Three weeks later, as Jonathan sat in a tavern moping over a whiskey, nine wagons pulled into Independence. Thirty-two men, women, and children from this small company entered the town searching for supplies. Jonathan’s ears perked up when one of the pioneers came into the tavern, asking if there were any more wagon trains for the overland trip.
Jonathan ambled up to the man at the bar. “Excuse me, but are you still planning on heading out this late?” he asked.
“Yep,” the man said, “leaving tomorrow.”
“But they all left weeks ago. Sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, the name’s Jonathan Redburn, from New York.”
“James Reed, from Illinois. Traveling with my wife, Margaret, her mother, and the children. And ten other families.” The man had a broad forehead giving the impression of a long face. A full, dark beard covered his narrow chin. “We’ll be leaving with or without joining a train.”
“But they say wagons leaving now won’t make the distance before winter.”
Reed put his hand on Redburn’s shoulder and leaned in, piercing Jonathan with his deep-set eyes. “There’s a shortcut. Bought the map in Chicago.”
He produced the pamphlet from his jacket, The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California, by Landsford W. Hastings. “Says there’s a new shortcut across the Great Basin. It’ll save us three hundred fifty to four hundred miles on easy terrain over the mountains. We’ll beat everyone to California,” Reed said.
Jonathan was intrigued and followed Reed out to the street. He was astonished at Reed’s contingent of wagons, cattle, and horses. Of particular interest was a curious two-story wagon pulled by eight oxen. “What is it?” Jonathan asked.
Reed jammed his hands into his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “That, my good man, is a house on wheels.”
Reed’s twelve-year-old daughter, Virginia, came skipping up behind her father and said, “I call it my Prairie Palace.”
“Had it built special,” Reed said. “With a built-in iron stove, spring cushioned seats, sleeping bunks for the kids, even a feather bed for my mother-in-law. She’s poorly. Consumption. Can hardly walk. But she didn’t want to be left behind. She has a couple of servants, so she’ll be fine. Yessir, I want to make my family as comfortable as possible for this trip. Even managed to pack in some fine wine from Europe!”
“All this must have cost a fortune,” Jonathan said.
“Spared no expense. Made my fortune in lead mining back in Illinois. That’s where I met George and Jacob and the other families.”
“Why, this is remarkable!” Jonathan tapped his fingers on his lips and then blurted, “Could you use another traveler? I need to get to Yerba Buena; my fiancé is waiting for me there. I’ve got a wagon but no oxen. I own a hotel in New York, perhaps you’ve heard of it? The Skylark? No? Well, in any case, my money’s not come through yet. I could write you a promissory note for my oxen and supplies.”
Reed surveyed the disheveled Jonathan, his soiled suit, unshaven stubble, the smell of whiskey on his breath. “We won’t bring someone along who can’t pull their own weight.”
“I have documents ascertaining my credentials. And I assure you, I can pull my own weight.” Jonathan tugged at his jacket and felt his face flush with embarrassment.
Reed thought a moment. “You might be able to join up, if the other families and the Donner party agree.”
Jonathan and the Donner-Reed wagons left Independence on May 12 for what they hoped was a four-month easy trek to California.
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