The Bear Flag

The year is 1846, and war is brewing between the United States and Mexico. In Sutter’s Fort, recently-widowed Cat Reilly gets involved with John Fremont and Kit Carson’s political schemes as they strive to create a California Republic.


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The year is 1846, and war is brewing between the United States and Mexico. Under the pretext of a scientific research expedition, Lt. John C. Fremont arrives in Sutter’s Fort with Kit Carson, famous Indian Scout, and a few men. Also arriving in Sutter’s Fort is Cat Reilly, who has been widowed on the long trip west and is now in desperate circumstances. She becomes romantically involved with a Russian count as well as in Fremont and Carson’s political scheming and maneuvers. Soon, she is plunged into a political maelstrom as Fremont sets up a California Republic and later brings California into the union.

Beneath a sky as clear as Eden’s, Catharine Reilly walked up the dun slope of the South Pass.

The wind was roaring down from the west, a massive tumbling of the air, smelling of blown grass and wet rock. Climbing, she leaned against the force of the wind, and it slapped her hair back off her face and tugged the bodice of her dress tight around her and fluttered her skirts until she had to hold them down with both hands.

She lifted her face to the wind, into the tangy fragrance and the tingle of its furious caress. Her bonnet had already come loose; she held it crumpled in one fist as she made her way up to her husband.

At the height of the slope, in the sun by an outcrop of colored stone, John Reilly sat perched on a rock, his sketchpad on his knees. His coat was thrown over the boulder behind him, and his shirt sleeves were pulled up. The wind had made a riot of his blond curly hair. His pencil stroked rapidly over the white page before him; when she came up beside him, he ignored her, absorbed as he was in his work.

She stood there a moment, looking over his shoulder, and frowned, dissatisfied. The drawing was done well. In a few lines he had laid down on the page the great, broad, smooth trough of the South Pass, and now under his hand fragments of the emigrant camp appeared, the wagons and carts parked square for the night, the little groups of oxen and horses cropping the short brown grass, the figure of a child, in the distance, running with swinging arms down the slope. As she saw the child on the sketchpad she heard the faint screech of the real child’s voice.

She turned away from the camp and looked into the northwest.

The South Pass rose in a long, easy grade from the high plains to the Wind River Range. For days, sitting on the wagon seat, she had watched and watched the distance ahead of her; straining forward as if she could jack them up over the horizon, she had waited for the mountains. On the approach they had passed little bits of them, gigantic rocks erupting from the plain, low, sandy hills blocking her sight. Now, scaling the height of the pass, leaning into the wild wind, she came up at last before the peaks.

She drew in a deep breath of the wind; she opened herself up, and the wind filled her. Before her the land dropped away so fast that it was like a door opening on nothing. Mostly air, a world unformed, chaotic, streaming with the pure light of the sun.

Below their blazing crests, the mountains descended to blue darkness, a half-guessed-at valley or plain, to rebound again beyond from the unseeable depth into another steep, notched wave of rock, then fell away again and rose again until the horizon swallowed it all in a hazy blue that was a defeat of vision. The wind roared up from this plunging space as if it were born there, the breath of the rock.

“Why don’t you draw this?” she asked, turning back toward John Reilly. He lifted his face, and she leaned down and put her arms around his neck and kissed him. Still holding him, her cheek against his hair, she said again, “Why not draw the mountains? Aren’t you sick to death of the wagons?”

He said, “I don’t know where to start.” Still entangled in her embrace, he lifted his pencil again and drew part of a wagon’s familiar, dingy canvas bonnet.

She sank down beside him, her arms around her knees, and returned her gaze to the mountains’ tremendous surge. “It’s magnificent.”

“It’s too big, Cathy. Too complicated to draw.”

She leaned against him, but her gaze remained on the mountains, which pleased her deeply; she felt for the first time in this long journey that they had reached someplace worth coming to.

The sun was going down. All along the sky’s ragged edge the color slowly bloomed, on the low clouds deepening to red, between the clouds forming streaks of pure gold, along the horizon itself turning a delicate pure pink like the inside of a shell. Below this brilliant play of light the earth grew dark and the shapes vanished into the dark, as if the night were gathering them back in.

Suddenly restless, her husband put his pencil away and folded the sketchpad. “Come along, it’s getting late.” He got up, reaching out to her, and drew her to her feet.

