and they neither want to shoot us nor set our wagon on fire. We lost a good portion of our remaining supplies in fire the Highwaymen (that's what they call the butchers here with a healthy dose of dry understatement) set. I don't know if they wanted to cook us alive or send us a message. Message received, but alive and well. Our hosts took us in and fed us. They can't spare anything to send us on our way when we decide to go (and the temptation of staying is great), but they feel that being good hosts is part of their duty as the front line of the western frontier. I think our being the first people to make it through in over a decade has helped with their hospitality.

The settlers here don't see themselves as settlers. There's fierceness in their eyes when they talk about their purpose, and keeping groups like the Highwaymen from moving further east. It sounds as though there are settlements further east, though news from anywhere beyond Fort Kearny in Nebraska hasn't been sent in years. Sarah tried to pry information out of them about Fort Kearny (they call it Kearney now, with another 'e'), but they didn't want to talk other than to chuckle amongst themselves about the map we're using. One man who said he used to be a geography teacher filled in some of the missing parts of the map, extra details about the lay of the land and the newer roads and where to avoid. I thanked him, but with his work done, he wanted none of our conversation.

I don't miss Oregon. I don't, but I have to wonder if they had it better off out there, at least in their mentality. I used to hate it, the way they were so convinced that their safe haven was all anyone could hope for when it was far from that. Still, they were left fair enough alone, even in their towns full of scavenged goods and thrown together communities. I don't think they have that luxury here.

We're leaving tomorrow for Fort Laramie. I know the forts haven't treated us well so far, but the mayor here says we'll be well-treated from now on.

Weather: cool
Health: good
Pace: strenuous
Rations: filling
Next landmark: Fort Laramie (190 miles)

Chimney Rock, October 19

The mayor lied.

Weather: cold
Health: poor
Pace: grueling
Rations: meager
Next landmark: Fort Kearny (250 miles)

Fort Kearny, November 24

Today is my birthday. We made good time and the hunting season has gone well. Sarah made pancakes for breakfast with the last of our flour. They're the first pancakes I've had in as long as I can remember. Fort Laramie is a month behind us and a little less raw. We'd been hoping for refuge. There were plenty of things I expected of this trip. I knew it wouldn't all be smooth sailing (so to speak). I didn't expect the Highwaymen (they're still butchers in my head, not even worthy of a capital letter to distinguish them as a group). I didn't expect to lose Jonas so easily, though I knew the road ahead was a dangerous one. I didn't expect to get so far from Oregon and so close to civilization only to find that the closest thing to civilization so far was something I couldn't distinguish from savagery. No, I lie. I can distinguish the people at Fort Laramie from the Highwaymen and their savagery because they wear finer clothes at Fort Laramie.

The boy's lip has healed, but his face will stay scarred. My leg has healed as best it can under the circumstances, but I'll always have a limp. I don't know what to say about Sarah. She's quiet again, more than before. We don't talk about what happened on the road behind us. It detracts from the journey ahead. There are about three hundred miles between us and Independence, Missouri. We've learned our lessons from before and are staying clear of Kearney itself. It's a city now, far different from the fort marked on the old map in my jacket pocket. We circled around the outer suburbs and found an old camping ground with no sign of recent activity or running water, but there was a working well with water that we had time to boil.

I once asked Sarah if she wanted to stop for a few days to rest. She made sure I never asked again. We'll move on again tomorrow, pushing our way across the Platte River. There are bridges now, which I doubt the maker of my map had when he headed west in search of freedom and fortune, and I'm grateful that our wagon will be able to cross one of them rather than cross the river the old-fashioned way. I don't know what made the Platte River black. I don't want to find out.

We'll get past the final river crossing markings on my map by the middle of December. I'd like to say we'll be in Independence by Christmas, but I can't bring myself to make that decision. I know I'll get the idea in my head and push on when we shouldn't, take short-cuts that only a fool would take and kill us all for the idea of ending our journey by an arbitrary date for no good reason. Will they have Christmas trees in Independence?

