The cold wind came out of the west, surrounding the sod house. Susanna sat in the northeast corner attempting to gather as much warmth possible from a small fire flickering at the base of a earthen chimney. Though she had expected the cold, it still set her nerves on edge. Spring was due. She had hoped that it would have arrived now instead of this falling piece of winter. The year was 1856.
It was not a harsh storm but it was more than inconvenient to strike deep into her soul, touching nerves thought hardened by the recent survived winter and a recent warming trend. Now she found her trembles returned with the cold. The friendship she had begun with exhaustion and monotony as Spring dangled close now withered.
They had come West to begin self-sufficient lives. The chance to make their own destinies. The promise far exceeded the expectations. It took hardscrabble people to know that opportunity had small windows. They ventured to the plains to seek freedom, understanding simply that it was a way of life worth the challenge. This prospect and standing to themselves beat the warm broth and cold porridge consistent in servitude. The populations of the cities and the obstacle of being poor brightened hope with the opportunity to make their way West and live, not a dream but a cold sought destiny. The population of the country had grown from 17 million to almost 30 million in a little over a decade. The potato famine had brought scores of Irish Catholic to the shores. Movement of the “missing” was west-bound.
Denys was 29 and Susanna 26. They had married in a village outside of Boston and crossed over the mountains where he took labor in a buggy shop. That move brought them out of “bondage” but not independence. It was, however, a minor change to where they truly wanted to be, on their own. And that is what the West promised to the young country and the incoming immigrants. They all were lured to the territory marked Nebraska after the Kansas-Nebraska act of 1854 had been rammed through Congress by Stephen Douglas to begin the establishment of rail transport. This to bring more commerce to his native state of Illinois and the city of Chicago. Illinois was an older state, marked by a mix of country and city, south and north with alliances true to many political factions. Denys and Susanna were non political, though they supported the anti-slavery sentiment. This issue would be the flame that engulfed the region and progress as the lynchpin to “keep” the Union in the War between the States.
The Kansas-Nebraska act brought many, “natives” and the immigrants running from oppression and famine. While towns were established, the small farm operations were sprouting up on the prairie. Others came to help “tip” balance toward political ambitions with varied prospects.
Susanna and Denys courted no trouble but the swirling political tornado, which culminated with the election of James Buchanan as President, funneled around Kansas, Missouri and the Nebraska territories. That election aligned new allegiances and brought the demise of some of the old established political parties. The Whig party collapsed, the members turning to the Free-soil and the newly created Republican parties, each with their own champion. And the push back against Irish – German immigration gave rise to the Know-Nothing party and a former President to carry their standard, Millard Fillmore. The Democrats stood solidly behind the elected Buchanan. Their unification against their fractured opponents bolstered separation sentiment.
To Denys and Susana, the political climate did not have anything to do with their efforts. They had set out that early 1856 to pursue their 160 acre purchase and get started with the necessary building and plowing. They had joined a party of 60 led by a priest named Father Tracy. Most were Irish Catholics looking to settle and build a town. They hailed from near the town of Dubuque Iowa, were caught in the political upheaval and sought new roots. This group brought travel security. Susanna and Denys being Protestant was not a factor with the Papists. That long held enmity had turned more inward to strike mischief in the political factions. The little wagon train was pulled by oxen with bells dangling, chiming their songs rethemed to the landscape they crossed. The long grass which had been plowed up for cropland by earlier settlers now well established began to make way to the short grass area of the prairie, the land of the buffalo.
The train was friendly enough, knowing the satisfaction of community, but fell short of personal warmth. Their faiths were too diametrical. For Denys, he did not care, only to hold up his part of the train’s tasks. Susanna had hoped for a more social journey. She took umbrage with the fact that they were part of the collective. They moved all day and only made camp as the setting sun promised diminishing light. Around the varied campfires each family prepared supper and cleaned up. Time for chatting was limited, if it was even desired or attempted. Tiredness encroached quickly.
