Someday I’d like to see a scientific study conducted for possible correlations between obnoxious behavior and nominal (in some cases, theoretical) counts of brain cells. Surely there’s a link there somewhere, a kink in the DNA, a devolution toward single-cell organisms and primordial muck that miraculously not only failed to die off but flourished and spread as if a distinctly separate Neanderthalian species wandering the planet with no other intent or purpose than to cause chaos and mayhem. I’d also like to see the species tagged with an open season and a bounty, say a dollar per brace of ears. Until then, the best we can do is try to avoid them and when we can’t deal with them on a case-by-case basis.
Easier said than done, of course. My own checkered past has been rife with cretins, more than a few heavily armed and gleefully eager to use them. As the saying goes, the only reason they’re still alive is because it’s illegal to kill them, an unfortunate loophole they thrive behind like so many viruses. Too many instances come to mind to recount, suffice to say that once my sergeant and I were at a theater in Las Vegas, New Mexico, enjoying a B-movie where the amount of exposed flesh was matched only by the gratuitous violence (a bodice-ripper for men, literally), when a pair of louts placed themselves in front of us and began to act up. As it was impossible to focus on the movie in their presence, we relocated a few rows over. They did the same. When a third attempt to escape their clutches met the same outcome, my sergeant nudged the fellow in front of him with a .38 snubnose and I followed suit with a Colt .45 semi-auto to the fellow in front of me. The sound of the hammer cocking was surprisingly loud above the soundtrack. Once we had their attention, my sergeant asked the good man if they would kindly sit back and allow the rest of the audience to enjoy the show without interruption, which the two proceeded to do. Sometimes it just takes a little gentle persuasion.
Such boorish behavior isn’t new. Sadie and the rest of the gang had their introduction into thuggery on the morning of October 15 while camped north of Mapleton. As she wrote before setting out, “We were awakened last night by some smarties who after making all the noise with their mouths that they could, they shot a revolver. We rested good after that.”
Absent from her tale is the role the menfolk played during the ordeal. Did they grab their axes and shotguns and confront their hecklers, perhaps drawing an invisible line around their wagons as an inviolate boundary—this far and no more—or cower with the women (and young girl) under the canvas of their covered wagons? When I first read her entry I thought maybe it had been transcribed incorrectly, that Fred or one of the Charleses had fired the pistol, thereby sending the hooligans scampered into the darkness from whence they came. Frankly, it puzzles me. I suppose the knuckle-draggers cranked off a round as a last hoo-rah, aren’t-we-tough note, and the succeeding silence allowed the sojourners to relax. The remainder of the night passed uneventful.
They watered the horses and mules in Mapleton, about a mile downhill from their encampment. Originally known as Eldora, the town was renamed for the beautiful and stately maples shadowing the waters of Lost Creek on the north, the Osage on the south and Possum Creek on the west, according to Cutler’s History of Kansas. Though one of the oldest towns in Bourbon County, it began its slow disappearance shortly after the completion of the Kansas City, Fort Scott and Gulf Roads and the establishment of the village of Fulton nine miles to the east. In Sadie’s time the population was around 275, a far cry from its current 84. The town seems a mix of ruin and renewal, and guarded, or at least watched over by, a sentinel canine whose presence in the center of the road brought us up sooner than the stop sign at the crossroads intended.
“Reminds me of Sadie’s dog,” Lori said admiringly.
“Before or after it got run over?” I asked.
As we waited for the dog to decide whether to get out of the way or take a nap, we studied what we could of the town. Sun-dappled shady and sultry with clouds roiling in the east but otherwise summery somnolent and drowsy, it seemed the very icon of Americana only gone to seed. I wondered what would happen to towns like Mapleton, what the future would, or could, hold after losing more than 14 percent of its population in the past decade. The Great Plains are emptying out, and no further proof is necessary than tiny, impermanent settlements such as this. And I wondered, too, what else would be lost, what we as a people or a nation would be like when most of the population is crowded into cities like so many rats, our connection to the land, our histories, our innate sense of place irretrievably fractured.
Before any answers were forthcoming, the dog tottered to its legs and moved to the shoulder.
“What a nice dog,” Lori said.
“What a lucky dog that the stop sign is there.”
Sadie’s mule was almost lame, so they substituted Charles Jewell’s mare. By noon they were well on their way, making good time, when they came upon an old farmer standing beside the road. A conversation ensued, the farmer eyeing the mules with appreciation if not cunning, and soon enough a trade was proposed. “So,” Sadie wrote, “we swapped our mules for a big team of horses. A grey and a roan.”
By evening they had covered almost 17 miles, this in spite of rocky roads that jarred them half-senseless. Fort Scott was on the horizon, the new team was working well, they hadn’t lost or broken anything, their bellies were full and the dishes washed and packed away. Around the fire that night there was a sense of well-being, of life restored to harmony, of optimism, and a measure of it was evident in the lightness of Sadie’s writing.
“We will soon be in Missouri,” she wrote, and this time she spelled it right.
(To be continued)