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High wide and lonesome g.., p.7
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       High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, p.7

           Hal Borland

  Father said, “Apparently there’s nothing we can do about it except put up a fence.”

  “There ought to be!” Mother said.

  That afternoon we hauled a load of posts up to the cornfield and Father and I began digging postholes.


  I CARRIED MY PUPPY home in the crown of my hat when he was six weeks old. He cried half the night the first night I had him, and I thought Mother would tell me I had to take him back. But Mother must have remembered all the dogs I’d had and lost one way or another—by poison, or by being kicked by a horse, or by distemper; and she also probably knew that, since I was the only small boy in the whole area, I needed companionship. Anyway, she was patient with him and with me, and after the first two or three nights Fritz was one of the household.

  Louie had said my pup was a “smart one, maybe even as smart as Fido.” He’d said I could teach him anything. “All you have to do is tell him what you want and make sure he understands.”

  I wasn’t sure what Louie meant, but Louie’s dogs were the only ones of all those among Gerrity’s herders who would obey hand signals, and Louie taught them. He would stand on a hillside, the flock scattered all over the valley, and say to his dogs, “Go bunch ’em.” The dogs would trot down the hillside and around the flock, urging the strays back where they belonged, pulling the flock together; and they would stop and look at Louie, even a quarter of a mile away, and he would gesture with his hands and they would go back and find a stray hiding in a hollow or a clump of soapweed. It was uncanny, the way they understood. But then, Louie talked to his dogs just as though they were people. Maybe he knew dog language. Folks said all sheep herders were at least a little crazy, and maybe Louie was crazy that way.

  At first Fritz was all feet and tail, so awkward he would fall down in the middle of the floor. Then he began to catch up with himself and grew into a well-proportioned dog. He looked like an undersized collie, with a collie coat and collie markings, but with the broad brain-box of a back-country sheep dog and with broader shoulders than most collies.

  And he was, as Louie said, a smart pup. He learned to bring the cows in to the barn when I told him to, and he even learned to herd the chickens into their house when a thunderstorm came up. One young rooster squawked at him and tried to outrun him, and Fritz grabbed it and killed it. I scolded him and said he was a very bad dog, and he sulked for a whole day, wouldn’t come near me; but he never killed another chicken. He spent hours trying to catch squinneys, then learned that if he chased one in a hole and lay quietly waiting, the little ground squirrel would eventually come out of the hole and he could grab it in one quick snap. He killed dozens of ground squirrels. Eventually he used the same tactics with prairie dogs and was one of the few dogs I ever knew who could catch a prairie dog. And he became a snake killer. But that was later.

  That first summer, while he was just a growing pup, we wandered over the whole country within two miles of the house, Fritz learning how futile it was to chase jack rabbits, how stupid it was to go running through a cactus bed, and how silly it was to try to catch a meadow lark. I think the meadow larks, especially those close to the house, liked to tease him. He would see one in the grass and would start creeping up, like a coyote stalking a mouse, step by slow step. The meadow lark would go on walking slowly about, looking for insects but keeping one bright, dark eye on the dog. The bird would move slowly away, keeping at least four feet between them, and the pup would creep ahead, slow step by step. This would go on maybe five minutes, sometimes ten, the bird always keeping just far enough away; and at last the pup would lose patience, make a lunge. The bird, as though expecting just that, would leap into the air, fly a little way, then come back, as though deliberately tantalizing, and light again not ten feet from the frustrated pup. And the futile stalking would start all over again. Fritz spent hours at it, and never to my knowledge did he catch a bird.

  In our wanderings I began to find stone arrow points. I learned to look for them in bare places where the spring rains had washed the ground. And at last I found a gravelly hillside half a mile west of the house where an Indian point-maker evidently had had his workshop. Fritz and I spent hours there, Fritz trying to dig out ground squirrels, I sifting through the heaps of flint chips.

