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54-40 or Fight By Emerson Hough Characters: 11721

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Woman is like the reed that bends to every breeze, but breaks not in the tempest.-Bishop Richard Whately.

The Oregon immigration for 1845 numbered, according to some accounts, not less than three thousand souls. Our people still rolled westward in a mighty wave. The history of that great west-bound movement is well known. The story of a yet more decisive journey of that same year never has been written-that of Helena von Ritz, from Oregon to the east. The price of that journey was an empire; its cost-ah, let me not yet speak of that.

Although Meek and I agreed that he should push east at the best possible speed, it was well enough understood that I should give him no more than a day or so start. I did not purpose to allow so risky a journey as this to be undertaken by any woman in so small a party, and made no doubt that I would overtake them at least at Fort Hall, perhaps five hundred miles east of the Missions, or at farthest at Fort Bridger, some seven hundred miles from the starting point in Oregon.

The young wife of one of the missionaries was glad enough to take passage thus for the East; and there was the silent Threlka. Those two could offer company, even did not the little Indian maid, adopted by the baroness, serve to interest her. Their equipment and supplies were as good as any purchasable. What could be done, we now had done.

Yet after all Helena von Ritz had her own way. I did not see her again after we parted that evening at the Mission. I was absent for a couple of days with a hunting party, and on my return discovered that she was gone, with no more than brief farewell to those left behind! Meek was anxious as herself to be off; but he left word for me to follow on at once.

Gloom now fell upon us all. Doctor Whitman, the only white man ever to make the east-bound journey from Oregon, encouraged us as best he could; but young Lieutenant Peel was the picture of despair, nor did he indeed fail in the prophecy he made to me; for never again did he set eyes on the face of Helena von Ritz, and never again did I meet him. I heard, years later, that he died of fever on the China coast.

It may be supposed that I myself now hurried in my plans. I was able to make up a small party of four men, about half the number Meek took with him; and I threw together such equipment as I could find remaining, not wholly to my liking, but good enough, I fancied, to overtake a party headed by a woman. But one thing after another cost us time, and we did not average twenty miles a day. I felt half desperate, as I reflected on what this might mean. As early fall was approaching, I could expect, in view of my own lost time, to encounter the annual wagon train two or three hundred miles farther westward than the object of my pursuit naturally would have done. As a matter of fact, my party met the wagons at a point well to the west of Fort Hall.

It was early in the morning we met them coming west,-that long, weary, dust-covered, creeping caravan, a mile long, slow serpent, crawling westward across the desert. In time I came up to the head of the tremendous wagon train of 1845, and its leader and myself threw up our hands in the salutation of the wilderness.

The leader's command to halt was passed back from one wagon to another, over more than a mile of trail. As we dismounted, there came hurrying up about us men and women, sunburned, lean, ragged, abandoning their wagons and crowding to hear the news from Oregon. I recall the picture well enough to-day-the sun-blistered sands all about, the short and scraggly sage-brush, the long line of white-topped wagons dwindling in the distance, the thin-faced figures which crowded about.

The captain stood at the head of the front team, his hand resting on the yoke as he leaned against the bowed neck of one of the oxen. The men and women were thin almost as the beasts which dragged the wagons. These latter stood with lolling tongues even thus early in the day, for water hereabout was scarce and bitter to the taste. So, at first almost in silence, we made the salutations of the desert. So, presently, we exchanged the news of East and West. So, I saw again my canvas of the fierce west-bound.

There is to-day no news of the quality which we then communicated. These knew nothing of Oregon. I knew nothing of the East. A national election had been held, regarding which I knew not even the names of the candidates of either party, not to mention the results. All I could do was to guess and to point to the inscription on the white top of the foremost wagon: "Fifty-four Forty or Fight!"

"Is Polk elected?" I asked the captain of the train.

He nodded. "He shore is," said he. "We're comin' out to take Oregon. What's the news?"

My own grim news was that Oregon was ours and must be ours. I shook hands with a hundred men on that, our hands clasped in stern and silent grip. Then, after a time, I urged other questions foremost in my own mind. Had they seen a small party east-bound?

Yes, I had answer. They had passed this light outfit east of Bridger's post. There was one chance in a hundred they might get over the South Pass that fall, for they were traveling light and fast, with good animals, and old Joe Meek was sure he would make it through. The women? Well, one was a preacher's wife, another an old Gipsy, and another the most beautiful woman ever seen on the trail or anywhere else. Why was she going east instead of west, away from Oregon instead of to Oregon? Did I know any of them? I was following them? Then I must hurry, for soon the snow would come in the Rockies. They had seen no Indians. Well, if I was following them, there would be a race, and they wished me well! But why go East, instead of West?

