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High wide and lonesome g.., p.2
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       High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, p.2

           Hal Borland
 

  Crisp cracker, tingly cheese, and mustardy sardine! It was even better than Nemaha Creek catfish and bread and butter! The oozy mustard filled your mouth, there was the crunchy taste of cracker and the warm sardine taste, and there was the clinging cheese taste, all combined. Cheese and crackers are good food on any hilltop; cheese and crackers and mustard sardines are a banquet.

  We banqueted till there wasn’t a crumb of cheese left or a drip of mustard in the sardine can. Then we lay in the shade under the wagon and watched two sand lizards no longer than my hand, lizards with green and sand-colored backs and yellowish white bellies and white throats that pulsated as they breathed. The horses snuffled, there was a breath of cool air in the shade, and somewhere in the distance a hawk on the wing screamed a faint, echoing challenge.

  Off to the south was another high hill, faint green and gleaming sand-gold in the sun. I sat up and pointed, and Father smiled and said, before my question came, “Still farther than that, son.” We hitched the horses to the wagon and went on.

  There were no more fences, now. On a distant hill there was a house, a lonely house without even a barn. Then, as we drove on and on, that last house was out of sight.

  The road had become a trail, two faint ruts in the greening sand grass. Then we came to the far edge of the sand hills and hard land was under us again. There we left the wagon tracks, turned southwest onto a high flatland. We climbed a long gentle slope and were alone in a vastness and a distance that were like nothing I had ever seen or imagined. In all directions I could see the horizon, not a hill between that interrupted the smooth, round bowl-rim of blue. It was like being a very tiny ant on a table under Mother’s very biggest mixing bowl, a blue and silver bowl and a tablecloth all greeny-tan and full of little wrinkles.

  Father drew up the horses for a moment and just sat and looked. There was an expression on his face that I had seen only once before, the first time he came home from out here and told Mother and me about the homestead he had filed on. But now it was even brighter, that look, and it had a kind of smile deep inside that didn’t show on his lips but only in his blue eyes. I looked at him, and I looked again at the distance, and I felt a kind of smile, inside myself, and a sense of awe that made me not want to say a word. It was so big, so vast, so new, so wonderful.

  Father took a deep breath and we drove on. It was like driving into a world nobody had ever seen before except God, a world God had just made, like the world in the Bible before there was an Adam or an Eve. Even the sounds were all new. The hub rattle of the wagon was muted in the deep mat of curled buffalo grass. The creak of the harness was not much louder than the squeak of a cricket in your pocket.

  We went on across the upland and came to a prairie dog town where the grass was thinned away and there were hundreds of pockmark holes and pimple mounds where the brown little prairie dogs, fatter and bigger than Nebraska squirrels, sat and yipped at us and jerked their skinny tails and dived down their burrows when the wagon came near.

  We came to a broad, shallow lake, melt from the winter snow and drain from the spring rain, that would shrink to a little mudhole in another month or two. It hardly looked like water, it was so clear, and under the water the grass was growing, much greener than the flat all around it. Ducks were there, scores of teal and mallards and even canvasbacks, swimming on the clear water over the green grass as though they were swimming in the air. And around the edges were brown curlew and snipe, with their long grotesque beaks and fat stubby bodies. And killdeers, with their black coats and white shirt fronts, running along in the shallows and bobbing and leaping into the air and crying kill-deer, kill-deer, kill-dee, dee as they flew a little way and settled again.

  We came close to the water and the ducks quacked in excitement and flailed the water and rose on beating wings, dripping so much that for a moment there was a flash of rainbow in the spray. They rose and circled and came back to land with outstretched feet and cupped wings, in a new rush of spray.

  Then the lake was behind and the meadow larks were singing, “Hello there, boy!” And little horned larks went spiraling up, right under the horses’ noses, singing as they flew high in circles. And when we came down a little slope into hidden hollow there was a rush of small hoofs and a flash of white rump patches as a herd of pronghorn antelope, surprised at their grazing, bounded away, stiff-legged and breathtakingly swift. They ran to the next hilltop, circled, came back behind us and, full of curiosity, followed the wagon for half a mile.

