Journey's End

by Joseph Phillips

"There, that should hold er," Jonathan Williams said as he finished attaching his patched up wagon wheel. Wiping the sweat off of his forehead with the back of his sleeve, John stood up and stretched the stiffness out of his back and shoulders.

"Yeah, well we'll see how she holds up when we reach the mountains won't we," Mrs. Williams said. The journey West was beginning to wear on her and her patience had all but disappeared. Grunting his acknowledgement he turned and faced the mountains in question. Autumn was past its midpoint and the days were growing shorter and much colder already, and the swirl of clouds that lay draping over the white, rocky peaks promised it would soon grow colder still.

Picking up his hammer and nails and wood scraps, John climbed up into the driver's seat of their travel worn wagon. Setting his tools in the wagon bed, John took hold of the reins and gave his pair of oxen a quick gid'up. "We'll get through this, Beth, trust me. I mean we are practically there." He said with a confident smile. Mrs. Williams said nothing just stared blankly across the barren plains and thought of happier times in Boston; the life she had left behind for John and his adventure West. John frowned but let her be for the time being. Just up the hill, the Richards family had set up camp on a flat spread of grass and was already cooking dinner for the group.

The Richards family consisted of George and Heather and their two sons Joshua and Benjamin who were both barley over ten. These two families had been together since St. Louis and were now faced with their last great obstacle, the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range which protects the lands to the West from the pioneers of the East.

The next day, they resumed their journey down the Oregon Trail drawing ever closer to the shadow of the mountains. The new wheel had held so far, though it made a dreadful click clunk sound with each revolution. Making camp just along the base of the mountains, the Richards and the Williams discussed their plan of action concerning the ominous mountains that lay ahead. While they were approaching, dark storm clouds had been gathering on the mountains.

"The Weather is changing. I feel that we would be better off if we wait until those clouds clear," said George. "There is no point risking getting stuck in a blizzard on the mountain pass."

"There shouldn't even be snow on the rain-shadowed side of the mountain," said John in return. "Besides, we would just end up postponing the inevitable; no matter how long we wait these mountains are gonna resist our passing and as it's not even winter yet. It's bound to get only more dangerous. So I say we do it now while we have a full wagon of supplies and high spirits."

"I hear you John, but I've got a bad feeling about crossing them now," the older George said. "And with our two young uns I won't risk crossing the pass yet."

On they argued into the night, until John decided he would push on alone and would wait on the other side for the "old man." Through this whole argument Beth never said a word, but just sat there, her eyes always drifting to the mountains like a moth to flame. After a long night, the Williams prepared their wagon for the difficult trek up the mountain pass, they tightened anything loose and patched whatever was torn, until John deemed the wagon fit for the task.

"We'll get through this, trust me." John said to Beth with that same confident smile. Still Beth said nothing, only nodding in acknowledgement. John hugged her and kissed the top of her long, tangled brown hair. "We're practically there." He whispered softly as if assuring himself.

So with a last good luck from the Richards, John and his wife began to ascend the mountain pass. The clouds that had hung on the mountains the day before had gone, and the sky was blue and the sun was out warming their faces and raising their hopes. Reaching the plateau of the pass by afternoon time, John decided to set up camp.

"We're practically there." John said with excitement, pleased with himself for having chosen to push on. Though that night a change of the wind happened and large clouds from the coast rolled in by cover of darkness. The temperature dropped dangerously and the Williams clung close to each other to keep warm that night. About an hour past midnight the first flake of snow fell on the mountain pass, followed quickly by others.

The next morning the couple was not greeted by the same clear skies as the day before. Instead there was only the impenetrable grayness that hurt the eyes if one stared at it too long. Still the snow hadn't reached a dangerous depth yet, so John broke camp and pushed forward. "We'll get through this," he said through a grim and determined strained face.

As if waiting for these words, the snow began to descend, huge flakes fell along the path with such frequency that they couldn't see ten feet in front of them. Still John pushed forward, much to the dismay of the oxen who were near a state of exhaustion.

An inch, three inches, a foot of fresh snow soon covered the ground; still it showed no signs of relenting. John knew it was dangerous to push forward, but he was frightened and wanted to get out of the shadow of the mountain; so on he pushed. Soon, though, it grew too cold to be outside, so he had no choice but to set up camp.

The wind that night fought to drive the Williams insane. It cut and bit and howled and creaked and didn't let up all night. Beth quietly sat in the bed of the wagon; the only sound she emitted was the constant chattering of her teeth. Wrapping his arm around her John drew his wife close. "We'll get"

"I was dreaming of home, John." Beth said in a distant voice made eerie from the sick tone made ragged from the cold. "Mother was braiding little Hannah's hair near the fire, and father just put a fresh log on."

"What were you doing?" John asked sympathetically.

"I was outside in the cold watching from the window; I think they've forgotten me," Tears began to slide down her reddened cheeks. Reaching with his hand John wiped the tears from her face.

"Of course they haven't. Why I'm sure they are praying for our safety and health even as we speak." For all the good that'd do John thought bitterly; I doubt even God could hear a prayer through this blizzard. "But it's not much further now. We will get through this."

Beth turned from her daydream to look at her husband with weary and saddened eyes. "I wish I had never agreed to go with you." No anger was in her voice but it pierced John deep.

"But we're almost there." John said into the angry wind.

The next morning the storm relented some, and John decided that they had to push on. Everywhere there was white, with the snow so deep now John had to walk in front of his cold weary oxen. Like a captain guiding his ship out at sea so too did John steer his wagon through the sea of white. After several hours of this, they finally reached the tree line on the other side of the pass. John smiled at the beautiful trees and gave his wife an "I told you so" look.


John's heart stopped as he turned towards the sound knowing without seeing the source of it. The wheel and his patch were gone. Falling back into the snow, John cursed himself and his rotten luck. "Well Beth we'll get through this, but not today." There was no reply. Walking back to the front of the wagon John looked at the wagon seat.

There was Beth eyes closed and face pale. Jumping up onto the wagon John sought to stir his wife from sleep but without success. Feeling her face he drew his hand back as it was burning with fever. John began to finally feel the gravity of their predicament, and he saw just how foolish he was to risk the pass alone.

Thinking now of only how he had to get Beth out of these damned mountains, John tried to re-patch the wheel, to no avail. Finally in desperation John stripped his wagon and made a makeshift sled for his oxen to drag behind. On he pushed his oxen, fighting off the inevitable until exhaustion overtook him.

The Richards slowly made their way through the deep snowdrifts left in the wake of the blizzard. Four days they'd waited for the storm to pass and now five days later they had reached the tree line on the other side. Soon they came up on the abandoned wagon, and fearing the worst they searched for their friends.

By the end of the day, they found them. Beth was stiff and had likely died a few days before but John deliriously clung to life. With his arm wrapped around his wife and his black, frost bitten fingers entwined in Beth's hair, John Stared back at the pass that had bested him.

"We'll get through this, didn't I tell you Beth, we'll get through this." This was all that John would say, and they knew there was nothing to be done. By nightfall, John died from exposure, and he and his wife were buried facing west; another family broken along the Oregon Trails.

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