The guests had gone to the dinner together in a big wagon and were delivered to their respective shacks on the way back. We raced the horses ahead of the storm for a mile or two, but it was upon us by the time we reached Margaret Houlihan's. As we drove on up the draw to the settlement we saw the chimney of our cabin, consisting of a joint of stovepipe (the regulation chimney in this country) go flying across the prairie. And there was not an extra joint of pipe on the place—probably not one on the reservation, which meant that we would not be able to build a fire in the house until we could go to Presho or the state capital for a joint.
"Hey, whata you goin' to do," exclaimed the young neighbor boy who had taken us to the dinner. "You can't live in your shack through the storm that's comin' without a fire."
"We have a monkey-stove in the store," Ida Mary told him. He shook his head, but before hurrying home he scooped up a few buckets of coal we had on hand and took it into the store, and watered and fed the horses, knowing we might not be able to reach them until the blizzard had passed. "That all the fuel you got?" he demanded.
"A settler went to town this morning to get coal for us."
"But he can't get back until the storm is over. How you goin' to manage? No fire in your shack? No fuel for the monkey-stove?"
"We'll be all right," we assured him. He was not convinced, but he dared not linger. He had to get home while he could still find the way.
In thirty minutes we were completely shut in by the lashing force of wind and snow that swept across the plains in a blinding rage. Ma Wagor and Kathryn, our typesetter, had gone home and we were alone, Ida Mary and I. We built up a hot fire in the monkey-stove, which sat in the middle of the store building and was used for heating both store and print shop. From canned goods on the shelf, baked beans and corned beef, we prepared a sketchy supper, and ate on the counter.
Although it had been without heat only a few hours, the shack was already like an iceberg, and we were shaking with cold by the time we managed to drag the couch out of it, with a mighty effort, and into the store. It was warm there, and we lay safe under warm blankets listening tranquilly to the storm hurling its strength furiously against the frail defense of the little store, the shriek of the wind, the beating of the snow on the roof. It must be horrible to be out in it, we thought, pleasantly aware of protection and warmth and safety.
Next morning there was a real old-time blizzard raging. We could barely see the outline of the shack ten feet from the store; the rest of the world was blotted out and the wind roared like an incoming tide as the snow and sleet pelted like shot on the low roof. A primeval force drove the storm before it. All over the plains people were hemmed in tar-paper shacks, the world diminished for them to the dimensions of their thin-walled houses, as alone as though each were the only dweller on the prairie.
The team, Fan and Bill, and Lakota were the only horses tied up in the hay barn. They could reach the hay and eat snow for water. There would be plenty of snow. Our menagerie of Indian plugs, including Pinto, was loose on the plains; but they were accustomed to battling storms in the open and there were haystacks now to provide food and shelter. Somewhere in the open they were standing, huddled together, facing the onslaught of the storm.
The west end wall of the flimsy ell print shop, exposed to the full force of the storm, was swaying in. Together we dragged forth some boxes of canned goods, heavy cans of lard and molasses, and propped it with their weight. We watched anxiously for a time, but the heavy boxes seemed to provide sufficient support. There were no further signs of the wall collapsing.
By evening the storm had gripped the plains like a demon of wrath. We had been rather enjoying this seclusion—no Indians. And—we chuckled like a victim of persecution whose persecutor had been overtaken—there would be no mail carrier in the morning. No mail to be taken care of. Exultant, we tried to figure how many days Dave would be blockaded and we would be spared that morning penance of handing the mail sack out from the icy shack.
On the second morning the storm was still raging, with the snow two feet deep between the store and the barn. The west wall still held, and between glances at it we stoked the monkey-stove. Stoked it while the coal dwindled. When the last chunk had been swallowed up we hunted around for something else to burn. Newspapers, cartons, wooden boxes—everything we could find went into the voracious maw of the stove.
We tended it as religiously as priestesses at an altar, or as primitive men building up a fire to keep off wild animals. Only under such conditions does one fully experience that elemental worship of fire. It literally meant life to us.
Searching for something else we could burn, something else to keep that flame going even a little while longer, that pleasant glow which had come with our sense of protection gradually disappeared. The blizzard was not merely a gigantic spectacle put on by nature for our entertainment, it was a menace, to be kept at bay only by constant alertness on our part.
Now there was nothing left in the store that we could burn!
"The Indians brought some fence posts," Ida Mary recalled. "They are back of the barn where they unloaded them. We'll have to get them."
We put on our coats, pulled fur caps close down around our faces and ears, wrapped gunny sacks around our feet and legs over high arctics to serve as snowshoes. It took our combined strength to push the door open against the storm. Before we could close it behind us, snow had swept into the store and was making little mounds. Clinging to each other we plowed our way through the loose snow to the fence posts and dragged in a few, making two trips, breaking a trail with them as we went. The wind-blown snow cut our faces like points of steel. Hearing the restless whinny of the horses, we stopped to untie them. They would not go far from shelter.
Naturally the fence posts were much too long to go into the stove, and we had no way of chopping them up. So we lifted up a cap of the two-hole stove and stuck one end of a post into the fire, propped the other end up against the counter, and fed the fire by automatic control. When one post burned down to the end, we stuck in another. It seemed to us that they burned awfully fast, and that the store was getting colder and colder. We put on our heavy coats for warmth and finally our overshoes.
Storm or no storm, however, The Wand had to be printed. We pulled the type-case into the store, close to the stove. In those heavy coats and overshoes we went to work on the newspaper—and that issue was one of the best we ever published. In those two long nights, shut off from all the world, we talked and planned. We dared not take the risk of going to bed. If we should sleep and let the fire go out, we were apt to freeze, so we huddled around the stove, punching fence posts down into the fire, watching the blaze flicker.
At least there was time to look ahead, time to think, time to weigh what we had done and what we wanted to do. So that week The Wand came out with ideas for cooperative action that were an innovation in the development of new lands, a banded strength for the homesteader's protection. It seemed logical and simple and inevitable to me then—as it does now. "Banded together as friends"—the Indian meaning of Lakota—was the underlying theme of what I wanted to tell the homesteaders. The strength and the potentialities of one settler counted for little, but—banded together!
Our enthusiasm in planning and talking carried us through most of that day. But toward evening there were more immediate problems. It began to turn bitter cold. The very air was freezing up. It was no longer snowing, but the wind had picked up the snow and whirled it over the prairie into high drifts that in places covered up the barbed-wire fences against which it piled.
And under the piling snow our fuel lay buried; a long windrow drift had piled high between the posts and the shop. And the shop was growing colder and colder. Even with the heavy coats and overshoes we stamped our feet to keep out the chill and huddled over the dying fire. It would soon be freezing cold in the store, as cold as the icy shack which we had abandoned. No wonder people worshiped fire!
There was no sense of snug protection against the storm now. It seemed to have invaded the store, although the west wall still held. "We'll have to go somewhere for warmth," Ida Mary decided. Margaret's shack was the nearest, but even so we knew the grave risk we took of perishing on the way there. Action, however, is nearly always easier than inaction. A time or two we stuck our heads out of the door and the cold fairly froze our breath. Once I went outside, and when I tried to get back into the shack the wind, sucking between the few buildings, blew me back as though an iron hand held me.
"If we stay here," we thought, "we may be walled in by morning by the fast-drifting snow." So we decided on Margaret's, a quarter-mile down the draw. The chief difficulty was that the trip must be made against the storm, and we did not know whether we could make it or not. We each wrapped up tightly in a heavy Indian shawl, tied ourselves together with a light blanket, picked up the scoop shovel, and started down the buried trail.
Out through the side door and the narrow space between the buildings which had been protected against the drifts, we made our way; then, facing the full strength of the storm, we dug our way, shoveling as we went, through a drift that had piled in front of the buildings, and on through the deep level of snow.
It was getting dark now—the sudden steel-gray that envelops the plains early on a winter night and closes in around the white stretches, holding them in a vise. The only sign of life in the whole blanketed world was the faint glimmer of light in Margaret's window. We knew now how the light in the print shop must have looked many a night to strangers lost on the prairie in a storm.
Such lightweights were we that, at every step we took, the wind blew us back; we used all our force, pushing against that heavy wall of wind, until we struck drifts that almost buried us. For all our clumsy tying, the blanket held us together or we would have lost each other. We could not speak, because if we so much as parted our lips they seemed to freeze to our teeth, and the cold wind rasped in our throats and lungs as though we had been running for a very long time.
