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The Old West had many courageous and hardy women pioneers, but the ride of this woman surpasses all in female bravery.
Because their careers were flamboyant and spectacular, the stamina and hardihood of women like Calamity Jane, Belle Starr and Etta Place have been much acclaimed in sagas of the Old West, even though most of their adventures were outside the law. Often we forget the courage and guts with which many an ordinary, respectable wife and mother met the hardships and dangers of frontier life.
One such woman was Clarintha, wife of George Washington Draper of Arkansas and Texas.
Because her husband was away in Confederate uniform, Mrs. Draper was alone with two small children when ruthless border raiders swooped down on their little Arkansas farm. Hidden out in the brush with her two babies, helpless and sick at heart, this young pioneer wife watched their log cabin home go up in flames, leaving nothing but the clothes on their backs, a little food she had managed to hide, and a horse and saddle the raiders had somehow missed.
With the perils of guerilla warfare terrorizing the region, Clarintha Draper made her decision. Newcomers in Arkansas, the Drapers had friends and kin in Fannin County, Texas. There she might find refuge for herself and children until the war was over.
"Fannin County was more than 200 miles away," she related in later years, "but I knew I had to get there somehow. I just saddled up my horse, put my little boy on behind me, held my little girl on the saddle in front of me, and struck out for Texas. The boy was four, the little girl, two. I didn't have much food to carry along for them. I could only hope that I would come across farms or settlements often enough along the way, and trust in the kindness of human nature that they would feed us, for I had no money."
In that trust she was not mistaken. But it was not an easy, Sunday-go-to-meeting ride. Even before she got out of Arkansas she suddenly found herself right smack in the midst of a raging battle between Confederate and Union troops. At first she thought she could change course and ride around the battlefield, but when a cannonball whizzed by so close that it almost clipped her horse's ears off, Mrs. Draper took to the nearest timber and lay low.
Although she only caught occasional glimpses of soldiers, cannonballs kept falling all around them. One fell so close that, when her little boy reached out and touched it, it was still so hot it burned his hand. Shielding her babies with her own body, Mrs. Draper prayed, not only for her children, herself and her horse, but also for her soldier husband who might be in the midst of the same kind of battle danger somewhere far away. To her dying day, Clarintha always believed that it was her prayers which saved them, for not even the horse was hit.
How many hours the battle raged she could not tell, but at last the battle line shifted away from them. As soon as she could no longer hear the whiz of cannonballs, she got herself and the children back on the horse and headed west again.
Getting on a battle-frightened horse, in full ankle-length skirt and petticoats, with two small children, was anything but easy. Staying on when the horse spooked at the bodies of dead soldiers on the battlefield was harder still.
When she reached the Arkansas River, soldiers on guard duty would not let her cross on the ferry - and there was no bridge.
"We've got our orders, ma'am," they told her. "Too many spies sneakin' through the lines."
Mrs. Draper was no spy, but she was headed for Texas and had her neck bowed to get there. She rode upstream a few yards, forced her horse into the water and made him swim it.
"The water was so deep and swift out about the middle," she wrote, "that it washed my little boy plumb off the horse. That was one time on the trip when I sure wished I hadn't ever tried to make such a ride. But from the pull on my dress I could tell that he was still hanging on, so I just kept calling to him to hold on tight, and asking God to help him. I reckon they both heard me, for we did get across safe."
Safe - but soaked. Within a mile their wet clothes were frozen stiff on them. Mrs. Draper had nothing with which to start a fire. All she could do was keep on going. Then she came across some soldiers out on patrol, and they made a fire for the shivering woman and children to dry out by.
Another bunch of soldiers she met were not so kind. One of their horses, a scrawny runt, was all played out, and they forced her to swap with them. Not, however, without a struggle. She managed to kick one soldier's teeth in and bloody another one's nose before they finally dragged her off her horse.
The plug they left her with was too worn out to carry more than the two youngsters, so Clarintha put them on him, the four-year-old valiantly holding his little sister in the saddle, and struck out again on foot, leading the horse. That first day on foot she made almost twenty miles, slept out under an oak tree with very little to eat - and still made another twenty the next. On the third day she came to a ranch where the kind-hearted owner "traded" her a good strong horse for the old crowbait.
"From then on it was tolerable easy," Clarintha Draper reminisced in her elder years, "except I was scared all the time that we might run into a band of roving Comanches. Only we didn't. Of course we did have to swim the Red River when we came to it, but it wasn't as wide and deep and swift as the Arkansas. We got across all right, and there was the sun to keep us from freezing.
"Yes, I reckon it was a tolerable hard ride for a lone woman and two young-'uns, but when we finally got to Fannin County I was mighty glad we had come when we did. Because we found my old mother almost starved to death on account of everything she owned had been taken by raiders. I don't know but she might have died if I hadn't got there to take care of her.
"I was a mite tuckered out myself after that long ride, but no so tuckered but what I climbed right back on my horse and went looking for grub among the nearest neighbors - who weren't very near. After that I found work, weaving, hoeing corn, just any kind of work at all, to earn us enough for cornbread and beans to live on till my husband got back from the war to take care of us."
Clarintha Draper and her husband, George Washington Draper settled in the late 1860s on Cold Creek, Llano county where they had a successful ranch for many years. Clarintha lived to be 105 years old.
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