Country Editor's Boy, p.25Hal Borland
Mother spoke up. “He’s too young to be away from home all summer.”
“He’s past seventeen.”
“With actors and such people. I don’t know—”
“If you can find a nicer bunch of people than those Chautauqua folks, I’d like to meet them.”
“It seems like sending him away from home.”
They were talking as though I wasn’t sitting right there at the table with them.
“He’ll be starting college a year from this fall. He’ll be away from home then.”
Mother nodded, slowly, then exclaimed, “Oh, this is so sudden! Does it have to be decided right away?”
“No.” Father turned to me. “I told Dick I’d see what you say and let him know.”
“I think I’d like to go,” I said.
“You don’t have to decide today. But if you do want to go you’d better get your application in before September. It’s a kind of an honor, really, getting a job with them. Most of their crewmen are in college, Dick tells me. You’ll be just out of high school.”
Mother dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief, then left the table and went into the front room. Father watched her go, then drew a deep breath and looked at his plate for a long moment. When he looked at me again I saw a mist in his eyes. “It’s hard for her to realize you aren’t a little boy any more,” he said. Then, with a smile, “Sometimes it’s even hard for me to.”
FLAGLER GOT ITS MUNICIPAL power plant that fall. The first municipal election had been held in April, almost a year after the committee was named to proceed with incorporation; it took that long to complete all the legal steps. Finally, though, almost everybody in town turned out and voted for the town’s first officials. The first mayor was A. J. Lockwood, a man from the same part of Nebraska we came from, a business man with a hand in ventures as varied as a lumber yard and a cattle ranch. Five trustees, the equivalent of a town council, were chosen: J. H. Seal, whose son had married W. H. Lavington’s daughter; Henry Blancken, the hotel keeper; Win Reynolds, a carpenter; I. N. Moberly, cashier of “the other bank,” not the Lavington bank; and “Uncle John,” J. W. White, a hardware dealer and an old-timer.
At their first meeting the trustees chose William Knies as town clerk and named the Flagler Progress the town’s official newspaper. That was no surprise. It was a part of the price for support for incorporation. It no longer mattered to Father because the News was official county paper in the west end of the county. And, Father told me some years later, he knew then that the Progress was losing ground.
Soon after the election, the proposal for a municipal power and light plant was brought to a vote and won. Bonds were authorized and work was begun before the end of summer on a brick powerhouse where a big diesel engine was to be installed to drive the generator. Poles were set, lines were strung, houses and offices were wired for the new era, the age of electricity.
Inevitably, there was objection, first in public meeting, then in private after the dissenters were outvoted. With change, life would inevitably follow new patterns. But basically the objections were as much financial as traditional. Taxes always hurt, and old ways always die hard. Flagler never had been a cow town in the sense of being a major shipping point for trail herds. But it had been a ranch town and it had its own traditions, though most of those traditions now were preserved at the livery stable and the blacksmith shop, the two principal loafing places in town, even more generally favored, especially by the older men, than the barber shop.
The livery stable really wasn’t a forum. It was more of a hideout for poker players, an arena for fist fights, and a source of supply for thirsty citizens. The town’s young bloods settled their quarrels in bruising, bare-knuckle battles there, where an unwritten law against kicking, kneeing, eye gouging and all such foul play was enforced by the onlookers. One of the bloodiest fights I ever saw was held “down at the barn” between two high school boys, “Red” Weller and Joe McBride. Over a girl, as I remember, who wanted nothing to do with either of them after the fight.
Both town and county were “dry” under local option, but a thirsty man could always buy a pint “at the barn,” which was a kind of branch store for the town’s principal, if not only, bootleggers. They were two brothers, and they ran a laundry and dry-cleaning establishment at their mother’s house. She, a widow, did the washing and ironing. And periodically the brothers filled a wash tub with gasoline, sloshed woolen dresses and blue serge suits through it, and hung them on the line till the worst of the odor had blown away. Then the mother smoothed them with her iron and that was that. Between times the younger brother, who owned a big Packard, drove up to Wyoming and came back with a carload of liquor, which the two boys cut and doctored with what was reputed to be licorice and tobacco juice. Then the older boy peddled it to regular customers and left a supply “down at the barn” for transients and occasionals.
Nobody bothered them particularly, except when the older brother went on a binge every two months or so. The younger brother didn’t touch the stuff, but the older one, once he started, tried to drink it all. Deep in his cups, he would turn on his mother. But she, a wiry little woman all spunk and gristle, kept an iron stove poker handy for such emergencies. At a certain point in the spree she laid him out properly, then called the local deputy sheriff, who carted him off to jail to sober up, pay a fine for disturbing the peace, and go free. As far as I know, neither brother ever was arrested for bootlegging. Eventually they quit and moved away, about the time the livery stable closed for good, a victim of the Model T Ford.
Ed Malbaff’s blacksmith shop was an altogether different kind of gathering place. I wish I had known my Grandfather Borland’s blacksmith shop; but he died before I was born. Two of his sons were blacksmiths, though, and I knew their shop for a time before we moved to Colorado. It was a gathering place for townsmen with time on their hands and countrymen in town for a purpose. Ed Malbaff’s shop was the same kind of place and, like my uncles, he dominated it absolutely.
Longfellow’s poem about the village blacksmith may have been true of New England, but it didn’t fit the men or places west of the Missouri river. Those shops I knew were all indoors, in thin-walled, dry-roofed, cavernous places, dark as dungeons and looking like the hell described in Sunday school. They were places of soot and coal dust, echoing hammer and ringing anvil, glare and flame of fire in the forge, awesome showers of sparks that burned like coals when the white-hot iron was being hammered into shape, clouds of stinking steam from the quenching tub when the hot iron was thrust in to cool. The blacksmith “a mighty man was he,” to be sure, but those “muscles of his brawny arms” were black with coal dust and so was his face, so was his hairy chest, though seamed with white runnels where his “honest sweat” plowed furrows through the grime. He was a Titan who could wrestle a stallion into submission—legend says that my grandfather once floored an obstreperous Percheron with his fist. A bull of a man, who could outswear a cavalryman or build a wagon; who could tell stories better than Rabelais or forge a butcher knife; who could build a whole grist mill, as my grandfather did, or move and reassemble a printing press he had never seen, as Ed Malbaff did.
Ed ruled his huge, dark cavern of a shop with a hand of tempered steel. Small boys could go there and watch and listen to their elders, but only if they kept out from underfoot and never repeated the language they heard there, or the stories. Grownups could come and sit and talk or listen, but a man’s welcome cooled if he failed to respect the difference between profanity and obscenity. Profanity was tolerated, even embellished, by the proprietor, if it had some semblance of meaning and rhythm. Ed once told a fumbling, foul-mouthed lout, “Shut up and stop trying to swear till you learn how to put the words together right. You get everything you say ass-backwards.” Vulgarity was allowed up to a point, at which Ed drew the line clearly and emphatically. After just so much filthy language Ed would lay down his hammer, point a calloused forefinger, and say, “You! Either s
At one time or another almost all the town’s idlers and men at loose ends could be found at the blacksmith shop. Among them were old-timers who had been in that country when it was young, before the railroad was built. Mike Quinn qualified because he helped build the railroad. And Mike was a veteran of the Civil War. After the rails were laid, he worked for the railroad as a maintenance man, was head of the local section gang for years. He was full of stories about the old days, at least half of them true and all of them rich with Irish wit and Irish brogue. When he told a whopper, most of his listeners knew what it was. As the one he told about how he used to be a great foot racer, how he kept in trim by running down coyotes, which he butchered to keep his family in meat. That was a wheeze, first because nobody could picture Mike, big, brawny, white-mustached and with a game leg that needed a cane, as a foot racer; and second because everyone knew his wife, a little woman all spunk and gumption and rawhide and sharp tongue, who would have gone out and butchered a range steer, anyone’s steer, and dragged it home by the tail before she would have fed her family coyote meat. But when he talked about how they built the railroad, Mike Quinn was listened to with attention and respect.
