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green as in summer, but utterly silent and unvaried, except when clouds of dust rose in the west, and long lines of oxen came slowly by the door, sometimes as many as sixteen pairs fastened behind each other, drawing as many huge white-covered empty wagons on their return trip to Omaha. Made up in this fashion, one or more men could manage the train returning; and in these days of emigration west, wagondrivers could be readily found to go to Denver; but few wished to return. Every day the stage-coach passed, east or west, and it seemed a friendly link between us and the world, 150 miles away.
The mail was carried the alternate day on a buckboard with a single seat, sometimes shared with the driver by a passenger. After ten days of hope and despair, I saw plain signs of increasing weakness in Will, and watched eagerly for the buckboard to pass at noon. I must get advice from someone, if only from the stage-man. It seemed odd that it should halt before I went out, and a passenger should spring out and come at once to me, asking, 'How is your husband?' I knew at a glance he was an Eastern man and a gentleman; and oh! the intense relief to my overstrained nerves just the sight of him gave me, utter stranger as he was.
In a few words he explained: he had heard of our desolate state from the man who was kind to me in the coach when I came to Will; he was not sure he should find us still there, but he would inquire. He was engineer of the force then at work at points east and west, surveying the line of the Union Pacific Railroad.
I could not speak of our great need, but he turned away and ordered the man to go on without him. I protested, 'You will lose your place in the stage, and cannot get away from here, maybe for days.'
'I can walk, and nine miles farther on I have a corps of men, and can overtake them.'
'But you will have no place to sleep, and little to eat.'
'I shall do; and this is dreadful for you and your husband,' he said, and bade the stage-man go on. He told me he knew nothing at all of sickness, and Will was too weak to bear the sight of a strange face; so he sat down on the wagon-tongue outside, and I went back to the hut with more courage.
He brought me my food to the door; and when, at evening, the mosquitoes grew worse than usual, he built a smudge of damp grass before the door, and all night I saw him at intervals, pacing backwards and forwards beside it. He could not rest in the wagon even, for there were no blankets, and the mosquitoes had taken possession. Toward morning Will revived, and I could leave him, to consult with my new friend a moment. He said I must send one of those boys back twenty-five miles to Wood River, where there was said to be a physician; and he undertook the task of getting the boy off.
Then, finding he could do little for us, and the coach going east fortunately having a vacant seat, he took it, charging me, if we needed assistance later, either there or on our way east, to send someone to hunt up a surveyingparty, and he would give orders to them, along the line, to go at once at my call. This gave me much comfort; for a vague, horrible sense had been growing clearer to me of what might be my needs if Will did not improve in that desolate land, sixty miles from an Eastern settlement.
The doctor came next day; he proved to be a German, from a small cattleranch, with little knowledge of English, and less of medicine. He looked at Will in astonishment and then at me, and fairly gasped as he exclaimed, 'What
ever sent such a man as he out here?' Will's pale, refined face certainly was not that of the ordinary 'freighter' he had prescribed for.
He finally said that he did n't know what to do for 'his kind,' and he thought 'he would die if he did n't get out of here,' and he 'minded he would anyway'; and then he turned away indifferently, and went to gossip with the woman in the cabin.
That coarse bluntness was needed to settle my mind. We must move east early next morning, and that man should go with us and drive. He protested that he could not. He must go back to his cattle. But I still had some faith in his medical knowledge, and meant he should go with us, and set about getting ready. Will was too ill to counsel me about arrangements, and the wagon was ready to start before I disturbed him, to tell him my plans.
My firmness about its being best to go gave him courage to allow us to move him carefully into his old place in the wagon; and when I turned to the doctor, who still doggedly declared he could not go, and told him to get into the driver's seat at once, he obeyed, as if I had some right to control him.
With our small store of brandy at hand, I climbed in beside Will, and we moved on slowly. At first the motion exhausted him; but he was certainly no worse when we halted at noon, four or five miles on; and at the end of a short day's journey, we found, at a ranch, a comfortable lounge in the livingroom of the family, which made a bed for him; and he took milk more freely, and slept quietly; and I lay on the floor beside him, and slept, too.
It was strange how little sleep I needed, and how little I minded the roughness of everything.
Still under protest that his cattle would suffer for care, the German helped me make things comfortable for
the second day's journey, and, to my relief, went with us, though sulky and silent. As for nursing or giving advice to his patient, the man was utterly incapable; but I believed he could drive and care for the horses; and, in my anxiety, I had failed to take carefully the direction in which the surveyingparty were to be found, and no one seemed to know anything about them, nor could we make any delay with safety, to find help from them. We must make a longer drive that day, to reach shelter at night; but the deathlike look had gone from poor Will's face, and the smooth prairie trail gave little jar to the spring wagon, as the horses never moved faster than a steady walk.
