Part 7 out of 7
their faces right into the teeth of the gale. It seemed as if it would
strip the scalps from our heads, in spite of all our capes and
comforters and veils. Virginia pulled the robe up over her head. I had
to face the storm and manage my team; but before I had gone forty rods,
I saw that I was asking too much of them; and I let them turn to beat
off with it. At that moment I really abandoned control, and gave it over
to the wind and snow. But I thought myself steering for my own house. I
was not much worried; having the confidence of youth and strength. The
cutter was low and would not tip over easily. The horses were active and
powerful and resolute. We were nested down in the deep box, wrapped in
the warmest of robes; and it was not yet so very cold--not that cold
which draws down into the lungs; seals the nostrils and mouth; and
paralyzes the strength. That cold was coming--coming like an army with
banners; but it was not yet here. I was not much worried until I had
driven before the wind, beating up as much as I could to the east,
without finding my house, or anything in the way of grove or fence to
tell me where it was. I now remembered that I had not mounted the hill
on which my house stood. In fact, I had missed my farm, and was lost, so
far as knowing my locality was concerned: and the wind was growing
fiercer and the cold more bitter.
For a moment I quailed inwardly; but I felt Virginia snuggled down by me
in what seemed to be perfect trust; and I brushed the snow from my
eye-opening and pushed on--hoping that I might by pure accident strike
shelter in that wild waste of prairie, and determined to make the fight
of my life for it if I failed.
It was getting dusk. The horses were tiring. We plunged through a deep
drift under the lee of a knoll; and I stopped a few moments to let them
breathe. I knew that stopping was a bad symptom, unless one had a good
reason for it--but I gave myself a good reason. I felt Virginia pulling
at my sleeve; and I turned back the robes and looked at her. She pulled
my ear down to her lips.
"I know you now," she shouted. "It's Teunis!" I nodded; and she squeezed
my arm with her two hands. Give up! Not for all the winds and snows of
the whole of the Iowa prairie! I disarranged the robes while I put my
arm around her for a moment; while she patted my shoulder. Then, putting
tendernesses aside, when they must be indulged in at the expense of snow
in the sleigh, I put my horses into it again. A few minutes ago, I gave
you the thoughts that ran through my mind as I conjured up the image of
one lost in such a storm; but now I thought of nothing--only for a few
minutes after that pressure on my arm--but getting on from moment to
moment, keeping my sleigh from upsetting, encouraging those brave
mares, and peering around for anything that might promise shelter.
Virginia has always told of this to the children, when I was not
present, to prove that I am brave, even if I am mortal slow; and if just
facing danger from minute to minute without looking further, is bravery,
I suppose I am--and there is plenty of good courage in the world which
is nothing more, look at it how you will.
So far, the cutter and team of which I had robbed Buck Gowdy, had been a
benefit to us. They gave us transportation, and the warm sleigh in which
to nest down. I began to wonder, now, as it began to grow dark, as the
tempest greatened, as my horses disappeared in the smother, and as the
frost began to penetrate to our bodies, whether I should not have done
better to have stayed in the schoolhouse, and burned up the partitions
for fuel; but the thought came too late; though it troubled me much. Two
or three times, one of the mares fell in the drifts, and nothing but the
courage bred into them in the blue-grass fields of Kentucky saved us
from stalling out in that fearful moving flood of wind and frost and
snow. Two or three times we narrowly escaped being thrown out into it by
the overturn of the sleigh; and then I foresaw a struggle, in which
there would be no hope; for in a storm in which a strong man is
helpless, how could he expect to come out safe with a weak girl on
At last, the inevitable happened: the off mare dove into a great drift;
the nigh one pulled on: and they came to a staggering halt, one of them
was kept from falling partly by her own efforts, and partly by the snow
about her legs against which she braced herself. As they stood there,
they turned their heads and looked back as if to say that so far as they
were concerned, the fight was over. They had done all they could.
I sat a moment thinking. I looked about, and saw, between gusts, that we
were almost against a huge straw-pile, where some neighbor had threshed
a setting of wheat. This might mean that we were close to a house, or it
might not. I handed the lines to Virginia under the robes, got out, and
struggled forward to look at my team. Their bloodshot eyes and quivering
flanks told me that they could help us no longer; so I unhitched them,
so as to keep the cutter as a possible shelter, and turned them loose.
