A Place of Our Own


The day after we arrived in New Mexico to homestead our farm, Ed and I walked with Papa all around and across the land. One spot wasn’t much different from another. It was all flat, sandy, and treeless. In his mind Papa had already laid it out into orchard, pasture, cropland, vegetable garden, and corral. He showed us where each was to be.

“Since we can’t do anything on the house until the Evanses move,” he said, “we’d better start building the barn. It will be winter before long, and we need a place for the animals.” He walked off the approximate dimensions, and we looked around for some rocks to mark the corners. There were no rocks in that New Mexico soil so he drew a line in the sand with a stick.

“We’d better find out where the well goes before we begin,” he declared. “It should be close to both the house and the barn. We’ll try out that divining rod the Indian gave us.”

When we went back to the dugout for lunch, Papa found the forked branch we’d brought with us from southern Utah. “It should be thirsty enough to find water by now,” Papa said with a wink.

Holding the branch horizontal to the earth with one prong in each hand and the other pointing straight ahead, Papa walked slowly around the area where he hoped to have a well. Suddenly the free end of the stick seemed to tip toward the ground.

“Here’s the spot,” Papa said. “That’s just the way they said it would work. Dora, you stand here while I try it again. I can’t believe it’s that easy to find water.”

He tried the rod several times again, and it always tipped at the same place. Papa was so excited I thought he was going to dig the well right then. He grabbed his shovel and started a hole. When he had it about a foot deep and three feet across, he leaned on the shovel to rest and said, “There, that ought to mark the spot. The well’s the next project after the barn. Let’s go to Texaco and see if we can buy some lumber to get started. I have a feeling there’s going to be a storm before long.”

After we got back with the lumber, Ed and I lifted and held the boards while Papa nailed them in place. Soon we had a good start on the barn.

One morning we woke up to find the ground covered with snow—in New Mexico, imagine! Enough to make angels, or play fox and geese, but not enough to stop work on the barn. The snow melted during the day, and that night when we got home Mama showed us where the water was running down inside the dugout. The next day Papa went to town for something to seal the leak.

Mama went with him and left Caroline in charge. Ed and I thought we were old enough to take care of ourselves and didn’t like her bossing us around, so we went out to the barn to plan our day.

“Let’s go see the Indians,” Ed said. His curiosity was pulling him like a magnet. I liked to talk about danger more than I liked to experience it, so I wasn’t so eager.

“Caroline won’t let us,” I offered as an excuse.

“Pooh! She can’t stop us. Come on. Let’s go.”

I followed obediently, but slowly.

“Hurry up,” he urged.

“W-what if they ch-chase us?” I whispered.

“They won’t chase us, and even if they do, we can run faster. And you don’t need to whisper. No one can hear you.”

“What if the braves are there?”

“They won’t be. They come in the middle of the night.”

“I’m scared.” I couldn’t help whispering, even though Ed had told me not to.

“That’s all right. It’s fun to be afraid.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Go back then, scaredy-cat, and I’ll go by myself.” Ed started off. He knew I’d follow. Frightened as I was, I couldn’t stand to miss a chance to be with Ed.

I followed slowly. Ed picked up a stick.

“What’s that for?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he answered.

“You could hit with it if you needed to,” I suggested.

“Yeah, but I probably won’t,” he replied. Even so, we both felt better now that Ed was armed.

We walked more slowly as we approached the first hut, and Ed put his finger up to his lips to warn me to keep quiet. The air was still except when a small breeze whispered through the grass. Our bare feet left silent prints in the damp ground. No sound at all came from inside the dugout, and we could see only a black square where the door was ajar. We tiptoed closer and closer, trying to see inside.

Suddenly a voice came from the darkness, gentle and coaxing. “Come on,” it encouraged.

We stood in the doorway and gradually out of the darkness emerged a great shape, a woman who seemed large enough to half-fill the room. No wonder she didn’t want to move. She was beckoning to me with her finger. “Come on,” she invited again.

Ed gave me a little push. “Go on,” he said. “I won’t let her hurt you.”

When I got close enough, the squaw grabbed me, lifted me onto her ample lap, and nearly took my breath away, hugging and kissing me. She touched my hair gently and murmured, “Palomino, Palomino.”

When Ed said we had to go, it was hard to pull away, but I did. As we left she said, “Come back. I want to be your grandma.”

We checked the other dugouts, and what Mr. Talbot said was true. Each had an old squaw in it. We were never welcome in any of the houses but the first, however. “Grandma” became our first and best friend in New Mexico. Until she died, she loved my golden hair and called me Palomino.

When we got back home that day Papa was already there and fixing the leak.

“Where have you been?” he asked.

“To see the Indians,” Ed answered.

“Not clear up on the reservation?”

“No, just those old squaws over there.” Ed pointed to the dugouts.

“I thought you heard Mr. Talbot say to stay away and not to bother them.”

“They don’t mind. They’re lonely for little kids.”

“One likes me,” I said. “She calls me Palomino.”

“Palomino’s a horse,” Papa said.

“I think she means my hair,” I explained.

“Maybe so,” Papa agreed. “A palomino is a blond horse.”

Before the next storm came the barn was nearly finished and the animals were cozy inside. We had some hay in the loft and Ed and I coaxed to sleep there.

“Not until we move into the house,” Papa said. “It’s too far away from the family now.”

The barn was built like a shed, with a steep roof slanting to one side only. The day Papa was hanging the door, Mr. Lenstrom, who had come over to help, was busy on the roof. I climbed up to see what he was doing and saw he was working with a plane, scraping up curls of wood.

“Why are you doing that?” I wanted to know.

“I’m making this board smooth.”

“What for?”

“So you can slide down it without getting slivers in your backside.”

I wondered if he’d tried it once. “That’s a good idea,” I told him. “I’ll help you.”

We worked until we had the board so slick that Ed and I could shoot down it like a slippery slide, with a scary sail into the air before we hit the ground.

In a few days Papa started to dig the well. When he dug so deep he couldn’t throw the dirt out, he rigged up a bucket on a pulley. Ed and I pulled it up, emptied the dirt out, and sent it back down for Papa to fill again. He had to put in boards as he went along to support the sides so they wouldn’t cave in. He shoveled deeper and deeper until the hole was three times as tall as he was, and still there was no water. He began to doubt the power of the Indian’s stick.

One day he called up, “The ground’s too hard for the shovel; send the pickax down in the bucket.”

For a foot or two he dug through rock, but underneath that, the ground was moist.

“Hadn’t better dig any deeper,” he said when he came out of the hole. “Water might come in and drown me before I could get out. We’ll just wait awhile and see what happens.”

(To be continued.)

[illustrations] Illustrated by Paul Mann