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Country editors boy, p.11
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       Country Editor's Boy, p.11

           Hal Borland
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  However it was done, fifteen of us boys met Leon after school that afternoon on the vacant half block behind the Congregational church. Among us were three basketball players, seniors, and four juniors. Leon started right in on fundamentals, how to catch and carry a football, how to fall on a fumble. And he told us to wear old clothes the next afternoon and be prepared for getting bruised a bit. The next session got down to tackling a runner and blocking a tackier. We got plenty of bruises that day.

  By the end of the week, enough boys were on hand to make up two opposing lines for a scrimmage, but with only one backfield. That showed that the vacant lot was too small, so the school board let us lay out a regulation football field where the athletic field was planned at the new school building. We marked the lines with lime and we set up goal posts. And we learned every move in half a dozen simple basic plays.

  We practiced every afternoon for almost two weeks. Then Leon told us we were going to Hugo and play a real game the coming Saturday. “Are you ready?” he asked, with a grin, and we yelled like a Cheyenne war party.

  I doubted that there ever was a more motley football team than we were when Leon, Professor Conley and W. E. Hall took us to Hugo for that first game. We had no uniforms. We played in old turtleneck jerseys, the kind we wore to school, and in old corduroys or bibless overalls. Our jerseys were any color we happened to have, red or blue or black. For shoulder pads we cut up old felt horse-collar pads. Instead of cleated football shoes, we wore everyday shoes with makeshift cleats tacked to their soles. Two of the boys had felt-lined helmets. The rest of us let our hair grow, chrysanthemum style. No wonder the gathering crowd of Hugoites whooped with laughter when we got out of the three automobiles, all ready to play. The Hugo team, which didn’t take the field for another fifteen minutes, at least had football pants and jerseys of a uniform color.

  It was a bitter day, the temperature in the low 20s and a gusty, knife-edged wind blowing. But I began to sweat and was on the verge of vomiting before I made the opening kick-off. Then the tension went out of me like a pent-up breath and the game was on. Within five minutes it was clear how the game would go. The Hugo players were big, slow and overconfident. They soon had cold hands and stiff fingers. They could pound out the yardage through our line, which they outweighed at least fifteen pounds to the man, but they couldn’t hold onto the ball. They fumbled and we recovered. Joe McBride, our quarterback, soon found that we couldn’t get anywhere with line plays, so he switched to end runs, and we made one touchdown in the first quarter, another before the half ended. I kicked one point and we led 13 to 0.

  Between halves Leon told us we were playing it exactly right and to keep on playing for fumbles and, when we had the wind at our backs, to kick on third down, keep them back near their own goal line. And that’s what we did all the second half. Time after time they marched down the field, five or six yards at a clip, only to fumble, once inside our ten-yard line. After one recovery Joe McBride carried the ball on an end run, broke into the open, and went ninety-odd yards for our third touchdown. Hugo never scored a point.

  And despite our clownish clothes, nobody laughed when we left the field. There wasn’t a fight, either. There could have been, for there was some bitter talk and some nasty name-calling, but Leon hustled us into the cars and we headed for home, cold and bone weary, but sky-high with the elation of victory.

  The next Saturday we played a team from Limon on our own field, a kind of pickup team of high school students and recent graduates. We ran up a score of 34 to 6 in the first half, and they refused to take the game seriously after that. But it was good practice, and we were glad to get it. We had a return game with Hugo on our own field the following Saturday, the first Saturday in November.

  Practically everybody in Flagler came out to see that second game with Hugo. It was an unseasonably mild day with practically no wind, and we expected a hard fight. But Hugo still fumbled, especially when we tackled hard, and we recovered. And we had improved our end runs and added two simple forward pass plays. We scored three touchdowns in the first half, four more in the second; and again we kept Hugo from scoring a single point. I scored two touchdowns, one on a pass, and kicked two field goals. I was insufferable for the next week, no doubt. That game got a front-page story in the News, and even one in the Progress.

