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High wide and lonesome g.., p.20
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       High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, p.20

           Hal Borland
 
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  “No!”

  “Ed wants me. He saw me on the street and offered me a job.”

  “Oh, Will, isn’t that wonderful!”

  “I told him you’d take me in, first thing tomorrow.”

  “Not tomorrow! Why, you can’t—”

  “I told him I would start tomorrow. He needs me right away.”

  “But you’ve only been out of the hospital—”

  “I am starting work tomorrow,” Father said firmly. “It’s all settled.”

  Mother was silent a moment. Then she asked, “Just what did the doctor say? He didn’t say you could go to work yet, did he?”

  “He said I could go to work when I felt like it. Sarah, I told you just the other day, after Pat Thompson had been here, that I was going to get a job. That’s the only way we can stay, if I get a job and pay off the debt.”

  “Just two more weeks,” Mother pleaded. “Wait till the first of the year.”

  “Ed needs me now. Tomorrow. I have to go.”

  Mother cleared away the dishes. Then she got her needle and thread and began sewing on buttons and turning up frayed shirt cuffs.

  15

  THERE WAS LITTLE TALK at breakfast. Father said, “I’ll get out for a weekend now and then. Ed will let me off at noon Saturday once in a while and I can come out with Con.”

  “Not too often,” Mother said.

  “Now and then.”

  “Not in bad weather. You might not be able to get back.”

  “I’ll let you know ahead of time. I’ll have a letter waiting at Gary, and if I’m coming you can wait for Con.”

  Neither of them was saying what they wanted to say. Father didn’t want to go and leave us, and Mother didn’t want him to go, especially so soon. But we had a debt and it had to be paid. There were no two ways about it; you paid your debts. If you didn’t owe money, you could go on short rations and make out somehow, but when you owed a debt you got to work and paid it back. It was more than a financial obligation; it was a moral obligation. The man who died with debts unpaid had failed his family, for they had to pay them after he was gone. You paid your bills, you squared yourself with the world and, if you were thrifty, you put enough aside to pay for your final illness and burial. It was more than a custom; it was a way of life.

  So Father was going to work two weeks after he left the hospital. He couldn’t yet carry a full pail of water from the well to the house, but there were doctor’s bills to be paid. That was why Mother hadn’t argued too long or too hard last night. You can’t argue against your own deep convictions.

  We ate breakfast and I harnessed Mack and hitched him to the buggy and they started to Brush an hour before sunup.

  It was a raw December day and I thought before they left that I felt a threat of snow in the air. By midmorning I was sure of it, but it held off till afternoon. Then it began to come, a fine, slow snow with only a little wind. There was almost an inch of it on the ground when Mother got home soon after four.

  I put Mack away and did the evening chores and carried an extra pail of sheep chips to the house. The snow was coming harder and it was getting colder, but it was just a snow, not a blizzard. The wind hadn’t risen, and you don’t have a blizzard without wind.

  At supper Mother said, “Well, your father has a nice, warm place to sleep. And he promised he would eat regular meals at the restaurant. If he takes care of himself I guess he’ll be all right.” She looked at me, appraising. “I don’t think he could take the cold out here this winter, the way we can. He complained about the cold today, driving to town. And,” she added, “he never did care for beans.”

  I helped with the dishes, and Mother said, “I do wish he could have waited a little longer. Till the first of the year at least. But I guess everything works out for the best. We’ll make out. And by next summer we’ll be out of debt.”

  That was the important thing. I knew it as well as she did. Last winter we had just held on, waiting for spring. This winter we would hold on, waiting to get out of debt.

  The snow kept coming, fine and fluffy, till the next noon, five or six inches of it. Then the sky cleared and the cold clamped down. For a couple of days we kept both stoves going, the cookstove and the heater. Then Mother said, “If we keep on this way we’ll be out of fuel before winter’s half over. I think we can get along with one fire. We’ll keep the cookstove going and we’ll let the fire in the heater go out.”