Had the snow been tightly packed we could never have dug our way out of some of the drifts. But it had been picked up and swirled around so much by the wind that it was loose and light. It blew up off the ground, lashed against our faces like sharp knives, and blinded us. "How horrible," we had thought from the shelter of the store, "to be out in the storm." But we hadn't tasted then the malignant fury of the thing, battling with us for every step we made.
At last we turned and walked backwards, resting on the shovel handle for fear we would fall from exhaustion. Every few steps we looked around to see whether we were still going in a straight line toward the dim light that shone like a frosted glimmer from the tiny shack which now looked like a dark blur. We realized that if we were to swerve a few feet in either direction, so that we lost sight of the lamp, we would not find Margaret's shack that night.
It was quite dark now, and no sound on the prairie but the triumphant howl of the wind and the dry crunch of our overshoes on the snow, slipping, stumbling. We were pushing ourselves on, but our feet were so numb it was almost impossible to walk. We had been doing it for hours, it seemed; we had always been fighting our way through the deep snow. The store we had left seemed as unreal as though we had never known its protection.
Ida Mary, still walking backwards, stumbled and fell. She had struck Margaret's shack. I pushed against the door, too numb to turn the knob.
The door opened and Margaret, with a cry, pulled us in. Swiftly she unbundled us, taking care not to bring us near the fire. She took off our gloves and overshoes, then ran to the door and scooped up a basin of snow for our numb hands and feet, snow which felt curiously warm and comforting. While the snow drew out the frost, she hastened about, making strong, hot tea.
While we drank the tea and felt warmth slowly creeping over us, "Why on earth did you attempt to come here on a night like this?" she demanded. "You might have frozen to death."
"We were out of fuel," we told her. "We had to take the chance."
The shack was cheerful and warm. There was a hot supper and fuel enough to last through the storm. Only a refuge for which one has fought as Ida Mary and I fought to reach that tar-paper shack could seem as warm and safe as Margaret's shack seemed to us that night. In a numb, delicious lethargy we sat around the stove, too tired and contented to move.
Safe from the fury of the wind, we listened to it raging about the cabin as though cheated of its victims. And then, toward midnight, it died away. There was a hush as though the night were holding its breath, and then the sky cleared, the stars came out.
The next day Margaret's brother took up a sack of coal on his bronco, so we made our way back over the trail we had broken the night before, to the store, and he built a fire for us. Later that same morning Chris rode over with a sack of coal tied on behind the saddle.
"Yoost in case you should run out once," he said as he brought it in. "My wife she bane uneasy when she see no light last night."
When we told him what had happened he shook his head in concern and went to work. He scooped a path to the barn and attended to the horses. From under the snow he got some fence posts which he chopped up while Charlie excavated an opening to the front door—in case anyone should be mad enough to try to reach the store on a day like that.
About noon a cowboy came fighting his way through the drifts in search of lost cattle which the storm must have driven in this direction—the only soul who dared to cross the plains that day.
It was Sourdough. I never knew his real name. I doubt if those with or for whom he worked knew.
He stopped at the print shop to rest his horse, which was wringing wet with sweat, though the day was piercing cold. He threw the saddle blanket over the horse and came in.
We begged him to go and find out whether or not the Wagors were all right. After Ida Mary and I had got straightened out, it occurred to us that they had sent in their order for coal with ours. Like us they might be imprisoned in their shack and low on fuel; but, unlike us, there would be no question of their battling their way across the prairie to shelter.
"Sufferin' sinners," grumbled Sourdough. "Think I got time to fool around with homesteaders when a bunch of critters is maybe dead or starvin' to death? Godamighty!"
We argued and insisted, telling him that he knew better how to break a trail than the tenderfeet around here, that his horse was better trained for it.
"This country warn't made for no humans—just Indians and rattlesnakes and cowhands is all it was intended for."
I agreed with him. I was ready to agree with anything he might say if he would only go to the Wagors' shack. At last, after we had exhausted all the wiles and arts of persuasion at our command, Ida Mary told him that, come to think of it, she had seen a bunch of cattle drifting in the direction of the Wagor claim. He started out, saying he might stop in if he happened to drift by and it "come handy."
Sourdough found the Wagors covered up in bed. They had been in bed two days and three nights. The fuel had given out, as we had feared—cow chips and all. They had burned hay until the drifts became so high and the stack so deeply covered that the poor old man could no longer get to it. The cow and the blind horse had barely enough feed left to keep alive.
Not daring to burn the last bit of hay or newspaper—which would not have warmed the house anyhow—the old couple had gone to bed, piling over them everything that could conceivably shut out that penetrating dead cold, getting up just long enough to boil coffee, fry a little bacon and thaw out the bread. They dipped up snow at the door and melted it for water. The bread had run out, and the last scrap of fuel. They tore down the kitchen shelf, chopped it up, and the last piece of it had gone for a flame to make the morning coffee. The little snugly built shack was freezing cold. A glass jar of milk in the kitchen had frozen so hard that it broke the jar.
When Sourdough walked in and learned the situation he bellowed, "Sufferin' sinners!" and tore out like a mad steer. He cut into the haystack, cut up a few posts from the corral fence and made a fire—and when a range rider makes a fire it burns like a conflagration.
He fed the two dumb animals (meaning the cow and horse, he explained, though they weren't half as dumb as anyone who would go homesteading) while Ma stirred up some corn cakes and made coffee for them all. Milk the cow? What the hell did they think he was, a calf? Sourdough, like most cowboys, had never milked a cow. The only milk he ever used came out of a can.
Mid-afternoon he reported. When we wondered what could be done next, he said carelessly, "Godamighty! Let 'em stay in bed. If they freeze to death it will serve 'em right for comin' out here."
Grumbling, ranting on, he slammed the door and strode out to the barn, saddled Bill—the stronger horse of the brown team—and led him to the door.
"What are you going to do?" I demanded.
"Ride this no-count plug of yourn to hunt them critters. You never saw a bunch goin' that way," he accused Ida Mary. She smiled at the ruse she had used to start him out.
He jumped on Bill, leading his cow pony behind—a range rider knows how to conserve a horse's strength—and followed the trail he had broken, straight back toward the Wagor shack. Now we knew. He was going after Ma and Pa. They would be warm and nourished, with strength for the trip, and good old Bill could carry them both.
A few days later when we asked Ma about the harrowing experience she laughed and said, "Oh, it wasn't so bad. Pa and I talked over our whole life in those three days, telling each other about our young days; Pa telling me about some girls he used to spark that I never woulda heard about if it hadn't been for that blizzard.... I told him about my first husband ... he's the one who left me the ant-tic broach ... we did get pretty cold toward the last.
"I burned up every old mail-order catalog I had saved. I always told Pa they would come in handy.... What? Afraid we would freeze to death? Well, we woulda gone together."
* * * * *
The blizzard was over, but the snow lay deep all over the prairie and the great cold lasted so that few of the settlers ventured outside their shacks. For days there was no hauling done. The trails that had been worn since spring were buried deep and the drifts were treacherous. There were many homesteaders over the Reservation who were running out of fuel.
Now, if ever, was a time for cooperation, and The Wand printed a list of those who could spare fuel; they would share with those in need of it. They brought what they could to the settlement and pooled it, chopping up all the poles and posts they could find into stovewood, and taking home small loads to tide them over.
With the fury of that storm, one of the hardest blizzards the frontier had experienced, the winter spent itself. Under the soft warm breath of a chinook the snow disappeared like magic, melting into the soil, preparing it for the onslaught of the plow.
A NEW AMERICA
Ida Mary and I came through the winter stronger than we had ever been before, but we welcomed the spring with grateful hearts. Only poets can describe the electric, sweet quality of spring, but only the young, as we were young that year, receive the full impact of its beauty. The deep, cloudless blue of western skies, the vivid colors after the dead white of winter, were fresh revelations, as though we had never known them before.
One spring day I was making up the paper, while the Christophersons' little tow-headed boy watched me.
"Are you going to be a printer when you grow up, Heine?"
"Nope. I don't want no little types," he replied. "I like traction machines better—they go. My Pa's got one."
A tractor coming on the Strip! I ran to tell Ida Mary.
As it chugged and caterpillared from town through the Reservation, Chris Christopherson's tractor caused almost as much excitement as the first steamship up the Hudson. Men, women and children gathered about and stared wide-eyed at the new machine as its row of plows cut through the stubborn sod like a mighty conqueror. He was plowing a hundred acres.
A few cattlemen from the open country rode into the Strip to see it and bowed their heads to this evidence of the coming of agriculture.
