Monday, June 9, 2014

Remainder of the "Sketches"

            Little flurries of snow came into the wagon under the taut and sleet covered canvas.  Hannah was lying on a feather bed, one of the three possessions she had brought from home.  Again she used buffalo robes for covers.  Doug mumbled and cursed at the slow oxen for he had hoped to get to some kind of settlement because Hannah’s time was near.

That night they made a decision.  Hannah couldn’t stand the eternal bumping and swaying of the wagon any longer. She was ready to meet her problem alone if they would only make camp. In the morning Doug scraped the snow from the frozen ground and burrowed into a hill.  Using willows for a frame and covering them with “green” buffalo hides, Doug fashioned themselves a home.  Bare, gray, clay-like walls formed three sides of the dugout and the hides served as front and roof. 

            In one corner was a crude fireplace just big enough to hold the second of Hannah’s treasures, a Dutch oven in which she cooked all the meals.  Each day the meal was the same buffalo or antelope meat and black coffee with an occasional batch of biscuits or sour dough bread as a treat.

            Empty gunpowder kegs made the necessary chairs and tables.  The feather mattress was stretched over more buffalo hides.  Here Hannah lay until her time was near sewing leather moccasins and breeches for Doug with her last priceless possession from her stock of three articles.  A few needles in a kit made up the last treasure.  The needles were enormous things, one or two of bone, which were the very thing for the deer sinews Hannah used for thread.

            Here in the half-cave half-hut that was filled with smoke Hannah bore her first child, a boy.  She named him for two other buffalo hunters after they had insisted on sending back East for a complete outfit of baby clothing.  Months later the clothing arrived.  The dainty dresses were the first bit of something lovely and beautiful that Hannah had seen in many months.

Maud Bell Wolff and son Joe
            As soon as the snow was melted Doug and Hannah were on their way.  This time they traveled by horse for the cumbersome wagon was abandoned.  Hannah’s lovely feather bed was rotting back in the little cave hut.  One had to leave behind and sacrifice a great many things in this kind of country.

            The string of pack animals which followed them were laden with buffalo hides. Doug would be rid of them before long for they weren’t far distant from a trading post and fort.  At high noon of a scorching hot day they saw the fort.  It seemed almost to be a mirage.  Neither could control themselves for happiness. The fort meant people and people meant news.

            Those coming days at the fort were to be some of the happiest Hannah had had in many months.  The first person she saw was her own sister, Nancy Elizabeth, who had married Doug’s brother Joseph. Here was a piece of news!

            That night there was a gay time at that small out of the way and seemingly forgotten garrison.  Doug found a soldier with a fiddle and after dinner he resumed a practice he had almost forgotten through the months, that practice was playing the fiddle.

            Doug turned out many square dances and waltzes that night.  Time after time he played “Over the Waves” and “The Lancers” as Hannah and Nancy Elizabeth danced with the officers and men. Bidding was high for the two women.  Not only did their scarcity make them popular but the facts that they were young, fresh and beautiful were also points in their favor. When they were taken as partners the soldiers would pair off to form the other two couples necessary for a square dance.

            It was all so gay and carefree.  A happy smile strayed over Hannah’s lips as she was sleeping that night.  Life had so many happy moments.

            A second winter was spent in the same cave-like hut which Hannah and Doug had improvised the winter before. This time they had company for late in the fall another brother of Doug’s and Hannah’s father had come up the river. Hannah’s father was there to take her home.

            Hannah had been the youngest child of his family and the attachment he had for her was the mutual feeling of companionship a father often has for his son.  She had been born on Christmas day, the anniversary of the death of his only son [Thomas Benton Turpin] in the War Between the States.

            While the rest of her sisters were at home helping their mother adjust to the news and hard life caused by the war by carding, weaving and spinning, Hannah would be with her father in the fields.  She sat on a box he had built for her at the side of the plow and drug her barefeet in the cool, newly turned rich, dark earth.

            Hannah and her father had so many things to talk about; the animals, the birds, and even the seeds they planted  For these reasons he had followed her to the West in order to take her back home. Hannah loved her new life, however, the freedom and the vastness of it made life seem only more attractive. She had more to do that winter. There were candles to mold from buffalo fat, and bullets to mold.

            Hannah had also become an excellent rifle shot and she used almost as many of her molded bullets as Doug did.  It was not uncommon for her to look up from her work to see a stray antelope or buffalo a few rods from the hut.  Each time before she left she carefully tied the small child to a post so he couldn’t follow her into the tall grass and underbrush. Hannah often brought in amazing skins as Doug did.  Hannah became capable.  She couldn’t return to a life where she would be expected to conform to the conventional way again.

