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High wide and lonesome g.., p.6
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       High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, p.6

           Hal Borland
 

  We laid out a frame barn that we would sod up later, and we began building it the way we had built the house, except that it had no floor and the roof was a shed roof with its low side to the north. But the hay came so fast that we had the barn only half built before we had to start cutting.

  A valley of bluestem is as pretty a sight as anyone can ever hope to see, especially on a sunny day with a light breeze and a few big clouds floating high. The breeze ripples the grass like wind on water and the cloud shadows are like blue and purple light playing on it. A valley of bluestem, on a day like that, is like a deep, deep lake rippling and dancing in the sun, never still a minute.

  Bluestem is a common name for any one of many species of grass which grow tall under favorable conditions, make good hay if cut at the right time, and are a godsend to arid regions. The family includes the hated Johnson grass of Texas, but it also includes such cultivated fodder crops as Sudan grass, kafir corn and even broom corn from which household brooms are made. The bluestem of the plains is a lesser member of the family which sometimes grows five feet high, has a bluish-silver color and thrives with a moderate amount of moisture.

  Bluestem is a valley grass. By then the hills were green with buffalo grass, curling tight even before it was ankle-high. Buffalo grass got its name because its curly mat looked somewhat like the shaggy pelt of a tawny buffalo to the first men who came to those plains. It greened in spring, then cured where it grew by early summer and provided feed for grazing animals all fall and winter. Buffalo grass grew on all the hills, and up on the high flats the grama grass was like a lawn, already getting ready to send up its strange seed stems, crooked at the top like little shinny sticks. But in all the draws, and especially in the draw by the house, the bluestem rippled and flowed, so tall it hid the horses’ legs when they walked through it. In another week or so it would begin to head and get tough and woody.

  We stopped work on the barn and Father hitched the team to the mower. He started at the outer edge of the draw and cut a swath around it. The mower clattered and clicked its metallic click-click-click at the corners, and the grass fell in a sparse swath there at the edge. Then he went around a second time and the grass was thicker. The third time around it made a regular waterfall as it fell behind the clattering sickle bar, a green waterfall that lay in a long green stream behind the mower. After an hour there were long green lines of cut grass all around the valley.

  By noon the hot sun and the dry breeze had begun to cure the grass and the sweet hay smell was everywhere. On those high, dry plains hay cures quickly. We let it lie in the sun that day and the next morning Father said I could rake it. He hitched the team to the high-wheeled rake with its long curved teeth and I climbed into the iron seat, which was much too big for my bottom. I could just reach the pedal to trip the rake teeth. He handed me the lines and said to keep the windrows straight, and he watched while I went around the field the first time.

  Haying wasn’t work, not to me. Raking hay wasn’t, at least. There I sat on the high seat, the lines in my hands. Dick and Shorty knew the job better than I did, so I concentrated on making straight windrows. When I had a rakeful of hay I kicked the trip pedal. The long, curved teeth lifted, the hay was left in a neat long pile, the teeth dropped and began gathering hay again. The horses went around the field and I tripped the teeth time after time, and we had a whole series of long, low piles of hay. The next time around I added another length to each pile, and the windrows grew.

  The sun was hot. The hay smell was all around me. Every now and then a cottontail rabbit scurried out of the hay in front of the horses. Once I caught a prairie chicken in the rakeful of hay, and when I tripped and dumped it the prairie chicken burst out right beneath me and went zooming into the air, startling me so that I almost fell off the rake.

  By noon I had the whole valley raked.

  Since we hadn’t had time to build a hay rack we put the sideboards on the wagon and used it to haul the hay. We couldn’t haul half the load we could have put on a rack, but you have to do with what you have. We hauled hay in the wagon and built the first stack just back of the barn, where it would give some protection from winter storms and where it would be handy to fork into the barn.