Old Ivar Eagleheart, Two-Hawk, and others of the Indian braves looked on. This mystic power sealed their fate. It was in a last desperate attempt to save territory for his race that an old Indian chief had stood indomitable, contending with the White Fathers. "Wherever you find a Sioux grave, that land is ours!" In this plowing up of the Indians' hunting grounds no one thought of Sioux graves.
The McClure homesteaders had filed on their claims, proved up and gone, many of them, leaving empty shacks. Here on the Strip were increasing signs of permanency. Many Brule settlers went back home and disposed of whatever property they had in order to make permanent improvements on their claims. Other machinery came. Within a radius of three miles of Ammons three tractors ran all day. All night one could see their bright headlights moving and hear their engines chug-chugging over the dark plain, turning under the bluebells and anemones as they went, and the tall grass where buffalo had ranged. Fragrant scent of wild flowers blended with the pungent odor of new-turned earth and floated across the plain. When those owning tractors got through breaking for themselves they turned over sod for other settlers.
In every direction on the Brule and all over the plains which had been settled, teams went up and down, making a black and green checkerboard of the prairie.
Ida Mary and I had Chris break and sow sixty acres of our land to flax. It cost $300, and we again stretched our credit to the breaking point to borrow the money. Try out fifteen or twenty acres first? Not we! If we had a good crop it would pay for the land.
The winners in the Rosebud Drawing were swarming onto their claims, moving their families and immigrant goods in a continuous stream. Towns for many miles around were deluged with trade. It was estimated that the Rosebud alone would add 25,000 new people to the West, with the settlers' families, tradesmen and others whom the Rosebud development would bring. A few groups of settlers from Chicago and other cities came with a fanfare of adventure new to the homestead country. But many stolid, well-equipped farmers, too, went into Tripp County, in which the Rosebud lay.
I got a letter from the Chicago reporter saying: "I did not draw a Lucky Number, but I came in on the second series to take the place of those who dropped out. Am out on my land and feeling better. It was sporting of you to offer to find a claim for me. Things are moving fast on the Rosebud."
Word spread that homesteaders were flocking farther west in Dakota—to the Black Hills—and on to the vast Northwest. That inexorable tide was pressing on, taking up the land, transforming the prairie, forcing it to yield its harvest, shaping the country to its needs, creating a new empire.
We peopled and stocked the West by rail—and put vast millions in the hands of the railroads. Wagon caravans moved on from the railroad into the interior, many going as far as fifty, sixty, a hundred miles over a trailless desert. Homesteaders who had no money and nothing to haul, came through in dilapidated vehicles and lived in tents until they got jobs and earned money to buy lumber. A few came in automobiles. There were more cars seen in the moving caravans now.
It was not only settlers the railroads carried west now, it was tools and machinery and the vast quantities of goods needed for comfort and permanent occupation; and the increasing demand for these materials was giving extra work to factories and businesses in the East.
On the Brule we watched the growth of other sections of the West. At home alone one evening, Ida Mary had carried her supper tray outdoors, and as she sat there a rider came over the plains; she could barely recognize him in the dusk.
"Lone Star!" she exclaimed as he stopped beside her.
He sat silent, dejected, looking over the broad fields. He had brought the herd north to summer pasture.
"Did you escape the pesky homesteaders by going south?" she laughed.
"No," he said soberly. "They're all over. Not near as thick as they are here, but Colorado and New Mexico are getting all cluttered up. Old cattle trails broke—cain't drive a herd straight through no more—why—" he looked at her as though some great calamity had befallen, "I bet there's a million miles o' ba'b wire strung between here and Texas! Shore got the old Brule tore up."
She laughed. "Better not let my sister hear you say that. Look at our crop coming up."
"I didn't think you'uns would stick it out this winter," he said.
"Most of the settlers stayed," she assured him.
"Looks like the end of the free range," he said. "Cattle business is going to be different from now on." He smiled wanly and asked for his mail, which consisted only of a pile of back-number copies of a newspaper. He took them and rode "off to the southeast," the vague description he had given us as to where he belonged.
But he had brought news. The stream of immigration was flowing in to the south and west of us, into country which was talked of as more arid and more barren than this tall grass country. The barb-wire told the story.
The United States had entered an era of western development when the homesteaders not only settled the land, but moved together, acted together, to subdue the land. It was an untried, hazardous venture on which they staked everything they had, but that is the way empires are built. And this vast frontier was conquered in the first two decades of the twentieth century; a victory whose significance has been almost totally ignored by historical studies of the country, which view the last frontier as having vanished a generation or more before.
Iron trails pushed through new regions; trails crossing the network of new civilization broadened into highways, and wagon tracks cut their way where no trails ever led before. New towns were being built. Industry and commerce were coming in on the tidal wave. A new America!
No cut-and-dried laws, no enforced projects or programs of a federal administration could possibly achieve the great solid expansion which this voluntary land movement by the masses brought about naturally.
It takes almost every commodity to develop a vast dominion that has lain empty since Genesis. It took steel for railroads, fences, and plowshares. It took lumber and labor—labor no end, in towns and out on the land. It took farm machinery, horses, harness, stoves, oil, food and clothing to build this new world.
I was delighted when one day there came a letter from Halbert Donovan, the New York broker. It contained great news for The Wand. And there was a little personal touch that was gratifying.
"We are beginning to feel the effect of a business expansion back here," he wrote, "which the western land development seems to be bringing about. If it continues, with all the public domain that is there, it is bound to create an enormous demand in industry and commerce. And I emphasize the statement I made to you that it is a gigantic project which a government alone could finance, and which requires the work of powerful industrial corporations.
"But, looking over that desolate prairie, one wonders how it can be done; or if it is just a splurge of proving up and deserting. However, it is surprising what these homesteaders are doing, and it is ironic that a little poetic dreamer should have foreseen the trend which things are taking. And I feel you deserve this acknowledgment. How in the name of God have you and your sister stuck it out?"
The reason that Halbert Donovan was interested in the progress of this area, I learned, was that his company had mining investments in the Black Hills and it was investigating a proposed railroad extension through the section.
The expansion which was beginning to be felt across the continent grew for five years or more up to the beginning of the World War, and then took another spurt after the war. It was not merely a boom, inflation to burst like a bubble. It grew only as more territory was settled and greater areas of land were put under cultivation.
"Do you know what we need out here most of all?" I said to Chris Christopherson one day, having in mind a settlers' bank.
"Yah, yah!" Chris broke in, his ruddy features beaming in anticipation. "A blacksmith shop! More as all else, we need that. Twenty-five miles we bane goin' to sharpen a plowshare or shod a horse yet."
Trade, business, industry? Yes, of course. But first the plow must pave the way. During those years money flowed from the farm lands rather than to them. The revenue from the homestead lands was bringing millions into the Treasury.
That spring the newspaper office became a clearing house for homestead lands. People wanting either to buy or sell relinquishments came there for information. All kinds of notices to be filed with the Department of the Interior were made out by the office, which began to keep legal forms in stock. Gradually I found myself becoming an interpreter of the Federal Land Laws and settlers came many miles for advice and information.
The laws governing homesteading were technical, with many provisions which gave rise to controversy. I discovered that many of the employees in the Department knew nothing of the project except the letter of the law. Through my work in handling proofs I was familiar with the technicalities. From actual experience I had learned the broader fundamental principles as they could be applied to general usage.
I became a sort of mediator between the homesteader and the United States Land Office. It was a unique job for a young woman and brought my work to the attention of officials in Washington and several Congressional public land committees. Slowly I was becoming identified with the land movement itself, and I had learned not to be overawed by the fact that some of the government's under-officials who came out to the Strip did not agree with my opinions. I had clashed already with several of them who had been sent out to check up on controversies in which the homesteaders' rights were disputed. They knew the technicalities better, perhaps, than I did; but in regard to conditions on the frontier they were rank amateurs and I knew it.
Land on the Brule was held at a premium and landseekers were bidding high for relinquishments. So attractive were the offers that a few settlers who were hard pressed for money, sold their rights of title to the land, and passed it on to others who would re-homestead the claims. Several early proof-makers sold their deeded quarters, raw, unimproved, miles from a railroad, for $3000 to $3700 cash money.
Real estate dealers of Presho, Pierre, and other small towns looked to the Brule as a plum, trying to list relinquishments there for their customers. But I got the bulk of the business! One of the handy men around the place sawed boards and made an extra table with rows of pigeonholes on it, and we installed this in the back end of the print shop for the heavy land-office business.
Most of our work on land affairs was done free in connection with the legal work of the newspaper. Then buyers or sellers of relinquishments began paying us a commission, and one day Ida Mary sold a claim for spot cash and got $200 for making the deal. Selling claims, she said, was as easy as selling shela (tobacco) to the Indians. The difficulty lay in finding claims for sale.
