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   Chapter 24 THE WHOA-HAW TRAIL

54-40 or Fight By Emerson Hough Characters: 12773

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


There are no pleasures where women are not.

-Marie de Romba.

How shall I tell of those stirring times in such way that readers who live in later and different days may catch in full their flavor? How shall I write now so that at a later time men may read of the way America was taken, may see what America then was and now is, and what yet, please God! it may be? How shall be set down that keen zest of a nation's youth, full of ambition and daring, full of contempt for obstacles, full of a vast and splendid hope? How shall be made plain also that other and stronger thing which so many of those days have mentioned to me, half in reticence-that feeling that, after all, this fever of the blood, this imperious insistence upon new lands, had under it something more than human selfishness?

I say I wish that some tongue or brush or pen might tell the story of our people at that time. Once I saw it in part told in color and line, in a painting done by a master hand, almost one fit to record the spirit of that day, although it wrought in this instance with another and yet earlier time. In this old canvas, depicting an early Teutonic tribal wandering, appeared some scores of human figures, men and women half savage in their look, clad in skins, with fillets of hide for head covering; men whose beards were strong and large, whose limbs, wrapped loose in hides, were strong and large; women, strong and large, who bore burdens on their backs. Yet in the faces of all these there shone, not savagery alone, but intelligence and resolution. With them were flocks and herds and beasts of burden and carts of rude build; and beside these traveled children. There were young and old men and women, and some were gaunt and weary, but most were bold and strong. There were weapons for all, and rude implements, as well, of industry. In the faces of all there was visible the spirit of their yellow-bearded leader, who made the center of the picture's foreground.

I saw the soul of that canvas-a splendid resolution-a look forward, a purpose, an aim to be attained at no counting of cost. I say, as I gazed at that canvas, I saw in it the columns of my own people moving westward across the Land, fierce-eyed, fearless, doubting nothing, fearing nothing. That was the genius of America when I myself was young. I believe it still to be the spirit of a triumphant democracy, knowing its own, taking its own, holding its own. They travel yet, the dauntless figures of that earlier day. Let them not despair. No imaginary line will ever hold them back, no mandate of any monarch ever can restrain them.

In our own caravans, now pressing on for the general movement west of the Missouri, there was material for a hundred canvases like yonder one, and yet more vast. The world of our great western country was then still before us. A stern and warlike people was resolved to hold it and increase it. Of these west-bound I now was one. I felt the joy of that thought. I was going West!

At this time, the new railroad from Baltimore extended no farther westward than Cumberland, yet it served to carry one well toward the Ohio River at Pittsburg; whence, down the Ohio and up the Missouri to Leavenworth, my journey was to be made by steamboats. In this prosaic travel, the days passed monotonously; but at length I found myself upon that frontier which then marked the western edge of our accepted domain, and the eastern extremity of the Oregon Trail.

If I can not bring to the mind of one living to-day the full picture of those days when this country was not yet all ours, and can not restore to the comprehension of those who never were concerned with that life the picture of that great highway, greatest path of all the world, which led across our unsettled countries, that ancient trail at least may be a memory. It is not even yet wiped from the surface of the earth. It still remains in part, marked now no longer by the rotting head-boards of its graves, by the bones of the perished ones which once traveled it; but now by its ribands cut through the turf, and lined by nodding prairie flowers.

The old trail to Oregon was laid out by no government, arranged by no engineer, planned by no surveyor, supported by no appropriation. It sprang, a road already created, from the earth itself, covering two thousand miles of our country. Why? Because there was need for that country to be covered by such a trail at such a time. Because we needed Oregon. Because a stalwart and clear-eyed democracy needs America and will have it. That was the trail over which our people outran their leaders. If our leaders trifle again, once again we shall outrun them.

There were at this date but four places of human residence in all the two thousand miles of this trail, yet recent as had been the first hoofs and wheels to mark it, it was even then a distinct and unmistakable path. The earth has never had nor again can have its like. If it was a path of destiny, if it was a road of hope and confidence, so was it a road of misery and suffering and sacrifice; for thus has the democracy always gained its difficult and lasting victories. I think that it was there, somewhere, on the old road to Oregon, sometime in the silent watches of the prairie or the mountain night, that there was fought out the battle of the Old World and the New, the battle between oppressors and those who declared they no longer would be oppressed.

Providentially for us, an ignorance equal to that of our leaders existed in Great Britain. For us who waited on the banks of the Missouri, all this ignorance was matter of indifference. Our men got their beliefs from no leaders, political or editorial, at home or abroad. They waited only for the grass to come.

Now at last the grass did begin to grow upon the eastern edge of the great Plains; and so I saw begin that vast and splendid movement across our continent which in comparison dwarfs all the great people movements of the earth. Xenophon's March of the Ten Thousand pales beside this of ten thousand thousands. The movements of the Goths and Huns, the Vandals, the Cimri-in a way, they had a like significance with this, but in results those migrations did far less in the history of the world; did less to prove the purpose of the world.

