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Country editors boy, p.7
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       Country Editor's Boy, p.7

           Hal Borland
 

  I sat there half an hour, maybe even an hour—time had no meaning—watching, feeling the warmth of the sun, smelling the water and the reeds, which had such a different smell from that of cactus and buffalo grass. Then two big green-bodied dragon flies came and hovered not two feet in front of me, seeming to look at me with those huge dark eyes. A dragon fly can make you feel very foolish, just hovering and looking at you, maybe because they have been around so much longer than man has. In the fossil beds at Florissant, Colorado, they have found dragon flies at least 250 million years old. Those two hovered and stared at me, and I stared back a little while, then gave up, got to my feet, and followed the path down around the ledge to the pond. It was a cowpath probably made by the buffalo long before the cattle came, a very old path, worn right into the soft rock.

  I went down through the reeds, and big frogs leaped into the water with wet clunks and the ducks swam back among the reeds on the far side. I wasn’t wanted there, wasn’t needed. I was an intruder. I was about to turn back when a strange quivering shook the grass and I saw a big dark-brown water snake. It moved a little way, stopped, seemed to shiver its whole length, then moved on again. Then I saw its head. A big green frog’s leg dangled from its mouth, still twitching, and its throat was swollen to twice its normal size. It shivered again, a kind of gulping convulsion, and the frog’s leg disappeared and the lump in its throat moved a few inches. I remembered the day on the homestead when I saw a big bull snake swallowing a half-grown prairie dog. It gulped the same way, a convulsion that ran all the way to its tail, and the prairie dog’s tail disappeared.

  The water snake saw me and turned and glided into the pond, making hardly a ripple. And I thought how dragon flies eat flies and gnats, frogs eat dragon flies, snakes eat frogs. I wondered what eats snakes. Hawks, maybe, though I never saw that happen.

  I had seen enough. I went back up the path and back along the trail to where I had left my bike. As I leaned over to pick it up I saw an arrowhead, a perfect red chert point an inch and a half long. I admired it and put it into my pocket, and as I wheeled my bike back to the road I wondered if it had been a Cheyenne or an Arapaho who had shot that arrow, what he shot with it, where he came from, where he went. I wondered if he had sat on the ledge above the spring and been stared at by a dragon fly.

  It was past midmorning and warming up. The meadow larks had stopped singing. I rode on east and came to the crest of the long hill that flanked the river. The valley made a big curve there below me and ran almost due north before turning northeast again, toward the northwest corner of Kansas where the river became a flowing stream, a real river. I coasted down the long hill, trailing a cloud of dust, and crossed the gravelly dry wash on the narrow concrete slab that gave solid footing for cars and wagons. There was no bridge, just that concrete slab, over which the periodic flood waters could wash harmlessly. Beyond, the road wound around the slope of Kit Carson Hill and up through a gap to the flats again, on the far side of the river.

  I was going to climb Kit Carson Hill, but first I explored the dry watercourse. Stones have their own fascination, especially stream-bed stones. Every stone was once a part of something bigger, something that time has worn down to a hard, round kernel, smoothed and polished by the years. Most of the stones there were about the size of hen’s eggs, with a few as big as a man’s fist and an occasional one big as a man’s head. All were rounded, water-worn and shaped by each other. And they were of all colors, reds, yellows, whites, grays, browns, like a vast tray of gigantic beads waiting to be drilled and strung.

  I walked upstream, then down, marveling. And searching. I was looking for something I knew I wouldn’t find—a stone hammer, a stone axe, a spear point. Among so many stones, there just might be something a man had shaped to his own use. But if there ever had been one there it would have been worn and ground beyond all recognition by time and travel, all human marks wiped away. It was like looking for Indian pony tracks in the grass, and I knew it. But I kept looking, for somehow I was a part of that dry watercourse, a part that partook by being there, by walking on those stones.