The $200 went to Sedgwick at the bank on an overdue note. He had moved into a bank building now, set on a solid foundation, instead of the rolling sheep wagon whose only operating expense was the pistols.
That entire section of the frontier was making ready for the incoming torrent of the Rosebud settlers to take possession of their claims. Droves of them landed at Presho early, reawakening the town and the plains with a new invasion. Thousands who had not won a claim followed in their wake, and everyone, when he had crossed the Missouri River, heard about the Brule.
The government sent out notice for the appointment of a regular mail carrier for the Ammons post office. Dave Dykstra had resigned to farm his land, and Sam Frye, a young homesteader with a family, was appointed.
We began to need more printing equipment to carry on the increased newspaper business and to take care of the flood of proofs which would come in that summer; there was interest and a payment on the press coming due. So there was a day when Ida Mary said we were going to go under, unless we could do some high financing within thirty days.
"Oh, we'll get through somehow," I assured her. "It's like a poker game; you never know what kind of hand you will hold in the next deal." Planning ahead didn't help much, because something unexpected usually happened.
But no matter what hard luck a homesteader had or how much he had paid the government, unless he could meet the payments and all other requirements fully he lost the land and all he had put into it. We could not afford to lose our claim, so I concentrated on my Land Office business.
As usual, something happened. I was sitting in the private office of the United States Land Commissioner in Presho when a man walked into the front office and put a contest on a piece of land. I heard the numbers repeated through the thin partition and I knew exactly where the land lay; it was a quarter-section south of us on the reservation, which belonged to a young man who had to abandon it because he was ill and penniless. He had got a leave of absence which had run out, and he had no funds to carry on and prove up the claim. Yet he had put into the gamble several hundred dollars and spent almost a year's time on it. Now he was to lose it to the man who had contested it.
Nothing could be done to save the land for the man who had gone home; he had forfeited it. I started from my chair. The contest must be filed in Pierre. If I could get one in first, I could help out the man whose illness had deprived him of his land, and help out the ailing Ammons finances. But it would be a race!
Through the outer office I rushed while the land agent called after me, "Just a minute, Edith!"
"I'll be back," I told him breathlessly. "I'll be back. I just thought of something!"
I made the trip from Presho to Ammons in record time, raced into the post office and filled out a legal form with the numbers I had heard through the thin wall. But I needed someone not already holding a claim to sign it, and there wasn't a soul at the settlement who would do.
It was getting dark when Ida Mary finally announced jubilantly that someone was coming from the direction of the rangeland. It was Coyote Cal, thus called because "he ran from the gals like a skeered coyote."
Talking excitedly, I dragged him into the print shop to sign the paper. "I don't want any doggone homestead pushed off onto me," he protested.
I thrust the paper into his hands. "It won't obligate you in any way," I explained.
"All right," he agreed. He enjoyed playing jokes and this one amused him. "But you're sure I won't get no homestead?"
Coyote poised the pen stiffly in his hand. "Let's see," he murmured in embarrassment, "it's been so gosh-darn long since I signed my name—danged if I can recollect—" the pen stuck in his awkward fingers as he swung it about like a lariat.
Finally he wrote laboriously "Calvin Aloysius Bancroft."
With the signed paper in my hands I saddled Lakota and streaked off for the thirty-five-mile trip to Pierre.
Late that night a tired horse and its rider pulled up in front of a little hotel in Ft. Pierre. I routed a station agent out of bed and sent a telegram to the young man who had left his claim.
Next morning when the U. S. Land Office at Pierre opened its door the clerks found me backed up against it with a paper in my outstretched hand. Half an hour later, when the morning mail was opened at the Land Office, there was a contest in it filed at Presho. But I had slapped a contest on the same quarter-section first, a contest filed by one Calvin Aloysius Bancroft, a legal applicant for the claim.
In the mail I received a signed relinquishment for the land from the young man, withdrew the contest and sold the relinquishment, which is the filer's claim to the land, for $450. I had made enough on the deal to meet our own emergencies and had saved $200 for the young man who needed it badly.
And The Wand was still safe. All around us the land was being harnessed, a desert being conquered with plowshares as swords.
Scotty Phillips stopped in at the print shop on his way from Pierre, where he lived, to his ranch. "The stockmen have been asleep," he said. "They ridiculed the idea that the range could ever be farmed. And now they are homesteading, trying to get hold of land as fast as they can. I have Indian lands leased, so I am all right."
As a squaw man he naturally owned quite a bit of land, a piece for each child, and he had three children.
Panicky, some of the stockmen filed on land, but a homestead for them was just big enough for the ranch buildings and corrals; it still did not allow for the essential thing—large range for the cattle. They began to buy from homesteaders and lease lands around them. For years the livestockman of the West had been monarch of all he surveyed, and the end of his reign was in sight. Like all classes of people who have failed to keep step with the march of progress, he would have to follow the herd.
A strong spirit of cooperation and harmony had developed among the army of the Brule. They worked together like clockwork. There was little grumbling or ill-will. Just how much The Wand had done in creating this invaluable asset to a new country I do not know, but it was a factor. We were a people dependent upon one another. Ours was a land without established social law or custom. It was impossible to regulate one's life or habits by any set rule; and there was no time or energy for idle gossip or criticism. Each one had all he could do to manage his own business.
I had been working at high pressure, and as summer came on again I went back to St. Louis for a few weeks of rest, back down the Mississippi on the Old Bald Eagle to find my father waiting at the dock. I had half expected to find the family awaiting roaring stories of the West; instead, they listened eagerly and asked apt questions about soil and costs and the future. Things weren't going well for them. Perhaps for my father and the two small boys the future would point west.
I was surprised to find the general interest that people in St. Louis were taking in the West and in homesteading. Its importance, something even of its significance, was coming to be realized. They asked serious questions and demanded more and more information about the land. Business men talked about new opportunities there. "Bring lots of new business, this land movement," I heard on many sides.
After those long months of struggle for the bare necessities, I was greatly struck by lavish spending. It seemed startling to one from pioneer country. Where did the money come from, I wondered, that city folk were spending like water? I had come to think of wealth as coming from the land; here people talked of capital, stocks and bonds; occasionally of trade expansion. Surely this western development, I protested, was responsible in part for trade expansion. Ida Mary had said I ran to land as a Missourian did to mules; for the first time I began to consider it as an economic issue.
I was restless during my stay in St. Louis; the city seemed to have changed—or perhaps I had changed—and I was glad to get back home. It was the first time I had called the West home.
Unbelievably unlike my first sight of the desolate region, I found it a thriving land of farms and plowed fields, of growing crops and bustling communities, whose growth had already begun to affect the East, bringing increased business and prosperity, whose rapid development and far-reaching influence people were only slowly beginning to comprehend.
All this had been achieved in less than two years, without federal aid, with little money, achieved by hard labor, cooperation, and unquenchable hope.
THE THIRSTY LAND
"You'd better do a little exhortin'," Ma told me on my return to the claim. "And if you get any collections, turn some of them in for the good of the store."
"Isn't business good?"
"Business is pouring in. It's money I'm talking about; there won't be any money until the crops are threshed—which will be about Christmas time out here. Now in Blue Springs—"
I didn't hear the rest of it. In the city I had been struck by the lavish spending of money, money which was at such a premium out here. There was something shockingly disproportionate in the capacity to spend by city people and those on farms.
"At least, the crops look good."
"But," Ida Mary pointed out, "they need rain, and the dams are beginning to get low."
"What about the wells the settlers are digging for water supply?"
"They get nothing but dry holes," she told me. "Some of the settlers brought in well-drills, but they didn't find water. They don't know what to do."
All other issues faded into the background before the urgency of the water problem. I packed my city clothes deep down in the trunk, never to be worn again, and went to work!
A casual glance revealed no sign of the emergency we were facing. The Lower Brule was a broad expanse of green grass and grain, rippling gently in the breeze like water on a quiet sea. Sufficient moisture from the snow and early rain had been retained in the subsoil for vegetation. But we needed water. With the hot weather the dams were going dry. There had been increased demands for water this summer, and there had not been the late torrential rains to fill the dams as there had been the year before.
"What are we going to do?" I asked the other settlers.
"Haul water until we can get wells. We'll have to dig deeper. Perhaps we have just not struck the water veins. After this we will follow the draws."
Water-hauling again! But haul it from where? There was no supply in the country sufficient for the needs of the region. Drills would cost money, and few settlers had any money left. There was no sign of rain, and an oppression weighed upon everyone as of impending evil—the fear of a water famine.