The town Father Tracy founded was platted and set near the Missouri river and named after John the Baptist. St. Johns town. The 60 settlers settled on ownership details and immediately began to build. Susanna might have desired to stay with the town element but it was not what they had set out to do. They moved farther west to establish their farm. Denys wanted to stay a days wagon ride of the new town, near a stream. Water was a necessity, especially until a well could be dug. His search took them two days out, but the site was promising. A small but deep stream wormed its way through undulating flatness. It began somewhere north, connected to the Platte River. The view was grass waving with the prevailing wind in jerky salute, the sky meeting it with a blueness broken by few clouds. Such vastness of beauty and solitude was new to both. Densy began the process of claim. Two souls in the vastness of newness.
Their worldly possessions were all in the wagon pulled by the engine of necessity, their oxen. One would be called upon to be the major muscle in their new lives. The other’s intent was for bartering for a milk cow and other needs. A cook stove, mattress, clothes, food stuffs, seed and the necessary implements all filled the interior of the wagon. They continued to live in it until a dugout was completed. Plowing began the following day.
There had been no children to make the journey. Two had died young, one of whooping cough and the other of an unknown malady. They had the benefit of a doctor, but the remedies fell short. It was hoped that children would be forthcoming once the farm became a reality. To make sure Susanna stayed baron until the completion of the dugout and plowing was well advanced, Denys and Brett did not come together. Birthing here was similar with that of the cycle of nature, with the Spring giving better chance of survival. They had a hard summer ahead of them. Security of home was paramount and they structured all activity toward that goal.
The first year found them daily fatigued from their work to get the dugout completed and acreage plowed. They chose a small undulated hill with a southern exposure. A hollow was carved which allowed their home to be transferred from the wagon. It was larger but the dirt was troubling to begin with. Susanna swept the floor constantly and it gradually began to firm up. She took command of the dugout and Denys concentrated on the crop. A well was needed and they were thankful the depth was shallow enough to make methane gas a non factor. It was deep enough, eight feet down, to stay open year round. By the end of June, he had 20 acres planted. The summer progressed well.
The first trip to St. Johns both had traveled to bring their first crop and procure next year’s needs. They were impressed at the progress made by the colony and were happy to once again engage in a little human communion, even if it was minimal. They traded the one ox for the milk cow as planed and procured what necessities they could. They stayed but a short time and moved out with the topping of the mid day sun. As evening approached, camp was easily made, the cook stove fueled by buffalo chips. (The “war” against the great beasts not yet commenced.) They re-embarked the next day and arrived home late the second.
Living and working the farm was extremely difficult given all of the contrary elements opposed to success; the virgin grass had to be plowed while the ground was moist or the roots would be too strong to overcome. This meant much mud. The wind seemed to blow forever. Summer brought periods of drought but there were times of great thunderstorms and tornados too. The sky went on forever and isolated emotions. Grasshoppers in biblical proportions whipped out many small farms. It was difficult to not only establish a farm but also to maintain one. To offset the summer challenges and the bitter winter was the rich soil to which crops did prosper when “outside” forces did not wreck havoc. And much wildlife was present. It was a hard chance to farm this virgin land, but it was also freeing. It was just that this freedom came at a cost.
After the first year they had come together to begin building a family. Susanna did not conceive. The idea that conception was a simple process vanished and it soured her on the farm. Children were a necessity. Their absence was profound. Now loneliness became more internal than external.
Denys had left six days ago and was due back two nights earlier. Susanna had never really acquainted herself with his absences. She knew that he made the journey to St. Johns twice each year. She steeled herself against them. The Fall trip was the “survival” trip as crop was taken to market. She found anxiety forming as the readying for the journey commenced. However it was the Spring trip where anxiety sucommbed to depression, which came in jerks and fits. Its cure so much dependent on Spring’s breath. She was reminded in her daily Bible reading of the seasons and their purpose of life, reading in Genesis 8:21-22 “as long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” It was all part of the cycle. But she admitted that on the back of bleakness, being alone, she was stirred with trembling thoughts.
