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BEHOLD THE SHINING MOUNTAINS

CHAPTER 51

THE MIRACLE ..............................................SPRING 1836

Landing in St. Louis on March 30th, the Whitmans and Spaldings found it more depraved than expected. Besides its atrocious, brawling waterfront, it boasted the most ostentatious Catholic Cathedral west of Boston. They skulked into the vast edifice during High Mass. The idol worship offended Narcissa, but not as much as seeing a grown man in a dress meandering about with his purse on fire. Narcissa and Marcus escaped the echoing vault for their meeting with William Sublette.

In his best suit, Sublette showed his shockingly white teeth in a grin under a shade oak on Church Street. Narcissa's jaw dropped at sight of this strapping stallion of a man with eagle eyes, hooked nose, cut chin and wavy saffron hair to his shoulders.

Sublette extended a monstrous hand with a newly scarred palm to Marcus. She'd dreamed of this meeting with "her Mountain Man" since she'd read of his "impossible" wagon trip in the 1830 newspapers. She expected Sublette's voice to be deeper than Husband's, but it wasn't.

"I'm Bill Sublette. Heard how ya saved Fontenelle's boys from cholera and cut a arryhead outa Jim Bridger's back. Felt I owed ya, before I even metchu and this purty lady. What's yer pleasure, Doc?"

"This is my wife, Narcissa."

Sublette bowed to her showing her his lustrous locks.

"We're going to Oregon and wondered if you'd guide us there."

Sublette's face remained impassive, but his eyes said he'd met a mad man. Sublette cleared his throat. "I come Down the Mountain in '34. I'll not be going back. Gonna git respectable like my Grandpa Whitley."

Narcissa smiled, "Aren't you pretty spry for retirement?"

Sublette held up his massive palm to them. "My advice is ta turn back."

Marcus and Narcissa recoiled. Narcissa grated, "God sent us to save the heathen in Oregon, Mr. Sublette. Good day, sir!"

"Hold on, Mrs. Whitman. I was Up the Mountain nigh 12 years. Most Mountain Men're dead in four. By 1830 Injuns had kilt 94 men in my fur company and 20 more's never been heard of agin. Grizzlies, snow and bad whiskey kilt a bunch more. Inna Sublette family, Blackfeet butchered Pinckney, Apaches crippled Milt, and Blackfoot bullet busted my arm. You Pilgrims go up there, Blackfeet're gonna kill ya slow, but they'll likely cutcher eyelids off first so ya won't miss how they do it."

For years, Narcissa'd dreamed of a Mountain Man lead-ing her into the sunset to save the heathens. Now this Sublette was sentencing her to death on a back street of this sin den.

Before she could protest, Marcus spoke calmly. "We respect your word, Mr. Sublette. But we respect God's Word more. We are going to Oregon, Sir."

Sublette shook his head. "Then ya better hook on with the American Fur caravan. My brother Milt's taking it ta Rendezvous. I'll ask Milt ta watch over ya. So long!" Sublette padded soundlessly toward the Green Tree Tavern, muttering under his breath and shaking his head.

As distraught as Narcissa, Marcus pressed her hand into both of his. "My dear Narcissa, I'll not Judas you to your death. You wanta turn back?"

"Not if the devil himself is digging my grave this minute!"

* * *

The steamer Chariton's rhythmic paddle wheel slapped the water. Its hull shuddered as it yawed from the placid Mississippi to buck the burly Missouri. The Spaldings huddled in heavy coats against the brisk evening breeze, but Marcus and Narcissa paid the chill air little mind.

Henry said "This War Department certificate was in our St. Louis mail. Says here, the government 'approved the design of the American Board,' giving you and me permission to settle in Oregon. It asks the Army and Indian Agents to assist -- but makes no mention of our women folk. What do you make of that, Marcus?"

"Bureaucrats. God will fill in the gaps."

Eliza asked, "What did Mr. Sublette say, Narcissa?"

Pretending not to hear Narcissa asked, "What did you think of the Catholic Cathedral?"

Eliza screeched, "My diary entry speaks my disgust." Opening it, she read, "The unpleasant sensations we experienced on witnessing their heartless forms and ceremonies, induced us soon to leave, rejoicing that we had never been left to embrace such delusions." She closed her diary. "What did Mr. Sublette say, Narcissa?"

Narcissa confided to Eliza, "Mr. Sublette's retired from the mountains, but you'll be pleased to know he's having his trusted brother Milton watch over our journey."

Eliza stood on tiptoes and hugged Narcissa, "How glorious! Henry let's rest before Evening Prayers." The Spaldings went below as the moon rose dancing on the waves.

Marcus whispered, "Didn't you evade Eliza?"

Narcissa watched the moonbeams play about the deck. She saw Marcus in a new light after he'd stood up so resolutely to Mountain Man Bill Sublette. "Perhaps, but Eliza's state of mind demands delicacy, and I spoke the truth."

Marcus laughed raucously for the first time in her presence. "You served Eliza rabbit stew, but you left out the rabbit!" Narcissa's tinkling laughter was lost in his thunderous bellering.

She laid her soft cheek against his stubbly chin and pointed down the moon's bright watery path, "There's our way to adventure and a new life together."

Before Marcus could reply, Reverend Spalding bulled on deck, shouting, "You're late for Evening Prayers! Don't apologize to me. Ask forgiveness from your Maker."

* * *

Though it was the first week of April, sugary hoar frost glazed Liberty's wharf as the missionary party crunched ashore from the Chariton, Doctors Whitman and Satterlee supporting Satterlee's helpless 23 year old wife. While their wagons and baggage were off loaded, Marcus addressed the others. "Made arrangements with American Fur Company to come this far on their Chariton. Their steamer Diana's beached for repairs, but in three weeks we're to board her here for passage to Bellevue. There, we'll join their overland caravan to Rendezvous. Plenty to do here, so please don't ignore your duties. Let us pray for Martha Satterlee's recovery."

While Marcus bowed his head, Reverend Spalding rasped, "I'm in charge, Marcus. I'll make announcements and conduct prayers. You're my assistant."

"Then you'll be showing everybody how to pack a mule, won't you Reverend?"

"Don't sass! I'm spiritually in charge. You'll continue in charge of chores."

* * *

Marcus had the women make a spacious conical tent of oiled bed ticking. Marcus purchased the minimum of utensils required for life on the trail. He outfitted each person with one tin plate, one iron spoon and a knife in a sheath to be worn at the belt. A tin basin doubled as tea cup and each got a pan for meat and milk.

Since Henry had knowledge of stock, he joined Marcus in the dicey business of buying 12 horses, 6 mules and 17 head of cattle from greenhorn-wise frontiersmen for the staggering price of $1,000. They bought food, a heavy farm wagon, harness and saddles, including sidesaddles for Narcissa and Eliza.

With spending done, Marcus wrote Reverend Greene they'd spent $2,800 of the American Board's funds for which he would render a full accounting from Oregon.

Henry verged on apoplexy over their squandering. "We buy not one thing more if we must starve ourselves to wraiths! You'll not make me the prodigal before the American Board. You'll be doctoring in Oregon, but I'm in their business for life!"

As Henry sat ciphering to slash their budget, William Gray arrived from the American Board on the St. Charles with credentials naming him a teacher, a cabinet maker and house joiner. Gray was tall, of spare build with peculiar hair, half brown and half white. His dull blue eyes made Henry wonder if there was any fire in the loose-lipped man's lantern. Directing Gray to grease the heavy wagon's wheels, Henry muttered, "Another mouth to feed -- and a big one at that!" Then Henry yelled irritably at Gray, "Hang a full grease bucket from the back axle of both wagons!"

Henry chided Marcus. "Your profligacy's run us broke. To save steamer freight bills for wagons and livestock, I'm hauling everything but the women's baggage and horses 250 miles overland to the Otoe Agency near Bellevue. It'll only take two more wranglers. I leave tomorrow. Make Narcissa watch over Eliza instead of frittering her time away in frivolous gaiety."

Reverend Parker's penury last trip had nearly killed Marcus. He wondered if preachers were just born cheap. "Narcissa watches Sister Eliza like a red hen. You said you'd wed Sam Allis and Emeline Palmer."

"I'll marry them before I go. They're Presbyterians!"

* * *

On May 1st, Martha Satterlee lay dead in a rude box at the edge of the Missouri River. As Martha received her last rites, the steamer Diana rounded the bend. To the mourners' dismay, Diana did not veer toward the landing. They shouted frantically at the American Fur Company steamer.

The Captain leaned out of the pilot house yelling, "Can't take nobody else aboard!" He tooted the whistle and steamed on, churning the brown spring flood waters.

Narcissa grabbed Marcus's arm."Marcus, whatever will we do now?"

 

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