  Then I had looked long enough. The sun had passed the meridian, the nooning. I took my bike and went up the road that wound out of the valley, up the flank of Kit Carson Hill. I knew I had come, not to see Crystal Springs or the river bed, but the hill itself. Legend said, or hearsay, that Kit Carson had used that hilltop for a lookout. What he looked for, I don’t know. Buffalo, perhaps, or Indians, or maybe just the horizon. Kit Carson, to me at least, was a man who might have looked at the horizon, or the clouds, or the stars, as the Indians looked at them, as a part of the universe to be known and valued for themselves. Anyway, that was the story, and if one were the kind of skeptic who said that Carson’s Colorado home was at La Junta, near Bent’s old fort, a hundred miles south of Flagler, or that he was more mountain man than plainsman, that made no difference. This was Kit Carson’s hill, tradition said, and sometimes tradition is more real than fact.

  I rode until the hill became too steep, then pushed my bike until I was just below the crest. There I left the bike and quit the road. It was a stiff climb, up a steep slope carpeted with buffalo grass and with a scattering of soapweed clumps. Then I reached the top, a rounded knoll perhaps fifty yards across, where the grass was thin and the soil gravelly. And on the very crest of the knoll was a rough square, about ten feet on a side, outlined with chunks of reddish sandstone each about a foot square. It wasn’t a foundation or the remains of one, and it was not a tumbled wall. Just those rough sandstone blocks, half buried in the grass, in an irregular square. They had been there a long time. To this day I do not know who put them there, or when, or why. But in that square was a flower garden, fifteen or twenty low-growing, dusty-green plants with clusters of brick-red, five-petaled blossoms. They were flowers we knew as wild geraniums or cowboy’s delight. Eventually I learned that the botanical name is Malvastrum coccineum, that it is a member of the mallow family and distant cousin of the hollyhock. The plant seldom grows more than six inches high and the flowers are only about an inch across. But there they were, those wild geraniums, as I then knew them, in full bloom. And they were the only ones on that whole hilltop.

  I stared at the square outlined by those stones and at the brick-red blossoms, wondering, marveling. Then I turned and looked out and away. In every direction I could see the horizon. Below me was the river valley, broad and deep. Beyond, to the west, was the smudge that was Flagler, recognizable only by the upthrust of the grain elevator; and far beyond that western horizon were the mountains. To the north the valley disappeared beyond its flanking hills, angling northeast again; and beyond those hills and flats to the north, a hundred miles away, lay the valley of the Platte. To the east were the gently rolling uplands that slowly fell away, bronzing green flats that sloped gently into Kansas and all across Kansas to the Missouri. To the south were the flats again, reaching beyond the horizon and all the way to the valley of the Arkansas. On that southern horizon lay a dark cloud mass, the only cloud in the sky.

  I was on top of the world. It reached away in all directions, out and away.

  I was hungry. I sat down beside the rectangle of stones and began to eat my sandwiches. The only sound was the soft shhhhhh of the breeze in the grass around me. Then a hawk, perhaps the one I had seen circling over Crystal Springs, began to scream, a faint, faraway, kaa-kaa-kaa, and I looked up and saw it high overhead, a gnat-size dot against the sky.

  My eyes were dazzled, for the sun was only an hour past midday. I lay back on the grass and closed my eyes, but the dazzle persisted, lightning against my eyelids. I covered my eyes with one arm and gradually the lightning faded. I felt the warm earth beneath my shoulder blades. I was one with the earth, like the grass. I had been there forever, since grass grew, since the ocean went away, since the stones in the dry river bed were ledges on the distant mountains. I drifted off to sleep.

  Thunder wakened me, violent, crashing thunder. I sat up, bewildered, not k
nowing where I was. The sky was dark, the air hot and tense. A flash of lightning ripped the clouds off to the southwest, and an instant later another thunder crash shook the earth beneath me. The southern horizon had vanished. In its place was a gray curtain that seemed to hang from the boiling, greenish-gray cloud mass that towered to the very zenith. The band of cloud I had seen before I slept had built up to one of those violent High Plains thunderstorms that are like the very wrath of the gods.

  I watched in awe, wincing each time another crashing peal of thunder jolted the hills. The wind freshened into gusts, now damp and cool. The gray curtain advanced swiftly, blotted out the second line of hills, and I heard a faint, distant roar. I was going to get wet. I got to my feet, debated whether to stay there on the hilltop and take it or to head for home. Then I realized that a cloudburst up the valley would send a flash flood boiling down the river bed. Unless I got across before it came I would be marooned, unable to get home until the flood went down, maybe overnight.

