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A short story by Kate Dickinson Sweetser

Virginia Reed: Midnight Heroine Of The Plains...

Title:     Virginia Reed: Midnight Heroine Of The Plains...
Author: Kate Dickinson Sweetser [More Titles by Sweetser]

Midnight Heroine Of The Plains In Pioneer Days Of America

On a lovely April morning in 1846 there was an unusual stir in the streets of Springfield, Illinois, for such an early hour. From almost every house some one was hurrying, and as neighbor nodded to neighbor the news passed on:

"The wagons are ready--they are going!"

As the sun mounted slowly in the cloudless sky, from all parts of town there still flocked friends and relatives of the small band of emigrants who were about to start on their long trip across the plains, going to golden California.

California--magic word! Not one of those who were hurrying to wish the travelers God-speed, nor any of the band who were leaving their homes, but felt the thrilling promise and the presage of that new country toward which the emigrants were about to turn their faces.

The crowd of friends gathered at the Reeds' home, where their great prairie-wagons and those of the Donners were drawn up in a long line before the door; the provision wagons, filled to overflowing with necessities and luxuries, the family wagons waiting for their human freight. Mr. James F. Reed, who had planned the trip, was one of Springfield's most highly respected citizens, and the Donner brothers, who lived just outside of the town, had enthusiastically joined him in perfecting the details of the journey, and had come in to town the night before, with their families, to be ready for an early start. And now they were really going!

All through the previous winter, in the evening, when the Reeds were gathered before their big log fire, they had talked of the wonderful adventure, while Mrs. Reed's skilful fingers fashioned such garments as would be needed for the journey. And while she sewed, Grandma Keyes told the children marvelous tales of Indian massacres on those very plains across which they were going to travel when warmer days came. Grandma told her breathless audience of giant red men, whose tomahawks were always ready to descend on the heads of unlucky travelers who crossed their path--told so many blood-curdling stories of meetings between white men and Indian warriors that the little boys, James and Thomas, and little black-eyed Patty and older Virginia, were spellbound as they listened.

To Virginia, an imaginative girl, twelve years old, the very flames, tongueing their way up the chimney in fantastic shapes, became bold warriors in mortal combat with emigrants on their way to the golden West, and even after she had gone to bed it seemed to her that "everything in the room, from the high old-fashioned bedposts down to the shovel and tongs, was transformed into the dusky tribe in paint and feathers, all ready for a war-dance" as they loomed large out of shadowy corners. She would hide her head under the clothes, scarcely daring to wink or breathe, then come boldly to the surface, face her shadowy foes, and fall asleep without having come to harm at the hands of the invisibles.

Going to California--oh the ecstatic terror of it! And now the day and the hour of departure had come!

The Reeds' wagons had all been made to order, and carefully planned by Mr. Reed himself with a view to comfort in every detail, so they were the best of their kind that ever crossed the plains, and especially was their family wagon a real pioneer car de luxe, made to give every possible convenience to Mrs. Reed and Grandma Keyes. When the trip had been first discussed by the Reeds, the old lady, then seventy-five years old and for the most part confined to her bed, showed such enthusiasm that her son declared, laughingly: "I declare, mother, one would think you were going with us."

"I am!" was the quick rejoinder. "You do not think I am going to be left behind when my dear daughter and her children are going to take such a journey as that, do you? I thought you had more sense, James!"

And Grandma did go, despite her years and her infirmities.

The Reeds' family wagon was drawn by four yoke of fine oxen, and their provision wagons by three. They had also cows, and a number of driving and saddle horses, among them Virginia's pony Billy, on whose back she had been held and taught to ride when she was only seven years old.

The provision wagons were filled to overflowing with all sorts of supplies. There were farming implements, to be used in tilling the land in that new country to which they were going, and a bountiful supply of seeds. Besides these farm supplies, there were bolts of cotton prints and flannel for dresses and shirts, also gay handkerchiefs, beads, and other trinkets to be used for barter with the Indians. More important still, carefully stowed away was a store of fine laces, rich silks and velvets, muslins and brocades, to be exchanged for Mexican land-grants. The family wagon, too, had been fitted up with every kind of commodity, including a cooking-stove, with its smoke-stack carried out through the canvas roof of the wagon, and a looking-glass which Mrs. Reed's friends had hung on the canvas wall opposite the wagon door--"so you will not forget to keep your good looks, they said!"

And now the party was ready to start. Among its number were Mrs. Reed and her husband, with little Patty, the two small boys, James and Thomas, and the older daughter, Virginia; the Donners, George and Jacob, with their wives and children; Milton Elliott, driver of the Reed family wagon, who had worked for years in Mr. Reed's big sawmill; Eliza Baylis, the Reeds' domestic, with her brother and a number of other young men, some of them drivers, others merely going for adventure. In all, on that lovely April morning, it was a group of thirty-one persons around whom friends and relatives clustered for last words and glimpses, and it was a sad moment for all. Mrs. Reed broke down when she realized that the moment of parting had really come, while Mr. Reed, in response to the good wishes showered on him, silently gripped hand after hand, then he hurried into the house with Milt Elliott, and presently came out carrying Grandma, at the sight of whom her friends cheered lustily. She waved her thin hand in response as she was lifted gently into the wagon and placed on a large feather-bed, where she was propped up with pillows and declared herself to be perfectly comfortable.

And indeed her resting-place was very much like a room, for the wagon had been built with its entrance at the side, like an old-fashioned stage-coach, and from the door one stepped into a small square room. At the right and left were spring seats with high backs, which were comfortable for riding, and over the wheels for the length of the wagon, a wide board had been placed, making what Virginia called a "really truly second story" on which beds were made up. Under this "second story" were roomy compartments in which were stowed away stout bags holding the clothing of the party, each bag plainly marked with a name. There was also a full supply of medicines, with lint and bandages for an emergency, and Mr. Reed had provided a good library of standard books, not only to read during the journey, but knowing they could not be bought in the new West. Altogether, from provision wagon to family caravan, there was a complete equipment for every need, and yet when they arrived in California, as one of the party said, "We were almost destitute of everything!"