  After that we had a fire in the heater only when Father was at home. We piled the covers on the beds at night and Mother always had flatirons heating to put at our feet, and we didn’t even try to hold fire overnight. I started the fire again when I got up in the morning, and the bean kettle simmered all day long. Beans take a long time to cook, especially at that altitude where water doesn’t boil as hot as it does in Nebraska.

  The next Saturday the Christmas box from Nebraska was waiting for us at Gary. And there was a letter from Father. He said he was feeling fine. They had more work at the shop than they could handle, and he was working overtime. Ed had him doing all the color work, and most of the Christmas printing was color work. He would be home the following Saturday, and since Christmas came on Monday he would have two days at home and then go back with Con Hallahan on Tuesday morning.

  On the way home from Gary I kept thinking about the box from Nebraska and about Christmas. It had come along so fast that I hadn’t realized it was just over a week ahead. Finally I asked Mother what I should make for Father’s present this year.

  “Don’t try to make a thing,” she said. “Nor for me either. Your Father and I decided not to give any presents this year. We’ll have the box from back home, and that’ll be all. Next year, when we’re out of debt, we’ll have Christmas again.”

  I just sat there in the buggy, staring past Mack’s ears at the road ahead. I felt numb all over. It wasn’t the presents. It was—well, it was just Christmas. I felt almost as bad as I did the Christmas when I was six years old. Father took a new job that winter, in a town fifty miles from where we had been living, and he had to go ahead and start work the week before Christmas. For some reason, Mother and I couldn’t go till the day after Christmas, and Father couldn’t get home. So Mother, thinking it was the best thing to do, told me there wasn’t any Santa Claus. The blow of that Christmas, even though I had more presents than usual, hurt and ached for months and even years. It still hurt a little. And the old ache came back when she told me there wasn’t going to be any Christmas this year.

  The more I thought about it, the deeper the hurt grew. I was too big for tears; anyway, the hurt was too unreasonable to be eased by crying. But the disappointment was an ache that started in my throat and reached all the way down to my toes.

  Mother said, “Don’t you know, son, that you are giving us the best Christmas present anyone could ask?”

  I couldn’t answer.

  “Without you,” she said, “I couldn’t stay out here on the homestead. And your father couldn’t go to town and pay off the doctor bill. We’d have to give up the homestead.” Then she said, “I’m sure there’s something nice in the box from back home.”

  But the dull ache in me kept right on aching. I wasn’t doing the chores just to make Mother and Father happy. I was doing those things because they had to be done. When I milked Daisy I didn’t think: This is my Christmas present to Father. When I pitched a forkful of manure onto the steaming pile beside the barn door I didn’t think: This is my present to Mother, so she can stay here on the homestead. I did those things because they had to be done and I was there to do them.

  But you don’t grow up all at once. And even after you’re grown up you have hurts and disappointments that ache and hurt; and you can’t always get rid of them by telling someone else. You learn to live with them, and eventually you grow some kind of scar tissue over them.

  I ached for several days. Then I began to accept it. Next year we would have Christmas. This year we would have the box from Nebraska. With another ch
ildish fairy tale for me. All right, I told myself, so there wouldn’t be any Christmas this year. And I half wished it would snow and blizzard so much that Father couldn’t get home. Then we could forget Christmas till next year. But that was a selfish wish, and I knew it, and it didn’t make any sense at all. Father wanted to come home for Christmas, and I wanted him to, and so did Mother. That was going to be Christmas this year, just having Father at home and well.

  And something began to straighten out inside of me. Christmas wasn’t presents. It wasn’t even talking about Christmas and singing Christmas songs. It was something that happened deep down in you, some happiness you had or those around you had. And the inner ache began to fade.

  We went in late, the Saturday afternoon we were to meet Father for Christmas. Mother said that if we went late we wouldn’t have to wait so long, but I knew that she meant that we wouldn’t see or hear so much about Christmas at the store and maybe feel bad about it.

