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around a while you men'll maybe come to the same conclusion your head
cowguard had; you'll be making more boats and doing less swimming. I'm
sorry he quit us."

"It's the girl," said her husband sententiously.

"Yes. But" - smiling grimly - "one furse don't make a parting."

"She's same as promised Sam Woodhull, Molly, and you know that."

"Before he got whipped by Colonel Banion."

"Colonel! Fine business for an officer! Woodhull told me he tripped and
this other man was on top of him and nigh gouged out his two eyes. And
he told me other things too. Banion's a traitor, to split the train. We
can spare all such."

"Can we?" rejoined his wife. "I sort of thought - "

"Never mind what you thought. He's one of the unruly, servigerous sort;
can't take orders, and a trouble maker always. We'll show that outfit.
I've ordered three more scows built and the seams calked in the wagon

Surely enough, the Banion plan of crossing, after all, was carried out,
and although the river dropped a foot meantime, the attempt to ford _en
masse_ was abandoned. Little by little the wagon parks gathered on the
north bank, each family assorting its own goods and joining in the
general _sauve qui peut_.

Nothing was seen of the Missouri column, but rumor said they were
ferrying slowly, with one boat and their doubled wagon boxes, over which
they had nailed hides. Woodhull was keen to get on north ahead of this
body. He had personal reasons for that. None too well pleased at the
smiles with which his explanations of his bruised face were received, he
made a sudden resolution to take a band of his own immediate neighbors
and adherents and get on ahead of the Missourians. He based his
decision, as he announced it, on the necessity of a scouting party to
locate grass and water.

Most of the men who joined him were single men, of the more restless
sort. There were no family wagons with them. They declared their
intention of traveling fast and light until they got among the buffalo.
This party left in advance of the main caravan, which had not yet
completed the crossing of the Kaw.

"Roll out! Ro-o-o-ll out!" came the mournful command at last, once more
down the line.

It fell on the ears of some who were unwilling to obey. The caravan was
disintegrating at the start. The gloom cast by the long delay at the
ford had now resolved itself in certain instances into fear amounting
half to panic. Some companies of neighbors said the entire train should
wait for the military escort; others declared they would not go further
west, but would turn back and settle here, where the soil was so good.
Still others said they all should lie here, with good grass and water,
until further word came from the Platte Valley train and until they had
more fully decided what to do. In spite of all the officers could do,
the general advance was strung out over two or three miles. The rapid
loss in order, these premature divisions of the train, augured ill

The natural discomforts of the trail now also began to have their
effect. A plague of green-headed flies and flying ants assailed them by
day, and at night the mosquitoes made an affliction well-nigh
insufferable. The women and children could not sleep, the horses groaned
all night under the clouds of tormentors which gathered on them. Early
as it was, the sun at times blazed with intolerable fervor, or again the
heat broke in savage storms of thunder, hail and rain. All the elements,
all the circumstances seemed in league to warn them back before it was
too late, for indeed they were not yet more than on the threshold of the

The spring rains left the ground soft in places, so that in creek
valleys stretches of corduroy sometimes had to be laid down. The high
waters made even the lesser fords difficult and dangerous, and all knew
that between them and the Platte ran several strong and capricious
rivers, making in general to the southeast and necessarily transected by
the great road to Oregon.

They still were in the eastern part of what is now the state of Kansas,
one of the most beautiful and exuberantly rich portions of the country,
as all early travelers declared. The land lay in a succession of
timber-lined valleys and open prairie ridges. Groves of walnut, oak,
hickory, elm, ash at first were frequent, slowly changing, farther
west, to larger proportions of poplar, willow and cottonwood. The white
dogwood passed to make room for scattering thickets of wild plum. Wild
tulips, yellow or of broken colors; the campanula, the wild honeysuckle,
lupines - not yet quite in bloom - the sweetbrier and increasing
quantities of the wild rose gave life to the always changing scene. Wild
game of every sort was unspeakably abundant - deer and turkey in every
bottom, thousands of grouse on the hills, vast flocks of snipe and
plover, even numbers of the green parrakeets then so numerous along that
latitude. The streams abounded in game fish. All Nature was easy and

Men and women grumbled at leaving so rich and beautiful a land lying
waste. None had seen a country more supremely attractive. Emotions of
tenderness, of sadness, also came to many. Nostalgia was not yet shaken
off. This strained condition of nerves, combined with the trail
hardships, produced the physical irritation which is inevitable in all
amateur pioneer work. Confusions, discordances, arising over the most
trifling circumstances, grew into petulance, incivility, wrangling and
intrigue, as happened in so many other earlier caravans. In the
Babel-like excitement of the morning catch-up, amid the bellowing and
running of the cattle evading the yoke, more selfishness, less friendly
accommodation now appeared, and men met without speaking, even this
early on the road.

