High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, p.24Hal Borland
“Go ahead,” Jim said. “Go right ahead. That’s just what I’d do with them kids. I can’t do a thing with them. Off helling around all day, running the bejesus out of the horses. They won’t stay home and do a lick of work. Look at their poor mother, down there working her fingers to the bone for them. And them kids is off again. I hoped to build a house and get sonic plowing done, but can I get a lick of work out of them? Not on your tintype! Go ahead and give ‘em a lesson, mister. But shoot ’em in the butt, not in the head. That’s where all their brains is, right in the seat of their pants. Damn good-for-nothing kids! Eatin’ me out of house and home, and their mother workin’ her fingers to the bone—”
Jim was still talking when the homesteader left. And his wife was still washing clothes and laving them out on the grass to dry. The homesteader rode past the dugout and got a quick look inside. There wasn’t a stick of furniture. Not a chair or a table or anything. Just a few piles of old blankets. Beside the door was a heap of cow chip ashes, and a Dutch oven and a big frying pan.
Things went on that way for about six weeks. Then the young Walkers stole a pig, a good-sized shoat. They took it right out of the pen while the homesteader was in the barn. He heard the squealing and ran out, armed with a pitch fork, just in time to see them ride away, Elmer holding the pig in his arms, the pig squealing to high heaven and the kids whooping in triumph.
That night the pig’s owner made the rounds of his neighbors and organized a posse. Folks had had enough of the Walkers. Seven men went to the Walker dugout, three of them on horseback, the others in a couple of wagons. Jim heard them arrive and came out with a lantern and started to talk. Nobody listened. They crowded into the dugout and began dismantling the place.
There wasn’t much to dismantle, but when they took the blanket pallets apart they found everything from a dollar watch to a sack of flour. Jim stood by, holding the lantern for them to see by and still talking. His wife watched for a few minutes, grinning, then began to pick up her things as the men threw them aside. She carried them out and stowed them in the Walker wagon.
Willie and Elmer scuttled out, but Gracie backed into a corner and called the posse every name she could lay her tongue to. The posse piled the stolen goods beside the door, everything from a handsaw to cans of corn and tomatoes, from a clock to a cotton flannel night gown. They tossed the Walker blankets out to Netta, and finally two men climbed up and stripped the canvas tilt from the roof and tossed that to her.
Jim kept right on talking. Gracie used up all her words and went out into the darkness. Willie and Elmer harnessed a team of the Walker horses and hitched them to the wagon. Everyone knew what to do; apparently they had done it before, over and over.
Finally everything was sorted out. Jim was saying how hard up they were, how hard his wife worked, and what a trial the kids were. One of the possemen tossed the bacon and a few cans of beans into the Walker wagon, another grabbed Jim by the seat of the pants and helped him after the groceries. Netta climbed in and took the reins. Out in the darkness Willie and Elmer were mounting their horses. The Walkers drove away into the night.
The posse loaded the stolen things into one of their wagons, to be sorted out the next day. Those who had come on horseback went to get their horses. The horses were there, but the saddles were gone. So they mounted bareback and took after the Walkers. They caught up with Jim and Netta in the wagon half a mile from the dugout, but none of the kids was anywhere around. They went through the wagon, endgate to endgate, but there wasn’t a sign of the saddles.
They never did find the young Walkers, or the saddles. They spent half the night looking, and they went out again the next day. But by then they couldn’t even find the wagon. The Walkers, every one of them, had vanished as mysteriously as they had come.
But theft was rare. Most of the settlers were honest, hard-working people. Not all were farmers. They never are in a new community, and they never were in any homestead area. Only a fraction of the homesteaders became permanent settlers. The homestead act put no restrictions on a homesteader once he had proved up on his land, got a deed to it. He could sell it or lease it to whom he pleased. Seldom did more than half the original homesteaders stay more than a few years after they proved up. They sold out to farmers who came after them, and they moved to town and started stores or worked for someone else. They settled the towns as well as the country.
Among the new homesteaders that spring were a coppersmith from Ohio, and a carpenter from Michigan, and a house painter from Kansas. A settler over east who had been a blacksmith in Iowa set up a forge in a shed beside his barn and had all the blacksmith work he could handle. Another settler who had once been a surveyor’s helper bought a transit and spent his time between his farm chores working as a surveyor.
But most of the settlers, families from rural Iowa and Missouri and Indiana, were quiet, hard-working folk about whom no stories grew. They had come out there to get a start on their own, to possess land, to farm it the best they could, maybe to sell it later and move to better watered land near Brush, but first to prove up on a homestead and provide themselves with a financial stake. They, too, were glad to see spring come.
APRIL PASSED. MAY WAS at hand, and another summer. And Father would soon be coming home for a week off when we were going to plant the corn.
May meant greens, cooked greens, and Mother and I were down at Louie’s sheep camp picking them the day we saw the hawks. The sheep must have carried the weed seed in their wool from Gerrity’s home ranch, because there were patches of lamb’s-quarters and milkweed and dock down there every spring. As soon as the sheep arrived they ate them off, but until they came we had all we wanted.
