Childhood on the Prairie, Part 4
The following is the last in a series of articles which were written by Nellie S. Griffith, late co-publisher of The Lusk Herald. The articles which have been entitled "Childhood on the Prairie" were some of her recollections about the early days of the west. At the time of the incidents both the west and Mrs. Griffith were very young.
Today when a member of the family becomes ill or gets hurt and is rushed to the hospital, I marvel more and more at the courage and resourcefulness of the men and women of a by-gone day.
To this day a prairie fire brings back a memory of black smoke rolling across distant pasture land and the fire was traveling fast, fanned by a brisk breeze. While father hurriedly saddled his horse, mother soaked gunny sacks in the irrigation ditch as these wet sacks were used by the men to beat out grass fires. Grabbing a shovel and the sacks, father mounted his horse and was off at a run.
Mother and we girls stood in the yard watching as father disappeared from sight over a slight rise, leaving only a trail of dust from his horse's hoofs [sic]. We stayed outside and watched the smoke sweep along the landscape and off in the distance a herd of fleet-footed antelope was running like the wind to escape a fiery death.
After a long time we were surprised to see a rider coming towards the house along the same trail over which father had gone not too long before. He came slowly and even before we could see the horse distinctly, we could tell it was limping. Instinctively mother started running down the road to meet them, sister and I following in her wake. And no doubt we stared in wide-eyed fright, for both father and the horse were covered with dirt and father held a blood-soaked handkerchief over his mouth.
I don't believe mother even asked him what happened - maybe she knew - and anyway he was in no shape to talk. He sat in a chair by the kitchen stove while mother bathed his face from a basin of warm water she placed on the stove and father washed the dirt and blood out of his mouth, as his lip had been cut wide open. Mother pulled it together and fastened it with court plaster and I guess it must have healed all right, although father did carry a slight scar on his lip the rest of his life.
The accident had happened when the horse stepped in a badger hole while running, causing it to fall and the shovel which father was carrying across the saddle in front of him had struck him in the mouth.
He looked very white after the blood had been washed away and he had put on a clean shirt, but he went to the stable and cared for the hurt pony and then put the saddle on another horse and rode away toward the prairie fire which now seemed to be dying down, but in its wake had left a black, barren path where so short a time before sturdy, native grasses had cured into nourishing winter feed for hungry livestock.
For the benefit of the younger generations who likely have never heard of a "court plaster" I would say it was the forerunner of adhesive tape.
The cloth itself somewhat resembled a good grade of cheese cloth, but was stiff, due to the glue on one side, which looked exactly as the glue on a postage stamp. Court plaster came in small boxes, about two inches square and was made in colors of light pink and blue, white and black. At one time it was fashionable for southern belles to place a small piece of black court plaster on their cheek to emphasize the whiteness of their skin.
Another time that I remember court plaster coming to the rescue, was a day when father was cleaning the well. He was down inside the well and a young fellow who was helping him would pull up the buckets of mud and as the loaded one came up the empty bucket would go down.
On one trip up, the heavily loaded bucket swung too far to one side, caught underneath the well curbing, jerking the rope from the boy's hands and the bucket fell back into the well.
I suppose father must have been watching and was able to get himself out of the direct path of the falling bucket but not entirely out of the way from the iron band around the bottom grazed the side of his head and face.
Frozen with terror to the spot where I stood, I saw the boy reach a helping hand down in the well and father emerged with blood streaming down the side of his head and face.
Again there was only mother to do anything - and she was not the type to meet emergencies calmly, but I guess because it had to be done she did it. She cut away the hair from around the gash, cleaned it as best she knew how, pulled the edges as nearly together as she could and held them in place with court plaster which she had me cut into strips.
It was during my childhood that the strife between the cattlemen and homesteaders who came seeking land, was at its height. "Squatters" the ranchmen called them, settled on government land, where the ranchers had been in the habit of grazing their herds of cattle. More obnoxious even than the land they took up, were the strands of shining barbed wire fences with which they enclosed their claims. Watering places were often shut off and the cattlemen felt that homesteaders would ruin the cattle industry.
Some ranchers were also going into the sheep business and the feeling between the cattlemen and sheepmen was bitter indeed.
A band of sheep grazing across the prairie, cropped the grass so close to the ground that there was no feed left for cattle or horses. In many parts of the state bitter fights were waged between the two factions, but there were no sheep near the LZ outfit.
However, one day father announced that while rounding up some horses he had seen what looked like a homestead shack going up southwest of the ranch and he was going to ride over and see what it was all about.
Mother was worried and begged him not to get into trouble with them. She had heard of the shooting taking place between men feuding over the land.
