Wednesday, June 06, 2012

V. The Lazarus mule

        “After a fine nights sleep in our wagons we feel fine and are now ready to travel at sun up,” Sadie wrote on the morning of Oct. 4, 1912.  “We breakfasted on flapjacks and coffee. Tasted good. Nothing disturbed us but a dog fight between our dog and Chambers dog.”

From Springside School the road slowly gained elevation in a shallow valley dotted with limestone houses and small farmsteads. A few of them remain, including one fine specimen with “Shehi” engraved above the front door. Shehis were just one branch of Lori’s genealogical backstory, settling the Spring Creek area north of Olsburg in the mid-to-late 1800s. The Herrmann side of her family settled in the Winkler area in northern Riley County, their two-story farmhouse nestled in a narrow cleft of a valley neatly bisected by miles of stone fences hemming in the fields. Few people realize how deep Kansas runs in Lori’s DNA. Because we hail from the mountainous West we’re considered outsiders, something the deceased Shehis, Herrmanns, Grabhorns, Vails, Reeds and others might dispute. 

Sadie probably passed the Shehi house before gaining higher ground with unbroken tallgrass prairie stretching to the horizon on either side. Somewhere between their starting point and the small town of Fostoria the “boys,” a term Sadie used for the three men, gathered some apples and corn for their noon meal. “We relish our meals I can tell you,” she wrote, perhaps all the more considering the fresh fruit was “hooked”—her description. While supplementing precious foodstuffs by accepting nature’s generous bounty was, historically speaking, inherent in wagon travel in the days of westward expansion, reaving remained less socially accepted, notably after Sherman’s march to the sea. This was the first recorded instance of plunder in Sadie’s diary but not the last; eventually the practice would catch up to them. 

The valley petered out a mile from the outskirts of Fostoria. The town never amounted to much, not then and certainly not now. Visiting it required a reason, whether because you lived there, knew someone who did, or were lost. It’s what we euphemistically call off-the-beaten-path but only barely, a mile from the main road to Wamego and I-70, a hundred yards from a secondary road to Manhattan. For all that it could be sited on the desolate steppes of Outer Mongolia. Like many other unincorporated rural towns—hamlet might be a more applicable description—there were no cafes or restaurants, no general stores or indeed merchants of any kind, no gas stations, no newspaper offices, no downtown, no sign of life on the few streets save a few dogs and a pair of curious horses peering over a stubby wooden fence. On any other occasion I might have just blown through with only a cursory glance for anything photographic or scenic but this time our goal was to record something at each landmark named by Sadie as a sort of visual memento. What appeared to be a former blacksmith shop sat empty on the main thoroughfare, one door cracked open as if in invitation. I was more interested in an old rusty pickup parked out front and forthwith applied the brakes. The light was't right but rarely is during road trips.

Fred and the two Charleses met a friend in Fostoria, Sadie wrote, so they probably took a short break to rest the horses and mules from the climb out of the Blue River Valley. Their afternoon was spent en route to Westmoreland, now a matter of minutes on a nice blacktop, then not so fast nor on a road so smooth. Even with the hard surface a traveler’s speed is checked by the verticality and convolution of the road. Any half-baked idea that Kansas is flat, boring and ugly is laid to rest on that short stretch. 

For Sadie and crew it was their first encounter with real hills, something of a shakedown to highlight their shortcomings. Her first impression, probably written during the day, spoke of “a few little hills,” later changed to “We had some awful hills to climb today.” Charles Jewell bought a black horse for $18 from a farmer they met on the road. The horse was big, beautiful and completely blind, something that apparently bothered Charles Jewell nary a whit. A trace of envy colored Sadie’s expressed wish that her and Fred’s team were larger, too. The steepness of the terrain made sure of that.

By the time they made camp two miles from Westmoreland they had traveled just shy of 10 miles, surely a testament to the lay of the land. I tried calculating that selfsame distance and settled on a deep valley bisected by a narrow stream, a shadowed stand of timber in the distance and the remains of a limestone house melting into the hillside. It was impossible to say with certainty that they camped there but it was equally impossible to argue that they hadn’t, so it worked for me. I saluted the valley with my coffee cup and continued on toward Westmoreland, the Pottawatomie County seat. 

While the women started supper the men unhitched the horses and mules,  turning them out to roll. One mule did just that and the other dropped as if poleaxed. “[It] died or we thought she was going to,” Sadie wrote. “We gathered around to see her breathe her last. She twitched and jerked and layed (sic) still. I was trying to plan some way to get back to Blue Rapids when up she jumped just as if she had been born again. We were all glad. I guess she is in her second youth now.”

When I relayed this to a historian friend who occasionally travels by covered wagon and mule, she snorted at my suggestion that the beast of burden had crossed the river Jordan, disliked what it found and reversed course for the promised land of Kansas. “It had colic,” she said, not a little smugly. 

Colic, she explained, is caused by changing feed too quickly, over-exertion, allowing overheated mules large quantities of water, and/or parasites. Mules with bad teeth tend to ingest coarse feed which could contribute to colic or indigestive symptoms. The act of rolling on the ground could also cause a kink in the intestine, usually fatal. Rather than my fanciful explanation, my friend diagnosed the death and resurrection on a kink in the intestine followed by a collapse which dislodged the kink, but not before the poor mule temporarily lost consciousness. It sounded too pat. To each his own, I thought. But there must have been a few tense minutes before the mule, colicky or reborn, leaped to its hooves and pranced about joyfully. 

“We had supper on chicken and gravy,” Sadie wrote with apparent satisfaction. “It was good.” 

And so it was. The mule was alive, and Arkansas still beckoned. 

(To be continued)


Carol said...

Am enjoying your trail story, Tom. My grandmother grew up on a farm at the edge of a small town named Adrian--a town just NE of St. Marys. There is nothing there now to indicate that the crossroads once had a town, with businesses, along it.
There is, however, still a cemetery and a church in the vicinity.

shoreacres said...

Can't help it. Read about your mule and was right back to Faulkner, and him saying, "What do facts and truth have to do with each other?"

Feels like it's time for this, too.

Peggy Vail said...

I love reading these Tom. I was so little when Grandma died that you retelling her story brings her back to me with every chapter. I so look forward to seeing a new one! Thank you, thank you for doing this!

Tom Parker said...

Linda -- I'd like to say I had fiddle and folk music playing during our journey but I have to admit I was playing space music--electronic, deep space stuff. Atmospheric. Perfect, in other words, for leaping into the unknown.

Peggy -- Hey, we're having fun, aren't we? The best is yet to come.

Carol -- It's staggering how many small towns there used to be scattered across the prairie and all utterly vanished now. Thanks for sharing the pics.