High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, p.3Hal Borland
“Bring the team and wagon,” Father said. “We’ll build the house right here.”
I brought the wagon and we unhitched the horses and unharnessed them and hobbled them so they wouldn’t wander too far. We put down boards on the grass beside the wagon for a floor and leaned boards against the wagon for a lean-to roof. We had a camp. We stowed the blankets and the box of groceries in it and Father took a spade and made a plains-style fireplace, a narrow trench with the sod piled on each side to support the skillet. Then we gathered a pile of dry cow chips and we had our camp complete.
Father squinted at the sun and got his directions straight, and then he cut a stake and drove it for one corner of the house. I held the tape and we laid out the other corners, square with the sun. The house was going to be fourteen feet wide and twenty feet long, with a narrow end to the north and with the door facing the east and the sunrise.
When we had it all laid out, Father took the posthole auger and dug a hole at each corner. In each hole we set a split cedar post, four feet down and well tamped in, to anchor the house against the wind. Then we laid out the sills and the floor joists, Father nailed them into place, and I held the corner studs while he nailed them to the cedar posts.
Noon came. We ate cold sandwiches and drank water from the buffalo wallow. We worked all afternoon, I fetching the saw, the square, the nails, holding the studs while Father toenailed them to the sills. By sunset we had a rough framework up and braced, the beginnings of a house.
Father put down his hammer and flexed his fingers. Shadows were already darkening Ketchem Holler. I was almost too tired to stand. Father looked at me and at the shelter there beside the wagon; then he looked at the horses and he asked, “Well, son, shall we catch up Dick and Shorty and leave the wagon here and ride back over to Farley’s cabin for the night?” He waited for an answer, leaving it to me.
I looked at the deepening shadows and at the skeleton of the house and at the makeshift lean-to, open at both ends. I thought about the little green house in town, and about Mother, and about the coyotes last night.
I slowly said, “Let’s stay here.”
“Fine,” Father said.
I said, “I’m not afraid of coyotes.” I said it very firmly and resolutely.
Father peeled potatoes and set bacon to fry. Then he sent me for a pail of water.
It was getting dark. The buffalo wallow was at least fifty yards from the lean-to. I walked all the way there. Then I began to see shadows moving, which weren’t shadows at all, or anything but imagination. I sloshed the pail quickly into the water, got it two-thirds full, and ran. I ran halfway back, then walked, my heart pounding.
Father had opened a can of beans. He took the pail of water from me without a word, started to pour some into the coffee pot, then reached for a flour-sack dish towel. He held the towel over the lip of the pail and strained the water into the pot. Then he showed me a dozen tiny, wiggling things in the dish towel.
“Wiggle-tails,” he said. “I guess you might call them mosquito tadpoles, because they’ll grow into mosquitoes.”
“Do they bite?” I asked.
Father laughed. “Not till they turn into mosquitoes. I’ve probably drunk a quart of them, one time or another. But they don’t make the coffee taste any better. Next time push the top water aside and dip the pail deep. The wigglers are always on top.”
It was full dark before we ate. Our only light was the last glow of the cow-chip fire and the faint gleam of the early stars. Far off across the valley a turtle dove was hoo-hooing.
I was almost too weary to eat, but Father finished everything. He even wiped out the bean pan with a slice of bread. Then he poured another cup of coffee and rolled a cigarette. I sat there beside him while he smoked.
“Asleep, son?” he finally asked.
He tossed the cigarette into the fire trench. “Let’s go bring in the horses for the night, just to be sure they’re here in the morning.”
As we left the lean-to almost all the stars were out, bright as candles. The night wasn’t really black at all, with all the stars. The far hill, the other side of Ketchem Holler, was a black shadow, but the faint tan of the grass here on our hillside was almost shimmery, catching and reflecting the starlight. I could see the horses, heads up, watching us as we approached.
The night wasn’t strange or frightening. It was home, our new home. I let go of Father’s hand and walked alone.
We caught the horses and took off the hobbles and led them back to the wagon and tied their halter ropes to the wheels. As we went around the wagon to the lean-to Father pointed to the sky. “See the Dipper up there? Away high, this time of the year, and tipped over, the bowl upside down.”
I found the Big Dipper.
“There are the pointers, those two stars at the end of the bowl. Down where they are pointing, halfway to the horizon, is the North Star.”
I found the North Star.
Father looked at the framework of the house, outlined against the hillside, and measured it against the North Star. “Just about right,” he said. “Just about true north and south.”
We went into the lean-to and sat on the blanket pallet to take off our shoes. “Same stars we had in Nebraska,” Father said. “Even out here you needn’t ever get lost, if you can see the sun or the stars. You’ll know your directions. You can always count on the sun and the North Star.”
We crawled between the blankets. Father put an arm around me. I lay there for several minutes. Then from far down Ketchem Holler came a faint yip-yip-yip, yowrrr-yowr, yip-yip.
I held my breath and listened. At last I said, “It’s just an old coyote, isn’t it?” I whispered it.
Father said, “Yes, just a coyote.”
