High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, p.26Hal Borland
Father talked to Louie, who was a little frightened and full of threats. If the Lazy Four cowboys came to attack his camp he would shoot them, every one of them. He was a good shot, and he had a good rifle. He could take care of himself. If there was going to be a range war, he could handle his end of it.
Father came back and said to Mother and me, “I don’t think there’s going to be anything but loud talk. Whatever happens, there is no reason anything should happen here. We’re not involved in any way.” Mother agreed. So Father went back to Brush to work a few more weeks and get money enough to buy the other horse.
What was happening, of course, was beyond the control of the ranchmen. They didn’t even see it. None of us realized it in those terms, but an era was coming to an end. The days of the big ranches and the open range were almost over. Previous waves of homesteaders had lonelied out or discouraged out or dried out, but this wave of settlement was going to stay. Rising land values and a rapidly expanding population in the Midwest were pushing farmers toward the marginal lands of the West. This movement was encouraged by a moist cycle just starting on the plains, a favorable weather cycle that was to continue with little interruption for ten or fifteen years.
Another factor, even more important and even less foreseeable, was the rumbling in the far-off Balkans. For years there had been small wars in the Balkans. This time a small war was to explode into World War I, which would be felt on the plains primarily as a wheat boom. Gang plows would move in, vast acreages of sod would be ripped up to grow two-dollar wheat. The plains would be opened to the winds of eventual drought and depression.
But those were matters for the years ahead. At the moment the ranchmen were being squeezed out of business by a shortage of free range. They were being slowly choked to death by the homesteaders and their strands of barbed wire. Most of the ranchmen, however, thought of homesteaders as a transient nuisance and waited for nature to drive them out, as it had before. Had the ranchmen chosen to do so, even then, they probably could have driven most of the homesteaders out by force. Instead, they turned on each other. The Lazy Four blamed Gerrity. The old, old cattle-sheep feud was revived.
Father went back to Brush, and two days later there was a prairie fire on the range of one of the Mexican herders. It smudged and smoldered only a mile or so, but it trapped and smothered fifty head of sheep. Less than a week later a similar fire on the other Mexican’s range killed forty or fifty of his flock.
But fire wasn’t the answer, and if it had been the timing was all wrong. If the Lazy Four wanted to burn Gerrity out of business the move should have been made the previous summer, when a prairie fire would have run for miles in the drought-sere grass. Such a fire would have been disastrous not only to Gerrity but to dozens of homesteaders, who would have lost houses, barns and precious hay.
The next move was a night raid. Raiders crept up in the darkness, somehow eluded the guards, opened the pens, whooped one Mexican’s flock out across the flats. But they didn’t start a real stampede. All but a dozen or so of the sheep were gathered the next day.
Louie by then was sure the next raid would be on his camp. When there is trouble around, some people feel neglected if they aren’t involved. They have to live a kind of awed and hopeful expectation of disaster. Louie didn’t want to be shot or beaten, but he wanted to feel important enough to justify such a possibility. The next move, however, was also against the Mexican herders.
A slow-witted farmer whose wife had died in childbirth the previous fall and left him with five children lived in the edge of the sand hills north of Gerrity’s big camp. The farmer’s oldest child was a drab, frightened girl of fifteen. She often wandered in the sand hills, a girl even more slow-witted than her father. The cowboys started the rumor that she was visiting the Mexicans. Then they spread the story that the Mexicans had raped her. The girl denied it, but the father believed the story and declared he was going to kill “them damn Spicks.”
The whole thing was undoubtedly a frame-up, but the cowboys had picked the wrong man. The farmer wasn’t the kind to kill anyone. When a week passed without any action, three masked riders descended on the wagon of one Mexican herder in the darkness, trussed up the guard, trapped the herder in the wagon, castrated him, and burned the wagon.
At that point the sheriff rode into the picture. He came out with two deputies, questioned the maimed herder and arrested the three Mexican-hating young Texans. He took them to town, jailed them, and the law began its deliberate process of indictment, trial and conviction.
