Among the subscriptions I received for The Wand was one from the New York broker, Halbert Donovan, with a letter addressed to McClure.
"Through the McClure Press which I had sent me," it read, "I learned that you are running a newspaper out on some Indian reservation. I remember quite well the fantastic idea you had about doing things out there with a little newspaper. But it does not seem possible you would be so foolhardy.
"I'm afraid your aspirations are going to receive a great blow. It is a poor place for dreams. Imagine your trying to be a voice of the frontier, as you put it, to a bunch of homesteaders in a God-forsaken country like that. If I can be of help to you in some way, you might let me know. You have shown a progressive spirit. Too bad to waste it."
What I needed at the moment was to have him send me a few corporations, but as that was unlikely, I pinned my faith in The Wand. It was a seven-column, four-page paper which carried staunchly a strange load of problems and responsibilities. In spite of the New York broker's blunt disbelief in the possibilities of a frontier newspaper, I had become more and more convinced during those weeks that only through some such medium could the homesteaders express their own needs, in their own way; have their problems discussed in terms of their own immediate situation.
We needed herd laws and a hundred other laws; we needed new land rulings. We needed schools, bridges across draws and dry creeks. We needed roads. In fact, there was nothing which we did not need—and most of all we needed a sense of close-knit cooperation. Aside from these matters of general interest, relating to their common welfare, the paper attempted to acquaint the settlers with one another, to inform them of the activities going on about them, to keep them advised of frontier conditions. To assist those who knew nothing of farming conditions in the West, and often enough those who had never farmed before, I reprinted articles on western soil and crops, and on the conservation of moisture.
Every week there were noticeable strides in that incredible country toward civilization, changes and improvements. These were printed as quickly as I learned of them, not only because of the encouragement this record of tangible results might bring the homesteaders, but also as a means of information for people in the East who still did not know what we were doing and who did not see the possibilities of the land.
And already, in depicting the homestead movement, I had begun to realize that the Lower Brule was only a fraction of what was to come, and I reached out in panoramic scope to other parts of the frontier.
And already, though but dimly, I had begun to see that the system of cooperation which was being attempted—cautiously and on a small scale—was the logical solution for the farmer's problems, not alone in this homesteading area, not alone on the Lower Brule; but that like a pebble thrown into a quiet stream it must make ever-widening circles until it encompassed the farmers throughout the West, perhaps—
Naturally public issues sprang up which neither Ida Mary nor I knew how to handle. We knew nothing about politics, nothing at all about the proper way to go about setting things right. But we were a jump ahead of the Lower Brule settlers in homesteading experience, and there were many local issues with which to make a start.
One of the first public issues the paper took up was an attack on the railroad company in regard to the old bridge spanning the Missouri River at Chamberlain. "Every time a shower comes up, that bridge goes out," declared The Wand, and it wasn't much of an exaggeration. The homesteaders were dependent on the bridge to get immigrant goods across, and with the heavy rains that season many settlers had been delayed in getting on their land or in getting their crops planted in time.
The Wand referred to the railroad report that this was the biggest immigration period of the state's history, with 537 carloads of immigrant goods moved in during the first twelve days of the month. For several years the small towns west of the Missouri had been making a fight for a new bridge. "The Lower Brule settlers want a new bridge," I wrote. "And if the Milwaukee does not build one we are going to do our shipping over the Northwestern regardless of longer hauls." I had not talked this matter over with the settlers, but they would do it, all right.
A flea attacking an elephant! But a flea can be annoying, and we would keep it up. I was encouraged when civic leaders of several small towns sent for copies of the article to use in their petitions to the company. It was the voice of the Lower Brule, and already the Lower Brule bore weight.
In practical ways the paper also tried to serve the homesteaders, keeping them posted on other frontier regions and the methods employed there to bring the land into production. It made a study of crops best adapted to the frontier; it became the Strip's bureau of information and a medium of exchange—not only of ideas but of commodities.
In new country, where money is scarce, people resort from necessity to the primitive method of barter, exchanging food for fuel, labor for commodities. There is a good deal to be said in its favor, and it solved a lot of problems in those early, penniless days.
We had started the post office mainly as a means of getting the newspaper into circulation, and it had developed into a difficult business of its own which required more and more of Ida Mary's time. Friday was publication day. On Thursday we printed the paper so as to have it ready for Friday's mail, and on Thursday night the tin reflectors of the print-shop lamps threw their lights out for miles across the prairie far into the night, telling a lost people the day of the week. "It's Thursday night—the night the paper goes to press," more than one homesteader said as he saw it.
It was a long, tedious job to print so many newspapers on a hand press one at a time, fold and address them. It took the whole Ammons force and a few of the neighbors to get it ready for the mail, which must meet the McClure mail stage at noon. While one of us rushed off with the mail, others at home would address the local list of papers and put them in the mail boxes by the time the return mail came in for distribution.
Our U. S. mail transport was our old topless One-Hoss Shay—repaired and repainted for the purpose—with the brown team hitched to it. It was a long, hot drive, eight miles, to meet the stage, which reached McClure at noon, jolting along under a big cotton umbrella wired to the back of the seat for shade. I slapped the brown team with the lines and consoled myself that if roughing it put new life into one's body I should be good for a hundred years.
When we were behind time and the mail was light or there was money going out, we ran Lakota through as a pony express. Lakota was a gift from the Indians, whose name meant "banded together as friends." One day Running Deer had come over to Ammons, leading a little bronc. He had caught her in a bunch of wild horses which roamed the plains, a great white stallion at their head. "One day—two day—three day—I have made run, so swift like eagle. Then I rope her and make broke for ride."
She was a beauty. Graceful, proud—and lawless. "Good blood, like Indian chief," said Running Deer with pride in this gift from the Sioux. "But white squaw—she throw um, mebbe. Rub like fawn—" and he stroked her curved neck.
There was no "mebbe" about throw um white squaw. One had to be on the lookout or "swift like eagle" she would jump from under one at the slightest provocation. But we trained her to carry the mail, and though there was no banditry in that section, we had to be on our guard with money coming in. No man would ever grab the mail sack from Lakota's back. That little outlaw would paw him to death.
Whether we caught the mail stage or not often depended upon the mood of the stage driver. If he felt tired and lazy he patiently sat in front of the Halfway House at McClure and "chawed" and spat until he saw the Ammons mail coming over the trail. If he were out of sorts he drove on.
All we got out of the post-office job was the cancellation of stamps, as it was a fourth-class office in which the government furnished the stamps and we kept the money for all stamps canceled in our office. But the settlers were too busy to write letters, so the income was small and the incoming mail, for which we received no pay, weighed us down with work. For months after the settlers came west they ordered many commodities by mail, and their friends sent them everything from postcards to homemade cookies and jelly, so as mail carriers we became pack mules. But we went on carrying mail. It is easier to get into things than to get out.
Much of the ordering of commodities by the settlers was done through the huge mail-order catalogs issued by half a dozen large companies in the East. Those mail-order catalogs were of enormous importance to the homesteaders. For the women they had the interest of a vast department store through which one could wander at will. In a country where possessions were few and limited to essentials, those pages with their intriguing cuts represented most of the highly desirable things in life.
From the mail-order catalogs they ordered their stoves, most of their farming implements, and later, when the contrast between the alluring advertisements and the bleak shacks grew too strong for the women to endure, fancy lamps for the table, and inexpensive odds and ends which began to transform those rough barren houses into livable homes.
Running a newspaper out here was, as Ma Wagor had predicted, a "pestiferous" job. One day we hung the rubber roller out to dry and the sun melted it flat. As a result Ada had to ride to McClure to borrow one from The Press before we could print the paper. There was no way to get the ready-prints without making the long trip to Presho. Finally every homesteader around Ammons who went to town stopped in at the express office to get them for us. It was a multiplication of effort but we generally got the prints.
But, hard as it was, the work did not tire me as much as the mere mechanical grind of the hammer-and-tongs work on The Press had done. Each day was so filled with new problems and new interests, so crammed with activity, that we were carried along by the exhilaration of it. One cannot watch an empire shoot up around him like Jack's beanstalk without feeling the compulsion to be a part of that movement, that growth. And the worst barrier we had to face had vanished—the initial prejudice against two young girls attempting to take an active part in the forward movement of the community.
The obstacles of a raw country had no effect on Ada Long, our fourteen-year-old helper. She came of a struggling family who had settled on an alkali claim set back from everything until the Brule settlers had broken a trail past it. So Ada, finding herself in a new moving world, was happy. With her long yellow braids hanging beneath a man's straw hat, strong capable hands, and an easy stride, she went about singing hymns as she worked, taking upon herself many tasks that she was not called upon to perform. And Fred Farraday was taking much of the heavy work of the print shop off our hands.