Hand in hand they went down the slope toward the camp. Their wagon, which carried in it everything they owned, formed half the near right corner. Catharine looked up at her husband’s face. They were still so newly married that she sometimes found him absorbingly strange.

At the camp he circled toward the pasture to bring their oxen in for the night, and she went into the middle of the square of wagons to cook their dinner. Nancy Kelsey was already at the fire, cutting strips of bacon; Catharine knelt down beside her to bake bannock bread.

Nancy asked, “What’s your John want to do—go to Oregon, or California?”

Catharine pressed the bread dough impatiently into the skillet. At first she had enjoyed the camp work, she who had never cooked anything, never cut a carrot or peeled a potato, delighting suddenly in making pan bread. Now she did it as quickly as she could, bored with it. “Is that what they’re all talking about?” She could hear the men behind her, gathering together on the far side of the camp, their voices rising, arguing.

Nancy said, “They got to make up their minds.” She was a big, broad-hipped girl with capable hands, always working. At nineteen, a year younger than Catharine, she was already a mother; her baby lay on its blanket just beyond her. “Your John talk any to you about it?”

“Not really.” She thought John’s mind was made up. They had always wanted to go to California, from the beginning.

“Ben keeps fretting at it,” Nancy said. “Look, now, Cathy, you got to tip the pan up more, like this, or you’ll lose all the good heat.” Her voice had a mild edge of amusement. Carefully she propped up the skillet on its side so that the warmth of the fire baked the top of the dough.

Catharine looked over at the growing knot of men. She could see Broken Hand in their midst, their guide, whose real name was Captain Fitzpatrick. His left hand was misshapen. He wore animal hides sewn together like an Indian’s clothes; his hair hung in a ropy braid down his back. John Bidwell was there also, and Nancy’s husband, Ben, and now Catharine saw her own husband striding up to join the group around the scout. She rose to her feet and went closer to listen.


She and John Reilly had been married only four months. They were both from Boston, but he was an Ann Street Irishman and she was a Mather from Franklin Place, and by rights they ought never to have married at all.

They met at a lecture in New Bedford, where she heard an ex-slave talk about the rights of colored people and women, and then again at a bookstore, where she was buying a book of poetry. She liked his sketches. She liked his overlong blond hair and the square set of his shoulders. When he talked about his dream of moving west, taking land of his own in the wilderness, something wakened in her soul, and the house in Franklin Place seemed like a prison.

He went to her father, honorably, and asked for her hand in marriage, and Edward Mather ordered him out and locked his daughter in her bedroom. She escaped down the servants’ stair and with John Reilly fled on the next post coach west. In New York a justice of the peace married them. They went on to Saint Louis, where with the last of his savings they bought a wagon and a team and supplies. They pawned her wedding ring for a dollar to pay their passage across the Missouri River.

John had heard about a party of emigrants, Oregon-bound, assembling at a place called Sapling Grove, somewhere in Kansas. With their wagon and their oxen they reached Sapling Grove in the late spring and found more than sixty people already there, to go west.

Most were farm people, from Ohio or Kentucky, boisterous, heavy-handed, quick-tempered, hard-working. The excitement of the great trek that lay before them seized them like a fever, an overflowing heat that gave itself away in wild, aimless fits of noise and motion. They danced and ran and talked at the tops of their voices, and then, on the morning they were to leave, they abruptly discovered that nobody knew which way to go.

Fortunately they fell in with a party of Catholic missionaries whom Broken Hand was guiding west. So they had gotten this far. But here at the South Pass, the missionaries had to turn north to find the Flathead Indians they had been sent to convert, and Broken Hand was going with them. Now the settlers had to set off on their own.


Broken Hand loomed in the middle of the crowd of men. He had lived on the frontier all his life and looked like a wild creature of this country, with his clothes of hide and his battered, knotted hands. His voice rumbled.

“The trail to Fort Hall is pret’ clearly marked from here. You go on down toward Soda Springs, and you’ll find the wagon tracks. You follow them west, toward the buttes . . .”

Catharine went up closer to the men, behind her husband, who stood, increasingly impatient, listening to Broken Hand talk.

“Onst you get to the Snake, you got to start looking for the ford.”

“Is anybody writing this down?” called John Bidwell, and there was general laughter. Catharine laughed too. Fitzpatrick seemed to be confusing them all.

One shoulder higher than the other, hulking in his filthy worn leathers, the plainsman hawked and spat and said, “Hard part’s behind y’. From here to Oregon’s pret’ easy. Even a bunch of green twigs like you oughta be able to follow the trail from here.”

