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High wide and lonesome g.., p.13
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       High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, p.13

           Hal Borland
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  I couldn’t help plant the corn, but I could sort the best ears in the corn bin and shell them by hand for seed. Mother helped with the planting. She said she got tired being cooped up in the house all day and this was a chance for her to get out. Before they finished, she and Father planted a long row of pinto beans in the cornfield.

  And as soon as the corn was all in, Father did a day’s plowing for a new homesteader over east of Jake Farley’s to pay for having Bessie bred to the new man’s bull. I wanted to go along, but Mother said that, crippled as I was, I’d better stay at home. I saw Father give her a look, as though he thought that wasn’t much of a reason, but she shook her head and that was that. I hadn’t been allowed to go along last fall, either, when he took Daisy to a bull near Gary and paid five dollars for it.

  Louie came back to the upper camp with a new flock of ewes and lambs, and when he saw Fritz he said he’d grown into a very fine dog. He said he wished he’d kept Fritz, because the pup he kept wasn’t worth his keep. “Favored his father too much,” Louie said. “That old collie ain’t worth powder and lead to blow him up. Like some men you meet, regular dudes for looks but don’t know enough to come in out of the rain.”

  Then, when the corn began to come up, Father and I built the new fence around the field. I couldn’t dig postholes, but I could tamp the posts in after the holes were dug. We were stringing barbed wire the afternoon that Jack Clothier rode over with a new bundle of magazines for me. He saw my crutches and asked what happened, and he said, “And they didn’t let you go to the hospital?”

  I said I didn’t want to go to a hospital.

  “Hospitals,” he said, “are wonderful places. A couple of years ago a locoed bronc shied at a tumbleweed and went over a cut-bank with me. Broke my leg in three places, and I had the time of my life in the hospital. Had the nicest nurse!”

  “Which hospital?” Father asked with a smile.

  “The one at Fort Morgan.” The cowboy grinned. “But she’s gone now. She’s up in Cheyenne.”

  “What’s a locoed bronc?” I asked.

  “Loco,” he told me, “is a Mexican word meaning crazy. Loco’s a weed with a flower kind of like a sweet pea. But it’s poison. If it doesn’t kill a horse, it makes him crazy. But it’s not as bad as death camas.”

  “What’s death camas?”

  “That’s a weed too. It looks a little like a wild onion, but it’s got a greenish-white flower. It’s especially bad in a dry year because it stays green after the grass quits. If you see any, dig it up. It’s bad, bad stuff. ... I see you’ve got a new neighbor.”

  He and Father discussed John Kraus, and the cowboy said, “Well, I guess a man looking for trouble can always find it.…

  “You,” he said to me, “had better learn how to get off a horse. ... I got to be going. So long.”

  After that I looked for death camas as well as arrowheads, but I didn’t find any. All I found were sand lilies and wild onions, and there was no mistaking either of them.

  Fritz was always with me while I was cricketing around on my crutches. He chased ground squirrels and tried to catch meadow larks and now and then flushed a jack rabbit. Usually he knew enough not to try to catch a jack, but one afternoon he flushed the biggest, fattest jack I’d ever seen and it didn’t want to run. Fritz knew it. He took after it.

  Instead of running straightaway, as usual, this jack just dodged around the hillside. Several times Fritz almost caught it and I was hoping he would. Finally the jack circled down the slope and came right toward me. Fritz closed in and was just about to make his grab, but the jack stopped short and Fritz went right over it. Then it came straight for me. That time Fritz caught it, not fifteen feet from me. He hardly seemed to touch it. He snapped once and it keeled over and lay there gasping, its eyes closed.

  I ran to it. Fritz wasn’t worrying it, the way he did any rabbit I shot when he was along. He just nosed it and stood there, panting. The rabbit twitched and drew up its legs and gasped, and suddenly it had babies. Four baby rabbits were born, right there while I watched. They popped out, one after another, wet little things like mice and not much bigger. Then the old mother went limp and dead. Fritz must have flushed her just as she was settling down to give birth.

  I knelt and picked up one of the babies. It squirmed in my hand. Its wet little ears were pink, with black tips. It nosed my hand for a place to suck.

