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High wide and lonesome g.., p.8
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       High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, p.8

           Hal Borland

  We drove back to the first lumber yard and Father bought a ton of coal. The man said, “Just one ton? That won’t last you very long.”

  “It’ll do for a while,” Father said. “Winter’s not here yet.”

  “Price is going up,” the man said.

  “One ton will do.” Father took a deep breath, as though he wasn’t sure but he hoped he was right.

  We got the coal and started back toward the depot to turn south and start home, but when we got to the post office hitch rack Father drew up. “Before we go,” he said, “let’s stop at the newspaper office for a minute.”

  As soon as we opened the door of the newspaper office there was a familiar smell, printer’s ink, benzine, lye water, paper. It smelled just like the print shop back in Nebraska. Up at the front, near the door, was a roll-top desk with its wire-braced chair, the desk piled with galley proofs and billheads and loose envelopes and letters and penciled notes and out-of-town newspapers. Back of that was a long make-up stone with its overhead racks of lead and slugs; on the stone were iron chases, newspaper page size, with ads in them and vacant columns for news. Along one side was a row of type cases. On the other side were two job presses, one a big Gordon. At the back was a flatbed newspaper press, a two-page Miehle, and a Fairbanks-Morse gasoline engine to drive it. The walls were hung with yellowing farm sale posters and old calendars. The back windows were smudged and fly-specked till you couldn’t see through them.

  A tall, dark-haired man was on a stool at the type cases, setting type. He looked around and asked, “Something I can do for you?” Then he recognized Father. “Oh, it’s you! Hello, there, farmer!” He set his composing stick down and came to greet us.

  Father and he shook hands. Father said, “This is the boy. Thought I’d show him a Colorado shop.”

  “Good,” the man said. “Well, how’s it going?”

  “Going fine,” Father said. “We’re all settled. Got the house up and the well dug and a crop of corn in.”

  The man shook his head. “Lord, how I envy you. I was going to ask you to lend me a hand for a week or so, but I know it’s no use. My man’s out sick, so I’m having to handle it all alone.”

  Father looked around the shop, then shook his head. “I’d like to help you out, Ed, but I’ve got a lot of farm work to do.”

  “Needn’t apologize,” the man said. “If I ever get away from here, I’ll never come back.” He laughed. “If I had the sense God gave a goose I’d lock the place and walk out. But I can’t afford it. Between trying to keep a printer and trying to make ends meet, I’m always in hot water.”

  “You’ve got a good man, though?” Father asked.

  “Good enough. He goes on a spree about every six months, but when he’s sober he’s a crackerjack. Usually he waits till there’s a tramp printer in sight to take his place before he buys a bottle, but this time he couldn’t wait. Sure you can’t give me a week?”

  Father hesitated. Then he shook his head. “No, Ed, I just can’t do it now. Some other time, maybe.”

  “Well,” the man said, “you know your own mind. I’ll make out. I always do. But if I get stuck again I may call on you.”

  Father said, “Maybe I’ll see my way clear, next time.”

  “Good.” The man went with us to the door. “Stop in the next time you’re in town.”

  We went back to the wagon and started for home. Father didn’t say anything till we were in the first range of sand hills, just out of sight of town. Then he said, “I quit it once. But it’s good to know I could go back if I had to.” And a little later he said, “Son, I want you to learn a trade, when you’re a little older. I don’t care what it is, even the printer’s trade. Once you’ve got a trade you’ll never have to starve.”

  It was a hot afternoon and the load was heavy. The horses had already come thirty miles and they had the same distance still to go. They didn’t have any hurry left in them.

  We didn’t even stop to eat. We got out the sandwiches Mother had sent with us and Father opened the can of sardines and we ate while we drove. The sardines were good, but not nearly as good as they had been with crackers and cheese in the shade of the wagon that April day. And I suppose a part of the savor was missing because Father was so deep in his own thoughts.

  We watered the horses at Gary. The sun had almost set. We had just reached the sand hills when dusk came on with a cool that spread quickly over the plains. Turtle doves began to coo in the distance. And then, as we passed the sand hills and were on the big hard-soil flats and the first stars came out, Father seemed to settle whatever problems had been gnawing at him all afternoon and he began to talk about Grandfather Borland.

