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More Stories - The Way We Were
Crows, Corn and Robber's Cave
Think for a moment about the classic drawing of a witch's house. Tall, a bit crooked and ramshackle, perhaps with odd additions, peaks and/or cupolas sticking out, and usually surrounded by a swarm of bats flying in the sky. Only use black crows instead of bats. Got it?
I mentioned before that we lived on the edge of the Salt River flood plain in Lincoln, Nebraska. South, west and a block north and east there were more flats, prone to flooding. Further east was a gentle rise; a block north a fairly steep one. Go east two blocks and there was a rise to the south, up to a sandstone ridge and a knobby bluff, unlike most rolling hills in Nebraska. On weekends and summers when I didn't have a job, I liked to explore on an old fat-tired Schwinn bike that came with our rental, rusting in the garage. Riding up the hills was hard work, but worth it as I loved to explore, either on foot cross-country or on the reconditioned bike. I often went east two blocks to a highway, and turned south up a hill. Near the top was a park with an unusual number of trees for Nebraska; a rolling road crossing it, a few playground items and small basketball court. At the hill top was a house bearing the sign "Jesse James Hideout". One had to pay to get in; a small building like an outhouse outside held a light switch and a steep staircase down, down into the bowels of the earth. This was Robbers Cave, known by the early Pawnee Indians as a sacred place and in the 1800's a stop on the Underground Railroad by escaping slaves. It was also reputed to be a hideout for Jesse James and his gang after some robberies. The owner of the bluff and entrance would charge less when a group of us kids would get together to explore, with a flashlight in case the lights went off. A large main room was well lit and furnished with picnic tables, a barbeque carved into the side with a cast iron grill, a smoke-hole above giving a little light; the rest of the extensive cave was dark. Read about this reputedly haunted feature at http://www.hauntedplaces.org/item/robbers-cave-van-dorn-park/
Past the bluff, there was a long, steep hill, at the bottom was the grim gray state penitentiary and a mental hospital, on the other side a miniature golf attraction. I was always tempted to coast down the hill but the thought of the long walk up, pushing the old bicycle, always deterred me.
One day going to the park, I noticed a small curving dirt road leading down west toward the flats. I had never noticed it before; on impulse I took it. At the bottom was a vast flat, broken only by an old house on a very tall stone foundation, with a high stone staircase leading to the front door. Whatever color it had been, the paint was so peeled and faded it was neutral. Quite a few windows had been broken and replaced with cardboard; the chimney was beginning to crumble; a couple of small scrubby cottonwoods grew at one corner. A small shed on a little rise was for chickens running loose, and two nanny goats were tethered on long chains to look for scrub to eat. Most of the surrounding ground was covered with field corn plants, already showing tinges of yellow from the heat and lack of rain. I was about thirteen; a fellow about a year or two older, followed by billy goat, came out to say hello and ask what I needed. I explained that I was just exploring. I was leery of the goat, having had bad experiences in the past. He assured me this one was very tame and brought him over for me to pet. The goat sniffed me up and down but was a good natured fellow and affectionate.
I've always been a good judge of character at first meeting and felt I was perfectly safe with this young man. "My mother's at work and I'm taking care of things while she's gone," he said. "Wait a minute." He went to an opening in the foundation where there was obviously a storeroom, came out with a tin can of cracked corn and scattered it for the chickens. Then he noticed a huge flock of noisy crows descending into the corn field. "Wait here," he said. He ran to the house and came out with a shotgun. He fired a shot in the direction of the crows, who scattered in a panic. "They'll be back again; would you like to try a shot when they do?" I was often up for anything, I agreed. He showed me everything about the shotgun, and explained about the force it would exert backwards when fired. He showed me how to hold it, telling me to bunch my shirt up behind the stock as a cushion, and to grip it VERY TIGHTLY against my shoulder when I pulled the trigger. Soon the crows returned en masse. He gave me the shotgun, reminded me about the backlash when it fired, and told me to aim just at the tops of the cornstalks. I followed instructions, and the entire flock, cawing in panic, rose up and raced away. "They won't be back today," he said, as I returned the shotgun. "You better go now. I really enjoyed your visit but you shouldn't ever come back again." No explanation; I could think of many reasons as to why, but I knew he was right. I thanked him for everything, and said goodbye.
I have often thought of him. He was good looking, well-groomed, nicely dressed in old worn clothes, diplomatic and a gentleman despite his poverty-mired circumstances. How did they heat any part of the house in Nebraska's often dire winters? How did he get to school if he actually went - and what did they do when the Salt River overflowed? Did they bring the goats inside? How did they till the land and plant the corn seed; what did they do with it when it was dry? What happened to him when he reached manhood? These are the speculations that stuck in the mind, even as I wished him the best.