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High wide and lonesome g.., p.9
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       High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, p.9

           Hal Borland
 

  But it was a pretty drive. Several times Father looked around and said, “Wonderful country! And millions of acres of it.” Then about noon we topped a steep hill and down at the foot of it was the gleam of water. It was a water hole, a long, narrow pool lined with willow brush. It was Badger Creek, which was just a series of those long, narrow water holes except in spring when the snow melt and the rain made it a flowing stream.

  We’d been on the flats so long by then that the sight of a pond of water and a line of willow brush was almost unbelievable. We went down the slope and back of the willows there was a thrashing in the water and a sudden rush. A flock of ten mallards went winging out of there, flying frantically. Father exclaimed, “Ducks! My gosh, just look at the ducks!” He just sat there watching them as they flew up the valley.

  We stopped beside the brush at the edge of the water hole. It was all stunted brush, little willows not much taller than a man, but it was the nearest thing to trees we’d seen except in the Platte valley near Brush. We poked around in it and a cottontail rabbit jumped out and ran like mad, startling us so much that Father didn’t even raise the rifle. The cottontail ran up the hill and into a hole. We thrashed around the pond and didn’t see another living thing, though there were lots of hoof prints where horses had come down to drink.

  We didn’t know it then, but we were at the lower end of Pat Thompson’s range. Old Pat Thompson was a horse ranchman, one of the real old-timers of that area. Pat had been raised a Texan, back in the early days. His father had been at the Alamo and Pat grew up as a brush-popper, married young and left a wife and several children to ride off to war in ’61. When he came back in ’64 his wife had died of the fever and his children had been parceled out among the neighbors. Folks expected him to marry again, settle down and become a Texas farmer.

  Pat couldn’t see it that way. He rode off to Mexico for a few years and came back just in time to gather a herd of long-horns from the brush patch that had once been his ranch, throw them in with a couple of neighbors’ herds, and go up the trail north to the new railroad pushing its way west through Kansas.

  Pat trailed cattle from Texas to the railroad several years, then spent a season as a hide hunter, killing buffalo. And after that he returned to Texas and took a trail herd all the way to Montana. On that trip he passed through this eastern Colorado area and marked it in his memory.

  Pat had in him the restlessness of the old frontiersman. Hills were made for climbing and distances were designed to be explored. He had to go and do. He had to break trails, and what those who followed did with the new ground to which he led them was none of his concern.

  Then something happened to Pat Thompson. It may have been a woman. It may have been remorse over the children he had never shouldered as his own responsibility when he came back from the war and who by then were grown and on their own. Whatever it was, Pat returned to Texas, gathered a little bunch of good mares, made his peace with one son, and started north. They came to the Badger Creek country, settled in a wide valley there with water for their horses, built a soddy and pens, and bred the mares to the stallion old Pat had ridden north.

  They had their troubles. Pat was truculent, and twenty miles to the south of them was a cattle ranch whose boss resented intruders. Pat’s son was shot and killed. Pat himself was shot through the hip. Rifle shots, not revolvers. Pat crawled to his house and healed himself in the way those tough old settlers handled emergencies, dressing his own wounds, knowing he would go through a time of fever and probably delirium, putting food and water within reach, then crawling into his blankets. Pat survived. And for five years he fought a single-handed feud with the cattleman to the south, finally losing his ultimate triumph when the cattleman died in his bed of pneumonia.

  After that Pat began to mellow, as much as his kind ever really mellows. He settled down in his soddy, an aging man devoted to the one thing he had ever loved and not lost— horses. When he needed money he rounded up a bunch and drove them to market. Most of the ranchmen around used his horses for saddle stock. He glared at the homesteaders and called them damned fools. He lived in the past, perhaps a little mad, and the few strangers who encountered him smiled at his tales and warnings. Pat had known that land when it was young. He had seen men come and go. Mad or not, he had a sense of time and a sense, if not an understanding, of destiny.