The wagons were loaded, Grandma was safely stowed away in her warm bed, with little Patty sitting on its end where she could hold back the door flap that the old lady might have a last glimpse of her old home--the hard farewells had been said, and now Mr. Reed called in as cheery a voice as he could command, "All aboard!"

Milton Elliott cracked his whip, and the long line of prairie-wagons, horses and cattle started. Then came a happy surprise. Into saddles and vehicles sprang more than a score of friends and relatives who were going to follow the party to their first night's encampment, while many of Virginia's schoolmates ran at the side of the wagon through the principal streets of the town until one by one they dropped back from fatigue, Virginia waving a continued farewell from the wagon while they were in sight.

The first day's trip was not a long one, as it was thought wise to make the start easy for man and beast. Most of the way Virginia rode on Billy, sometimes beside the wagon, then again galloping ahead with her father. A bridge was seen in the distance, and Patty and the boys cried out to Milton, "Please stop, and let us get out and walk over it; the oxen may not take us across safely!" Milt threw back his head and roared with laughter at such an idea, but he halted to humor them, then with a skilful use of his loud-voiced "Gee! and Haw!" made the huge beasts obey his will.

On the line of great wagons wound its way beyond the town, until the sun was sinking in the west, when they stopped for the night on the ground where the Illinois State House now stands. The oxen were then unhitched and the wagons drawn up in a hollow circle or "corral," within the protection of which cattle and horses were set free for the night, while outside the corral a huge camp-fire soon blazed, around which the party gathered for their first evening meal together, and their last one with those friends who had come thus far on their way with them. It was a determinedly merry group around the fire, and stories were told and songs sung, which to the radiant Virginia were a foretaste of such coming adventure as was beyond her wildest dreams.

As she sat in the glow of the camp-fire, with sleepy Patty's head pillowed on her lap, she felt even more than before the thrill of this wonderful adventuring. To keep a record of her travels,--that was the thing to do! Full of the idea, she pinned together sheets of wrapping-paper into a bulky blank-book, on the outside of which she printed:

Going to California. 1846.
From that time she kept a faithful though not a continuous record of the experiences of what came to be known later as "the ill-fated Donner party of martyr pioneers." And from that record she later wrote her story of their journeying to the golden West.

By the eleventh day of May the band of emigrants had reached the town of Independence, Missouri, and Virginia's record says:

"Men and beasts are in fine condition. There is nothing in all the world so fascinating as to travel by day in the warm sunshine and to camp by night under the stars. Here we are just outside the most bustling town I ever saw and it is good news to find a large number of inhabitants with their wagons, ready to cross the prairie with us. Who knows, perhaps some new friendships will be made as we all go on together! They all seem to feel as eager to go as we are, and everybody is glad. I will get acquainted with as many as I can now, and bring cheerful ones to visit Grandma, for she feels rather homesick, except when Patty and I make her laugh."

Again, "The first few days of travel through the Territory of Kansas were lovely. The flowers were so bright and there were so many birds singing. Each day father and I would ride ahead to find a place to camp that night. Sometimes when we galloped back we would find the wagons halting at a creek, while washing was done or the young people took a swim. Mother and I always did our wash at night, and spread it on the bushes to dry. All this is such a peaceful recital that I began to think I need not keep a diary at all, till one hot day when I was in the wagon helping Patty cut out some doll's dresses, Jim came running up to the wagon, terribly excited and crying out:

"'Indians, Virginia! Come and see! They have to take us across the river!' Out he rushed and I after him, with every story Grandma ever told us dancing through my brain. Now there was going to be an adventure! But there wasn't. We had reached the Caw River, where there were Indians to ferry us across. They were real and red and terrifying, but I never flinched. If they brought out tomahawks in midstream, I would be as brave as a pioneer's daughter should be. But would you believe me, those Indians were as tame as pet canaries, and just shot us across the river without glancing at us, and held out their big hands with a grunt, for the coins! That was one of the greatest disappointments of my life."

All went well with the travelers during those first weeks of the trip, and no one enjoyed it more than Grandma Keyes after she got over being homesick. But when they reached the Big Blue river, it was so swollen that they had to lie by and wait for it to go down, or make rafts to cross it on. As soon as they stopped traveling Grandma began to fail, and on the 29th of May, with scarcely any pain, she died. Virginia's diary says: "It was hard to comfort mother until I persuaded her that to die out in that lovely country, and with most of your family around you, was far better than living longer at home. Besides, she might have died in Springfield. So mother cheered up a little, while all the party helped us in making the sad preparations. A coffin was made from a cotton-wood tree, and a young man from home found a gray stone slab and cut Grandma's name, birthplace, and age on it. A minister of the party made a simple address, and with the sunlight filtering through the trees we buried her under an oak-tree and covered the grave with wild flowers. Then we had to go on our way and leave dear Grandma in the vast wilderness, which was so hard for mother that for many days I did not take my rides on Billy, but just stayed with her. But the landscape was so comfortingly beautiful that at last she cheered up and began to feel that Grandma was not left alone in the forest, but was with God. Strange to say, that grave in the woods has never been disturbed; around it grew up the city of Manhattan, Kansas, and there it is in the city cemetery of to-day."

The river did not go down, as the men had hoped, so they began to cut down trees and split them into twenty-five-foot logs which were hollowed out and joined together by cross timbers, these were firmly lashed to stakes driven into the bank, and ropes were tied to each end to pull the rafts back and forth across the river. It was no easy matter to get the heavy wagons down the steep bank to the rafts, and they had to be held back by the ropes and let down slowly so the wheels would run into the hollowed logs. The women and children stayed in the wagons, and talked and laughed gaily, that they might not show the fear they felt as they balanced above the swollen river. But it was crossed safely and then on the oxen jogged over a rough road until the great Valley of the Platte was reached, where the road was good and the country beautiful beyond expression. Virginia says: "Our party was now so large that there was a line of forty wagons winding its way like a serpent through the valley. There was no danger of any kind, and each day was happier than the one before. How I enjoyed galloping over the plains on Billy!" she exclaims, adding, "At night we young folks would sit around the camp-fire, chatting merrily, and often a song would be heard, or some clever dancer would give us a barn-door jig on the hind gate of a wagon!"