  Fritz sniffed the others and began to lick them. Two of them were dead. I picked up the other live one and the two of them weren’t one good handful. They were even smaller than new-born kittens. But their eyes were open. The eyes were a filmy gray at first, then they turned clear and dark.

  As they began to dry off in the sun they lifted their ears a little bit and their small black noses wriggled and their ribs throbbed with quick heartbeats.

  I made a grass nest in my hat and took them home. Mother said they wouldn’t live, but she found a cardboard box and I made a nest for them in it. I offered them a saucer of milk, but they couldn’t drink, so I dipped my little finger in the milk and they licked it off and tried to suck. I fed them that way and they lived three days. Father said that if we’d had an old cat with kittens she might have nursed the baby rabbits and kept them alive. He said he had a baby gray squirrel once that nursed at a cat and grew up to a big, tame squirrel.

  “And a big nuisance, I’ll bet,” Mother said.

  “It probably was,” Father said, “but I didn’t know it.”

  Mother said, “Wild things aren’t supposed to be pets. They’re better off wild.”

  “It takes a while to learn that,” Father said. And he helped me bury my baby rabbits.

  They might have had a hard time even if they’d been raised by their mother, because it was very dry. We hadn’t a drop of rain all through May. The sod corn came up, and so did the beans, with the moisture that had been turned under with the sod. But the bluestem was slow and the water hole in the gully shrank to a mud hole with pink smartweed coming up around the edges. Father kept watching the grass, and I knew he was worried. But we weren’t broke. Mother was still making butter, and she was selling it at the store instead of trading it.

  When we went to see the doctor the third time he said my ankle was almost healed. We could take off the bandages, he said, in another week. Then I could walk on it. Mother opened the purse where she kept the butter money and asked what we owed him, and the doctor looked at her and at me and said, “Nothing. Take the money and buy the boy a pair of shoes.”

  It seemed a ridiculous thing to say. I felt as bad as Mother looked, except that I wasn’t mad and she was. I didn’t need shoes. Louie had half-soled mine and sewed up the rips. Maybe Louie wasn’t a very good cobbler, and maybe we didn’t have any blacking to put over the yellow thread he used to sew them up, but they certainly were good enough shoes.

  We got down on the street and I said I wasn’t going to have any new shoes, and I didn’t care what the doctor said. New shoes always pinched. We went to the wagon and Father was there, and when he asked what the doctor said, Mother said, “He made me feel like two cents!” She told him about the shoes. I said I wasn’t going to have new shoes, and I didn’t care what anybody said. Father laughed, a funny kind of laugh, and Mother said I would have new shoes next fall or she’d know the reason, and I knew I’d won. We went over to the store and spent the money the doctor wouldn’t take for a sack of flour and a sack of salt and a pound of coffee and a piece of salt pork. And Father told the clerk to put in a nickel’s worth of cheese and some crackers and a can of mustard sardines. We had lunch in the sand hills, and even Mother began to get over her mad at the doctor.

  The last day I was on crutches Fritz and I were up where the old Indian point-maker had left the flint chips. I was sitting there in the sun, going through the chips for the hundredth time looking for points, when Fritz began to bark up the hillside. I’d never heard him bark like that before, excited and angry at the same time. After a minute I got up and started t
oward him. It sounded as though something was wrong.

  I got halfway up the slope, hurrying and skipping on the crutches, before I heard the buzz. That mad bumblebee buzz. I knew that sound. I shouted, “Fritz! Come back here, Fritz.” But instead of coming he got more excited.

  I almost ran. I had to get to him, had to get him away from there, or he was going to be bitten. He was dancing around, leaping in, jumping back. And I saw the snake striking at him. He was going to be bitten by that rattler, and he would bloat up like a sheep and turn black and die. “Fritz!” I ordered frantically. “Come here to me!”

  He barked still louder and leaped in again. The snake struck and Fritz leaped back. The more I shouted, the more excited Fritz became.