The idea of four parallel columns had long since been discarded. They
broke formation, and at times the long caravan, covering the depressions
and eminences of the prairie, wound along in mile-long detachments, each
of which hourly grew more surly and more independent. Overdriven oxen
now began to drop. By the time the prairies proper were reached more
than a score of oxen had died. They were repeating trail history as
recorded by the travelers of that day.

Personal and family problems also made divisions more natural. Many
suffered from ague; fevers were very common. An old woman past seventy
died one night and was buried by the wayside the next day. Ten days
after the start twins were born to parents moving out to Oregon. There
were numbers of young children, many of them in arms, who became ill.
For one or other cause, wagons continually were dropping out. It was
difficult for some wagons to keep up, the unseasoned oxen showing
distress under loads too heavy for their draft. It was by no means a
solid and compact army, after all, this west-bound wave of the first men
with plows. All these things sat heavily on the soul of Jesse Wingate,
who daily grew more morose and grim.

As the train advanced bands of antelope began to appear. The striped
prairie gophers gave place to the villages of countless barking prairie
dogs, curious to the eyes of the newcomers. At night the howling and
snarling of gray wolves now made regular additions to the coyote chorus
and the voices of the owls and whippoorwills. Little by little, day by
day, civilization was passing, the need for organization daily became
more urgent. Yet the original caravan had split practically into three
divisions within a hundred and fifty miles from the jump-off, although
the bulk of the train hung to Wingate's company and began to shake down,
at least into a sort of tolerance.

Granted good weather, as other travelers had written, it was indeed
impossible to evade the sense of exhilaration in the bold, free life. At
evening encampment the scene was one worthy of any artist of all the
world. The oblong of the wagon park, the white tents, the many fires,
made a spectacle of marvelous charm and power. Perhaps within sight, at
one time, under guard for the evening feed on the fresh young grass,
there would be two thousand head of cattle. In the wagon village men,
women and children would be engaged as though at home. There was little
idleness in the train, and indeed there was much gravity and devoutness
in the personnel. At one fireside the young men might be roaring "Old
Grimes is dead, that good old man," or "Oh, then, Susannah"; but quite
as likely close at hand some family group would be heard in sacred
hymns. A strange envisagement it all made, in a strange environment, a
new atmosphere, here on the threshold of the wilderness.[1]

[Footnote 1: To get the local descriptions, the color, atmosphere,
"feel" of a day and a country so long gone by, any writer of to-day must
go to writers of another day. The Author would acknowledge free use of
the works of Palmer, Bryant, Kelly and others who give us journals of
the great transcontinental trail.]



The wilderness, close at hand, soon was to make itself felt. Wingate's
outriders moved out before noon of one day, intending to locate camp at
the ford of the Big Vermilion. Four miles in advance they unexpectedly
met the scout of the Missouri column, Bill Jackson, who had passed the
Wingate train by a cut-off of his own on a solitary ride ahead for sake
of information. He was at a gallop now, and what he said sent them all
back at full speed to the head of the Wingate column.

Jackson riding ahead, came up with his hand raised for a halt.

"My God, Cap'n, stop the train!" he called. "Hit won't do for the womern
and children to see what's on ahead yan!"

"What's up - where?" demanded Wingate.

"On three mile, on the water where they camped night afore last. Thar
they air ten men, an' the rest's gone. Woodhull's wagons, but he ain't
thar. Wagons burned, mules standing with arrers in them, rest all dead
but a few. Hit's the Pawnees!"

The column leaders all galloped forward, seeing first what later most
of the entire train saw - the abominable phenomena of Indian warfare on
the Plains.

