1st Place – October 2021

Last Chance Gulch

By Donna Pierce

May 3, 1865
Mother,
We are leaving St. Louis today. I wish that I had seen you before our departure. I am sorry, but Caleb insists on leaving for fear of reaching snow before we arrive. Henry is full of excitement, at fifteen, he is as tall as his father but still has that tender heart. I have exciting news to tell Caleb but am waiting for the right time. I will continue to write as we travel, so you might appreciate the scenery. God willing, I will send you this letter by a Post Rider if we chance by a station. Give my love to father. May God be with you.
Kate
***
June 10th, 1865
This trip has been grueling, almost more than I can bear.
I told Caleb about the baby night before last. I couldn’t wait any longer, it has become noticeable. I must confess, neither of us seemed that excited. We struggle to make it through each day.
***
July 9th, 1865
I have never known such depth of despair. The Calloway’s prairie schooner was struck by lighting and burst into flames. One of their four children perished. Mrs. Calloway took her own life. I can’t imagine her agony. I want to come home.
***
August 16th, 1865
This morning, the Colonel told us we were getting close to the Oregon Trail, which would make traveling much easier. It will be a week, maybe week and a half, before we reached the trail. It will be an answered prayer. My belly has grown and is uncomfortable, to say the least.
***
September 8th, 1865
We are following the North Platte and Sweet Water Rivers to the South Pass. Our fellow travelers, with other destinations; are nervously looking for their cut-offs. Many are moving on to California and Oregon Territory. I have suffered much on this trip being with child. How I wish that Caleb would have never talked me into following his dream.
The hills have turned into large mountains in the distance. We are traveling through a rugged prairie full of sagebrush, rock, and cactus. Our biggest desire is cool, fresh water. Last Chance Gulch is sounding more like a struggle to survive than a chance to become rich.
***
September 20th, 1865
I now understand Mrs. Calloway’s pain. I lost my son, Henry yesterday. He caught the measles from a girl at the first trading post. He suffered greatly in this miserable heat. I have no words that could express my desperation, watching my son slowly die. I do not want to bring another child into this God forsaken place.
***
October 5th, 1865
We have finally reached the Montana Territory. The camp is busy and full of miners. Settlers roll in daily. Many tradesmen have come to set up shop. We beat the harsh winter, but it has begun to snow. Big white snowflakes fill the sky, and a blanket of snow covers the countryside, it is beautiful. The mountains are massive in this area.
***
February 8th, 1866
I have great news! You are a new grandmother! I delivered a delightful little boy. We have named him Jacob.
Caleb has tired of mining. I do not blame him. Claiming an area to work has kept the miners bickering and working in freezing conditions. The cold is bitter, and several have frozen. Caleb has done well panning. We have filed a claim on our land and will begin building once the winter conditions have lightened.
He was able to purchase the necessities to start a trapping and hunting business. I will mail these letters when the station is available. This old gold camp was established a city last year and named Helena. Living in this wagon has been torture. Mother, do you know what a brothel is? We will talk later regarding this. I will do my best to get these letters to you.
***
Caleb brushed the dirt off his pants, walked in, and sat down at the table. He smiled at Jacob and picked him up from his wooden box. Caleb held him against his shoulder. Kate kneaded dough for dinner biscuits.
“Kate, I’m taking the hides to Helena. Old Jenny will earn her feed on this trip. We should make enough money for your kitchen supplies and maybe start framing a barn.”
“How long will you be gone?”
“Two, maybe three days. Make a list of what you need, and I’ll pick it up.”
Caleb waived goodbye the following morning as he rode out. Kate smiled at him from the doorway but cried once she closed the door.
I’m so afraid of being alone.
***
After breakfast, Kate looked around the cabin in despair.
Jacob began crying. She sighed, then picked him up, and sat down to nurse.
What I would give to dress appropriately and have tea with mother. Wouldn’t the women from our socials laugh if they saw me now.
***
Caleb rode into town tired and thirsty.
I’ll get something to eat over at Lydia’s after I deliver these hides and check into a room for the night.
Caleb tied his horse and mule to the hitching post outside the mercantile.
“Well hello Caleb,” Joshua said. “I haven’t seen you for a while.”
“How have you been, Joshua.” Caleb asked and shook his hand.
“I have old Jenny out there, loaded with hides.”
“Caleb, you have no idea how many hides I have purchased this month! The Indians are trading with me now. Look here in my back room.”
Joshua opened the door behind the counter and showed Caleb that it was full of pelts and hides.
“That’s a lot of hides, Joshua! Are your prices the same?”
“Hell, no Caleb! I have an oversupply right now. I’ve got to try and sell these to get my money back.”
Caleb frowned and rubbed his hand across his face. “Do your figuring, and I’ll start bringing them in. Also, Kate needs kitchen supplies.”
Joshua finished and motioned to Caleb.
“It looks like I owe you sixty-five dollars, Caleb.”
“Sixty-five dollars, are you serious Joshua?”
“I’m sorry Caleb, that’s the best I can do. Give me your list. I’ll pick out what she needs and deduct it from what I owe you.”
“Caleb handed him the list and went over to stand by the window.”
“What the hell! Joshua, who is that pour soul?”
“I don’t want to look again, Caleb. That is old man McCulley, the sheep herder near the Bear Tooth. His boy told Doc they were awakened by something snarling around the wagon. That damn bear came through the wagon door, grabbed ahold of Mr. McCulley, dragging him out kicking and screaming! His boy at Docs, can’t get the sounds of his father’s screams out help of his head.
“That’s one hell of a story Joshua!”
“Say, you live up in the Bear Tooth, don’t you Caleb?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Caleb, be careful. I owe you thirty-seven dollars and fifty cents.”
“Shit Joshua, that’s hardly enough for me to get drunk on.”
Caleb walked over to Lydia’s. He sat down and ordered a steak and beer. Tired and disgusted, he retired to bed early.
The next morning, he started back home.
***
Caleb watched the tree line as he crossed the valley. He hadn’t gone far when he realized he was being followed. Reining his horse up the hill, he untied his mule and slapped her on the rump. Caleb watched her maneuver back down the hill. He waited to see if whatever was after him, would take the bait. Within a few feet from the tall pines, a large cougar sprung up and took her down. Caleb pulled up his gun, aimed, and fired. The distance was too great to kill it, but he scared the cat off.
I was worried for nothing.
Caleb’s horse suddenly spooked and ran down the hillside. Bending over to pick up his broken rifle, Caleb caught a whiff of a foul smell and heard a low growl.
He looked up and into the face of a huge grizzly.
***
Caleb did not come home. A week later the mule returned to the house. Kate packed up what she could, made a sling for Jacob, and grabbed their cash out of the butter churn. She rode the mule into Helena.
“Mrs. Dorian, your husband’s remains are over at the undertakers.” The sheriff said. “I am sorry. A miner brought him in and Joshua identified him.”
Kate turned and walked towards the undertakers.
“Mrs. Dorian, I’d leave it be, I wouldn’t go in there!” the sheriff yelled.
Kate walked out and dropped to her knees. The sheriff ran across the street and helped her and the baby up. She trembled, as she walked over to the telegraph office.
“Mother, I am coming home.”
Kate boarded the stagecoach at noon. When the horses reached a gallop, she grabbed her mother’s letters, and tossed them into the wind.

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