First we had come to understand the primitive worship of fire. Now we began to know that water is as vital to life as air itself. It takes experience to bring home the meaning of familiar words.
In the meantime the tall waving crops brought land agents with their buyers. At the first sign of water shortage more claims were offered for sale, and by that time there were a few deeded tracts put on the market. Loan agents camped at the settlement, following up settlers ready to prove up. One could borrow more than a thousand dollars on a homestead now.
The money coming through our hands on relinquishments, options, government payments, etc., was mainly in bulk and growing beyond the coffee cans and old shoes where we secreted money awaiting deposit at the bank. We did need a bank on the Brule.
During the long hot summer weeks, when it did not grow dark on the open plain until far into the night, a great deal of traveling was done at night. It was easier for man and horse. On moonlight nights that white light shining through the thin atmosphere made the prairie as light as day, but ghostly; moonlight softened the contours of the plains and robbed them of their color; sounds traveled great distances, seeming to come from space; the howling of coyotes down the draw, the shrill, busy sound of insects in the long grass, the stamping of the horses in the barn, accentuated the stillness; they did not break it. Even the prairie wind came softly, sweet with the scent of hay, not lifting its voice on those hushed nights.
With the stillness invading one's flesh and bones, and the prairie, washed by moonlight, stretching out beyond one's imagination, I wondered that I had ever feared space and quiet.
But out of the silence would come the rhythmic thud of a horse's feet and a loud hail. The Ammons settlement was a day-and-night institution. With a loud knock on the door would come the identification, "It's Alberts!" Or Kimball, or Pinchot—real estate agents. "I've got a man here who wants to pay a deposit on N.W. quarter of section 18. We're on our way to the Land Office. Want to be there when it opens."
One of us would light the print-shop lamp, make out the papers, take the money, and stumble back to bed. A sign, "CLOSED," or "NEVER CLOSED," would have been equally ineffective in stopping the night movement on the Strip. Homesteaders living miles away came after the long day's work to put in their proving-up notices. They must be in the paper the following day to go through the five weeks' publication before the date set at the Land Office. During those scorching weeks their days were taken up by hauling water and caring for things at home.
With those urgent night calls we did not stick a gun out as had the Presho banker. We were not greatly perturbed about the possibility of anyone robbing us. A burglar who could find the money would accomplish more than we could do half the time, so outlandish had the hiding places become. Imbert insisted that we keep a loaded gun or two on the place, but we knew nothing about handling guns and were more afraid of them than of being molested.
Ada put up her folding cot at night in the lean-to kitchen, and one day she brought a rawhide whip from home and laid it on the 2 x 4 scantling that girded the walls—"the two-be-four" she called it. "You don't need a gun," she said in her slow, calm voice. "Just give me a rawhide." With that sure strong arm of hers and the keen whip, one would never enter without shooting first.
There were a few nights when we woke to find Ada standing still as a statue in her long white cotton nightgown, straw-colored braids hanging down her back, rawhide in her right hand, only to find whoever had prowled around had driven on, or that it was Tim Carter, the lawyer, coming home from town intoxicated, talking and singing at the top of his voice.
During that clock-round period the days were usually quiet and we worked in shifts as much as our many duties permitted. "Come on, girls," Ma would call, "this ice tea is goin' to be hot if you don't come and drink it. Now this isn't made from dam water. Fred hauled it over from the crick. (Fred Farraday did things like that without mentioning them.) It's set in the cave all day. Now the Ladies' Aid back in Blue Springs sticks a piece of lemon on the glass to squeeze in—just to get your fingers all stuck up with. I never was one for mixing drinks."
Ma poured an extra glass for Van Leshout, who had just come in with letters to mail. "Tomorrow we'll have the lemonade separate. Come on, Heine, don't you want a glass of tea?"
"Naw." Offering Heine tea was the one thing that shook his calmness.
"You don't expect he-men like Heine to drink tea," protested Van Leshout. A sly grin on Heine's face which the artist quickly caught on paper.
"Pa drinks it," from Ma, with that snapping of the jaw which in Ma expressed emphasis. Poor old Pa was the shining example of masculinity in her eyes.
Like a sudden breath the hot winds came. The dams were getting dangerously low. The water was dirty and green-scummed and thick. And Ada's folks lost a horse and a cow—alkalied.
The drier it became the whiter the ground on the alkali spots. We had no alkali on the great, grassy Brule, but there were strips outside the reservation thick with it, and the water in those sections contained enough of it to turn one's stomach into stone.
Carrying the mail from the stage, I saw along the trail horses and cattle leaning against the fences, or lying down, fairly eaten up with it, mere skin and bones; mane and tail all fallen out, hoofs dropped off.
A number of settlers had not a horse left that could put his foot to the ground to travel. Every day there were a few more horses and cows lying dead over the pastures. Gradually, however, most of the afflicted stock picked up, got new hoofs, new manes and tails.
The livestock, even the dogs and the wild animals on the plains, drank from little holes of reservoirs at the foot of the slopes until the water became so hot and ill-smelling that they turned away from it.
But the settlers skimmed back the thick green scum, dipped up the water, let it settle, and used it. The dam water must be boiled, we warned each other, yet we did not always wait for a drink of water until it had been boiled and cooled. Late that summer, when the drying winds parched the country, the dams became the only green spots left on the yellow plains. But the cry for rain was no longer for the fields, it was for the people themselves.
A few narrow, crooked creeks cut their way through the great tableland of prairie. But they were as problematic as the Arkansas Traveler's roof in that they overflowed in the rainy season when we did not need water, and were dry as a bone when we did need it. The creeks were dry now—except the water holes in the creek beds and a few seep wells which homesteaders living near the creeks had dug and into which water from the creeks had seeped.
Proving-up time came for a few, and the ones who had not come to farm left as soon as they proved up—at least until the following year. And the situation was so serious we were glad to have them go—the fewer there were of us the less water we would need.
To add to the troubles of the homesteaders, there were increased activities by claim jumpers. Almost equal to the old cattle-rustling gangs were the land rustlers who "covered up" land as the cattle thieves did brands, making mavericks out of branded stock. Technicalities, false filings, or open crookedness were used to hold rich valleys and creeks and water holes open—or to block the settler's proof title.
Because the problem was a federal one, the courts and men like Judge Bartine were powerless to act in the matter. The West needed fearless representation in Washington. If John Bartine were elected, westerners said, he would fight the land graft. "But there must be a strong campaign against it on the ground," he emphasized. "The frontier newspapers can become the most powerful agency in abolishing this evil."
"Could The Wand help?" I asked.
"Its influence not only would be effective," he assured me, "but it would set a precedent and give courage to other little proof sheets."
So The Wand took up the issue, using what influence it had to bring a halt to the activities of the claim jumpers. And the homesteaders continued their battle for the thirsty land. Whisky barrels and milk cans were the artillery most essential to keep this valiant army from going down in defeat. They were as scarce as hen's teeth and soared sky high in price, so great was the demand on the frontier. Barrel and can manufacturers must have made fortunes during the years of water-hauling in the homestead country.
The size of a man's herd, and thus his rank as a farmer, was judged by the number of barrels and cans surrounding his shack or barn.
Ida Mary bought a barrel and several new milk cans. "You cannot use the barrel for water," Joe Two-Hawk said. "It is yet wet with fire-water." He drained a pint or more of whisky from it. It would have to be burned out. No one wanted fire-water these days.
Across the hot stretches, from every direction, there moved processions of livestock being driven to water; stone-boats (boards nailed across two runners), with barrels bobbing up and down on them, buggies, wagons, all loaded with cans and barrels.
Ida Mary and I led our livestock to a water hole three miles away, filling water cans for ourselves. The Ammons caravan moving across the hot, dry plain was a sorry spectacle, with Ida in the vanguard astride old Pinto, her hair twisted up under a big straw hat. Lakota insisted upon jumping the creek bed, and we were not trained to riding to hounds. In the flank, the brown team and Lakota, the menagerie following behind. Coming up from the rear, I sat in the One-Hoss Shay behind Crazy Weed, the blind and locoed mare, with the water cans rattling in the back end of the buggy. I too wore an old straw hat, big as a ten-gallon sombrero, pushed back on my head to protect my sunburnt neck, and an old rag of a dress hanging loose on my small body, which was becoming thinner.
The sun blazed down on the shadeless prairie, and the very air smelled of heat. The grain was shriveled and burnt. And for shelter from that vast furnace, a tar-paper shack with a low roof.
As we reached the creek, Crazy Weed, smelling water, leaped to the creek bed, breaking the tugs as she went, leaving the horseless buggy, the empty cans and me high and dry on the bank.
