James Whorton, Jr.
Deliver to My Wife
April 25, 1846
Mrs. Robert Lawrence Cruikshank
My Dear Sarah,
You stood at the library table, sorting the
mail. You came to the present document, sniffed at it, and said
aloud, though no one was in hearing, "Where is he?"
How did my little epistle answer? Now that I am here (where
I am I shall tell you momentarily, only when I've finished bringing
into the world my present thought--but I'll give you a clue, the
toe of my boot is touching a box with a squealing shoat in it)--now
I can tell you that this speaking aloud of yours has oppressed
me for some time. Indeed when I try to name my precise reasons
for abandoning you, and for the cowardly secretive way I have
contrived to do it, as important an excuse as any is my fatigue
after so often raising my head from the paper to ask, "What
did you say, dear?" "Beg your pardon?" you'd reply
from across the room. "I asked, 'What did you say?'"
"I was merely speaking my mind," you'd answer.
Darling. To "speak one's mind" means
to utter matter of import--the phrase suggests deliberateness
and independence of thought. It does not mean mumbling whatever
housekeeping memoranda are trickling about in one's "mind,"
confusing nearby husbands who assume that she who speaks would
From my present extremity it is safe to confess
to you dear that some weeks ago I began to understand an upheaval
to be imminent in my life. I experienced inward fits of loathing
and revulsion, ignorant at first of origin or object of my disgust;
I was confused and sick; you noticed this, one day when you had
your monocle in; I noticed you noticing; Eureka, it was you, you,
only you, the mustard in my milk, the thorn in my sole. I hate
you, Sarah! Unless stolidity be a crime I have none, lady, to
accuse you of--only extreme infelicities. Your aforementioned
muttering is one, a sample from the exhaustive catalog I am preparing
and will present to you when complete, months from now.
I trust Mr. Watkins called last week to describe
provisions I have made for the perpetual maintaining of the household.
You needn't fear poverty. You may be gratified to know that
Watkins harbors a special fondness for you, and although he was
helpful and discreet in his role as wife-desertion facilitator,
he strictly refuses to shake my hand any more.
I write you, my babbler, from the upper-deck
of the Radnor, a steamboat which for two hours has been stuck
on a sand bar in the Missouri River, half a day's winding progress
west of St. Louis. I suppose I should be reassured by the lackadaisical
efforts of the crew to detach us from the bar: their want of urgency
tells me such delays are usual. Indeed, hazards more devilish
than sand bars await him who would westward wander!
Anyhow--you may wonder, why here. I was on
the verge of falling on grandfather's sword (I have it, if you
noticed it missing) when I paused to unbutton my shirt--you know,
thinking the point might snag somehow and I end up dying of odoriferous
peritonitis--when I had the inspiration of taking a lark first.
I perceived that in my suicidal state I was invincible to hunger,
thirst, tornado, opprobrium, scalping--all I had to do was strap
on the sword, and all old menaces were mooted,--because I had
the sword, you see.
Do you believe me? Anyway here I am on the
snagged Radnor, and it's a glorious afternoon to be snagged.
A gray mule I've been sharing the post with (me leaning, she straining
her tether) is gathering up air to honk with--there she begins,
what a stormy ditty she brays, breaking wind contrapuntally--you'd
hate it here, darling. Shall post this letter in Independence,
a week at least, I'm told, upriver from here.
Was unable to mail letter. Independence Postmaster
extremely rude and untrustworthy. Civility languishes westward,
beyond the venerable lawns and pavements. Will carry this until
a more suitable conveyance may be found. Camped now in an open
space west of Independence. Horde of emigrant families clustered
on the plain a mile south of me--I smell them, their smoke, their
charred bacon and their latrine (pardon--frontier frankness).
Purchased the mare mule who was my friend that
first time we snagged. Swindler demanded a fantastic price, and
stout beasts are to be had reasonably here at the frontier, but
I liked Sarah's eye and her song, and must have her. Don't be
offended by my little pet name for her--she's a pretty animal
and has something of the put-upon lassitude that used to charm
me in you.
Evocation of frontier town: wide street busy
with dustcloud, hoof and shouting. Quiet, painted aboriginals,
milling: smell intolerable, unlike any stink the civilized organism
may emit. Clanking of the smithy--quick commerce in iron goods:
horse shoes, wagon parts &c&c. Shops sell saddlery, costume,
extravagant hats, equipage and ordnance. All humans wear revolvers;
the child sweeping the barber's porch wears a revolver; I bought
a Colt second hand. Man's carnal requirements are everywhere
the concern--horse for moving him, crackling fat and pattied meal
for feeding him, gun for shooting him, oilskin for keeping him
dry; saloon doorways reek of whiskey, tobacco is omnipresent.
Many Negroes, French, Spaniards, Mexican Indians, Plains Indians,
Hill Indians, Easterners in complex states of decline.