Noontime brought us to the best sodhouse I had seen; it was really a comfortable home. There were no floors, but the ground was hard and polished, and the inside walls were covered with white cotton cloth, and a ceiling, made of the cloth, was suspended under the roof of sod-covered poles. I made tea and toast for Will on the good cookstove, and ate with relish, myself, the good dinner that the wholesome-looking women of the house prepared for the doctor and me; for though it was not a stage-station, in that new country all houses 'keep,' as the people say. At night, the house where we had planned to stay was more pretentious, but I did not like the looks of the ranch men and women who came out to help us; and having my choice between a bed in the living-room of the family and one in an empty old cabin near-by, I chose the latter. The door would not shut, the bed was not clean, the dirt-floor was no better than the roadway, and the dust from the old sod-roof above us lay in black ridges on our faces next morning; but it was enough that Will was certainly gaining strength.
The weather was still soft and mild,
and the sun shone all day; the air was a tonic, and Will dozed away the hours in comfort. I had been able to buy an empty soap-box, of which I made a better seat for myself, and we started, with good courage, on our last day's ride to Columbus, where we should find a hotel and a good physician, and could dismiss our German, and rest until Will was well enough to go home.
But a new trouble met me. Our driver had found whiskey at the ranch, and brought a bottle away with him. He soon fell asleep and, after a little, tumbled in a heap on the floor of the wagon, under the high seat. I could not reach the reins nor dare I alarm Will, who was sleeping and had observed nothing. I only hoped the man would continue to sleep, for the dear horses were old friends, and I knew they would keep to the trail, and turn all right if they should meet a train, which was not likely to happen, as at this season they were all going east. Before we reached the crossing at the Loup River, not far from Columbus, which was a difficult ford and my dread all the anxious day, the man had slept off his stupor enough to climb to his seat and take the reins again; and to my great relief, another single wagon, like our own, was about to crawl down the steep bank into the deepest portion of the current. Our Punch and Judy did not need guiding to follow the lead; and we went safely on across the many islands and channels of the wide river, dangerous, some of them, from quicksands, if you lost the trail, and soon after drew up before this house, where I am writing to you; and it seems a palace to me, though it really is a dingy two-story building, very bareand common-looking. Freighters and stage-drivers, dressed in rather uncouth style, lounged on the dirty narrow porch; but I climbed down from the rear of the wagon, in my soiled, oddly draped cotton dress, with a con
fidence in their good-will that I did not find misplaced. A dozen strong men came forward to lift Will out, and take off the horses, and unpack the wagon not employees of the house, but its guests on the porch; and if I had suggested to them to take that drunken doctor away and hang him, I think they would have done it.
An Ohio woman kept the hotel; she had heard of us from the stage-men, and a word secured us a room up the stairs, in her barrack-like house, though it was already overfull of men.
The wretch who had kept me in fear all day, and could then stand with difficulty, was paid and dismissed. He had seemed to obey me in coming, as if I owned the world; and I am sure he believed I owned it all when I paid him what he asked for coming; but it mattered little to me so long as we were safe and among friends, and Will was better. I ate my supper with pleasure, though the forty rough men seated at the table with me seemed much embarrassed at my presence. I recognized respect for me in my helpless state, when they scarcely lifted their eyes from the table, and spoke to each other in whispers.
But oh, dear! when I came back to our room, hoping to find Will resting and happy, he was, for the first time in his illness, wildly delirious. The sight of so many people, and the bustle and noise of the house, after the worries of the day, were too much for his weak state. I sent in haste for the physician here whom I had heard of, and when he came, I saw I could rely on his aid and his knowledge. He gave a quieting medicine, and this morning, as I sit beside Will, writing, he is quite himself, resting and stronger.
Daylight has shown the room to be exceedingly dirty; the house has been full of disbanded soldiers going east from stations and camps north of the
Platte River. The bed was unfit for decent people, and we grow more particular when we reach settlements. As there seem to be few, if any, women attendants in the house, I have taken the room in hand myself a little. I succeeded in getting a 'bucket' of warm water and a mop, and have taken up a good deal of the dust, and no doubt some fleas and other vermin. We hope soon to be able to go on home.
I have not dared to write to you before this. To think of you and my Eastern home, and put in words, during the past two weeks, what has taken all my strength and courage to face, would have weakened my self-control. Now I write full of hope and in comparative comfort.
COUNCIL BLUffs, Iowa October 30, 1865. It is two weeks since I wrote to you, soon after reaching Columbus, and we thought a day or two would see us on our way to our home; but Will did not mend as fast as we hoped he would. Sometimes I lost hope; but had I not escaped with him alive, from those desolate prairies behind us, the very 'valley of the shadow of death'! We had the aid of a kind and intelligent physician, and the essential comforts of life.