  Midafternoon and we saw another wagon coming toward us. Just the sight of it was startling. I felt the way Robinson Crusoe felt when he saw the footprints in the sand. We had been all alone in this tremendous world, and now there was someone else.

  The wagon was drawn by a black team, a shiny, black, arch-tailed team of horses, and on the wagon seat was a little man with a round face and stocky body and a grin that was a welcome itself. He drew alongside and stopped and shouted, “Hello, strangers! Where you heading?”

  Father said we were going out to our homestead to build a house.

  “Where you located?” the little man asked.

  “Section seventeen,” Father said. “North half of seventeen.”

  “Good!” the little man exclaimed. “I’m just a couple of miles from you. My name’s Farley, Jake Farley.” He reached in the pocket of his bibbed overalls. “I’ve got a house built and you can stay there till you get a roof up. I’m going to town a week or so. Here’s the key.” He tossed it over and Father caught it. “Make yourself at home!” and Mr. Farley relaxed the lines and his black team took off at a fast trot, the empty wagon rattling over the grass.

  We drove on, now following Mr. Farley’s wagon tracks, the only mark on that whole expanse of grass.

  The hills were covered with buffalo grass or buffalo mixed with grama, and the draws, or valleys, were carpeted with bluestem. Here and there were clumps of yucca with their stiff, evergreen, bayonet leaves; and now and then we came to a hollow where sheep had grazed the grass away and cut it out with their sharp hoofs and sagebrush had taken over, sage and greasewood. And here and there were big beds or scattered clumps of cactus, the flat-leafed gray-grizzly ones full of vicious thorns and the greener, less spined prickly pears. But even the yucca and the sagebrush and greasewood and the cactus were lost in the vastness of grass, the highest sagebrush wasn’t as high as the hubs on the front wheels of the wagon.

  “Good soil,” Father said. “That grass has been here forever. Even the sagebrush doesn’t do too well, because sage likes poor soil. The grass takes over even from the sage, when it gets half a chance.”

  At last we came to a hill that sloped down to Mr. Farley’s house, and we were at the end of the day’s journey.

  Mr. Farley’s house was set on the gentle hillside above a valley of bluestem already ankle-high with new growth. It was a long low building still new-pine yellow and smelling of pitch. Just down the hillside was a pump on a little wooden platform, a green pump so new the paint was still on the handle.

  We unlocked the door in one end of the house, the end with two windows. There was a partition across the middle. One end, the end we went in, was the house. It had a cookstove and an iron bed with brown blankets over a blue-striped mattress and a bench built under one window to eat from and a bench beside it to sit on. The other end of the building was the barn, with big doors and no windows and no floor and a manger built against the partition.

  We unhitched the horses and put them in the barn. Father took our box of groceries into the house and I went for a pail of water. Father built a fire in the stove with cow chips, dried cow dung, from the pile in the corner behind the stove. He opened a can of beans and fried a pan of bacon, and we sat down at the bench beneath the window and ate our supper.

  The sun set. We grained the horses. We walked to the top of the hill west of the house and Father pointed to the third hill beyond and said, “It’s over there, son. That’s where our homestead is.”

  We stoo
d there several minutes, looking. Father undoubtedly was thinking of Nebraska, of the job he had given up, the home town he had left, the warnings spoken and unspoken that had accompanied the goodbyes. A man with a job was supposed to stick to it, and a man in business for himself was honored and respected. For a man who left school at the age of thirteen, Father had done well. One of his brothers, I learned long later, had said he was a fool to pack up and leave. But then, he had been called foolish to quit the blacksmith shop and become a printer. He had gone his own way, following his own dream; and now that dream had turned to the land, to land of his own in a new country. He had worked nineteen years for someone else. Even as part owner of the paper back home he had been under a boss, the editor who taught him the printer’s trade and who would, as long as they worked together, always be the boss. He wanted to own himself, be his own boss, work out his own destiny. These things must have been heavy in his mind, as well as a sense of responsibility for a wife and a son, who had been uprooted from home, friends and security. He had moved from one job to another the eleven years he had been married, had lived and worked in half a dozen places including Omaha and Nebraska City before he returned to his home town. But always it had been a move from a good job to a better one, and always there had been a weekly pay envelope. Now he had quit a job to move to a new land, to take his chances there. But it was his choice, his and Mother’s.