Ben Kelsey said, “What if we don’t want to go to Oregon?”

“Shut up,” yelled somebody on the other side of the circle.

“Oregon sounds good enough to me.” There was a widespread murmur of agreement.

In the group around Reilly, John Bidwell said, “Back in Ohio, when we all started talking about this, it was California we wanted to get to.”

Broken Hand drawled, “California’s a different place’n Oregon. Damned near impossible to get to, and the Spanish dons don’t hardly take to Americans. They’ll throw you in chains soon’s you pipe up. I heard of white men died in chains in Mexico.”

Ben Kelsey said, “The Britishers think they own Oregon. That ain’t no sure thing, neither, seems to me.”

Bidwell leaned forward, intent. “Listen, I’m telling you, I’ve heard in California the soil’s so good you just spit and grow people. Isn’t that worth a little risk?”

Fitzpatrick looked up at him and said nothing. He had the stolid patience of a man who knew exactly what was possible and intended to waste no effort on what was not. Catharine glanced at her husband, sitting quietly in the midst of these men.

Somebody else said, “Hey, Bidwell, you’re so sweet on California, show us how to get there.”

That was the problem. As at Sapling Grove, nobody knew which way to go.

Bidwell moved in toward the middle of the circle. He was a rangy young man, with a shock of black hair and a restless energy that kept him moving even as he talked. “I’ve heard, southwest from here, there’s a lake—”

“There’s a lake, all right,” Fitzpatrick said, with a crackle of laughter. “I been that far.”

“And a river running from it through the mountains and through California out to the Pacific Ocean. The Rio Buenaventura.”

“The River of Good Luck,” said John Reilly. “That’s auspicious.”

Broken Hand said, “Ain’t nobody I know ever seen that river. But I seen the lake, and it ain’t a fit place for anybody but seagulls or salt merchants.”

“What’s the trail like to Oregon?” another voice asked.

“It’s pretty rough,” said Fitzpatrick. “Goin’ through the Snake River country—that’s murder on beasts and wagons. But the trail’s there and it’s hard to get lost, which there’s something to be said for in this country.” His voice thickened momentarily and he coughed. “Indians are mildly unfriendly.”

John Reilly leaned forward to catch his eyes. “What about the Indians around this River of Good Luck?”

Fitzpatrick grunted. “I ain’t never seen no such river. Out there west of the salt lake there’s nothing but Digger Indians. They ain’t no trouble—they’re too poor to do much.”

Kelsey said, “It’s just about as far to Oregon as it is to California, ain’t it?”

Reilly turned to Bidwell. “Where did you hear about this River of Good Luck?”

“A fellah named, unh, Roubideux, something like that.” Bidwell’s eager face swung toward him. “He’d been all over this country. He says in California you live like Adam and Eve, it’s always sunny and warm, there’s no winter there, and the going’s real easy. You just ride out ever’ day, shoot some meat for dinner, pick the fruit right off the trees.”

“You’re going for certain, then.”

Bidwell shrugged his shoulders. “The damned British are sittin’ there in Oregon. We fought two wars already with them and may be headed for a third, and if we fight and lose, all the Americans in Oregon will likely have to give up everything, or go back to bein’ English.” He nodded to John Reilly. “Kelsey’s going. Ain’tcha, Ben?”

Ben Kelsey’s deep voice sounded off to Catharine’s right. “I got a good mind to. Me and my brother Jack, here.”

John Reilly nodded to Bidwell. “I’ll go with you.”

“Glad to hear that, Reilly. You’ll be good to have along.” Bidwell gripped him briefly by the hand, turned, and shouted at someone else.

Reilly rubbed his hands together. Abruptly he turned and saw Catharine there behind him, and he backed up and reached his hand out and drew her over to him. She leaned against him and his arm went around her. They enclosed each other. Outside them the men were bellowing arguments, their voices rising like smoke to the starry sky. Reilly said, “We’re going to get there, Cathy. We’re going to have our own place, soon enough.” He squeezed her.


Catharine twisted, looking behind her. Nancy Kelsey stood by the fire waving her arms. “Oh. My bread.” She went back hastily toward the fire, to rescue their dinner.

Besides Bidwell and the Kelseys and the Reillys, a man named Bartleson decided to head for California, bringing with him his sons and a brother and six guns. Largely on the basis of the six guns, he was elected captain of the wagon train. On a big roan horse he rode along in front of them all, shouting orders and waving a stick over his head. The only other woman besides Catharine was Nancy Kelsey, with her baby.

