The Return of the Woman Homesteader

“‘Many sorrows have lain on my heart, and this war—We must all do what we can … You must gain and give. I must, too.’”

[Readers of the Atlantic will recall the two series of Mrs. Stewart’s letters: ‘Letters of a Woman Homesteader,’ published in 1913 (October, November, and December) and 1914 (January, February, and April), and ‘Letters on an Elk-Hunt’ (February to June, 1915). Since that time Mr. and Mrs. Stewart have been developing their homestead and raising an abundant family. The present letters were written to a friend in the South, and since the characters who figure in them are familiar and intimate acquaintances of the Atlantic, there is no need to introduce them individually. The chance reader can readily guess their identity. — The Editors, 1919.]

Burnt Fork, Wyoming, October 26

My dear Friends, —

I have neglected you for so long that I do not expect either of you to recognize me again. Still, when I sent you the note, I promised to tell you of my adventures in bond-selling. I thought I had done pretty well, and was planning to send in my final report a whole week before the drive was over. I was filling in the blanks when a heavy tread and a well-known voice announced Mrs. Louderer.

To you I can confess that my feelings were a little mixed, because I have not been quite certain how she felt about the war. Somehow, our old careless ways have slipped from us, and every day is so full of pressing work that we no longer have those good house-to-house visits that once were such joys.

But my dear Mrs. Louderer came in with her great knitting-bag, from which she took some candy for the little boys. ‘You have not been to see me, so I have came,’ she calmly announced as she seated herself and began to ‘toe off’ a khaki sock!

I never supposed a sock could produce thrills of relief, but that one did. But I was ashamed to tell the truth, or may be I feared to hurt her. Anyway, I plunged into telling about my efforts to sell bonds.

Mrs. Louderer is never very talkative, and so I rattled on, immensely pleased with myself, until she remarked, ‘If all made so poor do as you, then Wyoming will not go over the top. For why does the government ask for money? Because it is needed. For who is it needed? For those who leave their homes, give their time, their money, their very life; and yet you think you do well when you have hardly begun. Have you seen Lund? Have you spoken to Herman? No! that would mean some work; that would take your time from monkeying with your own little jobs. Yah!’ She finished so scornfully that I was perfectly dumbfounded. Before I could say a word, she began to tell me how to make rye-bread, ‘so as you can eat.’ Indignation flared up, but her words had struck my self-conceit such a blow, that I could think of nothing to say.

Then Clyde came in, and they began a discussion about cattle, and I was glad to slip away to prepare supper and try to collect my scattered thoughts and a little self-respect. But what she said was true, and it was a humbled woman who presently called them to supper. ‘The guide mon’ and Mrs. Louderer did indeed ‘talk of many things,’ but beef and the Kaiser had a greater place in their discussion than ‘cabbages and kings.’

Mrs. Louderer left me to do-up the kitchen work, while she and Clyde went out to look at some mule colts that are a new addition to our ranch. I was glad she did so, for never before was the giftie gie me to see myself as others see me. I didn’t like the picture at all, and I am afraid that conversation would have been a little difficult.

While I was busy putting the little Highlanders to bed, she came in and told them a story. When the boys were asleep, she said, —

‘To-morrow we will go after Lund and some more, and make them dig up the price required to teach some of their brothers and odder kin the folly of being anything but Americans.’

‘I can’t go so far from home,’ I told her. ‘I’ve set sponge to try out your rye-bread recipe. And the children are so troublesome on a long trip as that will be.’

‘Now you see?’ she interrupted me; ‘you can’t let go your own affairs. But you are going. Already have I said so to Clyde, and to-morrow we will hitch Chub and Kronprinz to the little wagon. We will be gone some days, may be, so you can get ready for that.’

That night Clyde told me that he would take care of my work, and that he really thought I should go. ‘And,’ he added, ‘have the very pleasantest time you can, for I know what she said to you.’

So it was with a perfectly clear conscience that I seated myself beside Mrs. Louderer next morning, and left undone many waiting tasks. Many times I wished for you. The blue-and-gold charm of October Wyoming would have charmed you. It did me the first time I saw it, and I have remained under its spell ever since. I wish I had words to paint it for you, but you will have to picture the lonely buttes, with the shifting lights of blue, gold, and rose; the suggestive reach of the desert; and perhaps the next turn of the road would present the crags and clifts of the hog-back. Back of that, the forest reserve, and back of that again, the shining snow-peaks.

