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High wide and lonesome g.., p.12
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       High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, p.12

           Hal Borland
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  Jake felt a little queasy, but not quite enough to get rid of his dinner. But he didn’t want to find himself crouched down in front of a mouse hole the next day or listen to himself purr every time he sat down in front of the fire, so he stuck his finger down his throat. That did it. “But,” Jake said, telling the story, “for close onto a year I had to keep shaving off stiff hairs that tried to grow on my upper lip. Up till then I’d kind of thought I might look good with a mustache, but I didn’t dare try to grow one after that. If I grew a cat mustache, no telling what would happen next!”

  Jake told his stories with sly humor to Father and me. But never when Mother was around.

  Quite a few new homesteaders moved in that spring. Most of them settled over east, beyond Jake’s place. The strangest of the newcomers, and the one who roused the most speculation, was Emily Woods.

  Miss Woods was middle-aged, had been a schoolteacher back east, and had decided she was going to have a place of her own on the plains. She came to Brush, hired a land locator, chose a low hilltop ten miles southeast of Gary, hired a man to haul lumber out, and built a house and a pint-sized barn for the sleek black buggy horse she bought. But the strangest thing about Miss Woods was that she had only one leg. There was ribald speculation among the men at Gary about where the leg was taken off, until the women heard echoes of it and put a stop to it. Miss Woods was a lady, a friendly soul, liked everyone, and within a few months everybody liked her. She hopped about the place on crutches, always had a laugh or a friendly greeting, and asked no favors.

  Her house looked just like a little Illinois town house, gabled and trim and painted dazzling white. She built and painted it with her own hands. Then she added the crowning touch, which started the talk all over again. She put a picket fence all around the house, just as though it was a house in town with a fence around its fifty-by-hundred lot. She painted the fence white too. Then she planted petunias all along the fence and carried water to them every evening. They flourished and bloomed in a blaze of color that had every woman within miles envious.

  There were rumors that Miss Woods had money, as the saying went. She probably didn’t have an income of more than fifty dollars a month, but any kind of cash income which one could depend on, regardless of markets or weather, was in a sense wealth. Several of the single men, including a couple of cowboys, made awkward efforts to court her, but she seemed quietly amused and after a time they all gave up. Miss Emily just wasn’t interested.

  The only settlers who came over our way were the Bromleys. They came out from Fort Morgan, the next town west of Brush, and they homesteaded a place on the high flats between us and Badger Creek. It was months before we met them, but meanwhile we heard stories about them.

  They came from Chicago. She had worked in a library. He had been a clerk, or something like that, and he hadn’t the first notion of what homesteading meant, or even of how to run a farm. They brought a whole emigrant carload of things, furniture and farm machinery. The farm machinery was all second-hand, a moldboard plow, useless for turning sod, and a springtooth harrow, which was never used on sod, and a corn planter of a kind used only on well-turned soil, and a two-wheeled cart. He also brought a lawn mower, which was very funny. He had a team of big bony work horses, both of them spavined; the story went that he had bought them as discards from the Chicago Street Cleaning Department. He had a .45-70 rifle, a relic of the Spanish-American war which shot a cartridge as big as a man’s finger. That, folks said, was to shoot buffalo. Or maybe Indians.

  And the questions Mr. Bromley asked were just as funny as the things he brought. “Which way does the wind blow out here?” And “How deep do you dig a well?” And, “How do you get the dirt to stick to the side of a house so you can plant grass in it and grow a sod house?”

  It seemed that every time we went to Gary we heard a new Bromley story. Then, in mid-April, John Kraus arrived and we forgot about the Bromleys.

  The first time we saw John Kraus was when he drove down the slope back of the house, from the north, with a buggy and a livery team. He stopped in front of the house and shouted. Mother went to the door. He said, “I want to see your man.”

  Father and I were out at the barn. Mother sent him out there. He drove into the barnyard and sat in the buggy all the time he talked. He was a big, red-faced, light-haired man and he spoke with a heavy German accent. He was from Cincinnati he said, and he was going to make a fine farm out here. Not just a little homestead—and he looked around at our place with a superior smile—but a big, fine farm.

