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Country editors boy, p.3
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       Country Editor's Boy, p.3

           Hal Borland

  “How much is the rent?”

  “Ten dollars a month. Coo-coo runs an ad that costs seven and a half a week, so I’m twenty dollars a month to the good, in cash, with the house rent all paid.”

  Mother slowly shook her head. “I guess it’s all right. But you know how I worry about going into debt. And there’s the mortgage.”

  “We’ll make out. I sized things up before I bought. I wrote you about Kit Carson. It’s a bigger town and older than Flagler, and it’s a good paper. But he wanted too much money, more than I could afford. And Wild Horse didn’t amount to a hill of beans, just a wide place in the road. But the minute I got here I liked Flagler. It’s up and coming with a live bunch of business men. I inquired around and most of them promised to support me. The other paper—”

  “There’s another paper here?”

  “Yes, the Progress.”

  “You didn’t tell me that.”

  “Ed Gibson runs it. Nice fellow, but easy-going and an old-line Republican. Things are changing. The Democrats are going to win the next election in the county, maybe the state. I had a talk with the leaders in Burlington—that’s the county seat, forty miles east of here. There’s never been a Democratic paper in this end of the county.”

  “I don’t like to see you get into politics.”

  “You know I’ve been a Democrat all my life, even back in Nebraska. I just told them I’d support the party here if they would support me. I didn’t make any deals, but if the Democrats win the next election I’ll get my share of the county printing. They’ve already given me some legal advertising, and there’ll be more. But regardless of politics, I’m for Flagler and its best interests. I said that, just about that way, in my first issue. I’m trying to make the News a newspaper, print all the news I can get, without fear or favor.”

  “Will, you’re not going to print scandal!”

  “I said news. No, I don’t intend to poke into personal affairs, and I’m not going to print gossip. If a man has a fight with his wife, I consider that scandal. But if he has a fight with the whole neighborhood, that’s news and I’m going to print it. Don’t you agree?”

  “I guess so.”

  “People like to see their names in the paper, so I am putting their names in, using all the local items I can get. I’ve lined up a string of regular correspondents out in the country who send in items about their neighborhood every week.”

  “I guess you’ve been pretty busy.”

  “This is the first night I haven’t gone back to the shop after supper.”

  “I couldn’t see much when we came in, but Flagler looks about the size of Sterling.” Sterling was the town in Nebraska where I was born, the town we left to come to Colorado five years before.

  “About the same size, around five hundred people.”

  “Sterling couldn’t support two papers.”

  “Flagler is different. It has twice as many stores and business places. It draws trade from a big territory north and south, farmers to the north, ranchmen to the south. A lot of Missourians, good farmers, out north. They grow big wheat crops. And cattlemen and sheepmen out south, with quite a few farmers too. Flagler is starting to boom. There’s a lively crowd of young business men here who are giving the old-timers a run for their money. They are the ones I’m counting on to make a go of it. They’ve never had a really live editor to get behind them and help push.”

  Mother yawned. I was getting sleepy too. “Well,” she said, “I just hope we don’t live to regret it. If we could have sold the homestead you could have paid cash and we wouldn’t be in debt.”

  “The deal didn’t go through,” Father said, “and that’s that. With other land all around the homestead selling for eight and ten dollars an acre, I wasn’t going to let it go for five. You froze and starved to get that land and I’m not going to give it away now.”

  “You worked too. We all did. I just hope you’re right.” Then she asked, “How big is the house you rented? I hope we don’t have to get more furniture right away.”

  Father laughed. “We’ll do good to get what furniture we’ve got in that house. It’s only three rooms. Not much bigger than the house on the homestead. But we won’t live there forever. Something better will open up one of these days.”

  “Oh, Will,” Mother said, “it doesn’t matter where we live, just as long as things go right. I’d live in—in a boxcar, till we get out of debt!”

