Rattlesnakes And Tumbleweed: A Memoir Of South Dakota


I was awake early Christmas morning, but I had no desire to get up. Uncle Leon called to me to come see what Santa had left, but I wouldn’t move, so he carried me to the kitchen; and when I saw onions and potatoes in my sack, I ran back to bed. Henry and Uncle Leon urged me to just go back and see if there was anything else. Surely Santa wouldn’t just leave things for a good breakfast. Henry led me back, and Uncle Leon began taking the things out of the sack; underneath the layer of onions and potatoes was a Baldwin’s First Grade Reader . There were other packages too. I found material for two dresses. One was dark-blue calico with white polka dots, and the other was light blue with tiny, pinpoint white butterflies all over it. Next came some hard candy and a stick of white paraffin gum with a ring on it. The last package was wrapped in white tissue paper tied with two red ribbons for my hair. When I opened it, there was a beautiful black shoe with a red cloth top and black buttons and a shoe hook—but only one shoe. Again I burst into tears. Uncle Leon said he was sure Santa must have dropped the mate somewhere in his haste to get to other places, so we searched everywhere, and I found it under the washing machine. Uncle Leon, Grandpa, and Henry were right—there was a Santa! Uncle Leon said, “Now Mildred, you must learn not to be discouraged so easily.”

One night the wind roared and shook the farm wagon, and a blizzard struck. When the storm ended, the windows were covered with snow; and when the door was opened, there was a wall of snow. The men began shovelling it near the top of the door, and Grandmother melted it as fast as she could. She filled the washing machine and everything that would hold water. The machine was made of wood staves bound with two metal bands. The inside of the lid looked like a milking stool. The gears on top of the lid were turned by a big wheel on the side of the machine operated by hand. Snow covered the entire wagon, and the men tunnelled through drifts to reach the corral. Wild animals were raiding cattle and sheep ranches. As soon as it was safe for the men to travel, some ranchers gathered at Uncle Leon’s place, and they rode off on horseback to track down the marauding animals. They returned with a gray timber wolf that they had lassoed. Uncle Leon was on the lead horse; one man was on each side of the snarling beast, with a man in the rear keeping the ropes taut.

In the spring some professional cutters arrived to shear the sheep. Pens and runways were set up and a high platform built to hold the men who filled the long gunny sacks with wool and sewed them and put them in the shed. As the wool fell a man pitched it up to the men on the platform.

After the sheep were sheared, they passed through a trough filled with an antiseptic dip. Grandpa fired one of the men for being too careless and cutting the sheep. I didn’t like to hear the sheep bleating, but I loved to watch them going up the hill to the grazing land and coming home in the evening, a white mass, packed tightly together, moving in waves as they raced to the corral.

My grandparents and I stayed with Uncle Leon until he needed the farm wagon to take the sheep to the summer grazing range. We had to get ready to close the shack and move back to Kirkville, Iowa. I had to leave Wiggles, my dog, to help guard the sheep, since he was quite valuable. He was a puppy, white as snow, when he was given to me; and when we parted, he was beginning to be spotted.

We left Capa in June, 1908, and this time we crossed the Missouri River on the new railroad bridge at Pierre, where Grandmother proved up on her claim. Then we were on our way to Iowa.