We picked a dishpanful, there beside the windmill and the old pen sites. Before we went home I wanted to go see if the pincushion cactuses were about ready to bloom. Their blossoms were lovely many-rayed pink stars. So we walked up the hillside and found pincushions in bud but not yet open. As we started back Mother looked across at our land and the flats beyond, and she said, “Your father always said that this country out here was the prettiest land in the world, and at this time of the year I think maybe he was right. There were times last summer, though, that I wouldn’t have given a nickel for all of it.”
She stood and looked, at our draw coming down from the west and the house and the barn and the remnants of the haystacks and the bright green of the volunteer rye and brown of the old corn patch. “It’s pretty now,” she said.
I had been looking at our place, too, but something off to the northwest caught my eye. I said, “Look at all the hawks over there.” Circling in the sky high over the flats were six hawks. They were going round and round, so far away they were only dark specks against the deep blue. Mother frowned and said, “They must be over John Kraus’ place.”
As we watched, one of the distant hawks left the circle and drifted toward the ground. A moment later it climbed into the circle again and the flight went on, round and round. Mother said, “Probably a calf.” She glanced up our draw, and so did I. Daisy was there, and Mack, and both our calves, grazing quietly.
“Whatever it is,” Mother said, “it’s none of our business.”
We went back down the hill, got our pan of greens, and went home. I said I would get on Mack and ride up and have a look, see what the hawks were after, but Mother shook her head. “It’s none of our business,” she said again.
I had forgotten about the hawks the next morning. Then, just before noon, Jake Farley drove down to our place from the north, hurrying. He called to Mother and said, “John Kraus is dead!”
“John Kraus!” Mother exclaimed. “Dead!”
“Dead as a doornail.” Jake was shaken. “Horses must have run him down and tromped him, right there at his gate. Looks like he was going somewhere and got out to open the gate and the horses run him down.” Jake shivered. “I stopped past to tell you, so’s you wouldn’t go up that way, not knowing, and see him. I got to go get witnes
“I never liked the man,” Mother said, “but that’s an awful way to go.”
“I guess he didn’t linger,” Jake said, gathering his reins. “I just thought you ought to know.” And he hurried away.
John Kraus had added another to Jake’s store of strange tales, this one more lurid than any Jake could imagine. John Kraus had intended to go to Gary that morning, the morning before Jake found him. He had harnessed his horses, with the usual beatings and kickings, had hitched them to the wagon, and had driven down to his gate on the section line. There he got out to open the gate.
It was a simple wire gate, three strands of barbed wire fastened at one end to the fixed post and at the other to a pole. The gate was closed by setting one end of the pole in a wire loop and hooking another loop over the upper end. As he went to open the gate, the horses shied, fearing another beating. John Kraus cursed them, as usual, then lifted the wire loop and tossed the gate aside. He shouted to the horses to go on through the gate. It was the way he had gone through that gate a hundred times, letting the horses go through alone, shouting for them to stop, closing the gate, then getting back in the wagon and driving on. It saved a few steps for him.
But this morning the horses did not come at his call. He shouted again. Still they didn’t come. Furious, John Kraus ran to them, grabbed their bridles, and began abusing them. And the horses, as if in sudden rebellious agreement, reared, wrenched free of John Kraus’ grasping hands, and lunged ahead. The neck yoke caught him in the chest. He went down. One horse struck him in the face with a hoof, the other crushed one of his feet. He writhed in pain and lifted his head just in time for a horse’s hind foot to strike him squarely on the skull. The wagon lurched over him.
The horses went through the open gate, made a big circle on the grass beyond, and turned back toward the barn. They went through the gate again, retracing their path, and tromped him a second time. Then they went back to the barnyard. And within an hour the hawks began to circle.
The team was still in the barnyard, still hitched to the wagon, when Jake found John Kraus’ body beside the gate. And the story of what had happened was written as plain as print in the dust and on the grass. Anyone could read it.
Jake told us that John Kraus was dead and he hurried away to get witnesses. Late that afternoon he came back, accompanied by several men on horseback. They crossed the hollow down by the sheep camp and cut over the hill. An hour later they went back, the same way, avoiding our house. Jake in his wagon was driving slowly, and the riders were herding John Kraus’ horses and his old cow and calf.
We watched them out of sight and Mother said, “Well, we’ve lost a neighbor. At least, somebody who lived close by. I still wonder what that man was so mad at that he couldn’t even live with himself.” Then she said, “I’m glad I didn’t let you ride over there yesterday afternoon.”
Down deep inside, I was glad too. It was years before I could watch a hawk circling without thinking of John Kraus.
The following Saturday we went to Gary to meet Father. It was a cool day for early May, but the sun was bright and the meadow larks were singing. We had the top down on the buggy, so we could feel the sun and see the world. The plains were green, every hill. Shallow pools of water still stood on the flats, and there were ducks in many of them, mostly mallards and teal.
We passed the sand hills, and George Grant waved, as always. He was sitting on the front step of his house, whittling and watching the world spread out below his hill. Then we reached the hard road again and passed a wagon, a weather-beaten old wagon with a rough-haired team that looked as though they hadn’t felt a curry comb all winter. A man and a woman with a baby in her arms were on the spring seat, just sitting and looking straight ahead. Behind them, sitting on two old kitchen chairs among bundles of bedding, were a girl of maybe eight and a boy no more than ten. Back of the children was a kitchen stove.
We caught up with them and waved as we passed. The youngsters waved back. Neither the man nor the woman seemed to see us.
Mother said, “It looks as though they’re moving, and that little girl has barely got enough on to cover her skin and bones.”
We got to the store and found the usual Saturday crowd. But as I looked around it seemed like a strange place, almost like a store I had never before been in. Mrs. McDowell was back of the counter, measuring off yard goods and folding elastic and cutting table oilcloth for the women customers. Tom McDowell not only had on a white shirt and a vest, but a necktie. He kept saying, “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am,” and ma’aming it all over the place, because the women were doing the trading. The men were outside, talking weather. And practically all the men were in bibbed overalls and plow shoes. There wasn’t a high-heeled boot among them. They were all farmers, homesteaders.
The store even had a strange smell. There wasn’t a saddle in the place, or a set of harness with that rich, oiled-leather odor. The coal oil barrel was gone; now there was a big tank out back. The cheese that used to stand out on the counter now was in a glass case with a cloth over it, and the crackers were in cardboard boxes. I couldn’t even see the square cans of mustard sardines among the round cans of tomatoes and corn and peas and baked beans. The store had been changing steadily for two years. I’d never been aware of it till that afternoon.
I was still looking for the sardines when the man from the wagon we had passed came in. He was tall and thin and he wore poorly patched overalls and a faded blue jacket that hung loose on his shoulders. He went to the counter and waited for Tom McDowell. When Tom got to him the man emptied a worn leather pouch into his hand and counted out a few dollars’ worth of change. “Want to settle my bill before I go,” he said.
McDowell took the money. “You sold out?” he asked.
“Sold the cow,” the man said, “and ate the hens. Couldn’t sell the claim.” He sighed. “A man can take just so much. Between the weather and the woman—” He shook his head and fingered the few coins in his hand.
“Where are you going?” McDowell asked.
“Back east. That’s what she wants. Better give me a couple pounds of oatmeal. And a nickel plug of chewing tobacco.”
I followed him to the door and watched him get into the wagon and drive away, east along the back road. The woman didn’t even look up, but the boy turned and stared out across the plains.
I was still thinking about the man and the little boy when a man out front shouted, “Here comes that crazy Irishman!”
Con Hallahan was driving a team of blacks. They glistened with sweat and were flecked with foam as he reined them up in front of the store, leaped down, and snubbed the reins around a front hub. Father came over to the buggy and kissed Mother. “Get in,” she said. “I’ve already got the letter from the folks, so there won’t be any more mail.”
Father tossed his suitcase in the back and took the lines. We started home. Father seemed glad to be there, but something wasn’t right. Mother told him about John Kraus. He said, “I heard about it. Too bad. There he was, a big husky man, apparently never sick a day in his life. And doing what he wanted to.”
He asked the everyday questions, about the calves and the grass and the chickens and the jack rabbits. He commented on the alfalfa in the fields at the roadside, which was almost ready for a first cutting. Then he was silent until we got to the sand hills.
We came in sight of George Grant’s house. Miss Woods’ buggy was there, and as we got a little farther we saw her and George on the hill beyond the house, she swinging along on her crutches and he walking slowly beside her. They were both bareheaded and the wind was blowing their hair. George recognized us and waved.
Father said, “I’m glad George took that place. All he wanted was a hilltop of his own. He didn’t want to die cooped up.” And after a little pause he said, “It’s good just to be alive. You don’t appreciate that, I guess, till you’ve been sick. Then you are thankful to be able to get out where you can breathe
“Have you seen the doctor lately?” Mother asked.
“I saw him yesterday. Paid him the last cent I owed him. He looked me over and said I was doing fine.”
“You’re all right?”
“Perfectly all right.”
“And we’re out of debt?”
“We don’t owe anybody a penny.”
We passed the sand hills and came to the hard land again, the hard, high flats. Father looked out across them, and I wondered if he was thinking of that first day we came out here. When there wasn’t a trail anywhere; when the only mark was the press of our own wheels in the grass. Now we were following a pair of ruts that were almost a road. Our own wheels had cut those ruts, two years of coming and going.
Father slapped Mack with the reins and said, “Get a hustle on, Mack. We’re going home.”
That evening, out at the barn doing the chores, Father said, “I’d expected to build a real barn, by now. One with a hay loft. It must have been quite a job getting hay in from the stacks in the blizzard.”
“If we moved the stack yard fence,” I said, “we could let the stock get their own hay in bad weather. We could put a gate here, and one over there.”
“I suppose we could.” He didn’t seem interested.
“And if we put up a windmill,” I said, “it would save a lot of pumping. And Mother could have her garden down below the well, where we could irrigate it when we don’t get enough rain.”
He smiled. “Any more ideas?”
“I wanted to dig a cave, but Mother said I’d better ask you. If we had a cave close to the house we’d have a cool place for milk and butter when Daisy comes fresh. We could keep potatoes there, too. We ought to plant some potatoes this year.”
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