Whichever Way the Road Leads Sneak Preview

Bk 1 of The Eastman Saga

New Release - Available June 20, 2024 Pre-order now

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Chapter 1

Jesse Eastman cradled his head in his calloused hands and wondered when he had lost his mind. He thought back to several incidents and still could not accurately pinpoint what had prompted him to make the ridiculous decision to risk his life with the Overland Astorian explorers. However, one event was obvious. The argument with his father two years ago had changed his life, for better or for worse. Jesse had never fully recovered from the sting of being thrown out of the Eastman family.

He looked up as his friend threw another log on the fire. Samuel was a tall, gangly fellow he had just met last year in St. Louis when the Astorians were adding men to the team. Samuel was as close to a best friend as he’d ever met.

“Still wondering how crazy you are to be here, boy?” Samuel chuckled as the Mad River[1] sloshed menacingly behind their backs. Samuel spit and kicked a stray log with his dirty boot into the camp fire. His long hair was firmly slicked back from his forehead, and the stray ends wisped onto his shoulders with every movement.

“Yes,” replied Jesse. “I’m wondering when I’m going to die, too.” Jesse stood and wiped his grimy hands on his pants. The Mad River was so loud it almost drowned out the conversation at times. The closer he veered to the water, the more ominous it became. Jesse took a few steps towards the rapids and shouted towards the river. “How the hell are we going to ride those rapids tomorrow?”

Samuel grimaced and spat again. “With difficulty,” he responded manically.

Jesse grunted loudly and turned back. “Hopefully, we live through it.”

A burly man walked into the conversation from the main camp. “And when did you get so concerned with losing your life?” Robert McClellan shouted back.

“Hey, Robert!” Jesse sneered. “When did you start thinking you knew me so well?”

“I’ve known your father from way back,” McClellan replied. “I saved your hide getting you onto this team.”

Jesse grinned lopsidedly. “You did that, yes,” he shot back. “And I may be paying with my life crossing this river. All of us might be.”

Samuel interrupted. “With these tough canoes, we’ll get anywhere!” he said, slapping his hand onto the side of the closest wooden vessel.

“When did you become an expert?” Jesse said jokingly.

“Way before you were born!” Samuel shot back, instantly angry and stepping forward.

Robert pushed Samuel on the shoulder. “Sit your ass down and cool off,” he ordered. “Same with you, Jesse.” He pointed a commanding finger at Jesse. “I know it’s been a long time on this expedition, but we’re getting closer. We will get to the Columbia River, and we’ll reach Fort Astoria, no matter what is thrown our way.”

Jesse sat down on a rough log. Robert McClellan was one of the Pacific Fur Company partners and highly respected in the group. Along with the other partner, Douglas Mackenzie, they were two of the most experienced and trusted leaders of the expedition. And they were keeping the large group of men, women, and children alive. Jesse ran his fingers over his dark brown hair. “I trust you, McClelland,” Jesse said, his brown eyes looking up. “You were mad enough to take a crazy guy like me on. I’d trust you before Wilson any day. That man doesn’t know a thing about the wilderness. He’s going to get us all killed.”

McClellan waved his hand dismissively. “Wilson Hunt was made leader of this expedition,” he replied, throwing his hands up in the air in exasperation. “Why they made him leader, I have no idea. Apparently, he has more business sense than anything. To give him credit, though, he did prove to be a valuable asset when we encountered the Indians. He secured us safe passage.” McClellan gazed into the darkening wilderness, then slapped a reassuring hand on Jesse’s shoulder. “And you’re not that crazy, Jesse. You’ve just got something missing in your young brain when it comes to dancing with danger, and, fortunately, that’s exactly the kind of men we need on this expedition.” He turned away from the men, waving behind him. “Get some sleep, men. We’ll see which way this river leads us tomorrow.”

Jesse watched McClellan disappear in the bushes as the night darkened around the camp. Jesse laid down on his cot and gazed up at the night skies, feeling a shiver run through his spine.

