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High wide and lonesome g.., p.10
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       High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, p.10

           Hal Borland
 
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  When we got warm Father asked Mr. McDowell about the mail and the express, but Mr. McDowell said there wasn’t anything for us. I looked at Mother and she looked at Father, and it seemed that there wasn’t going to be any Christmas. Father said, “There’s supposed to be a box, from Nebraska.”

  Mr. McDowell shook his head. “Maybe,” he said, “Con’ll have it in his load today. He said there was a lot of stuff in town still to come out, and he took his big wagon to bring it all today. Want to do your trading while you wait?”

  We waited. Con Hallahan was the stage driver who had the star mail route between Gary and Brush and hauled freight and express as well, and occasional passengers. Con lived near Gary, kept a pastureful of half-broken broncos, and every morning he wrestled a team of them into harness, hitched them to his wagon, and ran them all the way to Brush. In town he picked up the mail, freight, and any brave passengers, and he ran the broncs, almost tractable by then, all the way back to Gary. Each day he used a different team, so none of his horses ever were really tamed. When you were on the road and saw Con coming you pulled off to one side and gave him plenty of room. The best he could do with his horses was keep them between the fences. Often he made the fifteen miles between Brush and Gary, with a ton or more of load, in an hour and a half.

  Mother said for Father and me to bring in her butter and then stay away and not be nosy while she did her trading. So we went over beside the stove and listened to the talk. Most of it was about the weather or about cattle or about hunting. One man, from over on Beaver Creek ten miles east, said it was going to be an open winter and a dry summer, because no snow meant no rain. Another said we would get all our snow in February. He said he’d killed a wild goose and examined its bones and feathers, and he knew. Still another said we’d have two feet of snow by New Year, and he quoted an almanac to prove it.

  Mother finished her trading and Father asked if he shouldn’t put the things in the wagon. She said no, she didn’t want them to freeze.

  “What did you get that’s going to freeze?” he asked.

  Mother laughed. “You’ll see,” was all she would say.

  So we waited. It got to be half past three and the sun was low in the sky. Another half hour and it would begin to turn dusk. Somebody said Con must have found some Christmas cheer in town. Somebody else said Con probably had a big load, and all the men laughed.

  Then, just before four o’clock, a man at the front window shouted, “Here he comes!” and almost everybody crowded to the front of the store. There came Con, his horses galloping and steaming, his wagon piled high with freight. He had two passengers on the seat beside him.

  The door opened and most of the men surged outside. Con whooped and hollered and swung the team up beside the hitch rack and jumped down and snubbed them. Nobody else dared go near his horses, even after he had run them all the way from town. They stood there, eyes rolling, puffing steam like locomotives. And there was Con, a wiry little Irishman, a knitted red muffler around his head under his hat, icicles on his bristly red mustache. He handed his passengers down, two young women bundled to the eyes in coats and blankets. They squealed and shouted greetings to the families waiting for them.

  Con hauled down three mail sacks and carried them into the store, and a dozen volunteers began unloading the boxes. Con came back with a list in his hand and supervised the unloading, checking off each box and the name of the person to whom it was addressed.

  Box after box came off, and we waited, hoping and holding our breath. Mother had just said, “I guess it didn’t come. I guess—” when Con shouted, “Borland!” and Mother cried, “Will! There it is!”

  Con laughed and said, “Just call me Santa Claus. Con Hallahan Santa Claus! And Merry Christmas to you, ma’am!”

  Father went inside and signed for the box and we put the box of groceries in the wagon and under the blankets beside the lantern. We waited a few minutes longer while Tom McDowell distributed the mail, got two letters, and started home.

  The sun had set. The wind had died down and the cold began to deepen. But the horses were full of life and we traveled right along. I thought the horses were almost as fractious as one of Con Hallahan’s teams of broncs.

  We played a guessing game for a while, guessing what was in the box. But Mother didn’t approve of that. “Whatever they sent,” she said, “I’m sure it’s nice. And if you two keep guessing that way you’ll just be disappointed when we open it.” We had about guessed ourselves out, anyway. So Father began singing. Father had a good baritone and Mother was an excellent soprano, though neither had any training. Father sang “Two Little Girls in Blue” and “Just Break the News to Mother” and “In the Baggage Coach Ahead,” and then Mother started “Daisy Bell.” She never liked the sad songs like the one about the dead wife in the baggage coach ahead.

