Two Years In Kansas


About noon the next day, the agent from Hays City drove in with a load of hay and two bags of seed corn with a tag on them which said, “Compliments from Mr. Hunter.” I asked how extensive the damage had been, and he said it was a strip about fifteen miles wide and seventy long. It’s early in the season and Mr. Hunter hopes you’ll replant. I told him about the Dittons, and he said he was on his way there with the rest of the load. “You people are our charges and we don’t forget.”

The next day I ran the harrow over the cornfield and began replanting it.

Our greatest worry now was drought. There had been but one rain storm since we came, and that was rather light compared with the one in Great Bend. We needed it so badly to start the grass growing that it almost became a prayer. Like most worries, this one proved groundless. In a couple of days we awoke to find a heavy bank of clouds in the West, and there was a stillness in the air as though all nature held its breath. Then came the deluge as though all the reservoirs of the heavens were turned loose. But the most frightening of all was the wall of water and debris that filled the creek. We marveled at its volume and force.

A large tree with all its branches was floating crazily near our shore, so I got a rope, took off my clothes, and swam in to anchor it. After I had it safely snubbed to a big cottonwood on the shore, I called to my wife to bring me my ax and some picket rope. As soon as the tree was stable enough to stand on, I began cutting off the limbs while she stood on the shore and floated them in. We discovered that the tree was about two feet thick at the butt and would give us wood for the winter, which we needed.

The rain had washed the grass clean of the grasshopper odor and given it new life.

The rain had also given us new confidence, with the fear of drought driven from our minds. Most of the plowing was done. All it needed for replanting was sowing and harrowing, which to a farmer is a minor task. So great was our enthusiasm after the rain that I decided to plow the strip between the long furrows, uniting the two, which would give me several additional acres under cultivation.

If luck is merely wise decision, as I believe, then I was both wise and lucky in that decision, for while plowing I struck the only stone I had found on my claim. I was so curious that I got my spade and dug it out. It was about four inches thick and two feet in length, dull yellow in color. I discovered one could cut it with a knife, as there was no sand or grit in it. I was no mineralogist, so I called it soapstone. What intrigued me was the possibility I could see for sculpture, and the things I could whittle out to amuse the children. After I got it to the house I started looking along the creek to see if I could find others like it, which I did. But exposure to sun and air had hardened and colored them until they looked like ordinary stone. Seeing this, I got old bags and sod and covered the piece I had found until the time I could use it, which would be in my leisure after work. But like any dreamer, I often found that my mind was toying with the possibilities under that little mound.

The first thing I whittled out was a prairie dog for the girl. And crude as it was, she recognized it instantly, and called it her doggie-town doll. Which encouraged me to do more.

EARLY ONE MORNING Mr. Ditton and his sons drove up with wheelbarrow and shovels in the wagon to help with the excavation. First we cut the sod into ten-foot lengths and rolled it, then the four of us carried it to the roof and laid it. We teamed up on the excavating, Ditton and his older son on one wheelbarrow, and I with the younger boy on the other. The work went so fast we could hardly clear the passage through the door for each other. About eleven o’clock Mrs. Ditton and her little girl came. By noon she and Susie had a feast ready, while the children entertained each other in their carefree play.

By six o’clock the excavation was done.

It was about June 1 when the agent from the homestead office called and said, “You will have new neighbors soon. A man by the name of Cornell has filed on a claim about seven miles up the creek. They have two children, a boy, seven, and a girl, three. I hope you like them.” Then he touched his lip and smiled, which I took to mean that Cornell was a boaster.

About a week later Cornell rode up and introduced himself by saying, “I’m your new neighbor, and I’m here to stay.” Then he took a new Winchester rifle from his saddle holster and said, “No damn Indian or rancher can drive me out.” Then he handed me the gun and watched to see my reaction. I said, “It’s a beautiful gun all right, but it’s the man behind the gun that’s important.”

The next time I saw Ditton, I asked if he had seen the new neighbor. He said, “Yes! His name is Winchester, isn’t it?” From that day on, Cornell was “Winchester” to us. We found he was a good neighbor as long as one stimulated his ego, otherwise he was sullen.

BY THIS TIME things had become so routine there was little to report. There had been no rain since the middle of May, but the crops were growing. The ceaseless prairie wind kept blowing as though it would never stop. To break the monotony, I cut the big log into chunks and piled it on the shore. This was fun. There was no one to check my skill with an ax, so I could take it easy and relax.