Weather: icy
Health: fair
Pace: steady
Rations: meager
Next landmark: Big Blue River Crossing (119 miles)

St Joseph, Missouri, December 12

I've given up on the map. None of the markings make any sense with the landscape now, and it doesn't matter anyway. There are still street signs out here. We crossed the river back near Kearney and the way marked on the map was too overgrown to take the wagon and unrecognizable. Crossing the river brought about a change I can't quite describe, but this isn't a landscape I recognize. We decided to follow the highway down to what used to be Lincoln. I wonder what Lincoln would have thought of all of this out here west of the Mississippi. It's probably closer to the view he used to know than the sprawling cities that were here forty years ago.

The map is still in my pocket, a reminder of how far we've come and what we've gone through to reach Independence. The green sign by the side of the road says Kansas City, but it's the right direction and the right distance, so there's a good chance that they renamed since the map was made. I knew it was old when Jonas and I decided to use it. There weren't many paper maps left in Oregon, and definitely none that were reliable beyond the state line. They were considered relics of a less efficient time for so long that paper gave way to pixels that were easier to access. Pixels didn't last as long as everyone thought they would, and then the west was left with nothing to guide them. So, even a map as old as this was worth following, because at least it was a guide.

I think Jonas would still agree if he was here. It was his idea, originally. He would talk about leaving the Valley and going east to look for the signs of civilization we'd both heard about growing up. We were always told it was better to stay and that there was no way of making the journey across the country with what little supplies we had. Jonas would say back that our ancestors had made the journey with as little as we had, and that it was worth trying.

It was worth trying.

Even though there was nothing left of Lincoln, there might be in Independence. It's where everything started. It's why our families were in Oregon in the first place. I feel like I have energy again and my mind is buzzing even though it's been months since our coffee ran out. My feet hurt, but I don't feel them chafe as much as I did a hundred miles ago. I can tell my traveling companions feel the same way. Sarah doesn't speak, but she doesn't need to. Her boy is still angry after Laramie, but he's smart enough to put the energy into walking or driving the oxen. They're both as determined to finish this as I am. We're so close to our destination that we have to press on, down this overgrown highway, following the green signs to Kansas City and Independence and, if circumstances have pushed everyone further east, on to St Louis.

Our food supply is down to salted meat, but we're close enough that it doesn't matter. I can go hunting further into the woods if I have to, but there's a limit on how much I can carry back to the wagon, so we'll decide what to do day by day.

Weather: freezing
Health: fair
Pace: grueling
Rations: meager
Next landmark: Independence, Missouri (66 miles)

St Louis, Missouri, December 26

There was nothing in Independence. Buildings still stood in some places, but we stayed for a week before agreeing that no one had been there in a long time. We rode east to St Louis and arrived last night. I imagine it would have been about the size of Portland. The pile of rubble where the city had been was about the right size.

Sarah's boy found a skeleton a few miles back still in the tatters of a suit with the radiation symbol on it. Someone had been here once. The bullet hole in the back of the suit and the blood stain told us why he was still here. There's no one else. My feet are starting to hurt again, and we had to shoot one of the oxen for food. There doesn't seem to be a way over the Mississippi anymore, but the edges of bridges on each side say there must have been a long time ago.

The map is no good to me now. It got us as far as it could and I left it in Independence next to the sign out front of the National Frontier Trails Museum. It seemed fitting. Or I'm getting sentimental.

There were stories when we left Oregon of going east to find civilization. The west might have given up on technology and being civilized after the lights all went out one day, long before I was born, but I haven't given up on the east.

We found supplies in a bunker underground not far from here. There should be better hunting a little further south of the city. We're going to stock up and find a way across the Mississippi by the New Year. There's still plenty of east to explore.

Sarah's making pancakes for breakfast.