The caravan wound its slow way westward, making from fifteen to twenty miles a day, and always at night, when the party camped, a corral was formed to protect the cattle from thieving Indians, who, says Virginia, sadly, "are not like grandma's Indians. They treat us kindly except for taking our things, which is annoying but not terrifying." And she adds, "We have fine fare for those who like to eat game, as we have so many good riflemen in the party who are always bringing it in." She then confesses, "I certainly never thought I would be relishing antelope and buffalo steaks, but they are good food when one has grown used to them. Often I ride with father in a buffalo hunt, which is very thrilling. We all help Eliza, who has turned into a fine camp cook. As soon as we reach the place where we are to spend the night all hands get to work, and, my, but things taste good when that meal is ready! When we drove into the South Fork of the Platte, Eliza had the cream ready to churn, and while we were fording the stream she worked so hard that she turned out several pounds of butter."

The diary gives quite a long narrative here as follows:

"By the Fourth of July we were near Fort Laramie in Dakota, and what a sight I saw as we approached the fort. 'Grandma's Indians!' I exclaimed, as I saw bands of horses grazing on the plains and Indians smeared with war-paint and armed with hunting-knives, tomahawks, bows and arrows, moving about in the sunlight. They did not seem to notice us as we drove up to the strongly fortified walls around the buildings of the American Fur Company, but by the time we were ready to leave, the red men and their squaws were pressing close to the wagons to take trinkets which we had ready for them. Little Patty stood by me and every now and then she squeezed my arm and cried, 'Look! Look!' as the Indians crowded around us. Many of the squaws and papooses were gorgeous in white doeskin suits gaily trimmed with beads, and were very different from us in our linsey dresses and sunbonnets.

"As soon as father met the manager of the Fur Company, he advised us to go right on as soon as we could, because he said the Sioux were on the war-path, going to fight the Crows or Blackfeet, and their march would be through the country which we had to cross, and they might treat us badly, or rob us, as they were in an ugly humor. This greatly frightened some of the women, and to calm them the men cleaned and loaded their rifles and did everything they could to hurry away from the fort. We were there only four days, and when we drove away we met the mounted Indians, about three hundred of them, tomahawks, war-paint, and all! They looked very handsome and impressive as they advanced in a stately procession, two abreast, and rode on before our train, then halted and opened ranks. As our wagons passed between their lines they took green twigs from between their teeth and tossed them to us in token of friendship. Then, having shown their good faith, they crowded around our wagons and showed great curiosity at the funny little smoke-stack sticking through the top of our family wagon. A brave caught a glimpse of his war-paint and feathers in our looking-glass, which hung opposite the door, and he was fascinated. Beckoning to his comrades, he pointed to it, and to the strange reflection of himself, and they all fairly pushed to the front, to see themselves, in the glass. Unfortunately at that time I rode up on Billy, and at once the Indians forgot everything except their admiration of my pony. They swarmed around me, grunting, nodding, and gesturing, and brought buffalo robes and tanned buckskin, also pretty beaded moccasins and robes made of grass, and signed to me that they would give all these in exchange for Billy. I shook my head as hard as I could shake it, but they were determined to have Billy. They made signs that they would give their ponies for mine, but again I shook my head. They talked together awhile, then one of them triumphantly brought me an old coat which had evidently belonged to a soldier, and seemed much surprised that its brass buttons were not enough of an inducement to make me give up the coveted prize. Though both father and I continued to refuse their request as positively as ever, they still swarmed around us and looked at me in a most embarrassing way. I did not mind much, but father seemed angry and he said, sternly: 'Virginia, you dismount at once and let one of the men take Billy. Get into the wagon now.' When father spoke in that way I was never slow to obey, so I climbed into the wagon, and, being anxious to get a better look at the Indians, I took a field-glass out of the rack where it hung and put it to my eyes. The glass clicked as I took it from the rack and like a flash the Indians wheeled their ponies and scattered, taking the noise for the click of firearms. I turned to mother and laughed.

"'You see you need not be afraid, mother dear,' I said; 'I can fight the whole Sioux tribe with a spy-glass! If they come near the wagon again just watch me take it up and see them run!'"

Those were happy days of adventuring in a new and smiling country, and all were in high spirits when on the 19th of July they reached the Little Sandy River, where they encamped, and all gathered together to talk over whether to take a new route which had been opened up by Mr. Lansford Hastings, called the Hastings Cut-off. This route passed along the southern shore of the Great Salt Lake, then joined the Old Fort Hall emigrant road on the Humboldt River. The new route was said to shorten the trip by about three hundred miles, and Virginia says in her diary, "Father was so eager to reach California quickly, that he was strongly in favor of taking the Cut-off, while others were equally firm in their objections to taking such a risk. At that time our party had grown to be a large one, for so many families had joined us on our way across the plains, and all had to have their say about the matter.

"There was a long discussion of the merits of the two routes, and as a result, at last we decided to split up, for a number of the party preferred not to risk taking the new route, while eighty-seven of us, including our family and the Donners, decided to take the Cut-off.

"On the 20th of July we broke camp and left the little Sandy, the other division of the party taking the old trail to Fort Hall, and the rest of us, who were called 'the Donner party' from that time, taking the new one.

"When we reached Fort Bridger, we were told that Mr. Hastings, whom we had expected to find there, had gone ahead to pilot a large emigrant train, and had left word that all later bands were to follow his trail; that they would find an abundant supply of wood, water, and pasturage along the whole line of road except for one forty-mile drive; that there were no difficult canons to pass; and that the road was mostly good. This was encouraging and we traveled on comfortably for a week, when we reached the spot where Webber River breaks through the mountains into a canon. There, by the side of the road, was a forked branch with a note stuck in its cleft, left by Hastings, saying, 'I advise all parties to encamp and wait for my return. The road I have taken is so rough that I fear wagons will not be able to get through to the Great Salt Lake Valley.' He mentioned another and better route which avoided the canon altogether, and at once father, Mr. Stanton and William Pike said they would go ahead over this road, and if possible meet Hastings and bring him back to pilot us through to the valley.

