Excerpt from Dance like a Poor Man - a novel by Samuel Hofer.
Written and published by Samuel Hofer. Copyright 1991, Samuel Hofer. All rights reserved.
On lotday Sunday the sun climbed over the heavens hidden behind high, feathery clouds, and I stood outside our unit for a while in the afternoon, playing tricks on my eyes. I stared and squeezed, watching the blood hues rush together and become ghosts of the sun inside my head. Each time I let the light flood back in, I saw I was still at Rockyview Colony, and the blue Canadian Rockies rising up out of the foothills winked back at me. I listened for the wind. On lotdays, my father had said, the wind blew where it wished, and you heard the sound, but you didn't know where it would blow you till the preachers made the draw. I heard a calf bawling over at the corral, but that was all. There was just a wisp of a breeze on lotday, and you couldn't hear that.
I walked back into the foyer of our unit.
"And remember, Zack, what we talked," my mother was saying as she brushed something off my father's beard, and fussed a little with the collar of his white shirt to make sure it wasn't crooked.
"Now yes, Mother," he said. "But you know, not all people can be pleased with the outcome." He yanked on his black Sunday jacket, and his big strong hands worked at the bottoms.
Then Judy asked what they would do in the big school.
"We will put about the same number of souls with each of the two preachers," he said, picking up his black hat off Judy's palms, "and divide everything the community owns down the middle. Then the preachers will pull out the lot."
"But why, Father?"
My father took a deep breath and patted Judy's cheek. "Because, lieba, our community has gotten too big already, so we had to build up a new one."
Judy bit her lip and frowned. She seemed puzzled.
"What about Olvetter?" I said. "Will he be with our family?"
My father didn't answer my question. I figured he hadn't heard me, or was weary from the questions.
Long before lotday, he had told me how it worked. "It's completely easy," he had said. "On lotday you just throw your cowboy dreams out of your head and into the wind."
"Olvetter wants to stay," I has said.
"Your olvetter is an old man, you are a twelve-year-old kid." My father's nature was as calm as his grainfields when the wind was down.
I thought lotday was a noose flying over my head that could yank me completely out of Rockyview Colony to a flatland with no cows and no horse -- just grainfields, and blizzards so dangerous that people froze to death. Well, it had happened. When the men built up Flat Willow, that's when it happened. They'd told all kinds of news about the new colony back there in Saskatchewan every time they came home for a weekend, and most people were anxious to see the new-style houses and expensive barns the men were building. But whenever talk came up about the neighbour who had walked out in a storm and was found frozen dead the next day, the adults got uneasy and short on words, so you had to sharpen your ears and listen through walls and doors if you wanted to find anything out. Everybody knew the Kleinser boys had stolen a gun from one of the neighbours, but those buggers lied it away. Some of the Kleinsers at our colony were raw eggs. Especially the pigman. He was plain evil.
People who feuded against the Kleinsers said the man's death and the theft of the gun were connected, but my father said that ideas like that came from some loosewit's careless talk.
But my oldest sisters, now, they were something else. They weren't crazy like my brother Jake, but they could get pretty lappisch. When I said a few times that I might saddle up Madeline and hide out in the Rocky Mountains on lotday and refuse to move away from Rockyview, they joked and said, "Why Peter, are you fearing that poor man's ghost will be there to haunt you?" Boy, that got my mother upset. She didn't stand for that talk, and you couldn't blame her. My grandmother's death was too fresh. "Let the dead rest," she said. "And it's a sin to speak that way about a poor man." I was just glad that my sisters weren't teasing me about girls for a change.
Now, with my father out the door, my mother and my sisters watched after him through the corner window. There was no Sunday School because of lotday, and with all the electricity in the air, I had no desire to take my nap, so I reached for my katus on the hat rack.
"Where are you going?" Anna's big eyes were on me.
"Hufer Miechel's house," I said.
"I know why you're going there," she sang out, twiddling wisps of her hair that always seemed to come loose from under her bonnet. Anna was nine years old, and when she wasn't babysitting for the Kleinser clan or playing tic-tac-toe and hopscotch with Rachel Wurz and her sisters, she hung around the Hufer family's unit like I did in my spare time. I showed her my fist and slipped out the door.
Outside, the men's backs were turned. They marched along the boardwalks that spanned the lawns like rulers, connecting the mouse-gray unithouses to the central huddle of old shingle-covered outbuildings there. The big school sat at the far end of the yard, past the kuchel, and past the little school. Some men had already stepped onto the boardwalks that ran up the middle of the yard. The two preachers strode in front. Behind them walked the hauswirt, a small tschabadan, the suitcase that held his business papers in hand.
When I walked into Hufer Miechel's unit, my aunt Katrina, looking tired, stepped from behind a wall of cardboard boxes piled high to the ceiling.
"Is your mother finished packing?" she asked.
"Yes," I said. My mother had started early, as soon as the elders announced that the new colony was finished and lotday was only a week off.
