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High wide and lonesome g.., p.16
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       High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, p.16

           Hal Borland
 
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  Fritz had heard me yell. He came racing toward me. I was glad the badger was gone before Fritz got there. Fritz would have challenged him, and badgers are vicious fighters.

  We went over and looked in the badger den. Fritz’s hackles went up and he wanted to dig. I hauled him away. It was past midafternoon, time to start after the horses and the cows.

  I knew where they were grazing that day, on the flats west of the house, a mile or so from home. I wished I’d brought a nubbin of corn and a piece of rope. Then I could catch Dick and ride him home, Indian fashion. But I hadn’t. I took a look at the sun and the lay of the land and started across the flats.

  In just about two miles, as I had expected, I saw brindle Daisy and her calf. Not far from her was the spotted heifer, Bessie’s calf from last Winter. Bessie was nowhere in sight. Neither were the horses. But I was pretty sure they wouldn’t be very far away.

  I took my time. Daisy and the calves were on a little rise. Just before I got to them I heard a low moaning moo from somewhere beyond them, in the next hollow. It didn’t sound right. I hurried to the top of the rise where I could see over.

  There was Bessie, down on the ground, trying to get up. She would moo that moaning sound and heave herself and get one hind leg under her and almost get her rump up, and then just sort of collapse and lie there.

  I ran toward her, and then I saw the horses just a little way on down that hollow. Old Dick was flat on the ground, all sprawled out. Shorty was lying near him, on his belly with his feet under him but with his head so low his nose was in the grass.

  I ran past Bessie and down to the horses. Old Dick wasn’t making a move. I shouted at him, and still he didn’t move. Shorty lifted his nose and turned his head and groaned and his nose sagged into the grass again. They were sick. All three of them were sick. Very sick. Bessie was still moaning, trying to get to her feet. Then I watched old Dick’s ribs. They weren’t moving. He wasn’t breathing. Old Dick was dead.

  I couldn’t believe it. I knelt beside his head and talked to him and forced open one eyelid. The eye was rolled back. It was dull, lifeless. His mouth was open a little, the lips loose and sagging away from his big teeth.

  I was too awed to cry, awed and stunned. I looked around and saw several clumps of green shoots like coarse grass. Then I knew. It was camas, death camas.

  I went back to Shorty and ordered him to get up. He looked at me with dull eyes. I pushed at him, pummeled him, finally kicked him. He was bloated. He groaned and lifted his head and got his front feet under him. But his head seemed too heavy to hold up. He heaved and tried to get his hind legs under him and fell back. I shouted at him and he tried again. This time he made it and stood there, quivering and wavering, his head low. I slapped him on the rump and he took a few steps, then stopped. He heaved and coughed and retched, making an awful, hollow sound. Nothing came up. I urged him and he started up the little rise, stumbling at every step.

  I turned to Bessie. She was weaker now, not trying to get up. I slapped her on the rump and she got her hind quarters up and one front leg, but the other leg buckled under her and she fell with a loud whoosh, all the breath knocked out of her. She couldn’t try again.

  I was desperate. Old Dick was dead, but I had to get the others home. I had to!

  I urged Bessie to try again, but it was no use. She was too weak. She couldn’t make it. I knew it. Bessie was going to die, too.

  Shorty was standing just a little way off, head down, his sides heaving. I drove him on up the slope. He got almost to where Daisy and the calves were grazing. Then he stumbled and went to his knees and got to his feet again. I shouted, “Go on, Shorty, go on! You’ve got to get home! Please, Shorty, go on!” And he stumbled slowly ahead.

  I herded Daisy and the calves toward home, and I kept Shorty moving for maybe a quarter of a mile. But he stumbled more and more, and he kept stopping. It was too much for him. I knew Shorty wasn’t going to make it. He would try, but he wouldn’t make it. And when he stumbled and went down again and couldn’t even lift his head, I knew it was no use. I hurried after Daisy and the calves.

  It was impossible. It just wasn’t true. It was a bad dream. And yet, here I was, with one cow and the spotted calf and the brindle calf. And Fritz. Heading for home with all the livestock we had left. This morning we had two cows and two calves and a team of horses. And now we had one cow and two calves and no horses at all.

