Two Kohl Sisters


17. New Trails

Ida Mary and Imbert were going to be married. At last Ida Mary was sure, and there was no need of waiting any longer. So she went back to St. Louis for the first time, and two weeks later the wedding took place.

When they returned as bride and groom, the settlers came from every direction, accompanied by all the cow and sheep bells, tin cans and old horns on the Strip for a big charivari. They came bringing baskets of food for the supper and any little article or ornament they could find at home for a wedding present, singing as they came, "Lucky Numbers Are We," and "We Won't Go Home Till Morning."

Imbert took over the Cedar Fork ranch and store--that little trade center outside the reservation gate where a disheveled group of landseekers had faced a new dawn rising upon the Strip. And Ida Mary, who so loved the land, came at last to make it her permanent home. Steady, practical and resourceful--it was such women the West needed.

The sturdily built log house was a real home, no tar-paper shack--rustic, we would call it now--with four rooms and a porch. There were honest-to-goodness beds, carpets and linoleum on the kitchen floor! Ida Mary was so proud of the linoleum that she wiped it up with skim milk to make it shine. There was a milk cow and consequently homemade butter and cottage cheese--all the makeshift discomforts of homesteading replaced by the solid and enduring qualities of home.

Peace, home, happiness--for Ida Mary.

And Ma Wagor's problems were solved, too. It appeared that her first husband had left her more than the an-tik brooch of which she was so proud. He had left her a son who had grown to be a stalwart, good-looking young man, who worked with a construction company out in western Nebraska. Learning of the Wagors' misfortune, he came, started another store at Ammons for his mother, and helped her to run it for a while.

All around Ammons the fields lay freshly turned, fallowing for next year's crop. Our field of flax had been cut for what little it would make, and the ground plowed over to soak up the winter's moisture. With the turning of the ground for another season, a page in my own life was turning. "What am I going to do, now that I've come in under the wire?" I wondered.

And then I proved up and got my patent. I borrowed a thousand dollars on it to pay off the government and the balance due our financial backers, who had gambled on us without security. But I did not borrow the money through the Halbert Donovan Company. The loan had been promised me by the banks many months before. We had borrowed on the first homestead to get the second, borrowed to the limit on the second to pay for the privilege of helping to run the reservation. We now had both farms mortgaged to the hilt. But the hay alone would pay the interest and taxes. Land would increase in value.

I was alone at the shack now with the newspaper still to get out. Riding across the plains toward the claim one afternoon, I heard the swift, staccato clicking of type as it fell rapidly in the stick. The metallic sound carried across the prairie as I neared the shop. As I walked in I saw, perched on the high stool in front of the type case, a little hoydenish figure with flying hair--Myrtle Coombs, the hammer-and-tongs printer. "This don't look right to me," she remarked, reading her stick as I came in, "but a good printer follows copy even if it flies out of the window."

Myrtle had come back on vacation to see how her homestead was progressing. Seeing that I needed help, she unrolled a newspaper bundle and hung her "extra" dress and nightgown on a nail, laid a comb and a toothbrush on the dry-goods-box dressing table, and for two weeks she "threw" out the paper with a bang.

About this time the régime of our government was changing. Out of the West, from which we had had only sheep and cattle, there were coming men destined to be leaders in the affairs of the country. As men had risen from the ranks to guide the destinies of the Colonies, so men appeared from the West to shape this new America.

They came from a world where land was king. It was a boundless territory. A large section of it, which was once marked on the map as the Great American Desert, had been left untouched, a dead possession and a problem to the government, who did not know what use to make of it until the homesteaders pushed west.

In the past two or three years, 200,000 homesteaders had taken up claims, filing on more than 40,000,000 acres, making a solid coverage of 70,000 square miles. Those settlers and their families constituted a million people. Ahead of this tidal wave, in the steady stream of immigration, thousands of other settlers had moved west. Now there were several million people who must subsist on the raw lands. They, with others who had followed the homesteaders, were dependent upon their success or failure to make the western prairie produce.

It had to produce! The West was the nation's reserve of natural resources. The soil was to produce cereal gold, huge fields of wheat, bread for a new people--bread, at last, for a world at war.