Fitzpatrick had pointed them along a trail that led south and west over a barren plain. There was no grass, only low brush with silver leaves that gave off a wild, woody aroma, like an herb. Broken Hand had told them to watch for horse Indians, saying that the Arapaho sometimes came this far west on raids, but after a few days’ travel they grew careless with the fire, sitting around it until well after dark, arguing about whether to put it out or not.

Bartleson grunted. “Fitzpatrick was an old fool. Do you see any Indians? That’s because there ain’t none.” He turned his head and spat. In the fire’s blaze his cheeks shone red as war paint. “It’s not like I’d mind anyways. I got me a little keg of whiskey in my wagon. A nice pack of Indians could make me rich, at a beaver pelt or a fox fur for a drink.”

The men were slumped and easy around the fire. Nancy and Catharine began picking up their pots and knives.

Bartleson leered at the other men. Around him his sons and brother crowded like a wall. “Well? What d’you say?”

On the far side of the fire that still burned high in their midst, Ben Kelsey clapped the meat of his broad hands together. “Broken Hand ain’t that old, nor a fool, and you kept it hid from him you got this keg. You know the laws about selling whiskey to the Indians.”

“Law. Who said anything about the law? There ain’t no law out here. This is God’s country.” Bartleson began to laugh, his belly shaking.

Nancy got hold of Catharine’s arm. “Come along, give them room to rant.”

Reluctantly Catharine followed her away from the campfire, down to the edge of the river. Nancy knelt to scrub a pot with a handful of sand.

Catharine stood looking back at the men. “Selling whiskey sounds like a bad idea to me.”

Nancy said placidly, “My Ben will sit on that.”

Now in fact Kelsey said, “There ain’t no reason to make this any more complicated than it already is. No peddling whiskey.” He got up, moving toward the fire, and with a stick began to break it up. John Reilly stooped to push sand over the flames. The round glow of light shrank, but the men crowded together, on their feet now. Catharine took a step closer to them.

Nancy came up beside her and held her by the arm. “Stay back, Cathy.”

Bartleson said, “Now, hold on! You ain’t the captain here, I am!”

Kelsey straightened; the last half-smothered glow of the fire barely lit him to the knees. In the dark behind him, his brother Jack and John Bidwell moved up to flank him. Kelsey hooked his thumbs in his belt and scowled at Bartleson. “You got yourself elected captain, but I figger we can get you unelected.”

“You think so!” Bartleson stuck his thumbs in his belt.

“Are they going to fight?” Catharine asked, startled.

Nancy slipped a reassuring arm around her waist. “No, no, just bellow.”

Kelsey and Bartleson stood face to face a moment, and then John Reilly strode up and pushed in between them.

“Damn it, what are you doing? Fitzpatrick said we were green, and so we are—here we’re stuck out in the wilderness and you’re feuding over selling liquor to Indians like you were barkeeps in Boston. Look up there!”

He pointed at the sky, and obediently they all turned and peered up where his arm aimed.

“You see that red star there? That’s Antares. That’s a summer star, and it’s nearly gone. Look around you! The winter’s coming. We’re out here with no food but what meat we can shoot, with women and a baby—and you want to hang around and make a little money!”

He swept his challenging gaze around the firelit circle of men. Bartleson stood back, not smiling anymore, looking smaller. One of his own men had a hand on his arm, holding him. The fight was gone from Kelsey’s look; when Reilly faced him he turned his head away. There was a taut silence. Abruptly Bidwell strode forward and began to kick apart the fire and douse the flames, and several others joined him. The darkness fell around them, and the cold.

“Let’s go,” John Reilly said, in the night. “Let’s get to sleep and get a good move on tomorrow.”

“Say hey to that,” someone murmured, and they began to head back to their wagons.


In the dark, later, she said, “You’re a hero.”

He cradled her in the crook of his arm, his breath warm on her forehead. “No hero. Worried, mostly.” His beard scrubbed her cheek. “I’m beginning to be sorry I dragged you out here, my dear one, my darling.”

“I’d rather be out here with you than back in Boston eating cake,” she said.

“We could go back,” he said. “We could head up to Fort Hall.”

“No!” She stiffened, pushing away to look at him, alarmed. “No, we can’t go back.” Going back was a kind of defeat, an admission that they had been wrong. She would never admit she had been wrong.

