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High wide and lonesome g.., p.5
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       High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, p.5

           Hal Borland

  The herder’s name was Louie, and he was a little man with a thin voice and a kind of frightened smile and the smell of sheep all over him.

  Sheep herders of that day were strange men, as different from cowboys as a sheep is from a steer. It was said that all sheep herders were crazy, that they went around talking to themselves and blatting like their own sheep. Some said the loneliness of the herder’s life made him crazy; others said only a man not quite right in the head would take a sheep herder’s job. Most of them were simple men in every sense of the word, child-like and even tetched a little. It took a man with a hermit’s inclinations to herd sheep, for he spent months alone, seeing only the commissary man who made his rounds every couple of weeks to leave fresh supplies and see that all was well with herders and flocks. Some herders were gruffly antisocial, some were merely uneasy in the company of other people, and some were almost pathetic in their need for occasional human contacts. All of them had dogs for helpers, and the best of the herders were as fond of their dogs as they might have been of their own families. Louie was such a man.

  Louie came originally from the Ozark country, where his father was a farm hand. Grown, Louie drifted west, calling himself a cobbler but really one of those unskilled and only mildly competent men who do life’s drudging tasks which call for no imagination or initiative and little ability beyond a willingness to follow the simplest of orders. Actually, sheep herding was an upward step for Louie because it demanded a certain amount of initiative and put upon him the burden of responsibility for the flock. A flock of sheep represented an investment of several thousand dollars, and it is still a mystery to me why the sheepmen entrusted their flocks to herders who were generally regarded as a grade or two below a farm hand.

  But Louie, and so far as I know most of the other herders, did have both a love of sheep and a simple devotion to the job. They knew how to handle sheep, which are unbelievably stupid and seem to have an instinct for self-destruction. Louie would doctor a sick lamb for a week, using the simple medicines he used on himself, epsom salts, permanganate of potash, and a black salve he called “tar.” Louie would have died for his flock, I am sure, if the need arose. Yet he would ignore Gerrity’s specific order to move his flock to a range Louie didn’t like, and I am sure he ignored Gerrity’s order to pasture them on our land.

  Until we knew him, Louie had worked for Gerrity the year round, as a farm hand and roustabout at the home ranch in the winter. That was when he had a wife and a son to look after. After we moved in, Louie talked occasionally of taking a homestead of his own, but he never did. As soon as the lambs were sold in the fall he drew his wages, got on the train and vanished. The supposition was that he went to Denver, and sometimes he hinted at marvelous adventures during his winters off, though they probably were largely imaginary; they never had any specific locale and they never were recounted in any detail. With the first breath of spring, Louie was back, to help with the lambing, to separate the flocks, and to return to the upper camp.

  Some sheepmen had houses at their camps. Gerrity used the wagon system. Each herder had a canvas-topped wagon fitted out as a compact home. In the earlier days the herders each had a team of horses, tended their flocks on horseback, and moved their wagons when they pleased. But now the horses had been taken away. The herders’ wagons were taken to the camp site and left there, and the herders tended flock on foot.

  Louie’s wagon had sideboards built out like benches, with the canvas top accordingly wider than the wagon bed. The bench on one side provided a bunk on which Louie slept. On the other side were storage bins and shelves for his gear and for his groceries. Near the front was a tiny stove whose chimney poked through a tin shield riveted to the canvas tilt. It served as a cookstove and it also provided warmth on frosty nights of spring and fall. At the back of the wagon was a set of steps that could be swung upward into the wagon at night or when it was on the road.

  The wagon always smelled of fried potatoes and rancid mutton tallow and coal oil and cow chips. The only light it had at night was a coal oil lantern. I never visited Louie’s wagon without seeing his cobbler’s tools laid out. It was as though those tools represented something, some facet of his personality, that he could not ever relinquish; it was almost as though he told himself every day of his life that he was not really a sheep herder, he was a cobbler. He had a trade. Yet never did he come back from his mysterious winters off to talk about working in a cobbler’s shop. They were a symbol of a part of his life which he never outgrew, which he never quite understood and which he still could not turn his back upon.