Ma Wagor, too, was an invaluable help to us. "All my life I've wanted to run a store," she admitted. "I like the confusement." Every morning she came across the prairie sitting straight as a board in the old buggy behind a spotted horse that held his head high and his neck stretched like a giraffe. The few dollars she got for helping in the store eked out Pa's small pension, which had been their only revenue.
The commodities handled at the store had increased from coffee and matches to innumerable supplies. The faithful team, Fan and Bill, were kept on the road most of the time. We made business trips to Presho and Pierre. Help was not always available, and there could be no waste movements in a wasteland. On some of these trips we hitched the team to the big lumber wagon and hauled out barrels of oil, flour, printers' ink and other supplies for all and sundry of our enterprises. It had come to that.
"There go the Ammons sisters," people would say as the wagon started, barrels rattling, down the little main street of Presho, off to the hard trail home.
Slim and straight and absurdly small, in trim shirt waists, big sombreros tilted over our heads, we bounced along on the wagon, trying to look as mature and dignified as our position of business women demanded.
"Those are the two Brule girls who launched an attack on the Milwaukee railroad," Presho people remarked. "Well, I'll be damned!"
Once when I was too ill to leave Presho and we stayed for the night in a little frame hotel, Doc Newman came in to look me over.
"Do you girls get enough nourishing food?" he asked.
"We eat up all the store profits," lamented Ida Mary.
He laughed. "Keep on eating them up. And slow down."
Pioneer women, old and new, went through many hardships and privations. The sodbreakers' women over the Strip worked hard, but their greatest strain was that of endurance rather than heavy labor. But refreshing nights with the plains at rest and exhilarating morning air were the restoratives.
Hard and unrelieved as their lives were in many respects, gallantly as they shouldered their part of the burden of homesteading, the women inevitably brought one important factor into the homesteaders' lives. They inaugurated some form of social life, and with the exchange of visits, the impromptu parties, the informal gatherings, and the politeness, the amenities they demanded—however modified to meet frontier conditions—civilization came to stay.
The instinct of women to build up the forms of social life is deep-rooted and historically sound. Out of the forms grow traditions, and from the traditions grow permanency, which is woman's only protection. With the first conscious development of social life on the Brule, the Strip took on a more settled air.
Meanwhile, out of the back-breaking labor the first results began to appear. The sodbreakers were going to have a crop. And hay—hay to feed their livestock and to sell. Everyone passing through the Strip stopped to look at the many small fields and a few large ones dotting the prairie. People came from other parts of the frontier to see the rapid development which the Brule had made.
"Mein Gott in Himmel!" shouted old Mr. Husmann, pointing to a field of oats. "Look at them oats. We get one hell of a crop for raw land."
On the other side of us, Chris Christopherson's big field of flax was in full bloom, like a blue flower garden.
"I come by Ioway," Mr. Husmann went on, "when she was a raw country, and I say, 'Mein Gott, what grass!' But I see no grass so high and rich like this."
The gardens matured late, as all growth on the western prairie does. The seed which was sown on the sod so unusually late that year never would have come up but for the soaking rains. Now there were lettuce, radishes, onions and other things. One could not buy fresh green vegetables anywhere in the homestead country, and they were like manna from Heaven. It had been almost a year since Ida Mary and I had tasted green foods. It is a curious paradox that people living on the land depended for food or canned goods from the cities, and that the fresh milk and cream and green vegetables associated with farm life were unattainable.
Most of the settlers lived principally on beans and potatoes with some dried fruits, but we had bought canned fruits, oranges and apples, pretending to ourselves that we would stock them for the store. Some of the settlers could buy such foods in small quantities, for they had a little money that first summer; but the Indians were our main customers for the more expensive things, buying anything we wanted to sell them when they got their government allowances. While their money lasted they had no sales resistance whatever.
This characteristic apparently wasn't peculiar to the Brule Indians, but was equally true of those in the Oklahoma reservation who boomed the luxury trades when oil was discovered on their land. There it was no uncommon sight to see a gaudy limousine parked outside a tepee and a grand piano on the ground inside.
But what the Indians didn't buy of these foods at forbidden costs we ate ourselves, cutting seriously into our profits. And when Mrs. Christopherson sent her little Heine over one day with a bucket of green beans we almost foundered as animals do with the first taste of green feed after a winter of dry hay.
We had a few rows of garden east of our shack. I remember gathering something out of it—lettuce and onions, probably, which grew abundantly without any care.
It was hot, and everybody on the Strip, worn out from strenuous weeks, slowed down. The plains were covered with roses, wild roses trying to push their heads above the tall grass. The people who had worked so frantically, building houses, putting in crops, walked more slowly now, stopped to talk and rest a little, and sit in the shade. They discovered how tired they were, and the devitalizing heat added to the general torpor.
"It's this confusement," Ma Wagor said, "that's wore everybody out." She was the only one on the Strip to continue at the same energetic pace. "There ain't a bit of use wearing yourself out, trying to do the things here the Almighty Himself hasn't got around to yet—flying right in the face of the Lord, I says to myself sometimes."
But in spite of the heat and the general weariness, the work was unrelenting. The mail must be delivered regularly. The paper must be printed. One day Ida Mary's voice burst in upon the clicking of type.
"What are we going to do about the rattlesnakes?" she said tragically; "they're taking the country."
She was right. They were taking the reservation. They wriggled through the tall grass making ribbon waves as they went. They coiled like a rubber hose along the trails, crawled up to the very doors, stopped there only by right-fitting screens.
One never picked up an object without first investigating with a board or stick lest there be a snake under it. It became such an obsession that if anyone did pick up something without finding a snake under it he felt as disappointed as if he had run to a fire and found it out when he got there.
On horseback or afoot one was constantly on the lookout for them. For those gray coiled horrors were deadly. We knew that. There were plenty of stories of people who heard that dry rattle, saw the lightning speed of the strike and the telltale pricks on arm or ankle, and waited for the inevitable agony and swift death. The snakes always sounded their warning, the chilling rattle before they struck, but they rarely gave time for escape.
Sourdough stopped at the store one morning for tobacco. He had a pair of boots tied to his saddle and when Ida Mary stepped to the door to hand him the tobacco, a rattlesnake slithered out from one of the boots. He jumped off his horse and killed it.
"Damn my skin," Sourdough exclaimed, "and here I slept on them boots last night for a pillow. I oughta stretched a rope."
Plainsmen camping out made it a practice to stretch a rope around camp or pallet as a barricade against snakes; they would not cross the hairy, fuzzy rope, we were told. It may be true, but there was not a rope made that I would trust to keep snakes out on that reservation.
I remember camping out one night with a group of homesteaders. The ground was carefully searched and a rope stretched before we turned in, but it was a haggard, white-faced group which started back the next morning. True, there hadn't been any rattlesnakes, but from the amount of thinking about them that had been done that night, there might as well have been.
A young homesteader rushed into the print shop one day, white as a sheet. "A snake," he gasped, "a big rattler across the trail in front of the store."
"What of it? Haven't you ever seen a snake before?"
"Have I!" he replied dismally. "I saw them for six months back there in Cleveland. But my snakes didn't rattle."
Ours rattled. The rattle of the snake became as familiar as the song of the bird. The settlers were losing livestock every day. Everyone was in danger. With the hot dry weather they became bigger and thicker. The cutting of great tracts of grass for hay stirred them into viperous action. They were harder to combat than droughts and blizzards. Not many regions were so thickly infested as that reservation. Those snakes are a part of its history.
"Couldn't be many in other regions," Olaf Rasmusson, an earnest young farmer, said dryly; "they're all settled here."
"Look out for snakes!" became the watchword on the Strip.
Mrs. Christopherson's little Heine, a small, taciturn boy of five who had become a daily, silent visitor at the store, came in one afternoon, roused into what, for him, was a garrulous outburst:
"There's a snake right out here, and I bet it's six feet long the way it rattles."
Ada grabbed a pole and tried to kill it. The monster struck back like the cracking of a whip. She backed off and with her strong arm hit again and again, while Ida Mary ran with a pitchfork.
"Keep out of the way," shouted Ada, "you may get bitten!"
Winded, Ada fanned herself with her straw hat and wiped the perspiration from her face. "I got that fellow," she said triumphantly.
This was one problem about which The Wand seemed helpless. Printers' ink would have no effect on the snakes, and if this horror were published, the Strip would be isolated like a leper's colony. After using so much ingenuity in building up the achievements of that swift-growing country, the announcement of this plague of snakes might undo all that had been accomplished.
And the snakes increased. When Ida Mary was out of sight I worried constantly. It was like one's fear for a person in battle, who may be struck by a bullet at any moment. But the rattler was more surely fatal when it struck than the bullet.
