1800-1849 · America

The Legend of Marrowbone

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City and street names are fascinating things. Each tells a story. Take Moweaqua, Illinois, for instance. This town was named after the Native American name for the area, Moawequa, which meant either “wolf woman” or “weeping woman” in the Algonquain dialect. Did that stem from an ancient legend of a wolf spirit? Or perhaps a squaw went mad with grief when her warrior didn’t come home? There is no way to know– the story disappeared with the bears and prairie chickens, sinking into the earth until only the oldest trees remember the time when the tale was told around pioneer and Kaskaskia campfires. Yet the name remains.

Some stories haven’t died yet, however. They live on in myths and legends, infiltrating the imagination in vivid detail, drawing breath and vivacity from the storyteller’s skill and craft. 

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Present Day

“Welcome to Marrowbone Township Library,” A kindly faced woman behind the counter said with a smile as I breezed through the door. “Can I help you find something?”

“Yeah, I’m looking for this book and the library system website said you had it in house.” I handed her a scrap of paper with a Dewey decimal call number on it. “I’m a freelance writer and I need it for an article I’m writing.”

The librarian glanced up from the paper at me, eyebrows raised. “Really? Well, it should be over here in the professional books section.” She walked into a side room, gesturing for me to follow. Stopping in front of a bookshelf, she ran her finger over a few titles before resting on one. “Here it is.” She pulled it off the shelf and handed it to me.

“Thanks,” I said, fingering through the book before closing it with a nod. “So, I’m really curious– where does a name like Marrowbone come from?”

“It’s a local legend about some of the first white settlers in the area. You see, there were some hunters who set up camp by the creek one winter night…”

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Christmas Eve, 1830

Snow!  Even in the dark of night, Jude could tell that it was coming down thick and fast over the prairie. He cursed under his breath as he groped his way back to his cot. Of course, it would have to snow. They could have easily gotten home tomorrow, but they were completely snowed in.

” Uncle Jude?” 17-year-old Wallace asked groggily from his corner of the dark tent, “How bad is it?”

“Ain’t no way we’ll be makin’ it to Decatur by Christmas.” Jude answered as he found his pile of rough, woolen blankets and dove underneath them. Hadn’t been warm for days, thanks to the sleet they had traveled through. Nor was it likely that he’d be getting warm tonight either, thanks to the wind gusting through the tent walls. Now, he would have to wait until the snow melted to get inside a building and warm himself by a real fire.

“But, what ’bout–“

“Ain’t no way, I tell ya!” Jude snapped, guilt instantly pinching his insides. He knew that he didn’t have to take the bad situation out on the kid, but he was so irritated. “Just git to sleep. We’ll deal with it in the morning.”

Within minutes, Wallace’s breathing deepened. Jude, however, bit back a sigh. Sentimental hogwash was all it was. Who needed Christmas, anyway? Sure, the church services on Christmas morning were always the best. Granted, some of his best memories came from the comradere with friends and family that day, and nothing compared to a Christmas feast of  roast turkey, fresh bread, salads, plum pudding, and hot punch. Still twern’t no reason to mope.

The wind outside whistled higher, faster, causing the tent to wobble back and forth. With a prayer that the tent would stay up, Jude fingered a chain that hung around his neck, tracing it until he found the plain silver ring it held. In the darkness, Jude slipped it onto his pinky finger, picturing again the surprised look on Ann’s lovely face when he would present it to her. He had hoped to ask her to marry him on Christmas after service. Now, he would have to wait. Hopefully, they would be back with enough time to ask her on Epiphany in a few weeks.

Jude yawned and curled into a tight ball, hoping that he could use his own body heat to warm up the blankets. The sooner he got to sleep, the sooner morning would be here. Not like that would make anything better, though…

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“Uncle Jude!” Wallace said as he shook his uncle’s shoulder. “Sun’s up. Well, as up as it’s gonna get, I think.”