  We watched the flare of the sunset and we looked out over the endless rolling plains. Then we went back down the hill, and even I felt that Nebraska was a long, long way from there. I looked at the horizon to the east, but I couldn’t see beyond the plains. In the eastern sky, maybe half as far away as Nebraska, was a long thin cloud all pink and lavender with reflected sunset. I wondered if they could see that cloud in Nebraska.

  We went down the hill and Father lit the coal oil lamp in the bracket over the table. The horses, just beyond the partition, were eating hay. I could hear the crunch-crunch as they ate, and old Dick snuffled as loud as though he was right there in the room with us.

  “Tired, son?” Father asked. “You should be. So am I. It’s been a long day, and we’ll have a busy day tomorrow. Let’s turn in.”

  I sat on the bed and took off my shoes. I unbuckled my overalls and unbuttoned my blouse, thinking that next year I would be old enough to wear shirts instead of blouses. Shirts like Father’s, that you had to take off over your head.

  Father stood at the doorway, looking out at the dusk. “Your grandpa,” he said, talking half to me and half to himself, “went all the way from Indiana to Nebraska in a covered wagon. With an ox team. He took a homestead, over near Vesta. Built a house and a mill, and fought wolves and Indians. Your grandpa was a crack shot, even if he did have only one eye. He used to shoot deer from his cabin door, they say. And they say he killed an Indian once, with just his hammer and a hook-nosed hoof knife. ... I guess it’s in the blood to keep moving west. But of all his kids, I’m the only one who got west of Nebraska.”

  He turned to me, still sitting on the bed in my underclothes.

  “Get under the covers, son. ... I suppose you’ll grow up and move on, too.” He sat down on the bench and took off his shoes. He sat there, wriggling his toes in his black cotton socks. He looked at me. “Your name should have been Will too, like mine and your grandfather’s and his father’s. Kind of slipped up, I guess, when we got to you. Your great-grandfather was from Ohio. Born in western Pennsylvania, but they moved to Ohio when he was a baby. When he grew up he moved to Indiana. That must have been back in the eighteen thirties or forties.… And now we’re away out here. Out here in Colorado.”

  He yawned and stood up and blew out the light, then came over and got into bed with me. I hugged him.

  “Lonesome, son?” he asked. “Miss your mother?”

  I did, but I said, “No.” I snuggled against him and drew up my knees and closed my eyes. Just beyond the head of the bed old Dick was snuffling and Shorty was eating hay and rattling his halter rope against the manger.

  Later, much later, I wakened. Outside a whole pack of wolves were howling. Howling and snapping and snarling right there at the door. I was in Nebraska, and there was a pack of wolves, and Grandpa Borland wasn’t anywhere around to kill them with his hammer and his farrier’s knife.

  I wanted to cry out, but I couldn’t. Then the wolves were quiet for a moment and I heard old Dick snuffle. I knew where I was, right here in Mr. Farley’s cabin in Colorado. Miles and miles from town. I was alone here in this house, and it was dark, and there were the wolves again, howling and trying to get in the door.

  I was frozen with fright. Then the wolves were quiet and I heard Father’s deep, slow breathing, almost a snore. I forced a hand to reach out and clutch him.

  He wakened. The wolves were howling again. I was crying.

  Father sat up. “Son! Wake up! You’re having a bad dream!”

  I clung to him, sobbing. “The wolves!” I whispered.

  Father put an arm around me and listened. Then he laughed. “Those aren’t wolves, son. They’re just coyotes. Two coyotes can make more noise than a dozen tomcats. They won’t hurt you.”

  I listened, and they weren’t wolves. And they weren’t at the door. They were coyotes, up on the hill. The panic eased away.

  We lay down again. Father put his arm around me and, knowing security, I went to sleep again.