Nobody questioned the authority of the law. The boss of the Lazy Four didn’t even bail out his cowboys. Once the sheriff stepped into the picture, the law was dominant, for there is an ingrained sense of the majesty and the ultimate justice of the law, of duly constituted authority, which runs through all our history, from the first establishment of a system of local self-government in Boston and Salem more than three centuries ago. True, the frontier and especially the western frontier, often had its vigilante rule before organized government was established; but it is significant that the vigilantes usually went through the motions of legal process, if only to justify dubious actions.
Our range war ended. Gerrity’s other Mexican herder quit and took the first train back to New Mexico. Gerrity divided the abandoned flocks among his other herders and withdrew his ineffectual guards, Louie swallowed his disappointment, and June crept across the plains with its peaceful and plenteous warmth. Father bought another horse and came home, and we put up more hay than we had ever in our stack yard. We cut the volunteer rye. We hoed the corn. Mother’s garden flourished. And Father and I helped Jake Farley build his new house, fighting flying ants and listening to Jake’s stories.
But Jake was absorbed, most of the time, in his approaching marriage. “I wonder,” he would ask, “if Mildred is going to like it out here. This country’s a lot different from Iowa.” And he would say, “I guess I ought to go to town and get some new furniture. Or do you think it would be all right if I painted up what I got?” And, over and over, he asked, “Do you suppose there will be a shivaree?”
Jake worried about the shivaree, in which neighbors gathered at the home of a newly wed couple, made a din, and demanded a treat. Jake was afraid of a shivaree, and he was even more afraid there wouldn’t be one for him and Mildred. He dreaded it, and he couldn’t face the social disgrace of being ignored.
We got the walls up, the roof on, the partitions in, and Jake mixed dobe mud and plastered the inside. And he kept worrying about the shivaree.
When the time came, everything went off all right. Jake’s bride arrived in Brush on schedule. She was as old as Mother, a chubby blonde, shy, and as frightened as Jake was. Mother said, “She’s nice. And she thinks the world of Jake.” Mother and Father went to the preacher with them, and after the ceremony Jake took his bride down to the general store and said, “Buy anything you want. It’s your wedding present.” Mildred bought fifteen dollars’ worth of groceries, not another thing. Jake carried the boxes of groceries out to the wagon, helped Mildred in, and they drove out to the new sod house on his homestead.
There was a shivaree the next night. About twenty neighbors gathered, with cowbells and wash tubs and tin pans, and a couple of shotguns to punctuate the din. Jake was delighted and Mildred was relieved. She had spent all day baking cakes and, as she whispered to Mother, “I don’t know what I’d have done with them if folks hadn’t come!” Everybody crowded inside and admired the bride and the new house, and Mildred served coffee and cake. Then one man produced a mouth organ and played a tune, and all the menfolks and boys began carrying the furniture outdoors, even the cookstove. Once the house was cleared they began to square dance. They danced till two o’clock in the morning, then moved the furniture back in, put up the stove again, and went home.
The shivaree was the big social event of the summer. The next week the men gathered and began to build the school-house. There wasn’t much time left, because school was to s
There were only seven of us of school age, and all the other six lived over east. Four of them had arrived with their families the previous fall and I didn’t know them. The other two of them were too young for me to play with even if I had wanted company or had time for it. The teacher, Miss Howard, was only nineteen and had finished high school in Denver the previous spring. Her seven pupils were scattered over five grades. Only three of us were boys, one a six-year-old first-grader, one a gangling youngster of sixteen, an inch taller than Miss Howard, and in the eighth grade.
I felt like a stranger in the group. Except for the sixteen-year-old eighth-grader, who had been doing a man’s work since he was thirteen, they all seemed very young. They were still children. The oldest girl, who was in the sixth grade, had trouble reading words of more than two syllables, and the big boy in the eighth grade couldn’t do long division. I was a schoolboy, and yet I was already reaching toward adulthood. Miss Howard soon learned what books I had read and fed me all the adult reading she could lay her hands on. Anything, I suppose, to keep me busy and interested. But because I had left school in Nebraska in the fourth grade, she had to start me in the fifth.
Our books were a strange assortment, probably dug out of a storeroom by a casually interested school board far away. I had a McGuffey reader and a blue-back geography whose map of the United States showed the whole area from eastern Kansas to the Rocky Mountains as “The Great American Desert.” I went through my McGuffey reader in the first month and through the one for the next grade a few weeks later, memorizing dozens of poems and orations as I went. Miss Howard promoted me to the sixth grade, which simplified her work. That made three of us in the sixth grade and reduced the number of grades she was teaching to four. By Thanksgiving I was helping the big boy in the eighth grade with his arithmetic. That wasn’t unusual in a one-room school, where those advanced in one subject often supplemented the teacher.
Miss Howard lived with the Hagens, over east. They had two children in school, and Miss Howard and the Hagen children drove to school in the Hagen buggy. The rest of us walked, except in bad weather, when I rode Mack. When the storms came, the blizzards that made travel dangerous, everyone knew there would be no school. We stayed at home and started school again when the storm was over.
We had the best Thanksgiving we’d ever had on the homestead. We still lived largely from the land, and we burned cow chips and sheep chips. Father and I kept meat on the table and we ate plenty of beans and cornmeal mush, but there was no sense of privation or hardship. Daisy’s new calf had been a bull. We fattened it all fall and when the cold weather came just before Thanksgiving we butchered it and had young beef for the winter. Mother said, “With beef hanging where you can cut a steak any time, rabbit tastes a lot better, doesn’t it? I guess it’s human nature to want what you haven’t got.”
Christmas passed, and January was stormy. School dragged on till the last week in February. And then spring came again, a wet spring with good grass and a promise of good crops.
Our major troubles were past. After the decision had been made the previous spring, everything was easier. What problems we had didn’t seem to crowd in so hard. Once it had been decided to stay and prove up on the homestead, there was a sense of freedom. We were staying because we wanted to, and that made all the difference. Now it was possible to look even further ahead, beyond the time when Father could prove up and get a patent, a deed to the land.
Father was not a farmer. He had found that out. He loved the Colorado plains, but now he knew that he wouldn’t be content to spend the rest of his life digging a living from them. He had to make the move, take the homestead and prove up on it, to satisfy something within himself. We had about made a success of that venture. Now the question was: What next?
“What do you want to do?” Mother asked. It was a sunny April day with a spring wind blowing.
Instead of answering her question, Father said, “My father went to Nebraska and took land over near Vesta. But he didn’t stay on that place. He farmed it till he got title, but all the time he was running a little blacksmith shop right on the place. Finally he moved to Sterling, where there was water for a mill, and started the mill and blacksmith shop. Most of the businesses in Sterling were started by folks who moved in from farms they had homesteaded. They sold out to farmers who came along after the first settlers.”
“Do you want to move back to Nebraska?” Mother half smiled, knowing the answer.
“No! I like this new country, and you know it. We came to Colorado to stay.”
“Maybe you’d like to move to Brush. It’s a nice town.”
Father shook his head. “Brush is a good town, but its big boom is about over. Besides, there are two newspapers there now.”
Mother smiled. “Once a printer, always a printer.”
“I guess so. Ink in my veins. Remember what L. A. Varner said when we left Sterling?” Mr. Varner was the man who taught Father the printer’s trade. “ ‘Will,’ he said, ‘I’ll give you just five years away from a print shop. Every printer I ever knew,’ he said, ‘thought he wanted to be a farmer.’ ”
Father rolled a cigarette and lit it and thought while he drew a lungful of smoke. “One of these days,” he said, “I’ll go look for a town. Somewhere here on the plains. I know what I want. Not too big a place, but a growing town. I’ll either start a paper there or find a place with a run-down paper and buy it. We’ll grow with the town. This is a growing country, and there are lots of good towns that are going to grow with it.”
