High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, p.25Hal Borland
Father looked at me a moment, then turned away. “We’d better go in to supper,” he said.
The next morning I wanted to start moving the stack yard fence, but Father said no, not on Sunday. He went out with me and looked at the fence and listened while I talked, but I knew he was thinking about something else. We walked up the hill and looked at the rye, which was almost knee-high. It would soon be heading out. He looked at it as though it was somebody else’s rye field, then turned and walked down into the old cornfield. He crouched down and dug a handful of soil. He held it up and looked at it and crumbled it in his fingers. He reached down for another handful and said, without looking up, “You like it out here in Colorado, don’t you?”
Of course I liked it. This was home.
“But you’ve had it pretty hard here on the homestead,” he said. “You and your mother.”
Suddenly I had a flash of the boy in the wagon at Gary, and of his father saying to Tom McDowell, “A man can take just so much. Between the weather and the woman—”
“It hasn’t been hard at all!” I exclaimed. “It’s been fun! You used to like it here. If you’d just come home and—”
He looked at me and I could have bitten my tongue off. His jaw tightened and his nostrils quivered. Without a word he got up and went down the hill toward the house.
I watched him all the way to the stack yard. Then I went around the rye and up onto the ridge, walking west, away from the house. I had almost said, “If you’d just come home and stay, everything would be wonderful.” And I knew that wasn’t fair at all. He hadn’t been away because he wanted to be away. He went to the mountains to make money for us to live on last winter. When he came back he took sick and nearly died, and he went away again to work and get us out of debt.
I saw the look on his face again as he dug that handful of soil and held it as though it was something precious. I didn’t know what to do. Some things you know and feel and can’t say, and those were the things I wanted to tell him. I wanted to tell him how I felt about the plains, and—everything. I wondered if the boy in the wagon felt that way too, there at Gary. I wondered if Father wanted to say that a man can take just so much.
The sensitivity of youth is a splendid thing, but maturity begins when that sensitivity first reaches beyond self. The world of a boy is a special world created for him and his private exploration. He approaches manhood when he begins to find room in that world for others, when the wonder of that world begins to have meaning beyond itself and himself. Maturity consists of an understanding of reasons and necessities beyond one’s own impulses and desires. But it never comes in a moment; it comes bit by bit, year by year.
As I walked along the ridge I looked out across the plains, the hills barely rippling in the sun, each hill so small in the distance. I began to feel a beat, a rhythm, like the beat of my heart but much, much bigger. A beat that had been going on for years and years, since the Indian first came, since the first buffalo, since there was an ocean here, and a clam. A beat like the coming of spring, that slow; like the swish of a meadow lark’s wings, that fast. Like sunrise, like sunset, like the full moon.
It was the beat of the plains, the hills and the draws and the flats, and yesterday and today and tomorrow, and Father and Mother and me, and everybody who lived here on the plains. I knew and accepted that pulse. It was a part of me. I accepted it without thinking, as I accepted the plains. Someday I would know who I was, and I would accept that. I didn’t have to know now.
I walked and walked, and suddenly a meadow lark hopped almost from under my feet. It fluttered as with a broken wing, trying to lure me away. I had startled it from a nest.
The mother bird fluttered and uttered a distress cry, and for a moment I thought she was hurt. Then I looked around, carefully, and almost at my feet I saw the nest, in a grass clump. It had four eggs, white eggs speckled with purplish brown. I walked away slowly and the mother lark flew back on two perfectly good wings.
I turned and went back toward the house, stopping only to pick a few wild geraniums, little coral-red flowers that sprang from low gray-green plants that had a faint geranium odor.
I went to the house and Mother asked, “Where’s your father?”
“He came back to the house.”
“Go look in the barn. Tell him if he wants anything to eat he’d better come in. Dinner’s ready.”
Father was in the stack yard, sitting in the sun. He got up and threw away a cigarette and we went to the pump and washed our hands.
Practically nothing was said while we ate. Mother looked worried. Father’s thoughts seemed to be far away, though he looked at her a couple of times and frowned. When we had finished, Mother said, “You’d just as well go on outdoors. It’s a nice day. I’ve got a little headache and I may lie down.”
We went back to the stack yard and sat down with our backs to the warm hay. Father picked up a rye straw and broke it into little pieces, and finally he said, “It’s time you got some schooling. And one of these days I want you to learn a trade. I don’t know where we’d be if I hadn’t had a trade to fall back on.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say.
“That,” Father went on, “is a man’s first responsibility. To take care of himself. And his family. He’s not much of a man if he can’t do that.”
It was all confusing. Out on the ridge before dinner I had felt that I was a part of everything, the plains and the grass and the sky—everything. Now I was just a boy who had to get some schooling and learn a trade. It was all mixed up. He had asked if I didn’t like it out here, and of course I did, because it was home. And now he talked about going to school, as though being out here didn’t matter at all.
Fritz, lying beside me, lifted his head and pointed his ears down the draw. Jake Farley was coming, riding one of his big black work horses. Father waved to him and Jake tied his horse at the fence and came and crouched down on his heels beside us.
“Good to see you,” he said to Father. “I heard you were going to be home.”
“I took a week off,” Father said.
Jake picked up a straw and chewed it. He talked about the winter, and the grass, and John Kraus. Finally he said, “I’m going to build a new house and I wondered if the boy could help me out.”
“What’s wrong with the house you’ve got?” Father asked.
Jake grinned and looked at the ground. “Well, like you said once, a woman don’t like to live in a barn.”
“Don’t tell me,” Father said, “that you’re getting married!”
Jake flushed. “Yes.” And he told how lonesome he’d been last winter, snowbound and cut off from everyone. One day he started a letter to the hired girl on the farm back in Iowa where he’d been the hired man. He added to it every day, and when the storms let up and he could get to Gary he mailed it. She answered him and he wrote and asked her to marry him. “I told her,” Jake said, “that maybe she could do better, but again she might do worse. She felt the same way. So,” he concluded, “she’s coming out the first of July. After I get a crop in. And a soddy built. It would help a lot if the boy could lend me a hand.”
Father said, “Maybe he can. We’ll see.”
“I’d sure be obliged.” Jake got to his feet. “And there’s one other thing. Would you and the missus stand up with us before the minister?”
“Of course, Jake. Come on in and tell her about it.”
Jake shook his head. Blushing, he edged toward his horse. “You tell her. I got to get home.” He untied his horse and got on. “I’m sure obliged to you!” he said, and he rode away.
We went to the house. Mother wasn’t lying down. She was sitting at the table, just staring out the window.
Father said, “Jake is going to get married.”
“Jake Farley? No!” Mother exclaimed.
“In July. He wants us to go to the preacher with them.”
“And you said we would?
“Well, thank heavens! You’ve finally made up your mind.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know as well as I do what I mean. About staying here.”
“I haven’t made up my mind about that,” Father said slowly.
“You’ll be thirty-four years old tomorrow,” Mother said quietly. “You’re old enough to make up your mind.”
“Yes,” Father said, “thirty-four years old. And what have we got to show for it? This shanty of a house. That miserable excuse for a barn. When we came out here two years ago we had better than two thousand dollars, and a good team, and two good cows. What have we got now? One old cow, two calves, and a broken-down old nag. And I’ve got exactly twenty-four dollars and forty-five cents in my pocket. That’s what we’ve got to show for thirty-four years!”
“We’ve been worse off,” Mother said. “We’ve been in debt. Why did we come out here, anyway?”
Father didn’t answer.
“Because you liked this land,” Mother said. “You wanted it, didn’t you? This homestead was pretty important, then.”
“Well, we two-thirds own it right now. One more year and we can prove up. It’ll be ours.”
Father shook his head. “It’s not worth having you two out here another winter like the last one. Living on beans and mush. Doing without clothes, without coal, without everything you ought to have. Including school.”
“As for school,” Mother said, “I heard yesterday they’re going to build a sod schoolhouse right east of Jake’s place for a term this fall. And as for the other things, what do they matter?”
“I’m not much of a man if I can’t provide them.”
“Has anybody asked for them? Just wait till we can afford them and you’ll hear from me! Will, we never started anything we couldn’t finish. You want to finish this job, don’t you?”
“Of course I do, but I can’t ask you—”
“Nobody asked me to do anything. We came out here to Colorado to stay, didn’t we? We took this homestead intending to prove up.”
“Yes.… You really want to stay, then?”
“After what we’ve gone through? I wouldn’t think of quitting now! But I began to think you’d had enough. Being away from home so much, working overtime, living in that smelly little room back of the shop.”
Father shook his head. “I had it easy. You’re the ones who had it hard. Scrimping, and fighting blizzards, and—Sarah, I never wanted you to have to put up with things like this. Many a time I wanted to throw everything over and rent a place in town—”
“I could have. The doctor would have waited a little longer.”
Mother shook her head. Then she smiled. “We’re out of debt now. Just a few more weeks in the shop and you can buy another horse. Then we can all be together. Out here.”
“That’s what you want to do?”
“Of course it is! I want to finish the job we started, prove up on the homestead!”
“So do I.” Father drew a long, deep breath of relief. “And all the time I thought you were just putting up with things because I didn’t provide something better.”
“Well,” Mother said, “I wasn’t.” She laughed. “I’ve got to think about getting supper for my menfolks. And see if I’ve got what I need to bake a birthday cake. And you two had better go get Daisy and the calves. There’s no hurry. You’ll have time to take a walk and look at the sunset. You may not have time tomorrow, because we’re going to plant corn. With a hoe!”
Father and I walked up the draw, where the bluestem was almost knee-high. It would be good hay this year. We walked up to where Daisy and the calves were grazing, and beyond, up onto the ridge where the lush, curling buffalo grass was plush-soft underfoot.
We stood on the ridge and looked off across the flats, and they were like that land of Genesis again, reaching into forever. The sun was almost down on the horizon. Bullbats were sailing overhead with their eeep-eeep cries and quick, darting flight. The meadow larks were singing their evening songs. From somewhere far out on the flats came the soft coo-cooeee of the turtle doves.