I listened again, and I said, “I’m big enough to shoot a coyote.”
I lay stiff and tense. The coyote kept on yipping. Then I began to relax. That was the last I remembered.
The sun wakened us, streaming in the open end of the lean-to. The air was chilly. Outside, just down the slope, two meadow larks were singing, trying to outdo each other. I sat up and listened, then kicked the blankets off. Off of Father too. He opened his eyes and growled, but I knew it wasn’t a scolding growl. I laughed, and he grabbed me and began to wallow and tousle me. We made a rat’s nest of the bed, and then Father rolled me right out into the cold, wet grass.
After the first wet surprise it felt good. I shouted and leaped and flapped my arms and crowed at the sun like a rooster. I ran down into the bluestem and back, my underdraws flapping around my legs, breathless.
Father was tucking his shirt into his overalls. He grabbed me and carried me, squealing, under his arm to the buffalo wallow. But he didn’t duck me. We washed our faces in the cold, clear water, and I ran back and dressed while Father built a fire and mixed pancake batter. I hobbled the horses and turned them loose to graze, and we ate breakfast.
We floored the house and we put shiplap lumber on the walls, leaving gaps for the door and windows. We put up rafters for a curved roof that made the cabin look like a squat railroad car. And the night we got half the roof boards on we moved inside. We finished the roof, put on roofing paper, and framed the doors and the windows.
It was just a shell of a house, but Father planned to lay up sod around it and put sod on the roof for winter warmth and summer coolness. And the night we finished the roof I made my own separate pallet of blankets.
So we had a house. It had no door and no window sash, but it was a house, our house.
Then we dug the well.
Father chose the site, just down the slope from the house at the edge of the draw. We moved the wagon to the place and Father bored a hole with the posthole auger. He went down four feet, as deep as he could go, a hole eight inches across. Then he unscrewed the handle from the auger, put on an eight-foot length of pipe, put the handle on again, and had an au
We had to lift the auger every time it filled, and I emptied it; then Father put it down the hole again and went down another auger-length. We went down and down, a foot at a time, and the pile of soil beside the well became bigger and bigger. At first the soil the auger brought up was brown. Then it was fine yellow clay. We were still in the yellow clay, but we were down almost twelve feet at the end of the first day’s digging.
The next morning we put on another length of pipe and started on down. It was slow going, because we had to lift all that length of pipe every time we had an augerful. We had gone down only about four more feet by midmorning when we saw a bay team and a spring wagon down in Ketchem Holler. The team turned and came up our draw.
A big red-faced man was driving. He had two big rough-coated dogs in the spring wagon with him, and alongside, trotting in the grass, were four long-legged hounds, dark-coated and sleek-tailed as though they had greyhound blood.
The man drove up beside us and the hounds came and sniffed at me. The man said, “Hello,” in a deep, gruff voice.
Father greeted him and the man said, “Homesteader?”
“Yes,” Father said. “I’ve taken the north half of section seventeen, here.”
“I’m John Gerrity,” the man said. “My camp down there,” and he waved a hand toward the windmill in the hollow. “Got water yet?”
Gerrity smiled. “Likely you won’t. Water’s spotty in this country. If you do get it, it won’t be good water. And it’ll dry up in a dry summer. This land’s good for nothing but grazing. You won’t stay.”
“Maybe not,” Father said, “but we’ll sure try.”
Gerrity smiled. “They come, and they go. Maybe you noticed this country is still pretty vacant.”
“I noticed there was lots of room,” Father said.
“Good country,” Gerrity said, “for coyotes, and jack rabbits, and sheep. You’ll find out!” He gathered his reins and called to his hounds. “I’m running coyotes today,” he said. “Cleaning up the range before I put the sheep out.” He looked at the well again and shook his head. Then he turned his team and drove back down the draw.
John Gerrity had come to Colorado twenty years before, a young laborer working for the railroad. He was a big man, a tough man. He had plenty of tough company in the railroad crews of that day. But whereas the others were content to lay ties and spike rails all day and drink and fight in resounding brawls most of the night, John Gerrity had a gnawing personal ambition. He was going to get ahead. He saw opportunity in this raw, new country. He didn’t know what he was going to do, but he knew he wasn’t going to be a pick and shovel man all his life.
He quit the railroad and took a job as roustabout in a livery stable. There he listened to the casual talk of the cattlemen who came to town, and he began to understand things about this short-grass country that he had only vaguely sensed before. He began to see where he wanted to go.
This was grass country, a land of free grass. The man who moved in and took that grass, and was strong enough to hold it, became a cattle baron. Once you had a range you could buy cheap cattle in Texas or in Mexico, trail them north, fatten them on the grass, and sell them at a most satisfying profit.
There were various ways to get the range. It was government land, widely conceded to be of no value except for grazing. Technically, it was open to anyone who would homestead it. Practically, it was not considered farm land and hence not desirable homestead land. The farmer of that day would not give it a second look. So, by forfeit and economic practicality, it was left to the ranchmen to use as they would.
