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High wide and lonesome g.., p.19
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       High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, p.19

           Hal Borland
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  I put Mack away. When I went to the house Mother was making a pot of coffee. Father was sitting at the table, still in his overcoat. Mother handed me a pail and said, “Get some sheep chips and start a fire in the heater. It’s chilly in here.”

  Father started to get up. “I’ll get them.”

  “You,” Mother said, “stay right where you are.”

  “But I feel so useless!”

  “You aren’t here to do chores,” Mother said. “You’re here to rest and get your strength back.”

  I got the chips and started the fire. It began to warm up, Mother poured the coffee, and I took Father’s overcoat and hung it up. He kept watching us, and finally he said, “I can’t quite believe it. It’s been so long that I was away.”

  “It’s been six weeks,” Mother said.

  “And now it’s almost the end of November. Winter is coming on.”

  “Don’t start worrying about winter.” Mother said. “We came through last winter all right.”

  “I wanted this winter to be better. I wanted to have plenty of coal, and—”

  “We’ve got sheep chips. And there’s more where those came from.”

  “And things to eat.”

  “We’ve never starved yet.”

  “Do you know how thin you are, Sarah?”

  “You should see yourself.”

  He glanced down at his skin-and-bones arms, the big pleat in the waistband of his trousers. He had lost more than twenty pounds.

  “I don’t want to be in debt.” He said it quietly, but from down deep inside.

  “I don’t either. But the doctor said he would wait.”

  “Not forever. And you must be down to your last dollar.”

  “Does it matter now? Oh, Will, stop worrying! I did enough worrying for both of us. But now you’re home. We’ll pay up, somehow.” She went to the stove for the coffeepot. “More?”

  Father shook his head. “It doesn’t taste right. Oh, it’s not your coffee. It tasted the same way in the hospital. I guess something happened to my taste.”

  Mother smiled. “Then I guess we can save on coffee.” She glanced at the clock. “It’s almost milking time, son.”

  Father said, “I’ll do it,” and started to get up.

  Mother gave him one look. He eased back into his chair. I put on my coat and went to the barn.

  That’s the way it was going to go, and we knew it. Father wanted to do everything, and he hadn’t the strength. He complained that we were babying him, and he would sit for half an hour at a time, just staring out the window. But his strength began to come back. Thanksgiving morning he pumped a whole pail of water and had to stop for breath only once. But I had to carry it to the house for him.

  Mother and I thought things were going very well. When we sat down to dinner on Thanksgiving Day Mother said, “Oh, it’s good to be here, all three of us!” Then she laughed. “But I don’t know whether we ought to eat or not.”

  “Why not?” Father asked.

  “It’s chicken and noodles again. Don’t you remember what happened the last time I killed a hen and made noodles for you?”

  But Father didn’t think it was funny. He took the bowl and helped himself. He picked up his fork, then laid it down again, he said, “I don’t know whether we’re lucky to be out here or not, but I know I’m glad to be alive.” His voice choked up. He waited a moment, then said, “Maybe I don’t know the right way to say it, but I’d like to say how thankful I am.”

  He bowed his head, and so did Mother and I, and I said to myself, “Thank you, God.”

  We never said grace. It just wasn’t our way. Mother once said, “If you’re not thankful to have something to eat, saying you are out loud doesn’t change things one bit. I think my thanks every time I sit down at the table.” We all did, except once in a while, as on that Thanksgiving Day. We didn’t often talk about God or religion, though back in Nebraska we always went to church and Sunday school. And mother taught me my prayers. But we weren’t the praying-in-public kind of people. My most fervent prayers were said in the morning, when I first went outdoors and saw the world, all clean and bright and brand new and full of wonder. Or sometimes at night, when the stars were all out or the moon was there. And I didn’t bow my head to say them; I looked up at the sky or out across the plains. Religion wasn’t the way you talked; it was the way you lived, and mostly it was the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments.

