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High wide and lonesome g.., p.14
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       High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, p.14

           Hal Borland
 
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  “Sell out and quit?” Mother asked.

  Father didn’t answer. I thought: We can’t sell old Dick and Shorty! We can’t move to some closed-in town where you can’t see anything or do anything! Where there aren’t any jack rabbits, or prairie dogs, or meadow larks, or anything!

  And I cried, “No!”

  Both of them looked at me. Mother smiled and Father laughed. Then Mother said, “We’re not going. We’ll stay here and take care of things. There’s not much to do this summer.… Oh, Will, it couldn’t have come at a better time!”

  And Father said, “I’ll be back before the snow comes.”

  I felt a big relief. We weren’t going. Father was going, but he would be back this fall. He was saying, “All we need is a little cash. Just enough to get us over the hump this summer. Get some food in the house for next winter, and some coal. And maybe even buy another cow or two. That’s all we need. And this is the chance to get it.”

  That night Mother washed his shirts and sewed his buttons, and on Monday morning we took him to Brush and he got on the train to Denver and the mountains.

  10

  AT FIRST I COULDN’T quite realize that Father was gone. Every time I turned around I expected to find him there.

  I would get up early, the way I always did, and dress very quietly and go outdoors and look at the morning. After I’d swapped a whistle or two with a meadow lark and washed my face down at the pump I would go to the barn and start the chores. I would put corn in the feed boxes and talk to the horses and speculate on how soon Daisy was going to have her calf. Then, without knowing it, I would wait for Father to come and brush Bessie and start milking. Just for a moment or two, I’d wait. Then I’d catch myself and get the brush from the box with the curry comb and go to work. I would put the brush away and get the pail and stool and press my head into Bessie’s flank, the way Father did, and talk the way he did: “So, Bessie, so. Keep that foot out of the pail. And give me the milk. Let it down, Bessie.”

  Mother was always up and had breakfast ready by the time the milking was done, but I would always be surprised to see only two places set at the table. She would pour the coffee and put the pancakes on my plate and say, “Well, I wonder how your father is doing this morning.”

  After breakfast I would pump water for the stock and bring in a fresh pail for the kitchen. Then I would start to clean out the barn, listening for Father to say, “If we put down fresh bedding now we won’t have to do it later.” And pretty soon I would say it myself and go ahead and put down the bedding.

  By then Mother would have fed the chickens and started her housework. I would wait there in the barnyard, expecting Father to say what had to be done that day, hoe the corn or the beans, tighten a loose wire or fix a gate at the stack yard, grease the wagon, mend a broken halter. Then I’d know I had to decide, and I’d take the hoe and tell Mother I was going to hill up the beans. And I would go up to the field and start on the beans, which weren’t doing very well with only a couple of light showers since April.

  I would hoe a while, then rest, thinking maybe I could go over to the big prairie dog town that afternoon. I’d ask Father pretty soon, I’d think. Then I would remember and know I shouldn’t go before I finished the beans. My shoulders would begin to ache, but I would keep at it, knowing Mother would let me go if I asked her but also knowing I should finish the job I’d started.

  Mother would call me to dinner, and again I’d be surprised at only two places at the table. And after dinner I’d go back to the beans, or the corn, or whatever it was. And if I got through by midafternoon I’d know I shouldn’t go wandering then because it would soon be chore time and I should go get the cows. So I would tighten the slack wire at the stack yard and rivet a broken harness strap and then got get the cows and start the evening chores.

  After supper Mother would be mending or darning or writing a letter to Father and I would start to read a story in Adventure or Bluebook and fall asleep over it. And waken with a start, thinking I heard Father and Mother talking. Mother would say, “You’d better go to bed son, instead of sleeping in your chair,” and I would look around the room for Father and know he wasn’t there and kiss Mother good night. And the next morning I wouldn’t be quite as surprised when Father didn’t come to the barn.

