Part 6 out of 7
apron, and as I came up to her, she spread it out with her hands to call
my attention to it.
"You see, Jake, I've come to work. Show me the morning's dishes, an'
I'll wash 'em. Or maybe you want bread baked? It wouldn't be breakin'
the Sabbath to mix up a bakin' for a poor ol' bach like you, would it?
I'm huntin' work. Show it to me."
I showed her how clean everything was, taking pride in my housekeeping;
and when she seemed not over-pleased with this, I had in all honesty to
tell her how much I was indebted to Mrs. Thorndyke for it.
"The preacher's wife?" she asked sharply. "An' that adopted daughter o'
theirn, Buck Gowdy's sister-in-law, eh?"
I wished I could have admitted this; but I had to explain that Virginia
had not been there. For some reason she seemed in better spirits when
she learned this. When it came time for dinner, which on Sunday was at
one o'clock, she insisted on getting the meal; and seemed to be terribly
anxious for fear everything might not be good. It was a delicious meal,
and to see her preparing it, and then clearing up the table and washing
the dishes gave me quite a thrill. It was so much like what I had seen
in my visions--and so different.
"Now," said she, coming and sitting down by me, and laying her hand on
mine, "ain't this more like it? Don't that beat doing everything
yourself? If you'd only try havin' me here a week, nobody could hire you
to go back to bachin' it ag'in. Think how nice it would be jest to go
out an' do your chores in the morning, an' when you come in with the
milk, find a nice breakfast all ready to set down to. Wouldn't that be
more like livin'?"
"Yes," I said, "it--it would."
"That come hard," said she, squeezing my hand, "like makin' a little boy
own up he likes a girl. I guess I won't ask you the next thing."
"What was the next thing, Rowena?"
"W'y, if it wouldn't be kind o' nice to have some one around, even if
she wa'n't very pretty, and was ignorant, if she was willin' to learn,
an' would always be good to you, to have things kind o' cheerful at
night--your supper ready; a light lit; dry boots warmed by the stove;
your bed made up nice, and maybe warmed when it was cold: even if she
happened to be wearin' an old apern like this--if you knowed she was
thinkin' in her thankful heart of the bashful boy that give it to her
back along the road when she was ragged and ashamed of herself every
time a stranger looked at her!"
Dumbhead as I was I sat mute, and looked as blank as an idiot. In all
this description of hers I was struck by the resemblance between her
vision and mine; but I was dreaming of some one else. She looked at me a
moment, and took her hand away. She seemed hurt, and I thought I saw her
wiping her eyes. I could not believe that she was almost asking me to
marry her, it seemed so beyond belief--and I was joked so much about the
girls, and about getting me a wife that it seemed this must be just
banter, too. And yet, there was something a little pitiful in it,
especially when she spoke again about my little gift to her so long ago.
"I never looked your place over," said she at last. "That's what I come
over fur. Show it to me, Jacob?"
This delighted me. We looked first at the wheat, and the corn, and some
of my cattle were near enough so that we went and looked at them, too. I
told her where I had got every one of them. We looked at the chickens
and the ducks; and the first brood of young turkeys I ever had. I showed
her all my elms, maples, basswoods, and other forest trees which I had
brought from the timber, and even the two pines I had made live, then
not over a foot high.
I just now came in from looking at them, and find them forty feet high
as I write this, with their branches resting on the ground in a great
brown ring carpeted with needles as they are in the pineries.
We sat down on the blue-grass under what is now the big cottonwood in
front of the house. I had stuck this in the sod a little twig not two
feet long, and now it was ten or twelve feet high, and made a very
little shade, to be sure, but wasn't I proud of my own shade trees! Oh,
you can't understand it; for you can not realize the beauty of shade on
that great sun-bathed prairie, or the promise in the changing shadows
under that little tree!
Rowena leaned back against the gray-green trunk, and patted the turf
beside her for me to be seated.
Every circumstance of this strange day comes back to me as I think of
it, and of what followed. I remember just how the poor girl looked as
she sat leaning against the tree, her cheeks flushed by the heat of the
summer afternoon, that look of distress in her eyes as she looked around
so brightly and with so gay an air over my little kingdom. As she sat
there she loosened her belt and took a long breath as if relieved in
her weariness at the long ramble we had taken.
"I never have had a home," she said. "I never had no idee how folk that
have got things lived--till I went over--over to that--that hell-hole
there!" And she waved her hand over toward Blue-grass Manor. I was
startled at her fierce manner and words.
"Your folks come along here the other day," I said, to turn the subject,
"Did they?" she asked, with a little gasp. "What did they say?"
"They said they were headed for Pike's Peak."
"The old story," she said. "Huntin' f'r the place where the hawgs run
around ready baked, with knives an' forks stuck in 'em. I wish to God I
was with 'em!"
Here she stopped for a while and sat with her hands twisted together in
her lap. Finally, "Did they say anything about me, Jacob?"
"I thought," said I, "that they talked as if you'd had a fuss."
"Yes," she said. "They're all I've got. They hain't much, I reckon, but
they're as good as I be, I s'pose. Yes, a lot better. They're my father
an' my mother, an' my brothers. In their way--in our way--they was
always, as good to me as they knowed how. I remember when ma used to
kiss me, and pa held me on his lap. Do you remember he's got one finger
off? I used to play with his fingers, an' try to build 'em up into a
house, while he set an' told about new places he was goin' to to git
rich. I wonder if the time'll ever come ag'in when I can set on any
one's lap an' be kissed without any harm in it!"
There was no false gaiety in her face now, as she sat and looked off
over the marsh from the brow of the hill-slope. A feeling of coming evil
swept over me as I looked at her, like that which goes through the
nerves of the cattle when a tornado is coming. I remembered now the
silence of her brothers when her father and mother had said that she was
no longer a member of their family, and was not going with them to
The comical threat of the old man that he would will his property away
from her did not sound so funny now; for there must have been something
more than an ordinary family disagreement to have made them feel thus. I
recalled the pained look in Ma Fewkes's face, as she sat with her
shoulder-blades drawn together and cast Rowena out from the strange
family circle. What could it be? I turned my back to her as I sat on the
ground; and she took me by the shoulders, pulled me down so that my head
was lying in her lap, and began smoothing my hair back from my forehead
with a very caressing touch.
"Well," said she, "we wun't spoil our day by talkin' of my troubles.
This place here is heaven, to me, so quiet, so clean, so good! Le's not
And before I knew what she meant to do, she stooped down and kissed me
on the lips--kissed me several times. I can not claim that I was
offended, she was so pretty, so rosy, so young and attractive; but at
the same time, I was a little scared. I wanted to end this situation;
so, pretty soon, I proposed that we go down to see where I kept my milk.
I felt like calling her attention to the fact that it was getting well
along in the afternoon, and that she would be late home if she did not
start soon; but that would not be very friendly, and I did not want to
hurt her feelings. So we went down to the spring at the foot of the
hill, where the secret lay of my nice, firm, sweet butter. She did not
seem very much interested, even when I showed her the tank in which the
pans of milk stood in the cool water. She soon went over to a big
granite boulder left there by the glaciers ages ago when the hill was
made by the melting ice dropping its earth and gravel, and sat down as
if to rest. So I went and sat beside her.
"Jacob," said she, with a sort of gasp, "you wonder why I kissed you up
there, don't you?"
I should not have confessed this when I was young, for it is not the
man's part I played; but I blushed, and turned my face away.
"I love you, Jacob!" she took my hand as she said this, and with her
other hand turned my face toward her. "I want you to marry me. Will you,
Jacob? I--I--I need you. I'll be good to you, Jake. Don't say no! Don't
say no, for God's sake!"
Then the tragic truth seemed to dawn on me, or rather it came like a
flash; and I turned and looked at her as I had not done before. I am
slow, or I should have known when her father and mother had spoken as
they did; but now I could see. I could see why she needed me. As an
unsophisticated boy, I had been blind in my failure to see something new
and unexpected to me in human relations; but once it came to me, it was
plain. I was a stockman, as well as a boy; and my life was closely
related to the mysterious processes by which the world is filled with
successive generations of living beings. I was like a family physician
to my animals; and wise in their days and generations. Rowena was
explained to me in a flash of lightning by my every-day experiences;
she was swept within the current of my knowledge.
"Rowena," said I, "you are in trouble."
She knew what I meant.
I hope never again to see any one in such agony. Her face flamed, and
then turned as white as a sheet. She looked at me with that distressful
expression in her eyes, rose as if to go away, and then came back and
sitting down again on the stone, she buried her head on my breast and
wept so terribly that I was afraid. I tried to dry her tears, but they
burst out afresh whenever I looked in her face. The poor thing was
ashamed to look in my eyes; but she clung to me, sobbing, and crying
out, and then drawing long quivering breaths, which seemed to be worse
than sobs. When she spoke, it was in short, broken sentences, sometimes
unfinished, as her agony returned upon her and would not let her go on.
I could not feel any scorn or contempt for her; I could as soon have
looked down on a martyr burning at the stake for an act in which I did
not believe. She was like a dumb beast tied in a burning stall, only
able to moan and cry out and endure.
I have often thought that to any one who had not seen and heard it, the
first thing she said might seem comic.
"Jacob," she said, with her face buried in my breast, "they've got it
worked around so--I'm goin' to have a baby!"
But when you think of the circumstances; the poor, pretty, inexperienced
girl; of that poor slack-twisted family; of her defenselessness in that
great house; of the experienced and practised and conscienceless
seducer into whose hands she had fallen--when you think of all this, I
do not see how you can fail to see how the words were wrung from her as
a statement of the truth. "They" meant all the forces which had been too
strong for her, not the least, her own weakness--for weakness is one of
the most powerful forces in our affairs. "They had got it worked
around"--as if the very stars in their courses had conspired to destroy
her. I had no impulse to laugh at her strange way of stating it, as if
she had had nothing to do with it herself: instead, I felt the tears of
sympathy roll down my face upon her hair of rich brown.
"That's why my folks have throwed me off," she went on. "But I ain't
bad, Jacob. I ain't bad. Take me, and save me! I'll always be good to
you, Jake; I'll wash your feet with my hair! I'll kiss them! I'll eat
the crusts from the table an' be glad, for I love you, Jacob. I've loved
you ever since I saw you. If I have been untrue to you, it was because I
was overcome, and you never looked twice at me, and I thought I was to
be a great lady. Now I'll be mud, trod on by every beast that walks, an'
rooted over by the hawgs, unless you save me. I'll work my fingers to
the bone f'r you, Jacob, to the bone. You're my only hope. For Christ's
sake let me hope a little longer!"
The thought that she was coming to me to save her from the results of
her own sin never came into my mind. I only saw her as a lost woman,
cast off even by her miserable family, whose only claim to
respectability was their having kept themselves from the one depth into
which she had fallen. I thought again of that wretch who had been kind
to me in Buffalo, and of poor Rowena, in poverty and want, stripped of
every defense against wrongs piled on wrongs, rooted over, as she said,
by the very swine, until she should come to some end so dreadful that I
could not imagine it; and not of her alone. There would be another life
to be thought of. I knew that Buckner Gowdy, for she had told me of his
blame in the matter, of her appeal to him, of his light-hearted cruelty
to her, of how now at last, after months of losing rivalry between her
and that other of his victims, the wife of Mobley the overseer, she had
come to me in desperation--I knew there was nothing in that cold heart
to which Rowena could make any appeal that had not been made
unsuccessfully by others in the same desperate case.