  Father rested and ate, and we made things easy for him, but when it snowed the day after Thanksgiving he began to worry again. It wasn’t much of a snow, only a couple of inches, and it made the whole country bright and shimmery. After the dry summer we were glad to have it. But Father said he hated to see the snow come so early. He went out and looked at the haystacks and the corn in the bin. Mother asked what was the matter, and he said, “We haven’t much laid by for the winter.”

  “You,” she said, “are worse than your brother Walt. Unless Ida put up two hundred quarts of fruit and vegetables, and unless he had twenty bushels of potatoes and ten hams in the cellar, he was sure he was going to starve to death. We could have got fat on what Walt had to throw out every spring.”

  Father smiled, but it was a wan smile.

  “Stop worrying,” Mother ordered. “With only one horse and one cow and the two calves, we’ve got enough.”

  But Father said, “You aren’t fooling me one bit. When I wasn’t here you didn’t eat the way we’re eating now.”

  “I’m trying to put some flesh on your bones. You heard the doctor say you had to build yourself up.”

  “What are we going to eat later? Do you expect to live on credit at the Gary store?”

  “No,” Mother said. “We’ll eat cornmeal mush, if we have to. Or parched corn. Or something. We’ll eat what we’ve got. And be glad to have it.”

  Father ate, and he gained strength day by day. The deep gauntness began to leave his face. His arms began to get some of their old strength. He was strong enough to walk up to the cornfield and back. He tried to milk Daisy but had to give up when he was half through. His hands and wrists just didn’t have the strength. But a few days later he tried again, and milked right down to the stripping.

  Except for what it meant to him, it didn’t matter whether he was strong enough to do the chores or not. It was enough just to have him there, up and around and alive. You don’t appreciate things like that until you’ve faced the possibility of never having them again. So we all looked after him, even Fritz, who didn’t try to jump on him. Even Mack, the old cow pony.

  The first Saturday he was home, Father and I went to the barn to hitch up and go to Gary for the mail. Father said he would harness Mack. He tossed the harness on and buckled the belly band before I remembered about the crupper. Even if Father remembered that Mack kicked when you put the crupper under his tail, he probably couldn’t get out of the way.

  “Wait a minute!” I said.

  Father was holding the crupper, reaching for Mack’s tail. “What’s the matter?” he asked.

  “He kicks when—”

  Father lifted Mack’s tail. Mack jerked up his hoof to kick. Then he looked around, saw Father, and put his hoof down. Father buckled the crupper and asked, “Who kicks what?” Then he remembered. He slapped Mack on the rump and exclaimed, “You old devil, are you babying me too?” He stepped back and said, “You can bridle him.”

  It took me five minutes to get the bit in Mack’s mouth. He hadn’t changed at all, but he must have known that Father must be treated rather special.

  It was the middle of the next week when old Pat Thompson came to see us. Pat was the horse ranchman from over on Badger Creek, the old-timer who had come from Texas long ago, had been a buffalo hunter and finally settled down on the Badger, an eccentric hermit who rode about the plains like a ghost out of the past. He had never been at our place before.

  Father and I were at the barn, doing the morning chores. I was forking out the manure and Father was spreading fresh
bedding. And this strange horseman came down off the flats to the south. His big bay horse watched the barn with ears pointing, but the rider slouched in the saddle, a hunch-shouldered man turtled into a short brown coat and wearing a low-crowned flat-brimmed hat tilted low over his eyes. He was wearing smooth leather chaps.

  He rode into the barnyard and I saw that he was an old man. A very old man. He must have been at least seventy. His face was leathery beneath a white stubble and he wore a long gray mustache that drooped at the ends. His eyes were half covered by eyelids that sagged at the corners so you saw only a little triangle of eyeball.

  He drew up and said, “Howdy,” and eased himself sideways in his saddle.

  Father said, “Hello.”

  The old man glanced inside the barn, looked at the haystacks, gave the fenced field up the slope one quick glance, and said, “So you’re still here.” His voice was a soft drawl.

  “Yes,” Father said. “What can I do for you?”

