Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

was driven out of Texas by the corrupt manners of the slavocracy around him, and he loves Freedom as he loves air. He never tires of talking about people who have helped her at the East. “I would go further,” said he one day, “to take a look at Henry Ward Beecher, than to see the biggest old buffalo-bull that ever ran.” Comstock is a widower, with a large family of children, most of them living with him, and two of them having children of their own under his roof. On the Plains there is none of our Eastern necessity of leaving home to push one's fortune. There is plenty of pushing to be done in home's immediate neighborhood,—plenty of room to push, where a family is surrounded everywhere by league on league of the most fertile soil, which has never been appropriated, recorded, or even surveyed for the market. The Little Blue is fringed with cotton-wood of lofty growth: men and axes are the only remaining conditions for a house and a corral. To be sure, cotton-wood timber has one unpleasant idiosyncrasy: even while it is growing, all the crevices of its bark swarm with that wretched insect which has received its name from the slovenly beds of corrupt civilization, and conferred on them their main horror; but a good seasoning removes the pest, and I must say for Comstock's that I never found an individual of the species while I stayed there. As for grain-land and pasturelot, the only problem with the family is the point of the compass towards which they shall run the plough or drive the cattle; the consideration of how far never once intrudes upon their minds. The absence of fences makes it necessary to keep a tolerable stud of horses for the chase of stray steers. Occasionally

a herd of emigrant cattle goes past, along the Overland trail, and not altogether unbeknown to its drivers, who are never celebrated for clear notions on portable property, absorbs a nice yoke of Comstock's animals, who chance to be feeding by the wayside. These have to be followed up and reclaimed,—a matter which may cost a day's rough riding, but nothing in the shape of litigation, where there are no eourts or lawyers, and little in the nature of altercation, where everybody has so many cattle that two, more or less, are not worth a squabble. This is the main anxiety affecting the Comstock mind. It is quite unbothered with cumbersome and costly preparations for the wintering of stock. It needs and builds no barns or stables. The climate is at no season so severe that animals require more than the shelter of a corral or an open shed. All over this region the luxuriant grass cures on the ground, and makes inexhaustible winter feed, without the trouble of mowing and stacking. The snows never last long enough to starve out the herds left running at large. They sleep, as well as graze, on the open plain, all the year round, never being driven in, save to yoke, brand, or milk them. These facts make the pastoral life almost Arcadian, as far as labor is concerned. When a pioneer, like Comstock, has secured a few fine breeding animals, he is in possession of the easiest managed and most rapidly increasing capital in the world. Beside his herds, Comstock attends to farming, in a moderate way,+ raising sufficient corn for his horses' use, when work takes them out of pasture, and grain enough to keep his family supplied with flour. He has a vegetable patch, just across the Little Blue from his corral, whose deep, rich loam and thrifty crops would delight the heart of any suburban market gardener. The necessities of life press a man so little in this bounteous region, that a comparatively small proportion of any day is devoted by the Comstocks to actual labor. Comstock himself is as sturdy at sixty-three as he was at forty, and goes out to the patch, across his log bridge, with a hoe over his shoulder, stepping as elastically as if he had pastime before him. His boys go with him; and after a forenoon of steady work, all come in to dinner, and seldom return again to any heavier labor than breaking colts, hunting, or chasing estrays. Within an hour's ride, across the Blue, antelope are nearly as plenty as anywhere on the Plains; and one afternoon's good sport will replenish the Comstock larders with the best fresh meat known to wild or civilized bills of fare. George Comstock, the eldest son of the old pioneer, lives with him in a partition of the ranch-house, whose front is devoted to miscellaneous emigrant supplies, while its rear is the sitting-room of a thrifty Mrs. George and the nursery of a rising family. In all the delightful old genre pieces of the Dutch artists, and the eccentric old places in Wapping and Holborn which the character-novelists of London love to paint, there is nothing more original than the sight of that shop and dwelling-room combined: where slouching teamsters take their pull at the beer-mug or Jamaica bottle, on their way to California, across a counter where the family bread-batch rests in transilu to the oven; where a pile of hickory shirts lies for sale on a shelf beside the family tea-kettle; where the cradle and the cooking-stove are inextricably mixed with vinegar barrels and meal-sacks; where the babies play Hideand-seek behind piles of wagon canvas, and the housewife's work-basket is flanked by rows of Osgood's Cholagogue. In this omnium gatherum of commerce and the family I found most unsuspectable things: copies of the “New York Herald,” fresh with all the bloom of last month; a luxury of advanced civilization known as ready-prepared egg-nog; a sewing-machine; all kinds of canned fruit from the Shaker settlements; Sunday suits of great gloss, with a certain tenuity in the legs and arms, the verything for a rotund, muscular lover, fearless of exhibiting his outlines; bandanna handkerchiefs shaming the flamingo; plug-tobacco in great swarthy cubes; trace-chains, ox-yokes, fryingpans, Little Songsters, beaver-skins taken in barter, looking-glasses, felt hats, ticking clocks,—but let me not attempt the inventory of a collection which surprised me as much out on the rim of the buffalo herds as it would have surprised Crusoe to have been washed ashore from the wreck into the front door of a branch of A.T. Stewart's. The shop is a house of call to all the emigrants and drivers on their way westward, and adds not a little to the revenue of the Comstocks, who deserve everything they can make, since people fairer and less huckstering in their nature exist nowhere. To return to the other side of the house. The ménage of Comstock, Senior, is in charge of his two daughters, Frank and Mary, who for skillful housewifery, sterling common sense, and native refinement, are surpassed by few women whom I ever met at the East. It was a perpetual surprise to me to hear girls whose whole life had been spent on the Plains or in the backwoods, talk of Longfellow and Bryant, Dickens and • Thackeray, Scott and Cooper, when they came in from

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

« ZurückWeiter »