I had no feeling that she should have told me all in the first place,
instead of trying to win me in my ignorance: for I felt that she was
driven by a thousand whips to things which might not be honest, but were
as free from blame as the doublings of a hunted deer. I felt no blame
for her then, and I have never felt any. I passed that by, and tried to
look in the face what I should have to give up if I took this girl for
my wife. That sacrifice rolled over me like a black cloud, as clear as
if I had had a month in which to realize it.
I pushed her hands from my shoulders, and rose to my feet; and she knelt
down and clasped her arms around my knees.
"I must think!" I said. "Let me be! Let me think!"
I took a step backward, and as I turned I saw her kneeling there, her
hair all about her face, with her hands stretched out to me: and then I
walked blindly away into the long grass of the marsh.
I finally found myself running as if to get away from the whole thing,
with the tall grass tangling about my feet. All my plans for my life
with Virginia came back to me: I lived over again every one of those
beautiful days I had spent with her. I remembered how she had come back
to bid me good-by when I left her at Waterloo, and turned her over again
to Grandma Thorndyke; but especially, I lived over again our days in the
grove. I remembered that for months, now, she had seemed lost to me, and
that all the hope I had had appeared to be that of living alone and
dreaming of her. I was not asked by poor Rowena to give up much; and yet
how much it was to me! But how little for me to lose to save her from
the fate in store for her!
I can not hope to make clear to any one the tearing and rending in my
breast as these things passed through my mind while I went on and on,
through water and mud, blindly stumbling, dazed by the sufferings I
endured. I caught my feet in the long grass, fell--and it did not seem
worth while to rise again.
The sun went down, and the dusk came on as I lay there with my hands
twisted in the grass which drooped over me. Then I thought of Rowena,
and I got upon my feet and started in search of her, but soon forgot her
in my thoughts of the life I should live if I did what she wanted of me.
I was in such a daze that I went within a rod of her as she sat on the
stone, without seeing her, though the summer twilight was still a
filtered radiance, when suddenly all went dark before my eyes, and I
fell again. Rowena saw me fall, and came to me.
"Jacob," she cried, as she helped me to my feet, "Jacob, what's the
"Rowena," said I, trying to stand alone, "I've made up my mind. I had
other plans--but I'll do what you want me to!"
ROWENA'S WAY OUT--THE PRAIRIE FIRE
The collapse of mind and body which I underwent in deciding the question
of marrying Rowena Fewkes or of keeping unstained and pure the great
love of my life, refusing her pitiful plea and passing by on the other
side, leaving her desolate and fordone, is a thing to which I hate to
confess; for it was a weakness. Yet, it was the directing fact of that
turning-point not only in my own life, but in the lives of many
others--of the life of Vandemark Township, of Monterey County, and of
the State of Iowa, to some extent. The excuse for it lies, as I have
said, in the way I am organized; in the bovine dumbness of my life,
bursting forth in a few crises in storms of the deepest bodily and
spiritual tempest. I could not and can not help it. I was weak as a
child, as she clasped me in her arms in gratitude when I told her I
would do as she wanted me to; and would have fallen again if she had not
held me up.
"What's the matter, Jacob?" she said, in sudden fright at my strange
"I don't know," I gasped. "I wish I could lay down."
She was mystified. She helped me up the hill, telling me all the time
how she meant to live so as to repay me for all I had promised to do for
her. She was stronger than I, then, and helped me into the house, which
was dark, now, and lighted the lamp; but when she came to me, lying on
the bed, she gave a great scream.
"Jake, Jake!" she cried. "What's the matter! Are you dying, my darling?"
"Who, me dying?" I said, not quite understanding her. "No--I'm all
right--I'll be all right, Rowena!"
She was holding her hands up in the light. They were stained crimson
where she had pressed them to my bosom.
"What's the matter of your hands?" I asked, though I was getting drowsy,
as if I had been long broken of my sleep.
"It's blood, Jacob! You've hurt yourself!"
I drew my hand across my mouth, and it came away stained red. She gave a
cry of horror; but did not lose her presence of mind. She sponged the
blood from my clothes, wiping my mouth every little while, until there
was no more blood coming from it. Presently I dropped off to sleep with
my hand in hers. She awoke me after a while and gave me some warm milk.
As I was drowsing off again, she spoke very gently to me.
"Can you understand what I'm saying?" she asked; and I nodded a yes. "Do
you love her like that?" she asked.
"Yes," I said, "I love her like that."
Presently she lifted my hand to her lips and kissed it. She was quite
calm, now, as if new light had come to her in her darkness; and I
thought that it was my consent which had quieted her spirits: but I did
not understand her.
"I can't let you do it, Jacob," said she, finally. "It's too much to
ask.... I've thought of another way, my dear.... Don't think of me or my
troubles any more.... I'll be all right.... You go on loving her, an'
bein' true to her ... and if God is good as they say, He'll make you
happy with her sometime. Do you understand, Jacob?"
"Yes," I said, "but what will you...."
"Never mind about me," said she soothingly. "I've thought of another way
out. You go to sleep, now, and don't think of me or my troubles
I lay looking at her for a while, and wondering how she could suddenly
be so quiet after her agitation of the day; and after a while, the scene
swam before my eyes, and I went off into the refreshing sleep of a tired
boy. The sun was up when I awoke. Rowena was gone. I went out and found
that she had saddled her horse and left sometime in the night; afterward
I found out that it was in the gray of the morning. She had watched by
my bedside all night, and left only after it was plain that I was
breathing naturally and that my spasm had passed. She had come into my
life that day like a tornado, but had left it much as it had been
before, except that I wondered what was to become of her. I was
comforted by the thought that she had "thought of another way." And it
was a long time before the nobility of her action was plain to me; but
when I realized it, I never forgot it. I had offered her all I had when
she begged for it, she had taken it, and then restored it, as the dying
soldier gave the draught of water to his comrade, saying, "Thy necessity
is greater than mine."
Once or twice I made an effort to tell Magnus Thorkelson about this, as
we worked at our after-harvest haying together that week; but it was a
hard thing to do. Perhaps it would not be a secret much longer; but as
yet it was Rowena's secret, not mine. I knew, too, that Magnus had been
haunting Rowena for two years; that he had been making visits to
Blue-grass Manor often when she was there, without taking me into his
confidence; that his excuse that he went to help Surajah Fewkes with his
inventions was not the real reason for his going. I remembered, too,
that Rowena had always spoken well of Magnus, and seemed to see what
most of us did not, that Magnus was better educated in the way
foreigners are taught than the rest of us; and she did not look down on
him the way we did then on folks from other countries. I had no way of
knowing how they stood toward each other, though Magnus had looked sad
and stopped talking lately whenever I had mentioned her. I knew it would
be a shock to him to learn of her present and coming trouble; and,
strange as it may seem, I began to put it back into the dark places in
my brain as if it had not happened; and when it came to mind clearly as
it kept doing, I tried to comfort myself with the thought that Rowena
had said that she had thought of another way out.
We had frost early that year--a hard white frost sometime about the
tenth of September. Neither Magnus nor I had any sound corn, though our
wheat, oats and barley were heavy and fine; and we had oceans of hay.
The frost killed the grass early, and early in October we had a heavy
rain followed by another freeze, and then a long, calm, warm Indian
summer. The prairie was covered with a dense mat of dry grass which
rustled in the wind but furnished no feed for our stock. It was a
splendid fall for plowing, and I began to feel hope return to me as I
followed my plow around and around the lands I laid off, and watched the
black ribbon of new plowing widen and widen as the day advanced
Nothing is so good a soil for hope as new plowing. The act of making it
is inspired by hope. The emblem of hope should be the plow; not the plow
of the Great Seal, but a plow buried to the top of the mold-board in the
soil, with the black furrow-slice falling away from it--and for heaven's
sake, let it fall to the right, as it does where they do real farming,
and not to the left as most artists depict it! I know some plows are so
made that the nigh horse walks in the furrow, but I have mighty little
respect for such plows or the farms on which they are used.
My cattle strayed off in the latter part of October; being tolled off in
this time between hay and grass by the green spears that grew up in the
wet places in the marsh and along the creek. I got uneasy about them on
the twentieth, and went hunting them on one of Magnus Thorkelson's
horses. Magnus was away from home working, and had left his team with
me. I made up my mind that I would scout along on my own side of the
marsh until I could cross below it, and then work west, looking from
every high place until I found the cattle, coming in away off toward the
Gowdy tract, and crossing the creek above the marsh on my way home. This
would take me east and west nearly twice across Vandemark Township as it
was finally established.
I expected to get back before night, but when I struck the trail of the
stock it took me away back into the region in the north part of the
township back of Vandemark's Folly, as we used to say, where it was not
settled, on account of the slew and the distance from town, until in the
'seventies. Foster Blake had it to himself all this time, and ran a herd
of the neighbors' stock there until about 1877, when the Germans came in
and hemmed him in with their improvements, making the second great
impulse in the settlement of the township.
There was a stiff, dry, west wind blowing, and a blue haze in the air.
As the afternoon advanced, the sun grew red as if looked at through
smoked glass, burning like a great coal of fire or a broad disk of
There was a scent of burning grass in the air when I found my herd over
on Section Eight, about where the cooperative creamery and store now
stand. The cattle seemed to be uneasy, and when I started them toward
home, they walked fast, snuffing the air, and giving once in a while an
uneasy, anxious falsetto bellow; and now and then they would break into
a trot as they drew nearer to the places they knew. The smell of smoke
grew stronger, and I knew there was a prairie fire burning to the
westward. The sun was a deeper red, now, and once in a while almost
disappeared in clouds of vaporous smoke which rolled higher and higher
into the sky. Prairie chickens, plover and curlew, with once in a while
a bittern, went hurriedly along to the eastward, and several wolves
crossed our path, trotting along and paying no attention to me or the
cows; but stopping from time to time and looking back as if pursued
from the west.
They were pursued. They were fleeing from the great prairie fire of
1859, which swept Monterey County from side to side, and never stopped
until it struck the river over in the next county. I felt a little
uneasy as I hiked my cattle down into the marsh on my own land, and saw
them picking their way across it toward my grove, which showed proudly a
mile away across the flat. I had plowed firebreaks about my buildings
and stacks, and burned off between the strips of plowing, but I felt
that I ought to be at home. So I rode on at a good trot to make my
circuit of the marsh to the west. The cattle could get through, but a
horse with a man on his back might easily get mired in Vandemark's Folly
anywhere along there; and my motto was, "The more hurry, the
As I topped the hill to get back to the high ground, I saw great clouds
of smoke pouring into the valley at the west passage into the big flat,
and the country to the south was hidden by the smoke, except where, away
off in the southwest in the changing of the wind, I could see the line
of fire as it came over the high ground west of the old Bill Trickey
farm. It was a broad belt of red flames, from which there crept along
the ground a great blanket of smoke, black at first, and then turning to
blue as it rose and thinned. I began making haste; for it now looked as
if the fire might reach the head of the slew before I could, and thus
cut me off. I felt in my pocket for matches; for in case of need, the
only way to fight fire is with fire.
I was not scared, for I knew what to do; but not a mile from where I saw
the fire on the hilltop, a family of Indiana movers were at that moment
smothering and burning to death in the storm of flames--six people, old
and young, of the score or more lost in that fire; and the first deaths
of white people in Vandemark Township. Their name was Davis, and they
came from near Vincennes, we found out.
