Bones of dead buffalo, bones of dead horses, bones of dead men. The tribute exacted by the Kansas prairie: bones. A waste of bones, a sepulcher that did not hide its bones, but spread them, exulting in its treasures, to bleach and crumble under the stern sun upon its sterile wastes. Bones of deserted houses, skeletons of men's hopes sketched in the dimming furrows which the grasses were reclaiming for their own.
A land of desolation and defeat it seemed to the traveler, indeed, as he followed the old trail along which the commerce of the illimitable West once was borne. Although that highway had belonged to another generation, and years had passed since an ox train toiled over it on its creeping journey toward distant Santa Fé, the ruts of old wheels were deep in the soil, healed over by the sod again, it is true, but seamed like scars on a veteran's cheek. One could not go astray on that broad highway, for the eye could follow the many parallel trails, where new ones had been broken when the old ones wore deep and rutted.
Present-day traffic had broken a new trail between the old ones; it wound a dusty gray line through the early summer green of the prairie grass, endless, it seemed, to the eyes of the leg-weary traveler who bent his footsteps along it that sunny morning. This passenger, afoot on a road where it was almost an offense to travel by such lowly means, was a man of thirty or thereabout, tall and rather angular, who took the road in long strides much faster than the freighters' trains had traveled it in the days of his father. He carried a black, dingy leather bag swinging from his long arm, a very lean and unpromising repository, upon which the dust of the road lay spread.
Despite the numerous wheel tracks in the road, all of them apparently fresh, there was little traffic abroad. Not a wagon had passed him since morning, not a lift had been given him for a single mile. Now, mounting a ridge toward which he had been pressing forward the past hour, which had appeared a hill of consequence in the distance, but now flattened out to nothing more than a small local divide, he put down his bag, flung his dusty black hat beside it, and stood wiping his face with a large turkey-red handkerchief which he unknotted from about his neck.
His face was of that rugged type common among the pioneers of the West, lean and harsh-featured, yet nobly austere, the guarantee of a soul above corruption and small trickery, of a nature that endures patiently, of an anger slow to move. There were bright hues as of glistening metal in his close-cut light hair as he stood bareheaded in the sun.
Sheep sorrel was blooming by the wheel tracks of the road, purple and yellow; daisy-like flowers, with pale yellow petals and great wondering hearts like frightened eyes, grew low among the short grass; countless strange blooms spread on the prairie green, cheering for their brief day the stern face of a land that had broken the hearts of men in its unkindness and driven them away from its fair promises. The traveler sighed, unable to understand it quite.
All day he had been passing little sod houses whose walls were crumbling, whose roofs had fallen in, whose doors beckoned in the wind a sad invitation to come in and behold the desolation that lay within. Even here, close by the road, ran the grass-grown furrows of an abandoned field, the settler's dwelling-place unmarked by sod or stone. What tragedy was written in those wavering lines; what heartbreak of going away from some dear hope and broken dream! Here a teamster was cutting across the prairie to strike the road a little below the point where the traveler stood. Extra side boards were on his wagon-box, as they used to put them on in corn-gathering time back in the traveler's boyhood home in Indiana. The wagon was heaped high with white, dry bones.
Bones. Nothing left to haul out of that land but bones. The young man took up his valise and hat and struck off down the road to intercept the freighter of this prairie product, hoping for an invitation to ride, better pleased by the prospect of resting living bones on dead dry ones than racking them in that strain to reach the town on the railroad, his journey's end, on foot before nightfall.
The driver's hat was white, like his bones; it drooped in weather-beaten limpness about his ears, hiding his face, but he appeared to have an hospitable heart in spite of the cheerlessness of his pursuit. Coming to the road a little before the traveler reached the point of conjunction, he drew the team to a stand, waiting his approach.
"Have a ride?" the freighter invited, edging over on the backless spring seat as he spoke, making room.
