The Oregon Trail, 1859
Five-year-old Susanna Ward stood in the middle of the wagon ruts looking at the mound of dirt. Even though the dirt had been pounded down to almost level with the trail, Susanna could see where the hole had been dug. Behind her, she could hear the hushed voices of the women who were preparing supper and the men who were all talking in low, somber tones.
Last night Susanna had been watching her little brother, Caleb, while their mother, Sophia, was helping the other women prepare beans, bacon, and biscuits for the communal supper. Her father, Byron, had been with the men as they smoked their pipes and chewed their tobacco and talked about the condition of the trail ahead—whether the oxen were finding enough forage, or which wheels needed grease.
Her mother wasn’t helping cook supper tonight, and her daddy wasn’t with the men. Her little brother wasn’t here either. First, it was Caleb, whose skin felt so hot it hurt her hand to touch him. And then, it was her mother. By noon, her father was vomiting, and then all three were dead and wrapped in blankets. Earlier she watched as, one by one, each member of her family was pushed into the single hole.
Now, all the wagons were gathered in a large circle.
All but one.
One wagon had been pulled away from the others, and it sat burning. That was the wagon that had brought Susanna and her family to this place. But now there was no wagon. And there was no Caleb. And there was no Mama. And there was no Daddy.
There was just Susanna.
“What do you mean, leave her on the trail?” Zeke Patterson demanded. Zeke was the guide the members of the wagon train had hired to lead them to California.
“We can’t let her stay with us,” Eb Johnson said. “She’s got the cholera.”
“She doesn’t have cholera,” Zeke said.
“How do you know she don’t have it?” Eb challenged. “Last night Byron Ward was standing here talkin’ to the rest of us just as fat and sassy as you please. There wasn’t nothin’ at all wrong with him.”
“That’s true. He was talking about the farm he was goin’ to have once he got to California,” Paul Coker added.
“And not only that, his wife was helping all the other women cook supper,” Eb continued. “But where are they now? They’re dead as doornails, lyin’ in that hole out there in the middle of the wagon ruts. Them and their little one, who like as not is the one that caused them to take sick in the first place.”
“That’s right,” Paul said. “I’ve always heard tell that when someone got took down with the cholera, most usually, why, it was a youngun what give it to ’em.”
“Which is why we ain’t got no choice but to leave that little girl behind when we start out in the mornin’,” Eb said, continuing his argument. “Otherwise, the whole train could come down with the sickness.”
“She hasn’t shown any signs at all,” Zeke said. “Don’t you think with her ma and pa and little brother already dead, that she’d have the runs and be throwin’ up by now?”
“And I say we can’t take the chance,” Eb insisted.
Zeke pulled out his pistol.
“Here! What are you planning on doin’ with that gun?” Eb asked, holding his hands out in front of him, palms forward, as if pushing Zeke away. Several of the others looked on in shock as well.
Zeke was known to be handy with guns; he had shot an Indian only a week earlier, when he caught him stealing a cow. That was one of the reasons the wagon train had hired him as their guide in the first place.
Zeke turned the pistol around so that he was holding it by the barrel. He held it out, butt-first.
“Here’s my gun, Eb. Why don’t you just go out there and shoot her?”
“What? Why me?” Eb asked in shock. “I ain’t goin’ to shoot no five-year-old little girl.”
“If we leave her here, she’s going to die in a matter of days from starvation, or else be killed by a wolf or a bear, or be snatched by the Pawnees,” Zeke said. “So, seeing as how she’s going to die anyway, seems to me like the merciful thing to do would be just to kill her now.”
“I ain’t goin’ to do it,” Eb said, shaking his head in protest.
“No, but you’re ready to leave her here to die.”
“That ain’t the same thing, and you know it.”
“No, it isn’t. Because what you folks are proposing is even worse. Any one of you got the guts to do the right thing?” Zeke asked, offering his pistol to all the others.
Nobody stepped forward.
“You are a fine bunch,” he said with disgust.
All the men looked down sheepishly.