We patched up the tugs, fastened them to the singletree with hairpins, hitched up Pinto, drove down to the water hole and filled our cans.
When we got back to the settlement we saw Lone Star on Black Indian, waiting for us. He dismounted, threw the reins to the ground and carried the water cans into the cool cave.
"Don't know what we're goin' to do with the range stock," he said anxiously, "with the grass dried up and the creeks and water holes on the range goin' dry."
"Lone Star," I said, "don't you think it's going to rain soon?"
Yesterday I had asked Porcupine Bear, and he had shaken his head and held up one finger after another, counting off the moons before rain would come.
"What will become of the settlers?" asked Ida Mary.
"The quicker these homesteadin' herds vacate," Lone Star answered in that slow drawl of his, "the better for everybody. The hot winds have come too early. Goin' to burn the pastures, looks like; hard to find water now for the cattle."
He handed us two flasks of cold water. "Brought 'em from the river; filled 'em while the water was cold early this morning."
Cold, clear water! We drank great long draughts of it, washed ourselves clean and fresh in a basin half-full of water.
One day Tim Carter came by sober. "The damn homestead is too dry for a man to drink water, say nothing of whisky," he stormed. "I'm going to have water if it takes my last dollar."
He brought in a drill. For several days neighbors helped with the drilling; others flocked around with strained anxiety, waiting, waiting for that drill to strike water.
Then one scorching afternoon the drillers gave a whoop as they brought up the drill. "Oil! Oil! There's oil on this drill. Damned if we ain't struck oil!"
Tim Carter's straight, portly figure drooped. He put his hands in his pockets, staring aghast at the evidence before him. "Oil!" he shouted. "Who in hell wants oil? Nobody but Rockefeller. It's water we want!"
"Pack up your rig, boys," he said in a tone of defeat, as though he'd made a final plea in court and lost the case. A discouraged, disheartened group, they turned away.
Thirst became an obsession with us all, men and animals alike. Cattle, breaking out of pastures, went bawling over the plains; horses went running wildly in search of water. People were famished for a cold drink.
"I don't believe we ought to drink that water," I heard Ida Mary tell Ma Wagor, as she stood, dipper in hand, looking dubiously into the bucket.
"Oh, never mind about the germs," Ma said. "Just pick out them you see and them you can't see oughtn't hurt anybody. You can't be persnickety these days." With all that we could see in the water, it did seem as though the invisible ones couldn't do much harm.
With the perverseness of nature, the less water one has the thirstier one becomes. When it is on tap one doesn't think of it. But down to the last half-gallon, our thirst was unquenchable.
The store's supply of salmon and dried beef went begging, while it kept a team busy hauling canned tomatoes, sauerkraut, vinegar. People could not afford lemons, so vinegar and soda were used to make a refreshing, thirst-quenching drink.
Homesteaders reached the point where the whole family washed in the same quart of water. A little more soap and elbow grease, the women said, was the secret. Most of the water used for household purposes did double or triple duty. The water drained from potatoes was next used to wash one's face or hands or dishes; then it went into the scrub bucket. Potato water kept one's hands and face soft, we boasted; it was as effective as face cream.
But I was not a tea-cup saver by nature. Could the time and scheming of those pioneer women to save water have been utilized in some water project, it would have watered the whole frontier. But gradually we were becoming listless, shiftless. We were in a stage of endurance in which there was no point in forging ahead. We merely sat and waited—for rain or wells or whatever might come.
And always when we were down to the last drop, someone would bring us water. I never knew it to fail. One such time we looked up to see Huey Dunn coming. He had made the long trip just to bring us water—two whole barrels of it, although we had not seen him since he moved us to the reservation.
It was so hot he waited until evening to go back. He was in no hurry to return: it was too hot to work. But when had Huey ever been in a hurry? We sat in the shade of the shack, talking. He had dug a well, and his method of fall plowing—fallowing he called it—had proved successful.
Starting home toward evening, he called back, "If you girls take a notion to leave, you needn't send for me to move you—not until you get your deed, anyhow." I only saw him once after that—Ida Mary never again.
Ida Mary was seeing a lot of a young easterner that summer, an attractive, cultured boy who had taken a claim because he had won it in a lottery and it was an adventure. Imbert Miller had gone into the land business. He was well fitted for the work, with his honest, open manner, which inspired confidence in landseekers, and his deep-rooted knowledge of the West.
One day I looked up from my work with a belated thought.
"Imbert hasn't been here for some time. What's the matter?"
"He is to stay away until I send him word. I've got to be sure."
When there was any time for day-dreaming those days I conjured up pictures of snow banks and fountains and blessed, cooling rain, and long, icy drinks of water. The water had alkali in it and tasted soapy in cooking. But it was water. And we drank it gratefully.
The old man from the Oklahoma Run came over. Stooped and stiff, he leaned on his cane in the midst of a group of settlers who had met to discuss the drought and the water problem.
"Now, down in Oklahomy," he began, "it was hotter than brimstone and the Sooners didn't draw ice water from faucets when they settled there." Sooners, we took it, were those who got on the land sooner than the others. "Water was imported in barrels. Buying water was like buying champagne and worse to drink than cawn liquor."
"What did they do?"
"Well, suh," he went on, the long mustache twitching, "one of the fellahs down there was a water witch. He pointed out where the water could be got. Divining rods. That's the solution for the Strip."
But finding expert water witches was almost as difficult as finding water. They had to be imported from some remote section of the West. The witches, as we called them, went over various parts of the reservation, probing, poking, with their forked sticks.
The divining rod was a simple means of locating water, and it had been in common use through the ages, especially in arid regions. It was used in some instances to locate other underground deposits. These rods were pronged branches, sometimes of willow, but preferably of witch-hazel or wild cherry.
If there were water close to the surface, the divining rod would bend and turn with such force that it was hard to keep the prongs in hand. It was said to work by a process of natural attraction, and was formerly regarded as witchcraft or black magic.
Our divining rods refused to twist or bend. If there were water on the Strip, the witches missed it; either that, or it was too deep for the rods to detect. One of the experts said there was indication of some kind of liquid deposit far underground.
The settlers shook their heads and said there must be something wrong with the witches or the divining rod, and Ma Wagor declared, "I never did have any faith in them little sticks."
* * * * *
The hot winds swept the plains like blasts from a furnace. There was not a shelter as far as the eye could see except those little hot-boxes in which we lived. As the sun, like a great ball of fire, lowered to the horizon, a caravan topped the ridge from the north and moved slowly south across the strip. A wagon and a wobble-wheeled buggy, its dry spokes rattling like castanets, went by. Following behind were the few head of stock—horses whinnying, cows bawling, for water. A panting dog, tongue hanging out, trotted beside the wagon. They were shipping out. The railroads were taking emigrants back to the state line free.
Leaving a land of plenty—plenty of everything but water.
A number of homesteaders who had come to stay were getting out. Settlers were proving up as fast as they could. They wanted to prove up while they could get loans on the land. Loan agencies that had vied with one another for the business were closing down on some areas. Despite the water famine, the Brule had built such prestige, had made such a record of progress, that it was still holding the business. Western bankers kept their faith in it, but the lids of the eastern money-pots, which were the source of borrowing power, might be clamped down any day.
The railroads were taking people back to the state line free, if they wished to go. It seemed to me, exhausted as I was, that I could not go on under these conditions, that the settlers themselves could not go on without some respite.
I walked into the Land Office at Pierre and threw a sheaf of proof notices on the Register's desk. He looked at them with practiced eyes. "These haven't been published yet," he said.
"I don't want them. I'm leaving the country. I came to get nine months' leave of absence for myself and all those whose time is not up. That would give us until next spring to come back and get our deeds."
He leaned over his desk. "Don't pull up and leave at this critical time, Edith," he said earnestly. "There are the legal notices, the loans, the post office—we have depended on you so much, it would be putting a wrench in the machinery out there."
He looked at me for a moment. "Don't start an emigration movement like that," he warned me.
I was dumfounded at his solemnity, at the responsibility he was putting upon me. It was my first realization of the fact that The Wand had indeed become the voice of the Brule; that where it led, people would follow. If my going would start a general exodus, I had to stay.
I walked wearily out of the Land Office, leaving the proofs on his desk. It seemed to me that I had endured all I could, and here was this new sense of community responsibility weighing on me!
A young settler drove me home, and I sat bleakly beside him. It was late when we got near my claim, and the settlement looked dark and deserted. Suddenly I screamed, startling the horses, and leaped from the wagon as there was a loud crash. The heavy timbers of the cave back of the store had fallen in.
