Inside the shack we moved about restlessly, putting the money we had on hand in tin cans, the legal paper in the little strong box, and burying them in the small, shallow cave. If the fire came, we would seek refuge there ourselves, but it wouldn't be much use. We knew that.
Out again to look at the sky, and then up and down the print shop, restlessly up and down. Ida Mary made coffee; we had to do something, and there was nothing for us to do but wait. Wait and listen to the silence, and look our own fear squarely in the eyes and know it for what it was.
"What's that?" said Ida Mary in a queer, hoarse voice. She put down her cup and sat rigid, listening. Then she jumped to her feet, her face white. "Edith," she cried, "it's the wind—it's the wind!"
Out of nowhere came the moaning sound of the wind, sweeping unchecked across space, blowing from the south! While we listened with caught breath, it seized some papers and sent them rattling across the table, blew a lock of hair in my eyes, made the dry grass rustle so that it sounded for one glorious moment like rain.
We ran outside and stood in the darkness, our dresses whipping around us, looking at the sky. Here and there above the red haze we saw a bright, jagged tongue of flame leap up, licking the black sky.
The homesteaders who had not gone to the fire found waiting alone intolerable, and one by one they drifted in to the store, waiting taut and silent.
At midnight we heard the staccato beats of a horse's hoofs. A messenger was coming. Only one horse on the plains could travel like that; it was Black Indian. And a moment later Lone Star Len flung himself from the horse and came in.
He had been fighting flame. His face was blackened almost beyond recognition.
"It's all right," he said at once, before we could question him. "The fire's over on the government land. It's beyond the Strip."
His eyes and lips were swollen, face and hands blistered. "It's still ragin'," he went on, "but there is a little creek, dry mostly, between the fire and the Strip. It's not likely to get this far. 'Course, the wind is bad. It's blowin' sparks across on the grass, this side of the creek. But some of the settlers and Indians are watchin' it."
Ida Mary came in from the shack with sandwiches and black coffee and set them before him.
"You didn't need to bother doin' that for me," he protested; "you girls better go to bed."
"When did you have anything to eat?" Ida Mary asked, as he drank the hot coffee and devoured the food ravenously, moving his hands as though they hurt him unbearably.
"This mornin'. Been working with that fire since noon; I had started for the chuck-wagon when I smelt smoke...."
"Lone Star, why did you risk your life to save a reservation full of homesteaders?" I asked him.
He stood for a moment with a chagrined expression on his smoke-scarred face.
"Cattle needs the grass," he replied as he stalked out and rode slowly, wearily away into the flame-lighted night.
The fire had broken out on range and government land off toward the White River country—to the southeast, where Lone Star rode herd. As the country for the most part was uninhabited, the fire had swept the plains for miles before the fighters reached it. Sparks and flames had jumped the creek, but by now the grass was burned back far enough on both sides so that the danger for this region was past.
The amused natives told how a man had jolted up on a stiff horse, a painting outfit in his saddlebag, to watch the fire. "This is great," he exclaimed as he plied brush and color. Then, as a volley of wild sparks shot across the narrow stream and went into flame nearby, he threw down the brush, rushed in among the fire-fighters, worked madly until the flames were extinguished, then went back and finished the picture.
"Who is he?" someone in the gaping crowd asked.
"The cartoonist from Milwaukee," a Brule settler answered.
For several days longer the fire raged, with the air smoky and a red and black pall over the earth. Then it faded as our other terrors had faded, and was gone.
* * * * *
Already, in the midst of fire and water famine, there stalked ghosts of cold and hunger—the coming winter. With no money left to provide the necessities of life, the homesteaders stared into the face of a food famine. Most of them were now living on meager rations, counting every penny, their crops shriveled in the fields.
Ada put her small wages into flour and coffee. And Heine remarked, "My Ma says might be we'll starve and freeze yet. She's goin' to pray." We watched him trudge back across the plains, a sturdy little fellow, one suspender holding up patched overalls over a faded blue shirt, bare feet which walked fearlessly and by some miracle escaped the constant menace of rattlesnakes, ragged straw hat shading the serious round face. The plains had made him old beyond his six years.
With the realization of danger which the prairie fire had brought, The Wand began to advocate government rangers and lookouts to be stationed at strategic points. I was in the print shop writing an article on conditions when Lone Star came in.
"I want to get my paper forwarded, Miss Printer," he stated; "I'm leavin' the country. It's gettin' too crowded in these parts. Too lonesome. I don't see how people can live, huddled up with somebody on every quarter-section."
"Where are you going now?"
"Goin' to an honest-to-God range country," he said. "A short-grass country, but rich feed. You can get away from landgrabbers there. It's bigger'n all creation."
"Where shall I send the paper?"
"Wyoming. The Rawhide country. Just send the paper to Lost Trail. I'll be goin' on there. I know a cattleman around Lost Trail."
Rawhide country. Lost Trail. About them was the atmosphere of far-flung space, of solitude and peace.
"I may go there myself some day," I told him.
"If you do," he said soberly, "leave this doggone newspaper shebang behind. It's a pest to the country. Don't clutter up any more range with homesteadin' herds. Worse than grasshoppers; at least the grasshoppers leave, and the homesteaders appear to be here to stay."
He rode off, a strange, solitary figure, topped the ridge and dropped out of sight as swiftly as he had appeared that first morning, stopping the eagle in its flight. When he had gone I turned back to my article. In this gigantic homestead project, The Wand declared, there should be protection. We demanded of the local land offices why the Department of the Interior did not establish Service Bureaus on government territory to expedite development, to lessen hardship and danger. But the Land Offices could not help us. They were only the red-tape machines of the Public Lands Department.
The federal government was taking in revenue by the millions from the homesteaders. Millions of acres of homestead land at from $1.25 to $6 an acre provided a neat income for the United States Treasury. And, we contended, the homesteaders of America should be given consideration. There was nothing radical about these articles, but here again I became known as "that little outlaw printer."
Had I been experienced, I might have carried this appeal to Washington and said, "Put the revenue from these lands back into them. That is not charity, it is development of natural resources."
Any such entreaty, coming from an upstart of a girl printer, would have been like a lamb bleating at a blizzard. But the homesteaders might have been organized as a unit, with official power to petition for aid. I did not know then that I could do such things.
Meantime the print shop buzzed with activity. The harvest of proofs, on which I had gambled the paper, was on. It kept one person busy with the clerical work on them. While the Strip was yet a no-man's land, I had pledged the printing equipment company 400 proofs as collateral. That was a low estimate. As a matter of fact The Wand won an all-time record, publishing in one week 88 proofs, the highest number ever to be published in any issue of a newspaper of which the government had record. From the Department of the Interior, from the Land Office, from other newspapers congratulations poured in. It seems to me that some sort of medal was awarded to us for that.
It wasn't the record which mattered, of course. To us the publication of these notices signified that the settlers had stuck it out with parched throats to get their deeds; that some 14,000 acres of wasteland had passed into private units in one week's time.
It meant endless work. Type, numbers, checking, straining eyes and nerves beyond endurance. But it also meant (for that one lot) over $400 income for the newspaper. Proof money had been coming in for several weeks. Every mail brought long heavy envelopes from the Land Office, containing proof applications made there. From among the homesteaders we hired amateur typesetters to help out, and anybody who happened to be handy turned the press; on occasion we resorted to old Indian warriors, and once to a notorious cattle rustler.