Jude sat up, instantly aware of the wind was screaming around the tent in the semi-light, playing with the silhouetted snow a couple of feet up the side of the tent. He cursed and threw off the blankets, cold seeping through his long johns as soon as he did. “Been out yet?” he asked as he pulled on his pants.

“Yeah, out to th’ thicket ta check on th’ horses,” Wallace replied.  “We can still git to them for now, but with as much  as it’s blowin’ out there, it’s just a matter of time until…”

“No, it ain’t. We just need to git ready for a long wait.” Jude finished tying his boots and reached for his coat. “Drive two stakes into the ground then tie a long rope to each. Tie one around your waist, and I’ll do the same. First, we’re going to cover the tent with snow.”

“Snow? But it’s cold enough as it is!”

“Snow’s cold, sure, but it’s also an insulator. We’re gonna pack it ’round the tent. I’ve done it once before many years ago– it’ll keep us warmer.” Memories of cold, but not freezing, temperatures and a long wait in a cold tent swirled in his mind. He never thought he would be grateful for that snowstorm five years ago in Michigan Territory, but thanks to Ol’ Trapper L’Curre, at least he knew how to save himself and his sister’s son now. “Use the snow between the tent n’ the thicket where we’re keepin’ the horses. With as fast as it’s fallin’, we have to have a good path between the two. You gather, n’ I’ll pack it. Git it?”

Wallace nodded. “Sure, Uncle Jude.”

“Oh, an’ one more thing.” Jude wagged a mittened hand at his nephew. “Be careful of that there rope. It’s yur life. Literally. It breaks, and you may wander in the wrong direction. Ya’d be out in the middle of the prairie ‘fore ya could say ‘death.’ “

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Jude shuffled the worn deck of playing cards. Seven days. Seven long, tedious days had passed. The storm had left them with a Christmas gift of nearly four feet of snow, which drifted until they had to dig a tunnel to the horses’ thicket. The day after Christmas, it warmed a bit, but only enough to make perfect conditions for an ice storm, which raged until it formed a heavy crust over the snow. With such conditions, Jude was starting to wonder if they’d be able to make it out at all. The kid didn’t have any idea, though. Jude hadn’t seen a need to panic him. He’d find out soon enough, anyway. At least now, except for a strong northwestern wind that had been blowing for days, the weather had been clear. Unfortunately, it was also exceptionally cold. Had it not been for the thick coat of snow over their tent and the thicket and the fire they had built in an snow tipee-like foyer between the tent and the tunnel to the thicket, they and the horses would have died of exposure within 24 hours.

Quietly, Jude set up a game of solitaire. With so little to do, Jude and Wallace had been taking turns checking on the horses about once every couple of hours or so. Other than that, they played games. Card and dice games, mostly, but Wallace had stratched a makeshift checker board on the ground and wittled some checkers from kindling. At least they weren’t hurting for wood, thanks to the thicket and some trees they had found along the creek bank on their brief foraging trips out on top.

Food, on the other hand, was a bit more of a challenge, especially for the horses.

Wallace walked into the tent and sat down on his cot. Without looking up, Jude asked, “Want to play some poker?”

“No.”

“Hazard then?”

“Not interested in playing games, Uncle.”

Jude looked up at that. Typically, Wallace was the one begging to play a game. Now he was just sulking on his cot. “What happened? Is one of the horses sick?”

“Worse. We’re out of hay.”

Jude leaned back against the tent wall. “Was wonderin’ when thet would happen. Don’t take it so hard, Wal.” Somewhere deep inside of him, Jude longed to join Wallace in his despair. Jude had never been in conditions this bad. Always before, he had at least a slither of hope that he would get back to the American Fur Company with his life, his horse, and a profit. This time, however, was a different story. But he couldn’t let himself wallow in self-pity. Pity had never helped him before, and it certainly wouldn’t help him now. Jude grabbed his rifle and stood. “Guess we should take care of that problem now.”

Wallace’s head snapped up, horror written on his face. “You’re jus’ gonna to shoot ’em?”

Jude opened the gun to check that it was loaded. “Yup.”