  The second evening he was there, Louie came over to our house to get acquainted. He came to the door and took off his hat and said who he was, and Father invited him in. But Louie said, “I’ll just sit out here.” So he sat there on the step, a strange little man who smelled, as Mother said later, “like the billy goat Uncle Gus used to keep.”

  But Louie was a polite little man. He said “ma’am” to Mother and he called Father “mister” and he kept his hat off all the time he was there. Father asked how many sheep there were in the flock, and Louie said there were close to fifteen hundred head of ewes and every ewe had a lamb. Father said that many sheep would eat a lot of grass. Louie said, “They keep eating, all right. But I’ll do my best to keep ’em off your land.”

  Then he saw me. “I got a boy of my own,” he said, “just about his age.”

  “Where is your boy?” Mother asked.

  “Up in Denver with his mother. She up and left me. Run off with the cook from the main camp. He’s a short-order cook up in Denver and I guess they’re making out pretty well.” He looked at me. “You got a dog?” he asked.

  I said no.

  “I’ll give you a pup,” Louie said.

  “What kind of a pup?” Mother asked.

  “Sheep dog. Best dog there is, ma’am. My little Fido dog, she’s the mother. Father’s Gerrity’s big collie. Mighty fine dog, he is. The boy ought to have a dog, ma’am.”

  “We’ll see,” Mother said.

  “Thev’re only a week old,” Louie said. “Ain’t got their eyes open yet.” He was silent a long moment. Then he asked, “You got any shoes need mending?”

  “Are you a shoemaker?” Father asked.

  “That’s my trade,” Louie said, and there was pride in his voice. “Learned it in reform school.”

  I saw Mother stiffen. Father asked, “Where was this?”

  “Back in Missouri,” Louie said. “My mother died when I was six and my pappy couldn’t care for me. He put me in the school to learn a trade. I got a good education there, for a poor boy.” He stood up. “Nice knowing you, m’am. And you, mister.” He looked at me. “You come pick out the pup you want. There ain’t but three of them left. You can take him soon’s he’s old enough to wean.” He turned and walked away, his black hat still in his hand, down the slope and across the valley to his little house on wheels.

  I said I wanted the puppy. Father said he thought it might be a good idea. Mother said we’d wait and see. She didn’t want to be obligated to a man like that, who’d been to reform school. Father said it didn’t sound as if he’d been a boy who had to be sent to reform school, but more as if his father put him there to be rid of him. Mother said anyone who smelled that way ought to be put somewhere. Father said he supposed anybody around sheep all the time smelled like sheep. And then to change the subject he said, “We’d better plant corn tomorrow, if we want to have a corn crop this year. And when we get that done we’ve got a barn to build.”

  The next morning he hitched the team to the breaking plow and laid out a field on the slope back of the house. He plowed two furrows around it, then went back to the house for the sack of seed corn he’d brought from town. He brought a bucket and put corn in it and showed me how to plant it, walking down the furrow and dropping a kernel every foot or so and stomping the kernels in the ground with my heel so the birds and ground squirrels couldn’t steal it all before he got the next
furrow plowed.

  And that’s the way we planted our corn. We plowed and planted all morning. When we went back to the house for dinner Father said it would take us two days to plant that field. “And,” he said, “even counting on the ground squirrels and the birds getting their share, if we have a good season we’ll have a plenty for the winter.”

  So after we’d eaten we went back to where we’d left the plow and hitched the team to the doubletrees and Father looped the lines around his shoulders and took the handles of the plow and said, “Hup, Dick, Shorty! Let’s go.” The horses leaned into their collars, the plowshare sang as it clipped the grass roots, and the sod rolled in a broad ribbon off the curving rods that a breaking plow has instead of a moldboard.

  I walked along behind the plow, dropping corn and heeling each kernel into the ground. It was like walking down a narrow brown road, step by short step. The sun was warm, the birds were singing, and the warm, brown, springy smell of the soil was everywhere.