  Father said, “Yes?”

  John Kraus was filing on the land just north of us, he said. High flat land. Up where he could see. He liked to see a long way.

  Father made no comment. The horses were restless and John Kraus jerked angrily at the reins, hauled them back on their haunches, and cursed them. He turned to Father again. He wanted to know where our north line was.

  Father told him, approximately. John Kraus asked if we’d had it surveyed. Father said no, but he knew where the corners were. John Kraus said we’d better have it surveyed so we didn’t fence any of his land. Father suggested that Kraus have his own land surveyed.

  John Kraus grunted. He asked about Gerrity’s sheep. Father said they weren’t much of a problem. John Kraus said they’d better stay off his land or he’d eat mutton. He asked about range cattle. Father said he’d have to fence the cattle out.

  John Kraus laughed. “I fence when I please,” he said. He winked. “I like beef, too.”

  The horses were restless again. John Kraus jerked the reins, slashed at them with the buggy whip. The horses reared, jerked around, and threatened to upset the buggy. John Kraus slashed again with the whip, hauled the horses up snorting and quivering. “I got to go,” he said. “This damn team is no good. When I buy horses I’ll buy horses that stand when I tell them stand.” He loosened the reins, brought down the whip, and careened out of the yard and down the draw. The horses were still running when he rounded the shoulder of the hill and headed toward town.

  When he had gone, Mother came out and asked, “Who was that?”

  “Our new neighbor,” Father said. “He’s filing on the land just north of us.”

  “I don’t like him,” Mother said.

  “You don’t have to like him. I doubt that we’ll see much of him.” Father smiled. “He’s a big farmer, he says, from Cincinnati.”

  “I don’t like him,” Mother repeated. “What’s his name?”

  “Kraus. John Kraus. He’s a German.”

  Mother bristled. “What’s being German got to do with it?”

  “Nothing,” Father said.

  Mother’s lips tightened. “Pa’s German,” she said firmly. “And Pa’s not like that.” As one of Father’s sisters used to say, much to her annoyance, Mother had her Dutch up.

  Grandpa Clinaburg was, as Mother said, a German, but I never knew a gentler or more soft-spoken man. His parents came from Germany in the 1850’s and settled near relatives in Missouri. Both parents died in a cholera epidemic when Grandpa was a small boy, and his aunt, Sarah Buerstetta, for whom Mother was named, took him to raise. When he grew up he went to Nebraska and married Clara Atkisson, who was Mother’s mother.

  Father never again spoke of John Kraus as a German. But we saw little of Kraus. He built a small white house at the north side of his land, almost a mile from us, then put up a barn and began plowing and planting. We saw him only now and then, usually at Gary, where he was stiff-necked and truculent with easy-going Tom McDowell in the store.

  Anyway, we were busy with our own problems. Our fuel, even including the soggy sheep chips, barely lasted through the winter. As soon as the warm days came we had to gather cow chips for cooking fuel. It took lots of chips, because we were eating beans almost every day and beans took a long time to cook. And we had to build a new chicken house. The first one was too small, and the sod walls we had laid up began to crumble. The cows found the corners of the chicken house a fine
place to scratch their backs, and finally they caved in one whole corner. And we had to think about plowing and planting that year’s sod corn.

  We had to find a new place to get the sod for the chicken house because the place we had taken it last year had begun to gully out with the fall rains and had washed with the spring melt. It was a gully and a mud hole fifteen feet wide and four feet deep. So we went up the draw and plowed the new sod, and when we built the new chicken house we set posts at the corners to protect it from the itchy cows.

  For the cornfield Father wanted to plow new sod alongside the old patch, which now was in rye. Of course we would have to fence it, and Father spent hours figuring out just how big we could make it. He had just so much money to spend for fence posts and wire. He got it all figured out, right down to the staples to fasten the wire, and we laid out the field all ready to start plowing.

  Then came that Sunday afternoon.