And all this time we watched the sky for rain and skimmed the green scum from the dam water to drink. Looking up from the type one morning, I saw an old Indian standing before me, old Porcupine Bear. Slipping in on moccasined feet, an Indian would appear before one without warning. At first this sudden materializing at my elbow had alarmed me, but I had long grown accustomed to it.
Old Porcupine Bear was a savage-looking character—one of the very old warriors who seldom left camp. One never knew how old some of these aged Indians were, and many of them did not know themselves how many seasons they had lived. This old man, we figured, must be a hundred years old.
"Will there be rain, Porcupine?" I asked him. "Will you hold your Rain Dance soon?"
The deep wrinkles in his leathery face were hard set as if from pain. His coal-black hair, streaked with gray and hanging loose over his shoulders, looked as if it had not been combed for days.
"To-wea," he wailed. "My to-wea (my woman). Him sick. The fever. Goin' die." He dropped his face into the palm of his hard hand and let it lie there motionless in demonstration of her passing. He wanted to get a box like white squaws had, the boxes in which they went to the Happy Hunting Ground.
He was on the road to Pierre for a coffin. Others of the tribe, we gathered, had put in money to help buy it. He opened a beaded sack and showed us. There was enough to buy a pretty good one. In broken Sioux and signs we advised him to wait—mebbe-no-die. Mebbe-walk-some-more. He shook his head stubbornly. His herbs—he was a medicine man who had healed many sick ones—had not worked. Even his pazunta had failed.
The Indian's pazunta was his shield against disease—against all evil. It drives the Evil Spirit away. It may be anything he selects—an herb, a stone, a rabbit's foot—so long as he selects it secretly and divulges to no one what it is. The pazunta is invested with divine curative power, according to the Indians.
When he got back to his wigwam with the satin-lined "last-sleep-box," Porcupine Bear found his to-wea cooking supper; so the old brave, it was said, slept in the good soft bed himself. "Why not?" said Ida Mary. He had slept on the ground and fought many hard battles; let him have his cushioned resting place while he could enjoy it; but I shuddered at the thought.
A week or so later he came again. It was a day when I was at the breaking point. He stood looking at me, shaking his head as he had done over his to-wea. I must have looked like a ghost, for in a gesture of friendship he said:
"You want my last-sleep-box?"
The prairie fire had not got me down, but at the thought of that box I went to bed and stayed there three days.
UP IN SMOKE
There was almost $750 in the tin box down in the trunk ready to be deposited. At breakfast we exulted over it. The Ammons sisters were always draining the bank dry. Sedgwick would open his eyes when we walked into the bank with that bag of money.
We planned to go to Presho that day. It was hardly safe to have so much money in the shack, and we were eager to put it in a safe place. It represented months of planning and effort and hard work. But the labor didn't seem bad to look back on that morning, not with the reward at hand. It had been worth while, because the end of the road was in sight and we had accomplished much that we had hoped to do—more, in some respects.
It was unbearably hot that morning, and we decided against the trip to Presho. After all, one more day wouldn't matter, and the sun was so scorching we quailed at the thought of that long ride. There was an ominous oppression in the air, and heat waves made the ground appear to waver before our eyes. Here and there flames flared up without any explainable origin, as though from the heat of the grass itself.
The day crept on to mid-afternoon, and the hot wind came up from the ground, blistering our faces. There was no one near the print shop, where the metal was hot to the touch, no movement over the plains. We sent our helpers home, while Ma, Ida Mary and I moved about languidly, doing only what was absolutely necessary.
There was a curious, acrid smell in the air. As though a bolt of lightning had struck, I stopped my work on the paper and cried out, "What's that?"
"Fire," screamed Ida Mary; "fire!"
Smoke enveloped us. There was a deafening crackle. Blinding red flame. We ran to the door, and there, not ten feet away, our shack was burning to the ground. The little lean-to kitchen, covered with tar paper, was sending its flames high into the air. Frantically we ran to the front door, shouting above the crackling and roar of flame, "The trunk! The money! The settlers' money!"
The print shop would go, too—and the notices had several weeks to run—but the essential thing was to get the money back. We must do that, must! Oh, for a rolling bank on wheels!
At the front door black smoke came rolling out, choking us. Ida Mary threw a sack over her head and started into the shack. Ma Wagor and I dragged her back into the open air. The building was burning as though it had been made of paper, a torch of orange flames. We watched it go, home, money, clothes, a few valuable keepsakes, furniture—everything we possessed licked up by the flames. The piano, too—I was glad it had brought so much pleasure to the settlers.
The wind! Now the fire was spreading. The print shop was burning, its inflammable tar paper and dry boards blazing like powder. "Hurry, hurry!" we called frantically to each other. From the print shop I grabbed the most valuable papers while Ida Mary snatched what she could from the post office. Stoical, silent, making every move count, Ma Wagor was busy in the store, her store, in which she had taken such pride and such infinite pleasure. Ma was getting more "confusement" now than she had bargained for.
Blinded with smoke, we caught up the sacks into which we had stuffed the papers and threw them into the cave, the only shelter left on the whole claim.
In less than thirty minutes the post office, the store with its supply of food, the print shop were gone. The harvest of long months of labor and storm, thirst and fire, vanished as though it had never been—gone up in clouds of heavy, black smoke.
If the wind would only go down, we groaned; but the sparks had already caught the grass around us. A prairie fire! If it ever jumped those breaks, the Strip would be devastated with the wind sweeping the plain as it was doing. What irony that we who had printed our precautions and warnings for others, should burn up the Strip! We who had labored so to save it! And there was no chance for us. We could not outrun a prairie fire. The horses, which were untied, had gone full speed across the prairie at the first smell and sight of fire.
Now the oilhouse had caught, and we turned, panic-stricken, running headlong across the plains, our feet burning, not knowing where we were going so long as we could escape the explosion of the oil. Inside the firebreaks the grass was burning. Listening for the explosion of the oil was like waiting for the crack of doom. Then we remembered. Pa Wagor had sunk the barrels underground, using siphons, "just in case of fire."
Sparks leaping up, flying across the breaks—the prairie was on fire! We checked our flight, sanity returning with the emergency. We had to go back—simply had to go back and fight that first outbreak of flame. The Strip was at stake. Life and property were at stake. Falling, rising, running, falling again, dragging each other up, we went back. "Help!" we called to the empty prairie, "Help!"
There was nothing to smother the fast-spreading blaze. Not a thing. Not even a sack or a hat. We tore off parts of the clothes from our scantily clad bodies. Ma took off her petticoat. There was a sack in the barn which we wet in a keg set in the yard, wet the canvas which covered the keg. With that, with our feet we trampled down the sparks as they fell, the flames as they rose—shoes hot and charred, holes burning through.
Across the prairie a team was coming at a dead run. "Bless the Lord," Ma Wagor panted, "it's Sam Frye!"
A bright red flare shot up from behind and around me. My dress was on fire. Ida Mary clawed dirt from the hard-baked ground, and with it in her hands twisted my burning smock into knots to keep the flames from spreading. With almost animal instinct I threw myself down in the firebreak, pressing hard against the ground to extinguish any smoldering sparks on my clothing, and lay panting, cooling in the dirt.
Sam Frye, the mail-carrier, was there, taking charge. All at once a crowd had gathered, attracted by the leaping flames on what had been the settlement of Ammons, running to fight the threatening prairie fire. Men went to work, fighting fresh outbursts of flames and putting out fire on the ruins. Women hovered about us in sympathy, some with tears streaming down their sunburned cheeks under the straw hats and bonnets. Neither Sister nor I could shed a tear.