Something had to be done. To Hades with what the world thought about our having snakes! We had to do something that would bring relief from this horror. We went to the old medicine men—John Yellow Grass, I think was one of them—to find out how the Indians got rid of snakes. They didn't. But at least they knew what to do when you had been bitten. The Indian medicine men said to bleed the wound instantly, bandaging the flesh tightly above and below to keep the poison from circulating. That was the Indians' first-aid treatment; and, as a last resort, "suck the wound."
The Wand printed warnings: "Bank your houses ... keep doors and windows tightly screened ... keep a bottle of whisky close at hand.... Carry vinegar, soda and bandages with you, and a sharp thin-bladed knife to slash and bleed the wound." What a run there was on vinegar and pocket knives!
By this time the sight of a coiled rope made me jumpy and I dreamed of snakes writhing, coiling, moving in undulating lines. At noon one day I was alone, making up the paper. I stood at the form table working, when I turned abruptly. A snake's slimy head was thrust through a big knothole in the floor. Its beady eyes held me for a moment, as they are said to hypnotize a bird. I could neither move nor scream.
Then with a reflex action I threw an empty galley—an oblong metal tray used to put the set type in—square over the hole. The snake moved so quickly it missed the blow and lay under the floor hissing like an engine letting off steam. It would have been in the print shop in another second. The floor was laid on 2 x 4 inch scantlings, so there was nothing to keep snakes from working their way under. It should have been banked around the foundation with sod.
The next day a homesteader's little girl was bitten. Oh, for serum! But if there were any such life-saver on the market we had no way of getting it.
The Wand called a meeting of the settlers and laid plans of warfare against the snakes. The homesteaders organized small posses. And cowboys and Indian bucks joined in that war against the reptiles.
They killed them by the dozens in every conceivable manner. The cowboys were always telling about shooting their heads off, and they said the Indians used an arrow, spearing them in the neck just back of the head. They never let one get away if they could help it. Some of them claimed they picked up rattlesnakes by the tails and cracked their heads off.
The snakes wintered in the prairie-dog holes, but I never heard of a prairie dog being bitten by one of them. On warm days in late fall the snakes came out of the holes and lay coiled thick on the ground, sunning themselves, while the little dogs sat up on their hind legs and yipped in their squeaky voices. The settlers and cowboys invaded the dog towns and killed off the snakes by the hundred. Dog towns were the tracts where the prairie dogs made their homes. During the intensive snake war, a homesteader came from one of the big prairie-dog towns to take us over to look at the kill.
There, strung on wires, hung more than a hundred huge, horrid rattlers, many of them still wriggling and twisting and coiling like a thrown lariat.
It seems too bad the snakeskin industry of today missed that bonanza of supply, and that science did not make a more general use of rattlesnake serum at that time. The settlers would have made some easy money and science would have got serum in unlimited quantity.
This is a gruesome subject. The constant, lurking menace of the snakes was one of the hardest things the frontier had to endure, harder than drought or blizzard, but in one way and another we came through.
Instead of The Wand's campaign against snakes injuring the Strip it created a great deal of interest, and people said we were "subduing the frontier."
Easy? Oh, yes; easy as falling off a log.
THE OPENING OF THE ROSEBUD
The settling of those western lands was as elemental as the earth, and no phase of its settlement was as dramatic as the opening of the Rosebud. Homesteading was now the biggest movement in America. We were entering a great period of land development running its course between 1909 and our entrance into the World War in 1917. The people were land crazy. The western fever became an epidemic that spread like a prairie fire. Day by day we watched the vast, voluntary migration of a people.
Men with families to support, frail women with no one to help them, few of them with money enough to carry them through, took the chance, with the odds against them. I have seen men appear with their families, ten dollars in their pockets, or only five after the filing fee on the land was paid. I have seen them sleep on the prairie, get odd jobs here and there until they could throw up a shelter out of scrap lumber, and slowly get a foothold, often becoming substantial citizens of a community they helped to build.
Free land! Free land! It was like the tune piped by the Pied Piper. "This is the chance for the poor man," I wrote in The Wand. "When the supply of free land is exhausted the poor man cannot hope to own land.... If the moneyed powers get hold of this cheap land as an investment, they will force the price beyond the grasp of the masses.... The West is the reserve upon which the future growth and food supply of the nation must depend."
Ida Mary said that I was running to land as a Missourian did to mules, but The Wand was fast becoming identified with the land movement.
As the homesteaders flowed in a great sea out of the towns and cities into the West, one wondered at their courage. There was not the hope which inspires a gold rush, the possibility of a gold strike which may bring sudden wealth and ease. The road was long, the only likely signs of achievement an extra room on the shack, a few more acres of ground turned under. And—eventual security! That was it, security. A piece of ground that belonged to them, on which they could plant their feet, permanency.
In answer to that cry for land there came another proclamation from the President, Theodore Roosevelt. Another great tract of land, the great Rosebud Indian Reservation, with a million acres of homesteads, was to be thrown open. A lottery with 1500 square miles of territory as the sweepstakes and 100,000 people playing its wheel of fortune. Trying to describe its size and sweep and significance, I find myself, in the vernacular of the range, plumb flabbergasted.
Of course, there were some among the homesteaders on the Lower Brule who found the grass greener on the Rosebud, and wanted to throw up their claims and move on to new ground; but the government informed them, somewhat grimly, that they could prove up where they were, or not at all. And I can understand their restlessness. To this day I never hear of some new frontier being developed without pricking up my ears and quivering like a circus horse when he hears a band play. There are some desert products that can't be rooted out—sagebrush and cactus and the hold of the open spaces.
The Rosebud Opening was one of the most famous lotteries of them all. The Rosebud reservation lay in Tripp County, across White River from the Brule. Its conversion into homesteads meant an immediate income for the United States Treasury, but according to a recent law, all monies received from the sale of the lands were to be deposited to the credit of the Indians belonging to and having tribal rights on the reservation, the funds thus acquired to be used by Congress for the education, support and civilization of the Indians.
The name Rosebud was emblazoned across the nation, after the government proclamation, in the newspapers, in railroad pamphlets, on public buildings. As usual, the railroads played a major part in aiding prospective settlers to reach the registration points, a half-dozen little western villages.
The frontier town of Pierre had been unprepared for the avalanche of people who had descended upon it during the Lower Brule opening. Service and equipment had been inadequate. In the great Bonesteel Opening a few years earlier, gambling and lawlessness had run riot. Therefore Superintendent Witten formulated and revised the drawing system, endeavoring to work out the most suitable plan for disposing of these tracts so that there might be no suggestion of unfairness.
Railroads traversing the West had already begun to extend their lines still farther into the little-populated section, starting new towns along their lines, running landseekers' excursions in an effort to show the people what this country had to offer them.
In preparation for the Rosebud Opening they prepared for the influx of people on a gigantic scale, made ready to take whole colonies from various sections of the East and Middle West to the reservation.
Among the registration points was the little town of Presho. A crude, unfinished little town, with a Wild West flavor about it, Presho couldn't help doing things in a spectacular fashion. Like most hurriedly built frontier towns, there was little symmetry to it—two irregular rows of small business places, most of them one-story structures, with other shops and offices set back on side streets. Its houses were set hit-and-miss, thickly dotting the prairie around its main street. Two years before, it had been merely an unsettled stretch of prairie.
Then the Milwaukee railroad platted the town, bringing out carloads of people to the auction. Two men, named Dirks and Sedgwick, paid $500 for the first lot, on which to start a bank. That was $480 more than the list price.
They had a little building like a sheep wagon, or a cook shack, on wheels, which they rolled onto the lot. Within eight minutes the bank was open for business. The first deposit, in fact, was made while the sheep-wagon bank rolled along. Two barrels and a plank served as a counter.
The two founders had the necessary $5000 capital, and when the cashier went to dinner he took all the money with him, with two six-shooters for protection. He was never robbed. For two years, during the land boom, the bank had not closed, day or night.
Locators coming in, in the middle of the night, from their long trips over the territory, would knock on the door in the back end of the bank. The banker would open the door a crack, stick his gun out and demand, "Who's there?"
"It's Kimball. Got a bunch of seekers here. They have to catch the train east."
The locator or other person wanting to transact business after the banker had gone to bed had to identify himself before the door was opened. When the homestead movement of that region was at its height, thousands of dollars passed over the board-and-barrel counter in the bank's night-time business.
"The Rosebud has been throwed open!" went the cry. The entire western country made ready for the invasion of the landseekers. The government red tape for the lottery, with its various registration points, would require a small army to handle. It was one of the most gigantic governmental programs ever known. Notaries had to be appointed to take care of the affidavits, land locators selected to show the seekers the land, accommodations provided for the 115,000 who registered in that Drawing.