He gathered her in again. “You’re brave, Cathy. But you don’t know what’s ahead of us. Neither do I, and that’s what worries me.”

“California,” she said. “California is ahead of us. Remember that lecture?” During their courtship they had walked to Cambridge to hear a former Harvard student talk about his voyages to the Pacific. His ship had traded for hides and tallow in California, and in his talk he had made it seem peaceful and quiet, cut off utterly from the rest of the world, a sleepy paradise of orange trees and clay houses and slow-rolling surf. “California is out there, somewhere, if we just keep going.”

“Is that what you want?” her husband asked.

In the cramped, dark space of the wagon, she lay pressed against his body and wondered what he was asking her. “I’m with you,” she said. “That’s all I care about.”

He said, “You have me, but you still want something. As long as I’ve known you, you’ve wanted something, and I wish I knew what it is.”

She was still for a moment, startled by this alien view of her. Far away in the desert the quavering howl of a wolf sounded. She put her hand on his chest. “I want to do something great,” she said. “Something noble. Like the people who won the Revolution. Or Columbus.” Saying it, she could not help but laugh at herself. “But, you know, I’ll settle for you.”

“Hunh.” This bit of humor ruffled him; perhaps he took her seriously. “That’s a man’s dream. Women are already noble for putting up with us.” His arm tightened around her. “Go to sleep, Cathy. Dream like that.”


They found a shallow river and followed its course out onto a broad, stony, sagebrush-covered plain. Day by day the mountains slipped behind them. Before them lay broad, flat land, treeless and dry. The animals crowded along the banks of the river, where the only grass grew. During the day, as they traveled, Catharine watched for patches of grass, and took a knife and cut the grass and saved it in the wagon to feed the oxen at night.

The river ran shallower with every mile, foul-tasting and mucky. Its banks were marshes, studded with reeds like spears. Two of the wagons sank down to their wheel hubs in the mud, and the group had to stop to free them while the animals ranged desperately for something to eat. Catharine sat on the Kelseys’ wagon seat, holding Nancy’s baby, while the other woman sewed her husband’s jacket. The men were arguing as they worked, their voices rising over the gritty clash of the shovels.

“Damn, this country’s sour as my mother-in-law. Bidwell, damn you, where the hell’s this River of Good Luck?”

“I say we cut off due west. Make a run for it.”

“Make a run, what you’ll run is your rat-butt off.”

“If we turn north now, we can probably make it to Fort Hall.”

“Yeah, that’s you, Bartleson, chickening out.”

Catharine said, “They’re always arguing.”

“They’re men,” Nancy said. “Men spend most of their time together pushing each other into line.”

Her hands moved with a deft speed that stirred Catharine to envy. She had never learned to sew. She wished she could play the piano for Nancy, so that the other woman would find something to admire in her.

Nancy said, “I’ll mend that dress for you, Cathy, if you can change it for somethin’ else.”

Catharine shifted the baby in her arms. “It’s all right.” She did not want Nancy having to work for her, too. The baby was stirring awake, warm and heavy and faintly malodorous.

“You have such pretty things,” Nancy said. “You should take better care of them.” Her smile took the edge off the reproach.

“You show me how, then. She’s waking up. What a baby, Sarah.” She loved the baby; nobody at home had babies. Sarah opened her blue eyes wide and produced a lunatic smile.

“Hey!” A yelp burst from Nancy. “Indians—look—”

Catharine jerked her head up, looking where Nancy pointed. On the next ridge, rising like a wave of sand up from the flat bed of the desert, six little riders trotted boldly along. Nancy snatched the baby out of Catharine’s arms and hid it under her shawl.

The men roared, “Indians!” Bartleson grabbed his rifle from the scabbard on his saddle and waved it over his head, and Ben Kelsey loped up from the river muck, his boots filthy, and reached down without ceremony past Catharine’s skirts and brought a gun out from under the seat.

“They’re gone,” Catharine said.

Kelsey’s breath left him in a grunt. He was older than Nancy by some years, and he never smiled. His broad, dour face was stubbled with beard like a mown field. “They ain’t gone. You just ain’t seein’ ’em anymore.” He walked down toward the other men, who were standing in a line above the mired wagons and staring away to the west.