Dazed and dizzy, we stumbled back across the breaks to the charred ashes of our labors. Apart from the tangible losses that lay in coals, the newspaper, the voice of the Brule, was gone. "Down into frontier history," Senator Phillips said. Into it had gone the ambitions, the heartbreaking labor, the vision of two girls.
Half-naked, our scanty clothing burned and torn, hair singed, faces and parts of our bodies scorched and black with smoke—tar paper makes black, smudgy smoke—eyes red and burning, we stood there in the middle of the open spaces that had dealt us their blow. Our pazuntas hadn't worked, that was all. But at least we had checked the prairie fire. We had won that much from the Brule, the "Burned" land.
We clung to each other wordlessly. There was nothing to say. Everything that made up our daily life and our plans for the future had been wiped out in thirty minutes.
"We still have the claim," Ida Mary murmured at last; "nothing can destroy the land."
"But all our bright hopes—"
How the fire got such a start before we detected it was a mystery. With the shack walls already burning hot and the strong wind, it had been like spontaneous combustion. Ma Wagor was baking bread on an old oil stove. Perhaps a draft from the open window had fanned the fire. But the origin didn't matter now.
Ma Wagor had worked heroically, helping us to save the important records, the mail, and the prairie from being swept by fire. When it was all over she did not whimper about her loss.
When I saw Pa coming, I ran to her. "Ma, here comes Pa. This will kill him. You had better go meet him." He had not wanted her to buy the store in the first place; now there were debts piled up, and only the homestead to pay them.
She sat on the ground, burying her face in her hands. "Let him come to me," she replied. "It's his place to comfort me in time of trouble."
True to her feminine intuition, he went to her and put his arm around her shoulders. "Elizabeth," he said. No response. "Elizabeth," he entreated. "Don't give way like this. We will pull through somehow."
I felt a hand on my arm, and Alex Van Leshout's voice hoarse in my ear. "The latchkey of the Circle V is on the outside. If you girls will come over, I'll move out. If you need me or Hop-Along, all I have is at your service. You're a good Indian, Edith."
Sometimes I envy the women who are able, during a catastrophe, to stop and grieve over it. I never seem to have had the time. There was always something that demanded to be done, whatever the circumstances.
The fire had no sooner been put out, the claim bare as the day I first saw it—save for charred grass, and a great mound of ashes, and the smell of smoke—when Sam Frye opened the mail sacks. Sitting bedraggled in his old buggy, Ida Mary distributed the mail to the patrons who had gathered. Even though the post office was gone, the mail must go on. We were never destined to be back-trailers.
The sultry, tragic day came to a close, with the plains light long after the sun had gone down, and the Ammons settlement gone, and a devastating sense of emptiness. Ida Mary and I realized that we had no place to go. With typical frontier hospitality, every home on the reservation was open to us; but that night we longed to be alone. It wasn't commiseration we needed, but quiet in which to grasp what had happened to us. We decided on Margaret's shack, left vacant when she had proved up. She had left a few household essentials there.
There some of the frontier women followed us, to bathe and salve the burns we had forgotten, bandaging those which were the worst. I had suffered most when my clothing caught fire, but miraculously there were no serious burns.
They left us alone as night came, Ma and Pa Wagor, Ida Mary and me. It was Ma who roused first from the general lethargy in which we were all steeped. She began bustling around. "Guess we'd better have something to eat," she said briskly.
"There's nothing left to eat," Ida Mary reminded her.
Triumphantly, Ma brought forth a big bundle tied up in her old gingham apron. In it were cans of salmon, tomatoes and other essential foods. And a can of pineapple, Ma's panacea for all ills! "I knew we'd be hungry after all that, so I jerked up a little stuff while you were getting the papers out."
She brought in an armful of prairie hay, built a fire in the cookstove and made strong tea. She was no longer the clinging vine of an hour before.
And there in the little shack down the draw, penniless, almost naked, all our belongings and our plans for the future in charred ashes on the claim, we slept from exhaustion.
No matter with what finality things seem to end, there is always a next day and a next. During those first few hours the extent of our disaster had dazed us. Then, the odds seemed so overwhelmingly against us that there was no use in going on. The only trouble was that we couldn't stop. Post office or no post office, there was the mail. Print shop or no print shop, there were the proof notices.
We were like the cowboy who, hanging to a running steer's tail, was dragged against the hard ground and through brush until he was cut, battered and bruised.
Fearing he would be killed, the other cowboys, who watched, shouted wildly to him, "Let go! Let go!"
"Let go, hell!" he yelled back. "It's all I can do to hold on!"
Then there was Great-uncle Jack Ammons, back in the earlier days of Illinois, who had become critically ill from some lingering disease of long standing. One day the doctor called Aunt Jane aside and said, "Jane, if Jack has any business matters to attend to, it had better be done at once. I don't think he can last another forty-eight hours."
From the bedroom came a weak, irritable voice, "Jane! Jane! Where's my boots?"
Uncle Jack got up, fought the disease, and lived and prospered for many a year. We came of a family who died with their boots on.
I don't know whether it was a streak of Great-uncle Jack or whether, like the cowboy, we held on because we could not let go. The latter, perhaps, for we saw no way of escape. Many times, I think, people get too much credit for hanging on to things as a virtue when they are simply following the line of least resistance. We saw no means of escape, and were too stunned to plan.
Of one thing we were sure. We would not go back home for help. There would have to be some way of telling our father of the misfortune so as to soften the blow as much as possible, but we were determined not to add to his burdens, which were already too heavy for him.
"If the railroad company takes us to the state line," declared Ida Mary, "it will have to take us crated—or furnish us covering." In the garish morning light, indeed, we felt rather naked in those flimsy, torn clothes, the only garments we now owned.
"We can't go back, anyhow," I reminded her. "We can't leave things unfinished. The proof notices have to finish running, and Sam Frye will be throwing the mail sack in at the door." It was easier to get into things than to get out.
The settlers came that day with their widow's mite of food and clothes; the women's clothing too large, the children's too small. But it covered us—after a fashion. The store at Presho sent out a box of supplies. Coyote Cal and Sourdough rode up.
"Beats tarnation, now don't it," Coyote Cal consoled us.
"I told you this country wasn't fit for nothin' but cowhands," growled Sourdough. "Here, the punchers rounded up a little chicken feed." He fairly threw at us a dirty tobacco pouch, filled with coins. "Coming before pay day like this, tain't much," he grumbled, as though the catastrophe might have waited for pay day—things couldn't be done to suit Sourdough.
A wagonload of Indians drove up, men and squaws and papooses. They climbed out, unhitched, turned the team loose to graze. They came in mumbling in a sort of long wail, "No-print-paper, hu-uh, hu-uh," but gleeful as children over the gifts they carried. A bright-hued shawl, thick hot blankets, beaded moccasins. There was a sack of "corn in the milk" (roasting ears) which had been raised over by the river, and stripped (dried) meat. We did not know whether it was cow, horse or dog, but we knew it had been black with flies as it hung on the lines drying—we had seen them drying meat. However, parboiling should make it clean.
And early that morning we saw Imbert coming from Presho, hurrying to Ida Mary, his face drawn and haggard. They went into each other's arms without a word, and at last Ida Mary was able to cry, tears of sorrow and relief, with her face against his breast.
I lay weak and ill, wasting from a slow fever. I slept fitfully, while streams of cool water went gurgling by, and cool lemonade, barrels of it. But every time I stooped to take a drink the barrels went rattling across the plain into a prairie fire.
