There were still enough possessions in the wagons to make a
modest start in California. Food was another matter. Provisions were dwindling
at an alarming rate. Stanton and McCutchen and the supplies they were to bring
back from Sutter's Fort would soon be a matter of life and death. With all that
hanging over them, as they strained to push westward as fast as they could,
tension mounted and tempers began to burst. It began with harsh words and curt
answers. But then it turned ugly.
On October 5, the second segment of the
train reached another long, steep, rock-crested sand hill. It seemed they would
have to use double teams for each of the wagons on this one. Two made it over
without as much difficulty as the men anticipated. John Snyder, a rawboned man
who had joined the party late, near Fort Bridger, was driving the third wagon
in line for the ascent. He was certain he could make it up and over with just
his own team. He decided to rest his oxen for a few minutes before the long
Behind him, Milt Elliott, one of Reed's
teamsters, sat waiting. A second team of oxen was already hitched to the wagon
he was driving. Elizabeth and Mrs. Reed walked past it, through the narrow wash
that led to the slope, and moved out of the way. James Reed was partway up the
hill, ready to prod the teams if Milt Elliott needed assistance.
Elliott grew impatient. He assumed Snyder
was waiting until the men ahead brought a second team back down the incline.
There seemed to be just enough room to pass, so Elliott snapped the reins and
began guiding his wagon around Snyder.
"What the hell do you think you're
doing?" Snyder barked.
"No sense in waiting 'til you get
your second team hitched up, is there?" Elliott answered, surprised at the
sharp edge in Snyder's voice. He shrugged. It was a matter of small concern.
But as he moved forward, his two lead oxen balked, moved sideways, butted, and
became entangled with Snyder's team.
"You stupid ass!" Snyder
bellowed. "Look what the hell you've done!"
Elliott glanced at the women standing
nearby. "Mind your tongue, Snyder..."
Elizabeth, watching from a few yards
away, felt a sense of dread as Snyder leaped from his seat, bullwhip in hand.
"I'll show you what I'll mind, you
flabby little bastard." Snyder's face was flushed. Now all the anger,
fatigue, and frustration of the past weeks welled and pushed him beyond the
point of reason. He lifted the bullwhip and lashed out at Elliott's lead oxen,
slashing at them again and again. Elizabeth screamed and Mrs. Reed fainted as
the beasts moaned in agony. Again Snyder's whip sliced into hide.
"For God's sake, man!" James
Reed cried. He ran down the slope and caught Snyder's arm. Milt Elliott, too
stunned to move, watched speechless as Snyder shoved Reed and sent him
sprawling. He lashed out again at the oxen.
Reed had fallen hard. For a few seconds
he waited until the pinpoints before his eyes disappeared. He got up slowly,
unsheathing the hunting knife strapped to his belt. " Snyder! Stop
what you're doing or you'll answer for it!"
The sight of the knife further enraged
Snyder. "You big-headed son of a bitch!" He drove at Reed, reversing
the bullwhip in his hand and swinging the butt down hard across the older man's
forehead. Elizabeth screamed again as Snyder grabbed the front of Reed's shirt
and raised the butt of the whip.
Reed could hardly see. Blood was
streaming down his forehead into his eyes. All he could make out was the dark
shape of Snyder's arm, rising again. He jerked his shoulders and head to the
left. Almost reflexively, his right arm swung in a roundhouse. Sunlight
glistened on the long blade in Reed's right hand as it arced and drove deep
under Snyder's collarbone.
Elizabeth rushed between them at almost
the same instant. " Stop it! Dear God, stop it! "
Snyder was not through. Crazed, he
brought the whip butt up again and sent Elizabeth reeling with a glancing blow
on the side of her head. Reed held onto the knife. His shoulder