Read CHAPTER XXVI - THE DEBATED COUNTRY of 54-40 / Fight, free online book, by Emerson Hough, on ReadCentral.com.

The world was sad, the garden was a wild! 
The man, the hermit, sighed ­till woman smiled!
­Campbell.

Our army of peaceful occupation scattered along the more fertile parts of the land, principally among the valleys.  Of course, it should not be forgotten that what was then called Oregon meant all of what now is embraced in Oregon, Washington and Idaho, with part of Wyoming as well.  It extended south to the Mexican possessions of California.  How far north it was to run, it was my errand here to learn.

To all apparent purposes, I simply was one of the new settlers in Oregon, animated by like motives, possessed of little more means, and disposed to adjust myself to existing circumstances, much as did my fellows.  The physical conditions of life in a country abounding in wild game and fish, and where even careless planting would yield abundant crops, offered no very difficult task to young men accustomed to shifting for themselves; so that I looked forward to the winter with no dread.

I settled near the mouth of the Willamette River, near Oregon City, and not far from where the city of Portland later was begun; and builded for myself a little cabin of two rooms, with a connecting roof.  This I furnished, as did my neighbors their similar abodes, with a table made of hewed puncheons, chairs sawed from blocks, a bed framed from poles, on which lay a rude mattress of husks and straw.  My window-panes were made of oiled deer hide.  Thinking that perhaps I might need to plow in the coming season, I made me a plow like those around me, which might have come from Mexico or Egypt ­a forked limb bound with rawhide.  Wood and hide, were, indeed, our only materials.  If a wagon wheel showed signs of disintegration, we lashed it together with rawhide.  When the settlers of the last year sought to carry wheat to market on the Willamette barges, they did so in sacks made of the hides of deer.  Our clothing was of skins and furs.

From the Eastern States I scarcely could now hear in less than a year, for another wagon train could not start west from the Missouri until the following spring.  We could only guess how events were going forward in our diplomacy.  We did not know, and would not know for a year, the result of the Democratic convention at Baltimore, of the preceding spring!  We could only wonder who might be the party nominees for the presidency.  We had a national government, but did not know what it was, or who administered it.  War might be declared, but we in Oregon would not be aware of it.  Again, war might break out in Oregon, and the government at Washington could not know that fact.

The mild winter wore away, and I learned little.  Spring came, and still no word of any land expedition out of Canada.  We and the Hudson Bay folk still dwelt in peace.  The flowers began to bloom in the wild meads, and the horses fattened on their native pastures.  Wider and wider lay the areas of black overturned soil, as our busy farmers kept on at their work.  Wider grew the clearings in the forest lands.  Our fruit trees, which we had brought two thousand miles in the nursery wagon, began to put out tender leafage.  There were eastern flowers ­marigolds, hollyhocks, mignonette ­planted in the front yards of our little cabins.  Vines were trained over trellises here and there.  Each flower was a rivet, each vine a cord, which bound Oregon to our Republic.

Summer came on.  The fields began to whiten with the ripening grain.  I grew uneasy, feeling myself only an idler in a land so able to fend for itself.  I now was much disposed to discuss means of getting back over the long trail to the eastward, to carry the news that Oregon was ours.  I had, it must be confessed, nothing new to suggest as to making it firmly and legally ours, beyond what had already been suggested in the minds of our settlers themselves.  It was at this time that there occurred a startling and decisive event.

I was on my way on a canoe voyage up the wide Columbia, not far above the point where it receives its greatest lower tributary, the Willamette, when all at once I heard the sound of a cannon shot.  I turned to see the cloud of blue smoke still hanging over the surface of the water.  Slowly there swung into view an ocean-going vessel under steam and auxiliary canvas.  She made a gallant spectacle.  But whose ship was she?  I examined her colors anxiously enough.  I caught the import of her ensign.  She flew the British Union Jack!

England had won the race by sea!

Something in the ship’s outline seemed to me familiar.  I knew the set of her short masts, the pitch of her smokestacks, the number of her guns.  Yes, she was the Modeste of the English Navy ­the same ship which more than a year before I had seen at anchor off Montreal!

News travels fast in wild countries, and it took us little time to learn the destination of the Modeste.  She came to anchor above Oregon City, and well below Fort Vancouver.  At once, of course, her officers made formal calls upon Doctor McLaughlin, the factor at Fort Vancouver, and accepted head of the British element thereabouts.  Two weeks passed in rumors and counter rumors, and a vastly dangerous tension existed in all the American settlements, because word was spread that England had sent a ship to oust us.  Then came to myself and certain others at Oregon City messengers from peace-loving Doctor McLaughlin, asking us to join him in a little celebration in honor of the arrival of her Majesty’s vessel.