  I must have been half asleep by then because Father’s laugh made me sit up and blink. “That’s practically what you are going to live in—a boxcar. Coo-coo bought half a dozen old railway cars, the kind they use to house construction crews, and he put new roofs on them and fixed them up a little. That’s what those houses are, old railroad cars. But the one I rented was the only vacant house in town, absolutely the only one.”

  I was yawning and rubbing my eyes. Mother said, “You’d better get ready for bed, son, before your father has to undress you.”

  She opened a valise and got out our nightclothes and I unbuttoned my shirt. Then I remembered Fritz. I asked where he was.

  “Mr. Blancken said he could sleep in the shed,” Father said.

  “I remember now. I want to go down and see that he’s all right.”

  “I’ll go. I want to talk to Henry anyway. He said he wanted me to print some letterheads.” He put on his coat and turned to Mother. “I get cash for job printing. Anything that needs material I have to pay cash for, I charge cash. I only swap advertising space. And subscriptions. A farmer from up north, out in the Shiloh neighborhood, came in and wanted to swap two hens for a subscription.” He grinned. “I told him all right but not to deliver them till next week, after we get settled.”

  “I hope,” Mother said, “you told him to bring them in alive. I like to dress my own chickens.”

  “I told him. I’ll bet when word gets around we’ll have so many chickens we have to build a chicken pen.”

  “Tell the next person who wants to give you chickens to bring laying hens. Then I’ll have my own eggs.”

  Father went downstairs, and I pulled on my nightshirt and got under the covers. It was still raining. I could hear the steady drumming on the roof and the wash off the eaves above the side window. Mother pulled down the shades and turned down the lamp, and I was asleep before Father came back.


  THE NEXT DAY WAS one of those June days when the whole High Plains world seems fresh and renewed. The rain had ended, the sky was clear, and the sun streamed through the east window when I wakened. Mother and Father were up and dressed, and Mother was combing her long dark hair. I washed the sleep out of my eyes and began to dress, but when I reached for my long pants Mother shook her head, took two bone hairpins from her mouth, and said, “I got out your blue knickerbockers. As soon as we have breakfast we are going over and look at the house, and it’s muddy out.”

  I was ready to argue but didn’t have to. Father said, “It’s his first day here. Let him wear the new pants.”

  “I wanted him to save them for good.”

  “Just today,” Father said, and that settled it.

  So I put on the long pants and felt both dressed up and grown up. It was almost seven o’clock. Mother finished with her hair, put on her jacket, and we went down to the dining room.

  Three traveling salesmen were at one of the small tables and half a dozen local men, two of them in overalls, were at the long table. They looked up, gestured to Father, and he greeted them by name. We went to the table where we had eaten the night before. The white cloth was gone; it had the same red-and-white checked oilcloth as all the others. We were just folks this morning, not special guests.

  Mrs. Blancken came in from the kitchen with a gray granite-ware coffeepot. “Nice day after the rain,” she said as she filled our cups. “You sleep good?”

  “Fine,” Father said, and just then Mr. Blancken appeared with Fritz, who bounced to me, licked my hand, and lay down beside my chair. Mr. Blancken said to Mother,
with a twinkle, “Don’t feed him from the table! He had his breakfast already.” Then Mrs. Blancken was back with stewed apricots, fried eggs, fried potatoes, a platter of bacon and a heaping plate of pancakes. Butter, cream, syrup and jam were already on the table. Mr. Blancken was right. Nobody went hungry at his tables.

  When we had eaten, Father got his hat and Mother’s rubbers from our room and we went out onto the street. Father pointed out the stores and business offices and said who ran each one, but I didn’t get them straight except that the two-story brick building across the street at the next corner to the north was the Farmers State Bank building. “The News office.” he said, “is under the bank.”

  “You mean in the basement?” Mother asked.

  Father nodded. “The entrance is around the corner. We’ll go over there after we’ve seen the house.”

  A few doors down the street from the hotel was a gray frame building with big front windows and a sign, “The Flagler Progress.” Through the windows I could see racks of type cases and, in the shadowy back, the big newspaper press. “The opposition paper,” Father said.

  Mother paused to look through a window. “It doesn’t look like much of a shop,” she said.

  “It’s a pretty good shop,” Father said.

  “I’ll bet the News is better.”

  “It will be.” Father didn’t seem to want to talk about it. “Come on, let’s get over to the house.”

  We went on down the street and turned east, passed the livery stable with its big board corral out back, crossed another street with a smoky blacksmith shop on the corner. The blacksmith, already at work, shouted, “Morning, Will,” as we passed. The sidewalks had ended. We followed a muddy footpath and Mother turned to me. “I said you should have worn your knickerbockers. It is muddy.” And Father said, “Better roll up your new pants, son.”

  Another two blocks and I could see the whole expanse of the plains to the east. Just ahead, though, were four little houses set in a row and about fifty feet apart. They were exactly alike and still looked like boxcars. But they were painted brown and they had low pitched roofs. Each one had a clothes line and a privy out back and between each pair of them was a well and hand pump. The yards around them were as bare as the plains themselves, without a tree or a shrub and with the native buffalo grass worn thin by a lacing of footpaths.

  We went to the last house in the row and Father unlocked the front door. We went in. Mother took a deep breath and looked around. We were in the front room, as we always called it, a room about twelve feet square with the door and one window in the front, one window on each side. Beyond it was the middle room, somewhat smaller, and beyond that, at the back, was the kitchen, identical with the front room. The kitchen door led to the back yard and paths to the nearest pump and the privy.

  Mother walked through and came back to the front room and ran her finger along a window sill. She shook her head.

  “I had a woman in to clean it up,” Father said.

  “She may have swept the floor, but she didn’t do any scrubbing.” Mother sighed. “Well, I’m not afraid of soap and water. I just hope it’s not full of bedbugs.” Then she turned to Father. “We’ll put the heat stove here, and our bed over there. Your bed will go in the middle room, son. The chiffonier will have to go in there too, and maybe the wardrobe. We’ll eat in the kitchen, where it’s handy. It’s bigger than the homestead house, but not much. We’ll make out.”

  We went back to Main Street. The stores were beginning to open, and men in shirt sleeves came to the doorways to call greetings and be introduced to Mother. All of them spoke of the rain, thankful for it. Then we came to the corner with the brick bank and there, on the side street, was a wide stairway leading down to the basement. It had a railing of iron pipe, and a sign on the railing said, “The Flagler News.” There was a big window facing the open stairway and through it I could see a rack of type cases.

  Mother hesitated at the top of the stairway, stared at the weatherbeaten sign, then slowly went on down. Father unlocked the door, and as we went in I sniffed the familiar odors of a print shop—paper, ink, press rollers, lye water, benzene, the subtle odors of printing presses and type itself.

  It was a big low-ceilinged room with a short L at the doorway. The only light came through the big window at the stairway and two little ones, like cellar windows, high on the far wall. Opposite the door was an old flat-top desk with a clutter of newspapers, letters, copy paper, scribbled notes, a telephone and an old green Oliver typewriter. Beside the big window was the rack of type cases I had seen as we went down the steps. In the middle of the big room was the composing stone, a thick marble slab about three feet wide and six feet long set on a cabinet of shallow drawers and with a rack of leads, slugs and wooden “furniture” above it. On the stone were several steel chases, frames in which type is locked to be put on the presses. On back in the half-light were two job presses, one big, one small. In one corner was a Fairbanks-Morse gasoline engine, its exhaust pipe thrust through a hole in the wall, and overhead was a line of shafting with pulleys to provide belt power to the presses. In another corner was a paper cutter with an open paper cabinet beside it. Across the far end, under the little cellar windows, was a long wooden table. At one side stood the proof press, a shallow metal trough in which galleys of type could be placed and inked, with a padded drum a foot in diameter that rolled over the inked type and impressed it on a strip of paper.