  “He must have had some pretty tough times,” Father said. “He went all the way from Indiana to Nebraska in a covered wagon. With a wife and several kids. Probably hacking his way through the woods a lot of places. And even when he got to Nebraska he had to start from scratch.

  “He built a house, with his own hands, and he built a mill. Built his own water wheel and ground corn. And set up a blacksmith shop. He made out. He must have done pretty well, for those days.

  “There were seven children,” he said. “And then his wife died. And there he was with a family and nobody to take care of them. So he got on a horse and rode back to Indiana and married my mother. She was the younger sister of his first wife. The first wife was Deborah. Everybody calls Mother Anna, but her name was Angeline. Angeline Sexton. He married her and brought her back to Nebraska.”

  I had never known this. All I knew was that Grandfather Borland came from Ohio or Indiana originally, and that Grandmother Borland was always called Anna. She was a tall, thin woman with a big nose and eye glasses and a firm mouth, and she and Mother never got along very well.

  “He brought her out to Nebraska,” Father was saying, “and they had nine children. That made sixteen children, altogether. I was the third child of the second family.” He chuckled. “About all I remember, when I was a little boy, is that we never seemed to have enough shoes or enough butter. Dad just couldn’t keep us in shoes. And Mother couldn’t make enough butter. We kept cows, and we grew most of what we had to eat. Mother and the older girls made most of our clothes. I didn’t have a pair of store pants till I left home. But somehow Dad kept a roof over our heads and we never really went hungry.

  “He was quite a man, your grandfather. One day when I was eight or nine, it must have been, I was in the shop with him and he was building a wagon wheel. Out of hickory he had cut and seasoned himself. He’d turned the hub on a lathe that he made, and he was trimming spokes with a broadaxe, a short-handled broadaxe. He was very particular about his tools. They had to be razor-sharp. He was trimming this spoke, and the axe hit a small knot, or something, and glanced and came down on his left wrist.

  “I heard him grunt and I turned around and saw the blood spurting all over him. He dropped the axe and grabbed his left hand with his right one and I saw that he’d cut it almost off. He shoved his hand up against the wrist and held it there, and he said, ‘You watch the shop while I go see the doc,’ and he walked out the front door and up the street. He went two blocks, dripping blood at every step, and in half an hour he came back, his arm all bandaged up. He was white as a sheet, but he said, ‘Go get Walt and Milt and tell them to come run the shop.’ He took a big chew of tobacco and when I didn’t run he picked up a pair of tongs and threw them at me. I got Walt and when we got back Dad was heating a plow share in the forge. He made Walt hold it on the anvil while Dad drew an edge on it, grunting with pain every time he struck a hammer blow. Then he quenched it and went out back of the shop and vomited. But he never missed a day at the shop, and when the arm healed it was so strong he could lift an anvil by the horn with that hand. It was always crooked, because the doctor had to tie the tendons, so he never could open the fingers more than enough to grip a pair of tongs.”

  Just imagining the pain, I felt faint. I thought I, too, was going to vomit. But I gripped my
hands hard together and breathed deep, and the chill night air began to clear my head.

  We were almost to the long slope down into Ketchem Holler. The horses, knowing they were near home, wanted to hurry. The stars had begun to glitter.

  Father said, “I guess we’re not so bad off, out here. Dad made out. And I’m the only one who had the nerve to get out of Nebraska. I guess we’ll make out.”

  He had been talking to himself as much as to me. There’s small comfort in having someone else tell you that your problems are dwarfed by those of another, but when you tell yourself those things you aren’t lecturing, you aren’t drawing comparisons which make you look like a weakling. You are rallying your own pride and your own strength, reaching back for some of the fortitude that was the mark of your own people. You are rallying yourself, standing up to circumstance in the way of your kind. It is a human impulse and a tribal necessity. When a man, or a people, forget where they came from and no longer look back with pride on their beginnings and confidence in their own blood and sinew and belief, that man or that people is doomed.

