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milking, and sat down in their plain calicoes to knit the masculine stockings or mend the infantile pinafores. Nobody could talk more understandingly, criticise more justly, or appreciate more fully everything in their authors that related to natural feeling; and if this book ever gets out to them (as I mean it shall), I shall be more interested in knowing their opinion of it than that of most critics who shall overhaul me in the cities. It is the pride of our American system that such womanly culture can coexist in the Nebraska wilds with those sturdy administrative qualities which subdue savagery into a home, and fight the battle for a civilization which shall presently come and build cities on their conquered field. Place on the frontiers of any other country in the world a family of women isolated from all the luxuries and softening influences proper to their sex, and after a few years have gone over their heads you will find a set of female boors living in a slovenly hut. But “the peasantry” have no status in America. The nearest approach to them which we found in all our journeying was here and there a houseful of unfortunate “Pikes” or “Butternuts,” whom slavery had degraded below the black level before they escaped from its miasma, and the first generation of whom still lay entangled in the accursed traditions of an accursed system, while the second and third were gradually struggling out into the light of new ideas. But even here there was a dim sense of something better to be had for the trying which does not exist among the disheartened lower strata of social Europe. As for the Comstocks, they were truly typical American people. They understood the science of pioneering as a chemist understands analysis and reactions; but just as one of our chemists would
bestir himself, and make his way up in the world, if ill-fortune drove him to the gold-diggings, so would they within three years' time adapt themselves to any social conditions into which fate might force them, and lay the foundations of a family whose position would be prominent in any town where it might live. I was hourly surprised to see the self-reliance of these sisters. They were sometimes left alone in the ranche for a day at a time, all the “men-folks” being off on a hunt or elsewhere out of call. On several such occasions a detachment from one of the numerous Indian bands who make this region by turns a neutral and a fighting ground, poured in to make the “lone women” a compulsory visit. Now, an Indian visit is no joke. Even where a tribe pretends to be friendly, its only distinction between that and the hostile bearing is, that instead of scalping you first and robbing you afterward, it takes all the property it can lay hands on, and leaves your hair for a more convenient season. A band of “friendly” Sioux comes to a small settlement, stops at the first house, emaciates itself by drawing in the cheeks and abdomen, denotes by sepulchral grunts and distressed gestures that it has had nothing to eat for “three shneep” (whereby three sleeps, or entire days and nights, are intended), seizes on everything edible and, if the white feather is shown it, everything portable which it can appreciate beside; confiscates guns, ammunition, and whiskey, and, having cleared out house number one, goes in succession to every other dwelling with the same emaciation, gesture, and appropriation, until it departs at the other end of the settlement stuffed beyond the elasticity of all conceivable animals save Indians and anacondas, and loaded with the materials for a month's barter and a fortnight's “drunk.” I asked Mary Comstock if she was not afraid of such visitors. “O no l’” she replied; “we always get the guns out of sight when we are left alone by the men-folks, so that if the Indians come we needn't be robbed of what must defend us on a pinch ; and if we see them coming, we bolt the doors, and talk with them through the shut window. Sometimes they steal a march on us, and the first thing we know they're swarming in like bees, - asking for everything they see, hunting for something to eat, and begging to be “treated.” We generally give 'em everything they want to eat, but when it comes to liquor, not we! One young Indian last summer got mighty sassy when his band came here, and insisted on having something to drink. At last I got a bottle of Perry Davis's Pain-killer, and handed him that. He just threw his head back, and took it down at one swallow. The next thing he gave such a yell, bolted through the door, and after that he never troubled me much.”
Comstock has two sons with him beside George, both excellent specimens of the young pioneer, one about twenty, the other about sixteen years old. They are fine shots, fearless horsemen, industrious farmers and herdsmen, – with the same rich veins of original humor and strong common sense which run through all the other members of the family. Their manners are frank, self-respectful, and, in the highest sense of the word, gentlemanly. There is a cordial kindness and a native refinement in all they do or say, as far from the artificial politeness or elegant puppyism which we too often find in our city boys at the East, as from the rustic greenness and awkwardness with which the traditions of romance and the stage invest the young backwoodsman.
Beside these children of Comstock's and others of the third generation, the log-cabin shelters a number of ranch-men and hunters, who assist in caring for the crops and herds, and purveying for the family with their rifles. A young Philadelphian, William Butler, who built the ranch as an emigrant trading-post, selling it to Comstock on the death of his brother and partner, lives here when he is not in the saddle or in camp. Willard Head, a dashing horseman, rejoicing in gorgeous leather breeches of Mexican manufacture, adorned with shiny bell-buttons all the way up the leg, makes this his rendezvous while awaiting promotion to the box of an Overland stage. Last, but as characteristic a pioneer as any of the family, comes John Gilbert, a weather-bronzed youth of twentyfive, with the most resplendent set of teeth, blue eyes full of uncontrollable waggery, and a pair of hands skilled in every department of frontier craft, from throwing a lariat to building a house. His sight is as keen as an Indian's. This by itself makes him a capital shot, and, combined with quick intuitions and great experience, a guide unsurpassed by any I ever saw. Crowning his excellent physical qualities are a dry wit and inexhaustible backwoods' humor which would keep a camp cheerful if reduced to mule-meat and wild onions.
The second day after our arrival at Comstock's proved as fair and sunny as we could desire. Everything had been prepared for our expedition to the buffalo country. A sack of flour, a small keg of salt pork, a box of hard-tack, a gridiron, two frying-pans, some camp-kettles, a pile of tin plates, and a lot of knives and forks; a judicious selection from our own
party's private stores, consisting of pickles, canned
fruits, condensed milk and coffee, -all these, and numerous small boxes containing the condiments for a reinforcement of nature's hunger-sauce, stood in a pile that looked like moving-day, at the door of the ranche by seven o'clock in the morning. Munger of the Overland Road had reached us with his double buggy and two fast horses on the evening before. Af. ter breakfast we immediately set out in the following order. The artist of the expedition, Munger, and myself, with a pair of rifles, a shot-gun, and the large color-box which accompanied our entire journey, occupied the buggy. Butler, George and Ansell Comstock, John Gilbert, and the two remaining gentlemen of our party went in a couple of large farm-wagons drawn by teams belonging to the ranch. Willard Head, and Thompson of the Overland station to the eastward of us, which bore his name, escorted us as skirmishers, each on his own horse. We forded the Little Blue just across the road from the ranch, passed the thrifty vegetable patch which supplied the Comstock table, and at once struck south over the trackless plain. The grass was tall and luxuriant, but not so close as to impede our animals. In spite of the recent rain-storm, the ground, matted with grass-roots, bore our hoofs and wheels as firmly as a trotting-course. Everybody was in high spirits. To men just out of the hot-house of New York life, the air and sunshine were fairly intoxicating. Life swarmed around us more luxuriously at every step. The wild flowers of the Plains were a perpetual source of happiness to the eye. They made royal splashes of high color on the sunny sides of all the divides; they checkered the rich green of the ravines with delicious contrasts; and every now and then, as the grass waved,