  Then Father’s first letter came and I accepted the fact, inside, that he wasn’t there. He said he’d had a good trip, that a man from the bank met him and put him up at the hotel and that he’d found a room with nice folks and was doing all right. The shop, he said, wasn’t much of a place. A few shirttailfuls of type, an old Gordon job press, and a rickety flatbed that he had to overhaul before he could get out the paper. But there was plenty of job work and enough legal notices to make the paper pay. He hoped everything would be all right with us. And he enclosed a money order. Mother cashed the money order and put the bills away in her purse. There wasn’t anything we needed to buy. She had enough butter to swap for coffee and baking powder and a chunk of salt pork.

  After that we had a letter every week, with a money order which Mother cashed and stowed away. As she said, money’s kind of like water—you don’t miss it till the well runs dry. And we were eating every day. Not much variety, maybe, but as she said, it was enough to satisfy. If you ate too much you got fatty degeneration of the heart. We had a few eggs now and then, and plenty of cornmeal mush. And sometimes, for a treat, she parched corn for me to carry in my pocket and munch on. “A growing boy,” she said, “needs something to munch on between meals.”

  I had a pocketful of parched corn the afternoon she said I’d hoed corn long enough and deserved a trip over to the big dog town. “Just watch out for snakes,” she said, “and get home in time to bring in the cows.”

  The big prairie dog town was almost two miles south of the house. It was on a high flat, and there were hundreds of burrows, each one like a fat doughnut of earth. The town was the busiest place you could imagine, with hundreds of prairie dogs, dozens of burrowing owls, an occasional rattlesnake, and now and then a badger or two, or a coyote, or a jack rabbit.

  Fritz and I walked over there, taking our time, stopping to watch an ant hill and catching grasshoppers and chasing a big bull snake that was out looking for ground squirrels. There wasn’t any hurry, and the walk over there was almost half the fun, especially when there were a few big, high clouds. There were two clouds this day, and they were spaced just right so I could run in their shadows a way and imagine it was cool. Then they passed the sun and I stood and watched the big blue shadows go sliding across the flats.

  We got to the dog town and Fritz went over to one side and tried to dig out one burrow. I lay down on my belly and munched parched corn and watched the prairie dogs. The young ones, which had been born in early May, were out playing, squealing and chasing like real puppies. Burrowing owls were bobbing about, screeching at each other, now and then fighting with a terrific fuss and flying of feathers. Old prairie dogs were squabbling over the grass. Now and then a hawk would fly over, and a dog would give the alarm cry and everybody would race to the burrows and dive in, only to come peeping up a minute later, yip that the coast was clear, and come spilling out again.

  It was a wonderful afternoon, even though I didn’t see a badger or a coyote. And we put up three jacks on the way home and I found a fine lance point, like an arrowhead but as long as my hand. I cut west when I got near the draw and took the cows home and started the chores, thinking how lucky I was that we hadn’t decided to sell out and move to town. Even to a town up in the mountains. And the next day I went at the corn again and gave it a real hoeing.

  The hoeing probably helped keep the corn going. It was so dry, though, that the corn was looking pretty puny. The beans were doing some better, because they had some shade from the corn. Almost every day a few clouds came over, big puffy cumulus, but they stayed high and left nothing but their shadow as they passed. No question about it, we were having a dry summer.

  Louie came over one eve
ning to talk about the drought. “Sure getting bad,” he said as he sat on the step, hat in hand. “Don’t know how much longer the grass will last if we don’t get rain. Sheep’s about picked the school section clean.”

  “Don’t expect to bring them over on our land,” Mother warned.

  “Oh, I won’t,” Louie said. He thought for a while, then said, “Commissary man was up yesterday and he says all the herders is having trouble. Dutch George, one of the herders, got in a row over north. Let his flock get on Lazy Four range and the cowmen stampeded his flock and tipped his wagon over.”

  “Why did they do that?” I asked.

  Louie shrugged. “They think they own the grass.”

  “It’s their range, isn’t it?”

  Louie shrugged again. “Nobody owns the grass. Grass just grows.” He sighed and stood up to leave. He thrust his hand into his pocket and drew out something and handed it to me. It was a bird point, a tiny arrowhead, pure white and not over an inch long. I exclaimed and Louie grinned. “Found it today. You got one like it?” I hadn’t. “Keep it,” he said. “It’s a nice one.”

  The next afternoon Jake Farley came over. He wanted to know what we heard from Father, and he talked about the drought and the corn, and finally, after his usual preamble, he came to the point of his visit. “Will,” he said to Mother, “said last year that maybe the boy could work out this year.”