It would be September 30, 1811 tomorrow, and Jesse imagined this was the date that would appear on his young gravestone. That is, if anyone ever found his body.

Jesse packed up the canoe with the supplies in the morning and prepared to join the rest of the team. The canoes were constructed out of the local cottonwood trees. The vessels were as sturdy as they would ever be, but he doubted they would be any match for this river. Jesse hefted the loaded canoe onto his shoulders as Samuel raised the back side. The canoe fleet had already survived one river, but Jesse doubted they would take all 60 people safely along the Mad River.

The raging rapids howled, like the devil incarnate, as they trudged through the forest. The spray from the water seemed to be increasing in intensity and was creating beckoning rainbows through the morning sun. Jesse strained to keep his eyes where he placed his feet. The ground was steadily changing to slippery mud as they neared the riverside. One misplaced foot, and the heavy canoe would be crushing him into the mud.

The humidity hung like a rain fog throughout the forest. In stark contrast to the beautiful scenery, the river seemed to be laughing at them all, touching everything with its madness. Jesse shook his head and wondered again when he had lost his mind.

It was suicide to travel in this river. The expedition had named the rapids Mad River for a reason.

“Cheer up,” Samuel said, slapping the side of the canoe. “It looks like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Can you hear the rapids, or are you deaf?” Jesse replied almost too loudly.

Samuel laughed wildly. “My hearing is fine, boy!” he shouted back. “Don’t let the river get a hold of your fears! We are traveling beside the rapids until the Mad River settles down.”

“And I suppose Hunt gets to decide when it’s safe to travel on those crazy rapids?”

Samuel grimaced under the canoe's weight and slipped suddenly in the mud. He spread his legs wide, trying to establish some balance while attempting to save the canoe from crashing onto him. Jesse stopped and held the front end of the canoe firmly, praying for his partner not to fall. After several tense seconds, Samuel regained his balance and shifted the canoe onto his right shoulder as Jesse exhaled a sigh of relief. “Yeah, you got me there,” Samuel replied, his boots slick with mud. “Hunt doesn’t know anything about these woods.”

McClelland shouted from behind the group. “We will stop here, men!”

Jesse grunted from the weight of the loaded canoe as they both carefully placed it on the forest floor.

“We will attempt the river here,” McClellan stated.

Jesse laughed crazily as the rapids roared in his ears. “Well!” he said loudly, wiping his dirty hands on his pants. “Remember to spell my name properly on my gravestone!”

“That won’t be happening. We will get through this fine. It looks like there are only a few more raging sections of water, then it calms down ahead of us,” McClellan said, pointing ahead in the distance. “We can’t cross that mountainous peak in front of us by foot. Our chances are better with the river.”

“The Mad River,” Jesse replied sarcastically.

“Yep, the Mad River,” McClellan affirmed as he stepped out of the group and assessed the entry point into the rapids. The water sloshed at his feet as the group watched him deliberating on the safest access juncture.

Jesse sat down heavily and chewed on a strip of deer jerky. Samuel and most of the group did the same. They needed some strength to tackle this lunatic river.

Samuel’s face grew calm, but a sloppy grin stayed on his lips. Despite all his crazy antics, the man was a goodhearted soul similar to Jesse, just a little rough around the edges. They both chewed the jerky in silence, waiting for McClelland to return with instructions. The team had been together since the fall of 1810, leaving St. Louis and spending the winter camping at Nodaway River. They had traveled successfully 450 miles up the Missouri River in the spring of 1811 by canoes, arriving at several native Arikara Villages. Wilson Hunt had diplomatically saved the group from several Indian encounters as they had continued west on foot and horseback. Jesse was extremely grateful to have Hunt on the team for that. They would have all been dead already otherwise.

