FOOTPRINTS ON WATER
by Ken Allen
When I look out over the muddy
Bear River, now choked with cattails and carp, I see my footprints. The
river once ran clear and carelessly through Papa's bottomlands as I once
did. The day I raced across that soft loam prickly with straw, I left those
footprints among the stubble. By the time I climbed that wooden rail trestle
I was too late. Water now floods the plain, covering forever my footprints-and
I was born over in that
farmhouse on the bluff above the river. But I grew up in that field, down
where the cattails now crowd the rotten trestle, down where we once raised
alfalfa. I can almost smell the green pungence of a fresh cutting blowing
across the rutted road. Cows gave milk as sweet as ice cream when they
were fed on our moist silage. Grandpa Roundy dry farmed hard red winter
wheat over on the west side. His fences along the bench held back the tumbleweed
and buck brush driven down the hills by the chilly whistling wind. He had
a hard time keeping help. More than one hand started on a furrow at dawn
and quit the team and plow under attack of the high sun even before reaching
the far road.
Uncle Ern raised sweet corn. In the
late summer I'd ride my pony along the wide furrows between ripe stalks
so high I'd lose sight of the craggy caps of the eastern mountains in the
sea of tassel and silk. My people took up old Jim Bridger's wager. Bridger
bet us Mormons a bushel of gold against the first bushel of corn grown
here in Cache Valley. This place is so high and bitter the winters make
the North Pole seem warm. We have summers so short that spring snow hardly
melts before the fall blizzards. But Bridger didn't know what we could
do. He lost his bet.
Summer mornings, I loved
to chase the scrambling varmints and chattering crickets off the river
path on my way back from driving the cows out toward Grandpa's spread.
That all changed when Cutler Dam turned back the two forks of the Bear
into this stinking swamp. It's just as well. It hides the tears we shed
I once wondered why both my folks
moved here. When I saw the raw desert of Grandpa's home in Teasdale in
the southern Utah highlands, I knew why Papa loved the rich loam in these
bottomlands, warm and protected from the wind. It was so different from
the barren red sand and sun that made hell seem cool and green. Mama's
people came here before Papa. Mama walked behind the wagon all the way
up here from Escalante when she was just eight. Uncle Ern followed Papa
here to homestead the west side of this valley. And then right here in
Benson Ward he met and fell in love with Mama's sister Leone. We called
her Miss Roundy at school. I could understand why he loved her so much.
They were married for forever in the Temple, that special place protecting
the east bench of this ancient lake bed like a king's castle.
I was eleven that late afternoon in
'23 as I drove the cows down the rutted, dusty path along the bottomlands.
Uncle Ern rumbled toward me in his nifty new Model T, honking to urge the
herd. His arm hung out the window through slip-knotted loops in long braided
ropes tied to a makeshift stanchion. The flat leather straps of blinderless
halters stretched against the strain of the three compact draft horses.
The ropes hummed from the combined vibrations of truck and team as the
mares heaved and snorted. Their haunches rippled each time they reared
to a backfire, rocking the rickety carriage. The ground shook each instant
the huge hairy hooves vanished into roiling dust. That span was well-matched.
In Papa's good hands they won every tractor pull I ever saw. Papa would
never sell them. Uncle Ern never drove them. That day they had no mind
to leave their own barn. With his free hand Uncle Ern shaded his brow below
his flame red hair as he pulled up beside me. "Your papa's gone to fetch
your Ma and your new baby sister from the hospital. So hurry your chores
while I feed your pa's team. Then let's all have supper and welcome home
your new sister!" he shouted over the engine din.
"You bet!" I waved excitedly.
I jerked the lead ropes then urged him and the team on past me. Uncle Ern
headed off into the low sun toward his barn. Beaming, he moved as if to
lift his hand. The ropes rippled, cutting his wave short as the chestnut
mare jerked her head back. Ern just roared. I chuckled too as the team
thundered by me, flipping manes and tails after the clattering machine.
Our echoless laughter floated up with the stirring dust of the dry road.