  Building a haystack is an art. You put down the first layer in the shape of the finished stack, making sure there is more around the edges than in the middle so the hay won’t slide out as you put more on it. And you have to build it with the hay lying right, the ends pointing toward the middle. You build it carefully, forkful by forkful, always building the edges first, keeping the sides straight and tromping the middle down good and tight. Father had helped stack hay several times, when we visited Grandpa Clinaburg, who was the best hay stacker in Nebraska, and Father remembered how. But building a stack alone isn’t easy. I forked it off the wagon and Father built the stack.

  Because we had to make so many trips with the wagon, which held so little hay, it took two days to build that first stack. We didn’t build it very high, because I couldn’t pitch the hay very high from the wagon; besides, if we kept it low we could be pretty sure it wouldn’t lean and eventually fall over. But we finally got it finished and topped off so it would shed the rain. Then we started another stack alongside the first one.

  We got two good stacks of hay from that draw beside the house, and then just to be sure we had enough we went over into the next draw to the south and cut enough for two more stacks. Before we got it all in Father said we’d have saved a week if we’d taken time out to build a hay rack, because half our time was spent just coming and going with those little wagonloads. But we got it in and stacked.

  Then we did the first fencing. We built a fence around the haystacks, because the cows, when we turned them loose to graze, went right to the stacks. With all that fine green grass to eat, they went right to the stacks. We were trying to finish the barn, but I had to spend most of my time driving the cows away from the hay. Cows, I said angrily, are the laziest critters alive; they won’t even eat grass. Father laughed at me. “Cows,” he said, “aren’t so different from other creatures. Including man. If a man finds a way to get his groceries free he’s not likely to sweat himself too much working for them.”

  So we built a fence around the stacks. Then we finished the barn. And after that Father said we’d better get some sod up around the house because winter was coming, sure as sunrise. So he plowed the sod, tough sod in the edge of the draw, and I cut it into strips, and we hauled it in and started sodding the house.

  We’d been at that job just two days, and we began to have trouble with the flying ants. We put up a pole and tied an old shirt at the top and most of the ants swarmed there. But we still had to fight a few of them, and between fighting ants and laying sod we were pretty tired. We went to bed early, and we went right to sleep. It must have been around midnight, because the full moon was bright outside, when I waked up hearing Mother say, “Will! Will, there’s something out in the yard!”

  Father was a sound sleeper. He muttered something, but I was out of bed and at the window before he even sat up in bed. Out there in the moonlight was the biggest herd of animals I had ever seen. They were all around the house, and for a minute, because I was still half asleep, I thought they were buffalo. Father and I had been talking about the buffalo herds, that afternoon, the buffalo that used to graze that whole country and who had left all the bones and skulls and horns still there on the hills.

  Then Father was up, in his nightshirt, and at another window. “Cattle!” he exclaimed. “Cattle all over the place!” He reached for his shoes and his overalls.

  I was dressed as soon as he was. He looked around for a club or some weapon. The only thing he could find was a buggy whip. He tossed it aside and picked up the .25-20 rifle and began loading it. I grabbed the buggy whip. Father stepped outside onto the step and yelled at the cattle.

  I squeezed out the door and onto the step just as he fired the first shot over the cattle. The roar seemed to be right there besi
de my head. All the bells in the world began ringing in my ears, but I still could hear the rush and rattle of horns and click of hoofs as the cattle surged away from the house. Father followed them and I was right behind.

  We ran around the house and saw cattle around the hay stacks. Father fired two more shots and I yelled and the cattle bawled and there was the creak and snap of barbed wire stretching and breaking, the crack of a fence post being broken off. The cattle bellowed again and ran up the hillside.

  Mother was with us now, armed with a broom. She ran ahead of us and Father shouted, “Sarah! Come back here! They’re range cattle and they’ll charge you!” But she didn’t stop.

  One of the steers turned and started toward her. Father snapped the lever, reloading the rifle. Mother shouted, “Get out of here, you dirty thing!” and she swung the broom. The big red steer bellowed and turned and ran, tail high.

  But the flight of the rest of the herd had slackened. They had reached our cornfield. We charged them, all of us shouting, but they didn’t run. They were eating green fresh cornstalks, which by then were waist-high. Mother ran among them, flailing with the broom. I lashed out with the buggy whip. Mother was sobbing in anger. Father fired two more shots over them. Then they began to run again. Father fired another shot and they kept on going.