Katrina-Pasel pointed to a box standing in the middle of the foyer on the hardwood floor. "Help me here, Wolner Peter," she said. "Hold your finger on the twine while I make a knot."
I heard footsteps in the adjacent room, and Miechel's sister Maria appeared at the door. Her willowy arms were wrapped around a sleeping baby resting against her shoulder. She smiled and blinked her eyes really fast about six times, and I gave her my special smile too. Her apron usually hung crooked and she had braces on her teeth, but I always had a smile for her.
"Miechel will come back in a minute," she whispered. "Mother sent him for a pail of water from the washhouse."
I just kept smiling and feeling darn good. I didn't mind waiting, and I didn't mind that Miechel wasn't there. We were the cowboys of Rockyview Colony, but my head sometimes took vacations away from the cows.
The old cowbarn stood at the bottom of the long hill that gave us exactly 335 feet of snow to coast down with our wooden sleds in the winter. Behind that hill, which we called the Big Hill, the foothills rolled away to the Rocky Mountains. The barn held eighty-five dairy cows. They nudged each other back and forth , chewing hay and drinking water, then rested in their stalls, making milk. "That's their job," my uncle Dan, the cowman, had said. Out behind, in the corrals, five hundred feeder cattle feasted on barley and alfalfa, guzzled water, and made piles of manure. You could see them get fatter and meatier as the weeks went by. "That's their life," Dan-Vetter said.
My grandfather had talked about the olden days, when Rockyview had very little money. During the Dirty Thirties they sometimes didn't wake the babies up till noon because there was nothing to feed them for breakfast. But one thing God blessed them with was plenty of fieldstones when they broke the land up. They hauled the good ones with strong horses and stoneboats and built up the barn. The shakes too on the dual-pitched roof, weathered silvery as an old rock, were the very ones that Olvetter and his already dead brothers had nailed up there. And in the year I was born, the men added on the milking parlour. Boy, I was loaded with pride about that. The barn connected me with the olden days. It was my barn. Actually, it belonged to all of the 135 souls at Rockyview, but I was one of the cowboys.
Hufer Miechel and I rolled alfalfa bales off the haywagon. Below, my brother Jake set them onto the chain conveyer. Jake helped us do chores and milk the cows when Dan-Vetter was away.
Squeaking and rattling, the conveyer carried the bales through the doorway and to the feeding rack in the barn. The sweet and yeasty smell of alfalfa mingled with the dairy odour wafting through the barn door. To help the pasture along in midsummer, we fed the cows in the barn at afternoon chores. Some were already swaying home, their udders swollen with milk.
"Will Flat Willow ever get a quoter?" Miechel asked.
"It's called a quota!" I said. The dairy board allowed only a certain number of dairy cows on the market, just enough to supply the milk it could use. It could take many years before the new colony got one.
"Are you worried?" Miechel asked.
"Hell yes," I said.
Jake tossed up a dried cowpie. "Stop yakkin', you two, and keep those bales coming or I'll fire you." he called out.
I laughed. Jake couldn't fire us. He acted like a tough worldman, that's how he was. Jake was nineteen years old. He made forbidden money with coyotes every winter. With the pelt money he had bought an extra-wide-brimmed hat and a pair of cowboy boots from the store in Lethbridge. His boots were too showy for church, even. When he clumped up and down the boardwalks, you could hear him from two hundred feet away. Jake was handsome, my older sisters said, although he was often stubbly and didn't shave till the preachers had to remind him that people who weren't baptized and married yet weren't allowed to wear beards. They became especially stern when he grew a moustache. Moustaches were completely forbidden because they made you look too much like a soldier.
"Drink time," Jake said as he flicked off the switch on the conveyer. He jiggled his black pants to shake clinging hay off, and stepped over to the bale by the wall where a half-pack of beer waited. Hufer Miechel and I made big eyes.
"What the devil are you staring for?" Jake smirked as he twisted the bottle off a bottle. The bottle hissed.
"You know what Mother says."
"Oh yeah, I forgot, my brother is the preacher." Jake lifted the bottle to his mouth and his Adam's apple bobbed as he guzzled the beer down, grunting with satisfaction. When he came up for air, the bottle was already half empty. "She doesn't need to know about these, buster," he said.
In the milking parlour, Jake filled the stainless steel sink with warm water and I poured in a few ounces of chlorine disinfectant from a plastic jug. Jake made sure the suction cups on the racks were tight. Then he unscrewed the pipe that carried the milk to the stainless steel tank, and swung it over the sink.
"Okay boys, bring 'em in." My brother flicked the switch up and the pump whined into action. In seconds, the water was sloshing in the glass pipes overhead.
The cows were pushing against the holding pen gate. I swung it open. "Hi Betsy - hi Suzy - hi Daisy." I gave each cow a pat on the neck as they filed into the pen. Cows were my favorite animals. Especially the dairy cows. They were gentle and smooth, and you could tell by the way they blinked their eyes at you and slowly chewed their cuds that they were at peace.