  There beside the water hole on old Pat’s range, that day, Father and I washed what was left of the shot-up jack rabbit, spitted it on green willows, and cooked it over a fire of dead willow brush. There was little heat in the wood and we had to use ashes for salt, but we gnawed the bones, it tasted so good.

  While we ate, Father talked about hunting trips when he was a boy. He had an old muzzle-loader shotgun but he never had enough money to buy both powder and shot, so he used pebbles for ammunition. One day, trying to shoot a goose, he put in a double charge of powder and a whole handful of gravel. The gun blew all to pieces. “All I had left,” he said, “was the stock and part of the breech. I was lucky I didn’t blow my fool head off.”

  I said I wished I had a shotgun. He said, “Some day. You’re not big enough for a shotgun yet.”

  When we had eaten we gathered a wagonload of dead willow brush and started for home. We saw only two jacks on the way, but Father shot one of them right through the head.

  I think Mother was more pleased with the wood than she was with the rabbits. We cut it to stove length and she used it to cook supper. She started to, that is. It was so dry it flamed and died right out, making little heat. Finally she reached for the cow chips and said, “I guess I’m getting to be a Coloradoan. You can have your old willow brush! I can’t cook with it.”

  The rabbit she cooked that night was the best meat we’d had in a long time. She steamed it slowly and then took off the lid and browned it and made milk gravy. The meat was tender and juicy, and there was a lot of it. I thought it tasted like the drumstick of a chicken, but with more flavor. Mother said she thought the other rabbit wouldn’t be quite so gamy if we let it freeze a few days; but she ate every bit of her piece.

  The next Saturday we went to Gary for the mail and met Jake Farley there. He and Father talked about hunting and Jake said he had a .22 rifle he never used. He offered to lend it to us, so Father bought two boxes of .22 cartridges and we stopped at Jake’s place on the way home and got the gun. Shells for it were so cheap that Father let me practice with it, and the next time we went out after rabbits I shot one myself. It was a lucky shot, I guess, because I hit it in the head and it kicked a couple of times and was dead. But the next time we went out I shot one through the shoulders and it squealed and screamed like a baby. Father had to take the gun and kill it, and I was so sick I vomited. He said I should be glad I hadn’t just broken a leg or wounded it so it got away and died in pain. He said killing a rabbit with a gun was a lot more painless to the rabbit than letting a coyote run it down. I knew he was right, but I kept hearing that scream. Finally he said the only way to kill a rabbit was to shoot it in the head; that way it was all over with in a hurry.

  But it was weeks before I tried to shoot another rabbit.

  The first week in November Jack Clothier came over to see us again. He sat on his horse in the dooryard and talked to Father and me till Mother came to the door and said, “It’s too cold for you folks to stand there talking. Come on in.”

  We went in. The cowboy took off his hat and said to Mother, “I thought maybe you’d drive me off the place, after last summer.” He grinned when he said it, and he had a nice grin.

  Mother said, “Maybe we should.” But she pushed the coffeepot to the front of the stove. She wasn’t giving an inch, but she was being nice.

  “How’d your corn come out?” he asked. “I see you’ve got a good pile of fodder there in the stack yard.”

  “We got about half a crop,” Father said.

  “It could have been worse,” the cowboy said. “It looks to me like you’re all set to ride out the winter.”
>
  “We aim to,” Mother said.

  “Good. Too many homesteaders are quitters. I saw a lot of them who just packed up and went back to live off the wife’s folks when things got tough. That’s what cleaned out this country ten-twelve years ago. Too many quitters.”

  “I didn’t know this land was ever homesteaded,” Father said.

  “Not right in here. Over north, and east. A wave of homesteaders came in. Most of them lived in dugouts. They hit a hard winter and then a dry summer and they gave up.”

  “Not to speak of the range cattle eating their crops,” Mother said.

  “Well, yes, ma’am, that happened too. But the cattlemen couldn’t have driven them out if they’d been stickers. They discouraged easy. They weren’t the kind that stay.”

  Mother poured the coffee. “And you think we are?”