"Maybe you've got typhoid," Ma would say as she bathed my hot head and hands with towels wrung out of vinegar and warm water, fanning them to coolness. "You'll be all right, Sis," Ida Mary would say; "just hold on—" We did not call a doctor. There was no money left for doctors.
Rest, sleep, and nourishment were what I needed, but conditions were far from favorable for such a cure. The deserted shack was baking hot. It was not the cheerful place it had seemed while Margaret lived in it, with the bare floor, the old kitchen stove, the sagging wire couch and a couple of kitchen chairs. We had scanty, sticky food, and warm, sickening water. We didn't even bother to keep it clean. The routine of our life had been burned away. The handful of dishes went dirty, the floor went unswept. But Ma brought milk and custards that she had made at home, I drank the juice of dried fruits, and Imbert brought us water from the Millers' well. We sank jars of it deep into the ground to keep cool.
Heine broke a new trail across the plains and a few days after the fire the horses came home. They had wandered back to the old site, snorted at the black ruins, and gone thundering across the prairie led by Lakota with the wild horse's fear of fire. We never expected to see them again. But one day they saw Sam Frye coming with the mail. They followed him down the draw, and when he stopped and threw out the mail sack Lakota gave a loud neigh and walked straight into Margaret's old barn. Where the mail sacks went was home to Lakota.
Moving the post office around the prairie, piling the mail in an open box in the corner, may have been criminally illegal, but we gave it no thought.
The mail, in a haphazard fashion, was being handled. Our next problem was the proof notices. They must go on. It was vital to the settlers. Many of them could not live without the money they were borrowing on the final proofs. Without the press there seemed no solution to that problem.
On the sixth day after the fire Ida Mary got up early, while I slept in the cool of the morning; she made a blast from the dry grass under one cap of the stove, boiled coffee, ate her lean breakfast, and put food on a chair beside my bed. Then she darkened the room, slipped out, saddled Lakota, rode up to the cave, and brought out the mail sack of legal papers we had saved from the fire. She took out the notices—those in course of publication and others due to be published. Then she rode on to McClure, made arrangements with the printer of the McClure Press, and began setting up the notices.
When the stage came in that noon with the Ammons mail, there was a letter from E. L. Senn, the proof king, offering us the use of the shop and part-time service of his printer to meet the emergency. Although we had cornered the great proof business on the Lower Brule, he was coming to our rescue to save it for us.
That night Ida Mary came home, hot, weary, with lines of fatigue in her youthful face and about her blue eyes. But there was a resolute look, too, marking her strong will; and in her voice a tone of satisfaction.
It was a long, arduous task, setting up again all those notices in small type. The type of the McClure shop would not set half of the notices. We sent the balance of them to be set, some in Presho, some in Pierre, got them back by stage, and The Wand, despite fire and all other obstacles, went on with its work—a few days late, strictly a proof sheet, but without lapse of publication.
And Ida Mary kept things going, conserving her strength as well as she could, with Imbert and Ma Wagor helping. Ma said, "I'd 'a' died if I hadn't found something to do."
It was mid-August, with no sign of the drought breaking. In the shack down the draw we sat during spare hours sorting type at Margaret's kitchen table, picking, separating six-point, eight-point, ten-point letters and spaces, leads, slugs. Ma Wagor and other neighbors helped at odd times; Heine separated the type into piles of like sizes. Sorting that type-pi was a job to which no one in the world but a printer can give the deserved sympathy.
Heine, raking around in the cooling embers on my claim, had found several cases of pied type and a few odds and ends of printing equipment down under a piece of heavy tin roofing, the only thing salvaged from the wreckage.
A committee of settlers came, emptied a little sack on the table. In a little heap there lay pennies, dimes, quarters, a few silver dollars—precious coins that had been put aside to keep the wolf from the door—and a separate roll of bills. The offering of the Lower Brule settlers! "To build a new shack and print shop," they said simply. "The homesteaders will do the building."
Of course, we must build another shack and reestablish residence or there would be no deed to the land. The money represented not only the hard-earned savings but the loyal support of the settlers. When we protested, they laughed. "But The Wand has always been telling us to share," they said. Some of the business men of the towns added to the contribution to establish the newspaper.
One sweltering day, with everyone seeking escape from the broiling sun, all movement over the Strip was suspended. As I lay on the couch recuperating, there came a great explosion that roared through the dead hush like all the cannons of war gone off at once. Ida Mary, resting in the shade of the shack, came running in. It could not be thunder, for there was not a cloud in the sky. It had come from over Cedar Fork way.
Soon the plains were astir with settlers rushing in the direction of the explosion. A great rumbling force was sending steam high into the air. It was Ben Smith's Folly. He had struck gas—enough to pipe house and barns for light and fuel!
Then came a heaving, belching from far down in the earth's cavern. And up came the water—a great stream of it that ran over the dry hot ground! Water overflowing. That artesian well, flowing day and night, would save the people and stock until it rained.
And with the flowing of fresh, cool water on the Lower Brule, life began to flow through my veins once more, and I got up, ready for what was to come.
So it happened that only a few weeks before proving-up time, Ida Mary and I had to start all over again. But with the coming of water into that thirsty land it didn't seem so difficult to begin again. And we weren't doing it alone. It was the settlers who built a new shack, a new building for a printing press; the settlers who clothed us during those first destitute days. "This is cooperation," they laughed at our protests. "The Wand has always preached cooperation."
In the cool of the evening I rode out over the devastated prairie, past the charred timbers and ashes of my claim, across the scorched and stunted fields blighted by drought, avoiding the great cracks which had opened in the dry earth and lay gaping like thirsty mouths for rain. The crops were burnt, and the land which had seemed so fertile looked bleak and sterile.
I rode through the reservation gate. There was no one at home at Huey Dunn's, but his little field of shocked grain lay there in the midst of burnt grass and unharvested fields. Instead of dry chaff there were hard, fairly well-filled heads. It had withstood the drought sufficiently to mature. In an average year it would have yielded a good crop.
On his claim near the reservation a young man was doing quite a bit of experimenting. He was a graduate of an agricultural school. I looked at his fields, which also had come through the drought much better than others. From other farmers scattered here and there who had tried the fallowing plan I got records of methods and results. Then I rode back slowly, thinking of what might be done for the Brule country.
Drinking water supply could be obtained. The next most vital problem was moisture for the crops. Most of the rainfall came in the growing season, but in dry years it was inadequate and much of it wasted on packed ground. To produce crops in the arid or semi-arid regions, out-of-season moisture—heavy snows and rains—must be conserved. There must be a way to harness it.
Next to lack of moisture was the short growing season. These were the principal barriers to converting the new West into an agricultural domain. The latter problem could be solved, the farmers said. Progress already was being made in developing seed adapted to the climate. The Indians had produced quick-maturing corn through their years of corn-raising in a small way. There could be developed a hardier, short-stalked grain, eating up less moisture, agricultural authorities maintained. The farmers said that nature itself gradually would do a great deal toward that end.
Experience. Science. Time. Of course, this was a land of the future, not of today. The homesteaders had expected to tame it in a year or two, when many years must be spent on even the smallest scientific discoveries. They had demanded miracles. That was because they had no resources with which to await results.