Simon Rumming was another who qualified. I have spoken of him elsewhere in this book, of his coming up the trail from Texas as a cavvy boy and finally settling on the Republican in the early eighties. Simon Rumming was a man with a soft voice and a winning smile, a one-eyed man who, some said, could charm the blackbirds down out of a cottonwood tree. He was reputed to have been a great horseman, though I never saw him on a horse. Now and then someone would get him to talk about horses and riders, though, and he would chuckle and bob around on his nail keg—nail kegs were the favorite seats, and the regulars each had his own, properly branded with his initials; Simon would rock on his keg and say, “These rodeo riders, how long do they have to ride a horse before the horn blows? Ten seconds? Why, they couldn’t even have got a job with the outfits in the old days. Many’s the frosty morning I had to ride a horse, pitching and bucking his best, for ten minutes, till he got the vinegar worked out of him. They all did it. A horse that didn’t give you fits on a frosty morning wasn’t considered worth his feed. And a man who couldn’t ride such a horse couldn’t hold a job.”
Simon had seen what probably was the last buffalo in the county. “It was in eighty-seven,” he said. “I was up on Hackberry Creek, north of Vona, looking for cattle—I was working for the K. P. outfit, then. And I saw this old buffalo bull. I couldn’t believe my eyes, at first, till I rode closer and sure enough, that’s what it was. Big and mangy looking, he sure was a sight. So old his teeth probably were worn down so he could hardly eat a good mouthful. Even the Indians didn’t want him, he was so old and tough. I certainly didn’t want him either, so I rode around him and went about my business. But that afternoon, on my way back, I met a couple of folks from Vona and I told them about that old bull, and they got all excited. And a couple of days later I heard that Doc Hoyt went out and shot him. I don’t know why. The hide wasn’t worth taking, and the meat couldn’t be eaten. Anyway, that was the last buffalo ever seen in Kit Carson County, maybe in this end of the state.”
Once in a while George Epperson would stop in, usually to get a piece of work done, maybe a plow share sharpened, or occasionally while his wife did the shopping. George was a brother of Ed Epperson of the original Town Incorporation Committee, and his wife was Mike Quinn’s oldest daughter. He had a cattle ranch southwest of Flagler, but he wasn’t much of a talker. He was one of those who sat and listened. And he caught flies. That’s a strange thing to say about a man, but it is true. George Epperson was the only man I ever knew who could reach out and catch a sitting fly. Strangers seeing him do it stood goggle-eyed, and even the blacksmith shop regulars sat entranced to watch him. He did the same thing at home, on the front porch of his ranch house. A visitor would be sitting there, talking, and George would see a fly buzzing around. He would hold out one hand, let it alight there, then slowly reach out with his other hand and catch the fly, just as though it had been mesmerized. And all the time go on with his slow, easy talk, once you got him started, about life there in the eighties, which according to him was just ordinary ranch life.
Most of the old-time ranchmen had worked as riders for the big outfits when they first came to that area. And most of them had seen buffalo, some had shot buffalo, a few had eaten buffalo steaks, which they didn’t care for. Tougher than beef, they said without exception. Actually, the buffalo were virtually wiped out by the hide-and-tongue hunters by 1886. After that there were rumors of herds persisting in the Dakotas and even in Minnesota, but they were false rumors. There were a few left in little bands, maybe as many as a dozen, in isolated pockets and brushy margins along the rivers, but the Indians and the trappers killed them without any fanfare. Leaving only such old, toothless specimens as the one Simon Rumming saw in ’87.
