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Country editors boy, p.9
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       Country Editor's Boy, p.9

           Hal Borland
 

  Two miles south of town, just beyond the last roadside fence, was a deserted shanty. Its bare boards were weathered coffee-brown, only a few tatters of tar-paper were left on its shed roof, its two windows hadn’t even a sliver of glass, and its batten door sagged half open on one remaining hinge. It stood about a hundred yards off the road in a dooryard still barren of grass and littered with rusty tin cans, broken dishes, rotted harness straps, and small fragments of brown glass bottles that twinkled in the sunlight like smoky topaz.

  We poked around in the clutter of discarded junk, unwitting archaeologists looking for clues in the midden heap of a vanished transient. Such deserted shacks were as common on the plains as are old cellar holes in New England, and they had the same half-told story for those who would read: “Someone once lived here, tried to make a home, gave up, went away.”

  We scuffed about the dooryard. Spider found a rusted pocketknife with half its bone handle and half a blade. Little Doc kept looking for a weapon, a gun. The previous summer he had found a rust-encrusted Smith & Wesson revolver with two empty shells in it at an abandoned homestead shanty. But we found no hint of murder or suicide, not even an old butcher knife. The starveling carcass of what someone once probably called home had been picked clean. We pushed past the sagging door to look inside and found only the remnants of a mattress on a broken iron bedstead, rifled of its stuffing by mice and other rodents, and a battered little iron cookstove, minus lids and doors. On one wall was still tacked a garish calendar picture of a girl in a leather Mother Hubbard with a feather in her hair, a calendar dated 1908.

  Outside, the dogs put up a cottontail at the far edge of the yard, and it dashed to the safety of a warren under the shanty. Cottontails always had burrows under those old shacks. The dogs made a frantic clamor and seemed to be trying to tear the place apart as they clawed at the hole and the sill above it. Little Doc stuck his head out one of the paneless windows and shouted, “Sic ’em, Nig! Go get ’em, Fritz!” The dogs made twice as much noise and Spider yelled, “Yipeeeee!” We all began to laugh and shout, and the dogs barked still louder. Ears ringing, we went back to our bikes, leaving the dogs to follow when they tired of trying to tear the shanty apart.

  We rode on south, and soon we could see the bluffs along the far side of the river valley only a few miles ahead. Then we came to a long hill, and as I started to coast down it Little Doc shouted, “Take it easy! We’re going to turn off and go to the dam.” I braked my bike and let him and Spider go ahead. About halfway down the hill they left the road and took a wagon trail to the right. Unlike the trail to Crystal Springs, this one was across flats carpeted with buffalo grass and not a cactus plant in sight. The trail led over a slight rise and on the far side I could see the dam, the pond behind it, and the whole wide valley.

  The dam was just a long mound of earth that had been built across the big draw, a barrier at least a quarter of a mile long and perhaps thirty feet high in the middle. Its top was wide enough for a wagon road. Behind it was the pond, about five acres in extent but looking much smaller in the giant cup of the hills. Its rim was muddy, showing that the water had been almost a foot deeper after the previous week’s storm. The mud was pocked with the hoofprints of cattle, for the pond was a watering place for the livestock that grazed that whole area.

  We rode our bikes almost down to the muddy margin, and as we stopped two big, dark birds took wing from the shallow water at the far edge of the pond. “Shitepokes!” Spider shouted. “Look at the shitepokes!” They were awkward-looking birds that flew with slow, heavy wingbeats, folded neck and trailing legs. Great blue herons, I eventually learned, and rather rare on the High Plains. But any heron, even the little green which sometimes visited that pond, was a shitepoke to the countryman. I have even heard the sandhill crane called a shitepoke.

  Little Doc watched the shitepokes fly away and start a big circle. “If we sit down and wait,” he said, “I’ll bet they’ll come back.”

  We sat down and the big birds slowly circled back, flew over us, and made another circle. Spider whispered, “If I had my Cannon, I’ll bet I could get one!”

  “Who wants a shitepoke?” Little Doc asked.

  “We could have come in below the dam,” Spider said, still in a whisper, “and made an Indian sneak and been right on top of them.” He aimed an imaginary gun, made an explosive “Pop!” with his mouth, and announced, “Got him!”

  “Ever try to eat a shitepoke?” Little Doc asked him.

  “Nah!”

  “Then why kill one?”

  Spider laughed. “Nobody eats coyote, do they? Or chicken hawk? Nor mountain lion or rattlesnake or prairie dog or—”

  “I’ve eaten prairie dog,” I said.

  Spider stared at me, mouth open. “Prairie dog!” He stuck out his tongue, retched, and went through the motions of a violent spasm of vomiting.

  Little Doc asked, “What did it taste like?”

  “About like jack rabbit.”

  Little Doc nodded. “Prairie dogs are rodents, like rabbits. They eat about the same thing.”

  Spider had stopped his fake nausea, was watching the herons. They had finished their second circle and came slanting down on the far side of the pond, almost where they had taken off. They stood there, watching us, and Spider stuck out his tongue at them and turned and grinned at us and laughed. The big birds waded into the shallow water and began hunting, probably for frogs.