  We slowly walked back through the cornfield. In the moonlight it looked as though they had tromped half our corn into the ground. It wasn’t a beautiful cornfield any more; it was a bleak and sorry sight.

  Father said, “Go on back to the house, you two. Go back to bed.”

  “What are you going to do?” Mother asked.

  “Stay here. They’ll probably be back, now that they’ve had a taste of corn. You two go back to bed.”

  “I want to stay,” I said.

  Father said, “All right. But go get the rest of your clothes on. And bring my shirt and that old brown coat. And some more shells.”

  “I’ll stay too,” Mother announced.

  “You,” Father said, “are going back to the house and get some sleep.”

  Mother and I returned to the house. She lit the lamp and I put on my shirt and got a coat. I put two handfuls of cartridges for the rifle in my pocket and picked up Father’s brown coat. As I left the house I noticed that Mother was starting a fire in the stove.

  Half an hour later Mother came out to us, there on the hill beside the cornfield, with a pot of coffee and bread-and-butter sandwiches. We ate them and Father sent her back to the house.

  The cattle came back twice, once about three o’clock and again just at dawn. We drove them off both times, and at dawn they drifted up Ketchem Holler to the south.

  We had breakfast just after sunup, eating with one eye out for the cattle. Father said, “The loss of that corn is going to hurt. I’d thought we could buy a few more head of cattle this fall, but without fodder or corn and with the hay we lost when they got into the stack yard we won’t have enough feed.” He glanced at Mother. “We can’t afford to buy feed. The money won’t hold out forever.”

  Mother said, “Whoever owns those cattle will have to pay for the corn.”

  “I don’t know,” Father said. “I don’t know whose they are, anyway.”

  “Oh,” Mother exclaimed, “I wish you’d shot one! Then we’d at least have had some beef steak to show for what they ate!”

  We went back to the cornfield. By daylight it didn’t look quite as bad as it had by moonlight. Lots of it had been eaten off and a good deal knocked down, but we could straighten up some of it. We started to work, trying to save what we could.

  Late that morning we heard the cattle again, off to the south, bellowing and making quite an uproar. Father picked up the rifle and we waited to see what was going to happen.

  The cattle came over the hill to the south, a herd of maybe two hundred head, closely bunched. Then we saw that there were horsemen with them, three horsemen driving the cattle. They came over the hill into sight of our house, and one of the horsemen loped around the herd and headed them east, toward Ketchem Holler. They got the herd turned and one of the riders left them and came toward us at a fast trot. The other two kept the herd moving down the big valley.

  The rider was a youngish man in a wide-brimmed black hat and blue work shirt and bibless overalls. His horse was a leggy sorrel with white mane and tail. He rode up the slope toward us, there in the cornfield, the bit chains jingling, still trailing a long end of the lariat he had been using as a whip. He rode straight in his stirrups, the reins in his left hand. He was the first cowboy I had ever seen.

  He drew his horse to a high-headed stop at the edge of the cornfield. “Howdy,” he said. “I didn’t know anybody had moved in here.”

  None of us said a word. Father still held the rifle in the crook of his arm. The cowboy wasn’t wearing a holster or a gun belt, but under his left leg was a saddle scabbard with the dark stock of a carbine in sight. His saddle was very dark leather, worn and sweaty, and it creaked as the horse moved.

  The cowboy sat there smiling. He looked at me and his smile became almost a grin. He must have seen the look in my eyes. He looked at Father and Mother again and said, “My name’s Clothier, Jack Clothier. I’m from the Lazy Four over north. Sorry about the steers. Looks like they got in your corn patch.”

  “Yes,” Father said gruffly, “they got in the corn.” He glanced around at the field. “You can see what they did.”

  Jack Clothier nodded. “I’m sorry,” he repeated.

  “You’re going to have to pay for this!” Mother exclaimed.

