High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, p.4Hal Borland
We took the galvanized sheet-iron tubing we had brought and put it down the hole, section by section, the perforated section at the bottom. Our well was finished. We had been two days digging it. “Now,” Father said, “we’ll let it settle overnight and see if it’s good water.”
The next morning when I let down the bean can on the chalk line it came up full of clean, clear water. Father tasted it and said it was good, icy cold and sweet and good.
“Now,” he said, “if you’ll get about half a pail of it we’ll see if it’s hard or soft.”
I bailed up half a pail of water, one canful at a time, and Father tried it with a bar of soap. Cold as it was, it made a quick suds. And there was no scum around the edges. Father said it was better than the water we had back in Nebraska.
We had a house. We had a well. Now we could bring Mother out to the homestead.
The audacity of man is matched only by the simplicity of his basic needs. There we were, strangers to that land, a man and a boy who had never before built a house or dug a well. But we needed a house, so we built it. We needed a well, so we dug it. We had only a hazy understanding of the blizzards that would test that house and we knew nothing at all about where water might be. But Father said, “We’ll dig here.” In effect, he said, “Let there be water.” And there was water.
It was as though we expected that land to be hospitable. The fact that it was hospitable, to a degree, was sheer accident. And yet, all through history man has been saying, “I shall live here,” and finding the means to live where he chose. Either this earth is a remarkably habitable place or man is a favored creature. I would rather believe in the habitability of the earth, because when man comes to believe too much in his own favor he achieves an unhappy arrogance. The earth has its own pulse and rhythms, and the wise and fortunate man leans with the wind, sows with the season, and searches for water in valleys where water flows.
That afternoon Jake Farley came over to see us. “I see you’ve been working,” he said, walking over to the house and squinting at the corners to see if they were plumb. They must have been; he made no comment. He went inside and he said, “What did you floor your barn end for?”
“There isn’t any barn end,” Father said. “It’s all house. I’m going to build a separate barn.”
Mr. Farley frowned, then grinned. He had a red, round face and a long thin nose. “That’s right,” he said, “you’ve got a woman. Women don’t seem to like the smell of a barn, though I never could see why.” He laughed. “I was born in a barn. You a farmer?”
“Printing’s my trade,” Father said.
“I been a farmer all my life. Till last winter I always worked for somebody else. One day last fall out shucking corn back in Ioway, I says to myself, ‘Jake, you fool! Shucking corn and freezing half to death, for fifteen dollars a month and keep, and for someone else. Time you got some sense,’ I said. And I climbed in the wagon and drove back to the house and drew my wages. Decided, just like that, to come out here and have my own place.”
“You came out here last fall?”
“Came out to Brush. Worked in the livery stable there all winter. Filed on my claim in February.… See you’re digging a well.”
“It’s all dug.”
“Plenty. Good soft water, too.”
“Struck water at seventeen feet, then went on down a ways. We’ve got about six feet of water in the well now.”
“Good thing Gerrity didn’t come around and tell you you couldn’t get water before you dug it,” Farley said.
“He came while we were digging,” Father said.
“Tell you what he tells everyone? That you can’t get water, and if you can it’ll be no good, and if it’s good it’ll dry up.”
Father grinned. “That’s what he told us.”
Mr. Farley laughed. “I guess you’ll make a farmer yet,” he said. “Get your woman out here to tend house and you can get busy with your breaking plow. One thing about this country, you can plow it. No stumps and no stones. Just set the plow in the ground and go. And that reminds me. I’m going to plant sod corn next week or so. Thought I might borrow the boy for a few days.”
Father shook his head.
“No work to it,” Mr. Farley said. “Just follow me down every other furrow and drop corn. I cover it with the next furrow and the planting’s done.” He turned to me. “Does that sound like work?”
I didn’t answer. Father said, “Not this year. I need him myself.”
“I’d pay him a quarter a day. And his dinner.”
“No,” Father said.
Mr. Farley turned toward his wagon. “Well, I better get back home. Just stopped by to say hello. Good to have a neighbor. You’re going to have neighbors, pretty soon. A lot of ’em.”
“Gerrity’s herder and a flock of sheep. They’ll be moving to the camp down there in a week or two.” He was loosening the lines from the front wagon hub where he had tied them so that if the team started away the hub would wind the lines, windlass-like, and check them.
“Why don’t you stay and have supper with us?” Father asked.
Farley hesitated, looked at the trench fireplace and the pile of empty bean cans. “Thanks. Some other time, when your wife’s here to do the cooking.” He grinned. “I’ve got enough beans at home.”
I watched as he drove away. I felt a little bigger, a little older, than I had an hour ago. Jake Farley had wanted me to work for him. He was willing to pay twenty-five cents a day. That was a dollar and a half a week! And Father had said no. Father had said he needed me to help him.
It was almost sundown. Father laid a length of board over the well casing and piled dirt on it, to keep ground squirrels from falling in and drowning and spoiling the water. He finished it and said, “Well, I guess we’ll have to eat alone.” He looked at me with a hidden smile. “What shall we have?”
I knew what we were going to have. We had one last can of beans and four slices of bread and just enough flour to make pancakes for breakfast. Tomorrow morning we were going back to town.
“Let’s have beans,” I said, carefully keeping my own grin out of sight.
“Beans it is,” Father said. There was a twinkle in his eyes. “How about gathering a few dry cow chips while I get some water and wash out the coffeepot and the skillet?”
THE FARTHER WE GOT from it, the more the homestead house diminished in size, in workmanship, and in potential comfort. Back in town, it seemed thoroughly inadequate. Father reconsidered. He said to Mother, “You’d better stay here for another week. We’ll go back and finish the house and get the well in working order.”
“Stay here another week,” Mother said, “with you two out there batching? I should say not!”
“We haven’t got the door in yet,” Father said.
“You’ve got a roof on, haven’t you?”
“Yes. But the windows aren’t in. And there’s no pump in the well.”
“I guess,” Mother said, “I can get water to wash my hands from the buffalo wallow. And if you made coffee with that water, I can.… Oh, Will, there’s no use talking. I’m going along.”
It was a long, slow trip. The wagon was loaded high, with more lumber, with the door and the window sash, with the pump and pipe for it, with the beds and the stove and the dining table and the barrel of dishes, with the two chicken crates tied on top of the load. And with the two cows tied to the tailgate.
The cows were the most trouble, but we had to take them along and the only way to take them was to lead them. You can drive a cow, but a cow is constitutionally opposed to a lead rope. Especially a lead rope tied to a wagon. She objects at the start, she gives in momentarily, then she gets confused. As you proceed, you are alternately leading her and dragging her. She never braces her legs, as a balky mule would, and she never leaves her feet. She plods, she stumbles, she groans, she strains halter and lead
Our two cows, with bovine consistency, alternated in their objection. One of them was always holding back, groaning, trying to halt the wagon. When she gave in and led almost docilely for a little way, the other held back. By the time we reached the first sand hills Father said, “I’m not going to put up with this all day.” He handed the reins to me, took the buggy whip and got out to drive the cows. They were still tied to the wagon, we were still leading them, but with someone walking behind them they had some dim notion of independence. The lead ropes slacked and they walked along almost contented.
A mile of that and Father got back in the wagon. “I guess they’ll lead now,” he said. They did. For just about a hundred yards. Then the groaning, the stumbling, the straining began again. I got out and walked behind them. They looked back, saw me there, and with maddening innocence they stepped out and kept pace with the wagon once more.
There is a long-standing fiction that milk cows are docile creatures without an ounce of guile or malevolence in them, but it is sheer fiction. The most friendly and tractable cow will deliberately put her foot in a milk pail, waiting till it is at least half full. She will switch her tail when there isn’t a fly within a mile of her, cruelly lashing the milker’s face. She will demand human company, on foot, when she is being led anywhere. And she will do all that with a placid and guileless eye upon you all the time. No wonder cows are sacred in India. They brought passive resistance to a point of maddening perfection centuries before Mahatma Gandhi was born.
Between us, Father and I walked all the way from Brush to the homestead that day to humor those two cows. We started before sunup and Mother packed a picnic lunch so we wouldn’t have to stop at the Gary store, but it still was late afternoon before we reached Ketchem Holler.
As we drove up the last slope from Ketchem Holler, the house we had built looked like a little shanty set out in the middle of nowhere. We drew up beside it and Father helped Mother down from the wagon. We stood there looking, all three of us, and Mother said, “It looks kind of lonesome, doesn’t it?”
Father said, “When we get the barn up, and chicken house built—” He just couldn’t say any more.
Mother drew a deep breath. “I want to see the inside.”
We went in. Mother looked at the bare board walls with all the studding and rafters showing, at the holes where there were going to be windows, at the roof so low she could have stood on a chair and touched it with her hand. “Why,” she said, “it’s a very nice little house. Big enough to live in and not too big to take care of. I like it!”
And, just like that, it was wonderful.
“We’ll put the stove here,” she said. “We’ll curtain off the north end for the bedrooms. I’ll need shelves beside the stove when you get to it. And when I get curtains up— Bring in the beds and set them up. And the stove.”
So we unloaded the beds and set them up. We set planks for a skid from the wagon to the doorway and eased the cook-stove into the house and set it on its base. I got the stove pipe and Father set it into place, up to the ready-made sheet-iron chimney on the roof. Mother began unpacking the dishes and the cooking pans. I went out and gathered cow chips.
There was so much to do, and dark came so fast. Mother lit the lamp in the house and got a lantern ready for us to use outside. Father milked the cows, though they hadn’t much milk after the long day’s trip. I picketed the cows for the night and hobbled the horses. We unloaded the pump and made a shelter in the wagon for the chickens, still in their crate, so the coyotes wouldn’t get them. I brought a pail of water from the buffalo wallow, carefully dipping deep to avoid the wigglers.
Then Mother said we’d done enough, and supper was ready anyway. We went inside and Father set the door against the door frame, and it was home. The beds were made with their familiar patchwork quilts. The table was set with the blue-checkered cloth. Three places were set with the plates sprigged with pink rosebuds, and the cut-glass spoon holder and sugar bowl were in the middle of the table. The coffee pot was simmering on the back of the stove and there were fried potatoes and canned corn and fried round steak. There was a fat brown loaf of home-made bread Mother had brought from town. There was even a glass of red currant jelly from the bushes back in Nebraska.
We sat down and Mother dished up the food. She set the pail of water on the stove to heat for the dishes. She said, “It isn’t very much, and it probably isn’t very good. These cow chips don’t make a fire like cobs or kindling. I’ll have to get used to them. But I guess we won’t starve.”
It looked like home; it smelled like home, for all the pitch smell of the new pine lumber; it even sounded like home, with Mother making little of a good meal.
The next day we hung the door and put in the window sash. It took longer than we thought, so it was the middle of the afternoon before we got to the well. We threaded the pipe into the cylinder and hooked up the pump rod and we lowered them into the well and fastened the pump on top. Father sawed two planks for the pump to sit on till we could build a platform. It was almost dark, but when I went to work with the pump handle we had water, well water, to wash the dishes in that night.
Mother said her men were wonderful. “You’ve built the house, you’ve dug the well and got the pump working. I guess we’ll make out.”
We decided the barn could wait a while, but we had to have a chicken house or the coyotes would get all the chickens. Father said this was as good a time as any to learn how to cut sod and lay it. “If it doesn’t turn out right,” he said, “I guess the chickens won’t mind.”
So we took the chalk line and four stakes and laid out a six-foot square, and that was the floor plan. We hitched the team to the breaking plow and went down to the edge of the draw and plowed a deep furrow in the tough grass. The sod turned in a thick, root-matted strip. Father plowed half a dozen furrows, then took the spade and cut the strips of sod into chunks a foot and a half long.
We brought the wagon and hauled a load of those sod strips to where we’d laid out the chicken house, and Father laid a line of sod around the chalk line, leaving a gap for the doorway. Then I helped lay the next layer, grass side down and seeing to it that the joints didn’t match up, so each sod overlapped on the two pieces below, like bricks. We put on layer after layer till we had the walls up three feet, then made a door frame out of two by sixes and set it into place. We plowed more sod and went on up with the walls until it was high enough for Mother to stand inside. Then we put the rafters on and nailed the roof boards, leaving wide eaves to keep the rain from washing down the sod. We put a layer of sod on the roof, and it was finished except for the door, which we built out of shiplap. We hinged the door into place, and there was the chicken house, a shed-roofed little building like an old-time fort except it didn’t have any loopholes through which you could shoot at the enemy.
Father looked at it and said, “There’s probably lots of better chicken houses, but I never built a better one.”
Mother said, “The walls aren’t quite plumb and it isn’t exactly square, but it ought to keep the chickens in and the coyotes out. Now if you’ll just run the plow through that patch where you took the sod I’ll have a place for a garden.”
Oh, there was so much to do and there were so many things to see! Sunrise was the most beautiful thing in the whole world, with a few clouds in the east every morning, just waiting to be pinked and gilded. Sunset was full of purple and red and sometimes silvery and even yellow halfway to the top of the sky. Night was full of coolness and stars, and there was a new moon there in the west that got higher and bigger every evening. The hills turned greener every day, and in one little hollow not a hundred yards from the house I found a patch of yellow violets, tiny golden violets that I picked and carried to Mother. She said they were the prettiest flowers she’d seen since we left home, and she put them in a water glass and set them on the window sill. Up the slope back
Every morning the meadow larks sang, “See this fine world!” and “This is a time to be alive!” I knew that’s what they sang because the words fitted their notes so well. And every evening the bullbats, wide-winged night hawks, came swooping and sailing just about sunset, sailing like hawks, then beating their wings quickly for a few beats, then sailing again; and now and then swooping toward the earth in breath-taking dives with an echoing bull roar of air through their spread wing feathers. They were wonderful birds, even though their cries were nothing but a scratchy kind of complaining eeep-eeep! Sometimes a dozen of them would gather over our draw and sail and dive there for an hour or longer.
Down Ketchem Holler the coyotes yipped almost every evening, and it always made me shiver just a little, because they were almost-wolves. But when a night came that they didn’t howl it seemed almost lonesome because the night was so still, so quiet. I would lie awake and listen for them, and wait, and wait and listen and listen, and finally I would fall asleep still listening. And the next thing I knew it was morning again and the meadow larks were singing, “This is a time to be alive!” and I got up and pulled on my overalls, very quietly, and went outdoors to watch the sunrise.
One morning there was the sound of men and wagons down in Ketchem Holler, half a mile from the house. John Gerrity’s men had come to the camp with loads of panels for the sheep pens. They unloaded the long wooden panels and set them up, fastening them together with baling wire, and they put the pump in the well and started the windmill, to pump water into the big watering tank.
They got the camp all set up, and the next morning they brought the herder’s wagon and left it on the hillside beside the pens. That afternoon the herder came with a big flock of sheep, and there was the din of blatting ewes, bleating lambs, bass-voiced rams, and sheep bells. From that time on, till the sheep went back to the main ranch for the winter, I seldom heard coyotes at night. I went to sleep to the sound of the sheep blatting and the sheep bells clanging across the valley.
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