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High wide and lonesome g.., p.17
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       High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, p.17

           Hal Borland
 
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  “Thanks,” I whispered. I couldn’t say it out loud.

  He put a hand on my shoulder and gripped it, hard. “You’re a good kid,” he said.

  We walked over to the house. Mother came to the door and Jack Clothier said, “Well, we got the camas out. I’ll be going along. Goodbye.”

  Mother said the usual casual goodbye, but he hesitated a moment.

  “I’m going to Wyoming,” he said. “Next week.”

  “Not for good,” Mother said.

  He nodded. “So I won’t be seeing you again, I guess.”

  “Are you going alone?” Mother asked.

  He blushed.

  Mother laughed and said, “I thought not.”

  “Well, I’m going alone as far as Cheyenne,” he said, grinning.

  “And getting married there?”

  “Um-hmm.”

  “I hope she’s a nice girl, Jack.”

  “She’s the nurse that took care of me when that horse fell on me. That was in Fort Morgan, but she comes from Cheyenne. She’s got dark hair and dark eyes. Like you.” He flushed and turned away and got on his horse. “It’s been awful nice knowing you folks,” he said. “All of you.” He reached down and shook hands with me. “So long, fellow,” he said, and turned and loped away.

  We watched him, both of us, down the draw and out of sight. Then I remembered the bridle and told Mother. “He shouldn’t have done it,” she said. “But it was nice of him.” She looked down the draw and said, “I just hope she’s good enough for him.”

  The last Saturday in September we got a letter from Father saying the bank had sold the paper. The new man wanted Father to stay on another week and help him get the hang of things, but Father would be home next week. He would get to Brush on the noon train from Denver on Monday and come out to Gary with Con Hallahan. Would we meet him at Gary?

  Mother looked at the date again and said, “That’s day after tomorrow. That’s this coming Monday!” And a little later she said, “We’ll drive all the way to Brush. Con charges a quarter, and we can use that quarter just as well as he can.”

  So I put extra hay in for Daisy and the calves on Monday morning and locked them in the barn, and we drove to Brush. We left Mack and the buggy at the hitch rack by the post office and waited for the train. Mother was wearing a hat and her Christmas shirtwaist and her black skirt and coat. I felt stiff and strange in a pair of Father’s cut-down pants, a cut-down shirt of his, and my new shoes. They were black work shoes and we bought them at Gary just before the horses ate the camas. It was the first time I’d worn them and they felt stiff and awkward because we’d bought them big enough to fit my growing feet next spring.

  I’d almost forgotten how a train looked and sounded. I guess Mother had too, because we backed right up against the depot when the locomotive roared in. It was so big, and it came so fast! There was a shower of tiny cinders and the steam billowed and the brakes screeched. The station agent rattled the express truck over the brick platform, and the conductor swung down and dropped his metal step box with a hollow clatter.

  People came down the steps of the cars, people all dressed up, women in skirts that barely cleared the ground, men in black suits with tight pants and most of the men wearing derby hats.

  Then I saw Father, in the clothes he had on when he left, the old brown suit and the narrow-brimmed soft brown hat. The only difference was that his face looked pale. All his tan had faded.

  He saw us, gasped in surprise, waved, almost missed a step. Then he swung his suitcase down and ran across the platform. He caught Mother in his arms, kissed her, exclaimed, “I didn’t expect you here!” and hugged me. “Good Lord,” he said to me, “how you’ve grown!” He looked at Mother again. “You’re all dressed up! Jiminy, you’re pretty!”

  Mother said, “Hush! … The buggy’s right across the street, by the post office.”

  Before he put his suitcase in the back of the buggy Father said, “Say, it’s noon. Time to eat. We’d better get something before we start home.”

  Mother shook her head. “I’ve got sandwiches.” Father started to say something, didn’t. He put his suitcase in, then helped Mother in. I untied Mack. Father got in the driver’s place and I got in the other side. He backed around, crossed the tracks, and we started for home.

  After the first greetings there didn’t seem to be anything to say. At least nobody knew where to begin. It was almost like having a stranger there in the buggy with us, a stranger we knew and yet didn’t know.

