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Country editors boy, p.4
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       Country Editor's Boy, p.4

           Hal Borland

  “I’ve got to get the type distributed and start on next week’s paper. After all, I am getting out a weekly newspaper.” He turned to me. “And you’re going to help.”

  Mother was choosing rags and putting them into the empty pail with scouring powder and soap. “Not tomorrow, he isn’t,” she said. “He can help finish painting the walls tomorrow morning, but I may need him in the afternoon. That house is as bad as this place was. We may have to paint it too.”

  “All right,” Father said to me. “You start working here next week. You can work in the office mornings, and if your mother doesn’t need you you can have the afternoons to do whatever you want to. All except press day. Then I’ll need you all day.”

  “I’ll be working here too,” Mother said.

  “No need of that,” Father said. “But he’s going to learn the printer’s trade. I don’t care what else you do when you get through school, son, you’ll always have a trade to fall back on. You can always get a job and make a living.”

  “As soon as I get acquainted,” Mother said, “I’ll use the phone and write locals. And I’ll keep the books.”

  Father didn’t seem to be listening. He was sitting on the high stool at the rack of type cases, looking out at the big room and the grotesque shadows of those few pieces of equipment, his few meager tools of editorship. “One of these days,” he said, “I’m going to have a linotype in here. And a Miehle press. I know just the press I want and I know where I can get it, when the time comes.” He was talking half to himself. “One of these days this will be the best paper in the county, and the only paper in town. The time will come when Ed Gibson will ask me to buy him out.”

  He sat quiet for a long moment, a slight smile on his tired face. “We’re going to have electricity here, probably a municipal plant. That’s one thing I’m going after. And we’ll have our own water, municipal water. And with water, we will have trees, and lawns, and flowers. This is going to be a beautiful town. And it’s going to grow. I’m going to help it grow. And the News will grow with it.”

  Then he seemed to bring himself back. He got down from the stool and said to Mother, “I couldn’t write you about the shop, Sarah, not the way it really is. Every time I tried, it seemed so little, so—well, such a bad bargain. But it isn’t just the shop, what’s down here in this hole in the ground. It’s what I can put into it, what I’m going to make out of this paper. And I couldn’t say that the way I wanted to in a letter. But now you can see, can’t you?”

  Mother nodded, but there seemed a reservation in her.

  “It isn’t just a couple of old job presses and a few cases of battered-up type,” he said. “It’s what I can do with it!”

  “Yes,” Mother said. “Yes.” She stood up. “I’m tired. So are you. Let’s get some sleep.” She looked around the office. So did Father. “We made a start,” she said.

  “It looks a lot different,” he said, “than it did this morning.”

  She handed me the pail with the rags and soap.

  Father reached for the big lamp to turn it off, and I opened the door and started up the stairs. Everything went dark inside and all I could see was the stars overhead. Then they were coming up the stairs behind me, arm in arm.


  FATHER AND I FINISHED painting the office walls the next morning, and when Mother decided at noon that she didn’t need me after all I went back to the office with Father. He said I could start learning the printer’s trade the way he did, by washing the little job press so he could print an order of envelopes. So I washed the rollers and the ink disc with benzene-soaked rags, one of the dirtiest jobs in a print shop. I washed it twice, once to my satisfaction and again to please Father. Then he said, “Wash your hands and you can take the afternoon off.” I had to wash my hands twice, too. Then, Fritz at my heels, I set out to see the town.

  A boy doesn’t explore a new town the way a grownup does. He absorbs it as he goes along, the way he makes friends. He doesn’t have to be introduced. He meets boys, one way and another, and sorts them out without really thinking about it. I started down Main Street, and there in front of Dr. Williams’ drug store was the big black dog that had jumped Fritz the evening we arrived. Fritz growled and the black dog growled and bristled. And just then a boy came out of the drug store, saw what was about to happen, and shouted, “Nig!” The black dog turned, the boy caught him by the collar, then looked at me and grinned. “Maybe we’d better let them fight it out and get it over with,” he said.