They floundered off into the drifts, and left us alone. Cuffed and
mauled by the storm, I made a circuit of the stack, and stumbled over
the tumbling-rod of the threshing-machine, which was still standing
where it had been used. Leaning against the wheel was a shovel, carried
for use in setting the separator. This I took with me, with some notion
of building a snow-house for us; for I somehow felt that if there was
any hope for us, it lay in the shelter of that straw. As I passed the
side of the stack, just where the ground was scraped bare by the wind, I
saw what seemed to be a hole under and into the great loose pile of dry
straw. It looked exactly like one of those burrows which the children
used to make in play in such places.
Virginia was safe for the moment, sitting covered up snugly with her
hands warmed by the little dog; but the cold was beginning to penetrate
the robes. I could leave her for the moment while I investigated the
burrow with the shovel. As I gained a little advantage over the snow
which was drifted in almost as fast as I could shovel it out, my heart
leaped as I found the hole opening out into the middle of the stack; and
I plunged in on my hands and knees, found it dry and free from snow
within ten feet of the mouth, and after enlarging it by humping up my
back under it where the settling had made it too small, I emerged and
went to Virginia; whom I took out with her dog, wrapped her in the robes
so as to keep them from getting snowy inside, and backing into the
burrow, hauled the pile of robes, girl and dog in after me, like a
gigantic mouse engaged in saving her young. I think no mouse ever
yearned over her treasures in such case more than I did.
And then I went back to get the dinner-basket, which was already buried
under the snow which had filled the cutter; for I knew that there was
likely to be something left over of one of the bountiful dinners which a
farmer's wife puts up for the teacher. Then I went back into the little
chamber of straw in which we had found shelter, stopping up the mouth
with snow and straw as I went in. I drew a long breath. This was far
better than I had dared hope for. There is a warmth generated in such a
pile, from the slow fermentation of the straw juices; even when
seemingly dry as this was: and far in the middle of the stack,
vegetables might have been stored without freezing. The sound of the
tempest did not reach us here; it was still as death, and dark as tar. I
wondered that Virginia did not say anything; but she kept still because
she did not understand where she was, or what I had done with her.
Finally, when she spoke it was to say, "Unwrap me, Teunis! I am
smothering with the heat!"
I laughed a long loud laugh. I guess I was almost hysterical. The
change was so sudden, so complete. Virginia was actually complaining
of the heat!
I unwrapped her carefully, and kissed her. Did ever any peril turn to
any one a face so full of clemency and tenderness as this blizzard
"It takes," says she, "a storm to move _you_ to any, speed faster than a
The darkness in the burrow was now full of light for me. I made it soft
as a mouse-nest, by pulling down the clean straw, and spreading it in
the bottom, with the coonskin under her, and the buffalo-robe for a
coverlid. There was scarcely room for two there, but we made it do, and
found room for the little dog also. There was an inexpressible happiness
in our safety from the awful storm, which we knew raged all about our
nest; but to be together, and to feel that the things that stood between
us had all been swept away at once--even the chaff that fell down our
necks only gave us cause for laughter.
"Your coat is all wet!" she exclaimed.
"It was the snow, shoveling the way in," I said. "It's nothing."
But she began right there to take care of me. She made me take off the
overcoat, and wrap myself in the blanket. The dampness went out into the
dry straw; but when drowsiness came upon us, she would not let me take
the chance of getting chilled, but made me wrap myself in the robes with
her; and we lay there talking until finally, tired by my labors, I went
to sleep with her arms about me, and her lips close to mine; and when I
awoke, she was asleep, and I lay there listening to her soft breathing
We were both hungry when she awoke, and in the total darkness we felt
about for the dinner-basket, in which were the dinners of the children
of the McConkey family with whom she had boarded, and who had gone home
at noon, because the fuel was gone. We ate frozen pie, and frozen boiled
eggs, and frozen bread and butter; and then lay talking and caressing
each other for hours. We talked about the poor horses, for which
Virginia felt a deep pity, out there in the fierce storm and the awful
cold. We talked of the beautiful cutter; and finally, I explained the
way in which I had robbed Gowdy of horses and robes and sleigh, and dog.
"He can never have the dog back," said she. "And to think that I am
hiding out in a strawstack with a robber and a horse-thief!"
Then she said she reckoned we'd have to join the Bunker gang, if we
could find any of it to join. Certainly we should be fugitives from
justice when the storm was over; but she for herself would rather be a
fugitive always with me than to be rescued by "that man"--and it was
lucky for him, too, she said, that I had licked him and shut him up in a
house where he would be warm and fed; because he never would have been
able to save himself in this awful storm as I had done. Nobody could
have done so well as I had done. I had snatched her from the very
jaws of death.