A ranch generally started with a homestead at a strategic point, a place where there was natural water, a stream or a pond. Since water was scarce, if you controlled the water you controlled all the grass for miles around. So the ranchman homesteaded and took title to a home place with water on it. Then he persuaded a few of his chosen cowboys to homestead the other strategic plots on his range. As soon as they proved up on those plots, they sold them to the ranchman for a few hundred dollars. Thus, by owning a few hundred acres and controlling the water, the ranchman came to control thousands of acres of grass.
These things John Gerrity learned. And he planned ahead to the time when he, too, would be a cattle baron. But chance and weather changed his plans. A drought struck in New Mexico, on the sheep ranges. Desperate sheepmen shipped their flocks north, looking for grass or buyers. John Gerrity, a provident man, had a few hundred dollars. Hearing about the grass-starved sheep, he went to Denver and bought all the sheep he could get for cash and credit, a flock of five hundred head. He knew little or nothing about sheep management, but he had a knack with animals, and he had this driving ambition. He had his sheep delivered to a way station east of Denver, unloaded them, and took to the hills with them.
All that summer John Gerrity, with nothing but a bedroll on his back and a rifle in his hands, roamed the hills with his flock. He fought off the coyotes, avoided the major cattle ranges, and somehow pulled more than four hundred head of that flock through the summer. He had them sheared on shares and made a few hundred dollars from the wool. And that fall he drove them to market and sold them for four times what he had paid. John Gerrity was in business.
He spent that winter looking for range he could appropriate. He found the place he wanted in Ketchem Holler, an area that was on the fringes of three different cattlemen’s ranges. There was no water on it, but he hired two men and drilled test wells. Once he found plenty of water within easy drilling distance, he homesteaded the spot, built a sod house and put up two windmills. And in that move he proved his shrewdness. The cattlemen had passed up that land because it had no natural water, no stream or pond. John Gerrity reached into the earth for water, found it, and harnessed the wind to pump it. Then he went to New Mexico, where the drought was abating but still pinched, and he bought a thousand head of sheep. He hired two herders and drove the sheep overland to his new homestead. That year he sheared his own fleeces, had his own wool money, and sold his crop of lambs for more than he had paid for the whole flock. And he had a herd of ewes which he wintered and held for another crop of lambs. By the time the cattlemen woke up to what was happening, John Gerrity was a sheep ranchman with control of five thousand acres of grass. A few more years and he controlled ten thousand acres by the simple expedient of drilling more wells and building more windmills.
From that point is was a simple and inevitable step to buy a ranch nearer Brush, a place of only about a thousand acres, where he could grow huge crops of alfalfa, build acres of feed pens, fatten his own lambs for a premium market price, and hold his flocks of mother ewes over the winter. John Gerrity never became a cattle baron. He became a sheep baron, thanks to a drought in New Mexico and enough imagination to drill a well. On such simple turns of fate and personality does the history of an area often hinge.
For ten years, after John Gerrity had become a sheepman of consequence, with half a dozen flocks on the range each year, he made his periodic rounds of the whole area, acquainting himself with the occasional homesteader, discouraging him if possible, talking him into failure. John Gerrity had no liking for violence. He had long ago outgrown his brawling. Why knock a man down when you could talk him into pulling up stakes and going away quietly?
So he made his rounds of the range every spring, with his pack of hounds, looking for coyotes. But he never overlooked a dugout or a soddy or a frame shanty, or even a man with a wagonload of supplies making his way across the unmarked flats. It hurt John Gerrity’s heart to see a man wasting his time trying to tame that land, particularly if the land he choose to tame was on John Gerrity’s sheep range.
He had thought he had our land properly under control. Among the public lands of the West, certain sections—two out of every thirty-six—were set aside as school land. These plots could not be homesteaded. They were reserved for the support of th
Now we had homesteaded land adjacent to Gerrity’s leased land. And John Gerrity, making his annual inspection, had seen us, talked to us, given us warning. Not that he would drive us out, but that we would starve out, dry out, discourage out.
We watched him go, then lowered the auger into the hole again. When we pulled it up to empty it, Father said, “So that’s Gerrity. Well, he’s entitled to his opinion, I guess. But he doesn’t know us.” And we went on digging.
By midafternoon we were through the yellow clay and into fine yellow sand. The third augerful of sand was damp, I shouted to Father that we were getting close to water, and he grinned.
A few more augerfuls and the first gravel came up, gravel big as marbles. “Now,” Father said, “we’re getting there.”
Down again, and down some more, and finally the auger came up with a load of gravel that was dripping water. We kept on four or five augerfuls. Then we pulled up the auger and laid it on the ground. Father dropped a pebble in the hole. It splashed, far down there at the bottom. Father laughed and I shouted and Dick and Shorty, grazing in the draw, looked up to see what was happening.
“So the water’s spotty around here?” Father said. He punched a hole near the top of an empty bean can and tied the chalk line to it and let it down the well. He jounced it up and down and brought up a canful of muddy water.
We put the auger in again and went down a little farther, but when the water measured five feet on the auger shaft Father said, “That’s enough.”
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