High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, p.11Hal Borland
I shouted to Fritz and kept shouting, and finally I heard him bark just ahead. I still couldn’t see him. It seemed that we’d been going a long, long time since we left the sheep camp. Maybe we had missed Louie’s windmill and gone right on south, onto the flats with the big prairie dog town. If we had, we could drift all night and not find any place to stop. My hands were cold. One at a time, I thrust them under my leg to warm them against old Dick’s back. My cheeks were getting numb and my nose stung when I touched it.
Dick stumbled and I almost fell off. I grabbed desperately at his mane and hung on. If I fell off I knew I couldn’t get back on. And he probably had stumbled in a prairie dog hole, and we were out on the big flats. Then Dick hunched himself and went up a steep bank, and I knew we weren’t in the dog town. There weren’t any hills over there. I didn’t know where we were. I had a crazy idea that we had drifted over west and were in the breaks along Badger Creek.
Then Dick was hurrying and I knew we were going down a slope. Fritz began to bark just ahead of me. And suddenly, right in front of me, a house loomed out of the whirling snow. Fritz was there, barking. The door of the house opened, and it was a strange house because the door was on the north instead of the east where our door was. Then I saw Mother in the doorway, and it was our house! Suddenly the whole world turned around me and I had my directions straight.
I was there beside the step and Mother was shouting at me. I could see inside, the way the wind was making the flame in the lamp jump and flicker and smoke the chimney. Mother shouted, “Will! Will, he’s here!” Fritz barked again, and I heard Father shout something. Then Father rode up on Shorty. He hadn’t been out in the snow very long because Shorty’s coat had only a little snow on it. Father rode alongside me and took the reins and shouted, “Get off! Get in the house!”
I slid off, so cold and stiff I could hardly stand. Mother led me into the house. She took off my cap and my mackinaw and began rubbing my hands and my nose. When Father came in from the barn a few minutes later she was taking off my shoes.
Fritz came in with Father and shook snow and water all over us. Mother didn’t scold him. Tears were running down her cheeks.
Father said, “Is he all right?”
Mother said, “I think so. Get out of those wet clothes, son, and get into something dry.” She put milk to heat for hot cocoa.
Father brought in a pail of coal and built up the fire. While we all had hot cocoa Father said the snow had struck at the house less than an hour ago. They kept waiting and waiting, thinking I would be there any minute. Then Father started down to Louie’s camp on foot, but the snow was so bad that he knew he couldn’t make it and came back and got Shorty. He was just starting out again when I arrived. “Old Dick,” he said, “took a shortcut, I guess. He came right across the hills.”
There wasn’t much said, after that. We just settled down beside the stove and were thankful to be there. After a while Father took a lantern and went to the barn and did the milking. When he came back he said it was getting colder by the minute and the snow was still coming. Mother hung old quilts at the windows to keep out some of the cold. But there were cracks up at the eaves and when the wind blew especially hard the snow came in in white, shimmering plumes. Father took old rags and a table knife and stood on a chair and tried to plug the cracks, but he couldn’t stop the snow completely.
“I guess,” he said as he came back to the stove, “this is going to be a Colorado blizzard.”
“Going to be?” Mother asked.
“Well,” Father said, “if you ask me, it’s just getting well started. Listen to that wind!”
It howled and the whole house shook. Then I knew why Father had set those cedar posts at the corners. I was glad we’d set the posts deep and tamped them tight.
Mother got supper, and while we ate she kept looking at me, then glancing at Father. Finally Father said, “What are you worrying about? He’s here. Everything’s all right.”
“I’m not worrying,” she said. “I’m just being thankful that you’re here, both of you, not out there in that storm.”
Father asked for another cup of coffee and rolled a cigarette. He held the match a moment after he lit it, then blew it out with a puff of smoke. “Well,” he said, “we are here. All three of us.” He looked at her, then turned to me. “I’m glad you were on Dick. I’m not sure Shorty would have had sense enough to come home. I know he didn’t like to face the storm when I started out to look for you. He wanted to turn tail and drift with it.… Just listen to that wind! It’s really nasty out there.”
I listened to the wind, howling and swishing that icy snow against the windows, and I thought of that strange white world I had been in, where there wasn’t any sky or earth or anything at all except Dick’s snow-roan neck and his dark ears and blowing forelock and a little space beyond, and even that filled with swirling snow. My hands still tingled and my fingers were almost too stiff to hold a fork. But I was here, I was at home.
THE BLIZZARD LASTED ALL the next day and the next night. We never did know when it stopped snowing because even after the sun came out the third day, away off to the south and looking only about half as big as it should, the wind kept on whooping and the air was still full of snow, most of it blown off the slopes. But by that afternoon the wind began to ease off and we could see that the sky was clear.