The bone-wagon driver was a hollow-framed man, who looked as if he had starved with the country but endured past all bounds of hardship and discouragement. He looked hungry—hungry for food, hungry for change, hungry for the words of men. His long gray mustache hung far below his stubble-covered chin; there was a pallor of a lingering sickness in his skin, which the hot sun could not sere out of it. He sat dispiritedly on his broken seat, sagging forward with forearms across his thighs.
"Footin' it over to Ascalon?" he asked, as the traveler mounted beside him.
"Yes sir, I'm headin' that way."
"Well, yes," thoughtfully, as if he considered what might be counted far in that land of unobstructed horizons, "I have come a considerable little stretch."
"I thought maybe you was one of them new settlers in here, goin' over to Ascalon to ketch the train," the bone man ventured, putting his inquiry for further particulars as politely as he knew how.
"I'm not a settler yet, but I expect to try it here."
"You don't tell me?"
"Yes sir; that's my intention."
"Where you from?"
The bone man looked his passenger over with interest, from his feet in their serviceable shoes, to his head under his round-crowned, wide-brimmed black hat.
"A good many of 'em used to come in here from Ioway and Newbrasky in the early days," he said. "You never walked plumb from there, did you?"
"I thought of stopping at Buffalo Creek, back fifteen or twenty miles, but I didn't like the country around there. They told me it was better at Ascalon, so I just struck out to walk across the loop of the railroad and take a close look at the land as I went along."
"You must be something of a walker," the bone man marveled.
"I used to follow a walking cultivator across an eighty-acre cornfield," the traveler replied.
"Yes, that'll stretch a feller's legs," the bone man admitted, reminiscently. "Nothing like follerin' a plow to give a man legs and wind. But they don't mostly walk around in this country; they kind of suspicion a man when they see him hoofin' it."
"There doesn't seem to be many of them to either walk or ride," the traveler commented, sweeping a look around the empty land.
"It used to be full of homesteaders all through this country—I seen 'em come and I seen 'em go."
"I've seen traces of them all along the railroad for the last hundred miles or more. It must have been a mighty exodus, a sad thing to see."
"Accordin' to the way you look at it, I reckon," the bone man reflected. "They're comin' to this country ag'in, flocks of 'em. This makes the third time they've tried to break this part of Kansas to ride, and I don't know, on my soul, whether they'll ever do it or not. Maybe I'll have more bones to pick up in a year or two."
"It seems to be one big boneyard; I saw cars of bones on every sidetrack as I came through."
"Yes, I tell folks that come here and try to farm that bones was the best crop this country ever raised, and it'll be about the only one. I come in here with the railroad, I used to drive a team pickin' up the buffaloes the contractors' meat hunter killed."
"You know the history of its ups and downs, then," the young man said, with every evidence of deep interest.
"I guess I do, as well as any man. Bones was the first freight the railroad hauled out of here, and bones'll be the last. I follered the railroad camps after they built out of the buffalo country and didn't need me any more, pickin' up the bones. Then the settlers begun to come in, drawed on by the stuff them railroad colonization agents used to put in the papers back East. The country broke their backs and drove 'em out after four or five years. Then I follered around after them and picked up the bones.
"Yes, there used to be some familiar lookin' bones among 'em once in a while in them times. I used to bury that kind. A few of them settlers stuck, the ones that had money to put in cattle and let 'em increase on the range. They've done well—you'll see their ranches all along the Arkansaw when you travel down that way. This is a cattle country, son; that's what the Almighty made it for. It never can be anything else."
"And there was another wave of immigration, you say, after that?" the passenger asked, after sitting a while in silence turning over what the old pioneer had said.
