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High wide and lonesome g.., p.15
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       High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, p.15

           Hal Borland
 
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  The afternoon seemed endless, but there was no more trouble. I made sure there were no flies on the horse when the bucket was ready to hoist. And Kraus was almost jovial.

  We worked till sundown. On the way home I felt more tired than I had ever been in my life. Not physically tired but somehow tired inside. Jake noticed it and said, “It’ll be easier tomorrow. What happened this morning that started all the cussing?”

  “He got mad at the horse.” I couldn’t tell him what really happened.

  “Don’t pay any attention to him. He can be meaner than Old Scratch. He didn’t touch you, did he?”

  “No.”

  “If he does, I’ll climb right out of that hole and go to work on him with a spade.” Jake sighed. He was tired too. “You have to take a lot to earn a dollar, these days,” he said, almost to himself.

  When I did the chores I patted old Dick specially, to make up for something, I suppose. And when Mother asked me at supper how it had gone that day I said, “All right.” But I didn’t read that night. I went to bed almost as soon as it was dark.

  The next day went more easily. John Kraus was in a good mood. The well went down fast; by the end of the day we were down almost twenty feet and Jake said that if we didn’t hit shale or rock we might get water at forty feet or so.

  And the third day went all right. I was getting used to John Kraus by then, and I was thinking about how my wages were adding up. If the job lasted next week I would maybe have enough to buy a shotgun. A second-hand one, but a good one. I kept thinking about the gun but paying attention to the job, too.

  Then, just as we were getting ready to quit for the day, there was an uproar in the barnyard. One of the cats killed a chicken. John Kraus grabbed his club and ran toward the barn. There was another uproar, a spasm of caterwauling, the dog howled in pain, and the chickens began to squawk again.

  Jake, down in the well, shouted to me, asking what was going on. When I told him he said, “Hoist away. I’m coming up.” So I hoisted him and he emptied the bucket and together we hurried to the barnyard.

  Things had begun to quiet down, though the chickens were still squawking. Then I saw John Kraus back of the barn. He flung something from him. It was a cat. He came to us, grinning and shaking his hand. His hand was bleeding. “I killed the damn cat!” he said. “Gott fer damn cats, don’t kill mice, just kill chickens! I teach ’em!”

  That night at supper Mother asked, “What happened today? You look awful tired. You must have been working pretty hard.”

  “He killed a cat,” I said. I had to tell someone, but I couldn’t tell her he choked it to death.

  “What for?” she asked.

  “It killed a chicken.”

  “What does he keep cats for? Why doesn’t he keep his chickens penned up?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “How near done are you with the well?”

  “We hit shale today.”

  “How much longer will he need you?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “If it’s too hard you don’t have to stay. You know that. I don’t know if your father would have let you work for that man in the first place.”

  The next morning when Jake and I drove into the yard at John Kraus’ place the dog was howling. Faint howls, from inside the barn. When we took Jake’s team into the barn we found the dog, hanging from a rafter by a rope tied to his tail, his forelegs barely touching the floor. Jake tried to release him, but the dog was frantic, snapping and snarling. He almost got Jake’s hand.

  We went to the house and Jake said, “Go let that clog loose.”

  John Kraus said, “He howls all night, let him howl all day. I teach him!”

  “Let him loose,” Jake repeated.

  John Kraus scowled. “I pay you to work, not talk. I give the orders around here.”

  Jake turned toward the barn.

  “Where you going?” John Kraus demanded.

  “Home,” Jake said, “I’m not going to listen to that dog howl all day.”

  John Kraus grabbed Jake by the arm. Jake turned and said, “Let go of me!” Jake wasn’t over five feet six and didn’t weigh a hundred and fifty pounds, and John Kraus was a six-footer and brawny. But there was something about Jake Farley that just wouldn’t scare. Jake wasn’t afraid of anybody or anything.

  John Kraus let go of him, hesitated a moment, then went to the barn. There were new howls of pain this time; then the dog scuttled from the barn and crawled into the hole under the house. There were snorts and the sound of hoofs against the barn and John Kraus was shouting curses at the horse. Jake had faced him down, and John Kraus was taking it out on his animals.