  But that was the end of our football season. November weather was uncertain, and basketball practice was starting. As far as I went, it was high time I got back to the principal business of school. In botany the classwork was getting near the end of my material from that wild-flower course in the eighth grade, and in geology Professor Conley was beginning to ask questions about other sources than the one textbook I had read. But now and then a few of us who had played football would talk about next year, when we would get started earlier and play a lot more games.


  LITTLE DOC AND SPIDER had gone out for football at my insistence, but neither of them liked the game. Spider, who was an inch taller and ten pounds lighter than I was, quit the second day. “I don’t trust myself,” he said. “I have such a terrible temper and such inner hidden strength that I probably would kill someone in my very first game. Cripple someone for life, at the very least.” Actually, he was physically frail, and he covered it with bravado. He would go hunting with Little Doc and me and stick it out even if we walked ten miles; but he would be in bed most of the next day, though we didn’t know it then.

  Little Doc, on the other hand, had the toughness and energy of a terrier. He probably could have made the team as a light-weight back, as I did; but the game just didn’t appeal to him. He continued to come out for practice for a week, then said he didn’t have time, and he, too, quit. So we three spent little time together until the week after the second Hugo game. That Friday afternoon Little Doc and I were just leaving school and wondering what to do the next day when Spider caught up with us.

  “What’s the password?” Spider asked in a whisper. “Do we storm the castle moat at dawn, or go out and steal chickens tonight?”

  “The password,” Little Doc said, “is jack rabbit. We’re going hunting tomorrow. Want to go along?”

  “I shall lead the way! Follow me! Day or night, follow me! By day, my golden crown of hair will gleam, and by night my lights will light up like a beacon…. Tell me, Doc, what are my lights?”

  “Your lights, stupid, are your lungs. You and I haven’t been getting enough exercise. Our livers are sluggish, no doubt, so we’ll work the bile out of our system. The football hero here has been getting too much exercise. He’s so healthy he stinks. He’s going to get aired out. And he’ll carry the game home.”

  “Fine idea. But I thought he took care of the game last Saturday.”

  Little Doc ignored the pun. “Meet us at the store at eight o’clock tomorrow morning. And bring the cannon.”

  It was raw and cold the next morning, overcast and with a damp wind, which was rare on the plains. All three of us wore mackinaw coats when we met at the drug store and set out, with both dogs. Spider had the old .10-gauge shotgun that Little Doc always called the cannon. It was long-barreled and heavy, and it had a terrific kick. If he shot it quickly and didn’t brace himself first, it spun Spider halfway round with its recoil. It must have been a goose gun used by some market hunter on one of the lakes in Minnesota, where the Miners came from. Little Doc had a double-barreled .16-gauge that looked like a rifle alongside the cannon. It was a dainty gun, light in weight and beautiful to see and handle. I wished it was mine, but I wouldn’t have swapped my own gun for it. My gun was the single-barreled .12-gauge that Father gave me for Christmas when I was eleven years old. On the homestead, I kept meat on the table with that gun. I knew how far it would reach, what pattern it threw, what I could and couldn’t do with it. I wouldn’t have swapped it for any other gun in the world.

  We headed out east of town, but we took to the flats south of the railroad tracks instead of following the road. There wouldn’t be any rabbits along
the road. The dogs ranged ahead, as always, though we tried to keep them within gunshot range so we would have a chance at any jacks they might put up. But the rabbits were lying low because of the cold wind. We didn’t see a thing in the first mile. Then the dogs got a hundred yards ahead and put up a rabbit and went bellowing off to the south, glad of a chance to run, probably, and really get warmed up. We kept on east, not hurrying because there was a chance that the jack the dogs were chasing would make a big circle and come back past us. Sometimes the jacks did that, but not always. I know the books say they always do, but maybe those jacks we knew didn’t read the books. I have known one of them to run straightaway for five miles.

