“Go West, young man, go West. There is health in the country, and room away from our crowds of idlers and imbeciles.”
“That,” I said, “is very frank advice, but it is medicine easier given than taken. It is a wide country, but I do not know just where to go.”
“It is all room away from the pavements.”
— Josiah Bushnell Grinnell’s recollection of a conversation with Horace Greeley.
Room aplenty, indeed. And not just for young men, either. There had been a sudden and thorough allure for everyone to go west. The bone sickness and foul air ensured that. The further west you went, the further the spaces between reality grew. A day turned into ten, turned into a year, turned into a century. And still they went west. As if “west” was a place to reach, a final destination to behold. None would ever plant their flag and claim the west as conquered. Stone piles and wooden crosses marked the trail for the late joiners. Deeds of ownership after all, if only for a claim small enough to lie on. And each signed with small, straight, chiseled letters.
Camaraderie of the purest intentions dwindled into duplicity with each westward turn of the wheel. Lessons learned three centuries past were discovered anew. Parties once dozens strong dwindled into incoherent rabbles, the failures of which were born out in the tombstones they left in their wake.
With no abundance of bison and other game to fall upon, the travelers fell upon each other. Gasoline would run out, provisions would evaporate, and they turned on each other to make up the differences. Recompense was measured in calories, justice established at the end of a gun.
Roving bands of marauders were the new princes of the plains. They took the names they remembered from another world out of time. Blackfoot, Comanche, Lakota, Kiowa. They were perversions of their namesakes, yet their names once again struck fear in the hearts of this new breed of settler.
The bandit’s ponies were metal now, the horses long since eaten. They rode when there was gasoline and walked when there was not. As the river of refugees from the east turned into a trickle, more of these besotted groups walked. For they could not produce, only take.
And so too did these large groups of looters eventually break up into smaller groups. A view from a high enough vantage would see dozens of these factions in mixed battle with dozens of groups of these conscripted colonizers. No one trusted anyone else enough for long enough to form a coalition that could sway the outcome of any given battle. No one followed an order that didn’t manifest from his own head and no one lead by any other example but violence.
And so, it was, and so it was, and so it was.
“To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.”
— Attributed to Calgacus as written by Tacitus