            Years had passed by.  Williston was a typical, overgrown, cow town in the main line of the Great Northern Railroad.  A small dirty depot was the gateway to one of the gayest blocks in the country.  Up one block from the depot was the district belonging to the fancy girls, the district of saloons.  This was the part of town known to Step-Ladder Nell and Red-Top Law.

            Hannah went to this part of the town but once.  Years had branded Hannah as a woman who would work day and night for anyone in distress.  It didn’t matter to Hannah who the person was; if they were in need they had her help.

            An epidemic had broken out in the town. One by one the black hearse slowly drove the corpses up to the little dust-blown cemetery.  The women who could have helped were generally at home caring for some member of their own family. Hannah’s family was no exception. Her youngest daughter was ill.

            One day the surrey from Heffernan’s stable drove up in front of the log house belonging to Hannah and Doug Bell.  A fancy lady got out.  It was a wide-eyed and open-mouthed youngster who opened the door to the visitor who was dressed in such finery as the Bell’s had never seen.  Hannah shooed away the children and demanded in none to sweet a voice the reason she was honored. It was Step-Ladder Nell the woman that had come. She was ill with the plague. She needed help.  She needed Hannah.

            Hannah packed up a few belongings and climbed into the surrey with the woman. Neither said a word.  The woman headed for the part of town unknown to Hannah.  The woman led Hannah up the dark stairway of a rich and elegant house all decorated in red plush and gilt furnishings until they came to Step-Ladder Nell’s room. 

            Hannah stayed for days with Nell doing the best her small knowledge of medicine allowed her to do. On the day that Nell died she told Hannah the story of her life.  She gave Hannah a strange parting gift in the form of a pistol which had two Notches cut in the handle. Nell didn’t explain the notches.  She didn’t have to for Hannah knew.

            At home Hannah’s child had died while she was listening to Nell’s story.  A story she hadn’t wanted to hear.  Hannah carried her grief silently.  No matter how close to home grief came it followed the idea that those should be of service to as many as possible before she thought of herself or her own family.

            Hannah’s daughter and Step-Ladder Nell were buried almost side-by-side.  Hannah knelt to say a prayer for Nell.  Nell needed a prayer more than Hannah’s daughter did.

            A puffing train chugged up to the same dingy depot of Williston, North Dakota and let out a bewildered group of Negroes who stood sadly in the midst of their luggage and bundles which evidently were musical instruments, and watched the train depart for the East.  Williston was to have a dance. Doug Bell and George Newton wouldn’t be grinding out the tunes tonight.

            Everyone in town, that is everyone but the Negroes were in a state of commotion.  The Negroes stood to one side.  Their flat noses had an exaggerated tilt which gave them a half superior and condescending and a half comical air.

            Eight o’clock that night above the Leon Hardy Saloon the dance began.  Hannah, her sister, Nancy Elizabeth and a few added white women were still the belles of the ball.  The feminine population of Williston hadn’t increased much even though the town was now on the railroad.  The fancy women didn’t count, of course. 

            Dance after dance went off.  Lovely music, new tunes and melodies that Williston had never heard before were included in the Negroes playing. Midnight came and as if one the band folded up and prepared to leave before the astonished eyes of the townspeople. It didn’t take long for someone to take the affair in hand.  Buck Bell walked to the door with a rolling gait of a cowboy and locked the door.  He shoved the key deep into the pocket of his chaps which he pulled up over his hips as he walked toward the band platform.

            As he came near he reached around to his left hip and drew a gun. “Now boys,” he drawled “we hired you for an evening of music.  We expect you to play until we are through dancing.  If you all don’t care to play I’ll distribute the instruments among our boys.” Buck fingered his gun again. It didn’t take the Negroes to long to decide.  They struck up a merry tune somewhat shakily while Buck hovered near them. 

            The Negroes played until dawn and Hannah danced every minute of the time.  She had such a gay time that evening.

            Year after year went by, some happily and some of them sad.  Hannah took them all with her chin up. Time was too short to let the passing of an old friend, or the removal of an old landmark trouble her for long.  She reserved a spot in her heart for her past life, the friends of her younger days, but Hannah kept abreast with the changes.  She was young again with her grandchildren.  She became grandma to the whole town.  To her family in Virginia she was a lost branch of the family tree. [Note from Marcia:  While the Turpin family did hail from Virginia, Hannah and herself was born in Greene County, Iowa. She and sister Nancy Elizabeth moved to Nebraska after their mother died and their father remarried.  It was in Nebraska that the girls met the Bell brothers.]  While they were moldering in tradition. Hannah Bell was making a new tradition, the tradition of a pioneer woman. 

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