President Roosevelt had done much in turning public attention toward the necessity of reclaiming these public lands, and already much was being done. They had been too long neglected. Years ago, when the supply of government land had seemed inexhaustible, the tide of settlers had swept around the forgotten frontier, on beyond the arid and semi-arid land to the fertile soil and the gold fields on the Pacific Coast. But the time had come when this neglected prairie was the only land left for a land-hungry people. Some way had to be found to make the great arid plains productive.
The Department of Agriculture was turning its attention to the frontier, establishing bureaus and experiment stations in various western states, making scientific research.
At the request of The Wand, two agricultural agents from the State Experimental Farm came to examine the soil and advise us as to its possibilities, as to crops and cultivation. They reported it rich in natural resources, with splendid subsoil. We would have to depend greatly upon the subsoil and its moisture-retaining quality.
And over the frontier there was talk about a new system of conserving moisture. Some said it was bound to sweep the West. The method was called fallowing—the method Huey Dunn had used. It was a radical departure from anything farmers of the rain belts had ever used.
The few sodbreakers who had tried it thought they had found a way to conserve the moisture and at the same time to preserve the land, but it was not they who heralded the plan as a great new discovery. To them it was a way to raise their own crops. They may have learned it in the Old Country, where intensive farming was carried on, or, like Huey Dunn, figured it out for themselves. But it was ahead of the times in the new West and generally looked upon as an impractical idea spread largely by land agents as propaganda. Many of the farmers had never heard of it. What I had heard and read of fallowing now came back to mind. I was in a position to keep better posted on such things than they.
I got out my letters and records and spread them before Ida Mary on the old square table, and with the sweat dripping down our faces from the heat of the lamp we eagerly devoured their contents. Huey Dunn's plan of mellowing, or rotting the soil, was not yet the true fallowing method.
"But it will mean cropping the land only every other year, and plowing and raking the empty soil," Ida Mary said in a tone of misgiving.
"The top soil is kept loosened so that every bit of moisture will be absorbed into the subsoil. Suppose it does mean letting the land lie idle every other year, alternating the fields," I contended. "There is plenty of cheap land here. It will be a way to utilize waste space." Farmers in other arid regions, I learned as I scanned the letters, were raising forage crops on the land in the off year.
But it will take two years, Ida Mary reminded me. The settlers had no money to wait so long for a crop. "And all that labor—" she went on. "It may be the solution, but I doubt if the settlers would listen to any such plan."
I knew she was right. Two years of waiting, labor and expense. Labor was no small item with the poor homesteaders. If the government would put in money to carry out this new system until the farmers could get returns from it—"It is a gigantic project for the government to finance ... it would require great financial corporations to develop this country ..." Halbert Donovan had said.
I talked it over with some of the more experienced farmers on the Strip who understood the processes required. They figured they could plant part of the ground while the other lay fallowing. If it happened to be a wet year, that would give them something to go on. "But, mein Gott, how we goin' to pull t'rough next winter?" old man Husmann raved. Even Chris had no answer.
In the years of experimenting, the fallowing system underwent a number of changes. But we had the plan in its fundamentals. After each rain the land should be loosened; and late in the fall it should be plowed rather deeply to soak up the winter snows. The top soil must be kept from packing. It was worth trying, they agreed, if they could get money to pull through this drought and stay on the land.
This might be a solution for the future. But for the people on the land the solution must be immediate. Empty purses could not wait two seasons for a good crop; empty stomachs could not await the future, and famine stared the homesteaders on the Lower Brule in the face.
Our proof sheet came out with the message, "We Can Fallow!" There was encouragement to be derived from it, of course, but it was hope deferred. Then, sitting in the doorway of the shack, leaning against the jamb for support, my pencil held in tender fingers not yet healed, I wrote to Halbert Donovan, setting forth the possibilities of the Strip, and the West, under a moisture-retaining method of farming.
It was a morning in late August when I turned to see a well-dressed man standing in the open door. Halbert Donovan!
At the first meeting he had found the West green and bright with spring colors, and the outlaw printer of the McClure Press excited and voluble over the possibilities of the country. Now the investment broker found a land of desolation and ruin, and the printer in sorry plight, living in a crude, bare shack, clad like some waif of the streets in the clothes donated by the settlers.
But he had come. He had driven out from Pierre along the dusty roads, through the sultry heat, in a long shiny automobile. On the sagging couch leaning against the hot wall, he sat wiping the perspiration from his face as I told him more of the fallowing idea. He had not heard of it. He knew practically nothing about agriculture, but he was a man to whom any method of developing vast resources would appeal.
"At first," he said, little crinkles breaking around his eyes, relieving the sternness of his face, "I read The Wand (how I did laugh at the name you gave it) with refreshing amusement, out of a personal curiosity you had aroused. I wanted to see how long you would hold out. Later I became deeply interested in this western activity."
I knew in what mood he must have reached the shack, after that drive from Pierre, across parched earth, seeing the ruined crops, passing settlers' homes which from the outside looked like the miserable huts one sees along waterfronts or in mean outskirts of a city where the flotsam of humanity live. And cluttered around them, farm machinery, washtubs, and all the other junk that could be left outdoors, with countless barrels for hauling water, and the inevitable pile of tin cans. It was dreary, it was unrelievedly ugly; above all, it looked like grim failure.
Earnestly I faced him. "We aren't done," I told him. "We've just begun—badly, I know, but we can fallow. Make reservoirs. Put down artesian wells." I completely forgot, in putting these possibilities of the Strip before him, to mention the gas and oil deposits which we had discovered during our frantic search for water. I did not think of saying, "We have natural gas here—let's go and look at the Ben Smith ranch with all its buildings piped with gas. And over on the Carter place a drill came up from a shallow hole sticky with oil." But the minds of the settlers were so focused elsewhere that little had been said about these things. With an investment broker interested in mining projects under my very roof, many of us might have become rich and the Brule prosperous in no time.
Development of agriculture, to my mind, was of broader importance than oil strikes, anyhow. "Men do put money into undeveloped things," I said. "Eastern capitalists risk millions in undeveloped mines and oil fields in the West. This is different. Land is solid."
He answered thoughtfully: "As an investment, land is not so precarious as mines, but there are no big profits to be reaped from it. That's the difference, my girl."
He must have known that even for investors, western land was going to be a big thing. He must have known that the railroad companies were buying it up—that the Milwaukee had gone into a spree of land buying in Lyman County.
I poured him some water from the can we kept in a hole in the ground back of the shack for coolness. He took a swallow and set it down. "Good Lord, how can anyone drink that!" he exclaimed.
"We get used to it," I told him. "And we'll have a better water supply in time. It will rain—it's bound to rain, sooner or later."
He looked out at the blazing sky, the baked earth, a snake slithering from the path back into the dry grass which rustled as it moved. "So this is the land you want to save," he exclaimed. "The incredible thing is that people have managed to stay on it at all!"
"They will stay," I assured him. "Remember that these builders have had nothing to work with, no direction, no system or leadership. What would business men accomplish in such an undertaking under the circumstances? If they had experienced leaders—men like you—"
"In other words," he smiled, "laying up riches where moth and rust do corrupt." He walked to the door and stood, hands in pockets, looking out over the plains. Then he turned to face me.
"My dear girl, I might not be worth a hoot at the job."
"Oh, you would! You would! And if the settlers never repaid you, think what a land king you would become," I laughed.
"No, I don't want the land that way. I want to see the settlers succeed, try to keep them from being squeezed out."
He mopped his face, picked up the glass of water and after a glance at it set it down untouched. "Now, I've been thinking of this western development for some time. It's going to open up new business in almost every field. Aside from all that, it is worth while. I've kept track of you and your Brule. If one gets his money back here it is all he can expect. How much would be needed to help these settlers hold on—a little grubstake, some future operating money? I like this fallowing idea."