  I hurried down the hillside toward my bike, barely able to keep my feet on the steep slope. Halfway down I tripped and fell, and got to my knees and saw that I had fallen over an old buffalo skull half buried in the sod. My foot had tripped on the peeling black horn and torn the skull from its bed. It lay there, one gaping eye socket seeming to stare at me. And in the uprooted sod was something that looked like a dark clot of blood. I scuffed it with my toe. It was an arrowhead, red chert and intact, a companion of the one I had found beside the trail to Crystal Springs. I picked it up, compared the two. They were mates, line for line, almost flake for flake; they must have been made by the same hand, from the same stone, perhaps were shot from the same bow.

  A spatter of cold rain splashed my face. I heard a roar from up the valley. Thrusting the two arrowheads into my pocket, I ran on down the hill. The rain came in a sheet before I reached my bike, but I got on, pedaled furiously, and raced down the road toward the concrete slab. Half blinded by the downpour, I almost missed the slab. Then I was on it, the first lap of water already spilling over it. The water sprayed from my wheels, but I kept going, reached the far side, struck the muddy road beyond, and lost control completely. Down I went, flat in the mud. And got up, the roar of rushing water close behind me, and pushed my bike on up the slope another fifty yards. Then I looked back and saw the wall of water three feet high and still rising, as it boiled over the concrete crossing and went rolling on downstream.

  I plodded up the hill, pushing my bike. The rain roared, but even louder was the roar of the flash flood I had just escaped. The road was sloshing mud, creeks rushing down its edges. I was soaked to the skin. Then the chill came, icy chill, and the first burst of hail. The stones, about the size of marbles, bruised and stung. They whitened the air for a few minutes, then let up, then came again. Three waves of hail, and the rain in between was almost as cold and bruising as the hail, for it came with gusts of wind that almost took me off my feet.

  And finally I was at the hilltop and the hail had passed. The rain still beat down, but the gusting wind had eased. Hail lay in white drifts in the buffalo grass, washed like foam in the roadside streams of runoff. Up on the flats again, I tried to ride my bike, but the road was slick with mud. After two falls I gave up and walked, my shoes sloshing at every step.

  I walked a weary mile, and the storm eased, the rain slackened. Lightning still flashed, but distant now, off to the northeast, and the thunder was a distant rumbling growl. The sky began to clear on the southwestern horizon. A faint mist hung over the flats, fog rising from the hail still there in the grass. Then the sun burst through and the whole world was dazzling, fresh washed and gleaming clean.

  The road was still too muddy to ride. I trudged on, warm again after the cold drenching. I came to a place where the road was barely damp and rode for almost a mile, exulting. Then I came to mud again, and rifts of hail in the grass. And just ahead was the first roadside wheat field. What had been a wheat field that morning, rather. Now it was a hail-beaten scene of devastation. That golden sea of grain was gone, the stalks downed and beaten into the soil. As far as I could see, there wasn’t an acre of wheat still standing. What hadn’t been hailed into the ground had been knocked down by the wind and beaten into the mud by the driving rain.

  I went on, and saw a meadow lark at the roadside, bedraggled and dead, stoned to death by the hail. I saw another. Then I saw a horned lark trying desperately to fly with a broken wing. I tried to catch it, put it out of its misery, but it got away in the roadside weeds. I passed the second wheat field, not quite as completely devastated as the first one but so wind-blown and rain-beaten that it was scarcely worth harvesting.

  After I passed the second wheat field I came to drier road and was able to ride again, and the closer to town I got, the less rain they had had. My bike was kicking up dust the last mile into town.

  It was almost six o’clock when I got home. Mother was cooking supper. She looked at me and said, “Aren’t you a mess! You must have got caught in the storm.”

  “I was,” I said.

  “We got an awful thunderstorm, just awful. But not much rain, just a sprinkle. It got so cold I thought we were going to get hail.”

  “They had hail, out east of town,” I said.