  “All right,” I said, “but my dog is half wolf.”

  “Mine’s half lion!” He let go of Nig’s collar and the two dogs sniffed, growled, walked around each other, and decided they didn’t want to fight. Maybe they told each other bragging lies too. Nig came and smelled of my hand and Fritz smelled of the other boy’s overalls, and they both wagged their tails.

  “I’ve got to go down to the depot,” the other boy said. “Want to come along?”

  He seemed to know who I was. Word gets around in a small town. And before we got to the depot I knew that he was Little Doc Williams, the doctor’s younger son. His name was Justin, but nearly everybody called him Little Doc because he was tall and thin like his father and said he was going to be a doctor too. He was about my age but was a year ahead of me in school because I hadn’t made up all the schooling I missed on the homestead.

  At the depot the agent greeted us both by name and gave Little Doc a small express package marked “Drugs.” We listened to the clack-clack of the telegraph instruments and went into the freight room and weighed ourselves just because the scales were there. We went out onto the station platform and looked south. There wasn’t a house in sight, just the rolling flats as far as you could see. Little Doc said, “You can’t see from here, but about five miles off there are the bluffs along the river. There isn’t any water in the river but there’s a couple of Indian caves in the bluff. We’ll go dig them out, some time.”

  We went up the tracks, walking the rails, to the big red water tank where the locomotives stopped for water. Two towering cottonwoods, watered by the drip from the tank, shaded a small pump house that throbbed softly as its steam engine drove the pump. A big red-faced man in overalls, Mr. Davison, who was in charge of the pumping station, sat on the bench outside, chewing a toothpick. He said hello and watched as we stood under the tank and caught the icy drip in our open mouths. Then we went back up the street to the drug store.

  “You got a bike?” Little Doc asked. I said mine wouldn’t be there till our furniture came, so he borrowed his older brother’s bicycle for me. His brother’s name was Marion and he worked in the drug store. Most people called him Emp because his initials were M. P. Little Doc on his bike and I on Emp’s rode up one street and down another, across and back and all around. I suppose he was showing me the town. Our two dogs followed us, and now and then another dog tried to cut in and our dogs chased him and had as much fun as we did.

  We passed the oldest house in town, a soddy on Main Street just a block north of the brick bank. We went over to the two old school buildings, on side streets and several blocks apart. We rode up to the north end of Main Street, where they planned to build the new high school when they ended the argument over whether to build one or not. From there we went down to Seal’s slew, a big swale in the northwest corner of town where snow melt and spring rain collected in a pond several acres in extent. Little Doc showed me the boat he and Spider Miner had built the year before. It leaked but he said that didn’t matter because the slew was only knee deep in the deepest part. We shoved it into the water and poled out fifty yards or so before it sank. We left it there and waded back to dry land and emptied our shoes and wrung out our socks and sat in the sun while they dried.

  I asked what kind of fish were in the slew, and Little Doc said there weren’t any fish. “Just frogs. I dissected a couple of frogs last year. You ever dissect a frog? Fascinating skeletal system! But the slew dries up by the end of July and the frogs go away
. There’s ducks in the spring, but they don’t stay either. Some of them go down to Verhoff’s Dam. The dam’s on the way to the Indian caves. You swim?”

  “Not very good.” Actually, all I could do was dog-paddle.

  “We’ll stop at the dam on the way to the caves.”

  We rode back downtown and over to the grain elevator and the stockyards, but nothing was happening at either place. So Little Doc said, “Let’s see what Spider’s doing.” We rode back to the north end of town to a house so new its boards were still yellow. Back of the house was a garden plot, fenced to keep the rabbits out, where a tall, skinny boy was halfheartedly weeding. “Aren’t you through yet?” Little Doc asked.

  Spider straightened up with a haughty, superior air. “Watch thy manners, Pilgrim. Let not thy tongue play asp!” Then he grinned, a grin that spread his broad mouth even wider and wrinkled his light blue eyes almost shut. “What you been doing?”

