Childhood on the Prairie, Part 3

Last updated: March 17, 2015

The Lusk Herald
December 6, 1956

The following is the third portion of "Childhood on the Prairie" as written by the late Nellie S. Griffith.

One time we had been to visit friends who lived a whole day's drive from the ranch. It evidently was in the dead of winter, for the ground was white with snow, and it was very cold. I sat on the buggy seat between my parents and mother held my sister. We had extra covers under the faithful buffalo lap-robe, but we still suffered from the cold, and I remember father kept slapping his hands, first one and then the other on his knees undoubtedly trying to keep them from being too numb to hold the reins.

We were riding in the buckboard and driving a good team of bays. My father took great pride in his horses, both his driving teams and the saddle ponies.

Suddenly while pulling up an incline the horses became frightened and tried to turn around. I remember the alarm in mother's voice as she asked, what in the world was the matter? "They smelled something", dad replied as he reached for the buggy whip, and had all he could do to hold the horses to the road. Reaching the top of the rise we saw them - seven large grey wolves - only a short distance from the road and I heard mother's exclamation, "Oh, Harry, and you didn't bring a gun". But the wolves never moved, just stood there watching us pass. Of late years, in thinking of the incident, I have often wondered what tragic results might have taken place had the wolves attacked the horses.

As little children we had never seen a Negro nor a picture of one evidently, for I always remembered the fright I experienced when sister and I were playing on the woodpile which was piled high with logs that the hired men had hauled in to be cut up for winter fuel. We looked up to see a man coming up the path to the house, and his face and hands were very black. I don't know just why he frightened me so, but I was paralyzed with fear and just flattened myself out on the log on which I was playing, hoping that he wouldn't see me. Sister, sensing my fright, scurried like a frightened rabbit, under the pile of dead timber.

The black man walked up to the screen door and knocked and father came to the door, talked a few minutes and then they went inside. I thought her had gone in to kill my folks. After what seemed a long time to us the man came out and went away.

Shaking so I could hardly walk we went to the house and so great was my relief to see my parents unharmed that I still remember exactly what they were doing. It must have been a Sunday afternoon for my dad was sitting in the highbacked rocker by the window reading and mother was sitting at the dining room table writing letters.

They paid no special attention to us when we walked in, but the strain I had been under did not leave immediately, so sister and I just stood there hand in hand. Directly father looked up, and I gasped, "What was the matter with that man, he was all black"? Father laughed and said to mother, "I guess the children have never seen a Negro before". And I don't suppose that they ever guessed what terror the sight of the black man had caused me. Later when he came to be the cook at the cook-house I never completely overcame my fear of him.

Just how much of the year the cook-house was kept open I have little idea now, but I know it was when there were many cowboys about the ranch, likely from early summer when the roundup for unbranded calves was made, until late fall when the cattle were gathered, loaded, and shipped to market. In the early summer roundup the calves were caught, and branded with the brand of the cow by whose side it was found.

As I remember the cook-house, it was a long, low, frame building with a cook stove, work table and shelves built in one end and a long oilcloth covered table running the length of the room with benches on either side.

I do remember that the cowboys adorned the walls with what I thought were beautiful pictures and calendars. The colors were so bright and gay and one picture of a rather buxom blonde (we all had dark hair) wearing a beautiful red velvet dress, cut very low. I had never seen anyone in real life wear a low-necked gown, and she looked so lovely to me that I felt she must be some sort of a queen - probably she was queen of a burlesque show.

It seemed to have been a habit of the Indians when going past the ranch to stop for something to eat and I imagine the incident that I remember in particular must have been the first time they had made an appearance since the negro had been cooking there.

I was firmly clinging to father's hand for I was a little timid of Indians although I saw them often as he walked to the cook-house followed by several Sioux and I was both frightened and fascinated by the way the cook rolled his eyes showing much of the whites, when father told him to let the Indians have what food was left from the meal that the cowboys had just finished.

He either was afraid of them or mad, perhaps both, for grabbing the kettles off of the stove he dumped the food that remained into the dishes on the table and then retired to his kitchen end of the room, where he banged the dishes around with a great clatter and left the Indians to gobble up the food as they saw fit.

When the Indians had gone the cook came to the door and in a decidedly aggrieved manner told one of the cowboys to tell that "Boss man" he wanted him to come inside. As always when it was possible for me to do so, I was at father's heels and followed him inside. The darky pointed at the sugar bowls which were empty and said the Indians had dumped the sugar in their pockets when they left and then angrily gesturing under the table where many well gnawed bones had been thrown by the Indians, said he wasn't going to clean up after them.

Father grinned, whistled to several hounds that were roaming around outside and they rushed in and made short work of clearing out the bones from off the bare board floor. Then father said "It's better to feed them than have them scalp you". I have a hunch he was trying to find an excuse for having fed them.

Another cook that I remember was a small dark man, most likly of French descent as the was called "Frenchy". The reason that I remember him was the fact that he kept a turtle in the spring-house, so that he could have turtle eggs to eat. Why he preferred them to hens eggs I still have no idea, perhaps he was planning to have turtle soup some day.

