Friday, November 23, 2012

Chapter 13: Texas Longhorns

"One evening Laura and Pa were sitting on the doorstep. The moon shone over the dark prairie, the winds were still, and softly Pa played his fiddle.

He let a last note quiver far, far away, until it dissolved in the moonlight. Everything was so beautiful that Laura wanted it to stay so forever. But Pa said it was time for little girls to go to bed.

Then Laura heard a strange, low, distant sound. "What's that!" she said.

Pa listened. "Cattle, by George!" he said. "Must be the cattle herds going north to Fort Dodge.'"

The next morning when Laura runs out of the house, she sees two men on horseback talking to Pa. Their skin is tanned dark brown and they have flaps of leather over their legs, and spurs, and wide-brimmed hats. Handkerchiefs are knotted around their necks, and pistols are on their hips.

They say, "So long!" to Pa and "Hi! Yip!" to their horses and gallop away.

"Here's a piece of luck!" Pa says to Ma. The cowboys want Pa to help keep the cattle out of the ravines along the creek bluffs. Pa will get a piece of beef for his help. Pa ties his biggest handkerchief around his neck. He shows Laura how it helps to keep the dust from the trail out of his mouth and nose. Then he rides off along the Indian trail.

He is gone all day and comes home at sunset covered with dust. There is dust in his beard and in his hair and on the rims of his eyes. He doesn't have any beef yet, because the cattle aren't all across the creek.

Pa doesn't play the fiddle and goes straight to bed after supper. Laura lies awake, listening to the wailing cowboy songs far away in the night. After everyone else is asleep, Laura creeps to the window and peeks out. She sees three fires glowing against the edge of the land.

The next day, Pa heads off to work again. All day Laura and Mary hear the cattle bawling  and see the dust blowing. Suddenly, a dozen longhorn cattle come rushing up the draw away from the creek. A cowboy on a spotted mustang gallops madly to get in front of them. He waves his big hat and shouts, "Hi! Yi-yi-yi!" as they gallop out of sight.

Laura spends the rest of the afternoon running back and forth, waving her sunbonnet and shouting like a cowboy. Ma finally tells her to stop. It is not ladylike to yell like a cowboy.

Late that afternoon, three riders came out of the west, driving a cow and her little baby. One of the riders is Pa, and he explains that the calf is too little for the journey and the cow is too skinny to sell so the cowboys have given them to Pa.

Ma, Mary, and Laura are so excited and even Baby Carrie laughs for joy. Now they will have milk to drink and butter for their cornbread.

The cow is wild and doesn't want Pa to milk her, but he pushes her against the stable and drives some slabs deep into the ground on the other side. The slabs hold her tight so she can't get away, and Pa milks her. He gets a tin cup almost full of milk.

"Tomorrow I'll build a strong, high yard for the cow, that the wolves can't get into." Pa says.

That night, Baby Carrie enjoys drinking her milk, for they all decide she should have it all. But everyone enjoys the delicious beef steaks and cornbread. As they eat, they listen to the far away songs of the cowboys.

I already knew from a previous chapter that there are no cows in this area for me to practice milking. OK, there are some wild cows, and that would fit very well with this chapter, but even my bravado quails at the thought of being seen chasing someone's wild beef cattle through a field, trying to milk them.

There are no free-range herds heading through here to the happenin' Canadian cattle markets, so riding the open range wasn't an option either. But, like Laura, I could always embrace the mystique of the lonesome cowboy.

Yes, I would become a cowboy.

Figuratively speaking, of course.

"Laura ran back and forth, waving her sunbonnet and yelling, "Hi! Yi-yi-yi!" till Ma told her to stop. It was not ladylike to yell like that. Laura wished she could be a cowboy."

The first stop on my pathway to cowboy-hood was the thrift store. Cowboys were very thrifty people, after all, and wouldn't have felt any shame in wearing someone's cast off duds. You never can tell when someone will randomly decide to unload hundreds of dollars of beautiful Western finery in just the perfect size for you. But you can tell it wasn't today. I did get a couple of cute shirts and a nice jacket, so all was not lost.

Then I moved on to a fancy-shmancy high-end department store. Yes, I'm talking about Penney's. I haven't bought a new-from-the-store pair of jeans for myself in over 5 years, and when I did, they were always from Walmart. A real cowboy doesn't skimp in the jeans department---cheap jeans have brought out the yodel in more than one hapless son of the range. I was going high quality all the way, baby!