The Indians did not show themselves again. The men went back to the work of digging the wagons free. In a few moments they resumed their arguing, over something else. The women made the fire and cooked a little bread; Catharine had only a few cups of flour left, but she had a good quantity of beans. Soaking these in the brackish river water left them tough and foul-tasting and made for flatulence, hours after eating. She wondered what the Indians ate. There seemed nothing in this country except sand and sagebrush and vultures.

They freed the wagons and rolled on. The river wound on through treacherous flats of mud, growing wider and shallower as it ran south. Even the animals began to get stuck in the salty, slick marshes that fringed it. Once a flock of seagulls circled over the wagons, screaming at them, and flew away to the south, which meant, the men said, that the salt lake was close by.

Wary of the mud flats and tired of the stinking water, they decided to swing west, across the flat land toward the low ridges in the distance, hoping to find the River of Good Luck. They filled their water casks and cut what grass their beasts had not yet eaten, and they pushed on.

In the western distance the blue ridges of the mountains lay like blades against the sky. There was no shade from the glare of the sun. The oxen plodded steadily along, their knobbed hipbones swaying. Bartleson on his roan horse and Bidwell on a mule set off to scout the broad, barren plain ahead for the river. The ground was stony and raw, and even the sagebrush grew sparsely here. There was no water.

That night, when they camped and gathered in the cattle, three or four head were missing. The next day, in the evening, a few more were gone, and a mule limped in with an arrow in its leg. So the Indians were there, somewhere.

Bartleson and Bidwell came back; they had found no trace of the River of Good Luck.

Once there had been rivers here. The group followed an ancient gouge through the land where shoals of gravel and sand terraces imprinted with the wind-blurred marks of waves showed that the water had run high there in the past. Strands of grass like inept birds’ nests hung twisted in the bleached branches and the exposed roots of the brush that grew out of the bank. The phantom river hampered them as if it were real; it took the men half the day to get all the wagons across a gorge where once another old stream had run into this one, and almost immediately afterward Bidwell’s open cart broke a wheel again. The young man packed his food and clothes onto his oxen; they dragged the broken cart off to one side and left it.

The riverbed turned southward, and now a thin layer of water seeped along it. There was grass growing sparse and coarse on the flat sand, but the beasts would have none of it. Walking through it, looking for fodder, Catharine saw the ground ahead of her sparkling in the sun. When she stooped to pick a blade of grass, there were tiny crystals all over it. She touched her tongue to the grass; the crystals were jewels of salt.

She stopped where she was and looked ahead of them, down the gorge of the invisible river. The sun glittered on the grass. Far away in the gray-brown plain, she thought she saw a row of trees and the gleam of water. All was dun, dust-colored, gray-green and gray-brown; the horizon melted indefinably into the edge of the sky. She turned and trudged back to the wagons.

John sat on the wagon seat drawing while the other men argued out their course. Their animals were weak for want of fodder, and following this old river was taking them deeper into a barren salt flat. The low mountains that loomed ahead looked no greener.

“Keep going west,” Kelsey was saying. “That way at least we’re gettin’ closer.”

Bartleson scratched his belly. “We ain’t gettin’ no wagons up over those mountains.” He jerked his head toward the west.

Catharine looked down at the white page on John’s knee. In a few abrupt black lines, Bartleson’s face, framed by his wide-brimmed straw hat, glowered at her; beside him was John Bidwell, laughing, eternally sunny, his eyes bright. “That’s good,” she said, pointing.

“Oh, is it.” John glanced at her, and then beneath his darting pencil her face appeared, her wide eyes, her little knob of a nose and sharp chin, her hair tucked demurely beneath her bonnet; his pencil rose a moment, still, above the little portrait, and then in an irresistible flash of his fingers he drew a mustache on her upper lip.

She jabbed an elbow into his ribs. “You devil.”

His arm snaked around her and he drew her against him, and they kissed. From the council going on around them there was a whoop of vicarious pleasure.

Later, in the dark, they made furtive love, hiding what they were doing from the others just outside. They tried not to rock the wagon; they were wedged in between the chest of clothes and John’s toolbox. Pressed against his body, touched to ecstasy, she clenched her teeth to keep from crying out.

“God,” he said, lying on her, “what I’d give for a real bed.”

“Turn around, we’ll go back to Boston.”

He laughed. Shifting and scraping, they struggled for room in the close darkness, and the wagon creaked. Out there now, perhaps, in his blankets, John Bidwell knew the Reillys made love. Fat, ugly Bartleson knew. She turned on her side and pulled the blanket up.