I was anxious to see my new sister for
the first time-Afton, Papa named her, after
the town in Wyoming where he worked last winter. It would be a grand family
supper: fresh trout and corn-on-the-cob to stick in your teeth and homemade
biscuits, smothered in butter right from the churn, washed down with raw
milk chilled in the ice box I'd just filled with an ice block from our
sawdust pit. I'd rather play with my cousins than haul heavy ice. They
loved hide and seek or run, sheep, run. I wanted to show little John E.
how the big boys pulled sticks. Lazy summer days were meant for fishing
for trout near as big as the migrating geese. My brothers and I would take
our bamboo poles and homemade hooks and catch a dozen along those bottomlands
where the stream ran fast and clear. Or we'd try to turn our freckled faces
into bronzed bodies, then cool the sizzling skin with a launch from the
rope swing hanging from the willow over the pool.
Uncle Ern rushed off west toward the
bend beyond the trestle, straining and jerking against the horses. My cows
lumbered on ahead east as I trailed. They were anxious to be milked. Swallows
skimmed along the stream seeking mosquitoes. A whistle wailed behind me
from the growling evening freight on the Oregon Short Line beyond the river
heading from the north for Logan across the valley to the east. Its huffing
sigh was lost among the chirping and buzzing and chatter of the summer
afternoon. Smoke from the distant locomotive rose like a dark Chinese dragon
to chase the sunlit clouds drifting eastward toward the reddening darkness.
Clattering cars crawled up the river and down the valley, leaving a wake
spreading across the ripe wheat fields like a boat riding on a golden sea.
The snake headed past the west bend encircling Grandpa's grain elevators,
elevators standing guard over the vast fields filled with the wealth of
Grandpa had given the right-of-way across
his western spread to get that spur line past his place. He could then
ship his crops free to market. No need to haul endless freight wagons stacked
high with gunny sacks. The Short Line even put a station behind his elevators
and barns. The name fit: Cache Junction. There the Bear bent around the
point of the mountain, just the right place for a spur over the bottomlands
and back across the valley. Grandpa's place was like an island at the hub
of paths and tracks and water. There the river disappeared in the southern
marshes, and the northern tracks swept eastward out of the mountain sun,
then across the lane onto the trestle over the bottomlands toward the far
side of the valley.
Shadows had begun to creep across the
bottomlands that lazy summer afternoon as I turned away from the glare.
It was a perfect time for a boy wondering what it was to be a man. What
made a man like Uncle Ern so great? A wonderful wife and two children?
John E. Junior was just now crawling, and Verlye would soon start at her
mother's one-room schoolhouse up the river across from the church.
The whistle of the freight wailed behind
me beyond the tall corn. It wailed again as its pitch dropped. I paid no
attention as I watched my shadow race ahead of me toward the corral. I
had a lot of stock to feed and milk before supper, but then I could play.
The smoke from our kitchen chimney wafted away in the breeze, inviting
me to hurry toward Aunt Leone's hot biscuits and fresh butter.
I spun as the horses thundered by my
right shoulder, brushing me back, their heads outstretched toward home,
alone, dragging reins in the dust. I nearly tripped on a thin tumbling
stump still bound in rope.
I winced. I had to look away. I raised
my eyes. The locomotive ground slowly east to an unscheduled stop on the
trestle above the bottomlands. It pushed a hulk ahead of it. I turned away.
The sun flashed off the kitchen windows where Aunt Leone was pulling out
the biscuits. Someone had to tell her.
THE DESERET NEWS
Benson Farmer Meets Death
in Train-Auto Smash
Horses Being Led Held Machine on Tracks
Logan. Aug. 2--Refusal of a team to cross a railroad track
ahead of a train cost Benson farmer J.E. Allen his life today. Allen 28
was enroute to his ranch with his team tied behind his car. At a grade
crossing of the Oregon Short Line a short distance south of Cache Junction
he noted the freight train coming and put on more speed. The horses held
back. According to the engineer he was unable to stop the train. He reported
that the horses were pulling back so strongly that the machine would be
When the train struck the auto, the
rope broke freeing the horses. They raced away unhurt. The machine was
carried 300 yards down the track. Allen was killed practically instantly.
Allen is survived by his wife Leone
Roundy Allen, his two children Verlye Allen 3 and John Ernest Allen 11
Oct. 20, 1999 (c) 1999 KRA