  It was one of those fine spring days, shirt-sleeve weather, and we ate dinner with the door and all the windows open. After we’d eaten we all walked up to look at the rye and see where we were going to plant the sod corn, and I found a handful of little yellow violets for Mother. Then she said, “It’s such a nice day, and a Sunday, why don’t we hitch up the team and go for a ride?”

  Father said, “Fine! Son, you go get the horses.”

  I asked if I could ride Dick, and Father laughed and said, “I’ll bet you can’t catch him.”

  “If I catch him,” I said, “can I ride him in?”

  “Go ahead,” Father said.

  The horses were out grazing on the flat half a mile south of the house. I took the riding bridle and went after them. They were full of life and they never were easy to catch out in the open, but I took along an ear of corn. Usually old Dick would come to me if I lured him with corn. But that day both Dick and Shorty were frisky. I chased them all over the flat before Dick gave up, came to get the corn, and let me bridle him.

  I climbed on, triumphant. But Shorty was still fractious. I had to chase him up and down for half an hour before he headed for the house. We started down the slope toward the barn, and Dick took it into his head to race. He caught the bit in his teeth and took out after Shorty. I couldn’t stop him. Shorty wasn’t going to be caught. He went down the slope on a dead run. Dick not fifty feet behind him.

  I was whooping and hollering like an Indian, having a fine time. Then I saw that Shorty was heading for the mud hole, the gully where we took the sod last year. And Dick was going to follow him. I could no more stop Dick or veer him off than I could have stopped or turned a locomotive.

  Shorty bunched himself and cleared the gully in a beautiful jump. Only a moment later I felt Dick gather himself and jump. We were in the air. I could look down and see the dark mud, the water still rippled from a clod Shorty’s hoofs had flipped into it. I felt Dick’s feet strike the far bank. Dick had cleared the gully too! Then the bank crumbled, loosened by Shorty before Dick hit it. Dick’s head went down. His rump struck me in the back. I was thrown over his head. But Dick somersaulted and rolled, and I was under him.

  I heard Father shouting. I saw Dick scramble to his feet and trot toward the barn, the reins dragging. Father shouted again, running toward me. I cried, “I’m all right!” and got to my feet and started to run toward him. A white-hot pain shot up my left leg. I felt myself falling. That’s the last I knew.

  I came to on my bed in the house. Mother was wiping my face with a cold wet cloth. Father was holding my left leg. The whole left side of my body throbbed with aching pain. I opened my eyes. Mother exclaimed, “Will! He’s coming to!” I tried to sit up. Mother pressed me back. Father said, “It’s all right, son, stay where you are.” Father had taken off my shoe and stocking. He was probing my ankle with his fingers. I cried at the pain. He probed at my knee. There was no pain in the knee. “It’s the ankle,” he said.

  “Broken?” Mother asked.

  “I don’t know. It’s swelling like a balloon.”

  Mother put a cold compress on the ankle. I squirmed and tried to sit up and was so dizzy I almost vomited.

  Mother said, “You’d better go put the horses away, Will. Now that they’re in, don’t let them out again.”

  “I’ll hitch up,” Father said. “We’d better get him to the doctor.”

  Mother shook her head. “It’s almost four o’clock. And a Sunday. We’ll wait till morning.” Mother got another cold compress.

  I must have been in mild shock. I slept fitfully the rest of the afternoon. But I got little sleep that night. Nor did Mother.

  We left home before dawn. Even the jolting of the wagon was painful. The ankle was swollen as big as Father’s two fists. It seemed we would never get to town. But we did, we were in Brush just before ten o’clock.

  There were two doctors in Brush. One was a young man who had an office over the drug store. The other was an older man who had practiced there for years, had taken out appendixes on ranch house kitchen tables, and had probably taken half his pay in quarters of beef and tons of hay. The older doctor had the only hospital in town, a few rooms on the first floor of his house equipped with hospital beds and tended by a trained nurse and the doctor’s wife, who had been a nurse before he married her.