  The horse was jumpy that morning. I had got him almost quieted down the past two days, but that morning he shied at every move I made. And John Kraus was shouting orders at me. I couldn’t hoist one load to his liking, not one. The fact that Jake was in shale and the digging was slow didn’t help, either. Finally, at about eleven o’clock, John Kraus emptied a bucket and shouted at me, “Back it up! Stop loafing on the job! Back it up!”

  I tried to hurry the horse. It shied away. The bucket creaked against the frame. John Kraus cursed and ran and grabbed the lead rein from me. He jerked the horse’s bridle and kicked it in the belly. The horse reared, struck at him with a forefoot. John Kraus began to club it over the head. It backed away, still lunging. Finally the rope slacked, the bucket at the bottom. John Kraus unhitched the tugs, clubbed the horse so hard he broke the club, then jerked a tug loose and began beating it with a trace chain.

  I couldn’t take any more of it. I turned and ran. I was at the barn before I heard John Kraus shouting at me. I didn’t stop. I dodged around the barn and kept on running, just to get away from there.

  I must have run half a mile before I slowed down and looked back. No one was chasing me. Then I began to curse, all the foul, profane words I could think of, calling John Kraus every vile name I could remember. And somehow it purged me. I got all the foulness and meanness and cruelty and hurt out of me, everything that had been eating into me there at John Kraus’.

  I was halfway home. Now I turned west, off across the flats. I didn’t know where I was going, but it didn’t matter. I was just going, getting away. And at last I found that I was following a pair of old grass-grown ruts. They led southwest. After I had followed them a way I remembered that it was the old trail, an old road Jack Clothier had said was an emigrant trail in the old days. It used to lead from Fort Morgan, he said, down to Deer Trail, sixty miles south. I’d seen it and wondered about it several times, but I’d never followed it.

  As I walked along it that day something about it was soothing and quieting. It was so remote from John Kraus, so completely alien to everything about him. You don’t have to know history to sense the continuity, to know deep inside that the generations rise and pass and that you are you because there were others before you. And that pain and hurt pass, too.

  I knew none of these things, consciously, but as I walked that old trail I was going with others who had been there before I was born. I was with my grandfather, going from Indiana to Nebraska, and my great-grandfather going from Pennsylvania to Ohio and Indiana. And with other grandfathers than my own, crossing the plains to the mountains and even to the Pacific. If I followed that trail far enough I, too, would see the mountains.

  I don’t know how far I followed the trail. A mile and a half, maybe two miles. Long enough to become an emigrant boy following an emigrant wagon across the endless plains. And then, in a place where wind and rain had washed the ruts into a gully, I saw a piece of a cup, a gray cup. I tried to pick it up. It wouldn’t come and I dug at it with my knife. It wasn’t a cup. It was a mug, a brownish gray pottery stein with two blue stripes around it and a handle with a broken pewter hinge that once held a lid. A child’s mug that once held a pint of milk.

  I sat on the grass and brushed away the dirt of the years. The place where the lip had been exposed to catch my eye was sun-faded. I
t had been there a long time. Holding it in my hand I was the boy who had lost it and at the same time I was the boy who found it.

  I stood up and looked for the mountains. I knew they weren’t there; I couldn’t even see them from the top of the haystack. And I began to accept the years and the hurt and the pain as a part of life, a part of the me, whoever I was or would be.

  What happened, I suppose, was that I accepted the existence of evil and still knew that evil was not all or even a major part of life. I recognized the fact of the dream, the continuity of the search, which was above and beyond evil. I am sure it was not a conscious process, but I know it happened. We all come to that moment when an incident, essentially minor, arms us to cut through confusions of thought or emotion. Finding that stein beside the old trail gave me a sense of the reality of the search others had made for the substance of their dreams, and it made that search in itself worth the ache, the pain, the hurt and the evil. The mountains I could not see no doubt were in some way related to my father. And, if not then certainly soon after, I understood something of his own dreams and his own search. And those dreams, one way or another, would one day become mine, and I too would take up the search.