  We all sang “Daisy Bell” and “Daisies Won’t Tell” and “Under the Old Apple Tree.” And finally Mother said, “It’s Christmas Eve.” Very softly she began “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and Father joined her. We sang all the simple Christmas songs that were always sung at the Christmas Eve program in church back in Nebraska, when there was always a big Christmas tree with candles and a sack of candy for every child. We sang, and it was sad and beautiful, there on the plains with the stars brighter than the candles had ever been on the tree in church. And at last Mother sang “Silent Night” all alone. When she came to the end nobody said anything for a long time.

  We crossed the last hill and went up Ketchem Holler to our own trail. As we went up the slope toward our house it was just a dark shadow against the hill with the other shadows of the barn and the haystacks beyond. Then Fritz barked, recognized us and barked a different note, and came running to greet us. Mother went in the house and lit a lamp and started a fire while we unhitched, and we went in and changed our clothes and did the evening chores.

  The chores were the same as any other evening, but still it was a kind of special night. Father gave the horses an extra measure of grain and I got the very best hay for old Bessie. We finished the milking and I patted the yellow calf and looked at the manger and thought of all the Christmas songs and stories. And when we went to the house the stars were specially bright. It was a holy, silent night.

  We opened our presents Christmas morning, our own presents first and then the box from Nebraska. Mother had put our presents on the table, wrapped in white paper and with our names on them. We each had an orange. That’s what Mother had got in Gary and didn’t want to freeze. Father and I each had a new pair of mittens, made of pants cloth and lined with flannel from one of Mother’s old petticoats. I had a new cap, with ear flaps. And Father gave me two boxes of .22 cartridges, two whole boxes, a hundred shots! That was the most wonderful gift I could imagine. I was so excited I almost forgot the gifts I had made for them. Then I remembered and ran out to the barn, where I had hidden them. I had a braided horsehair hatband for father, made of hair I had pulled from old Dick’s tail, and a butter paddle for Mother, whittled out of a piece of board.

  The box from Nebraska had a fascinator and a pair of gloves and a shirtwaist for Mother. There was a necktie and a pair of socks and muffler for Father. And for me there were two pairs of black cotton stockings and a muffler and a book. The book had a light blue cover all scrolled in gold around a picture of a fairy tale prince and princess. The title was Snow White. Aunt Grace had started giving me fairy tales when I was five years old, and the age level never changed.

  I wanted to throw the book across the room or put it in the stove. Mother was watching me. I put it down carefully, knowing I would have to write a nice letter and thank Aunt Grace and say I enjoyed it very much; but I wished just for once that I could tell her what I thought of the books she always chose for me.

  The box also contained a peck of black walnuts and a jar of apple butter and two glasses of jelly, one of which had broken and spilled on Mother’s shirtwaist. Mother said it didn’t matter because she wasn’t going any place w
here she could wear a shirtwaist like that. Father said, “You can wear it when I wear this red necktie.” They both said it was a wonderful Christmas, and I agreed. I had a whole hundred .22 cartridges!

  It was a bright, sunny morning, though the sun was a little hazy. It had warmed up overnight and there was a wind from the south. It hadn’t got above freezing, but it felt almost balmy. After we had cleaned the barn and turned out the cows to graze and got the hay for the mangers I said I wanted to go hunting.

  “Have you forgotten what day it is?” Mother asked.

  I said it was Christmas.

  “It’s not only Christmas,” she said. “It’s Sunday.” Mother didn’t approve of hunting on Sunday. She was a Methodist and all her family were Methodists, and Methodists were very strict about what you did on Sunday. Father had been a Campbellite, a sect favored by a good many of the Scotch-Irish, but he joined the Methodist church when he married Mother.

  I said if I couldn’t go hunting I wanted to go for a ride. I wanted to take old Dick and ride down to the big sheep camp. Father said he didn’t see anything wrong with that, since it was such a nice day, and Mother said we’d have an early dinner and then I could go if I promised not to gallop old Dick. While I waited for dinner, she said, I could shuck some corn. Shucking corn was all right on Sunday.