That night, the third night after the blizzard began, the wind died completely and the world was so still you could almost hear the silence. There was a half moon, dazzling in the white world, and all the stars in the universe were out and so close you could have reached up and touched them from a high hilltop. The cold settled down and I went to sleep hearing the beams and rafters creaking; but it was almost warm inside the house because the snow banked it and insulated it.
The next morning, the first morning we could really see around us, it was so dark in the house we didn’t know when the sun rose. There was a drift at the south end so high that it covered the whole window, and the other windows were frosted so thick I couldn’t scratch down to the glass with my thumbnail. But we knew the storm was really over because there wasn’t any snowdrift on the floor beside my bed. The other mornings there had been a drift six inches deep from snow that drifted in through the crack at the eaves.
Outside it was a new, strange world. That drift at the south end of the house reached clear down to the pump. Back of the house was another drift so deep that only a few inches of the clothesline posts were visible. And if we hadn’t known where it was we couldn’t have found the barn.… There was a drift from the haystacks right over the barn roof, up to the eaves on the south side, which was all of eight feet high.
We wallowed our way to the barn, the snow over my knees even between the big drifts. It was so still the smoke from the house chimney went straight up as far as you could see. Wisps of steam crept out around the barn door, from the body heat inside, and plumed up and froze into shimmering little ice-crystal clouds.
We shoveled the barn door clear and did the milking. Then we had breakfast and started shoveling paths. We had to get to the haystacks and we had to get to the well. We’d filled the two water pails for the house the night before, but the one we left on the wash stand was frozen solid, the seam at the bottom forced open and the pail ruined. Mother said we’d have to remember to put both pails on the stove at night or we wouldn’t have a good pail left. When we got a path to the well it took two tea kettles of boiling water to thaw the pump.
At dinnertime Mother said that after she did the dishes she was coming out and help. Father said there was no need of that, because we would just be getting to the stacks and that’s all we’d try to do that day.”
Mother said, “I’m tired of being cooped up in here.”
“You can’t get around in this snow,” Father said. “It’s up to your knees, even in the shallow places.”
Mother smiled. “I’ll get around, all right.”
We went back to work
We were carrying the first forkfuls when Mother came out, a red muffler around her head and wearing her long brown coat. The first we saw of her was when she was up to her knees in the snow beside the path. She shouted and waved, and Father almost dropped his forkful of hay. “Get back in the path!” he shouted.
Mother waved and waded into a drift up to her waist.
Father shouted, “Sarah! You’ll catch your death of cold!”
She laughed and waded toward us, holding her coat around her. Father took his forkful of hay into the barn. When he came back she was there beside the path to the stacks, waiting. She flipped open her coat and laughed at him.
Father gasped. She was wearing a pair of his old trousers, stuffed and bulky with the underskirts she had tucked inside.
Women didn’t wear slacks, in those days. Women wore skirts, long, full skirts, over lots of petticoats. Women didn’t even reveal their ankles.
Mother drew her coat around her again and flushed. Then she tossed her head and said, “I told you I was coming out! You didn’t think I would, did you?” She opened her coat again and looked at herself. “They’re awful big,” she said. “I had to tuck them all around the waist. But they’re warm!”
Father started toward her, picking up a handful of snow.
“Will!” she cried. “Don’t you dare!”
He tossed the snow at her. She tried to dodge and fell down. He picked her up and kissed her and carried her to the path to the house and set her down and brushed the snow from her coat.
They were both laughing. She said, “I don’t care if it isn’t quite decent! There’s just the two of you here.… Now go back to work. I’m going to see if the hens laid any eggs.”
Father shoveled a path to the chicken house for her while 1 carried the rest of the hay into the barn. Mother found four eggs, every one frozen solid. She fed the chickens and inspected all our paths. She said she’d been missing a lot by not getting out. Then she went back to the house and we finished the chores.
That evening we had ice cream. Mother thawed the eggs in a pan of water, mixed them with milk, added a little sugar and vanilla, put the mixture in a crock and set it in the snow beside the door. She stirred it several times to break up the big ice crystals, and it tasted like any ice cream made in a freezer. It was the first dessert we’d had in weeks.
It was bitter cold the rest of the week; then it began to ease off. The second week the sun cut through the places where the snow had blown thin on the high places. Father and I rode the horses between the drifts and made paths for the cows, and they found a little grazing and got exercise. Wherever they walked the snow began to melt, and by the middle of January there was plenty of grazing for them again. But the big drifts stayed on for weeks, well into February.
As soon as we could get out with the wagon we went down to Louie’s camp and tried to plow out more sheep chips. It took us all day to loosen one wagonload, and the lumps were so full of frost they simmered and steamed in the stove a long time before they caught fire. But we were so low on fuel that Mother said we had to save what coal we had for cooking. So we burned soggy sheep chips.
We had only two more storms that winter, and both were more wind than snow. Late January was bitter and the cold didn’t let up until February was half gone. But the last week in February a chinook came, a warm dry wind from the west, and all the snow went, even the last of that big drift between the stacks and the barn. Two days of the chinook and every hillside was trickling and the draws were soggy. Our rye, there in the cornfield, was green and shooting up.
