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Country editors boy, p.2
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       Country Editor's Boy, p.2

           Hal Borland
 

  Without warning, a man across the aisle leaned toward us and said, “Pardon me, but I would like to hear about those ants. May I?”

  Mother was startled and embarrassed. She looked at him and forced a slight smile. He was a stocky man, middle-aged, in a dark suit and a high, stiff collar. He looked citified except for the deep tan on his face and hands. But he had a friendly look and a reassuring smile. Mother turned to me and said, “Go over and talk to the man about those ants, if you want to.” She said the word “ants” as though it was “rattlesnakes.”

  So I went across the aisle and the man made room on the seat beside him. “Those are harvester ants, the big red prairie ants, aren’t they?” he asked.

  “Yes, sir,” I said. “And they bite like fury.”

  “So I have read. Have you ever examined a cross-section of their mound, dug into one?”

  “Lots of times.” And I told him how the main tunnel, starting near the top, branches off into store rooms, some filled with grass seed, some with big white eggs, some with nothing at all in them. I told him about the smaller black ants that usually live there, too. “And once,” I said, “I found half a dozen little blue beads on an ant hill. Indian beads.”

  “Wonderful!” he said. “Maybe there was an Indian buried under that hill. But more likely just a lost moccasin.” Then he told me that the black ants are captives, slaves, and how the red ants are divided into castes: fighters, harvesters, nurses, builders, and all that. He explained that the eggs, as I called them, were pupae, immature ants already hatched from the eggs. He told me their Latin name, which I wrote down: Pogonomyrmex occidentalis. He knew more about those ants, without ever digging into a mound, than I thought I could ever learn.

  He told me he was a biologist, from some college back east, in Illinois. He used the word “entomology” and explained that it meant the study of insects. He had been out in Utah, studying Mormon crickets. He asked how I knew so much about the big red ants, and I told him about the homestead and how I spent a lot of time watching ants and grasshoppers and tumblebugs and prairie dogs and weasels. Finally he said, “You have a good start toward being a naturalist. Is that what you plan to be?”

  I said I wasn’t sure what I was going to be, but my father was a printer who had just bought his own newspaper and was going to be a country editor. Maybe I would be one too.

  “Whatever you do,” he said, “never stop watching and studying the life around you, plants and animals and birds and insects. They are the ones who really own this world. Man just thinks he does.”

  I said, “Thank you, sir,” and as I said it my voice broke and I felt foolish and embarrassed and wished I had on my knickerbockers. But just then the conductor came through the car shouting, “Limon. Next stop Limon. There’ll be a fifteen-minute stop and you can get coffee and sandwiches in the station café.”

  The train slowed down and nearly everybody got off, and the man who had talked to me offered to treat us to something to eat. But Mother said, “Thank you, my husband is waiting to take us to supper when we get to Flagler.” Mother never took favors from strangers, and she wasn’t going to waste money for a sandwich in a railroad café, so she and I left the crowd and walked down the long station platform.

  At the far end of the platform I looked out across the plains to the south and east and felt more at home than I had since we moved to Brush. Brush was a green town with tree-lined streets, set in the midst of alfalfa and sugar-beet fields, a river valley town where you had to go several miles to see and feel the plains. From the station platform in Limon I could see cactus in bloom, and soapweed clumps, and rolling flatlands all the way to the horizon. Limon was a plains town.

  We walked the length of the platform twice, and then I noticed the big dark cloud bank in the east. It was rising fast, black and boiling, though the sun was still shining low in the west. Mother saw it too and said, “I hope it’s just rain, not wind and lightning.” She hated lightning. She said the thunder made her head ache. Even as we watched there was a flicker of lightning, far off and quick as a snake’s darting tongue but dazzling against the darkness of the clouds. “We’d better get back to our seats before the crowd,” Mother said, so we got on the train again.