  That had been Cheyenne Indian country. The Cheyennes were a plains tribe with a northern background, a fierce-fighting people who once were farmers in Minnesota but were driven south and west by the Sioux. They became plains wanderers and buffalo hunters, ranging that whole area between the Platte and the Arkansas rivers. When Bent’s Fort was built on the Arkansas in 1832 the tribe divided into a northern and a southern group, but they continued to hunt buffalo all across the High Plains. And until trade iron was available from which to make arrow heads they used the old, old flint points. The point-maker, a skilled craftsman who knew how to flake flint, set up shop wherever there was a supply of good flint and replenished the tribe’s supply of ammunition. The plains were not very liberally salted with flint outcroppings, so when a source of supply was found it was remembered. The point-maker returned there periodically to shape blanks for future use or, if he had time, to make a fresh supply of finished points and knives for butchering.

  My hillside was the only place in that whole area where the gravel outcrop had large pieces of flint in it. The flint chunks there were seldom larger than my fist, and they were mostly a smoky gray with an occasional piece of bright, glassy, reddish-brown. It probably was a lesser flint bed for the Cheyennes to which they came while on buffalo hunts or to which they retreated when on a war expedition if they ran short of good arrow points. Most of the chips were of the smoky gray stone, indicating that the point-maker preferred that flint for his work. The chips were not much bigger than a man’s thumbnail, and many of them were not much thicker than a fingernail. Sifting through them, I found several broken points, one of them obviously discarded when half finished. The point-maker had been part way through when the point flaked the wrong way, and he tossed it aside.

  After I found that one I went through all the chip piles, and I found a dozen or more of those flawed points. I found only three or four good points there, but I turned up several oddly shaped pieces, sharp edged and obviously worked to a pattern, that I couldn’t identify. Later I learned that they were knives and scrapers; but at the time they were only oddly shaped pieces of flint. I was interested only in arrow points.

  Then one day out on the flats north of the point-maker’s workshop I found a buffalo skull with some strange object imbedded in the eye socket. It looked like a piece of gray flint. I dug at it with my pocket knife, chipped away the leaching bone, and finally freed a perfect smoky-gray flint arrow point. When I compared it with one of the flawed points from the gravel bank they matched perfectly. They might have been made from the same piece of flint.

  I sat back on my heels there in the buffalo grass, the hot sun all around me and the silence of the plains, and I wanted to lift my face to the sun and sing a primitive song of triumph. I didn’t know exactly why, but I could almost feel a sinew-backed bow in my hands and smell the warm, meaty smell of a fresh-killed buffalo. For a little while, there in the sun, I was a young Cheyenne buck who had gone out with his first hunting party, who had been carried by his buffalo horse to a small band of buffalo, had been so excited he had driven his first arrow into the eye socket of the young bull, then had clung desperately to his horse as it leaped away from the pain-maddened bull’s rush, had nocked a second arrow and driven it cleanly between the ribs, where it belonged, and had brought down meat.

  I wanted to sing that primitive song, that ululating yelp of manhood and triumph, a song that hadn’t been heard on the hilltop for at least forty years.

  I made some kind of primitive noise, song or not, and Fritz began to howl. He stood there, a little way from me, and lifted his head, coyote-wise, and howled; and his hackles lifted and his tail drooped. Maybe the same thing got in him that was in me; maybe he reverted, somehow,
to his own racial past. He howled, and I came back to the present, and I laughed at him and he barked at me. And we went back down the hillside, passed the gravel slope without stopping, and went to the house.

  Father was building a shed on one end of the house, a sloped roof and three sides to keep off the rain and snow. It was a shed for fuel. I helped him finish it and he said, “I’m going to town in the morning. Want to come along? Going to leave early and make it there and back the same day. Have to get a load of coal.”

  I said yes, I wanted to go.

  He said we’d get the chores done early and get to bed, because we’d get up away before sunrise.

  At supper Father said, “The only thing about this country I don’t like is there’s nothing to do with. No timber, not even any rocks.”

