They rose in the gloaming, at first a faint whine barely audible above the snickering horses, the clatter of pans and the quiet conversations around a crackling fire, followed by an ominous mounting drone that spoke of numbers beyond counting or imagining, numbers sufficient to eclipse the stars. They massed in the gathering gloom waiting and hungering, yet holding back as if by some unseen or unknowable force, seething and teeming until the first pinpricks of luminance coalesced into glimmering renditions of mythical beings and gods from lost civilizations, and so at last were released.
Under their onslaught Sadie and the others retreated to their wagons to burrow mole-like beneath their blankets. Thereafter with the muted sounds of swatting, smacking, cuffing and cursing echoed throughout their campsite as though some great violence was being committed. Many of the mosquitoes, Fred observed (and Sadie recalled the next day) “were large enough to shoot.” The animals were left to their own devices largely involving swishing tails and silent suffering.
By midmorning they and their new team of horses rolled into Fort Scott. One horse was afraid of automobiles and motorcycles, Sadie wrote, but otherwise the new team worked very well. The city offered something of a respite, with Fred taking the horses to have them shod and the others taking in the sights.
It was by all accounts an impressive city. By 1909 Fort Scott had become a manufacturing center serviced by the Missouri Pacific, the St. Louis & San Francisco, and the Missouri, Kansas & Texas railroads, their tracks radiating outward like the spokes of a wheel. The city was lighted and heated by natural gas, and possessed both waterworks and electric lighting systems. An electric street railway provided public transportation throughout the business district. With a population approaching 11,000, it was the largest city they had encountered since Topeka eight days ago. Entering from the north they passed by the old fort, established in 1842 to guard the Indian frontier, the downtown business district with its hotels, eateries and the railroad depot, and on southward down the broad main thoroughfare named after the national cemetery created in 1862 by congressional decree.
One hundred years later it’s still an impressive city, neat and clean and startlingly prosperous after the waning towns we’d seen. Our timing was fortuitous for the clouds that had been building all afternoon solidified into one gigantic cumulonimbus mass licked with tongues of flame. For now it held off but later might be dicey. When we inquired at the Courtland Hotel about shelter from the storm we were told that in case of emergencies we were to meet on the lower floor where a narrow staircase led to the basement. The nether regions of the hotel were well-stocked and virtually spotless which was a far cry from my wife’s grandmother’s basement which was also offered during a storm, an offer I summarily declined after deciding to take my chances with whatever might come. When the storm eventually laid siege to the city during the night, our only notice was an occasional growl of deep-throated thunder and lights flickering.
It was a delightful place to stay, built in 1906 and billed as the last of the railroad-era hotels—so delightful, in fact, that I felt almost guilty thinking of Sadie and the others making do in their cramped covered wagons. And who’s to say that the women—Sadie, Lucile, Goldie and Maryetta—didn’t cast covetous eyes on the hotels, that they didn’t yearn for lush bedding and downy-soft pillows, of four walls enveloping them and a roof over their heads, of running water and a hot bath? Our room was on the small side but nothing compared to their own accommodations, especially with a torrential blow about to descend. With free coffee and cold beer from the cooler we made ourselves at home in the opulent foyer and between scribbling notes on a small pad or typing entries in my own daily journal we stared out the windows at the downtown architecture and the monolithic Scottish Rite Masonic Temple one block away.
And later, after supper, we walked to the fort and nosed around. The fort itself was nearly deserted, aslant with the last beams of sunlight and the implacable weight of a history I knew so little about, our own minor historical journey just another piece of an incomprehensible puzzle. Much of the state’s most vicious and violent episodes played out here within these confines or throughout the immediate area, earning in spades the infamous “Bleeding Kansas” appellation, the players and victims now lain to rest in orderly rows at the National Cemetery or bunkered silent and still on either side of the parade ground.
The nearest four blocks of the adjoining business district were given to the tourist trade but not in the usual ghastly tawdriness favored by so many other “destinations,” a term favored by travel and tourism hucksters. That they were able to preserve the historical nature of the area while at the same time devoting themselves to fleecing outsiders speaks volumes on the clear-sighted minds behind the effort. If there was one flaw in the proverbial ointment it was the egregious in-your-face religious graffiti scrawled across a two-story building on the far side of the railroad tracks. “Fort Scott belongs to Jesus!” the sign shouted in letters the size of stretch limos. I wondered if he also paid property taxes.
Beyond the quiescent fort and the touristy downtown stretched National Avenue. Period maps indicate that Sadie and the others must have entered along that route. At one time it was used as a military road linking Fort Leavenworth in the north to Fort Gibson in the south, well-traveled and well-maintained, fairly level and fitting, too, for Sadie’s remark that “we had pretty good roads today.” If so, and there was no other way for us to think differently due to the maps, the route they’d chosen and the feel of it, the sense of her presence, we followed one hundred years after the fact. “It’s humbling,” Lori said.
Here we called it a day, and retired as darkness fell to our luminous lobby with its Victorian charm and our laptops and our Kindles, the accoutrements of modernity, while Sadie and the others continued southbound past the limits of the city and into the open countryside where they eventually drew close beside a small stream. “All are well,” she wrote, after supper was cooked and the dishes washed and put away, as the group settled down around a fire sated and full and closer than ever to Missouri. Sadie alone with her pencil and paper, her thoughts and whatever emotions she might be feeling carefully controlled by the formality of the endeavor facing her. She wasn’t Virginia Woolf, nor was this a tell-all expose of one person’s inward journey. Her journey was external. It was in the company of others, and as such would be portrayed almost as if written by a bystander who could not perceive who or what Sadie Vail was, more sketch than embodiment.
And yet, for all the lack of detail and confessional, her words were her own. They conveyed only what she felt necessary to her story, neither more nor less. Her diary was direct, it was simple, it was clear. Her descendants might hunger for more but nothing more is forthcoming, and for all the inevitable guesses, inferences, conjecturing and suppositions used to explain or understand this indomitable woman, nothing succeeds. It’s as though Sadie deliberately kept her thoughts simultaneously accessible and veiled. She didn’t whine or complain or wish for things she could not have. Her life at this point was the road and nothing but the road, and it was enough that natural pleasures abounded. “We have seen rail fences and corn cribs today,” she wrote that night. “Fred got some of the nicest hickory nuts tonight.”
(To be continued)