We had raw weather after that, cold, damp days all through March, but the winter was definitely broken. We met Jake Farley at Gary one Saturday and he said he was going to start plowing in another week or two if the weather held. Another man heard him and shook his head. “No use plowing too much,” he said. “It’s going to be a dry year.”
“Ground’s in good shape,” Jake said.
“Always have a dry summer after an open winter,” the man said.
“Do you call this an open winter?” Father asked.
“One good snow, that’s all we had. That Christmas snow.”
“That was plenty,” Father said.
But the man insisted. “One storm doesn’t make a winter. Mark my word, it’s going to be a dry summer.” He walked away.
Jake said, “I’m going to start plowing week after next. By the way, are you through with that twenty-two? Rabbits aren’t fit to eat now.”
Father said we’d bring it back the next day.
“No hurry,” Jake said. “But there’s a pair of skunks under my house and I don’t want them to have a family there. I don’t mind two skunks, but five or six is one too many.”
We took the rifle back to him the next day. He had skunks under his house, all right. Mother didn’t even get out of the wagon. She said if it smelled worse in the house than it did in the yard she didn’t see how Jake stood it.
Father said, “It smelled a little worse. But I guess Jake’s used to it.”
“Anybody who keeps horses in the house,” Mother said, “wouldn’t smell a skunk right under his nose. No wonder Jake never got married. No woman in her right mind would have him.”
Jake was an odd person, neighborly as they come, shyly polite with Mother, and full of fantastic stories. Jake had a liking for the bizarre, the shocking, and he told his stories with a sly humor. He had known, or said he had known, more fantastic people than the manager of a freak show. He knew a man once, he said, who heard an uproar in his chicken house one night and went out to find a bobcat there. He caught the bobcat with his bare hands, choked it into submission, put a collar on it, and tethered it for the night. The next day he began taming it. It took quite a while, but this was a very patient man. He tamed the beast and taught it to hunt with him. Taught it to point like a bird dog, in fact. It would point quail, standing with one paw raised and not a quiver except its bob tail, which signaled the man what kind of birds were there and how many. If it wagged its tail sideways, that meant quail. If it bobbed its tail up and down, that meant prairie chickens. And the number of twitches the tail made indicated the number of birds.
Things went fine and the man lived high for the better part of a year. He happened to be a bachelor, living all alone. Then the bobcat began to point redbirds instead of quail. This made the man mad. He cussed that bobcat till he was blue in the face. By then, of course, the cat understood human language, and he didn’t like the names the man called him. He spat and growled and snapped and snarled, and one night the two of them had a fearful fight. Folks a mile away heard the uproar. The next morning they went to see what was going on.
They got to the house and there wasn’t a sign of the man. The bobcat was there, asleep in the man’s favorite chair. The man’s shoes were on the floor, but not another sign of him. The folks who came to investigate didn’t care for bobcats, so they shot him. After they’d skinned him out they opened his stomach to see if they could find any clue to what had happened. Inside that bobcat’s stomach they found just two metal pants buttons, not another thing. And the coroner issued a death certificate: “Dead of unknown causes, probably et by a bobcat.” And they buried the two pants buttons and put up a gravestone over them.
Jake also had a vast store of tales about hoop snakes, a kind of blacksnake that tucked its tail in its mouth and made itself into a hoop and rolled downhill. Jake’s hoop snakes could do anything, from strangling a man to lassoing a stray calf. He knew a man who lost the tire from a wagon wheel out in the woods somewhere and didn’t know how to get home, because without a tire the wheel would fall apart. Then he saw two hoop snakes. He caught them and teased them into grabbing each other’s tails. They made a hoop just big enough to fit his wagon w
Jake also was an authority on exotic food, particularly on its effects. He knew a man who trapped muskrats for a living and one winter ate a few of them. First thing he knew, he grew a long rat-like tail and webs between his toes. Jake knew another man who, just to see what it tasted like, ate a bat. After that he couldn’t sleep in bed; couldn’t sleep a wink unless he hung by his toes from a rafter.
Jake barely escaped such a fantastic fate himself. One day he was riding his horse down a lonely back road and came to a dreary backwoods farm and stopped for a drink of water. The man invited him to stay for dinner, since it was around noontime. The place didn’t seem too promising, since the man didn’t have a chicken or a pig or even a cow, but only a lot of cats. But the woman said, “Ed caught a rabbit. You like rabbit, don’t you?”
So Jake stayed and the woman fried the rabbit nice and crisp. Jake ate three pieces, even though it did have a kind of odd taste. Then he said his thanks and went out to leave, and on the barn door he saw a fresh cat skin stretched out to dry. That cat skin hadn’t been there before dinner, and Jake remembered that while he and the woman were talking the man had gone outdoors to get “the rabbit, cooling in the well.”
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