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!”