And within five minutes, as I looked off to the northwest, I saw a woman
walking calmly toward the marsh. She was a long way off, and much nearer
the fire than I was. I looked for the wagon to which she might belong,
but saw none, and it took only one more glance at her to show me that
she was in mortal danger. For she was walking slowly and laboriously
along like a person carrying a heavy burden. The smoke was getting so
thick that it hid her from time to time, and I felt, even at my distance
from the fire, an occasional hot blast on my cheek--a startling proof of
the rapid march of the great oncoming army of flames.
I kicked my heels into the horse's flanks and pushed him to a gallop. I
must reach her soon, or she would be lost, for it was plain that she was
paying no attention to her danger. I went down into a hollow, pounded up
the opposite hill, and over on the next rise of ground I saw her. She
was standing still, now, with her face turned to the fire: then she
walked deliberately toward it. I urged my horse to a faster gait, swung
my hat, and yelled at her, but she seemed not to hear.
The smoke swept down upon her, and when I next could see, she was
stooped with her shawl drawn around her head; or was she on her knees?
Then she rose, and turning from the fire, ran as fast as she could,
until I wheeled my horse across her path, jumped to the ground and
stopped her with my arm about her waist. I looked at her. It was
"Rowena," I shouted, "what you doin' here? Don't you know you'll get
"I couldn't go any closer," she said, as if excusing herself. "Would it
hurt much? I got scared, Jake. Oh, don't let me burn!"
There was no chance to make the circuit of the slew now, even if I had
not been hampered with her. I told her to do as she was told, and not
bother me. Then I gave her the horse to hold, and sternly ordered her
not to let loose of him no matter what he did.
I gathered a little armful of dry grass, and lighted it with a match to
the leeward of us. It spread fast, though I lighted it where the grass
was thin so as to avoid a hot fire; but on the side toward the wind,
where the blaze was feeble, I carefully whipped it out with my slouch
hat. In a minute, or so, I had a line two or three rods long, of little
blazes, each a circle of fire burning more and more fiercely on the
leeward side, and more feebly on the side where the blaze was fanned
away from its fuel. This side of each circle I whipped out with my hat,
some of them with difficulty. Soon, we had a fierce fire raging, leaving
in front of us a growing area of black ashes. We were now between two
fires; the great conflagration from which we were trying to protect
ourselves came on from the west like a roaring tornado, its ashes
falling all about us, its hot breath beginning to scorch us, its
snapping and crackling now reaching the ear along with its roar; while
on the east was the fire of my own kindling, growing in speed, racing
off away from us, leaving behind it our haven of refuge, a tract swept
clean of food for the flames, but hot and smoking, and as yet all too
small to be safe, for the heat and smoke might kill where the flames
could not reach. Between the two fires was the fast narrowing strip of
dry grass from which we must soon move. Our safety lay in the following
of one fire to escape the other.
The main army of the flames coming on from the west, with its power of
suction, fanned itself to a faster pace than our new line could attain,
and the heat increased, both from the racing crimson line to the west,
and the slower-moving back-fire on the other side. We sweltered and
almost suffocated. Rowena buried her face in her shawl, and swayed as if
falling. I took her by the arm, and leading the excited horse, we moved
over into our zone of safety. She was trembling like a leaf.
I was a little anxious for a few minutes for fear I had not started my
back-fire soon enough; but the fear soon passed. The fire came on with a
swelling roar. We followed our back-fire so close as to be almost
blistered by it, coughing, gasping, covering our mouths and nostrils in
such a heat and smother that I could scarcely support Rowena and keep my
own footing. Suddenly the heat and smoke grew less; I looked around, and
saw that the fire had reached our burnt area, and the line was cut for
lack of fuel. It divided as a wave is split by a rock, and went in two
great moving spouting fountains of red down the line of our back-fire,
and swept on, leaving us scorched, blackened, bloodshot of eye and sore
of lips, but safe. We turned, with great relief to me at least, and made
for the open country behind the lines. Then for the first time, I looked
If I had been surprised at the way in which, considering her trouble,
she had kept her prettiness and gay actions when I had last seen her, I
was shocked at the change in her now. The poor girl seemed to have given
up all attempt to conceal her condition or to care for her looks. All
her rosy bloom was gone. Her cheeks were pale and puffy, even though
emaciated. Her limbs looked thin through her disordered and torn
clothes. She wore a dark-colored hood over her snarled hair, in which
there was chaff mixed with the tangles as if she had been sleeping in
straw. She was black with smoke and ashes. Her skirts were draggled as
if with repeated soaking with dew and rain. Her shoes were worn through
at the toes, and through the holes the bare toes stuck out of openings
in her stockings. While her clothes were really better than when I had
first seen her, she had a beggarly appearance that, coupled with her
look of dejection and misery, went to my heart--she was naturally so
bright and saucy. She looked like a girl who had gone out into the
weather and lived exposed to it until she had tanned and bleached and
weathered and worn like a storm-beaten and discouraged bird with its
plumage soiled and soaked and its spirit broken. And over it all hung
the cloud of impending maternity--a cloud which should display the
rainbow of hope. But with her there was only a lurid light which is more
awful than darkness.
I could not talk with her. I could only give her directions and lend her
aid. I tried putting her on the horse behind me, but he would not carry
double; so I put her in the saddle and walked by or ahead of the horse,
over the blackened and ashy prairie, lit up by the red glare of the
fire, and dotted here and there with little smokes which marked where
there were coals, the remains of vegetable matter which burned more
slowly than the dry grass. She said nothing; but two or three times she
gave a distressed little moan as if she were in pain; but this she
checked as if by an effort.
When we reached the end of the slew, we turned south and crossed the
creek just above the pond which we called Plum Pudd'n' Pond, from the
number of bitterns that lived there. It disappeared when I drained the
marsh in the 'eighties. Then, though, it spread over several acres of
ground, the largest body of water in Monterey County. We splashed
through the west end of it, and Rowena looked out over it as it lay
shining in the glare of the great prairie fire, which had now swept
half-way down the marsh, roaring like a tornado and sending its flames
fifty feet into the air. I could not help thinking what my condition
would have been if I had tried to cross it and been mired in the bog,
and like any good stockman, I was hoping that my cattle had got safe
across in their rush for home and safety.
"What water is that?" asked Rowena as we crossed.
"Plum Pudd'n' Pond," I told her.
"Is it deep?" she said.
"Pretty deep in the middle."
"Over your head?"
"I reckoned it was," said she. "I was huntin' fur it when you found me."
"That was after you saw the fire," I said.
"No," said she. "It was before."
In my slow way I pondered on why she had been hunting water over her
head, and sooner than is apt to be the case with me I understood. The
despair in her face as she turned and looked at the shining water told
me. She had refused to accept my offer to be her protector, because she
saw how it hurt me; but she was now ready to balance the books--if it
ever does that--by taking shelter in the depths of the pool! And this
all for the pleasure of that smiling scoundrel!
"I hope God will damn him," I said; and am ashamed of it now.
"What good would that do?" said she wearily. "This world's hard enough,
We got to my house, and I helped her in. I told her to wait while I went
to look at the fire to see whether my stacks were in danger, and to put
out and feed the horse. Then I went back, and found her sitting where I
had left her, and as I went in I heard again that little moan of pain.
The house was as light as day, without a lamp. The light from the fire
shone against the western wall of the room almost as strong as sunlight,
and as we sat there we could hear the roar of the fire rising in the
gusts of the wind, dying down, but with a steady undertone, like the
wind in the rigging of a ship. I got some supper, and after saying that
she couldn't eat, Rowena ate ravenously.
She had gone away from Blue-grass Manor, whipped forth by Mrs. Mobley's
abuse, days and days before, living on what she had carried with her
until it was gone, drinking from the brooks and runs of the prairie, and
then starving on rose-haws, and sleeping in stacks until I had found her
looking for the pool. If people could only have known! Presently she
moaned again, and I made her lie down on the bed.
"What will you do with me, Jacob?" she asked.
"We'll think about that in the morning," said I.
"Maybe you can bury me in the morning," she said after a while. "Oh,
Jake, I'm scared, I'm scared. My trouble is comin' on! My time is up,
Jake. Oh, what shall I do! What shall I do?"
I went out and sat on the stoop and thought about this. Finally I made
up my mind what she really meant by "her trouble," and I went back to
her side. I found her moaning louder and more agonizingly, now: and in
my turn I had my moment of panic.
"Rowena," I said, "I'm goin' out to do something that has to be done.
Will you stay here, and not move out of this room till I come back?"
"I'll have to," she said. "I guess I've walked my last."
So I went out and saddled the fresh horse, and started through that
fiery night for Monterey Centre. The fire had burned clear past the
town, and when I got there I saw what was left of one or two barns or
houses which had caught fire from the burning prairie, still blazing in
heaps of embers. The village had had a narrower escape from the rain of
ashes and sparks which had swept to the very edges of the little cluster
of dwellings. I rode to Doctor Bliven's drug store, climbed the outside
stairway which led to his living-room above, and knocked. Mrs. Bliven
came to the door. I explained that I wanted the doctor at once to come
out to my farm.
"He's not here," said she. "He is dressing some burns from the fire;
but he must be nearly through. I'll go after him."
I refused to go in and sit until she came back, but stood at the foot of
the stair on the sidewalk. The time of waiting seemed long, but I
suppose he came at once.
"Who's sick, Jake?" he asked.
"A girl," I said. "A woman."
"At your house?" asked he. "What is it?"
"It's Rowena Fewkes," said I.
"I thought they had gone to Colorado," said the doctor.
"They said they were leaving her behind," said Mrs. Bliven. "They
said.... Do you say she's at your house? Who's with her?"
"No one," said I. "She's alone. Hurry, Doctor: she needs you bad."
"Just a minute," said he. "What seems to be the matter? Is she very
"It's a confinement case," said I. I had been thinking of the proper
word all the way.
"And she alone!" exclaimed Mrs. Bliven. "Hurry, Doctor! I'll get your
instruments and medicine-case, and you can hitch up. You stay here,
Jake. I want to speak to you."
She ran up-stairs, and down again in a few seconds, with the cases, and
wearing her bonnet and cloak. I could hear the doctor running his buggy
out of the shed, and speaking to his horses. She set the cases down on
the sidewalk, came up to me, put her hand on my arm and spoke.
"Jake," said she, "are you and Rowena married?"
"Us married!" I exclaimed. "Why, no!"
"This is bad business," said she. "I am surprised, and there's no woman
out there with the poor little thing?"
"No," I said; "as soon as I could I started for the doctor because I
thought he was needed first. But she needs a woman--a woman that won't
look down on her, I wish--I wish I knew where there was one!"
"Jake," said she, "you've done the fair thing by me, and I'll stand by
you, and by her. I'll go to her in her trouble. I'll go now with the
doctor. And when I do the fair thing, see that you do the same. I'm not
the one to throw the first stone, and I won't. I'm going with
"What for?" said he.
"Just for the ride," she said. "I'll tell you more as we go."
They outstripped me on the return trip, for my horse was winded, and I
felt that there was no place for me in what was going on at the farm,
though what that must be was very dim in my mind.
