A pioneer story of Kansas by Mabel Chandler Harris.
George Chandler, his son Gene, and the horse Ned went doggedly forward and when the man felt sleepy in spite of himself, he knew he must act. He stopped the horse and slid out of the saddle. He could hardly support himself and clung to the stirrup. The horse dropped his head to the snow and snorted furry icicles from his nostrils. The man pulled the chilled boy into the saddle and carefully wrapped the blanket about his cold feet and legs. He removed the long wool scarf from his own neck and wound it round and round the head and shoulders of his son. He slapped his hands against his chest and stomped up and down until he felt renewed circulation of blood in his veins and his feet did not feel so much like frozen lumps.
When he felt somewhat restored, he gave Ned a slap on the rump and grasped the stirrup firmly. They proceeded on their way. The wind remained bitter and fierce. The cold grew more intense. George thought it must be after midnight. He was sure they were still several miles from home.
He gave himself up to thought. He believed in prayer and he had to have some help right now. He asked God for strength and endurance. He prayed for the son in the saddle and for the precious daughter who had been so faithful during these months when he had been forced to be away from home. As he prayed, he was strengthened. He felt reassured that they would reach home.
Gene seemed to be sleep on the horse. George’s thoughts drifted. He remembered himself as a mere lad in the Army of the Republic. He recalled the joyful day he married Hannah Priscilla Crabtree. He remembered the home life in Missouri and the glowing reports of cheap land in Kansas. These reports had fired both his and his wife’s imagination, so he had purchased their present home from a local land agent whom he had trusted implicitly. They had loaded their belongings in the two big wagons. With the crated chickens fastened underneath the wagon beds, and the boys driving the cows and extra horses, they came west from Kansas City on the great trail.
The Chandlers reached their destination in northern Lyon County, Kansas a week later. No one would ever know his bitter disappointment when he had first seen the treeless, poor upland farm that he had bargained for. He had not known there was so much pasture in all the world. He had dreamed of a farm in the bend of a creek, but the creek turned out to be a gully that passed through his land as a raging torrent after a big rain, a dry slough the remainder of the time.
The horse dragged on. George staggered as he clung to Ned. His arms ached. With thoughts of the family that waited for him, he poured his last ounce of determination into his efforts. He resolutely lifted one foot after the other, glad that Gene was quiet.
The night was clearing enough that he recognized the little cemetery in the whiteness. Ned must have come this far west to avoid some very deep snow drifts. The horse was doing fine to know so much even it if did make the way a mile longer.
Thoughts continued like a rushing stream that would not be stopped. The Chandlers had worked at making a home on that upland claim. And then—oh dear God—there had been Delphia, the blue baby. Disconnected scraps of memories filled his laboring mind. “Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes.” Preachers always said those words in burial services.
With cold misgivings he asked himself, “Is there more than that in life?” Hannah was taken when he had needed her so badly. Was she better off than he this terrible night? The harrowing experience of moving little Delphia’s body from the corner to the place at the head of her mother haunted him. It was noon on a warm May day when the little disinterred coffin rested on the green grass. His helpers stood around while he obeyed an impulse to open the lid to peek at his darling child again. In the first instant as they all looked the baby form was there in its original angelic beauty. With the impact of warm air, the little form crumbled into a tiny mound of ashes.
Shuddering, George forced his mind back to his present surroundings. “I must be awfully cold to let myself think in this way,” he thought. “I will not doubt. The word says the spirit shall return to God who gave it. God help me,” he prayed, “to be able to say, even tonight, The Lord hath given and the Lord hath taken away.” Aloud he said, “Blessed be the name of the Lord. I know that God giveth His children strength.”
At his voice, Gene mumbled “What did you say, Pa?”
The father answered, “We will get home. We are almost there.”
It was about three o’clock in the morning when the horse stopped at the stone house. The man gave a shout and dragged the nearly frozen boy from the saddle. The door flew open and Henry, followed by the tall neighbor boy, rushed out and half carried them into light and warmth. Charlie, the lame boy, limped away with old Ned, and while the people in the house worked over the man and the boy, restoring them with a tub of snow, Charlie fed and rubbed the animal that had brought his father and brother home safely home.
When only partially recovered from his night’s experience, the man whose sandy hair had turned white during the last twelve hours, turned to the bedside of his sick daughter.
As he stroked her hair, she spoke her last words, “I knew you would come, Pa.”
The father, with spasms of pain crossing and re-crossing his fine face, held the hand that so confidently had been placed in his. He realized his efforts to save this beloved daughter had been in vain.
As dawn broke over the windswept hillside, Etta Viola Chandler died. George gathered as many of his children as he could clasp into his arms. They clung to him or to each other as he bowed his head in submission and whispered so all could hear, “Thy will be done.”
That was the morning of January 19, 1882. The place was a quarter of a mile south of the original Santa Fe Trail that wended its way across northern Lyon County, Kansas. The Old Santa Fe Trail was the way thousands of people followed west in the 1800s. With their heads, hearts, and hands they literally created a democracy the likes of which is not found anywhere else on our earth.
Because of the bitter cold, Etta Viola Chandler, seventeen-and-a-half years of age, could not be buried in the little Bushong Cemetery beside her mother until January 24, 1882.
Notes about Mabel Chandler Harris, the author of this historical narrative, and the setting of the story.
Mabel was born to George Chandler and his second wife, Carrie, in 1890. She was one of eight children of this second marriage. The children in her “High Courage” story were mostly grown when Mabel was a child, but she must have heard this family story and her heart went out to their struggles.
Mabel married Loren Scott Harris, the older brother of my grandfather Charley Harris, on June 7, 1915. They had one child, Florence Ethel, born December 22, 1927, who was a favorite cousin of my father, Wallace. He called Florence by the nickname Pete.
Pete moved to Wichita during her adult years and shared this “High Courage” story with her dear friend and tax accountant. When Wallace moved to Cowley County from Lyon County, he also hired Pete’s accountant friend to handle his taxes, and I followed suit. During one of my annual tax meetings, she presented me with a copy of Mabel’s story about the blizzard of 1882.
Loren and Mabel lived in Dunlap, Kansas, just up the road from the Harris family homestead on the Neosho River where my grandfather and father lived. Mabel had the distinguished honor to become the first woman to be ordained as a minister of the Methodist Church in the entire state of Kansas. She performed wedding ceremonies, and funerals, for many rural folks, including the Harris family.
The settler’s town named in the story, Bushong, Kansas, is today little more than a few neighborly homes on the paved county road due north of Americus, Kansas. To put more perspective on the horseback journey of Gene and his father on Ned the trusty horse, Bushong is a good 20 miles from the heart of Emporia. The stone cabin where Etta waited would have been even further. Gene and Ned traveled more than 40 miles in that storm, 20 of them on the return trip with George, in the dark, facing into the wind. That blows my mind. Teenage Gene indeed showed great courage, as well as a deep love for his sister and the rest of the family.