The air seemed golden, and everywhere the quaking aspens had been touched by Midas.

I could not talk while such beauty lay spread before me. Mrs. Louderer thought I was sulking. ‘You should not pout because I said to you as I did. You do not know, as I do, what will happen if we should lose.’

‘I am just enjoying the beauty,’ I told her.

‘That is well,’ she replied. ‘Folks in Belgium will not see much beauty in the ruins that are left. If heaven itself had been in Belgium, it would have been bombed and gassed. St. Peter was not German, and he would have been gassed or worst. I have no time to look at yellow trees and blue mountains. I have in me only a wish to see green bills.’

She gave Kronprinz such a spiteful cut with her switch, that he sprang forward and almost spilled us both.

‘Why do you call you horse the name you do?’ I asked.

‘Because he should be killed almost, he is so hateful; only I would be glad if only I had by me the Kronprinz, so as I could beat his back as it should.’

So she urged the horses on, our wagon jolting and creaking protesting. She seemed unable to win me away from my pleasant contemplations, and I was just as unable to keep her from her unpleasant ones.

We were miles from home when we saw a figure some distance ahead of us in the road. It was Herman. He was trudging along on his way to a sheep-camp where he was to work. After a pleasant exchange of greetings, he produced his pipe.

‘Herman,’ began Mrs. Louderer, ‘you have no one dependent upon you and you have wasted all your life—’

Herman interrupted her with something in German.

‘I will not so speak. I will say my words only in United States, if you please,’ she informed him with severe dignity.

I couldn’t keep up with them for the next few minutes. They both talked at once, and talked in German and United States, though each denied the German.

Mrs. Louderer won out, for when Herman stopped for breath, she kept on. ‘We have come that you should buy bonds. We were going to Lund’s to see you there, and here you meet us on the road and insult us, so,’ she finished indignantly.

Herman calmly knocked the ashes out of his pipe, lighted it, took a few puffs, then very deliberately said, ‘I will buy no bonds. I have no money.’

Then war did prevail.

‘Loafer, Schweinehund, for why do you live? What haf you done with the seven hundert dollar which I paid you six years ago? Why shall young men go fight, die, to protect you and your old pipe, while you wander the road by insulting me?’

Herman contemplated the distant skyline. Presently he took his pipe from his mouth, and gravely remarked, ‘Louderer, you make too much noise wit’ your mouth. The money what you paid me I put with four hundert more. With it I bought the Symes sheep when he enlisted. It’s few they is, yet a living they will be for Callie Archer while her two boys, Joe and Eddie, herds them. Besides the money what you ask so much about, I had yet twenty-three hundert dollars; with that I have bought bonds by all the drives. I have yet by me the receipts. See?’ He took a small book from his pocket and showed us the receipts.

Mrs. Louderer again belabored Kronprinz, and we drove on. I looked back. Herman was trudging on. I wanted to giggle, but didn’t dare. Soon we came in sight of Lund’s. The small valley in which they live seemed a blaze of gold. The road here is a dug-way and hugs the red crags of the hog-back. Along the top gray-green cedars cling, distorted by years of buffeting wind. Far below us was the low cabin of logs, the sheep-pens and outbuildings of the ranch.

The dug-way was a perilous road, and we crept down slowly; but at last we drew up at the cabin. Mrs. Lund was washing, but she came out and welcomed us cordially, her bright blue eyes beaming and her tanned, weatherbeaten face all smiles.

‘For twenty years I have lived by this ranch, Frau Louderer, and now is it the first time you have come by me. Lund is gone with sheep to market. If only he was here! Before the war always Carl went off with the sheep; but he has gone. In training he is, at Camp Lewis, so Lund goes by the sheep.’

All the while she was busy spreading the table, and her little daughters were hanging up the clothes on the line outside. For dinner we had mutton and ‘war-bread,’ which Mrs. Lund declared was enough to make anyone want to fight if they ate it. We had delicious cheese, and pickles made of young squash. Mrs. Lund told us about her boy in training. ‘I am calling him Charlie now, Carl is too German,’ she told us. ‘Why do you suppose Germans in the Fatherland is so bad? Why so butchers do you think, Louderer?’