Father looked and listened, and he was smiling a deep, inside smile. I wanted to tell him how the world out here was under the towering snowdrifts, and how spring came up through the soles of your feet and through the marrow of your bones, and how it was the night before Christmas that wasn’t going to be Christmas, and how it was when the shotgun and the rabbit led me to the Bromleys and the books. I wanted to tell him about the old Indian point-maker and the flint chips, and about the gray mug beside the emigrant trail, and about the fossil clam.
I turned to try to tell him these things and I saw his face, and I knew I didn’t have to tell him. He knew. Then I saw something more in his face, an inner certainty.
I was to know that quality better and better in him over the years, but I sensed it then. In summing up what there was to show for his thirty-four years he had omitted the one possession that mattered, the certainty, the belief. Take away everything else and that remained. He had been forced to a decision between the dream and the responsibility, not knowing until the decision was made that there is no choice, that the dream encompasses the responsibility or it is no dream at all. That was the distillation of the homestead years, as it was the distillation of the frontier through all the years. The pioneer started with the dream, and the unique achievement was his persistence in the dream even while he met his obligations to self, to family, and to society.
We stood there on the ridge and watched the sunset. The rim of the sun touched the horizon and shimmered all the hills across the west. Then Father said, “We’d better go back.”
We went down the draw in the coolness and got Daisy and the calves and cantankerous old Mack and put them in the barn and did the evening chores. Daisy was fat with calf. There would be another calf before the month was out. This fall the spotted heifer, Bessie’s calf, would be old enough to breed. Before haying time we would have another horse. The barn would be almost full again by next winter.
We heard Mother singing in the house. Father stopped and listened and I saw him smile. I saw the certainty even more clearly than before in his face. Then Mother called us and we went in to supper.
IT ISN’T TOO DIFFICULT to plant corn with a hoe, once you’ve made up your mind to it. It’s tedious work, and your arms get tired and your back aches; but the sun isn’t too hot at corn-planting time, and there are lots of birds around, singing and looking for bugs and worms in the soil as you turn it up. We didn’t have any crows to take the corn as fast as you planted it, and that was a help. Father and I took turns with the hoe. His hands weren’t tough, as mine were, and they blistered the first afternoon. But he put on cotton flannel work gloves and kept at it.
Mother baked a cake for our birthdays, but we didn’t take any time off. We kept at the corn planting. We had it down to a system by the second day. The one with the hoe chopped down, dug a hole with one swing and scooped out the dirt in the same motion, lifted the hoe and chopped the next hole, and the next, and the next. The other one, with a sack of corn slung around his shoulder, dropped a few kernels of corn in the hole, scuffed dirt over it with his foot, stepped on it to firm it, and went on to the next, and the next. We went right down the field, planting on the ridges between last year’s old stalks, and we planted about four acres. Then we put in a row of pinto beans, just as we had the year before. And we left room to plant a short row of potatoes.
It took us most of the week, and before we were finished Louie had come to the upper camp with his flock. Two roustabouts from Gerrity’s home ranch came with him, pitched a tent beside the windmill, and took turns sitting on the hillside above the camp with a .30-30 rifle handy. The men were guards, and there was trouble brewing. Before he went back to Brush, Father had a talk with Louie. Father didn’t like the look of things.
Two other cowboys besides Jack Clothier had quit at the Lazy Four. Three fiery young Texans had been hired to replace them. Times were changing, but the young Texans didn’t know it. The day was close at hand when a cowboy would be just a farm hand on a horse; they thought the old days of hard-riding, gun-toting cowhands were still going strong.
Then, just at the start of lambing season, one of Gerrity’s regular herders was kicked by a work horse in the barn and got a broken leg. Another regular herder quit to work for a man in Montana. Gerrity replaced them with two Mexican herders from New Mexico who could speak little English.
One of the new Texas cowboys, all dressed up in chaps and a six-shooter, met one of Gerrity’s hands in Gary one Saturday just as lambing was starting. The cowboy called the sheep hand a Mexican. The sheep hand laughed at the cowboy and his six-gun. Although most cowboys and sheep herders still carried short-barreled .30-30 rifles to shoot coyotes, almost nobody carried a revolver. The cowboy had had a few drinks. He reached for his gun. The sheep hand rushed him, a shot was fired, the gun was knocked from the cowboy’s hand, and the two of them went into the dust in a clawing, kneeing fist fight. A bystander pocketed the six-shooter.
The fight didn’t amount to much, a black eye and a cut lip and a few scratches. Two husky homesteaders pulled the fighters apart. The cowboy demanded his gun, didn’t get it, climbed on his horse, and rode away, shouting loud threats.
The next Saturday all three Texans went to Gary looking for trouble, but all Gerrity’s men were busy with lambing. The cowboys shot a few tin cans, made a lot of noise, and rode away.
Lambing over, Gerrity, with a strange, stubborn blindness, sent his two Mexican herders with flocks to be grazed on the edge of the Lazy Four range. And, expecting trouble, he sent armed guards with all his flocks, including Louie’s.
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