  “There’s sod,” Mother said.

  “Yes,” Father said, “there’s sod. And cow chips. Why, there’s not even any old boards. Every thing you build has to be out of new lumber, and you have to buy it and haul it all the way from town.”

  “I know,” Mother said. “It seems like every time you turn around you have to spend money. But I guess it’s the same anywhere when you have to build something from the ground up.

  Father nodded, but he seemed blue about something. “If it was a farm back east,” he said, “there’d at least be an old shed, or something, you could use for lumber. I keep forgetting that there isn’t even an old rusty nail out here. Nothing!”

  Mother thought for a moment. “We could burn sheep chips. Louie said some people burn them.”

  Father smiled wryly. “Louie said they keep you warm two ways, building the fire and carrying out ashes. Oh, we’ll try them, but we’d better get some coal, just the same. Sure you don’t want to come along to town?”

  “No,” Mother said. “It’ll be a long, hot trip. I’ve got things to keep me busy. By the way, you’d better get some more coal oil. We’re down to the last gallon. And a couple of lantern globes. One of them is cracked, I see.”

  We got up at three-thirty. It was so dark outside I couldn’t even see the barn at first. We went out and curried the horses and grained them and Father harnessed them. Then we went in and had breakfast. And we hitched to the wagon by lantern light. We put a lantern in the wagon, thinking we might need it before we got home. We left the house just about four o’clock.

  It was the dark of the moon and the stars weren’t very bright. They never are, the last week in August. But before we reached the floor of Ketchem Holler my eyes had adjusted so that I could see the horses’ heads and even make out the light gray mass of Louie’s flock in the pens against the dark shadow of the far hillside. Louie’s dogs barked at us until we were around the first bend of the valley. Then we were alone with the night, and not even a coyote yowled.

  The horses, full of life as they always were in the early morning, and with only the empty wagon to pull, trotted along as though they could see every step of the trail. They undoubtedly could, for horses have excellent night vision. We went down the valley about a mile, then climbed the slope to the ridge and began angling northeast. That way we avoided the sand hills just north of Gerrity’s main camp.

  Dawn came there on the ridge, at first just a faint lightening on the eastern horizon, a line of milky blue beneath the deep, deep blue embedded with stars. The milky blue spread upward, and lower stars in the east faded and vanished. The light increased till we could see an occasional clump of soapweed. Then there was a pinkish tinge that began to spread upward. Clouds that hadn’t been visible at all caught the light and hung there across the east, just above the horizon, like opalescent veils, pink and amber. Now it was almost full daylight, with the sun not yet up.

  Father tapped my leg and pointed off to the west. I looked, and there, not a hundred yards away, was a coyote, trotting along parallel to us almost like a dog. Now and then he would turn his head and look at us. He was neither frightened nor wary. How long he had been there, traveling with us, I don’t know; but he trotted there, always the same distance away, for at least a mile. Then he stopped and watched for several minutes and turned west, away from us, and vanished down a hollow. That was the first time we had seen him. After that we saw him almost every time we went to town in the early morning. Always he was in the same place, on that particular part of the ridge, and always he trotted there about a hundred yards from the wagon, until we came to that little hollow, where he turned back. But—and this is a strange thing I never did understand—if we had the .25-20 with us, the rifle with which we might have shot him, he never appeared. If there was no gun along, he was almost always there. Whether a coyote can smell a gun, I do not know; all I know is that that coyote never showed himself, even out of gun range, if we had the rifle in the wagon.

  Soon after the coyote left us, that morning, the whole eastern sky blazed with light. Long rays shot up from the horizon, like the conventional sunburst, and that strand of clouds was shot through and through with silver and gold and red and even purple, colors that shifted so quickly they could hardly be identified. And then the first blazing rim of the sun tipped the horizon and the colors faded. Even that filmy veil of clouds seemed to vanish.

