Across Death Valley tells the remarkable story of one woman's brave struggle to keep her family alive during one of the most arduous and dramatic episodes in the history of Western migration. A riveting narrative by a writer known for her books on pioneers, Across Death Valley is a fictionalized account based on the true story of the legendary journey that Juliet Wells Brier, her husband, and their three sons undertook during the Gold Rush from Salt Lake City to the settlement of Los Angeles.
Departing Salt Lake City via wagon train, the Briers had been promised an easy trip along the well-traveled Old Spanish Trail to California. But, after several agonizing weeks, some of the families—the Briers included—broke off from the main group to continue on an unmapped shortcut. As hardships mounted they splintered into smaller groups until, finally, the Briers were traveling alone. Their chosen route led directly into Death Valley—eventually, on foot. Diminutive Julia piggybacked her youngest son even when she was near death from thirst and exhaustion. Rich in compelling detail, Across Death Valley is an unforgettable tale of courage, love, and hope.
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She stepped slowly from the wagon and stood for a moment, then took a stick and stirred last night's coals, hoping for a glowing ember that would ignite the dry twigs the children had gathered. If the embers were gone, she would have to use the flint and steel to make a spark. The men had another, easier way to start a fire, but Juliet wasn't certain it was safe. They put a small charge of powder in a rifle and then shredded a cotton rag and put it loosely in the rifle. The flash of the powder set the rag afire, and the men quickly placed it underneath their prepared kindling.
If only James knew how much it would help if he would start the fire. She was concerned about James, though. His shirt hung on him like an old coat on a scarecrow. Several times over the past few days, he asked Juliet to take the reins while he stepped from the wagon seat, disappeared over the ravine's edge for a few minutes and then hurried to catch up. His face was gray after his brief forays, but when Juliet asked if he was ill, he said he was doing as well as expected without much food or water. Juliet wondered privately if he might have dysentery or inflammation of the bowels. She said nothing, but quietly adjusted his diet, offering him her herbal tea and a few light pancakes in the place of heavier biscuits.
In the east, the sky glowed faintly above the black mountains, but the light had not yet touched the wide plain that stretched northward along the canyon. James said they would reach the head of the gorge today where they could cross and finally turn west again. She looked out over the chasm, which was indeed growing shallower. Tonight, perhaps, she could make her way down to the stream and wash at least her face and arms. She would fill the tin canteens and the water kegs, as well, for when she looked to the west, there was nothing to indicate the possibility of streams or springs. The men said there would be water, but Juliet had her doubts. In her present frame of mind, it looked as though the land stretched to eternity without any relief at all. She tried not to think about the monotonous long days like the ones behind them that they would spend inching over the hostile landscape.
She knelt to blow on the ember she saw glowing in the gray ashes. A wisp of smoke curled up, and she quickly laid her sagebrush twigs across it. Usually she found the pungent smoke fragrant, but today it made her choke. Her stomach churned, and she leaned back. Holding her breath, she added more small sticks and twigs and waited for the flames to flicker upward. Before the fire was ready, she put the blackened coffeepot with a few ounces of water on to boil.
Sarah was making her way to Juliet's wagon, tying her pale blue sunbonnet over her brushed and braided hair.
“The men are finished with the axle.” she reported in her usual soft voice. “We'll be able to travel again today. I feel badly that we've held everyone up.”
“Oh, I'm glad the axle is ready. Is little Martha still all right?”
“She's fine, thanks to you. In fact, she was a bit of a challenge yesterday. She won't stop scratching her insect bites no matter how often I tell her. She bothers them until she bleeds. But I'm so thankful we didn't lose her to the laudanum that I can't bear to be too cross with her.” Sarah's eyes flickered over Juliet's pinched face and disheveled hair. “How are you today, Juliet?”
“I'm all right. A little tired, but I'll be better once we start walking.” Juliet ran her hands over her hair trying to smooth the loose strands, and straightened up a little taller.
“Good. If I can help with the boys today…” Sarah fumbled in her apron pocket and pulled out a dried purple flower with a narrow red ribbon tied around its stem. “Here, Juliet. I brought you a sprig of lavender from home. Did you see it hanging from the wagon bows the other day? It is said to bring serenity. I thought it would be a fitting way to thank you for your help with Martha.”
Juliet took the little spray and held it to her nose. Its fragrance did seem to sooth her edgy feelings. “Thank you, Sarah.”
“If we were back home, I'd give you more than a sprig of lavender to let you know how grateful I am. I honestly do not know how you stay so calm and helpful, Juliet. We all watch you and marvel at the way you manage things out here.”
Juliet tilted her head and looked at her friend.
“Why, I don't do anything differently than the others.” Didn't they notice the times she was sharp with the children or James? The times she was dead-tired, thirsty, and annoyed? Maybe biting her tongue when she felt irritable was working, after all.
“They say you're strong, inside and out.” Sarah said. “I know what they mean. You have a way of seeing what's essential and important – and then acting upon it.”
Juliet tucked the lavender into a buttonhole. “How kind of you, Sarah. But I'm not certain I deserve such a compliment. After all, I just plod along like everyone else. I have such a hard time some days.”
“I've seen it for myself, Juliet. For someone so small you have a lot of courage and determination.”