  I sat there, the brownish gray stein in my hand, and I thought some of these things and felt some of them deep inside. And I knew I had to go home.

  Mother saw me coming. She met me in the yard and asked, “What are you doing here? I thought you were working. Did you get fired?”

  “I quit,” I said.

  “What happened?”

  I couldn’t tell her everything. Besides, it was no longer important to tell it. “He killed the cat,” I said, “and he hung the dog by the tail, and he beat the horse.”

  Mother’s lips tightened in that angry look of hers. “I’ll bet you haven’t eaten. Come on in and I’ll get you something.”

  That evening Jake Farley stopped at the house. He talked to Mother a few minutes, then came out to the barn where I was doing the chores. He handed me two silver dollars and a quarter. “Here’s your pay,” he said. “Your ma said to give it to you.”

  It was the first time I’d thought of the money. There was a flash of the pang: I hadn’t earned enough to buy a shotgun. I asked, “What did he say?”

  Jake gave me a wry smile. “No matter. I quit too.” He said it without emotion. He put a hand on Daisy’s hip. “Looks like she’s due any time. Ever help a cow with a calf?”

  “No.”

  “You may have to help her, though she’s a good big cow and ought to have it easy. Just don’t try to take the calf too fast.… Well, I got to get home. Don’t spend all your money in one place.” He grinned. “Good night.”

  Daisy was down in her stall, having her calf, when I got to the barn the next morning. I helped her with it, frightened and awed, and by the time Mother called me for breakfast it was all over. The calf was on its feet and sucking. I was glad I’d seen the old jack rabbit have her young, because I knew just what was going to happen. But I was amazed that the calf was so big.

  I went to the pump and washed up before I went to the house. All I said to Mother was, “Daisy had her calf. It’s another heifer.”

  11

  JULY BROUGHT ONLY ONE light shower, not even enough to wet the ground. When I dug a hole in the rye stubble I found it bone dry a foot down. It wasn’t that bad in the corn, for the sod held a little moisture, but the leaves stayed curled against the heat even though the ears did begin to fill out. We picked a few roasting ears from the corn before the kernels toughened into dough, and they tasted as good as any sweet corn we ever had in Nebraska. Mother said maybe that was only because we’d forgotten what sweet corn tasted like, but we enjoyed them. The garden she planted didn’t survive June. If it had, the grasshoppers would have eaten it. We weren’t overrun with grasshoppers, but some of them were three inches long. They ate quite a few of the pinto beans, but those that were left set pods and, with the shade of the corn kept growing. Jack rabbits were everywhere, dozens of them.

  The pasture close to the house was grazed short by midsummer, so we let the stock range onto the flats to the west. They ran loose in the daytime, but they never wandered more than a mile or two from home, and I brought them in every night. They were all thin, the cows, the calves, and the horses. Bessie’s calf was getting to be a good-sized heifer, spotted yellow and white. Daisy’s calf, the little one I had helped deliver, was brindle like her mother. With Bessie due to calve again in the winter, we would have five head by spring. Within another year we would have to build an addition on the barn.

  Father wrote that the bank hoped to sell the paper and he might be out of a job within another month. That, he said, would be all right with him. Even if they didn’t sell it, he wasn’t going to stay longer than Thanksgiving. With what he had earned by then, he said, we should be pretty well off for the winter. We wouldn’t have to go through another winter like the last one. Meanwhile, he was doing a little fishing. Trout fishing, back in the mountains. Last week he caught four nice ones and the folks at the restaurant cooked them for him. Wonderful eating.

  Mother wrote back and said, “You’d better eat your fill of fish while you’re there. I’ve no doubt they’re good if you like fish, which you know I don’t. Not even catfish, though I always cooked them for you back in Nebraska. That’s one thing I don’t miss here on the homestead, fish. The jack rabbits are so thick around here that we could eat rabbit most of the winter. If You-Know-Who gets the shotgun he wants. I told him he’d have to wait till you got home. We threshed out another five bushels of rye.”

