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Country editors boy, p.19
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       Country Editor's Boy, p.19

           Hal Borland
 
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  The fox had reached her den, vanished, gone to ground.

  Tuffy was still at the hole, tongue out, panting, from time to time thrusting his muzzle down and sniffing, when we got there. I would swear that hole wasn’t six inches in diameter. It had a low mound of bare earth around it, not high and doughnut shaped like a prairie dog hole but broad and low and bare of grass. I looked around for chicken feathers, but there wasn’t a feather in sight. Father probably was right. The fox wasn’t taking the Sebastian chickens. Coyotes maybe, but not kit foxes.

  “Well,” Sebastian said, “here she is, right down this hole. All we got to do is dig her out. You want to start?”

  I began spading the sandy soil, following the burrow which led down at a sharp angle a little way, then flattened off. I opened a trench about a foot and a half wide, just big enough to work in. Sebastian watched in silence for a time, then said, “I heard that Bainbridge fellow is set on starting a bastardy suit.”

  I didn’t answer, just went on digging and tossing the dirt onto the pile alongside the trench.

  “Now that’s a damn fool thing to do,” he went on. “If that girl of his is going to have a baby, why don’t he do something about that? Send her away, or something. You know her?”

  “Yes,” I said.

  “Hot stuff, huh?” He laughed, a tense kind of laugh.

  I saw no need to answer.

  “Used to see her around town,” he said, “before she quit going to town. A hot little bitch. You can spot them, the way they walk, the way they look at you.” He licked his lips and spat and said, “I’ll take it a while.”

  I backed out of the trench, glad to let him take over. If he was digging he probably wouldn’t be talking. I didn’t like his kind of talk. It made me feel uncomfortable, not quite nauseated but uneasy inside. He dug for maybe fifteen minutes and began to sweat as the sun got hotter. Finally he said, “All right, you take it a while,” and he climbed out. I went down the trench and started digging again, and Sebastian lit a cigarette and turned to stare at the house, muttering something I couldn’t hear. I hadn’t dug five minutes when I came to a fork in the burrow. I cleaned out both openings, told him what I had found, and asked which fork to follow. He wasn’t listening. I asked him again and he said, “What? Oh. Oh, it forks. I don’t know which one to follow.”

  “Maybe the dog would know,” I said. “Maybe he could smell which one.”

  But the dog had left, gone back to the house, probably, not interested in watching us dig a trench. Sebastian called a couple of times, “Hyah, Tuffy, hyah, Tuffy!” and gave up. Then he laughed. “Let me get down in that ditch. I’ll find out which one that bitch is in. By God, I can sniff one out as good as a dog can!”

  I climbed out and Sebastian got into the trench, down on his hands and knees first, then flat on his belly, and sniffed at both holes. He sniffed loudly, seemed to relish it, finally rolled over on his side and said, “Both of them got a lot of that smell!” He turned and sniffed again, drew a deep breath and held it, then let it out with a long, “A-a-a-ahh.” Then he got to his knees. “She’s in there, all right, one place or the other. Give me a shovel.” I handed him a shovel and he went to work, following the original burrow. The trench was down about four feet and now had to be widened so one could work in it comfortably. He began widening it, working fast and breathing hard. He paused to catch his breath and said, “When we get through, we’re going to have to put this dirt all back. Fill the damned hole so a steer won’t fall in and break a leg.” He resumed digging, but after a few shovelfuls said, “But like my old man used to say, that’s what holes are for. To be filled.” He laughed to himself and went on digging. And a few minutes later he said, “You better start on that side tunnel. It smelled pretty hot, too. She’s got to be in one or the other.” So I started digging out the branch burrow, and there were both of us tossing dirt out like badgers digging out a prairie dog, except that badgers toss the dirt out behind them and we tossed it to one side.

