High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, p.23Hal Borland
Two little owls were bobbing and screaming at each other; they saw me and forgot their own quarrel and screamed at me, but the minute I was past they began hopping at each other again.
Most of the old mother prairie dogs were fat with pup. The pups would be born in another week or two, but would stay in the dens for a month. The thin old males were feeding greedily on the grass, truculent and quarrelsome among themselves.
I dismounted to watch an ant hill, and I saw two tumblebugs pushing each other around in the grass. They butted and rolled and nipped and got to their feet and butted each other again, until one of them drove the other off. The victor pursued a little way, then came back and began rolling the ball of dung over which they probably had been fighting. They were strange creatures with the mark of antiquity on them, though I didn’t know then that they were close cousins of the ancient Egyptian scarabs. All I knew was that these big, dark, timeless-looking beetles fashioned balls of cow manure three-quarters of an inch in diameter and rolled them from place to place, walking backward and rolling the balls with their hind legs. They laid eggs in the balls and the eggs hatched into grubs which ate their way out and eventually turned into beetles which laid their own eggs in other dung balls. It seemed to me that the way the birds did it, laying eggs in nests, eggs with shells on them and food inside, was much simpler.
I watched the tumblebug maneuver his ball to the edge of the bare space around the ant hill, and I watched the ants gather to repel the invader, who paid almost no attention to them. The tumblebug rolled his ball across the little clearing and into the grass beyond, the ants rubbed feelers in a conference as though telling each other that they had driven off a major threat to the colony, and everybody went back to work.
The sun was warm. Even the ground was beginning to lose its March chill. I lay there thinking about the beetles and the ants and the prairie dogs and the badgers and the owls and the meadow larks. They had been here a long time, all of them. They were here when the buffalo first came, and that was so long ago that the Indians couldn’t remember that far back. Time was a strange thing. It was days and nights and months and years, and then it stretched out into something else. Into grass, maybe, or into clouds. Or into the earth itself. You lay watching a cloud overhead, and you closed your eyes and pretty soon the cloud moved over the sun. You felt the coolness and the darkness of the shadow. You lay and waited for the brightness and the sun’s warmth again. You could count, slowly, and that was time. You counted slowly, and the cloud passed the sun. The shadow was gone.
Time was strange. A prairie dog pup was born in May, and by fall it was practically grown up. A meadow lark laid an egg in a nest in May, and before frost in the fall the baby bird hatched from that egg was as big as its mother and flew south with the other birds. But it took years for a boy to grow up.
We had been out there two years. When we first came I was so short I had to stand on a manger or a cut-bank to get on a horse. Now I could mount Mack from the ground, just put my hands on his withers and jump and throw my leg over his back.
I wondered how many ants had grown old and died while I was growing up enough to get on a horse from the ground. A year must be a long time to an ant. Or a beetle. Or a prairie dog. Even a day must be a long time. Maybe time was like distance. If an ant got twenty feet away from the ant hill he was a long way from home, much farther than I was right now from the house. And it probably would take a tumblebug all day to roll that ball of dung fifty feet, especially with all the obstacles it had to get over and around.
Some day, I told myself, I would find a tumblebug early in the morning and watch him all day and see just how far he did go. I would catch him and tie a thread around him, or mark him some way, so I could be sure to know which one he was if he had a fight with another beetle.
But not today. I caught Mack and whistled to Fritz, who was still trying to catch a prairie dog, and I rode west, to circle back toward our place.
I rode only a little way when a kit fox jumped not fifty yards ahead of me. He had been catching ground squirrels until I startled him. A kit fox was like a small coyote with a very bushy tail. He was really a fox, but not much bigger than a good-sized cat. There weren’t many of them around, and most of them were here on these south flats. This one jumped and ran like a streak, its bushy tail floating behind, graceful as a bird. It ran maybe twenty yards; then, without slackening pace, it veered and ran off at an angle another twenty-five yards or so, then changed directions again. That’s the way a kit fox always ran, zigzag. Dogs would seldom run kit foxes, and anyone who ever watched one knew why. It made you dizzy just watching that zigzagging. I yelled, and the kit veered again. One more turn and it vanished in a little hollow.
I rode over to the hollow, but I couldn’t find the kit fox. It must have darted down the little wash and out onto the flats again where I wasn’t watching. But as I rode down the hollow 1 came to a fresh cut-bank that had washed out in the spring melt. The grass had caved away, leaving a bank of fresh gravelly soil. Such a place was always worth searching for arrowheads. I got off and began poking through the gravel.
It was different from the gravel on our land, coarser and full of lumps of sandstone. The sandstone was grayish yellow. There was a thin ledge of it reaching back under the grass. I sifted a few handfuls through my fingers and stood up, about to leave. Then I scuffed at it with my toe and a smooth, rounded flat piece caught my eye. It wasn’t a pebble. It was almost the size of a silver dollar, but smooth and rounded.
Even as I picked it up I sensed that here was something out of time so remote that my mind could not quite grasp the distance. It was a fossil clam, and the place I found it was fifteen hundred miles from the nearest ocean.
There it was, a clam turned to stone, a petrified clam with fluting around the edges of the twin shells, with bits of sandstone still clinging to it. Different from the fresh-water clams of the Missouri River, but still a shellfish, something from an ocean that once had been where I stood. And somehow, standing in the warm spring sunlight on the High Plains, I comprehended the matter of eons and ages. Without knowing geology, I sensed geologic time. I touched the beat of the big rhythm, the coming and going of oceans and the rise and fall of mountains. And, for a little while, I was one not only with the Indians who had been there before me, but with those who were there before the Indians; not only with the grass which had greened with a thousand springs, but with that which was there before the grass.
There had been ranchmen before we came, and Indians before the ranchmen, and buffalo before the Indians. And long before the buffalo there had been an ocean, and clams. Back, back—how far back? And how far ahead? Time was indeed a strange thing. The time of the ant, the time of the tumblebug, the time of the prairie dog, the time of a boy. The time of a fossil clam.
I got on my horse and rode slowly home in the late afternoon of that spring day with a strange, hard, smooth fragment of time in my pocket.
Mother said, “You’ve just got time to get the chores done before supper.”
THERE IS AN EBB and flow of settlers in any new land. They come, and they go. A dozen families had taken land east of Jake Farley’s since we arrived, and as many more had settled east and south of there. But some had not stayed beyond last summer’s drought; last fall there were several empty soddies and abandoned barns. Now, after the kind of winter that always winnows out the misfits, others were going.
Spring does that to shallow-rooted people, and roots go down slowly on the plains. Summer can be lived with comfortably. Fall brings a measure of harvest and contentment. Then comes winter with its demands, only to be followed by spring, when hills are green on both sides and the horizon is clear and inviting. Dreams of a new self or a new life shimmer in every sunrise, especially for those who have wintered on loneliness and discontent.
Some had given up after the first blizzard. Others had trailed away through the mud and ice of March. Now, each time we went to Gary, we heard a
There was the man who got on his horse one afternoon and told his wife he was going to bring in the cows. She watched him ride off across the flats. He came to their two milk cows, grazing half a mile from the house, and he rode around them and kept on going. She watched him to the top of the rise a mile away, and she waited and waited. He never came back. “I don’t know what got into him,” his wife said. “He didn’t even say goodbye.”
There was the man who, as soon as the last snow was gone and the roads were open, took his wife to Brush to get a load of groceries and a hundred pounds of chicken feed. He gave her the grocery money and let her off at the store, saying he would get the chicken feed and meet her there in half an hour. Meanwhile, the Denver train came in and left. When the man went back to the store to meet his wife, she wasn’t there. He couldn’t find a trace of her until he went to the depot and described her to the station agent. Yes, the agent said, he’d seen a woman like that. She bought a ticket and she got on the train. And the man walked out, dazed, and got in his wagon and drove home again.
One family over east lost a little girl, probably of pneumonia, during the big blizzard. But most of the homesteaders had weathered the winter safely, cured their own ills, faced their problems and solved them. As always and everywhere, you heard little about them; the stories that people repeat are filled with the drama of trouble. We heard the tales and Mother said, “I guess we’re lucky. At least, we pulled through.”
They went, and they came. Every time we went to Gary we saw a load or two of lumber coming out from Brush. Each load had a newcomer at the reins, often with his wife and children on the load beside him, and most of the loads were going south, out onto the plains. Most of the newcomers were farmers, but not all.
George Grant was no farmer. He wasn’t looking for a farm. All he wanted was a beautiful hilltop.
George Grant got off the Denver train in Brush one day and walked over to the newspaper office. Father was the only one in the office at the time. George introduced himself and said, “I’m looking for a homestead.” Father took one look at him and thought he’d better be looking for a lot in a graveyard. George was six feet two and weighed about a hundred and ten pounds. He had been in a tubercular hospital in Colorado Springs for two years and the doctors had told him there was no hope. They gave him one more year, at most, to live.
George was a veteran of the Spanish-American War, had a small pension and a thousand dollars or so of savings. He told Father, “I’ve looked at the white walls of that prison, that hospital room, as long as I can. I had to get out. I’m not going to die there.”
So they talked land. George Grant didn’t want land that anyone else might want. “I want waste land, land not good for anything. I don’t want to deprive anyone of a farm. But I would like to find a hilltop where I could build a house and just sit and watch the clouds.”
Father knew what George meant. He thought of the prettiest place on the plains except our homestead and he said, “I think I know the place. It’s in the sand hills. Nobody can farm that land, because if they plow it up it’ll just blow away. A few range cattle graze there, but not many. It’s a pretty place.”
George hired a livery man to take him out, liked it, and filed on the land. It was the hilltop where Father and I stopped to eat our lunch the first day we went out to the homestead. Then, as Emily Woods had done the year before, George had lumber hauled out and built his own house, just a one-room place with a shed at one end to stable the horse he needed to get to Gary for supplies.
George’s place was five miles from Miss Woods’ white house and picket fence. From his hilltop, George could see her place as a white speck far off to the southeast, and at night he could see the light from her windows. And she could see his light.
At first I resented George Grant. He was an intruder. He had no right to homestead that hill, which was ours by right of discovery and use for many lunchtime rests. But George was a friendly, unobtrusive person, and when Father told us his story I could accept him. I came to look for him each time we went to Gary, to expect his friendly wave.
It wasn’t long before we began to see Miss Woods’ black horse and her spick-and-span buggy at George’s place. Other people saw it too, and there was a little gossip. But Miss Woods was such a nice friendly person, and George Grant was so evidently a sick man, that the gossip didn’t go far.
Gradually people came to accept them and, in a vague way, to understand. I never heard it put into words, but people knew there was a bond between George and Miss Woods that had its basis in their mutual maiming. Neither had to be sorry for the other, and in both of them was an acceptance of what life had done to them. Both of them were patient with life, and perhaps that explains it all. Each had arrived at a philosophy that sustained; each had an admiration for the other’s courage that needed no words.
Their acquaintance grew, this one-legged, middle-aged woman and this middle-aged man with a brief respite from death. He rode over and helped her water the petunias. She drove to his house and put dimity curtains at the windows. They sat on his hilltop and watched the clouds, and they sat in her picketed dooryard and listened to the birds. There was an air about them that in younger folk would have been naïveté but that in them was serene self-confidence. So instead of gossip, there was a quiet admiration and a vague awe. Besides, that was the spring when the Jim Walkers came.
Nobody knew where the wild Walkers came from. Some said Texas, some said Oklahoma, but Jim Walker said nothing about his origins. They simply appeared, one miserable March day, in a covered wagon with a tattered canvas tilt. Jim and Netta, his wife, were in the wagon and the three youngsters were on horseback. They had five horses, all rough-coated and rib-thin. They drove through the settlement over east and folks thought they were gypsies. They kept going till they had passed Jake Farley’s place and finally stopped in a gully two miles south of Jake’s. There they dug a hole in a bank, roofed it with the wagon tilt, and settled in. To those who asked, Jim said he had homesteaded that land.
Jim Walker was a tall, thin, stubble-faced man, a talker. Netta was fat and smiling and silent; some said she was an Indian, and she looked it, black-haired, dark-skinned and with high cheek bones. She even wore her hair in braids over her shoulders. But it was the youngsters who became best known. Willie, eight years old, was a wizened little gnome. Elmer was ten and frog-faced and red-haired. Gracie was twelve, tall and skinny; she looked like her father except that she had her mother’s black hair. Gracie dressed like a boy, in shirt and overalls, and she wore her hair like her brothers, hacked off at the bottom of her ears.
Whether they were half Indian or not, the youngsters rode like Indians. There wasn’t a saddle among them, or a bridle. They tied a light rope around a horse’s lower jaw, tossed a strap with a loop at each end over the horse’s back for stirrups, and were off. They seemed to live on horseback.
Jim may have been a less prosperous member of a shadowy group of back-country horse sharpers who lived by their wits in the West and Southwest at that time. They were usually disarmingly simple men who traveled with a boy and a half dozen sad-looking horses and called themselves horse traders. Now and then they did trade horses, but in their easy talk they always got around to horse racing. They’d rather watch two good horses run than eat.
Most communities had a fast horse or two. With a little persuasion the stranger could be talked into matching one of his horses with the local favorite. Just for fun, of course, but with a small side bet to sweeten it, five or ten dollars. It usually happened that the stranger had two horses you couldn’t tell apart. He put the boy on one of them as a jockey and the boy lost the race by a length or so.
The stranger paid off the side bet and said he’d sure like to see those horses run again. So another race was arranged for the next day. This time there were plenty of bets. The stranger reluctantly covered them all. A man wasn’t a sport if he wasn’t willing
But ours wasn’t a horse-trading or a horse-racing community. And if the Walkers were horse sharpers they had other talents too. The youngsters roamed and pillaged the countryside.
A homesteader would be at the barn doing his chores, not a stranger in sight. Suddenly his dog would bark. The chickens would begin to squawk. The man would step out of the barn and see a strange boy in the yard. Ten-year-old Elmer—it usually was Elmer, but occasionally gnomish Willie—would have a fat hen by the neck and would be grabbing another. The homesteader would shout. There would be a rush of horses from behind the barn as the Walker kids charged across the yard. Elmer would toss one of the hens to Willie, thus freeing a hand. Gracie would reach down and swing Elmer up behind her, going full tilt. Elmer, still holding his hen, would hop from Gracie’s horse to his own, which Gracie was leading, and away they would go, yelling derisively. Just like an Indian raiding party.
Or a homesteader would go to Gary for the Saturday mail and marketing. He would come home to find the house door open and the place ransacked. Blankets vanished, and overalls, and caps and jackets. One woman said they took two frying pans. Another said they made off with a flitch of bacon. Still another said they stole a clock.
They never raided us, perhaps because there were better pickings over east. But they put in full time elsewhere.
Finally one homesteader, who had been raided three times, went to the Walker dugout to have a showdown. Jim was sitting on the wagon tongue, paring his fingernails with his jack knife. Netta was washing clothes in a tub beside the water hole where they got water for cooking, drinking and washing. Jim grinned at the man as he rode up, and Jim started talking. The homesteader could hardly get a word in edgewise, but he finally said that if Jim’s kids came raiding just once more they would catch a load of number four shot.
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