  “You seem to be the spunky kind,” the cowboy said.

  “I don’t know whether to take that as a compliment or not,” Mother said.

  Father smiled. “If your cattle come around this winter and break into the stack yard,” he said “you’ll find out how spunky she is.”

  The cowboy laughed and tasted his coffee. He looked at me and asked, “Do you read?”

  I said yes, I could read.

  He glanced around the room, saw no books or magazines. He said, “There’s a bunch of old magazines at the bunkhouse, down at the ranch, you might like. If I’d been thinking I’d have brought them along.” He turned and looked at Father, “You’re not haying your cows, are you?”

  Father said no, not yet.

  “You won’t have to, unless the snow gets deep. Newcomers think they have to hay their stock as soon as summer’s over. But the grass is standing hay, cured right where it stands. Cattle will graze it all winter, just as long as they can get at it. Don’t feed your hay till you’re snowbound.”

  Father looked at him a moment, then asked, “Why are you telling me that? The cattlemen don’t want homesteaders in here.”

  The cowboy grinned. “I’m not a cattleman. I’m just a cow-puncher. The day of the big ranches is over, mister. Lots of cowmen won’t admit it, but it’s true. They keep squabbling with the sheepmen over grass, but it’s folks like you who are going to put an end to the open range. One of these days they’ll wake up and find you folks have choked them to death with barbed wire.”

  He stood up. He nodded to Mother. “Thanks for the coffee. You remind me of my sister, ma’am. She’s spunky too.” He grinned and put on his hat. Then he went out and got on his sorrel horse and rode away.

  We all felt better after he left. Father and Mother kept discussing what he had said. It was both reassuring and a little challenging to know we weren’t the first homesteaders. The others had been discouraged out. But we were the ones who were going to stick. Once Mother said, “I wonder if he was trying to say we might get dried out, too.”

  And Father said, “He didn’t say that. He said the others were. He said we were the kind who don’t get discouraged.”

  “Well, whatever he meant,” Mother said, “we’re going to stay.”

  A few days later he came back, with a bundle of magazines, he handed them to me without getting off his horse and said, “That ought to keep you busy for a while!” And he rode back down the valley.

  The bundle was made up of copies of Adventure and Top Notch and Argosy and Bluebook, dog-eared and with the covers torn half off. Mother went through them and saw that there weren’t any swear words. She said that since there wasn’t any school I could go to she guessed it would be all right if I spent my winter reading. That way, she said, I wouldn’t be too far behind when I did get to go to school again. At least, I wouldn’t forget how to read.

  For Thanksgiving Day Mother killed a hen and stewed it with dumplings. We never made as much of Thanksgiving as New Englanders do. To us it was like a Sunday in the middle of the week. But we were more thankful than usual that year. As we sat down to dinner Father said, “I don’t know about anyone else, but I think we’ve been pretty lucky.”

  Mother said, “So do I.”

  “We’ve been here almost seven months,” Father said, “and we’ve accomplished a lot. We’ve built a house, none of us has been sick, we’ve got plenty to eat, and we’ve got our own land.”

  “I’m afraid the dumplings are kind of heavy,” Mother said.

  “That,” Father said, “is what you always say.”

  Suddenly Mother asked, “You’re not sorry we moved, then?”

  “Sorry? Of course not. Are you?”

  “You know I’m not, Will.” Mother looked at her plate and tightened her mouth. I thought she was going to cry. She said, “Sometimes I wish we had more to do with, but I know we can’t have everything at once. Sometimes I get homesick for the trees, but most of the time I don’t miss them at all, any more.” Then she said firmly, “I wouldn’t move back for anything!”

  Father smiled. “I guess Jack Clothier was right. I’ve got a pretty spunky wife.”

  Mother laughed. “I still don’t know whether to take that as a compliment or not.”

