CHAPTER IV. FROM THE GREAT PLAINS TO THE ATLANTIC.
Through the courtesy of the commanding officer at Fort Sidney I am enabled to resume my journey eastward under the grateful shade of a military summer helmet in lieu of the semi-sombrero slouch that has lasted me through from San Francisco. Certainly it is not without feelings of compunction that one discards an old friend, that has gallantly stood by me through thick and thin throughout the eventful journey across the inter-mountain country; but the white helmet gives such a delightfully imposing air to my otherwise forlorn and woebegone figure that I ride out of Sidney feeling quite vain. The first thing done is to fill a poor yellow-spotted snake - whose head is boring in the sand - with lively surprise, by riding over his mottled carcass; and only the fact of the tire being rubber, and not steel, enables him to escape unscathed. This same evening, while halting for the night at Lodge Pole Station, the opportunity of observing the awe-inspiring aspect of a great thunder-storm on the plains presents itself. With absolutely nothing to obstruct the. vision the Alpha and Omega of the whole spectacle are plainly observable. The gradual mustering of the forces is near the Rockies to the westward, then the skirmish-line of fleecy cloudlets comes rolling and tumbling in advance, bringing a current of air that causes the ponderous wind-mill at the railway tank to "about face" sharply, and sets its giant arms to whirling vigorously around. Behind comes the compact, inky veil that spreads itself over the whole blue canopy above, seemingly banishing all hope of the future; and athwart its Cimmerian surface shoot zigzag streaks of lightning, accompanied by heavy, muttering thunder that rolls and reverberates over the boundless plains seemingly conscious of the spaciousness of its play-ground. Broad sheets of electric flame play along the ground, filling the air with a strange, unnatural light; heavy, pattering raindrops begin to fall, and, ten minutes after, a pelting, pitiless down-pour is drenching the sod-cabin of the lonely rancher, and, for the time being, converting the level plain into a shallow lake. A fleet of prairie schooners is anchored in the South Platte bottom, waiting for it to dry up, as I trundle down that stream - every mile made interesting by reminiscences of Indian fights and massacres - next day, toward Ogallala; and one of the "Pilgrims" looks wise as I approach, and propounds the query, "Does it hev ter git very muddy afore yer kin ride yer verlocify, mister?" "Ya-as, purty dog-goned muddy," I drawl out in reply; for, although comprehending his meaning, I don't care to venture into an explanatory lecture of uncertain length. Seven weeks' travel through bicycleless territory would undoubtedly convert an angel into a hardened prevaricator, so far as answering questions is concerned. This afternoon is passed the first homestead, as distinguished from a ranch-consisting of a small tent pitched near a few acres of newly upturned prairie - in the picket-line of the great agricultural empire that is gradually creeping westward over the plains, crowding the autocratic cattle-kings and their herds farther west,. even as the Indians and their still greater herds - buffaloes - have been crowded out by the latter. At Ogallala - which but a few years ago was par excellence the cow-boys' rallying point - "homesteads," "timber claims," and "pre-emption" now form the all-absorbing topic. "The Platte's 'petered' since the hoosiers have begun to settle it up," deprecatingly reflects a bronzed cow-boy at the hotel supper-table; and, from his standpoint, he is correct. Passing the next night in the dug-out of a homesteader, in the forks of the North and South Platte, I pass in the morning Buffalo Bill's home ranch (the place where a ranch proprietor himself resides is denominated the "home ranch" as distinctive from a ranch presided over by employes only), the house and improvements of which are said to be the finest in Western Nebraska. Taking dinner at North Platte City, I cross over a substantial wagon-bridge, spanning the turgid yellow stream just below where the north and south branches fork, and proceed eastward as " the Platte " simply, reaching Brady Island for the night. Here I encounter extraordinary difficulties in getting supper. Four families, representing the Union Pacific force at this place, all living in separate houses, constitute the population of Brady Island. "All our folks are just recovering from the scarlet fever," is the reply to my first application; "Muvver's down to ve darden on ve island, and we ain't dot no bread baked," says a barefooted youth at house No. 2; "Me ould ooman's across ter the naybur's, 'n' there ain't a boite av grub cooked in the shanty," answers the proprietor of No. 3, seated on the threshold, puffing vigorously at the traditional short clay; "We all to Nord Blatte been to veesit, und shust back ter home got mit notings gooked," winds up the gloomy programme at No. 4. I am hesitating about whether to crawl in somewhere, supperless, for the night, or push on farther through the darkness, when, "I don't care, pa! it's a shame for a stranger to come here where there are four families and have to go without supper," greet my ears in a musical, tremulous voice. It is the convalescent daughter of house No. 1, valiantly championing my cause; and so well does she succeed that her "pa" comes out, and notwithstanding my protests, insists on setting out the best they have cooked. Homesteads now become more frequent, groves of young cottonwoods, representing timber claims, are occasionally encountered, and section-house accommodation becomes a thing of the past.