"Then," said I, "you're mine."
"Of course I am," said she. "I've been yours ever since we lived
together so beautifully on the road, and in our Grove of Destiny. Of
course I'm yours--and you are mine, Teunis--ain't you?"
"Then," said I, "just as soon as we get out of here, we'll be married."
It took argument to establish this point, but the jury was with me from
the start; and finally nothing stood between me and a verdict but the
fact that she must finish her term of school. I urged upon her that my
house was nearer the school than was McConkey's, and she could finish it
if she chose. Then she said she didn't believe it would be legal for
Virginia Vandemark to finish a contract signed by Virginia Royall--and
pretty soon I realized that she was making fun of me, and I hugged her
and kissed her until she begged my pardon.
And all the time the storm raged. We finished the food in the dinner
pail, and began wondering how long we had been imprisoned, and how
hungry we ought to be by this time. I was not in the least hungry
myself; but I began to feel panicky for fear Virginia might be starving
to death. She had a watch, of course, as a teacher; but it had run down
long ago, and even if it had not, we could not have lit a match in that
place by which to look at it. Becoming really frightened as the thought
of starvation and death from thirst came oftener and oftener into my
mind, I dug my way to the opening of the burrow, and found it black
night, and the snow still sweeping over the land; but there was hope in
the fact that I could see one or two bright stars overhead. The gale was
abating; and I went back with this word, and a basket of snow in lieu
Whether it was the first night out or the second, I did not know, and
this offered ground for argument. Virginia said that we had lived
through so much that it had probably made the time seem longer than it
was; but I argued that the time of holding her in my arms, kissing her,
telling her how much I loved her, and persuading her to marry me as
soon as we could get to Elder Thorndyke's, made it seem shorter--and
this led to more efforts to make the time pass away. Finally, I dug out
again, just as we both were really and truly hungry, and went back after
Virginia. I made her wrap up warmly, and we crawled out, covered with
chaff, rumpled, mussed up, but safe and happy; and found the sun shining
over a landscape of sparkling frost, with sun-dogs in the sky and
millions of bright needles of frost in the air, and a light breeze still
blowing from the northwest, so bitingly cold that a finger or cheek was
nipped by it in a moment's exposure. And within forty rods of us was the
farmstead of Amos Bemisdarfer; who stood looking at us in amazement as
we came across the rippled surface of the snow to his back door.
"I kess," said Amos, "it mus' have peen your team I put in de parn lass
night. Come in. Preckfuss is retty."
* * * * *
I left it to Virginia--she had been so sensible and wise in all her
words since we had agreed to be married at once--to tell the elder and
Grandma Thorndyke about it. But she went to pieces when she tried it.
She ran into their little front room where the elder was working on a
sermon, pulling grandma out of the kitchen by the hand.
"Teunis and I," she gasped, "have been lost in the storm, and nearly
froze to death, and he tied that man up with the well-rope, and maybe
he's starved to death in Teunis's house, and Teunis and I slept in a
strawstack, and Teunis is just as brave as he can be, and we're going to
be married awful soon, and I'm going to board with him then, and that'll
be nicer than with the McConkeys' and nearer the schoolhouse, and
cheaper, and Teunis will build fires for me, and we'll be just as happy
as we can be, and when you quit this stingy church you'll both of you
live with us forever and ever, and I want you to kiss Teunis and call
him your son right now, and if you don't we'll both be mad at you
always--no we won't, no we won't, you dear things, but you will marry
us, won't you?"
And then she cried hysterically and kissed us all.
"What Virginia says," said I, "is all true--especially the getting
married right now, and your living with us. We'll both be awful sorry if
we can't have you right off."
"I snum!" exclaimed Grandma Thorndyke. "Just as I expected!"
Grandma outlived the elder by many years; and it was not very long
before she came, a widow, to live with us "until she could hear from her
folks in Massachusetts." She finally heard from them, but she lived with
us, and is buried in our lot in the Monterey Centre burying-ground. She
always expected everything that happened. I have given some hints of her
character; but she had one weakness; she always, when she was a little
down, spoke of herself as being a burden to us, especially in the hard
times in the 'seventies. There was never a better woman, or one that did
more for a family than she did for Virginia and me and our children--and
our chickens and our calves and our lambs and goslings and ducks and
young turkeys. Of course, she wanted Virginia to do better than to marry
me; and that was all right with me after I understood it: but grandma
made that good, by always taking my side of every little difference in
the family. Peace to her ashes!