“You can’t! They ain’t even ours, they belong to the American Fur Company! How do you ‘spect us to come up with the $60 dollars to replace them iffen ya shoot ’em?”

“Let’s cross that bridge when we git there.”

“But Uncle Jude!”

“Lookie here,” Jude cut off gruffly. “We ain’t gettin’ out any time soon. Even if the wind were to die down tonight and everything warm up tomorrow, it’d be a good week ‘fore the snow melts enough for us to think about gettin’ somewhere, and dependin’ on the weather after that, possibly another half week before the ground was firm enough to transport them horses anywhere. By then, they would be so malnourished that t’would take th’ rest of the winter an’ half the spring to bring ’em back to full health. But you and I both know that it ain’t meltin’ today, nor is it gonna be warm enough tomorrow for us to hope for a thaw. We’re stuck here, Wallace. An’ either we’re gonna watch the horses die slowly of starvation or we’re gonna kill them now.”

Wallace stared at his uncle for a long minute before his shoulders slumped. He looked away and sighed.

“That’s what I thought you’d say,” Jude replied. Watching the kid twisted his gut. There was no way anyone could have guessed that this trip would have gone so poorly, and for the first time in years, Jude actually felt sorry for someone. “Look, kid, I’m sorry that your first trappin’ trip had to end with ya gettin’ stuck in a snowdrift with your grumpy uncle and gettin’ your horse shot. But this is hard on me, too. You’ve only had one tour on that horse. I’ve been doin’ this six years, an’ I ain’t never had a different horse.” Jude glanced at the tent door. He didn’t want to have to do this. He didn’t want to crawl into the thicket, look his friend in the eye, then shoot him. Still, he couldn’t watch his horse die slowly over weeks.

“Uncle Jude?”

“Yeah?”

“I’ll come with you,” Wallace said as he grabbed his own rifle. “Iffen we shoot ’em at the same time, they won’t have to watch each other die. It’s… it’s…”

“Kinder.” Jude supplied with a catch in his voice as Wallace’s voice failed. “Come on, let’s git this over with.”

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Late February, 1830

Jude lay on his cot, staring at the tent ceiling. Far above their heads, somewhere above the snowdrift, he assumed that the sun was shining. At least, he wasn’t hearing wind or rain. It also sounded like the fire was dying out again.

Out of the corner of his eye, he watched as Wallace broke open a venison femur and sucked on the jagged edge. About a month ago, they had killed a deer that was stuck in a snow drift. That had been the last critter they had seen, and the meat hadn’t lasted anything like long enough. For the past couple of weeks, all they had to eat was marrow inside those deer bones.

“Wallace, chur turn ta feed the fire.”

“Yes, sir,” Wallace murmured. Jude heard Wallace’s cot groan as the young man pulled himself up. The wood clunked together as Wallace added a couple more pieces on the fire, a fresh wood smoke scent permeating the air. “I think it’s warmer out there. An’ that’s saying something, since it’s gettin’ dark n’ all.”

Jude tried to come up with a sarcastic comment, but he couldn’t. Something about running out of food had affected his humor as well as his stomach. “Ya jus’ stoked th’ fire–“

“No, I mean the wind is warmer. And I’m sure the foyer drift is shorter. I could almost see over it.”

Jude snorted. Youngsters and their wishful thinking. “Thet’s what you said yesterday and the day before thet. ‘N I’ll tell you again: don’t count on getting out.”

“But Uncle Jude–“

Jude whirled around to glare at his nephew. “Even if we were to leave tomorrow mornin’, it’s a good day’s walk back to Decatur. Longer since we’d have to walk through them snowbanks. I dunno ’bout you, but I’m not interested in freezin’ when it gits cold tomorrow night.”

Wallace glared back. “Look, you’re great at survivin’ but you don’t know diddly about livin’. Have some hope would ya?”

“In these conditions? You’ve got to be kiddin’ me. Look, it’ll take a miracle–“

“Well, then maybe we should start believin’ that one’ll come our way.” Wallace walked toward the fire. “I’m gonna go up top. The snow’s melted enough that any cabin that was buried in the snow should be showin’ some.”

