High Courage: The Great Kansas Blizzard of 1882 – II

A pioneer story of Kansas by Mabel Chandler Harris.

Part II

In Etta’s wakefulness, she recalled the three years they had been here on this horrible Kansas prairie. She remembered the moment when the two covered wagons drawn by tired horses had turned off the Santa Fe Trail in northern Lyon County and had gone a quarter of a mile south to this location. Their stone house had been started by a former homesteader. She saw again the thrill of high hope in her mother’s face as they pegged their tent into place.

“George,” she said, and there was a note of finality in her mother’s voice, “this is not much of a place—upland—no trees—but I say here we will make our home. It will not be any harder for us than for the other settlers around here. We are not going to move anymore.”

“I agree with you, Hannah,” said George Chandler, her husband. “Here we will make our home.”

That was in March 1879. How cold the spring had been! How long it had taken to get this half-built house put together! How hard the sod had been when pa tried to plow! How the wind did blow!

How she had hated it all!

No wonder all the families around them were not finding life in Kansas at this time and place easy, but it seemed that tragedy did not follow others like it had her family. She recalled the rattlesnake’s bite on Gene’s leg that first summer and how pa had saved the boy’s life by splitting the leg of her screaming brother and then with his own mouth sucking the wound until no more blood or fluid of any kind came from it. The rattler was a huge one and had seven rattles and a button. They had killed it all right—chopped off its head—but it still wiggled all day long. After that none of them ever fooled with a rattlesnake, because they recognized one whenever they saw it.

The girl shuddered. Her mind would not be quiet and let her sleep. She remembered her ma’s pain when little sister Delphia had come the second spring. Delphia had been a blue baby and had lived only two weeks. She died March 26, 1880. Her little grave had been dug in the northeast corner of the new Bushong cemetery, which had been bought but not yet been laid out.

Ma had dragged all that summer in spite of her continued high hopes and then had worn herself out caring for Charlie, who during haying time had slipped off a load of hay and broken his leg. In spite of all that good Dr. Wright of Americus could do to relieve him, ten-year-old Charlie often cried all night with pain. Even though she was in the family way again, Ma stayed all night by his side trying to ease the suffering when the splintered bone continued to work out through the festering flesh. Pa took his turn, too. He was great for hot poultices. They did seem to ease the pain and drew out those pieces of bone from the leg.

Etta jerked and turned over in her limited space. Little Annie stirred and the girl soothed the babe to quietness. She rubbed her own throbbing head—her hands were cold but they felt good when pressing against her strangely burning eyes. She could not sleep. Her thoughts reverted to that most terrible time of all back in March 1881.

On March 10, Ma went again into that dreadful time of childbirth. The younger children were bundled off to the neighbors. Mrs. Day, Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Sanders, homesteaders all, had been so good. When the baby was finally born two days later, it was all right but Ma was so sick that they never even thought to name little sister. Everyone was trying to help Dr. Wright save the mother’s life, but Hannah Priscilla Chandler had indeed made her last earthly move. When the baby girl was five days old and was crying for some milk, the mother closed her eyes, overcome by too much bodily pain, want, and longing.

George Chandler bought a lot in the Bushong cemetery, two miles south of his farm. Hannah, his efficient and helpful wife, was laid in it and the body of little Delphia brought from the corner and laid at her mother’s head. This Kansas mother had died March 17, 1881.

Etta was sixteen years of age then. She was big and strong and knew how to do the homemaking work, so she became the woman of that upland claim. She was naturally an organizer and a commander so things went on about as usual. The baby was named Hannah Priscilla, for the dead mother, but she was called Annie.

Life was not always dull and laden with heavy work. Etta had a beau, too. Even under the bad conditions her love for her father and the children made the days short—and surely much better times were just ahead for all of them.

But doctor bills, funeral expenses, grocery bills, and the need of clothing for all of them nearly drove the heartbroken father mad. When he was a lad, George Chandler, had served in the Hospital Corps of the Northern Army and there he had learned to cook. Though he had tried to raise a crop that summer of 1881, but when autumn came and little grain had been produced on the land that God had intended for pasture, he faced the coming winter with despair. He had to earn some money.

The father talked this over with the older children. With the optimism of youth, Etta, Gene, and Henry agreed with his plan to take a job in an Emporia hotel as cook for the winter. The children all agreed to obey Etta and do just as she said. With many misgivings and secret fears, George Chandler, forty-years-old, left the little stone house on the prairie for a good-paying job in the city, twenty miles away. He hoped he would be able to pay his debts, buy family necessities, and come home the following spring.

Etta took her responsibilities seriously. Like an adult, but sometimes with girlish immaturities, she carried on day-by-day. Every night found her with tired muscles, throbbing head, and pressing problems. How could she manage on the morrow?

(To be continued. . .)

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