I watched the forming of our caravan, and I saw again that canvas which I have ment

ioned, that picture of the savages who traveled a thousand years before Christ was born. Our picture was the vaster, the more splendid, the more enduring. Here were savages born of gentle folk in part, who never yet had known repulse. They marched with flocks and herds and implements of husbandry. In their faces shone a light not less fierce than that which animated the dwellers of the old Teutonic forests, but a light clearer and more intelligent. Here was the determined spirit of progress, here was the agreed insistence upon an equal opportunity! Ah! it was a great and splendid canvas which might have been painted there on our Plains-the caravans west-bound with the greening grass of spring-that hegira of Americans whose unheard command was but the voice of democracy itself.

We carried with us all the elements of society, as has the Anglo-Saxon ever. Did any man offend against the unwritten creed of fair play, did he shirk duty when that meant danger to the common good, then he was brought before a council of our leaders, men of wisdom and fairness, chosen by the vote of all; and so he was judged and he was punished. At that time there was not west of the Missouri River any one who could administer an oath, who could execute a legal document, or perpetuate any legal testimony; yet with us the law marched pari passu across the land. We had leaders chosen because they were fit to lead, and leaders who felt full sense of responsibility to those who chose them. We had with us great wealth in flocks and herds-five thousand head of cattle went West with our caravan, hundreds of horses; yet each knew his own and asked not that of his neighbor. With us there were women and little children and the gray-haired elders bent with years. Along our road we left graves here and there, for death went with us. In our train also were many births, life coming to renew the cycle. At times, too, there were rejoicings of the newly wed in our train. Our young couples found society awheel valid as that abiding under permanent roof.

At the head of our column, we bore the flag of our Republic. On our flanks were skirmishers, like those guarding the flanks of an army. It was an army-an army of our people. With us marched women. With us marched home. That was the difference between our cavalcade and that slower and more selfish one, made up of men alone, which that same year was faring westward along the upper reaches of the Canadian Plains. That was why we won. It was because women and plows were with us.

Our great column, made up of more than one hundred wagons, was divided into platoons of four, each platoon leading for a day, then falling behind to take the bitter dust of those in advance. At noon we parted our wagons in platoons, and at night we drew them invariably into a great barricade, circular in form, the leading wagon marking out the circle, the others dropping in behind, the tongue of each against the tail-gate of the wagon ahead, and the last wagon closing up the gap. Our circle completed, the animals were unyoked and the tongues were chained fast to the wagons next ahead; so that each night we had a sturdy barricade, incapable of being stampeded by savages, whom more than once we fought and defeated. Each night we set out a guard, our men taking turns, and the night watches in turn rotating, so that each man got his share of the entire night during the progress of his journey. Each morn we rose to the notes of a bugle, and each day we marched in order, under command, under a certain schedule. Loosely connected, independent, individual, none the less already we were establishing a government. We took the American Republic with us across the Plains!

This manner of travel offered much monotony, yet it had its little pleasures. For my own part, my early experience in Western matters placed me in charge of our band of hunters, whose duty it was to ride at the flanks of our caravan each day and to kill sufficient buffalo for meat. This work of the chase gave us more to do than was left for those who plodded along or rode bent over upon the wagon seats; yet even for these there was some relaxation. At night we met in little social circles around the camp-fires. Young folk made love; old folk made plans here as they had at home. A church marched with us as well as the law and courts; and, what was more, the schools went also; for by the faint flicker of the firelight many parents taught their children each day as they moved westward to their new homes. History shows these children were well taught. There were persons of education and culture with us.

Music we had, and of a night time, even while the coyotes were calling and the wind whispering in the short grasses of the Plains, violin and flute would sometimes blend their voices, and I have thus heard songs which I would not exchange in memory for others which I have heard in surroundings far more ambitious. Sometimes dances were held on the greensward of our camps. Regularly the Sabbath day was observed by at least the most part of our pilgrims. Upon all our party there seemed to sit an air of content and certitude. Of all our wagons, I presume one was of greatest value. It was filled with earth to the brim, and in it were fruit trees planted, and shrubs; and its owner carried seeds of garden plants. Without doubt, it was our mission and our intent to take with us such civilization as we had left behind.

So we marched, mingled, and, as some might have said, motley in our personnel-sons of some of the best families in the South, men from the Carolinas and Virginia, Georgia and Louisiana, men from Pennsylvania and Ohio; Roundhead and Cavalier, Easterner and Westerner, Germans, Yankees, Scotch-Irish-all Americans. We marched, I say, under a form of government; yet each took his original marching orders from his own soul. We marched across an America not yet won. Below us lay the Spanish civilization-Mexico, possibly soon to be led by Britain, as some thought. North of us was Canada, now fully alarmed and surely led by Britain. West of us, all around us, lay the Indian tribes. Behind, never again to be seen by most of us who marched, lay the homes of an earlier generation. But we marched, each obeying the orders of his own soul. Some day the song of this may be sung; some day, perhaps, its canvas may be painted.

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