  Every now and then Sebastian stopped digging and got down and sniffed at the burrow he was working on. Each time it seemed to give him new energy. In the next half hour we had dug at least ten feet of the main trench and close to five feet of the side trench. He got down and sniffed again and announced, “I’m really close now!” He was excited, breathing hard. He dug a few more shovelfuls, undercutting so he wouldn’t have to move so much dirt, then sniffed again and reached in with one arm. He thrust his arm in full length and shouted, “Got her! By God, I’ve got her by the twat!” And an instant later he yelled in pain and pulled back his arm, got to his knees. His hand was bleeding from several small punctures and two long scratches. He stared at it an instant, there on his knees in the trench, then sucked it clean and spat out the blood. He grabbed his spade, thrust the handle into the hole, felt for a moment, then jabbed viciously. There was a whimper of pain. He jabbed again, and when he drew out the spade the handle had blood on the end. He sucked his hand again, cursed loudly, then got to his feet and dug furiously. I saw two eyes and a small black muzzle only a few inches back in the hole, and a small mouth half open, front teeth broken, jaws bleeding. Sebastian tossed a shovelful of dirt out of the trench and suddenly the kit fox leaped free just as he was poising the spade for another jab at the soil. She shot between his legs as he jabbed. The spade caught her tail, cut it clean a couple of inches from its base. It lay there, still bushed, as her feet spurted dirt in her desperate rush.

  Sebastian yelled, spun around, slapped at her with the spade. But she was out of the trench, running. He flung the spade at her, leaped from the trench, screaming, “You dirty bitch! You bitch, you bitch!” But she was gone, down the slope away from the house, toward the long shallow draw to the east. She dodged, zigzagging, but she seemed to waver as she ran, off balance, almost staggering, without the plume of a tail to steady her. But she went down the long slope and around a little shoulder of the hill and was gone. And when I looked down into the trench again, that length of her tail was just a hairy bit of bone and skin that oozed a drop or two of blood onto the yellowish, sandy soil.

  Sebastian had sworn himself hoarse. He picked up his spade, came back to the trench, glaring at me, and began digging at the side burrow. I got out of his way, stayed out. He dug for another half hour and opened the burrow to what must have been a kind of nesting room, big enough to hold several young foxes. There he found two kits, almost fully grown. Unlike their mother, they made no attempt to escape. They cowered back in the burrow, and Sebastian simply clubbed them to death with the back of the spade, then dragged them out and stomped them.

  He was red-eyed by then and covered with sweat, his shirt dark and wet and muddy from the dirt he had wallowed in as he got down to sniff, his pants wet with sweat almost to his knees. He got out of the trench, looked at me almost surprised, and began shoveling the dirt back in. I helped, from the opposite side. We shoveled dirt back into the trench for twenty minutes or so. Then he paused, looked back at the house, and said to me, “Finish filling this in.” He looked at the house again and said, “I’m going to take her, and really make her like it!” and he set off toward the house, dragging the long-handled spade. A few minutes later he took the spade up in his hand and carried it, the long handle forward, and threw back his shoulders and laughed so loud I could hear him two hundred yards away.

  I finished filling the trenches and went down the slope to the barn, where I left the spade. Then I got on my bicycle and started back to town. As I passed the fenced dooryard at the house, the two little girls stood at the gate and watched me. There wasn’t a sign of anybody at the house, and the shades were drawn in the windows of the room at the back. The little girls looked frightened, but they didn’t say a word, didn’t wave or make a gesture. They just stood there at the gate, wide-eyed, and watched me ride past and out the long lane to the main road.

  It was midafternoon when I got home. I had taken my time and stopped twice to get things back in place. The first time, I
thought I was going to vomit, but I didn’t. I thought at first that it was the heat getting to me, so I sat with my back against a fence post for ten minutes or so and cooled off. Then I felt better. The second time I knew it was George Sebastian, and I got that one straightened out enough to live with.

  I got home and Mother got me a sandwich and a glass of milk and asked, “You didn’t get a kit fox to make a pet out of?”

  “No. The mother got away, and he killed the two young ones.”

  “Probably just as well.”

  Father put aside the Denver Post long enough to ask, “Didn’t they give you any dinner?”

  I shook my head.

  “That’s funny. George Sebastian never struck me as tight-fisted that way. She didn’t either.”

  “Did she have nice things in the house?” Mother asked.

  “I don’t know. I didn’t go in.”

  “You had quite a visit, didn’t you?” Father said, and he went back to his newspaper.