I cooked Will's food on the kitchen stove myself; but I was in no way disheartened, nor did my appetite fail me, when I saw the process of cooking the food for the public table; I even helped pull out some of the flies from the batter of soaked bread, which stood on the cooking-table ready to be fried into great balls, in spiders full of grease, and knew, when I ate them later for supper, that not a few remained. To show daintiness, or seem to be different from those about me, would repel the kindness so freely given, which was our support and help.
When I could leave Will, I went to the
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porch and talked with the stage-drivers, as they came in, about the 90-mile journey still before us - learning how many miles we would be forced to travel in a day to reach the stage-stations at night; for our experience had taught us the wisdom of staying at public places on the road. That we were not molested the night our German doctor found the whiskey, at that lonely wayside ranch, was fortunate.
But, after ten days without much change, we both grew restive; there were so many things to make our goingon more and more imperative.
It was the last of October; these constant days of sunshine must soon end. What if November winds and cold storms set in early? We had no clothing warm enough for late traveling on the plains, and, to my great satisfaction, Will had come to see, what I had long known, that at his best, even in our pleasant city home, he would not be equal to the demands of Western life upon his physical strength, and we must go back to New York before winter. A coach-ride from Council Bluffs to Des Moines, of 150 miles, was not to be thought of at that season, and the only other way to reach the nearest railroad was by the Missouri River; and if we delayed too long at Columbus, the last boat of the season would leave for St. Joseph, Missouri. We must go on.
The anxiety and thinking kept Will from getting strong; but he could not yet walk, much less drive horses, and I could find no one to hire. Every man who could work was out on the prairie with hay-machines, cutting and curing hay for the keeping of the great trains of oxen and mules, which, coming and going to and from the far West, made Columbus a 'refitting' station, as Council Bluffs is called an 'outfitting one.'
Huge stacks of hay, high and long, and long barns, built of sod and stacked over with hay, stretched in every direc
tion from the little cluster of cabins near the hotel, which made what we call a village and they call a town. They had been cutting hay since July, and would keep on till the frost drove them in; but there were not men enough to do the work of getting in the hay still needed.
There was a camp of soldiers stationed a few miles away, and someone mentioned that a convalescent soldier, an under-officer, had received a furlough, and would be glad of the free passage east, and would be a suitable person to help us. I wrote at once to the commandant of the post, and received a courteous reply, that the man would come the next morning and go with us as we wished; so, without delay, I made everything ready, and Will grew bright at the prospect of moving on. Our good friends, the stage-drivers, brought him to the porch next morning before they went out with their coaches, and our horses were put on the wagon, already loaded up and before the door. Good-byes were said to our hostess and her barkeeper, who stood smilingly in the doorway (after confirming to us our previous surmises, that they would soon make a united head to the house), and we waited for our soldier.
He came with a note from the commandant, saying there had been a mistake. The soldier's papers required him to report by the Southern route at Leavenworth, and he could not go with
Will grew faint with disappointment, and exclaimed, 'I shall certainly die if I stay here.' One glance at his despairing face, and then at our trusty horses, and a look at the sunny sky, and a thought of those stage-drivers who had promised to meet us at the stations, and I said, 'I will drive myself; help him in.'
Will did not object, and in ten minutes he was in his old place on the mat
tress and pillows, and his voice sounded quite strong and cheery as he called to tell me how to climb over the high sides of the wagon, to reach the seat, perched up so high that the canvass cover almost touched my head; and I felt elated and happy as I gathered the reins in my bare hands, and turned into the trail to commence our four days' journey, and, in a few moments more, left all signs of habitation behind us.
I knew a good deal more about prairie traveling than when I came out. I had not yet resumed my hoops; the demands of fashion at Columbus, proud and central city as it claimed to be, had not required it. I had completed that morning a most satisfactory bargain, some days under consideration, with a stagedriver's wife, who had come for a few days to the hotel, for her last summer's Shaker sunbonnet, with a buff chambray cape and strings, in exchange for my quite stylish and new hat. I was to pay her two dollars in cash besides, for she was not sure that the hat was quite the thing. 'Most uns wore Shakers.' At the last moment, she yielded. I knew the comfort of that deep shade and fast strings, under the bright sun and prairie winds; not that my complexion needed shade: I was already brown as the prairie dust, and my gloves were long ago worn out. A heavy flannel shirt of Will's, put on under my dress, may have looked a trifle clumsy, but gave me warmth and left my arms free.
I was a little dismayed when Punch began to go lame after a mile or so. I dared do a good many things, but not to lift his foot to see what was the matter, and Will must not be worried. But he soon cast a shoe, and I climbed down and recovered it; the soft, stoneless soil could do no harm, and the first stationmaster put it on again.
Our lunch-box was well filled and I made tea on the station stove, while the men hastened to take off the horses and