  “No,” the cowboy said, shaking his head. “You didn’t fence it.”

  “Do you mean to tell me,” Mother demanded, “that when your cows ate our corn—”

  “That’s exactly what I’m telling you,” the cowboy said. “Unless it’s fenced, there isn’t a thing you can do about it. That’s the law.”

  “Who made the law?” Father flushed angrily.

  “The state legislature.” The cowboy swung down from his saddle, dropped the reins on the grass, and the horse stood as if tied. The cowboy came over to us. “That’s the law,” he repeated. “When land is not under fence it’s technically open range. You should have fenced your corn, mister.”

  “We haven’t had time,” Father said.

  “I know.” The cowboy’s voice was sympathetic. He walked out into the cornfield, shaking his head. “You had a good stand of corn,” he said sadly. “I hate to see any crop destroyed.”

  “Then keep your cattle away from here,” Father said firmly. “Next time they get in my corn you’ll find some dead steers.”

  The cowboy’s mouth tightened. “Don’t do that, mister. For God’s sake, don’t shoot any cattle! That’s almost as bad as shooting a man, in this country. Sure, it’s your homestead, and around it, it’s open range. Even your crop land.”

  “It’s not right!” Mother exclaimed.

  “I’m not talking about right and wrong,” the cowboy said. “I’m talking about the law. Some day there’ll be enough homesteaders in here, maybe, to change the law. But that’s the way it stands now, ma’am.” He turned to me. “How old are you, son?”

  I told him.

  “You like it out here?”

  “Yes.”

  “Where do you come from?” he asked Father.

  “Nebraska.”

  “I got a sister who lives at Broken Bow.”

  But nobody wanted to talk and visit. He knew it. He went back to his horse, flipped the reins over its head, caught a stirrup in one hand, thrust a plain boot toe in it and swung into the saddle in one easy movement. He reined the dancing horse around and said, “Sorry to meet you folks this way, but I’m glad to know you, just the same.” He looked at me with a special half smile. He said to Father, “I’ll try to keep these steers down at the lower end of the range, but if they drift up this way again, just drive them off. And get a fence up. Please, mister, get a fence up.”

  He reined his horse around and lop
ed down past the stacks and the house and down Ketchem Holler after the cattle.

  Jack Clothier was in his late twenties. He grew up in eastern Kansas, a farmer’s son, and at fifteen he went to work for a cattle buyer. At seventeen he went with a visiting ranchman to western Kansas and took a job on a ranch. Before he was twenty he was a top cowhand and an expert rider. He drifted into Colorado and worked for half a dozen ranchmen, breaking horses to the saddle, spending his money as he made it. Those were his free and easy days, when he worked a few weeks or a few months on one job, wearied of it, quit, moved on to another ranch and another string of unbroken horses. He worked from Texas to Wyoming, never settling, a typical cowboy. Though not a gunman, he took part in a couple of range wars, fighting, brawling, but never killing a man. Few of the cowboys were killers, and most of them detested the professional gunman. Their job was tending cattle and keeping order on the range, not starting or perpetuating feuds.

  But, like most horse-breakers, Jack wearied of it after a few years. He saw old riders who hadn’t known when to quit, aging men with gimpy legs, gnawing hernias and battered features, and he decided he’d had enough broken bones to last him for a while. He’d begun to outgrow his young dare-deviltry. He took a job on the Hashknife, down south of our area, as a straight cowhand. And, two years before we arrived, he moved up to the Lazy Four, a top hand who drew almost as good wages as a foreman. He had settled down to learn the cattle business.

  He rode back down Ketchem Holler, that day, and we went back to the house. Mother started cooking dinner and Father and I repaired the fence around the haystack. We had to put in two new posts and stretch all the wire and staple it to the posts again. Father didn’t say much, but I kept thinking about Jack Clothier and his sorrel horse and his smile.

  Mother called us to dinner. We ate, hardly saying anything. We were all tired and sleepy and feeling hurt and angry about the corn. Finally Mother said, “I don’t care what he says, it just isn’t right.”

 
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