  The storm didn’t break till we had left Limon. It struck first as wind, fierce gusts that made the train almost shudder. The smoke from the locomotive raced past, swirling and billowing, only a shade darker than the clouds. Then the first big, close flash of lightning split the clouds. I was sitting next to the window and even I winced. The thunder, only a few seconds later, made the train’s windows rattle. Mother caught her breath and gritted her teeth. She closed her eyes and clenched her fists. Lightning flashed again and again and the thunder boomed. Then we were in the rain and I could hear its roar above the noise of the train. It didn’t splash on the windows; it washed down them in a flood. Looking out, it seemed as though we were running along the bottom of a river. But the lightning began to ease off, as though the rain quenched it, and Mother opened her eyes, drew a deep breath, and whispered, “There!” Then she said, “I expect they need the moisture. Maybe it’s a good sign.”

  The train slowed for another stop, Genoa. It was the smallest town yet, only a grain elevator, a couple of stores, and a few houses. I could barely make them out because the rain was still coming down in a torrent. We went on and Mother said we were almost there, only one more stop, so I got the valises down from the overhead rack. By the time we stopped at Arriba the torrent had begun to ease off into hard, steady rain. Arriba was only a little bigger than Genoa.

  Beyond Arriba I could see the plains again, low hills rolling in great swells that looked as I imagined the ocean must look. The buffalo grass was green and fresh looking, washed by the rain, and there were quite a few big fields of wheat, much greener than the grass and much taller. “It looks like good country,” Mother said. Then, “I hope your father is there to meet us. I wish I hadn’t packed my umbrella.”

  The locomotive hooted for a crossing, the whistle sounding very loud as it echoed from the low clouds. Then the train began to slow down. The conductor came through the car, saw us, grinned, and shouted, “Flagler, metropolis of Kit Carson County! Flagler.” He stopped at our seat and said, “Here, I’ll take your bags,” and we followed him to the vestibule at the end of the car.

  The train wheezed to a stop at a long, low, red station just beyond a big red water tank. The conductor opened the iron floor-door with a clang, swung down our valises, set the metal step on the station platform, and held a hand to Mother. And out of the rainy dusk under the station’s broad eaves came my father, a short, stocky man in a dark suit, a stiff white collar, and a soft black hat. He took the valises, set them under the eaves out of the rain, then hugged Mother and put out a hand to me. “You got here!” he exclaimed, and he led us into the station.

  The train pulled out and the agent came in, with Fritz. Fritz saw me, came leaping and whining and thrust his head into my arms, then saw Father and barked and dashed about the waiting room, trailing his leash. The agent laughed and Father said, “George, I want you to meet my wife. And my son.” As he said it, Father looked at me and his wide mouth opened in surprise. He had seen my long pants. But he didn’t say a word about them.

  Then another man came in, a farmer-looking man in overalls, lean and gaunt, and Father said, “Sarah, this is Ora Groves, the drayman. He’s going to take us up to the hotel.”

  Mr. Groves said, “Glad to meet you. Kind of muddy underfoot so I brought the carriage.” He spoke with a trace of Missouri drawl. He picked up the two valises and went out again, and the agent said to Father, “Well, I guess you’ve got everything. Your woman, your boy, your luggage, and your dog. Got the bill of lading for your furniture today, so it looks like you’re really going to stay.”

  “The rest of my life,” Father said. “All the rest of my life.”

  2

  IT WAS ONLY A few blocks to the hotel, which was on Main Street, but we w
ent around several corners to get there and I could see, even in the deep dusk, that Flagler was different from all those other small towns. Main Street didn’t lead to the railway station; it didn’t even come all the way down to the tracks. The rain was still falling, and the street was so muddy the horses’ hoofs made sloppy, sucking noises. But I saw that there were cement sidewalks, store buildings on both sides, and houses, most of them with lighted windows, stretching away beyond. Main Street was dark except for the hotel and the café across the street from it. The hotel was a square two-story building whose second floor extended out over a broad porch across the front. On each side of the central entrance was a big window with a table inside on which was an oil lamp with a frosted globe big as a basketball. The light from those two lamps glowed on the porch and reached out into the street.