Denys had been Susanna’s lone connection to human activity, excepting the occasional group of travelers. But their stays were brief, the desire or need to move on making interaction loose and non binding. She had not been to town since the farm had been established, to protect their livelihood. Learning to cope with isolation was no easy task. Her hopes and yearning for children falling deafeningly unfulfilled.
The farm had grown. Chickens were added for eggs and meat. At first they were free ranged, but the coyotes and fox dined repeatedly so that Denys built a small earthen coop for protection. There was still attrition, but it slowed down. New hatchlings helped to compensate while enough eggs were gathered for cooking and eating.
The milk cow produced good milk and she was joined by a partner, the pig. Denys had brought it back the third year. A sow. She was pregnant and produced a litter of which five survived. The sow was butchered that Fall and all but one young sow were taken to market where they were sold. The meat was heavily salted and tucked away in the old dugout for coolness. It as the “root’ cellar for their food.
Susanna had held firm to her faith, grown from the addiction of something to be hoped for. Her Faith was the lumen that kept her from unraveling in times of uncertainty and misadventure. But even her faith had to fight through the unrivaled atmosphere of loneliness. She loved the Spring flowers that bloomed in the meadow near the creek and looked daily for their color to arrive.
This storm whipped out any fantasy of them arriving anytime soon. Her weariness exacerbated the situation. Darkness crept in to replace her faith light.
Denys was long due. Susanna had attended the chores with a woolen wrap tucked over her bonnet and upper body. She wore leggings underneath her skirt and leather shoes tucked with woolen socks. The wind pierced the protection with bitterness, but she was able to get all animals cared for and secured water for the house. She kept the fire going but the wind battled the sod for rights. It was a chilling kind of deluge and caustic in nature. Susanna felt herself moving to an attitude of indifference. With dull eyes, she looked out the framed window and looked at the field void of color, color of any brightness or joy. Brown and Grey. she swept the horizon for any sign of the wagon. Nothing.
It was not as if periods of melancholy had not swept over her in the past. When needed she had allowed a good cry to occur just as she allowed songs of joy to be sung when her heart was full. This “storm” had a weeping feeling but would not allow tears to form. Instead, she tranced into a shell and ached at the lost feeling that crept to her. Five years, no children, closest neighbors five miles if not more; the quiet unbroken with laughter from young ones. And now Denys was overdue. He was always punctual for her sake when taking his bi-annual trips.
History swirled all around her. Yet she was caught in this cocoon of isolated fear, incubating under the heat of loneliness. She believed she was alone, completely. Any number of events could have taken Denys, the least being sickness and the most severe a confrontation of sorts. Denys knew how to care for himself, but that did not make him immune to misfortune, any which could cost him his life. She understood Death’s shadow. Lived in it. But she never quite felt that it blocked the sunshine of hope completely.
Sitting in that corner, wrapped in a homespun quilt, still damp from the chores done in the storm, ‘Anna’s soul felt the dark shadow taking root and erasing such hope. She laid her head against the cool sod and looked at the floor. How long she was in that postion could only be told by the darkness outside and the cold that had replaced any of the now extinguised fire. Susanna shivered to her depth.
The wind had silenced with the dark. The cloud cover shielded any moon light. The blackness meant nothing to ‘Anna. She sat shivering, preventing any stiffness from completely overwhelming her. Her joints suffered a dull ache, pain that was agitated by the shaking. There was a nothingness all about her. She closed her eyes and wondered if she would be willing to go on.
Morning was stingy in taking its position. Yet it pushed through the clouds with a light grey. Susanna’s eye lids slowly opened and she succored to focus on the lightness of the day. Her eyes slowly moved across the landscape. Alive but staring. A crack in the morning grey dribbled a yellowish smear. It seemed to startle the morning. ‘Anna pulled the quilt around her with veiny hands, stiff from the cold. This action shifted her gaze to the hill to the southwest. There was a dark form lumped on its top. Like a small box. Susanna’s eyes began to follow the box.