  We kept on, and the dogs didn’t come back for almost half an hour. By then we had reached the draw where the twisted old cottonwood stood beside the mound that was all that was left of the old Bowserville store. It had been a sod building, and when it was deserted the roof either was salvaged or fell in and the sod walls weathered down into a mound like a huge grave. It was all sodded over with buffalo grass, but if you poked around with your toe or scuffed with your heel you were likely to turn up a piece of broken glass or a rusty nail or maybe a shard of broken pottery.

  We stopped there and scuffed the sod in the depression that probably was some sort of cellar, and found the neck of a bottle whose glass had turned purplish brown. And several very rusty old cut nails. And half of a strap hinge. The wind sighed in the bare branches of the cottonwood. There was an echoing whistle off to the east, and the midmorning passenger train came roaring along the tracks, only a hundred yards north of us. Spider leaped to the top of the mound and waved his arms frantically, shouting, “Help! Help! Help!” and the fireman waved back and grinned and the whistle shrieked again with that long wail that wavers in pitch as the train speeds away from you, and the wind whipped the thin stream of smoke over us and around us with its half-warm, sooty, sulphury odor.

  Then the train was gone and the dogs came panting back from their futile run and Spider came down from the mound and flopped his arms to warm himself. He got down on his knees, scratched at the grass with his hands, and urged, “Here, Fritz! Here, Nig! Dig! Dig ’em out!” Both dogs came, scratched at the sod for a few minutes, willing to play the game. They sniffed, dug a bit more, then quit and walked away. Spider said, “I’m freezing to death. Let’s get going!”

  So we went on, southeast now, away from the road and the tracks. And in another mile we came to a rise where we could look down and see a low white house and a big gray unpainted barn with corrals and haystacks in a fenced yard. It was the Rumming ranch and it lay in a broad part of the river valley, had a fifteen-or twenty-acre patch of alfalfa still green beyond the barn, and corrals and native hay and pasture lands stretching up and down the valley. There was no sign of anybody around. The Rummings had moved to town for the winter.

  Simon Rumming was one of the old-timers, a one-eyed man who wore a sandy goatee and walked with a slightly bowlegged gait that was almost a swagger but not quite. He was only about five feet four, but stocky and undoubtedly rawhide tough. I never saw him without a smile, and I never heard him raise his voice. There were a number of stories about him, but they added up to the probability that he was English born, had come to America as a small boy, had been in Texas in the 1870s, and came up the cattle trails as a cavvy boy with a Texas trail drover. The name “cavvy boy” comes from the Spanish “caballo,” meaning horse, and the cavvy boy tended the horse herd on a trail drive. Simon, so the story went, came up the trail several times with herds of longhorns being brought from the mesquite flats of Texas to rail head in Kansas or Colorado, the last trip as a cowhand. He saw this country, liked it, picked the place in the Republican river valley, and homesteaded it for a ranch headquarters. There, and on adjoining land he later bought from other homesteaders, he had hay, grass and water, everything he needed. He built up a herd. Some said he got most of his herd “with a long noose,” meaning that he took unbranded calves off the range and put his own brand on them. This probably was a romantic lie, but old Simon, who had a wry sense of humor, later said, “Somebody had to brand those calves to keep the rustlers from getting ’em.” Another story had it that he won his first herd at the poker table by outwitting a Texas ranchman. I forget the details of the game, but at the crucial point Simon took out his glass eye, set it on the table beside his pile of chips, and said, “Watch ’em, boy, watch ’em!” And the disembodied eye, seeming to stare at him, so distracted the ranchman that he bet his herd on three queens when Simon had a full house. I never had the nerve to ask Simon about that story, or even if he had a glass eye. He never wore one while I knew him. The lid just sagged over that empty socket.

  We went on down the slope, the dogs ahead of us, and the dogs put up a cottontail and chased it under the barn and made a great fuss. We let them yammer and went around to the lee side of the barn and tried to get warm, out of the wind. I got warm and Little Doc said he was warm enough, but Spider’s teeth were chattering. I thought he was play-acting, but Little Doc felt of his forehead and said, “Come on. We’re going home. It’s too cold out for people to enjoy, and even we aren’t having much fun.”