  Mr. Groves drew up at the curb, and Father handed Mother down and hurried her up the steps onto the porch. A little man with brown chin whiskers came out to greet them, and I heard Father say, “This is Henry Blancken. He’s going to take care of us till we get settled.” I was getting the valises out of the back of the carriage, which actually was a buckboard with a flat top, trying to hold on to Fritz’s leash and hoping I wouldn’t get my new pants wet and muddy. Suddenly there was a jerk on the leash, a yelp, a snarl, and I was in the middle of a dogfight. A big, black, slick-haired dog had come out of nowhere, challenged Fritz, and Fritz wasn’t taking anything from anybody. They leaped and snapped and yelped and I was tangled in the leash and tripping over the valises. I shouted, Mother cried, “Oh, for goodness’ sake!” and Mr. Blancken laughed. Then Mr. Groves was on the sidewalk with me, right in the middle of it. He slapped Fritz across the muzzle, booted the black dog in the ribs, said, “Get out of here, Nig!” And like that, it was all over. Nig ran and Mr. Groves, as though nothing had happened, picked up the two valises, set them on the porch, and drove away.

  Fritz was still bristling, but I got him up onto the porch and calmed him down. Everybody was talking at once. Mr. Blancken, who had a slight German accent, said, “Come on in. My wife kept supper warm for you, but first you want to wash your face. Come, I show you your room.” He led us into the lobby and up the open stairway to an upper hall lit by oil sconce-lamps. Ours was the corner room on the right, facing the street. He turned up the oil lamp on the varnished oak table at the front window and said to Mother, “My best room.”

  Mother looked around and said, “It’s a very nice room.”

  I was in the doorway, Fritz at my side. Mr. Blancken looked at us and said, “The dog can stay for now, just so he don’t get on the beds. My wife give me fits for that. We’ll find a place for him later. What’s his name?”

  “Fritz,” I said.

  “No! Fritz, that is my brother’s name.” He was still chuckling as he left us.

  The room’s two windows had white lace curtains and green roller shades, and on the floor was a big linoleum rug with red roses on a tan background. There were two chairs, one a rocker, two iron beds, and a varnished oak commode. On the commode’s white marble top were a big china wash bowl and a matching water pitcher, white with sprigs of red roses. In the cupboard beneath were a big enameled slop pail and two chamber pots sprigged with roses to match the pitcher and bowl. The heads and feet of the beds were of white iron rods in elaborate scrolls and each corner post had a bright brass knob. The beds were covered with bright patchwork quilts.

  Mother took off her hat and coat, looked around again, and said, “This must be the most expensive room in the hotel.”

  “It is,” Father said.

  “How much did it cost?”

  “Not a cent.”

  “Will Borland,” Mother exclaimed, “I’ve never sponged on anybody and I don’t intend to start now!”

  “We’re not sponging,” Father said quietly. “I just don’t have to lay out cash for it. Henry takes it out in trade.”

  “You said you wouldn’t go into debt, except the mortgage on the paper.”

  “I’m not going into debt. I’m swapping what I’ve got for what I need. I’m not laying out cash, which I haven’t got, for things I can swap advertising space for. No need to get upset. I’ll explain the whole thing later. Let’s get washed up and go down and eat.”

  Mother shook her head, but she poured water from the big pitcher into the bowl. “I just don’t want to go further into debt. It’s so hard to get out… I feel gritty all over, from the train.” She washed her face and hands. Then I washed and poured the water from the bowl into the enameled slop pail.

  The dining room was back of the lobby, a big low-ceilinged room lit by two hanging lamps with red shades. At one side was a long table with chairs for at least twenty places. On the other side were half a dozen small tables, each with four chairs. The long table and all but one of the small ones had oilcloth covers patterned like red-and-white checked tablecloths. All had places set with plates upside down, cups bottom up in their saucers, knives and forks beside the plates, spoons in spoon holders that matched the big cut-glass sugar bowls. At the back of the room, near the door to the kitchen, one small table had a white cloth and the plates and cups were right side up. That was our table.

  As we sat down a chubby little woman with a red face and hair drawn back into a tight knot came in from the kitchen. She hid her hands under her gray gingham apron. Her blue eyes were full of shyness. “My wife,” Mr. Blancken said, “the cook.” She bobbed a greeting like a polite little girl, though she must have been at least five years older than Mother, maybe even forty. “So good to know you,” she said. “I hope you like chicken and dumplings.” And she vanished into the kitchen. She returned almost at once, bringing the food.