Evidently, in my years of absence from the jean market, it has gotten---ahem--a tad more difficult to find a pair that fits my girlish figure. To save my readers from the trauma I had to endure, I am including a handy field guide to the Language of Jeans.

Low-rise: You'll put the "muffin" in muffin-top, girlfriend!

Boot cut: Made for a giraffe. I'm more along the lines of a pygmy horse.

Flattering fit: If you're a Brazilian super-model. If you're not, don't bother.

Skinny jeans: Free humiliation with every purchase!

Attractive embroidery and design: Will only appear on low-rise or skinny jeans. Those of you shaped like normal people are out of luck.

I should also include a little warning about fitting room mirrors. Don't look in them. Just don't.

It was challenging, but flinty determination is a fitting character trait for any cowboy. I persevered and walked out of there with a pair of jeans I didn't absolutely hate. Score one for me. Now, on to boot shopping.

I'd like to think that back in the old days things weren't quite as expensive, but they probably were. Every part of your wardrobe served an important function, and in the right circumstances could make the difference between life and death. Boot were made by hand, and made to last. I'd priced boots before, so I was a little prepared, but nothing truly readies you for the sensation of staring down at a *gasp* $150 price tag for fancy feet boxes.

I shopped at a couple different stores. I went to the store with the biggest selection first, but didn't really find a pair I really loved. For *gasp* $150 dollars, I want a torrid passion. I finally picked a pair, but they just left me feeling "meh". The boots were pretty, but didn't pop like I wanted them to, so after I bought them, I decided to look at one more store.

The second store had only a couple of pairs in the style I was looking for. But both of them were absolutely gorgeous. I finally picked the one that was a little wider in the leg, since for *gasp* $150 I expected to get quite a bit of mileage out of them (think "Ya-ya Sisterhood of the Traveling Boots") and not everyone has my shapely (read: scrawny) legs.

I also picked up a cowboy hat there, because no cowboy would be caught out on the open trail without his hat. The sun was brutal, and if you lost your hat, you might be forced into wearing----oh, the horror---a sunbonnet. Besides, I looked cute in it.

The next day was picture day! Time to get all dressed up in my duds and put on my best Giddyup. My mom and sister each had an outfit, and we all planned to share the boots around for our portraits. The setting was a rustic barn just outside of town----I arrived just after my mom and sister.

"I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy."

"I see by your outfits that you are cowboys, too."

(It's a Smothers Brothers had to be there)

Then we got down to the serious business of looking beautiful. At our age, it takes some fierce focusing to pull it off!

It was lots of fun getting to be the Montanan version of a princess for the day. I'm not the type that does the whole "getting fixed up and going out" thing very much, so I really enjoyed shucking off my work-a-day persona for a couple hours. And I got to do it without the actual inconveniences of the real cowboy experience.

Dust, bugs, saddle sores. You can keep them.

I'll just stand around looking cute.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Chapter 12: Fresh Water to Drink

"Next morning Pa marked a large circle in the grass near the corner of the house. With his spade he cut the sod inside the circle, and lifted it up in large pieces. Then he began to shovel out the earth, digging himself deeper and deeper down."

Pa needs to make his trip to town, but before he can go, he must dig a well so Ma will have fresh water while he is gone. Pa cuts the circle into the earth and begins to dig and dig. Laura and Mary must not go near the edge of the well while Pa is digging, but they can see the shovelfuls of dirt that he throws up over the edge.

At last the well is so deep Pa can't throw the dirt high enough to reach the top. He will have to have help from here, so he takes his gun and rides Patty over to Mr. Scott's house to ask him to lend a hand. The next morning at sunup, Mr. Scott arrives to help.

Pa and Mr. Scott make a windlass over the well. It has a handle that turns, and one bucket goes down, and one bucket comes up. They take turns going down into the well to dig; in the morning Mr. Scott digs, and in the afternoon it's Pa's turn.

Every morning before Mr. Scott goes down into the well, Pa sends down a lighted candle. As long as the flame stays lit, Pa knows it is safe to breathe at the bottom. Mr. Scott thinks it's a bunch of nonsense, and one morning, when he arrives before Pa is outside, he begins work without checking the air.

Ma, Laura, and Mary are working in the house when they hear Pa shout, "Scott! Scott!" Then he calls, "Caroline, come quick!"

Ma runs to where Pa is tying the rope firmly around the windlass. He is going after Mr. Scott, who has fainted at the bottom of the well.