By 1915 the buffalo were a memory, and a dim one at that. But their brittle white bones and peeling black horns were still there on the flats. I have here in my study a buffalo horn I picked up south of Flagler in 1931, the last one I ever saw lying there in the grass. I have no doubt that those who said, in Ed Malbaff’s shop, that they saw live buffalo were telling the truth. But when they vanished they vanished completely. And the slaughter that wiped them out, down to those few tiny last-stand groups, was still evident as late as 1910, when the big homestead wave occurred. There were so many whitened buffalo bones on the flats that homesteaders gathered them and hauled them by the wagonload to Benkelman, Nebraska, and sold them to agents for fertilizer companies in Chicago. I don’t know what they were paid for those bones, but some said they bought their winter groceries with bone money. And it was said that at times there was a pile of buffalo bones ten feet high and a quarter of a mile long at Benkelman, waiting shipment to the fertilizer factories.
I knew and particularly admired four of the real old-timers, Charley Farr, Bill Strode, Albert Fisher and John Verhoff. All were still active ranchmen and none of them had much time for loafing, at the blacksmith shop or anywhere else. When I say I knew them I mean that I knew them to speak to, and they knew me by name; and now and then I heard them talking about the past at the office, for they all knew Father, stopped in to visit with him once in a while.
Charley Farr was the dean of the active cattlemen, oldest of these four and looked up to by the others. Bill Strode called him a man with a lot of courage and good, sound judgment. Albert Fisher said Charley was “the best ranchman, and the best boss, in the state.” Both Bill and Albert had worked for him when Charley was foreman of the Hash-Knife outfit, one of the biggest, with headquarters near Deer Trail.
Charley was born in Illinois in 1860, came to Colorado with family friends in a covered wagon in 1877, and started work as a cowboy down on the Arkansas river. Within ten years he was foreman of the Hash-Knife. A few years later he struck out on his own, with a homestead on the Republican river just north of Crystal Springs as his headquarters. That is where he still lived when we arrived, a beautiful ranch with plenty of good valley hay and crop land and upland grass for pasturage.
I remember Charley Farr on a horse, a tall, handsome man with a generous mustache and a face that belonged in a Remington painting of the Old West. He was proud of his horses and his saddle and, unless he came to town for groceries or a load that called for a wagon, he always came on horseback. I can still see him, the superb western horseman, on a big sorrel horse with four white feet, his saddle creaking, his bit chains tinkling, the horse prancing, Charley straight as a poker, his gray hat jaunty, his plainsman eyes squinted like those of an old-time sailor who also knew the far horizon.
Charley’s younger son, Duncan, was a classmate of mine in high school and went on to college with me. Quite a horseman himself, Dunc was the high jumper on our high school track team and set a county record that stood for years, five feet nine inches, or thereabout.
Bill Strode was fifteen years younger than Charley Farr. He didn’t reach Flagler till 1887, barely in time to see the first train come through. But he was born in Texas, practically grew up on a horse, and was a full-time cowboy at the age of fifteen. Albert Fisher, a year younger than Bill Strode, also came to Colorado as a boy and became a cowboy at an early age. But Albert was a horseman, a bronc rider, as he sometimes said. He got work breaking horses to the saddle, with roundup trips thrown in, of course, just to keep him busy. Albert married Bill Strode’s sister and the two families were linked even more closely. As late as 1916, when Albert was forty years old, he still was considered the best bronc rider anywhere around.
John Verhoff, only eight years younger than Charley Farr, came to Colorado from Kansas as a boy of sixteen and went to work as a cowhand. Six years later, in 1894, his brother Lanch came out from Kansas to join him and they took homesteads on the river southeast of Flagler, about ten miles up-river from Charley Fan’s place. John built a rock and sod house, got married, and settled down to ranching for himself. He had eight children, including two sons just a little younger than I was, and he owned a large acreage of valley land and cattle to eat its grass and alfalfa. He built the dam where Little Doc and Spider and I went to watch the ducks and the herons and the frogs, hoping to irrigate some of his drier acres. But when the dam was full the acres never needed irrigating, and when they needed water the water behind the dam was too low to flow off into the irrigation ditches.
Country Editor's Boy by Hal Borland / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes