High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, p.21Hal Borland
I saw the thread of smoke and I remembered the funny stories. Then my rabbit jumped, just out of range, and I knew he was getting tired of running. Next time he might let me get close enough for a shot. I hurried on. Then, just as I topped the rise, another big white-tail lunged out of the snow right in front of me. I was lucky. I led him just right and he went end over end. I’d got my first rabbit with the new gun.
I was running down the slope to pick up my rabbit when I heard a man shouting. I looked up and there was the Bromley house just below me, a little white-painted house, and a tall stooped man was standing in the doorway shouting, “Hello! Hello! Come on in! Merry Christmas!”
I picked up my rabbit, proud as a young Indian who had killed his first fat buffalo cow, and went down to the house.
Mr. Bromley had on a store-bought suit and a white shirt. I left my rabbit in the snow outside the door and went inside. The house was as big as ours, but it looked smaller because the bedroom was partitioned off, not just curtained, and there was a rug on the floor and lace curtains at the windows. It was full of savory cooking smells. Mrs. Bromley, a tall slender woman with gray in her hair, had on a city dress. Both of them were old folks; they must have been in their forties. She greeted me and took my mackinaw and she urged me to sit down.
I sat on the edge of a chair beside a bookcase and a few minutes later Mrs. Bromley brought a cup of hot cocoa and a plate of cookies. Then they both sat down and began to ask questions.
I drank cocoa and ate cookies and told them who I was, and that Father was a printer, and that we came from Nebraska. And I told them about my new gun and the rabbit.
“You are rather young, aren’t you,” Mrs. Bromley asked, “to be out hunting alone. Aren’t you afraid you will get lost?”
I smiled. I never got lost.
Mr. Bromley said, “You are talking to a young plainsman, Alice, not to a city boy. A direct descendant of Daniel Boone and Kit Carson.” He smiled.
I don’t know what she answered, but she didn’t laugh. I wasn’t paying much attention, because I had seen the books in that bookcase beside me. There must have been thirty or forty books. One group of them were all alike except their titles. They were large red books with figures of Indians and frontiersmen outlined on their covers.
Mrs. Bromley was talking to me, asking, “Do you read?” and I remembered my manners.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “I read everything. I’ve read hundreds of stories in magazines Jack Clothier gave me. He’s a cowboy from over at the Lazy Four, but he’s gone to Wyoming now.”
“Have you ever read Cooper?” she asked. “James Fenimore Cooper.”
“No, ma’am.” I wasn’t sure whether that was the name of a book, a magazine, or an author.
“Or Scott? Or Dickens?”
“I think you might like them,” she said. She took one of the large red volumes from the shelf and handed it to me. I opened it and began to read The Last of the Mohicans.
I don’t know how long I read. At eleven a boy can immerse himself completely in Cooper newly discovered. Mr. and Mrs. Bromley, their house, the plains themselves, were completely forgotten. But at last I heard Mrs. Bromley saying, “Here’s another cup of cocoa to warm you on your way. You must start home before dark or your mother will worry. And you might get lost.”
I put down the book and drank the cocoa, still in the woods with Hawkeye and Uncas. Then I put on my mackinaw, and Mrs. Bromley gave me a little package of cookies for my pocket. And she asked, “Would you like to take a book with you?”
I didn’t have to answer. She saw my face. She took the book I had been reading, wrapped it carefully, and said, “Put it inside your coat and keep it dry. When you’ve finished it, bring it back and get another.”
I picked up my shotgun, remembered to say my thanks, and started for home over the hills where the purple shadows of early dusk already lay deep across the snow.
I was halfway home before I emerged from the story of Uncas and a land I had never seen or heard of, before I really saw the Colorado plains and felt the numbing cold of that Christmas evening. Then I remembered that I had left my rabbit beside the Bromley doorway. The first rabbit I had shot with my new gun.
The quick of a boy’s being is close to the surface I began to cry, excusing the tears because my hands were cold and I was bitterly disappointed. I wanted so desperately to be a man and a provider. Father had given me the gun so we could have meat for the table.
The thoughts of boyhood are at once so simple and so complex, and the feelings can be so deep, so immediate. He hasn’t yet calloused himself with adulthood. The world is at once close about him and remote as the stars; it is friendly, and intimate, and hopelessly baffling. He hasn’t yet made his compromises with it.
I had just discovered a world of horizons beyond horizons, a world I couldn’t see even from the top of the haystack on a clear day. I had found something that would shape my whole life. It was too late now to go back for the rabbit, and as I trudged on I began to sense my discovery, a discovery even bigger than the plains. The tears stopped and I hurried on home, hugging both the gun and the book.
FATHER WENT BACK TO Brush the morning after the Christmas that wasn’t going to be Christmas but that turned out to be the best Christmas I could remember. And on the Saturday before New Year’s Day we had our first blizzard of the winter.