  “What do you mean?” Mother asked.

  “Well,” Jake said, “there’s an easy job for him if you’ll let him take it. Pays fifty cents a day. Just leading a horse, hoisting dirt out of a well. I’m digging the well, so I’d kind of look after him.”

  “You’re digging a well?” Mother said. “Why? You’ve got a well.”

  “I’m digging one for John Kraus.”

  “John Kraus, over north of us?”

  “That’s right. We need a boy to lead the horse.”

  “I don’t like that man.”

  “Well, ma’am, it take all kinds to make a world, I say. His money’s as good as anybody else’s at the store. I could stop past mornings and bring him home nights.”

  Mother hesitated.

  “Please!” I begged. “Please! I’ll do the chores before I go and when I get home. Fifty cents a day!”

  She still hesitated. “I don’t know whether your father would like it.” Then to Jake she said, “One thing I’ll say for you, you don’t use bad language. At least I never heard you to.”

  Jake rubbed his chin, embarrassed. “No’m, I don’t. I tried to learn to cuss when I was younger, but the words never came out right, somehow. I never could get them straight. Folks laughed so much I give it up and let them cuss that could.… Shall I stop by in the morning for him, about seven o’clock?”

  Mother still hesitated, but at last she said, “I guess he can try it a day or so. Then we’ll see.”

  I did the best job on the chores that evening I had ever done, and I was up before the sun the next morning. I got everything done, even an extra pail of water for Mother and an extra pail of cow chips, before breakfast. Then I washed up and slicked my hair and put on a clean shirt and was almost too excited to eat. Mother said, “Now you do what you’re told to do, over there. Any job worth doing is worth doing well. You can’t go off watching birds or prairie dogs or poking in an ant hill. Remember that. And you needn’t tell John Kraus I don’t like him. I expect he knows that already. You just do your work and behave yourself.”

  Then Jake arrived and I got in the wagon with him and was off to my first job, my first job with pay.

  A big, rough-haired dog roared at us as soon as we drove into John Kraus’ yard. He was a mean-looking dog, so thin every rib showed. One ear was cropped, the other long, and one eye drooped half shut and had a scar over it. Jake drove on up to the house and shouted, “Call off your dog if you want us to go to work.” To me he said, “Don’t trust that dog any farther than you can throw him by the tail.”

  John Kraus came to the door and yelled, “Shut up, you dog!” The dog, hackles bristling, skulked around the wagon. John Kraus yelled, “Come here! Come here, I say!” and came out with a club in his hand. The dog’s tail dropped between his legs and he crawled in the dust. As John Kraus walked toward him, brandishing the club, the dog sprang up and ran into a hole beneath the house. John Kraus grinned. “He knows who’s boss.… Well, you bring the boy. Now we get some work done.”

  We unhitched Jake’s team and put them in the barn. John Kraus went with us, carrying the club like a walking stick. Two scrawny cats scurried away as we went inside and a big black horse in one of the stalls snorted and jerked back on its halter rope, eyes rolling. Jake stalled his team and John Kraus harnessed the big black. It lunged once and there was a thump as he hit it with the club, and at another lunge he kicked it in the belly.

  Jake said, “Let me harness that horse,” but John Kraus paid no attention. He jerked the belly band tight, buckled the hames, and started to bridle it. Jake said, “You don’t need a bridle. A halter’s enough.” John Kaus fought the bit into the horse’s mouth, jerked the throat latch so tight it cut off half the horse’s wind, and buckled it. “He don’t like the bridle,” he said, “so I show him. I teach him.” He led the horse outside, wheezing and gulping.

  While John Kraus went for a rope Jake loosened the throat latch and the horse breathed freely. I tried to pat its nose, but it threw up its head in fear and jerked back. Jake worked his hand up the horse’s neck and said, “Easy, boy, easy.” It quivered and snorted, tense, frightened.

  Jake had the well already started, a hole three feet across and six feet deep. Across the top was a rack of two-inch timbers from which a big pulley hung. John Kraus fed the rope through the pulley, fastened one end to a half barrel with a sling, and hitched the other end to a singletree. Jake hitched the black horse to the singletree, then took a spade and dropped into the hole and began to dig.