  We went down over the last ridge, the house and barn and haystacks just ahead. Until then I didn’t even know I had been running, and making Daisy and the calves run. My mouth was hot and dry. My heart pounded. My legs ached.

  We hurried down the last slope and Daisy and the calves went to the well for water. Mother came out of the house. She sensed something wrong. “What happened?” she asked, her voice tense. “Where’s Bessie? Where are the horses?”

  “Up on the flat,” I gasped. “They’re—they’re dead.”

  “Dead?” Mother couldn’t take it in. “Why, what—” She couldn’t finish the question. She was pale as a sheet.

  “Camas,” I said. “They found some death camas.”

  Mother stood there, stricken. Daisy and the calves turned toward the barn. I closed the barn door. Mother still stood there beside the well. I went back to her and told her what had happened.

  “Then Bessie and Shorty weren’t dead when you left them?” she asked.

  “Not quite. I thought I ought to bring Daisy and the calves home. And tell you.”

  She nodded. She drew a deep breath. “Oh, son,” she said, “both horses, and old Bessie. Why—why, I can’t believe it!” She bit her lip and fought the tears. Then her shoulders stiffened and her lips stopped trembling and she said, “Come on. Let’s go see.”

  We went back up onto the flats. We came to Shorty. He was sprawled just as he had fallen when I left him. The bloat bulged his ribs but there wasn’t even a quiver of breath. Then we found Bessie, dead too. And we went on and looked at Dick, and I pointed to the camas. Then we went home.

  Neither of us felt like eating supper that night. When I went in after I milked Daisy, Mother’s eyes were red and I knew she had been crying. But she had fried mush ready, and salt pork and gravy. We ate a little and gave the rest to Fritz. I helped with the dishes, and Mother said, “Maybe we’d have been better off to sell the stock and go up there with your father. But I don’t know. Something might have happened there, too.” She slowly shook her head. “I don’t know why things happen. I thought we had everything going all right.” She was talking to herself. “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

  The dishes done, she sat down at the table, her head in her hands. Her shoulders began to shake and I knew she was crying. Then she reached for a handkerchief and dried her eyes and blew her nose. “Tears don’t get you anywhere,” she announced, and she got her purse. She counted the money she had put away as Father sent it home. She put it back in the purse and said, “Tomorrow morning I want you to go over and ask Jake Farley to take me to Gary. I’m going in to Brush with Con Hallahan.”

  “All right,” I said. “I’ll take old Dick and—” I stopped. I wouldn’t take old Dick. Not tomorrow or ever again.

  “You’ll walk,” Mother said. She thought a minute. “No, if we wait till morning we can’t catch Con. We’d better go see Jake tonight.”

  “I’ll go,” I said. “I’m not afraid to go tonight.”

  “We’ll both go. Get the lantern lit.”

  So we walked over to Jake Farley’s, with only the lantern and the starlight to see by. It was only two miles, but it seemed like ten. It was a beautiful night, and what had happened that afternoon didn’t seem real at all, out there under the stars.

  Then we got to Jake’s dooryard and his dog began to bark. Jake came to the door in his overalls and undershirt, and I shouted who we were. He went back and put on a shirt, then asked us in.

  Mother told him what had happened. Jake couldn’t believe it. “They’re both dead? Both horses ar
e dead? And the yellow cow?”

  “Yes.”

  Jake just sat there, as stunned as we had been.

  “Jake,” Mother said, “I want you to take me to Gary in the morning in time to catch Con Hallahan.”

  “Yes’m,” Jake said, “I’ll take you. I’ll take you all the way in to Brush.”

  “I just want you to take me to Gary. That’s all I want. And I’ll pay you for your trouble.”

  “You won’t pay me nothing!” Jake said. “Losing both your horses that way! I should say not!”

  Mother stood up. “Then I’ll expect you first thing in the morning. I’ll be ready.” We went to the door.

  Jake still sat there, shaking his head.