  I got within twenty feet of them, shouting, ordering, pleading. Fritz leaped in again, the snake struck, Fritz jerked his head aside and uttered a little yelp of pain. Then he was a fury, in, out, dodging, feinting, yelping, snapping. He leaped in, caught the snake for an instant, twisted his head and flung the snake spinning into the air, As it struck the ground he was at it again, snapping, flinging it into the air. One more flip and it was all over. Fritz snapped his teeth. The rattler’s back was broken. It couldn’t coil. It writhed, jaws snapping.

  I pounded at it with a crutch, beat the head into a pulp. Then Father was there. He had heard the uproar and come running with the spade. He chopped off the head and buried it.

  Fritz was panting, shaking his head as though he had been bee-stung, licking his lower lip. There was a tiny spot of blood on the left side of his lip. Father examined it and shook his head. “Too bad,” he said, “too bad.”

  “Is he—going to die?” I asked.

  Father looked at me, not wanting to say it. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe he will. But he seems to have got only one fang.” Then he said, “Don’t take it too hard, son. You’ve had a lot of fun with him.” He put his arm around me, but that wasn’t what I wanted and he knew it.

  We went back to the house. I forgot to use the crutches most of the way and the ankle didn’t pain enough to matter. Fritz’s lip was beginning to swell. When we got to the barn he went down to the mud hole and drank, and I called him and we went to the house.

  When we told Mother what had happened she said, “I’ll heat some milk, with some grease in it.”

  Father said, “This is a different kind of poison.”

  “It may help anyway,” Mother said. “Try it.”

  Fritz drank a little of the milk and grease and retched, but he couldn’t bring anything up. The poison was in his blood, not his stomach. His whole head had begun to swell. His left eye was swollen almost shut. He tried to lick my hand when I patted him, but his tongue was swollen too. He lay in the shade and I saw the quick beating of his heart against his ribs. He was restless. He went out past the barn and down to the mud hole again. He lay down in the mud and wallowed a hole deep enough so the mucky water almost covered him.

  He stayed in the mud all afternoon. By dark his head was swollen as big as a milk pail. Before I went to bed I wanted to take a lantern and go look at him, but Father said, “Not tonight, son. We’ll take care of him in the morning.” I knew he was trying to say, without saving it, that tomorrow we would bury Fritz.

  I was up at dawn and thought I was dressing quietly. But Father pushed the curtain aside and said, “Wait for me, son.” So he dressed too and we went together to look.

  Fritz was still in the mud hole. His head didn’t look quite so badly swollen. I called to him and he opened his good eye and lifted his head just enough to show he was still alive.

  That afternoon he crawled out of the mud hole and went to the tank at the pump for a drink of clean water. Then he went back and lay in the mud again. And the second morning he came out of the mud hole when I called him. He shook himself and drank more clean water and Father said, “Maybe he’s going to pull through.”

  He was in and out of the mud all that day, and that evening he drank a quart of fresh milk. By the next day his head was almost back to normal. He lay around, stiff and uncertain on his legs for a week, eating nothing but drinking lots of milk. Then he was his old self. The only thing he had to show for his bite was a little hard knot in his lip, half the size of a pea. He killed dozens of rattlers, over the years, and I don’t know whether he ever was bitten again. If so, he had an immunity, because he never was sick again after a snake fight.

  By the time Fritz was well it was time to start cutting the blue-stem hay. Because of the drought it was short, and we’d waited and waited for it to shoot up; but it began to head when it wasn’t much above my knees and if we didn’t cut it then it would be woody and no good for hay. We had a stack and a half left from last year, but we had to put up more. Next winter we would have Bessie’s calf, which would be a short yearling, and two more calves, besides the cows and horses, and next winter might be a hard one. Of course, we would have the rye too, if it didn’t fire too bad. It was already beginning to fire at the roots and head out. And we probably would have some corn fodder too, if the drought wasn’t too bad. But we needed hay.

  So we cut the two draws we’d cut the year before; but the two of them made only two small stacks. And it was short hay, hard to stack. Father and I got on the horses and went looking for more draws to cut. But the sheep had cleaned out all the good hay places near home. We kept looking, and at last, down in the sand hills beyond the big sheep camp, we found plenty of sand grass. It was a thin stand, but tall. Father said it would mean lots of mowing and raking, but he thought it would be worth the work. We had another week before we had to cut the rye, so we went down in the sand hills and mowed and raked for two days.

