The crux of the conflict in Peter R. Decker’s novel The Go-Backer illustrates the frustrations of “those who moved west and followed the mandate of Manifest Destiny,” but who never succeeded in their efforts and returned to their homes back East. As Decker notes, “seven of ten of homestead seekers failed to attain their dreams.”
As is the case with Decker’s other two novels, Saving the West and Red, White, and Army Blue, The Go-Backer is well-researched and enriched by details.
In Saving the West, John Marlow – a fourth-generation Colorado cattle rancher – is engaged in a struggle for the ownership of his bankrupt family ranch, detailed by Decker’s specific and accurate knowledge of ranch life in Colorado.
In Red, White, and Army Blue, Hiram Marlow (same family) – the son of an Iowa hog and grain farmer – ends up homesteading in Colorado after serving in the army fighting Indians, detailed by Decker’s knowledge of military protocol and the rough demeanor of frontier army personnel.
In The Go-Backer, Calvin Marlow (the father of Hiram Marlow) – a small farmer from Vermont and a Civil War veteran – takes his family west on a wagon train to start all over in Colorado, only to give up and “go back” to where he came from.
Decker’s narrative of this adventure includes details about the route the family will follow on the wagon train west, the procedures to follow on the wagon train, even a comprehensive list of exactly what to take on the wagon train – a breech-loading rifle and a Colt revolver, wool clothing, woolen socks, heavy boots, blankets, quinine, opium, camphor, some cathartic medicine and brandy for snake bites.
Upon arrival at their destination, Decker suggests a substitute for the brandy might be a local product, “pilgrim whiskey”: “A concoction of raw alcohol, red pepper, molasses, and a touch of water.” “It takes a little getting use to,” they say, “but once you do, it’s like mother’s milk.”
Also included in Decker’s details are explicit instructions – laid out by John Ferguson, the “captain” of the wagon train – the rules to be followed in order to deal with any difficulties that might be encountered on the trail, particularly regarding any Indians they might encounter.
The only serious obstacles the pioneers actually do encounter, however, are the death from cholera of one of the wives on the train and the rape of one of the young daughters on the train, perpetrated by Ferguson himself. This atrocity results in the killing of the captain by Marlow – who discovered the act in process – putting Marlow in fear of the law for the rest of his stay in the West.
One of the most interesting characters Decker develops in the novel – aside from the dastardly captain – is the Oglala Sioux, “Loud Thunder,” who becomes a valuable help to Marlow once he settles in Colorado. Thunder demonstrates how to efficiently cut sod bricks out of the tough prairie soil, for instance.
By the end of the first year of their stay in Colorado, however, the frustration and disappointment of Marlow’s family is well understood. As summarized by one “go-backer”:
“This Western experiment everyone’s so excited about, it’s not for us. ...Couldn’t get credit to replace broken equipment or to buy a bigger team, and what little grain we grew in last year’s dry summer, a hailstorm ruined most of it. What little of that left, them grasshoppers ... finished off. ... ’Tis no country for puttin’ a plow in the ground. Bustin’ sod is bustin’ your health ... No sir, it’s back to the country I know best ...”
Yet, there are some good times, some tender moments. When Marlow decides to run cattle instead of growing grain, for example, his daughter Cornelia attends the birthing of a calf:
“Cornelia did as she was told and strained on the strap. All of a sudden, the calf popped out like a cork from a champagne bottle. It wiggled to life on Cornelia’s chest as the cow ... stood up and instinctively moved to lick her newborn to remove the membrane covering. Calvin pulled Cornelia away from the momma and her calf, blood and slick afterbirth covering Cornelia, while tears of joy flowed down her cheeks.”
Ultimately, however, the death of Cornelia – as the result of a hostile Indian attack – determines the fate of the Marlow family’s “Western experiment.” At this point, after the unrelenting demands of his wife, Grace, Marlow decides to “go back.”
The history is all here – Marlow’s Civil War background, the wagon trip west, the hardships of homesteading – as would be expected. Decker is a former officer in the U.S. Army, a Colorado rancher who emigrated from the East himself, and a highly regarded Western historian.
The Go-Backer is one of the few books documenting the trials and tribulations of those discouraged pioneers who just couldn’t make it. Yet, it is also a testament to those pioneers, including those families who came here to the Animas Valley – the families of John C. Turner, Sarah Chivington Pollock Girardin and Daniel Sylvester Rodgers, among others, whose descendants are still here – those families who did make it, who came west and stayed.
Frederic B. Wildfang has been writing for over 45 years – beginning his career as a Beat-influenced poet, trying a stint in advertising in L.A., and continuing as a freelance writer in Durango. As a free-lance writer, he has published nonfiction articles on subjects ranging from art, literature, and history to travel/adventure, jazz, movies and sports. His nonfiction books include a series of seven regional pictorial histories published by Arcadia Publishing, Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina.