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High wide and lonesome g.., p.22
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       High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, p.22

           Hal Borland
 
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  The morning the storm first eased Mother said, “That’s the last of the coffee. When you go to the barn, bring me in a panful of rye.” She parched the rye, ground it in the coffee mill, and brewed what her mother used to call “hard-times coffee.” It had the color of coffee, it was hot, and mingled with its taste of scorch and cereal there was a flavor that did resemble coffee. Best of all, it was as good without sugar as with, for we had no more sugar. But we still had beans, and we still had rye and corn to grind. We had milk, though Daisy was beginning to dry up, and we had an occasional egg. We had salt and we had a little lard. And I had a shotgun and fifteen shells for it.

  A few days after the storm stopped, when the rabbits had worked their way out of the soapweed drifts, I went hunting. But the same ice crust that bore me up, and made treacherous footing for anything afoot that lacked claws or hairy pads, made a racecourse for the jack rabbits. They could see me coming a mile away, and they loped over the crusts like shadows. I couldn’t get within a hundred yards of a rabbit, much less get a shot at one.

  For ten days the snow lay crusted. Then we wakened one morning to the bawling of cattle. I went outside and saw a thin and wavering band of a dozen steers working their way slowly toward the house from Ketchem Holler. They would walk a little way through the crusted drifts, then stop and bawl, and the snow behind them was dark with the blood from their ice-gashed legs. They would bawl and stand, hock-deep in the snow, and come on a little way, and stop again. Then those behind would crowd those in the lead and they would lunge into those knife-sharp drifts again.

  As they came closer to the house Fritz and I worked our way over the drifts toward them, I shouting, Fritz barking, trying to turn them back. But by then they must have smelled the hay. They milled there in the snow, in a drift almost belly-deep, and bawled. They were rib-thin and red-eyed and several of them were so weak they wavered as they stood. But they kept pushing ahead, closer and closer to the house, the barn and the stacks. If they got to the stack yards, starving as they were, no fence could hold them. The leaders might wince and turn back at the barbed wire, but those behind would crowd them into the wire and through it, and that would be the end of the hay. One taste of it and they would go mad; they would stay till they’d finished the last of it.

  I ran back to the house for the buggy whip. Mother was up and ready to help. She took the whip and I got a pitch fork. We went back and lashed and jabbed and clubbed the steers till they milled a big hollow in the snow and we almost fell into the hollow with them. But they wouldn’t turn and go back the way they came. One or two would turn and start away, but the others would lunge at the drifts and crowd us back a little, and the retreat would end.

  We fought them for half an hour, a losing fight. Then Mother ran to the house and came back with the .25-20 rifle. She stood on a drift and aimed at a big red steer. The steer stood staring at her, a perfect target. Then she lowered the rifle and asked, “Where do you shoot a steer to kill it, the head or the heart?”

  “The head,” I said. “I’ll do it.” I reached for the rifle.

  “No!”

  Again she aimed. Again I held my breath, waiting for the shot. It didn’t come. Again she lowered the rifle. She closed her eyes and shook her head and whispered, “I can’t. I can’t!”

  “Here!” I reached for the rifle again.

  “No!” And she turned and fired a shot, at last. Over the heads of the steers.

  The steers snorted, turned, and lunged away. Mother fired another shot. Those nearest us crowded the others into the path they had made up from the hollow. Fritz was at their heels, yelping and snapping. I was shouting. One more shot and they were trotting down that bloody path, away from the house and the hay. I ran along the drifts, shouting encouragement to Fritz. Together we kept them going all the way down into Ketchem Holler. There they turned north, down the big valley, no longer even bawling. They were still going, still crowding through those ice-edged drifts, when we turned back to the house.

  Before the week was out a thaw set in. The crust softened and the jack rabbits, which had skipped so lightly over the frozen drifts, began to bog in. Within half a mile of the house I shot or clubbed ten big fat white-tails. As we ate rabbit that night Mother said, “Any of those steers would have been too thin to eat, even if I could have brought myself to kill one. And if we’d been really starving, I guess we could have killed the big calf. At least, it was our own, if we had killed it.”

  That night we stayed up till ten o’clock, stripping meat from the rabbit carcasses, grinding it in the little food chopper, and making rabbit hamburger which Mother shaped into cakes and put down in a crock of lard. The next day I got eight more rabbits, and we had enough hamburger to last us for a month.

  The thaw thinned the snow between the drifts enough for me to ride over to the Bromleys’ and get the last two volumes of Cooper. But it was the middle of February before we could get to Gary. There were several letters from Father. The week of the blizzard he had known it was useless to try to get word to us. The week after that he tried to rent a team, or even a saddle horse, at the livery stable, but the liveryman wouldn’t let his horses out to anyone who wanted to go “down in the South Country.” Finally he reached the Gary store by phone and learned that it would be weeks before the roads were open, but that as far as Tom McDowell knew everybody was all right. That was small comfort, but there was no more word to be had. All he could do, he said, was wait and hope.

  There was a money order in each letter. Mother endorsed them all and mailed them to the doctor in town. And she added a postscript to the letter she had written, saying this was the first time we’d been able to get to Gary, that we had his letters, that everything was all right, and that he shouldn’t even try to get home till the weather cleared a little.

  The next week we had another blizzard, just a minor one that lasted only two days and a night. And in February we had two more storms. We didn’t get to Gary again till the first week in March. By then Daisy had gone dry and we had no butter to trade, but it didn’t matter. We still had almost half a bushel of beans. And winter was almost over.

  17

  MARCH, PARTICULARLY ON THE plains, never has much to recommend it. Winter is essentially a clean, white, wind-bitten time of trial. Spring is relief and a renewal of green and reassuring life with its own hope and promise. But March is neither winter nor spring. The winds of March have the bite but lack the cleanliness of winter. The March sun is strengthening, but even after the equinox it lacks the benevolence of spring. The ground is still stiff with frost, the vestiges of the snowdrifts are dirty, the ice in the ponds is alternately slushed and brittle. Even the jack rabbits look forlorn. And the earliest meadow larks, which sometimes arrive in March, sit with fluffed feathers and sing half-hearted songs of regret that they left southern Texas so soon. The wonder is that they don’t turn around and go south again, but they never do. They stay and wait, as we waited, for April and spring.

  Father came home for a weekend. It was only the second time he had been able to get home since Christmas. As we drove home from Gary he said, “It looks like a wet year. Water standing everywhere. Once it warms up, things should begin to boom.”

  Mother said, “Yes, once it warms up.”

  “We’ll have to get a crop in.”

  “Yes. But it’ll be another month or six weeks yet.”

  “I’ve asked Ed if I could take the second week in May off.”

  “That’ll be when? It’s hard to keep track of dates.”

  “That’ll be the week of the twelfth. The twelfth is a Sunday.”

  “Then you’ll be home for your birthday.”

  “Yes.”

  Father’s birthday was the thirteenth of May. Mine was the next day, the fourteenth.

  That evening, at the homestead, we had rabbit hamburger for supper. Hamburger and corn bread and boiled beans. Father ate his hamburger cake without seeming to taste it, but as he finished eating he said, “I’d like to
get a couple of shoats this spring. And have meat for next winter.”

  “It looks like a good corn year,” Mother said. “We ought to have something to feed them, at least.”

  “What was this meat we just ate?” Father asked.

  “Rabbit.”

  Father nodded. “We’ll get the corn in,” he said, “when I take that week off. I’ll buy another horse and—”

  “We’re going to plant corn with a hoe,” Mother said.

  “It’ll take forever! With another horse—”

  “We’ll get another horse,” Mother said, “when we’re out of debt. And the shoats too. Corn’s been planted with a hoe before.”

  Father frowned. “About that bill. I was talking to the doctor the other day. He told me about your sending those money orders to him. What did you do that for?”

  “To get the bill paid.”

  “I meant for you to have enough to eat!”

  “We did.”

  “You’re thin as rails, both of you!”

  Mother smiled. “Then I guess we won’t die of fatty degeneration of the heart.”

  “What have you been living on? Mush and rabbits?”

  “And beans,” Mother said. “Oh, Will, don’t you realize that for weeks we couldn’t get to the store? Even if I’d wanted to spend that money, how could I? By the time I got the first money order we’d lived through the worst of it. How much do we still owe?”

  “About a hundred dollars.”

  “It must be more than that.”

  “It isn’t.”

  “Then you got a raise.”

  “No.” Father rolled a cigarette and carefully brushed the few spilled flakes of tobacco back into the white cloth bag. “If you must know, I saved a little. On meals. I’ve eaten some of my meals at the office, in my room. Crackers and cheese goes quite a way. I paid the doctor what I saved.”

  “You promised,” Mother said, “that you’d eat at the restaurant.”

  “I did, at least one meal a day.”

  Mother stared at the lamp and at last she said, “We can buy the horse in time for haying.”

  The next day was almost mild. The ground was soggy underfoot. Father and I walked up to the old cornfield with its ragged stalks. Last year’s rye patch was green. It had been so ripe when we cut it last summer that enough shattered to re-seed it. The seed lay there all through the drought, then sprouted with the late fall moisture and got enough start to carry through the winter. We had a volunteer crop, and it was doing very well. We would have a rye harvest that we hadn’t expected.

  Father looked at it and said, “Well, there’s one crop we won’t have to plant. All we’ll have to do is cut it when it’s ripe.”

  We walked on up the rise. There wasn’t yet a sign of green in the buffalo grass, and last year’s mat wasn’t springy underfoot. Growth had been short last summer, with the drought, and now you could feel the knots of frost in the ground. We walked along the rise a little way, then turned back down the draw toward the house. Suddenly a covey of prairie quail burst from a ragged clump of bunch grass and went sailing down the draw. We stood and watched them and Father said, “A covey just like that flew up from just about here the first time I saw this place. It was in March, a day like this. I came out with a land locator from Brush.”

  We went on down the draw toward the house. “Remember the way it was the first time we came out here, son?” Father asked. “Remember the buffalo wallow, and the wiggle-tails in the water?”

  I remembered.

  “I’ll never forget that day. That whole week. This country was the prettiest place in the world.” Father sighed. Then he said, “That first night here on the place, when we worked till dark, and I asked if you wanted to go back to Jake’s house. Because of the coyotes. And you said, ‘Let’s stay.’ You were scared, but you said, ‘Let’s stay.’ ”

  We walked in silence a little way, and he said, half to himself, “You’ve stayed ever since.”

  On the way to Gary the next morning we took the lower trail, the one that went halfway down Ketchem Holler before it climbed onto the flats. It had been a warm night, the first really mild night of the year, and all the smells of the plains were strong, the grass smell, and the water-hole smell, and even the sheep smell down along the valley. We came to the place where the trail turned up the slope and a new, rank smell of dead flesh came from just ahead. Mother said, “What do you suppose that is?” and Father drove on down the valley another hundred yards. Then we saw the carcasses of six red steers at the foot of a cut-bank where they must have bogged in the drifts during the big blizzard.

  Mother held her nose and Father turned and drove back to the trail and up the hill. The air was clean and sweet again. Mother said, “All that beef, gone to waste!”

  Father said, “It’s certainly gone!”

  Mother told him about the day the steers came through the drifts, trying to get to our hay, and how we turned them back.

  “I’ll bet those are some of that bunch,” she said. And after a minute or two she told him how she tried to kill one and couldn’t. “I still couldn’t do it,” she said, “even if I had it to do over. But I can still remember how I had my mouth all set for steak, that morning.”

  When we got to Gary, Father said he had an errand in the store. Mother drew the blanket up over her old dress and the old brown coat and said, “You two go on in, if you want to. I’ll wait here in the buggy.”

  Father and I went in and he bought a chunk of bacon, a sack of flour, a few pounds of sugar, a can of corn and two cans of tomatoes. When he paid for it I saw that he had a dollar and forty cents left.

  Con Hallahan was coming when we took the box of groceries out to the buggy. Mother asked, “What’s that?”