  We went down to bring home our hay on one of those hot, early June days. It seemed twice as hot in the sand hills. I drove the wagon while Father pitched the hay on, and I loaded it. We had about a third of a load and were about halfway down a long, thin windrow when the team began to act nervous. Shorty especially wanted to shy off from the windrow. Then I heard the mad-bumblebee buzz. The team jumped and Father swung his pitchfork. He killed a rattler about four feet long.

  I quieted the horses and we started on down the windrow. Dick began acting up, but I snubbed the lines and took my pitchfork and began to put the hay where it belonged on the load. Father gathered another forkful and tossed it up. Just as the hay left his fork he yelled, “Look out!”

  I saw the snake wriggling in midair. Instinctively I thrust out my fork. It hit the fork between the tines, slithered off and fell to the ground. I saw Father hit it one blow with his fork, then I had to jump for the lines. The horses were really cutting up. They lunged and almost threw me off the wagon. When I looked again, Father had killed the snake and was standing there, gray as sheep’s wool. He got out his blue bandanna and wiped his face. Then he picked up another forkful of hay and tossed it to one side, watching it. He went up the windrow fifteen feet or so, tossing the hay aside. Then he found another rattler. He killed it and climbed into the wagon and began pitching the hay off. He didn’t find any snakes till the last forkful. He killed that one, right there in the wagon, and tossed it out and took the lines from me.

  “What are we going to do?” I asked.

  “Go home.” He was still gray as wool. “The rattlers have crawled into those windrows for shade, and there are dozens of them in these sand hills. I wouldn’t handle that hay for anything in the world. Or let you handle it.”

  We let all that sand grass hay lie right where it was. Two days later we cut the rye. It was short and the heads weren’t very big, but the kernels were fat and hard. It was so ripe it shattered a little, but we hauled it down to the stack yard. Mother let us have a bed sheet and we tossed a few forkfuls of rye onto it and flailed it out with a broomstick. When we had beaten the grain out we tossed the straw aside and winnowed the grain by pouring it from one pail to another and letting the breeze blow the dust and chaff away. It was hot, dusty work and the chaff and broken beards got inside your shirt and i
tched like mad. We flailed out about six bushels and stowed it away in gunny sacks, and Father said, “We’ll thresh the rest next fall, when it’s not so hot. Confound those beards, anyway!”

  Mother said we wouldn’t have to buy any flour next winter if the coffee grinder held out, because we all liked rye bread. Father said he had a better idea than that. When we flailed the rest of it out he would haul it to Brush and have it ground on shares at the mill.

  But he never got to that. The next Saturday when we went to Gary for the mail he got a letter and read it and exclaimed, “Sarah!” He handed it to her and she glanced at it and hurried out to the wagon. We followed her and when we got to the wagon and Mother was crying I thought somebody was dead back in Nebraska. Then Mother exclaimed, “Oh, Will!” and began to laugh and cry at the same time.

  Father said, “I knew something like this would come along.” He tried to roll a cigarette but his fingers were trembling so much he spilled all the tobacco out of the paper.

  Mother said, “You’re going to take it, aren’t you?”

  Father said, “Of course I am!”

  “Hadn’t you better send Ed a post card?”

  “It wouldn’t get there till Monday. We’ll drive in Monday morning and I’ll tell him then.” Father untied the team and we started home, and finally I found out what it was all about. The editor in Brush had written that there was a job up in the mountains for Father if he wanted it. A bank had taken over a weekly newspaper and wanted someone to run until they found a buyer. It might be a job for only a few months, but it was a job. And the bank would pay Father’s transportation if he would come at once.

  “I’ll go Monday,” Father said, “and you two can come later.”

  “We aren’t going,” Mother said.

  “Why, of course you are!”

  Mother shook her head. “Who would look after the cows? And the horses, and the chickens?”

  Father was silent for a long minute. “We could sell the stock,” he said.

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