“Won’t any of you take her on your wagon? Tom? You got three young ones with you. Doesn’t seem to me like one more little girl would be that much trouble.”
“I ain’t takin’ a chance with her poisonin’ my family,” Tom Harper answered. “If I was to take her with us, like as not tomorrow or the next day, it might be one of mine that’s left all alone, and we’ll be talkin’ about this same thing all over again. Except for me, that is. I wouldn’t be talkin’ about it, ’cause I’d be dead.”
“Are you people saying that nobody is willing to take the girl?” Zeke asked, his desperation growing.
“Why don’t you take her, if you’re so all-fired worried about her?” Paul asked.
“I’m the guide, remember? I don’t have a wagon. I’m riding a horse and sleeping on the ground at night. And I don’t have a woman. Whoever takes her would need a woman to do for her.”
“I’ll take her for a thousand dollars,” Gus Kirkland said. These were the first words he had offered to the discussion.
“A thousand dollars?” Paul gasped. “Who do you expect to give you a thousand dollars?”
“We’ve got fifty-nine wagons here, fifty-seven less my two,” Kirkland said. “I figure you could sort of divide it up.”
“Some of us have more than one wagon in this train,” a man named Beechum said. “I got three. Are you planning on charging me for all three, even though they belong to just one man?”
“I figure those who have more than one wagon can afford it better than those that have only one,” Kirkland said. “That’s why it’s only fair to charge by the wagon, rather than by the man.”
“Why should we give you a thousand dollars?” Eb asked.
“Because I’m willing to take the chance with my wife and two children.”
“He’s got a point,” Paul said. “And I’d feel a heap better inside knowing that we didn’t just leave the girl standing out here. I’m more than willin’ to put up my share. What would that come to?”
“Eighteen dollars a wagon ought to do it,” Kirkland said.
“All right,” Beechum said. “I reckon I’ll go along with it, too.”
“I can’t give but ten dollars,” one of the men said. “I barely got enough money to get us there as it is.”
“I’ll pick up what he can’t pay,” Beechum offered.
Some of the other more affluent wagon owners made up the shortfall for the ones who couldn’t quite handle the whole amount. Within a few moments, the entire one thousand dollars had been raised.
Afterward, Zeke and Kirkland walked to the middle of the wagon tracks where Susanna was sitting by the grave. It was customary to bury the dead not alongside the trail, but in the wheel ruts. Such a practice, it was believed, would protect the bodies from both the Indians and the wolves.
Susanna was clutching a gutta-percha bag to her chest while silent tears streamed down her cheeks.
“Darlin’, you will be going with Mr. Kirkland now,” Zeke said.
“I won’t ever see Mama and Daddy and Caleb again, will I?”
“You’ll see them in heaven,” Zeke said.
When the wagon train got under way the next morning, Gus Kirkland’s wagons were the last two in the long file. His wife, Minnie, sat on a cross board in the family wagon, fanning aside some of the cloud of dust. Kirkland walked alongside, controlling the six lumbering bullocks with occasional flicks of his whip. The family wagon was the last in line.
“Why’d you take such a chance?” Minnie asked Kirkland. “She could give us the cholera and we could all die.”
“It’s not really that big of a chance,” Kirkland said. “If she didn’t catch the cholera when her family did, then that means she’s got what they call the immunity. And some of that immunity might wear off on us, so that none of us can catch it either. Besides which, I got a thousand dollars for taking her on.”
“A thousand dollars?” Minnie gasped.
“Enough to get a store started and then some,” Kirkland said as he gestured toward his other wagon, which was driven by a young pioneer who wanted to get to California.
“Mama, how long does that girl have to stay with us?” seven-year-old Alice asked.
“We don’t know yet,” Minnie replied. “Until we can find some kin that’ll take her, I suppose.”
“I hope she stays a long time,” Jesse said. He jerked on Alice’s hair.
“Ow!” Alice complained.
“’Cause if she stays with us, I’ll have two little sisters to tease.”
“Susanna Ward is not your sister,” Minnie said resolutely.