Now I have reached the point in this history where things get beyond me.
I can't tell the history of Monterey County; and the unsettled matters
like the Wade-Stone controversy, the outcome of the betrayal of Rowena
Fewkes by Buckner Gowdy, and other beginnings of things like the doings
of the Bushyager bandits; for some of them run out into the history of
the state as well as the county. And as for the township history, it is
now approaching the point where there is nothing to it but more
settlers, roads, schools, and the drainage of the slew--of which, so far
as the reader is concerned if he is not posted, he may post himself up
by getting that Excelsior County History, which he can do cheaply from
almost any one who was swindled by their slick agent. What remains to be
told here is a short horse and soon curried. Vandemark Township was set
off as a separate township within six weeks of the day we crawled out of
the strawstack--and on that day we had been married a month, and
Virginia was boarding with me as she predicted. Doctor Bliven as a
member of the County Board voted for the new township just as his wife
said he would after I talked with her about it.
N.V. Creede says that at this time I was threatened with political
ability; but happily recovered. One reason for this joke he finds in the
fact that I was elected justice of the peace in the township at the
first election of officers; and got some reputation out of the fact that
they named the township after me when it was fashionable to name them
after Lincoln, Colfax, Grant, Sherman, Sheridan and the rest of the
Civil War heroes. The second is the way I handled Dick McGill. N.V. says
this was very subtle. I knew that if he wrote up my dragging Virginia
into a straw-pile and keeping her there two nights and a day, while he
would make folks laugh all over the county, he would make us ashamed;
for he never failed to give everything a tint of his own color. So I
went to him and told him that if he said a word about it, I should maul
him into a slop and feed him to the hogs. This was my way of
"Why, Jake," he said, "I never would say anything to take the shine off
the greatest thing ever done in these parts. I've got it all written up,
and I'm sending a copy of it to the Chicago _Tribune_. It's an epic of
prairie life. Read it, and if you don't want it printed, why, it's me
for the swine; for it's already gone to Chicago."
Of course it seemed all right to me, but I was afraid of it, and was
thinking of pounding him up right then, when in came Elder Thorndyke to
put in the paper something about his next Sunday's services, and McGill
asked him to read the story and act as umpire. And after he had gone
over it, he grasped my hand and said that Virginia and I had not told
them half of the strange story of our living through the blizzard out on
the prairie, and that it was a great drama of resolution, resource and
bravery on my part, and seemed almost like a miracle.
"Will this hurt Virginia's feelings if it is printed?" I asked.
"No, no," he said. "It will make her fiance a hero. It will tickle her,"
said he, "half to death."
Then I told Dick he might go on with it if he would leave it just as it
was. The joke was on him, after all, for there was nothing in it about
my fight with Buck Gowdy, or of my robbing him of the team and sleigh
and harness and robes and Nick, the little dog.
The third thing that N.V. thought might have sent me down through the
greased tin horn of politics, which has ruined more good men than any
other form of gambling, was my management of the business of getting the
township set off, against the opposition of the whole Monterey Centre
Ring. But he did not know of that day in Dubuque, and of my smuggling of
Mrs. Bliven into Iowa, as I have told it in this history. It hurt Bliven
politically, but he kept on boosting me, and it was his electioneering,
that I knew nothing about, that elected me justice of the peace; and it
was Mrs. Bliven's urging that caused me to qualify by being sworn
in--though I couldn't see what she meant by her interest.
On my next birthday, the twenty-seventh of July, however, something
happened that after a few months of figuring made me think that they
knew what they were about all the time; for on that day they (the
Blivens) got up a surprise party on us, and came in such rigs as they
had (there were more light rigs than at the Governor Wade reception, a
fact of historical interest as showing progress); though Virginia did
not seem to be much surprised. In the course of the evening Doc Bliven
started in making fun of me as a justice of the peace.
"I helped a little to elect you, Jake," said he, "but I'll bet you
couldn't make out a mittimus if you had to send a criminal to jail
"I won't bet," I said, "I know I couldn't!"
"I'll bet the oysters for the crowd, Squire Vandemark," he went on
deviling me, "that you couldn't perform the marriage ceremony."
Now here he came closer to my abilities, for I had been through a
marriage ceremony lately, and I have a good memory--and oysters were a
novelty in Iowa, coming in tin cans and called cove oysters, put up in
Baltimore. It looked like a chance to stick Doc Bliven, and while I was
hesitating, Mrs. Bliven whispered that there was a form for the ceremony
in the instruction book.