“We’ll enter here,” McClellan waved his hand behind him as he returned to the group. “We need to cut down some of these bushes to widen the path so we can get all our supplies through, but otherwise, it is the best we can hope for right now.” McClellan waved at the mountainous passage ahead of them, which loomed like a menacing force.

Jesse nodded and swallowed the last piece of jerky. Since midsummer, the group had been tackling some of the most difficult mountainous ranges Jesse had ever seen in his life. It sounded irrational, but the river was a welcome challenge after being stuck in these mountains for three months. Everyone in the party seemed to agree.

“Who knows,” Wilson Hunt added. “Maybe we will arrive at Fort Astoria before the Tonquin group.”

McClellan frowned, knowing that the ship Tonquin and its crew from New York City likely had its share of difficulties sailing the Atlantic Ocean along the entire eastern side of the continent, down south and back up to the Pacific Ocean to arrive at the Fort through the west side of the Columbia River. “They will definitely be having as many difficulties as we are,” McClellan stated. “The oceans are a very different beast altogether.”

Hunt nodded. “True, I’d rather be battling the land elements than negotiating with pirates and ocean currents.”

Jesse stood and prepared to move the canoe to the entry point with Samuel. “I’d rather be back in New York City,” Jesse whispered.

Samuel nodded. “I agree,” he said. “But what we’re doing is more important than you think. Opening these fur trading posts in the West means we are expanding America. It could mean some big things in the future.” Samuel swallowed the last of his jerky and smiled. “We’re making history, brother.”

“Samuel’s right,” McClellan affirmed. “We are making history, and someone has to open up the West. No better men than us right now.” He scraped his foot on a nearby log, attempting to rake the mud off. “Watch your steps here. It’s slippery.”

The group stopped as several men began cutting the bushes and smaller trees down to widen the path. Jesse and Samuel laid down the canoe and joined the fifty other men, cutting and hacking the path just enough to make it more passable. It didn’t take long before the path was safe to bring the supplies through. The area wasn’t perfect, but the extra lumber gave them enough material to construct another raw vessel to hold more supplies on the river.

Jesse was already drenched in sweat when the group stopped to make coffee, eat lunch, and gather courage for the bigger challenge ahead of them.

As the noon sun rose over the peak, the team cleaned up the camp. The one woman in the group washed the remaining dishes with several other boys and packed everything away securely. The woman’s two children were in the middle of the group, securely protected by the larger men. Jesse was not entirely certain why the woman and her children were a part of this brutal expedition but accepted them as a wonderful distraction.

Jesse pulled his canoe to the access point with Samuel. They both stood mesmerized as they watched the vessel in front of them release into the river. The first group scrambled into the river, disappearing around the bend almost instantly, immediately engulfed by the cavernous mouth of the whitewater. Jesse glanced worriedly back at Samuel.

Their canoe was resting only a few inches in the water, but Jesse could already feel the tug of the current. He inhaled sharply and nodded at the group to get into the vessel. Jesse’s canoe had the woman and her children. He felt the weight of responsibility settle firmly onto his shoulders. With six other people and a raft of supplies already loaded on, Jesse nodded to Samuel as they pushed the canoe from behind, ready to jump in as soon as the current grabbed the vessel clear of the land.

The water splashed violently against the hull at the front, the current gripping it and turning the vessel as Jesse felt sweat drip from his forehead. The canoe swayed but stayed attached to the land. Jesse bent down and tried hefting the back end of the vessel that was still stuck in the mud.

It was a cool morning, but he felt hot from exertion and fear. With one more push, the canoe shifted into the water as Jesse and Samuel scrambled in panic, barely jumping in at the last minute. The vessel careened into the Mad River with a tremendous yank of ferocious nature.

Jesse landed on his butt in the back of the canoe. Samuel landed on his right leg with his left dangling out of the canoe. Jesse clambered to pull his friend safely into the canoe just in time as the vessel careened on its own wild path through the rapids. Whitewater spray hit every occupant in the face as they all struggled to stay in the canoe. Jesse tried paddling on the left, and a few other men got their paddles out.