  When we got there we walked in and it looked and smelled and sounded just as it had the year before. But I felt like a person watching someone else’s party, standing off to one side. The Christmas that everybody was talking about wasn’t our Christmas. The cranberries and candy and oranges and nuts were pretty, but they weren’t Christmas. Not our Christmas. The only reason we were there was to meet Father, not to have any part of that Christmas they were talking about.

  We had just got warmed up when Con arrived, whooping and hollering, and people surged out to meet him. Con leaped down and carried the mail pouches inside and the men began unloading the boxes. Father climbed down and hurried to Mother and kissed her and went back and got his suitcase and a package and put them in the back of the buggy. We all got in and arranged the blankets, with the lantern at our feet, and we started home.

  Mother asked about the job. She said Father looked worn out.

  “Sure I’m tired,” he said. “Been working overtime every night this week. But now I’ve got two whole days to rest up. I’m not going to do a lick of work all the time I’m home.” He laughed. “Why should I, with a big fellow like this around? How are you, son?”

  It was just the way I hoped it would be. We weren’t having Christmas, but we were having two days with Father at home. I hoped they wouldn’t sing Christmas songs, the way they did last year.

  But they did. Just as soon as they had asked and answered all the questions, as soon as we got out in the sand hills and the dark settled around us with all the stars, Father started singing. Mother joined him. And pretty soon I was singing too. We sang all the way to Ketchem Holler.

  When we got home I started a fire in the heater before I did the chores. And after supper Father talked about the printing office. He told about the three-color jobs he had done, and how Ed said he was the best color man he’d ever had working for him. “I taught Ed a few things about underlay,” he said. “And I showed him how to put a mask on the grippers so you could do three-color work with only two colors. He’d never heard about it.”

  Mother said, “I guess he appreciates a good man when he sees one. Have you any idea how long the job’s going to last?”

  “I sounded him out the other day,” Father said. “I said I’d like to take a week off in the spring and get a corn crop in. He said he thought we could arrange that. So I judge he expects to keep me on.”

  They were still talking when I went to bed.

  It was snowing when I got up the next morning and built the fires. Not hard. We hadn’t had a real blizzard yet that winter, and this didn’t look like one. But at breakfast Mother started worrying, afraid we would be snowed in and Father couldn’t get back to town. It kept up all morning. Then, in midafternoon, the snow stopped and the sky cleared. Before we went to bed that night Father went outdoors and came back and said, “A fine day tomorrow.”

  “How do you know?” Mother asked.

  “Stars are shining. Anyway, it can’t snow on Christmas!”

  It was the first mention of Christmas.

  Mother said, “I’ve known it to. Remember last year?”

  Father laughed. “That was last year. This year is different. This year is going to be better.”

  I went to bed telling myself the same thing. This year was going to be better. And next winter we would have Christmas again. Then it hit me. This was Christmas Eve.

  All that wall I had built up began to crumble. It was Christmas Eve and there wasn’t going to be any Christmas. Tomorrow would just be Monday. I gritted my teeth and bit my lip and pulled the covers over my head. I scrooched down and put my feet on the hot flatiron wrapped in a towel and I fought the tears.

  I thought of Gary and the people talking and laughing, full of Christmas. I thought of all the Christmas things. I had heard without listening and I had seen without looking, and it was almost too much to fight down. Then I heard the sound of Father’s voice and slowly the hurt began to relax away. Tomorrow was only Monday, but Father was home. That was our Christmas this year, Father being home.

  The next morning we ate breakfast without anybody saying “Merry Christmas.” Father looked out the window and said, “It is a nice day, just like I said it was going to be.”

  I said it was pretty cold out. Mother said it wasn’t as cold as yesterday. The ice on the water pail wasn’t as thick, she said. She cleared away the dishes and she said, “Well, we might as well open the box from Nebraska, I guess. Go get it, son.

  I brought the box and Father opened it. There was a necktie for him, this time a blue one. And a pair of blue socks. There was a knitted scarf for Mother and a pair of matching mittens. There was a pair of embroidered pillow cases. There was a stocking cap for me, a red one, and mittens to go with it. And the book. This year it was The Sleeping Beauty. And a peck of black walnuts, half a peck of hazel nuts, two glasses of grape jelly and two glasses of currant jelly. None of them was spilled or broken.