Father grinned, said he was making a welcoming call, mounted his horse and was off at a good clip in the direction of the homesteaders.
He hadn't been gone a great while until he rode back into the barn yard and mother looked relieved, but only for a few minutes, for a short time later father and the hired man rode out of the yard headed in the same direction and both carried shovels across their saddles in front of them.
Then mother really did seem worried and was unable to answer the many questions we children kept asking her as to what they were going to do. The afternoon wore on and still the men did not return and mother contemplated taking us girls and walking over to the shanty, then she decided against it as it was very warm and likely thought it would be a hard walk with two small children and if there was trouble we would likely be in the way.
Toward evening the men returned and father looked a little sheepish as he explained that he had found a real nice woman with a sick husband and several young children by the name of Grimes. The woman and children were trying to dig a well, so he and the hired man had helped them out. From then on vegetables from our garden and meat when we butchered, found their way to the homestead shack.
The second winter that the family lived there one of the boys went on a hunting trip with several friends. People did not hunt in those days until the weather had turned cold enough to freeze so that they could keep the meat. The hunting party was unfortunate enough to be caught out in a blizzard and the Grimes boy became lost from the rest. When the storm abated one of the men returned for help in hunting for the boy and I remember about it because my father joined the searchers and I overheard him tell mother when he returned that they found the lad frozen stiff, in a sitting position, huddled under some rocks, seeking what shelter he could.
Friends of those Early Years
The need of human companionship is strong in most people and in those days of a sparsely settled country, anyone who lived near enough to be visited once in awhile was a neighbor and usually a friend.
Background and family had little to do with those friendships which were strengthened by the experiences shared together throughout the years.
There was one large raw-boned, gaunt, sad-faced woman who filled me with awe and fear. While sitting on the floor one day dressing my doll I overheard the woman tell my mother of a tragic experience and I was too young then to realize her courage, but felt a strange fear of her.
A number of years before she had lived in the mountainous part of the state. The cabin which was their home was built among the foothills but even there the snow lay deep on the ground all winter. They had four children and the youngest, a baby who had been sick for several days, became much worse and the father decided to go to the settlement, some twelve miles distant, for medicine.
The weather looked threatening as he donned his snowshoes and heavy wraps, but the need of help for the baby was so apparent that neither mentioned the approaching storm.
She referred to her husband as "my man" and said that shortly after he had gone it began snowing and blowing and increased in intensity as the day wore on until by nightfall a howling blizzard was sweeping across the mountainside.
The older children were put to bed and all night long she cared for the baby as best she knew, while nearly crazed with fear for "her man".
In the cold grey dawn the baby's feeble cries ceased and she knew it was dead. She put it in the cradle in a far corner and covered it up and told the children that it was sleeping and to leave it alone.
The storm continued on through the second day and she "prayed the Lord" that "her man" had stayed at the settlement and was not buried somewhere under the drifts. By evening the storm had somewhat abated and she knew that she could not keep the baby in the one-room cabin another day; there was no chance of burying it for the snow that covered the frozen ground was many feet deep.
Again she put the children to bed, then went outside and dug a hole in the side of a snowbank. Returning to the cabin she wrapped the tiny form in blankets and put it in the drift until spring and refilled the opening with snow.
What fate "her man" met I do not remember hearing her relate, but she had a husband when we knew her, so I presume he survived.
Another friend, who was among the first white children born in one of the outposts in the early territorial days of Wyoming, told once of how she was nearly drowned by the Indians when a small baby.
Her mother was walking along a creek bank, carrying the baby when she came upon several Indians, both bucks and squaws, but she was not alarmed as the Indians were always around the post and seemed friendly. She smiled and spoke to them, but either they did not speak English or did not want to converse, for they remained silent and the woman started to return to the post when a young brave stopped up and grabbed the baby from her arms and threw it into the creek, then laughing held onto the mother to prevent her from jumping into the water after the baby.
The water was not deep and a heavy wool petticoat which babies wore in those days kept it afloat. The mother screamed and a young Indian woman, with a papoose on her back, quickly loosened the cradle and slid her baby to the ground, then waded into the water and brought the white baby out. Shoving the Indian buck to one side, she said a few disdainful words to him in Sioux, handed the baby to its mother, then stooped to pick up her baby, paying no attention to the hastily uttered words of thanks from the white mother, before she sped towards the post.
Upon reaching safety she decided against saying anything about the incident, she had her baby safe and had both seen and known what small incidents had sometimes resulted in terrible massacres and blood shed between the Indian and the white men. Besides she was still undecided as to why the Indian had done what he did. She had heard that was the way they taught their children to swim, he had seemed friendly and in the best of spirits, and it was altogether likely he had partaken too freely of white man's "fire water".