I let my horse walk. The fire was farther off, now; but the sky, now
flecked with drifting clouds, was red with its light, and the sight was
one which I shall never see again: which I suppose nobody will ever see
again; for I do not believe there will ever be seen such an expanse of
grass as that of Iowa at that time. I have seen prairie fires in Montana
and Western Canada; but they do not compare to the prairie fires of old
Iowa. None of these countries bears such a coating of grass as came up
from the black soil of Iowa; for their climate is drier. I can see that
sight as if it were before my eyes now. The roaring came no longer to my
ears as I rode on through the night, except faintly when the breeze,
which had died down, sprang up as the fire reached some swale covered
with its ten-foot high saw-grass. Then, I could see from the top of some
rising ground the flames leap up, reach over, catch in front of the
line, kindle a new fire, and again be overleaped by a new tongue of
fire, so that the whole line became a belt of flames, and appeared to be
rolling along in a huge billow of fire, three or four rods across, and
miles in length.
The advance was not in a straight line. In some places for one reason or
another, the thickness or thinness of the grass, the slope of the land,
or the varying strength of the wind, the fire gained or lost ground. In
some places great patches of land were cut off as islands by the joining
of advanced columns ahead of them, and lay burning in triangles and
circles and hollow squares of fire, like bodies of soldiers falling
behind and formed to defend themselves against pursuers. All this
unevenness of line, with the varying surface of the lovely Iowa prairie,
threw the fire into separate lines and columns and detachments more and
more like burning armies as they receded from view.
Sometimes a whole mile or so of the line disappeared as the fire burned
down into lower ground; and then with a swirl of flame and smoke, the
smoke luminous in the glare, it moved magnificently up into sight,
rolling like a breaker of fire bursting on a reef of land, buried the
hillside in flame, and then whirled on over the top, its streamers
flapping against the horizon, snapping off shreds of flame into the air,
as triumphantly as a human army taking an enemy fort. Never again, never
again! We went through some hardships, we suffered some ills to be
pioneers in Iowa; but I would rather have my grandsons see what I saw
and feel what I felt in the conquest of these prairies, than to get up
by their radiators, step into their baths, whirl themselves away in
their cars, and go to universities. I am glad I had my share in those
old, sweet, grand, beautiful things--the things which never can
An old man looks back on things passed through as sufferings, and feels
a thrill when he identifies them as among the splendors of life. Can
anything more clearly prove the vanity of human experiences? But look at
the wonders which have come out of those days. My youth has already
passed into a period as legendary as the days when King Alfred hid in
the swamp and was reproved by the peasant's wife for burning the cakes.
I have lived on my Iowa farm from times of bleak wastes, robber bands,
and savage primitiveness, to this day, when my state is almost as
completely developed as Holland. If I have a pride in it, if I look back
to those days as worthy of record, remember that I have some excuse.
There will be no other generation of human beings with a life so rich in
change and growth. And there never was such a thing in all the history
of the world before.
I knew then, dimly, that what I saw was magnificent; but I was more
pleased with the safety of my farmstead and my stacks than with the grim
glory of the scene; and even as to my own good fortune in coming through
undamaged, I was less concerned than with the tragedy being enacted in
my house. I could not see into the future for Rowena, but I felt that it
would be terrible. The words "lost," "ruined," "outcast," which were
always applied to such as she had become, ran through my mind all the
time; and yet, she seemed a better girl when I talked with her than when
she was running over the prairie like a plover following old Tom and the
little clittering wagon. Now she seemed to have grown, to have taken on
a sort of greatness, something which commanded my respect, and almost
It was the sacredness of martyrdom. I know this now: but then I seemed
to feel that I was disgracing myself for not loathing her as
"It's a boy!" said Doctor Bliven, as I came to the house. "The mother
ain't in very good shape. Seems exhausted--exhausted. She'll pull
through, though--she'll pull through; but the baby is fat and lusty.
Strange, how the mother will give everything to the offspring, and bring
it forth fat when she's as thin as a rail--thin as a rail. Mystery of
nature, you know--perpetuation of the race. Instinct, you know,
instinct. This girl, now--had an outfit of baby clothes in that bundle
of hers--instinct--instinct. My wife's going to stay a day or so. I'll
take her back next time I come out."
"You must 'tend to her, Doc," said I. "I'll guarantee you your pay."
"Very well, Jake. Of course you would--of course, of course," said he.
"But between you and me there wouldn't be any trouble about pay. Old
friends, you know; old friends. Favors in the past. You've done things
for me--my wife, too. Fellow travelers, you know. Never call on us for
anything and be refused. Be out to-morrow. Ought to have a woman here
when I go. Probably be milk for the child when it needs it; but needs
woman. Can get you a mover's wife's sister--widow--experienced with her
own. Want her? Bring her out for you--bring her out to-morrow. Eh?"
I told him to bring the widow out, and was greatly relieved. I went to
Magnus's cabin that night to sleep, leaving Mrs. Bliven with Rowena. I
hoped I might not have to see Rowena before she went away; for the very
thought of seeing the girl with the child embarrassed me; but on the
third day the widow--they afterward moved on to the Fort Dodge
country--came to me, and standing afar off as if I was infected with
something malignant, told me that Mrs. Vandemark wanted to see me.
"She ain't Mrs. Vandemark," I corrected. "Her name is Rowena Fewkes."
"I make it a habit," said the widow, whose name was Mrs. Williams, "to
speak in the present tense."
Whatever she may have meant was a problem to me; but I went in. Rowena
lay in my bed, and beside her was a little bundle wrapped in a blanket
made of one of my flannel sheets. The women were making free of my
property as a matter of course.
"What are you goin' to do with me, Jake?" she asked again, looking up at
"I'm goin' to keep you here till you're able to do for yourself," I
said. "Time enough to think of that after a while."
She took my hand and pressed it, and turned her face to the pillow.
Pretty soon she turned the blanket back, and there lay the baby, red and
ugly and wrinkled.
"Ain't he purty?" said she, her face glowing with love. "Oh, Jake, I
thank God I didn't find the pond before you found me. I didn't know very
well what I was doin'. I'll have something to love an' work fur, now. I
wonder if they'll let me be a good womern. I will be, in spite of hell
an' high water--f'r his sake, Jake."
As I lay in Magnus's bed that night, I could see no way out for her. She
could get work, I knew, for there was always work for a woman in our
pioneer houses. The hired girl who went from place to place could find
employment most of the time; but the baby would be an incumbrance. It
would be a thing that the eye of censure could not ignore, like the
scarlet "A" on the breast of the girl in Nathaniel Hawthorne's story. I
could not foresee how the thing would work out, and lay awake pondering
on it until after midnight, and I had hardly fallen asleep, it seemed to
me, when the door was opened, and in came Magnus. He had finished his
job and come back.
"You hare, Yake?" he said, in his quiet and unmoved way. "I'm glad. Your
house bane burn up in fire?"
I told him the startling news, and as the story of poor Rowena slowly
made its way into his mind, I was startled and astonished at its effect
on him; for he has always been to me a man who would be calm in a
tornado, and who would meet shipwreck or earthquake without a tremor. I
have seen him standing in his place in the ranks with his comrades
falling all about loading and firing his musket, with no more change in
his expression than a cold light of battle in his mild buttermilk eyes.
I have seen him wipe from his face the blood of a fellow-soldier
spattered on him by a fragment of shell, as if it had been a splash of
water from a puddle. But now, he trembled. He turned pale. He raged up
and down the little room with his hands doubled into fists and beating
the air. He bit down upon his Norwegian words with clenched teeth. I was
afraid to talk to him at last. Finally, he turned to me and said:
"Ay know de man! So it vas in de ol' country! Rich fallar bane t'inking
poor girl notting but like fresh fruit for him to eat; a cup of vine for
him to drink; an' he drink it! He eat de fruit. But dis bane different
country. Ay keel dis damned Gowdy! You hare, Yake? Ay keel him!"
Of course I told him that this would never do, and talked the way we all
do when it is our duty to keep a friend from ruining himself. He sat
down while I was talking, and as far as I could see heard never a word
of what I said. Finally I talked myself out, and still he sat there as
silent as a statue.
"Ay--tank--Ay--take--a--valk," he said at last, in the jerky way of the
Norwegian; and he went out into the night.
I lay back expecting that he would come in pretty soon, when I had more
of which I had thought to talk to him about; but I went to sleep, and
having been a good deal broken of my rest, I slept late. He was still
absent when I woke up. When I got to my place, the widow told me that he
had been there and had a long talk with Rowena, and had hitched up his
team and driven away.
Rowena was asleep when I looked in, and I went out to plow. If Magnus
had gone to kill Buck Gowdy, there was nothing I could do to prevent it.
As a matter of fact, I approved of his impulse. I had felt it myself,
though not with any such wrathful bitterness. I had known for a long
time that Magnus had a tenderness toward Rowena; but he was such a
gentle fellow, and seemed to be so slow in approaching her, with his
fooling with Surajah's inventions and the like, that I set down his
feeling as a sort of sheepish drawing toward her which never would
amount to anything. But now I saw that his rage against Gowdy was of the
kind that overpowered him, stolid as he had always seemed. It rose above
mine in proportion to the passion he must have felt for her, when she
was a girl that a man could take for a wife. I pitied him; and I did not
envy Buck Gowdy, if it chanced that they should come together while
Magnus's white-hot anger was burning; but I rather hoped they would
meet. I did not believe that in any just court Magnus would be punished
if he supplied the lack in the law.
When I turned out at noon, I saw Magnus's team, and a horse hitched to a
buggy tied to my corn-crib; and when I went into the house, I half
expected to find Jim Boyd, the sheriff, there to arrest Magnus
Thorkelson for murder, at the bedside of Magnus's lady-love. I could
imagine how N. V. Creede, whom I had already resolved I would retain to
defend Magnus, would thrill the jury In his closing speech for the
prisoner as the bar.
What I found was Elder Thorndyke and grandma and the widow, all standing
by Rowena's bed. The widow was holding the baby in her arms, but as I
came in she laid it in a chair and covered it up, as much as to indicate
that on this occasion the less seen of the infant the better. Magnus was
holding Rowena's hand, and the elder was standing on the other side of
the bed holding a book. Grandma Thorndyke stood at the bed's foot
looking severely at a _Hostetter's Almanac_ I had hanging on the
head-board. The widow was twittering around from place to place. When I
came in, Magnus motioned me to stand beside him, and as I took my place
handed me a gold ring. Rowena looked up at me piteously, as if to ask
forgiveness. Sometime during the ceremony we had the usual hitch over
the ring, for I had put it in my trousers pocket and had to find it so
that Magnus could put it on Rowena's finger. I had never seen a marriage
ceremony, and was at my wit's end to know what we were doing, thinking
sometimes that it was a wedding, and sometimes that it might be
something like extreme unction; when at last the elder said, "I
pronounce you man and wife!"
GOWDY ACKNOWLEDGES HIS SON
Now I leave it to the reader--if I ever have one besides my
granddaughter Gertrude--whether in this case of the trouble of Rowena
Fewkes and her marriage to Magnus Thorkelson, I did anything by which I
ought to have forfeited the esteem of my neighbors, of the Reverend and
Mrs. Thorndyke, or of Virginia Royall. I never in all my life acted in a
manner which was more in accordance to the dictates of my conscience.
You have seen how badly I behaved, or tended to behave in the past, and
lost no friends by it. In a long life of dealing in various kinds of
property, including horse-trading, very few people have ever got the
best of me, and everybody knows that this is less a boast than a
confession; and yet, this one good act of standing by this poor girl in
her dreadful plight degraded me more in the minds of the community than
all the spavins, thorough-pins, poll-evils and the like I ever concealed
or glossed over. We are all schoolboys who usually suffer our whippings
for things that should be overlooked; and the fact that we get off scot
free when we should have our jackets tanned does not seem to make the
injustice any easier to bear.