“Like that’s gonna help ya,” Jude spat. “It’s late. I’d be willing to guess that th’ first stars are out.”

“Sure they are, but it ain’t dark yet. We’d be able ta see any smoke risin’ from a chimney. Maybe even light from a window.”

Jude turned to face the tent wall. He wasn’t interested in pampering the kid’s foolish dreams.

“Well, I’m goin up ta look ’round.” Within moments, Jude heard Wallace’s footsteps recede up their makeshift log ladder. Jude, however, simmered in silence. If only he had the energy, he’d have slapped the kid around for his insolence. Acting so high and mighty, as though he knew better than Jude himself did! Hope. Ha! The chance that anyone lived within ten miles of there was slim.

Involuntarily, Jude fingered the ring on his chest again. Images crept into his head of Ann. The life they had wanted together. Their future children. The farm they wanted. Now she would be alone again. Her first husband had died within their first year of marriage from a hunting accident. Jude yanked off the chain and threw it against the opposite wall. Curling up in a ball, he wondered how long it would take to die. A week? Maybe more? There was no way he could know.

Jude suddenly started awake. The grey light indicated that it would be dawn soon. But it was freezing cold. Horror clutched his stomach. The fire was out. That had happened only one other time, but that had been before they caught the deer. Back when they had enough flammable items to rekindle the blaze. Jude closed his eyes, running through their inventory. The pelts were gone now along with every sheet of paper they had. The blankets? No, they needed each one. Desperately.

He turned to look at Wallace’s cot. With that glance, every other thought vanished. The cot was empty. “Wallace?” Jude called out. “Hey, kid!”

There was no response. He must not have returned last night. Jude could see it playing out in his head. The kid had seen smoke and gone after it, but it had proved further than he thought or he had gotten trapped like the deer.

“NO!” Jude grabbed the cup of water that was sitting beside his cot and threw it toward the ash pit. If Jude had just gotten up and gone with him. If only he had been out there, too! Maybe if he had, Wallace wouldn’t be–

For the first time since they had been trapped, tears welled in his eyes and he didn’t even try to hold them back. Wallace was gone.

After a couple of minutes, Jude thought he heard something swish over the snow. “Hello down there!” A man’s voice came from the foyer.

Jude cleared his throat and wiped his cheek. “Who are ya n’ whatchu want?” He growled.

A pair of feet, followed by a man’s body climbed down the ladder. He was thin with a large beard and thick coat. The man was smiling, although Jude couldn’t imagine why. “Your ladder is clever,” the stranger said. “I never would have thought to put several deep notches in a log then set it up as a get-away. I’m going to have to use that idea–“

“Whatchu want?” Jude repeated gruffly.

“Oh, I’m sorry, sir. I guess I am getting ahead of myself. The name’s Wilborn. I live a mile or so from here. Your nephew came to my door late last night and asked for help. You know, your story is remarkable! Imagine surviving under a snow drift–“

“Wallace is alive?” Jude whispered, hardly daring to believe Wilborn’s news. A lump rose to his throat and threatened to break loose.

“Yes sir,” Wilborn answered. “I wouldn’t let him come with me. He’s a strong young man, but he’s malnourished. He’ll live, but he needs rest. As will you. That and a nice, hot meal and decent shelter until you can make it back to Decatur. Not like any of us have much, but you’re welcome to anything we have. Now, if you can walk, my sleigh is outside.” With that, he climbed back up the ladder.

Jude gaped at Wilborn until he disappeared. For two months, they had lived within an easy walk of this man. Now, not only were other people nearby, but they were also willing to share their food with him and Wallace. Jude swallowed hard and put on his coat. Wallace had been right. They would actually survive this nightmare.

“So, is it true that you’ve been surviving off of venison marrow the past couple weeks?” Wilborn asked as soon as Jude was settled in the sleigh.

Jude just nodded. The sun was rising behind them, casting an orange glow on the snow ahead of them. Never had a sunrise looked more beautiful.