He talked about second mortgages, collateral on personal property, appointment of local agents, etc. He did not want the source of this borrowing power to become known as yet.
It was he who brought me back to my personal predicament when, ready to leave, he expressed his desire to help me, asking if I would accept a check—"For you and your sister to carry on." But I refused. I had appealed to him for the country, not for myself. But his offer mortified me, made me conscious of my shabby appearance, the coarse, ill-fitting clothes, the effects of the fire still visible in rough and smoke-stained skin, the splotches of new skin on my lips, the face pink and tender. Altogether, the surroundings and I must have made a drab spectacle.
Holding out his hand to say good-by, Halbert Donovan saw my shrinking embarrassment. Suddenly he put his arm around my shoulders, drew me to him, brushed back the singed hair and pressed his lips to my forehead; turned my small, blackened hand, palm upward, looking at it.
"I'll help you all I can," he said. "Just keep your Utopian dreams."
* * * * *
So it happened that, before famine could touch these people who had already struggled through drought and blizzard and despair, they found help in sight. Halbert Donovan put up $50,000 as a start, to be dealt out for emergency on land, livestock, etc. Heretofore loans had been made on land only. Now the reliability of the borrower himself was often taken into account as collateral. It was enough that we knew the borrower was honest, that he was doing his best to conquer the land and to make it yield. We gambled on futures then, as we had done before. That it was eastern capital, handled through a system of exchange and agencies, was all that those who borrowed knew or cared.
And each day we scanned the heavens for signs of rain. We searched for a cloud like a starving man for bread. The settlers went stalking about with necks craned, heads thrown back, eyes fixed on the sky. And the cartoonist from Milwaukee took to looking for a cloud with a field glass. A cloud no bigger than a man's hand would raise the hopes of the whole reservation. But in vain we searched the metallic blue of the sky.
With spectacular ceremonial and regalia the Indians staged their "rain dance." The missionaries had long opposed this form of expression by the Indians, and their objections led to a government ban which was finally modified to permit some sort of ritual.
These symbolic dances were not mere ceremonials for the Plains Indians; they were their one means of expressing their emotions en masse rhythmically, of maintaining their sense of tribal unity.
The first part of the ceremony was secret and lasted for several days. After that the public ceremony began. Painted according to ritual, they danced in a line from east to west and back again, whistling as they danced, every gesture having its symbolic meaning. The whistle symbolized to them the call of the Thunderbird.
Pioneers belong to the past, people are prone to say; savage customs belong to the past. But it was in the twentieth century that primitive men, their bodies streaked with black paint, fasted and danced, overcoming an enemy as they danced, compelling the Thunderbird to release the rain. And on the Strip men and women prayed as fervently to their own God, each in his own way.
That night, something breaking the dead stillness woke me. A soft, slow tapping on the roof of the shack, like ghostly fingers. It increased in tempo as though birds, in this land without trees, were pecking at the roof; it grew to a regular drumming sound. I lay for a few moments, listening, wondering. Then I leaped out of bed, ran to the door and stepped outside.
Rain! Rain! Rain!
"Ida Mary," I called, "get up! It's raining!"
She was out of bed in a moment as though someone had shouted "fire."
In nightdress, bare feet, we ran out on the prairie, reached up our hands to the soft, cool, soothing drops which fell slowly as though hesitating whether to fall or not. And then it poured. The grass was wet beneath our feet.
We lifted our heads, opened our lips and drank in the cool, fresh drops. I lay down on the cool blanket of earth, absorbing its reviving moisture into my body, feeling the rain pattering on my flesh.
Over the prairie dim lights flickered through the rain. Men and women rushed out to hail its coming—and to put tubs and buckets under the roofs. No drop of this miracle must be wasted. In their joy and relief, some of the homesteaders, unable to sleep, hitched up and drove across the plains to rejoice with their friends.
After that eternity of waiting it rained and rained, until the earth all about was green and fresh. Native hay came out green, and late-planted seed burst out of the ground. Some of the late crops matured. There was water in the dams! The thirsty land drank deep of the healing rains.
The air grew fresh and cool, haggard faces were alight with hope. The Lower Brule became a different place, where once again people planned for the future, unafraid to look ahead.
With the mail bag, the salvaged type, and Margaret's few sticks of furniture which she wrote to us to take, we moved back to the homestead, to the site of Ammons.
The settlers had the building up. This time it was a little square-roofed house made of drop siding (no more tar paper). A thin, wall-board partition running halfway to the ceiling divided the small living quarters from the print shop.
The McClure Press had died the natural death of the proof sheet, and the proof king was submerged in the cause of prohibition. Later he was appointed federal prohibition agent for the state of South Dakota. He gave us most of the McClure Press equipment. So I got that hand press, after all. What few proofs were yet to be made in that section were thrown to The Wand. With the current proof money coming in we bought the additional supplies necessary to run the paper.
I sent a telegram to Halbert Donovan: "Rain. Pastures coming out green. Dwarfed grain can make feed in the straw. My flax making part crop. Dams full of water. Fall fallowing begun." In hilarious mood I signed it "Utopia."
Delivered the twenty-five miles in the middle of the night, special messenger service prepaid, came the answer: "Atta girl. Am increasing the stakes."
He did. Halbert Donovan's company interested other financial concerns in making loans, "to deal out through competent appraisement."
So the Brule won through, as pioneers before them had done, as other pioneers in other regions were doing, as ragged, poverty-stricken, gallant an army as ever marched to the colors.
Ida Mary and Imbert were going to be married. At last Ida Mary was sure, and there was no need of waiting any longer. So she went back to St. Louis for the first time, and two weeks later the wedding took place.
When they returned as bride and groom, the settlers came from every direction, accompanied by all the cow and sheep bells, tin cans and old horns on the Strip for a big charivari. They came bringing baskets of food for the supper and any little article or ornament they could find at home for a wedding present, singing as they came, "Lucky Numbers Are We," and "We Won't Go Home Till Morning."
Imbert took over the Cedar Fork ranch and store—that little trade center outside the reservation gate where a disheveled group of landseekers had faced a new dawn rising upon the Strip. And Ida Mary, who so loved the land, came at last to make it her permanent home. Steady, practical and resourceful—it was such women the West needed.
The sturdily built log house was a real home, no tar-paper shack—rustic, we would call it now—with four rooms and a porch. There were honest-to-goodness beds, carpets and linoleum on the kitchen floor! Ida Mary was so proud of the linoleum that she wiped it up with skim milk to make it shine. There was a milk cow and consequently homemade butter and cottage cheese—all the makeshift discomforts of homesteading replaced by the solid and enduring qualities of home.
Peace, home, happiness—for Ida Mary.
And Ma Wagor's problems were solved, too. It appeared that her first husband had left her more than the an-tik brooch of which she was so proud. He had left her a son who had grown to be a stalwart, good-looking young man, who worked with a construction company out in western Nebraska. Learning of the Wagors' misfortune, he came, started another store at Ammons for his mother, and helped her to run it for a while.
All around Ammons the fields lay freshly turned, fallowing for next year's crop. Our field of flax had been cut for what little it would make, and the ground plowed over to soak up the winter's moisture. With the turning of the ground for another season, a page in my own life was turning. "What am I going to do, now that I've come in under the wire?" I wondered.