Even the Brule was crowded with people ready to play their luck in the land lottery. Every available corner was utilized for sleeping space, and the store at Ammons did a record business that would help pay the wholesale bills at Martin's store. Ida Mary was busy taking care of postal duties, handling increased mail, government notices, etc.
During the summer our financial condition had gone from bad to worse.
"Do you know those Ammons girls?" one native westerner asked another. "Came out from St. Louis, about as big as my Annie (Annie was about twelve); head wranglers out on the Lower Brule, newspaper, trading post, whole works."
"Well, they'll last till their money is gone."
And it was about gone! "What are we going to do to meet these payments, Edith?" Ida Mary asked one day in a breathing spell. There wasn't enough money to pay for groceries, printing equipment, interest, etc.
If we could only hold on, the proof notices would bring in $2000 or more, which was big money out there. But the proof season was almost a year ahead, and the money had already been pledged.
Profit and loss! My head ached. I felt as though I had been hit on the head by 200 square miles of Brule sod. Ma Wagor offered us a way out of one of our difficulties. She'd always wanted a store. She liked the "confusement." So we turned the store over to the Wagors', lock, stock and barrel—prunes and molasses, barrels of coal-oil and vinegar, padlocks on the doors. They had no money, but Ma wanted it as much as we wanted to be rid of it, so it was a satisfactory deal. They were to pay us on a percentage basis. We still had a claim, a post office and a newspaper to manage, and the Indian trade to handle.
"It looks as though the Ammons venture is going under," people were beginning to say. I went to Presho and the small towns near by, and, somewhat to my own surprise, succeeded in getting more advertising for The Wand. But it wasn't enough.
One night I came home, determined that something must be done. The whole arrangement seemed to me unfair to Ida Mary. "Sister," I said, "I'm going to give up the claim."
She quietly put down her book, open so as not to lose the page, and waited for me to go on.
"I told Mr. West today that we would sell. I am going to pay off the mortgage on your homestead, clean up the other debts, and—"
"And then what?"
"I don't know."
"Don't give up your land, Edith. Something will happen. Something always happens." She went back to her book.
Something did happen. The Rosebud Opening. I was to cover it for a western newspaper syndicate, and this time I had the inside track. Being familiar with the field and with the government lottery operations, I would be able to get my stories out while other reporters were finding out what it was all about.
Remembering the money I had made with the little verses printed on a postcard at the Brule Opening, I prepared another on the Rosebud, with the cartoonist from Milwaukee helping me by making drawings to illustrate it. Then, armed with the postcards, I set off for Presho—and the Rosebud.
On a Sunday night in early October, 1908, I stood on a corner of the dark main street of Presho waiting for the Rosebud to open. I had appointed agents to handle my postcards and I was free to cover the story. Special trains loaded with landseekers were coming. The confusion of last-minute preparations to receive them was at its height.
I found Presho as mad as a hornet. The Milwaukee railroad had taken the turntable out, and special trains coming in from Chicago and other points east must thus go on to the next town to turn around. This was bound to cut into Presho's share of the crowds. As long as the town had been the turning point of the road, it was one of the greatest trade centers in that part of the West.
The lottery was to start Monday, which meant the stroke of midnight. The little town was ready, its dark streets lighted here and there by flaring arc lights. Up and down Main Street, and out over the fields, tents had been erected to take care of the crowd.
And the trains were coming in, unloading their human cargo. Others poured in by every conceivable means of transportation, invading the little frontier town, the only spot of civilization in the vast, bare stretch of plains. Presho woke to find a great drove of tenderfeet stampeding down its little Main Street. They thundered down the board sidewalk and milled in the middle of the road, kicking up dust like a herd of range cattle as they went.
Aside from the great tents put up by some of the towns for lodging and eating quarters, small tents dotted the outskirts. People were bringing their own camping equipment, and I might add that only those who had such foresight, slept during those turbulent days.
The daily train was an event in these frontier towns, its coming watched by most of the inhabitants. Now five and six a day roared in, spilled 500 to 800 passengers into the packed streets, and roared away again. As the heavily loaded trains met or passed each other along the route the excited crowds called jovially to one another, "Suckers! Suckers!" With but 4000 claims, the chance to win was slim.
On the station platform, in the thick of the crowds, were the Indians. After all, it appeared, they were learning from the white man. This time they had come in an enlightened and wholly commercial spirit. Brave in paint and feathers and beads, they strolled about, posing for the landseekers—for 50 cents a picture.
A maze of last-minute activity was under way before the stroke of midnight. Telephone companies installed additional equipment and service. Telegraph wires were being strung up. Expert men were being rushed out from Kansas City and Omaha to take care of the flood of words that would soon go pouring out to the nation—telling the story of the gamble for land.
A magazine editor, notebook in hand, moved from one group of seekers to another, asking: "Do you think Taft will be elected?" He didn't seem to be getting far. On the eve of a presidential election a people was turning to the soil for security. "Do you think Taft will be elected?" the editor repeated patiently. "Who gives a damn?" shouted a steel worker from Philadelphia.
A train lumbered in heavily from Chicago, fourteen coaches, crowded to standing room only, men and women herded and tagged like sheep. They stumbled out onto the dark platform, jostled among the mob already assembled, exhausted, dirty, half-asleep, yet shaking with excitement. That high-pitched excitement, of course, was partly due to strain and suspense, partly to the gambling spirit in which the lottery was carried out. But for the most part the crowd generated its own excitement through its great numbers and consequent rivalry, as it entered the dark streets with their glaring lights, the mad confusion of shouting and band playing.
They came from Chicago and jerkwater towns in Nebraska, from farms and steel mills, from the stage and the pulpit. School teachers and farm boys, clerks and stenographers, bookkeepers and mechanics, business men and lawyers. Perhaps the most significant thing was the presence of those business men, often coming in whole groups to study the country and its possibilities, to be on hand when the town sites were opened, to be the first to start businesses on the Rosebud.
On the Brule there had been nothing but the land. Here the plows, the farm implements, salesmen of every conceivable commodity needed by settlers, were on hand. These people were to start with supplies in sight, with business organizing in advance to handle their problems, with capital waiting for their needs.
And they came by the thousands. From Chicago alone there came one group of 3000 seekers. "Move on," came the endless chant. "Move on!" It didn't matter where, so long as they kept moving, making way for new mobs of restless people. "Move on!"
Wires were clicking with news from the other registration points. Presho, to its fury, couldn't compare with some of the other towns. The little town of Dallas had gone stark mad. Thirty-four carloads of seekers were due in these villages between midnight and morning. They were coming from every direction, bringing, along with the individual seekers, whole groups of New England farmers, Iowa business men, an organization of clerks from Cleveland, and from everywhere the ruddy-faced farmers.
Over the uproar of the crowd could be heard the sharp staccato click of the telegraph wires. Special trains were coming from Omaha, came the news. The police force had tried to keep the crowds from smothering each other, but they had torn down the gate of the station and rushed through, afraid to be left behind.
Runners came overland across the empty Rosebud to carry the news from the little towns, riding hell-for-leather, their horses foaming although the night was cold. "You ought to see Dallas, folks! People lighting like grasshoppers.... You ought to see Gregory!" The rivalry was bitter among the towns, each trying to corner as much of the crowd as possible.
Presho was sending out word vehemently denying the reports that an epidemic of black smallpox had broken out there.
Men representing everything from flop tents to locating agents boarded trains en route, trying to persuade the seekers to register at their respective towns. And all of them were bitter against the railroads, which were furnishing return accommodations every few hours, giving the tradesmen little chance to make their fortunes, as many of them had confidently expected to do.
Automobiles, many bought for the occasion, lined the streets of these border towns, ready to take the seekers over the land—if they stayed long enough. It surprised the easterners, this evidence of modernity in a pioneer world. And here and there a new automobile parked beside a prairie schooner.
Curiously enough, the price of the land distributed by the Openings was higher than that of vast tracts of untouched land in the West which was also available to the public, and yet attention was concentrated solely on the Rosebud; the desire for land there was at fever heat, while other land was regarded with apathy. Whether this was due to the fact that the other land was little known, or to the madness that attends any gambling operation and the intensive advertising which had called attention to the Rosebud, I do not know.
But this land was not free. For these Indian lands the government charged from $2.00 to $6.00 an acre, according to classification. Thus 160 acres of first-class land would cost the homesteader around a thousand dollars—one-fifth down, the rest in annual payments under the five-year proof plan. If he made commutation proof in fourteen months, the minimum residence required, he must then make payment in full.
The hours wore on toward midnight and the crowd grew denser. "Move on," droned the chant. "Move on!" The editor had turned the page of his notebook and spoke to one of the women landseekers. "Are you a suffragette?" he asked politely. Pushing back an elbow that had grazed her cheek, pulling her hat firmly over her head, clutching her handbag firmly, she looked at him, wonderingly. "Are you—" he began again, but someone shouted "Move on," and the woman disappeared in the throng.