“Well, there are a few families that live in this area and we’ve been trying unsuccessfully to come up with a town name. Problem is, we can’t agree on anything. But I think that the McClunes may just like the name Marrowbone.”

Jude nodded as the snow glittered like diamonds before them. “Has a ring to it,” he agreed. Ring. Out of habit more than anything else, he fingered the place from which Ann’s ring typically hung. Without it, he felt strange, like he had left a part of him in the tent. Silly Sentiment, he told himself with a chuckle. Not like it would stay in the mud forever! In a couple of days, he would go back to the camp site to find it and gather the rest of their things.

But first, he would greet Wallace. Then, they would have a decent meal.

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Present Day

“Iced green tea latte,” the barista called from the coffee shop counter. Slipping my pen behind my ear, I walked over and grabbed the glass of creamy green liquid. “If it’s not sweet enough, you let me know. Okay, honey?”

“Sure thing,” I replied as I sat back down at my table. It had been weeks since I heard the story of Marrowbone. Yet for all my research, I couldn’t find anything else that validated the librarian’s story, and there were some nagging questions about her story. After all, people back then were tough. Their lives were spent hunting and alternating between fighting and observing nature. How could they get caught in a snowstorm and not be prepared with sufficient food? How could game be that scarce? Besides, how long would a snowstorm have to last in order to nearly kill a couple of men– not from exposure, but from starvation?

Perhaps if I went to the local newspaper and searched microfiche records until I went cross-eyed and my head pounded from the effort, I could find some shred of proof. Then again, I had no idea what year this supposedly happened, except that it was probably pre-civil war. Besides, who actually has time to search hundreds– if not thousands– of newspapers, hoping to find some heading along the lines of “Two men found alive after harrowing storm” or “Two men survive snowstorm”? Well, I certainly didn’t.

I woke up my computer and returned to the article about life on the Midwest frontier I had been reading before the barista brought out my drink, scribbling notes in my notebook in between sips of the silky and perfectly sweetened iced tea. Suddenly, a paragraph caught my eye.

In the winter of 1830 occurred what has been known ever since, as the deep snow which prevailed throughout the Western territories. The snow commenced falling the first of December and continued almost without abatement throughout the winter…

I blinked, reading faster. Numerous snowfalls and sleet storms. Worsened right around Christmas. Snow 3-4 feet deep on average. Drifts at least six feet high, some twenty or more. No one saw it coming: the fall had been so mild that come crops were left in shocks in the field instead of brought into the storehouses. Treacherous for man and beast. Game population depleted for years afterwards. Killed off the rest of the buffalo east of the Mississippi.

Shaking my head, I realized that I had hit on the first shred of proof that the librarian’s story might have some historical merit. It would make sense that these men would get stuck in a storm like that, especially if they were trying to get home in time for the holidays.

I closed my eyes, imagining snow shrieking around a canvas tent, dense cold penetrating a man shivering under a thick wool blanket. His despair upon waking, realizing that he would not be able to make it home for Christmas…

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Author’s Note

Unlike most of my stories, much creative license was taken with this story. The details I was given at the library were that two fur traders got caught in a snowstorm that lasted the whole winter. The only reason they survived was because they resorted to eating marrow until they could be rescued by the settlers of what is now called Bethany, Illinois. However, I was not able to find any substantial evidence that the story is, in fact, true.

For Further Exploration…

Local Settlers Stopped Cold in December 1830 by Gate City

This Was Marrowbone by Rootweb

The Deep Snow by illinoishistory.com

The American Fur Company by Encyclopedia.com

1830-1831: The Winter of Deep Snow by the State Journal Register

A Full History of Bethany by Illinois Historical Society

Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/en/powder-snow-snow-sparkle-winter-496875/

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One thought on “The Legend of Marrowbone

  1. A snow covered tent harboring two starving men. Death looming just around the corner. Hope all but diminished. What better elements to suck you into a story? Of course you can’t leave until you figure out whether Jude and Wallace make it out alive!

    Like

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