A Kansas Reading Circle Selection/reprinted in the Peoples Republic of China
Now in its 4th printing/revised
This is the true story of twelve-year-old Virginia Reed, who, along with her family, faced and survived incredible hardships on an overland journey to California. In the spring of 1846, the Reed and Donner families left Springfield, Illinois traveling by ox-drawn wagon. Along the way, they joined with other caravans bound for Oregon and California and were midway through their journey when they learned of another route; a shorter, better route, they were told. But what they were told wasn’t exactly the truth.
After much discussion, most of the wagons went on, keeping to the old, established road. Twenty wagons, including the Reed and Donner wagons, turned off onto the new road. Almost from the beginning they ran into trouble. First they literally had to chop their way through a densely forested range of mountains. Then they crossed a desert where many oxen and several wagons were lost and, as they traveled on, summer slipped away into fall. It was late October when they began climbing the last obstacle before them—the high Sierra mountains. Winter had set in early in the Sierras that year and soon deep snow made farther travel impossible.
Exhausted, frightened, and discouraged, they erected crude shelters and spent the winter in the mountains. This story chronicles the events as they happened. Only the dialogue has been invented.
Not a scrap of food remained now in the cabin. Mama asked Milt to remove a hide from the roof. They watched as she held the hide with the hair side up, close to the flames. The sickening smell of burning hair filled the room. After she had singed the hair to a black stubble, she took up a knife and began scraping it away. That done, she cut the hide into small pieces and dropped them into a kettle of boiling snow water. They drank the broth from the boiled hides in fits of gagging and nausea, their faces registering their repulsion.
One day, Mama went outside and across the snow to the Breen cabin. When she returned, she said quietly, “Mr. and Mrs. Breen have kindly consented to take us in.” She looked at Milt and Eliza, adding in that same quiet voice, “Milt, you and Eliza may stay here.”
Virginia raised up in bed and looked up at the roof of the cabin. Daylight showed where the hides had been removed, but some remained. Milt and Eliza would have food, horrid as it was. She stumbled to her feet and followed her family across the snow to the Breen cabin.
The Breen cabin was sturdier and larger than their own and, from the start, Virginia felt happier there. Sometimes they sat and talked and there were books to read. Virginia read The Life and Times of Daniel Boone several times and felt some measure of kinship knowing his family had also suffered in the wilderness.
She also enjoyed hearing Mr. Breen read from the Bible each day. The Breen were devout Catholics and held daily prayer as well as the Bible readings. Virginia found the Bible readings especially comforting and often knelt by Mr. Breen’s side, holding the little pine torches he used for light.
They stayed in bed much of the time. Mama sometimes went across to their old cabin to check on Milt and Eliza.
They lived on boiled hides and bones, burned in the fireplace until they could be crunched between their teeth. Eventually, though, Virginia found it impossible to swallow the broth from the hides and to chew the glue-like substance of the hides nauseated her. At meal time she turned away and eventually quit eating anything at all.
She lay in bed and sounds and movements and dreams all ran together. Day and night came and went and one was the same as the other. Sometimes she saw their old home in Springfield. Sometimes she was riding Billy again. Sometimes she ate wonderful, delicious, satisfying foods. Sometimes Papa came and, twirling her around and around, danced her out of the snow and into a land of flowers and sunshine.
“You must not tell, Virginia.” The soft, whispered voice came with a taste of sweetness on her tongue. She opened her eyes. It was dark. Someone hovered near. Mrs. Breen? The taste of sweetness came again and the soft whispered words. Slowly, it dawned on her. Mrs. Breen was feeding her spoonfuls of precious sugar water and flour. Sugar and flour she had saved, hoarded against absolute need. Tears trickled from Virginia’s eyes and she began that night to recover.
Virginia felt a deep gratitude to Mrs. Breen for saving her life. She knew that, no matter what, she would fight to live. Even if it meant eating those horrid, boiled hides. She knew Mrs. Breen had come to her in the night so the others, Mrs. Breen’s family as well as her own, would not know what she was doing. There was not enough sugar or flour for them all.
Mrs. Breen’s sacrifice would not go unrewarded, Virginia vowed. She would not let her efforts be in vain. Able now to listen to Mr. Breen’s Bible readings and daily prayers again, she felt even more comforted by them than she had been before.
One night, huddled in bed with Mama, Patty, and the boys, she lay awake staring into the darkness. The feeling hung over her that one day soon they would all die. One night they would sleep and not wake up again. “Please God,” she prayed silently. “Please let us live. Please let us see Papa again.”