And then I proved up and got my patent. I borrowed a thousand dollars on it to pay off the government and the balance due our financial backers, who had gambled on us without security. But I did not borrow the money through the Halbert Donovan Company. The loan had been promised me by the banks many months before. We had borrowed on the first homestead to get the second, borrowed to the limit on the second to pay for the privilege of helping to run the reservation. We now had both farms mortgaged to the hilt. But the hay alone would pay the interest and taxes. Land would increase in value.
I was alone at the shack now with the newspaper still to get out. Riding across the plains toward the claim one afternoon, I heard the swift, staccato clicking of type as it fell rapidly in the stick. The metallic sound carried across the prairie as I neared the shop. As I walked in I saw, perched on the high stool in front of the type case, a little hoydenish figure with flying hair—Myrtle Coombs, the hammer-and-tongs printer. "This don't look right to me," she remarked, reading her stick as I came in, "but a good printer follows copy even if it flies out of the window."
Myrtle had come back on vacation to see how her homestead was progressing. Seeing that I needed help, she unrolled a newspaper bundle and hung her "extra" dress and nightgown on a nail, laid a comb and a toothbrush on the dry-goods-box dressing table, and for two weeks she "threw" out the paper with a bang.
About this time the regime of our government was changing. Out of the West, from which we had had only sheep and cattle, there were coming men destined to be leaders in the affairs of the country. As men had risen from the ranks to guide the destinies of the Colonies, so men appeared from the West to shape this new America.
They came from a world where land was king. It was a boundless territory. A large section of it, which was once marked on the map as the Great American Desert, had been left untouched, a dead possession and a problem to the government, who did not know what use to make of it until the homesteaders pushed west.
In the past two or three years, 200,000 homesteaders had taken up claims, filing on more than 40,000,000 acres, making a solid coverage of 70,000 square miles. Those settlers and their families constituted a million people. Ahead of this tidal wave, in the steady stream of immigration, thousands of other settlers had moved west. Now there were several million people who must subsist on the raw lands. They, with others who had followed the homesteaders, were dependent upon their success or failure to make the western prairie produce.
It had to produce! The West was the nation's reserve of natural resources. The soil was to produce cereal gold, huge fields of wheat, bread for a new people—bread, at last, for a world at war.
So the Public Lands question was of first importance. There must be new land laws and other measures enacted for these people. It was a gigantic task set for the men from out the West to perform. But already they had begun to wield an influence on the affairs of the nation.
One heard of a man from Utah with the name of Smoot, who came from a class of solid builders. He was bound to be heard more of in the future, people said; and there appeared in Congress a man whose indomitable force soon became recognized as something to contend with—a man from Idaho named William E. Borah. Two other westerners had already become statesmen of note. They had sprung from the sagebrush country. Senator Francis E. Warren, and Congressman Frank W. Mondell—both of Wyoming.
Senator Warren devoted a lifetime to the interests of the West. Congressman Mondell, as Speaker of the House and chairman of the Public Lands Committee, was an influence for the homestead country; and from our own state, progressive, fearless, was Senator Peter Norbeck.
The frontier is big, but news travels over it in devious ways, and the work of The Wand and of Ida Mary and me began to be known in Washington. My editorial fight for the settlers attracted the attention of these officials from the West. From several of them we received messages, commending our efforts and offering assistance in any feasible way. I also received communications from Senator Warren and Congressman Mondell, commenting upon my comprehension of the homestead issue. I was asked to submit the problems of my people, and in return I sought information from them.
Small things, those frontier newspapers, but The Wand had achieved what Ida Mary and I had hoped of it, it had been the voice of the people, a voice heard across the prairie, across the Land of the Burnt Thigh, across the continent to the doors of Congress itself. Its protests, its recommendations were weighed at last by the men best able to help the men and women on the Strip. And the little outlaw printer, to her overwhelming surprise, was being recognized not only on the Strip but beyond it, as an authority on the homesteading project and a champion of the homesteaders.
It was back on the lookout of the outlaw printer and the outlaw horse thieves, that I got another letter from Senator Warren, asking what my plans were for the future and whether I had thought of carrying my work farther on, work where "the harvest was great and the laborers few," he said. Should I decide to go on into new fields, I could depend upon his support. He would recommend my newspaper as an official one; there would be many opportunities, probably government posts for which my particular knowledge would qualify me.
While I was still undetermined as to what to do after my work on the proof sheet was finished, I was not a career woman, and Senator Warren's suggestions received little serious thought. Ida Mary, I thought, was serving the West in the best way for a woman. Needles and thread and bread dough have done more toward preserving nations than bullets, and the women who made homes on the prairie, working valiantly with the meager tools at their command, did more than any other group in settling the West. It was their efforts which turned tar-paper shacks into livable houses, their determination to provide their children with opportunities which built schools and established communities.
I was content for a while to thrust the thought of the future out of my mind, but I continued to watch with tense interest what was happening to the homestead country. A new land law had been passed which had a strong influence on the agricultural development of the West. It doubled the size of homesteads to 320 acres. This would bring farmers and families for permanent building. It would give them more pasture and plenty of land to carry on the fallowing method. To discourage the prove-up-and-run settler, it required three years, a certain amount of fencing and eighty acres plowed to get a deed. It created a new land splurge. A half-section! To the average homeseeker it was like owning the whole frontier.
This law was called the Mondell Act, and President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed it "a great opportunity for the poor people—and a long stride in the West's progress." Roosevelt had faith in the future of a Greater America. The programs which he initiated were to accomplish tremendous results in the building of the western lands.
With my bent for delving into the effect of land rulings on the settler, I made inquiry regarding certain provisions of the Mondell Act. With the information came a letter from its author, expressing his belief in the advantages of the act to the homeseeker, and describing what it would do in developing the territory farther west. He talked, too, about my work, and my carrying it into new fields. Wyoming was bound to become a homestead Mecca. And he added: "Your experience in South Dakota could, no doubt, be made of great value in aiding in the development of Wyoming."
A few days after I received Congressman Mondell's letter, C. H. West arrived. Usually placid and genial, he was now wrought up. He came at once to the point of his visit. Under the enlarged homestead law he was extending operations farther west, where he was going to settle large tracts. He wanted me to head bands of homeseekers into this new territory, to help colonize it.
We were entering an era of colonization, of doing things in organized groups, cooperative bodies. To the progress which these movements have made in the United States much is owing to the West, where it was developed through necessity.
Eastern men were forming profit-making corporations to colonize western land. Real estate dealers were organizing colonies. Groups of homeseekers were organizing their own bands. Mr. West had many inquiries from such groups, and he had determined to do his own colonizing. They would want me to go to eastern cities, he said, bring the colonists west, and help locate them satisfactorily.
The locating fees, according to Mr. West, would run into money, and he proposed to give me 50 per cent of the profits. "In addition," he promised, "we will advance you a fair salary and all expenses."
I realized that I must face the future. The proof business on the Strip was almost over. Henceforth the paper, and the post office which had been transferred to me on Ida Mary's marriage, would eke out a bare existence. And, as Ma Wagor complained, the Brule was becoming so settled "it would be havin' a Ladies Aid before long with the women servin' tea and carryin' callin' cards around." That would be no place for me.
For a long time I sat gazing out of the window over the open spaces. What would this mean to the people whom I was to bring west? It was they, not I nor any other individual, whose future must be weighed. The tidal wave of western immigration would reach its crest in the next two or three years, and break over Wyoming, Montana, Colorado—those states bordering the Great Divide. It was to reach its high peak in 1917, when the United States entered the World War.
