Coming to Comanche, you stopped, for Comanche was the end of the world. Unless, of course, you were one of those who wished to push the boundary-line of the world farther, to make homes in the wilderness where there had been no homes, to plant green fields in the desert where none had been before.
In that case you merely paused at Comanche, like the railroad, to wait the turn of events.
Beyond Comanche was the river, and beyond the river, dim-lined in the west, the mountains. Between the river and the mountains lay the reservation from which the government had pushed the Indians, and which it had cut into parcels to be drawn by lot.
And so Comanche was there on the white plain to serve the present, and temporary, purpose of housing and feeding the thousands who had collected there at the lure of chance with practical, impractical, speculative, romantic, honest, and dishonest ideas and intentions. Whether it should survive to become a colorless post-office and shipping-station for wool, hides, and sheep remained for the future to decide. As the town appeared under the burning sun of that August afternoon one might have believed, within bounds, that its importance was established for good and all.
It was laid out with the regular severity of the surveyor’s art. Behind the fresh, new railroad depot the tented streets swept away pretentiously. In the old settlements–as much as two months before that day some of them had been built–several business houses of wood and corrugated sheet-iron reared above the canvas roofs of their neighbors, displaying in their windows all the wares which might be classified among the needs of those who had come to break the desert, from anvils to zitherns; from beads, beds, and bridles to winches, wagons, water bottles, and collapsible cups.
At the head of the main street stood a hydrant, which the railroad company supplied with water, offering its refreshment to all comers–to man, beast, and Indian, as well as to dusty tourists with red handkerchiefs about their necks. Around it, where teams had been fed and the overflow of water had run, little green forests of oats were springing, testifying to the fecundity of the soil, lighting unbelieving eyes with hope.
“Just look what a little water will do!” said the locaters and town-site men, pointing with eloquent gesture. “All this land needs, gentlemen, is a little water to make it a paradise!”
On the right hand of the hydrant there was a bank, presenting a front of bricked stability, its boarded sides painted in imitation of that same resisting material, for the comfort of its depositors perhaps, and the benefit of its credit before the eyes of the passing world. Well out in the desert, among the hummocks of earth heaped around anchoring sage clumps, stood the Elkhorn Hotel. It was built of logs, with a design toward the picturesque and an eye to the tourist class of adventurers who were expected to throng to the opening. The logs had been cut along the river–they were that gnarled cottonwood which grows, leaning always toward the northeast, in that land of bitter extremes–the bark stripped from them until they gleamed yellowly, and fitted together with studied crudity. Upon the projecting end of the ridge-pole rode a spreading elk-prong, weathered, white, old.
And there was the Hotel Metropole. There always is a Hotel Metropole and a newspaper, no matter where you go. When you travel beyond them you have penetrated the Ultima Thule of modern times. The Hotel Metropole was near the station. It was picturesque without straining for it. Mainly it was a large, sandy lot with a rope around it; but part of it was tents of various colors, sizes, and shapes, arranged around the parent shelter of them all–a circus “top,” weathered and stained from the storms of many years. Their huddling attitude seemed to express a lack of confidence in their own stability. They seemed a brood of dusty chicks, pressing in for shelter of the mothering wing.
All was under the direction of a small man with a cream-colored waistcoat and a most incendiary-looking nose. It seemed tempting the laws of physics governing dry materials and live coals to bring that nose into the shelter of a desert-bleached tent. But it was there, and it flared its welcome with impartial ardor upon all arrivals.
The scheme of the Hotel Metropole was this: If you wanted a cot in a tent where each bed was partitioned from the other by a drop-curtain of calico print, you could enjoy that luxury at the rate of two dollars a night in advance, no baggage accepted as security, no matter what its heft or outward appearance of value. If you didn’t want to go that high, or maybe were not so particular about the privacy of your sleeping arrangements, you might have a cot anywhere in the circus-tentful of cots, spread out like pews. There the charge was one dollar. That rate chancing to be too steep for you, you might go into the open and rest in one of the outdoor canvas pockets, which bellied down under your weight like a hammock. There the schedule was fifty cents.