  We sat and watched them, the sun hot on our heads, the grass warm and soft to our bottoms. It was midmorning and the meadow larks had stopped singing. Half a dozen killdeers were darting about, nervous as fleas, on the mucky margin within thirty feet of us. I looked for ducks, but there wasn’t one in sight, probably because there wasn’t any brush, no undergrowth of any kind.

  We were so intent on the shitepokes that none of us saw the dogs. They came down the trail from the road, panting softly, and the first we knew, there they were. I heard a sniffle and felt a cold nose on the back of my neck, and I must have jumped a foot off the ground. Little Doc’s Nig leaped at him, almost knocked him flat, and got a resounding slap on his haunches. Then both dogs went on down to the water, waded in, frightened the killdeers and the herons, lapped noisily, waded around until they were sopping wet and dripping black, oozy mud. Then they came out, got as close to us as they could, and shook mud and water in all directions.

  Spider got more muddy water than either Little Doc or me. We knew what was coming and flopped over on our bellies and covered our faces. Spider called the dogs every name he could think of, and while he was wiping the dirty water out of his eyes we got up and ran from the dogs, got on our bikes, and headed back for the road. The dogs ran after us, barking madly, and before we reached the road Spider caught up.

  We coasted on down the long hill and stopped at the wooden bridge over the shallow gully that was, technically, the river. The gully wasn’t much bigger than the main irrigation ditches in the sugar-beet country near Brush. There wasn’t a drop of water in it. I wondered how much water had been there after the storm that almost caught me in the flood at the foot of Kit Carson Hill. Then I saw strands of hay caught in the wooden railing of the bridge, hay that hadn’t fallen off a hay rack but had been lodged there by the water.

  Just beyond the bridge, to the south, rose the bluffs. They began as a gentle slope but soon rose sharply to an upland several hundred feet above the valley. The steep slope was covered with grass almost to the top, with scattered patches of low sage and dwarf buckbrush, as we called it. The road climbed the slope in hairpins, sweeping curves, and crossed the upland in a shallow gap. We rode our bikes about halfway up the slope, then left them at the roadside and went on afoot, carrying our paper bags of sandwiches.

  Little Doc led the way. Now I could see that at the very top of the bluff was a bare cliff, apparently the edge of a sandstone layer that capped the whole upland. Big chunks of the rock had been broken loose by rain and frost and had rolled part way down the slope. We pa
ssed several half as big as an automobile. All of them had been there a long time, for the grass and brush were rooted all around them. As we neared the top there was more rubble, tumbled from the bare cliff, which was about six feet high. There were a number of hollows in the face of the cliff. Once when we paused for breath Little Doc gestured toward those directly ahead of us. “Indian caves,” he said. “Skeletons in them.”

  We were puffing from the climb when we reached the biggest cave, the one with a mound of yellow, sandy soil at its mouth. The entrance was only about three feet high, and I could see that the cave ran back only four or five feet. Its roof seemed to be solid rock, the sandstone cap rock. We sat down in front of the cave and looked back the way we had come. The road wound down the slope in a big sweep, doubled back on itself, then crossed the bridge and straightened out. From there it ran as straight as a ruler due north to Flagler, which we could barely make out on the horizon, a mere smudge with one upthrust that had to be the grain elevator.

  The sun was almost overhead. I was hungry. I took a sandwich from the paper sack I had stuffed inside my shirt for the climb. Doc and Spider got sandwiches from their lunch bags too and we ate, sitting in front of the cave, facing the valley and with the whole world spread out in front of us to the north and the west. There were no physical boundaries, not even the shadowy hint of a mountain on the western horizon. We were too far away to see the mountains. The bluff was behind us, but I knew that if we stood on top of it, all we would see was the stretch of the flats to the south, plains that stretched down across New Mexico and the Texas panhandle and all the way into Mexico.

  Spider said, “Up here, it looks big as the ocean.”

  “You ever seen the ocean?” Little Doc asked.

  “Not yet. But I’m going to. I’m going to sail all over the world. In a windjammer like those that go around Cape Horn, yo-ho, yo-ho!”

  “I thought you were going to Alaska and be a trapper.”

  “I am. I’m going to shoot lions in the jungle of Africa, too. To be an author and write books, you’ve got to have a lot of experiences.”

  “Are you going to be an author?” I asked.

  “Sure. A lot more fun than being a doctor or a lawyer. How long have you got to go to college to be a doctor, Doc?”

  “Six years. And then two years as an intern.”

  “An author don’t even have to go to college! He just goes out and has adventures and writes about them.”

  “You’re going to be a doctor?” I asked Little Doc.

  He didn’t answer. He reached over and caught my wrist, felt for and found my pulse, and stared at the ground, intent as a robin watching a worm, for a long minute. Then he dropped my hand and said, “You’re alive. What are you going to do if you ever grow up?”

  “I don’t know,” I said. “I’m going to be a printer. I know that. I can make a living as a printer. I may decide to be a chemical engineer. Or maybe a professional baseball player.”

  “Walter Johnson Borland, huh?” Spider said.