  Years later I asked Mother if she hadn’t been lonely and discouraged that first winter. She said, “Lonely, yes. But not too lonely. I had you two there with me. It was home. But I never was discouraged. I was blue sometimes, but I tried not to let your father see it.” And I thought of the root meaning of the word “discouraged,” and I knew she was right. She was never without courage. She missed the trees, as she said, and yet in later years when she visited in a heavily wooded country she was ill at ease. The trees depressed her, she said. “I feel all closed in. I can’t see!” And I knew that she was a plainswoman. There are times when I, even now, must get out of the valley, out of the woods, onto a hilltop where I can see a distant horizon. The New Englander loves his snug valleys, and the Easterner is often uneasy on the High Plains because he is so surrounded and even belittled by the vast distance and what he calls the overwhelming emptiness. But to one who grew up under that tremendous span of sky and on that endless expanse of plains, a land of lesser distances lacks one dimension.

  That evening, after the chores were done, we all three played dominoes. Usually, when we played at all, it was just Father and me, because Mother always had sewing to do. But tonight she said the sewing could wait. She and Father laughed a good deal over the game, and neither of them really tried to win. It was one of the happiest evenings we’d had since we moved out there, one of the happiest evenings I could remember.

  We had two more weeks of good weather, clear and cold but no snow, after Thanksgiving. Father and I went down to the sheep camp and plowed out more sheep chips and filled the fuel shed again. Louie had been right; we got a lot of ashes. But we’d hardly had to use any coal at all.

  The first snow came in the middle of December. We thought it was going to be a real blizzard, but it turned out to be more wind than snow. It howled all night and until noon the next day, but only about an inch of snow fell. The wind blew it all off the hills and drifted it a foot deep in places. It was the first snow Fritz had ever seen. He ran around in it, barking excitedly and taking mouthfuls of it and trying to eat it, like bread. It must have nipped his tongue, because he was the most surprised dog you ever saw. Then he decided he liked snow and rolled in the deepest drift he could find and ran around barking like crazy.

  I went up on the haystack to see if the winter wind looked any different from the fall wind, but it was so cold up there that all I could see was the tears in my eyes. I got down before the wind blew me down and broke an arm. Anyway, I could see the winter wind just as well from down on the ground. It was white, and it curled over the hilltop and came swirling down the slope. It made little whirlpools around the fence posts, and up high in the air it glistened like tiny spangles in the sunlight.

  7

  CHRISTMAS CAME ON A Sunday. After that first light snow the weather had been clear and cold. The mail the Saturday before Christmas brought a letter from Aunt Eva,
back in Nebraska, saying the folks were sending a box with presents for all of us, but the box hadn’t come; so we went to Gary again the Saturday of Christmas Eve.

  It was a long cold trip with a bright sun and a biting wind. We wore our heaviest clothes and we had horse blankets around us on the wagon seat and a lantern at our feet. By putting the blankets around our legs, with the lighted lantern under the blankets, we had some warmth.

  Mother took along ten pounds of butter to trade at the store. Old Bessie, the yellow cow, had freshened just in time to give extra cream and Mother had saved it all and churned it. Bessie’s calf was a heifer, a funny, wobbly-legged yellow calf. It came in the night, to Mother’s relief because I had wanted to watch it being born. One evening old Bessie was very fat and restless and Father said he wouldn’t be surprised if he had to be up in the night with her. But she had her calf easily and alone and when we went to the barn next morning she mooed softly and proudly and there was the calf, sucking and butting her bag, very much alive, its hair all curly where she’d licked it dry.

  Lots of people were at the store, talking and laughing and buying Christmas things. They made way for us to get up close to the big round stove, the kind you used to find in all the railroad stations, to get warm. Everybody was talking to everybody else whether they knew each other or not. The store had only one little wreath at the post office window for Christmas decoration, but it looked very Christmasy with pails of ribbon candy and a crate of oranges and a keg of bright red cranberries and boxes of nuts and raisins and red and green frosted cookies. Somebody shouted, “Hey Tom, where’s the mistletoe?” And McDowell, back of the counter, said, “In the living room. You didn’t think I’d hang it out here in the store, did you, with all these pretty girls around!”

 
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