I shouted for Ida Mary, and there was no answer from the shack or the store. If she were under that wreckage.... Frantically we clawed at the timbers, clearing a space, looking for a slip of a girl with long auburn braids of hair. It was too dark to see clearly, and in my terror I was ripping the boards in any fashion while Jack strove to quiet me.
"What's the matter?" said a drowsy voice from the door of the shack. It was Ida Mary, who had slept so heavily she had not heard our arrival or our shouts or the crash of the cave-in.
I ran to her, sobbing with relief. "The cave's fallen in. I thought maybe you were in it."
She blinked sleepily and tried to comfort me. "I'm all right, sis," she said reassuringly. "It must have gone down after I went to bed. Too much sod piled on top, I guess. Now we'll have to have that fixed."
As I lay in bed, shaking with fatigue and nerve tension, Ida mumbled drowsily, "Oh, the fresh butter Ma brought me is down in that cave." And she fell asleep. A few moments later I too was sleeping quietly.
The nights were the life-savers. The evening, in which the air cooled first in the draws, then lifted softly to the tableland, cooling the body, quenching the thirst as one breathed it deeply. The fresh peaceful night. The early dawn which like a rejuvenating tonic gave one new hope. Thus we got our second wind for each day's bout.
The next day the proof notices I had turned in to the Land Office came back to me without comment. I explained to Ida Mary what I had done. "I told him we were going back, and he said I must not start an emigration movement. I applied for leaves of absence while the railroads are taking people to the state line free."
"And what," inquired Ida Mary dryly, "will they do at the state line? Go back to the wife's kinfolk, I suppose."
She was right, of course. I began to see what this trek back en masse would mean. What if the land horde went marching back? Tens of thousands of them milling about, homeless, penniless, jobless. Many of them had been in that position when they had stampeded the frontier, looking to the land for security. With these broad areas deserted, what would become of the trade and business; of the new railroads and other developments just beginning their expansion?
We were harder hit than most districts by the lack of water, but if that obstacle could be solved the Brule had other things in its favor. The words of the Register came back to me: "Don't start an emigration movement."
The Wand came out with an editorial called, "Beyond the State Line, What?" It was based on Ida Mary's terse comment, "Back to the wife's kinfolk," and concluded with my own views of the economic disaster which such a general exodus would cause.
It took hold. Settlers who were ready to close their shacks behind them paused to look ahead—beyond the state line. And they discovered that their best chance was to fight it out where they were—if only they could be shown how to get water.
No trees. No shade. Hot winds sweeping as though from a furnace. And what water one had so hot and stale that it could not quench thirst.
We could ask our neighbors to share their last loaf of bread, but it was a bold, selfish act to ask for water. I have seen a gallon bucket of drinking water going down; have seen it get to the last pint; have held the hot liquid in my mouth as long as possible before swallowing it.
The distances to water were so long that many times we found it impossible, with all the work we had on hand, to make the trip; so we would save every drop we could, not daring to cook anything which required water.
One of the girl homesteaders came over with an incredible tale to tell. She had visited one of the settlers outside the reservation gate who had a real well. And his wife had rinsed the dishes when she washed them.
Ma prophesied that she would suffer for that.
Heine said one day, "My Pa don't wanta leave. We ain't got no moneys to take us, Pa says."
There were many families in the same position. Get out? Where? How?
One day when Chris Christopherson came in I asked him why he thought the water supply would be better in a year or so.
"We can dig better dams. If they bane twice so big this year, they be full now from the snows and rains. We would yet have water plenty."
"We could dig cisterns, couldn't we?"
"Cost money, but not so much like deep wells. Trouble bane we not have money yet nor time to make ready so many t'ings."
"Some of the farmers say," I told him, "that when we cultivate large areas, loosening the soil for moisture absorption, they will be able to get surface wells, especially in the draws. They say the tall, heavy grass absorbs the surface and underground water."
Chris nodded thoughtfully. "Water will be more comin' in time," he declared. "The more land plowed, the more moisture will go down in the soil. It all the time costs more money to move and settle yet than to stay where you are. And nobody knows what he find somewhere else again."
And we got thirstier and thirstier. "I've got to have a drink," I would wail.
"You'll get over it," Ma would assure me.
But we did not always get over it. I remember trying to go to bed without a drink one night and thinking I could not stand it until morning. In the middle of the night I woke Ida Mary.
"I'm so thirsty I can't stand it any longer."
"Let's hitch up and go for some water."
So off we went in the middle of the night, driving over to McClure, where we drank long and long at the watering troughs.
With few water holes left, some of the settlers went over the border, hauling water from outside—from McClure, even from Presho, when they went to town. Somehow they got enough to keep them from perishing.
Men cleaned out their dams "in case it should rain." But there was no sign of the drought breaking. Except for the early matured crops, the fields were burned; the later crops were dwarfed. Our spirits fell as we looked at our big field of flax which had given such promise. Seed which had had no rain lay in the ground unsprouted. Some of the farmers turned their surplus stock loose to forage for themselves.
Public-spirited men like Senator Scotty Phillips and Ben Smith, a well-to-do rancher living four miles from the settlement, dug down into the bowels of the earth for water. Ben Smith went down 1200 feet. There was no sign of water. Despondency gripped the people. "You can dig clear to hell and you won't find water," one of them declared.
"All right, boys," Ben Smith told them, "dig to hell if you have to, and don't mind the cost." Slowly the drill bored on down the dry hole. Ben Smith's Folly, they called it.
The Wand urged the people to put their resources together—water, food, everything—so that they might keep going until water was found or until—it rained. Today pooling is a common method of farm marketing. We have great wheat pools, milk pools, and many others. At that time there were cooperative pools in a few places, although I had never heard of one, nor of a farm organization. But it was the pooling system that was needed to carry on.
Of one thing there was no doubt. The grass on the Indian lands was greener than the grass on the settlers' lands. Through their land ran the Missouri River, and they had water to spare. While the homesteaders were famishing and their stock dying for water, it was going to waste in Indian territory. That area was as peaceful as though the whole frontier were filled with clear, cool streams.
So Ida Mary and I went to the Indians for help. I presume we should have gone to the Agency, but we had never seen the government officials in charge, and we did know our Indians.
We rode over into the little Indian settlement. Rows of buffalo-hide and canvas wigwams; Indians sitting around on the ground. Men whittling, doing beadwork, or lounging at ease. Squaws sitting like mummies or cooking over open fires for which they broke or chopped wood. Young bucks riding about, horses grazing peacefully, mongrel dogs in profusion. Children, dirty, unconcerned, playing in the sun. Rows of meat, fly-covered, drying on the lines.
They were peaceful and unconcerned; the whole settlement had about it the air of being on a holiday, the lazy aftermath of a holiday. Remembering the hard labor, the anxiety, the effort and strain and despair in the white settlement, there was a good deal to be said for this life, effortless, without responsibility, sprawling in the shade while others did the work.
It was not before these members of the tribe, however, that we presented our request. We went before the chief and his council with form and ceremony. The old chief, dressed in dignified splendor, sat on a stool in front of his wigwam, a rich Navajo rug under his feet. He had been a great leader, wise and shrewd in making negotiations for his tribe. He looked at me and grunted.
I explained at length that I had come to him from the Brule white men for help. But I got no farther. He threw out his hand in a negative gesture. The old warriors of the council were resentful, obstinate. They muttered and shook their heads angrily. No favors to the whites who had robbed them of their lands!
I sat down beside the chief while I talked to him, and then to other members of the council—to Porcupine Bear, Little Thunder, Night Pipe. The Indian demands pomp and ceremony in the transaction of affairs. These wanted to hold a powwow. But I had no time for ceremony.
The Indians had minne-cha-lu-za (swift-running water). We had none. If some of the settlers could run stock on their hunting ground where they could get to water, and if we could have water hauled from their lands, we would pay.
The old chief sat as immobile and dignified as a king in court. We soon learned that the Indian horse-and-bead traders are a different species from the high powers of the tribe sitting in council, making treaties. It was like appearing before a high tribunal.
"Take Indian lands. All time more," grunted one of them.
"The settlers' land is no good to the Indian," I argued; "no water, no berries, no wood, no more value. The government is making the whites pay money, not giving them allotments as they do the red men."
If they would not give us minne-cha-lu-za, I went on, we could not print the paper any more, or keep she-la, or trade for posts.
They went into ceremonious council, and delivered their concession officially by an interpreter, Little Thunder I think it was, attired in all his regalia of headdress with eagle feathers, beaded coat, and fringed breeches.