At the stroke of midnight a cry went up from the registrars. At 12:01 under the dim flicker of coal-oil lanterns and torches hung on posts or set on barrels and boxes, that most famous of lotteries began.
The uproar and confusion of the hours before midnight were like a desert calm compared with the clamor which broke out. Registrars lined both sides of the street. "Right this way, folks! Here you are, here you are! Register right here!" And there, on rough tables, on dry-goods boxes, anything upon which a piece of paper could be filled out and a notary seal stamped thereon, the crowd put in their applications as entries in the gamble, raised their right hands and swore: "I do solemnly swear that I honestly desire to enter public lands for my own personal use as a home and for settlement and cultivation, and not for speculation or in the interest of some other person...."
In the excitement and chill of the October night, fingers shook so that they could scarcely hold a pen. Commissioned notaries were getting 25 cents a head from the applicants. Real estate offices were jammed.
In between the registration stands were the hot-dog and coffee booths with the tenders yelling, while thick black coffee flowed into tin cups by the barrel, and sandwiches were handed out by the tubful. Popcorn and peanut venders pushed through the crowd crying their wares. And among the voices were those of the agents who were selling my postcards, selling them like liniment in a patent-medicine show.
Spielers shouted the virtues of the food or drink or tent or land locator they were advertising. Even the notaries got megaphones to announce their services—until government authorities stepped in and threatened to close them all up.
Into the slits in the huge cans which held the applications dropped a surprising number of items. People became confused and used it as a mail box, dropping in souvenir cards. One applicant even dropped in his return fare. And some, shaking uncontrollably with excitement, were barely able to drop their applications in at all.
And somewhere, off in the dark spaces beyond the flickering lights, lay the million acres of land for which the horde was clamoring, its quiet sleep unbroken.
There was a sharp tug at my arm, and I turned to see the reporter from Chicago who had filed on the Brule Opening.
"I'm trying my luck again," he said.
So he had not won in the Brule lottery. Somehow I was glad to know that was the reason for his not being on a claim there.
Sensing this, he said grimly: "So you thought I was a quitter."
As we clung to each other to keep from being separated in the hysterical mob, I heard his hollow cough.
"Are you ill?" I asked.
"It's this crowd and the dust—my lungs—got to come west—"
I grabbed him by the coat sleeve, trying to make my voice carry above the ballyhoo. "If you do not win here, come and see me. I can get you a claim." The swaying throng separated us.
I rushed to the telegraph office and sent off my story. As I started back I stopped to look upon the little town which had been started at the end of the iron trail, revealed in the light of torches against a black sky, and at the faces, white and drawn and tense.
Move on! Move on! At 4 o'clock that Monday morning, four hours after arrival, the landseekers who had registered were on the road back to Chicago and all points east, many of them carrying in one hand a chunk of sod and in the other a tuft of grass—tangible evidence that they had been on the land. And other trains were rushing out, carrying more people. I boarded a returning special which was packed like a freight train full of range cattle, men and women travel-stained, tired and hollow-eyed, but geared up by hope.
I got off at Chamberlain. The rumors had been correct. That seething mob at Presho was only the spray cast by the tidal wave. At Chamberlain long, heavily loaded trains pulled in and out. People walked ten and twelve abreast through the streets. Some 30,000 strangers besieged that frontier town. A mob of 10,000 tried to fill out application blanks, tried to get something to eat and drink, some place to sleep. While the saloons were overrun, there was little drunkenness. No man could stand at the bar long enough to get drunk. If he managed to get one drink, or two at most, he was pushed aside before he could get another—to make room for someone else. Move on! Move on!
The stockmen were shocked. They had not dreamed of anything like this invasion. Their range was going and they owned none, or little, of the land. The old Indians looked on, silent and morose.
Hotels, locating agents, all the First Chance and Last Chance saloons became voluntary distributors of my postcards. It looked as though I too were going to reap a harvest from the Rosebud Opening.
And they continued to come! Within four days 60,000 people had made entry, and the trains continued to pull in and out, loaded to the doors. Unlike the Lower Brule Opening, there was no dreary standing in line for hours, even days, at a time. The seekers passed down the line like rapidly inspected herds.
And among them, inevitably, came the parasites who live on crowds—gamblers, crooks, sharks, pickpockets, and the notorious women who followed border boom towns. The pioneer towns were outraged, and every citizen automatically became a peace officer, shipping the crooks out as fast as they were discovered. They wouldn't, they declared virtuously, tolerate anything but "honest" gambling. And their own gambling rooms continued to run twenty-four hours a day.
In spite of precautions, not a few of the trusting folk from farms and small towns to whom this event was a carnival affair found themselves shorn like sheep at shearing time before they knew what was happening. One farm boy lost not only all his money but his fine team and wagon as well. A carnival it was, of course, in some respects. Amusement stands, in tents or shacks, lined the streets and never closed. Warnings came by letter to Superintendent Witten, describing crooks who were on their way to the Rosebud.
Motion pictures ran day and night, their ballyhoo added to the outcries of the other barkers. And the registration never stopped. Clerks and others employed as assistants by the government were hired in four-hour shifts. Post offices stayed open all night.
The government's headquarters were at Dallas, with a retinue of officials in charge. Thus the little town at the end of the North Western Railroad was the Mecca of that lottery. There the hysterical mob spirit appeared. And one day in the midst of the Opening, a prairie fire broke out, sweeping at forty miles an hour over the land the people had come to claim, sweeping straight toward Dallas. The whole town turned out to fight it—it had to. The Indians pitched in to help. And the tenderfeet, including reporters and photographers from the big city newspapers, turned fire fighters, fighting to save the town.
In spite of their efforts the fire reached the very borders of the town, destroying a few buildings. And at the sight of the flames the government employees caught up the great cans which contained the seekers' applications for the land and rushed them out of town toward safety. That day the cans contained 80,000 applications.
That great, black, charred area extending for miles over the prairie put a damper on the spirits of the locating agents. But these people had come for land, and they were not to be daunted. All over the great reservation groups could be seen investigating the soil, digging under the fire-swept surface, driving on into the regions of tall grass and scattered fields bordering the Rosebud. They were hoping to win a piece of that good earth.
As the close of the registration drew near, the excitement was intensified. Letters to Superintendent Witten poured in, asking him to hold back claims for people who were unable to register. The registration closed on October 17, 1908. No registrations would be accepted after a certain hour. Captain Yates, assistant superintendent of the Opening, started from O'Neill, Nebraska, bearing the applications from that registration point. So that there would be no danger of his not reaching the town of Dallas with the applications before the deadline, a special train was waiting for him. In his excitement Captain Yates rushed past the men waiting for him, crossed the track where his special was getting up steam, and took a train going the wrong way! Telegrams, another special train, cleared tracks—and he was finally able to rush in with his applications at the last moment.
Others were not so fortunate. Tired horses, a missed train connection, some unforeseen delay, and they arrived an hour, half an hour, perhaps only a few minutes after the registration had closed. Too late!
Oddly enough, one of the last to register was the foreman of the U Cross Ranch, who came galloping across the prairie at the last moment to make his application for a homestead. And when a ranchman turned to homesteading, that was news!
On October 19 the Drawing began. The government saw that every precaution must be taken to make sure of fair play; any suspicion of illegality might cause an uprising of the mob of a hundred thousand excited, disappointed people.
The great cans were pried open, and the applications put onto large platforms, where they were shuffled and mixed—symbolically enough with rakes and hoes—for it was quarter-sections of land they were handling.
From out the crowd applicants were invited onto the platform, and if one succeeded in selecting his own name he would be entitled to the first choice of land and location. Business firms, townsite companies were making open offers of $10,000 for Claim No. 1. Then two little girls, blindfolded, drew the sealed envelopes from the deep pile. Superintendent Witten opened them and announced the names to the crowd filling the huge tent where the Drawing was held.
The hushed suspense of that Drawing was like that of a regiment waiting to go over the top. The noisy excitement of registration was over. The people waited, tense and breathless, for the numbers to be called. Ironically enough, a great number of the winners had gone home. They would be notified by mail, of course. It was largely the losers who had waited.
The first winner to be present as his number was called was greeted with generous applause and cheers and demands for a speech. He was a farmer from Oklahoma, and instead of speaking, he felt in his pockets and held up, with a rather sheepish smile, a rabbit's foot which he had brought with him. Press agents stood by, waiting for the outcome. Daily newspapers printed the official list of the winners as the numbers came out, and all over the United States people waited for the announcement of the Rosebud's Lucky Numbers. The Rosebud had been opened up and swallowed by the advancing wave of people westward. But there was more land!