Dick McGill, the editor of the scurrilous Monterey _Journal_ was, as
usual, the chief imp of this as of any other deviltry his sensational
paper could take a part in. Of course, he would be on Buck Gowdy's side;
for what rights had such people as Magnus and Rowena and I?
"A wedding took place out on the wild shores of Hell Slew last week,"
said this paper. "It was not a case, exactly, of the funeral baked meats
coldly furnishing forth the marriage supper; but the economy was quite
as striking. The celebration of the arrival of the heir of the Manor
(though let us hope not of the manner) was merged in the wedding
festivities. We make our usual announcements: Married at the residence
of J.T. Vandemark, Miss Rowena Fewkes to Mr. Magnus Thorkelson. It's a
boy, standard weight. The ceremonies were presided over by Doctor
Bliven, our genial disciple of Esculapias, and by Elder Thorndyke, each
in his respective sphere of action. Great harmony marked the carrying
out of these usually separate functions. The amalgamation of peoples
goes on apace. Here we have Yankee, Scandinavian and Dutch so
intertwined that it will take no common 'glance of eye, thought of man,
wing of angel' to separate the sheep from the goats in the sequel.
He little knew the sequel!
I did not read this paper. In fact, I did not read anything in those
days; and I do not believe that Magnus and Rowena knew for some time
anything more about this vile and slanderous item than I did. It was
only by the way we were treated that we felt that the cold shoulder of
the little world of Vandemark Township and Monterey County was turned
toward us. Of course Magnus and Rowena expected this; but I was hurt
more deeply by this injustice than by anything in my whole life.
Grandma Thorndyke came out no more to red up my house, and exhibit her
samples of prospective wives to me. The neighbors called no more. I
began driving over to the new railroad to do my marketing, though it was
twice as close to go to Monterey Centre. When Elder Thorndyke, largely
through the contributions of Governor Wade and Buckner Gowdy, succeeded
in getting his church built, I was not asked to go to the doings of
laying the corner-stone or shingling the steeple. I was an outsider.
I quit trying to neighbor with the Roebucks, Smiths, and George Story,
my new neighbors on the south; and took up with some French who moved in
on the east, the families of Pierre Lacroix and Napoleon B. Bouchard. We
called the one "Pete Lackwire" and the other "Poly Busher." They were
the only French people who came into the township. They were good
neighbors, and fair farmers, and their daughters made some of the best
wives the sons of the rest of us got. One of my grandsons married the
prettiest girl among their grandchildren--a Lacroix on one side and a
Bouchard on the other.
It may well be understood that I now took no part in the township
history, which gets more complex with the coming in of more settlers;
but it was about this time that what is now Vandemark Township began
agitating for a separate township organization. We were attached to
Centre Township, in which was situated the town of Monterey Centre. This
town, dominated by the County Ring, clung to all the territory it could
control, so as to spend the taxes in building up the town. A great
four-room schoolhouse was finished in the summer of 1860; most of it
built by taxes paid by the speculators who still owned the bulk of
The Vandemark Township people made a great outcry about the shape of
Centre Township, and called it "The Great Crane," with our township as
the neck, and a lot of other territory back of us for the body, and
Monterey Centre for the head. I took no part in this agitation, for I
was burning with a sense of indignation at the way people treated me;
but the County Ring compromised by building us a schoolhouse on my
southwest corner, now known as the Vandemark School. But I cared nothing
about this. I had no children to go to school, and while I never ceased
to dream of a future with Virginia as my wife, I kept saying to myself
that I never should have a family. Consistency is the least of the
necessaries of our visions and dreams. I never tried to see Virginia. I
avoided the elder and Grandma Thorndyke. I knew that she was disgusted
with me for even an innocent connection with the Thorkelson matter, and
I supposed that Virginia felt the same way. So I went on trying to be as
near to a hermit as I could.
I know now that things began to change for me in the minds of the people
when Rowena's baby was christened. This took place early in the winter.
Magnus asked me to go to the church; so I was present when Magnus and
Rowena stood before the altar in a ceremony which Rowena would have
given anything to escape, and Magnus, too, but he believed that the
child's soul could not be saved if it died unchristened, and she yielded
to his urgings in the matter. He held his head high as he stood by her,
as he always stood in every relation in life, witnessing before God and
man that he believed her a victim, and that whatever guilt she may have
incurred, she had paid for it in full. After the responses had been
made, Elder Thorndyke unfolded a paper which had been handed him with
the name of the child on it; then he went on with his part of the
ceremony: "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, I
baptize thee--" And then he carried on a whispered conversation with the
mother, gave the loudest honk I ever heard him utter, and went on: "I
baptize thee, Owen Lovejoy Gowdy."
They said that Gowdy swore when he heard of this, and exclaimed, "I
don't care about her picking me out; but I hate to be joined with that
damned Black Abolitionist."
The elder seemed dazed after he had done the deed, and looked around at
the new church building as if wondering whether he had not committed
some sort of crime in thus offending a man who had put so much money in
it. He had not, however; for in advertising in this way Gowdy's wrong to
one girl, he ended forever his sly approaches, under the excuses of
getting her some fictitious property, saving his soul, and the like,
I think it was the word of what Gowdy said about the christening that
finally wrought Magnus up to the act he had all along resolved upon, the
attempt on Gowdy's life. He armed himself and went over to the
Blue-grass Manor looking for Buck; but found that his man had gone to
Kentucky. Magnus left word for Gowdy to go armed and be prepared to
protect himself, and went home. He said nothing to me about this; but
the next spring when Gowdy came back, Magnus started after him again
with a gun loaded with buckshot, and Gowdy, who, I suppose, looked upon
Magnus as beneath him, had him arrested. I went to Monterey Centre and
put my name on Magnus's bond when he was bound over to keep the peace.
I hinted to Magnus that he needn't mind about the bond if he still
believed in his heart that Gowdy needed killing; but Rowena pleaded with
him not to ruin himself, me and her by pursuing his plan of executing
what both he and I believed to be justice on a man who had forfeited his
life by every rule of right. This lapse into lawlessness on his part and
mine can not be justified, of course. It is set forth here as a part of
the history of the place and the time.
I am not equipped to write the history of the celebrated Gowdy Case,
which grew out of these obscure circumstances in the lives of a group of
pioneers in an Iowa township. Probably the writers of history will never
set it down. Yet, it swayed the destiny of the county and the state in
after years, when Gowdy had died and left his millions to be fought over
in courts, in caucuses, in conventions, state and county. If it does not
go into the histories, the histories will not tell the truth. If great
law firms, governors, judges, congressmen and senators, lobbyists and
manipulators, are not judged in the light of the secret as well as the
surface influence of the Gowdy Case, they will not be rightly judged.
The same thing is true of the influence of the loss of the county funds
by Judge Stone. Who was guilty? Was the plan to have the bag of
"treasure" stolen from us by the Bunker gang a part of the scheme of
whoever took the money? Did the Bushyagers know about the satchel? Did
they know it was full of salt instead of money? Of course not, if they
were in the thing.
Did some one mean to fix it so the Bunkers would rob us of the satchel
and thus let everybody off? And if so, what about me? I should have had
to fight for the money, for that was what I was hired for. Was I to be
killed to save Judge Stone, or Governor Wade, and if so, which?
My part in the affair was never much spoken of in the hot newspaper and
stump-speech quarrels over the matter; but after a while, when I had had
time to figure it all out, I began to think I had not been treated quite
right; but what was I anyhow? This was another thing that made me sore
at all the Monterey Centre crowd, including the elder and grandma, with
their truckling to Gowdy and Wade and Stone and the rest who helped the
elder build his church. I suppose that the stolen money, some of it,
went to pay for that church; but if every church had remained unbuilt
that has stolen money in it, there would be fewer temples pointing, as
the old song says, with taper spire to heaven, wouldn't there?
Of course these scandalous matters were soon lost sight of in the
excitement of the Civil War. This thing which changed all our lives the
way war does, came upon me like a clap of thunder. I was living like a
hermit, and working like a horse, not trying to make any splurge, as I
might have done, even having given up the idea of getting me a team of
horses, which I had been thinking of for a while back with the notion of
maybe getting a buggy and beginning to take Virginia out buggy-riding,
and thus working up in a year or two to popping the question to her. But
now I sulked in my cabin.
I guess the war surprised the people who read about it as much as it did
me. I often thought of the poor slaves, and liked Dunlap and Thatcher,
the men I had run into back in Wisconsin on the road in 1855, for going
down into Kansas to fight for Free Soil; but as for fighting in which I
should have any interest; bless you, it never occurred to any of us,
either North or South. The trouble was always going to be off somewhere
else. I guess that's the way with the oncoming of wars. If we knew they
would come to us, we'd be less blood-thirsty.
I heard of the Dred Scott Decision, and thought J.P. Roebuck was talking
foolishness when he came to me one day over in my back field to borrow a
chew of tobacco--he was always doing that--and said that this decision
made slavery a general thing all over the Union. I didn't see any
slavery around Vandemark Township, and no signs of any. I heard of Old
John Brown, and had a hazy idea that he was some kind of traitor who
ought to have been hanged, or the government wouldn't have hanged him.
You see how inconsistent I was. But wars are fought by inconsistent men
who suffer and die for other people's ideas: don't you think so? Abraham
Lincoln was nominated about corn-planting time; but I was not thrilled.
I had never heard of him. The nation was drifting down the rapids to the
falls; and for all the deafening roar that came to our ears, we did not
know or think of the cataract we were to be swept over.
I was a voter now, and so was Magnus; but he was for Lincoln, and I was
not. It seemed to me that the Republican Party was too new. And yet I
was not satisfied with Douglas. Why? It was merely because I had got it
into my mind that he had been beaten in a debate by Lincoln, and it
seemed that this defeat ought to put him out of the running for
president. I sat down a few rods from the polls and thought over the
matter of choosing between Edward Everett and John C. Breckenridge,
pestered by Governor Wade and H.L. Burns and N.V. and the rest, until
finally they left me and when I had made my decision, I found that the
polls had closed. I was a good deal relieved.
I am giving you a glimpse into the mind of a conscientious and ignorant
voter. If I had read more, my mind would have been made up beforehand,
but by some one else. I was not a fool; I was just slow and bewildered.
The average voter shoots at the flock and gets it over with. He has had
his mind made up for him by some one--and maybe it's just as well: for
when he tries, as I did, to make it up for himself, he is apt to find
that he has no basis for judgment. That is why all governments, free and
the other kind, have always been minority governments, and always will
be. And I reckon that's just as well, too.
Lincoln's first call for volunteers took only a few men out of the
county, and none from Vandemark Township, except George Story. I had not
begun to take much interest in the matter; and when in the summer of
1861 there began to be war meetings to spur up young men to enlistment
the speakers all shouted to us that the war was not to free the slaves,
but to save the Union. Now this was a new slant on the question, and I
had to think over it for a while.
Sitting in the wagon of history with my feet dangling down and facing
the rear, as we all ride, I can now see that the thing was as broad as
it was long. The Union could not be preserved without freeing the
slaves, for all of what Lincoln said when he stated that he would save
the Union by freeing the slaves if he could do that, or by keeping them
slaves if he could do that, or by freeing some of them and leaving the
rest in servitude if he could do that; but that save the Union he would.