That was the germ of the idea, and it was in the frontier tradition. Conquest of the land was only part of pioneering. And there were all kinds of pioneers. Some were clerks and some were storekeepers and some were bankers, some were blacksmiths and some were printers. They built the towns and organized the commerce and the trade in the new land. And some were the restless folk who had to live their lives out on the fringes ahead of the permanent settlements, moving on as soon as towns grew up and neighbors arrived. Without their restlessness the United States would still be a narrow band of settlement along the Atlantic Coast. And without the pioneers turned tradesmen and artisans, the land would have become a rural backwater living by barter and handcraft.
Father and Mother talked, and all through their plans ran the bright thread of confidence. The things I had seen in Father’s face and vaguely sensed, that afternoon when he said we were going to stay and prove up on the homestead, were in his words now. He could do whatever he wanted to do. There might be barriers, but there were ways over or through or around. The homestead years had convinced him of that. He and Mother had never lacked courage; now they had the confidence to go with it.
Spring stretched into summer. The last two dugouts in our area were replaced by sturdy sod houses. A dugout was always considered a temporary home, easy to abandon; when a man built a soddy he meant that he intended to stay. More and more miles of barbed wire fences were put up. More and more patches of sod corn were planted. The homesteaders were winning the quiet war for the plains.
The Lazy Four went bankrupt and was sold to a man from eastern Kansas. He fenced its deeded land and made no attempt to hold its open range. He stocked his fenced pastures with good beef cows and brought in two blooded white-face bulls, Herefords. Gerrity put out two fewer flocks than usual, and the flock he sent with Louie to the upper camp had only fifteen hundred head, half the usual number. Gerrity knew that the old order was changing.
There were still a few echoes of the old days. That summer a cowboy who had been fired from a ranch down south rode in to Gary, trying to drown his sorrows in a bottle, and pulled a gun and fired two wild shots in the direction of a group of farmers swapping stories beside the store. One of the farmers knocked him down with his fist, took away his gun, and carried him to the horse trough and dumped him
An era was ending. The country, as the old-timers said, was getting crowded. It was getting “all womaned up.” A homesteader with enough credit to buy a wagonload of groceries from a wholesale house started another store six miles south of Gary, in an area that hadn’t a house or a fence in sight when we first came. He called it Woodrow and established a post office there. The old trails, which were shortcuts across the flats, began to vanish and people drove on the section lines, a good deal of the time between fences.
And that summer Father proved up on the homestead and got his patent, his legal title to the land. I still have the original patent, number 363429, which granted to Will A. Borland and his heirs and assigns, “the north half of Section seventeen in Township one south of Range fifty-six west of the Sixth Principal Meridian, Colorado, containing three hundred twenty acres.” It was issued by Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States.
The old era really ended there on the plains, it always seemed to me, when the government asked Con Hallahan to bid on carrying the mail from Brush to Gary and Woodrow by truck. Con read the request for bids and exclaimed, “By truck! If my wild horses aren’t good enough to haul the mail, be damned to you!” And Con refused to bid. That was in 1915. There still wasn’t a farmer or a homesteader south of Gary who owned an automobile or a truck, but a man near Brush bought a Model T truck and got the contract.
That was also the year, 1915, when we moved to Flagler. Father had found the growing town and the struggling newspaper he wanted. Flagler was a town of about 600 people situated on the Rock Island railroad ninety miles southeast of the homestead, almost in the center of the High Plains. It was a new town, only twenty-eight years old. The section foreman on the railroad there had helped lay the first rails west of Kansas across the plains. A handyman around town said he had ridden with Jim Bridger and Kit Carson. He probably had. Bridger had been dead only thirty-four years and Carson only forty-seven. The old Old West wasn’t very far in the past.
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