  For once, Spider had no answer. He went with us, his jaw set and his shoulders hunched against the cold. He was dragging his feet before we got to the top of the hill above the ranch. I offered to carry his gun. At first he refused, angrily. But finally he said, “Very well, varlet, take the cannon.” I took it in my free hand and Spider took a long, quivering breath, then said, “Carry on, Sergeant, carry on. We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

  We fell into single file, me in the lead, Spider in the middle, and Little Doc bringing up the rear. Spider had fallen silent, hands deep in his mackinaw pockets, head down. But I could hear him breathing behind me, shallow, gasping breaths. Once, just beyond the mound at the old Bowserville store site, Little Doc said, “Let’s stop and catch our breath.” He and I got on the windward side and gave Spider some shelter, and he stood there puffing for several minutes. Then he began to shiver again and said, “Carry on, Sergeant,” and we lined out as before.

  It began to sleet while we were still half a mile from town, pellets that stung like birdshot in the freshening wind. We ducked our heads and kept going. The grass underfoot was soon so slick that we all began to slide and stumble. Once Spider went to his knees, but he was on his feet again before we could help him. Little Doc wanted to take his arm, but he shook his head and pushed Little Doc away. Ten minutes later we crossed the tracks and walked up the graveled street in the edge of town. The street wasn’t half as slick as the sidewalk.

  “We’re going to the store,” Little Doc said, meaning the drug store, and I headed for Main Street. But Spider said, “I’m going home,” and turned up the back street. I was still carrying the cannon, but he seemed to have forgotten. Little Doc tried to argue for a moment, but it was no use. Spider shook his head and went on up the back street. We caught up with him, and we went all the way up to the north end of town, now walking abreast. When we were within a block of his house Spider stopped and took his gun from me, put it on his shoulder, and was about to start on when a spasm of coughing wracked him. He fought it, but he was red in the face before he could stop. Then he had to stand there, with Little Doc practically holding him up, for several minutes before he took a shallow breath and straightened up, lifted his shoulders, and went on, trying to be jaunty. We went with him as far as the front gate, where he turned and said, “Thank you, gentlemen, I shall be seeing you anon, whenever that is.” By then his face was pasty white. He set his jaw, bit his white lower lip, and went up the path to the front porch. He stumbled on the steps, almost fell, caught himself, and after a moment crossed the porch and went in the front door without looking back.

  Little Doc and I went back downtown. “He’s pretty sick,” I said.

  Little Doc nodded. “He wasn’t fooling. Boy, it’s lucky we started back when we did!”

  “What do
you think it is? Asthma?”

  “I don’t know. But I’m going to tell my father to go up and see him. I’ll bet he’ll know what it is.”

  We were almost at the bank corner. I turned to go to the News office and Little Doc went on down the street to the drug store, where his father would be if he wasn’t out somewhere on a call. Unless it was for a baby case or an accident, he probably wouldn’t be out. The farm people didn’t call a doctor on Saturday or Sunday if they could possibly wait till Monday.

  Fritz and I went down the steps to the office. Fritz was grizzled with sleet. We went in and Father said, “Good! You’re back!”

  “You didn’t think I’d stay out on a day like this, did you?”

  “I hoped—” Father ducked and turned away as Fritz, in the middle of the office, shook himself, spattering sleet and dirty water. “I hoped,” Father said again, wiping his face with his handkerchief, “you’d have better sense…. That dog! Good thing your mother isn’t here.”

  Fritz had gone to the old rag rug in a corner that was his couch at the office, where he lay down and began licking himself clean and dry. It made Mother furious when he shook himself indoors. It was one of the few things they clashed over. He knew he wasn’t to get on beds or chairs or to eat out of dishes we ate from. But a law that goes back to Neanderthal times says that dogs can shake themselves indoors. Fritz knew it. Mother never could accept it.

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