Now in my narrow way, I could see some point in freeing the slaves, but
as for the Union, I hardly knew whether it was important or not. I
needed to think it over. It might be just as well not to fight to
preserve the Union; and when I had heard men say, "I enlisted to save
the Union, and not to free niggers," as a lot of them did, I scratched
my head and wondered why I could not feel so devoted to the Union as
they did. Looking back from the tail-end of the wagon, I now see what
Lincoln meant by the importance of keeping us all under one flag; but I
didn't know then, and I don't believe one man in a hundred who shouted
for the Union knew why the Union was so important. There never was a
better cause than the one we sung for in "The Union, the Union forever!"
but thousands and thousands sang and shouted it, and died for it--how
bravely and wonderfully they died for it!--who knew as little what it
meant as I did. And the rebels--how gallantly they died for their cause,
too. Not for slavery, as we blindly thought, misjudging them as we must
always misjudge our foes (or we should not have the hate in our hearts
to fight them); but for the very thing we were fighting for--liberty, as
Both sides are always right in war.
I finally began to see light when I thought one night of my old life on
the canal, and asked myself how it would affect us in Iowa if York
State and the East should secede, as the South was trying to do. It
would put them in shape to starve us of the West by levying duties on
our crops when going to market. But, said I to myself, we could then
ship down the Mississippi; but the river was already closed and would
always be controlled by the Confederacy. This was serious; but when I
said to myself that the East would never secede, the question, Why not?
could not be answered if the principle of secession could once be set up
as correct and made good by victory. Then, it came into my mind after a
month or two of thinking, that any state or group of states could secede
whenever they liked; that others would go to war with them to keep such
unions as were left; and we should never be at peace long: so after all,
the Union _was_ important, and must be preserved.
The question must be settled now in this war.
But I don't know how long I should have studied this matter over in my
lonely benightedness, if I had not seen Virginia one night at a war
meeting that I sneaked into in the Centre, with a young man dressed in
store clothes whom I afterward knew as Will Lockwood, the principal of
the Monterey Centre school, who seemingly was going forward to put his
name down as enlisted. I jumped in ahead of him, so as to show Virginia
that her fellow was not the only patriot, and beat him to it.
"So you are going to fight Kaintucky?" said she to me as if I had
engaged to ruin everything she held dear.
"We must save the Union," I said. "I didn't think of you being on the
"Mr. Lockwood," said she, "this is Teunis Vandemark, an old friend of
mine. He's going to fight my friends, too."
In two or three minutes I found that he was from Herkimer County, had
lived along the Erie Canal, and was actually the son of my old teacher
Lockwood, to whom I had gone when I was wintering with Mrs. Fogg in the
old canalling days. He was my best friend during all my service as a
soldier--which you will soon see was not long. We left him on the field
The recruiting officer got us uniforms--or somebody did; and during the
nice weather--it was October when I enlisted--our company did some
drilling. We had no arms, but used shotguns, squirrel rifles, and even
sticks. Will Lockwood tried to drill us, but made a bad mess of it. Then
one day Buckner Gowdy, who had also enlisted, took charge of a squad of
men and in ten minutes showed that he knew more about drill than any one
else in the county. He had been educated at a military school
All the skill in drill that we ever got, we owed to him. The sharp word
of command; the quick swing to the proper position; the snappy step;
everything that we knew more than a lot of yokels might be expected to
know, we got from Buck Gowdy. Magnus admitted it, even; but he turned
pale whenever he was in a squad under Gowdy's command. It was gall and
wormwood for me, and worse for him; but when it came to electing a
captain of our company, I voted for Gowdy, and under the same conditions
would do it again. It was better to have a real captain who was a
scoundrel, than a man who knew nothing but kept the Commandments. War
is hell in more than one respect. I felt that Gowdy would be more likely
to bring us safe out of any bad hole in which we might find ourselves,
than any one else. But I was glad, sometimes, when he was rawhiding us
into shape, that Magnus Thorkelson was drilling with a wooden gun. I
wondered how the new captain himself felt about this.
Governor Wade gave us a great entertainment at his farm just before we
marched--still without guns--to the railroad to take the cars for
Dubuque, where boats were supposed to be waiting to take us down the
river--if we could make it before navigation was closed by the ice. His
great barns were cleared out for tables, and the house was open, and
there were flags and transparencies expressing the heroism of those who
were willing to do anything to get us into the fight.
Everybody was there--except Judge Stone. I remember looking through the
open door at the great iron safe into which he had put the county
satchel--I am careful not to commit myself as to the money part of
it--and all the events of the previous visit came back through my mind;
but mainly how angry I had been with Virginia for being kissed by Bob
Wade. And Bob was there, too, all spick and span in his new lieutenant's
uniform with Kittie Fleming hanging on his arm, her eyes drinking him in
with every glance. The governor was in no position to make a row about
this. The occasion had caused an armistice to be signed as to all our
neighborhood quarrels, and Bob Wade was emancipated from the stern
paternal control, as Jack had been when he went off with the first
flight in the original seventy-five thousand--emancipated by the
uniform. Bob and Kittie sailed along in the face and eyes of the
governor and his wife in spite of the fact that such association was
forbidden--and sailed down to Waterloo where they were married before we
went off hurrahing for the cause.
Virginia was there with the elder and grandma. The old preacher and his
wife looked more shabby than I had ever seen them, grandma's gloves more
extensively darned, the elder's clothes shinier, his cuffs in all their
whiteness more frayed, and there were beautifully darned places in the
stiff starched bosom of his shirt. He pressed my hand warmly as he said,
"God bless you, Jacob, and bring you safe back to us, my boy!" Grandma's
eyes glistened as she echoed his sentiments and began asking me about my
underwear and especially my socks. Virginia looked the other way; but
when I went off by myself, Will Lockwood came and drew me away into a
corner to talk with me about old times along the canal; and suddenly we
found Virginia there, and Will all at once thought of some one he wanted
to speak to and left us together.
"I didn't mean that I thought you ought not to go to the war, Teunis,"
said she. "You must go, of course."
"Maybe your friends," I said after standing dumb for a while, "will be
on the Union side."
"No," said she. "I have no relations--and few friends there; but all I
have will be on the other side, I reckon. It makes no difference.
They've forgotten me by this time. Everybody has forgotten me that once
liked me--everybody but Elder Thorndyke and Mrs. Thorndyke. They love
me, but nobody else does."
"I thought some others acted as if they did," I said.
"You thought a lot about it!" she scoffed. Then we sat quite a while
silent. "I shall think every day," said she at last, "about the only
happy time I have had since Ann took sick--and long before that. The
only happy time, and the happiest, I reckon, that I ever'll have. I'll
think of it every day while you're at the front. I want you to know when
you are suffering and in danger that some one thinks of the kindest
thing you ever did--and maybe the kindest thing any boy ever did. You
don't care about it now, maybe; but the time may come when you will."
"What time was that?" I asked.
"You know, Teunis," the tears were falling in her lap now. "Those days
when we were together alone on the wide prairie--when you took me in and
was so good to me--and saved me from going wild, if not from anything
else bad. I remember that for the first few days, I was not quite easy
in my feelings--I reckon your goodness hadn't come to me yet; but one
day, after you had been away for a while, there in the grove where we
stayed so long, you looked so pale and sorry that I began talking to you
more intimately, you remember, and we suddenly drew close to each other,
and for the first time, I felt so safe, so safe! Something has come
between us lately, Teunis. I partly know what; and partly I don't; but
She stopped in the middle of what she seemed to be saying. At first I
thought she had choked up with grief, but when I looked her in the face,
except for her eyes shining very bright, I could not see that she was at
all worked up in her feelings. She spoke quite calmly to some one that
passed by. I was abashed by the thought that she was giving me credit
for something I was not entitled to. She spoke of the day when I was in
my heart the meanest: but how could I explain? So I said nothing, much,
but hummed and hawed, with "I--" and "Yes, I--," and nothing to the
point. Finally, I bogged down, and quit.
"We are very poor," said she, nodding toward the elder and grandma. "So,
ignorant as I am, I kept a school last summer--did you know that?"
"Yes," I said, "I knew about it. Over in the Hoosier settlement."
"I ain't a good teacher," she said, "only with the little children; but
sometimes we shouldn't have had the necessaries of life, if it hadn't
been for what I earned. I can't do too much for them. They have been
father and mother to me, and I shall be a daughter to them. If--if they
want me to go with--with--in circles which I--I--don't care half so much
about as for--for the birds, and flowers--and the people back in our
grove--and for people who don't care for me any more--why, I don't think
I ought to disobey Mrs. Thorndyke. But I don't believe as she does--or
did--about things that have happened to you since--since we parted and
got to be strangers, Teunis. And neither does any one else, nor she
herself any more. People respect you, Teunis. I wanted to say that to
you, too, before you go away--maybe forever, Teunis!"
She touched on so many things--sore things and sacred things--in this
speech, that I only looked at her with tears in my eyes; and she saw
them. It was the only answer I could make, and before she could say any
more, the elder and his wife came and took her home. I had got half-way
to Cairo, Illinois, before I worked it out that by "the people back in
our grove," she must have meant me; for the only others there had been
that gang of horse-thieves: and if so she must have meant me when she
spoke of "people who don't care for me any more"--but it was too late to
do anything in the way of correcting this mistake then. All I could
pride myself on was having a good memory as to what she said. I guess
this proves my relationship to that other Dutchman who took so long to
build the church. Remember, though, that he finally built it.
The Civil War is no part of the history of Vandemark Township; and I had
small part in the Civil War. But one thing that took place on the field
of Shiloh does belong in this history. Most of the members of my company
enlisted in October, 1861, but we did not get to the front until the
very day of the Battle of Shiloh. I was in one of the two regiments
whose part in the battle has caused so much controversy. I gave Senator
Cummins an affidavit about it only the other day to settle something
about a monument on the field.
We came up the Tennessee River the night of the day before the battle,
and landed at Pittsburgh Landing at daybreak of the first day's fight.
We had not had our guns issued to us yet. Some have thought it a little
hard on us to be shoved into a great battle without ever having loaded
or fired our muskets. When we were landed the guns were issued to my
company, and we were given about half an hour's instruction in the way
they were worked. Of course most of us had done shooting, and were a
little better than green hands; but Will Lockwood during the fight
loaded his gun until it was full of unfired loads, and forgot to put a
cap on. Then he discovered his mistake, and put on a cap, and would have
blown off his own head by firing all the stuff out at once, when Captain
Gowdy saw what he was doing and snatched the gun away from him calling
him a damned fool, and broke the stock off the musket on the ground.
There were plenty of guns for Will to select from by that time which
were not in use, so he picked up another and made a new start; but
not for long.
After the guns were issued to us, we stood there on the bank, and
lounged about on the landing, waiting for the issue of cartridges. An
orderly came to me with Magnus following him, and gave me the captain's
order to report to him in the cabin of the transport which lay tied up
at the river bank. We looked at each other in wonder, but followed the
orderly into the cabin, where we stood at attention. The captain
returned our salutes, dismissed the orderly, and after his footsteps had
gone out of hearing, turned to us.
"Thorkelson and Vandemark," said he, "I have a few words to say to you.
I don't find anything in the books covering the case, and am speaking as
man to man."
"Yes, sir," said I.
"Ay hare," said Magnus.
