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High, Wide and Lonesome
By Hal Borland
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1984 Barbara Dodge Borland
All rights reserved.
When father and I started out, that late April morning, it was like the dawn of creation, so sweet and clean and crisply damp-cool. All along the first two miles south from town the blackbirds in the big cottonwoods ka-cheed among the jade-flake leaves, leaves no bigger than a ground squirrel's ear. The blackbirds themselves were like gems, jet set with ruby and gold, the red-wings and the yellow-heads, all ka-cheeing in the sun not half an hour high. And in the roadside alfalfa, silvery blue-green in new leaf and dew, was a jack rabbit in from the sand hills for breakfast, the sun making his long black-tipped ears pink as rose quartz. It was all spring and new beginnings, a morning to be alive and laughing.
I wanted to laugh and shout when the jack rabbit in the alfalfa swiveled his ears, stood on his haunches, knee-high to a tall man, and wriggled his nose at us. Then Father did laugh, and Dick and Shorty broke into a trot, snorting and eager and full of life, and the rabbit hopped away. The wagon, loaded with lumber and roofing paper and sections of galvanized well casing, jolted on the gravel road, creaking and rattling.
Father let the horses trot a little way, then drew them down to a walk again and handed the lines to me while he rolled a Bull Durham cigarette. Already Nebraska was "back east" and we were Coloradoans. Father, who had been a printer since he was fourteen, was going to be a ranchman, or at least a farmer.
"If I'm ever going to make a change," he'd said two months ago, "I'd better make it now, or I'll wake up some morning and find that I'm an old man." Father was almost thirty-two years old. So he came to Colorado alone, from the little Nebraska town where he was born less than thirty miles from the Missouri River, and he found the land he wanted and filed on it as a homestead. He went back to Nebraska, sold his share of the weekly newspaper, sold the house where we lived, and told Mother and me we'd move just as soon as winter was over.
Winter began to break up in March, hurried as though just for us by an early spring. Mud and melt crept along the Missouri River bottom lands and up Nemaha Creek, and Father helped us with the first packing. Then he left the rest of the packing to Mother and me and came to Colorado, to rent the little green house in Brush for a temporary home, to buy a team and wagon and a couple of cows and a dozen chickens. He even set two broody hens so Mother would have a flock of chicks for summer frying. And, ten days ago, Mother and I came out to Brush, eighteen hours on the cindery green-plush train, eating from the big box of picnic food, napping in the stiff-backed seats, talking to the friendly conductor and brake-man. The brakeman said to me, "Why, at almost ten, you're big enough to ride a bronco and shoot a coyote!" And I couldn't wait to get to Colorado.
Now we were on the way to the homestead, Father and I. Mother had seen us off, breakfasted and eager. Father had said, "We'll be back within a week or so, ten days at most. We'll get a house up and dig a well; then we'll come back for you." And she had kissed us both and waved goodbye, slim and dark-haired and a little misty-eyed. Mother would be twenty-nine in the fall. She was still standing there in the door-yard, watching, her hands wrapped in her apron, when we turned the corner at the depot and waved. She waved to us, then turned and went back to the little green house, and we headed south along the road lined with tall cottonwoods just leafing out.
Two miles from town we came to the end of the cotton-wood lane. Ahead was the first range of sand hills. We turned east, skirting them. We were climbing out of the Platte valley, going toward the high flatlands. Behind us the valley was lush with trees and irrigated fields. Ahead, where we were going, the hills rolled gently all the way to the horizon without a tree in sight. We skirted the sand hills another mile to the east, then turned south again, and the hard road ended. The horses began to strain as the heavily laden wagon's wheels bit into the sand track.
I watched the front wheel on my side, the left, as it turned in the sand, felly-deep. The sand lifted with the wheel and fell back in a little cascade that glistened in the sun and made a soft, singing hiss. The hub rattle was muffled. Only the puffing of the horses and the creak of harness where louder than the singing hiss of the sand at the wheels. I looked south and asked, "Is that where we're going, to that hill?"
"Farther than that," Father said. And when we had crossed the next hollow there was a new farthest hill. We were going farther than that one, too, much farther.
We crossed the sand hill strip and were on hard road again. The sun was halfway toward noon. The horses were sweating, and the smell of sweat and warm leather was a Nebraska smell. It was a Grandpa smell, Mother's father, who was a farmer and teamster. I would always remember him for the smell that was upon him, a clean farm smell of hay and horses, not a barn smell. Grandpa was a gentle man, a man who never had a cross word for horses or dogs or small boys. The other grandfather, Father's father, I never knew. He died before I was born. He was a blacksmith and a millwright. There was a profile picture of him that hung in an oval frame in Grandma Borland's house. It showed only one side of his face, and one eye; he lost the other eye as a boy. He had a face like Father's, except that Grandpa Borland had a full black mustache. All grandfathers had mustaches. Grandpa Clinaburg had a brown one, except when he had been hauling flour for the mill; then it was white, and so was his hair. Sometimes Father told stories about Grandpa Borland, but not this morning.