  “That’s about what I expected,” Mother said. “He’s got a look in his eye I never did like. She’s probably got to watch him like a hawk. Well, next time you’ll know better.”

  There were no more questions, and there was no need to tell them what happened. I wasn’t altogether sure myself what happened, really. All I knew was what I did and saw and heard.

  Eventually Nell Bainbridge had her baby, a boy. Dr. Neff delivered it, and when the most eager gossip in town got up her nerve to ask him who the baby looked like, he said, “I couldn’t really say, Ellie.” And then, as Father told the story to Mother and me, the doctor said, “Looked a good deal like you did when you were born. Except we tucked it in for you, but we left his dangling.”

  Mother stiffened and blushed. “That sounds like him! Probably been drinking when he said it.” She tried to hide the little smile of amusement with a frown, but it lifted the corners of her mouth.

  Jim Bainbridge filed the paternity suit, naming a young man from Kansas who had worked at odd jobs around Flagler for a couple of years. The defendant hired a lawyer from Burlington who was known for slick practices. When the case came to trial the lawyer summoned two livery stable loafers and a farm hand from down near Seibert, who all swore that they “had relations” with Nell. The prosecution challenged the character and veracity of all three witnesses, but the case was lost on a basis of reasonable doubt. And even those in town who had said the suit was a disgrace to the community declared that the verdict was a disgrace to the court. But Jim hadn’t the money to appeal it.

  Father printed a brief item on an inside page when the suit was filed. He gave the decision a few more lines but an equally inconspicuous place in the paper. But a few weeks later, when the defendant found that he was no longer wanted in Flagler and went back to Kansas, Father printed the item on the front page and headed it “Wes Jones Leaves Town.” Which closed the case, at least as far as the proprieties were concerned.

  16

  JULIUS GUNTER AND WOODROW Wilson never knew it, but they saved The Flagler News. I didn’t know it either, and Mother didn’t, though she probably had her suspicions. If Wilson hadn’t won the presidency and Gunter the governorship in November of 1916, Father probably couldn’t have kept the paper going another year. He had built it up, doubled its circulation, almost doubled its advertising. But he started from virtually nothing, and he had to buy new type and new equipment. He kept putting money back into the paper, but he couldn’t get ahead. W. E. Hall’s front-page ad pulled him through the first winter, and he hoped that the good wheat crop that second summer would boom things enough to carry the News along. It didn’t, because the political campaign created too many uncertainties.

  The campaign was crucial because everybody seemed to wait and see how it came out before spending their money. There wasn’t any increase in advertising, and the job printing slacked off. The other paper in town, the Progress, didn’t gain much advertising either, but it didn’t seem to be having any problems. Ed Gibson, the owner, wasn’t in debt the way Father was. And of course he was on the same side of the political fence as the old-timers, the Republican side. If they favored either paper, they were going to favor the Progress.

  Father, both a newcomer and a Democrat, had a mortgage and interest to pay, and he had no reserve. Interest could run as high as fifteen percent, but he was considered a good risk and had to pay only ten. But even that could add up to a heavy load. And if you missed an interest payment the bank could call the loan and sell you out. The bankers in Flagler were Republicans. But Father kept saying, in print as well as privately, that the county, the state and the nation needed a Democratic victory in November. Both state and county had gone Republican in 1914. By September Mother was saying that if the Democrats didn’t win this year Father certainly would be out in the cold. Father gave her a wry smile. “I’m not exactly getting sunstroke now.” And he didn’t change his stand. By then he was in so deep he couldn’t have backed out if he had tried.

  I was aware of the political campaign, but I wasn’t involved. From the first week in September I was absorbed almost totally in school and football. Schoolboys, even high school students, didn’t then think they could run the government or dictate to the school.