Denys broached the rise to the farm just as the sun broke between the sky. He knew he was behind schedule. He was concerned for his wife. At the sight of the farm fatigue dripped from him. Adrenaline began to accelerate. He noticed that the chimney was smokeless. The chickens were not in the yard. Nothing moved. It was a picture tinted in brown dappled with yellow light. Silent as if hung on a wall. He wanted to ride down on the purchased horse but needed to stay with the wagon and the speed produced by the reliable ox. They made their way slow but steady, inching down the incline.
Susanna watched the box coming closer and examined the features. It had a stick standing off to the side, higher than the wagon. Funny, what was that stick? This vision that she watched slowly brought her to a thought process of inquisition. She sat straighter in the chair and looked a little more intently. The box stayed somewhat the same excepting there was an animal in front of it. The stick sat on another animal. She did not connect to any possibility that it was Denys. He had no horse.
Denys decided to let the ox take its own lead. He asked his mount for a cantor. It was an ordinary horse of unknown origin. But it was sturdy and responded to his prompts. He closed on home.
‘Anna saw him coming closer, leaving the box behind. The stick was a rider. Who? The action prevailed upon her to stand. She still wore the damp clothing of the previous day and shook with chills. Then the rider was to the house and getting off the animal. A horse. She knew few people who had a horse, so she was not aware of who the person was. She quickly looked back up the ridge and saw that the box was still coming. Who was in it? Then the front door opened.
Denys looked at his wife standing by the window, shivering. The darkness of the room hid her features. He called to her, “Susanna?” She did not answer. Slowly he moved to her and as he did she backed with shuffling feet. “Anna?” he spoke softer. Somewhere she heard him and quit moving. Denys moved deliberately but slowly to her. When he was within arms reach he said easily but quietly, “Anna, its me, Denys.” Susanna blinked. Denys ever so slowly reached and touched her wrist. She did not move. He moved his fingers lightly and then slowly down to her hand. With slight movement, he tightened his fingers and felt a response. “Anna… Anna, its me Denys. I am home.”
Susanna sat next to him with her head nestled to his shoulder. They sat as such until Denys gently and slowly moved upward and brought here with him. “I must get a fire going and get the chill out of you.” Susanna stood still. He guided her to a chair by the fireplace. Before he sat her down, he gently but quickly took of her damp clothing and threw on a wool night gown. When he sat her down he covered her with two wool blankets and footwear. It was not long to get the fire going as the bed of coals was sufficient to help produce the draft needed. Once the smoke was working its way up the chimney he added more fuel and the fire leaped to life. Denys looked at ‘Anna and saw she was watching. She had not said anything up to this time. “Wait right here. I will be back in a moment.” He slipped out the door.
Susanna felt the fire on her feet and curled them back under her. The warmth from the flames swept over and she melted in exhausted relief. Suddenly Denys was standing by her side, with something shrouded in a canvas cover. “Anna, I brought you a present.” With those words, Denys pulled the canvas away and revealed a cage. Inside the cage were two birds, colored in brilliance. Susanna blinked. “For you, hon. I thought they would bring some brightness for you. It is said that they are pretty hardy!” Susanna slowly stood and looked at the birds. They were mulit colored in yellow, brown and red. She had not seen such before. Their colors contrasted to the bleakness which surrounded her. The dark veil wrenched free from her mind. She smiled, slowly.
“I am going to go out and take care of our animals. You just stay with the birds and keep them company.”
Anna slowly moved her gaze from the birds to Denys. “Thank you.”
Denys moved the her chair a little further from the fire. He pulled up a stool and placed the birds. She sat and watched them swing on the stick hung in the middle. The fire played in the back ground.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Susanna again broke her gaze and looked at Denys, this time with more substance. “Thank you.”
Denys moved out the door and to the horse. He gathered the reins and began leading it to the stock pen. His left hand moved down to the growing red stain on his shirt.