The kid explores the Nebraska Sandhills
In his later years the Old Man might hunt for many hours, and many days, and find nary a thing worth carrying home. But it wasn’t always that way in his days as a kid on the prairie north of Parks, Neb.
One windy spring day his folks parked the old green 1935 Ford on the side of a sandy trail beside a hilltop blowout in extreme southwest Nebraska, near both the Colorado and Kansas state lines. His dad went one way, his mom another, and the kid went to the highest ridge on the west edge of the blowout, where he could slide down the steep sandy bank, attempting to stay upright all the way to the bottom.
Climbing a hard blown-off shelf to the blowouts top he saw the tracks of a cow that had recently used the same trail to skirt the depression’s edge. In one of the tracks he saw the shine of flint, and kneeling, he saw two parts of a long brown arrowhead, freshly broken by the wandering cow. Forgetting his planned slide in the sand, he picked up the pieces and ran to show his mom and dad.
Upon holding the two halves together they saw a perfect notched triangle three inches long, forming what they would later find out to be a Pelican Lake type dart point made of a dark brown material with small black spots known as Hartville Uplift Chalcedony from eastern Wyoming.
After returning to the ranch he went to his room in the old bunkhouse and placed the now glued-together point in the Blue Diamond match box on a layer of cotton where it loomed large beside his few other small arrowpoints and scrapers. One of those points, his first arrowhead, he had found while walking to the small country school house when he was five years old.
In the summer before his second year of school his dad had traded three good coyote hounds for a small black pony with a white stripe over its back, as if someone had lain a white bandanna there. It was to be the boy’s pony, and he called her Dixie. After the brusing adventure of breaking this little hellion to ride, he felt as free as a wild Cheyenne warrior. He now had four swift feet under him for his travels about his prairie home.
The cows and horses in the pasture and in the cornstalks would know their grazing time was over when they saw the little black pony and the yelling brown skinned rider speed toward them to drive them into the dusty corrals. The boy, and he thought the pony too, could imagine the cows and horses shaking their heads and tails in frustration, and cussing among themselves.
The boy and Dixie were to have many adventures as they roamed the sandy hills. The boy riding bareback, holding a Remington .22 rifle resting over the ponies back, hunting and shooting jackrabbits, coyotes, prairie dogs, and sometimes pheasant and prairie chickens that he carried home for his mom to fry.
In those early years, pheasants and prairie chickens were plentiful in the fields and grasslands of Dundy County. They made up a large part of the meat in the farmer’s and rancher’s diet, therefore hunting seasons were often ignored, although occasionally a game warden would dare to arrest a resident of the hills.
One cold autumn day the kid rode Dixie over a hill and along the pasture fence parallel to the rutted trail to town. Looking ahead, the kid saw a green pickup parked along the trail a short distance to the north. He recognized the pickup as the game warden’s truck so quick as a wink he leaned from Dixie and deposited the prairie chicken he carried behind a sagebrush.
Riding to the pickup he watched as Homer, the warden, pulled the guts from a pheasant, intent on his task, and unaware of the kid’s silent stare. Hunting season was still more than a week away, and this may have been the cause of Homer’s hurried movements as he dressed the cock pheasant.
“Hi mister, nice gun you have there,” said the kid as he pointed to a single shot .28 gauge visible through the open door of the pickup.
Homer jerked his head up in surprise at the kid’s voice.
“Well, hi, ki-, ki-, kid,” he stuttered.
“Nice bird you got there mister. Does your wife make noodles to go with your pheasant like my mom does?”
Homer wrapped the bird in a gunny sack and shoved it under an old canvas in the bed of the pickup.
“No, my wife can’t make noodles worth a darn, kid.”
“Too bad,” said the kid, “but I’m glad to know the season is open already, I guess I will try to shoot a couple of chickens so my mom will make noodles.”
Homer opened his mouth, shook his head, and gritted his teeth, but could not think of a plausible answer.
The kid waved his arm and reined Dixie around toward where his prairie chicken lay. He pulled Dixie up and looked back when he heard the warden’s voice.
“Hey kid, my mom can make noodles too.”
The kid smiled as the warden spread his arms and shrugged, as if to say, “What the heck.” Homer was smiling too.
The Old Man also remembers the day he left his rifle at home as he rode Dixie into the hills of the north pasture, and Dixie shying at the buzz of a rattlesnake coiled beneath a sagebrush. He pulled Dixie to a halt and led her grudgingly toward the coiled snake. The boy had killed many rattlesnakes in the pastures of several prairie dog towns, but always with his rifle, or when deliberately hunting snakes he used an iron endgate rod from a horse pulled wagon.
But this time he had neither, although in a similar situation he had once pulled a large sunflower and stunned a snake with the thick green stalk. This time he had no sunflowers around, so holding a nervous Dixie with one hand he raised his booted foot and crashed it down on the rattler’s striking head.
After driving the cows to the corral he showed his dad the rattles he had twisted from the snakes tail. Dad was a little unhappy with the boy’s choice of weapons so with a few easy to understand words that he sometimes used on an ornery horse or cow, he explained that the boy was not to do this again.
Calming down a bit he told the boy that when he next encountered a rattlesnake without a weapon he could remove the bridle and kill the snake with that. What he really meant was to unsnap the bridle rein and beat the snake with the snap on the end of the rein. The boy thought he meant the bridle and a few days later Dixie shied again. He removed the bridle, hit the snake on the head, and as he swung, the unbridled Dixie headed west at a bucking run, laughing all the way the boy was sure.
Dixie was a nice tame little pony, and after being broke by the boy she never bucked, reared, bit or kicked. But when she was loose on the prairie she thought she was a wild mustang and she played the part convincingly. The Old Man remembered chasing her across the pasture through the open gate into the west cornfield, and, panting and cussing, he stumbled over the soft, plowed ridges. Still dragging the bridle, he fell from exhaustion at the field’s edge and, face in the soft dirt, he sobbed bad words as Dixie looked back with lifted ears, twitching tail, and laughing eyes, just 50 feet away.
The boy rose and stumbled again at the field’s edge where the buffalo grass began. Right there before his tearing eyes, between clumps of bluestem grass, lay a beautiful agate point with a concave base, glistening in the late afternoon sun, with stripes of white, orange and black running at an angle across its face. Rising from his crouch he grabbed the finely worked point, and tilted it to the sun and wondered about his bad luck turning so good! Dixie walked to where he stood, took a good look at the shining stone, and stretched out her head for the bridle.
Arriving at the corral, he rode Dixie over to where his mom and dad were fixing a top rail on the old wood and wire fence. The boy proudly held the agate point for his folks to see.
“Gosh,” said his mom, “that’s the prettiest point we have ever found.”
His dad agreed and wondered aloud why the boy was so ornery and yet so lucky. Dixie snorted and turned to walk to the water tank. The boy looked back, smiling at his dad and shook his head. “Killed a rattlesnake, too,” he said.
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