  The old man didn’t answer. He dropped his looped reins over the saddle horn, reached inside his coat for tobacco and papers, and rolled a cigarette. He flicked a match with his thumbnail and lit it. Then he said, “You’ll starve out. They all do.”

  That didn’t need an answer.

  He nodded toward the school section and Louie’s windmill. “So will Gerrity,” he said. “He’s lost a pot of money this year. This is cattle country. Cattle and horses. Grass. If God Almighty had meant it to be plowed, He’d of plowed it to begin with. Nor,” he added, “did the Almighty mean it to be stunk up by sheep.”

  Father said, “You seem to know. Won’t you get off and have a cup of coffee?”

  The old man said, “I ought to know. I’ve seen enough of ’em come and go. ... I had my coffee. ... I first come up this way in the seventies, with a herd from down on the Brazos.”

  “That,” Father said, “was quite a while back.”

  The old man stared at him a moment. His eyes were an almost milky blue, eyes that had looked a long way and a long time. “Before I was his age”—he nodded toward me—“I was riding herd. Before I was as old as you, I’d fathered four kids and fought a war.” He shifted in his saddle as though easing a painful leg. “Where you from?”

  “Nebraska. My name’s Borland.”

  “I’m Pat Thompson.” He stared at Father again and asked, “What the hell did you come out here for?”

  Father flushed. “I came out here to stay,” he said.

  The old man’s mouth gave a flicker of a smile. “You’ll go back. Like the rest of them. Go back and live on your wife’s folks.” He spat in disgust. “You’ll dry out, or you’ll blizzard out, or you’ll just quit.”

  “No,” Father said.

  The old man looked beyond the barn, up the hill and into some remote distance. “I seen the buffalo go,” he said, “and the Indians. Grass is growing over the Indian graves, and it’ll grow over mine, and it’ll grow over yours, if you stay. That’s all this country is, grass.” He focused his eyes on us for a long moment, then lifted the reins, squared himself in the saddle, and turned his horse. He rode back up the slope to the south at a slow half-lope, riding as though he had been in the saddle ever since the first saddle was invented by the Romans.

  We watched him out of sight. Then Father got another forkful of bedding. He put it in the barn and stood in the doorway a long time, staring out at the plains. Then he went to the house and talked to Mother for a while. When he came back I heard Mother singing, and I knew that Father had made up his mind to something.

  It’s a strange and wonderful thing, what a few words can do to a man’s spirit. Father had been pretty well discouraged. He’d been about ready to call off the whole homestead venture, pull out, move to town, and start all over again. He had his conscience to fight, of course, because he wasn’t one to leave a job half finished. But he had a sense of responsibility, too. He thought it was too much for Mother to take, with all the setbacks we’d had. Then old Pat came over, his mind set on discouraging us. All the ranchmen were the same way. John Gerrity had tried it while we were digging the well. If we hadn’t found water that afternoon, Father might have kept thinking about Gerrity’s words and begun to defeat himself right there at the start. Instead, we struck water and Gerrity’s words didn’t mean a thing. Pat Thompson, too, came at the wrong time.

  When Pat Thompson talked about grass growing over Father’s grave he didn’t know how close Father had come to that grave, or how recently. He wasn’t scaring Father one bit. And when he said, “You’ll go back, like the rest of them. Go back and live on your wife’s folks,” he was calling Father a quitter. You can call a cowardly man a coward and make him afraid and ashamed, but if you call a brave man a coward and a quitter you usually get him fighting mad.

  Long afterward I mentioned Pat Thompson’s visit to Father and recalled what he had said. Father said, “I remember that, vaguely. I can’t remember a word he said, but I know he made me mad as a wet hen. If he said what you say he did, it sounds harmless enough now. It even makes sense. I probably got mad because I was thinking about leaving the homestead, for your Mother’s sake. Wasn’t that just a little while before Christmas?”