  There were major changes at school that year. Until then it had been essentially a rural grammar school trying to do the job of a high school. Even the new building hadn’t changed the ideas and organization it housed. But that summer the Conleys resigned and the school board hired an energetic, athletic young man from Iowa as principal. Robert Ward had been teaching in Nebraska and was eager for the administrative job. His sister, Phyllis, was hired to teach Latin and English classes. And Amelia Alexander, daughter of a local lumber dealer, was hired to take charge of the science courses and the domestic arts, as they were called—cooking and sewing for the girls, carpentry and cabinetmaking for the boys. Some people laughed at the idea of a woman teaching boys how to use a hammer and a saw, but we boys soon found that she was a better cabinetmaker than anybody else in town. I made a cedar chest in her class that we still cherish, not because I made it but because it is a beautiful piece of work.

  With the changes, I had to explain all over again why I wanted to take six courses instead of the usual four. But Professor Ward—he acquired the title with the job—cut me off before I was really well started with my argument. “Go ahead,” he said, looking at my record. “You didn’t seem to have any trouble last year. You’ll be a full-fledged senior next year, and if you keep your grades up you’ll be eligible for a scholarship.” Then, almost in the same sentence, it seemed, “We are starting a football practice next Monday and I want to see you there.” Professor Ward, it turned out, had been an all-conference tackle in college. He was going to coach us. Leon Lavington wouldn’t have much time to spare from business, but he would help.

  So while Father and most of the other grownups in town were deep in politics, we boys in high school were deep in football. Professor Ward got enough boys out to have a complete scrub team, but he drilled us hard on fundamentals, just as Leon Lavington had. “You will win as many games recovering fumbles,” he said, “as you will trying to run tricky plays. Learn to fall on a fumble, and learn to hold on to that ball. Learn how to block and tackle hard enough to bring your man down. Once you learn those things you won’t need more than a dozen simple plays.”

  So we learned, adding skill to knowledge from the year before. We had lost only three players by graduation, but one was our quarterback. After trying several of us at that position, Professor Ward moved Hugh Quinn—we all called him “Irish”—up from fullback and gave him the job. Irish hadn’t much imagination and he used the same pattern of plays over and over, but we won games just the same. The other team always saw the play pattern Irish was following by the time the second half began, but by then we usually had at least two touchdowns more than they did. And we were a good defensive team—we hung on long enough to win.

  We won our first game, against
Limon, by two touchdowns. We beat Hugo by a touchdown and a field goal. Then we went to Akron, eighty miles north of Flagler, up on the Burlington railroad. Akron had a good team, with a Negro halfback who was a deadly tackler and a hard, fast runner. But we were lucky. They fumbled the opening kickoff, we recovered on their twenty-yard line and went in for the touchdown. Late in the first quarter they fumbled again and we recovered at midfield, and Irish carried the ball on an end run that went in for another touchdown. But in the second half that Negro halfback ran all over us. He made three touchdowns, the third one with only four minutes left in the game. But Karl Pearson, one of our tackles, blocked the extra point. On their kickoff we took the ball back almost to midfield. Our first two plays got nowhere. The next play in Irish’s pattern was up the middle, but I told him before we lined up that I thought I could get clear if he would throw one as far as he could. I knew he could throw a pass almost fifty yards. So when Akron massed to block the expected drive over center I went as far and as fast as I could downfield. Irish faded back, waited maybe four seconds, and really threw that ball. I caught it like a punt, so I wouldn’t drop it, and had only five yards to go for the score. Nobody was anywhere near me. Then I kicked the extra point, and that was the game.

  The Akron halfback was the first Negro player we had faced. There weren’t any Negroes in our area, probably because the dry-land flats had no appeal to them. There certainly wasn’t any sense of discrimination that I was ever aware of, against any minority. One of our tackles was a half-blood Indian, and Hugo had a full-blood Indian. Nobody seemed to care or bother about your color or race or religion. We were so unaware of such matters, in fact, that during my first year in college I asked a boy named Finklestein what nationality he was. He had asked me if my name wasn’t Swedish, and I said it was Scotch-Irish, that the Swedish version had a “u” in place of the “a.” Then I asked about his name, and he looked at me, stunned, and demanded, “Are you trying to be funny?” I said no, and he said, “I’m a German Jew.” I said I had one German grandfather, and he asked, “Jewish?” I said, “No, I don’t think so,” and he laughed at me, that half-sad, half-derisive laugh, and said, “You would know. Believe me, you’d know.”

 
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