  We were halfway to the upper end of the field, where the team would turn and come back down the other side, when old Dick snorted and tossed his head and reared, and Shorty bunched his feet and jumped to one side. They almost overturned the plow. Father shouted, “Whoa there! Dick! Shorty!” and he let go the plow handles and grabbed the lines.

  Then I heard the buzz. A high, rattly buzz, like a big grasshopper flying. Then it got faster and sounded like a big bumblebee, a mad one. And I saw the snake in the furrow just ahead of the horses.

  It was a rattler. It lay in an irregular coil, its wedge-shaped head drawn back and its tail lifted just above the coil and vibrating in a blur. Its glistening, scaly body was thick as my arm and a dusty brown color, not much darker than the yellow-tan of old buffalo grass, but across its back were dark brown oval patches. Except for the shine and the ripple of its muscles it looked almost like a big cow chip lying there in the furrow.

  The horses had shied over onto the plowed ground. Plains bred, they knew rattlesnakes. Quivers of excitement ran down Dick’s dark bay back. Shorty was rearing and stamping and snorting. Father stepped to the plow beam and pulled the clevis pin, releasing the doubletrees. He stepped across the beam and drove the horses to one side, where they stood, watching the snake and tossing their heads against the restraint of the lines.

  “Go back to the house,” Father ordered, “and bring the spade. And watch where you step!”

  He didn’t need to say that. I ran, my heart pounding, but I watched every foot of the furrow in front of me. And when I came to the end of the furrow I ran across the grass in big bounds, dodging every cow chip and bunch of grass.

  The spade was in the wagon. As I turned to run back with it Mother called from the house, “What’s the matter?”

  “A snake!” I shouted. “A great big snake!” I didn’t have time to say any more. I ran back, feeling braver now with the spade in my hands. But I kept to the furrow, where I could see what was ahead of my feet.

  Father held the spade toward the snake, and it struck so fast I could hardly see its head. It struck the spade blade with a ringing bang, and before it could coil again Father jabbed at it with the sharp edge and cut it half in two. The snake began to writhe and Father swung the spade like an axe. It didn’t take many blows. He stunned it and then he cut off the head, which lay there in the furrow convulsively snapping its ugly mouth.

  Father called me to him and poked at the severed head with the blade of the spade. “There,” he said, prying the mouth open, “are the fangs.” They looked like thick cactus thorns, two of them, in the front of the upper jaw. “He strikes with those fangs, and that’s how he puts the poison in whatever he hits.”

  He began to dig a hole in the furrow. “Now you know what a rattlesnake looks like. Don’t ever forget. You saw the way it struck at the spade. A rattler will strike at anything in reach. The poison from those fangs will kill you. Don’t ever fool with a rattler. If you haven’t something to kill it with, something long enough so you are out of reach of the strike, go away and leave it alone.”

  He buried the head there in the furrow and he tossed the body, still twitching, over onto the plowed ground. He hitched the team to the plow again and we went on plowing. But every time we came to the place we’d killed the rattler the horses shied and Father had to grab the lines and haul them back.

  “I guess,” he finally said, “we don’t have to worry too much about running onto a rattler without knowing it as long as Dick and Shorty are around. They’ll let us know. Some say a western horse can smell a snake, especially a rattler.”

  That evening Louie, the herder, came to the house again. As before, he stayed out on the step. He said, “Those pups are getting to look pretty nice. They favor their father. I thought maybe the boy would like to come down and pick out his.”

  Father said, “That sounds like a good idea.” I saw him look at Mother, and I knew they had talked it over, because she didn’t shake her head. “Wait a minute till I get my hat and we’ll go look them over.”

  So Father and I went back with Louie. On the way Father told Louie about the rattler. Louie said, “I kill lots of them. Got a whole cigar box full of rattles. One’s got twenty rattles, biggest one I ever heard of.”

  “Did you ever get bitten?” Father asked.