  When Jake had loosened a layer of dirt John Kraus eased the half barrel to him, Jake loaded it, and I led the horse far enough to hoist it up where John Kraus could swing it to one side and dump it. Then I backed the horse and eased the big bucket down for another load. If I led the horse too far the big bucket would crash into the rack, tear it apart, and the whole thing would crash into the well on top of Jake. If I didn’t hoist it far enough John Kraus couldn’t swing it clear and dump it. It looked easy, but for the first hour I was as jumpy as the horse.

  Then the horse began to quiet down, and so did I. John Kraus still yelled orders I didn’t understand, but by walking backward and watching the bucket I kept things going all right.

  They went all right till just before dinner time, when a big fly got on the horse’s flank and he couldn’t whip it off with his tail. John Kraus ordered me to hoist away. The horse was trying to reach the fly with his mouth. I jerked at the lead rein but he wouldn’t move. John Kraus yelled at me.

  I slapped at the fly, the horse jumped, lunged, and the big bucket came sailing up. I swung on the lead rein and stopped the horse just as the bucket hit the top of the frame with a creak and a clatter. The rack swayed but didn’t give way.

  John Kraus cursed as I had never heard anyone curse. He grabbed the club and started toward me. Jake, at the bottom of the well, shouted, “What’s going on up there?”

  John Kraus turned back and reached for the bucket as I carefully backed the horse. He swung the bucket aside, dumped it, eased it over the hole again, and I backed the horse and slowly lowered the bucket.

  As soon as the bucket was down John Kraus came toward us, muttering, “Damn fool horse, damn fool horse!” He unhitched the tugs from the singletree, grabbed the lead rein from me, and jerked at the horse’s head. The horse reared and John Kraus clubbed it over the head. It lunged, almost broke the lead rein, and he clubbed it again.

  Frantic, I cried, “Stop that! Stop it!”

  John Kraus turned to me and for a moment I thought he was going to club me. Then he demanded, “Who you think you are?
and laughed. He handed me the lead rein and hitched the tugs again. He went back to the well and told Jake to come up on the next load. “Time we eat,” he said.

  That time I was very careful. Jake stepped off the bucket at the top and dumped it. I unhitched the horse and led him to the barn. When I asked John Kraus where the corn was for the horse he said, “He don’t get corn today. I teach him to behave,” and we went to the house.

  The house was spotless. John Kraus was a worker, as demanding of himself as of anyone else. And the food was good, a meat stew well cooked. But I wasn’t hungry. I ate a few forkfuls and couldn’t swallow any more. John Kraus said, “Boys got to eat. Clean up your plate.” I forced a little more down, then gave up.

  I have wondered since if John Kraus was as evil a man as he seemed to me then, or if I was a naïve boy to whom brutality was shocking. The answer lies in John Kraus’ sadism. I had seen brutality, in bloody, merciless fist fights behind the livery stable in Nebraska, in a wild-tempered farmer who killed a vicious horse that attacked him, in a jealous wife who branded her husband with a hot flatiron while he slept, in a moronic boy who hatcheted two fingers from another boy who teased him. But those were acts of passion and violence, not sadism.

  Man is not by nature a gentle creature. The veneer is thin. But cold-blooded brutality devised to cause pain and bloodshed as an end in itself is a perversion of even our impulsive violence. We are reluctant to admit even a racial kinship with the sadist, perhaps because he represents a primitive bestiality we would like to disown. Yet all through history sadism has been condoned in the name of dogma, evil tolerated on the perverse assumption that it led to ultimate good. Which only demonstrates the devious quality of human reasoning.

  John Kraus was evil. Yet he was no more a product of that time and place than were Jake Farley or Louie, the sheep herder. He was by no means typical. Most farmers and most of the homesteaders were relatively kind to their animals, if for no other reason than that an abused cow is a poor milker and an abused horse becomes useless in time. It was the rare plainsman who gave his horse less than the best of care. Horses cost money, and horses were the plainsman’s means of transportation in a vast land. A man left afoot was in trouble. He took care of his horses. But John Kraus was no plainsman.

 
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