Here at last was news; but it was news not wholly to my liking which I soon unearthed.  The Modeste was but one ship of fifteen!  A fleet of fifteen vessels, four hundred guns, then lay in Puget Sound.  The watch-dogs of Great Britain were at our doors.  This question of monarchy and the Republic was not yet settled, after all!

I pass the story of the banquet at Fort Vancouver, because it is unpleasant to recite the difficulties of a kindly host who finds himself with jarring elements at his board.  Precisely this was the situation of white-haired Doctor McLaughlin of Fort Vancouver.  It was an incongruous assembly in the first place.  The officers of the British Navy attended in the splendor of their uniforms, glittering in braid and gold.  Even Doctor McLaughlin made brave display, as was his wont, in his regalia of dark blue cloth and shining buttons ­his noble features and long, snow-white hair making him the most lordly figure of them all.  As for us Americans, lean and brown, with hands hardened by toil, our wardrobes scattered over a thousand miles of trail, buckskin tunics made our coats, and moccasins our boots.  I have seen some noble gentlemen so clad in my day.

We Americans were forced to listen to many toasts at that little frontier banquet entirely to our disliking.  We heard from Captain Parke that “the Columbia belonged to Great Britain as much as the Thames”; that Great Britain’s guns “could blow all the Americans off the map”; that her fleet at Puget Sound waited but for the signal to “hoist the British flag over all the coast from Mexico to Russia” Yet Doctor McLaughlin, kindly and gentle as always, better advised than any one there on the intricacies of the situation now in hand, only smiled and protested and explained.

For myself, I passed only as plain settler.  No one knew my errand in the country, and I took pains, though my blood boiled, as did that of our other Americans present at that board, to keep a silent tongue in my head.  If this were joint occupancy, I for one was ready to say it was time to make an end of it.  But how might that be done?  At least the proceedings of the evening gave no answer.

It was, as may be supposed, late in the night when our somewhat discordant banqueting party broke up.  We were all housed, as was the hospitable fashion of the country, in the scattered log buildings which nearly always hedge in a western fur-trading post.  The quarters assigned me lay across the open space, or what might be called the parade ground of Fort Vancouver, flanked by Doctor McLaughlin’s four little cannon.

As I made my way home, stumbling among the stumps in the dark, I passed many semi-drunken Indians and voyageurs, to whom special liberty had been accorded in view of the occasion, all of them now engaged in singing the praises of the “King George” men as against the “Bostons.”  I talked now and again with some of our own brown and silent border men, farmers from the Willamette, none of them any too happy, all of them sullen and ready for trouble in any form.  We agreed among us that absolute quiet and freedom from any expression of irritation was our safest plan.  “Wait till next fall’s wagon trains come in!” That was the expression of our new governor, Mr. Applegate; and I fancy it found an echo in the opinions of most of the Americans.  By snowfall, as we believed, the balance of power would be all upon our side, and our swift-moving rifles would outweigh all their anchored cannon.

I was almost at my cabin door at the edge of the forest frontage at the rear of the old post, when I caught glimpse, in the dim light, of a hurrying figure, which in some way seemed to be different from the blanket-covered squaws who stalked here and there about the post grounds.  At first I thought she might be the squaw of one of the employees of the company, who lived scattered about, some of them now, by the advice of Doctor McLaughlin, beginning to till little fields; but, as I have said, there was something in the stature or carriage or garb of this woman which caused me idly to follow her, at first with my eyes and then with my footsteps.

She passed steadily on toward a long and low log cabin, located a short distance beyond the quarters which had been assigned to me.  I saw her step up to the door and heard her knock; then there came a flood of light ­more light than was usual in the opening of the door of a frontier cabin.  This displayed the figure of the night walker, showing her tall and gaunt and a little stooped; so that, after all, I took her to be only one of our American frontier women, being quite sure that she was not Indian or half-breed.

This emboldened me, on a mere chance ­an act whose mental origin I could not have traced ­to step up to the door after it had been closed, and myself to knock thereat.  If it were a party of Americans here, I wished to question them; if not, I intended to make excuses by asking my way to my own quarters.  It was my business to learn the news of Oregon.

I heard women’s voices within, and as I knocked the door opened just a trifle on its chain.  I saw appear at the crack the face of the woman whom I had followed.

She was, as I had believed, old and wrinkled, and her face now, seen close, was as mysterious, dark and inscrutable as that of any Indian squaw.  Her hair fell heavy and gray across her forehead, and her eyes were small and dark as those of a native woman.  Yet, as she stood there with the light streaming upon her, I saw something in her face which made me puzzle, ponder and start ­and put my foot within the crack of the door.

When she found she could not close the door, she called out in some foreign tongue.  I heard a voice answer.  The blood tingled in the roots of my hair!

“Threlka,” I said quietly, “tell Madam the Baroness it is I, Monsieur Trist, of Washington.”