Fred Farraday drove me home from Presho, weary to the bone, and content to ride without speaking, listening to the steady clop-clop of the horses over that quiet road on which we did not meet a human being. And in my pocketbook $400, the proceeds from the sale of the postcards. Something, as Ida Mary had predicted, had happened.
Ma Wagor came in from the store. "Land sakes," she exclaimed, "you musta been through some confusement! You look like a ghost."
It didn't matter. "I have four hundred dollars. There will be another hundred or so when the agents finish checking up on the card sales, and I'll get a check from the News Service. It will pay the bills, and some left over to help us through the winter. We've saved the claim."
After a pause I added, "The Lower Brule seems pretty small after the Rosebud. I'd like to go over there to start a newspaper."
"No," said Ida Mary. "You can't do that. Your claim and your newspaper and your job are here. After all, anyone can file on a claim. It's the people who stay who build the country."
I was pony-expressing the mail home one day when I saw a great eagle, with wings spread, flying low and circling around as though ready to swoop upon its prey. It was noon on a late fall day with no sight or sound of life except that mammoth eagle craftily soaring. I turned off the trail to follow its flight. It was the kind of day when one must ride off the beaten trail, when the sun is warm, the air cool and sparkling; even Lakota seemed like a stodgy animal riveted to the earth, and the only proper motion was that of an eagle soaring.
Abruptly the eagle swooped down into the coulee out of sight and came up a hundred yards or so in front of me, carrying with it a large bulky object. At the same instant a shot rang out, the eagle fell, and its bulky prey came down with a thud.
So intent was I upon the eagle that I was not prepared for what happened. At the shot Lakota gave a leap to the right and I went off to the left. I had no more than landed when a rider, whom I had seen lope up out of the coulee as the eagle fell, had my horse by the bit and was bending over me.
"Hurt?" he asked.
"I don't think so. Just scared," I replied as I got stiffly to my feet. The soft, thick grass had provided a cushioned landing place and saved my bones.
The stranger took a canteen from his saddle and gave me a drink of water; led the horses up to form a shade against the bright noon sun, and bade me sit quiet while he went back to see what the eagle had swooped down upon.
"A young coyote, just a pup," he announced upon his return. "I'm glad I got that fellah. They are an awful pest." It was a big bird with an eight-foot stretch from wing tip to tip as measured by this plainsman's rule—his hands. "They carry away lambs and attack new-born calves," he said. "They attack people sometimes, but that is rare."
He helped me on my horse. "All my fault. Couldn't see you from down in the coulee when I fired at that bird. You musta just tipped the ridge from the other side." He reached over, untied the mail bag and tied it to his saddle.
"You were going the other way, weren't you?" I protested.
"No hurry. I'll go back with you first."
"You don't know where I live, do you?"
"Yes, I know," he said laconically. He was a young man—I took him to be under thirty—with a sort of agile strength in every movement. Lean, virile, his skin sunburnt and firm. He wore a flannel shirt open at the throat, buckskin chaps, a plainsman's boots, and his sombrero was worn at an angle. He made no attempt to be picturesque as did many of the range riders.
As the horses started off at an easy gallop he checked them. "Better go slow after that shake-up," he said quietly.
"I must hurry," I answered. "I'm late with the mail."
"These homesteaders are always in a rush. Shore amusin'. Act like the flood would be here tomorrow and no ark built." He spoke in a soft, southern drawl.
"They have to do more than build an ark," I told him. "They have to make time count. The country is too new to accomplish anything easily."
"Too old, you mean. These plains have been hyar too long for a little herd of humans to make 'em over in a day."
"We have fourteen months to do it in," I reminded him, referring to the revised proving-up period.
"You'll be mighty sore and stiff for a few days," he said as he laid the mail sack down on the floor; "sorry, miss, I scared your horse," and touching his ten-gallon hat he was gone.
"Where did he hail from?" Ma Wagor demanded from the store where she had been watching.
"He's not from Blue Springs, Ma."
"I declare you are as tormentin' as an Indian when it comes to finding out things," Ma exclaimed in disappointment. She couldn't understand how I could have ridden any distance with the man without learning all about his present, guessing at his past, and disposing of his future to suit myself. People, as Ma frequently pointed out, were made to be talked to.
Just before sunset one day a week or so later I was sitting in the shop when the cowboy walked in. "Got to thinkin' you might be hurt worse than you appeared to be." He said he was top hand, had charge of a roundup outfit over in the White River country some fifty miles away, and some of the stock had roamed over on the reservation. Name was Lone Star—Lone Star Len.
And then one gray, chilly day in November, with the first feathery snowflakes, he rode up on his cow pony to say good-by. He was leaving the country, taking a bunch of cattle down to Texas for winter range. He was glad to be going. "Don't see how folks can live huddled up with somebody on every quarter-section. Homesteaders is ruinin' the country, makin' it a tore-up place to live. It's too doggone lonesome with all this millin' around."
When the Brule became populated, Lone Star Len had gone into the empty Rosebud country, "where I'm not hemmed in by people, some place where there's a little room." Now he would be driven on—and on. And in the spring there would be a new influx of people in our section of the frontier.
Meanwhile, fall had come. The plains, which had stretched to the horizon that spring untouched by a plow, unoccupied by white men, were now unrecognizable. A hundred thousand acres of fertile waste land had been haltered. Hundreds of settlers had transplanted their roots into this soil and had made it a thriving dominion. Fall rains filled the dams and creeks. There were potatoes and other vegetables in abundance.
Think of it! Caves full of melons, small but sweet. The Wand told of one small field that yielded twenty bushels of wheat, another twenty-two bushels of oats, to the acre. There was fall plowing of more ground, schools being established, Sunday schools, preparations for the winter already in progress.
Never had a raw primitive land seen such progress in so short a time. And The Wand had played a substantial part in this development. It was swamped with letters of inquiry.
Fall was roundup time on the range. The Indian lands were so far-reaching that there were no nearby ranches, but the herds ranged over miles of territory around us.
And across the fence, on the unceded strip, the great herds of Scotty Phillips's outfit roamed over his own and the Indians' holdings. Across the plains came the ceaseless bawling of thousands of cows and calves being separated. That wild, mad, pitiful bawling rent the air and could be heard through the stillness of night for miles around, and the yelling and whooping of cowboys, the stamping of cow ponies and herds, the chanting and tom-toms of the Indians.
And enveloping it all, the infinite plains, unmoved, undisturbed by all that was taking place upon them.
So the homesteaders gathered their first harvest, and the goose hung high. There was hay—great stacks and ricks of it. Piles of yellow corn stacked like hay in barbed-wire enclosures or in granaries. To commemorate that first golden harvest, the pilgrims of the Lower Brule celebrated their first Thanksgiving.
Seeing the stacks of grain that stood ready for threshing or for feeding in the straw, old man Husmann pointed to the field. "Mein Gott in Himmel! Vat I tell you? Das oats made t'irty bushels an acre. And flax. Mein Gott! She grow on raw land like hair on a hog's back. Back in Ioway we know notings about flax for sod crop." Dakota taught the United States that flax was the ideal sod crop.
The average yield of oats with late and slipshod sowing had been around fifteen bushels to the acre. Some fields of spring wheat had run fifteen bushels. And potatoes had fairly cracked the ground open. One settler, an experienced potato grower, had four acres that yielded 300 bushels. The Wand played that up in headlines for easterners to see.
Late-ripened melons lay on the ground, green and yellow—watermelons, muskmelons, golden pumpkins ready for the Thanksgiving pie. Over the Strip women and children were gathering them in against a sudden freeze. The reservation fairly subsisted on melons that fall. Before the harvest the rations had been getting slim, with the settlers' money and food supply running low.
Women dried corn, made pumpkin butter and watermelon pickles, and put up chokecherries. A number of them had grown in their gardens a fruit they called ground cherries. This winter there would be baked squash and pumpkin pie.
So there was food for man and beast. And Scotty Phillips who owned what was said to be the largest buffalo herd in America killed a buffalo and divided it among the settlers, as far as it would go, to add to the Thanksgiving cheer of the Brule. There was a genuine sense of fruition about that first harvest. Looking back to the empty plains as they had stretched that spring, the accomplishments of the homesteaders in one brief summer were overwhelming. There had been nothing but the land. Now a community had grown up, with houses and schools, and the ground had yielded abundantly.
In other ways our efforts had also borne fruit. There was to be a new bridge at Cedar Creek. From the fight The Wand had carried on, one would think that we were boring a Moffat tunnel through the Great Divide. And The Wand fought a successful battle with John Bartine over county division. It had come about when Senator Phillips came by one day during the summer on his way from Pierre to his ranch. "Scotty" Phillips, senator, cattleman and business man, was one of the Dakotas' most influential citizens. A heavyset man he was, with an unconscious dignity and a strong, kindly face; a squaw man—his wife was a full-blooded Indian who had retained many of her tribal habits. One day one would see the Senator ride past in his big automobile, and the next day his wife would go by, riding on the floor of the wagon on the way to the reservation to visit her relatives.