  First was a huge bowl of stewed chicken and dumplings, yellow with fat and steaming hot. Then a bowl of canned peas in a cream sauce. Then a bowl of snowy mashed potatoes, a heaped plate of soda biscuits, a fresh pound of butter with an acorn-and-oak-leaf pattern from the round butter mold. There were two kinds of jam, strawberry and peach, three kinds of pickles, sweet, sour and mustard, big wedges of dried apricot pie with thick golden juice, a wedge of yellow cheese, a pitcher of thick cream, steaming black coffee. A feast.

  We spread our linen napkins and served ourselves. Mr. Blancken drew back the fourth chair and sat down to talk while we ate. I had just taken my first forkful when Fritz, on the floor beside my chair, sat up, sniffed, and whined softly. Mr. Blancken reached for a biscuit and said, with a wink at me, “My brother is hungry too.”

  Mother looked up. “No! Don’t feed him at the table!”

  Mr. Blancken was astonished. “You got rules, for the dog?”

  “He never gets fed from the table,” Mother said firmly.

  Mr. Blancken put the biscuit back on the plate. Then he got to his feet, took the leash, which was looped over the back of my chair, and said, “Nobody goes hungry here, not even a dog. Come, Fritz, you eat in the kitchen.” And they were gone before there could be further argument.

  A few minutes later Mr. Blancken came back, smiling again. “There. He gets his supper too. And he can sleep in the shed, where it is warm and dry. All right?” he asked Mother.

  “That,” Mother said, “will be fine.” I knew she was trying to apologize for being so sharp. But rules were rules.

  We ate, and Mr. Blancken talked about the big things happening in Flagler. Plans were under way for a new school as soon as the bond issue was voted. Several new houses were going up over in the east part of town. There was talk of dividing the county, making Flagler the county seat of this west end. The town band was all ready to give Saturday evening concerts. “I like a good loud band with oom-pah, oom-pah!” Mr. Blancken laughed. “Ed Schlote makes a fine oom-pah on that tuba.” And there would be orchestra music next winter. “Only question is who will head it, Anderson or Knies. You know those two,” he said to Father. Then to Mother, “They play the fiddle, both of them. Good. But they get along like—like your dog and that black Nig.” He chuckled. And, he we
nt on, crops never looked better. Prosperity. Lots of good wheat. Everybody would have money this year, if the rains kept coming. “Like this one. Your rain,” he said to Mother. “You bring us good luck, I think.”

  Mrs. Blancken appeared from time to time, to urge second helpings. Mother said it was a wonderful meal but she couldn’t eat another bite. I had a second piece of pie, Father had more coffee, and we went back to our room.

  Stuffed, tired, and full of the day’s events, I lay down on my bed, but Mother told me to get up and take off my shoes and my new long pants. She smoothed out the creases and hung up the pants, and Father said he hardly knew me when we got off the train. Mother told him the story of how we bought them, how much they cost, how she bargained the price down. Then she said, “Now, you were going to tell me about this way you have found to live without money.”

  Father rolled a Bull Durham cigarette and lighted it before he answered. “Well, you know how farmers come to town and swap butter and eggs for sugar and flour and coffee.”

  “I ought to,” Mother said.

  “Yes, you had to do it often enough on the homestead. Well, I haven’t got butter and eggs, but I have got advertising space. So I’ve been swapping that.”

  “You can’t pay paper bills that way. Nor the mortgage.”

  “There’s cash, and there’ll be more. I’ve taken in about twenty-five dollars a week, cash, since I’ve been here. I’ve got a little over a hundred dollars in the bank.”

  “There’ll be rent for the house.”

  Father shook his head. “I made a deal for that, too. Coo-coo takes the rent out—”

  “Who?”

  “Coo-coo, LeRoy Coo-coo. That’s his name. He spells it C-U-C-K-O-W, but he pronounces it Coo-coo. He owns a garage and half a dozen little houses. I rented one of them. It’s not much of a house, but there wasn’t much choice. And the rent will come out of advertising.”

 
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