‘It is because they have been lied to and deceived.’

‘Then they are fools. Why do they not come to Wyoming once and see how is?’

So the talk went on. Ms. Louderer told of the Red Cross needs, the Y.M.C.A., and the Liberty loans.

‘We have come to let you buy some bonds once. For the kinder it will be good. By them they can prove they are not Germans. Five children you have. We will sell you a bond for each.’

‘Oh, oh! how can I?’ wailed Mrs. Lund, ‘Lund always does the business; he it is that pays all the bills; I never did it. He is gone by the sheep to Omaha. Yesterday he started, and if he was here I could not ask him for so much, because I made him promise to put two whole sheep on my head, four are to go on my back, and some on each of the children.’

‘But,’ Mrs. Louderer interrupted, ‘these are war-times. Why choose now to spend sheep-money?’

‘Twenty-five years it is since Lund and I get married. I had a new hat then; since then I have had none. All these years I have worked and saved. We both thought it foolish to spend money, but now Ca—Charlie is a man and Bertha a woman, and I want that they shall now be ashamed of me, so I told Lund to buy me a fine hat and some other things to go with it.’

‘I suppose you will wear it to the funeral of the boys who are sent home in their wooden overcoats,’ remarked Mrs. Louderer.

I remembered my own recent lashing and escaped with Bertha. She is to be married when Gideon Prescott comes home. She showed me her ‘trousseau.’ It consists of six big puffy pillows, a lot of wool-filled quilts, some bright, homemade rugs, and a box of dishes.

In a lull in our conversation, we heard Mrs. Louderer ask, ‘Who signs Lund’s checks? He cannot write, I know.’

‘Me, I do,’ Mrs. Lund replied, promptly and proudly.

Presently I went back to the kitchen. Mrs. Lund was writing a check. ‘This a wedding present will be for Bertha. She is to marry an American soon yet.’

‘That is as is right. An American girl should marry an American,’ Mrs. Louderer agreed. She was very pleasant and exerted herself to show it. She held four checks in her hand.

‘Now,’ she smiled at Mrs. Lund, ‘you see how it is to be an American wife. You can help your country when you want to. You are free to write a check when the time is.’

‘That is not new,’ Mrs. Lund protested; ‘already we are naturalized, long since, and I always wrote Lund’s checks.’

‘As he said, yes,’ Mrs. Louderer said, as she gathered her belongings; ‘but to-day you have wrote them as is best for all, and Lund will put the sheep on your head yet. I am glad. I hope your hat has the finest plume and the largest roses that can be had in Omaha.’

After the most pleasant of farewells, we again set forth. This time we didn’t try the dug-way: we kept down the valley. We had many gates to open, but Mrs. Louderer said that was my job. I didn’t mind. No one could mind opening gates when each gate led from one enchanted spot into another.

‘Now you see what an injustice would be done the Lunds if so we had not gone there. Fife hundert dollars it is, and for the first time in her life she is free. Never before did she spend a dollar without Lund says so.’

‘Mr. Lund may have bought bonds in town,’ I reminded her.

‘Well, and if he has! What then? She has bought bonds on the ranch, and they have money enough yet, even with sheeps on the head and back and on the children. There is few, very few Germans on any poor farm. Germans hate failure same as we do the Kaiser.’

Again she pounded the Kronprinz, and again we slowly mounted to the ridge-road.

I must stop this letter but I cannot send it until I write you of our last stopping-place in this drive. I will do that to-morrow.

E. R. S.

* * *

It was quite late, almost dark, when we got to the Bird ranch that night. Our horses were very tired, and I was glad enough to stop. The Birds are French and Indian. Their large, comfortable log-house is beautifully situated up against a granite bluff, in a bend of Green River. Great pines form a splendid wind-break on the north, and add greatly to the beauty of the place. The river flows southward here, and through its granite cañons glimpses of forests and snow-peaks can be had.