"Thorkelson," Gowdy went on, "you have had an ambition to put an end to
me. Well, now's your chance, or will be when we get out there where the
shooting is going on. You've had a poor chance to practise marksmanship;
but maybe you can shoot well enough to hit a man of my size from the
rear--for my men will be to the rear of me in a fight"
He stopped and looked straight in Magnus's eyes; and Magnus stared
straight back. At last, Gowdy's eyes swept around toward me, and then
"Well," said he, "what do you and your friend say? The bond to keep the
peace doesn't run in Tennessee."
"I think," said I, "as man to man, that you deserve shooting; but maybe
this ain't the place for it. I voted for you for captain because you
seem to know your business--and I don't b'lieve we've got another that
does. That's how I feel."
Gowdy laughed, that friendly, warm, musical laugh of his, just as he
would have laughed in a horse trade, or over the bar, or while helping
the church at a donation party.
"Well," said he, "I called you in here--especially you, Thorkelson--to
say that if you feel bound by any vow you've made, to shoot me, why, you
may shoot and be damned. I shan't pay any attention to the matter. From
the way it sounds out there at the front, it will be only one bullet
added to a basketful. That's all, Thorkelson."
"Captain Gowdy," said Magnus.
"Go on, Thorkelson," said Gowdy.
"Van Ay bane svorn in," said Magnus, "Ay take you for captain. You bane
a dam good-for-nothing rascal, but you bane best man for captain. Ay
bane tied up. You bane necessary to maybe save lives of a hundred dam
sight better men dan you. Ay not shoot. You insult me ven you talk
"In spite of the somewhat uncomplimentary and insubordinate language in
which you express yourself," said Gowdy, "which I overlook under the
peculiar circumstances, I reckon I must admit that I did assume an
attitude on your part of which you are incapable, and that such an
assumption was insulting--if a private can be insulted by a commissioned
officer. This being man to man, I apologize. You may go, Thorkelson."
Magnus clicked his heels together in the way he had learned in the old
country, and saluted; Captain Gowdy returned the salute, and Magnus
marched out with his head high, and his stomach drawn in.
"Devilish good soldier!" said Gowdy as he went out. "Well, that clears
the atmosphere a little! So, Vandemark, you think I need killing, eh?"
"Well, it's all in the point of view," said he, leaning toward me and
smiling that ingratiating smile of his. "Sometimes I think so, too; but
there's only one policy for me--lose 'em and forget 'em. I sometimes
think that the time may come when I shall wish I had married that girl.
Have you seen the baby lately?"
"I used to see it every few days," said I. "It's runnin' all over the
"Look like me?"
"It will when it gits older."
"When you go back," said he, "if I don't, will you do me and this little
offspring of mine--and its mother--a favor?"
"I'll have to wait and see what it is," said I.
"Same old cautious Vandemark!" said he, laughing. "Well, that's why I
picked you to do this, if you will be so good. You can look the matter
over in case it comes to anything, and act if you think best; but I
think you will decide to act. Please go to Lusch in Waterloo and ask for
a packet of papers I left there, to be opened in your presence and at
your request if I wink out in this irrepressible conflict. Remember, I
shall be on the other side of Jordan or some other stream. Inside of the
outer envelope will be a letter to Rowena, which please deliver. There
will also be one for you, with some securities and other things to be
held in trust for the benefit of Rowena's boy--and mine. I hate that
'Owen Lovejoy' part of his name; but he is entitled to the name of
Gowdy, and in view of the fact that he has it, I want him to have a good
chance--as good as he can have in view of the irregularity of his birth.
To tell you the plain truth, as my affairs are now situated, I'm giving
him more than he could take as my son if he were legitimate--for as
neighbor to neighbor, I'm practically bu'sted. All I'm doing is hanging
on for land to rise. Now this isn't much to do, and you won't have to
act unless you want to. Will you have the papers opened, and act for the
dead scoundrel if it seems the proper thing to do? You see, there's
hardly anybody else who is satisfactory to me, and at the same time a
friend to the other parties."
"I'll have the papers opened," said I; "but remember, this don't take
back what I said a few minutes ago. I think you ought to be killed."
"Thank you," said he. "Private Vandemark! You may go!"
Now I have told this story over and over again in court, to
commissioners taking testimony, to lawyers in their offices, to lawyers
out at my farm. It has been printed in court records, including the
Reports of the Supreme Court of Iowa. Judges of the Supreme Court of
Iowa have been nominated or refused nomination because of their views,
or their lack of views, or their refusal to state in advance off in
some hole and corner, what their views would be on the legal effect of
this conversation between me and Buckner Gowdy in the cabin of the
transport on the morning of the first day's battle of Shiloh--so N.V.
says--but this is the first time I have had a chance to tell it as it
was, without some squirt of a lawyer pointing his finger at me and
trying to make me change the story; or some other limb of the law
interrupting me with objections that it was incompetent, irrelevant and
immaterial, not the best evidence, hearsay, a privileged communication,
and a lot of other balderdash. This is what took place, just as I have
stated it; and this is all the Vandemark Township, Monterey County, or
Iowa history there was in the battle so far as I know--except that Iowa
had more men in that fight than any other state in proportion to her
Just to show you that I didn't run away, I must tell you that we had
ammunition issued to us after a while, and were told how to use it. We
got forty rounds of cartridges at first and ten rounds right afterward.
Then we formed and marched, part of the time at the double, out into a
cotton-field. In front of us a few hundred yards off, was a line of
forest trees, and under the trees were tents, that I guess some of our
other men were driven out of that morning. Here we were at once under a
hot fire and lost a lot of men. We went into action about half-past nine
or ten o'clock in the forenoon, and two regiments of us stood the enemy
off along that line until about noon. Then they rushed us, and such of
us as could went away from there. Those that didn't are most of them
there yet. I stayed, because of a shot through my leg which splintered
the bone. The enemy trampled over me as they drove our men off the
field, and a horse stepped on my shoulder, breaking the collar-bone.
Then, when the Johnnies were driven back, I was mauled around again, but
don't remember much except that I was thirsty. And then, for months and
months, I was in one hospital or another; and finally I was discharged
as unfit for service, because I was too lame to march. I can feel it in
frosty weather yet; but it never amounted to much except to the dealers
in riding plows and the like. So ended my military life. I had borne
arms for my country for about three hours!
It was the eighth of January, 1863, when I got home. I rode from the
railroad to Foster Blake's in his sleigh, looked over my herd which he
was running on shares for me, and crossed Vandemark's Folly Marsh on the
hard snow which was over the tall grass and reeds everywhere. How my
grove had grown that past summer! I began to feel at home, as I warmed
the little house up with a fire in the stove, and rolling up in my
blankets, which for a long time were more comfortable to me than a bed,
went to sleep on the floor. I never felt the sense of home more
delightfully than that night. I would set things to rights, and maybe go
over to Monterey Centre and see Virginia next day. I could see smoke at
Magnus's down the road. I felt a pleasure in thus sneaking in without
any one's knowing it.
I had not gone to see Mr. Lusch in Waterloo, for I had learned that so
far from being killed, Captain Gowdy had come through Shiloh without a
scratch, and that he had soon afterward resigned and gone back to
Monterey County. It has always been believed, but I don't know why, that
he was allowed to resign either because of his relationship to the
great Confederate families of Kentucky, or because of his record there
before he went to Iowa. Anyhow, he never joined the G.A.R. or
fellowshipped with the soldiers after the war. I always hated him; but I
do him the justice to say here that he was a brave man, and except for
his one great weakness--the weakness that I am told Lord Byron was
destroyed by--he would have been a good man. I feel certain that if he
had been given a chance to make a career in either army, he would have
been a general before the war was over.
That afternoon, J.P. Roebuck, who had seen my smoke, came over to
welcome me home and to talk politics with me. We must have a township
for ourselves, he said. Now look at the situation in the school. We had
a big school in the Vandemark schoolhouse, thirteen scholars being
enrolled. We had a good teacher, too, Virginia Royall. But there wasn't
enough fuel to last two days, and those Monterey Centre folks were dead
on their feet and nobody seemed to care if the school closed down. He
went on with his argument for a separate township organization; I all
the time thinking with my mind in a whirl that Virginia was near, and I
could see her next day. When he said that we would have to get the vote
of Doc Bliven, who was a member of the Board of Supervisors, I began to
"Bliven always seemed to like you," said Roebuck. "We all kind of wish
you'd see what you can do for us with him."
"I think I can get his vote," I said, after thinking it over for a
while--and as I thought of it, the Dubuque ferry in 1855, the arrest of
Bliven in the queue of people waiting at the post-office, my smuggled
passenger, and the uplift I felt as the Iowa prairie opened to my view
as we drew out of the ravines to the top of the hills--all this rolled
over my memory. Roebuck looked at me like a person facing a medium in
"Yes," I said, "I believe I can get his vote. I'll try."
JUST AS GRANDMA THORNDYKE EXPECTED
I was surprised next morning to note the change which had taken place in
the weather. It had been cold and raw when I was crossing the prairies
to my farm, with the wind in the southeast, and filled with a bitter
chill In the night the wind had gone down, and it was as still as death
in the morning. For the first time in my life, and it has happened but
twice since, I heard the whistles of the engines on the railroad twelve
miles away to the north. There was a little beard of hoar frost along
the side of every spear of grass and weed; which, as the sun rose
higher, dropped off and lay under every twig and bent, in a little heap
if it stood up straight, or in a windrow if it slanted; for so still was
the air that the frost went straight down, and lay as it fell. I could
hear the bawling of the cattle in every barnyard for miles around, and
the crowing of roosters as the fowls strutted about in the warm sun. It
was thawing by ten o'clock. The temperature had run up as the wind
dropped; and as I now know, with the lowering of the pressure of the
barometer, if we had had one.
"This is a weather-breeder!"
This was my way of telling to myself what a scientist would have
described as marked low barometer; and he would have predicted from his
maps that we should soon find ourselves in the northwest quadrant of
the "low" with high winds and falling temperature. It all comes to the
Instead of going to see Virginia before her school opened in the
morning, I went to work banking up my house, fixing my sheds, and
reefing things down for a gale as I learned to say on the Lakes. I made
up my mind that I would go to the schoolhouse just before four and
surprise Virginia, and hoped it would be a little stormy so I could have
an excuse to take her home. I need not have worried about the storm.
At noon the northwestern sky, a third of the way to a point overhead,
was of an indigo-blue color; but it still seemed to be clear sky--though
I looked at it with suspicion, it was such an unusual thing for January.
As I stood gazing at it, Narcisse Lacroix, Pierre's twelve-year-old boy,
came by with his little sister. I asked him if school was out, and he
said the teacher had sent them home because there was no more fuel for
the stove; but it was so warm that the teacher was going to stay and
sweep out, and write up her register.
As the children went out of sight, a strange and awful change came over
the face of nature. The bright sun was blotted out as it touched the
edge of that rising belt of indigo blue. This blanket of cloud, like a
curtain with puckering strings to bring it together in the southeast,
drew fast across the sky--very, very fast, considering that there was
not a breath of wind stirring. It was a fearful thing to see, the
blue-black cloud hurrying up the sky, over the sky, and far down until
there was no bright spot except a narrowing oval near the southeastern
horizon; and not a breath of wind. The storm was like a leaning wall,
that bent far over us while its foot dragged along the ground, miles and
miles behind its top. Everything had a tinge of strange, ghastly
greenish blue like the face of a corpse, and it was growing suddenly
dark as if the day had all at once shut down into dusk.