  Father said, “Mack you call him, huh? He seems like a good little horse.”

  “He’s sound,” Mother said. “He’s ten or eleven years old, but he’s sound. And it’s a pretty good buggy, too.”

  “He’s a good saddle horse,” I said. “He bucks sometimes, but I can stay on.”

  “Good for you!” Father turned to Mother and nodded at me. “I can’t get over the way he’s grown. He’s almost as tall as you are!”

  Mother said yes, and the talk ended for a while. Mack, who had started out at a fast trot, slowed down to the singlefoot he could keep up all day, a kind of easy fox trot that covered a lot of ground.

  We came to the first range of sand hills. “My,” Father said, “the country looks dry. And flat.”

  “It is dry,” Mother said. “We had an awful dry summer.”

  “It seems impossible,” Father said, “that just day before yesterday I was up in the hills on a trout stream. There’s snow in the mountains, quite a lot of it in places. The water was ice cold. So cold it hurt your teeth when you drank it.… Confound this collar! It’s too tight, or something.”

  “Take it off if you want to,” Mother said. “But put it on before we stop at Gary for the mail. I don’t like to see a man in a suit all dressed up and without a collar.”

  Father took off the stiff linen collar, and at the same time he seemed to take off the strangeness. He relaxed, and so did we. Mother got out the bread-and-butter sandwiches and we ate and talked about the homestead, and Louie the herder, and the corn, and the beans, and Jack Clothier. Finally we talked about Dick and Shorty and Bessie, and the death camas.

  Father put on his collar again before we stopped at Gary. Then we went on, and Mother told him about my working for John Kraus. She told the story, as much as she knew of it, and I didn’t add anything. Finally she said, “I guess I shouldn’t have let him work there in the first place. Not for that man!”

  Father said it was all right, that he’d probably have done the same thing if he’d been home. Then he exclaimed, “Say, I am home! Do you realize that? I’m home! I can hardly realize it myself. Just over that next rise and we’ll start dropping down to Ketchem Holler.” He sighed. “I’ve been so homesick sometimes that I almost walked out on the job.”

  “You might have said so in your letters,” Mother said.

  “What good would that have done? It would just have made both of us feel worse. Anyway, I’m here.” And he squeezed her hand.

  Then we were in Ketchem Holler, and soon after that we saw Louie’s windmill and turned up the trail to our house. Fritz heard us coming and ran to greet us, barking. When Father got out of the buggy Fritz backed away, not knowing him; then he sniffed at Father’s pant legs and barked, a delighted yelp, and jumped at him, licking his hands. You’d think Father owned him, the way he acted.

  It was almost chore time. We changed clothes and Father went out to the barn with me. He hadn’t seen Brindle, Daisy’s calf. I told him how I’d helped it to be born, and he said, “Your Mother didn’t say anything about that. She just wrote that Daisy had her calf. Well, you’re getting to be almost a man, aren’t you? You had to be, this summer.… Here, let me have that pail. I haven’t forgotten how to milk.”

  Father did the milking and I got in the hay; and the drought, the poor corn crop, the wrinkled little beans, the skimpy haystacks, even the death of the horses and the cow, didn’t matter the way they had yesterday. If Father had come home discouraged, or if he had
indicated by one word or one look that he felt we hadn’t done things right, the world would have been a very sad place. If he had said that everything had gone against us and it was no use going on this way any longer I would have felt miserable because I would have known that we were through with the homestead.

  Instead of that, he looked around the barn and he slapped old Mack on the rump and he looked in the corn bin and said, “You got a little corn, didn’t you? Next year we’ll get a real crop.”

  He went outside and looked down the draw and he said, “One thing, the short hay crop won’t matter much. We won’t need so much hay this winter.” And he looked at me with a grin.

  We went to the house, and Mother felt the same way I did out at the barn. For weeks she had gone along, carrying a load on her shoulders, and now Father had come home and taken the load and it didn’t seem nearly as heavy, just because of the way he carried it. Supper wasn’t much of a meal, when you came down to what we had to eat; but it wasn’t a matter of what we ate or how much, it was the way we all felt. We were together again, and we knew that whatever came we could handle it. We’d had some rough times, but what happened now was going to be better.

