Oregon Historical Quarterly/Volume 1/Pilgrims of the Plains


By Joaquin Miller.

A tale half told and hardly understood ;
The talk of bearded men that chanced to meet,
That lean'd on long quaint rifles in the wood,
That look'd in fellow faces, spoke discreet
And low, as half in doubt and in defeat
Of hope; a tale it was of lands of gold
That lay toward the sun. Wild wing'd and fleet
It spread among the the swift Missouri's bold
Unbridled men, and reach'd to where Ohio roll'd.

Then long chain'd lines of yoked and patient steers;
Then long white trains that pointed to the west ;
Beyond the savage west; the hopes and fears
Of blunt, untutor'd men, who hardly guess'd
Their course; the brave and silent women, dress'd
In homely spun attire, the boys in bands,
The cheery babes that laughed at all and bless'd
The doubting hearts with laughing lifted hands
What exodus for far untraversed lands!

The Plains ! The shouting drivers at the wheel ;
The crash of leather whips ; the crush and roll
Of wheels ; the groan of yokes and grinding steel
And iron chain, and lo ! at last the whole
Vast line, that reached as if to touch the goal,
Began to str.etch and stream away and wind
Toward the west, as if with one control :
Then hope loom'd fair, and home lay far behind ;
Before, the boundless plain, and fiercest of their kind.

At first the way lay green and fresh as seas,
And far away as any reach of wave ;
The sunny streams went by in belt of trees ;
And here and there the tassell'd tawny brave
Swept by on horse, looked back, stretched forth and
A yell of hell, and then did wheel and rein
Awhile and point away, dark-brow'd and grave,
Into the far and dim and distant plain
With signs and prophecies, and then plunged on again.

Some hills at last began to lift and break;
Some streams began to fail of wood and tide,
The somber plain began betime to take
A hue of .weary brown, and wild and wide
ft stretch'd its naked breast on every side.
A babe was heard at last to cry for bread
A mid the deserts; cattle low'd and died,
And dying men went by with broken tread,
And left a long black serpent line of wreck and dead.

Strange hunger'd birds, black-wing'd and still as death,
And crown'd of red and hooked beaks, flew low
And close about till we could touch their breath
Strange unnamed birds, that seem'd to come and go
In circles now, and now direct and slow,
Continual, yet never touch the earth;
Slim foxes shied and shuttled to and fro
At times across the dusty weary dearth
Of life, looked back, then sank like crickets in a hearth.

Then dust arose, a long dim line like smoke
From out of riven earth. The wheels went groaning by,
The thousand feet in harness, and in yoke,
They tore the ways of ashen alkali,
And desert winds blew sudden, swift, and dry.
The dust! it sat upon and flll'd the train.
It seem'd to fret and fill the very sky.
Lo! dust upon the beasts, the tent, the plain,
And dust, alas! on breasts that rose not up again.

They sat in desolation and in dust
By dried-up desert streams; the mother's hands
Hid all her bended face; the cattle thrust
Their tongues and faintly called across the lands.
The babes that knew not what the way through sands
Could mean, did ask if it would end today.
The panting wolves slid by, red-eyed, in bands
To pools beyond. The men look'd far away,
And silent deemed that all a boundless desert lay.
They rose by night, they struggl'd on and on
As thin and still as ghosts ; then here and there
Beside the dusty way before the dawn,
Men silent laid them down in their despair,
And died. But woman ! Woman, frail as fair !
May man have strength to give to you your due ;
You falter'd not nor murmur'd anywhere,
You held your babes, held to your course, and you
Bore on through burning hell your double burdens through.
Men stood at last, the decimated few,
Above a land of running streams, and they ?
They pushed aside the boughs, and peering through
Beheld afar the cool refreshing bay ;
Then some did curse, and some bend hands to pray ;
But some looked back upon the desert wide
And desolate with death, then all the day
They mourned. But one, with nothing left beside
His dog to love, crept down among the ferns and died.