At the back of the wagon, paying no attention whatsoever to the conversation going on up front, Susanna wept silently as she stared at the spot where her mother, father, and little brother lay buried. The grave grew more distant behind them, but she kept her eyes on the spot until she could no longer see it. All the while, she continued to hold on firmly to the small bag.
New Orleans, 1866
There appeared in the New Orleans newspaper the following announcement:
I, Pierre Bejeaux, in the firm belief that my cousin Rab Trudeau has brought dishonor to my family by his treasonous and despicable activities during the late War between the States, demand satisfaction from the cad and craven coward on the field of honor, at dawn, Saturday next, October 6, in the year of Our Lord eighteen hundred and sixty-six.
Rab Trudeau stood with his second, David DeLoitte, under the oaks at the foot of Esplanade Street. So many affairs of honor had been settled here that for years the term meeting under the oaks was another way to refer to dueling. It was just after dawn, and a blanket of diaphanous fog shrouded the cypress tree knees in the swamp, while the loud staccato tapping of a woodpecker echoed from a distant live oak tree.
“Maybe he won’t come,” David suggested.
“He’ll come,” Rab said.
Rab was tall, with black hair, dark eyes, a fine nose, and a strong chin. He was six feet four, with broad shoulders, muscular arms, a flat stomach, and narrow hips. This morning he was wearing fawn-colored riding breeches tucked into calf-high boots, and a white shirt that was open enough to show a patch of hair on his chest. It was also open far enough to reveal the last inch of a twelve-inch scar that made a purple slash from his right shoulder to just below his throat, the remnants of a saber cut from a Yankee officer.
“What makes you so sure that he will? I mean, if he would just stop to think about it, he has to know that he is no match for you, whether you had chosen pistols or swords.”
“He’ll come because he is a Trudeau.”
“He is Bejeaux.”
“As much Trudeau blood courses through his veins as does through mine,” Rab said.
No sooner had Rab spoken the words than they heard the sound of approaching horses.
Rab’s cousin arrived, along with his second, Lucien Thibodaux. There was also a carriage, carrying three young women and a doctor.
Bejeaux was two months older and five inches shorter than Rab. Like Rab, he had gone to war with the First Louisiana Regiment of Cavalry. Like Rab, he had been captured at Mobile, Alabama, and confined at Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island. Unlike Rab, Bejeaux did not escape.
“Why did you bring the women?” Rab asked.
“To humiliate you, of course,” Bejeaux replied.
Bejeaux and his second dismounted, then all waited quietly for a moment until Monsieur Andre Garneau, the arbitrator, arrived on horseback. Dismounting, Garneau looked first toward Rab and David, then back at Bejeaux and Thibodeaux.
“Are both parties and their seconds present?”
“We are, sir,” Bejeaux replied.
“I beg of both parties now to come to an accommodation, so that this duel need not be fought,” Garneau said.
Neither principal nor second responded.
“Who brings the weapons?” Garneau asked.
Bejeaux signaled to his second, and Thibodeaux returned to his horse, where he took a polished walnut case from his saddlebag. Opening the case, he displayed two beautiful dueling pistols, resting in red-felt lining.
“These pistols belong to our mutual grandfather, Toulouse Trudeau. I think it is only fitting that since you deserted the army, you be killed by a pistol belonging to the very man whose name you dishonored.”
“I did not desert the army, Pierre. I escaped from a Yankee prison,” Rab said.
“To steal a ship and become a blockade runner,” Bejeaux responded. “And you think that was the better part of honor?”
“I didn’t steal the ship—I liberated it. It was one of Father’s own ships that had been captured by the Yankees.”
“And you brought shame to our family by using a family ship as a blockade runner to make money off the backs of the suffering South. Choose your pistol, you scoundrel.”
Rab nodded toward David, who walked over to the open box being held by Thibodeaux. He picked the pistols up one at a time, then, assuring himself that both were charged with ball and powder, chose one. He brought the weapon back to Rab, who tested its balance, then nodded.