  “Inspecting. When his bike gets here,” Little Doc said, nodding at me, “we’re going down to the dam and the Indian caves.”

  “Ah! I shall join the party. We shall dig up old Last of the Mohicans. Or his brother, Next-to-Last…. I got a flat tire.”

  “Again? Can’t you stay out of the cactus? Oh, all right, I’ve got half a tube of Never-Leak you can have.”

  Mrs. Miner, a plump, very blonde woman, came to the back door. “Stanley,” she called, “when you finish weeding bring the boys in for cookies and milk. But finish the weeding first.”

  Spider groaned. “Get down on your patella,” Little Doc ordered, “and get to work. We’ll help, but we won’t do it all.”

  “Oh, what you said!” Spider jeered. But Little Doc shoved him to his knees, and the three of us, crawling down the rows, finished the weeding in ten minutes. Then we went into the kitchen and Mrs. Miner gave us cold milk and ginger cookies fresh from the oven. Spider’s sisters were there. Marjorie, a year older than Spider, was ironing. Very blonde, very pretty, and very shy, she said hello to Little Doc, smiled at me, and didn’t say another word. Virginia, a pig-tailed ten-year-old, chattered like a magpie. They, like everyone else in town apparently, knew who I was, when we arrived, where we came from, and where we were going to live. Mrs. Miner asked, “Are you getting settled? Hope your mother likes Flagler. Your father is such a nice, friendly man, I know I’ll like her.” The Miners were from Minnesota. They had come to Colorado a few years before because Spider’s older brother had asthma. The climate had almost cured him and he now was helping his father, who was a carpenter. They were related to B. M. Bower, who wrote a series of books about a cowboy named Chip and a ranch called the Flying U. I had read several of those books and couldn’t believe it when they said the B in B. M. Bower stood for Bertha. I didn’t see how a woman could have written those books.

  We finished the milk and most of the cookies, and Little Doc said he had to get home and do the barn chores. Spider came along, riding double on Little Doc’s bike. The Williamses’ house was a big two-story place with a barn and buggy shed out back. Dr. Williams had an automobile, but he kept a team and buggy to make his calls when the car wouldn’t start or the snow was too deep. And like quite a lot of people in town, he had a cow. We put fresh hay in the mangers and chopped grain in the feed boxes and we bragged about our horsemanship. I didn’t have to brag much, really. On the homestead and in Brush I had done a lot of riding on all kinds of horses. But I did let them feel the bones I had broken when horses fell on me or bucked me off. Little Doc, acting very professional, felt the knots and said they were real breaks, and Spider was properly impressed. The worst he ever had was a broken collarbone when he fell off an old milk cow.

  We took Spider home, went back downtown, and I returned to the print shop. Father had finished the envelopes and was distributing the type from the newspaper. “You’re just in time,” he said, “to wash the press again.” That time I washed it clean enough to suit him the first time. While I was washing my hands he asked, “Well, where did you go? What did you do?”

  “We just poked around.”

  “You and who else?”

  “Little Doc.”

  “So you met Justin Williams, and he showed you the town.”

  “We just poked around.”

  Father asked no more questions. He probably knew that while he, like any grownup, had to make a conscious effort to meet people and ask questions about the new town, that wasn’t a boy’s way. Flagler was new and different, but even if he had insisted I couldn’t have put the difference into words that day. To myself, of course, I compared it with Brush. Brush, in the well-watered Platte valley and much older than Flagler, was a town of trees and grass. Flagler still had a raw look, a few trees and only an occasional lawn. It was a dry-land town still taking root. Buffalo grass grew in every vacant lot, and where it had been trodden away there were Russian thistles and resin weeds and even clumps of cactus. Every house had its own well, and the older houses had windmills out near the barns. Only those places with windmills to provide water for irrigation had gardens. And only near the center of town, close to Main Street, were the houses close together. From there they scattered out, most of them with barns and small pastures with a cow or two and at least one saddle horse. Half the side-street houses had pens where chickens clucked and cackled. Only one or two of the side streets had sidewalks. All but about half a dozen houses had outside privies.