"I'll bet you the oysters for the crowd I can," I said. "You furnish the
happy couple--and I'll see that you furnish the oyster supper, too."
"Any couple will do," said the doctor. "Come, Mollie, we may as well go
through it again."
The word "again" seemed suspicious. I began to wonder: and before the
ceremony was over, I reading from the book of instructions, and people
interrupting with their jokes, I saw that this meant a good deal to the
Blivens. Mollie's voice trembled as she said "I do!"; and the doctor's
hand was not steady as he took hers. I asked myself what had become of
the man who had made the attack on Bliven as he stood in line for his
mail at the Dubuque post-office away back there in 1855.
"Don't forget my certificate, Jake," said Mrs. Bliven, as they sat down;
and I had to write it out and give it to her.
"And remember the report of it to the county clerk," said Henderson L.
Burns, who held that office himself. "The Doc will kick out of the
supper unless you do everything."
I did not forget the report, and I suppose it is there in the old
records to this day.
"We got word," whispered Mrs. Bliven to me as she went away, "that I
have been a widow for more than a year. You've been a good friend to me,
 There is no record of this marriage in the clerk's office; where it
was regarded, of course, as a joke. This was probably a unique case of a
secret marriage made in public; but there is no doubt as to its
validity. The editor remembers the Blivens as respected citizens. They
are dead long since, and left no descendants. Otherwise the historian
would not have told their story--which is not illustrative of anything
usual in our early history; but shows that in Iowa as in other new
countries there were those who were escaping from their past.--G.v.d.M.
I shall not close this history, without clearing up my record as to the
mares, Susie and Winnie, and the cutter, and Nick, the black-and-tan,
that saved Virginia's fingers from freezing, and the robes. First, I
kept the property, and every horse on the farm is descended from Susie
and Winnie. Second, I paid Buck Gowdy all the outfit was worth, though
he never knew it, and never would have taken pay: I drove a bunch of
cattle over into his corn-field the next fall and left them just before
day one morning, and he took them up, advertised them as estrays, and
finally, as N.V. says, reduced them to possession. And third, they were
legally mine, anyhow; for when I got home, I found this paper lying on
the bed, where he had slept those two nights when we were nesting in the
BILL OF SALE
In consideration of one lesson in the manly art of self-defense, of two
days' board and lodging, and of one dollar ($1.00) to me in hand by J.T.
Vandemark, the receipt of which is hereby acknowledged, I hereby sell
and transfer to said J.T. Vandemark, possession having already been
given, the following described personal property, to wit:
1 Bay Mare called Susie, weight 1150 lbs., with star in forehead, and
white left hind foot, five years old;
1 Bay Mare called Winnie, weight 1175 lbs., with star in forehead, and
two white hind feet, six years old;
1 one-seated, swell-body cutter, one fine army blanket, one coonskin
robe lined with flannel, one large buffalo robe.
It is hereby understood that if any of said animals are ever returned to
me at Blue-grass Manor or elsewhere they will be hamstrung by the
undersigned and turned out to die.
Signed, J. Buckner Gowdy.
One of my grandsons, Frank McConkey, has just read over this chapter,
and remarks, "He was a dead game sport!" But he had also read what
Captain Gowdy had interlined, or rather written on the margin to go in
after the description of the property conveyed: "Also one blue-blooded
black-and-tan terrier name 'Nicodemus.' The tail goes with the hide,
Jacob!" Since his death, I have grown to liking the man much better; in
fact ever since I whaled him.
* * * * *
Here ends the story, so far as I can tell it. It is not my story. There
are some fifteen hundred townships in Iowa; and each of them had its
history like this; and so had every township in all the great, wonderful
West of the prairie. The thing in my mind has been to tell the truth;
not the truth of statistics; not just information: but the living truth
as we lived it. Every one of these townships has a history beginning in
the East, or in Scandinavia, or Germany, or the South. We are a result
of lines of effect which draw together into our story; and we are a
cause of a future of which no man can form a conjecture.
The prairies took me, an ignorant, orphaned canal hand, and made me
something much better. How much better it is not for me to say. The best
prayer I can utter now is that it may do as well with my children and
grandchildren, with the tenants on these rich farms, and the farm-hands
that help till them, and with the owners who find that expensive land is
just like expensive clothes:--merely something you must have, and must
pay heavily for.
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