As Rab’s second, David, made one final appeal to Pierre Bejeaux. “Monsieur Bejeaux, my principal, Captain Rab Trudeau, wants it well understood that if anyone in the family believes they are dishonored by any act committed by him, it is a matter of misunderstanding. It was not Captain Trudeau’s intention to, in any way, dishonor the family Trudeau.”
“Is that an apology, sir?” Bejeaux asked.
“It is a statement of fact,” David replied.
Bejeaux stood quietly for a moment, motionless except for a little nervous tic in his jaw. Then he looked over toward the arbitrator. “Monsieur Garneau, I want it well understood that this is an affair of honor. If I am slain, I do not wish any legal action to be taken against Captain Trudeau.”
Garneau nodded, then looked toward Rab. “And your response, sir?”
“If I am killed, I want no legal action to be taken against my cousin Pierre Bejeaux.”
“May I offer a further word for Monsieur Bejeaux’s consideration?” David asked the arbitrator.
“You may, sir.”
David looked toward Bejeaux, cleared his throat, then continued, “I would like to point out to Monsieur Bejeaux that Captain Trudeau was three times mentioned in the dispatches for bravery and intrepidity under fire, above and beyond the call of duty. He killed four Yankee soldiers, with a pistol, from a distance of fifty yards, thus breaking a charge. And I would remind Monsieur Bejeaux that this duel is being fought from a distance of forty paces.”
Bejeaux blanched visibly, then his jaw tightened. “Any heroic action on the part of Captain Trudeau before he deserted the army has no ameliorating effect upon his later treachery. Does Captain Trudeau now admit that he is a dishonorable cur, unfit for decent society?”
“I do not, sir!” Rab said in a resonant and commanding voice.
“Then, this affair of honor shall continue until its conclusion,” Bejeaux insisted.
“I will now read article thirteen of the code duello,” Garneau said, holding out a piece of paper.
“ ‘No dumb shooting or firing in the air is admissible in any case. The challenger ought not to have challenged without receiving offense; and the challenged ought, if he gave offense, to have made an apology before he came on the ground; therefore, children’s play must be dishonorable on one side or the other and is accordingly prohibited.’
“Do you understand that and hereby commit yourself to fight this duel to its conclusion?”
“I do,” Bejeaux said.
“I do,” Rab responded.
“Captain Trudeau, as you are the challenged, you may establish the procedure,” Garneau said.
Rab nodded at his second, who described the procedure for the duel:
“You will stand forty yards distant from each other. The arm of the hand which is holding the weapon shall be bent at the elbow, with the pistol pointing up. I will drop a handkerchief, at which time you may lower your pistol and fire.”
“I object,” Bejeaux said quickly.
“Sir, you can only withdraw the challenge. You cannot object to the procedure as has been outlined,” Garneau said.
“I object to Monsieur DeLoitte dropping the handkerchief. How do I know he will not give his principal some sort of signal?”
“Sir, if Captain Trudeau does not kill you, I will,” David said in a low and angry voice.
“Monsieur Thibodeaux, count off the distance,” Bejeaux said. “Monsieur DeLoitte, sir, the objection is withdrawn with my apologies. You may drop the handkerchief.”
Thibodeaux counted off the distance even as, from the swamp, they heard the growl of a cougar.
Garneau walked to a spot halfway between the two men, then stepped aside to be out of the line of fire.
“Assume the ready position!” he called loudly.
Both Rab and Bejeaux presented a side profile, then lifted their weapons to the ready position.
David dropped the handkerchief. Rab and Bejeaux brought their pistols down. Flame patterns erupted from the barrels, and a cloud of smoke wreathed each man. The explosive sounds of two shots rolled out across the swamp water to return in echo.
When the smoke cleared, Rab saw Pierre standing there, looking back across the space that separated the two men. A small, pained smile spread across his face, even as the front of his tunic began to turn a dark crimson.
“Pierre!” Rab shouted in an agonized yell. Dropping his pistol, he ran toward his cousin, then knelt beside him. Pierre reached up to grasp Rab’s hand in his.