I thought it was going to be a beautiful storm, and it started out that way. But after about five inches of snow the wind got the better of the snow and all we got was a blow. It cleaned off the hilltops and piled four-foot drifts all over the place. By skirting the drifts I was able to ride Mack over to the Bromleys’ and return The Last of the Mohicans and get The Pioneers. The trails were too drifted to get out in the buggy and I wanted go to Gary on horseback, but Mother said there was no need of it. She said next weekend we’d get there, and by then she would have enough butter to trade for a pound of coffee and some salt pork. So I went out on foot and shot a couple of jack rabbits.
I wanted winter to be exciting. I wanted some real storms. Summer storms were fun, and they gave you a shivery feeling sometimes, when the great, towering clouds boiled like foam in a kettle and lightning flashed in all directions and the thunder made the hills bounce. But there weren’t many summer storms like that. And with the exception of the Christmas storm, when Dick brought me home from the big sheep camp, last winter hadn’t amounted to much. I wanted a real rip-tearing blizzard.
I got it.
The Saturday when we were all set to try to get to Gary in the buggy it began to snow in midmorning. It was just a slow, quiet snowfall with hardly any wind, but Mother said we’d better not start out in it. I thought she was being too cautious, but by the middle of the afternoon I knew she was right. The wind came up and it really began to blizzard.
Dark came early, and I started the chores. The wind was still gusty when I began the milking, but by the time I was through it was roaring. I headed for the house with the milk, and the minute I got out of the shelter of the barn the wind almost knocked me down. The pail was only half full of milk, but that wind blew almost a third of it right out of the pail. I made it to the house and said, “We’ve got a real storm this time!”
Mother said, “I’m afraid so. We’d better bring in some extra sheep chips for the night.”
I said I’d bring them in when I finished the chores, but she said, “We’ll get them right now,” and she started to put on her coat and overshoes.
“You’d better stay here,” I said. “That wind is whooping.”
She laughed. She wasn’t afraid of wind or weather. She tied a scarf over her head and took a fuel pail and we started for the barn. We barely got around the corner of the house when the wind hit her. It blew her skirts against her legs and knocked her feet right out from under her. When I ran to help her, both our pails blew away. I helped her to her feet and the wind blew us down the slope to the w
I had to chase those pails halfway up the slope on the far side of the draw. When I started back the air was so full of snow the light in the window at the house was only a faint, distant glow. This was really a blizzard.
I got back to the pump and told Mother she’d better go back to the house; I’d bring in the chips. She said she came out after a pail of chips and she was going to get them. And, she did, though the wind blew her down twice more before she got to the barn. I helped her back to the house, then finished the barn chores. By then it was drifting so much that I had to wade waist deep in snow to get to the door, and I stopped and got a shovel to take in the house. If this kept up we might have to dig out by morning.
While we ate supper the wind sifted snow in around every window and made such eddies in the air that the flame in the lamp flickered and smoked. We hung old quilts over the windows to break the gusts of fine snow and we stuffed a towel under the door. Mother put the hot flatirons in our beds and I tried to read for a while, sitting with my feet in the oven. But the fire died, sucked right up the chimney, and I went to bed. The wind was shaking the house so much that the dishes rattled on their shelves.
It snowed and blew all night. When I wakened the next morning there was a little drift of snow on the edge of my bed, and when I stepped down I went into a drift a foot deep on the floor. There was a drift under every window in the house. We ate breakfast before I tried to get to the barn. When I opened the house door I found a solid wall of snow. The drift there was six feet deep.
We knew it was still blowing. We could hear it. But we didn’t know it was still snowing until I tunneled through that drift at the door and got into the open. It took me an hour to get clear, and it was still snowing. It was eleven o’clock when I reached the barn and got the door open there.
Everything was all right at the barn. The snow had banked it and the animal heat made it almost as warm as the house. I did the milking and rationed out the extra hay I had got in the day before and started back to the house. I had to dig out every path because they’d all drifted full again. Before I got to the house the milk was full of slush, half frozen though it had been warm when I left the barn.
The wind eased off somewhat that evening, but the snow continued. The second day I had to dig out all over again. And that day I had to water the stock. They couldn’t go any longer without it. Mother said she was going to help. She’d learned what the wind could do to her skirts, so she put on a pair of Father’s overalls, belted them at the waist, tied them at the ankles, and put on overshoes, coat and scarf. She carried kettles of boiling water and thawed the pump while I got on Mack and broke trail from the barn to the well. When we had a trail opened through the shallower drifts, Daisy and the calves followed to the well, drank, and were very happy to get back in the barn. And that afternoon I had to find some way to get hay. The only way was to dig a path to the stacks, carve off a big slice of one stack with the hay knife, and carry it into the barn.
Before I got the hay into the barn I began to wonder if I really wanted a blizzard. My arms ached, my ears stung, I was sweating like a horse and when I stopped to catch my breath the sweat seemed to turn to icicles in my armpits. But I got the hay in, and I did the evening chores, and I shoveled my way back to the house, where the big bowl of steaming pinto beans was worth all the sweating. The Mexican wants his beans hot with chili peppers. The New Englander wants his sweet with molasses and salt pork. We had ours simmered for hours with no seasoning but salt and swimming in their own brown juice. To us they were bread and butter and meat and potatoes, as they were to many an isolated homesteader. On a cold, blizzardy night they were more than sustenance; they were warmth and comfort and a promise for tomorrow.
That was our pattern for four days, wind and snow and shoveling, and pumping and milking and carrying sheep chips. Soft snow turned to ice crystals which, wind-driven, bit cheek and knuckle and made you a sentient part of the storm. It became a kind of game to see how much cold you could take, how much wind you could face, how much snow you could shovel. And, as the storm progressed, it even added comfort to the house. Until the snow banked the house to the eaves the stove cast so small a circle of warmth that I could stand with my hip pockets practically on the stove lids and still see my breath. Then we were drifted in and I could go clear across the room before my breath was visible.
The snow probably stopped on the third day, though we couldn’t tell. There were flashes of sunlight, but the air was still full of snow, undoubtedly blown from the hilltops. It seemed impossible that the snow could continue to drift, but it did. It seemed that the drifts had been built as high as they could stand and all the ridges had been swept bare. But they weren’t. The wind continued to reshape the world.
But at last the wind eased away and the plains lay white and silent. And new—white, gleaming, pristine new.
Long later I was to hear people talk of pioneer strengths and virtues. Hearing such words I think of the homesteader alone in a blizzard world, as alone as the last man on a Himalayan mountaintop. He mustered strength when strength was demanded, but even more important was the dogged determination to survive. If pioneers died young—and many of them did—it may have been because they didn’t know how or when to quit, and because they faced stern demands with often meager resources. I doubt that it was a matter of heroics, though heroism is a difficult word to define. Man persists because it seems important to persist, to go on living.
But during that winter we had no time, and no reason, for such speculation. It was important to us to go on living, and the odds weren’t too high. We even had a sustaining necessity. When a cow or calf was bawling for water, there was only one thing to do—get water to them. If it meant shoveling a path for the hundredth time or thawing the pump for the fourth time that day, the pump had to be thawed and the path shoveled. When the mangers were empty they had to be filled, and one could think later how easy it would have been to pitch the hay down from a mow if there had been a mow. At the moment, the thing to do was shovel and wallow a way to the haystacks and get the hay into the mangers. And when those essential tasks were done the body itself made its demands, for food and rest. So one ate beans and felt a warm and satisfying comfort, and one slept, despite cold or ache; and the next day one went back to the demanding rounds.
Then the storm frayed out into a deepening calm and a stupendous white cold silence, and the outer demands relaxed enough for one to see this new world and absorb its wonder.
After such a storm, the world of the plains is a strange and magnificent place. It is as though all the earth-shaping forces have been at work on a vastly quickened scale of time. Hills, valleys, hollows and hummocks have all been reshaped to a new pattern. The wind has had its way, at last, the wind that is forever trying to level the hills and fill the valleys. It has been able to work its will with an obediently plastic, though transient, material.
Our wind had been somewhat thwarted, by a fence post, a haystack, even by a tall weed stem. It had swirled and eddied, and we could see all the swirls and eddies frozen in the snow. Change was everywhere, but there was one constant, the soft curve. You saw it in the eddy around a fence post, the swirl around a haystack, the shape of a hill, the flow of a valley, and in a thousand variations of the amazing curl of a snowdrift.
The wind had all but obliterated the house, the barn, the fences, the haystacks. They were still there, but they had been merged into the drifted landscape, their own shapes lost and distorted. There was virtually no trace of human tenancy except the smoke from our chimney. Paths were drifted over. Fences were buried under the drifts. Haystacks were only larger drifts, as were both the house and the barn. And we, the human survivors, had been driven back, in a way, into a cave; the house was little more than a cavern in a hillside of snow. There we had survived as a kind of human outpost in a world suddenly engulfed in a new ice age. An ice age, though, that would
The initial vacancy of that world was beyond belief. It was a vast white void, without a wing in the sky or a moving paw upon the snow. In time, of course, in another day or two, the prairie quail huddled in bunch grass caves beneath the drifts would work their way out. Field mice, tunneling under the snow from one seed storehouse to another, would come to the surface and explore. Jack rabbits would break through the drifts that sheltered them beside the soapweed clumps. Prairie dogs would open their snow-sealed burrows and yip at the white and hungry world. And coyotes would come from their dens and make lean shadows on the starlit snow and send their hungry yelps echoing among the white hills. But now they were as snowbound as we were.
More so, for we could get out at least a little way. To the barn, to the stacks, to the well, to the chicken house. But we could no more have gone to Gary than we could have gone to London. Even the higher ridges, where the wind had swept relentlessly, lay under almost six inches of fine packed snow. And the first few hours of thin sunlight softened the snow’s surface just enough for the night’s deep cold to seal everything under an icy crust. A man in desperation might have walked to town, given luck enough not to fall and break a leg, but it would have taken several days. A man on horseback might have tried it, skirting the horse-high drifts; but within an hour he would have been as good as afoot, for the icy crust would slash and cruelly wound a horse’s legs.
We had to stay where we were.
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