We topped another rise and I pointed again to the farthest hill in sight. "Farther than that one?"
Father laughed. "That hill is this side of Gary, and Gary's just about halfway there."
So I watched the meadow larks on the fence posts at the side of the road, saw the yellow of their breasts and the spotted brown of their backs and the lengths of their bills. I watched the funny way they flew on their stubby wings. As I listened to their songs it seemed they were saying, "This is the time to see the world!" and "Hello there, boy!" And I watched the striped-backed little ground squirrels and asked Father what they were. He told me and I said they couldn't be squirrels because the squirrels along Nemaha Creek back in Nebraska had long, bushy tails. These, I said, were squinneys, and Father said, "You'll see lots of squinneys."
It was eleven o'clock when we reached Gary. Gary wasn't really a town; it was a store and post office, a big, rambling frame building with a wide porch and a long hitch rack. Father tied the team at the hitch rack and we went inside. It was dark and cool and smelled of coffee and leather and calico and coal oil. Tom McDowell, the tall, lean, leisurely storekeeper, wore a blue work shirt and a vest open down the front. He drawled when he said, "Warm morning for April, ain't it?" Then he glanced out the big front window, saw our wagon and its load, and he asked, "Homesteaders?"
Father said, "Yes. We're going down in the corner of the county. Just going out to build the house."
Mr. McDowell said, "Well, good luck. That's down on John Gerrity's range, isn't it?"
I was edging down the long brown counter, looking at the yellow coils of lariat rope, the leather work gloves, the bibless overalls, the high-heeled boots hanging in pairs from the ceiling. At the few bolts of calico on the shelves, the rolls of table oilcloth, the square, slant-topped, lacquered bins of coffee and tea, the glass-topped bins of ginger snaps and pink-iced cookies. There was a glassed case with boxes of cigars and bags of smoking tobacco and a pile of long brown slabs of chewing tobacco. And at the back of the store, in the corner, was a cubbyhole of a post office with its barred window and its squares of mailboxes. Beside the mailboxes stood big burlap bags of Mexican beans and white hundred-pound sacks of sugar.
Father was buying cheese and crackers and sardines. Mr. McDowell was saying, "That's down south of Gerrity's main camp. Up at the head of Ketchem Holler."
"I don't know that name," Father said.
"That's the big valley just west of the school section," Mr. McDowell said. "They used to use it to hold the herd when they had roundup, the big ranches."
"I guess that's it," Father said. "We're just west of the school section. On section seventeen."
Mr. McDowell nodded and put the things in a paper sack. "Good hay land in there. Well, I'll probably be seeing you some more. Expecting any mail?"
"Not yet," Father said. He paid the bill and we went back to the wagon. There was a watering trough beside the store, so we watered the horses before we drove on.
Three more miles south, past a few farms and alfalfa fields, and we came to another range of sand hills. We drove to the top of the first hill, pulled out of the main track, and unhitched the horses. Father slipped the bits from their mouths and set out a tin pail for each of them with a couple of quarts of oats.
We sat in the shade of the wagon and Father opened the package of cheese. He cut a slice with his pocket knife, laid it on a big square cracker, and handed it to me before he opened the can of sardines. I took a bite, caught the cracker crumbs with my tongue, and sucked the warm, tangy cheese and felt the crispness of the cracker. I held it in my mouth, just tasting it, before I chewed it. Father cut another slice of cheese, put it on another cracker, and lifted a mustard-drippy sardine on his knife blade. He put the sardine on the cheese and handed the whole wonderful thing to me.
Crisp cracker, tingly cheese, and mustardy sardine! It was even better than Nemaha Creek catfish and bread and butter! The oozy mustard filled your mouth, there was the crunchy taste of cracker and the warm sardine taste, and there was the clinging cheese taste, all combined. Cheese and crackers are good food on any hilltop; cheese and crackers and mustard sardines are a banquet.
We banqueted till there wasn't a crumb of cheese left or a drip of mustard in the sardine can. Then we lay in the shade under the wagon and watched two sand lizards no longer than my hand, lizards with green and sand-colored backs and yellowish white bellies and white throats that pulsated as they breathed. The horses snuffled, there was a breath of cool air in the shade, and somewhere in the distance a hawk on the wing screamed a faint, echoing challenge.
Off to the south was another high hill, faint green and gleaming sand-gold in the sun. I sat up and pointed, and Father smiled and said, before my question came, "Still farther than that, son." We hitched the horses to the wagon and went on.
There were no more fences, now. On a distant hill there was a house, a lonely house without even a barn. Then, as we drove on and on, that last house was out of sight.