  I shucked corn for a while, then went up on the haystack. It was warm up there, with the south wind, but the horizon was all misty. Looking at the misty horizon off to the west I played that I could see the mountains. I’d never seen the mountains, but I thought they must be all jagged and very high and very rocky. In the mist that day I saw lots of mountains.

  We had jack rabbit for dinner, and I said that if I could take the gun I would bring back a lot more rabbits. But it wasn’t any use and I knew it. So I put the riding bridle on old Dick and mounted him from the manger and rode out of the barn. I always rode bareback because we didn’t have a saddle.

  Father said to take it easy. He grinned. “None of this playing like you’re an Indian on a spotted pony chasing buffalo.” Mother said that if I didn’t promise I wouldn’t let old Dick gallop she wouldn’t let me go. I promised, and I called Fritz and we started down Ketchem Holler.

  Father and I had been down to the big sheep camp but I’d never been there alone. It was the place that had been Gerrity’s original ranch, situated where Ketchem Holler widened into a broad, flat valley with a long slope to the east and a steep cut-bank to the west. On the flat east of the camp was a small prairie dog town, and the cut-bank to the west honeycombed with holes where hundreds of bank swallows nested every summer.

  The original sod house had vanished without a trace. The wells and windmills were still there, and in place of the old soddy there were frame bunkhouses, long, low buildings, to house the herders during lambing season in the spring and the shearing crews who took the fleeces in summer. And a couple of big open-front frame sheds had been built as shelter for lambing and to break the sunlight and heat for shearing. Fronting on the sheds were permanent pens, acres of them, built of broad panels much like those at the temporary summer camps except that those at the big camps were spiked to posts set deep in the ground.

  The whole flat of the valley around the camp was grazed and hoof-cut till scarcely a spear of grass remained. In summer there were rows of prickly poppies along the pens, tall, gray-green plants whose stems and even their leaves were covered with small, sharp thorns. They were a weed plant, but they bore true poppy flowers several inches in diameter, big white petals with vivid yellow centers, and when you broke a stem it oozed yellow juice, as all poppies do.

  The camp was a busy place every spring with flocks of ewes about to drop their lambs, with herders and wagons and camp tenders. Gerrity drove his lambing crews for days, pausing only to eat and catch a few hours of sleep. Lambing traditionally came at the worst time of year, usually with cold rain, sometimes with late snow. Thousands of lambs were born, coddled when necessary, and often forced upon reluctant mothers. Then, the rush of lambing over, the sheep were divided into flocks and sent out to their various ranges. There they stayed until shearing time, when they were brought back to the big sheds and shorn, at first with hand clippers, later with power clippers driven by gasoline engines. The shorn sheep, looking unbelievably small and thin with their fleeces gone—looking, in fact, a little like small boys who have just had a close-clipped crew haircut for the summer after a winter of long, shaggy hair—were then taken back to their ranges to fatten until the first hard frosts.

  Late October and all the flocks were gone again, back to the camp for sorting, then on to Gerrity’s ranch, herded on foot every step of the way. There the lambs were fattened for market, the breeder ewes were penned and fed on alfalfa all winter, and spring brought the same round once more, camp, lambing, and the range again.

  I took my time on the way down. It was a warm afternoon, so warm we’d eaten dinner with the door open. I had my mackinaw, but as soon as I was out of sight of the house I took it off and folded it and used it as a saddle pad. It was so mild it seemed strange that there were no meadow larks singing.

  Fritz explored every clump of soapweed and bunch grass and routed out several jack rabbits. But he didn’t chase them far. He knew he couldn’t catch them, and they knew it too. They just loped off, running half sideways and looking back at him, and he yapped several times and ran them just far enough to prove that he wasn’t taking any nonsense. I found a wash on a hillside that was worth searching for arrowheads, so I got off and looked for maybe half an hour. I found a rare pinkish-white point; and when old Dick wouldn’t stand and let me shinny up his leg to get on again it didn’t matter. I led him half a mile till I found a low cut-bank and could mount easily. It was one of those afternoons when time didn’t matter at all. It didn’t even matter that a gray cloud bank was rising off in the northeast.