  Louie looked at him as though he’d asked if the herder had ever shot himself in the head. “If I had,” Louie said, “I wouldn’t be here. One of the herders got bit on the hand last year, and when Gerrity found him he was black as coal and swelled up like a sheep with the bloat.”

  “He was dead?” Father asked.

  “Dead as if he’d blowed his brains out.… No, mister, I never been bit, and I ain’t going to be. When I die I want to die white and not all bloated full of poison.”

  As we went up to Louie’s wagon a shaggy black and tan dog came toward us from the pens, barking and wagging its tail. Louie said, “These are my friends, Spot,” just as though he was talking to another man, and he made a gesture with his hand and the dog went back and sat down beside the pens. Louie led us up the steps at the back of the wagon. In the half-dark I saw a small brown dog, not much bigger than a fox terrier, on an old blanket beside the stove. Huddled against her belly were three little white and tan puppies. The mother lifted her head and tapped the floor with her tail.

  Louie knelt beside her and said, “This boy is going to have one of the pups, Fido,” in the same tone he had used with the other dog. Fido licked his hands and looked at me, as if she had understood every word. Louie picked up the three pups and laid them in a row on the blanket. They were fat and their pink noses quivered. Only one had his eyes fully open. They all began to whimper at once. Two of them crawled back toward their mother, but the one with its eyes open got up on its legs and looked at me and stopped whimpering. I held out my hand and it came over and sucked my finger.

  “I want him,” I said.

  Louie grinned and nodded approval.

  Fido licked the other two puppies. I picked up mine and held him a minute. He had a white nose and a white stripe up his face and brown ears and a white line around his neck. I held him up to my cheek and rubbed the fine, soft fur with my face. He licked my cheek. Then, finding nothing to suck, he began to cry. I put him down beside his mother. The other two pups were sucking greedily, but my puppy pushed one of them away and took the dug and settled down to his meal.

  “He’ll take care of himself,” Louie said.

  “When can I have him?” I asked.

  “Soon’s he’s ready to wean. Two-three weeks.”

  We left the wagon and Louie showed us the sheep pens and explained that the black sheep in the flock were counters, one for every so many sheep, so you could look at a flock and count the black ones and know how many sheep there were in the flock. He pointed out the big old rams, with horns and deep voices and eyes that looked almost red. And then Father said we had to get home.

  On the way back he said, “Well, son, you seem to own a do
g. What are you going to call him?”

  I thought just for a minute; then I said, “Fritz.”

  “Fritz? That’s a funny name for a dog.”

  “I like it,” I said.

  “Who did you ever know named Fritz?”

  I couldn’t tell him I knew Fritz Strubel, back in Nebraska. Fritz Strubel was a ne’er-do-well farmer, a red-faced, loudmouthed drunk. Once Fritz came staggering down the street and saw me and gave me a whole dime to buy candy. I had never told anybody, and I couldn’t even tell Father now.

  I said, “I just want to call him Fritz.”

  Father said, “He’s your dog. Call him whatever you want to.”


  THE CORN CAME UP in such fine long rows of bright green spears that we wanted to gloat over it. But you don’t gloat over sod corn any more than you do over grass growing or baby meadow larks hatching in the nests on the flats. Sod corn always comes up and does well with the moisture held at its roots by the grass turned under. Sod corn is not a personal achievement. Besides, there was little time to gloat over anything. We had a barn to build, we wanted to lay sod up around the house, we had to get some fencing done, and we would soon have to cut hay.

  Father went to town and hauled out lumber and posts and barbed wire, and he bought a mower and a hay rake. It must have been about then that he began to count his money. The farmer who moved to the plains from a rented place in Iowa brought along basic farming equipment, even though it might have been old and worn. He had a plow and a harrow and a disc, and he had a mower. He had hand tools. He had the tools of his trade. The tools of Father’s trade, a set of compositor’s rules and a make-up rule, could be carried in his pocket. They were of no use at all on a farm. He had a blacksmith’s son’s knowledge of farm machinery, he knew how to use carpenter’s tools, he knew a tug from a hame strap. But he had to buy the machinery. He was starting from scratch.

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