  We couldn’t see that I needed a hospital, so we went to the young doctor over the drug store. Father carried me up the stairs and the young doctor gave me an injection which eased the pain, then examined the ankle. He announced that it was broken in two places. He splinted and bandaged it. When I could sit up on the table he said, “You’re lucky, young fellow, to get off so easy. You’ll be all right in a few weeks. Young bones knit quickly.” He poured a dozen pills into a white envelope and told Mother, “Give him one of these if the pain gets too bad. And bring him back a week from today.”

  “Can I walk?” I asked.

  “On crutches, yes. But you won’t want to walk much for a few days.”

  Father paid him and carried me downstairs. On the street he asked Mother, “How about a cup of coffee before we start home?”

  Mother said no, and we drove out of town, past all the houses, and Mother got out bread-and-butter sandwiches and we breakfasted on them, washed down with water from a windmill and stock tank in a roadside pasture.

  Father made crutches for me from strips sawed out of a slat taken from the corn bin in the barn, plain sticks with cross-pieces at the top. With them I could hobble around the house and the yard.

  When we went back the next week to have the bandages changed, Father left Mother and me at the doctor’s office and went to see Ed, the man who ran the newspaper. He met us at the wagon. Mother asked, “Well, how did you make out?”

  Father shook his head. “It’s the slack time. Maybe later, when the farm sales start. Did the doctor say he would wait for his money?”

  “I paid him,” Mother said, “from the butter money.”

  Father frowned. He started right for home, but Mother said, “Go on over to the lumber yard and get the posts and wire you need to fence the corn.”

  Father said, “You can’t live on beans forever.”

  Mother smiled. “We’ve got corn bread and mush, too. Go get the posts and wire.”

  Father drove over to the lumber yard.


  I WASN’T MUCH HELP for the next month. I spent most of my time hobbling around the nearby slopes, but as soon as I learned to use the crutches I got around well enough. Instead of looking at the far ridges, though, and trying to see the mountains, I had to take my time and look at things right under my feet.

  Down the draw a little way I found two meadow lark nests and watched them every day to see when the eggs hatched. When the babies were out of the shells I tried to feed them. The old birds didn’t want my help, and I couldn’t seem to find the kind of bugs the fledglings ate, so I let the parents feed them. I tried to weave baskets out of grass stems, patterning them on the meadow lark nests. But I wasn’t skillful at all, not nearly as good as the bi
rds were, though I couldn’t see why a bird’s beak should be better at that job than my ten fingers.

  In the evenings I often went up the draw to a place where the giant evening primroses opened big white and pink and lavender flowers at sundown. The flowers were broad as my hand and very fragrant. Just at dusk the big hawk moths came to hover over them and feed, and I thought they were hummingbirds until I trapped one under my hat. Then I saw the moth wings, instead of feathers, and the strange coiled tongue under its snout which the moth could thrust out like a long beak and use to suck the nectar from the primroses.

  On hot afternoons I watched the big red ants that lived in conical mounds a foot and a half high. They cleaned off all the grass in a big circle around the mound, and often there were ant wars going on there, as though they were broad, flat battlefields. The wars were usually between the red ants who lived in the mound and big black ones from somewhere else. There were furious battles, the ants biting off each other’s feelers, and even legs, and then running around in circles, as if blinded. If a big black ant got up near one of the entrances to the mound, a whole swarm of red ones would attack him at once; and sometimes they rolled down the mound, a ball of red ones with the black one in the middle.

  If there was no war going on, once in a while I poked a hole in the mound just to see them swarm out and go to work repairing the damage. But when I did that I had to get away fast because some of them always came to attack me, and their bite was like fire. If there wasn’t a war and if I didn’t poke a hole in the mound, I could lie and watch them and they would crawl over my hand, just exploring, and not bite at all. Then I could watch how they worked, three or four of them together moving a big pebble or hauling in a dead grasshopper and taking it inside the nest.

  And once in a while I found a few Indian beads on the mounds, small blue or red beads that they must have brought up from somewhere down below with the fine gravel they used to pave their mounds.

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