Two Years In Kansas

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We followed the old Santa Fe Trail from Ellinwood to Great Bend. On the way, my sister said, “This may be strange country to us, but this covered wagon is no stranger to the trail.” I said, “I’m glad you mentioned that, for I don’t know yet what all I have bought.” There were dirty blankets, cooking utensils, and a cot that we could see. The temptation was very strong to pull off the trail and explore, but as it was past noon, we decided to wait until night.

On the way a group of cowboys rode by and saluted us by raising their hats. I heard one of them say, “I’ll be roped and tied! I thought the coming of the railroad did away with that prairie schooner!”

When we reached Great Bend, it was past one o’clock, so we went directly to the hotel for lunch. While the girls were resting comfortably in the lobby, I went to hunt up the homestead office.

When I got there, I found that the man in charge was very friendly. He said, “My name is Thornton, ‘Thor’ to my friends.” I told him frankly my position and asked him for advice. While he confirmed what the other agent had said, he did it in a way that made you feel that he wanted to be helpful. He came out and looked at my team with an appraising eye and said, “Morgans, huh? That looks like a very good pair.”

WHEN WE went back to the office, he showed me a map of Kansas and said, “Here is the Arkansas River. If you notice, it dips south for about fifty miles, where Dodge City is located, then northeast to Great Bend, where we now stand. Keep away from the Dodge City section, for there you will find bitter opposition.

“Now that you asked my advice, I can only tell you what I would do, and trust you will heed it. Go directly west on this trail until you reach an old stockade known as Duncan’s Ranch. Then head north to Pawnee Creek. There you will find some very fine land to homestead.

“If I had your team and wagon, I would spend some time gathering buffalo bones, for the market. They bring a good price [as fertilizer] at any railroad station. That would give you a chance to look over the land and pick your claim.”

I asked how I could pick and file a claim. He said, “You will find surveyor’s stakes with numbers on them. Copy these numbers and bring them to me. I will tell you what to do.”

When I got back to the hotel and told my wife of the interview, she suggested we rent a place in town until I had a chance to carry out his suggestions. When I asked the clerk if he knew of any house we could rent, he did not answer but went to the door and yelled, “Hi, Hank, do you want to rent your house?” There was an inflection in his voice that fell a little short of respect.

When Hank came into the room he was such a typical cowboy, in a business suit, that nothing he wore seemed to fit. When he saw our covered wagon, he said, “Another damn homesteader!” Then, seeing my sister Mary, he said, “Pardon, please. I will get my horse, so follow me.”

When he rode in sight I could not believe that this was the same man. His sombrero and riding grace lent alertness and charm to his face. As I backed my team from the hitching rail, he keenly observed every detail. Then he put his horse into a lazy lope and crossed the street ahead of us. It was done so effortlessly that one felt the horse and man were one. My sister said, “Look, there goes Pan.”

THE HOUSE he showed us was very adequate, with a basement, and a room over the stable where he slept. The backyard extended from the trail to the river, where he said I could use the land for my horses. I asked his price, and he said six dollars a week or twenty by the month. I paid him a week’s rent. Then I backed the wagon up to the porch and started to unload.

There were two trunks and three very heavy suitcases, plus my carpenter’s tool chest. Hank sat on his horse and watched as the girls tried to help with this back-aching work. Not once did he offer to help or even dismount. The glances the girls cast his way seemed to say, “If you are half a man, you will get off that horse and help,” which had no effect on Hank. When the unloading was done, he swung his horse into that effortless lope and was gone.

I drove to the back of the house, where I could give the contents of the wagon a thorough inspection, and got a great surprise. In a long chest attached to the wagon box I found nearly every kind of tool that a homesteader would need. I was so shocked I felt like an intruder. I had not bargained for these, and it was some time before I could feel they were really mine, but I had bought the outfit, so I was the winner.

There on the cot were the seller’s badly worn overalls, where he had thrown them when changing for his trip East. Hanging from the bows of the covered wagon were his cooking utensils, which we had seen before. Back of the wagon seat he had built a cupboard that held his groceries. At this point I called the girls, for I knew they would be interested. There they found, in addition to salt and pepper, remnants of coffee, lard, flour, and sugar, but no bread, so we came to the conclusion that his had been a sourdough existence and a lonely one. The fact that he was a bachelor was proven when we found a can of Durham tobacco and two discarded pipes among the groceries.