"While the men went off to try to find Hastings, we encamped and waited for them to come back. In five days father came alone, having become separated from his companions, who he feared might have been lost. They had met Hastings, but he had refused to leave his party for their sake. Finally, however, father had insisted that he go with them to a high peak of the Wahsatch Mountains and from there point out to them the direction our party ought to take. Coming down from the peak, father lost sight of Stanton and Pike and was forced to come on alone, taking notes and blazing trees to help him in retracing his path when he should have us to guide. Searchers were at once sent out after the lost men, while we broke camp and started on our risky journey. It was easy enough traveling at first, but the following day we were brought to a sudden stop by a patch of dense woodland which it took a whole day's chopping to open up enough for our wagons to pass through. From there we chopped and pushed our way through what seemed an impassable wilderness of high peaks and rock-bound canons, and then faced a great rough gulch. Believing it would lead out to the valley, our men again set to work vigorously, and for six long days they chopped until they were almost exhausted. Then a new party of emigrants caught up with us and, aided by three fresh men, the eight-mile road through the gulch was finished. It did not lead to the opening we had expected, but into a pretty mountain dell, but we were happy, because we found the searchers there with Mr. Stanton and Mr. Pike. They reported that we must go back on the newly made road and cross a more distant range of mountains in order to strike the trail to the valley. That was a moment of terror, even to the most courageous of our valiant band, but everyone forced a smile and a cheerful word as we started to retrace our way. We had five days more of traveling and road-making, and climbed a mountain so steep that six yoke of oxen had to pull each wagon up the steep ascent. Then we crossed the river flowing from Utah Lake to Great Salt Lake and at last found the trail of the Hastings party, thirty days after we set out for the point we had expected to reach in ten or twelve days.

"While we rested we took an inventory of our provisions, and found the supply was not sufficient to last until we should reach California. Here was a predicament! Mr. Donner called for volunteers to ride ahead on horseback to Sutter's Fort, to tell of our sorry plight and ask Captain Sutter to send back provisions by them for us, as we traveled toward them. Mr. Stanton and Mr. McCutchen said they would go to the fort, and rode away on their errand of mercy.

"Our wagons, meanwhile, wound their slow way along, far behind the horsemen, who were soon out of our sight, and two days later we found a lovely green valley where there were twenty wells of clear, sparkling water to cool our parched throats, which were only used to the alkaline pools from which we had been obliged to drink. Close beside the largest well we found a rough board, stuck in the ground with strips of white paper pinned to it, and around the board pieces of the paper were strewn on the turf, as if they had been torn off the board. 'There has been some message written on that paper. We must piece the bits together,' declared Mrs. Donner. No sooner said than done. Laying the board on her lap, she began to patch the scraps together, while we eagerly watched her. At last the words could be read: '2 days--2 nights--hard driving--cross--desert--reach water.' This was evidently meant as a warning to us, and the thought of two days' hard driving through the desert was anything but cheering. In fact, it would be such a strain on our cattle that we remained where we were, with the fine water to drink and good pasturage for three days. Then we filled our water casks, made all other preparations for the forty-mile drive, and started off again. We traveled for two days and nights, suffering from heat and thirst by day and from bitter cold by night. At the end of the second day we still saw the vast desert ahead of us as far as we could look. There was no more fodder for our cattle, our water-casks were empty, and the burning rays of the sun scorched us with pitiless and overpowering heat. Father rode on ahead in search of water, and scarcely had he left us than our beasts began to drop from exhaustion and thirst. Their drivers instantly unhitched them and drove them ahead, hoping to meet father and find wells where the thirsty beasts could be refreshed. They did find father and he showed them the way to wells he had found where the beasts could drink, then he traveled back to us, reaching our camp at dawn. We waited all that day in the desert, with the sun beating down on us with cruel heat, and still drivers and cattle had not come back. It was a desperate plight, for another night without water would mean death. We must set out on foot and try to reach some of the other wagons, whose owners had gone ahead." Virginia adds, "Never shall I forget that night, when we walked mile after mile in the darkness, every step seeming to be the very last we could take, each of us who were older and stronger, taking turns in carrying the younger children. Suddenly out of the black night came a swift, rushing noise of one of the young steers, who was crazed by thirst and rushing madly toward us. Father snatched up little Patty, and commanded the rest of us to keep close to his side, while he drew his pistol. We could hear the heavy snorting of the maddened beast, when he turned and dashed off into the darkness, leaving us weak and shivering with fright and relief. And still we were obliged to drag our weary feet on, for ten long miles, when we reached the Jacob Donner wagons. The family were all asleep inside, so we lay down on the ground under the protecting shadow of the family wagon. A bitter wind was howling across the desert, and it so chilled us that we crept close together, and if all five of our dogs had not snuggled up close to us, warming us with the heat from their big bodies, we would probably had died from cold.

"At dawn father rushed off to find his cattle, but in vain. He met the drivers, who told him that as the frenzied beasts were being driven toward the wells, they had broken loose and been lost in the darkness. At once all the men of the company turned out to help father to search for them, but none were ever found except one ox and a cow, and in that plight we were left stranded on the desert, eight hundred miles from California! To turn back to Fort Bridger was an impossibility--to go forward meant such hardship as blanched even my sun-reddened cheeks, and I shuddered at the thought that mother must live through greater privations than those we had already encountered. Well it was that the future was hidden from our eyes on that day in the desert!

"Two oxen were loaned father, which, yoked together with our one cow and ox, would draw one wagon, but not the family one, which had grown to be so home-like to us in our journeyings. It was decided to dig a trench, and cache all of our things except those which we could take in the one wagon. A cache is made by digging a hole in the ground and sinking in it the bed of a wagon, in which articles are packed; the hole is then covered with boards and earth, so they are completely hidden, and when we buried ours we hoped some day to return and take them away."

