Two Years In Kansas


Once the girls got started on their exploration, no one could stop them until they had done a thorough job. In the pocket of his discarded overalls they found a crumpled letter from a mother to her son, full of pathos and solicitation that he return to civilization at Elmira, New York. That was our first information of who he was or his destination.

“The rule is, as long as a man stays mounted, he can carry his guns.”

Under the cot they found a pair of badly worn shoes and socks in need of mending, which seemed to touch a hidden chord in their feminine hearts. My sister asked, “Was he good looking and smart?” I said, “How would I know! He at least didn’t wear a beard and was not a cripple.”

The feeling that this was my lucky day, where everything I did turned my way, was still very strong. Beginning with the team I had bought, the best I had ever owned, and the chest of tools I had found, there was good ground for believing there was such a thing as luck.

That night, with the help of the food from the cupboard in the covered wagon, the girls got supper. I don’t recall what we had, but it tasted good, for we were nearly exhausted by the work and the excitement of the day.

The next morning I got up early to look after the horses. Hank came riding out of the stable as soon as he saw me.

He said, “Why don’t you get out of Kansas, and leave this range country to us!” I asked, “Who do you mean by us?” He said, “Listen, mister. I was born on a ranch, and I’m telling you in advance, the cards are stacked against you homesteaders. You haven’t got a Chinaman’s chance to win.”

When I asked why, he said, “Grasshoppers and drought are two reasons, but there are others.” When I asked what, he said, “A thousand head of cattle stampeding through your crops.” I said, “What about the law?” He said, “Law to stop a stampede? Our legislators aren’t that dumb. They know cattle can’t read. You clodhoppers from the East have a lot to learn about Kansas, and the West, and I for one don’t wish you luck.”

THE NEXT DAY was Sunday, and I got up early to water and attend to the horses. Hank rode over to inspect my team and seemed friendly, so I made him this proposition. If he would let me plow an acre or so for a garden, I would give him half of what I raised. He straightened back in his saddle as though shocked, and said, “What, me a farmer? Not on your life! But if playing in the dirt makes you happy, go to it, but count me out!”

Then he surprised me by saying, “I noticed you unloaded a carpenter’s chest. If you are a carpenter, we need you here.”

That afternoon the girls and I walked the short distance to the river and picked out the location of our garden. We discovered that our neighbors on either side were using their back lots for picnic dinners, and there were benches and tables along the path to the river. So we decided to spend our Sundays there as long as we stayed in Great Bend.

The next day, at the crack of dawn, I was on my way to locate a claim and gather buffalo bones for the market. I followed the Santa Fe Trail to Duncan’s Ranch, then turned north as directed. Before I reached Pawnee Creek, I found so many bones I could have had a lot easily, but left them for my trip back to save hauling them both ways. When I forded the creek, I found the most beautiful prairie land I had yet seen, and the surveyor’s stakes were there as the agent had said. It was now about noon, so I ate my lunch and began loading bones for my trip home. They were so plentiful I could count at least a dozen buffalo skeletons from where I stood.

I had a full load before I was halfway home. When they were weighed they brought $7.00, more than twice the prevailing price for a man and team.

The following morning I was on my way early and decided to drive directly to the same location over the open prairie instead of taking the Duncan Ranch route, which would shorten the distance by ten miles or more and give me a chance to explore the territory I had found north of Pawnee Creek, where I had decided to pick a claim.

As I drove along the creek I found nothing more suitable than the place where I had forded the creek the day before, so I copied the numbers on the stakes before eating my lunch. It was not yet noon, so I spent an hour looking the land over before starting back. The wagon was empty, but the bones were so plentiful I could load any time I desired. I took it very leisurely, loading only those most handy, yet I had a full load by early afternoon, while yet ten miles from home. When they were weighed in they brought $8.60. And best of all, I had the surveyor’s numbers I could turn in to the homestead office.

The next morning I decided to plow my garden. When Hank saw me, he said “Getting ready to play in the dirt? I thought you had a better occupation as a carpenter.” I said, “It’s my sideline. Why the interest, Hank? Are you going to restrict the size of my garden? I only need an acre or two.” He said, “What in hell is an acre! We measure things in miles out here. Take all you want. It’s only wasteland to me.”

By six o’clock the garden was ready for planting our table vegetables. After supper the girls and I laid out the rows and began the planting. It was a pleasure, for it eased the tension to have things growing.