I knew what it meant, though I had never seen the change from calm
warmth to cold wind come with such marked symptoms of suddenness and
violence. It meant a blizzard--though we never heard or adopted the word
until in the late 'seventies. I thought I had plenty of time, however,
and I went into the house and changed my clothes; for I wanted to look
my best when I saw my girl. I put on new and warm underwear, for I
foresaw that it might be bad before I could get home. I put on an extra
pair of drawers under my blue trousers, and a buckskin undervest under
my shirt. I thanked God for this forethought before the night was over.
As I stood naked in making this change of clothes, suddenly the house
staggered as if it had been cuffed by a great hand. I peeped out of the
window, and against the dark sky I could see the young grove of trees
bowing before the great gusts which had struck them from the northwest.
The wall of wind and frost and death had moved against them.
The thought in my mind was, Hurry! Hurry! For what if Virginia, in the
schoolhouse without fuel, should try to reach the place where she
boarded, or any inhabited house, in that storm? As yet there was no snow
in the air except the few flakes which were driven horizontally out of
the fierce squall; but I knew that this could not last; for the crust
on the blanket of snow already on the ground would soon be ground
through wherever exposed to the sand-blast of particles already driven
along the surface of the earth in a creeping sheet of white. As I
hurriedly finished my dressing, I heard the rattle of a shower of
missiles as they struck the house; and looking out I saw that the crust
was already being cut through by this grinding process; and as the wind
got a purchase under the crust, it was torn up in great flakes as if
blown up by a thousand explosions from underneath. In an instant,
almost, for these bursts of snow took place nearly all at once, the air
was filled with such a smother of snow that the landscape went out of
sight in a great cloud of deep-shaded whiteness. The blizzard was upon
us. I should have my work cut out for me in getting to the schoolhouse.
I wonder if the people who have been born in or moved to Iowa in the
past thirty to forty years can be made to understand that we can not
possibly have such winter storms of this sort as we had then. The groves
themselves prevent it. The standing corn-stalks prevent it. Every object
that civilization and development have placed in the way of the wind
prevents it. Then, the snow, once lifted on the wings of the blast,
became a part of the air, and remained in it. The atmosphere for
hundreds of feet, for thousands of feet from the grassy surface of the
prairie, was a moving cloud of snow, which fell only as the very tempest
itself became over-burdened with it. As the storm continued, it always
grew cold; for it was the North emptying itself into the South. I knew
what the blizzard was; and my breath caught as I thought of Virginia, in
what I knew must be a losing struggle with it.
Even to the strongest man, there was terror in this storm, the breath
of which came with a roar and struck with a shiver, as the trees creaked
and groaned, and the paths and roads were obliterated. As the tumult
grows hills are leveled, and hollows rise into hills. Every shed-roof is
the edge of an oblique Niagara of snow; every angle the center of a
whirlpool. If you are caught out in it, the Spirit of the Storm flies at
you and loads your eyebrows and eyelashes and hair and beard with
icicles and snow. As you look out into the white, the light through your
bloodshot eyelids turns everything to crimson. Your feet lag, as the
feathery whiteness comes almost to your knees. Your breath comes choked
as with water. If you are out far away from shelter, God help you! You
struggle along for a time, all the while fearing to believe that the
storm which did not seem so very dangerous, is growing more violent, and
that the daylight, which you thought would last for hours yet, seems to
be fading, and that night appears to be setting in earlier than usual.
It is! For there are two miles of snow between you and the sun. But in a
swiftly moving maze of snow, partly spit out of the lowering clouds, and
partly torn and swept up from the gray and cloud-like earth, in a roar
of rising wind, and oppressed by growing anxiety, you stubbornly
Night shuts down darker. You can not tell, when you try to look about
you, what is sky and what is earth; for all is storm. You feel more and
more tired. All at once, you find that the wind which was at your side a
while ago, as you kept beating into it on your course toward help and
shelter, is now at your back. Has the wind changed? No; it will blow for
hours from the same quarter--perhaps for days! No; you have changed
your course, and are beating off with the storm! This will never do: you
rally, and again turn your cheek to the cutting blast: but you know that
you are off your path; yet you wonder if you may not be going right--if
the wind _has_ changed; or if you have not turned to the left when you
should have gone to the right.
Loneliness, anxiety, weariness, uncertainty. An awful sense of
helplessness takes possession of you. If it were daylight, you could
pass around the deep drifts, even in this chaos; but now a drift looks
the same as the prairie grass swept bare. You plunge headlong into it,
flounder through it, creeping on hands and knees, with your face
sometimes buried in the snow, get on your feet again, and struggle on.
You know that the snow, finer than flour, is beating through your
clothing. You are chilled, and shiver. Sometimes-you stop for a while
and with your hands over your eyes stand stooped with your back to the
wind. You try to stamp your feet to warm them, but the snow, soft and
yielding, forbids this. You are so tired that you stop to rest in the
midst of a great drift--you turn your face from the driving storm and
wait. It seems so much easier than stumbling wearily on. Then comes the
in-rushing consciousness that to rest thus is to die. You rush on in a
frenzy. You have long since ceased to think of what is your proper
course,--you only know that you must struggle on. You attempt a
shout;--ah, it seems so faint and distant even to yourself! No one else
could hear it a rod in this raging, howling, shrieking storm, in which
awful sounds come out of the air itself, and not alone from the things
against which it beats. And there is no one else to hear.
You gaze about with snow-smitten eyeballs for some possible light from
a friendly window. Why, the sun itself could not pierce this moving
earth-cloud of snow! Your feet are not so cold as they were. You can not
feel them as you walk. You come to a hollow filled with soft snow.
Perhaps there is the bed of a stream deep down below. You plunge into
this hollow, and as you fall, turn your face from the storm. A strange
and delicious sense of warmth and drowsiness steals over you; you sink
lower, and feel the cold soft whiteness sifting over neck and cheek and
forehead: but you do not care. The struggle is over; and--in the morning
the sun glints coldly over a new landscape of gently undulating
alabaster. Yonder is a little hillock which marks the place where the
blizzard overtook its prey. Sometime, when the warm March winds have
thawed the snow, some gaunt wolf will snuff about this spot, and send up
the long howl that calls the pack to the banquet.
Such thoughts as these were a part of our lives then, and with such
thoughts my mind was filled as I stepped out into the storm, my trousers
tied down over my boots with bag-strings; my fur cap drawn down over my
eyes, my blue military overcoat flapping about my legs; the cape of it
wrapped about my head, and tied with a woolen comforter.
Through these wrappings, a strange sound came to my ears--the sound of
sleigh-bells; and in a moment, so close were they, there emerged from
the whirl of snow, a team of horses drawing a swell-body cutter, in
which sat a man driving, wrapped up in buffalo robes and blankets until
the box of the sleigh was filled. The horses came to a stop in the lee
of my house. There had been no such rig in the county before I had gone
to the war.
"Is this the Vandemark schoolhouse?" came from the man in the cutter.
"No, Captain," said I; for discipline is strong, "this is my farm."
"Ah, it's you, Mr. Vandemark, is it?" said he. "Can you tell me the way
to the schoolhouse?"
Discipline flew off into the storm. I never for a moment harbored the
idea that I was to allow Buck Gowdy to rescue Virginia from the
blizzard, and carry her off into either danger or safety. There was none
of my Dutch hesitation here. This was battle; and I behaved with as much
prompt decision as I did on the field of Shiloh, where, I have the
captain's word for it in writing, I behaved with a good deal of it.
"Never mind about the schoolhouse," I said. "I'll attend to that!'
"The hell you will!" said he, in that calm way of his. "Let me see. Your
house faces the north. These trees are on the section line.... The
schoolhouse is.... I have it, now. Sorry to cut in ahead of you;
but--get up, Susie--Winnie, go on!"
But I had Susie and Winnie by the bits.
"Vandemark," he said, and as he shouted this to make me hear I could
feel the authority I had grown to recognize in drill, "you forget
yourself! Let go those horses!"
"Not by a damned sight!"
I found myself swearing as if I were in the habit of it.
Now the man in any kind of rig with another holding his horses' bits is
in an embarrassing fix. He can't do anything so long as he remains in
the vehicle; and neither can his horses. He must carry the fight to the
other man, or be made a fool of.
Buck Gowdy was not a man to hesitate in such a case. He carried the
fight to me--and I was glad to see him coming. I had waited for this a
long time. I have no skill in describing fights, and I was too much
engaged in this to remember the details. How many blows were exchanged;
what sort of blows they were; how much damage they did until the last,
more than a cut lip on my part, I can not tell. Why no more damage was
done is clearer--we were both so wrapped up as to be unable to do much.
I only know that at the last, I had Gowdy down in the snow right by my
well-curb; and that without taking time to make any plan, I wrapped the
well-rope around him so as to make it necessary for him to take a little
time in getting loose; I wrote him a receipt for the team and rig, which
N.V. Creede tells me would not have done me any good; and I went out,
very much winded, shut the door behind me, and getting into the cutter,
drove off into the blizzard with Gowdy's team and sleigh, leaving him
rolling around on the floor unwinding the well-rope, swearing like a
trooper, and in a warm room where there was plenty to eat.
"And in my opinion," said N.V., "no matter how much girl there was at
stake, the man that chose to go out into that storm when he could have
let the job out was the fool in the case."
It was less than a mile to the schoolhouse, which I was lucky to find at
all. I could not see it twenty feet away; but I was almost upset by a
snow fort which the children had built, and taking this as the sure
sign of a playground, I guessed my way the fifty or sixty feet that more
by luck than judgment brought me to the back end of the house, instead
of the front. I made my way around on the windward side of the building,
hoping that the jingle of the bells might be heard as I passed the
windows--for I dared not leave the horses again, as I had done during my
contest with Gowdy. Nothing but the shelter in which they then found
themselves had kept them from bolting--that and their bewilderment.
I pulled up before the door and shouted Virginia's name with all my
might, over and over again. But I suppose I sat there ten or fifteen
minutes before Virginia came to the door; and then, while she had all
her wraps on, she was in her anxiety just taking a look at the weather,
debating in her mind whether to try for the safety of the fireside, or
risk the stay in the schoolhouse with no fuel. She had not heard the
bells, or the trampling, or my holloing. More by my motions than
anything else, she saw that I was inviting her to get in; but she knew
no more than her heels who I was. She went back into the schoolhouse and
got her dinner-basket--lucky or providential act!--and in she climbed.
If I had been Buck Gowdy or Asher Bushyager or the Devil himself, she
would have done the same. She would have thought, of course, that it was
one of the neighbors come for her; and, anyhow, there was nothing
else to do.
As I turned back the rich robes and the jingle of the bells came to her
ears, she started; but I drew her down into the seat, and pulled the
flannel-lined coonskin robe which was under us, up over our laps; I
wrapped the army blanket and the thick buffalo-robe over and under us;
and as I did so, a little black-and-tan terrier came shivering out from
under the coonskin robe and jumped into her lap. I started to put it
down again, but she held it--and as she did she looked at my blue
sleeve, and then up at the mass of wrappings I had over my face. I
thought she snuggled up against me a little closer, then.
I turned the horses toward her boarding-place, which was with a new
family who had moved in at the head of the slew, near the pond for which
poor Rowena was making the day of the prairie fire; and in doing so, set