The Long Way Home
Written and contributed by Ben Feld
Based on article in Watertown Democrat, 07 31 1879
It was a perfect night for romance. The July moon was shining brightly in the cloudless sky when Allen Bernard, the editor of the Lake Mills Spike set out to court his lady love that night in 1880. Undaunted by the 12 mile trip to the home of his lady-love in Fort Atkinson, Allen hitched his faithful mare to his best (and only) top buggy and set out on the way to the home of the one who occupied his every thought.
Under ordinary circumstances, a trek of this length would be exceedingly boring, what with no radio in his carriage to entertain him or to provide mood music while he sang along, although Allen, who was not by any stretch of the imagination an accomplished singer, did give forth with a few measures of the latest songs which the traveling vaudeville troupe had presented only a few days ago. But Allen quickly realized, anew, that no fair maiden would ever be won over by his croaking, less than melodious singing. Better to let the night sounds of the hooting owls, the barking dogs, and the soft, steady clip-clop of his horse lull him into a dreamy lethargy during which he imagined all sorts of romantic dalliances related to his intended, for in his mind, he really, truly intended to ask her, soon, to marry him.
And why should he hesitate to bring up the subject of matrimony tonight? Didn't he have a steady, reliable job as editor of the Spike? Wasn't he a respected person in the community? Wasn't he known for his common sense, his calm, level-headed way of looking at civic problems? Wasn't he fast becoming a pillar of the thriving community of Lake Mills? Yesiree, by jingo! If he was able to steer the conversation just right, tonight was the night when he would pop the question! No question about it! This was the night to do it. His resolve became stronger each mile as he approached his destination.
It was dark when he arrived at the livery stable in Fort Atkinson. Without wasting a moment of his time, he unhitched the horse from the buggy, tied her securely in one of the stalls, made sure there was plenty of hay in the manger and, as fast as his long legs could carry him, hurried himself to the door of the most beautiful, most wonderful girt in the world. His mind was made up. This was going to be the night when he would finally have the courage to do what he had dreamed about doing for weeks and weeks, ever since the Fourth of July festivities at the beach on Rock Lake. This was the night when his whole life would change. And the night sky was cooperating beautifully. The first few fallen leaves, stirred by the balmy autumn breeze, crackled under his feet as he loped down the dirt path bordering the street.
The facts thus far are facts later related by Editor Bernard himself. But the next hour (or was it two hours or three?) Allen never did reveal that part of the story, either they went swimmingly or they were a disaster. All we know is that he arrived at the house, was invited in, and when he left that house that night, he was not quite himself. The whole world then seemed unreal. Either he was feeling especially elated, was walking on air, was sitting on cloud nine, had his head in the clouds, so much so that he was completely oblivious of his surroundings, or he left that house in a state of deep despair, seeing nothing but a bleak future before him. We prefer to believe the former.
Allen never did give anyone any reason to believe he had asked his fair one to set a wedding date and had been accepted, or that he had been rejected, or possibly, that he had not been able to work up the courage to ask that all-important question. That was one small part of his life he never shared with anyone; not even his cigar-smoking cronies at his favorite saloon. We just don't know what put him in a state of almost pure oblivion.
We do know, however, for gentleman readily admitted it, that the light from the nearby gas street light near the livery stable was just barely sufficient to allow him to find his horse in the stall where he had left her. Even though his mind was well trained in calling up facts, he only vaguely remembered, later, backing the horse between the thills, hooking the ends of the tugs onto the single-tree, and he recalled noting that the hold- back-straps did seem a little too long; but he dismissed that as unimportant. Now that he had finally broken away from the passionate embraces of that wonderful girl, he just wanted to get home where he could dream of her without distraction (which seems to indicate the outcome of his visit was just what he had been hoping for)
Allen was not any different from any of the other love-sick swains who, as they left their adored-one at a late hour of the evening, pictured her, clothed in shimmering white samite, (the popular fabric of the day), resting sweetly upon her pillow, with her unbound hair tossed about her sleeping face, and angels bending over her sleeping couch whispering heavenly dreams; when in reality, at that very moment she was in the pantry gnawing hungrily on a ham bone. Had that been called to his attention, our hero would probably have dismissed the ham-bone scenario quickly.
In any event, he hurried his now tiring horse along the country roads, down the streets of Lake Mills, and finally up the drive to the stable behind his house. Quickly he lighted the kerosene lantern hanging at the barn door, led his horse to her stall and proceeded to remove that harness. But what is this? His horse, a bay, had become a chestnut roan, quite a different color! And now, looking her over more closely, he sees this is not his horse at all! This is not his mare; this is gelding. This horse belongs to someone else; someone who this very moment is probably discovering his horse is missing from the Fort Atkinson livery stable. What to do? What to do?
There is only one thing to do, Allen concluded quickly. Get this horse back to where he should have been for the past few hours. Horrible scenarios rushed though Allen’s mind. Here he is, an upstanding member of the community, the editor of a paper which had, a number of times, castigated the few horse-thieves infrequently operating in the area. A horse thief, he knew, was considered one of the lowest lawbreakers in existence -- a little below a dog-thief. What chance would he ever have with his very recent host if he were to be arrested as a horse thief?
There was only one solution -- get this horse back to Fort Atkinson at once. And this he proceeded to do as fast as the poor horse could travel. Every carriage, every horse and rider encountered along the way contained, in Allen Bernard's mind, an officer of the law, looking for a dastardly horse thief who had absconded with a horse from the Fort Atkinson livery stable.
But he was wrong each time. No one arrested him. No one stopped him. No one questioned him. And to add to his anxiety, he lost his way several times.
On arriving at the livery stable, this self-designated law-breaker was met by a grinning attendant who frightened the "horse thief” with a chuckling greeting, "I've been expecting you". No, he assured the nervous editor, the owner was not aware his horse had been missing for some time. And no, he was not about to tell him.
Allen gratefully hitched his horse, his own legal horse, his well rested horse, to his buggy and departed in the direction of Lake Mills at a fast clip. He never did reveal the thoughts he thought on the way home; just as he did not reveal what happened at his lady-love's house that night; that is all left to conjecture. We can only hope that his romance turned out favorably. And we suspect that an older, more calm editor of the Spike enjoyed telling his children about his escape from the law that beautiful October night. Of course, Mr. Allen Bernard, the hero of this saga, the editor of the Lake Mills Spike, was always careful to emphasize that he had never been charged with any illegal act.
After all, it would be a mighty hard-hearted posse which would even attempt to hang a love-sick, honest, hard-working, young man, wouldn't it?
Based on information in an account of the history of the Lake Mills Leader of November 6, 2003, we can, by extrapolation, conclude that Allen Bernard's visits to Fort Atkinson did not result in matrimony, for in 1880 he married Ellen Smith, the daughter of a Faville Grove cheesemaker and teacher in the local school. Two years later he disposed of The Spike and removed to Dakota to start another paper. There is absolutely no reason to believe that he was conveyed to that place in a carriage drawn by a horse misappropriated from a livery stable in Fort Atkinson, or any other city, town or village.