“We need to avoid that rock on the right!” Jesse shouted frantically at the others.

Three men in the front paddled with the fear of God in their veins, along with Jesse and Samuel paddling from the stern. The canoe pulled to the right towards the rock as they screamed at each other.

“Paddle harder!” Jesse shouted as his arms strained with the paddle, the current almost taking his paddle away.

The woman picked up a paddle and joined the group as everyone panicked in the frantic diversion of certain death. The water sprayed at all angles until, finally they could feel the canoe turn in the right direction.

As quickly as the near catastrophe happened, it was gone, and the canoe sailed around the bend, clearing the dangerous rock. The force of the river catapulted them around the bend, and another terrifying white spray of angry water loomed ahead of them. They had no time to react as the current flew the group over the top of the rapids.

The vessel tilted dangerously to the left as several people intuitively shifted to the right. The weight of the bodies saved them from a dangerous collapse as they careened past the wreckage of another canoe.

Samuel pointed and yelled. “There are people stranded in the river! We have to try and save them!”

When Jesse looked up, a man’s head bobbed underneath the whitewater. “Someone grab him!”

A man threw a rope out, but it didn’t reach even ten feet towards the wreckage. Jesse strained to keep the boat straight as they sailed over the rapids and hit the water hard with an enormous splash, filling the boat with water and spilling several supplies overboard.

The women and children grabbed buckets and worked in a panic to get the water out as the boat veered closer to the stranded man. Samuel held out his canoe paddle and yelled at the shipwrecked man in the river. “Grab the paddle!” The man’s head bobbed up briefly, and a hand shot out. “Grab the paddle!” Samuel shouted again. The man overboard reached and grabbed the paddle, but the water was too slick. His hand slipped and wouldn’t form a solid grip. The canoe tugged and then rushed mercilessly past the stranded man.

Jesse couldn’t turn to look because another dangerous waterfall loomed ahead of them. It didn’t look like a very tall fall, but Jesse couldn’t really tell. All he could see was blue sky ahead of them and more whitewater below.

“Grab the supplies raft! It’s your only chance!” Samuel shouted back to the man overboard as their own canoe rushed towards the looming waterfall.

“Hold onto the boat, people! We’re going over!” Jesse shouted as he gripped the sides of the canoe firmly.

The canoe lurched to the top of the falls and, for a brief moment, teetered as the drop was clear for everyone to see. Then, the vessel fell at an angle with the bow dipping slightly down. The woman and children screamed as the boat sailed through the air and then hit the whitewater forcefully. A menacing crack sounded as the canoe landed. Jesse prayed it wasn’t serious as the current pulled them along the river on its journey of madness.

The boat began to turn backward and started a slow spin. “The boat cracked!” Jesse shouted. “We need to get to shore to repair it! Paddle to the shore on the right! Paddle hard! Everyone!”

Everyone grasped their paddles and pushed the boat furiously against the angry current. They struggled as a team until, finally, the boat approached the safety of the bank on the opposite right side. A man at the front grabbed a tree and steadied the boat while he tied it to the trunk, then jumped to shore. Samuel held out a long paddle that the man grasped, pulling everyone and the boat to shore.

Jesse looked behind him and searched for the supply raft.

It was gone.

Jesse searched for the cord at the back that had attached the raft to the canoe. He lifted it through the water and pulled the length in and in until, finally, he was left with a small broken log with the tether intact. That’s all they had left of the supply raft.

It must have been destroyed over the waterfall. Jesse searched the rapids for signs of the raft, but it was nowhere to be seen. The man from the wreckage was gone, too.

Everyone disembarked, dripping wet, and collapsed onto the rocky bank. Jesse heaved and tried to slow his rapid breathing down.

They were somehow miraculously alive.

[1] Present day Snake River, Idaho

New Release - Coming Soon June 2024

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