Saturday, August 11, 2012

XVIII. Lanterns along the creek

       October 17, 1912, campfires smoldering to ashes with a few red coals glowing in the dark, a low undercurrent of cricketsong rising and falling and rising again in a lullaby as old as time and something tugging at Sadie’s hair. Her eyes shot open taking in the canvas rigging and beyond the opening the eternal stars and an inky shape eclipsing a good portion of them. Another tug, gentle but insistent. She rolled over, heart hammering in her ribs.

“My hair ... was on the pillow and it was pretty well out the back of the wagon,” she wrote. “I woke up in time to see our grey horse take another nip at the pillow. I woke Fred and told him and he laughed. Then we slept some more.”

But sleep was not something that would come easily that morning. Sometime later, Sadie wrote, Fred nudged her to get the day started. The stars still pinwheeled overhead and a distant owl hooted softly. If she asked what time it was it was never recorded only that his suggestion was summarily dismissed. She snuggled deeper into the blankets and went back to sleep.

A noise, muffled and distant. She stirred and did not wake but lapsed deeper into a dreamstate where nothing was real and everything refashioned, the familiar unfamiliar as if seen from afar or outside her mortal bounds. There was the camp and the coaled firepit and the wagons silvery in starlight, the black encircling barrier of the trees and the thrum of insects and something missing she could not place. Beside her Fred snored and the others nestled in their bedding lost in their own dreams and her alone slipping from the wagon to pursue the commotion on bare feet, the grass cool and wet underfoot. The night air felt chill and crisp, October-dry and the Milky Way a river of light bridging the southern horizon to its northern counterpart. 

Did she dream the noise or did the noise summon her? She would never be sure.

She moved past the wagons and into the velvety darkness unafraid, questioning only the noises that now sounded like struggling. They came and went punctuated with long hushed intervals only to resume again. In her mind’s eye she was a pale shape swathed in argent moonbeams, a ghostly figure furtive and noiseless. 

The wagons fell away. Sadie entered the woods and strode among their scaled boles and arrived upon an opening where a dark stream trickled beneath fallen trees leached of color like so many bleached bones. The sound was louder now and nearer and she didn’t pause but continued on pushing through thorned shrubs that plucked at her nightdress and snagged and released the flowing folds almost reluctantly. The utter blackness was nothing but another form of luminance. She followed the creek to a small pool where the stream amassed behind a dam and saw at last the source of the sound and in its finding found herself struggling to wake in the wagon.

She gently shook her husband until he stirred.

“Is it time to get up?” he asked.

“The horse,” she said. “The blind horse. It’s foundering in the creek.”

“Nonsense,” he said. He peered out and counted what horses were visible from his vantage and thought of returning to sleep when Sadie’s assurance jarred him from his bed and into the night. Half-dressed but sharply awake he circled the wagons and enumerated the horses one by one, the new team he’d traded the mules for, the Chamberses horses picketed to a tree, and those of Charles and Goldie Jewell. His math off by one. He peered closer and studied in the half-light of distant galaxies the remaining horses and knew then that the blind horse was missing.

Fred quickly woke the others to form a search party. Lanterns were lit and bobbed through the night like fireflies as they fanned out accompanied by elongated shadows dancing and cavorting like mad visions. Sadie joined them half in a daze with the dream still lingering yet without detail or substance. The glowing lanterns “went in all ways up and down the creek,” she remembered, until one of them came to the pool and found the horse weak but still struggling to free itself on the muddy banks. One of the men ran back to camp to retrieve a rope which they used to leverage the beast from the water. By the time it was rescued they were covered in mud themselves as if baptized in riverine muck. 

The story they told was of the blind horse crossing the bridge and falling into the pool, a tale different than Sadie’s. “They did not believe till daylight came and I showed them where he fell in,” she wrote. Whether they questioned her sentience was never recorded.

After the excitement they cleaned themselves and made ready to depart. There would be no more sleep.


South of Fort Scott they came to the coalfields. 

Coal had fueled a new gold rush, and the southeastern part of the state its epicenter. Between 1880 and 1900 its output had exploded from 300,000 tons annually to almost 6 million tons, and in Cherokee and Crawford counties where blasting was the preferred method of extraction large amounts of slack coal were produced. This in turn fed a secondary market to make coke to supply the zinc smelters. 

Crawford County, with Pittsburg, its leading city, led the way in coal production. In 1904 there were 55 coal companies employing 11,835 men in addition to many small operators, and 44 new coal mines were opened, according to Kansas: a Cyclopedia of State History. Workers seeking employment came by the droves. By the time Sadie and the others passed through on red clay roads powdered with red dust the boom hadn’t abated.

“We have seen about 25 coal mines today,” she wrote that evening. “We came through a mining town and another one that was composed of Mexicans and negroes, I don't know the name of it. Of all the shacks, the coal miners certainly have them.”

Camp after camp, mine after mine, nameless face after nameless face, they passed and knew this was no place for them. There is some speculation among the family that one of the reasons Fred and Sadie left Blue Rapids was because Fred didn’t want to work in the gypsum mine, nor any mine for that matter. True or not, they didn’t linger but rolled on without interruption to Pittsburg which they entered on the east side on 4th Street. Two miles farther east they again circled the wagons and prepared for the night.

But not before Fred and Charles Chambers drove back into town for feed. On the way back a car bore down on them refusing to give way. The horses spooked and bolted into a deep roadside ditch. Fortunately no damage was done other than to the men’s temperament.

With the help of the iPad and Lori’s navigation we too located 4th Street and headed east. Within a  mile we came to an expansive city park bordered on one side by a tiny rivulet. Without hesitation I pulled into the parking lot and cut the engine. “Could this be the same place?” I asked, wondering not for the first time if certain locations evolved from camping places to recreational parks due to topography, historical usage or other factors. It seemed entirely plausible. If nothing else Sadie’s presence was unmistakable, and stronger than we’d so far encountered.

I poured a cup of coffee and dug through the snack box for an Oreo cookie. 

“She was here,” I said, a little breathlessly. We found you again.

“She was here,” Lori agreed.

A few children played on the swing set under the watchful eyes of their mothers. Several people sat in their cars, reading newspapers or idling listening to radios. It was as ordinary as any spring morning, the sun low and hard through the trees, the sound of traffic competing against the songs of birds, and for a brief and fleeting moment no more than a dreamscape of a future yet to come, the park, the people, the cars and the paved parking lot supplanted by a grassy meadow and three covered wagons with a spire of smoke lifting to a turquoise sky, the brittle rustle of cottonwoods and Lori’s great-grandmother standing to the side with pencil and paper in hand, her gaze fixed on something that had caught her eye, a flash of movement that could have been anything, a rabbit darting through the grass, sunlight fracturing on a spider web or the ghostly silhouettes of two people staring back across a century’s chasm.

(To be continued)


shoreacres said...

You often say something like this - "If nothing else Sadie’s presence was unmistakable, and stronger than we’d so far encountered." It makes me curious. What is it that gives you that sense of presence? How do you experience it? Obviously, you're not hearing the theme from the X-files (at least I hope not!) but there must be something that makes that sense of presence stronger "here" rather than "there".

Love the story of the rescue of the blind horse. Well told!

Tom Parker said...

How to describe it. I suppose it's a sense of being watched, of a presence standing at your side.