“A bed,” he said sleepily. “A mug of ale, clean water to wash in, to wash you in, paved streets that go where I expect them to, loaves of fresh bread, still warm from the oven, and butter—”

“John,” she said.

“Clean clothes, no blisters, no idiot oxen, no Indians—”

She stilled him with a kiss. His hands pressed against her, shaping her, making her real. She needed him, and a wave of gratitude washed over her, that he whom she needed so much was kind and good and clever and full of love, and needed her, too.

This was right; it had to be right. What they were doing, what they had done. In the end it would all be right. Warm and safe in his embrace, she shut her eyes.

It took hours to fill their water casks from the slow-seeping river. They hauled the wagons across the streambed and turned due west, across a broad flat covered with thick and tangled sagebrush. The men walked in the front, hacking a trail through this miniature forest; the sagebrush stems, like iron, yielded only to heroic blows.

After a few minutes, Bartleson in a rage shouted the other men out of the way and drove his team hard at the brush, as if he could force his way through by mere temper.

Under the constant cracking lash, the oxen plowed into the sage, hauling the wagon after. The brush sank and creaked, and the wagon wheels screamed, sliding on their iron rims along the stems and catching in the forks of the brush. Even under the wagon’s weight the sagebrush would not break but only bend, and once bent the tough, springy stems fought their way back to their original shape. They bore the wagon completely up off the ground, while Bartleson on the seat shouted and swung his whip and the oxen bellowed, until the wagon slowly, with great dignity, rolled over sideways onto the great mattress of brush.

Bartleson and his whip sailed off into the sage. The Kelseys and John Bidwell broke into roars of laughter. While the fat man fought free of the vegetation they all stood around grinning at him. After that, Bartleson swung an ax with the rest of them.

All that day they struggled up a long ridge that rose like a wave from the earth. Near the summit they came on a patch of meadow with tall grass and a little spring. Catharine drank some of the sweet, clear water and stepped back to look on to the west.

This crest was the forefoot of a range of low hills, abrupt, wind-hollowed, sprinkled with puffs of sagebrush. Beyond she could see only the implacable sky.

The wind was cold. She drew her shawl around her. The sun was low in the west, dropping toward a horizon of hazy notches. Off to the north, to her surprise, was a nearby hill that wore a cap of white snow.

“You see that?” John Bidwell said. He came up beside her, but it was to her husband, chopping sagebrush for the fire, that he spoke. “You were right—the winter’s coming on. We got to get a move on.”

Reilly leaned on the ax. “I’ve been thinking we could move faster without the wagons.” Catharine stooped and began to gather up the chunks of brush he had chopped, their oily aroma like a protest. “You rode down south of here. What’d you find?”

Bidwell’s fingers plucked at his thin black beard. “The farther south you go, the drier the country gets. You think these hills here are rough—down south they go straight up like walls, and they’re bare as blank walls, too, no trees, no grass, no water.” He stopped, staring not at them but through them. “Looks like the devil’s stoneyard down there.”

Catharine carried the wood away to the fire. Bartleson was sitting by it already, his knees spread, poking with a stick at the flames, while Nancy on the far side was working to make a little bit of bread.

“What a mess. What a mess you got us into!” said Bartleson. He glared at Bidwell.

“Hey,” Bidwell said, “I didn’t press-gang you. You came along on your own pins.” The deepening twilight was driving them all in toward the fire.

The baby wailed. Nancy, bent over the pans on the fire, said, “Get her, Cathy, will you?” and Catharine went to the Kelseys’ wagon and lifted Sarah up into her arms.

Kelsey said, “We can’t go back. We done ate up all the grass getting this far. Due west is the way to go. Just keep on going west. Get through it.”

Bartleson struck at the fire with his stick. “What a mess you got us into,” he said, this time to nobody in particular.

“The wagons are slowing us down too much,” John Reilly said. “The hills are getting steeper. I say we leave the wagons. Pack our gear on the animals.”

Kelsey’s head bobbed up and down. “About what I was thinkin’. Slaughter the ones that ain’t gonna make it anyway and jerk the meat.” He nodded around them. “There’s enough grass here to keep us a couple days while we do it.”

Bartleson’s lips pursed out. “I got a lot of stuff in my wagon.” His small eyes squinted from one of them to the next.

“Leave it. Cache it. Maybe you can come back for it.” Kelsey gave him hardly a glance. He looked at Bidwell and Reilly. “Get going on it first thing tomorrow.”