I remembered the shaking hands, the faces of the men and women who had lost at the Rosebud Drawing. There was still land for them. Land of their own for tenant farmers, land for the homeless. The Land of a Million Shacks—that was the slogan of the frontier.
"Where is this land?" I asked, finally.
"In Wyoming. Across the Dakota-Nebraska line. Reaching into the Rawhide Country," Mr. West explained.
Rawhide country. Lost Trail. "A short-grass range, but rich," Lone Star had said—"an honest-to-God country, bigger'n all creation."
I turned to Mr. West and faced him squarely. "Has it got water?"
He smiled at the sudden vehemence of the question and was ready for it. "Yes, it has water. The finest in the world." Water clear and cold, he told me, could be obtained at two to three hundred feet on almost any spot. Out on the scattered ranches, in the middle of the range, one found windmills pumping all day long. There would be plenty of water for stock and for irrigating small patches.
"All right," I said, "I'll go."
The cartoonist was going back to Milwaukee. "Being here has done something for me," he said. "Seeing so much effort given ungrudgingly for small results, I think. I'm going back and do something with my art. But it's odd—I don't really want to go back."
One by one the prove-up-and-run settlers had left the country, but Huey Dunn, Chris Christopherson and others like them were learning to meet the country on its own terms and conquer it. They were there to stay.
A young man appeared who was willing to run the newspaper, and I turned the post office over to Ma Wagor. Amid the weird beating of tom-toms and the hoo-hoo ah-ah-ahhh of the Indians across the trail, I set up my farewell message in The Wand. In gorgeous regalia of beads and quills, paint and eagle feathers, the Indians had come to send the Great Spirit with Paleface-Prints-Paper on to the heap big hunting grounds. It was the time of year when "paint" in all the variegated colors was plentiful, gathered from herbs and flowers, yellow, copper, red. The affair was probably more of an excuse to celebrate than an expression of esteem. The Indians never miss an opportunity to stage a show. When they attend a county fair or other public gathering, they load up children, dogs and worldly goods, and in a long procession they set out, arriving several days before the event and celebrating long after it is all over.
They had come prepared to camp for the night at the print shop, going through special incantations for the occasion, but now they were whooping it up around the campfire. I was dragged into the dance and went careening around with old warriors and young bucks, the squaws laughing at my mistakes.
As a farewell editorial I quoted the epitaph once engraved on a tombstone: "He done his damnedest. Angels could do no more."
The eerie sound of the Indian dance had ceased. The flickering campfires had died down. Only two years and four months since Ida Mary and I had broken a trail to that first little homestead shack. And a chapter of my life was closed.
Beyond, in the dark, slept men and women who had endured hardships and struggles and heavy labor; who had plowed up the virgin soil and set their own roots deep in it. They were here to stay.
In those two years they had built a little empire that would endure. There were roads and fences, schools and thriving towns nearby where they could market their products, and during the World War Presho became the second largest hay-shipping point in the United States, with the government buying trainloads of the fine native hay from the tall grass country of the Brule.
But my work on the Strip was ended. Big as the venture had seemed to me in the beginning, it was only a fraction of the country waiting to be tamed. And beyond there was Wyoming, "bigger'n all creation."
I was going empty-handed, with no fixed program or goal. After the settlers were on the ground, there would be many obstacles which must be overcome. Down to earth again! Even in the initial colonizing I would have to depend on my own initiative, on my influence with the people, and on my understanding of the homestead project. My experience on the Brule in getting settlers to work together would be invaluable. The field would be new—but the principles of cooperative effort were always the same.
Upon learning that I was going on with the development work, Senator Warren wrote a letter filled with encouragement and information, and Senator Borah expressed his interest.
Wyoming exemplified all the romance, the color, the drama of the old Wild West. It was noted as a land of cowboys, wild horses, and fearless men. As a commonwealth it was invincible. It was one of the greatest sheep and cattle kingdoms in the world, where stockmen grazed their herds over government domain, lords of all they surveyed.
In the past the big cattle and sheep outfits had brooked no interference. One of the worst stockmen-settler wars ever waged had been fought in Wyoming against an invasion of homesteaders, a war that became so bloody the government had to take a hand, calling out the National Guards to settle it. It was this section of the range country that I was to help fill with sodbreakers.
The force of progress made it safer now, with the government and public sentiment back of the homestead movement. These stockman-settler wars, however, were not yet a thing of the past, and despite the years of western development that followed, they continued to break out every now and then in remote range country. In self-preservation stockmen of various sections were making it difficult for the homesteader, and it was certain that colonies of them would not be welcomed with open arms. I knew all this in a general way, of course, but I had no trepidation over the undertaking. My only qualms were on the score of health. It is a poor trail-breaker who cannot travel with strong people, and that was a drawback I couldn't overcome. All I could do was hope for the best and rely on my ability to catch up if I should have to fall behind. I took a chance on it. I rode to Ida Mary's, and found her rocking and sewing and humming to herself in her new home.
"I'm going to help colonize Wyoming," I told her bluntly.
She let her sewing fall to the floor and sat staring at me, standing bold and defiant in the middle of the floor. But my voice broke and I threw myself across her bed crying. It was my first venture without Ida Mary.
She did not say now, as she had done on other occasions: "How can you help colonize a raw range country? You couldn't manage it." Life had done something to us out here.
I started out from Ida Mary's. Out across the plain I turned and looked back. She was still standing in the doorway, shading her eyes so as to see me longer. We waved and waved, and I left her watching as the distance swallowed me up.
* * * * *
At the shack I found Judge Bartine waiting for me. He observed the traces of tears on my cheeks, but made no comment on them.
"You know," he said, "I'm glad you and your sister stuck through all this."
I hesitated, on the verge of telling him how near I had come to giving up and starting a back-trek.
"When the cattle-rustling gang I convicted burned the courthouse and my office over my head," he went on after a little pause, "I made a narrow escape. I didn't have a penny in the world left with which to fight, and I knew perfectly well that I was in danger of being shot down every time I went out of the door.
"But I had to stay. Men could go through Hades out here for years to get a foothold and raise a herd of cattle and wake up one morning to find it gone. Something had to be done with those cattle thieves."
"It seems to me," I told him, "the stockmen should have paid you awfully well."
"I got my pay," he said quietly, "just as you have done; I got my pay in the doing. So, Edith, I am glad you girls did not run away. I didn't come before because I didn't want to influence you. I wanted to see you do it alone."
When he had gone, I closed the door of the shack behind me. A man was riding up the trail to meet me, bringing two messages. One from the House of Representatives in Washington was signed F. W. Mondell. "I am delighted," it read, "to know of your faith and confidence in the country farther west, particularly the region to which you are going. I trust the settlers whom you are instrumental in bringing into the country will be successful, and I have no doubt that they will, if they are the right sort. I wish you Godspeed and success." The other letter was from Mr. West, who was awaiting me on the road to Wyoming with a group of landseekers.
On top of the ridge I stopped and gazed at the cabin with no sign of life around it, took my last look at the Land of the Burnt Thigh. A wilderness I had found it, a thriving community I left it. But the sun was getting low and I had new trails to break.
I gave Lakota the rein.
Transcriber's Note: Typographical errors corrected in text: Page 20 unescapable changed to inescapable Page 117 moustache changed to mustache Page 149 Wagors changed to Wagors' Page 197 Midafternoon changed to Mid-afternoon Page 266 Cedarfork changed to Cedar Fork