  Sunrise on the plains was always like that unless the whole east was clouded. It blazed with color, then burst into blinding light. And never were the colors the same twice. Some mornings it would be pink and gold, other mornings it would be vivid red, or orange, or a kind of purplish bronze. But always it flamed and flashed and exploded into light as the first rim of the sun appeared. And always the sun seemed to leap upward, once that first rim was in sight. Five minutes, and the whole sun was there. One minute you were in that unearthly pink or cerise light, the whole world hushed; five minutes later it was a blaze of white light, dazzling, and every meadow lark on the plains was singing.

  Until the coyote appeared I had been almost asleep, dozing on the spring seat and leaning against Father. But with sunup I was wide awake. By then we were crossing the little thumb of sand hills where we had eaten lunch that first day, on the way out to build the house, and as we crossed the sand and started the last three miles of hard road to Gary the horses began trotting briskly. We passed the Gary store before Tom McDowell was up. Father’s watch showed that it was only a few minutes after six.

  It wasn’t quite nine o’clock when we came down the last slope south of Brush and saw the Platte valley ahead of us. It was the first time I had been to town since we moved to the homestead, and to my eyes, accustomed to the limitless expanse of the treeless plains, it seemed that the whole valley was filled with trees. As we drove up the aisle of cottonwoods where the blackbirds had been so songful that last week in April I thought I had never seen such tall trees. They were enormous. Strangest of all, they seemed to close in around me. I was already getting the sensation of the plainsman, who feels uneasy in a wooded country. He can’t see, he says; everything is closed in around him.

  Brush seemed like a big town. Its buildings were so tall. The three-story buildings near the depot were like skyscrapers. I had been looking at a house whose eaves were only seven feet above the ground, and even the windmill down at Louie’s camp wasn’t much higher than the top of the second-story windows in those buildings.

  And the street was busy. Several drays were at the depot, loading freight and express. The hitch rack at the post office had a dozen teams and four or five saddle horses. People were walking on the sidewalks, dozens of people. People in store clothes. I hadn’t seen so many people in weeks.

  We left the team at the hitch rack beside the post office and walked down the street, stretching our legs and looking in the store windows. There was a newspaper office on the west side of Main Street and when we passed it Father hesitated, almost stopped, then went on. Down past the bank on the corner, and then across the street and past Nelson’s general store. And back toward the post office across from the depot. At last we went down a side street to a lumber yard.

  The man behind the desk turned t
o us and Father asked him the price of coal. The man mentioned a figure. Father shook his head. “It seems pretty high,” he said.

  “Good coal,” the man said. “The best Colorado coal.”

  Father said, “It’s gone up since last spring.”

  The man nodded. “Always goes up this time of year. And there’s another increase coming.”

  We went to another lumber yard. The price was the same there. Father reminded the man that he’d bought lumber from him a few months ago, and posts and barbed wire. The man said, “Oh, yes,” but he obviously didn’t remember. He didn’t bring the price of his coal down a nickel.

  We went back to the wagon. I was hungry, so we got out the lunch Mother had packed for us and each ate a sandwich. Then we drove down the street to Nelson’s store and Father ordered a list of groceries Mother wanted. “They should be cheaper in town,” she had said. “The Gary store’s convenient, but you have to pay the freight from town on everything you buy.”

  I listened as Father gave the order. When he had finished I tugged at his sleeve and whispered, “Sardines.”

  “We’ve got lunch with us,” Father said.

  I tried not to show my disappointment.

  We left the grocery clerk to fill the order and went to the clothing department, where Father asked the price of work shirts and overalls and winter coats and overshoes. He didn’t buy anything. We went to the notions counter and he bought several spools of thread and a packet of needles. Then we went back to the grocery counter. Father paid the bill, counting the change carefully. He picked up the box of groceries, then glanced at me and set the box down again. He reached in his pocket and drew out a handful of change and turned to the clerk. “And a can of mustard sardines,” he said. He put a nickel and five pennies on the counter and dropped the sardines in the grocery box.

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