So the Public Lands question was of first importance. There must be new land laws and other measures enacted for these people. It was a gigantic task set for the men from out the West to perform. But already they had begun to wield an influence on the affairs of the nation.

One heard of a man from Utah with the name of Smoot, who came from a class of solid builders. He was bound to be heard more of in the future, people said; and there appeared in Congress a man whose indomitable force soon became recognized as something to contend with--a man from Idaho named William E. Borah. Two other westerners had already become statesmen of note. They had sprung from the sagebrush country. Senator Francis E. Warren, and Congressman Frank W. Mondell--both of Wyoming.

Senator Warren devoted a lifetime to the interests of the West. Congressman Mondell, as Speaker of the House and chairman of the Public Lands Committee, was an influence for the homestead country; and from our own state, progressive, fearless, was Senator Peter Norbeck.

The frontier is big, but news travels over it in devious ways, and the work of The Wand and of Ida Mary and me began to be known in Washington. My editorial fight for the settlers attracted the attention of these officials from the West. From several of them we received messages, commending our efforts and offering assistance in any feasible way. I also received communications from Senator Warren and Congressman Mondell, commenting upon my comprehension of the homestead issue. I was asked to submit the problems of my people, and in return I sought information from them.

Small things, those frontier newspapers, but The Wand had achieved what Ida Mary and I had hoped of it, it had been the voice of the people, a voice heard across the prairie, across the Land of the Burnt Thigh, across the continent to the doors of Congress itself. Its protests, its recommendations were weighed at last by the men best able to help the men and women on the Strip. And the little outlaw printer, to her overwhelming surprise, was being recognized not only on the Strip but beyond it, as an authority on the homesteading project and a champion of the homesteaders.

It was back on the lookout of the outlaw printer and the outlaw horse thieves, that I got another letter from Senator Warren, asking what my plans were for the future and whether I had thought of carrying my work farther on, work where "the harvest was great and the laborers few," he said. Should I decide to go on into new fields, I could depend upon his support. He would recommend my newspaper as an official one; there would be many opportunities, probably government posts for which my particular knowledge would qualify me.

While I was still undetermined as to what to do after my work on the proof sheet was finished, I was not a career woman, and Senator Warren's suggestions received little serious thought. Ida Mary, I thought, was serving the West in the best way for a woman. Needles and thread and bread dough have done more toward preserving nations than bullets, and the women who made homes on the prairie, working valiantly with the meager tools at their command, did more than any other group in settling the West. It was their efforts which turned tar-paper shacks into livable houses, their determination to provide their children with opportunities which built schools and established communities.

I was content for a while to thrust the thought of the future out of my mind, but I continued to watch with tense interest what was happening to the homestead country. A new land law had been passed which had a strong influence on the agricultural development of the West. It doubled the size of homesteads to 320 acres. This would bring farmers and families for permanent building. It would give them more pasture and plenty of land to carry on the fallowing method. To discourage the prove-up-and-run settler, it required three years, a certain amount of fencing and eighty acres plowed to get a deed. It created a new land splurge. A half-section! To the average homeseeker it was like owning the whole frontier.

This law was called the Mondell Act, and President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed it "a great opportunity for the poor people--and a long stride in the West's progress." Roosevelt had faith in the future of a Greater America. The programs which he initiated were to accomplish tremendous results in the building of the western lands.

With my bent for delving into the effect of land rulings on the settler, I made inquiry regarding certain provisions of the Mondell Act. With the information came a letter from its author, expressing his belief in the advantages of the act to the homeseeker, and describing what it would do in developing the territory farther west. He talked, too, about my work, and my carrying it into new fields. Wyoming was bound to become a homestead Mecca. And he added: "Your experience in South Dakota could, no doubt, be made of great value in aiding in the development of Wyoming."

A few days after I received Congressman Mondell's letter, C. H. West arrived. Usually placid and genial, he was now wrought up. He came at once to the point of his visit. Under the enlarged homestead law he was extending operations farther west, where he was going to settle large tracts. He wanted me to head bands of homeseekers into this new territory, to help colonize it.

We were entering an era of colonization, of doing things in organized groups, cooperative bodies. To the progress which these movements have made in the United States much is owing to the West, where it was developed through necessity.