It is a very beautiful spot, yet to me it seemed a tragic one. I don’t know why, unless it was the constant low murmur of the river or the sighing of the pines. We were warmly welcomed. Mr. Bird is one of the most courteous of men, and Mrs. Bird made us feel that our welcome was genuine. They have a large family of grown children, most of them married and gone, and two sons in France. Some of the children were visiting their parents, and all was a pleasant bustle in the kitchen, where we were seated by the fire, for the gathering shadows had been chill.

In the large room adjoining, Mr. Bird and the ‘baby-boy,’ a handsome, dark-eyed youth, were taking the ashes from a huge fireplace and preparing a fire for our enjoyment after supper. There are not many fireplaces in Wyoming, and the prospect of an open fire made me very happy.

Supper was served on a long table, and every face around was glad.

While we were still at the table, the dogs outside set up a terrible barking and a horseman rode up to the door. Mr. Bird went out, and there followed a subdued conversation.

‘I will stay with you to-night, if you want, Jacques. Others are coming to-morrow,’ we heard the newcomer say.

‘Oui, oui—I want you, yes. Put up your horse and come in. I’m—all undone, friend.’

The face that had left the table with a happy smile was haggard and drawn. Mrs. Bird asked something in French. Mr. Bird leaned heavily on his chair. Never was a face more eloquent of sorrow.

‘It is Lonnie, Marda. Our Lonnie is dead in France—killed in action.’

I can never forget that scene. There was no outcry. I could hear the pines grieving, the river murmuring its sorrow. One by one the family slipped away. The man who brought the news came in. I laid him a plate. Mrs. Louderer brought a cup of coffee. The lamp sputtered a little, and I could hear the newly made fire crackling, but there was no talking, no weeping.

Presently someone crept into the sitting-room, and in passing the door I saw it was Mrs. Bird, sitting, bowed and stricken, before the fire. Two of the girls came in and assisted us with the dishes. They moved about quietly, and only their big black eyes told of sorrow. After a while another daughter told us that we were to sleep in the little bedroom off the sitting-room.

Mr. Bird and the man who brought the news were outside, talking in low tones. Sometimes we caught a word.

‘Yes, the postmistress at Burnt Fork saw the name in to-night’s casualty list. She ‘phoned to me at Manila, and I came at once, only stopping at Linwood for your mail, and the telegram from the War Department was there for you. There is no mistake, Jacques. I wish there was. Lonnie is gone.’

‘It is hard, hard,’ the father said; ‘more bitter because both his mother and me opposed his going. He enlisted against our wishes, and we didn’t get to say good-bye. We had only one letter, and have not answered it, so he will never know how proud we were of him. And—we’ll never see the reckless boy again. He could find no horse too wild to ride He would ride into Green River when it was out of its bank in flood-time. Oh! —’

I heard no more of their talk, and soon Mrs. Louderer and I retired to our bed. There was no door to close between the sitting-room and ourselves. There had been a curtain; the rod was still up, but it had been taken down in house-cleaning and not put back. We hear the others going to bed. The neighbor and Baby-boy were to share the same bed, but the boy rode away in the velvety night, and we heard the man when he turned in.

I could not sleep. Mr. Bird came in with some wood for the fire. From where I lay I could see the two sitting silently by the fire. A clock struck twelve. Mrs. Bird went outside. We heard her step off the porch. Soon Mr. Bird went out and brought her in. They spoke a few words in French, and Mr. Bird said, ‘Stay away from the river, Morda. You might fall in. That would not help. It is hard, I know, but we got to bear it.’

But Mrs. Bird seemed not to hear. She moved over to the window and stood staring out into the night. I could see her hands clench and unclench themselves, and at times a shudder passed over her. Again she went out. This time Mrs. Louderer rose and went out for her. She brought Mrs. Bird in, and going into another room, brought a rocking-chair.

‘Sit in this chair, Marda—the chair that Lonnie brought you for a birthday present. You didn’t think when he took such pains to bring this back that in it you should sit to think of him being dead. I remember him when he was a baby, Marda. Such fat legs he had, and such a mop of black hair. You remember the little red socks I knit for him? And the little moccasins you beaded? And he loved you so, Marda. Always was he a mamma-boy.’

On and on she talked, and for once I was thoroughly angry with my friend. It seemed brutal to keep adding sorrow to sorrow; but she would not heed the signs I tried to make.