  Flagler’s main street was a block west of the depot and didn’t reach all the way to the railroad tracks. The street that went straight to the depot was a back street with only a livery stable, a blacksmith shop, and lumber yard on it. And instead of straddling the tracks, with a good part of town on one side and a poor part on the other, Flagler was all on the north side with no below-the-tracks area. It seemed to stand apart, almost to disown the railroad.

  Later I learned its history. It had been an independent town from the beginning, even before the railroad came through in 1887, only twenty-eight years before we went there. At that time a man named Robinson had a store and post office three miles to the east. His store served the cattle ranches throughout that whole area, and he called his post office Bowserville, for his favorite dog. When they built the railroad Mr. Robinson wanted them to put a station and lay out a townsite at Bowserville. Instead, they put the station and townsite three miles away and named it Malowe, for the railroad’s attorney, one M. A. Lowe. For several years Malowe was only a side track, a water tank, and a dismounted boxcar that served as combined railroad station and living quarters for the man assigned the dual job of station agent and engineer at the pump for the water tank. Trains didn’t stop at Bowserville, though it was right beside the tracks, and they wouldn’t even toss off mail pouches there. So Robinson finally gave in and moved his store and post office to Malowe. But he still called the post office Bowserville.

  A few other settlers came, including W. H. Lavington, who set up a competing store in a tent while he was putting up a frame store building. The settlers didn’t like the name Malowe because they didn’t like railroad lawyers, and they thought Bowserville was a ridiculous name. But they had to pick a name the railroad would accept, so finally, partly as a joke, I imagine, they picked the biggest railroad name in sight, Flagler. Henry M. Flagler, one-time partner of John D. Rockefeller millionaire and railroad magnate, may have passed the town once on his way to Denver, but he certainly never stopped in Flagler—or Malowe, or Bowserville. Anyway, they picked his name, the railroad and the post office department accepted it, and that was the end of both Bowserville and Malowe.

  All the western railroads received extravagant land grants when they were built, and to cash in on this land they promoted settlement. Settlers came, some to buy railroad land, others to homestead government land. The big ranches dwindled, already hard hit by the bitter winter of 1886–87 and now increasingly choked by the plowmen and their barbed wire fences. Periodic drouth starved out some of the settlers, as did plagues of grasshoppers. Financial crises back ea
st spread hard times to the plains. The Panic of 1907 hit that area late but hard. Settlers sold out for a song and went back east “to live on the wife’s folks,” as the saying went. Men with a little cash and a lot of hope bought abandoned land for as little as fifty cents an acre. W. H. Lavington was said to have taken several tracts for unpaid grocery bills and to have swapped a gold watch for a half section just outside of town.

  Recovery was slow, but about 1910 there was a new wave of settlers. The financial crisis passed. So did the drouth cycle. By 1915 there had been several good crops, and war times had raised the price of wheat close to two dollars a bushel. More and more midwestern farmers had moved in to plow the grassland, plant wheat, and make enough on their first crop to pay for the land. Most of them stayed. Flagler had begun to boom. When we arrived it had a population of between 500 and 600 people and was the trading center for a farming area that extended thirty or forty miles to the north and a ranch area that reached halfway to the Arkansas river a hundred miles to the south.

  Characteristic of the boom were the real estate men. Three had offices on Main Street and two others had offices at home. Representative of the changes taking place were three lumber yards; two hardware and implement dealers; three general stores where you could buy anything from a silk shirt to a flitch of bacon, from lariat rope to patent leather shoes; two cream stations where farmers sold dairy produce—and where, since the man who ran one of them was a musician, you could order anything from a flute to a piano, from a tuba to a violin; two garages, a livery stable, a blacksmith shop, a tinsmith’s shop, two cafés, a pool hall, and two barber shops. One barber shop had a bathtub in the back room where, for a dime, you could take a bath complete with soap and a towel. You could also take a bath down at the railroad pumping station, in a huge tin tub with hot water from the steam engine’s boiler. There a bath cost only a nickel, with the towel but without soap.

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