I camp apart, impatient with all society but
that of my mule friend, hobbled nearby, eased for the night of
her bundle. The light recedes, and Sarah's bulky head droops;
I see her eyewhite in the campfire glare. It amuses me to imagine
your reaction, Mrs. Cruikshank, to this infinite sky, or half-infinite
I should say, the other part being below me--so brightly moonlit
now--I have paused, petting Sarah to sleep, and I write now by
moon and fire. The stars are more than one might ever take in
of a view in the urban setting to which you and I are accustomed--it
is a bowl of raw stars, ungroped by encroaching architecture or
geologic protuberance--a wonder--yet I conceive that some boxed-
in segment of my night sky was yours, two or three hours ago,
when dusk had just passed Baltimore; and perhaps you stepped outside
to find Gemini. That is one of the ones you know, I believe.
Tomorrow I embark. Description of prairie landscape.
Sarah, dear. Description of prairie landscape.
Mud rut bisecting grass expanse. Strewn fetid refuse of horse,
ox, hog, cat, dog, fowl, child and parent. Here, carcass of stillborn
calf; here, ruined flour tin; here, tail of an ass (the one attribute
of an ass for which the thrifty pioneer has thus far found no
use--middle daughters assigned, by frontier convention, the office
of fly-swatting with their hands); here, a split cart axle (no
less a disaster in this timberless wild than a snapped mast at
sea); here, late infant "Will Martin," name burnt into
a plank; here, most disturbing, a leather pouch marked US Mail,
emptied of its contents, dropped in the middle of the driving
rut. I was wise not to trust that Postmaster with my correspondence;
this remains a savage land.
And on either side of the mud rut are the appalling
grasses of which we have read, grasses swarming in hot wind, seething
with vicious prairie sentience: prairie mouse, prairie gopher,
prairie serpent, prairie tortoise, prairie Indian; creeping stealthily
in the undulating, exasperating openness.
Can't begin to list all my trials. Gulch crossing,
mule alarmed by low-flying preybird, electric thunderstorms--I
won't trouble myself with the recounting of it all.
Camped some distance from the trail. Horde
of emigrant families passing all morning in slow, steady, dumbfounding
march. Too slow and stinking--let them pass. I rest.
Have invented an idea. The savage condition
of the western regions of our nation is due not so much to climate
or terrain as to sheer expanse, making communication with the
civilized East unreliable and slow. The nation needs roads, not
ruts; clear watercourses, not serpentine mudcurrents thick with
satanic steamboat snags. Railways, yes. On this all are in agreement;
but even when these are achieved, the delay in communications
will be too great for the civilizing influence to take hold; what
the nation needs is speedy intelligence, Atlantic to Pacific,
quick and trusty. A relay of fast horses has been proposed; this
is in the correct spirit, rough and extreme, yet still too slow
and contingent. Mind, my interest is not pecuniary: as a childless
middle-aged adventurer I have no serious worldly ambitions left
to my name; my interest is philosophical. The savages are said
to possess a method of communicating via puffs of smoke over distances
of prairie; their bulletins of course consist of little more than
sweat lodge agenda or squaw-and-pony hagglings, but a man (I thought)
might devise a rational system in which puffs of smoke stand for
English letters; I scorched my buffalo robe, for which I paid
dearly in Westport, experimenting without success; furthermore,
what is to keep White man smokes from being confounded with Indian
smokes? Despairing I gave up my idea.
Chewing jerked meat, musing on the philosophy
of communication--Sarah raised her head and screamed! Have you
heard a mule scream? My Heavens. I checked the ground for rattlesnakes
and so on; but no it was the passing traveler on the emigrant
rut, fully fifty paces from where Sarah strained in her hobbles;
a traveler passing with a small pony-cart; and Sarah worked her
way around, reverse to the trail, and raised her tail high, and
began working her communicator, squeezing, squirting and blinking
it; loading the wind with her communique; and it was not ten seconds
before the pony called back, and the crack of a whip was heard;
for nothing but the whip would keep the virile pony from my mare
mule in heat.
When it hit me--not smoke but smell
Stop to rest. Hunting Sarah.
I had been leading her parallel to the trail
but some ways north of it, to avoid the unpleasantness of the
domestic emigrants. This way is slower going, but I prefer it
to the wagon-ravaged high road. Well enough: until we come to
a creek, a shallow one Sarah could easily have waded, but she
refused. I waded out myself to show her the harmlessness of it;
it was indeed deeper than the ford at the trail, where settlers
passed, but it was nothing we could not manage; but being in her
season, she must balk; well I tugged and pushed, urged, shouted,
smacked, and finally unsheathed my sword and slapped her good
on the rump with the flat of it, and she crossed; crossed well,
then did not pause but bolted up the opposite bank and was gone.