At last, I could stand it no longer. I rose and went into the kitchen to make some coffee. I hoped that Mrs. Louderer would come out and help me. When the coffee was made, I took a cup to Mrs. Bird. She took a swallow of the scalding liquid. Her eyes were hard and dry; she sat holding the cup and staring into the fire.

‘And you remember the time when you ran the sewing-machine needle into your finger, how he cried and cried for you; his heart was melted for you, and now he lies dead, may be mangled, in France, with not a tear for his going.’

Mr. Bird was sobbing, but Mrs. Bird only looked at him curiously. It was a long night. How Mrs. Louderer ever held up, I do not know. Once Mr. Bird asked her out to the kitchen, where I had laid him a lunch which he would not taste.

‘I can stand no more,’ he said. ‘Will you not stop talking of Lonnie? See, my heart is broken, I am crushed; you have brought back the little boy of years ago.’

‘Jacques, you are safe; but Marda, she should weep. It is to save you a greater trouble, a darker sorrow that I talk so.’

And nothing we could do could prevent her raking up every little incident of the past.

At last, the east lightened reluctantly, a little breeze came whispering along. Mrs. Bird went out on the porch, and we followed. A new note had crept into the river’s crooning.

‘Even the river and the trees miss him. Listen, how they mourn,’ said Mrs. Louderer.

Mrs. Brid’s lips quivered and she turned her face away.

Just then a horse came up to the gate, hung his head over, and whinnied. Mrs. Bird left us. She went up to the horse and patted him, parted his mane and stroked his neck. Next she was sobbing and clinging to the horse, who seemed human in his intelligence. Great tears rolled down her face, and there seemed no depth too deep for her sorrow. I wanted to go to her, but Mrs. Louderer restrained me.

‘That is Lonnie’s horse, and it will do her more good to weep it out with him. We will start breakfast and see what we can do.’

‘Mr. Bird took a shawl and went out to his wife. The girls came out, and together we prepared the meal. After a while Mr. Bird and Marda came back. There were signs of tears, but both were relaxed. We expected to stay until more neighbors came. After breakfast Mr. Bird said, —

‘I have bought no bonds; to tell the truth I didn’t think I would, for I felt hard about Lonnie going. But he’s gone. Marda and I have talked it over out under the pine where he played. If he cared enough to give his life for what he was fighting for, it should for us be a gracious gift. We will not grudge the price. Both life and the cause he died for are priceless. We are not so poor, and if Lonnie had lived, there would have been a share for him. That share we will use to buy bonds. We will decide afterwards what we shall do with the bonds, but it will be something in memory of our boy.’

So I filled out the blanks. Mrs. Bird and Mrs. Louderer were rocking and talking quietly.

‘Sorrow is so hard to bear,’ said Mrs. Bird. ‘Last night, when I stood by the river, it seemed to say, “Come on, come on, join your boy. Plunge in, forget, forget.”’

‘Yes,’ said Mrs. Louderer, ‘sorrow is hard. I know. My Bennie is gone, and he couldn’t die for his country like Lonnie. We are like Mary at the Cross. Let us be glad that our own dear boys brought us there.’

Soon other friends came, and as our drive home was a long one, we started at once. We didn’t say much. I felt a new love for my kind, gruff, precious old neighbor.

‘Dear, dear Mrs. Louderer,’ I said, ‘how do you do it? How can you know just what to do every time?’

‘Maybe I don’t,’ she said; ‘but I should. I have lived a long time. Many sorrows have lain on my heart, and this war—We must all do what we can. You see what Mrs. Lund has got by the war—freedom once. You see what Mrs. Bird gave. But she has gained too. You must gain and give. I must, too.’

Only the creaking of our protesting wagon broke the silence. I was glad when the roof of my dear cabin home came in sight; happier still, when shrill childish voices shouted, ‘Mamma, mamma, we have been good boys and papa made funny biscuits. The cat scratched Robert, and Calvin rode on the red pig.’

And now, my dear friend, you see a little of why I have not written oftener, and why I have to write at such great length. I really don’t get any more work done than anyone else, but it takes more work to accomplish results. I must stop now.

Most truly your friend,
Elinore R. Stewart