  “They did?” She sighed. “Well, get washed up and change your clothes. Supper’s almost ready and you can’t come to the table looking like that. I don’t know what’s keeping your father, but he should be here any minute.”

  I washed, put on a clean shirt and clean overalls, and we waited. It was half past six before Father came home, walking like a very tired man, his shoulders sagging. He came in, saw me, and said, “I’m glad to see you here. I hear they got a bad storm out along the river.”

  I said yes, it rained awfully hard, and there was a lot of hail. I wasn’t telling about how I crossed the river just ahead of the flash flood.

  He kissed Mother and went to hang up his coat and hat. When he came back he said, “I guess they got hailed out up north. Clarence Smith just told me he heard the storm swung out across the wheat country up there and practically wiped them out.”

  He didn’t say anything about the harvest or the bumper crop that was going to overflow the elevator and put money into everybody’s pocket. But it was all right there in his eyes, the pain and hurt and disappointment. He had so wanted Flagler to boom and prosper, and it wasn’t going to boom that year.

  Mother saw it too. She said, “Supper’s on the table. Let’s eat. If they got hailed out, they’ll have to do what they’ve done before. They’ll make out, somehow. So will we.”

  7

  THE HEARTBREAKING THING ABOUT hail is that it wipes you out in the passing of a cloud. It is worse than drouth or grasshoppers, the other scourges of the High Plains, because it waits till you’ve built big hopes and dreams, then wipes them out in one devastating stroke.

  Drouth doesn’t raise your hopes, really. You plant your wheat in late summer, watch it sprout and stool out before snow comes. It winters over and starts to grow again, like the grass, in the warmth of early spring. But the spring rains peter out and drouth sets in. Week after week the wheat stands there, slowly turning yellow, never making growth, never heading. Then it withers and is gone, and you say, “Next year.”

  Or if it’s grasshoppers, they usually come early, before the wheat is fully headed, before the kernels have begun to fill, and they cut it down stalk by stalk, day by day, not all at once. You keep hoping that maybe tomorrow the grasshoppers will die or move on and you will get half a crop, or a third of a crop, or at least enough to pay for your seed. But they stay and your hopes die slowly as the grasshoppers keep gnawing away. And one day there isn’t any wheat left, and again you say, “Next year.”

  But hail waits till the wheat is tall and golden with ripeness, the heads full and the kernels fat, the wealth right there, only a week or two away from harvest. You can almost hear the dollars clinking in your pocket. Then that greenish cloud comes and the air tu
rns cold as November and the lightning rips the sky apart. Between lightning flashes it is as dark as dusk. It starts to rain, slashing rain, and you stand in the doorway and watch the dark rain turn to a white curtain coming across the fields. You hear it coming and you know nothing in God’s world can stop it. It comes across the wheat fields with a deafening roar and across the farmyard and on across the fields beyond. And when it has passed you go out and walk across the yard, the ice crunching underfoot, hail sometimes the size of peas, sometimes big as hen’s eggs. You see but don’t notice the chickens stoned to death. You see the broken windows and the splintered shingles on the roof, and you don’t notice them either. You are looking at the devastated fields, the beaten, ragged wheat fields now covered with hail, devastation that came and passed, ruin complete, in ten minutes. Half an hour ago you had a half section of wheat, 320 acres, maybe twelve or thirteen thousand dollars’ worth of wheat, ready to harvest and haul to town. Now you haven’t got a penny and you owe the bank twenty-five hundred dollars, plus interest, due the first day of October. Now you are broke and in debt. You have half a dozen cows and a team of horses and maybe two dozen chickens still alive, and you’ve got your wagon and plow and seeder. You’ve got a leaky roof and broken windows. And a wife who says, “I don’t see why we keep on farming when things like this happen. I so hoped this year—” And she begins to cry. You are filled with weariness, bone tired, and there’s a nauseating gripe in your belly, a wrenching at your heart. You can already taste the mush and beans you’ll have to live on next winter. But you’ll try again. You know that. You’ll go to the bank and try to get another loan to pay for seed wheat, pledging your land because there’s nothing else left to pledge, not one blessed thing.

 
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