  Mother looked at the gifts. “They’re nice,” she said, “every one of them. A lot of work went into them.” She picked up one of the pillow cases. “This looks like Eva’s work.”

  She took her things and put them away in her dresser. Father put his in his suitcase and came back and put a long brown-paper package on the table. It was the package he had with his suitcase when he arrived.

  Mother asked, “What’s that?”

  “Just something I picked up.” Father couldn’t hide his grin.

  “Will, you didn’t!”

  “Open it,” he said to me.

  I started to tear the brown wrapping paper. Mother said, “Will, you promised.”

  “It’s not a Christmas present,” Father said. “It’s something I meant to get when I got back from the mountains.”

  I tore the paper enough to reveal a gun barrel. I ripped the rest of it. There was the stock. A shotgun, a .12-gauge shotgun. And a box of shells for it.

  I stood there speechless.

  “Know how to put it together?” Father asked. He showed me. I stood there holding it, and he said, “It’s not for Christmas. It’s for—well, for last summer. And for taking care of things while—while I was sick.” He turned to Mother. “Ed paid me a little extra for the overtime, and—and he can use it this winter to—well, to help out at the table. It’s—it’s just a second-hand gun.”

  I don’t know what Mother said, or what she looked, but it was all right. I couldn’t take my eyes or my thoughts off the gun. Then Father said, “Let’s go out and try it.”

  We went out to the stack yard. Father penciled a mark on a fence post and I fired the first shot. It kicked because I didn’t have it snug to my shoulder, but I put a dozen pellets around the mark. Then Father tried it and said, “It’s a good gun.” He handed it back to me, and I fired one more shot with the butt up tight to my shoulder and it hardly kicked at all.

  Father said, “Keep it clean. Drop a string through it and tie a rag on the string and pull it through the barrel. Clean it every time you get home after you’ve been hunting. Never crawl through a fenc
e with a shell in it and never have it loaded in the house.”

  I said, “Thank you. I wanted a shotgun more than anything else in the world, but—”

  “You earned it, I guess. I suppose you’ll want to go hunting.”

  “Can I?”

  “Wait till after dinner and I don’t think your mother will mind.”

  I gave him the gun to take into the house and went to work on the chores. If I didn’t do the best job of choring ever done it wasn’t because I didn’t try. I did everything that had to be done and quite a lot of things that had waited weeks for doing. I was still at it when Mother called me to the table at eleven-thirty. She had dinner ready early just for me.

  I cleaned my plate before either she or Father was half through, and Mother said, “All right. You’re excused. Your father says you want to go hunting. Put on your overshoes and mackinaw and run along. At least, you do know how to handle a gun. Which way are you going?’

  “I think I’ll go over west.”

  “Just so we know. Be careful.”

  It was a glistening cold day, cold enough that the snow hadn’t melted. It lay soft and almost powdery, about five inches deep. I climbed the ridge back of the house and started west.

  It’s strange, when you’re not out after rabbits you see dozens of them, and when you are after them you can go five miles and not see one. That day, of course, they were lying close because of the cold. I was clear over beyond where Dick and Shorty found the camas before I saw the first jack. He was a big white-tail, and he jumped out of a clump of bunch grass twenty yards ahead of me. He ran like mad, quartering away from me, but I got a shot at him. I didn’t lead him enough. The shot kicked up snow just behind him. Then he really ran.

  I reloaded and took after him, hoping he would settle in and give me a chance for another shot. But he wasn’t settling. I trailed him two miles and saw him twice, both times far out of range.

  I was at least three miles from home when I saw a thread of smoke over the next rise half a mile away. It must be from the Bromley place, I thought. The Bromleys were the Chicago people who came out with the strange farm implements. Mr. Bromley was the man about whom people had joked, quoting his ridiculous questions and no doubt making up as many as he really asked. We still hadn’t met them, because they had been using the road over west and doing their trading in Fort Morgan, which was eleven miles west of Brush.

 
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