The road had become a trail, two faint ruts in the greening sand grass. Then we came to the far edge of the sand hills and hard land was under us again. There we left the wagon tracks, turned southwest onto a high flatland. We climbed a long gentle slope and were alone in a vastness and a distance that were like nothing I had ever seen or imagined. In all directions I could see the horizon, not a hill between that interrupted the smooth, round bowl-rim of blue. It was like being a very tiny ant on a table under Mother's very biggest mixing bowl, a blue and silver bowl and a tablecloth all greeny-tan and full of little wrinkles.
Father drew up the horses for a moment and just sat and looked. There was an expression on his face that I had seen only once before, the first time he came home from out here and told Mother and me about the homestead he had filed on. But now it was even brighter, that look, and it had a kind of smile deep inside that didn't show on his lips but only in his blue eyes. I looked at him, and I looked again at the distance, and I felt a kind of smile, inside myself, and a sense of awe that made me not want to say a word. It was so big, so vast, so new, so wonderful.
Father took a deep breath and we drove on. It was like driving into a world nobody had ever seen before except God, a world God had just made, like the world in the Bible before there was an Adam or an Eve. Even the sounds were all new. The hub rattle of the wagon was muted in the deep mat of curled buffalo grass. The creak of the harness was not much louder than the squeak of a cricket in your pocket.
We went on across the upland and came to a prairie dog town where the grass was thinned away and there were hundreds of pockmark holes and pimple mounds where the brown little prairie dogs, fatter and bigger than Nebraska squirrels, sat and yipped at us and jerked their skinny tails and dived down their burrows when the wagon came near.
We came to a broad, shallow lake, melt from the winter snow and drain from the spring rain, that would shrink to a little mudhole in another month or two. It hardly looked like water, it was so clear, and under the water the grass was growing, much greener than the flat all around it. Ducks were there, scores of teal and mallards and even canvasbacks, swimming on the clear water over the green grass as though they were swimming in the air. And around the edges were brown curlew and snipe, with their long grotesque beaks and fat stubby bodies. And killdeers, with their black coats and white shirt fronts, running along in the shallows and bobbing and leaping into the air and crying kill-deer, kill-deer, kill-dee, dee as they flew a little way and settled again.
We came close to the water and the ducks quacked in excitement and flailed the water and rose on beating wings, dripping so much that for a moment there was a flash of rainbow in the spray. They rose and circled and came back to land with outstretched feet and cupped wings, in a new rush of spray.
Then the lake was behind and the meadow larks were singing, "Hello there, boy!" And little horned larks went spiraling up, right under the horses' noses, singing as they flew high in circles. And when we came down a little slope into hidden hollow there was a rush of small hoofs and a flash of white rump patches as a herd of pronghorn antelope, surprised at their grazing, bounded away, stiff-legged and breathtakingly swift. They ran to the next hilltop, circled, came back behind us and, full of curiosity, followed the wagon for half a mile.
Midafternoon and we saw another wagon coming toward us. Just the sight of it was startling. I felt the way Robinson Crusoe felt when he saw the footprints in the sand. We had been all alone in this tremendous world, and now there was someone else.
The wagon was drawn by a black team, a shiny, black, arch-tailed team of horses, and on the wagon seat was a little man with a round face and stocky body and a grin that was a welcome itself. He drew alongside and stopped and shouted, "Hello, strangers! Where you heading?"
Father said we were going out to our homestead to build a house.
"Where you located?" the little man asked.
"Section seventeen," Father said. "North half of seventeen."
"Good!" the little man exclaimed. "I'm just a couple of miles from you. My name's Farley, Jake Farley." He reached in the pocket of his bibbed overalls. "I've got a house built and you can stay there till you get a roof up. I'm going to town a week or so. Here's the key." He tossed it over and Father caught it. "Make yourself at home!" and Mr. Farley relaxed the lines and his black team took off at a fast trot, the empty wagon rattling over the grass.
We drove on, now following Mr. Farley's wagon tracks, the only mark on that whole expanse of grass.
The hills were covered with buffalo grass or buffalo mixed with grama, and the draws, or valleys, were carpeted with bluestem. Here and there were clumps of yucca with their stiff, evergreen, bayonet leaves; and now and then we came to a hollow where sheep had grazed the grass away and cut it out with their sharp hoofs and sagebrush had taken over, sage and greasewood. And here and there were big beds or scattered clumps of cactus, the flat-leafed gray-grizzly ones full of vicious thorns and the greener, less spined prickly pears. But even the yucca and the sagebrush and greasewood and the cactus were lost in the vastness of grass, the highest sagebrush wasn't as high as the hubs on the front wheels of the wagon.
Excerpted from High, Wide and Lonesome by Hal Borland. Copyright © 1984 Barbara Dodge Borland. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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