  “You won’t forget, now, will you?” Mother asked.

  “No. No, I won’t forget.” Jake came to the door after us. “You two be ready. And I’ll look after the stock while you’re gone.”

  “I’m going alone,” Mother said. “And I’m just going to Brush. I’ll be back tomorrow night.”

  The walk home was endless. I was so tired I began to stumble and I thought I was going to fall, as Shorty did, and just lie there. But I kept going, right along with Mother, who seemed to have found some new energy of determination.

  We got home and Mother said, “Go along to bed, son. I have to write a letter to your father.”

  I got ready for bed and glanced out at her before I crawled between the covers. She was sitting at the table, paper in front of her, pen in one hand, knuckles of the other hand at her teeth. Just staring, staring past the lamp and away off somewhere.

  I went to sleep, and I wakened once maybe an hour later. The lamp was still burning. I shifted in bed and she heard me. She said, “You’d better get your sleep. I won’t be much longer.”

  Jake Farley arrived early the next day and took her to Gary. I herded Daisy and the two calves on the flats just across the draw from the barn, making sure they didn’t go over west.

  Mother arrived home after dark that night, driving a speckled gray horse hitched to a secondhand buggy. She had looked at all the horses for sale in town, had driven a bargain, and we at least had transportation.

  12

  FATHER WROTE THAT HE knew we did all for Dick and Shorty that anyone could have done. Losing them, he said, was much worse than losing Bessie, because it left us stranded. Mother should go right out and buy another team.

  Mother wrote back, of course, that she had bought Mack and the buggy. And in his next letter Father said he supposed we could get along with the one horse till he got home, but we had to have a team to farm with. When he got back, he said, he would buy a team. We could use three horses, if Mack was as good as Mother said he was.

  But having only the one horse did raise problems. Particularly when we had any hauling to do. You couldn’t hitch one horse to a wagon.

  Early in September I started to cut the corn, the way we had the year before. The ears weren’t very big, but they would make grain for the stock. So I cut two big bundles and tied them together and hitched Mack to them and dragged them down to the stack yard. That was the only way I could get them there. The blades were so brittle, from the drought, that they all knocked off. Mother took one look at those sorry-looking bundles of stalks and said there was no use trying to bring them in. We would husk out the ears in the field and then turn Daisy and the calves in and let them eat what they could find.

  So we let the corn go and pulled the beans. They, too, had dried up but they had a good many pods. We pulled them and took the threshing sheet to the field and flailed them out. The beans were small and a good many were shriveled, but we saved them all. It was a kind of game, seeing how little we could let go to waste.

  We harvested almost two bushels of beans. Then I began husking the corn. I put the ears in gunny sacks and hauled the sacks down to the barn in the buggy. It wasn’t the most convenient way to do things, but it was the only way we had.

  Mack didn’t think much of our ways, at first. Mack was just an old cow pony someone had broken to harness, a grizzled gray pony with a grumpy nature. He disliked the harness. Maybe he thought it was an insult to his dignity. He took it all right till I tried to put the crupper under his tail. Then he kicked, usually just a token kick but hard enough to knock you down if he hit you squarely. I learned to expect the kick and dodge it. And he could tell the driving bridle from the riding bridle, no matter how I tried to hide it. If I went to him with the driving bridle behind my back he would clamp his teeth and shake his head, practically saying, “No! I won’t!” But if it was the riding bridle he opened his mouth for the bit and held his head down for me to buckle the throat latch.

  Mack liked to be ridden. In harness he shuffled along, listless, but when I rode him he strutted. On cool mornings he bucked a little; but if he threw me, as he usually did in the beginning, he turned and waited for me to get back on, looking as though he wanted to say, “Aren’t you ever going to learn to ride?” When I went to do the morning chores I had to feed him first or he nipped me every time I passed. After I fed him he nuzzled me, almost fondly.

  Mack was salty and cantankerous as an old ranch hand. If he had worn a hat it would have been a battered black Stetson jerked down over one jaundiced eye. I liked Mack. I missed Dick and Shorty, but I liked Mack.