The doctor rushed to the fallen duelist and opened his shirt. A large, ugly, dark red hole was pumping blood from the middle of his chest. The doctor took one look at it, then looked at Rab and shook his head.
“La blessure est mortelle, Capitaine.”
“Rab, do you remember when we were boys, how we would play in the cane fields?” Bejeaux asked, his voice weak with pain and from loss of blood.
“I remember,” Rab replied in a choked voice.
“I was better at hiding than you were. I would hide, and you could never find me.”
“You were much better. And though I tried very hard, I never could find you.”
Pierre squeezed Rab’s hand hard. “I…” Pierre stopped in midsentence and took one last, gasping breath. The pressure on Rab’s hand relaxed and Pierre’s eyes rolled up in his head.
“Pierre!” Rab shouted.
“He is dead, Capitaine,” the doctor said.
The women began wailing loudly and Rab looked over at them. “What the hell did you expect to see? A danse à deux?” he shouted angrily. Then, with an impatient wave of his hand, he called to Pierre’s second, “Lucien, get them out of here.”
Thibodeaux nodded, then signaled to the driver of the women’s carriage to leave the scene.
Rab stood up and looked down at the still body of his cousin.
“You had no choice, Rab,” David said consolingly.
“That doesn’t make it any easier,” Rab replied.
Port of New Orleans, One Week Later
The ship Falcon had been built in the Laird’s shipyard at Birkenhead, Liverpool, England. She was a combined steam and sail ship, with a screw that could be raised from the water to turn her into a pure sailing ship if needed. When everything was working well, she could make fifteen knots under a combination of steam and sail power. She lay alongside Pier Three at the Port of New Orleans. Rab, who not only captained the ship but owned it, was standing alongside it on the dock, talking to his younger sister, Emmaline.
“You don’t have to leave Louisiana,” she said. “It wasn’t murder, what you did. It was a duel, and Pierre challenged you. Everyone knows that.”
“Emmaline, if I were to walk into Rivière de Joie today, do you think Father would welcome me with open arms?”
Emmaline, who at eighteen was six years younger than Rab, looked at her feet.
“Charles was Father’s pride and joy,” Rab said. “You know that, in his heart, Father has wished it would have been me who was killed instead of his oldest son. I think it would be best for everyone if I leave.”
“Will you write to me? So I can at least know where you are and if you are all right?”
“Do you think Father would let my letters get through to you?”
Emmaline looked dejected for a moment, then she smiled. “I know. Write them to me in care of Father Dupree. He will see to it that I get them.”
“Captain!” David called from aboard the Falcon. “If we want to catch the tide, we need to weigh anchor.”
“I’ll write you,” Rab promised, pulling his sister to him for a hug. Then, climbing the ladder, he stepped over onto the deck, giving one last wave to his sister. “Mr. DeLoitte, make ready in all respects to get under way.”
With the sails reefed, and under steam power only, the Falcon pulled out into the Mississippi River and started downstream. In less than three months, Rab Trudeau would be in San Francisco.
© 2012 R. R. Vaughan
Susanna Ward Kirkland, a journalist for the Virginia City Pioneer, was raised by Gus and Minnie Kirkland when her parents and her brother died on the wagon train coming West. Her foster father wants her to marry Jesse, his son who…while never doing anything to get into serious trouble…has come close. But, as Gus Kirkland says, “all he needs is a good woman to straighten him out.” She is also told that Jesse knows nothing of this, so she is expected to “win him over.” Out of a sense of obligation, she agrees to do this.
But Susanna has met Rab Trudeau. A wealthy businessman who lives in San Francisco, Rab has interests in a silver mine in the Comstock Lode. But unscrupulous mine managers are manipulating the stock prices. They are aided in this by the very paper that employs Susanna, so Rab comes to Virginia City posing as a detective from the Great Western Detective Agency (which he also owns). A strong attraction develops between Susanna and Rab…but there are many obstacles in their path. Can they eventually find happiness together?