  The rye in the stack had begun to shatter, with the heat and the drought. We had let it get too ripe before we cut it, and every time I forked it from the stack onto the threshing-sheet about half the grain shattered onto the ground. It wasn’t all lost, of course, because the chickens practically lived in the stack yard and we didn’t have to feed them.

  But we weren’t having much luck with the chickens. Several of them died from what Mother thought was eating too many grasshoppers. And then a skunk got into the chicken house one night. The chickens made an uproar and Fritz began to bark and I went out with the lantern. The skunk had dug a hole under the chicken house door. He came out the same way he went in, and Fritz caught him. Both Fritz and I were skunked, but we killed the beast. I had to bury my clothes and Fritz wasn’t allowed near the house for a week. The skunk had killed four hens.

  I said that if I had a shotgun I could have killed the skunk before it squirted us, maybe even before it got in the chicken house. Mother said, “Don’t talk shotgun to me! Wait till your father gets home. Meanwhile, go wash again. With soap. See if you can’t get some of that smell off of you.”

  A few afternoons later I asked Mother if I might go over to the big prairie dog town. She still said I smelled of skunk, and she said, “Yes, go along. Get out in the sun and see if it doesn’t sweeten you up a little. Just watch out for snakes, and bring the cows and horses when you come home.”

  So Fritz and I started for the big dog town.

  It was a hot day. The sun was brassy, the way it had been for weeks, brassy and sizzling. There were dust devils, little whirlwinds that danced across the flats picking up dust and dry grass. There were simmering heat waves that made the horizon dance, and there were mirages. If half those mirages had been real lakes nobody would have had to wish for rain.

  When we got to the dog town it looked as though half the hawks and coyotes and badgers in the country were living on the prairie dogs. I saw half a dozen hawks, and three coyotes skulked away as we came in sight. With the drought, the prairie dogs had eaten all the grass close to their holes. They had to go out to the edge of town to feed. They didn’t know enough to dig new holes out at the edge, so there they were, away from their holes and squabbling among themselves. All their enemies were getting fat on them. There were even several new badger dens.

  Fritz went off to the far edge of town, half a mile away, and I lay down on my bell
y in the sun. The longer I watched, the more I thought how stupid the prairie dogs were. The young ones were two-thirds grown, and if they had any spunk and gumption, as Mother said, they would move out and start a new town somewhere else. Or just go off by themselves. They didn’t have to stay there, where grass was so scarce, any more then we had to stay in Nebraska.

  I watched a hawk swoop down and catch one of those young prairie dogs, not a hundred feet from me. The others screamed in terror and dived for their burrows, and the hawk flew away with the pup in its talons. And in no time at all, the others were out again, just as though nothing had happened.

  One group began squabbling over a little patch of grass. They snapped and snarled like cats with their tails tied together. Then off to the other side a frightened yelp went up and the alarm cry was sounded. There was a rush to the burrows.

  I turned to look. Not fifty yards from me was a badger in the midst of a group of pups. The pups were so scared they ran in circles. The badger had caught one pup. He lunged and caught another. The first one squirmed from under the badger’s paw and tried so crawl away. One snap and the badger put an end to that.

  Then it was so quiet all over that end of the dog town that you could have heard an owl flying. Not a dog was in sight.

  I got to my knees and yelled at the badger. He crouched on his hunkers and hissed, his ears flat against his head. He was a big one, as long as Fritz, grizzly gray with a white stripe down his nose and white patches on his cheeks. He hunched there, glaring, lifting one front paw, then the other. Those paws were armed with claws as long as my fingers, but I knew he wouldn’t attack me if I didn’t charge him.

  He glared at me and hissed several times, then picked up the two young prairie dogs and started away. He kept looking back over his shoulder, but he went much faster than one would expect, on those short legs. He seemed almost to flow over the ground to one of the new badger holes. There he turned and looked at me and hissed again before he went in.

 
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