I sloshed across after her and followed north as fast as I could;
there are shrubs and stunted trees up the creek, and she disappeared
there, where I shall pursue her immediately I catch my breath.
Slept scarcely at all last night, occupied with
my new system of communication across distances. Odor is our
rapidest means of dissemination. From my early notes:
A: tanning leather
I: derivative from animal gland
O: pine resin
U: hempen rope burning glove
In fact my euphoria was such that sleep hardly occurred
to me! Consider: Shawnee war party to storm Fort Leavenworth;
US spy carries warning by pony; spy, less intimate with terrain
than cunning natives, waylaid; fort surprised and sacked. Or,
with Cruikshank method, intelligence conveyed by CLAY or TIN PIPELINE
as fast as the wind, across muddy gullies, beneath raging rivers;
fort is warned and saved.
Then I consider further (it is midnight in my
notes): "The nature of wind is such that distinct ciphers
may not ride in rigid sequence along it--no more than measures
of dye dropped into a rill persist in their separate hues until
observed downstream--plain foiled. However: witness if I deposit
a measure blue and a measure yellow: observer down the way sees
green; he deduces; therefore forget old system of ciphers; further
advance in the mind of C.; smell signals stand not for alphabetic
letters (archaic arbitrary apparatuses) but for direct experience
and elements of human concern as
Military threat! (scorched buffalo hide) or
Plenitude! (molasses boiling) or
Alone! (crushed tomato stem) or
Invitation to play! (mineral spirits).
Thus the recipient of the communication may unravel
a blend of essential odors to reconstruct the message: 'We are
well provided here! Come to social gathering!' or 'We are under
attack! Help repel!'"
Vision broadens, Sarah: I see a great nation
webbed over from smell-station hubs; I see urban East and agrarian
South and rough West as intimate as Washington with Baltimore,
and Baltimore with Philadelphia; New York's Monday morning headline
reaches St. Louis by dark, Mexico City Wednesday afternoon.
The Nation will collect herself: no sooner will
her mind (back East) resolve than her arm (out West) rise to enact;
she will possess an identity, move deliberate and composed with
organic grace and fluidity of National gesture. No more will
one be distinguished as Virginian or Alabamian; all citizens will
be constituents of the single national Mind, subsets of one North
Sarah, I do not know whether the magnitude of
all this is really present to you; but trust that I feel its magnitude,
and one day when plans are realized you may see physical ramification
of Forms now encoded only in my thought, and on these pages; do
not therefore misplace this letter!
I guess I am 40 miles out of Independence; fifteen
hundred from Oregon. My pace must be reformed if I am to achieve
the western coast this year. It occurs to me that you still do
not know where I am; even Watkins is ignorant of that; I must
get this letter off somehow. As rest from my investigations,
while I chase my darling mule, I think of how fat you have gotten
of late. "Do you dislike how fat I've gotten?" This
is one of my favorite remarks of yours, because I answered it
so succinctly: "Yes, dear." Of course I knew you would
fat up one day; it's your inheritance, from both sides, but I
did not anticipate the rapidity. I suppose I am unfair now; you
might in fancy refashion me with improvements, as freely as I
do you. Probably I am more richly flawed than you are, and have
done you a disservice--I ought to have died or run off before
you attained such heft, so you might have replaced me more readily.
There's Watkins, of course, if you can bear him--
Solitude stresses the brain in new ways; I wonder,
after much thought--What authority have I to say No, I do not
like her fat? I spy her tugging her undergarment; managing new
girth with suddenly stubbier arms; I think, "I recoil from
this sight"; but is it I who recoil, or is it--well, there's
the catch, who else could it be?
I look at my hand, open it; I picture it on
your nude hip; the hip is broad and soft, salted with dimples
and one faint rosy nipply blemish; it is big, as a hip, yes, but
small as a world. Lost in that world (marching, dreamily, hunting
my runaway mule) of your HIP Sarah I am alone and more than alone.
Try to decode this: I am writing left-handed.
I soak in the creek, our crossing of which I described to you.
I'm upstream in an oasis of black vegetation. An antelope--no,
several antelope with horns are watching me. I rather wish they
would at least pretend to be more frightened--perhaps they think
I'm only a head and left arm floating by the bank. Round black
curious eyes, twitching sides.
Have driven myself nearly to the brink again
with puzzling out the problem of subordination of thought. The
Scent Pipe emits a compound which the Sniffer analyzes into three
components: hoof trimmings, scalded milk, and tar. Does this
mean, Come kill Shoshones, and bring rations? Or does it mean,
Shoshones have killed us and stolen our rations? Or does it mean,
We kill and eat Shoshones?