Having cached so many of their treasures, on the party went as bravely as possible until they reached Gravelly Ford on the Humboldt, where on the 5th of October there was such a tragic occurrence that Virginia says, "I grew up into a woman in a night, and life was never the same again, although for the sake of mother and the children I hid my feelings as well as I could."

Here her record is detailed, and as concise as possible. She writes:

"I will tell it as clearly and quickly as I can. We had reached a short sandy hill, and as the oxen were all tired, it was the custom at such places for the drivers to double up teams and help one another up the hill. A driver named Snyder, for some unaccountable reason, decided to go up alone. His oxen could not pull their load, and Snyder, angry at them, began to beat them. Father, who had gone on ahead, looking for the best road, came back, and in trying to make Snyder stop abusing his beasts, roused his anger to the point of frenzy. Father said, 'We can settle this, John, when we get up the hill.' 'No,' said Snyder. 'We will settle it now!' and, jumping on the tongue of his wagon, he struck father a hard blow over the head with his heavy whip-stock. One blow followed another, and father was stunned, as well as blinded by the blood streaming down from the gashes in his head. The whip was about to drop again when mother sprang between the two men. Father saw the uplifted whip and had only time to cry 'John! John!' when down came the blow on mother's head. Quick as a flash father's hunting-knife was out and Snyder fell, mortally wounded, and fifteen minutes later died. Then father realized, too late, what he had done. Dashing the blood from his eyes, he knelt over the dying man, who had been his friend, with remorse and agony in his expression.

"Camp was pitched at once, our wagon being some distance from the others, and father, whose head was badly cut, came to me.

"'Daughter,' he asked, 'do you think you can dress these wounds in my head? Your mother is not able and they must be attended to.' I said, promptly: 'Yes, if you will tell me what to do.' Then we went into the wagon, where we would not be disturbed, and I washed and dressed his wounds as best I could. When I had done what he told me to do, I burst out crying, and father clasped me in his arms, saying: 'I should not have asked so much of you!' I told him it was pity for him that made me cry. Then he talked to me quietly until I had controlled my feelings and was able to go back to the tent where mother was lying, weak and dazed by the happenings of the day. And there were worse things to come. In our party there was a man who had been in the habit of beating his wife until father told him he must either stop it or measures would be taken to make him. He did not dare abuse her again, but he hated father from that time, and now he had his chance for revenge. After Snyder had been buried, and father had sadly watched the last clod of earth piled on the grave, the men of the party held a conference from which our family were excluded. We waited a short distance away, in terrified suspense to know the outcome of it, as we were sure it concerned father. And it did. His plea of self-defense was not acceptable to them, they said, and we shivered as we saw such bitterness on the men's faces as seemed sure would lead to lynching. Father saw it, but he was no coward. Baring his neck, he stepped forward, and proudly said, 'Come on, gentlemen!' No one moved, and presently he was told that he must leave the party, an exile--must go out in the wilderness alone without food or weapons. It was a cruel sentence, for it might result either in starvation or in murder by the Indians, and it is no wonder that mother was beside herself with fright, that we children knew not what to do or where to turn for help. Father heard the sentence in silence, then facing the group of old-time friends, with brave eyes, he said: 'I will not go. My act was one of self-defense, and as such is justified before God and man.'

"Meanwhile, my mother had been thinking, as she told me later, and she begged father to accept the sentence and leave the party, thinking it would be less dangerous than to remain among men who had become his enemies. He firmly refused until she pleaded that the whole party were now practically destitute of food, and if he remained, as an outcast, he would be obliged to see his children starve, while by going he might be able to meet them with food which he had procured somewhere. After a fearful struggle with his own desires, father consented, but not until the men of the party had promised to care for his innocent wife and children. Then, after he had held mother in his arms for a long agonized moment, he turned to me, and I forced my eyes to meet his with such fearless trust that he looked less despairing as he picked up Patty for a last hug and gripped the boys with an emotion too deep for any words; then he went off, an exile in the desert.

"I had no idea what I was going to do about it, but I knew I must do something. Through the long hours of the day, while I was busy soothing and comforting mother, who felt it keenly that we were left as much alone as if we were lepers, I was thinking busily. Our wagon was drawn up apart from the others, and we ate our scanty evening meal in silence. Milt Elliott and some others tried to talk with us, and show their friendliness, but mother would only answer in monosyllables and commanded the children to do the same. We were an utterly desolate, frightened group as darkness fell over us. I was busy helping the children get to bed, and then I found mother in such a state of collapse that I could think of nothing but comforting and quieting her.

"At last she fell asleep, and I crept to my bed, but I could not sleep. I must act. At last, I made a decision. I was strong and fearless, and father had no food or light or supplies, out there alone in the trackless wilderness. I stole to my mother's side and she roused at my light touch.

"'Mother, dear,' I whispered, 'I am going out to find father and take him some food, and his gun, and ammunition.' She roused and exclaimed:

"'What do you mean, child? You cannot find your father!'

"'I'm not going alone,' I replied 'I've asked Milt and he says he'll go with me.'

"Without giving her a chance to say I must not go, I hurried to the supply-chest and found some crackers, a small piece of bacon, some coffee and sugar. I took a tin cup, too, and a dipper for father to make coffee in, and packed his gun, pistols, and ammunition with them. His lantern was on the shelf, and I put a fresh piece of candle in it and matches in my pocket--then I was ready to start.

"Everything had to be done very quickly and quietly, for there would be a great risk if the children knew what I was going to do, or if any others of the party discovered my intention. So I did everything on tip-toe, and holding my breath for fear of being discovered.

"Mother called, 'Virginia!' and I went to her side. 'How will you find him in the darkness?'

"'I shall look for his horse's tracks and follow them,' I whispered. At that moment Milton's cautious step was heard at the side of the wagon, and with a last hug mother released me, and Milt and I stole off on our dangerous expedition.

"Out into the darkness we crept. Stealthily we hid in the shadows cast by the wagons in the flickering light of the dying camp-fire--cautiously we stole up behind the unsuspicious sentinel who was wearily tramping back and forth, and we held our breath for fright as he suddenly looked over the sleeping camp, then peered out into the mysterious darkness of the desert, but he did not see us. For safety we lay down on the ground, and silently dragged our bodies along until we were well out of his sight and hearing; then we pushed our feet along without lifting them, to be sure they did not fall into some unseen hole or trap, and now and again we were startled by some noise that to our excited senses seemed to mean that a wild animal was near us. My eyes had been searching the darkness around and before us, and at last I whispered:

"'Stop, Milt. Let us light the lantern!'

"Then stooping down, I spread out my skirts so that not the slightest flash of a match or gleam of light could be seen by the sentinel or by any one in the encampment. Milton lighted the lantern. I took it in one hand, and with the other held my skirts up in such a way as to shield its beams, and in its feeble light I searched the ground still frantically for some trace of the footprints of father's horse. Although I was nervous and excited enough to fly on the wings of lightning, I did not let the feeling get the better of me, but made a deliberate search of every inch of ground, making a complete circle around the outskirts of the camp, for I was determined to find those tracks. At last! There they were, unmistakable and clear. I gave a smothered cry and showed them to Milt. Then, still with the lantern carefully covered, so that no unguarded flash might bring a death-dealing shot from the sentinel's rifle, I followed where they led, Milt close behind, carrying the gun and provisions. Mile after mile we followed--followed, now seeing the tracks, now losing them. Oh what an agony was compressed in those awful hours!

"Suddenly on the midnight air came the wild howl of coyotes. From the distance echoed an even more hideous cry--that of the panther, seeking for prey. At that sound Milton's hair literally stood on end, and if I had shown one sign of weakening he would gladly have given up the search. But I went on, closing my ears to the dreaded sounds. All of a sudden my heart beat so wildly that I was obliged to press my hand over it to quiet its hammering. What I heard or saw or felt I can never explain, but I know that all the terror of my thirteen years of life seemed to be condensed into one moment of dread. And yet go on I must, praying to God to protect us and let me find father. I pushed ahead, with panic holding me in its wild grip as I pictured a horrible death if we should be captured by Indians. Then suddenly with wide-strained eyes and fluttering heart, I forgot all weariness and fear. In the far distance a dim, flickering light. Gripping Milt's arm, I whispered:


"No sooner had I said it than I thought, 'Perhaps it is an Indian camp-fire.' But common sense put that aside, for I was sure I had seen father's horse's hoofprints, and certainly they would lead to him. But suppose he had been captured by Indians, and this fire we were coming to should lead to horrible disclosures. All this went through my mind, but I said nothing of it to Milton. I just went walking steadily on. Oh, how far away the light was! Would we never reach it? It seemed as if the more we walked the farther from it we were. But no, it was he--it was--it was! With a glad cry of, 'Oh, father! father!' I rushed forward and flung myself in his arms.

"'My child, my Virginia!' he exclaimed, when surprise had let him find his voice. 'You should not have come here!'

"'But I am here,' I cried, 'and I've brought you some food and your gun, and a blanket, and a little coffee, and some crackers! And here's a tin cup, too, and your pistols, and some powder and caps. Oh, and here are some matches, too!' I exclaimed, holding out one after another of the precious articles to his astonished gaze, and laughing and crying as I talked.

"It was almost pitiful to see father's astonishment at the thought that some one had come to help him in his terrible plight, and as he took the things I had brought he kissed and fondled me like a little child, and said that, God helping him, he would hurry on to California and secure a home for his beloved family--and it seems conceited to mention it, but he called me his 'brave daughter' over and over again, until I was glad of the darkness to hide my burning cheeks. Then in the protecting darkness, with Milton to stand guard, we sat together and talked of mother and Patty and the boys, and of what we should do while we were parted from him. Father was the first to remember that dawn would soon flush the east, and rising, he kissed me again and tried to say farewell.

"'But I'm not going back!' I cried. 'I'm going with you. Milt will go back, but I am going on with you.' Seeing his stern, set face, I pleaded, piteously: 'Oh, don't send me back--I can never bear to see those cruel men again. Let me go with you?' He turned a white, drawn face to mine.

"'For mother's sake, dear,' he said, 'go back and take care of her. God will care for me.' Before I could cry out or make a move to go with him, he had gathered up the articles I had brought him, jumped on his horse, and ridden away into the solitude of the Western desert. Milton and I were left alone to find our way back to the encampment where mother was watching and waiting for me with an eager, aching heart. When my straining eyes had seen the last of that solitary figure riding off into the black desert, I turned abruptly away, and Milt and I crept back over the vast desert. Before there was a glimmer of dawn I was safely clasped in mother's arms, repeated my comforting news over and over again that we had found father, that he was well and on his way to that land toward which our own faces were turned."

In this simple, direct fashion has Virginia Reed told of a heroic deed in the history of brave pioneer girls--but as the story comes from her pen, it is scarcely possible to realize the anxiety, the torturing fear, the hideous danger of such an expedition as that one of hers when at midnight, on the great plains, she set out to find her father.

"After that," she says, "though we were obliged to travel on, and though the party tried to be friendly with us, our hearts were sore and our thoughts were centered on father, journeying on alone. But as we went on we found welcome surprises by the way. A note written by him, stuck on a forked twig by the wayside, feathers scattered over the path to show that he had killed a bird and was not hungry. When we had found such evidence of his being alive and well, mother would be light-hearted for a whole day. Then the signs ceased, and mother's despair was pitiful to see. Had he been killed by the Indians or perhaps died of starvation? Patty and I were afraid we would lose mother, too. But starvation was menacing the whole party, and she was roused to new strength in a desire to protect her children from that fate. And even more ominous in their portent of disaster, before us rose the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains, which we must cross before the heavy snows fell, and the question was, could we do it? We left our wagon behind, which was too heavy for the mountain trip, placed in it every article we could do without, packed what we needed in another, and struggled on as best we could until the 19th of October, when we had a great joy. As we were wearily traveling along the Truckee, up rode Mr. Stanton and with him were seven mules loaded with provisions! No angel from the skies could have been more welcome, and, hungry though we were, better than food was the news that father was alive and pushing on to the west. Mr. Stanton had met him near Sutter's Fort, and had given him provisions and a fresh horse. Oh, how relieved mother was! I think she could not have eaten a mouthful, hungry as she was, without the glad tidings. Father had asked Mr. Stanton to personally conduct us across the Sierras before snow came, which he had promised to do, so with new courage we hurried on, keeping a close watch on those gaunt peaks ahead of us, which we must climb before realizing our dreams. Although it was so early in the season, all trails were covered with snow, but we struggled on, mother riding one mule with Tommy in her lap, Patty and Jim on another, behind two Indians who had accompanied Mr. Stanton, and I riding behind our leader. But though we did all in our power to travel fast, we were obliged to call a halt before we reached the summit, and camp only three miles this side of the crest of the mountain range.