"I stopped in to see if you wanted to go to the county division meeting tomorrow at Presho," Senator Phillips said. "It's a rather important matter to the settlers. The Wand will represent those of the Lower Brule, of course."
What was county division? We set out the next morning to find out. The county, it appeared, was becoming so thickly settled that the people of the western part wanted it divided, with a county seat of their own. We learned that Lyman County covered approximately 2500 square miles and the settlers of the extreme western part were 110 miles from the county seat, with no means of transportation. It sounded reasonable enough, and The Wand backed those who wanted county division.
The speaker for that little meeting was a slight and unassuming young man who was greeted with cheers.
"Who is he?" I asked Senator Phillips.
"Why that," he said, "is John Bartine!"
John Bartine was one of the most noted and romantic figures of the western plains. He had come west with a few law books packed in his trunk and no money, a young tenderfoot lawyer. He almost starved waiting for a case. There were no law cases, no real legal difficulties but cattle rustling, and nothing, apparently, that an inexperienced young easterner could do about that. But he persuaded stockmen who were being wiped out by the depredations of the rustlers to let him take their cases against these outlaw gangs. He had himself elected judge so that he could convict the thieves. And he had convicted them right and left until a band of rustlers burned down the courthouse in retaliation. But he kept on fighting, at the risk of his own life, until at last that part of the country became safe for the cattlemen.
After we had heard him talk we discovered that the county division problem was not as simple as it appeared at first. It wasn't merely a problem of dividing territory; division would increase the taxes, the non-divisionists said.
We hadn't thought of that. One did not pay taxes on the land, of course, until he got his deed, but there were other taxes to be paid, and the homesteaders felt they were developing resources for the nation at their own expense.
I did not know how to carry on a campaign like that, but The Wand put facts and figures before the settlers, to bring the situation clearly before them and let them do the deciding. When a frontier newspaper ran out of something to do, it could always enter a county division fight, as there were always counties to be divided as soon as they were settled up, many of them larger than our smaller New England States. And, so far as my own district was concerned, I had won this first battle with Judge Bartine. But the fight against the measure was so strong that Lyman County was not divided for several years.
Although the settlers had not been on the Brule long enough to vote, office seekers kept coming through, asking the indorsement of The Wand. "It's no wonder the men we elect to run things make such a fizzle when they get into office," Ma Wagor snorted one day with impatience; "they wear themselves plumb out getting there."
Old Porcupine Bear, wise man and prophet, warned us that it would be a hard winter, and the plainsmen agreed that it was a humdinger. I asked the wise old Indian how he could foretell the winter. "By food on shrub and tree," he said, "heap plenty; the heavy coat of the animals; the bear and squirrel storing heap much for eat, and the bear he get ready go sleep early." And so the winter came on us.
The dams froze over and the Strip was a great white expanse which appeared level at first sight but was beautifully undulating. Now there was a shack on every quarter-section, which appeared black in relief against the white. The atmosphere did curious things to them. Sometimes they looked like small dry-goods boxes in the distance, sometimes they seemed to have moved up to the very door. A coyote off a mile or two, or a bunch of antelope running along a ridge in the distance, appeared to be just across the trail.
In the mornings we cut a hole in the ice of our dam to dip out the water for household use, and then led the livestock down to drink. And at night we went skating on the larger dams, with the stars so large and near it seemed one could reach up and touch them, and no sound on the sleeping prairie but the howling of a pack of wolves down in the next draw.
But there were tracks on the white floor of earth, tracks of the living things which inhabit the silent areas and which had stealthily traveled across the plains, sometimes tracks of the larger wild beasts, and everywhere jack rabbits squatted deep in the snow.
The majority of the settlers wintered in little paper-shell hovels, of single thin board walls, the boards often sprung apart and cracked by the dry winds; a thin layer of tar paper outside and a layer of building paper on the inside, which as a rule was stretched across the studding to provide insulation between the wall and lining. Some of these paper linings were thin and light, the average settler having to buy the cheapest grade he could find.
We got along fairly well unless the wind blew the tar paper off. There was not a tree, not a weather-break of any kind for protection. Sometimes the wind, coming in a clean sweep, would riddle the tar paper and take it in great sheets across the prairie so fast no one could catch up with it. The covering on our shack had seen its best days and went ripping off at the least provocation. With plenty of fuel one could get along fairly well unless the tar paper was torn off in strips, leaving the cracks and knotholes open. Then we had to stop up the holes with anything we had, and patch the paper as best we could.
We had our piano out there that winter and Ida Mary bought a heating stove for the front room. "The Ammons girls are riding high," some of the settlers said good-naturedly. But when the stove, the cheapest listed in the mail-order catalog, arrived, Ida Mary cried with disappointment and then began to laugh. It was so small we could not tell whether it was a round heater or a bulge in the stovepipe. With it the temperature of the room ran automatically from roasting to freezing point unless one kept stoking in fuel.
In some ways Ida Mary and I remained objects of curiosity. Occasionally we saw indications of it. There had been a hot Sunday afternoon during the summer when Ida Mary and I were sitting in the open door of the shack. A strange cowboy rode up to the door. "Is this the place where the newspaper and everything is?"
We told him that it was. He threw one leg over the saddlehorn and fanned himself with his sombrero, looking us over, gaudy in a red and black checkered shirt, fringed leather chaps and bright green neckerchief.
"Well, you ain't the ones I heard about that's runnin' it, are you?" He seemed puzzled.
Yes, we were the ones. Anything he wanted?
"No. I'm a new wrangler over on Bad Horse creek—I come from Montana. Montana Joe, they call me. And a bunch of the punchers was just a wondering what you looked like; wanted me to come over and find out," he admitted candidly.
"But," and he stared disapprovingly at our slippered feet, "them don't look like range hoofs to me. They look like Ramblin' Rosie's." Ramblin' Rosie, it appeared, was a notorious dance-hall girl.
And about that time a Chicago newspaper came out, carrying a big headline story, complete with drawings, about our adventures in taming the frontier. It pictured Ida Mary and me with chaps and six-shooters; running claim-jumpers off our land and fighting Indians practically single-handed, plowing the land in overalls, two large, buxom, hardy girls. In fact, it had us shooting and tearing up the West in general. A friend sent us a copy and we laughed over it hysterically, marveling at this transformation of two girls who were both as timid as field mice, into amazons. We hid it quickly so that no one could see it, and forgot about it until long afterwards.
But we weren't the only girls on the plains with problems. A surprising number of homesteaders were girls who had come alone. They had a purpose in being there. With the proceeds of a homestead they could finish their education or go into business.
Many of these girls came from sheltered homes and settled out in the wilderness of plains, living alone in little isolated shanties out of reach of human aid in case of illness or other emergency. They had no telephones or other means of communication. Some of them had no means of transportation, walking miles to a neighbor in order to send to town for a little food or fuel, sometimes carrying buckets of water a mile or two over the plains. In winter they were marooned for days and nights at a stretch without a human being to whom they could speak, and nothing but the bloodcurdling cry of coyotes at night to keep them company.
They tried to prepare themselves for any situation so that they would neither starve nor freeze; with books and papers to read and the daily grinding routine of work to be done on every homestead, where each job required the effort and time of ten in modern surroundings, they managed to be contented. But it took courage.
In spite of the rigors of the winter, the settlers made merry. Our piano was hauled all over the Strip for entertainments. Barring storms or other obstacles, it was brought home the next day, perhaps not quite as good as when it went, but a piano scuffed or off-tune did not matter compared to the pleasure Ida Mary had that winter, going to parties and dancing. I did not always go along; my strength didn't seem to stretch far enough.
Sometimes a group of homesteaders would drive up to the settlement about sundown in a big bobsled behind four horses, the sled filled with hay, heavy blankets and hot bricks. We would shut up shop and the whole staff would crowd into the sled, Imbert tucking Ida Mary in warm and snug.
On cold winter evenings, when a gray-white pall encircled the earth like a mantle of desolation, three or four of the girls were likely to ride up, each with a bag of cooked food, to spend the night. One never waited to be invited to a friend's house, but it was a custom of the homestead country to take along one's own grub or run the risk of going hungry. It might be the time when the flour barrel was empty. So our guests would bring a jar of baked beans, a pan of fresh rolls, potato salad or a dried-apple pie; and possibly a jack rabbit ready baked. Jack rabbit was the main kind of fresh meat, with grouse in season. We had not as yet been reduced to eating prairie dog as the Indians did.
"Breaking winter quarantine," the girls would announce as they rode up.