"Yes, wave is about right. They come in by freight trainload, cars of horses and cattle, and machinery for farmin', from back there in Ohio and Indiany and Ellinoi—all over that country where things a man plants in the ground grows up and comes to something. They went into this pe-rairie and started a bustin' it up like the ones ahead of 'em did. Shucks! you can turn a ribbon of this blame sod a hundred miles long and never break it. What can a farmer do with land that holds together that way? Nothin'. But them fellers planted corn in them strips of sod, raised a few nubbins, some of 'em, some didn't raise even fodder. It run along that way a few years, hot winds cookin' their crops when they did git the ground softened up so stuff would begin to make roots and grow, cattle and horses dyin' off in the winter and burnin' up in the fires them fool fellers didn't know how to stop when they got started in this grass. They thinned out year after year, and I drove around over the country and picked up their bones.
"That crowd of settlers is about all gone now, only one here and there along some crick. Bones is gittin' scarce, too. I used to make more when I got four dollars a ton for 'em than I do now when they pay me ten. Grind 'em up to put on them farms back in the East, they tell me. Takin' the bones of famine from one place to put on fat in another. Funny, ain't it?"
The traveler said it was strange, indeed, but that it was the way of nature for the upstanding to flourish on the remains of the fallen. The bone man nodded, and allowed that it was so, world without end, according to his own observations in the scale of living things from grass blade to mankind.
"How are they coming in now—by the trainload?" the traveler asked, reverting to the influx of settlers.
"These seem to be a different class of men," the bone man replied, his perplexity plain in his face. "I don't make 'em out as easy as I did the ones ahead of 'em. These fellers generally come alone, scoutin' around to see the lay of the country—I run into 'em right along drivin' livery rigs, see 'em around for a couple or three weeks sometimes. Then they go away, and the first thing I know they're back with their immigrant car full of stuff, haulin' out to some place somebody went broke on back in the early days. They seem to be a calculatin' kind, but no man ain't deep anough to slip up on the blind side of this country and grab it by the mane like them fellers seems to think they're doin'. It'll throw 'em, and it'll throw 'em hard."
"It looks to me like it would be a good country for wheat," the traveler said.
The bone man pulled up on his horses, checking them as if he would stop and let this dangerous fellow off. He looked at the traveler with incredulous stare, into which a shading of pity came, drawing his naturally long face longer. "I'd just as well stop and let you start back right now, mister." He tightened up a little more on the lines.
There was merriment in the stranger's gray eyes, a smile on his homely face that softened its harsh lines.
"Has nobody ever tried it?" he inquired.
"There's been plenty of fools here, but none that wild that I ever heard of," the bone man said. "You're a hundred miles and more past the deadline for wheat—you'd just as well try to raise bananers here. Wheat! it'd freeze out in the winter and blow out by the roots in the spring if any of it got through."
The traveler swept a long look around the country, illusive, it seemed, according to its past treatment of men, in its restful beauty and secure feeling of peace. He was silent so long that the bone man looked at him again keenly, measuring him up and down as he would some monstrosity seen for the first time.
"Maybe you're right," the young man said at last.
The bone man grunted, with an inflection of superiority, and drove on, meditating the mental perversions of his kind.
"Over in Ascalon," he said, breaking silence by and by, "there's a feller by the name of Thayer—Judge Thayer, they call him, but he ain't never been a judge of nothin' since I've knowed him—lawyer and land agent for the railroad. He brings a lot of people in here and sells 'em railroad land. He says wheat'll grow in this country, tells them settlers that to fetch 'em here. You two ought to git together—you'd sure make a pair to draw to."
"Wouldn't we?" said the stranger, in hearty humor.
"What business did you foller back there in Ioway?" inquired the bone man, not much respect in him now for the man he had lifted out of the road.
"I was a professional optimist," the traveler replied, grave enough for all save his eyes.
The bone man thought it over a spell. "Well, I don't think you'll do much in Ascalon," he said. "People don't wear specs out here in this country much. Anybody that wants 'em goes to the feller that runs the jewelry store."
The stranger attempted no correction, but sat whistling a merry tune as he looked over the country. The bone man drove in silence until they rose a swell that brought the town of Ascalon into view, a passenger train just pulling into the station.
"Octomist! Wheat!" said the bone man, with discount on the words that left them so poor and worthless they would not have passed in the meanest exchange in the world.