The spring-house was built over a spring on the bank of the creek and the butter and milk for the cook-house were kept in it during the warm weather.

Anyway the turtle fascinated my sister and I and we would open the door very carefully and peek in to see if the turtle would have its head sticking out or be hiding under its shell. It was rather dark in the spring house but nice and cool and big pans of milk were standing on the shelves, covered with thick cream and sometimes we would stick our fingers in the pans and when we pulled them out they were covered with the cream which made very good licking.

One time when we went to the spring-house we couldn't see the turtle anywhere so we went peeking about trying to find where it might be hiding when we heard a slight noise at the door and looked up just in time to see Mrs. Turtle go over the sill and plunge into the nearby creek.

We didn't find it necessary for some time after that to go near either the spring-house or the cook-house.

Thiking about it in these later years I have often wondered why it was my father never carried a gun unless he was going hunting. I know many men did in those early days and the sight of a pistol on the saddle was so common that it excited no curiosity.

I have already mentioned mother's exclamation about not having a gun the time we came upon the grey wolves, and I remember another time when she said the same thing. We were going to the town of Harrison, Nebraska where every fall father bought his winter supply of sugar and flour.

It was a nice autumn day and we were jogging peacefully along when suddenly ahead of us a band of Indians came into view. They were riding fast and were dressed in their war paint and bonnets. It seems that the folks had heard that the Indians in the Dakotas were on the warpath but hadn't thought of encountering any this far from the reservation.

Mother grabbed us children to her as she exclaimed "Oh, Harry, you didn't bring a gun, we'll all be killed". Father just reached for the buggy whip as the horses didn't like the commotion the approaching Indians were making. As they raced up to us father raised his hand in greeting and said "How" and they kept right on going and were soon past and we were traveling along in the dust raised by their ponies feet. Maybe some of those Indians had eaten at the LZ and recognized my dad and anyway I don't know what good a gun would have done if the Indians had been hostile to us, one white man against 30 or 40 Indians wouldn't have had a chance anyway.

Blizzards are closely associated in my childhood memories with winter. Once when father had gone off in the wagon, expecting to return the next forenoon, a storm came up suddenly during the afternoon and increased in intensity as night came one. A boy from the Luke Voorhees ranch, which was only a few miles distance, managed to get over to do the chores but he didn't make it back in the morning. Mother worried about father and about the livestock and she was fearful of leaving us children alone to try and get to the barns and also run the risk of getting lost herself.

The big old ranch dog, who usually stayed around the barns, came to the house and barked at the door. Possibly he was hungry and also because he wanted human companionship. Mother didn't like dogs in the house as a rule, but because the weather wasn't fit for man or beast outside she let him in and likely was glad of his protecting presence.

The hours must have dragged endlessly for mother that day and I sensed her uneasiness as she tried to peer out of the snow crusted windows or opened the door a crack only to be greeted by a gust of snow laden wind.

Darkness came early that cold winter afternoon and mother put a lighted lamp in the window hoping its feeble rays would help father to find the house if he was trying to get home.

Suddenly the old dog, who had been lying asleep on the floor, lifted his head and listened then jumped up and ran to the door, then the rest of us heard a step outside and as mother threw the door open father stumbled in. He was covered with snow, his eye brows, and lashes crusted with ice.

Too exhausted to speak he slumped into a chair and we girls tried to help mother remove his overshoes and wraps which were both wet and frozen. All day the coffee pot had been waiting on the back of the cook stove and now mother poured a cupful and held it to his lips as father's hands shook so he couldn't hold it.

His face was frozen and very painful and mother treated it as best she know how and as he rested, he related what had happened but I remember little of the conversation, only that as the storm got worse he lost the road and finally unhitched the team and turned them loose and set out on foot to hunt for a landmark which he evidently must have found. I do remember that the horses were also found after the storm was over, having made their way as near to the ranch as the fences would let them.

Another blizzard that I remember was a three day affair. Father had been called to serve on the jury at the county seat, which was the town of Douglas, some 75 miles distant.

During the winter father didn't keep a hired man but he got a young boy to stay at the ranch while he was away. Mother never did learn to milk or do any of the chores, except take care of the chicken.

I have no idea now how many days father was away but when the storm finally blew itself out many of the cattle were buried in the snow drifts.

Mother sent the boy to the railroad section house, it being the nearest place where she might get help, and the boy had to walk as a horse couldn't get through the drifts.

The section man was a German by the name of Phillip Freeze and he was good enough to come and try and help. But it is to be hoped that he knew more about keeping railroad tracks in repair than he did about livestock.

After breaking the necks of three animals trying to pull them out of the drifts with a rope and saddle pony, even the horse must have sensed something was wrong and bucked him off, much to the delight of the boy, who put Phillip on the digging end and he mounted the saddle pony. I don't know now how many they got out and anyway mother sent us girls back to the house as it was bitter cold.

But the cattle that they tried to help were only those close to the ranch so no doubt mother had several days of worry and anxiety, before a train could get through that would bring father home. It would stop near the ranch and let him off.

There was no means of communication from the ranch so all mother could do was wait. As I look back now I think that the women had the harder part of life those days.




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