  “That,” Father said as he put the box in the back of the buggy, “is a few dollars you can’t send to the doctor. It’s groceries, and it’s a sin to let food spoil.”

  Con drew up in front of the store, Tom McDowell handed him a mail pouch, and Con shouted to Father, “You going with me?” Father kissed Mother and said, “I’ll be out the eleventh of May,” and climbed up beside Con. Con swung the broncs around, headed them for Brush, yelled a shrill, “Yee-owiee!” and they were gone.

  We had tomatoes for supper that night, and I knew why the cowboys rode to Gary in the spring just to buy canned tomatoes. A cowboy would ride up, tie his horse at the rack, clump in, and come back with a big can with the red label. He would sit on the step, cut the top out with his pocket knife, and drink the juice. Then he would eat every scrap of the tomatoes, lifting them out on his knife blade. Those tomatoes were the most satisfying thing we’d had to eat in months. We sopped up the last drop with the biscuits Mother made.

  It was late April before spring really came. It came first as a greenness in the hollows beside the shallow ponds of snow melt, but soon it began to spread like a faint green mist on all the hillsides and across the flats. After that the chilly days and the raw nights didn’t seem quite so raw or chilly.

  Timbered country has spring subtleties, rising sap and first buds, florets on trees and bushes, half-hidden flowers among the rocks and leaf mold. But the plains are a vast simplicity at any season, their moods and changes swift, evident, and decisive. On that boundless open grassland neither spring nor any other season can hide or creep up slowly. Spring comes in a vast green wave rolling northward, a wave as evident as were the buffalo millions that once swept northward with new grass, as evident as the winter-hungry Indians that once swept northward with the buffalo. Spring on the plains has little more subtlety than a thunderstorm.

  Winter ends, March drags its cold, muddy feet but finally passes, and there is spring, a rebirth that assaults all your senses. The surge of life at the grass roots penetrates your soles, creeps up through your bones, your marrow, and right into your heart. You see it, you feel it, you smell it, you taste it in every breath you breathe. You partake of spring. You are a part of it, even as you were a part of winter. Sprin
g is all around you and in you, primal, simple as the plains themselves. Spring is, and you know it.

  I rode over to the Bromleys’ to return David Copperfield and get A Tale of Two Cities. Mr. Bromley said, “Well, it looks like spring is really coming, at last. Is it always this late?”

  I told him that spring had been early last year, and the year before.

  “Back home in Illinois,” he said, “the farmers are already out plowing. And the robins are back. Aren’t there any robins out here?”

  “Not out here,” I said. “There are robins near Brush, but not out here. The horned larks are back, though. I saw a couple of them this morning.”

  “Horned larks?” Mrs. Bromley asked.

  I described them.

  “Oh,” she said, “those little birds. Remember, Walter, I said they must be our equivalent of the English skylarks? They fly high in the air, singing as they fly. Last fall I sometimes heard them singing when they were so high I could scarcely see them.”

  “They’re the ones,” I said. “The big red ants are getting busy, too. And last night, just before dark, I saw two big flocks of geese go over.”

  “Seems late to me,” Mr. Bromley said. “I still miss the robins.”

  On the way home I saw a badger cleaning out his den. He was down in the hole kicking dirt out with his hind feet almost as fast as a man could toss it out with a shovel. Then I saw a flock of meadow larks. Most of them were busy looking for beetles, but two of them were so full of song they just strutted around whistling at each other. And when I got to the head of our draw I saw the first of the lark buntings, which we called prairie bobolinks. Half a dozen of them flew up, singing on the wing, and I knew that before long I would be finding their nests in the grass, and light blue eggs in the nests.

  A few days later I rode over to the big prairie dog town. Even there, where the prairie dogs had eaten the soil bare last summer, the grass was beginning to come back. The prairie dogs were out by the hundred, chipper and noisy as though they hadn’t an enemy in the world. Over at the far side of the town an old badger was waddling along, watching me over one shoulder. The dogs over there were all out of sight, but a hundred yards from the badger other prairie dogs paid him no attention.

 
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