  2

  WE LEFT JAKE FARLEY’S cabin the next morning to the song of meadow larks and with the bright sun of a new and wonderful day. We drove over the hill and across the flats, and jack rabbits leaped from the bunch grass and went galloping into the distance. One of the jacks looked as big as the antelope we had seen the day before. He wasn’t, of course, but Father said he must weigh at least ten pounds. He ran in great leaps, and every sixth or eighth leap he went higher than before and turned his head and looked back at us.

  We drove two miles west and came to the long slope that was the east side of Ketchem Holler. The broad valley began just there to our left and wound in a big sweep to the north. It was so deep that the morning shadow still lay on the blue-stem at the bottom. Beyond, to the west, another long slope marked the far side, and at the top of the slope the land flattened out again in a high tableland.

  We paused on the hillside and Father said, “There it is, son. That’s our land. Our east boundary runs along the far edge of the valley. Our land lies east and west, half a mile wide north and south and a mile long. A half section, three hundred and twenty acres of these old plains.”

  I had no conception of acreage or distance. To me, that whole expanse of hillside across the valley and the tableland beyond were ours. Father felt a kinship with the plains, but to me they were a personal possession. What are the boundaries of boyhood, anyway? That land, as far as I could see, belonged to me. The school section, with its great beds of cactus, were to become mine, and so were the flats off to the south, with their huge prairie dog town. So was the whole of Ketchem Holler, even John Gerrity’s big sheep camp where the prickly poppies grew lush in summer and the doves haunted the empty sheds in winter. So were the sand hills still farther to the north. The boundaries of boyhood, as I knew them for a time, were that thin, distant line of the horizon; and even that did not bound the dreams and the imagination. Long later, when I first saw the red stone house where Daniel Boone was born in the red hills of Pennsylvania, I understood why he had to go and see far places. That red stone house was set in a cup of hills, every one a challenge. Those who live with a far horizon in their boyhood are never again bound to a narrow area of life. They may bind themselves, but that is a different matter.

  As we went on down the slope and around a shoulder of the hill we came in sight of a windmill, the tall four-legged tower, the big, many-vaned wheel and the silvery fan. Beside the tower was a low, broad, galvanized watering tank. It was John Gerrity’s windmill, at his upper camp. Nearby were half a dozen big brown squares, the manure beds where the sheep pens had stood last seas
on. Gerrity leased the school section as a base for his upper camp and the flock based there grazed all the hills around.

  The windmill wasn’t running. It had been shut off and the pump pulled last fall, when the board-panel pens were taken away for the winter. Soon they would be back, as soon as lambing was over, and the mill would be running again.

  We drove past the quiet mill and the empty tank and on across the valley. The windmill, Father had been told, was several hundred yards east of the section line. We drove a little way up the farther slope and were sure we were on our own land.

  We got down and explored the hillside on foot. The buffalo grass, just beginning to show spears of green through its curled brown mat, was a thick carpet. Cattle had been there this spring, for there were cow chips everywhere. And there were bleached bones, buffalo bones, and a few buffalo skulls with the peeling dark gray horns still on their bony cores. The blue-stem in the valley was ankle-high and green as young rye. There wasn’t a tree, a shrub or a bush in sight. We hadn’t seen a tree since we left the farms near Gary, and even there they were cottonwoods that had been planted near the houses.

  Coming down from the high flatland to the west was a shallow draw that widened as it reached Ketchem Holler. Father and I walked up the north side of this draw. Father was appraising, talking aloud to himself. “A house here on the south slope will have the hill at its back for shelter in the winter. Water should be fairly shallow, for the well, here at the edge of the draw.”

  We went up the hillside a little way, to a flat little bench-land. There on the bench was an old buffalo wallow full of rain water, a saucer-like hollow ten feet across and a foot and a half deep. Buffalo once had wallowed in the mud there to drive off the flies and gnats, but in the years since the last buffalo were killed the wallow had grassed over. As with the lake on the flats, the grass under the faintly brown water was bright green. Father cupped a handful and tasted it. “It’s all right,” he said, and I got down on my belly and drank from the pool itself. It tasted like rain water.

 
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