Very grave news about Sarah. Caught up with
her that day, hours after she'd run off--patiently munching grass
over a hill, dragging her lead. From sixty yards away I could
see that her right foreleg was swollen. She had a cut there,
I knew--a two- day-old cut above the knee that had been running
somewhat; but I was surprised it should swell so quickly. As
I approached I saw that the swelling was indeed very bad, but
the cut was dry--she let me lead her some, and though she limped
she put some weight on the leg, and this encouraged me. I rubbed
her head a long time before making myself lift the leg, and put
my ear to it; I shifted it around, worked it against the joint;
she let me; sounded fine; we nuzzled; then I shifted my stance
and twisted at her leg again and heard a ghastly crepitation;
mule never complained, kept munching; I set the foot down, paced,
petted her, lifted the foot and listened again, found the fracture,
grinded the bone ends again to be sure of what I'd heard, grinded
a third time when at last she did start, and backed away from
me, taking her leg, then went back to her grass. Enough of that:
the leg was broken, then; the ground was full of dogholes, it
was no surprise; simply enough, she had to be shot. I stood close
to her, fearing I'd miss, never having fired the Colt and knowing
not what to expect from it; goodbye Earth's gentlest mule; then
the gun blew up in my hand. I'd badly hurt myself, but the immediate
concern was the animal, who now understood she must die.
She tried to run off; that didn't work, with
her leg as it was; what do I need to say about this? I had to
use Grandfather's sword on her. This took an eternity.
If there is a Hell, Sarah--well, what crueler
treat might await me there, than having to slaughter that mild
beast? Bitter day!
Later I was faint. Only now does it occur to
me I ought to have taken off her pack before putting the girl
down; all my things are in it; I put some quick distance between
myself and the carcass, and should prefer not to revisit that
scene. I also ought to have gone to the rut and asked for help
with my injured hand; did not. This spot I'm in is shady and
this brown water tonic. The boldest of the pronghorns is right
here now; I could splatter ink across his hatrack if I chose;
reckon I won't.
Days. In addition to the wreck of my penmanship
I see these pages suffer bedraggled appearance my darling. "Obliterate
me" the simpering grasses moan when clouds like inky blotters
roll; "Douse me" chatters the prairie hen. I swaddle
you in the slicker, Sarah, to keep your pages dry. My clothes,
too: I hunker nude in thunderstorm! Can you believe? Now it
is calm and I sort my clothes on the ground. My shirt collar
smells like butter. The yellow patch under the sleeve smells
of opossum musk (knew I a possum in boyhood? I am sure he was
the author of that distant but unforgettable spiciness). Shirtfront
smells like dust with something sharp in--have you licked iron?
Then you know. The back of the shirt smells like the insides
of your calf gloves, sour and strong.
The indoors of my hat smells like a lovely warm
bakery. The floppy felt veranda smells of sun and fresh air.
My trousers in the crouch smell of mildewed wool. Indeed! In
the seat, well- water. Down the legs, dusty-smelling like my
shirtfront--except the knees with their delightful black earth
fragrance. I sniff blissfully at the knees until my nose is blinded.
My hand, the shooting one I mean, smells very
interesting and various. I am keeping it out of the sun. I judge
that it has gone septic.
I should like to have my head patted now. Any
chubby hand would do, even yours as the other strokes your dress
smooth across your lap. That's all the attention I require.
I am recalling with affectionate pang your puzzling exchange with
Watkins over dinner not long before I left; he had come to the
house for business with me, and hadn't the wherewithal to decline
your invitation to stay for supper, though I could see it tortured
him to sit with me at our table, knowing what he did about my
plans; pompous upright pup, he vainly believed he hid from me
his designs on you. I knew these were his only reason for helping
me to vanish; indeed I am certain that first official call on
you has by now been succeeded by others of more personal interest,
that opportunist! But I was saying, your puzzling exchange--his
reference to this Carlyle business about loyalty being man's finest
virtue; an obvious jab at me; and your response, "Not having
read Mr. Carlyle, I can't say I see what the fuss is about."
Watkins was of course annoyed that his quotation had failed to
win ground with you; I was of course annoyed as well, remembering
that not three months before you'd gotten through a volume of
Carlyle's lectures; dismayed you'd already lost him so perfectly;
terrified I'd hear you attribute some theme of his to Bacon or
St. Mark one evening soon; moreover, something was burning in
the kitchen, and in honor of Mr. Watkins you had bathed some part
of yourself with dizzying volumes of lavender water. And then
it occurred to me when I saw you drinking--you sipped wine and
held the glass close to your lips, as if you intended another
sip as soon as you dispatched the present one, and didn't wish
to waste arm flexing--it occurred to me then, perhaps you hadn't
forgotten Carlyle at all but were somehow making asses of both
Watkins and myself. No, that wouldn't be like her, I thought--too
cunning, and too unkind. Then you smiled coolly at me; and I
grew angry, my love, angry--but the distance over the table was
just farther than my arm would have reached, had I lifted it--