They slaughtered half their animals, cut the meat off the carcasses, hung it in the sage fires to smoke and dry. After three days the meat had shrunk and toughened like leather. They packed it in sacks left over from their stores of food, took their belongings out of the wagons, and began to strap the meat and their possessions onto the oxen and mules.

The Reillys had slaughtered one of their two oxen. They stood by their wagon trying to decide which of their things were important enough to pack. Catharine took her clothes out of her trunk and stuffed them into a sack with John’s clothes. She stroked the pretty paper lining of the trunk, regretful. John touched her cheek. He slid his sketchpad in beside his box of tools and his ax, strapped on top of their remaining ox.

The Bartlesons were gathering up the beasts into a herd, now, on the edge of the meadow. They looked strange, the oxen, packs of goods riding on their knobby backs. Catharine climbed into her wagon, looking around for anything else she could carry.

John leaned in at the back. “It’s like leaving home again,” he said, and pulled his mouth into a smile, but there was no amusement in it, no humor. “I’m sorry, Cathy.”

“What are you sorry about?” She climbed down beside him and put her hands on his arms, exasperated.

“Bringing you out here. You giving up so much.”

She slid her hands around his waist and hugged him. “I’m not giving up anything I really want.”

“Hey!” The yell came from the crest of the hill, behind them, an angry bellow. “Hey—damn you—”

“We ain’t got time to wait around, Kelsey.”

“That’s our meat, too!” Bidwell shouted.

John swore under his breath. He strode past Catharine, around the back of the wagon. “Stop,” he shouted, “stop, damn you, Bartleson!” and began to run.

Catharine went after him, hurrying up the long slope. She could hear the low rumble of animals galloping. The men were shouting again. She scrambled up the slope through the clawing, clutching sagebrush.

Across the trampled meadow the men were fighting and running. At the far end the settlers’ animals were galloping away in a tight bunch. At the near end Kelsey, on foot, had hold of the bridle of Bartleson’s rearing horse. She stood, her knees quaking, wondering what to do. Twenty feet from her, Bartleson leaned out of his saddle and struck Kelsey across the face with the ends of his reins, and Kelsey let go and stumbled back.

“See you in California!” Bartleson wheeled his horse around and thundered off.

Catharine scurried along the steep slope; she slipped and fell, scraping her knee on a rock. Down the far side of the ridge she could see their whole herd, all the beasts they had not slaughtered, rumbling away through the sagebrush. The packs rode like crazy jockeys on their backs. Bartleson and his men, on horseback, whooped along in their tracks, herding them with sticks and ropes. John Reilly, before her, spun around, and plunged back down the slope, cutting off their ox before it stampeded away with the others.

“What’s going on?” Catharine cried, bewildered.

John Bidwell threw down his hat. “Beat again,” he said.

Kelsey was glaring at the disappearing Bartlesons. “They had all the meat?” Off at the edge of the meadow, Nancy wailed.

John Reilly came up, leading his ox. Kelsey’s brother followed, panting; he had given futile chase to the Bartlesons. He said, “I knew we shouldn’t of trusted ’em.”

“They took it all?” Catharine asked blankly.

Nancy Kelsey stamped into their midst, her face red, tears on her cheeks. “I hope it poisons ’em.”

“Come on.” John Reilly reached out and pulled at Bidwell’s sleeve. “They can’t gallop that stock forever. Let’s get after them.”

Kelsey grunted. “Right.” He turned to his wife. “Get things together. This ain’t so bad as that. We’ll catch some of that stock, I swear we will. Come on, boys.” He grabbed a rope from the tailgate of his wagon, which they had been using for a slaughtering table.

John Reilly turned to Catharine. “Stay here. We’ll be back before dark. Make a fire.” The others were already going off down the slope after Bartleson and the herd, and he broke into a run after them.

The two women stood there, watching them thrash away through the brush. The baby was cooing and crowing in the shade under the Kelseys’ wagon. As the sounds of the men died away the child’s murmurs became the loudest noise in the desert.

Nancy said, “We should have cut up Bartleson along with his cows.”

“There isn’t anything to eat, then,” Catharine said. She bent and picked up the baby and joggled her, as if she were crying and had to be soothed. Nancy sat down on the ground, staring away to the west.

1 review for The Bear Flag

  1. William Scott (verified owner)

    A good look at the end of Mexican and pre-gold rush California.

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