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 corn 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.