Late in the evening we brought in the ladder, opened up the small square hole in the ceiling, and our guests ascended to the attic. On the floor next to the hole was a mattress made of clean, sweet, prairie hay. Our guest climbed the ladder, sat on the edge of the mattress, feet dangling down through the cubbyhole until she undressed, and then tumbled over onto the bed. The attic was entirely too low to attempt a standing posture.
On one such night with three girls stowed away in the attic, we lay in bed singing.
"Hello, hello there," came an urgent call.
We peered through the frosted window, trying to see through the driving snow, and made out a man on horseback.
"I'm on my way to Ft. Pierre and I am lost! I am trying to reach the Cedar Creek settlement for the night."
"You can't make it, stranger, if you don't know the country," Ida Mary called out.
"Well, what have I struck?" he asked, perplexed.
"A trading post."
"A trading post! It sounded like an opera house."
"We don't know who you are," Ida Mary called through the thin wall of the shack, "but you can't get on tonight in this snow. Tie your horse in the hayshed and we will fix you a bed in the store."
Next morning the girls rolled down the ladder one at a time, clothes in hand, to dress by the toy stove while Ida Mary and I started the wheels of industry rolling. When breakfast was ready we called in our strange guest.
When he asked for his bill we told him we were not running public lodgings but that we took in strangers when it was dangerous for them to go on.
After that Ida Mary always left a lamp burning low in the kitchen window, and the little print shop, set on the high tableland, served as a beacon for travelers who were lost on the plains.
Many a night stranded strangers sought shelter at the Ammons settlement. No other trading center in the middle of a reservation was run by girls, so strangers took it for granted that there were men about, or if they knew we were alone they did not think of our being unarmed in that country where guns had been the law.
Once we decided we should have a watchdog around. Ida Mary traded a bright scarf and some cigarettes for two Indian mongrels. They were lean and lopeared and starved. The only way they ever would halt an intruder was by his falling down over them, not knowing they were there. And they swallowed food like alligators. Van Leshout named them "Eat" and "Sleep." In indignation Ida Mary returned them to their owners. What was the matter, they wanted to know. "No barkum, no bitem," Ida Mary explained, and she tied them firmly to the back of the first Indian wagon headed for the Indian settlement and gave up the idea of a dog for protection.
However, women were probably safer in the homestead section than in any other part of the country. Women had been scarce there, and they met with invariable respect wherever they went; it was practically unheard of for a solitary woman to be molested in any fashion.
Both men and women came through the Strip that winter looking for friends or relatives who had claims, or in quest of land. Often they could get no farther than the print shop by nightfall. And never was any such person refused food or shelter.
Ida Mary went around that winter with one of the city boys, though she still saw Imbert. "We take each other too much for granted," she said. "I've been dependent upon him for companionship and diversion and help in many ways. For his sake and mine I must know that it's more than that."
I cannot recall that we ever planned ahead of proving up on the claim. We measured life by proving-up time. Only the dirt farmers planned ahead. And Ma Wagor—who was an inveterate matchmaker. I can see her now, driving across the plains, holding her head as high as that of the spotted pony she drove—a pony which, though blind as a bat, held its head in the air like a giraffe.
Often she would stay with us at night. "Pa won't mind. He's got plenty of biscuit left," she would say; "the cow give two gallons of milk today, and he's got The Wand and the Blue Springs paper to read—"
But sometimes, when business had kept her from home for two or three days, or we needed her, she would gaze out of the window, watching for him.
And it got colder. Getting the mail back and forth to the stage line became a major problem. "It appears to me," said Ma, "like a post office is as pestiferous a job as a newspaper." But Ma never admitted anything pestiferous about running the store.
The post office receipts picked up. Mail bags were jammed with letters written by the settlers through long, lonely evenings. The profits helped to pull us through as the newspaper business slumped to almost nothing during the "holing-in" period. The financial operations of the trading post, in fact, rose and fell like a Wall Street market.
We struggled through sharp wintry squalls to the stage line with the laden sacks of mail, and realized that when the winter really set in we would never be able to make it. So Dave Dykstra was appointed mail-carrier. He was a homesteader who taught the McClure school that winter, a slim, round-shouldered chap, rather frail in physique. Dave would never set the world on fire, but he would keep it going around regularly. Blizzard, rain or sun, he came to the post office every morning those short winter days before it was light. At night Ida Mary, as postmistress, would lock the mail sack and carry it into the cabin. In the morning we would hear Dave's sharp-shod horse striking the hard-frozen ground, and one of us would leap to the icy floor, wrap up in a heavy blanket, stick our feet into sheep-lined moccasins (some nights we slept in them), open the door a foot or so, and hold out the mail bag. Dave would grab it on the run.
One who has never tried it has no idea what that feat meant in a shell of a hut with the temperature ten or twenty degrees below zero, freezing one's breath in the performance. We used to hope Dave would oversleep, or that his coffee would fail to boil so that we might have a few more moments to sleep.
The Indians were always underfoot. The great cold did not keep them away. Men sauntered around, trading, loafing. Women sat on the floor, papooses on their backs, beadwork in hand. Our trade was extended to Indian shawls, blankets, moccasins and furs, for which the post found ready and profitable markets. Ida Mary became an adept at Indian trading. By that time we had a smattering of the Sioux language, although we were never really expert at it. It did not require much to trade with the Indians.
Often they turned their horses loose, built campfires and spent the day. They rolled a prairie dog in the wet earth, roasted it in the fire, and invited us to eat. They brought us shanka, dog meat. There was a time when we actually swallowed it because we were afraid to refuse. But now we shook our heads.
It was wood-hauling season, and women came sitting flat on the back end of loads. Among the Indian women were a few with primitive intelligence and wisdom. Others were morose and taciturn.
Even during the enforced lull of the deep winter there seemed to be much to do, and the routine duties of the post office and The Wand appeared to require most of our time. The opportunity to study, to know the Sioux, was at hand, but we never took advantage of it; like most people, we were too busy with the little things to see the possibilities around us. Perhaps Alexander Van Leshout, who made a success of his Indian art, came to know these people better than any of us. But he was an artist—and therefore he refused to let the little things clutter up his life and take his attention from the one thing that was important to him—seeing clearly and honestly the world about him.
When the Indians got their government pay, they celebrated with a buying spree. They were lavish buyers as long as they had a cent, and they bought the goods that had the most alluring picture on can or box. Ida Mary would hold up something of staple quality, but they would shake their heads and turn to something gaudily wrapped.
Old Two-Hawk and a few others paid their yearly subscriptions to The Wand every time they got their government allotment. "Your subscription is already paid," I would explain, but they would shake their heads and mutter. This was their newspaper, too, the thing that had signs and their own names printed on a machine. They had the right to trade beadwork or another dollar for it any time they liked.
Our subscription list looked like a Sioux directory with such names as Julia Lame Walking Eagle, Maggie Shoots at Head, Afraid of His Horses, Paul Owns the Fire, and his son, Owns the Fire.
Our daily visitors were the rank and file of the tribe, although famous old warriors and medicine men came now and then. The high rulers of the Brule, who were among the most reserved and intelligent of all American Indians, did not come in this manner. But any negotiations between the Brule whites and the Brule red men were made with their Chief and Council. A few of the Indian warriors and chiefs always would hate the whites, but the rank and file of the Brules were enjoying the strange new life about them. While they saw no advantage in an active life for themselves, they found activity in others highly entertaining.
The weather with its dry cold was sometimes deceptive. For several days we had had urgent business to attend to in Presho, but the weather prohibited the trip. One morning we awoke to see the sun brilliant on the snow.
A lovely day for the long trip, and we hitched the team to a light buggy so that we might wrap up better. The farther we drove the colder we became. There was no warmth in that dazzling sun. We huddled down as near as possible to the hot bricks. We took turns driving, one of us wrapped up, head and ears beneath the heavy robes.
On that whole journey we did not meet a soul. We were frozen stiff and had to have our hands thawed out in cold water when we reached Presho.
A homesteader living ten miles out stepped into the land office while we were there.
"Don't you girls know enough to stay at home on a day like this? I didn't dare attempt it until I saw you go by. I said to the family, 'There go the Ammons girls,' so I hitched up and started. And here it is 28 below zero."
The land commissioner said, "Well, you can't depend on the Ammons girls as a thermometer."
And the storms came.
THE BIG BLIZZARD
Several miles from Ammons a bachelor gave a venison dinner on his claim to which a little group of us had gone. About noon it clouded up and no barometer was needed to tell us that a big storm was on the way. As soon as we had eaten we started home.
The sky was ominous. Antelope went fleeting by; a little herd of horses, heads high, went snorting over the prairie. Coyotes and rabbits were running to shelter and a drove of cattle belonging to the Phillips ranch were on a stampede. One could hear them bawling madly.