  When we got to the camp it was so warm the prairie dogs were out in the little dog town, yapping as though it was May. We went over there and watched them a while, and I poked into a big ant hill to see if any ants would come boiling out. A few of them did, but not many. And when Fritz got tired of trying to catch a prairie dog and went over to the sheds to chase cottontails I went along.

  There were always cottontails at the camp. Fritz chased three out of the sheds and over to the burrows under the bunkhouses. He tried to dig in after them, but I stayed at the sheds watching the turtle doves. The camp was the only place around where the doves wintered, probably because they had shelter and food. Five or six pairs of them were there, away up in the crossbeams, cooing and fluttering, making that whistling noise with their wings when they flew. I tried to climb up and look in the old nests, away up there on the beams, but I didn’t get very far.

  Then Fritz and I went over to the cut-bank and looked at all the swallows’ holes. Fritz found a hole at the foot of the bank that smelled of skunk and started to dig it out. But I didn’t have a gun and there’s no sense digging out a skunk if you aren’t going to shoot it. On the way back to the sheds I found an old sheep bell without any clapper and a stockman’s knife with one good blade, the little one, and the brown seed pod from a devil’s claw which looked exactly like a goat’s head with two long sharp horns.

  The cloud bank in the northeast covered more than half the sky by then. And the wind had shifted and turned cold. The wind was in the east, now, and I put on my mackinaw. I climbed on the sheep pen and mounted Dick, but Fritz was still in the skunk hole. I had to go back and get him. I got off and pulled him out of the hole. Then I had to go back to the pens to get on Dick again.

  The wind was in the northeast, now, and it had a bite to it. I buttoned my mackinaw and started for home. I hadn’t gone a quarter of a mile when it began to snow. The first flakes were big and wet and they came so fast they clotted up like little snowballs. I shouted to Fritz, “Hey, it’s snowing! I hope we get a foot of it!”

  The wind increased. The big, wet flakes changed to little, dry ones. The
n the little flakes changed to hard pellets that hissed as they came down. They stung my ears and cheeks. I turned down the flaps on my cap and turned up my coat collar. The snow drove itself into old Dick’s hair and stuck there.

  Dick wanted to gallop. I didn’t let him. I had promised. I let him trot. But a trot shakes you up a lot, riding bareback, especially if you aren’t big enough to have long legs. The trotting warmed me up, though, and the wind was getting colder by the minute.

  The wind was howling, coming in big gusts, and the snow was swirling along the ground, not sticking anywhere, just swirling and constantly moving. The sun was gone. The whole sky was gray. It was going to be dark early.

  Old Dick wasn’t a dark bay any longer; with the snow driven into his hair he was a light roan. And then, before I knew it, I couldn’t see the hills at the edge of the valley. All I could see was a little world of swirling snow with a space maybe fifteen feet around me, a little circular world as though I was in one of those glass paperweights that have a snowstorm inside when you turn them over. I shouted to Fritz and pretty soon he came out of the storm and trotted right in front of Dick. Fritz was mostly white, too, with the snow pelted into his fur. He barked at me, then ran on ahead out of sight.

  I knew how to get home. All I had to do was go right up Ketchem Holler till I came to Louie’s windmill, then turn right, up our trail. All I had to do was stay in the valley, with the wind there at my left shoulder driving snow against my left cheek.

  But pretty soon the wind was at my back. Then Dick was climbing a slope. I tried to rein him back to the left, where the valley should be, but he took the bit in his teeth and swung his head and looked around at me once or twice and kept right on the way he was going. And the wind got even stronger, right at my back.

  After that I wasn’t sure which direction we were going. I remembered that Father had said nobody needed to get lost out here. All you had to do was find the sun or the stars and you’d know your directions. But there wasn’t any sun to look for, and there weren’t any stars. There wasn’t any sky or any earth, even. Just that swirling snow above me and beneath me and all around me. Dick and I were out in the middle of a whirling white nowhere, being blown along by that roaring wind.

 
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