  “Maybe,” I said. “Or Grover Cleveland Alexander Borland—just call me Alex,”

  We played baseball, all three of us, with a pickup team of boys around town. Little Doc and Spider played shortstop and second base and were the backbone of our infield. I was the pitcher because I had a fair fast ball, a good roundhouse curve, and pretty good control. The previous weekend we had played a game with a boys’ team in Arriba and won 21 to 3. They had got only five hits off me and I was feeling pretty big for my britches. I had played baseball, football and basketball with grade-school teams in Brush and seemed to have the natural coordination that is essential to any athlete.

  Spider was flipping bits of bread from his sandwich to the dogs, who had been lying in the shade of a clump of buck-brush until he tempted them with something to eat. He flipped another bit of bread into the air and both dogs leaped for it. Nig grabbed it and Fritz turned on him, knocked him off balance, and leaped at him. Snapping and snarling, they rolled about in the brush until Little Doc threw a handful of sand at them. They both sneezed, got to their feet, and looked hopefully at Spider. He flipped another chunk of bread at them.

  “Cut it out,” Little Doc ordered.

  “I’m performing an experiment,” Spider said. “Here we are in a sled, fleeing across the Russian steppes. The wolves are closing in. I want to see how long I can keep the wolves from eating us.”

  “You and your experiments!” Little Doc lunged at Spider. “I’ll throw you to the wolves!” He grabbed Spider’s sandwich, broke it in two, and tossed half of it to each dog.

  “Varlet!” Spider shouted. “I shall have your life for that!” But he didn’t make a move. He watched Nig gulp down his half of the sandwich, then said, “You kill him, Nig, and I’ll bury him in one of the tombs.” Nig paid no attention. Spider turned and crawled into the cave on all fours and began digging with his hands. He dug for a minute or two, glanced over his shoulder and saw Little Doc and me watching, yelped, “Woof woof!” and dug madly at the sand with both hands, flinging it out between his legs, dog fashion, and all over us. We covered our faces with our hands and rolled aside, then sat up and watched. Spider kept on digging and a moment later shouted, “Hey! I found something! I found a skeleton!”

  Little Doc grinned at me.

  “No, it ain’t a skeleton!” Spider shouted. “It’s a—it’s—” He backed out of the cave dragging a short-handled spade. He sat up and waved it over his head. “It’s a prehistoric tommy-hawk!”

  “Give it here,” Little Doc ordered.

  “It’s mine! I found it!”

  “I hid it, you damn fool. You saw me hide it there the last time we were out here.”

  Spider gave it to him. “Yes, Master Robinson Crusoe, I cannot tell a lie. I saw you hide it. Don’t beat poor old man Friday! Please don’t beat him!”

  “Come on,” Little Doc said. “Let’s find another cave to dig out. One with real bones in it.”

  He chose a shallow cave fifty yards farther along the cliff and began digging it out. The sandy soil in it was loose, and as we took turns with the spade we could see that the roof and walls of the cave had once been almost smooth. We dug in three feet or so, had it almost as big as the cave where the spade had been, when I saw bright red flecks in the sand Spider was scooping out and scattering down the hillside. “Wait a minute!” I ordered. “I see something!” And I searched in the fresh sand, found four red beads, the kind of glass beads common on old Indian moccasins and headbands. Then I saw two blue ones. I showed them to Spider and Little Doc, and we all searched the fresh sand. We found about a dozen beads, most of them red, a few blue, two of them white. After that we dug more slowly, watching every spadeful, examining it by handfuls before we threw the sand down the hillside.

  In the next hour we found another two dozen beads. But nothing to go with them, not a trace of thread or thong or a shred of leather. I was using the spade and was about to give up when I struck something hard. I dug in with my hands, felt what seemed must be a bone, and carefully uncovered it. It was a bone, about a foot long, a knob at each end. It was hard and dirty yellow in color. I handed it out to Little Doc and went on digging for the rest of the skeleton. I dug for ten minutes and couldn’t find another bone, not one.

  Spider took my place. Spider was going to find the skull, grinning teeth, empty eye sockets and all. But Spider couldn’t find a bone either. Little Doc took a look, shook his head, and said it was no use. “The wolves have been here, or maybe the coyotes. They took the rest of the skeleton. All but this humerus.”

  “This what?” Spider asked.

  “Humerus. The upper bone of the arm.”

  “Very funny,” Spider said. “Very funny. But you don’t know your arm from your leg. This is a leg bone. I haven’t been a gravedigger forty-four years for nothing. I know a man’s leg when I see one!”

  “If you are talking about a femur,” Little Doc said, “you are crazy as a cross-eyed coyote. Shall I giv
e you a lesson in anatomy? Very well. The head of the femur, where it fits into its pelvic socket, is altogether different from that of the humerus, which fits the scapula. Shoulder blade to the layman. This, my dear, dumb, stupid, ignorant fellow, is a humerus. Very likely a prehistoric Indian humerus.”

  Spider turned to me. “Shall we stake him out, spread-eagle, and let the hawks eat out his guts, or shall we take him to yon savage colony and sell him as a slave?”

  “Let’s take him to the nearest village and swap him for a box of shotgun shells and go hunting jack rabbits.”

 
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