No matter what part of the house you might occupy on retiring, you were warned by the wall-eyed young man who piloted you to the cot with your number pinned on it that the hotel was not responsible for the personal belongings of the guests. You were also cautioned to watch out for thieves. The display of firearms while disrobing seemed to be encouraged by the management for its moral effect, and to be a part of the ceremony of retiring. It seemed to be the belief in the Hotel Metropole that when a man stored a pistol beneath his pillow, or wedged it in between his ribs and the side of the bunk, he had secured the safety of the night.
At the distant end of the main street, standing squarely across its center, stood the little house which sheltered the branch of the United States land-office, the headquarters being at Meander, a town a day’s journey beyond the railroad’s end. A tight little board house it was, like a toy, flying the emblem of the brave and the free as gallantly as a schoolhouse or a forest-ranger station. Around it the crowd looked black and dense from the railroad station. It gave an impression of great activity and earnest business attention, while the flag was reassuring to a man when he stepped off the train sort of dubiously and saw it waving there at the end of the world.
Indeed, Comanche might be the end of the world–didn’t the maps show that it was the end of the world, didn’t the railroad stop there, and doesn’t the world always come to an abrupt end, all white and uncharted beyond, at the last station on every railroad map you ever saw? It might be the end of the world, indeed, but there was the flag! Commerce could flourish there as well as in Washington, D. C., or New York, N. Y., or Kansas City, U. S. A.; even trusts might swell and distend there under its benign protectorate as in the centers of civilization and patriotism pointed above.
So there was assurance and comfort to the timid in the flag at Comanche, as there has been in the flag in other places at other times. For the flag is a great institution when a man is far away from home and expecting to bump into trouble at the next step.
Opposite the bank on the main street of Comanche were the tents of the gods of chance. They were a hungry-mouthed looking lot that presided within them, taken at their best, for the picking had been growing slimmer and slimmer in Wyoming year by year. They had gathered there from the Chugwater to the Big Horn Basin in the expectation of getting their skins filled out once more.
One could find in those tents all the known games of cowboy literature, and a good many which needed explanation to the travelers from afar. There was only one way to understand them thoroughly, and that was by playing them, and there seemed to be a pretty good percentage of curious persons in the throng that sweated in Comanche that day.
That was all of Comanche–tents, hydrant, hotels, bank, business houses, and tents again–unless one considered the small tent-restaurants and lodging-places, of which there were hundreds; or the saloons, of which there were scores. But when they were counted in, that was all.
Everybody in Comanche who owned a tent was on the make, and the making was good. Many of the home-seekers and adventure-expectant young men and women had been on the ground two weeks. They had been paying out good money for dusty stage-rides over the promising lands which had been allotted to the Indians already by the government. The stage people didn’t tell them anything about that, which was just as well. It looked like land where stuff might be grown with irrigation, inspiration, intensity of application, and undying hope. And the locaters and town-site boomers led their customers around to the hydrant and pointed to the sprouting oats.
“Spill a little water on this land and it’s got Egypt skinned,” they said.
So the mild adventurers stayed on for the drawing of claims, their ideals and notions taking on fresh color, their canned tomatoes (see the proper literature for the uses of canned tomatoes in desert countries frequented by cowboys) safely packed away in their trunks against a day of emergency.
Every one of them expected to draw Claim Number One, and every one of them was under the spell of dreams. For the long summer days of Wyoming were as white as diamonds, and the soft blue mountains stood along the distant west beyond the bright river as if to fend the land from hardships and inclemencies, and nurture in its breast the hopes of men.
Every train brought several hundred more to add to the throng already in Comanche–most of them from beyond the Mississippi, many of them schemers, most of them dreamers ready to sacrifice all the endearments of civilization for the romance of pioneering in the West, beyond the limits of the world as defined by the map of the railroad-line over which they had come.