Eastern men were forming profit-making corporations to colonize western land. Real estate dealers were organizing colonies. Groups of homeseekers were organizing their own bands. Mr. West had many inquiries from such groups, and he had determined to do his own colonizing. They would want me to go to eastern cities, he said, bring the colonists west, and help locate them satisfactorily.

The locating fees, according to Mr. West, would run into money, and he proposed to give me 50 per cent of the profits. "In addition," he promised, "we will advance you a fair salary and all expenses."

I realized that I must face the future. The proof business on the Strip was almost over. Henceforth the paper, and the post office which had been transferred to me on Ida Mary's marriage, would eke out a bare existence. And, as Ma Wagor complained, the Brulé was becoming so settled "it would be havin' a Ladies Aid before long with the women servin' tea and carryin' callin' cards around." That would be no place for me.

For a long time I sat gazing out of the window over the open spaces. What would this mean to the people whom I was to bring west? It was they, not I nor any other individual, whose future must be weighed. The tidal wave of western immigration would reach its crest in the next two or three years, and break over Wyoming, Montana, Colorado--those states bordering the Great Divide. It was to reach its high peak in 1917, when the United States entered the World War.

I remembered the shaking hands, the faces of the men and women who had lost at the Rosebud Drawing. There was still land for them. Land of their own for tenant farmers, land for the homeless. The Land of a Million Shacks--that was the slogan of the frontier.

"Where is this land?" I asked, finally.

"In Wyoming. Across the Dakota-Nebraska line. Reaching into the Rawhide Country," Mr. West explained.

Rawhide country. Lost Trail. "A short-grass range, but rich," Lone Star had said--"an honest-to-God country, bigger'n all creation." I turned to Mr. West and faced him squarely. "Has it got water?"

He smiled at the sudden vehemence of the question and was ready for it. "Yes, it has water. The finest in the world." Water clear and cold, he told me, could be obtained at two to three hundred feet on almost any spot. Out on the scattered ranches, in the middle of the range, one found windmills pumping all day long. There would be plenty of water for stock and for irrigating small patches.

"All right," I said, "I'll go."

The cartoonist was going back to Milwaukee. "Being here has done something for me," he said. "Seeing so much effort given ungrudgingly for small results, I think. I'm going back and do something with my art. But it's odd--I don't really want to go back."

One by one the prove-up-and-run settlers had left the country, but Huey Dunn, Chris Christopherson and others like them were learning to meet the country on its own terms and conquer it. They were there to stay.

A young man appeared who was willing to run the newspaper, and I turned the post office over to Ma Wagor. Amid the weird beating of tom-toms and the hoo-hoo ah-ah-ahhh of the Indians across the trail, I set up my farewell message in The Wand. In gorgeous regalia of beads and quills, paint and eagle feathers, the Indians had come to send the Great Spirit with Paleface-Prints-Paper on to the heap big hunting grounds. It was the time of year when "paint" in all the variegated colors was plentiful, gathered from herbs and flowers, yellow, copper, red. The affair was probably more of an excuse to celebrate than an expression of esteem. The Indians never miss an opportunity to stage a show. When they attend a county fair or other public gathering, they load up children, dogs and worldly goods, and in a long procession they set out, arriving several days before the event and celebrating long after it is all over.

They had come prepared to camp for the night at the print shop, going through special incantations for the occasion, but now they were whooping it up around the campfire. I was dragged into the dance and went careening around with old warriors and young bucks, the squaws laughing at my mistakes.

As a farewell editorial I quoted the epitaph once engraved on a tombstone: "He done his damnedest. Angels could do no more."

The eerie sound of the Indian dance had ceased. The flickering campfires had died down. Only two years and four months since Ida Mary and I had broken a trail to that first little homestead shack. And a chapter of my life was closed.

Beyond, in the dark, slept men and women who had endured hardships and struggles and heavy labor; who had plowed up the virgin soil and set their own roots deep in it. They were here to stay.

In those two years they had built a little empire that would endure. There were roads and fences, schools and thriving towns nearby where they could market their products, and during the World War Presho became the second largest hay-shipping point in the United States, with the government buying trainloads of the fine native hay from the tall grass country of the Brulé.