Scattered over a quarter of a mile, where the wagons had stood not
grouped and perhaps not guarded, lay heaps of wreckage beside heaps of
ashes. One by one the corpses were picked out, here, there, over more
than a mile of ground. They had fought, yes, but fought each his own
losing individual battle after what had been a night surprise.

The swollen and blackened features of the dead men stared up, mutilated
as savages alone mark the fallen. Two were staked out, hand and foot,
and ashes lay near them, upon them. Arrows stood up between the ribs of
the dead men, driven through and down into the ground. A dozen mules, as
Jackson had said, drooped with low heads and hanging ears, arrow shafts
standing out of their paunches, waiting for death to end their agony.

"Finish them, Jackson."

Wingate handed the hunter his own revolver, signaling for Kelsey and
Hall to do the same. The methodical cracking of the hand arms began to
end the suffering of the animals.

They searched for scraps of clothing to cover the faces of the dead, the
bodies of some dead. They motioned the women and children back when the
head of the train came up. Jackson beckoned the leaders to the side of
one wagon, partially burned.

"Look," said he, pointing.

A long stick, once a whipstock, rose from the front of the wagon bed. It
had been sharpened and thrust under the wrist skin of a human hand - a
dried hand, not of a white man, but a red. A half-corroded bracelet of
copper still clung to the wrist.

"If I read signs right, that's why!" commented Bill Jackson.

"But how do you explain it?" queried Hall. "Why should they do that? And
how could they, in so close a fight?"

"They couldn't," said Jackson. "That hand's a day an' a half older than
these killings. Hit's Sam Woodhull's wagon. Well, the Pawnees like
enough counted 'coup on the man that swung that hand up for a sign, even
if hit wasn't one o' their own people."

"Listen, men," he concluded, "hit was Woodhull's fault. We met some
friendlies - Kaws - from the mission, an' they was mournin'. A half dozen
o' them follered Woodhull out above the ferry when he pulled out. They
told him he hadn't paid them for their boat, asked him for more
presents. He got mad, so they say, an' shot down one o' them an' stuck
up his hand - fer a warnin', so he said.

"The Kaws didn't do this killin'. This band of Pawnees was away down
below their range. The Kaws said they was comin' fer a peace council, to
git the Kaws an' Otoes to raise against us whites, comin' put so many,
with plows and womernfolks - they savvy. Well, the Kaws has showed the
Pawnees. The Pawnees has showed us."

"Yes," said the deep voice of Caleb Price, property owner and head of a
family; "they've showed us that Sam Woodhull was not fit to trust.
There's one man that is."

"Do you want him along with your wagons?" demanded Jackson. He turned to

"Well," said the train captain after a time, "we are striking the Indian
country now."

"Shall I bring up our wagons an' jine ye all here at the ford this

"I can't keep you from coming on up the road if you want to. I'll not
ask you."

"All right! We'll not park with ye then. But we'll be on the same water.
Hit's my own fault we split. We wouldn't take orders from Sam Woodhull,
an' we never will."

He nodded to the blackened ruins, to the grim dead hand pointing to the
sky, left where it was by the superstitious blood avengers.

Wingate turned away and led the wagon train a half mile up the stream,
pitching camp above the ford where the massacre had occurred. The duties
of the clergy and the appointed sextons were completed. Silence and
sadness fell on the encampment.

Jackson, the scout of the Missouri column, still lingered for some sort
of word with Molly Wingate. Some odds and ends of brush lay about. Of
the latter Molly began casting a handful on the fire and covering it
against the wind with her shawl, which at times she quickly removed. As
a result the confined smoke arose at more or less well defined
intervals, in separate puffs or clouds.

"Ef ye want to know how to give the smoke signal right an' proper, Miss
Molly," said he at length, quietly, "I'll larn ye how."

The girl looked up at him.

"Well, I don't know much about it."

"This way: Hit takes two to do hit best. You catch holt two corners o'
the shawl now. Hist it on a stick in the middle. Draw it down all over
the fire. Let her simmer under some green stuff. Now! Lift her clean
off, sideways, so's not ter break the smoke ball. See 'em go up? That's

He looked at the girl keenly under his bushy gray brows.

"That's the Injun signal fer 'Enemy in the country.' S'pose you ever
wanted to signal, say to white folks, 'Friend in the country,' you might
remember - three short puffs an' one long one. That might bring up a
friend. Sech a signal can be seed a long ways."