Then they began to question me regarding Oregon. How was the land? Would it raise wheat and co

rn and hogs? How was the weather? Was there much game? Would it take much labor to clear a farm? Was there any likelihood of trouble with the Indians or with the Britishers? Could a man really get a mile square of good farm land without trouble? And so on, and so on, as we sat in the blinding sun in the sage-brush desert until midday.

Of course it came to politics. Yes, Texas had been annexed, somehow, not by regular vote of the Senate. There was some hitch about that. My leader reckoned there was no regular treaty. It had just been done by joint resolution of the House-done by Tyler and Calhoun, just in time to take the feather out of old Polk's cap! The treaty of annexation-why, yes, it was ratified by Congress, and everything signed up March third, just one day before Polk's inaugural! Polk was on the warpath, according to my gaunt leader. There was going to be war as sure as shooting, unless we got all of Oregon. We had offered Great Britain a fair show, and in return she had claimed everything south to the Columbia, so now we had withdrawn all soft talk. It looked like war with Mexico and England both. Never mind, in that case we would whip them both!

"Do you see that writin' on my wagon top?" asked the captain. "Fifty-four Forty or Fight. That's us!"

And so they went on to tell us how this cry was spreading, South and West, and over the North as well; although the Whigs did not dare cry it quite so loudly.

"They want the land, just the same," said the captain. "We all want it, an', by God! we're goin' to git it!"

And so at last we parted, each the better for the information gained, each to resume what would to-day seem practically an endless journey. Our farewells were as careless, as confident, as had been our greetings. Thousands of miles of unsettled country lay east and west of us, and all around us, our empire, not then won.

History tells how that wagon train went through, and how its settlers scattered all along the Willamette and the Columbia and the Walla Walla, and helped us to hold Oregon. For myself, the chapter of accidents continued. I was detained at Fort Hall, and again east of there. I met straggling immigrants coming on across the South Pass to winter at Bridger's post; but finally I lost all word of Meek's party, and could only suppose that they had got over the mountains.

I made the journey across the South Pass, the snow being now beaten down on the trails more than usual by the west-bound animals and vehicles. Of all these now coming on, none would get farther west than Fort Hall that year. Our own party, although over the Rockies, had yet the Plains to cross. I was glad enough when we staggered into old Fort Laramie in the midst of a blinding snow-storm. Winter had caught us fair and full. I had lost the race!

Here, then, I must winter. Yet I learned that Joe Meek had outfitted at Laramie almost a month earlier, with new animals; had bought a little grain, and, under escort of a cavalry troop which had come west with the wagon train, had started east in time, perhaps, to make it through to the Missouri. In a race of one thousand miles, the baroness had already beaten me almost by a month! Further word was, of course, now unobtainable, for no trains or wagons would come west so late, and there were then no stages carrying mail across the great Plains. There was nothing for me to do except to wait and eat out my heart at old Fort Laramie, in the society of Indians and trappers, half-breeds and traders. The winter seemed years in length, so gladly I make its story brief.

It was now the spring of 1846, and I was in my second year away from Washington. Glad enough I was when in the first sunshine of spring I started east, taking my chances of getting over the Plains. At last, to make the long journey also brief, I did reach Fort Leavenworth, by this time a five months' loser in the transcontinental race. It was a new annual wagon train which I now met rolling westward. Such were times and travel not so long ago.

Little enough had come of my two years' journey out to Oregon. Like to the army of the French king, I had marched up the hill and then marched down again. As much might have been said of the United States; and the same was yet more true of Great Britain, whose army of occupation had not even marched wholly up the hill. So much as this latter fact I now could tell my own government; and I could say that while Great Britain's fleet held the sea entry, the vast and splendid interior of an unknown realm was open on the east to our marching armies of settlers. Now I could describe that realm, even though the plot of events advanced but slowly regarding it. It was a plot of the stars, whose work is done in no haste.

Oregon still was held in that oft renewed and wholly absurd joint occupancy, so odious and so dangerous to both nations. Two years were taken from my life in learning that-and in learning that this question of Oregon's final ownership was to be decided not on the Pacific, not on the shoulders of the Blues or the Cascades, but in the east, there at Washington, after all. The actual issue was in the hands of the God of Battles, who sometimes uses strange instruments for His ends. It was not I, it was not Mr. Calhoun, not any of the officers of our government, who could get Oregon for us. It was the God of Battles, whose instrument was a woman, Helena von Ritz. After all, this was the chief fruit of my long journey.

As to the baroness, she had long since left Fort Leavenworth for the East. I followed still with what speed I could employ. I could not reach Washington now until long after the first buds would be out and the creepers growing green on the gallery of Mr. Calhoun's residence. Yes, green also on all the lattices of Elmhurst Mansion. What had happened there for me?

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