  We were in Ketchem Holler, at last. Down on the flat valley floor the horses wanted to trot, and Father let them. We came to the place where we could hear the windmill and the blat of the sheep and the clang of the bells at Louie’s camp. Then we went up the slope toward the house. There was a light in the window. I saw the door open for a moment, and I heard Fritz barking. It was a friendly, welcoming bark.

  We drove into the dooryard and Mother came out to meet us. She hugged us and kissed us and said, “It’s been an awful long day. I’m glad you’re home.” Fritz was pawing at me, licking my hands. Mother said, “Get unhitched and come in to supper. I’ve kept it warm for the last hour. I thought you never would get here.”

  Father said, “Its been a long trip. But we got what we had to have.” And we began unhitching the horses. It was after nine o’clock.


  WE CUT THE CORN before the heavy frosts came. We had only half a crop, after what the range cattle had done to it, but it made a big rick in the stack yard. We cut it instead of husking it there in the field so we would have some fodder as well as the grain and so that we could sow rye in the cornfield. The rye was sown by hand, broadcast, and a rain came the next day. It came up and made a bright patch on the hillside, twice as green because the grass was all bronze and tan by then.

  We built a corn bin in the barn, and it was my spare-time job to snap the ears and husk them. I got the bin about half full before I found that from up on a haystack I could watch fall coming.

  We’d built a short ladder to use in building the barn, and by getting on the roof of the barn and using the ladder I could get on top of the nearest haystack. From up there I could even see the wind.

  Most of the wind was from the northwest, at that time of year. Away off there, Father said, more than a hundred miles away and clear over the horizon, were the Rocky Mountains. I hoped that from up on the stack I might see the mountains, but I couldn’t. All I could see was the wind that came from them. It would come sweeping over the flats and down the hillside, and the bronzed buffalo grass would shiver. Then it reached the rye, which was just about ankle-high, and the rye would lean and wave. Then it rattled the dry corn leaves down below and ruffled the loose hay on the ground. About then I would close my eyes to slits and see the wind itself. It looked a little like summer heat waves, except that the waves didn’t shimmer in the fall. They just waved there on the hilltop and low in the sky, cool and quiet and very deliberate.

  Some days there would be clouds, big puffy clouds blue around the edges, and the clouds always made the sky a deeper blue. I would lie on my back and watch the clouds sail over and feel the biting chill when their shadows struck me. If I sat up and watched those cloud shadows on the plains they went ten times as fast as the clouds moved when I lay on my back and watched the clouds. And the cloud shadows weren’t blue or purple as they had been all summer; now they were gray or black.

  In the summer there had always been a hawk or two sailing in the sky. Now the hawks were gone, and even the bullbats had left. But every few days I would hear a faint distant gabbling and if I looked closely I could see a thin, wavery pencil line much higher than the hawks ever flew. They were geese, Canada geese, going south. Every time I saw them I felt a kind of inside sadness and at the same time a joy at seeing those big birds away up there. They could see the mountains, and they probably could even see Nebraska. But every time I saw the geese I also knew winter was coming, and I always went down from the stack and back to work snapping corn and husking out the ears.

  Then one morning it was raw-cold and there was white frost. A few days later Gerrity’s men came with wagons and extra herders and moved Louie’s flock down to the main camp. Before Louie left he told Father which of the old pen sites would be best to plow for sheep chips. And after the sheep were gone the men took down the pens and shut off the windmill. After that I would wake up in the night and lie listening and wonder what was wrong. Sometimes I would lie awake a long time before I knew nothing was wrong at all; it was just the silence. There weren’t any sheep blatting on the other side of Ketchem Holler, and there weren’t any sheep bells clanging. You get so used to sounds that you don’t even hear them until they aren’t there any longer; then you miss them.

  A few days after they took down the pens and hauled them away we went over to the sheep camp with the plow and wagon. Father picked out the old pen sites, as Louie had said, where the pens had been two or three years ago. The sheep manure, trampled hard, had dried all that time and when we plowed it up it came out in big chunks, brown and dry and hard. Father said it looked like cheap lignite coal. We hauled a load of it home and tried it. It burned all right and it held fire twice as long as cow chips. So we hauled enough to fill the fuel shed right up to the roof, and after that Father didn’t seem to worry quite so much. A person who grew up in timbered country just can’t get used to seeing winter come without having a big woodpile beside the house.