Molly flushed to the eyes.

"What do you mean?"

"Nothin' at all, any more'n you do."

Jackson rose and left her.



The afternoon wore on, much occupied with duties connected with the sad
scenes of the: tragedy. No word came of Woodhull, or of two others who
could not be identified as among the victims at the death camp. No word,
either, came from the Missourians, and so cowed or dulled were most of
the men of the caravan that they did not venture far, even to undertake
trailing out after the survivors of the massacre. In sheer indecision
the great aggregation of wagons, piled up along the stream, lay
apathetic, and no order came for the advance.

Jed and his cow guards were obliged to drive the cattle back into the
ridges for better grazing, for the valley and adjacent country, which
had not been burned over by the Indians the preceding fall, held a lower
matting of heavy dry grass through which the green grass of springtime
appeared only in sparser and more smothered growth. As many of the
cattle and horses even now showed evil results from injudicious driving
on the trail, it was at length decided to make a full day's stop so that
they might feed up.

Molly Wingate, now assured that the Pawnees no longer were in the
vicinity, ventured out for pasturage with her team of mules, which she
had kept tethered close to her own wagon. She now rapidly was becoming a
good frontierswoman and thoughtful of her locomotive power. Taking the
direction of the cattle herd, she drove from camp a mile or two,
resolving to hobble and watch her mules while they grazed close to the
cattle guards.

She was alone. Around her, untouched by any civilization, lay a wild,
free world. The ceaseless wind of the prairie swept old and new grass
into a continuous undulating surface, silver crested, a wave always
passing, never past. The sky was unspeakably fresh and blue, with its
light clouds, darker edged toward the far horizon of the unbounded,
unbroken expanse of alternating levels and low hills. Across the broken
ridges passed the teeming bird life of the land. The Eskimo plover in
vast bands circled and sought their nesting places. Came also the sweep
of cinnamon wings as the giant sickle-billed curlews wheeled in vast
aerial phalanx, with their eager cries, "Curlee! Curlee! Curlee!" - the
wildest cry of the old prairies. Again, from some unknown,
undiscoverable place, came the liquid, baffling, mysterious note of the
nesting upland plover, sweet and clean as pure white honey.

Now and again a band of antelope swept ghostlike across a ridge. A great
gray wolf stood contemptuously near on a hillock, gazing speculatively
at the strange new creature, the white woman, new come in his lands. It
was the wilderness, rude, bold, yet sweet.

Who shall say what thoughts the flowered wilderness of spring carried
to the soul of a young woman beautiful and ripe for love, her heart as
sweet and melting as that of the hidden plover telling her mate of
happiness? Surely a strange spell, born of youth and all this free world
of things beginning, fell on the soul of Molly Wingate. She sat and
dreamed, her hands idle, her arms empty, her beating pulses full, her
heart full of a maid's imaginings.

How long she sat alone, miles apart, an unnoticed figure, she herself
could not have said - surely the sun was past zenith - when, moved by some
vague feeling of her own, she noticed the uneasiness of her feeding

The mules, hobbled and side-lined as Jed had shown her, turned face to
the wind, down the valley, standing for a time studious and uncertain
rather than alarmed. Then, their great ears pointed, they became uneasy;
stirred, stamped, came back again to their position, gazing steadily in
the one direction.

The ancient desert instinct of the wild ass, brought down through
thwarted generations, never had been lost to them. They had
foreknowledge of danger long before horses or human beings could suspect

Danger? What was it? Something, surely. Molly sprang to her feet. A band
of antelope, running, had paused a hundred yards away, gazing back.
Danger - yes; but what?

The girl ran to the crest of the nearest hillock and looked back. Even
as she did so, it seemed that she caught touch of the great wave of
apprehension spreading swiftly over the land.

Far off, low lying like a pale blue cloud, was a faint line of something
that seemed to alter in look, to move, to rise and fall, to
advance - down the wind. She never had seen it, but knew what it must
be - the prairie fire! The lack of fall burning had left it fuel even

Vast numbers of prairie grouse came by, hurtling through the silence,
alighting, strutting with high heads, fearlessly close. Gray creatures
came hopping, halting or running fully extended - the prairie hares,
fleeing far ahead. Band after band of antelope came on, running easily,
but looking back. A heavy line of large birds, black to the eye, beat on
laboriously, alighted, and ran onward with incredible speed - the wild
turkeys, fleeing the terror. Came also broken bands of white-tailed
deer, easy, elastic, bounding irregularly, looking back at the
miles-wide cloud, which now and then spun up, black as ink toward the
sky, but always flattened and came onward with the wind.

Danger? Yes! Worse than Indians, for yonder were the cattle; there lay
the parked train, two hundred wagons, with the household goods that
meant their life savings and their future hope in far-off Oregon. Women
were there, and children - women with babes that could not walk. True,
the water lay close, but it was narrow and deep and offered no salvation
against the terror now coming on the wings of the wind.

That the prairie fire would find in this strip fuel to carry it even at
this green season of the grass the wily Pawnees had known. This was
cheaper than assault by arms. They would wither and scatter the white
nation here! Worse than plumed warriors was yonder broken undulating
line of the prairie fire.

Instinct told the white girl, gave her the same terror as that which
inspired all these fleeing creatures. But what could she do? This was an
elemental, gigantic wrath, and she but a frightened girl. She guessed
rather than reasoned what it would mean when yonder line came closer,
when it would sweep down, roaring, over the wagon train.

The mules began to bray, to plunge, too wise to undertake flight. She
would at least save them. She would mount one and ride with the alarm
for the camp.

The wise animals let her come close, did not plunge, knew that she meant
help, allowed her trembling hands to loose one end of the hobble straps,
but no more. As soon as each mule got its feet it whirled and was away.
No chance to hold one of them now, and if she had mounted a hobbled
animal it had meant nothing. But she saw them go toward the stream,
toward the camp. She must run that way herself.

It was so far! There was a faint smell of smoke and a mysterious low
humming in the air. Was it too late?

A swift, absurd, wholly useless memory came to her from the preceding
day. Yes, it would be no more than a prayer, but she would send it out
blindly into the air.... Some instinct - yes, quite likely.

Molly ran to her abandoned wagonette, pushed in under the white tilt
where her pallet bed lay rolled, her little personal plunder stored
about. Fumbling, she found her sulphur matches. She would build her
signal fire. It was, at least, all that she could do. It might at least
alarm the camp.

Trembling, she looked about her, tore her hands breaking off little
faggots of tall dry weed stems, a very few bits of wild thorn and
fragments of a plum thicket in the nearest shallow coulee. She ran to
her hillock, stooped and broke a dozen matches, knowing too little of
fire-making in the wind. But at last she caught a wisp of dry grass, a
few dry stems - others, the bits of wild plum branches. She shielded her
tiny blaze with her frock, looking back over her shoulder, where the
black curtain was rising taller. Now and then, even in the blaze of full
day, a red, dull gleam rose and passed swiftly. The entire country was
afire. Fuel? Yes; and a wind.

The humming in the air grew, the scent of fire came plainly. The plover
rose around their nests and circled, crying piteously. The scattered
hares became a great body of moving gray, like camouflage blots on the
still undulating waves of green and silver, passing but not yet
past - soon now to pass.

The girl, her hands arrested, her arms out, in her terror, stood trying
to remember. Yes, it was three short puffs and a long pillar. She caught
her shawl from her shoulder, stooped, spread it with both hands, drove
in her stiffest bough for a partial support, cast in under the edge,
timidly, green grass enough to make smoke, she hoped.

An instant and she sprang up, drawing the shawl swiftly aside, the next
moment jealously cutting through the smoke with a side sweep of the

It worked! The cut-off column rose, bent over in a little detached
cloud. Again, with a quick flirt, eager eyed, and again the detached
irregular ball! A third time - Molly rose, and now cast on dry grass and
green grass till a tall and moving pillar of cloud by day arose.

At least she had made her prayer. She could do no more. With vague
craving for any manner of refuge, she crawled to her wagon seat and
covered her eyes. She knew that the wagon train was warned - they now
would need but little warning, for the menace was written all across the

She sat she knew not how long, but until she became conscious of a
roaring in the air. The line of fire had come astonishingly soon, she

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Online LibraryEmerson HoughThe Covered Wagon → online text (page 5 of 20)