"That night," says Virginia, "came the dreaded snow. Around the camp-fires under the trees great feathery flakes came whirling down. The air was so full of them that one could see objects only a few feet away. The Indians knew we were doomed and one of them wrapped his blanket about him and stood all night under a tree. We children slept soundly on our cold bed of snow, which fell over us so thickly that every few moments my mother would have to shake the shawl--our only covering--to keep us from being buried alive. In the morning the snow lay deep on mountain and valley, and we were forced to turn back to a lake we had passed, which was afterward called 'Donner Lake,' where the men hastily put up some rough cabins--three of them known as the Breen cabin, the Murphy cabin, and the Reed-Graves cabin. Then the cattle were all killed, and the meat was placed in the snow to preserve it, and we tried to settle down as comfortably as we could, until the season of snow and ice should be over. But the comfort was a poor imitation of the real thing, and now and then, in desperation, a party started out to try to cross the mountains, but they were always driven back by the pitiless storms. Finally, a party of fifteen, known in later days as the 'Forlorn Hopes,' started out, ten men and five women, on snow-shoes, led by noble Mr. Stanton, and we heard no more of them until months afterward.

"No pen can describe the dreary hopelessness of those who spent that winter at Donner Lake," says Virginia. "Our daily life in that dark little cabin under the snow would fill pages and make the coldest heart ache. Only one memory stands out with any bright gleam. Christmas was near, and there was no way of making it a happy time. But my mother was determined to give us a treat on that day. She had hidden away a small store of provisions--a few dried apples, some beans, a bit of tripe, and a small piece of bacon. These she brought out, and when we saw the treasures we shouted for joy, and watched the meal cooking with hunger-sharpened eyes. Mother smiled at our delight and cautioned:

"'Children, eat slowly, for this one day you can have all you wish!' and never has any Christmas feast since driven out of my memory that most memorable one at Donner Lake.

"Somehow or other the cold dark days and weeks passed, but as they went by our store of supplies grew less and less, and many died from cold and hunger. Frequently we had to cut chips from the inside of our cabin to start a fire, and we were so weak from want of food that we could scarcely drag ourselves from one cabin to the other, and so four dreadful months wore away. Then came a day when a fact stared us in the face. We were starving. With an almost superhuman strength mother roused. 'I am going to walk across the mountains,' she said; 'I cannot see my children die for lack of food.' Quickly I stood beside her. 'I will go, too,' I said. Up rose Milt and Eliza. 'We will go with you,' they said. Leaving the children to be cared for by the Breens and Murphys, we made a brave start. Milt led the way on snow-shoes and we followed in his tracks, but Eliza gave out on the first day and had to go back, and after five days in the mountains, we, too, turned back and mother was almost exhausted, and we went back just in time, for that night there was the most fearful storm of the winter, and we should have died if we had not had the shelter of our cabins. My feet had been badly frozen, and mother was utterly spent from climbing one high mountain after another, but we felt no lasting bad effects from the venture. But we had no food! Our cabins were roofed over with hides, which now we had to take down and boil for food. They saved life, but to eat them was like eating a pot of glue, and I could not swallow them. The roof of our cabin having been taken off, the Breens gave us a shelter, and when Mrs. Breen discovered what I had tried to hide from my own family, that I could not eat the hide, she gave me little bits of meat now and then from their fast-dwindling store.

"One thing was my great comfort from that time," says Virginia. "The Breens were the only Catholics in the party, and prayers were said regularly every night and morning in their little cabin, Mr. Breen reading by the light of a small pine torch, which I held, kneeling by his side. There was something inexpressibly comforting to me in this simple service, and one night when we had all gone to bed, huddled together to keep from freezing, and I felt it would not be long before we would all go to sleep never to wake again in this world, all at once I found myself on my knees, looking up through the darkness and making a vow that if God would send us relief and let me see my father again, I would become a Catholic. And my prayer was answered.

"On the evening of February 19th, we were in the cabin, weak and starving, when we heard Mr. Breen's voice outside, crying:

"'Relief, thank God! Relief!'

"In a moment, before our unbelieving eyes, stood seven men sent by Captain Sutter from the fort, and they had brought an ample supply of flour and jerked beef, to save us from the death which had already overtaken so many of our party. There was joy at Donner Lake that night, for the men said: 'Relief parties will come and go until you have all crossed the mountains safely.' But," Virginia's diary says: "mingled with one joy were bitter tears. Even strong men sat and wept as they saw the dead lying about on the snow, some even unburied, as the living had not had strength to bury them. I sorrowed most for Milt Elliott--our faithful friend, who seemed so like a brother, and when he died, mother and I dragged him out of the cabin and covered him with snow, and I patted the pure white snow down softly over all but his face--and dragged myself away, with a heart aching from the pain of such a loss.

"But we were obliged to turn our thoughts to the living and their future, and eagerly listened to the story of the men, who told us that when father arrived at Sutter's Fort, after meeting Mr. Stanton, he told Captain Sutter of our desperate plight and the captain at once furnished horses and supplies, with which father and Mr. McCutchen started back, but were obliged to return to the fort, and while they were conferring with Captain Sutter about their next move, the seven living members of the 'Forlorn Hope' party who had left us the first part of the winter, arrived at the fort. Their pale, worn faces told the story and touched all hearts. Cattle were killed and men were up all night drying beef and making flour by hand-mills for us; then the party started out to our rescue and they had not reached us one moment too soon!