  The second week in September Jack Clothier came over to see us. We hadn’t seen him all summer. He said, “I’m glad to see you’re still here. Some of the homesteaders over north couldn’t take it. They packed up and pulled out.”

  I told him about Father, how he’d gone up in the mountains to work, and he nodded approvingly. Then I told him about Dick and Shorty and Bessie.

  “No!” he said. “That, on top of the drought!” He shook his head then asked, “Are you sure it was camas?”

  I described the plants I had seen.

  “Sounds like camas. I hope you dug it up.”

  I hadn’t. I hadn’t wanted to go back up there.

  “Get a spade,” he ordered, “and come on.”

  I bridled Mack and we headed for the flats. He watched Mack as we rode along and he said, “That’s an old cutting horse you’ve got there.” A cutting horse was a cow pony used to separate steers in a herd, a horse quick on his feet. “Getting old,” he went on, “but he’s still all right. He’s got a lot of savvy. And from the look in his eye, I’ll bet if you threw a saddle on him some frosty morning he’d give you a time. Some of those old horses do that, just to keep a rider from getting careless.”

  I told him Mack bucked, even bareback.

  He grinned. “I see you’re still riding him. It’s a funny thing, the way a wise old bronc will fight a man in the saddle but if you put a kid on him, bareback, he’ll gentle right down. He’s not mean. He’s just showing that he’s not going to be imposed on.”

  The nearer we got to the place, the more I wished I hadn’t come. I hadn’t been up there since the day I found old Dick dead. I didn’t want to see him that way again. But when we came to the little hollow there was only a pile of bones. The coyotes had been there, and for once I was glad there were coyotes. That pile of bones wasn’t Dick, and the other two piles of bones weren’t Shorty and Bessie. They were just bleaching bones.

  The camas had practically disappeared, with fall. But when I pointed out where it had been Jack found traces of it and began to dig up the bulbs. He dug up a hatful before he quit. He chopped them up with the spade and left them in the sun to dry up and die. “Watch for them in the spring,” he said, “and dig up any more you find.”

  As we were riding back to the house he said, “Well, I guess I won’t be seeing you folks any more.”

  “What happened?” I asked.

  “I’m pulling out. Going up in Wyoming, up in the Wind River country.”

  I couldn’t say a thing. We didn’t see him often, but Jack Clothier seemed like one of the best friends we had. That’s the way I thought of him, anyway.

  “A few more years,” he said, “and the
re won’t be any more open range in here. The boss don’t see it, but I do. There’s going to be a little trouble, probably, and I shouldn’t be surprised if it comes next spring. Somebody’s going to try to drive Gerrity out, and I don’t want any part of it. I went through my range wars. I don’t want any more of them. I’m getting out. A friend of mine went up in the Wind River country three years ago and he’s got a nice little layout. I’m going to do the same thing, get me a one-man place up there and settle down.”

  “When are you going?” I asked.

  “Next week. I’ve got some business to tend to in Cheyenne. Then I’ll go on up.” He thought for a moment, then said, “A man’s got to settle down some time.”

  He glanced at me, then looked at Mack. I thought he was going to say something about my riding bridle. It was just a cheap bridle with a curb bit and flat leather reins. The bridle on his horse was a one-ear, a broad band without a brow band or a throat-latch, just a hole to go over one of the horse’s ears. I thought a one-ear bridle was just about the finest thing there was, especially one with braided rawhide reins, like Jack Clothier’s. Some day I was going to earn enough money to buy one.

  We got to the barn and I unbridled Mack and ran him into the barn. Jack said, “Let’s see that bridle of yours.”

  I handed it to him. He flipped one rein around his horse’s neck and took off that beautiful one-ear bridle. He put my old bridle on his horse and handed the one-ear bridle to me.

  I didn’t know what to do. “Take it,” he said. “I’m giving it to you. For keeps.”

  “Ohh!” I was completely awed.

  He grinned. I held the beautiful bridle in my hands, feeling the rawhide reins with their soft leather tassels. “You’ve got a cow pony,” he said. “Now you’ve got a cow-pony bridle.”

 
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