It appealed to their sense of power to grant the favor. At last the whites had to come to them for help. Whether the deal was official or unofficial, no one cared. In those crucial days Washington seemed to the homesteaders as remote as the golden gates.
We took a short-cut back. There was not a single building anywhere in sight, and the only moving thing was a herd of range cattle going slowly toward water. Through the silence came a deep, moaning sound, the most eerie, distressed sound I ever heard. I was passing an Indian cemetery, and beside a grave stood an Indian woman—alone with her dead.
As is the Indian custom, she had come alone, walking many miles across the plain. She would probably slash her breast or mutilate her flesh in some other way as a sacrament to her grief. As I rode on slowly, her wailing cry rose and fell until it grew dim in my ears, blending with the moaning sound of the wind.
Some of the settlers turned stock over on the Indian lands after our negotiations, and the Indians hauled loads of life-giving water to the print shop now and then. Our collection of antique animals we turned loose to go back and live off the Indians.
"Might be it will rain," Heine said one day. "Did you see that cloud come by in front of the moon last night?"
But it wasn't a cloud. It was smoke.
THE LAND OF THE BURNT THIGH
We were living in the Land of the Burnt Thigh, the famous hunting ground of the Brule Indians, whose name was derived from a great prairie fire which had once swept the land.
The story of that great fire was told me by a famous interpreter who had heard the tale many times from his grandfather. It was three seasons after the big flood of 1812, he said, and the grass was high on Bad River, bringing many buffalo down from the north. About two weeks after the leaves turned they went to the prairie to get the winter's meat. Being a hunting party, the women and children accompanied them. The young boys wandered from the camps, shooting prairie dogs and small birds. One day when a number of boys were returning to camp, a great prairie fire swept down from the north.
The boys ran for the river, but the fire was too swift for them, and they were overtaken. Throwing themselves on the ground, they turned their faces from the fire and wrapped their heads and bodies in their robes, waiting for the fire to pass. Where they lay the grass was high and there were many small bushes; so when the fire came, the ground was hot and they were all burned on the right thigh, though otherwise unhurt.
The escape of the boys was considered so remarkable that the Sioux called this tribe the "people with the burnt thigh." Apparently some French trader rendered the name into his language, and thus we have "Brule" or burned.
The Land of the Burnt Thigh was famous not only for its great prairie fire and the fact that it had been the feeding ground of the buffalo, which had come in big herds to winter pasture; but also because it had been a notorious rendezvous for horse thieves. In the early days lawless gangs turned to stealing horses instead of robbing banks. A bold outfit of horse thieves plied their trade over a vast section of the Bad River country, of which the Brule had been a part. Here in the tall grass they found refuge and feed for the horses, with water in the creeks and water holes almost the year around. In the night they would drive their loot in, and the law was helpless in dealing with them.
Much has been said of Indians stealing the white man's horses and little of the depredations of the whites upon the Indians. These gangs stole constantly from the Indians, taking the best of their herds. A little band of Indians, realizing that they must get back their horses at any cost, tracked the thieves and here on the Burnt Thigh attacked them. But they were driven back by the outlaws, who had their lookout, according to the Indians, on the very site of Ammons; concealing themselves here in the tall grass, they could see anyone approaching for miles around. They had seen the Indians coming, just as we had seen them that first day at the settlement. The gang opened fire, killed several of their number, and routed the rest.
The Indians made no protest. All they knew of law was the power of the government, a force not to be appealed to for protection, but rather one against which the red men must struggle for their rights. They had no recourse, therefore, against the thieves. And it was not until the National Guard was sent to round them up that this lawless band was tracked to its lair and captured.
On the Land of the Burnt Thigh that summer the grass was dry, and nowhere was there water with which to fight fire. Heat waves like vapor came up from the hard, dry earth. One could see them white-hot as they rose from the parched ground like thin smoke. From the heat expansion and the sudden contraction when the cool of the night came on, the earth cracked open in great crevices like wide, thirsty mouths, into which horses stumbled and fell beneath their riders.
A young couple went to town one day and returned that night, looking for their home. They wandered around their claim, seeking their shack. It lay in ashes, destroyed by a prairie fire.
Heine came wading through the hot yellow grass. "Did you carry matches with you, Heine?"
"Nope," he answered laconically. "I don't need no matches."
"Suppose a prairie fire should come?" Everyone was supposed to carry matches; no child was allowed to leave home without matches and instructions to back-fire if he saw a fire coming. Heine sat down and wiped the sweat from his face with the sleeve of his little shirt.
"I look first behind when I start. Can't no prairie fire come till I get here."
"But with these hot winds—"
We watched constantly for the first sign of smoke. Sacks, old heavy comforts and pieces of carpet were kept at hand as fire extinguishers, in case there were enough water on hand to wet them—which was seldom.
There were no more water holes, and it got dryer and hotter. Ben Smith's men were still drilling for water. They were down 1500 feet. From the print shop we could hear the drill grinding through hard earth.
Prairie fires began to break out all around the Strip. The homesteaders began to be afraid to leave their shacks for fear they would find them gone on their return. Ammunition for the fight was pitifully meager. They fought with plows that turned firebreaks, back-fired to stop the progress of the fire, beat it out with their wet sacks.
If fire ever got a start on the Burnt Thigh now, with its thick high grass as dry as powder and no water, every habitation would be completely annihilated. Protests about our lack of protection seethed until they found expression in the newspaper. We had no equipment, no fire fighters, no lookouts, no rangers. Surely the government owed us some means of fighting the red devil of the plains.
One evening when the parched ground was beginning to cool we noticed a strange yellow haze settling over the earth, felt a murky heat. The world was on fire! Not near the settlement, miles away it must be, probably on the Indian lands beyond the Strip.
From the heat in the air, the threatening stillness, the alertness of the animals as they lifted their heads high in the air with nostrils dilated, we knew it was coming toward us. The heavy reddish fog portended a big fire, its tongue of flame lapping up everything as it came.
Already a group of homesteaders was gathering at the print shop, organizing systematic action; men from every section hurrying in with little sacks and kegs of water splashing until they were half empty; a pathetic, inadequate defense to set up against so gigantic an enemy. Chris Christopherson rattled by with his tractor to turn broad furrows. Dave Dykstra, who would never set the world on fire but would do a good deal in putting it out, hastened up to help. Here they came! Men with kegs of water, men with pieces of carpet, men with nothing but their hands and their fear to pit against the fire.
Off to the south the sky was red now, and the smell of fire was in our nostrils, faint but unmistakable. None of us knew how fast a big fire could travel. The settlers still knew so pitiably little about combating the frontier.
From the Indian settlement came Swift Running Deer on the horse which had taken the State Fair prize last year. In Sioux (the young buck was too excited to remember his English) he said the fire was on beyond the Brule somewhere. Most of the Indians had ridden off to it while he had come to tell the whites.
"If the wind stay down, it mebbe no come, but heap big fire like that take two day—three day—mebbe seven to die."
It was still and peaceful now, but there was little hope that two or three days could pass without wind—and if the wind came from that direction there was no hope for the Brule.
Coyote Cal, who had come riding through the Strip, stopped at the print shop. Ida Mary tried to persuade him to ride around to the homesteads and tell the girls who lived alone that the fire was still a long way off and that men had gone to fight it.
Coyote Cal stretched his long, angular figure to full height and stood there hesitant. "No, miss, I'd ruther fight fire," he said at length.
"But the girls will be frantic with fear."
"Hain't no use a calf-bawlin' over a prairie fire. If it gits yuh, it gits yuh, an' that's all there is to it."
With these consoling words he swung into the saddle and turned his horse's head toward the fire.
Ma Wagor came outside where Ida Mary and I watched the reflection of flame against the darkening sky. The air was still. There was no wind.
"I'm goin' home to milk the cow," Ma announced. She had paid forty dollars for that cow, she reminded us, and she wanted every last drop of milk out of her. Besides, she didn't believe in anybody leaving this world hungry.
The red dusk found the plains stirring. The ominous silence was broken by rumbling wagons hurrying with their barrels of water, tractors chugging, turning long fresh rows of dirt as breaks, teams everywhere plowing around shacks and corrals.
Night came on, inky black. The red light on the horizon and billowy clouds of smoke intensified the darkness. Over the range, cattle were bellowing in their mad fear of fire. They were coming closer to the reservation fence, running from danger.
The hours crept past; around us on the plains the settlers had done all they could, and they were waiting as Ida Mary and I were waiting, watching the red glow on the sky, thinking of the men who were desperately beating out the advancing flames, wondering if each tiny gust foretold the coming of the wind.