"The Clay Party" (2008) by Steve Duffy is a masterful matter-of-North-America story. It is an audacious work of great aesthetic confidence and historical imagination.
Duffy weaves the story out of newspaper articles from the Sacramento Citizen-Journal and a private diary of John Buell. The Clay Party is a wagon train of settlers bound for Northern California. Their tyro leader, Jefferson Clay, claims knowledge of a short-cut that will save the party hundreds of miles.
Things do not go as planned.
....August 17th: A wilderness of canyons. Impassable except by much labour. Entire days wasted in backing out of dead-ends and searching for another route. We are falling behind, and the seasons will not wait. Mr Clay delivered the harshest of rebukes to Cagie Bowden for suggesting we turn back to Fort Jim Bridger and the northern trail. (And yet it is only what some of the others are saying.) Too late now in any case.
....trackless wastes along the Wasatch....
September 20th: No slackening in our progress, no rest for any man; but we are slow, we are devilish slow. Without the oxen and the wagons we lost out on the salt pans our progress is impeded mightily, and much effort is expended in the securing of provisions. Clay now wholly removed from the rest of the party; like a general he rides alone at the head of the column, seeing nothing but the far horizon while all around him his troops suffer, close to mutiny. Around our wagons each night, the howling of wolves.
As the prospect of not reaching the mountain passes before they are closed by snow becomes a certainty, Clay's party fractures.
....October 3rd: A catastrophe. The thing I most feared has come to pass. Last night Cagie Bowden led a deputation of the men to Clay's wagon and demanded he produce the note. Clay refused, and upon Bowden pressing him, drew a pistol and shot him through the chest. Instantly Clay was seized by the men, while aid was summoned for the stricken Bowden; alas, too late. Within a very little time he expired.
I was for burying him, then abandoning Clay in the wilderness and pressing on. Hiderick would have none of it, calling instead for frontier justice and a summary settling of accounts. His hotter temper won the day. Hiderick caused Clay's wagon to be tipped over on its side, and then hanged him from the shafts. It was a barbarous thing to watch as he strangled to death at the end of a short rope. Are we no better than beasts now? Have our hardships brought us to such an extremity of animal passion? Back in the wagon, I threw myself to the floor in a perfect storm of emotion; Elizabeth tried to comfort me, but I could take no solace even from her sweet voice. I have failed her—we have all failed, all of us men who stood by and let vanity and stupidity lead us into this hell on earth. Now on top of it all we are murderers. The mark of Cain lies upon us.
....October 23rd: In the night, a great alarm: Indians, howling down from the hills, attacking our wagons. Four wagons lost before we knew it—nine men dead in the onslaught. They have slaughtered half of the oxen too, the brutes. As they vanished back into the hills, we heard them laughing—a terrible and callous sound. I hear it now as I write, and it may be that it shall follow me to my grave: the mocking of savages in this savage land. Savages, I say? At least they do not kill their own as we have done.
John Buell's voice is one of almost Calvinist fatality and resignation. The tone is amplified in the diary's addenda written by his wife, Elizabeth.
....November 10th: Snow all through the night. Trail impassable—neither man nor beast can battle through the drifts. Exhausted, hope gone. Wind mounting to a howling frenzy, mercury falling, sky as black as lead. We have failed. The winter is upon us and we are lost in the high passes. God help us.
After Clay's death, his lieutenant and leader of the party's vigilante faction, Hiderick, takes over.
The horror of settlement is visited upon the settlers.
....The hunger swallows all things. Whole days will pass, and we think of nothing save food, how it would be to fill our bellies to repletion. There is a narcotic in it; it lulls one into a dangerous inactivity, a dull vacant torpor. I have seen this look settle upon a score of people; in each case the end came very nigh after. Daily I look for it in myself. I must be strong, for my angel's sake.
The provisions ran out before the end of November: the last of the oxen were slaughtered and eaten by then, and the mules too. One of the children was the first to die, Sarah Doerr's little Emily; soon after her, Missy Shorstein, and her father the next day. Our sorrow was great—we had no way of knowing that all too soon death would become a familiar thing with us. It is hard to mourn, when horror is piled upon horror and the bodies are beyond counting or remembrance; but it is necessary. It is the most human of emotions, and we must remain human, even in this uttermost remove of hell.
....Now I must be brave, and record the facts of the matter without flinching. Hiderick said that the rescue party were doomed to failure, and would undoubtedly die in the mountain passes; we should not rely on them for assistance. I could have struck him—that he could thus impugn my husband, and his brave allies, when he had not the courage to do aught save cower in his cabin! But I must tell it aright, and not let myself be sidetracked.
Hiderick said that we were doomed, and should not make it through to the spring, save for one chance. He said that we were surrounded by fresh meat, if we had only the brains to see it, and the nerve to do something about it; he said he was a butcher by trade, and would show us what he meant. If I live another fifty years I shall not forget what he did next.
He went to the door of the big cabin and flung it wide open. The snow rose up in drifts all around, parted only where a path had been cleared between the cabins. All around were the graves of those who had already succumbed to the hunger and the cold; maybe nine or ten by that time. We could not dig them in the ground, for that lay ten feet beneath the snowdrifts, and was frozen hard as iron. Instead we lay them wrapped in blankets in the snow, where the cold would preserve them till the spring.
Hiderick pointed to the nearest of the graves—little Missy Shorstein's. "There's your meat," he said, in his thick guttural voice. "Like it or not, it's the only vittles you'll get this side of the thaw."
Human-made horrors start to erase a boundary with and intermingle with the supernatural.
30 November 2019