But my work on the Strip was ended. Big as the venture had seemed to me in the beginning, it was only a fraction of the country waiting to be tamed. And beyond there was Wyoming, "bigger'n all creation."

I was going empty-handed, with no fixed program or goal. After the settlers were on the ground, there would be many obstacles which must be overcome. Down to earth again! Even in the initial colonizing I would have to depend on my own initiative, on my influence with the people, and on my understanding of the homestead project. My experience on the Brulé in getting settlers to work together would be invaluable. The field would be new--but the principles of cooperative effort were always the same.

Upon learning that I was going on with the development work, Senator Warren wrote a letter filled with encouragement and information, and Senator Borah expressed his interest.

Wyoming exemplified all the romance, the color, the drama of the old Wild West. It was noted as a land of cowboys, wild horses, and fearless men. As a commonwealth it was invincible. It was one of the greatest sheep and cattle kingdoms in the world, where stockmen grazed their herds over government domain, lords of all they surveyed.

In the past the big cattle and sheep outfits had brooked no interference. One of the worst stockmen-settler wars ever waged had been fought in Wyoming against an invasion of homesteaders, a war that became so bloody the government had to take a hand, calling out the National Guards to settle it. It was this section of the range country that I was to help fill with sodbreakers.

The force of progress made it safer now, with the government and public sentiment back of the homestead movement. These stockman-settler wars, however, were not yet a thing of the past, and despite the years of western development that followed, they continued to break out every now and then in remote range country. In self-preservation stockmen of various sections were making it difficult for the homesteader, and it was certain that colonies of them would not be welcomed with open arms. I knew all this in a general way, of course, but I had no trepidation over the undertaking. My only qualms were on the score of health. It is a poor trail-breaker who cannot travel with strong people, and that was a drawback I couldn't overcome. All I could do was hope for the best and rely on my ability to catch up if I should have to fall behind. I took a chance on it. I rode to Ida Mary's, and found her rocking and sewing and humming to herself in her new home.

"I'm going to help colonize Wyoming," I told her bluntly.

She let her sewing fall to the floor and sat staring at me, standing bold and defiant in the middle of the floor. But my voice broke and I threw myself across her bed crying. It was my first venture without Ida Mary.

She did not say now, as she had done on other occasions: "How can you help colonize a raw range country? You couldn't manage it." Life had done something to us out here.

I started out from Ida Mary's. Out across the plain I turned and looked back. She was still standing in the doorway, shading her eyes so as to see me longer. We waved and waved, and I left her watching as the distance swallowed me up.

At the shack I found Judge Bartine waiting for me. He observed the traces of tears on my cheeks, but made no comment on them.

"You know," he said, "I'm glad you and your sister stuck through all this."

I hesitated, on the verge of telling him how near I had come to giving up and starting a back-trek.

"When the cattle-rustling gang I convicted burned the courthouse and my office over my head," he went on after a little pause, "I made a narrow escape. I didn't have a penny in the world left with which to fight, and I knew perfectly well that I was in danger of being shot down every time I went out of the door.

"But I had to stay. Men could go through Hades out here for years to get a foothold and raise a herd of cattle and wake up one morning to find it gone. Something had to be done with those cattle thieves."

"It seems to me," I told him, "the stockmen should have paid you awfully well."

"I got my pay," he said quietly, "just as you have done; I got my pay in the doing. So, Edith, I am glad you girls did not run away. I didn't come before because I didn't want to influence you. I wanted to see you do it alone."

When he had gone, I closed the door of the shack behind me. A man was riding up the trail to meet me, bringing two messages. One from the House of Representatives in Washington was signed F. W. Mondell. "I am delighted," it read, "to know of your faith and confidence in the country farther west, particularly the region to which you are going. I trust the settlers whom you are instrumental in bringing into the country will be successful, and I have no doubt that they will, if they are the right sort. I wish you Godspeed and success." The other letter was from Mr. West, who was awaiting me on the road to Wyoming with a group of landseekers.

On top of the ridge I stopped and gazed at the cabin with no sign of life around it, took my last look at the Land of the Burnt Thigh. A wilderness I had found it, a thriving community I left it. But the sun was getting low and I had new trails to break.

I gave Lakota the rein.