A long time before, Jake had loved the cows too. I knew that because he had named many of them when he was the cowboy. But he wasn't serious anymore. "You're too serious," he always told me. I even drew westerns about a cowboy named The Cowboy Kid, that's how darn serious I was about being the cowboy. It was Jake who'd given me Billy the Kid and The Rawhide Kid comic books to read when I was ten, which got me started on my own westerns. But Jake didn't read much now. And he didn't really care about the cows either. If you'd have ever come to Rockyview Colony and met Jake, I'll bet he wouldn't even have mentioned the cows, even though the cows were most important to Rockyview. He'd probably have invited you over to the pigbarns instead for a drink with Kleinser Chuck, the pigman. He had stuck with the Kleinsers ever since my oldest sister Dorothea married into their clan. If you'd have asked him about that gun that disappeared back in Saskatchewan,, he'd have told you flat out to mind your own cottenpicken' business, to keep your nose out of our colony's affairs.
Inside the holding pen, the cows waited patiently for their turn to be let into the parlour, six at a time. We wiped the dirt and dust from their teats, then slipped on the milkers. The pump went tsketuk, tsketuk, tsketuk, tsketuk; the sound was like slaps of water inside a great cave. The sweet smell of raw milk and cows hung in the parlour, and the milk hurried along the pipes to the cooling tank.
"Go on out 'n feed the calves," Jake said, as he pulled another bottle of beer from his case. "I can handle 'em by myself for a while."
Madeline, the horse, was among the calves. She trotted toward us, eager to nuzzle our hands. I set the pail of barley chop down and reached up to pull her sweaty neck against my shoulder. "Boy oh boy," I said. "If I move I think I'll die, Madeline."
Madeline pulled up quickly and her halter flapped noisily. "No way, boy, you aren't moving," she seemed to say.
In the shine of her big, dark eyes I saw the Rockies and the blue sky. As Dan-Vetter's summer helper for two years, Hufer Miechel and I had had the privilege of riding Madeline. The elders elected one manager to every job in the community, and all the livestock managers then chose one or more helpers. When we rode Madeline in the foothills, I felt as if I was just my soul, free and alone like the wind. Hufer Miechel and I made it our secret job to protect the range cows from dangerous outlaws and wild beasts.
"Remember that time we rode too near the mountains and saw the lynx?" Miechel asked. "You told Madeline if she got us home safely, you would brush her coat every day for three weeks."
I laughed. "And I kept my promise, didn't I?"
The brethren were coming from the big school. My mother said the cooks in the kuchel wouldn't need to delay supper after all. Women and children were waiting on the boardwalks. I lined up too. Suddenly the high-pitched whine of the milking pump at the cowbarn went dead. My uncle Dan's woman, who did the cleaning up, had just shut it off. My father, Dan-Vetter, Josh-Vetter, and Olvetter were coming toward us. Behind them walked Hufer Miechel's father. Anna and Judy blocked the men's path.
"Father, are we moving? Are we?" They bounced and flapped their arms.
Anna had told me most of the school girls at Rockyview had already polished their low-style shoes, starched their polka-dot kerchiefs and packed apple cases full with their stuff. And now, Anna and Judy were showing off their new calico skirts and bodices that my older sisters had made for wearing at Flat Willow Colony. That's how sure they were they'd move.
"We'll be on Kleinser Isaac's side." My father acted as if it was just a small thing.
"But father, tell us where our preacher will be."
He grinned. "Well, let's see -- "
"Zack, stop teasing the children." My mother was also waiting on the steps. Her whole body bounced to her laugh.
"We won't be living in Alberta any more," he said, and my sisters hopped with glee on the boardwalks. They rushed into the house to tell the older sisters, whose faces were in the windows. Every house at Rockyview had faces in the windows.
"What about Hufer Miechel's family?" I asked.
"Not everybody can move," my father said.
Hufer Miechel's father strode in the same determined way he always did, but his face told a different story. Miechel and Maria and all the Hufer children ran to greet him at their unit. He put his arm around Miechel and Maria.
"We're staying," he said. "And we'll be here for at least another fifteen years now. Let's go help you mother unpack those boxes."
In the foyer of our unit, my sisters chattered like geese over fresh grass. My older sisters had seen the new colony already, when they'd gone to Saskatchewan to paint the communal dining hall and the kuchel. They'd raved plenty about Flat Willow. I figured their heads had been up in the clouds ever since. But I stood at the window, silent, stubborn. I remembered a drawing of God's finger pointing down from heaven, chasing Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. I flashed away quickly. I didn't want to think about God speaking to me.
Anna walked up behind me and
carelessly placed a hand on my shoulder. "Hi Gooseboy,"
Copyright © 1991 by Samuel Hofer. All rights reserved.