My father said he was born with dust in his blood, and he loved western Kansas almost as much as he loved his children.
Children really never know their parents. They are like books with pages torn out, and the pages contain crucial information that helps the story make sense. Daddy was like that. I know he was the wild child, the boy who had trouble learning to read and fidgeted in class and couldn’t fathom the intricacies of math when he got a little older. He was an annoyance and later a disappointment to his big brother Joe Pat, and I expect my prim and proper grandmother had no idea how to handle him, especially after his father died.
What I do know about my father is that he loved western Kansas almost as much as he loved his children. He said he was born with dust in his blood, and he wanted to build a big house on a big spread of land where his children could live with their families. Instead we all moved away after college, because there really aren’t many jobs on the High Plains if you’re not a wheat farmer or a cattle rancher.
Daddy taught me to see this world of vast shifting sky and gently rolling grasslands in a different way.
People driving through my part of the country on the interstate talk about the monotonous landscape. Daddy, however, taught me to see this world of vast shifting sky and gently rolling grasslands in a different way. By teaching me the history, he taught me the land’s secrets. How could I ever thank him for taking his children out west of Dodge City to see the tracks of the Santa Fe Trail etched in the virgin prairie? Nothing marked the site in those days, but the yellow buffalo grass, blue grama, sagebrush and Russian thistle bore the mark of decades of heavy travel, from Missouri in the east to the Mexican city of Santa Fe in the southwest.
The old trail met the Arkansas River at its great bend, and from there one route followed the river west to Bent’s Fort in what is now Colorado and then cut south through Raton Pass to Santa Fe. The other route was shorter — and more dangerous — turning south just beyond the future site of Dodge City into the heart of Comancheria, where the brutal Comanche roamed. Part of this route traversed the old Spanish Jornada del Muerto, so named because of the absence of water and the presence of the fierce Comanche. Famed mountain man Jedediah Smith died here in 1831, killed by Indians while searching for water. I know all this because Daddy told me the stories.
For almost sixty years of the nineteenth century — until the rise of railroads — the Santa Fe Trail connected the Southwest with the United States, with rough traders transporting goods such as fabric, sewing notions, and tools and returning with gold, silver, wool, and mules. The trail passed through the lands of the Shawnee, Kansa, Osage, and Pawnee to the east and then into the domain of the great Plains tribes, the Cheyenne and Arapaho, the Comanche and the Kiowa, before turning south into the homelands of the Mescalero and Jicarilla Apaches, the Mouache Ute, and the Pueblo.
Since this was a trail along which gold and silver were transported, of course there were tales of buried treasure — and Daddy knew them all.
We children came home from these adventures intoxicated with history, and the combine behind the barn became part of a wagon train. As the eldest I claimed the role of wagon master and positioned myself on the platform by the steering wheel. My siblings were settlers heading west. Around us raged imagined Indians, their faces painted, astride galloping war ponies. Never mind that the Santa Fe Trail wasn’t an artery moving settlers westward, but instead a commercial thoroughfare. The danger was real, and we felt it.
Since this was a trail along which gold and silver were transported, of course there were tales of buried treasure — and Daddy knew them all. A typical Sunday afternoon excursion was a drive out to some intersection in the middle of nowhere, where treasure hunters had dug holes in the prairie. The most famous story is that of old Jesus Martinez, whose wagon train was attacked by Indians in 1853. The attack raged for five days, and everyone was killed but Martinez. He buried forty-two bags of Spanish pesos, with a thousand pesos in each bag, in a bluff a few miles west of the future Dodge City.
The infamous cowtown wasn’t founded until almost two decades later, but at the time that Jesus Martinez was attacked, Fort Atkinson provided a landmark on what would otherwise have been trackless plain. Located on the Arkansas River about two miles west of the future town, the fort had walls of sod three feet thick because timber was almost nonexistent. Farmers later leveled the site for irrigation, and not a trace remains. If there had been a trace, I’m sure Daddy would have found it.
I just now realized that during my last visit with Daddy, just months before he died, we went exploring again on the western plains. We visited the Dalton Gang hideout in Meade, southwest of Dodge and not far from the Oklahoma border. Three of the Dalton brothers formed the nucleus of a gang that robbed trains and banks in the 1890s, and their sister Eva Whipple lived in Meade. Years after she and her husband had moved on, townspeople discovered a tunnel connecting the house with the barn. Legend has it that the tunnel allowed Eva’s notorious brothers to escape from the law. Daddy, bald from chemotherapy and resting on a cane, was too weak to go inside.
We also traveled to the ruins of El Quartelejo, the northernmost outpost of the Pueblo Indians, built in the late 1600s by natives fleeing the Spanish. The site is located in a cleft in the surrounding prairie, with a freshwater spring that now feeds Lake Scott near Scott City. The Pueblo were captured and forced to return to New Mexico in the early 1700s, but for awhile the Spanish and French sometimes occupied the sturdy adobe structure. By the late eighteenth century, only a mound and a few irrigation ditches remained. Eventually the walls decayed and drifting soil covered the site, to be rediscovered by a farmer.
Somehow, at the end of Daddy’s difficult life, a visit to this haunted, beautiful place seemed appropriate.