  After we got the sheep chips in, everything seemed easier, the way it always happens when you do something for yourself that you didn’t think you could do. Like the evening when Mother and Father sat down with the Sears, Roebuck catalogue to see what we had to have for the winter. Father kept stopping at this thing, or that, and Mother kept saying, “We don’t really need that.”

  Finally Father said, “The boy’s got to have warm pants.”

  Mother said, “You’ve got two old pairs that are frayed around the bottom but still have lots of good material. I can make him warm pants.”

  “How about shirts?”

  “I can cut down some of your old ones.”

  “You need a new coat.”

  Mother laughed. “I’ve got that brown one from five years ago. It’s a little worn and out of style, but I’ve already planned how I’ll make it over.”

  Father smiled. “All right. Now tell me you know how to make mittens and overshoes.”

  They both laughed. “I can make mittens,” Mother said, “but I guess we’ll have to buy overshoes.”

  So the Sears, Roebuck order wasn’t nearly as big as they had expected.

  And the same way with other things. Mother said that with all the corn we had, she’d like to have some corn bread. So she picked out a bushel of the best ears and shelled it by hand and ground it in the coffee mill. She blistered her hand doing it, because corn is much harder than coffee beans, but she had enough cornmeal, even after she sieved out the hulls, for a batch of corn bread and cornmeal mush for breakfast. It was so good that Father and I took turns and ground ten or twelve pounds of cornmeal and Mother stowed it away.

  Then she took the bacon and salt-pork grease she had saved all summer and cooked it up with lye and made soap. Since we had chickens and eggs and milk and our own butter, about all we had to buy at the store was flour and salt pork and sugar and coffee. Mother said the only thing she missed was fresh meat. “If we only had a calf to butche
r,” she said, “or a hog!”

  “Next year,” Father said, “we’ll have to get a couple of shoats. And if Bessie’s calf isn’t a heifer we’ll keep it and fatten it and have young beef.” Bessie was the big yellow cow. She’d been bred when Father bought her and she was due to calve in December. She had already gone dry. Father said, “How about some rabbit meat? Some of them, especially the white-tails, look pretty near as big as calves.”

  Mother said, “Get some. It’s cold enough so the meat will keep.”

  So Father and I went out after rabbits.

  There were two kinds of jack rabbits, the black-tails and the white-tails. The black-tails were the true jack rabbits, long-legged and lean and with very long ears. Their rather long tails were mostly black and their bodies were gray and their ears were black-tipped. The white-tails were really prairie hares. They were just as long-legged as the black-tails but they were heavier, had more meat on them. Their tails were white and their fur was much lighter in color. Some of them weighed ten pounds.

  The jacks aren’t burrowing animals. Even in the coldest weather they just huddle down in a little hollow in the ground or beside a sagebrush or a soapweed. When startled they run at top speed a little way, then stand on their hind legs for a moment and look around. Then they are off again. If you are hunting with a rifle you try to get them when they stop that first time. The only gun we had was the .25-20, which wasn’t a rabbit gun. It was a coyote or antelope gun, and unless you shot a jack rabbit in the head or shoulders there wasn’t much left to eat. Besides, shells for the .25-20 cost more than three cents apiece.

  We went in the wagon, expecting to get a lot of rabbits. It was a good thing we did. We didn’t get a load of rabbits but we went a long way, clear over to Badger Creek, six miles west. We saw lots of rabbits on the way over, but Father didn’t have much luck. He tried to shoot from the wagon, and the horses always moved just as he was about to shoot, throwing him off balance. So he let me drive and he walked, finally, and he shot two rabbits. The first one he hit in the shoulders, and the back and hind legs, the meatiest part, was all right. He hit the other one in the back, and only the hind legs were worth saving. And he used ten shells. As he said, we could have bought round steak with what the ammunition cost.

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