  When we had eaten, Father said Mother and I had things pretty well in hand. The next thing to do was to find another horse to match up with Mack. Mother wasn’t so sure. “Can’t we get along with one horse for a while?” she asked.

  “How are we going to get any hauling done?”

  “What hauling have we got to do?”

  “We have to get some groceries in.”

  “We can haul groceries in the buggy.”

  “And coal.”

  “Yes, we ought to have some coal. But we can haul it, a few hundred pounds at a time, in the buggy.”

  “And we’ll have to haul cow chips and sheep chips.”

  “Oh, Will,” Mother exclaimed, “I just don’t want to spend our last cent again!”

  “What are we going to do next spring,” Father asked, “when we have to start plowing? I heard once of a fellow with only one horse who hitched his wife up to make a team.” He grinned. “But she was a big Percheron type.”

  “Just you try that with me!” Mother said, laughing.

  Father had got out his wallet. He opened it and took out fifty dollars. Mother stared at it. “Will Borland,” she said, “have you been playing cards?”

  Father laughed. “I never won that much at cards in my life. Anyway, I promised when I married you that I’d never play another hand of poker.” He fingered the bills. “I saved about half of this, a little at a time, last summer. And the bank gave me an extra week’s pay when they let me go.”

  “Oh, Will!”

  “So we can get another horse.”

  “Yes. But not right away. Not for a week or so, please. Let’s feel rich, just for a little while!”

  He handed the money to her. “Let’s see,” he said. “For that money we can get you a whole new outfit, shoes to hat. We can all take a trip to Denver and stay at a hotel. We can buy new rugs for the floor and one of those new kitchen cabinets for you. We can’t buy a piano, but we could get a reed organ. Now there’s an idea. Let’s get an organ and put it right over there. You play and I’ll sing—”

  “Stop it, Will. You know perfectly well what we’re going to do with this money.”

  “What?”

  “Save it till we get around to buying another horse.” She tried to hand it back to him.

  “Money? Don’t need it.” He turned his pocket inside out to show that he had a quarter and a dime. Then he said seriously, “Keep it. Put it away till we go to town.”

  So instead of going right out to buy a horse Father and I got the rest of the corn in. Then Jake Farley came over and said he was going to lay in some sheep chips and if we wanted to help he’d haul some for us, seeing we were a little short of horses.

  Father and I went down to Louie’s sheep camp with him and in a couple of days we got enough sheep chips to fill our fuel shed and stack one end of the barn with them, since we were a little short of cows, too.

  We would have put even more sheep chips in the barn, but Father wasn’t feeling well. Just ten days after he got back from the mountains he woke up with a headache, and the next day he was sick at the stomach. He hadn’t any appetite. Mother said, “Maybe it’s my cooking. Maybe it’s too rich for your blood, you’ve been eating out so long.”

  But she couldn’t make much of a joke of it. And when he was still sick the next day she was worried. She felt of his head and said, “You’ve got a fever.” She killed a hen and made noodles, and he tried to eat some of that. It was his favorite dish, but he just couldn’t eat.

  That night Mother said, “I don’t like this at all. You can’t keep anything on your stomach and you’re running a fever. If it was inflammation of the bowels you’d be too sick even to sit up by now, and so sore in the stomach you couldn’t stand to have me touch you. But it’s something, and if you’re not better by morning we’re going to Brush to see the doctor.”

  Father said, “That’s the last thing I want to do, ride all the way to Brush.”

  “Maybe,” Mother said, “you’d rather be hauled. In a box.”

  Father forced a smile, but he groaned when he tried to move.

  The next morning Mother helped him dress and I hitched Mack to the buggy and said I’d look after things till they got back. Mother said, “If we’re not back tonight, you know how to strain the milk into the crocks for the cream to rise. Lock the door and don’t forget to gather the eggs. We won’t be gone more than overnight.”

  She and I helped Father get into the buggy and Mother took the reins and they started for town.