  I said yes. He said, “Maybe I wanted to quit, and it made me mad to have him call me a quitter. The odd thing is that you don’t have to be a coward to quit, sometimes. The outsider never knows all the reasons.” He smiled. “Anyway, we didn’t quit that winter. Maybe we can thank Old Pat Thompson.”

  The day he had to go in to see the doctor again was a brittle winter morning. Mother said she wasn’t going, that Father and I could go in alone. So we wrapped ourselves in horse blankets and put the lantern at our feet and started long before daylight.

  Dawn came about halfway to Gary, one of those winter days when you can almost see into the beyond. It was getting close to the winter solstice, and when the sun finally came up it was away off to the south; but the horizon seemed twice as far away as usual. The world, on the plains, spreads out like forever at any time of year, but it is even bigger in winter. There aren’t any heat waves or mirages to dazzle the skyline and catch the eye. It’s just a clean line, away off there, with the deep blue of the sky above and the tan-brown of the earth beneath, and very little in sight anywhere. Old men who have lived there a long time, like Pat Thompson, have some of that distance in their eyes, like sailors who have known the ocean’s distances for years.

  It was that way all the way to Gary that morning, and it was a little that way the rest of the trip to Brush, except that the houses and barns and fences on the farms changed it and made you see and think about short distances.

  Then we came to the hard road and drove up the long aisle of cottonwoods. It looked twice as cold with all the naked trees as it had out on the flats without any trees at all. We crossed the tracks and went up Main Street and turned across to the doctor’s house.

  The doctor took Father into his office and I waited in the waiting room, thinking how different it seemed in daylight and when Father wasn’t down the hall in a white bed, so sick he didn’t even know me when I stood beside him. Then he and the doctor came back, and the doctor was saying, “You’re doing fine. By the first of the year you should really be on your feet again.” He turned to me. “You and your mother have been taking good care of him. Keep it up.”

  Father said, “I’ll clean up the bill just as soon as I can.”

  “When you can,” the doctor said. “Everybody seems to have bills, even us doctors.” He took Father’s hand. “Good luck.”

  It was almost noon. Mother had said we should get something hot to eat on a cold day like this, at least a bowl of hot soup. We drove back down Main Street to the café. While I was tying Mack at the hitch rack the editor came out of his office, just across the street, and shouted to Father, “Come on over here! I want to see you.”

  We crossed the street to the newspaper office and went inside where it was warm. I sniffed at the ink and paper smell, and I saw Father d
o the same thing. The editor said, “Good to see you back on your feet. How are you?”

  Father told him what the doctor had said, that he was doing fine.

  “Do you want to go to work?” the editor asked.

  Father said, “Yes.”

  “How soon can you start?”

  “How about the first of the year?”

  “I need you right now,” the editor said. “My man’s out. And all this Christmas rush on my hands.”

  Father drew a deep, long breath. “Tomorrow?” he asked.

  “Tomorrow will be fine. I wish you could start right now.”

  “I’ve got to go home,” Father said, “and get my clothes. And tell my wife.” His voice was shaky. “I may not be much good for a week or so. You know that, don’t you? I doubt that I could lift a form yet. But maybe I can be of some help.”

  “You can set type. You can feed the jobber. You’ll come in tomorrow, then?”

  “Yes. For how long?”

  “As long as you want to stay. I’m sick and tired of a booze fighter who buys a bottle every time I get a rush of work.”

  “It’ll be the middle of the morning,” Father said, “before I can get in. It’s quite a drive.”

  “And look,” the editor said, “I’ll fix up a cot for you in the back room, if you want it. Then you won’t have to put out money for a hotel room.”

  Father nodded. I knew he was afraid to try to answer. I saw his nostrils quivering, his teeth clenched on his lip.

  We went back across the street to the restaurant and had hot soup and crackers. Father’s fingers were trembling at first so much that he could hardly hold the spoon.

  Mother had done the milking and the chores, so we sat down to supper as soon as we got home and put Mack away. Father told her that the doctor said he was doing fine, that everything was all right. And then he said, “I’ve got a job.”

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