"Three days later, the first relief started from Donner Lake with a party of twenty-three men, women, and children, and our family was among them. It was a bright, sunny day and we felt happy, but we had not gone far when Patty and Tommy gave out. As gently as possible I told mother that they would have to go back to the lake and wait for the next expedition. Mother insisted that she would go back with them, but the relief party would not allow this, and finally she gave in and let the children go in care of a Mr. Hover. Even the bravest of the men had tears in their eyes when little Patty patted mother's cheek and said, 'I want to see papa, but I will take good care of Tommy, and I do not want you to come back.' Meanwhile we traveled on, heavy-hearted, struggling through the snow single file. The men on snow-shoes broke the way and we followed in their tracks. At night we lay down on the snow to sleep, to awake to find our clothing all frozen. At break of day we were on the road again.... The sunshine, which it would seem would have been welcome, only added to our misery. The dazzling reflection made it very trying to our eyes, while its heat melted our frozen clothing and made it cling to our bodies. Jim was too small to step in the tracks made by the men, and to walk at all he had to place his knee on the little hill of snow after each step, and climb over it. Mother and I coaxed him along by telling him that every step he took he was getting nearer papa and nearer something to eat. He was the youngest child that walked over the Sierra Nevada.

"On their way to our rescue the relief party from Sutter's Fort had left meat hanging on a tree for our use as we came out. What was their horror when we reached the spot to find that it had been taken by wild animals. We were starving again--where could we get food? As we were trying to decide on our next move, one of the men who was in the lead ahead stopped, turned, and called out:

"'Is Mrs. Reed with you? If she is, tell her Mr. Reed is here!' There before us stood father! At the sight, mother, weak with joy, fell on her knees with outstretched arms, while I tried to run to meet him, but found myself too much exhausted, so I just held out my arms, too, and waited! In a moment he was where we could touch him and know that he was flesh and blood and not just a beautiful dream. He had planned to meet us just where we were, and had brought with him fourteen men and a generous supply of bread.

"As he knelt and clasped mother in his arms she told him that Patty and Tommy were still at the lake, and with a horrified exclamation, he started to his feet. 'I must go for them at once,' he said. 'There is no time to lose.' With one long embrace off he went as if on winged feet, traveling the distance which had taken us five days to go in two, we afterward heard. He found the children alive, to his great joy, but, oh, what a sight met his gaze! The famished little children and the death-like look of all at the lake made his heart ache. He filled Patty's apron with biscuits, which she carried around, giving one to each person. He also had soup made for the infirm, and rendered every possible assistance to the sufferers, then, leaving them with provisions for seven days, he started off, taking with him seventeen who were able to travel, and leaving at the lake three of his men to aid those who were too weak to walk.

"Almost as soon as father's party started out, they were caught in a terrible snow-storm and hurricane, and his description of the scene later was heart-breaking, as he told about the crying of the half-frozen children, the lamenting of the mothers and suffering of the whole party, while above all could be heard the shrieking of the storm king. One who has never seen a blizzard in the Sierras can have no idea of the situation, but we knew. All night father and his men worked in the raging storm, trying to put up shelters for the dying women and children, while at times the hurricane would burst forth with such fury that he felt frightened on account of the tall timber surrounding the camp. The party was almost without food, having left so much with the sufferers at the lake. Father had cached provisions on his way to the lake, and had sent three men forward to get it before the storm set in, but they could not get back. At one time the fire was nearly gone; had it been lost, all would have perished. For three days and three nights they were exposed to the fury of that terrible storm; then father became snow-blind, and would have died if two of his faithful comrades had not worked over him all night, but from that time all responsibility of the relief work was taken from him, as he was physically unfit.

"At last the storm abated, and the party halted, while father with Mr. McCutchen and Mr. Miller went on ahead to send back aid for those who were exhausted from the terrible journeying. Hiram Miller carried Tommy, while Patty started bravely to walk, but soon she sank on the snow and seemed to be dying. All gathered around in frantic efforts to revive the child, and luckily father found some crumbs in the thumb of his woolen mitten which he warmed and moistened between his own lips, and fed Patty. Slowly she came to life again, and was carried along by different ones in the company, so that by the time the party reached Woodworth's Camp she was quite herself again, and as she sat cozily before a big camp-fire she fondled and talked to a tiny doll which had traveled with her all the way from Springfield and which was her chosen confidante.

"As soon as father's party reached Woodworth's Camp a third relief party started back to help those who were slowly following, and still another party went on to Donner Lake to the relief of those who were still living. But many of that emigrant band lie sleeping to-day on the shore of that quiet mountain lake, for out of the eighty-three persons who were snowed in there, forty-two died, and of the thirty-one emigrants who left Springfield on that lovely April morning of 1846, only eighteen lived to reach California. Among them were our family, who, despite the terrible hardships and hideous privations we had suffered, yet seemed to have been especially watched over by a kind Providence, for we all lived to reach our goal, and were the only family who were not obliged at some part of the journey to subsist on human flesh to keep from perishing. God was good to our family, and I, Virginia, testify to the heroic qualities which were developed in even the youngest of us, and for my own part, I gratefully recognize the blessings which came to me from an unqualified faith in God and an unfaltering trust that He would take care of us--which He did.

"Mother, Jimmy and I reached California and were taken at once to the home of the mayor, Mr. Sinclair, where we were given a warm welcome and where nothing was left undone for our comfort. But we were still too anxious to be happy, for we knew that father's party had been caught in the storm." Virginia says: "I can see mother now as she stood leaning against the door for hours at a time, looking at the mountains. At last--oh wonderful day--they came, father, Patty and Tommy! In the moment of blissful reunion tears and smiles intermingled and all the bitterness and losses and sorrows of the cruel journey were washed away, leaving only a tender memory of those noble souls who had fared forth, not to the land of their dreams, but to a far country whose maker and builder is God.

"And for us, it was spring in California!"

[The end]
Kate Dickinson Sweetser's short story: Virginia Reed: Midnight Heroine Of The Plains In Pioneer Days Of America