  13

  EXCEPT FOR AN OCCASIONAL cold and an attack of rheumatism a few years before in Nebraska, Father had never been sick. While I finished the morning chores and turned Daisy and the calves out to graze I kept wondering if he had pneumonia. Mother was always warning about pneumonia. If you got a cold she kept feeling of your head to see if you had a fever, and if you got what she called a deep cough she got out the mustard and made a plaster. She put it on your chest and put you to bed, and it burned like fury and you sweated till your nightshirt was soaked. You burned and sweated, but the next day you felt better. Weak as a cat, but better.

  But Father hadn’t had a cold. He hadn’t been sniffling or coughing. He said he just felt sick all over. His head ached and his back ached and his legs hurt and he couldn’t keep anything on his stomach. I decided he didn’t have pneumonia, and since pneumonia was the worst thing anybody could have I knew he was going to be all right. The doctor would give him some medicine to take and they would come right home.

  After the chores, there wasn’t much that had to be done. I wished I had a shotgun so I could go hunting. There was the .25-20 rifle, but I knew I shouldn’t take that. It wasn’t a good rabbit gun. Besides, there were only a dozen shells for it and I shouldn’t waste them.

  For the hundredth time I wished I had a bow. If I had a bow I could make arrows and hunt as the Indians did. I could make arrows, feather them with chicken feathers, and put the best stone points from my collection on them. But there wasn’t any wood for making a bow. The only wood for miles around was the willow brush over on Badger Creek, and willow was too soft and brittle for a bow. You need hickory or Osage orange, and the only place I knew to get that kind of wood was back in Nebraska.

  I thought again of making a slingshot; but you need a tough wooden crotch and strong rubber bands. You could shoot pebbles with a slingshot. Bigger boys, back in Nebraska, killed sparrows and pigeons and now and then a squirrel with slingshots. But I hadn’t anything to make a slingshot from, either. Weapons like that needed materials you found only in a wooded country. You couldn’t even make a good snare on the plains; you needed a sapling to jerk the snare when a rabbit tripped it. You needed a gun to be a hunter, so there wasn’t much use to think of going hunting. I couldn’t even go over and borrow Jake Farley’s
.22. He had traded it in on a shotgun, and I knew I couldn’t borrow his shotgun. Besides, I didn’t have any shotgun shells.

  And, finally, I shouldn’t go hunting. I should be busy around the place, as Father would have been.

  I took Mother’s dishpan and went to the barn and sorted a pile of ears from the corn bin and began shelling corn by hand. I sorted corn and shelled it most of the morning, so that Mother could grind corn meal. And I saved the cobs because she liked to have them for kindling.

  There didn’t seem to be any need to cook anything for dinner. I fished a piece of cold chicken from the bowl of chicken and noodles and had chicken and bread and butter. Then I took the hammer and a pocketful of staples and inspected the fence around the cornfield and the rye stubble, and afterward I tightened the wires on the fence around the stack yard. Then I put hay in the manger and gathered the eggs and got Daisy in, and the calves. By the time I had done the milking and strained the milk into the crocks it was almost sundown.

  I kept waiting for the folks to get home. It got to be seven o’clock and it was dark. I had the lamp lit so they could see it from down in the Holler and know everything was all right. And finally, at seven-thirty, I built a fire in the stove and fried two eggs and made two sandwiches. Then I washed my dishes and got a fresh pail of water and tried to read for a while. By nine o’clock I was too sleepy to stay up any longer, so I locked the door and left the lamp burning and lay down on my bed with my clothes on. Fritz came and lay on the floor beside me, and I went to sleep with one arm hanging over the edge of the bed, touching him.

  I woke up about eleven o’clock, panicky. I had had a bad dream. In the dream my right arm had been cut off. I sat up, terrified, and my arm was completely numb. It had gone to sleep hanging over the edge of the bed. As soon as I sat up it began to tingle. It had pins and needles in it. I rubbed it with my other hand till it came to life again. The folks still hadn’t got home. I took off my shoes and pulled a cover up over me and went back to sleep, feeling very lonely.

  Morning, and they still weren’t there. But it didn’t matter so much in daylight. You don’t get half as lonesome when the sun is shining, or even if it’s cloudy but daylight, as you do at night. I went out and did the milking, as always, and got the early chores done, then came in and made coffee and ate breakfast, thinking that the folks wouldn’t be home much before noon.

 
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