"No, Charles! Don't," Ma begs.

"We can't just let him die down there. I won't breathe until I get out."

Ma begs some more, but Pa is firm. He swings into the well and slides out of sight.

After what seems like a very long time, Ma pulls at the windlass and Pa comes up out of the well, hand-over-hand. He climbs out of the well and sits on the ground. Ma sends Laura for some water, and when she gets back, Pa and Ma are both turning the windlass. Slowly the other bucket comes up and Laura sees Mr. Scott slumped over the bucket.

Pa pulls Mr. Scott out onto the grass. He feels Mr. Scott's wrist and listens to his heart. "He's breathing," Pa says.

Pa and Mr. Scott take it easy the rest of the day. The next morning, Pa takes Laura out to the well. He drops some gun powder into the well and lights it. There is a muffled bang and smoke comes up out of the hole. "There, that will drive the gas out of the hold," Pa says.

It takes many more days of digging, but finally there is water in the bottom of the well. When the water comes in Pa almost gets sucked into the muddy slime, and he has to climb out quickly. Soon the well fills with fresh, clean water. Pa makes a strong wooden cover to go over the hole, and Laura and Mary are told they must never touch it. But whenever they are thirsty, Ma lifts the cover and draws a dripping bucket of cool water from the well.

Gather round, children. It's time for family fun with methane! Oh goody!

Sadly, in the complete absence of volunteers lining up to be nearly suffocated, (I'll just take you to the brink. I promise!) I was forced to look elsewhere for inspiration. It wasn't hard to find; I only had to go as far as the real hero of the story----the lowly candle.

It was the candle that kept everyone safe, and it was in failing to use the candle that Mr. Scott found his life in danger. Candles must have oxygen to burn, and if the well-pit was full of gas, the candle would be snuffed out. Much cheaper than a canary, and not as cruel. Pa Ingalls, the first animal rights activist.

I had a bag of wax shavings that someone gave me, but I was missing a few other key ingredients. Like wicks and something to melt the wax in. In looking up candle making online, I was strictly warned never, NEVER to melt wax without a thermometer. It's best to have a special kettle with the thermometer built in, but at least have a good candy thermometer to avoid over-heating the wax. Which will then burst into flames.

Well, no candy thermometer, and I'm pretty sure that Campbell's soup cans don't come with thermometers built in. But at least I used a double boiler!

Ssh, don't tell anyone, but I got the wick from breaking open a 12" taper I already had. I could have tried to make my own, but I didn't have any Borax on hand. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

I began melting the wax at a very low temperature since I was paranoid it was going to burst into flames at the first opportunity. Which it didn't. It didn't even melt, really, besides forming a gloppy mass in the bottom of the can.

Building a log cabin would have been faster. It was time to bring the heat.

Once I turned up the heat to a decent level, the water started boiling and the wax started to melt.

When everything was melted I began the tedious process of dipping the wick into the wax. It was even more tedious than usual because for a while I forgot the important step of dipping the candle in water between each dunking. Because the wax was staying hot, it just slid off each time I dipped it again.

I hadn't done this since summer camp about 20 years ago, OK!

After I started cooling the candle each time I dipped it, the wax started accumulating very quickly. "Very quickly" being a relative in quicker than knitting the Taj Mahal with your teeth.

Ah! Done at last. Sure, the candles could have been a bit bigger, but who wants over-weight candles, anyway? I like my candles slim and delicate. Ethereal, almost.

Since I still had quite a bit of wax in the can, I decided to make a snow candle. It was just for fun, since I didn't have a wick to put in it, but I wanted to see what it would turn out like.

Not good.

Evidently, you're supposed to dig a hole in the snow before you pour the wax.


 Well, now I'll know for next time. In the meantime, my parents have some lovely yellow snow in their front yard! I'm sure they'll be thanking me any time now.

"Every morning, before Pa would let Mr. Scott go down the rope, he set a candle in a bucket and lighted it and lowered it to the bottom. Once Laura peeped over the edge and she saw the candle brightly burning, far down in the dark hole in the ground. 

Then Pa would say, "Seems to be all right," and he would pull up the bucket and blow out the candle."

Time to take the candle for a test drive. Was the air in our house fit to breathe? Well, that's debatable in any house inhabited by a teenage boy, but the candle burned, so I guess the air hasn't gotten too rank yet.

You never could have proved it by me....