  That was Father’s print shop, his newspaper plant and office. Mother looked at him, just looked, and he said, “This is it. All of it.” He reached for his bag of Bull Durham and began to roll a cigarette. His fingers were shaking. “A shirttail full of type, two job presses, a stone and a paper cutter.” He lit the cigarette, inhaled, blew out a long stream of smoke. “Not much to look at, is it?”

  “No.” Mother sank into the chair at the desk. For a moment I thought she was going to cry. Then her jaw tightened and she said, “Well, we’re here, and we’ll make the best of it.”

  Father took a deep breath. “I print the paper one page at a time on the big Gordon. I put in the gasoline engine last week. Until then I had to pedal the presses, but you can’t get along that way. I had to order some new type, display as well as body type. The job work has started to come, and so has the advertising. Bill Hall—he runs the big general store—wanted half the front page for an ad every other week, but I’m not that hard up yet. I let him have half the back page.”

  “How many subscribers are there?” Mother asked.

  “Almost three hundred, and growing. I got twenty new subscribers in the last two weeks. But half the old ones aren’t paid up. I’ve been sending out bills and they’re beginning to pay up.” Then he added, “The Progress list is under five hundred.”

  “It’s dark down here,” Mother said.

  Father took down a big gasoline lamp from its hook on the ceiling, pumped up the pressure, held a match to the mantles till they began to glow, and hung it back on its hook. The light made the room look bigger, and dingier.

  “I’ll scrub the walls,” Mother said. “Then we’ll paint them white. Where’s a broom?”

  “I’ll sweep out when I get to it.”

  “I’ll sweep out right now! I’m going to do something!”

  Father got the broom. He probably knew she had to work off her disappointment and frustration. But as he handed it to her he said, “You’ve got on your good dress.”

  She didn’t answer. She began sweeping, furiously, raised a cloud of dust almost at once. Father began to cough and she stopped to blow her nose and wipe her eyes. “It’s even worse than I thought!” she exclaimed. She stood the broom in a corner. “Come on, son. You’re going to get out of those good pants and help too. Will, get a pail of water and some rags and a bar of soap. You can start on the big window while I’m gone.”

  She and I went to the hotel and changed into work clothes. When we got back to the office a grizzled little man with a slit mouth and light blue eye
s was talking to Father. He glanced at us and went on talking. “Seems pretty steep, just for a few lines of print at the top of a sheet of paper.”

  “It takes just as long to print those few lines as a whole page,” Father said.

  “How about two hundred and fifty sheets? That would be half as much as five hundred, wouldn’t it?”

  “No. That would be a dollar less. It takes just as long to make ready for a short run as a long one.”

  “I’d think, you being new here and wanting to get a start, you might make me a price.”

  “I made you a fair price, Mr. Wheeler. It’s the same price for everyone.”

  The man shook his head. “I’ll have to think it over. Money don’t grow on trees, as you’ll find out.” And he left.

  Father turned to Mother. “I didn’t get to wash the window.”

  “Who is he?”

  “One of the old-timers. He runs a store down the street. So tight, they say, he squeaks when he walks. He didn’t really want any letterheads. He just wanted to try me out, see what I’d say. If I’d come down a dollar he’d have wanted me to come down two. Now, shall I start on that window?”

  “Leave it for now. Till I get through sweeping.” She had brought a dish towel which she tied over her hair. And when she finished sweeping, all three of us went to work scrubbing the walls.

  We swept and scrubbed till noon, and after dinner at the hotel we went back and scrubbed till midafternoon. Then Mother said we’d done all that could be done with soap and water. Father went to the hardware store and came back with paint and brushes. We started in the entrance L, where the walls were dry, and by suppertime had the L gleaming white. After supper we went back and worked by lamplight. By nine o’clock we had painted two walls of the big room and were dog-tired. Father said to call it a day, that he and I could finish the walls the next morning and the ceiling would have to wait till next week.

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