New Mexico/Texas Border
It was George Scott’s first night out of Portales, New Mexico. He was driving his herd of four-year-old Herefords northeast to the nearest railhead, which was in Amarillo, Texas, a distance of a hundred and twenty miles. With only forty head to market, he could manage with just himself, Whitey, his Australian shepherd, and two horses, Nugget and Buster. The path he was following was far enough east of the main trail through Texico that there was ample good grass for the herd. His beeves would arrive fatter than they’d started. In a few more days, he’d have to ford the Catfish River, and from there, follow Castro Creek for the last fifty miles or so until he came to the Atchinson-Topeka tracks, which would lead him right into Amarillo.
Near midnight, he was asleep and dreaming in his bedroll out in the tall grass with Whitey at his feet. In his dream, George was a boy again among his Winnebago Indian friends, clean-skinning his first beaver pelt. He had just made the long cut from the anus to the neck and begun pulling the skin back along one side. It was slippery and hard to hold. A couple of skinny boys his age were watching, unconsciously miming the movements his knife and hands should make to separate the skin from the fat and muscle, now and then laughing at his clumsiness.
Embarrassed, he forgot to carefully remove the valuable castor gland before continuing, inadvertently nicking it. This released the powerful marking scent, which sent the young boys back a few feet, holding their noses and laughing even harder. A young man stepped in, took George’s knife, showed him how to save what he could of the gland, then demonstrated the technique of sliding the knife at a low angle to strip the skin from the fatty layer beneath without sawing through the skin. There was little blood. As George took the knife back, he was thinking of the pistol he would buy after he’d accumulated enough good pelts. Then the beaver became a chicken he had just beheaded, running around headless, flapping its wings and squirting blood from its neck as he began chasing it around the barnyard of his family home, with the Indian boys inexplicably there, still laughing at him.
Whitey’s muffled “woof,” barely louder than a breath, startled George awake. He was lying on his back, a saddlebag for a pillow, as his eyes opened to a million sharp stars spread over a cloudless sky, with a quarter moon low on the horizon. He could dimly see the dog at his feet hunkered down on his belly in the long grass, pointing back the way they’d come with the cattle that day, but heard only the sound of crickets chirping.
He rose to a sitting position in his bedroll, his Winchester 86, with a round chambered, already in his grip, his pulse suddenly hammering in his chest. He could see Whitey in the faint light glancing quickly at him over his left shoulder to make sure he was awake, and then the dog’s head, ears cocked, turned back toward something he’d heard. George heard it faintly then, the sound of two or three men on foot doing their best to be quiet, the legs of their pants shushing as they headed toward the tent George had pitched earlier some hundred feet from the spot in the tall grass where he and Whitey now lay. From farther out, he heard a horse mutter softly.
Travelers at night who meant no harm, George thought, would have announced their presence, still on horseback, from a hundred yards out by hollering, “Hello the tent!” They’d have waited patiently for a response, perhaps calling again, to avoid arousing the suspicions George was now having. These men’s intentions weren’t good, but George gave them the benefit of the doubt for the moment as they continued toward the tent.
Whitey was making faint pawing motions, his anxiety building as his nose tracked the men. George could feel his pulse already slowing in his temples as he realized there was no immediate danger, and his hands were steady. The cool, faint breeze coming from the direction of his tent carried with it the scent of cow manure, flowering sage and spring grasses, and no doubt that of the men Whitey had sensed. George rolled out of his bedroll and into a semi-kneeling position. He braced his left elbow on his knee, the rifle stock in his left hand, his right index finger on the trigger, the muzzle tracking the men as best he could in the dim light.
He could make out the silhouettes of two men against the sky as they neared the tent George had set up as a decoy. The nearer they got to it, the slower and quieter they moved, until at last they stopped, one man in front of the tent flaps, the other at the side. Then both men began firing into the tent. Without hesitation, George began firing at them as their muzzle flashes illuminated them like a photographer’s flash powder. Whitey leaped to his feet.
George jacked and fired four rounds in rapid succession and was fairly certain he’d dropped both men. Whitey could hardly contain himself from charging them. “Stay, Whitey,” George said in a low voice, and Whitey looked at him, nervously licking his chops, but did as he was told. There was silence and darkness for a moment. George, who was not a religious man, gave silent thanks to fate that his cattle hadn’t stampeded. He had always been a great believer in conditioning his livestock to the sound of gunfire, and here was the proof of that pudding.
Now he heard moaning, then low-pitched words he could not make out, and then another voice, louder than the moaning, saying, “You’ve killed him, you son of a bitch! Now come get me!” The men stayed down, and George did not move. The moaning turned to crying, and George believed then that the man was mortally wounded. Still he did not move. There was no profit in it. No doubt either of the men would still kill him if given the chance, and he had no way of knowing how much ammunition they had left in the event he foolishly gave it to them.
Instead, he watched and listened. The sobbing continued from the same direction. By now, if he were able, that one would be making for his horse. He was not so sure about the one who’d spoken. He was fairly certain that man had been hit as well, but had no way of knowing how badly. Likely he’d be running too if he could, but no telling. Then the same man spoke again.
“Come on, you bastard! Let’s finish this!”
The voice seemed to come from the same place, and sounded young, like a boy barely old enough to shave. The voice was strong, so probably, George figured, he’d been hit in an arm or a leg; somewhere not quickly lethal.
George finally spoke out. “I ain’t in no hurry to finish it. But then, I ain’t leaking from any bullet holes. Your friend don’t sound so good, and you’re likely gonna bleed out before long. Why don’t you leave your pistol where it is, and walk over here to me with your hands way over your head. Then you and me’ll walk back and have a look at your friend. If he’s able, you two can leave the guns and get the hell out of here, and maybe live through this.”
The answer came back shakily. “He can’t move. You gut-shot him, you bastard. And I can’t walk because your goddamned bullet broke my leg bone.”
“Ain’t that a hell of a note,” George replied. “Then I guess then I’ll just have to wait for you to bleed out.”
“You bloody bastard!” called the second man, nearly sobbing himself.
George had no intention of staying put because he didn’t know whether the man was telling the truth. Now the man knew his approximate location and might already be headed his way. He went from his kneeling position to all fours, and keeping his eyes focused on where the men had fallen, he began circling to his left, shielded by the tall grass, with Whitey following silently. It was difficult going, what with keeping the rifle off the ground as he crawled. Something needle-sharp worked its way into his boot and scratched him most of the way, but he could not stop and remove it. After ten minutes or so, he had worked himself around the tent, directly opposite where he’d been before, and then he began moving in toward the tent. When he got close the sobbing stopped.
“Jimmy, I b’lieve I’m givin’ up the ghost,” he heard a new voice say, barely above a whisper.
“Stay with me, Bill. Just stay with me,” the other said in a worried hush.
“Don’t you tell nobody I was cryin’ like a baby. Promise me you won’t.”
“I promise, Bill. An’ I’ll be here waiting for that bastard when he figgers me for dead and comes lookin’ for his gear. I can last all night.”
George used the cover of their conversation to get close enough to peer over the tall grass and see the two of them, barely distinguishable in the starlight. Jimmy, a scrawny kid maybe eighteen, was sitting on the tramped-down grass with the sod hard beneath it, leaning against the center pole of the tent, legs spread out before him, his pistol in his lap. Bill, a beefy man twice Jimmy’s age, was on his back to Jimmy’s right, clothing black with his blood, his breathing ragged.
George stood up, pointing his rifle at them. “Best you not make any sudden moves,” he said. Whitey stood too, poised to lunge if necessary.
Startled, Jimmy’s head whirled to look at George, who had come up on his left side. George could feel but not see the hatred in the boy’s eyes. “You sonofabitch!” he spat. “My kin’ll hunt you down for you for what you done to us.”
George spat into the grass. “Not if they’s as chickenshit as you two. I don’t reckon they’ll want a piece o’what you got. Now you take that pistol by the barrel real slow and lay it over as close to me as you can.”
Jimmy did as he was told, mumbling curses and threats. With his finger on the rifle trigger and the muzzle on Jimmy, George used his left hand to pick up the pistol, noted it had been reloaded, put the safety on, and jammed it into the back of his pants under his belt.
“Where’s his pistol?”
“Right where he dropped it, I reckon. Find it your own damned self.”
“Believe I will. You just keep on whisperin’ sweet nothin’s to Bill while I do that.” He slowly parted the tent flaps, never taking his eyes off the pair, and reached in for his lantern. He pulled it out and set it on the ground next to Jimmy, then pulled a wooden match from his shirt pocket and tossed it to the ground beside the lantern. “Light that lantern.”
Jimmy struck the match deftly with a flick of his thumbnail. The flare of the match was almost blinding to their eyes accustomed to the night. He opened the window of the lantern, adjusted the wick up a notch, and applied the match to the wick. Jimmy closed the window and adjusted the wick until it stopped smoking. The two men wore dirty, grey, woolen trousers punctured by moth holes. Jimmy’s wool plaid shirt was frayed at the cuffs, the color gone muddy with stains and dirt. Bill made do with what looked like an old night shirt tucked into his pants. The yellow light revealed Jimmy’s gaunt face, with a fuzzy beard growing along his jaw line and bunching up on his chin. Bill’s beard was ragged and stained with tobacco juice under his lip. His eyes were nearly closed, but they watched George.
“Now put the lantern over towards me.”
Again, Jimmy followed orders. George took the lantern and, swinging it like a brakeman on a train, inspected the immediate area for the pistol. Not seeing it, he instructed Jimmy to roll Bill onto his side to be certain the pistol was not hidden beneath him. Protesting profanely, Jimmy complied as gently as he could. Bill moaned “Oh, shit!” in a surprisingly strong voice. There was nothing beneath him. George, with Whitey following, quickly located Bill’s pistol in the grass beside the tent. He said “Whitey, stay,” and leaned his rifle against the dog’s rib cage. He picked up the pistol, opened the cylinder, and shook out the brass. No live rounds remained. He closed the cylinder and retrieved his rifle, then walked back around and tossed the empty pistol into the tent. Then he switched his rifle to his left hand and pulled Jimmy’s pistol out of his belt. He moved to look down on the pair, keeping Jimmy’s pistol trained on them. Bill appeared lifeless. George lightly kicked the sole of Bill’s boot.
“You still with us, Bill?” Bill didn’t react. By the looks of all the blood, nearly black in the lamplight, if he was alive he wouldn’t be for long. The big slug had entered from the back and blown a good-sized hole out his front, missing his heart but taking with it a good chunk of his innards. Jimmy’s wound appeared to be what he’d described. His left thigh was bloody, but the wound didn’t appear to be bleeding much now, which meant the slug had probably taken mostly thigh muscle and missed the big arteries.
“Whyn’t you leave him the hell alone?” Jimmy asked. “Ain’t gut-shootin’ him enough for you?”
“He shot at me first, didn’t he? You dumb hunk of shit.”
Jimmy’s eyes popped wide in his outrage. “You wasn’t even in the tent! How could he be shootin’ at you?”
George stared at him for a moment. “Now, if that ain’t the stupidest goddamned thing I ever heard, I can’t recall what is.”
Jimmy started to speak but George pointed the pistol at his forehead. “Don’t piss me off, sonny. Now who are you birds?”
“None o’ yer goddamned business,” Jimmy spat. “I don’t want you knowin’ who’s comin’ after you until his pistol is blowin’ your guts out like you did Bill.”
Bill unexpectedly laughed, or tried to, but it sounded like a bloody cough, and he grinned. George’s pistol snapped out and shot him in the head. Jimmy’s arm flew up to cover his face. When a second shot didn’t come immediately, he slowly lowered his arm. With eyes bugged out and jaw hanging to his chest, he looked at Bill’s shattered face and the blood and brains on the ground behind it, and tried to speak, but nothing came out.
George said like a man commenting on the chance of rain, “Bill wouldn’ta made it anyhow. I did him a favor. Now I ain’t gonna ask you again.”
Jimmy finally found his voice, nearly shrieking, “God damn you, you rotten prick! You dirty…”
George cut him off by stomping Jimmy’s bloody thigh. Jimmy gasped with the pain, eyes again popping out as he clutched his leg and mouthed epithets. George put the pistol under his belt behind his back. He took cigarette makings out of his shirt pocket, and expertly rolled a cigarette. He struck a match as Jimmy had and lit the smoke, then took out the pistol once again and sat down on his haunches, blowing smoke toward Jimmy. Whitey lay down beside him. “You feel like talkin’ now?”
“Cotter!” Jimmy shouted through clenched teeth. “I’m a goddamned Cotter and you’re a goddamned dead man for what you done!”
George dragged on the cigarette and looked into space. “Cotter. There’s some Cotters live in a little shithole a few miles north’a my place, ain’t got a pot to piss in. You related to them?”
“Eat cow shit.”
George stuck his cigarette between his lips and swung the pistol toward Jimmy. “Yer tryin’ my patience, sonny. Now answer me.”
“Hell, no. Don’t know the sons’abitches.”
George shot him in the left boot. Jimmy’s eyes went wild and he strangled a scream.
“All right, goddamnit! Melvin Cotter’s my father.”
“An’ that pile of rabbit pellets next to you, who’s he?”
“A friend of my daddy.”
“Bill Hubbard. His brothers’ll be lookin’ for you too when they hear.”
“Not if they got any sense. Where’s Bill call home?”
“Texico, damn you!”
“How’d you boys know I’d be runnin’ cattle out this way tonight?”
“You just gonna let me bleed to death while I answer your damned questions?”
“Well, if ya don’t feel like talkin’, I can just shoot’cha right now. You gonna answer or not?”
Jimmy grimaced with the pain. “Bill was down visiting my kinfolk in Portales. He was in the general store to buy a bottle an’ heard you talkin’ to the clerk while you was buying supplies. You told him you was runnin’ some cattle up to Amarillo tonight. Bill asked me if I wanted to make some easy money.”
“Did he ask yer daddy?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Why not? Ain’t they old friends?”
“My daddy’s got the piles and don’t ride much anymore.”
“You got brothers?”
“Damned right I do! An’ you best believe they’ll see you get what Bill got.”
George pointed the revolver at him. “Quick now. Names and ages.”
Jimmy began to realize he might be signing their death warrants, and wished he’d denied having brothers. He tried desperately to organize his brain through his pain and his growing fear, but George used his pistol to poked Jimmy’s wounded thigh to hasten his answer. Jimmy gasped. “J-j-jake! He’s fifteen. An’… an’ H-harvey. Seventeen.”
“So why ain’t they here?”
“Bill said they’s mama’s boys and the two of us was enough. No sense havin’ to split the money up. That was okay by me ‘cause I’s afraid they’d tell Pa an’ he mighta tried to stop me.”
George nodded again. “So you figgered you’d show your little brothers ya got a big pair of balls when you come home with a fistful of cash. That how it was?”
Jimmy snorted in an attempt at bravado.
“Where’d ya tell yer folks you was goin’?”
“Said I was gonna ride back to Texico with Bill an’ have a look around for a day or two. That way we’d have plenty of time to get the cattle sold off before I went back.”
George ignored him then, just sat on his haunches smoking and staring at the ground until Jimmy resumed moaning with the pain.
“Oh, sweet Jesus it hurts,” he said, nearly crying. “Ain’t you gonna help me?” Jimmy was gripping his thigh with both hands, trying to stop the blood flowing from his wounds.
George roused himself. He reached over and tugged Bill’s belt off his waist and strapped it above the wound on Jimmy’s thigh.
“Loosen that up ever’ few minutes,” he said, then tighten it again. He sat back on his haunches. “How old’re you?”
George nodded and dragged on his cigarette. A bit of smoke drifted into his eye and stung; he squinted it away and picked a fleck of tobacco off his tongue. For a minute or two he seemed lost in thought. Whitey’s head dropped onto his crossed front legs, then he sighed and closed his eyes.
Finally George spoke. “I surely don’t appreciate the position you put me in.”
Reality flooded in on Jimmy then, and the last of his courage melted away. “You’re gonna kill me, ain’tcha?”
“You got a better idea?”
“You could let me go. That was all talk about them comin’ after you. I’d tell my kin what we did. My old man’d say we had it comin’. Hell, I’d tell ‘em to leave you alone! An’ I couldn’t come after you on these legs even I wanted to an’ don’t die of gangrene. I learned my lesson, I swear it!”
“Yeah, an’ I got a pig that flies and shits gold bars.” George spat on the ground. “You ain’t never gonna admit you and that gutbucket tried to murder me in my sleep and take the only things I got between me and my family starvin’. You’d tell ‘em some wild tale about how I wuz the one tried to rob you when you wuz out for a romantic night ride with yer buddy there, an’ you barely got away with yer life after I ambushed you, killed him and shot you full o’ holes. Leastwise if you’n him never come back, they won’t know fer sure what happened, assumin’ yer tellin’ me the truth, an’ maybe I won’t have to sleep with one eye open the rest o’ my life.” He stood up, dropped the remains of his cigarette, and ground it into the dirt. “I hope they ain’t good trackers.”
Jimmy saw it then, that George’s eyes had turned cold and resigned, and he started blubbering. His bladder let go. “You ain’t gotta do this, mister. Please don’t do it. I’m too young to die.”
“I wisht you’da thought about that before you set out to kill me. Now if yer a prayin’ man, you best get it done.”
“Lord God almighty, sir. You don’t have to do this! Please!”
“I’m afraid I do, son. Pray or not. It’s up to you.”
Jimmy stared at George with his mouth open for a few seconds, then his head dropped in resignation. Through his sobbing he began to recite the 23rd Psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd, he leadeth me through green pastures…” He was cut short by the .45 caliber bullet that ripped through his brain and blew out the other side of his head.
George stood over the two bodies, his jaw set tight. Whitey had come to stand beside him, and looked up at George, brows knitted. “Damned shame this kid come lookin’ for money in the wrong place. An’ that worthless sonofabitch,” he said, pointing the revolver at Bill, “should’a known better.” He reached down with his left hand to scratch Whitey’s head between his ears the way he liked. And then his right arm, still holding the pistol, began trembling, and would not stop until he had put the pistol in its holster and busied himself with cleaning up the mess. He knew he wouldn’t get any more sleep that night.
By sunrise, George had stripped the bodies to facilitate easy scavenging by predators and carrion eaters. He hated to do men that way, but burying them was out of the question. There was no time; he had only a small shovel, and the sod was hard from lack of rain. He found Buster, hobbled and grazing with the cattle, and saddled him. He tied the bodies behind the horse and dragged them a good distance away to an arroyo where the next hard rain would wash away any bones that might remain after the scavengers had done their work. With a branch from a mesquite tree he brushed away the tracks he’d left. Their clothes he burned where his campfire had been, stirring the fire until no traces remained, and then burying the ashes.
All the while he was debating long and hard about what to do with their weapons, boots, tack and horses. If he were found with any of it, it would look bad for him, even though by rights he should keep it all. If he tried to sell any of their belongings in Amarillo, they’d be too easy to trace back to him by anyone who bothered to look. He could turn the horses loose to find their way home, but that would advertise that the men were dead. A good tracker would be able to follow them back to where the two men had met their end. But if the horses’ trail simply merged with that of his outfit, there’d be no telling what had happened here. In any event, taking the horses would confuse the issue.
In the end he figured his best bet would be to bring the horses and gear along until he got near a small encampment of Comanche wigwams along the Catfish River two or three nights from now. He had good relations with them, having given them a nickel a head on a couple of occasions for the privilege of grazing his herd in “their” territory, which was a polite fiction. Their main reservation was in Oklahoma and these were peaceful stragglers who were left alone because they weren’t worth the trouble for the BIA to uproot and move. This time he would give them the two horses, as well as all the rest of the men’s possessions but for the small amount of silver he’d found in their pockets. He knew that in the highly unlikely event a white man ever saw the horses or the other things again, the Comanche would lie and say the horses had wandered into their camp, gear and all, rather than admit the actual circumstances and implicate themselves. He’d also gain the side benefit of increased stature among the Comanche for having killed the two rustlers, and save some money in the bargain. For such a bonanza, he probably could negotiate for free passage indefinitely.
By first light, he’d packed up his own things, including the bullet-riddled tent. Then he mounted Buster and began rounding up the herd, Whitey doing most of the work. He ran the cattle over his campsite until they had trampled the blood into the soil and their grazing had made the site blend into the surrounding grazed area. If he were asked, he would deny ever seeing the two men.
Vultures were circling lower and lower over the bodies, where bluebottle flies were already buzzing in a swarm, feeding and laying their eggs. Every other hungry scavenger and predator in the area would see and follow the vultures, and soon they’d all be fighting over the remains. By the next morning, their flesh would be gone and their bones scattered for miles around. There was cause for neither sadness nor celebration. The would-be rustlers had gotten what nature intended for men who couldn’t survive by their own wits and industry. It was an ugly business, a thing done that had had to be done, and the sooner forgotten the better. He put Nugget on a lead rope with the rustlers’ horses and began moving the herd northeast, with Whitey busy keeping the cattle from wandering off into the lush prairie grasses stirred by the wind into gentle waves.
He never looked back.
It was clear practically from the moment of his birth on October 21, 1866, in Winnebago, Wisconsin, that George Edgar Scott would be his own person. He was devoid of baby fat, demanding and willful, rarely cried, and seldom clung to his mother except when at her breast. If his mother tried to take it from him before he was sated, he would pinch her so hard with his little fist that she would shriek from the pain, which caused him to chortle charmingly. He began getting into things as soon as he could crawl, at about nine months. By age one he was walking and had begun talking, but for the rest of his life rarely had much to say, speaking only when necessary and in short phrases, as though he were allowed a finite number of words to speak in his lifetime, and could not bear to waste them.
His mother, Laura, was a plain-looking woman who parted her hair in the middle and wore it in braids, though her smile, seen only rarely, brought out the best aspects of her facial features and left one wishing to see it more often. A kind woman at heart, she was very reserved in displaying affection, either by word or deed, to anyone, including her husband. The older her first-born became, the less she touched him at all, as if she had some misguided belief that all flesh is evil. George learned by the age of two or three that it was of no use to go to her for comfort on the few occasions he needed it, because the best he got was a pat on the head and the words, “Now, now, it’ll be all right.” But she did love him. She would say of him that although he was a handful to manage, at least he was nearly always cheerful and bright.
Rebelling at first over toilet training, he soon seemed to realize that using the privy was better than enduring the indignity of having his diaper changed, or worse, walking around in a soiled diaper. By the time he was walking well the diapers went into the linen closet to await the next child. After that the majority of the effort in raising him went into keeping him from disassembling everything his little hands could grab. He wanted to know what made everything tick. It was not play, it was serious business. When he ran out of things to take apart, he was inclined to wander far and wide. His father, George Goundry Scott, who was good at training animals, soon trained the family dog to track the boy when he could not be found. On one occasion George Junior, barely three years old, was found over a mile from home, engrossed in watching a farmer plow his field.
The elder George was the middle son of Scottish immigrants. He was a wiry man with a narrow, straight nose and mutton-chop sideburns, shrewd in his business affairs, a cooper by trade. He was impatient with his toddler son, who was not as easy to train as his animals. In fact, he did not care much for children, although he recognized them as necessities who would help in the family business and, later in life, take care of their aging parents. He rarely had any interaction with the boy before he turned eight, other than judging what chores he was capable of.
The family’s riding horses, Eliza and Zeke, also pulled the buggy. They fascinated the young George, and the feeling seemed to be mutual. They were sleek and muscular sorrels, well-mannered but spirited. He was their primary source of fresh fruit and vegetables brought from the family’s vegetable garden and fruit trees. Had his mother not kept an eye on him, there’d have been little produce left for the family. Often when he was missing he could be found with the horses or the small herd of cattle they kept, which usually contained from ten to twenty animals, some for sale, some for milk and meat. His father approved of this aspect of his son’s personality, and encouraged it because, as he put it, “A good provider knows his livestock, and sees to them before taking off his boots at night and getting breakfast in the morning.” His mother fretted that he could be trampled, but his father assured her that animals recognize children and watch out for them. Still, she was relieved at the onset of the Wisconsin winters that his wandering activities would be somewhat curtailed.
By age four, George could mount Eliza or Zeke by standing on a fence rail, and would trot off bareback, grinning, with his fingers twisted in the horse’s mane. As he gained experience, he would encourage the horses to gallop, more amused than frightened by having the wind knocked out of him the few times he exceeded his limits and found himself on the ground. On these occasions, his mother would breathe a silent prayer that his young bones were flexible enough to withstand the trauma.
His father had mixed feelings about such conduct, disapproving of the wildness of his son’s personality and the pleasure he took in such things, but finding good in his mastery over the animals. Generally, he did not interfere in the boy’s activities. The father took little part in George Junior’s day-to-day upbringing, being too engaged in the management of his business affairs and his twenty acres of land to be bothered. He set chores for the boy as soon as his age permitted—chores such as fetching water for the animals and cleaning stalls—but expected his wife to see that they were done.
Laura was too tender-hearted to administer corporal punishment, and thus that job fell to George Senior. In the evening, after the elder George came home from his shop, young George, watched over by his mother with her arms folded and standing behind him, was expected to tell his father whether he’d done anything deserving of punishment that day. If he had, his father would determine a punishment, which ranged from extra chores or restrictions on activities, for mild infractions, up to twenty switches with a willow branch across his bare legs, for misdemeanors and felonies. “To let the boy think about his behavior, let him cut the switch, and if it is not strong enough or thick enough, he can fetch another,” the father would say. The older he got, the more often young George’s transgressions resulted in welts, and the more often he thought how sweet would be a life with just a horse and perhaps a dog as helpmates and companions.
George’s sixth birthday coincided with the discovery of Eliza’s pregnancy. All he wanted was the foal. There seemed no reason for his father to deny him. The boy always did his chores; in fact he seemed to enjoy them. He would be taking care of the colt in any case, and now that he was experienced enough, he could train it as well. Ownership was just a label anyway; the horse would still be a family horse. Moreover, by then George Junior was the eldest of three children, and his brother, the only other boy, was not yet a year old and thus would not clamor for a horse of his own for several years.
His wish granted, for the next ten months George Junior cared for Eliza as though she were a queen. In late September, with George and his father attending, Eliza dropped the foal, a beautiful sorrel like both his parents. George Junior named the colt Banjo, for reasons he never explained.
Suddenly George Junior began clamoring for his father to teach him roping and branding and the practical side of raising cattle. This pleased George Senior. He hadn’t planned to begin teaching his son adult skills for another year, and took this as a sign that his son already wanted to begin earning his own keep. At any rate, he considered instructing his son in useful pursuits to be part of his duties as a father, and there were obvious benefits to himself. Sons were cheap labor who allowed the father to put more time and energy toward advancing his fortunes.
Teaching his son how to manage cattle brought them into conjunction more than ever before. Young George was a devoted student. George Senior rode Zeke and Junior rode Eliza, and later on Banjo, whom George Junior, to his father’s amusement, referred to as “my cow pony.” The boy was fearless on horseback. He learned quickly and practiced until sundown. In the evening, he learned about the care and feeding of all their farm animals, soaking up information like a sponge. His father could scarcely believe that this was the same boy who hated school. The boy wanted to learn everything at once.
The elder George was a man who valued others commensurate with their skills and their affinity for productive work. In his son’s dedication to mastering a man’s skills he recognized the beginnings of a man like himself. It gave him a certain pride, although he remained aloof and critical of his son’s performance. Expecting perfection, he never gave praise. “That’ll do, I reckon,” was as close as he came.
George Junior did not seem to mind. His father had been so distant all his life that he thought of him as little more than a police officer who had now become a teacher.
George became so wrapped up in his “cowboy lessons” and Banjo’s care and training that for a time he ceased to be a constant source of worry to his mother. That all changed when Banjo grew big enough to carry him. George Junior began training Banjo riding bareback with only a rope halter, Indian fashion. He constantly tested his limits as a horseman, until he was as proficient bareback as with a saddle under him, if not more so. He knew already that he was bound to be a cowboy, and for that work Banjo had to wear a saddle, but for the sheer joy of riding, bareback won hands down over a saddle.
By the time Banjo was a well-trained and high-spirited two-year-old, George was eight years old, and high-spirited as well, as long as he wasn’t in school. The unfocused learning of anything without practical value to him made his feet so anxious to walk that he could hardly contain them. The three R’s had their uses, but once he’d gotten the hang of them, there wasn’t much else he needed to know.
Though he was respectful and polite to others, he was asocial by nature. He got along with nearly everyone, but made no friends and was content with his own company. He did not consider himself superior; most people were simply irrelevant in his scheme of things.
Always fiercely independent, a week hardly ever passed that he didn’t get in a fight with someone. His standoffish nature made him a target for bullies, and his refusal to submit to them was the cause of most of his fights. His father encouraged him to stand his ground, and did not punish him for fights he had not instigated. In his first year of school, George learned that the best defense is a good offense. Whether accosted by one bully or five, he would wade in at the first challenge. Not once did he ever back down or give up, no matter now vicious the beating. Somehow he would get even. Tenacious and cunning, he became so effective in schoolyard combat and revenge that by his third year in school he was left alone, a social pariah.
More than all else combined, he hated the restriction of school. Only the threat of Banjo being locked in the barn kept him attending and making passing grades, though he was often punished for playing hooky.
His father had great plans for him the summer after third grade, now that he’d realized the boy could do half a man’s work. The son kept his father’s hours, splitting his time between farm chores and assisting his father in his cooperage. This was to the boy’s liking. He welcomed the chance to improve his knowledge of how things work, and wanted to be taught his father’s trade. George Senior obliged him in that wish. Until that time, he had never allowed his son to enter the workplace because Laura feared for his safety there amongst the axes, hammers, saws and forges, and George Senior had agreed. Now Junior proved to be a hard and tireless worker at making barrels and crates. His father saw that his son was good with his hands, although he chose to criticize his son’s mistakes and ignore his progress.
A few weeks before school began in the fall of 1875, eight-year-old George decided he would rather live with the local Indians than try to cram any more of the three R’s into his brain, where they would only fester and die anyway. Moreover, he was tired of his father’s rules and frequent criticisms, so he filled a sack with bread, cheese and apples, stuck his knife in his belt, tied a rolled-up blanket and the food sack around Banjo’s neck, and rode away bareback in search of a camp of friendly Indians.
Even though most of the Winnebago had been relocated to Indiana and other points west, many had quietly drifted back to their homelands and taken up where they’d left off. They were tolerated by the whites as long as they were no trouble. The Winnebago were happy to oblige, there being at the time a big demand for beaver pelts and a glut of beavers to be found on every stream and rivulet. The Winnebago were expert trappers. Their part in controlling the beaver population was welcomed by local farmers. The money they earned was welcomed by local merchants, who happily sold them tobacco, booze and durable goods. Winnebago were not hard to find.
Arriving at an encampment of about two dozen Winnebago his second night out, George was greeted politely by several men and boys. The men mostly wore European clothes decorated with beadwork and ribbons, and the boys wore breechclouts and leggings. Men and boys wore intricately beaded moccasins and their hair straight, parted down the middle. They all quickly gathered around him when he arrived, the boys chattering excitedly about him. They were used to seeing grown white men, but seldom saw their children.
A couple of the men spoke halting English and inquired about where George had come from. He politely refused to say, maintaining he had no wish to return. They had no choice but to take him and see to his welfare, for fear they would be accused should any harm come to him. They knew someone would come for him eventually. Banjo was hobbled and turned out to graze. George was invited to the evening meal of fish and grasshoppers roasted over a fire, raw grubs, berries, nuts, and greens, which satisfied George’s hunger nicely. The people seemed well-fed and content.
When people began yawning, George was shown the hut where the young boys slept. He saw to Banjo’s welfare first, then took his bedroll into the hut. There was laughter and chattering that George could not understand, so he watched and listened. The ruckus lasted only a few minutes in the dark, and then everyone slept. The next morning he joined the boys his age in their chores and play, and began picking up words in their tongue. He seemed to have adapted overnight to the Indian way of life.
George felt completely at home, and would have stayed, but the fifth morning of his stay with the Winnebago the family dog, Trotter, found him playing tag with his new friends. Before long his father rode Zeke into the Winnebago camp, angrier than George had ever seen him. He was angry at the Winnebago elders until George Junior explained they were blameless. Not a word was said to him on their way home. Then his punishment was set at twenty lashes across his bare butt, which were accepted stoically, without tears, though with a great deal of teeth-clenching.
George was also given no dessert and no idle time for a month. He took care of the livestock and worked in the cooperage in daylight hours, then after dinner returned to the cooperage to make staves until bedtime. The summer passed quickly.
When school was about to start, George pleaded with his father to let him continue working instead of returning to school. It was a waste of time, he said. He’d rather learn all he could about his father’s trade, and about farming. Mostly for Laura’s benefit, the father made a show of encouraging his son to remain in school, but secretly agreed with him. He eventually gave in, rationalizing to Laura that his son was simply too stubborn to get anything more out of school. In his shop his son was learning skills that would serve him well instead of wasting time with books. The boy could read, write, and was already as quick with figures as his father; able to add, subtract, multiply and divide. George Senior figured that was as much of anything practical as school could teach his son. What else did he need? And now he’d be earning his keep.
For a time George Junior was enthusiastic about his work. George Senior had, in addition to saws, chisels, planes and many other woodworking tools, a forge, an anvil and other tools for working iron, the primary purpose of which was to make barrel hoops, but which came in handy for many other useful items, such as horseshoes, knives, and farm implements. George Junior eagerly learned all his father could teach him about working with wood and iron. This was a considerable amount, given that his father had built their home and made all the furniture and cabinets in it, including the hinges on the doors and the nails that held the place together.
As working with his father became routine, George Junior found himself missing his Indian friends and their earthy lifestyle. After the first snow, when the urge to go reached the right point, he rode off to join them again. He found the men and boys trapping beaver along a stream. The process immediately interested him, especially when he learned that good money could be made. He spent a few days observing the trapping, which both amused and flattered the Winnebago. His father, of course, easily found him and angrily brought him home, cursing most of the way. He gave the boy twenty-five lashes, which made his arm tired and gave him no satisfaction because the boy didn’t make a peep. Every time George Junior was whipped, he walked away without looking back, but always he was thinking, “There’ll come a day no one will ever whip me again.”
A few weeks later, the boy was gone again and was again dragged home with the same result. George Senior asked the local sheriff if he would order the Winnebago to send him home the next time, but the sheriff, fat, lazy oaf that he was, said, “What do you expect them to do, Mr. Scott? They’re not holding him by force. You can’t expect them to drag him home every time he visits them. It’s not their problem. And they’re scared that if they turn him away and he gets hurt or starves looking for someone else to take him in, you’d blame it on them. It’s not their fault you can’t control him. You should just be glad they look after him and you know where to find him. There’s nothin’ I can do. I’m sorry.”
George and Laura talked about what could be done with a son so wilful, but found no answers. How could he have inherited so many of his father’s good qualities but be so completely devoid of responsibility to his family? The boy would do as he pleased on pain of death.
As for George Junior, he didn’t intend to endure another round of punishment for absconding if he could avoid it. He went to his father with a proposal based upon what he knew of the profits to be made in trapping. Harvesting and selling of the pelts was quite lucrative, as the pelts were much in demand, particularly for hats. If his father would tolerate his absences during the times of year when trapping was best, George Junior would pay his father a share of his earnings. Since coopers were in demand, an apprentice, whom George Junior would train, could be easily secured to cover his duties at the cooperage at no cost to his father.
George Senior rejected this proposal, insisting that his son work in the family business as they had agreed he would when he quit school. But George Junior wanted to trap beaver, and left again after a week or two. During this absence, his father reflected on the proposal. It was becoming clear that the strap and the switch would never make his oldest son stay put, and the more restrictions that were placed upon him, the more certain he was to run away sooner. Nothing short of crippling the boy would make him stay home. George Senior was becoming resigned to his son being footloose by nature, and sadly, had to admit that George Junior would never take over the business someday. For that he had one son left who might be more amenable to staying in one place. Perhaps his paripatetic son’s proposal might be mutually beneficial after all.
This time when the senior George found his son, they made a deal. George Junior would come home and take his punishment for running away yet again. He would then help locate and train an apprentice to take over his duties while absent in pursuit of beaver. With his experience as a tradesman, George Senior would negotiate for the sale of the pelts procured by his son, and take fifty percent of the profit in exchange for his blessings on his son’s freedom to pursue his trapping. In the off seasons, the boy would stay home and work in his father’s business. Out of beaver season, he would be allowed a week of each month to visit his Winnebago friends. George Junior eagerly accepted the deal. Laura, though not happy about it, was persuaded that it was best for all of them, because the boy would never be tied down for long.
Beaver trapping is hard, cold work, mostly done in the depth of winter, when holes must be sawed through thick ice to set dangerous, complicated traps underwater near the beaver’s den entrance. Working too long in the icy water resulted in very painful fingers. George didn’t mind the weather any more than the Winnebago did, seeming to thrive on hardship. He soon learned to set traps, bait them, and conceal them without losing his fingers to frostbite or the jaws of the traps.
He learned that when the water was open, a trap could be planted on the bank just below the water’s surface. In the mud beside the trap a stick was baited with the castoreum of a beaver from a neighboring territory, which would draw the local beaver to investigate what he would assume was the scent of a rival invading his territory.
If the trap had been placed correctly, the beaver’s leg would be caught, and the beaver, dragging the trap, would immediately turn and try to swim to the underwater entrance of its home. To prevent the beaver’s escape, the trapper would have run a chain from the trap to a stake driven deep into the bank. Killing a wounded beaver, with its powerful jaws and tail, is a risky and messy business, unless one shoots it. Making a fatal shot on a thrashing, enraged beaver might take several rounds, and a bullet hole anywhere but the head devalues the pelt by half or more. Two would make it worthless. Thus, George was taught to make the chain just the right length and to place a weight on it near the trap so that when the beaver tried to swim, the weight would sink along a slide wire, drag the beaver to the bottom, and drown it. The beaver would then be pulled back to shore, pelt intact. It was a cruel business, as trapping always is.
Before the carcass could freeze, the skin was removed. The pelt, nearly round in shape, was pierced with holes along its edges and placed over a hoop made of a long willow branch. String was laced through the holes in the pelt and tied to the hoop, stretching it a bit like a drum skin, and then the hoop was placed near a fire to dry overnight. Otherwise, the skin would shrink and curl as it dried, making it nearly useless.
The dried pelts were convenient to stack for storage. When enough were assembled, they would be taken to a dealer and sold by the pound. Trapping was suspended after March, when the beaver began shedding their valuable fur in favor of a summer coat, and resumed as winter approached and the beaver’s winter coat grew in.
At first, George learned to trap by assisting the Winnebago, receiving a small share of their profits. In his first season, he learned most of what he needed to know. He used all his earnings to buy traps, a special skinning knife, and other things used in trapping, skinning, and curing the pelts, so that he could work for himself the next season. The second season, he spent almost all his time trapping and skinning. His father, with his acumen and business contacts, bypassed the dealers and obtained a better price than the Indians received, which helped blunt the sting of George Junior having to split the profits.
The only things George Junior read strictly for pleasure were dime westerns and articles about the Wild West. He had become immediately fascinated with the cowboy’s life when a boy at school had given him a dog-eared copy of Frontier Fantasies, and since then he’d read dozens of dime novels and scoured his father’s newspapers for more information. He knew all about the Chisholm Trail and the Shawnee Trail and the railroad coming soon to Abilene, Kansas. A cowboy’s life was the only life he wanted.
With his second year’s earnings, he bought a decent western saddle for Banjo. He also bought a cheap second-hand .22 revolver and a hundred bullets for it. His father owned only an ancient cap-and-ball rifle and did not like firearms, and thus could teach him nothing about their use other than to exercise extreme caution in handling them. In his child’s mind, George initially assumed that shooting was no more complicated than pointing his finger at an object, and thus treated the muzzle as if it were the tip of his index finger.
He was therefore not at all surprised that he could snap off a shot and hit almost anything within fifty yards from the first day he owned the pistol, although his father and mother immediately realized there was something almost magical in his ability. Even so, he was still a boy, and his mother now had one more thing to worry about. His father trusted his son’s ability, and besides, nothing short of handcuffs would keep his son from learning to shoot.
By the next year George had enough money to buy a second-hand Colt Peacemaker and enough weight to deal with its greater recoil. He was soon proficient enough with it to hit a cookie tossed into the air thirty feet away, and kept at it until the distance increased to fifty feet. He took this skill for granted.
After four winters of joining his Indian friends in the beaver trade, saving everything he could, George had accumulated enough money for a grubstake. He bought a Winchester Model 1873 lever-action rifle, used but in good condition, with which he showed the same remarkable accuracy, using the sights only for long-range game hunting. He also purchased a holster and cartridge belt for the Colt, a scabbard for the rifle, and saddle bags. Not a cent went for toys or candies.
In the spring of 1879, when George Junior was twelve years old, he decided it was time to leave home for good. He was five feet seven inches tall and weighed a hundred and thirty-five pounds, all of it sinewy muscle that made his body look older. George believed he could lick his weight in honey badgers. There were many local boys, both white and red, who had fought him who would agree. The girls gave him sidelong glances and giggled, finding his square jaw and sleepy-eyed looks appealing.
His intention was to ride south to Texas and become a hired hand on a cattle ranch and ride the Chisholm Trail, to see for himself all the cow towns he’d read about. He knew the dime novels he’d read were exaggerated, but figured there must be some truth left over after you threw out the hogwash. The newspaper articles, he figured, reported only the truth, but then, most adults also believed that.
The senior George was not a bit surprised but very much against it when the idea of heading to Texas was solemnly proposed by his son with the rationale that it was time for him to make his own way in the world. He had expected such an announcement someday, if his son didn’t simply ride away one day without a word and never return. Despite his acceptance of the fact that his son would never be heir to the family business, he still felt it was his duty to make a final attempt at reasoning with him.
“Son,” he said, with a newspaper in his lap and a meerschaum dangling from his teeth pumping out smoke signals as he spoke, “The railroads are layin’ track south and west as fast as the chinks can work. In five years or less every cow town will have a train station, and with the government handin’ out free land for railroads, the freight rates will start low and go lower. Then there won’t be no more Chisholm Trail. And then where’ll you be? Stuck on some Godforsaken patch of ground workin’ for somebody else without a pot to piss in, if a cowboy can get a job at all. If you stick around here and buckle down, you’ll make a good livin’, and when I’m done the business will be yours and your brother’s. There’ll always be a need for barrels and crates.”
“Nothin’ against you, Daddy, but I figger to see some of the world before I’m married and stuck in one place.”
“Son, you’re too damned young yet. You know I could have the law track you down and bring you back.”
“Maybe, but it wouldn’t do no good. I’d be gone the next day.”
“I could sell Banjo.”
“He’s my horse. I earned him. I’d steal him back or I’d walk if I had to.”
George Senior nodded his head, the smoke of his pipe swirling with the motion. “I believe you would, all right.”
“I could’ve sneaked off in the night, an’ this time you wouldn’ta known where ta look.”
His father nodded. He tried one last thing. “Your mother will miss you somethin’ awful, son. Have you thought of that?”
“She’s got two others to take care of. She won’t miss me for long.”
“Well, give her a few days to get used to the idea, will you?”
“I’ll wait till day after tomorrow. Got to get down there before the spring roundup starts, when they’ll need every hand they can get.”
“You remember, son, if it goes bust there’s always a place for you here in the business, long’s you’ll stay around and not run off every chance you get. And no hard feelin’s.”
“I’ll remember, Pop. Thanks.” Then, for the first time, they solemnly shook hands.
His mother was scrubbing clothes in a washtub on the porch under the hand water pump when he came and said he had something to tell her. She took her hands out of the water and dried them on her linen apron while he told her. Her reaction was predictable.
“You’re just a baby, George! You can’t just go running off to the Wild West, honey. You wait till you’re a little older and see if you don’t change your mind.”
“Mama, I’m twelve years old and I’m not a baby. I can sit a horse like a man, and I won’t change my mind.”
“Oh, so now of a sudden you’re a man.”
“All I said…”
Her hands fluttered in the air. “I know, I know. That’s just how mothers talk.” She looked around in frustration, as if she could find in the corner or on a shelf an irrefutable argument that would show him the folly of his plan. “If you only knew how young twelve is…”
“There’s boys ridin’ herd that’s only ten, Mama. I read it in the newspaper.”
“What does your father say?”
“He said I should wait a couple of days so’s you could get used to the idea.”
Suddenly she stepped up and hugged him, hard, for the first time in his life. He was embarrassed.
“Oh, honey, I guess you’re just wild at heart, and you’ll never stay put, at least not while I’m alive. I guess there’s nothing for me to do but get used to it.”
He didn’t know how to respond, so he tentatively returned her embrace and waited until she released him and wiped tears from her cheeks with her apron. The sight of them made him very uncomfortable and caused a lump in his throat that he’d never felt in his twelve years. Now it was his turn to look around, searching for the right words.
“I’ll write ta you, Mama, and if it don’t work out, I’ll come home ta stay.”
“Oh, you’ll write now and then, I guess, but you won’t come home. You’re the type of boy who has to see the world. I guess Texas is better than a cargo ship. I know nothing can stop you. I just hope you look after yourself and don’t do anything foolish.”
“I’ll come visit, Mama, I promise.” The he stood there helplessly, his feet itching to walk. His mother pulled a hankie from the pocket of her apron and blew her nose, then put it back.
“Oh, what’s the use in going on about it? You’ll have your great adventure regardless of anything I say. Go, son, and come see us when you get homesick, if ever you do.” Then she turned back to her washtub, bent over, and resumed her work, sniffling only once.
George went to her, put his arm over her back, and stood there a moment while she scrubbed. He had no idea what to say, so he patted her gently and started to walk away.
“Son,” she said. She had stopped her scrubbing but did not turn. George stopped and turned toward her. “You know I love you, don’t you?”
“I wanted to be sure you knew that.”
“I know.” He took two more steps, and without turning, stopped and said, “I love you too, Mama.”
Laura nodded but did not speak. After a few seconds, she nodded, and resumed scrubbing. George watched her for a moment, then left the room with a feeling he had no words to describe.
A week later, George was two hundred miles south of Winnebago. He had never been so happy. Part of the day before he had spent at the huge Chicago stockyards and seen his first longhorn cattle. The smell of their ordure was nearly overpowering and often it was hard to see through the dust, but he was intoxicated to be there. His intent had been to look around and keep riding, but he had stopped to ask questions of a rosy-cheeked young man, eighteen, maybe, and proud of his long mustache, in a western hat who was working a cattle chute. Over the bawling of the agitated cattle George learned Buck had been a cowboy on the Chisholm Trail. Buck told him this job was boring but the money was better and a man could be married and settle down. Rarely taking his eyes off his work, he told George where the biggest roundups would take place, stressing that they could use every available hand if he could get there in time.
“You could go with the Scottish Prairie Land and Cattle Company, or one like ‘em. They’re big, and always lookin’ for hands. Grub ain’t bad. The trail bosses are mean as rattlesnakes, though, and don’t take to greenhorns. If I was you, I’d find a smaller outfit to start out. The pay ain’t as good, but they’re more likely to take you on with no experience. You’ll learn more and faster.”
He turned from the chute during a lull and looked at the woolen trousers George was wearing. “You’d best get a pair of waist coveralls like mine. They sell ‘em at dry goods stores. They also call ‘em blue jeans, or Levi’s. They got rivets on the pockets and the crotch,” here he pointed at his own, “where pants’re likely to tear, and they wear like iron.” That observation seemed to prompt more. “An’ you’re gonna need some real cowboy boots. Brogans’re okay for road work, but when you’re workin’ critters you need the underslung heel to keep your foot in the stirrup while you’re chasin’ strays.” Now he examined George’s hat, a battered cap once worn by a Union soldier. “That hat makes you look like a schoolboy. You got any money?”
George was uncomfortable at being assessed, but knew he was a greenhorn and needed the advice. “I got enough, I think.”
“You need a hat with a brim. If you can afford it, I’d get a Stetson they call ‘The Boss of the Plains.’ It’ll run you five dollars, but it’s the best.”
“If you can’t afford that, there’s cheaper ones made like it. But either way, don’t put a crease in the crown until you get with an outfit you like, ‘cause they all do it different. Even if you have to get a straw hat, be sure the brim is wide to protect the back o’ your neck or you’ll have a sunburn that’ll take the hide off you. And get a couple bandanas you can soak with water and wear around your neck to cool off. It gets awful hot and dusty out there.”
“I appreciate the advice,” George said, and he meant it.
“That’s a nice piece of horseflesh you’re ridin’. You ain’t fixin’ to use it for work, are you?”
“He’s all I got.”
“You won’t need him. On the trail, they furnish horses already trained. You’re gonna need at least five a day. Ain’t no point in wearin’ out your own.”
After an hour of listening to Buck, George’s head was so full of information that he feared his brain would burst. He hoped he could remember it all. He’d had a greenhorn’s picture of a cowboy’s life that didn’t comport with reality, and couldn’t believe his good fortune at learning so much at the beginning of his journey instead of the end, where he’d have looked like a young fool.
Finally, Buck said, “You’d best move on before the boss chews me out. You sure you wanta go on down to Texas?”
“Yeah, I am.”
“Well, it’s a hard life. Good luck to ya.”
“For what it’s worth. And don’t call me mister. I work for a livin’.” Buck turned away, dismissing George, who couldn’t understand why a man would leave a glorious occupation to push cattle through a chute all day long.
Before he left Chicago that day, George had bought a pair of Levi’s waist coveralls for $1.25, a pair of decent riding boots for $3.00, and a genuine Stetson, cutting sharply into his poke. But now he felt like a cowboy, and after a week or two on the trail to break in his new duds, he’d look like one. His face would wear into the role. With its square jaw, straight eyebrows, and a determined set to his mouth, he could have passed for fourteen. Maybe even fifteen.
He followed the railroad south from Chicago, figuring to make St. Louis in about six or seven days, and enjoying the occasional passenger train that chuffed by, with folks waving from the open windows. One obviously intoxicated fellow, leaning from a window, threw him a quarter-full bottle of whiskey, yelling, “Here, cowboy. Wet your whistle!” The bottle came nowhere near him, but landed in a clump of grass and remained intact. That evening, after his meal, he had his first taste of whiskey and decided it didn’t taste as good as he had hoped, but it did wash down the trail dust and gave him a pleasant sensation shortly after. He drank half and saved the rest for an occasion. The next morning he awoke with a pounding headache and decided he would be wise to approach alcohol in moderation from then on.
Forty miles a day didn’t seem to bother Banjo. There was little to see besides fields of wheat, corn, oats, and hay, and the livestock grazing, thus little reason to dawdle, other than to prepare his grub. Just the same, he rested Banjo every fourth morning, letting him graze while he boiled a pot of beans and washed his dusty clothes in a stream. He generally subsisted on coffee, beans, pemmican, hardtack, and hard cheese that would withstand the warmth of his saddlebags. When the opportunity arose, he would shoot a pheasant or a grouse, even a squirrel, for fresh meat. Occasionally he could have brought down a deer, but felt it was wrong to waste the meat he couldn’t eat. He’d also brought a hook and line to catch a fish now and then. He took advantage of fruit trees when he found them, and occasionally a farmer, usually refusing payment, would offer him fresh potatoes, eggs, or other produce.
He was not a finicky eater, and, like his Indian friends, would happily roast locusts, grasshoppers, lizards and snakes over his campfires. The Winnebago had taught him to find edible plants, such as cattails, dandelions and sunflower seeds, and those that could be useful as medicines. They taught him how to follow bees to their hive and blow smoke into the hive in order to subdue the bees and safely remove the honeycomb. They taught him to avoid plants that might be poisonous, such as those with milky sap, spines, or bean pods. George would never go hungry, and was unlikely to poison himself; in fact, he felt he was eating quite well and gaining weight.
The days were pleasantly warm and breezy. Bees and butterflies were all about him as he rode, flitting through the fields of yellow poppies, mustard, blue lupine and a hundred other varieties of wildflowers. The skies were crystal clear and flecked with high clouds. The nights were a bit cool, but trapping beaver in the Wisconsin winter had made him virtually immune to cold. Life was just about as good as it gets.
The gentle rocking and occasional creaking of the saddle, the warm sunshine, and the smell of spring flowers and new grass often lulled him into a state of torpor, where time passed as in a dream. The dream was of the cattle lowing in a starry Texas night as he stood his watch, or galloping after a dogie that had strayed from the herd, or listening to his trail mates telling tall stories around a campfire, or using his Winchester to bring down a brown bear threatening the herd. His dreams of the past few years were coming to life, a life that a young man could reach out and take if he had the will and the courage. For George, there was no other way to live, no excuses for opportunities missed or chances not taken to realize his dream. He was too young to consider that the dangers and hardships of the life he aimed for could cripple him or lead to an early death.
George missed his family only mildly, more for his mother’s cooking than anything else. He had never been a momma’s boy. Though he loved his siblings in a familial way, his brother was still too young to have been a pal. His sister was female and therefore a complete mystery to him, certainly less a companion than even his brother. His only thoughts about her involved his father’s edict that it was a brother’s duty to protect his sister, should the need ever arise. And he would have. As for his father, he would reluctantly admit that he missed the pleasure of working beside him and being let into a man’s world as an equal. Almost an equal, anyway. What he needed far more than a family was to be looked upon as a man. In his own mind, he hadn’t been a child since he began working in his father’s shop.
George was not and would never be a thinking person, at least not in the sense of puzzling over the meaning of life or whether there’s a God on high. He rarely took notice of beauty for its own sake, finding it only in the practical aspects of life: a well-made rifle, the muscles of a good cutting horse, the construction of a locomotive, the precise fit of barrel staves. He thought only of the means to the particular end he sought at the moment; how best to proceed efficiently while conducting himself in a manly, honest and forthright manner and arriving alive at his goal.
His daydreams passed the time between the small towns, villages and general stores along his route. The people he met were usually cordial and curious about his travels. He was wiry and agile, already near his adult height of five-foot-eight, which was a little over average for the time, and he was surprisingly strong. Thus there was little concern over his fitness for the journey but mild surprise over his commitment to what seemed to them a fantasy. A boy leaving home at his age to become an apprentice seaman or carpenter or printer was not at all unusual, but few boys crossed half the country alone for a chance at earning twenty or thirty dollars a month for the privilege of devoting every waking moment to a dangerous, dirty, exhausting job with no future.
Three days out of St. Louis, with the sun still high, George came to a crossroads. The corners were occupied by a general store, a blacksmith shop with a small livery stable, a feed store, and a barber shop/doctor’s office. A small sign where one road crossed the railroad track read “Benson Crossing.” There was a large water tank overlooking the track, with a spout that could be lowered to fill the tanks of locomotives. Outside the general store, a hand-cranked water pump stood over a trough. A couple of boys a few years older than George, dressed much like he had been when he left home, were leaning in the shade of the livery stable and looked him over as he walked Banjo past them. At the water trough, George got off and let Banjo drink his fill while he filled his canteens and rinsed his head. Then he tied Banjo to the rail, took his rifle out of the scabbard, and clomped up the wooden steps, across the covered porch, and into the store.
The proprietor was a big, friendly man with a florid face and a bushy mustache, about George Senior’s age, wearing a celluloid collar and wrist cuffs, a grey tie, and a reasonably clean shop apron. George found him moving a flour sack. The man looked up and smiled.
“How’re you doing, son?”
“Just fine, sir. I helped myself to some of your water, if you don’t mind.”
“That’s what it’s there for, son. Can I help you with something?”
“Yessir, I can use a pound of salt pork, three pounds of white beans, two pounds of oats, a pound of coffee and a box of shells for this here Winchester.”
“Well,” he smiled, “I’m sure happy you weren’t planning on holding up the store with that.”
George smiled back. “No, sir. Just thought I’d load it at the counter while I’m here.”
He emerged from the store with his rifle in the crook of his right arm and his purchases clutched against his chest with his left to find the boys from the livery stable sizing up Banjo, who was edging away from them. He stopped on the porch as the boys looked up.
“Nice horse,” said the largest of the boys, a smug-looking teenager who wore a pistol in his belt. “Looks like he could plow eight acres and then run a derby.”
“Reckon he could,” George replied, “but be careful. He don’t cotton to strangers.”
“I wouldn’t worry if I was you. I’m good with horses.”
“Just the same,” George said, not moving.
“Say boy, you in some kind of circus cowboy sideshow? I mean, you got that big Winchester and that fancy Stetson and new cowboy boots and jeans and this here specimen and all.” He turned to his smirking friend with a grin and winked.
George took a step down, squinting at the boys. “I appreciate you fellas makin’ friendly conversation and all, but I got ground ta cover before nightfall.”
The boy untied Banjo and took the reins. Banjo backed away, but was stopped with a jerk on the reins. “What’s your hurry, kid? I’d like to take him for a little ride. Thinkin’ I might buy him.”
“I ain’t anywhere near stupid enough to sell him.” As he spoke George turned and put his supplies down on the porch behind him.
The boy laughed. “Well, let’s just see if I even want to make you an offer.”
The boy put his foot in the stirrup, and as he started to swing up into the saddle, Banjo reared and threw him off. The boy hit hard, but bounced up angry, swearing at the horse. Banjo came down to all fours, turned to face the boys, and backed toward George.
George grinned despite himself. “I told you he don’t cotton to strangers.”
Embarrassed, the boy made for the gun in his pants, vowing “I ought to kill the sonofabitch.”
George jacked a round into his rifle and held it on the boy. “You try that and I’ll kill you.”
The door to the store flew open and the shopkeeper stomped out. “Nobody’s killing nobody. Put them guns down, both of you.”
The other boy’s hand was on his pistol, but it had yet to clear his belt.
George said, “I didn’t start this, and I ain’t putting’ mine down until he takes his hand off his.”
“Damn it, Lonnie,” the big man said, “he ain’t gonna shoot you. Take your hand off your pistol.”
“Him first. He’s the one pointin’ a gun at me.”
“What did you expect? You started this. Now take your hand off your pistol.”
Lonnie reluctantly did as told, but his anger sputtered, and he pointed at George, who was lowering his rifle. “He made the damned horse throw me.”
“Well just what the hell do you think you’re doin’ anyway, layin’ hands on another man’s horse? You had it coming.”
Pouting now, Lonnie said, “He ain’t a man.”
The shopkeeper rolled his eyes and looked to heaven. “You ain’t a man either, and it makes no difference whether he’s a man or a rooster. If it ain’t your horse, you leave the damned thing alone. Now you and Jeff hightail it home before I take a mind to tell your father how you nearly came to getting a hole blown through you.”
Lonnie took off his cap and used it to swat the dirt off his clothes, trying to think of something to say to save face. “He’s the one…” he began, when his friend came up behind him and put his hand on Lonnie’s shoulder.
“C’mon, Lonnie. Quit while you’re ahead.”
Lonnie looked up at the shopkeeper. “You ain’t gonna say nothin’ then?”
“Not unless you pull another stunt like this. Now clear out.”
The two trudged off. The shopkeeper looked down at George.
“Sorry, son. He isn’t usually a bad sort. He’s just trying to show off.”
“I think maybe you give ‘im too much credit.”
The big man was watching the boys walk away. “Maybe, but their folks are good customers. I have to make a living here.”
George put his rifle back in the scabbard, picked up his supplies, and stowed them in his saddlebags. “How far to St. Louis?”
“Thirty miles, maybe. You won’t make it tonight.”
“Long’s I’m far enough that I ain’t likely to meet Lonnie again.”
He swung into the saddle, tipped his hat, and walked Banjo out of town.
St. Louis impressed George with its cleanliness compared to Chicago, but he had little interest in anything large cities could offer. He skirted the city and found the Eads Bridge across the Mississippi, completed for carriage traffic just five years before. For a nickel, he rode Banjo across on the upper level, in awe of the huge structure and nervous over his height above the water. He had never imagined looking down on the world from such a height. Looking down on the decks of sailing boats and steamers plying the water almost a hundred feet below produced unpleasant feelings of vertigo. Banjo likewise became a bit skittish, prompting George to get down and walk him the rest of the way across, the pair grateful to wind up on solid ground west of the Mississippi at last.
From there he struck off south by southwest along the railroad. He was aiming for Little Rock, four hundred miles away. He figured ten or twelve days in the saddle by making forty miles a day for three days, resting Banjo half a day, and so on. The land along the way was mostly farming country, fertile and green. The railroad roughly paralleled the St. Francis River on the east and the Black River on the west. The grazing was good and the weather mild. About two days out of Little Rock they crossed the Black River and bent to the southwest.
A few miles outside Little Rock he found a stream and a pond. He removed Banjo’s saddle, stripped to his long johns, and led the horse into the water. They both had a good bath. Then he rinsed out his clothes, his bedroll and his saddle blanket, and hung them on limbs under the sun to dry. He let Banjo graze while he napped in the shade of a big cottonwood. When he awoke, his things were dry.
He dressed himself, put his gear together, saddled Banjo and rode into town. There he treated himself to a restaurant meal of fresh beefsteak, grits, and bread just out of the oven, followed by a slice of apple pie washed down with coffee. Feeling stuffed and sleepy, he considered the pleasure of a hotel room and a real bed for the night, but decided against the idea after checking what remained of his money. He had a long way to go yet, and if the money held out, he’d find a soft bed in Texas.
Continuing to generally follow the railroad line southwest through Arkansas, George half wished he’d taken the longer route through Kansas and then down the Chisholm Trail to familiarize himself with the route and know what he was getting into. He was anxious to experience the vast open deserts and their barren hills for himself. Arkansas was too much like a warmer Wisconsin with its endless greenness and water everywhere. But this shorter route might save him a few days.
The lushness of the country seemed to encourage laziness and wasting time. The country folk he met, mostly friendly if a bit wary of a Northerner, did little to dispel the image he’d formed. They seemed content in their poverty. He was particularly repelled by the plight of the Negroes he encountered, who lived in deeper poverty than their white counterparts and seemed downtrodden despite ostensibly having gained their freedom over a dozen years before. Every colored person he met wore rags so thin that it seemed a stiff wind would blow the clothes off them. Only a few wore shoes. Everywhere there were signs declaring “Whites Only” and “No Coloreds.” Long before he crossed the border into Texas, he vowed never to set foot in the Deep South again, lest he be forced to witness the indignities heaped upon colored people and endure the smugness of the white folks toward them.
When finally he entered Texas, there was little change to notice. He had visualized all of Texas as a dusty plain with slashes of barren hills and low mountains crossing the land here and there. Instead, he was west of Dallas before the land slowly began looking more like the Indian Territory depicted in the illustrated newspapers that had been popular the past half-dozen years. After that, his mood improved with every mile. At this point he began making inquiries about where a fellow could find the great ranches that would need someone willing to work. People just pointed west.
Around noon a week after crossing the border, nearing Austin, he saw a small groups of longhorns grazing in the lush grasses of a low range of hills. Almost simultaneously, Banjo became interested in something he was smelling, and George decided to give him his head. After Banjo had followed his nose a while, George heard the sound of whistling and calling in the distance, then the sounds of hooves pounding the earth. Banjo went into a trot in their direction, and presently they could see two cowboys working together to drive a cluster of longhorns toward a gap in the hills to the west. Following them, he came through the gap, where he stopped and looked down on a roundup in progress in the valley below. The two cowboys he’d seen were driving their captives down the slope into a herd so large that it virtually covered the valley floor. He would never forget the sight.
The herd had trampled or eaten virtually every plant in the valley, save a few spindly trees he would later identify as mesquite, a few sycamore, and an occasional oak.
Thousands of longhorns milled about, interspersed with twenty-five or thirty fires around which men were branding calves. Perhaps a hundred mounted cowboys were cutting calves out of the herd, roping them and leading them to the branding fires. There were whistles and whoops and cattle mooing and bawling, a continuous low rumble of hooves pounding, and a cloud of dust and smoke over the whole affair. Spread around the outside of the huge herd were about twenty chuck wagons, each with its own fire going, wafting the smell of beans, coffee, beef and sourdough biscuits on the breeze and making George’s stomach growl. On the perimeter of the huge herd were temporary corrals of various sizes, most only a quarter full. Never had he imagined the scale of what he was seeing.
“Walk,” he said, and they started down, the speed of Banjo’s walk accelerating somewhat on the slope. George figured the best place to start looking for work would be the nearest chuck wagon, so he made a beeline for that one.
As he got closer, he could see four or five cowboys, none older than seventeen or eighteen, squatting on their haunches, stuffing their faces with the midday meal. George dismounted and led Banjo close to the cook, a surly, sweaty man about his father’s age wearing a dirty apron over a big belly, who was tending the steaks on the grill and yelling at cowboys to “Hurry up, we got two more shifts to feed.” George had read that the cook was the second-highest paid member of the crew on drives, with concomitant authority, and thus approached him with caution.
“Beg your pardon, sir,” he said.
The cook, fork in hand, and looked up, his eyes narrow under bushy eyebrows. “Who you callin’ sir? This ain’t the goddamned army.”
George plunged on. “I’m lookin’ fer work. Could you point out the boss for me?”
“You’re wastin’ your time here, son. You come late and we already got more o’ these dumb sonsabitches than we need,” he said, waving his meat fork at the cowboys shoving bites into their mouths. “If I was you, I’d give up and go home.” He went back to his grill, ignoring George.
One of the cowboys nudged his partner and grinned. The other one, who was missing his upper front teeth, spat out a wad of gristle and volunteered, “Try the Rocking Rose outfit a few Chuck wagons thataway.” He pointed his thumb. “Grub’s better anyway.”
The cowboys giggled and elbowed each other. The cook spat a glob of tobacco juice at their feet and said, “Someday I’m gonna kick the shit out of you, knothead.” All the cowboys laughed.
“Thanks,” George said to the lot of them, touched the brim of his hat, and moved on.
He found the Rocking Rose, but no work there. The story was the same at several more, although he gratefully accepted an offer of leftover food by the cook for the Medicine Hat Ranch. With his bowed legs and tattooed arms, he looked more like a sailor than a Texan. His cowboys had all eaten their fill and were back at work.
“That was darn good, sir,” George said, scraping his plate with the last of his biscuit. “I much appreciate it. Could I help clean up by way of thanks?”
“Don’t mind if you do. And call me Cookie. Where you hail from, son?”
George was already pitching in. “Winnebago, Wisconsin.”
The cook stopped short. “Damnation, son. That must be more’n a thousand miles.”
“Yessir. That and more.”
“What was so all-fired important for you to come all that way?”
“I always wanted to ride herd on the Chisholm Trail.”
“So you ain’t got no experience, then?”
“Not much, ‘least not at roundups an’ such. I can ride and cut cattle.”
The cook snorted. “You young-uns is full of piss and vinegar, that’s sure. Long damned way to come fer a dangerous, dirty job that pays slave wages an’ treats you like one. Anyway, I heard one of the hands over to Bill Hodges’ spread broke a leg. If you tol’ him you was willin’ to work for half pay while you was learnin’ the ropes, maybe he’d put you on.”
George was so pleased at this prospect that he couldn’t help smiling. “I reckon half pay’d be better’n no pay.”
“Well, then, let’s finish up here, an’ I’ll get you pointed in the right direction. His daddy is cookin’ for his crew ‘cause the regular cook ain’t showed up yet. You can tell him Stoney sent you. ”
When they’d finished cleaning up, the cook stood on one wheel of his own chuck wagon so he could see over the herd, and had George stand on another. He pointed out the chuck wagon he believed belonged to the Hodges’ spread. George thanked him and made his way around the herd. He found a skinny, clean-shaven man of about sixty years sitting on a stool and pouring honey over a biscuit. There was a mean-looking scar running vertically from his lower lip to his chin that George figured was the result of a kick from a mule. George got right to the point.
“Beg pardon, sir. You’d be Mr. Hodges?”
“That’s right. What can I do for you, son?” He took a bite of the biscuit and savored it as he chewed. George noted with approval that the man’s nails were clean. George firmly believed that clean nails marked a gentleman. He washed his hands at every opportunity and used the point of his pocket knife to clean his nails.
“Stoney over at the Medicine Hat Ranch said one o’ yer hands was laid up with a broken leg an’ maybe you could use a man.”
Hodges looked him over, then gave Banjo a long look as well. “That would be up to my son. Have you done a roundup or ridden herd before?”
His accent was odd, something from the old country, George thought. Maybe Irish. Maybe Scottish.
George was anxious, and talked too fast, as though he might be cut off. “The truth is, I haven’t, sir. But my family kept about thirty head an’ I trained my horse myself to work with ‘em. I mean, after my daddy showed me how. Besides that, I can bring down a runnin’ deer at two hundred yards an’ I can make you a barrel, hoops an’ all, or a packin’ crate, or build you a barn, or skin out a beaver. I’d work for half pay while I learn the ropes an’ prove how hard I work, if you’d give me a chance to…”
Hodges cut him off, waving his hand. “My son’s the one you’ll have to convince, and he’s busy right now. I suggest you study what’s going on out there while you wait and maybe you’ll learn something about the roundup by the time the fellows break for supper. Can you use that lariat?”
“I got ta where I could do a fair job ropin’ a calf from my horse while he’s at a dead run.”
“Well, then, you tie up your horse and make your way out there to that branding fire and watch what gets done without getting in the way or getting trampled. You’ll see how they do their tally and such. Tell Joe Dodd, the one marking the tally, I sent you out to watch and help if they need it. Then come on back here when you see the fellows coming in. My son’s the one with the red and green flannel shirt.”
“I thank ya, sir. I learn fast. You’ll see.”
“Maybe we will, sonny.” And he went back to pouring honey on his biscuit.
Joe was a short, grizzled man chewing tobacco and sitting at a tiny table covered with papers, a pencil in his hand. He looked well into his thirties. Joe made a good teacher, seeming to enjoy patiently explaining the process of branding. After a few hours, George thought he understood.
Each of the branding fires kept one brand hot for each of the ranchers whose cattle were mingled in the big herd brought in from the ranges. When a calf was roped and brought to the branding fire, its mother would follow instinctively and stand by, nervously watching. The roped calf was grabbed by a foreleg and flipped on its side, bawling, pitching and kicking. The foreleg was doubled over to hold the calf down while it was branded the same as its mother. George was grateful that the acrid smell of burning hair and flesh would usually be carried off quickly by the wind. In some cases the mother was the one roped, in which case the calf would follow and have to be roped by the brander to get it near the fire. The calf would be tallied on its ranch’s page, and then the mother and calf would be taken off to a temporary enclosure with others of the same brand. George pitched in where he could, fearing neither hoof nor horn.
When all the calves that could be identified as belonging with a branded mother had taken their turn at the branding fires, the tally sheets would be collected and totaled. The unidentified calves would be counted and placed in a separate pen. They would then be allocated proportionate to each rancher’s percentage of adult cows, so that if a rancher owned twenty-five percent of the adult cows, the same percentage of unidentified calves would receive his brand and go to his enclosure. When it was all done, every rancher would know exactly how many head of cattle were in his own enclosure.
George learned that the Hodges ranch was called the Star Bell. Their brand was a star inside a bell. Joe explained that it was a kind of joke on Belle Starr, the infamous lady rustler and all-around outlaw, who had lived in Texas for a while. .
When George heard old man Hodges ringing the triangle, he thanked Joe for schooling him.
“You’re a hard worker,” Joe said. “I hope they put you on the crew.”
George drifted over to the chuck wagon, where the elder Hodges was tending the beefsteak over the fire. George wondered how cooking what was on the inside could smell so good when cooking what was on the outside stank so bad. He arrived simultaneously with a stocky rider about seventeen years old, face covered with blonde stubble, a couple of inches taller and twenty pounds heavier than George, who reined in and got off his horse, using his hat to slap at the dust on his shirt and pants. They looked at each other, George smiling tentatively at the older boy, who sized him up in a neutral way.
“Who might you be?”
“Name’s George Scott. Here lookin’ for work.” He extended his hand. “You?”
The older boy shook, not friendly, but not unfriendly either. “Bud Hodges.”
“Pleased ta meetcha, Bud.”
“You waitin’ on my daddy?”
“Yer granddaddy said I should.”
“My granddaddy likes to pretend it’s my daddy’s show now, but if I know my granddaddy he’s already made up his mind and just wants to be sure my daddy’s got no strong objection, or he’d already have to told you to keep looking.”
Two more riders came in, and were introduced as drovers. Ray and Lucky Jim were compact, black-haired boys, hardly older than George. They quickly began goofing off and paying no attention to George or anyone else. Finally a shy and homely boy about sixteen walked up and offered a limp hand, avoiding eye contact, while he was being introduced as Ernie, their wrangler.
“He doesn’t talk much,” Bud informed George, “but the animals mind him good. Nobody knows why, but I guess it doesn’t matter ‘long as they do.” Ernie was already filling his plate. Ray and Lucky Jim quit goofing off and began to fill their own plates. “Might as well dig in. My daddy eats on the next shift.”
While they ate and exchanged their life stories, Bud warmed up noticeably. George matter-of-factly explained how he’d come to be here. Bud seemed impressed. He remarked that he’d never been farther than San Antonio his whole life, except for the cattle drives up to Kansas. George learned that the Hodges’ ranch was one of the smaller ones by Texas standards, running about a thousand head on as many acres. There were two older brothers he would meet.
“Bill Junior’s the oldest. Don’t call him Billie and don’t call him Junior. He thinks his shit doesn’t stink. He likes to give orders to the help, as he calls ‘em. Just do your work and steer clear of him the best you can. Gordon’s the next oldest, and he’s all right. He’s all wrapped up in a girl he wants to marry and he’ll leave you be.”
George nodded sagely and took it all in. While he and Bud talked, he noticed Ernie ate quickly, then gathered the horses the riders had dismounted and led them off to a corral, where he removed their saddles and placed them on fresh horses, which he brought back. After a twenty-minute break, the crew adjusted their saddles and went back to work.
Moments later two men rode in, and by the family resemblance George was immediately sure they were Bill and Bill Junior. Bill was a bit shorter than Bud, with a good-sized paunch developing. Junior was an inch taller but a few pounds leaner. Both had thick, dark mustaches over cheeks blue from their heavy beards, despite being recently shaved, and both lacked the glint of humor in their eyes that Bud possessed. Bill Senior seemed to be in no hurry to meet the stranger, but Junior was already looking George over as he tied his horse to a wheel.
“What we got here?” he asked, looking at George.
“Name’s George Scott. Here lookin’ fer work.” He didn’t extend his hand, Junior being out of range.
“As what? A dude? We ain’t interested.”
His father, swatting off the dust with his hat, said, “Last time I looked I was still doin’ the hiring, son, and we were still a man short.”
“Look at him, Dad. Looks like his momma bought him some new duds before he ran away from home.” Bill Junior headed right for the chow.
“Cattle don’t give a shit what a man wears, and neither do I. Did you get something to eat, George?”
“Yes sir. Thank you.”
“I see somebody taught you manners. That’s good.” He filled a plate. “You got any experience cowboyin’?”
“Like I tol’ yer father, I practiced ropin’ and cuttin’ cattle back home in Wisconsin…”
Bill interrupted. “You rode all the way from Wisconsin for a job ridin’ herd?”
“Yes sir.” George began rattling off words again. “We had about thirty or forty head on our place that I practiced on, an’ we’d sell ‘em one or two at a time. My daddy wanted me ta be a barrel maker like him, but I’ve got itchy feet. I’d take half pay while I’m getting’ broke inta the work, and in the meantime there’s other things I can do ta earn my keep. I can make barrels and crates, straps and all. I can make furniture. It ain’t fancy but it works. I can repair damn near anything made of wood or iron. If I can see it, I can shoot it, then I can gut it, skin it and dress it out. I can…”
Again, Bill interrupted. “All right, boy. I get the idea. What do you think, Dad?”
The elder Hodges had been listening in while he worked. “He’s enthusiastic, that’s for sure. Spent some time watching the branding crew and seems to understand the operation. I’d give him a go.”
Bill nodded. “Tell you what. You go get a fresh horse from Ernie over there. Get to work gettin’ these critters sorted out, and we’ll see how you do. If you catch on all right, I’ll pay you four bits a day until I either send you back to Wisconsin or raise you to full pay. How’s that?”
George grinned. “Fair enough, Mr. Hodges. You ain’t gonna regret this.” He took Banjo’s reins and headed for the horse corral. Then he stopped and turned around. “By the way, Mr. Hodges, is it all right by you if I bring my horse along to learn his trade? He’s smart and he’ll learn fast. No sense in leaving him out to pasture for three months. Besides, we kinda grew up together.”
Hodges smiled back. “What the hell. You can bring him along on the trail, but finish the roundup with my stock. We ain’t got time to waste if we’re gonna be northbound in two days.”
“I appreciate it, sir.” George turned back toward the corral.
Bill Junior was shaking his head. Old man Hodges winked at his son as George walked away. “I’ve hired ‘em a hell of a lot greener,” he said, “and those boys couldn’t make a barrel or dress out an antelope. He’ll do fine. You should have just given him full pay.”
“What the hell, Dad. He offered to work for half pay. Why look a gift horse in the mouth?”
George ate with the whole crew at once for the evening meal, all except Lucky Jim, who had first watch. When they’d finished eating, they all sat and smoked and drank coffee. The other drovers joked with him and good-naturedly teased him a bit about his new outfit. The conversation died down as the last light faded and exhaustion set in. The drovers threw their cigarette butts into the fire. A few went off to “water the horses” before hitting the sack. By the time George fell asleep, he felt like one of them.
The day after next the roundup was done by mid-afternoon. The ranchers let their hands off early so they could return to their respective bunkhouses to prepare for the huge celebration barbecue that evening. For the cowboys’ last good meal for a couple of months, the ranch women went all out. They cooked all day to set out prime rib, pork roast, fried chicken, potato salad, breads, casseroles, cakes, cookies, and pies.
Washed, shaved, and in clean clothes, the drovers set upon the feast as if they were starving, devouring as much as their stomachs would hold. Many had never eaten so well. None knew when they might do so again. When darkness set in, they said good night and returned to their own bunkhouses. The ones who had a bottle, including George, passed them around. Within an hour, most had fallen into a stupor.
The next morning, George awoke again with a headache. Again certain that he had learned a lesson, he vowed that in the future he would drink less and make it last longer.
Three days later and forty miles north on the Chisholm Trail, George was doing fine, and more than that. He was becoming a drover. They were a day out of San Antonio, headed for Red River Station, all except Bill Senior, who had remained at home to manage the ranch. His sons joked that the ranch would have been fine without him, but he was tired of roughing it. The herd stretched out for a mile and a half ahead. George was riding drag. He was glad of that. Bill Junior was still needling him at every opportunity, but with Bill riding up front and playing at being trail boss, there weren’t many between breakfast and dinner. There was no noon meal. Most of the men chewed on a crust of leftover sourdough bread.
George learned fast and worked like the beaver he’d once trapped. Already he’d learned to roll Bull Durham into skinny cigarettes that soon became a habit. They not only helped pass the long hours on watch at night, but they also were useful to burn off the ticks that inevitably jumped from the longhorns to the drovers. He was chewing tobacco occasionally, but hadn’t made up his mind whether he liked it well enough to spend the money for it. He also suspected the ladies wouldn’t care for it.
Banjo was also learning his trade. George took every opportunity to run down and rope a stray. Eugene didn’t mind George doing most of the work; he was content with the experience he’d gained in prior drives. Banjo seemed to enjoy his part in it, and soon needed little input from George when pursuing their quarry. He seemed able to anticipate the runaway’s next move, leaving George to concentrate on honing his roping skills. George was extremely proud of his progress. The only faster horse in the remuda was one called Zero, but Zero had a contrary streak that made riding him a frustrating experience.
George got along well with the crew, Bill Junior excepted, by talking little and listening a lot. In addition to the hands he’d already met, there were the Mexican-Indian twins, Miguel and Manuel, pudgy, dark fifteen-year-olds with small, sharp teeth. They spoke enough English to get by but kept to themselves. Eugene, a serious boy about thirteen whom George took a liking to, was tall and gangly, with blonde hair, and had an angular face like the Swedes he’d known in Wisconsin.
Meals were the worst time for George, when Bill Junior exercised his dislike of George with jokes that weren’t funny (“You ever notice Georgie’s arms flap like a chicken when he gallops?”) and criticism that wasn’t warranted (A good drag man’s got to keep those beeves moving, boy). There was no response to be made that wouldn’t lead to a showdown of some sort. George wisely kept silent. He ignored Bill as though he hadn’t spoken unless given a direct order related to his duties. Bud or Gordon, who had proven themselves to be decent fellows, would intervene on George’s behalf whenever Bill became angry at George for his unresponsiveness.
“Leave him be, Bill,” Bud would say, “He’s earning his keep and he ain’t botherin’ you.”
And Gordon would say, “Bud’s right, Bill. The kid’s all right. If he ups and quits, then where’d we be?”
Usually Bill would respond with, “Half a man short, I reckon,” but he’d back off.
George would act like he’d heard and seen nothing, but every word went into his mental account ledger.
After the evening meal, the men who weren’t on watch would sit on their haunches, roll cigarettes or chew tobacco, and talk. Their stories were sometimes funny, usually crude, always exaggerated, and often informative. One story George never forgot was told by the cook.
“Near about seven years ago, when they was runnin’ so many herds that there was always a cloud of dust from the Texas border to Abilene, Kansas, two cowboys at a roundup over near San Antonio I was cookin’ for had the damnedest accident I ever heard of. Some little dogie come loose somehow while it was bein’ branded, and it took off like a ruptured duck. Them two cowboys saw it at the same time and came after it at a gallop from different directions.” He took a drink of his tarry coffee and a drag of his cigarette. It remained dangling from his lips. He squinted against the smoke. “Well, you know how it is. They was concentratin’ so hard on what they was a-doin’ that neither one of ‘em noticed the other’un comin, an’ neither did their horses, I guess. Before anyone could do a damned thing, them two cowboys had slammed into each other goin’ full tilt at an angle about like that.”
His hands illustrated the horses’ paths, and he clapped them together to emphasize the collision. “You could hear that crash half a mile away,” he finished, and let his words hang in the air until Eugene said, “So?”
Oscar allowed a pregnant pause, then said, “Them old boys butted heads. Laid one’s skull open and killed him outright. You could see his brain. Made a couple fellers puke right there. We thought the other one was dead too, but he was just knocked out. Had a broke arm and collarbone, a couple of broke ribs, and a knot that covered one whole side of his head. One o’ the horses broke a shoulder and had to be put down. The other one limped for a few days but seemed okay.”
A couple of the drovers mumbled, “Damn!” and shuddered.
“Goes to show you. Keep your eyes open,” the cook said. He threw the dregs of his coffee into the campfire, emphasizing his tale with a hiss and a cloud of steam.
Most of the men slept near the chuck wagon. Their tarpaulins and bedrolls were kept on a canvas sling under the chuck wagon during the day and brought out at bedtime. George preferred to sleep away from the others because their nearly constant farting and snoring made it hard to sleep. He’d also discovered masturbation on the trip down from Wisconsin and preferred privacy for his nightly ritual of imagining what lay under the skirts of his last teacher, a comely young lady from Chicago. The others did likewise, but didn’t seem to mind who noticed. In the dark they made crude jokes about the whores who waited in every cow town for the drovers who’d just gotten paid off. George figured if he saw a whore pretty enough, he might just try one.
The cool spring nights offered relief from the hot, dusty days. George was usually made to take the second-to-last watch before dawn, which Bill no doubt figured would interrupt his sleep the most. During his watch, he, like the other cowboys, would sing to the cattle to make them less jumpy. He favored the songs of Stephen Foster, “Beautiful Dreamer” being his favorite, as it was his mother’s. Eugene, Bill’s other scapegoat, was George’s watch partner. He would sit on the far side of the herd with a ukulele, sometimes picking out a tune or playing chords as he sang cowboy songs. Each would join the other in songs they both knew, barely able to hear each other over the distance.
One night a month or so along the trail, with the herd bedded down beside a waterhole, there were rumblings of thunder to the north. The cattle became restless with the primal fear of grass fires that were often caused by lightning. Singing did little to calm the cattle. Many got to their feet and began milling, a bad sign. As a precaution, George mounted his horse and kept singing as he paced their perimeter. He had heard the tale of Stampede Creek, the largest stampede ever. Three thousand cattle, spooked by lightning, had stampeded and run headlong over a bluff. Twenty-seven hundred died, wiping out the rancher who owned them. George hoped Eugene, who was closer to the chuck wagon, would alert their sleeping partners, and whistled a signal to remind him.
A long flash of lightning in the north lit the entire landscape for several seconds. It seemed every head in the herd popped up. When the thunder crashed and rolled over them, the cattle, following a big bull, took off in the opposite direction. George spurred his horse to go after the leaders.
Zero, the horse he was riding at the time, had fallen into his string as the result of the pecking order, in which the lead drovers picked their favorites for their own string of mounts. The flank men then took their pick, and the drag men got the leftovers. Even Eugene didn’t want him because Zero made him look bad. Zero was rebellious and didn’t take well to training. His resistance to commands reduced his effectiveness in cutting cattle, when split-second responses were crucial, which is why George put Zero on the watch shift. Some of the criticism leveled at George by Bill Junior had to do with Zero’s performance, for which George was not responsible. George liked him despite his drawbacks, because he was spirited and was the fastest horse in the remuda, faster even than Banjo. And Zero was improving.
Zero’s speed might now save the crew a day’s setback or worse if the stampede could be stopped soon. The stampede leaders were ahead of him by a couple of hundred yards. Luck was with George in the fact that the herd was on his right, because that was the direction he had been told to turn the herd to head off a stampede. He hoped Eugene was keeping up on the opposite side. Galloping on open prairie, especially at night, was very risky. There were a million prairie-dog holes to break a horse’s leg, and if that occurred the fall would almost certainly injure George if not kill him. The thought never crossed his mind. He was a boy living his dream. This was his chance to prove himself.
Galloping full tilt alongside several thousand pounding hooves produced a feeling of elation George had never known. Zero innately understood the urgency of his mission. At a full gallop he gained on the leaders with seeming ease. The nearer he got to the leaders, the thinner the column of cattle became, until at last he was able to see Eugene on the other side, thirty yards back. He pulled his pistol and cocked it with his thumb.
When he’d managed to get ten yards ahead of the panicked leaders on his right, he slowed Zero, hoping they would take him as their leader and follow suit. They didn’t, at least not by much. The herd was hot on his heels, but Eugene had nearly caught up. Over his shoulder George could see that Eugene was getting ahead of the leaders. George held his pistol out, pointing in the direction he intended to turn the herd. In the dark, he couldn’t be sure that Eugene had seen his gesture. He began a slow curve to his right, hoping the cattle would take the hint. The leaders changed direction only slightly, but Eugene had angled left and was now close to him.
“Cut right and fire when I do!” George yelled. Howling like a wolf, he angled Zero clockwise and fired into the ground just ahead of the herd. Eugene did the same. This time the leaders swerved right. Eugene and George closed in on them, firing, whistling, and yelling. Only a few feet from the leaders, they were in danger of being overrun if the leaders swerved back to the left. The drovers kept yelling. They fired until their pistols were empty. The cattle kept turning to the right. As it did so, the herd began spiraling into itself, and was forced to slow down.
Half a minute later, the herd was at a standstill, panting as steam rose from a thousand sweating bodies. George and Eugene put away their firearms. They slowed, dismounted, and walked their sweating horses to cool them off as they patrolled the flanks of the herd looking for strays, soothing the cattle with soft voices.
While they were still close enough to each other, George, still high on adrenaline, called out to Eugene, “Hey, Eugene, why ain’t you serenading them dogies on yer ukelele?”
“I just hope to hell I can find it,” Eugene called back. “It’s layin’ in the grass back at the waterin’ hole.”
By the time the rest of the crew arrived at a lope, the eastern sky was growing pale. The northern sky was still black and pierced with occasional lightning, but the herd would be too tired to bolt again soon.
Bud was the first to catch up, reining in next to George and Eugene. “That was a hell of a job you boys did. How’d you manage it?”
Eugene was filling him in, giving George and Zero most of the credit, when Bill Junior arrived. He listened skeptically. When Eugene had finished, Bud turned to Bill and asked if he didn’t think George ought to be getting full wages from now on.
Bill silently snorted. “You ought to know better than that. Getting lucky one time doesn’t make the dude the king of the cowboys.” He unnecessarily spurred his horse and moved away.
Bud grinned at George. “Don’t his gratitude just warm your heart?” George shrugged. “When we get back I’ll tell my dad how you and Eugene handled things, and maybe he’ll see it different.” He went off to find Cookie and see if he could get some coffee going.
Near sundown a day or two later they arrived at Red River Station. It was comprised of a few saloons and restaurants, a blacksmith, a hotel, a large stable, and a general store near a bend in the Red River that slowed the current a bit. Crossing there also had the advantages of shallow water and banks sloped enough that cattle and drovers had an easy time getting up the northern side. Bluffs along the river in other places would have made the crossing very difficult. Even with its advantages, the crossing here could be very dangerous in the event of flash floods that came without warning, or a skittish herd that panicked for no particular reason. The current was swift even on a good day.
They let the cattle drink, then rounded them up and got them bedded down for the night. A couple of the drovers went to have a beer, one or two bought a pint of whiskey or a pair of gloves at the general store, but most had no money and were snoring by their usual time. Bud had bought a box of cartridges to replace those used by George and Eugene, telling George that if he didn’t get fair wages, at least he shouldn’t have to pay for ammo used defending Star Bell property.
Early the next morning the drovers got the herd moving toward the river. Yelling, whistling and slapping lariats against cattle rumps, they urged the cattle into the current. The Texas side was dusty and bare of vegetation from millions of hooves over the years. Most of the drovers wet their bandanas and tied them over their mouths and noses to keep the dust out. Things went smoothly, if slowly. The cattle out in the center of the river showed only their heads, eyeballs bulging, nostrils flaring and snuffling with their exertions as they swam for the Oklahoma side. The drovers held their firearms up above the current as they splashed alongside, but there was no avoiding being soaked up to their waists in the crossing. They were fortunate in gaining the Oklahoma side with no losses. The herd trudged on, their dripping hides and plodding hooves turning the earth to mud with their passing.
A few miles beyond the trampled earth near the crossing, millions of butterflies in an array of colors, patterns and sizes were flitting on a slight breeze. They competed with hordes of bees for the surfeit of nectar from the wildflowers that stretched as far as the eye could see. The atmosphere was drenched with their sweet scents. High above, wispy clouds did little to block the warm sun that was already drying the cowboys’ clothes and the cattle’s hides. Bud explained to George that now they were officially in Indian Territory. The federal government had ordered whites not to molest the natives, mostly Comanches, who expected a toll for the privilege of driving a herd across their land.
“That seems fair,” George reckoned. “Us white folks’ve been pushin’ Indians off their land for a couple hundred years or so. They oughta get somethin’ back for it.”
Bud looked at him queerly, wondering if he might be joking, and decided he wasn’t. “George, you’re just a kid, so I won’t take that too seriously, but I’d be careful who I was talking to like that. White folks don’t think that way.”
They rode in silence a minute or two. George spat over his shoulder.
“You hear what I’m saying, George?”
George nodded, not looking at Bud. “I hear you.”
Bud said, “I’m not trying to tell you what to think, but you don’t want to be known as an Indian lover if you want to get along with folks. That’s all.”
George figured he ought to angle away from the subject before he slipped and told Bud how much he could learn from Indians. “I know ya mean well,” he said. Then, to change the subject, “I heard them Comanche are mighty fierce fellers.”
“Not so much anymore, since Colonel McKenzie wiped out the Comanche’s herd of horses back in ’74 over in Tule Canyon. It ain’t that far from here. Some say nearly three thousand horses were killed, but at least fifteen hundred. They never recovered from that. But you ain’t seen anything until you’ve seen them ride. Even their women ride better than any white man I ever saw.”
“That a fact?”
“It ain’t horse shit.”
“Hmm. I’d like to see that.” George was looking off into the distance.
“I’m gonna look ahead a bit. You mind your p’s and q’s, now.” Bud moved up the line.
The first night in Indian Territory they bedded down around the waterhole near the Reid Store and had a good night’s sleep. The second day they made good time, arriving at the waterhole near Monument Hill two hours before sundown. This was the Chisholm Trail George had expected. On a rise not far away they could see twenty or thirty ragged tepees. A few dozen Comanche were scattered around them. Some were cooking over fires, some gathering cow chips, some stretching hides or curing meat on frames, and a few young ones were racing their horses. George saw that Bud was right. Even the girls were superb riders, using only a rope halter and a blanket for a saddle, no stirrups.
While the cattle were drinking and settling down to graze, three Comanche men came down on horseback and were met by Bill Junior and Bud, also on horseback. The Comanche leader’s horse was a highly variegated pinto, small like the typical Indian mount, but beautifully shaped. The leader was wearing a buckskin shirt, brightly decorated with a chevron of beads down the front, and buckskin leggings with a red breechcloth. His hair, in two thick braids, hung down to his waist. His pockmarked face was tattooed and painted with red and black stripes. On his arms were bracelets of silver and leather. He carried a Remington carbine. The other two men were similarly attired.
The Comanche spoke some English. After some discussion, they apparently made a deal with Bill that involved some silver coins and one of the smaller yearlings that hadn’t been keeping up well. Bud came back and had George bring the dogie up pronto on a short rope. Bud took the rope. He rode back to the parlay and handed the rope to the Comanche leader’s second-in-command. The three Comanche shook hands with Bill and Bud, then returned to their camp.
The sun was low on the horizon by the time the evening meal was ready. George grabbed a few sourdough biscuits and a big chunk of beef. These he ate hurriedly as he walked over to watch the young Comanche ride. He had left his pistol and belt on his saddle so that his intentions would not be misunderstood. His presence among the Comanche youths caused a slight stir, though he did not feel unwelcome. He stood near but apart from a small knot of boys and girls about his age, and cheered with them as riders flew by, much impressed with the quality of both riders and mounts. They were competing in a race that involved picking up an object from the ground as they rode past at a gallop, swinging off the horse’s flank until their bodies were horizontal to the ground, one heel hooked over the horse’s back, one hand holding a rope around the horse’s neck. Few of the riders were older than George.
After George had watched a few matches, the boy who had won the last race walked his horse up to George, an impish and slightly superior smile on his face. The boy hopped down and offered him the reins, indicating with signs that he should race the loser. George signed that he should wait a moment, then sat down on the ground and took off his boots and socks while making a comical face over the odor that was emitted. This provoked good-natured laughter from the crowd. One of the girls pointed at his sheet-white feet, contrasting with the brown skin of his hands and face, and giggled to a friend at her shoulder. By then a couple of older men, including the one who had negotiated with the Hodges, were looking on.
The Comanche boy tried to conceal his surprise when George took the reins and mounted the horse without assistance, grateful for its short stature. He aligned his horse with the loser’s, nodding his head at the rider with a friendly smile. The other boy nodded back, reserved but confident. He did not smile. The objects they were to retrieve about fifty yards away appeared to be small parcels of buffalo hide or cowhide, each with a dangling strap. He felt for the horsehair rope around the horse’s neck and kept its position in mind.
A third boy set them off, both riders spurring their horses with their heels. The race to the parcels was neck-and-neck. George reveled in riding bareback for the first time in many months, enjoying the more direct contact with the horse’s shoulder muscles and the immediate communication through his knees and heels. In seemed only a split second before he had to swing down for the parcel. He gamely clung to the neck rope as his body went horizontal and he reached down, touching the parcel but missing the strap, and nearly falling off his horse in the attempt. No time for regret, he thought, swinging back upright and spurring his horse to greater speed heading for the finish line.
The boys were still neck and neck at the finish line. His rival reined in and reared his horse, swinging his parcel around his head by the strap, exulting in his victory. Bringing his mount to a halt, George, glad that he had not fallen and broken his own neck, laughed and clapped for the boy.
He wheeled his horse around and walked it back to its owner, hopping down and handing the boy the reins. The boy took them and grinned, then slapped him on the back and said something in Comanche. George was laughing, excited. A couple of the girls gave him shy smiles. When he turned to get his socks and boots, the man who’d bargained for the toll was there. He was taller than George, and broader, his skin very dark. George noticed that there were several earrings in each of his ears.
“What is your name?” the Comanche asked, virtually without accent.
“George Scott, sir.”
“Whites call me King High because I am good at poker. You ride like a Comanche, George Scott. You are welcome here.”
“I’d call that an honor, sir,” George replied.
King High smiled faintly, then turned and walked away.
While George was getting his boots on, Eugene rode up a trot, trailing a saddled horse. The sun was going down in a blaze of orange, yellow and red. Eugene appeared put out over something.
“You becomin’ an Indian lover, George?”
“Them boys sure know how to ride,” he said, ignoring Eugene’s tone.
“Bill wants you to take first watch.” Generally, Bill and one of his brothers took first watch.
“Well, that’s a switch. At least I’ll get a straight night’s sleep.”
“Not this time, partner. Bill ain’t takin’ a watch tonight. Says he don’t feel good. You and me got the usual watch later on.”
“Well, shit,” George said, standing up and stomping his heels to get his boots seated, “that sumbitch’s sure got it out for me, don’t he?”
Eugene grinned somewhat smugly. “Better you than me.”
Later, while George was on watch, Bud rode up to join him. George was off his horse, standing with a big saltbush between him and the cattle, with Banjo grazing nearby. George was lighting a cigarette, using the saltbush to shield the flare of the match so as not to alarm the herd and set them stampeding. He’d heard the stories of the Buffalo Gap stampede, which had been started by a few embers blown from a drover’s pipe. Bud got off his horse, and George offered up his makin’s, which Bud took. He rolled a smoke of his own.
After he’d lit it, he said, “You know why you pulled first watch tonight, don’t you?”
“I reckon Bill don’t miss a chance to put a burr under my saddle.”
“It’s like I told you. He thinks you’re an Indian lover and you need a reminder that whites don’t mingle with savages. His words, not mine.”
“I grew up around Indians, an’ they ain’t savages.”
“Like I said, his words, not mine.”
“All the same, I didn’t learn much in school, but I did learn nobody’s got the right to tell me who to associate with.”
“He figures you’re on his time.”
“I was breakin’ fer grub.”
“No use debating it with me, George. I’m just passing it on.”
George’s voice was tense. “I’ll keep it in mind, Bud.”
They smoked for an awkward moment.
“Look, George. I think you’d make a good regular hand on the ranch if you could keep your thoughts about Indians to yourself. Dad seems to like you, and we could use someone handy with other things besides punchin’ cows. I think he’d take you on, especially after I tell him how you and Eugene handled yourselves in that stampede.”
“I don’t mean to be ungrateful, Bud. I ain’t. But maybe I could think on it some. Junior just plain don’t like me, an’ I’m not one to put up with his browbeatin’.”
“Believe me, Dad knows he’s got a cob up his ass, and he’d put him straight if he didn’t let up on you. You think on it. We’ve got a nice place. You’d have a good place to bunk, and the livin’s pretty easy most of the year.”
George nodded, his expression serious. “Thanks, Bud. I’ll consider it.”
The herd moved north for over a week without incident as they passed the Duncan Store and forded another river at Rock Creek Crossing. Rain made two long days miserable from start to finish. George had neglected to buy a slicker. He paid for it by working and sleeping in wet clothes that didn’t dry until nearly noon the third day, and then it was blazing hot for two more days.
At Silver City, Bill decided they should continue due north on a shorter variant of the Chisholm Trail that ran through Caddo Springs instead of following the main trail that cut an arc to the east. He figured the grazing might be better if they took the less-traveled route, even though the country was a bit rougher and made more work for the drovers. They were also less likely to encounter other Indians who might expect another toll. The low hills of the western route provided many opportunities for cattle to wander far off the trail looking for better grazing, which kept the drovers busy running them down. The extra work was not popular with most of the men, but Gordon approved the decision because it might get him home to his sweetheart a day sooner. Bud went along with it.
Two days into the cutoff, Eugene went after a steer that had spooked and run down a draw. Pursuing it at a gallop, his horse struck a prairie dog hole and went down hard, throwing Eugene against a fallen tree. The horse’s ankle was only sprained, but Eugene’s left arm was broken between the shoulder and elbow. The cook got him drunk on vodka. Bud and George held him still while Cookie set the bone straight. Eugene shrieked and passed out. Cookie improvised a splint and bound it. He watched the arm closely for a couple of days to make sure it didn’t turn colors from lack of blood before he was satisfied the splint wasn’t too tight.
Bill Junior informed Eugene that since he was now only half a drover, his pay would be reduced from a dollar to fifty cents a day, the same amount George was receiving. When Eugene protested, Bill told him that if the pay wasn’t sufficient, he could ride on back to the ranch and turn in his horse. Eugene complained bitterly to George that Bill was probably patting himself on the back for being such a shrewd businessman and profiting from the injury Eugene had received in his service. George’s dislike of Bill turned to hatred.
The following day at the evening meal George approached Bill and argued that since he now would have to make up for having a one-armed partner riding drag with him, he should be paid regular wages of a dollar a day. After some curt haggling, and with Bud and Gordon on his side, Bill finally agreed to pay George seventy-five cents a day from then on. The next day when they were alone at the end of the column, George told Eugene that he planned to give him the increase. Eugene at first declined. George reasoned that Eugene’s work wouldn’t suffer much. George further pointed out that Eugene’s younger brothers and sisters depended on his income for school clothing. They shouldn’t have to suffer for Bill being an asshole. Eugene finally agreed.
That night Eugene and George put down their bedrolls on a patch of bunch grass that had been chewed down by the herd. The cloudless and moonless sky was awash with stars. The Milky Way ran like a highway of diamonds from one horizon to the other. Eugene crawled under his blanket and laid on his back with his head on his saddle and looked up at the show. George stretched out on his bedroll a few feet away and took off his boots.
“I appreciate what your doin’ for me, George, and I won’t forget it,’ he said without taking his eyes off the sky.
“Ya’d do the same for me, wouldn’t ya?” George asked, making himself comfortable.
“I reckon I would.”
“Then there’s no need to thank me.”
“Thanks just the same.”
For a moment nothing was said. The other drovers were settling down and their fire had dwindled to coals. Someone farted long and loudly, and said, “Man, that takes a load off my mind.” Someone else chuckled and said, “I think you just blew your brains out.” There was general snickering, then silence.
Eugene was still stargazing. He sighed the way people do when they want to talk. George lay still. Eugene said, “You seen shootin’ stars, George?”
“Plenty of ‘em.”
“Ever wonder about the stars, you know, how big are they, how far away, how they got there?”
“Because them things don’t make any difference to me one way or the other.”
“You believe in God, though, don’tcha?”
“You ever seen or heard from God or Jesus directly?”
“Well, no, but there’s the Bible.”
“Nothin’ but a bunch o’ fairy tales wrote down a long time ago. Might as well believe in ghosts.”
“Then what do you believe?”
Now George sighed, as though patiently explaining something to a child. “I b’lieve the Indians got it right, some of it anyways. That talk about the Great Spirit and the happy hunting grounds is all horseshit. They live like all we got is right here. We get one shot at makin’ the best of it. If we make a mess of it, it’s too damned bad. There ain’t no heaven waitin’ to make up for a life wasted suckin’ hind tittie. Now get some sleep before we go on watch.” He rolled over to punctuate his point.
The next day the drive encountered a small group of Indians, tribe unknown, but probably Kiowa, looking vastly different from the Comanche. There were mostly women and three middle-aged men, all looking bedraggled and hungry. They had come down from a collection of tepees on a slope a few hundred yards to the west that might have housed a hundred people. People were leaving their tepees and walking down toward the herd as it approached. Several women out front were wearing red shawls. As the herd got nearer, the women took off their shawls and began waving them slowly in the herd’s direction. The meaning was clear: they would cause a stampede unless they received a toll. Bill cursed his luck.
A payment in the form of one cow was arranged, and a rider was sent down the line to tell George to cut out “that scrawny beeve,” meaning a sickly cow that had been lagging and a nuisance to the drag men for several days. George found the animal, roped it, and hustled it up to the front of the line, where he released it to the Indians. The women put on their shawls and stepped aside to let the herd move on. A crowd began forming around the sickly cow.
George trotted Banjo back to the end of the line. By the time the tail end of the herd was near the point where the women had stopped them, he saw that the Indians had already killed and butchered the cow. The entire tribe had fallen on it, devouring it raw on the spot. He could see little blood around the carcass. He knew this was because the blood was prized, and would have been carefully collected in broad, flat dishes when the animal’s throat was cut, then passed around.
Two days later, George looked back in the herd’s wake and saw a small herd of pronghorn antelope approaching the trail not a hundred yards in the rear. The wind was blowing in the direction the antelope were traveling, and thus they must have missed the scent of man. George told Eugene what he planned to do, then set off on a course parallel to the antelope. When the cattle had gotten far enough that George figured they wouldn’t start at the sound, he pulled his rifle and shot a small buck. The others scattered. George rode over to the dead buck, which weighed about fifty pounds, and cut its throat. He held it up by its hind legs to let it bleed out somewhat, then threw it over his horse’s rump and held it fast.
To avoid the dust, the chuck wagon always kept ahead of the herd. George rode up to deliver the buck to the cook. His shot had been heard all along the line. As he passed, each drover noted the buck with a grin and a comment about “good eatin’ tonight.” Cookie, at the reins of the chuck wagon, grinned when George rode up alongside and displayed his prize. The buck would provide several meals of the tender, flavorful meat, and knew the crew would welcome the change. He stopped the team, set the wagon’s brake, and got down to receive the antelope.
Bill had also heard the sound of George’s rifle shot. He arrived at the chuck wagon as Cookie was pulling the buck down off George’s horse.
Bill instantly understood what had happened. “Goddamnit, George, are you trying to start a stampede? What the hell do you think you’re doing? I ought to fire your dumb ass right, here, but I’m damned sure going to pull that raise I just gave you. You’d better not pull another stunt like this or I’ll fire you for sure.”
Cookie had watched Bill’s tirade, anger growing on his face. He dropped the buck and stepped between the two horses, looking up at Bill. “I told him to do it,” he lied. Cookie, a grizzled veteran of at least a dozen drives, thought Bill was a horse’s ass. The drovers liked his chow. A good cook was highly prized and bragged about by his crew. He was also second-in-command to the trail boss, and at least ten years older than Bill, who relied on Cookie’s experience in dealing with Indians, homesteaders and whatever other obstacles might present themselves. “He let the herd get a good distance on before he fired. The kid did good. He’s a damned good shot. So if you want to bitch, then start here.” It was a challenge, and Bill knew it.
“When’d you tell him?” Bill shot back. “I didn’t see him ride up here to ask.”
“If he had’ve, the buck would’ve been long gone. I heard he could shoot, and I told him days ago that if he got a shot, take it. The boys appreciate a treat now and then. So do I, and so will you.”
Bill’s indecision showed on his face. He wanted to chew George out, but it was more important to stay on Cookie’s good side, even if he was lying, as Bill suspected.
“Well, all right,” he finally grumbled, “as long as he cleared it with you.”
“You’ll make sure he gets his raise, then?”
Bill didn’t answer. He stared at Cookie for a second or two, then wheeled his horse around and trotted off.
George said, “I appreciate you coverin’ fer me, Cookie.”
“Forget it, kid. I got a kick out of watchin’ him eat crow. The sonofabitch needed a comeuppance, and I was happy to provide it.”
George smiled and went back to work.
“You’re gonna like this,” Cookie said at the evening meal, handing Bill a plate with a thick, rare antelope steak steaming on it.
He did, and everyone knew he did, but he merely grunted, and stubbornly treated it like any other meal.
The rest of the drovers, however, enjoyed their treat immensely. A couple of them patted George on the back, mostly to irritate Bill. By popular demand, George became the drive’s official game hunter, with Cookie’s blessing. Bill scowled, but stayed out of it. From then on, the others would cover for him every few days while he hunted prairie chicken or pronghorn or deer. He was usually successful in his hunts, always to a round of back-slapping and grins. A little variety in their diet was the only thing they had to look forward to until the cattle had been loaded on stock cars and their pay was in hand.
The steel rails had moved south from Abilene, where Kansas stockyards had begun in 1867. Other towns had taken its place successively as railheads for cattle drives; first Newton, then Wichita, and finally Caldwell, just across the Oklahoma border. Although the railroads had already skirted Indian Territory and run deep into Texas, it was still cheaper to drive herds from Texas to the railhead in Caldwell than to ship the cattle directly from Texas. Everyone knew the old cattle-driving trails would fall out of use when shipping costs declined, and when they did, Caldwell, like the other towns to the north, would see the money stream from the cattle trade dry up.
But for now, Caldwell was a boomtown, though it could not have been a permanent home to more than a thousand people. Saloons, hotels, haberdashers and general stores raked in money from cowboys flush with their earnings, while cattle agents, stockyard owners and railroad magnates grew rich on the cattle trade. The streets were several inches deep in fine dust from the trampling of hundreds of thousands of hooves. After a rain, the mud was so deep and viscous that it could suck the boots off the feet of anyone trying to walk across the main street. Most of the buildings were new, many of uncured, unpainted yellow pine, as though the owners knew they would be vacant before they needed painting.
Two month and a few days after the drive began, the herd reached Caldwell at midday. Another herd was backed up, having just begun the process of being loaded onto cattle cars. It was clear the Hodges herd would not be loaded this day. Bill and his brothers went into town to arrange for the sale of the cattle while the drovers found a sparse grazing area for the herd.
The brothers returned at sunset, while the drovers were slowly circling the herd, drawing the circles ever closer to secure the herd for the night. The brothers had obviously had a few drinks to celebrate. Bill was actually in a good mood. Everybody figured they’d gotten a good price. Cookie was beginning to serve grub as the drovers drifted in to camp. Bill ate with relish, so amiable that he forgot to throw barbs at George and Eugene.
The next morning Bill had terrible diarrhea and couldn’t go along, when at first light, the crew began the frustrating task of getting the cantankerous longhorns loaded into the cattle cars. Eugene complained of the same ailment. The drovers spent most of that day getting the job done. Even with chutes that narrowed the flow of cattle until they were single file, the bawling, unhappy critters required prodding with sticks and occasionally help from a lasso and a horse to keep them moving forward, as if they sensed where their journey would lead. In reality, their reticence was simply due to the natural claustrophobia of range animals.
By late afternoon, the herd was finally contained in cattle cars. The sweating, dusty, and exhausted cowboys were paid their wages at the cattle agent’s office at a desk Bill had borrowed for the purpose. A deputy sheriff was standing by to collect their guns and hand out receipts before they had a chance to get drunk and ornery. George kept thirty-five dollars after he gave Eugene the extra money from his raise. It was less money than he’d had in his pocket when he left Wisconsin. Bud reiterated his offer that George see his father about a permanent job. Gordon seconded the offer. George repeated that he would think on it. Bill, still looking green, was within earshot, and although he didn’t encourage George, he did nod his head in farewell and said “Stay outa trouble, kid.”
George had heard the stories from his trail mates of the many ways cowboys were relieved of their hard-earned cash, usually after the cowboys had had one too many drinks. They were conned into purchasing goods they didn’t need, or bets they shouldn’t have made, or their money and possessions were taken while they lay behind a saloon in a drunken stupor. George was one of the few boys who preferred to learn from the hard knocks others had suffered. He decided that rather than pay five times what it was worth in a saloon, he would purchase a bottle of whisky later and split it with Eugene.
For now, what he wanted most was a room and a bath. Eugene agreed to split the cost of a room. The sheets were dirty and the room smelled of filthy underwear, but the bed was soft and roomy enough for two. A bath cost a dime. It was cheap because there was only a tub and a hand pump, and no way to heat the water. The price did include the use of a bar of lye soap and a reasonably clean towel. Being accustomed to bathing in river water, they were unfazed by the cold water, but there was little motivation to linger. George put on clean socks, his old wool trousers and a shirt he’d carried in his saddlebag. Eugene had a similar outfit. Neither needed to shave yet, although Eugene was getting a few dark hairs on his upper lip.
They went out to eat, wary of the scalper prices, then picked up a bottle and returned to the room. They played poker and drank until they were drunk, then drank more until they were sick. Then they passed out and awoke hours later, still feeling sick, but now with blinding headaches. By then it was the small hours of the morning, and sleep was impossible. They passed the rest of the night playing poker with Eugene’s ratty deck and sharing their regrets for having had too much to drink. So much for learning from others’ and his own mistakes, George thought. Both boys vowed their limit thereafter was a few “short snorts.” Though it was the third time he’d sworn off drinking to excess, it was a vow George never broke again, at least not in public.
Finding themselves ravenous after the sickness passed, they ventured out at sunup and found a café that smelled good. Between the two of them they devoured a dozen eggs over easy, a mound of fried potatoes, a pound of ham, and two huge cinnamon rolls washed down with black coffee. They declared the meal the best they’d had since he roundup barbecue.
Afterward, they went shopping for clothing. The prices were inflated to take advantage of cowboys with money burning holes in their pockets. George finally found and negotiated a decent price for a pair of chaps that would protect his pants and legs in heavy brush areas. Eugene found a lumberjack plaid shirt he couldn’t resist. Mostly they just put things on a mental wish list to await a town with lower prices. After another good meal, they walked to the stable where George had left Banjo. The horse seemed well-fed and content. George talked to him and brushed him down while Eugene talked about how he missed home, poor as it was, and his brothers and sisters. George was already getting anxious to be on the trail again.
By the time they headed back to the hotel, the bars were lighting up and the streets were thick with men on foot and horseback. Laughter and swearing came through the doors of the saloons. “I wonder if there’s gunfights ever’ night,” George mused.
“Naw. It ain’t like you read about,” Eugene commented. “This here’s my third trip north and I ain’t heard but one or two gunshots all told, and nobody shot. Plenty o’ fistfights, though.”
Neither had any desire for more alcohol, so they returned to the room and played poker until they both got sleepy and turned in. Neither so much as rolled over until the morning sun through the window hit their faces.
Like most of the drovers, who either didn’t own a horse or had left their own in Texas, Eugene was forced to take the train back to Austin. From there he would walk or hitch rides to get home. The train wasn’t scheduled to board passengers until nearly noon. George was getting antsy, so the two went to breakfast. Then Eugene went along while George bought a few supplies and collected his guns from the sheriff. They walked to the stable, and chatted while George saddled Banjo and paid his bill. George promised to get in touch when he got back to Texas. Eugene stood watching him while got in the saddle and walked Banjo east out of town. He intended to see Dodge City before he turned south for the trip back to Texas.
George drifted northwest for a week, knowing he would eventually come upon the Kansas Pacific Railroad tracks that would lead him to Dodge City. As he’d done on the trip from Wisconsin, he foraged for edible plants that would add variety to his diet, things like cattails, mustard, and sunflower seeds. He found he liked prickly pear cactus. After raking off the thorns with his knife, he could carry enough to supplement his water supply. The fruit was good and sweet. It played well off the meaty taste of roasted locusts and grasshoppers and the occasional rattlesnake.
He shot a cottontail rabbit or a prairie chicken when the opportunity arose, wishing he had a .22 rifle for the small game because his Model 73 did so much damage. He usually passed up opportunities to take antelope, which were quite plentiful, because he thought it a shame to waste so much meat. Even a fawn would run over twenty pounds, which he could have smoked if he’d had the time, but he preferred to keep moving.
He finally came upon the Kansas Pacific tracks and began following them west. On the second day, under a searing sun along a flat stretch of tracks, he saw in the distance what he recognized as a barracks car, but he couldn’t see the crew. As he got nearer, he could make out about a dozen sweating men in filthy, worn clothing seated on stools in the small strip of shade cast by the barracks car. They were eating beans and bread.
They were a mixed group, mostly white or Scandinavian, two black men, and two who appeared to be Mexican, mostly all of them bigger and older than the average cowboy. All were frankly curious about the fellow coming toward them on a horse at an easy walk. The closer he got, the younger he looked. When he got close, they could see he wasn’t but about fourteen, and that sorrel with the powerful hindquarters looked like too much horse for a boy his age. They had to admit, though, that he was pretty well outfitted for a cowboy of any age, wearing a Stetson and sitting on a new saddle with a Winchester slung where he could reach it. Could be he’d earned them.
George could see that the crew was working on a siding that would allow one train to pull off the main track and let another pass in the opposite direction. When he was near enough, he greeted them.
“A good day ta you,” he said, tipping his hat.
The men murmured greetings.
“There’s coffee on the pot if you’re of a mind for it,” one of the white men said. His accent advertised him as an Irish immigrant.
“What’chu doin’ way out here?” another said. He was one of the blackest men George had ever seen, huge, and his voice rumbled up from his lungs like gathering thunder. There were knotty-looking scars around his wrists and his neck. And probably his ankles too, George thought. He felt a flash of hatred for men who would do that to other men.
“Lookin’ to see Dodge City before I head back to Texas for the fall roundup,” George answered as he dismounted. He found his tin cup in his saddle bag and poured himself coffee.
“There’s plenty of beans and bread if’n y’all’re hungry,” said another man. Arkansas, George thought.
“I’d be obliged,” George said, “soon as I let my horse loose to graze a bit.” He removed Banjo’s saddle and told him not to go far, which caused one of the men to nudge another and grin. George took a tin plate and spoon from a saddlebag and helped himself to beans and bread. They were good, and he said so. While they ate, George explained how he’d come to be there and learned about the life of a railroad worker. At one point he asked what they did for meat.
“Mostly we dream about it,” one fellow said, and they all laughed.
A man whose clothes were not ragged and who seemed to be in charge, said, “The railroad gives us enough jerky for one meal a day, but there’s no way to get fresh meat out here.”
“With all the pronghorns out there?” George swept his arm around the horizon.
“We’re paid to lay track, not hunt,” the crew chief said. “They give us rifles in case we get attacked, but they ain’t for huntin.”
“How’d you like it if I brought you a pronghorn for dinner?”
The men grinned and looked at each other. One said, “That sounds about as likely as these beans turning into butterflies.” They all had another good laugh. George laughed too.
“Lemme ask you this,” he said when the laughter died off. “Is there a stream or a waterhole near here?”
A barrel-chested man with thick, black hair on his arms pointed with his fork to some low hills a couple of miles away. “Over yonder’s a little stream that empties into a pond that should still have water in it. Over where you can just see the tops of some cottonwoods. Ain’t deep enough to swim but you can get a good wash. That what you’re looking for?”
George looked in that direction. “Well, why don’t I go have a look-see? An’ suppose I was to bring back a pronghorn. You gentlemen think you’d chip in four bits apiece for a few days’ worth of fresh meat?”
The men exchanged looks and nodded.
A man wearing a dirty apron said, “If you bring it, I’ll see you get paid. Then I’ll cook it and serve you the best cut.”
“Well, Cookie,” George said, “I’d be a fool to promise, but I’ll do my best to see you eat some kind of fresh game tonight.”
George grinned at the men and finished his beans. When they returned to work, he saddled up Banjo and rode off toward the hills. He located a good spot in a grove of oaks overlooking the pond and about two hundred feet downwind from it. He hobbled Banjo, made himself comfortable in the shade of a tree with his back against the trunk and had a snooze. When he awoke, the sun had declined enough that the shadows of the trees were reaching out over the pond.
He quietly found Banjo and pulled his rifle out of the scabbard, checking it and chambering a round, then laid his hat on the grass and got himself settled prone under a tree with a good line of sight down to the pond. Aside from a gentle breeze rustling the leaves and the buzzing of a few insects, it was completely silent. George hunkered down and began scanning the area for movement. The shadows stretched out longer.
He’d waited at least an hour and the sun was getting low when finally he saw a big pronghorn buck slowly approaching the pond from a brushy cut in the hills a hundred yards to his left. Over the next minute or two, a few other bucks showed themselves, all of them cautiously examining the surroundings and sniffing the air. As they got closer to the pond, does followed. When a dozen were out in the open near the pond, George selected a young, small buck that had been one of the first out of cover and was presenting its side to George’s position. Ducks in a barrel, thought George, and squeezed the trigger.
The buck weighed about seventy-five pounds, about as big as George wanted to lift onto Banjo’s back without help because it was awkward to handle. To help lighten the load, he removed the head and the lower legs and let the carcass bleed out before loading it onto Banjo. He was hungry now, and loped Banjo back to the tracks, dropping the pronghorn in front of the delighted cook. The men working nearby let up a cheer.
Later, when the sun had dropped off the edge of the earth and the men were intent on gorging themselves, the crew chief asked, “You believe you could bring in antelope meat pretty regular?”
“I reckon so. There’s enough meat on the hoof out there to feed the U.S. army with some left over for the navy,” he boasted. He knew he’d been lucky on the timing of this kill, but was sure that he could do it again within a day or two.
“Well, assuming that ain’t just braggin’, you might want to stop and talk to the railroad agent in Dodge City when you get there. I hear they’ve been hiring meat suppliers for the big jobs, but so far they ain’t done anything for little jobs like this. You look a little young for it, but I didn’t hear but one shot today, so you’re either damned lucky or you hit what you aim for and know where to find it. I’d send a letter with you saying so.”
“I’d be obliged for that. Being a meat hunter don’t sound like bad work.”
The men passed the hat after they’d eaten, George collecting over five dollars for an afternoon’s work. He was very pleased with himself.
When he arrived in Dodge City, he treated himself to a good dinner, a bath, and a hotel room. The next day, he visited the Kansas Pacific Railroad office, the foreman’s letter in hand. It read: “The bearer of this letter, George Scott by name, looks young, but he shoots like Buffalo Bill. He rode in from nowhere and had the noon meal with my crew, then rode off to kill a antelope for dinner and damned if he didn’t bring one back that’ll feed my little crew for a week. I recommend you give him a chance to prove he can supply meat for the RR. Truly yours, Winston Pike, foreman, K.P.R.R. track crew.”
The agent, Ely Harris, a genial and fatherly man, reminded George of President U.S. Grant. Harris seemed impressed by the letter. He promised George he would telegraph the people in charge of such things and try to have an answer the following day. George decided another day in a hotel wouldn’t break him, but he skipped lunch and had beans and bread for dinner.
The following day Mr. Harris told him they’d give him a chance. “Now ordinarily, we hire buffalo hunters for the big crews, but they need a wagon and team ready to haul those big brutes back to the work site. Too expensive for a small repair crew, but we’re getting complaints from those crews that they deserve good as the big crews. So a man like you”—George liked hearing himself called a man—“might be just the thing we need to supply those crews.”
The deal was made. George would receive train transportation for himself and Banjo, and be furnished with a pack mule, a shotgun, a .22 rifle, and all his supplies, including his ammunition. The railroad would send him wherever on the line his services were needed and pay him five cents a pound for each antelope or deer he brought in, but no more than could be used. Ducks and geese were worth seven cents a pound, pheasant and prairie chicken ten cents a pound. Squirrel and rabbits were worth only three cents a pound. The local crew chief or cook would give him chits for his deliveries of meat.
“You can see,” Harris said, “that it’s to your advantage and the railroads if you do your best to stick with the bigger game. It takes a lot of birds and rabbits to equal one antelope.”
But on the other hand, George thought, if the crew chief or cook had a taste for duck or pheasant, it would be wise to keep them satisfied and happy to sign chits.
George would be paid monthly by presenting his chits at the nearest station. If he did well in the first couple of months, a more favorable contract might be negotiated. And if not, thought George, he could still be in Austin before fall roundup.
He had no need to go to Austin. Cooks and crew chiefs to a man had nothing but good to say about him, and often padded his chits in gratitude for special orders he gladly filled. He was so productive that he was often used for larger crews and given an extra pack mule temporarily. Over the next few years his rate was raised across the board by two cents a pound. Meanwhile, the railroad sent him as far west as Denver, as far east as St. Louis, as far north as Cheyenne, and as far south as Houston, with Banjo and a big grey mule always in a livestock car getting fat on oats and hay along the way.
The railroad would drop him at a worksite where he was needed. After conferring with the cook about how much meat he could use, George would saddle Banjo and pack the mule, then head for the likeliest spots to find game. He would field-butcher the animals he shot and pack the best sections into bags provided by the railroad, which he would strap to the mule. Sometimes he brought in several hundred pounds at a time for a big crew. Seldom did he fail to deliver plentiful meat; if not antelope, then deer or an elk calf, and always a few birds. He would not kill an animal unless he could pack out most of the meat.
Sometimes he met other meat suppliers on trains and passed the time exchanging stories. Eventually he acquired among the railroad workers a reputation as a superb hunter, and a nickname: The Winnebago Kid. George hated it and refused to answer to it. The name soon died out.
It was a hard, solitary life that suited him perfectly. The baking summers and brutal winters that few could survive alone and outdoors scarcely phased him. Often he would encounter Indians while hunting, and for these occasions he was supplied with tobacco, knives and whisky to offer in exchange for hunting on their land. He would communicate with gestures and the basic sign language he’d learned from the Winnebago when his limited stock of Indian dialects was insufficient. If he ran out of trade goods, he headed back with what he had, because he was conducting business and didn’t want to take advantage, or worse, be unwelcome next time. He wanted to maintain cordial relations with the locals, regardless of whether he was on BIA land or the Indians’ ancestral hunting grounds. His meetings with natives were nearly always friendly, but never worse than stiffly formal, except on one occasion.
On a summer day some miles outside Santa Fe he had been crossing a stream with a little doe strapped to the mule’s back when he encountered three Mescalero Apache boys about his own age armed with bows and spears coming down the opposite bank on ponies, their faces striped with ochre and black. He didn’t stop in mid-stream, but kept on until he was clear of the steam. They all stopped, facing each other. The boys were clearly looking to assert themselves as men to be contended with. The biggest boy, the one in the center, had a squashed face that appeared to have been crushed from brow to chin in a vise, but he was brawny and assertive. Squash-face signed that the land was theirs and therefore so was the doe slung on the mule. George signed that the boys were far from their reservation with no claim to the land, and the doe belonged to him. He knew that showing weakness or fear would only arouse their contempt and embolden them. These boys would not be bought off with tobacco or new knives. They planned to take it all.
George was fairly sure that he could get his pistol out and drop all three of the boys before any of them could get an arrow loose, but there could be others nearby who would come at a gallop if they heard shots. Besides, he’d never killed anyone and wasn’t sure he wanted to start, though he had no doubt he could if necessary. He would have to think fast, because the boys on the left and right began sidestepping their horses to flank him once they realized he was defiant and possibly dangerous.
Squash-face signed that the land had always belonged to them. They would take the doe.
As a practical matter, giving up the doe was inconsequential. But giving in was not an option. If he gave up the doe, they would not leave without everything he owned. Signing that the boys should wait, he casually dismounted. He kept an eye on the two other boys, who had stopped sidestepping in their curiosity. One was short, slender, and almost pretty; obviously the youngest. The third boy was as tall as Squash-Face, but thinner, still showing traces of baby fat on his middle.
George walked back to his mule, gave the boys a reassuring smile, and pulled out a quart of whiskey, which he held aloft in his left hand to keep his gun hand free, then signed that they should sit, drink and talk it over. George was fairly sure the boys had never tasted alcohol. He hoped they would seize the opportunity to show their manhood by out-drinking a white boy, rather than simply trying to kill him first and take everything. If they refused, he planned to toss the bottle to the big one and simultaneously draw his gun. There’d be no use in getting the drop on them and running them off; they’d simply trail him and find a way to kill him. He would have to kill all three before they could use their weapons.
Squash-Face hesitated a moment, weighing his options. He apparently decided that since they outnumbered George three to one, they could have it all anyway. He nodded at the others and dismounted, a self-satisfied smirk on his face. The others followed suit. All four boys seated themselves cross-legged on the ground.
Now the Apaches’ bows and spears were useless, but each had a knife at his waist. George figured they weren’t likely to attack him now because they would be too anxious to prove their prowess at drinking liquor. He uncorked the bottle, leaned toward Squash-Face, and handed it to him. Squash-Face flashed looks at his friends. He sniffed the bottle, mustered a grin, and took a swallow. Chest heaving with the effort, he managed not to cough, gag, or wheeze. With a sickly grin he handed the bottle to Baby-Fat, who took it with some trepidation. Pride required him to follow suit. He duplicated the big one’s performance. Pretty Boy took his turn, but took only a sip. Squash-Face spoke sharply to him, shaming him. To save face, Pretty Boy matched the others, but could not control his reaction. He coughed and wheezed, tears forming in his eyes while the others laughed. George did not.
Pretty Boy passed the bottle to George. He tilted it vertically in a show of taking a long pull on the bottle. What he actually did was drink little more than an ounce while he forced air into the bottle to produce a lot of bubbles that made it appear he was drinking much more. He tipped the bottle upright again and made a gasping sound along with an expression of relish, as if he were a thirsty man taking a long drink of water.
The Indian boys were taken in. Not to be outdone, Squash-Face grabbed the bottle and took two long swallows, grimacing involuntarily. The others did the same, gasping and heaving despite their efforts to be stone-faced. George raised his eyebrows to show he was impressed. These boys are pure suckers, George thought. He took the bottle and repeated his charade. The Apache boys struggled through another round, which left the bottle nearly empty. George made a face of manly approval with the corners of his mouth tightly turned down and made a fist with which he thumped his chest while nodding appreciatively at the boys one by one. Then he took the bottle and finished it, making a show of dismay that it was gone. Laughing, he tossed the bottle into the stream. Keeping an eye on the boys, he stood up and retrieved the last bottle in his saddlebag.
The Indian boys laughed and slapped each other’s backs now, thoroughly pleased that they had bested the white boy. George opened the second bottle and passed it around. The boys, confident that they were well ahead in the contest, each drank an ounce or so, finding it more palatable now. George took the bottle back and again mimed taking a long pull on it. He lowered it and laughed, pantomiming and signing how good it was.
Now that they had proven their manhood, the big one was showing signs of regaining his belligerent nature, but all the boys were getting wobbly. To divert them and stall for time to let the booze do its work, George stood up, went back to his saddlebags, and rummaged around a moment. He pulled out a small, carved figure his father had made of a skinny black man with his arms holding a barrel around his midsection to conceal his nakedness. It was lifelike and articulated, so that one could grasp the figure’s legs with one hand and raise the barrel with the other. When the barrel cleared the figure’s waist, a huge, red phallus would pop out. When lowered, the phallus disappeared under the barrel.
He walked over to the boys, sat down again, and showed them the figure, holding it out of their reach. When it had their attention, he raised the barrel. The boys’ eyes popped wide open, and then they began laughing and punching each other. George repeated the action a few times, causing greater laughter each time, until the boys were falling onto their backs, gasping for breath. When they tried getting up, they found their limbs didn’t work well and their heads spun. They fell backwards again, which they found highly amusing. They rolled around on the bank, laughing, wrestling each other and acting like schoolboys at recess. George laughed and encouraged them.
When they were exhausted, they sat up, weaving to and fro. George passed the bottle around again, not even bothering to take another drink himself. After this drink, the boys flopped onto their backs and gazed at the sky, giggling now and then. George repacked the little figure and the bottle, took a drink from the stream, filled his canteen, and by the time he looked down at the boys again, they were sleeping peacefully.
With an effort, George resisted the temptation to either slit the boys’ throats to ensure he would not be followed and hunted, or leave them in some humiliating condition to teach them a lesson. Killing them would probably lead to the deaths of some local settlers in retribution. Humiliating them might fuel enough anger to take it out on an innocent person, or to catch up to him on his day’s ride back to the railroad crew. Instead, he left them alone. He mounted Banjo and led the mule down the stream a few hundred yards, then turned around. He walked upstream, passing the snoring boys and continuing almost half a mile before he left the stream at a rocky place where his tracks wouldn’t be obvious, and continued on his way. The trick wouldn’t fool a good tracker, but he hoped the boys would have hangovers bad enough to discourage serious pursuit.
The little whiskey he’d imbibed had given him a pleasant glow, and the New Mexico countryside seemed prettier than it had on his trip out. What the hell, he thought, one more little snort can’t hurt. He stopped on a rise, had a short pull on the bottle and rolled a cigarette. He could see several miles back the way he’d come, and there was no sign of pursuit. Just in case, though, he decided to push on through the night because he had no desire to wake up dead.
The living conditions were the worst part of the job. Railroad crews had to be fed all year round. Regardless of the weather, George had to deliver meat. But there was no warm barracks car for him to sleep in when icy winds cut through his clothing, no roof to duck under when torrential rains came down, no shade from the burning summer sun. His diet was monotonous and bland. He made his bed on the hard ground, and even in his youth he awoke feeling stiff. There was no doctor to sew him up if were losing blood, or to set a broken bone. He was completely and utterly alone most of the time. He would not admit even to himself the fear he sometimes felt after narrowly escaping an injury that there was no one to come to his aid in the event that he could not ride. In that case he would simply die and probably never be found. Though the isolation required by his job was part of its appeal, he often dreamed of girls, the shape of their breasts under their blouses, their soft voices, their demure glances. Thank God for old lady thumb and her four daughters, he thought, but I’ll have some of the real thing next town I’m in.
George’s fifteenth birthday fell on Friday, October 21, 1881. He’d been a hunter for over two years. In the meantime, the Kansas Pacific had merged with the Union Pacific and the Denver Pacific, now going under the Union Pacific name. George didn’t care what they called it as long as he got paid, and he had been paid well in his two years with the company. He didn’t spend much, having few vices, fewer needs and no woman to keep up. Most of what he earned went into a bank in Denver, which he considered safer than banks in smaller frontier towns. He’d put away several hundred dollars, which made him wealthy by cowboy standards.
His birthday found him in a Dodge City hotel on a layover en route to a new spur in Colorado. He had gained a few pounds and an inch in height since he’d last been there. The ladies saw a handsome young man with a firm jaw and an ornery glint in his eye. Full of piss and vinegar, men would say. He’d known a few girls by now, but had bedded only whores, except for one bar girl who let him share her room whenever he was in Austin. Bar girls were not whores; their only job was to encourage men to drink. Edna, her name was, let him know she was sweet on him. He wished he were in Austin tonight.
As evening fell, he became somewhat melancholy. Though he was a loner by nature, life as a pariah was depressing on holidays he’d once shared with family. This night he wanted some company, so he went looking for a pretty whore. The best he could find wasn’t very pretty, but she wasn’t much older than him and had sweet eyes.
The next morning he sent off a telegram to Chicago, where his family now lived, promising he’d come home for Thanksgiving or Christmas. What with free passage on any Union Pacific train, it wouldn’t cost much or take long. After that he walked over to visit Ely Harris, the agent who’d gotten him his job. Harris made him feel welcome and even put on a pot of coffee. They made small talk and got caught up.
Then Harris asked, “Have you heard about these new refrigerated cars?”
“What’s a refrigerated car?” George grinned like he was expecting a joke.
“They insulate it like an ice box and it carries a load of ice in a compartment on top. The cold air flows down from the ice over whatever they’re carrying. It’ll keep meat and produce fresh for days. They’ve been shipping beef, already butchered, back east from Chicago for a couple years now. It’s a lot cheaper than shipping the whole cow. Won’t be long before they’ll have enough refrigerated cars to butcher meat in Texas or New Mexico and send it wherever the hell they want.”
“Where d’they get the ice?”
“Somebody smarter than us has figured out how to make it. But during the winter, they get all they want for free and haul it where they need it.”
George leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling, hands linked over his chest. “That means before long they won’t need me. They’ll just toss crates o’ meat off the train wherever a crew needs it.”
“Reckon so. I’m sorry to tell you, son, but at least you’ll have time to figure something else out.”
“How long you think I got?”
“Maybe a year. Maybe less. They’re building refrigerated cars as fast as they can.”
George nodded thoughtfully. “And they won’t need drovers no more, neither. They ain’t hardly usin’ the cattle trails as it is already. What the hell’s the world comin’ to?”
Harris pulled on his pipe and blew smoke out the corner of his mouth. “I’m beginning to feel like a turkey. You know, every time I blink my eyes I’m in a new world.”
George leaned forward laughing. His chair legs clonked onto the wooden floor. “Well, hell, that’s progress,” he philosophized, standing up. “I appreciate you fillin’ me in, Mr. Harris. Reckon I’d better be makin’ plans for my future.”
“You’ll do just fine,” Harris said. “You’re a smart young fellow, and you’ve got a backbone.”
They chewed the fat a while more. When they ran out of things to say, George stood up and they shook hands. George headed for a saloon. He didn’t really want a drink but needed the sounds and sights of other people around. Piano music flowed out the door of the second saloon he came to, which called itself Cattlemen’s Bar. The music attracted him, and he took a beer to a corner table, where he sat nursing it.
It wasn’t long before a bar girl, not a bad looker, took the other chair.
“Why the long face?”
“Got a few things on my mind,” George answered, glad of the company.
“Well, nothing like a few drinks to brighten things up. Can I get you another one?”
“I’m still workin’ on this one.” She was a few years older than George, not as pretty as his girl in Austin, but he needed the company. “Can you stick around?”
“Only for a minute, cowboy. I have to circulate.” She looked at him sympathetically. “How old are you?”
“Today’s my fifteenth birthday.”
She pressed her lips together and looked away momentarily, touched in spite of herself at this boy/man whose eyes and attitude showed the miles he’d already put behind him. “Where you from?”
“How long since you’ve been home?”
“A couple years.”
“What’s your name?”’
“George. What’s yours?”
“Louise. I have to go, but when you’re ready for another, you give me a sign, and I’ll bring one and sit with you a few minutes.”
George picked up his beer and poured it down his throat. “Might as well be now. And bring me two fingers of tequila.”
She smiled. “I’ll be back.”
She stood up to go, and George noticed a man watching him from another table where he sat playing poker with two other men. The man could have been thirty years old, with a droopy mustache and three days growth of beard. His look was not friendly. He would cast his eyes down at his hand, but kept looking up at George, who nodded to let the fellow know he wasn’t afraid to meet his eyes, then closed his eyes and listened to the piano. In the noisy bar, he didn’t notice Louise returning until he heard the scrape of her chair on the floor and the thump of his drinks being put on the table.
“There you are, George.” She sat down.
“Look,” he said, “I know it’s your job, but I still appreciate you talkin’ to me.” He swallowed the tequila, and chased it with a swig of beer.
She smiled warmly, like she meant it. “You miss your family?”
“I don’t usually, but on my birthday, my momma would always bake me an apple pie with green apples from our tree. I’d sure like a piece right now.”
She touched his hand lightly with her fingers. “I know how you feel,” she said wistfully. “My momma would make me somethin’ on my birthday, a rag doll or a new dress, but she died of consumption two years ago. That’s why I started working here.”
George was telling her how sorry he was to hear she’d lost her mother, when he noticed the man who’d been looking at him was now bearing down on their table, anger darkening his face.
“Louise,” the man said, looking directly at George, “we need another bottle at our table. Why don’t you bring one and sit with us a while?” He made his request sound like a command. He was taller than George and carried a lot of weight in his shoulders.
George was immediately irritated. “Why don’t you use a little nicer tone o’ voice when you’re speakin’ to a lady?” he said, standing up.
“Why don’t you run along home before your momma gets worried about you, sonny boy? I’ll talk to her any goddamned way I please.”
The men were not wearing pistols, which had been collected by the local lawman according to a city ordinance, or George figured there would have been bloodshed soon.
“Not in front of me you won’t.”
Louise said, “Sit down, Zeke, I’ll be right there,” but he ignored her.
Zeke had not taken his eyes off George. “I’ve heard enough outa you,” he said. He grabbed George’s shirt front with his left hand and yanked, with the intention of using his right to throw a punch. George used his momentum to pitch forward and head-butt Zeke’s nose before he could throw the punch. Then he stomped his boot heel onto Zeke’s instep and drove his fist into the bigger man’s groin, exploding the air from his mouth and causing him to stagger back, his nose gushing blood. Before Zeke could recover, George used the side of his fist to hammer Zeke’s jaw. He went down like a sack of flour dropped from a wagon. The men at the poker table were getting to their feet. A huge bouncer was already steaming toward them to break it up, wielding a billy club to ensure obedience.
“You men sit down!” he roared at Zeke’s friends. “I’ll handle this.” To George he snarled, “You! Get the hell out of here!”
Louise had gotten to her feet, and said, “He didn’t start it, Ed.”
“I don’t give a damn who started it. He’s leaving before he gets hurt.”
George impulsively grabbed Louise’s shoulders and kissed her lips. “Don’t worry, sweetheart.” He grinned. “I feel better already.” He drained off part of his beer and made for the door.
Louise waved and smiled at him. “Good luck!”
George waved. Dan’s friends started to go after him. The bouncer thrust out his billy and barred their way. “You boys need to wait and around and help your friend home when he comes to,” he said. He picked up George’s beer glass and poured what remained onto Zeke’s face.
Zeke groaned and tried to sit up, but wasn’t quite up to the task. A couple of his friends came over to help him to his feet.
“Damnation!” Ed said to Louise. “I never woulda expected him to be the one on the floor. That was one rowdy boy you picked to be nice to.”
Louise was still looking where George had gone. “Goes to show you never can tell, Rudy.”
George was waiting for her when she got off work.
Over the 1881 Christmas holidays, George left his guns and his gear under lock and key at a railroad agent’s office in St. Louis. He boarded Banjo and the pack mule at a stable, then went out to purchase a decent suit of clothes. In a fancy store he bought a toy sailboat for his brother, a doll for his sister, a Stetson hat for his father, and a wool coat for his mother, and had them wrapped for Christmas. He packed them all into a steamer trunk with a change of clothes, sent his father a telegram to warn him he was coming home for Christmas, and hopped a northbound train.
The northeastern states were having one of the worst winters in history. He was glad the family no longer lived in Winnebago, where he might have been snowed in if he could have reached there at all. Chicago was cold and deep in snow, but the roads and rails were generally passable.
George’s father met him at the station in a new buckboard. They shook hands. George Senior joked that his son was too big now to take out to the woodshed, and marveled at how prosperous he looked. George told his father that he hadn’t changed a bit. They were the same height, though George Senior still outweighed his son. On the freezing ride home through the snowy streets, he talked to his son like George remembered him talking to his customers, commenting on the assassination of President Garfield, the gunfight out in Tucson, Arizona, and how electric light was going to change the world.
The family’s new house was warm and had indoor plumbing, but it was in the city and had room for only a couple of fruit trees, and no livestock other than the two horses. “Too damned busy to raise cattle anyway,” said George Senior. George Junior’s brother didn’t remember him, and was shy. Their brother had changed so much that his sister hardly knew him either.
His mother said, “Goodness gracious! My son looks like a man. But I don’t know if I care for that mustache. And you look tired. Are you getting enough sleep? Are you hungry?” And so she went on, until his father took him over to the shop to smoke and have a nip or two. Suddenly he was the most comfortable one to be with. His business was doing well, what with all the shipments of butchered beef out of Chicago these days. He seemed relieved that his son had money in the bank, and no regrets.
The younger children warmed up to their brother over the next few days. Christmas and New Year’s Eve passed pleasantly enough, but George felt like a guest in the family’s new home, especially because his mother went to such lengths to cook and make the holiday special. He’d have preferred it to be more relaxed, like the old days. She’d made him a warm, red flannel shirt. His father presented him with a Bowie knife with antler-horn grips and a leather scabbard. George was stunned.
“Thanks, Pop. It’s the most beautiful knife I ever saw,” he said, running his hands over it.
“Made it special for you, son, so you’d always carry somethin’ from home.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“No need to say anything. I wanted you to know I’m proud that you did what you set out to. But don’t forget there’s always a place for you here if you want it.”
For the first time he could remember, George was too choked up to speak.
When the time came to board the train, he was glad to be heading back to his real life, to Banjo and Edna and the dusty streets of cow towns. His family’s life in Chicago was only a post-card fantasy to him, not something he could ever be part of, and his childhood was as remote from his present as Chicago was from Dodge City.
By the spring of 1882, refrigerated boxcars were regularly carrying butchered meat out of Texas and New Mexico. The demand was so great that the railroad couldn’t afford to take refrigerated cars off the main routes to provide beef to work crews on spur line, but crews on main routes were beginning to eat beef more often than game. Three or four new refrigerated cars went into service every week. Demand for wild game was dropping quickly. George could see that the end was near for game meat suppliers. He figured that by the end of summer, it would dry up to the point that he could make as much by going back to cowboying. There was no use putting it off past that point. By the next Christmas there might be no work for him at all.
Until August 1882, he took every assignment he could get, taking time off only when there was no work, which became more frequent. Every other meat hunter was hustling to make every dollar he could before the end came. George figured it was time to quit. He hopped a train to Dodge City and went to say goodbye to Louise at Cattleman’s Bar. Then he went to tell Ely Harris he was done.
He found Harris at his desk, speaking to an assistant standing in the doorway to another room. When George entered, Harris told his assistant he’d talk to him later and told George to sit down. George sat and told him he guessed he was done. Harris nodded, and took two tumblers and a bottle of whiskey out of his desk drawer. He poured two fingers in each and handed a glass to George. They sipped in silence a moment.
“I feel bad we don’t have a place for a reliable young man with a gun.” Harris chuckled. “Well, we do, actually, but you don’t seem like the type to be a strike breaker.”
“No sir,” George said, smiling self-consciously. “I believe a man has a right to strike.”
“Truth is, I agree with you, but I’ll deny it if you quote me.”
They sipped in silence for a moment. George looked a little uncomfortable. Finally Harris said, “If I didn’t know you’d turn it down, I’d see if I could get you hired as an agent. We’re needing more of them every time the railroad reaches a new town.”
George shuffled his feet. “Nah, I’d never want to sit at a desk day after day. Not that there’s anythin’ wrong with it. You’ve got a lot of responsibilities, an’ it’s an important job. I just like it outdoors.”
Harris pulled a couple of cigars out of his desk and handed one to George. He flicked the tip of a match and leaned across his desk to light George’s and then his own. He sat back and blew smoke toward the ceiling. George had never smoked a cigar, and handled it like a boy playing grownup.
“George, I’d like you to keep the mule and all your gear.” Harris winked. “These days the railroad’s got no use for them, and things are moving so fast that I doubt anyone remembers what you’ve got anyway.”
“I much appreciate that, Mr. Harris. I never gave that mule a name, but I’ve come to like him after dragging him all over six states.”
“You ought to call me Ely now, George.”
George nodded. “I will then.”
“Where you headed?”
“Austin, I reckon, to look up some friends and find work.”
“Well,” the agent said, “you’re welcome to free passage on the train with your horse and mule.”
“I’d appreciate that too.”
“I’ll have my assistant arrange it and bring you a chit. You at the Dodge House?”
“Done, then. Here’s to good memories and a bright future.” They raised their glasses and drank. “You had a good run. Sorry it’s over?”
“Maybe a bit, Ely,” he said, the given name feeling strange on his tongue. “I’ve seen more o’ this country than I ever would’ve ridin’ herd. I enjoyed the work an’ meetin’ a lot o’ good folks. Made pretty good money, too. A lot better than I would if I’da been punchin’ cows all that time. But I reckon it’s time for me to put in a year or two on a cattle ranch, see can I learn more about the business of makin’ one pay off. I’ve been savin’ my money so’s I can buy a little spread an’ some breedin’ stock once I think I can make a go of it.”
Harris grinned at him. “Damned if that ain’t the longest speech I’ve heard you make in the three years you’ve worked for the Kansas-Pacific, George.”
George looked embarrassed.
“Don’t be ashamed of having some ambition, George. You’re three steps ahead of any young man I’ve ever met, and I admire you for that. You’ve shown a hell of a lot of gumption working for us, and that’s why I gave you that little bonus. Maybe the big boys up in Chicago don’t know enough to appreciate it, but I do. And someday you’re going to be a customer instead of an employee.” He winked as if to seal the deal.
“You’ve been square with me, Mr. Harris, uh, Ely, an’ I won’t forget it. I owe you one, an’ I hope someday I can repay you.”
“There’s nothing to repay, George. You gave us a damned good return on our dollar, even with that mule and the gear you’re taking with you.”
“Just the same…” said George.
“Tell you what.” Harris stood up. “I’ll pay you off, and before you run off to the bank with it, you can buy me lunch. Then we’re square.”
George stood up. “It’s a deal.”
The train ride to Austin was as uneventful as he’d expected, but hot as blazes under the late-August sun. The prairie grasses had turned the color of straw and smelled like it in the hot wind that blew in through the open windows of the passenger car along with the smoke of the puffer-belly up ahead. As usual on trains, the rhythmic clacking of the rail joints and the swaying of the car made George drowsy, and he dozed much of the time.
A pudgy traveling salesman with short, pink fingers who wore a green felt vest and carried a sample case containing kitchen gadgets—can openers, flour sifters, potato peelers and the like—entered the car at one stop and took the seat across from George and put his sample case on the seat beside himself. In a high, reedy voice the salesman tried to engage him in conversation, but George only nodded occasionally and mostly stared out the window until the salesman gave up and read a newspaper, occasionally nipping from a pewter flask he carried in the pocket of suit.
George was not interested in the news of the day. The world he inhabited had little to do with events transpiring in cities east of the Mississippi. What happened in Europe might as well have been on the moon. He was wary and distrustful of men in power and those who aspired to it, whether they were politicians, businessmen, or religious leaders. The only thing George asked of other men was that they mind their own business and leave him in peace. He’d hardly notice if everyone else on earth disappeared, except that he had developed a great fondness for women, though he trusted them even less than he trusted men.
It was the mystery of women that made him always anxious to meet the next one. He was infinitely curious about what went on beneath the many layers of their clothing and behind their eyes. With few exceptions, any man might go hang himself for all George cared, but if there was light in her eyes, he found even a homely woman provocative. It seemed as though women knew some secret about earthly pleasures that would be revealed only to a man bold enough to risk the scorn and derision of which they were capable.
The fear of the unique power women held over men has led many a man to rape, but beyond a fleeting thought of it, George had never considered it. He was aware that some women want or need to be taken by force, and had gone so far as to once accommodate such a woman, a girl really, but older than himself, and afterward had felt nothing but pity for her and disgust for himself. After all, where was the contest of wills in taking a woman by force? Men were naturally possessed of the means to take a woman physically, but doing so was not an accomplishment but rather an admission of defeat. A woman, not counting whores, must want to give herself to a man, to single him out from other, lesser men in order for a man to take pride in possessing her. Without pride, after all, a man has nothing.
All of this rumination about women inevitably led George to anticipate a reunion with Edna, whom he hadn’t seen in months. He came to the conclusion that she deserved something better, and now that he was no longer a traveling man and could set down roots, maybe it was time to consider getting hitched, even though she was two years older. He was a few weeks from turning sixteen.
After arriving in Austin, George took the mule to a stable and left him with most of his gear after receiving assurances from the owner that the stable was secured by a heavy padlock when unattended. He brushed out Banjo’s coat while the horse had his fill of oats and water. Then he went to a haberdasher, where he bought a new shirt, tie, and underwear. He had his old suit cleaned and pressed while he went for a bath, a haircut, and a shave. Afterward, he picked up his suit and took his purchases to a good hotel, where he rented a room.
When he stepped out of the hotel an hour later, he was the picture of a young man with a good job. No one would suspect he had matched wits with “wild Indians” to keep his scalp. No one would have taken him for a deadly shot who’d hunted wild game for a living under conditions so harsh that the knowledge would have horrified his mother and probably even his father. Feeling very satisfied with himself, he mounted Banjo and set out to find Edna.
Since it was still daylight, he went first to her rooming house. Although the proprietor, a middle-aged lady with graying hair and hands red from scrubbing floors, had seen him several times before, she seemed not to recognize him. “Ain’t been here in six or eight weeks,” was all the old grouch knew of Edna.
At the saloon where he’d met her, the bartender did not recognize him and would tell him nothing. He pointed out the manager, an oily man with a plaid suit and a pencil mustache who was busily tallying a pile of cash at a table. A huge, unfriendly man with a drooping mustache sat next to him with a Colt .45 in his lap. The man watched him with suspicion as George approached.
George stopped in front of the table and cleared his throat. The manager looked up with a testy expression and said “Whaddya need?”
George touched his hat and asked, “Sorry ta interrupt, sir. Won’t take but a second. What time does Edna come ta work?” He waited expectantly.
The manager squinted at him. “Ain’t you that cowboy kid that used to like to sit with her?”
“Well, one of ‘em, I reckon. Is she here?”
“He sure got all duded up since the last time I saw him,” said the huge man, grinning at the manager.
The manager grinned back, then said to George, “She met some salesman here one night about two months ago and was moonin’ around about him after we closed up. He came in every night for a week. The next night she didn’t come to work, he didn’t come in either, and I ain’t seen either one since.” He nudged the huge man and winked. They grinned at each other.
George was thunderstruck. He had never imagined she wouldn’t be there when he came back. She was a nice girl. They’d made love together. She’d said she loved him. How was it possible that she’d throw him over for some…some…pudgy salesman with pink fingers?
“Close your mouth so the flies don’t get in,” said the manager.
The huge man said, “Time to move on, kid. We’re busy here.” He slapped the barrel of the .45 into his palm and gave George a malevolent look.
George moved away in slow motion, trying to comprehend what had happened. Was she just gone? Just like that?
He went to the bar and had a whisky. His racing thoughts slowed and the reality sunk in as the whiskey spread into his blood. Edna hadn’t loved her job like he did. She hadn’t loved him either. She probably said she did to everyone who looked like a good prospect. When one finally came in who was willing to take her out of here, she went. The end.
George nursed a couple of whiskeys and a beer, musing on this development. No use throwin’ money away on booze he finally thought. Getting’ drunk won’t bring her back. He left after dark, feeling a little tight, but not drunk, more angry than despondent, unable to believe her perfidy. He stepped off the sidewalk into a gap between two buildings and walked into it, looking for a place to take a piss.
A bum came out of the dark doorway where he’d intended to stop and faced him a few feet away with a knife that appeared long and slender, like a steak knife, probably stolen from a restaurant. George did not break stride. The man started to say, “Give me your money,” but was cut off by the edge of George’s right palm hitting his Adam’s apple. While he was choking and making a wretched gagging noise, George ripped the knife out of the bum’s hand with his left, and jabbed his right thumb into the assailant’s left eye. Then for good measure he stepped back and kicked the man in the balls as hard as he could, almost lifting him off the ground.
The bum fell to the ground and began vomiting and clutching his crotch, the sour stench of cheap whiskey and bile rising up. George threw the knife onto a rooftop, then did what he’d come for, thoroughly soaking the poor bastard in the process. “You dumb son of a bitch,” he said, swinging the stream up and down the length of the man’s body, “you’re goddamned lucky I didn’t have one more drink or that knife would be stickin’ outa yer guts.” Then he tucked his penis back into his pants, went back to his hotel, carefully hung up his suit, and went to bed.
The next day he spent walking and riding around the city, admiring the courthouse’s new sidewalks and hitching posts, and the many new mercantile buildings that had sprung up all over town. He looked at the burned-out state capitol building, which had yet to be replaced, and admired the layout of the new university, with the main building, which promised to be a stately edifice, still under construction. He rode Banjo through town and over the new bridge across the Colorado River, not as squeamish now as he’d been when crossing the bridge in St. Louis just a few years before. The new gas lamps were being lit by the time he returned to his hotel, and despite himself, George thought they made the evening romantic. But by then he’d had enough of cities, and went to bed. The street sounds kept him awake for a time, but he eventually fell asleep. He dreamed that Banjo would rear when he tried to mount, like he’d done to that boy on the way down from Wisconsin, and he couldn’t figure out what was ailing him.
When morning came, George dressed in his cowboy duds. He followed his nose to a café and lingered over a good breakfast of ham, fried eggs, fried sourdough bread and fried potatoes with plenty of coffee. He promised himself to be done with women, at least for a time. Afterward, he walked to the stable and gave Banjo a bath and a good brushing, and even gave the mule some attention. Then he saddled Banjo, paid the bill and walked Banjo and the mule back to his hotel. He folded up his suit as well as he could and got the mule all packed. The sun was high by the time he’d mounted Banjo and had the mule on a lead rope heading to the Hodges’ place.
He found it easily enough, despite having been there only once the night before the roundup. The house looked a bit more weathered, its white plank sides glaring under the midday sun, and a few of its wood shingles curling. It was a stout two-story affair, facing north, with broad porches on all but the south side, which allowed the house to absorb more of the sun’s heat during the winter. Two privies sat close to each other about fifty feet south of the house. On the west side of those was a pig pen, and on the east was a good-sized vegetable garden. The corn was getting tall, big ripe tomatoes were shining red in the sun, and there were squash, pumpkins, and greens besides. Back of those sat a small bunkhouse that would sleep about ten men. Beside it, the tongue of a buckboard was visible through an open barn door. A hitching rail stood a few feet in front of the main house, with one horse tied to it, shifting its weight occasionally. Beside the house a windmill spun lazily in a mild summer breeze. The day was so silent that he could clearly hear the blades swishing through the air, and the sucker rod creaking on the down stroke.
The day was mild for late August, but George had grown warm on the ride out from town. He stopped at the water trough by the windmill and let Banjo drink while he pumped water over his head, rinsed his face, and drank his fill. Then he lifted his face to the sun with eyes closed, and inhaled the sharp scent of sage and the odor of horse and cattle droppings mixed with smoke from a cooking fire. Someone was baking bread. When he looked down and opened his eyes, a large, yellow mongrel dog with the face of a shepherd was watching him from a few yards away, and when their eyes met, the dog issued a low growl of warning. Instinctively, his hand went to his pistol.
Just then the screen door of the house opened, and Bud stepped onto the porch.
“I’ll be damned! Look what the cat dragged in!” Grinning, he stamped down the steps and came at George. The dog looked at him for guidance. “He’s all right, Sarge,” Bud said, and with that the dog approached George with his head down, wagging his tail.
George scratched the dog’s head and then held out his hand to Bud, who grabbed it and shook it heartily.
“Bud, you’re lookin’ fine and fit as a fiddle. Put on a couple pounds, have ya?”
“I’d say the same of you. I bet you think that mustache makes you look older.”
“Don’t it? The ladies think so.”
“I guess it does, all right. I hardly recognized you but I’d know that sorrel anywhere. We thought by now we’d seen the last of you.”
George grinned like he’d been caught stealing cookies. “I got distracted by an offer too good to pass up. I’ll tell you about it. Surprised ta find you home. Figgered I’d have ta ask at the house and chase you down somewheres.”
“Nah. I was eatin’ lunch when I looked out the window and saw you splashing in the water like a kid. I told Gordon I’d go see who it was. Speak of the devil…” Gordon had come onto the porch and was looking their way. “C’mon, George. Say hello to Gordon and meet his little wife.”
George followed Bud to the porch. Gordon came down and shook hands, a big smile on his face. He’d gained ten pounds or so, and wore facial hair like Bill Cody.
“George, you’re lookin’ prosperous,” he commented. “Got a mule for the heavy work, I see. Well, come on in and have some lunch. There’s plenty left,” he assured George. “May hasn’t even started cleaning up yet.”
“I appreciate that. Can’t turn down home cookin’.”
May turned out to be the same girl Gordon had spent the trail drive missing. She was a quiet, pretty, plump girl, four or five months pregnant, and a good cook. He learned that Bud and Gordon’s grandfather had died last year of blood poisoning after he’d torn open his arm on a protruding rusty nail. Their father and mother now ran a hardware store in Austin that they’d bought with the profits from the last two seasons, which had been good ones. Bud imitated his father’s deep voice. “Your mom wants to be near her church, and my rheumatism doesn’t much care for this ranch life anymore.”
Their older brother, Bill Junior, was running his own ranch north of the family ranch, a smaller spread he’d taken over after a woman had become a widow and wanted no part of the west anymore. She’d taken a small down payment on the promise that Bill would pay her off as soon as possible, with a hastily-arranged mortgage just in case, and moved with her children to Memphis. Bill had also married and already had a year-old boy. Bud and Gordon planned to buy him out after the boys inherited the ranch. “From the looks of the old man, we’re gonna have to wait a while,” Bud said.
“I’d like ta look up Eugene,” George said. “He still workin’ roundups and cattle drives for ya?”
“The next year after you disappeared, he finished the drive, got paid off, and took a train going north instead of south. We haven’t seen or heard of him since,” Gordon said. “I saw his mom at the post office a few months back, and she said he’s been sending her money pretty regular, but not so much as a fare-the-well or a place to write him.”
“I’ll be damned,” George marveled, then said, “Excuse my language, May.”
“No need. I hear it a lot.” She smiled tolerantly.
“Speaking of disappearing,” Bud asked, “where’d you been these past few years?”
George gave them the short version of his work for the railroad. By then he had finished eating and told May how much he’d enjoyed it, especially the apple pie. Bud suggested they move out to the porch so they could smoke while May cleaned up the kitchen. They were silent for a moment as they rolled their Bull Durham into cigarettes, twisted off the ends, and lit them, spitting bits of tobacco toward the road.
For a while they spoke of how central Texas was growing. George remarked that everywhere he’d been was growing fast as well.
Gordon said, “It won’t be long before raising longhorns on the free range is a thing of the past. We’ve done our last drive up to Kansas. The homesteaders and their fences, the quarantines against Texas fever, and every ragtag band of Indians demanding a toll have made it too much trouble. Come the fall roundup, we’ll just pay the extra freight and ship our cattle right out of Austin. At least that way I’ll be here when the baby comes.”
“We’re gradually fencing off our land to raise Herefords instead of longhorns,” Bud said. “That means a lot of fence posts and barbed wire.”
“Kinda sad, ain’t it?” George asked. “Civilization comin’ west has already put me outa two jobs, and I ain’t even sixteen yet.”
They all laughed ruefully.
“It’s a damned shame, all right,” Bud said. “But I seem to remember you put in some time learnin’ about woodworking and blacksmithing. I imagine you could learn to shoe a horse, couldn’t you?” George nodded. “Where there’s people, there’s a need for such skills.”
“Oh, I’m a fair hand at those things, but I don’t think I’m the type to open up shop somewhere and become a businessman.” He finished his smoke and ground it on the floor, then picked apart what was left and scattered it over the porch rail, where the breeze caught the bits of paper and tobacco and blew them away.
“I’m thinking of marrying too,” Bud said. “And when I get married, this house won’t be big enough, so there’ll be another house to raise. ”
Gordon looked at Bud, then at George. “Could I have a word in private with my brother, George?”
George looked a bit surprised, then stood up. “Why, sure, Gordon. I’ll just stroll out and have a close look at your windmill. See if I can figure out what’s squeaking.”
He went down the steps and walked out to the windmill, examining it closely while the brothers talked. A small flock of chickens and a strutting rooster were scouring the dirt, clucking and pecking at tidbits only they could see, their movements oddly mechanical. Occasionally one hen would peck another, which would run away, squawking and flapping its wings. Presently Bud whistled and waved at him. He strolled back and started up the steps.
“I think you’ve got a bolt about worn out, and it’s lettin’ the…”
Bud said, “We’ll look at it after a while, George. Sit down.”
George took the same seat on the porch again.
“We’ve been talking about offering you a job, George,” Bud said.
“Well, if it ain’t gonna be workin’ as a drover, what might it be?”
Gordon spoke up. “We were thinking you’ve got some skills we could use year-round, what with us needing to put up another house soon, and build corrals and barns and what-not. And whenever we need help with the livestock, you could do that too.”
George looked dubious. He took off his hat, spread his legs, put his elbows on his knees, and began playing with his hat. “I dunno, fellers. I just came by ta be sociable. I wasn’t’ askin’ fer a job. Kinda got used ta bein’ my own man, ya know?”
“Hear us out, George,” said Bud. “First off, we’d be a damned sight easier to work for than Bill. He won’t have anything to do with it, now that he’s got his own place. You’d have room and board, and that means May’s cooking three times a day, and you’d be off from Saturday after lunch until Monday morning. Except during roundups, of course. Like I said, there won’t be any more drives. The pay would be thirty-five a month, and if you’re as good as you say with iron and wood, we’d make it forty-five a month as soon as we start building. How’s that sound?”
“Better’n I expected. But I don’t know. I was sort of figurin’ on maybe buyin’ a little ranch of my own out in New Mexico with what I’ve got saved. Buy me some calves and bring ‘em up for the start of a herd of beeves.”
“Look at it this way, George. Running a ranch is more complicated than it looks, and you’d be starting out not knowing much about the business side at a time when things are changing fast in the cattle market. Working for us you could tag along and learn all we know without taking any of the risks, and see if you’re really suited to the business side of it. You’d be making a decent living while you’re at it. Meanwhile, you’d be helping us out a lot. In a couple of years, if you feel like you’ve got a handle on it and it’s the life for you, you’d have that much more money saved to get your own place. If you don’t like working for us, you can quit any time. No hard feelings. What do you say?”
George wore a tight-lipped expression as he considered the proposition. He kept his silence for a minute or two, staring into the bright day beyond the porch, then said, “How’s about I leave the mule here while I take a little ride and talk it over with Banjo? Hell, he might like ta find a girlfriend and settle down, for all I know.”
The other two laughed and nodded. “All right,” Bud said. “I’ll be out back in the tool shed making a harness. You look me up there and let me know.”
George mounted up. Banjo was dancing with impatience, so George let him take off at a trot. Sarge appeared out of nowhere and paced them for two hundred yards or so, barking happily, which spurred Banjo into a full gallop, and soon Sarge fell away. Banjo got it out of his system after half a mile and slowed to a walk.
Riding for the higher ground west of the house, George continuously encountered spider silk floating on the breeze. He instantly brushed it away each time without a thought, until on the third or fourth occasion, the spider came with the silk and landed on his knee. It was hardly the size of a fingernail, and the color of pure gold. Without hesitation, it started marching up his leg as if it owned the place. Looking for somewhere to start a web and a family, George thought. He wondered if the spider might be a sign, although he did not believe in such things. Still, he thought it might be a good thing to stay in one place long enough to meet and court a “nice” girl who’d make the right sort of wife when he did get his own place; one who wasn’t afraid of turning a bare plot of land somewhere into a home and proper cattle ranch.
And Bud was right about him not knowing much about the business side of raising and selling cattle. All George knew was the hands-on side, the kind of things cheap labor could do, things in which there was no future. A rancher must know how to get things done the cheapest way and get the best price at market. He needed to know about cattle ailments, how to remedy them, and when to call a vet. He’d have to know about bank loans and interest rates and shipping rates. Someday he’d need to develop a good reputation in the business for delivering the best beef on time.
When he got to the high ground, he dismounted and stood looking down on the house and its outbuildings. The ranch was neat and well-tended, with mature cottonwoods and sycamores shading the house against the summer sun, trees that would be bare in the winter when the house needed the warmth. He could imagine the wide expanses around it with good fences and feed troughs. He could imagine himself master of such a place in a few years, with a wife like May and sons like Bud and Gordon to take over someday.
He’d had a few years of excitement. Now was the time to get schooled in the business he intended to be in as far into the future as he could see. So he mounted Banjo and rode back down to tell the Hodges brothers he’d give it a try.
When he got back to the house he found Bud in the tool shed. Bud looked up and saw the silly smile on George’s face. Immediately he said, “So you’ll do it?”
“On one condition.”
“I got somethin’ ta tell ya, an’ if you swear ta keep it under your hat, we got ourselves a deal.”
Bud scratched his head. “Well, all right.”
“You ‘member when we first got outside Caldwell an’ couldn’t get the cattle on the train that day?” Bud nodded. “Bill and you boys came back from town feelin’ pretty good?”
“Yeah,” Bud said, drawing it out like he knew something was coming.
“Well, you ‘member that same night he got the drizzlin’ shits so bad he couldn’t sleep, and he was still so sick he couldn’t work the next day?”
Bud grinned. “Oh, yeah. Worst case of diarrhea I ever saw.”
“It wudn’t diarrhea, Bud.”
Bud’s eyes went wide open, and a wide grin split his face.
“You son of a bitch! You put something in his food, didn’t you?”
“Castor oil in his beans. Only it wasn’t me. Bill woulda never let me near his food.”
“I was the one suggested it. He thought Bill acted like a prissy little girl bossin’ her dolls around. Called him a peckerhead behind his back. While you all was in town, I said ‘Cookie, it’s the last meal this trip. I know you keep castor oil in the wagon. Why not give Bill a dose in his beans so he’ll have somethin’ to remember us by?”
“I’ll be damned. We figured it must have been a bad bit of beef. Didn’t Eugene come down with it too?”
“He was in on it. Pretended he was sick half the night so Bill wouldn’t get suspicious about him bein’ the only one with it. A couple of the other fellas said they didn’t feel so good neither, but I guess that just goes ta show you the power of suggestion.”
Bud grinned and shook his head. “I will be damned. Well, I damned sure won’t say anything to anyone, unless you don’t mind if I tell Gordon. He’d get a kick out of it too. Bill had it coming. We were both pissed off at him for cutting Eugene’s wages when the poor bastard broke his arm working for us, and for not giving you full wages.”
“I don’t mind if you tell Gordon, long as he promises the same.”
“Oh, he will, once I tell him it’s a lick on Bill.”
“Fine. Then we got a deal.” George held out his hand to shake.
Bud stopped his hand in mid-air. “Oh. I almost forgot. Our offer includes rent on your mule.”
George grabbed Bud’s hand and shook it. “Deal! No use lettin’ him lay around and get soft and lazy. Maybe we can put some muscle on him.”
George was one of only three permanent employees of the Hodges brothers. The others were local boys who helped support their families. Abe was fourteen, a tall, good-looking kid with steel-blue eyes with a limp from a poorly-set broken leg. Arnold was a dull-witted, raw-boned lad about his own age, who had a misshapen skull that seemed to leave little room for a brain, which was cited as the reason for his lack of intelligence. He was a plodding, hard-working boy, genial and willing to do anything he was told. Arnold was good with the horses. The boys strung fence, worked with the animals, and did the chores that the Hodges’ children would do someday.
Abe was allowed to take a horse and went home every night. Arnold loved the Hodges and often stayed in the bunkhouse so that he could take breakfast and dinner with the family. He soon became especially fond of Banjo, giving him extra care. After George came to know him and trust him, he was allowed to exercise Banjo on days when George was too busy, but forbidden to gallop or take him off the ranch.
George had the bunkhouse to himself most of the time. He liked having a space to himself. He liked May’s cooking. He liked being treated like part of the family. He even liked it when he was invited to go along into Austin for Sunday dinner with the old folks, even though Bill was there with his wife and son. George had forgotten that there were two sisters, both married and living in other cities. Bill had mellowed a bit and kept his acerbic comments to himself, probably because his wife, on whom he doted, was a lady of character who wasn’t the type to tolerate rude behavior. Their son was good-natured and as well-behaved as a toddler can be. George saw no reason he shouldn’t stay on a while.
There was never a shortage of work on the Hodges place, but never a shortage of fun either. Bud was the more outgoing brother, but Gordon was as good-natured and friendly. Neither was inclined to run a man into the ground. Gordon played the fiddle, so he was in demand for barn dances. The family attended them all, which allowed George to become acquainted with the local girls. He wasn’t much of a dancer, but that didn’t stop him from giving them all a whirl. He got along all right, but none of the local girls were what he was looking for. “Spunk” was the only word he could find to define it.
In the evenings, if he wasn’t reading Cattlemen’s Magazine, George usually stayed at the main house after dinner to sit and talk with the men while they smoked and drank coffee. Although their conversations rambled through the usual talk of politics, the weather, and so on, the business of running a cattle ranch dominated. He already knew that control of water meant control of the range. The Hodges had a year-round stream running through their property, which gave them an advantage in the Texas of the future and even now gave them control of a much larger area than they owned. But the days of the open range in Texas were almost gone. Europeans, particularly Scottish and English investors, were buying land to grab their stake in the “Beef Bonanza” described in pamphlets they’d read, and were competing with eastern investors. The cattle industry was rapidly moving north and west. George saw a young man would do well to anticipate the future.
So he studied the economics of owning cattle and horses, particularly the attendant expenses of veterinarians, supplemental fodder, fencing supplies, and so on. He learned to repair a broken wheel or axle on a wagon, and how to judge good leather for making traces and harnesses. He learned to recognize the symptoms of common ailments in farm animals and what could be done to prevent and treat them. He learned about dry land farming of hay crops, particularly the native grasses, but read that alfalfa was the coming thing. New to the southwest, it had been feeding livestock for thousands of years in the rest of the world. He resolved to keep it in mind, since it was highly nutritious and drought-resistant. And, he recalled, it smelled sweet on the wind.
Fall roundup came and went, along with the holiday season. In January May gave birth to a healthy boy they named Albert. By spring she was pregnant again. Bud was engaged to be married in the summer. George had already started building furniture for them.
Bud, Gordon and George selected the site for the house Bud would occupy with his bride, and staked it out. As soon as the first buds appeared in the spring, everyone pitched in and started the footings. A week later they began to frame the bottom floor and walls. George found it necessary to consult the library in Austin to learn about inside plumbing and the finer points of installing windows and roofing, but gradually a house began to take shape.
After construction started, Abe and Arnold were left to care for the cattle and horses, including Banjo. Bud and George had become nearly obsessed with getting the house up, which left Gordon to supervise the help and manage the ranch. The days were long and busy, but things went smoothly most of the time. Before winter set in, Bud had married and moved his bride into their new house. At Thanksgiving, she announced she would have a baby in late spring. The ranch was mostly fenced. It was one of those rare years in the life of a family in which no one died, children were born healthy, and they ended the year with nearly as much money as they’d had going in, despite the cost of building a home and putting up miles of fence.
Times were changing before their eyes. Soon there’d be a railroad station in every little town. Noises were being made about opening up land in the federal domain to white settlers. Traffic on the Chisholm Trail had slowed to a trickle, with only the ranchers too broke to pay for rail shipment and credit too poor to borrow the money still using it. The heyday of the Trail had come and gone in less than sixteen years.
George had taken to going into Austin on Saturday nights with Lucky Jim Swenson, one of the brothers he’d met on the trail drive a few years before. Lucky had turned out to be a bit of a ladies’ man since he’d quit ranch life and gone to work for a grocer in Austin. He’d introduced George to a sixteen-year-old half-breed girl named Julie, and she’d become his girlfriend.
Julie worked with Lucky’s girlfriend at a dressmaker’s shop. She lived in a boardinghouse with strict rules disallowing male visitors. Her father was white. Her mother was a Cherokee, and though her coloring favored her father, her temperament was her mother’s. She was a bit wild, and always ready to take a dare, which didn’t make her a pushover. Although her dark, flashing eyes, full breasts and hips, and sensuous lips seemed to exude carnality, she wasn’t ready to be a mother by accident or otherwise. However, she enjoyed the pleasures of the flesh and eventually became a willing participant in everything short of full-on intercourse when she and George could find a place to be alone.
Julie loved horses as much as George, and owned a high-spirited but small pinto, the type most favored by Indians, particularly the Comanche. She paid for its keep in a stable by getting up early and working as a stable “boy.” On their days off George and Julie rode everywhere within fifteen miles of Austin, and found numerous private spots for their romantic encounters. On these rides, George would often steer the conversation to the subject of getting their own ranch in West Texas and settling down, but Julie always refused any commitment, telling George that things were wonderful and it would be a shame to spoil them now.
George didn’t push it. Things were going well, for sure. The money he’d saved kept earning interest, and a little more went in each payday. The longer he waited to buy his own spread, the more there’d be, and the more he’d know about running it at a profit. Life settled into a comfortable pattern. He and Julie got along well, though he’d have liked them to have plans for the future. Always gentlemanly, he was never the slightest bit rough with her. His cocky attitude and ability with guns made her feel safe, especially during the fall of 1885, when a series of grisly rape/homicides that became known as the Servant Girl Murders took place in one of the nicer neighborhoods of Austin only blocks from her boardinghouse. The killer was never caught.
In the summer of 1886 George came near to killing Arnold. George had been wrapped up for days in raising a new barn, and hadn’t ridden Banjo at all, knowing Arnold would see to him. He’d just heard May ringing the lunch bell and was carefully coming down the long ladder off the barn when he saw Arnold approaching, clutching his hat in his hand.
Touching ground, George turned and said to Arnold, “What’re you lookin’ so forlorn about?”
“It was Sammy started it!” he blurted out. George knew Sammy as a boy not much brighter than Arnold who came from a neighboring ranch. “You know how he’s always braggin’ about that Sp-Spanish steeldust horse o’ his! Sayin’ he could whip Banjo any day if I wasn’t afraid to turn him loose!”
George held up his hands. “Whoa! Whoa! Wait a minute! Are ya sayin’ ya raced Banjo against that dumb kid?”
“I was sick of it, George! I knew Banjo could whip him! And he did! He did!” Here he turned his head away in shame. “Until he…until he…”
George grabbed Arnold by the shoulders and shook him. “Look at me, Arnold! Until what?”
Until he…” But Arnold couldn’t say it.
“Until what, god damn it! Spit it the hell out!”
“George, I swear to God I never meant…” Arnold’s face was dissolving into blubbering. George slapped him.
“You tell me what happened, god damn you!”
Arnold fell to his knees, bawling. “Sweet Jesus, George, his foreleg hit a prairie dog hole and broke.”
George’s hands flew to his head as if trying to keep it from exploding and he emitted a sound like a groan that became nearly a shriek. He bent over Arnold’s kneeling form and screamed, “Did you have to put him down, Arnold? You fucking halfwit, did you have to put him down?” His face was a mask of rage.
Arnold was sobbing, shaking his head, his face contorted in shame, tears flowing down his cheeks. “I couldn’t do it, George. I couldn’t! Sammy had to do it.”
George reached for the pistol that wasn’t there, the pistol that hung in its belt from a nail in the bunk house. Frustrated by his lack of a lethal weapon, he dragged Arnold to his feet, shouting in his face, “God damn you to hell, Arnold! God damn you to hell! I told you not to gallop that horse!” Then he shoved Arnold away so hard that the boy couldn’t backpedal fast enough to stay on his feet. He tumbled over backward and completed a somersault before slamming down on his back, still sobbing so hard that he began gasping for air.
George followed, and was about to deliver a kick to the boy’s head when Bud, who’d been working on the roof, started down the ladder after hearing the commotion and yelled, “Stop it, George, before you kill him!” He hurried down, jumping the last few rungs, and hurried to intervene.
Arnold laid there covering his face with his hands, sobbing, saying, “Go on and kill me, George! Kill me! I deserve it. I loved that horse. I loved him just like you did and it’s all my fault.”
George thrust his finger down at the supine boy. “You’re goddamned right it’s your fault!” He’d heard Bud shout, and kicked Arnold then, hard, but in his broad rump instead of his head.
Bud had come up behind. He grabbed George’s shoulders and pulled him away from Arnold. “That’s enough, George. He’s just a simple-minded fuckup, and he doesn’t deserve any more beating, much less killing.”
There were tears streaming down George’s reddened face, contorted with grief as he turned to Bud, but could not look him in the eye. “Goddamn it, Bud, I had that horse named before it was born. I took care of his momma when she was pregnant with him, I raised him and trained him, and I never ate a bite or took a drink without him havin’ his own. That halfwit was the only man I ever let ride him. I trusted him, an’ this is how he pays me back.”
“Look at me, George,” Bud said. George rolled his head in grief and said, “Shit. Shit! SHIT!” Bud took him by the shoulders and kept saying “Look at me,” until he did. “That boy is a simpleminded fool for what he did, but he’s no more to blame than if he was six years old. Ain’t that right?”
George moaned and said “Shit” again.
“Ain’t that right, George?”
George covered his face with his hands, and nodded. “I guess.”
“I’d feel the same as you, George, if it was my horse. But Arnold will never forgive himself for betraying your trust, and that’s worse punishment than crackin’ his skull or puttin’ a bullet through him. He looks up to you, and he let you down in the worst way possible. I won’t blame you if you never forgive him, but there’s no sense in making a bad day worse by doing something that’ll land you in jail. Hear me?”
George nodded weakly, and then dragged himself away toward the bunkhouse, saying over his shoulder, “You tell that sonofabitch I don’t care where he sleeps tonight, as long as it ain’t the bunkhouse, or I can’t promise he’ll wake up.”
Arnold lived in fear of George from then on. He went home every night and refused to take lunch in the main house. Bud or Gordon usually brought him something to eat. He wouldn’t go near George unless Bud or Gordon were present. George never spoke directly to him again, and figured he wouldn’t need to, since he’d decided that he’d been a hired hand too long and had learned all he needed to know about ranching. In the spring he’d move on.
The winter of 1886 was the worst in living memory. If they weren’t snowed in, the cold wind was so severe they couldn’t work outside for long. Millions of longhorns froze during the frequent blizzards, wiping out most of the small ranchers in the Texas Panhandle, including the Hodges. Before the winter was half over Bud had to tell George they couldn’t afford to keep paying him, knowing there’d be little income in ’87. Bud and Gordon agreed to let George take his pick of the horses on hand in exchange for whatever work he could accomplish, given the harsh winter. George picked a three-year-old quarter horse mare with no markings, a straight-out bay, but beautifully muscled and intelligent and always raring to go. She was nearly as fast as Banjo. He named her Dolly.
The Hodges brothers and George did what they could, bringing in the cattle they could find, spreading what hay they had or could buy, but there was no saving most of the longhorns out on the range. It was lucky they’d finished the new barn in time to save as much livestock as they did from freezing or starving to death.
When spring finally broke through the snow, George was ready to take the mule and all he owned to look for a good place to start his own ranch. Maybe west Texas. Maybe New Mexico. On a cool day in April, with Texas bluebonnets beginning to show their heads everywhere and a light breeze pushing around clouds that carried no threat, he rode into town to have dinner with Julie and ask if she was willing to go with him.
She was not. Much as she cared for George, she liked Austin and all that city life offered, especially clean sheets, nice clothes and good restaurants. The life of a frontier wife was not for her. She wished he would stay. After all, he had skills a growing city needed, and enough savings to start a business. They could have a cozy little house and children someday who could get a good education right here in Austin. Would that be so bad?
George was keenly disappointed. If he stayed in Austin to make a life with Julie, he’d have to set up a general carpentry business building houses, porches, barrels, caskets, whatever he’d need to do to make a living. That wasn’t the life he had in mind. Yet he didn’t know if he was prepared to head for New Mexico, where the range was still free, build a soddy miles from even a small town, and begin raising cattle without a woman for a partner in that life. There could be years of loneliness in store for him. Even worse, without a wife there’d be no sons to help out. Staying with the Hodges was out of the question; he’d be working for free just to have a roof over his head.
After leaving Julie at her boardinghouse, he didn’t feel like going back to the ranch. He was sitting at a bar, staring into his reflection in a glass of beer and considering his plight, when someone said, “Buy you a drink, cowboy?”
On his right, a fellow about forty years old wearing a brown Stetson, with a heavy three-day beard darkening his face, was settling onto a bar stool. His shirt was clean and his boots were polished, but his cracked, calloused hands and weathered skin made it plain he was a cattle man or a farmer.
George nodded. “Thanks, but I don’t reckon I’d be very good company.”
“I’ll take my chances.” He signaled the bartender, who held up a finger and finished washing a glass. “Name’s Henry Pruitt.” He extended his big right paw across his chest.
George took it and shook it reluctantly only out of politeness. “Mr. Pruitt, I’m kinda wrapped up in makin’ plans right now an’…”
“Everybody calls me Hank. Lemme guess. You ain’t got a job because every ranch within three hundred miles went belly up this winter, right?”
“No offense, Hank, but I keep my business pretty close ta my chest.”
“I admire that, uh, what was your name…?”
“…George, an’ I ain’t tryin’ to stick my nose into your business.”
The bartender wandered over. Hank ordered two beers against George’s mild protest.
“But if you should be interested in an opportunity to make some real money, maybe I can do you some good. If you ain’t, the beer’s on me and I’ll leave you to your thoughts.”
George looked at him curiously, interested despite himself. The man didn’t look or talk like a snake oil salesman. Figuring it couldn’t hurt to hear him out, he said, “All right, I’ll bite, but yer probably wastin’ yer time.”
“Maybe so, but unless I miss my guess, you’ve put a lot of time in the saddle the past few years and you know your way around a herd of longhorns. Right so far?”
“Close enough for now.”
“Tell me, are you aware that the price of Texas beef has been declinin’ these past few years?”
“Even right now, after the winter’s killed off half a million longhorns and more?”
George only nodded.
“Do you know why?”
“Competition from Colorado, California, Montana, an’ so on, I reckon.”
Hank smiled. “You’re a smart young fella. Usually I have to draw a picture. Anyhow, all them states are fillin’ up with cattle, includin’ longhorns they run up from Texas, and Herefords, what you call whiteface. And do you know where the money’s comin’ from to buy all that stock and fatten it for market?”
“I’d bet you can tell me.”
Another smile. “You’d win that bet. The money comes all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, from England and Scotland. But here’s the kicker, son. Them with the money made it exploitin’—you know what’s exploitin’, don’tcha?—thousands of poor bastards workin’ in coal mines and freezin’, miserable factories. Some of ‘em young as eight years old.” Here he shook his head as if in disbelief. “They ain’t rich enough yet, so they read about the fortunes to be made in American beef, an’ they buy huge plots of land, as much as a quarter million acres, an’ they buy as many as sixty thousand cattle at a time to graze that land. Then they sit on their fat asses and wait for the money to roll in. That sound right to you?”
“Can’t say as I have an opinion about it yet.” George had finished his own beer and started on the one bought him by Hank.
“Well, it don’t sound right to me. An’ I’ll say why. This country, an’ by that I mean the whole country, from Maine to California, was built by the blood, sweat and tears of men who fought hostile Indians, endured ever’ kinda hell you can think of, an’ worked from dawn to dark every day of the week all their lives so that they could get out from under the yoke of those same rich bastards from England and Scotland that’s now tryin’ to drive them out of business in their own country.”
“So where do you figger in all this, if you don’t mind my askin’?”
“I’m gettin’ to that. These rich sons’a’bitches ain’t never seen a cattle ranch and don’t want to. If they’ve ever even been to the U.S. of A., they never got farther than New York City or San Francisco. So how they gonna run a bunch of cattle ranches?”
“Well, I reckon they must hire local men.”
Hank slapped the bar, causing the bartender to look up sharply. “That’s right! Men like me that’ve been raisin’ cattle their whole lives, men that come away from a busted ranch with nothin’ but a letter of recommendation in their pockets, to work their ranches so they don’t get their hands dirty. You’re looking at the new foreman of the Scottish Cattle Company’s Central Texas ranch.”
“An’ I reckon you’re lookin’ for thirty-dollar men like me ta ride herd on their cattle. Well, like I said, I ain’t interested.”
“You ain’t heard me out.”
“Well, I’ll listen ‘till my beer’s gone.”
Hank lowered his voice and bent closer to George. “There’s a way to make a lot more than thirty dollars a month if you’re willin’ to bend the law just a mite.”
George set down his beer and looked Hank in the eye. “Bend it or break it? I think you oughta spell this out for me.”
“It ain’t that complicated. I know with a name like Scott you’ve got Scottish blood, so I mean no offense, but these rich industrialists,” saying the word like a curse, “from England and Scotland are exploitin’ native sons like you an’ me to get richer without puttin’ in the work to earn it, buyin’ up land that native sons are entitled to, deprivin’ ‘em of their own shot at gettin’ ahead in this world. All we do is rake a little bit off the top, right under their noses, and they never even know it’s happening.”
“You’re talkin’ about rustlin’.”
Hank shrugged. “More like takin’ back what should have been ours in the first place.”
“I’m partial ta callin’ a spade a spade. I ain’t never stole nothin’ in my life.”
“So I take it you ain’t interested?”
“I didn’t say that. I’m callin’ it what it is I’d be goin’ to prison for.”
“You won’t be goin’ to prison. The fella that had my job did it for three years, an’ those greenhorns never figured it out. It’s a shell game. An inside job. No guns needed. Only reason he quit is he made enough to buy his own spread, so after the winter killed so many cattle, he quit and headed for California. I was on his ranch crew for a three years, and he taught me the ropes while I was makin’ a little on the side. He recommended me for his job when he left. Joke’s on them, I reckon. The way it works is that I pay the regular ranch hands under the table to cut out cattle a few days before roundup and hide them for us up a draw we fenced in. While the ranchers are busy with roundup, my outside crew takes it from there. You’d be on the outside crew. Ain’t hardly no risk because the ranch hands are in on it. ‘Course, the pickin’s are a little slimmer now that half the cattle are rotting on the range, but there’s still money to be made. Are you interested?”
“Well, I got nothin’ against takin’ money from the rich when it comes from the sweat o’ the poor. But how much money is there, and how does it split up?”
“I take the lion’s share, forty percent, because I have the inside track, I make arrangements for the sale, and I take the heat if it comes. The ranch manager is a dude that can’t tell a steer from a steamboat, but if he gets suspicious it’s me he’ll blame. Out of my share I’ve gotta give my ranch hands their cut, which comes to about half my share. The ranch boys also gotta juggle the numbers on the roundup tallies. With all the cattle that died last winter, the company don’t know how many cattle it’s got, so we can practically make up the numbers. Anyway, the outside crew splits sixty percent.
“You bring your own chuck, horse and equipment. Usually there’ll be you and four other fellas, countin’ the trail boss. I furnish a string of cow ponies, but you do your own wrangling’. When I give the word, you and the rest of the crew go to where the cattle are penned and rebrand them. We’ve had as many as three hundred at a time. Then you drive the cattle to a railhead that’s over a hundred miles away, where there’s the agent that’s in on the deal. By that time the new brands are healed over. My trail boss knows the agent and does all the talking. The trail boss collects from the agent and hands you your share. Then you sit back and wait for the next word. I think that about covers it.”
“Lemme see.” George paused and studied the ceiling. “Say three hundred head times thirty-five apiece is ten thousand five hundred. You get forty-two hundred of that. I split the rest with four others. Even after expenses, that’s about fifteen hundred apiece.”
Hank was surprised. “That’s fast figurin’. But your numbers is off. The market price of legal beef has dropped to just over three bucks a hundredweight, so the average beeve brings about twenty-six dollars these days. But we ain’t getting full price for obvious reasons. We’re getting’ about eighteen apiece. And the trail boss takes a bigger share than the hands, just like if it was legal. Plus, he’s the one dealin’ direct with the agents, so he’s takin’ a bigger risk. You’d wind up with about $600 if the herd was that big.”
“Still a hell of a lot of money for a couple weeks’ work.”
“Now remember, I said we’d done as many as three hundred at a time. Maybe we’d only have two hundred, so you’d be lookin’ at maybe four hundred for that deal. Maybe we could only take a hundred and fifty to market. It was a hell of a bad winter. But you’d still make what a cowhand makes in a year on every run.”
“My share’s goin’ down fast. With the risk and all I’d rather work harder and split four ways. Even three ways if we only took two hundred head. How about that?”
“I got a fella that’s been talkin’ about openin’ up a tack store. If the other fellas agree, I won’t replace him when he leaves. That suit you?”
“It might. I’d want ta meet the fellas I’d be workin’ with first to make sure we’d get along. That all right?”
“We can arrange it easy enough.”
“Anythin’ else I need to know?”
“I don’t know how long this’ll last. The owners’re buying up whiteface stock and fencing in the range so they can keep better track of ‘em. This may not last two more years. But meantime, you’re making mighty good money for a thirty-dollar man, and the risk is low. Once the cattle are gone, there won’t be no clues left for John Law to discover. I’m the only one knows who you are, and if I get caught, I swear to God they could hang me before I’ll name you. And the only harm done is that some rich earl or lord might have to cancel his vacation in France. What do you say?”
George turned on his stool and looked at himself in the bar mirror for a long moment. He remembered admiring Robin Hood as a boy, but that was a fairy tale. No one, not him anyway, would risk prison time or worse to give money to people he didn’t even know. But he didn’t mind the idea of taking money from lazy rich people, and even if he only made a thousand or two, that would buy a lot of stock for his own place. Best of all, it was a quick resolution to his own dilemma and an end to the boredom of the last year or two. He turned back around to Hank.
“I’d guess I’d call that fair. I’ll give it a try.”
“I want your word that you’ll never tell a soul what you’re up to.”
George held out his hand. “When do I meet the rest of the bunch?”
To account for his absences and apparent lack of a job, George made up a story for Julie and the Hodges that he planned to see if he could find enough business as a hunting guide to make a living. They believed him and even encouraged him. He rented a post office box and put a small in the Austin paper and one in San Antonio. He told everyone he also ran ads from time to time in large newspapers around the country. Of course they were all pleased when his business seemed to do well almost at once.
Over time, he actually got a few clients from the Austin area and found he didn’t like them much. If you could afford to pay a guide, you weren’t hunting to feed your family. George had never in his life thought of killing animals as a sport, and didn’t care for those who did. He wished he’d thought of something else, but needed the cover and could hardly turn down clients.
Everything went off just like Pruitt had said, except that the take was even worse than expected the first year because of the two harsh winters in a row that had just ended. After that, grass was thicker and more plentiful than ever, thanks to the snow melt, so the ranch owners bought fifty thousand yearlings to fatten on the grass. The next year, when the yearlings were big enough for market, the take was very good.
Hank was working on ways to siphon off beeves after the land was all fenced. That unhappy, for rustlers at least, event had been put off for a year, because the company had been forced to buy so many calves to make up for all that had died. Hank and his crew were amused that the very money used to buy extra cattle that they then stole might have been used instead to make stealing them harder.
The money he was making was enough for George to move from a boarding house to a small rental house in Austin. He was still able to put away most of his income, even while he continued courting Julie when he was in town. For a young man with two jobs, he had a good deal more leisure time than most. He bought Julie a bridle worked in silver and some other nice things, dressed up in his decent suit and took her to a good restaurant now and then. And as always, they rode together. She would sometimes spend the night, but always stopped short of actual intercourse, leaving him frustrated and bad-tempered.
He was tempted to tell her that he was ready to settle in Austin, now that he was doing so well as a hunting guide, so that she would marry him. And though he was certain that it would be a successful business, he could not stomach his clients much longer. And how long could the rustling go on? It was nervous work, and no future in it.
He kept his eyes and ears open. At the first sign of trouble he’d be on his way west without looking back. If he went to jail, the money he kept on him was enough to make bail or at least bribe a guard. Either way, he’d be gone. He couldn’t bring himself to do it to her, even though her refusal to go away with him still ate at his pride.
Meanwhile, Hank had made connections with other foremen for ranches with absentee owners. Make hay while the sun shines” was his motto. There was plenty of “work.”
While the rustling business was thriving, George’s hunting guide business also began picking up, despite his dislike of his clients, because he gave them what they paid for, and they told their friends. Between the rustling and the guide work, time passed quickly. His reputation as a guide brought in more clients. His dislike of that sideline led him to raise his rates, which did nothing to dissuade new clients. The richer and more pompous they were, the more he disliked them. He became more irascible to his clients, who merely joked about it and called him a “character.” By the summer of 1891, he had saved enough money that he felt secure in looking for another cover for his rustling activities. When he realized he had overlooked another cover that would free him from reliance on the insufferable “sportsmen,” he began refusing new clients.
His new sideline was collecting bounties on gray wolves, which claimed almost as many cattle as did rustlers. As their natural prey was driven off the land by cattle, the wolves had had no choice but to take more cattle to feed themselves and their young. The Herefords, conveniently collected in fenced areas, were much easier to kill than the tough and ill-tempered longhorns wandering the open range. Ranchers were hit hard in the wallet, especially since the whitefaces cost more to buy and feed.
Until recently, salting the kills with strychnine had been successful, claiming many wolves when they returned to feed the next day. But the canny wolves soon learned not to return to a kill, and as a result, the wolves had to kill more cattle than before to feed themselves and their young.
The only remaining option was to shoot the wolves, but it was hard to get close enough to make the shot, thanks to their wary nature and keen senses. Wolves would not approach a staked decoy calf because the scent left by men handling it kept them away. If a hunter was lucky enough to spot a wolf, chasing it to exhaustion on horseback took at least fifteen miles. Wolves were such good long-distance runners that they often outlasted the horse and the hunter never got close enough for a shot.
George had a plan for finding wolves, and he could make long shots. He would begin by searching on horseback for fresh wolf spoor, especially their droppings, to find an area with recent wolf activity, just as other good hunters did. The trick was not to dismount and leave human scent near the spoor. He would then hunt and shoot a prairie chicken, a rabbit, or some other small prey animal. Using a sharpened hook on a long folding handle he’d made, he would pick up the dead animal from horseback, being careful not to touch it. He would return with it and leave it close to the spot where he’d found the spoor. It was then a simple matter to find cover upwind a couple of hundred yards away and settle in for a wait. Better than half the time, a wolf would eventually smell the kill and investigate. Sometimes he killed two or three wolves with the same bait.
Wolves are very hard to surprise. Occasionally he unexpectedly spotted a wolf, always a good distance away, and always downwind from him. To get close enough for a shot without scaring it off, he would dismount, hobble the mule, and keep Dolly between himself and the wolf, allowing Dolly to graze but always nudging her nearer to the wolf. The wolf would keep an eye on Dolly, but, unable to smell either the horse or George, would usually stop paying attention to the horse with six legs after a bit. If he got near enough for a shot, George would lay his rifle over the saddle and fire. Dolly had been trained to stand stock still for this maneuver, and only after the shot was off did she even shudder. By then, the wolf was dead.
Although he enjoyed life outdoors with only his horse and pack mule for company, he did not enjoy bringing down the wolves, which he greatly admired for their intelligence and family values. Hunting them, besides being cover for his rustling, was an antidote to inactivity, as well as an outlet for his energy and love of the outdoors. A pair of ears brought him only ten dollars as a rule, but the carcass of a particularly bloodthirsty wolf could earn him fifty dollars. It was not a lot compared to his rustling gains, but he knew that the risk he was taking in that activity would soon become too great. Every dollar he could save would go toward the ranch he would buy some day.
He passed two years as a bounty hunter of wolves. During that time, the take from bounty hunting decreased as constant hunting and reduction of their range decimated the population of wolves. Every adult taken meant fewer pups would survive to maturity and fewer pups would be born in the spring.
Meanwhile, the take from rustling also decreased rapidly after the winter of 1890. The open range was closing fast, owing mainly to an influx of homesteaders and their barbed-wire fences. The Scottish Cattle Company and other big outfits responded by fencing their land while moving quickly away from longhorns that could survive on the open range and into Hereford and Angus stock that provided better beef. Herds could then be accurately counted and controlled. Tighter control of the cattle and concentrating them behind fences made them more difficult to steal. To make matters worse, the market for Texas beef was dwindling as cattle ranching expanded into other states north and west, most notable Wyoming and California. This led to a decrease in the number of cattle being raised in Texas. Opportunities to steal them dwindled.
To make matters worse for rustlers, unscrupulous agents and dealers were becoming reluctant to trade in rustled stock because the law was moving into cow towns where a few years before there had been none. Brands were scrutinized for tampering. Documentation was demanded. The big cattle companies were employing “stock detectives,” mostly former rustlers themselves, to stop the rustling. Thieves were going to prison. Nothing terrorized George more than the thought of confinement. He was getting cold feet.
In the fall of 1893, Pruitt announced that the SCC was conducting its final roundup. His confederates had already cut a few hundred cattle out of the herd. Pruitt had concocted an unusual plan to sell them. He was going to run the cattle down across the border near Del Rio, where a Mexican buyer would take them without the bother of rebranding them. They’d incur less risk of detection by going in an unexpected direction with the cattle and avoiding the heavily-policed shipping points in the U.S. By eliminating the usual middleman agent, they’d also make more money. George got cold feet. He didn’t want to push his luck. He bowed out and wished Pruitt good luck.
It was a wise decision. Two of the ranch hands driving SCC stock into one of Pruitt’s pens had been caught in the act a week or two before. With a promise of leniency, they had helped set up a sting operation that sent Pruitt and several others to prison. George was shaken by the news of his narrow escape. He read about it in the Austin paper while he was drinking straight tequila and decided he’d have a couple more drinks.
The booze led him into a reflective state. Things weren’t going too well with Julie. A few days ago they’d had a nice dinner at the Madison House Restaurant. After they finished desert and were drinking coffee, he’d asked her if she’d like to go back to his place. She said, “George, pardon my French, but you need to shit or get off the pot. I’ve decided it’s high time I had a husband and children, and right now you’re not the best candidate for me to have them with.”
George had begun to speak, when Julie held up a hand to cut him off. “You know I don’t intend to be a ranch wife in West Texas or anywhere else, but I intend to be someone’s wife soon. There’s another man courting me now, and he’s nicely situated right here in Austin. You haven’t said anything about your plans for a few years now. Much as I care for you, if you aren’t ready to settle down, I know he is. Tonight you can sleep on that—alone—and tell me what you want to do next time we meet. Now please walk me home.” And she’d left him standing at her door without so much as a good-night kiss.
He was aching to end Julie’s virginity. Hadn’t he earned the right? The thought of someone else taking his place made his ears burn. Now he was thinking that he had plenty of money in the bank and maybe city life with Julie wouldn’t be so bad. He could set himself up in a shop making whatever people needed out of wood or iron. He had pleasant memories of the smell of fresh-cut wood and the sensation of the sledgehammer striking a red-hot iron bar fresh out of the furnace. There were pride and satisfaction to be found in good workmanship, making things that would last for years.
He wasn’t getting any younger either. He’d just turned twenty-seven, and he’d sowed a lot of wild oats. Thoughts of a Julie warming his bed in the winter and the availability of cold beer just a short walk away in the summer were tantalizing. He’d make a good living and they’d have a decent life. He could take on an apprentice or two and maybe when things were slow enough he could take Dolly and the mule out hunting for a few days and bring home some fresh venison. Julie could come along. He’d never slept with a woman under the stars. It all got to sounding pretty good in his head, with the warm glow from the whiskey shining on the idea.
Julie was delighted when George proposed and said he was ready to give up his wandering life to settle in Austin. She said she loved him and was sorry she’d thrown the other fellow at him, but she wanted him to know that love wasn’t enough. A woman of a certain age needs a home and a family. Two people, she said, had to be walking the same path in life to make a marriage, and now they were. They began making plans to marry in the spring, which would give George time to get his business going. Things were going to be wonderful. She just knew it.
He was fortunate to find space in a building on Congress Avenue not far from the Colorado River Bridge. He felt the trolley line and the traffic to and from the bridge would bring in plenty of customers. The rent was reasonable and it was already equipped with a small forge, as well as a block and tackle on a ceiling rail that would make it easy to move large objects down the center of the space between the front and rear doors. At an auction he bought a wood lathe, some tools and other things he’d need; the rest he bought new. In mid-September, George was ready for business.
He took out an ad announcing the opening of Scott’s Woodworking and Ironworks, with the slogan “Best Prices In Town On Crates, Barrels, Cabinets, Wagon Wheels & Sundry. Satisfaction Guaranteed.” The ad ran for a week, and customers began trickling in. He made good on his claims, and soon he had steady customers sending him more business. By spring of 1894, he needed help. He placed an ad for an apprentice in the local paper and chose a sturdy boy of fourteen who was good with numbers and tools. He paid three dollars a week to start, promising four if the boy worked out. The wages were good because apprentices traditionally were unpaid.
George found himself almost disappointed that the business turned a decent profit. Although he enjoyed forming wood and metal into useful things, he hated supervising an employee and keeping the books. The responsibilities of his new career made him mildly irritable, which led him to drink and smoke more to relax. Relaxation was hard to come by. There was no place in Austin to escape the sounds of buggies and lorries rattling by, dogs barking, train whistles, children screaming in play, river commerce, church bells tolling the hour, the neighbors arguing—all the noise that comes of people crowded together for convenience and security. “A man can’t hear himself think,” George frequently complained.
The wedding on Saturday, May 5 was a simple civil ceremony at the courthouse, attended by most of the Hodges, Julie’s parents, a sister and two brothers, and a few of her friends. They held a sedate reception at his rented house. By sundown, everyone had gone home, wishing them well. After they left, George finally got what he’d waited so long for. Julie was an enthusiastic lover. It was better than he’d expected.
George’s business brought in enough to allow Julie to quit both her jobs and devote herself to housekeeping and serving as bookkeeper for the business, both of which she proved to be quite good at. Her new responsibilities brought out a no-nonsense side of her that was new to George and intimidating to his apprentice, who was bashful and nervous in her presence.
Now that he had settled down and was head of a household, George was anxious to have sons. Julie was also anxious to start a family, but their efforts, though diligent, led nowhere. Julie grew concerned when she failed to miss a period by Christmas of 1894. She began reading everything she could find and listening to every recommendation, no matter how crazy it seemed, about how to become pregnant. George didn’t mind trying anything as long as it didn’t take the fun out of the trying. Sadly, many methods did just that, but still, they did their best. They took long horseback rides on Sundays, they made love in their old favorite places, and they spent most weeknights trying every method they could find, until it all became just another chore.
The year 1895 dragged on while they continued trying to get Julie pregnant. Business finally leveled off at a satisfactory volume that kept George and the apprentice busy, but he had no heart for taking more work and hiring more helpers. He simply did not see himself as a businessman or foresee a future in which he joined the Chamber of Commerce or became a city councilman, as Julie might have liked. The only satisfaction he got out of his transition from cowboy to tradesman was the pride he took in his craftsmanship.
The 1895 holiday season produced a lot of sighs from Julie. For the second holiday season, she nagged George into engaging in social activities with her family and married friends. The sight of other people’s children, excited about the holidays, running rosy-cheeked around their homes only served to depress Julie and did nothing to raise George’s spirits either.
In her frustration, Julie’s no-nonsense side had gradually become her dominant side, while George had begun to wonder whether he’d done the right thing in marrying her. Where had the old Julie gone? Life wasn’t fun anymore, mainly, George believed, because there were no children to bring back Julie’s sunny side. Still, he felt duty-bound to keep trying, believing that the whole problem was a run of bad luck and it was only a matter of time before a baby came to turn Julie back into her old self. The summer came and went.
The winter of 1896 passed into the spring of 1897 without results. By then, Julie had adopted a sour expression most of the time, and nothing George did seemed to bring her out of it. They dined out, they played card games with friends, they even attended theater, but nothing cheered her. She began bickering at George over small things. He drank too much. She didn’t like him smoking in the house. He didn’t itemize his materials on his invoices. He didn’t charge enough for his work. He allowed the apprentice too much time for lunch, and paid him too much. It was becoming nearly constant.
George liked arguing even less than idle chit-chat. He generally said little in response to her needling, knowing it would only increase the strain on their relationship. There was a limit, though. She wasn’t the only one disappointed in the way things had turned out. He began choking on the words he wanted to say. In the summer of ’97 he fired back at her when she asked him to take his cigar outside because the smoke was staining the whitewashed walls.
“God damn it, Julie! They ain’t even our walls! Turnin’ into an old nag ain’t gonna help get you get knocked up! Now leave me be! It ain’t my fault!”
It was the issue that had been fermenting but left unstated until now. Julie pounced on it so quickly he wondered how long she’d been waiting for it to come out.
“Then whose fault is it, I’d like to know? There’s nothing wrong with me. I still have the curse every month, washing away the seed that could have been our baby. How do you know it’s not your fault?”
“Damn it to hell, woman! Even if I am shootin’ blanks, it ain’t like I’m doin’ it on purpose. Ain’t no one’s fault. I want kids as much as you.”
Julie’s bitterness had twisted her face so much that George could hardly recognize her as the saucy girl who’d raced her horse against his, laughing, and nearly beat him a time or two just a few years ago. Would have, if not for Banjo. But here she was, eaten up by her frustration and disappointment, all the fun gone from her. She stood there, lost for anything else to say, until finally she picked up her long skirt, spun on her heel, and left the room, muttering under her breath, “Maybe you just ain’t man enough.”
He heard, and she knew it, and never took it back.
After that, they spoke only out of necessity. She slept in another room until, a month later, she told him she wanted the marriage annulled. There was no argument against it. He agreed. He gave her enough money to pay room and board for a year, and she moved back to her old boardinghouse. George paid a lawyer to push the paperwork through. By September he was single again. Julie had immediately taken up with a man, presumably the one she had mentioned in her ultimatum to him two years before. They were married in a church just before Thanksgiving. Years later, Bud Hodges mentioned in a letter to George that she had never become pregnant.
George lost all interest in the business, but kept it running by force of habit while he tried to find a buyer. Potential buyers quickly realized the good will of the business was nearly worthless unless he stayed on at least for a while, but he would not. In the end, the price he received in the early spring of ‘98 was enough to cover the reasonable value of his tools and stock, plus a couple of hundred dollars for the good will. That was fine for George. It was still a fair chunk of money.
He made new shoes for Dolly and the mule, loaded up the mule with some clothes and provisions, and left Austin with more money than he’d had when he came. He hadn’t much of a plan, just figured he’d ride until he felt like stopping. All that really mattered was being done with Austin. With every mile north a bit more of the weight of city life dropped away. The sky never looked so blue as when there were no other humans under it. He couldn’t recall the air ever smelling so good in Austin. The silence was liberating. His thoughts would once again jell without interruption. He decided he’d had enough of the city for a lifetime.
It seemed a good idea to follow the old Shawnee Trail, which was east of the Chisolm and led northeasterly. He took his time, having no particular destination in mind, enjoying the solitude he’d been missing. Dolly and the mule seemed to be enjoying themselves too.
On the third day out he came to Georgetown, at the confluence of the North and South San Gabriel Rivers. He decided to look around because he liked the name. Though it was only sixty miles from Austin and he’d hunted near there, in all his years of traveling he’d never had reason to set foot in the town. It was flanked on the east by prairie land sprouting cotton in the rich, black soil as far as the eye could see. To the west was hill country where whiteface and Angus cattle grazed among stands of timber.
The town itself was pretty, with neat houses and shops along wide streets with trees furnishing ample shade. Georgetown boasted one of the first universities in Texas and was served by two railroads. Walking Dolly up and down its streets with the mule in tow, George noted with appreciation that there appeared to be an abundance of pretty young women. He reminded himself that he’d need a wife to make a ranch out west livable, and needed one soon. He was nearly thirty-two years old. He decided to stay a while and see what opportunities might be found.
At a stable near the center of town he left his animals to be cared for. The proprietor gave him recommendations on places to eat and stay. By nightfall he’d had a good meal in a Chinese restaurant, having acquired a taste for egg foo young and moo goo gai pan at a restaurant near his business in Austin. He found a room in a decent hotel, had a couple of drinks in the hotel bar, and by nine p.m. was bedding down. I might like it here, he thought.
The next day, he set about looking for a place to try his hand at raising a few head of beef to market. It seemed as good a place as any to find a wife, and there was no sense wasting any time. After a few inquiries, he had a short list of ranch properties that were up for rent. He spent the next couple of days looking at them. The one he liked most was close to town but had been let go for a few years, and was in need of repairs to the house, windmill, fences, and barn. There were too damned many barn cats, but that was all right; he could use the extras for target practice. After much discussion, the owner agreed to lease it to him at a very low rate in exchange for some of the most urgently-needed repairs. If he stayed, they’d renegotiate the lease after a year. That seemed all right to George. A year should do the trick, he figured. If he hadn’t found a likely woman, he’d sell his stock and move on.
By the end of the first year he hadn’t found the time to do much looking. He’d spent the first three months just doing the repairs on the property while buying a bull and a few yearling cows, some chickens and pigs. He’d underestimated how much work was involved in running even a small cattle ranch alone, and rarely left the ranch for anything but errands. Now things were running smoother, and a few of his cows would deliver soon. With characteristic lack of imagination, he’d decided his brand would be his initials, GCS, with a bar at top and bottom.
His landlord was so pleased with how the place looked that he offered the place for another year with only a small rent increase. George decided to stay and give the town a chance.
He began attending dances, socials, and bake sales wherever he could, strolling through the park on Sundays, and tipping his hat at a lot of ladies. He even attended church a time or two, fearing all the while that lightning might strike him dead for falling asleep so often. There were a few false starts, but nothing much panned out. They were mostly town girls, interested more in the university boys, too prissy for his taste, and not inclined to appreciate the big skies and the wide open land he loved. Though once a cow town, the trade had dried up. There were no longer the kind of bars where he might find a young lady looking for a new way to make a living. He had nothing against bar girls or even a whore, as long as she had some spunk and was willing to be a frontier wife.
New Year’s Eve of 1899 was cause for a big celebration in Georgetown. At the park there were booths selling fried chicken, barbecued beef, casseroles, fudge, cakes, pies, beer and just about everything else you could swallow other than hard liquor. There were curio booths selling centennial beer mugs and plates, and booths selling firecrackers, sparklers, and other fireworks. George went alone and strolled around, sampling the food and eyeing the ladies. They were all too young or too stuck-up or too ugly or towing a chaperone or he’d already dated them. After a good fireworks show, the crowd broke up quickly. George went home and slept until dawn broke in the year 1900.
He got up and put on coffee, and then fried some eggs with a slab of ham. The house was cold, but there was no use making a fire because he’d be out working before it got warm anyway. January 1, 1900 was just like every other winter’s day. He decided that unless he got lucky, he’d sell out and try somewhere else before the spring grass came. He didn’t know exactly where.
It was a cool and cloudy day two days later. Rose Green was sorting clothes at Tucker’s One-Day Laundry when a square-jawed fellow came in wearing a Stetson and carrying a large sack of clothes, which he tossed on the sorting table next to the bundle she was tying. He was slim, of average height, with a well-trimmed mustache, and he carried himself like a cock-of-the-walk, but with a glint of humor in his heavy-lidded eyes. A Colt .45 in a plain holster hung on his left hip with the butt facing front, which seemed a bit odd, but she wasn’t that familiar with guns. Few men in Georgetown wore them. He was wearing a decent but not new suit. She figured him to be about thirty, ten years her senior or more.
He tipped his hat and looked her up and down with a little grin on his face, and said, “Man alive. They sure grow ‘em purty in Georgetown.” She was pretty, all right, but not in a flamboyant way. Her regular features were set in an oval face under wavy brown hair tied back to keep it out of her way when she worked. She had thick eyebrows over hazel eyes separated by a thin, straight nose above a wide, determined mouth. Her olive skin was clear and at the moment glowing with perspiration. She’d go about five foot five, George thought, and she’s built solid, with good hips and shoulders but a narrow waist.
Rose was used to flirting men, but she had to hide a little grin, because most of them weren’t this handsome. That didn’t mean that she was interested, just flattered.
She sniffed at the bag he’d dropped. “They sure make ‘em smelly where you come from. I might have to charge you double to get these smelling as fresh as you are to the ladies.”
He barked a laugh. “You sure got me there, sweetheart. I been workin’ like a miller’s mule since a year ago last May, fixin’ up the old Watson place and startin’ up a herd, and I ain’t had my laundry done real regular. Went to that Chinese laundry a few times, but I had so much trouble tryin’ to talk to ‘em that I finally gave up and came here.”
“You come from out of town.” Stated like a fact. She reached for the bag, opened it, and started sorting the contents, pinching her nose and pursing her lips in an exaggerated show of repulsion. He thought that was cuter than a ladybug.
“I do. Lately out of Austin, where I spent a few years, and before that, everywhere from Wisconsin to Kansas to Colorado.”
“Ain’t you a little young for so much moving around?”
“I started early and traveled a bit. Name’s George Edgar Scott. What’s yours?” He held out his hand as if to a man.
She looked at it as though she wasn’t sure of his intent, then ruefully took it and shook. “Mary Rose Green. I go by Rose.” She tried to withdraw her hand, but he held on.
“Proud to make your acquaintance, Rose Green. Say, I don’t suppose…”
She cut him off. “I’m gonna need that hand to finish sorting your laundry, Mr. Scott.”
He grinned and let go. “How’s about you joining me for dinner this evening, Miss Green?”
She gave him an appraising look. “I’m afraid I’m spoken for, Mr. Scott...”
“…but thanks for the offer.” She busied herself with the clothes.
“My apologies, Miss Green, but I didn’t see no ring and I thought…”
“It wouldn’t make sense to wear a ring here, now would it?”
“I reckon that’s so. Anyway, if anything changes, my offer stands.”
“I’ll keep in it mind.” She tossed a final item on the pile she’d made. “If you want the wet wash, I can have it done today for two bits. Dry and folded will be fifty cents, but you won’t get it until tomorrow.”
George fished two quarters out of his pocket and handed them to her, noting her red, chapped hands. “Tomorrow’s fine.” He took her hand as she closed her fingers over the money. “A pretty thing like you shouldn’t have to ruin her hands with lye soap.”
She primly withdrew her hand and turned back to her work. “They’ll be ready tomorrow afternoon. Good day, Mr. Scott.”
He watched her as she tied the bundle she’d been working on and tried to catch her eye, but her face was set in a blank expression. He tipped his hat and walked out.
Rose surreptitiously watched through the front window as he clomped across the boardwalk. He mounted a pretty bay mare that danced a bit as he mounted her, anxious to go. Once mounted, he seemed fused with the horse, his commands so subtle that one would think the mare was acting on her own. Watching them together made her long to throw off her apron, dump her washtub full of filthy clothes, and ride into the countryside on a horse like that. Instead, she sighed a loud, miserable sigh, and returned to her tasks.
The next afternoon, George returned for his laundry. His Stetson appeared freshly brushed, his boots were polished, and he was wearing the same suit with a clean shirt. Probably his last, Rose thought. She had come out of the back, drying her hands, at the sound of his footsteps on the rough plank floor.
“Afternoon, Miss Green,” he said, touching his hat.
“Mr. Scott,” she answered, nodding. “I’ll get your laundry.” She went through a curtain behind the counter and came back carrying a large bundle with his name scrawled on it. She placed it on the counter between them. “They’re all folded and they smell much better now.” She offered him a guarded smile.
He sniffed the bundle and grinned. “I’d better watch out people don’t think I’m a greenhorn wearin’ these.”
She laughed. He liked the sound. “I wouldn’t worry much about that.”
“I noticed you lookin’ at me through your window yesterday.”
She blushed slightly. “Actually, I was admiring your horse.”
“Yeah, Dolly’s near as good as they come.” He self-consciously rubbed the back of his neck, uncertain what to say next. “So yer a horse fancier?”
She brightened despite herself. “I love horses. I grew up riding them. Why, I even broke a few. We sold them off when we moved to town. The old nags my daddy has aren’t good for much anymore. They can barely pull a buggy.”
“I just bought a stud quarter horse to see if I can get Dolly there to bring me a foal next year. Maybe you’d like to go for a ride some time while I’m training him. You could ride her if I tell her it’s all right.”
She looked embarrassed. “Oh, I…I’m spoken for, like I said. It wouldn’t be right.”
“You sure? No obligation, an’ I’m a gentleman even if I don’t look it.”
She chewed her lower lip and nodded, looking at the floor. “Thanks just the same.”
He tipped his hat and picked up his laundry. “Reckon then I’ll see you in a week or so.”
Again she admired Dolly as he mounted up and rode off. She’d have given anything to be in his place.
Later, with her hands in scalding water and sweat rolling off her face, she thought about how she hated washing handkerchiefs more than anything else, more even than soiled underwear. She paused and wiped away the sweat with a towel she kept for that purpose. She asked herself for the thousandth time whether Peter Knight would ever make good on his promise to announce to the world that he would marry her in spite of his family’s wishes. Everyone knew that his father and mother had arranged a marriage between him Eloise Anderson, the daughter of a neighboring rancher. The wedding was supposed to take place after he graduated from the university. That would be in June.
Everyone also knew that Rose and Peter had a child together. Billie was already going on four years old. Peter gave her a little money to help out. He also gave her promises that seemed emptier with every day that passed. He saw her only when he could sneak away. Despite his claims that he loved her and would marry her when he’d done with school, it seemed the only thing he really wanted was what resulted in Billie. But Rose loved him so much it hurt. When she saw his golden hair, his blue eyes, and heard his fine words, she hadn’t the strength to give him an ultimatum.
And now came George, who seemed a decent man, and had an air about him of utmost confidence and self-reliance. The first time she met him she knew he could handle whatever came at him. He was older, and a bit rough, but still handsome. And quite the flirt. If only he’d come along before Peter, maybe she wouldn’t have made the same mistake. But made it she had. She doubted that George was the kind of man who’d want her if he knew, who’d take her and another man’s son, even if she could bear to tell Peter she was through with him.
Billie was the very image of his father, acting like him and talking like him, though he seldom saw Peter. The fact was, Peter didn’t seem to care about his own son. He referred to him as their “little mistake,” as if he wasn’t a real boy who needed his father. Peter would say, “We’ll all be a family soon. I promise.” And then he would take her into the barn, or the woodshed, or a grassy field, just like always. He never even asked her to bring Billie, and she knew it was because Billie would spoil his fun.
Her mother treated her as if she’d become a whore. Her father rarely spoke to her. If it weren’t for her younger sisters taking care of Billie all day, she wouldn’t be able to work to support him. And now Billie was only a little more than a year away from school age. Peter just had to marry her before then. He had to. Otherwise, Billie would face being called a bastard with the meanness only young children can display so openly. The subject caused her such paroxysms of indecision and guilt that she did what she always did—she stopped thinking about it.
Meanwhile, George kept coming in regularly, always polite, and wearing that mischievous grin, his eyes twinkling like he knew a secret she didn’t. Now that his clothes were getting washed regularly, he smelled better. His air of self-certainty was disarming. So unlike Peter, who acted as though his entire future depended upon staying in his family’s good graces to ensure his livelihood. George clearly depended upon no one but himself and wanted it that way.
March of 1900 started out unseasonably warm, hovering in the high seventies with a light breeze. On the first Saturday George rode in to see Rose at the laundry. She offered him a faint smile as he pushed his clothes across the counter. While she sorted them, he winked at her.
“It’s nice weather, and ya could use some sun. Why don’tcha break down and come riding with me tomorrow?”
“George, you know…”
“Yeah, yer spoken for. But you work too hard and so do I. Besides that, I’m lonesome, and I’ll bet you ain’t got any plans with yer beau, do ya?”
She smiled wistfully, but didn’t answer.
“I thought so. Whaddya say, Rose?”
“Your wash wouldn’t be ready by Monday,” she answered, smiling but looking down at the laundry she was sorting.
He grinned. “That’s fine. I can wait. Suppose I bring the horses to yer house at six tomorrow morning, that okay?”
Rose glanced at him and smiled despite herself. She needed some fun, deserved it in fact. She nodded. “Well, I suppose, but only for a little while, and only if you promise you’ll behave.”
He grinned broadly. “Cross my heart an’ hope ta die.” He rubbed his clean-shaven jaw. “I ain’t got a side-saddle. Reckon ya can make do with what I got?”
She laughed and threw a dirty shirt at him. “Don’t tease me. I wouldn’t know how to sit a side-saddle, and you know it.”
She told him where she lived, and he went away looking very self-satisfied. Maybe that will get Peter’s attention, she thought, when he came looking for her and she wasn’t at the spot under the cottonwoods where they usually met on Sunday afternoon.
Early Spring, 1900
Sunday morning was chilly. Dew had settled on everything. The light was just turning rosy in the east as Rose came out the front door with a shawl wrapped around her shoulders to see George already there. He was standing, smoking a cigarette and watching the horses graze on the grass beside the dirt street fronting the family home. The second horse was slightly taller than Dolly, a light chestnut with white socks on all feet and a blaze on its nose. Muscles rippled along the shoulders of both, and their tails swished as they warded off flies.
Rose carried a sensible hat with a narrow brim, her hair in a French roll, and wore a white blouse, a well-used pair of riding boots and an old chambray skirt that had been turned into culottes. George smiled at her. She smiled back.
“Good morning, George.”
“Mornin’, Rose. You look fine. Real fine.”
“Thank you, George.”
“Meet Buster. He’s a mite cantankerous but he can turn on a dime. Just needs better manners is all.” Buster had been purchased the first year in Georgetown in hopes of Dolly siring a colt, and as an eventual replacement for Dolly, now about seventeen.
Rose approached him. He lifted his head, mouth full of grass, and accepted a brief caress before returning to his feeding. George had taken his saddle off Dolly and put it on Buster. Dolly was wearing a lighter saddle he’d purchased yesterday after Rose accepted his offer. Rose turned to Dolly to get acquainted.
Dolly raised her head from grazing to take in Rose’s scent, and seemed to approve. “Hi, Dolly,” Rose said. “Think it’ll be okay if ride you today?”
“No one else has ever ridden her. She might be a little nervous at first,” George said.
“Oh, I don’t think so. Girls understand each other.”
George moved around to Dolly’s front and talked to her while Rose took the reins and ran her hand down the horse’s neck and then got mounted. Dolly shifted her feet a bit but showed no sign of worry. The way she sat the horse and used the reins told George she was experienced and would be all right.
Rose rubbed Dolly’s neck and said, like a statement, “Aren’t you beautiful.”
George got mounted on Buster. “Let’s get movin’,” he said.
“How’d you come to have this brand-new saddle under me?”
“Bought it yesterday.”
“Did you buy it just for me to go riding with you?” She looked very pleased.
“Well, look at it this way. I’m gonna need a saddle for a wife someday anyway, an’ you might as well be the one to break it in. Maybe you’ll like it enough to want to make it permanent.”
Rose blushed despite herself. “You’re not one to mince words, George Scott.”
“Nope,” he said, backing Buster into the street. “Ready?”
They rode out to George’s place. He showed her around. She declined to look inside the house, citing impropriety. She appraised his cattle and liked that he kept things neat and in good repair. They let the horses drink from a trough, then headed toward the hills that rose above and to the west of his place.
The day proved to be a fine one. The smell of the evergreens got stronger as they went higher. She inhaled deeply. The smell took her back to the days before she met Peter, when she would ride one of her family’s harness horses up here with her sister Irene behind her and a basket with apples, cheese and bread.
Dolly was much more eager than the family horses, but dared not try to get ahead of Buster lest he nip at her. George often had to yank the reins to keep Buster from getting distracted by the succulent grasses they passed. Buster would make sounds of displeasure, but gradually he was learning to behave. Rose liked the way George took charge without anger, merely showing an iron resolve.
“Dolly has a sweet disposition, George.”
“She does, but she lets cattle know who’s boss and she loves ta race.”
“I swear she knows what I want before I can tell her.”
“Oh, she’s a swell horse, all right, but she ain’t a match for Banjo.” He told her about Banjo then, walking around the boulders, now and then catching a view of the cotton fields and the town spread out below them to the east. Before he was done she had shed tears at Banjo’s untimely death, because she understood how a person can love a horse. And she understood George a bit better too.
All morning George was a perfect gentleman, never once touching her or trying to steal a kiss. He left her at her home in time for the midday meal because she had so much to do on her one day off. By then her ten siblings were up and about, most of them coming out to meet him. The boys admired his horses and his guns. The girls were shy and told Rose later how handsome he was. Rose had asked her mother to keep Billie inside because she hadn’t told George about him yet. Her mother was happy to oblige in hopes that Rose might have found a suitor who would eventually accept her bastard son.
George went home feeling that he’d made good progress and shown admirable restraint. She caught his fancy like Julie had done years ago, and like Julie, she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. He was pleased that she was a good rider. They had raced half-heartedly on the way home, but it wasn’t a fair match because although Dolly was the faster horse, she was afraid to pass Buster, and he’d said so. He knew that with a little training, Rose would make a good cowgirl. With that, he determined to make her his wife.
The following day when George arrived in town early to pick up his washing at the laundry, he saw a big old dapple-gray carriage horse at the rail outside. He could see that it wasn’t used to the saddle because it kept turning its head to try to nip at it. Also there were marks where the traces generally laid around its neck and withers. As he approached he could hear loud voices from inside, so he stopped and dismounted before he could be seen from inside. He tied Dolly and walked up till he was near the closed door and could hear everything.
“Peter,” Rose was saying, “how many times do I have to say it was just a Sunday ride. That’s all it was.”
“I don’t care,” said a man’s voice. “You’re my woman. You shouldn’t be in the company of another man, and especially not alone. People will talk.”
“That’s very funny, Peter. People have been talking for years about us, mostly what a disgrace I am for carrying on with you while you’re betrothed to someone else. If I’m your woman, when are going to prove it by marrying me?”
“Damn it, Rose. I’ll have my degree soon, and then I can get a decent job. Then I can afford to tell my parents I’m not going to marry Eloise.”
“But in the meantime you go on seeing her and pretending, or so you say, that you’ll be married in the fall. So why can’t I keep company with a man like any other girl would? It’s not like George and I are doing what got us into this mess in the first place.”
“Rose, it’s different for women…”
“Yes! Yes, it is!” She was spitting mad. “I’m the one they call a fool and a loose woman, not you!”
“Rose, I swear if you keep seeing him I’ll…”
“What, Peter? What’ll you do?” Hands on her hips, she was pushing her face almost into his.
George took one step and pushed open the door. Both reacted by swiveling their heads to face him with shocked looks.
“I just come to get my laundry, but now I can’t wait ta hear what yer gonna do if she sees me again,” George said to Peter.
“This is none of your business,” Peter said.
George could see why women would like Peter. He was fair and had a boyishly handsome face, and he dressed in expensive college-boy clothes that wouldn’t wear well in George’s line of work. He was slightly larger than George, who suspected he probably played one of those sissy sports like track or tennis that wouldn’t carry much risk of injury. George hooked his thumbs in his cartridge belt and looked relaxed.
“We could argue about that, but I ain’t gonna bother. Now that I know why she don’t wear a ring, I plan to see her as often as she’ll allow, an’ if you don’t like it, then you can show you have some cojones by givin’ her one if she’ll still take it.”
Peter turned toward him. “Now you listen to me, cowboy, my family….”
George’s anger flared. He straightened up and let his hands drop to his sides as he took a step toward Peter. “No, you listen if you want to keep all those pearly teeth in your head. I don’t give a damn about your family or shitheels like you makin’ promises they don’t plan to keep so they can have their way with a girl. Yer either a lyin’ sonofabitch or you ain’t man enough to stand up for yourself. Maybe both.” He reached out and grabbed the front of Peter’s shirt, and jerked him toward the door. Peter stumbled and nearly fell. “Now you git the hell out of here before I lose patience and throw you out in the street and get those pretty clothes dirty.”
Peter stood there for a long moment, fists and teeth clenched, quivering with rage and fear, his face and ears now livid red. George stared him down, daring him. Peter suddenly turned to Rose.
“We’ll talk about this in private.” Then to George he said, “You’ll regret this, mister.”
He stormed past George, who said after him, “I doubt it. But if I ever hear you laid a hand on her, you’ll damn sure regret that, boy.” He watched as Peter mounted the dapple grey and urged it away. The horse, used to pulling a carriage, was not used to moving quickly. Frustrated, Peter kicked its flanks irritably, to little avail. George grinned at the display as horse and rider ambled out of town.
When he turned back to Rose, she was standing with her arms crossed over her breasts, scowling toward the window. George assumed the scowl was due to his behavior and the grin left his face.
“Rose, I apologize if I overstepped my bounds, but the boy…”
She dropped her head as she uncrossed her arms and waved off his apology. “The boy had that coming, and so did I, so you needn’t apologize. It’s time I admit to myself that marriage was never on his mind and never will be. He’ll marry Eloise and if I allowed it, he’d still keep coming to see me when it’s convenient for him. Damn him…” The tears came then, and she angrily wiped them away with her apron. She looked anywhere but at George for a moment. He started to speak. She cut him off. “You’ll be wanting your washing. I’ll get it for you.”
George said “Rose…” but she swept behind the counter and pulled a bundle from a wall of boxes and placed it on the counter, never looking at him.
George approached the counter with that helpless expression men get when they have no idea what to say.
Now she met his eyes. “You don’t need to say anything now, George. What’s done is done. Give me a few days to think things through, and when you come back with your washing, let’s pretend this never happened.”
He looked at her for a few seconds, and finally said, “All right, then. I’ll see you in a few days.” He fished out money and left it on the counter while she chewed her lower lip. She would not meet his eyes. He picked up his bundle and turned for the door.
“George,” she said, her face now softened and saddened. He turned. “Thank you. I mean it.”
He nodded, smiled weakly, and walked out.
The next evening, just before sundown, his shadow strung out long and walking beside him, he came out the back door and headed for the outhouse, a distance of about thirty yards. He had just gotten inside and turned to drop his pants, when a star appeared beside the moon on the door, simultaneous with splinters stinging his face and the crack of a big-bore rifle. The bullet had missed his head by inches.
By the sound of it, he immediately figured it for a single-shot buffalo rifle and thus a slow loader. He knew that with practice you could reload a Sharps buffalo rifle, if that’s what it was, in six or eight seconds. But an amateur would take longer, and this was an amateur because anyone who could shoot wouldn’t have missed him unless he meant to. At any rate, he was a sitting duck. There was nothing to do but get to the house for his own weapons as quickly as he could. He threw himself through the door and sprinted, weaving as he went toward the house. He had just thrown open the kitchen door and flung himself through when a chunk of door frame exploded. He ran into the living room and grabbed the rifle he had left leaning against the wall. In a few more seconds he was lying under a window on the west side of the house with the rifle cocked. The shot had come from out of the sun, which was right at the horizon, making visibility difficult.
“You tryin’ to scare the shit outa me?” he yelled. Another shot went through the house just below the window to his left. He saw immediately what the shooter was doing. He might have been crouched right where the bullet came through. The next one would come where he now was, so he rolled over to the bullet-hole. He could see where the bullet had gone through the opposite wall. He could imagine a line between the two holes, which he quickly figured would point toward the barn. The shooter was using the barn for cover.
Another round came through the wall where he’d just been. He decided that before the shooter got lucky, he would sprint out the front door and gain the cover of an old elm tree a few yards from the porch. He slammed out through the front door, looking toward the barn the whole time. He hadn’t quite made it when he saw the shooter’s arms coming around the back corner of the barn with the rifle up. The shooter didn’t have time to aim before he had to fire or risk being shot himself. His shot was harmless. George skidded behind the tree, pulled his rifle against his shoulder and looked around the trunk. The shooter would have to load and then expose himself before he could shoot again. If he rushed the shooter, George could drop him before he could aim and fire.
But instead of a shot, the next thing he heard was clattering hooves. The coward had realized he’d lost the advantage and was hightailing it, keeping the barn between himself and George. He could tell that the horse was a big one, and guessed that it was the dapple grey Peter rode, motivated by his nervousness over the gunfire into galloping. He ran for the barn. He knew Dolly could catch the big horse, but not if he took time to saddle her. He grabbed a milking stool, flung open her gate, used the stool to mount Dolly, and took off bareback, rifle in hand.
It wouldn’t take a mile for Dolly to catch the lumbering horse, which by now had gotten on the road toward town and was raising a lot of dust that glowed orange in the setting sun. The short chase gave him time to think. There was nothing to gain by killing the kid now. He could stop anywhere and drop the boy easier than he could a running pronghorn, but there’d still be an investigation. He suspected it was not legally self-defense if he was no longer in immediate danger. He wasn’t even sure he could prove that the kid had shot at him. Even if killing the kid was legal, the kid’s father or brother might decide to take matters into his own hands, and there’d be another killing. No matter what else, it would send the whole town into an uproar. Every tongue in town would be wagging about the scandal. And Rose might wind up hating him.
Dolly was just starting to breathe hard when she drew alongside the big horse. The dapple grey wasn’t used to running and had begun to slow down. The kid, his huge rifle useless, looked across at George with panic in his eyes. George’s Winchester, thrust out in one hand, was aimed at his rib cage. Instead of shooting, George thrust the muzzle out and gave Peter a sharp push in the ribs to knock the boy off his horse. Peter landed hard and rolled. George took Dolly into a calf-roper’s skid and jumped off, brandishing his rifle at Peter, but soon realized there was no reason to. The dapple grey slowed to a stop and stood panting.
George walked up to Peter, who was alternately howling in pain and hyperventilating. His right shin was at an unnatural angle, clearly broken. “Looks like ya got yer pretty clothes dirty after all,” George said. He picked up the Sharps from where it had landed beside the road, made sure it didn’t have a round chambered, and put it back down. Peter’s howling took a higher pitch.
“Shut up, you dumb sonofabitch,” George said contemptuously, “before you wake the dead.”
“My leg is broken! You broke my leg!”
“What makes you think I give a piss in a rainstorm? You just tried ta blow a hole in me that you could throw a cat through.”
The howling and hyperventilating continued until George put his rifle barrel against Peter’s nose. “Now you shut your goddamned mouth. You listen and listen good, son. You’re only alive right now because killing you ain’t worth the trouble it would cause me an’ Rose, and because I don’t b’lieve ya’ve got the balls ta try it again. Now ya ain’t gonna be much good ta anyone for a while, but if you decide ta tell stories outa school about Rose, or make up some bullshit story about how I ambushed you, it’ll be the last rotten thing you do in your goddamned rotten little life. Because I’ll slit your throat in yer sleep and make it look like a renegade Injun did it, ‘cuz they love pretty blond scalps. You get my meanin’?”
Eyes bugged out, Peter nodded his head.
“You believe I’d do it?”
Again the head nodded.
George pulled the gun away from Peter’s nose. “Maybe you’re smarter than you look. Good luck gettin’ home.” He started to walk away.
Peter rolled toward him, incredulous. “You’re just gonna leave me like this? I need help!”
“Shoulda thought o’ that before you come lookin’ ta murder me.”
Peter kept pleading as George walked back to Dolly. Over her shoulder he could see that a neighbor had apparently heard the shots, and was now only a hundred yards away astride a pretty roan at a canter. The sun was quickly disappearing, but there was light enough for George to recognize Paul Murphy, a scrawny horse-faced older fella whom George remembered saying he’d ridden the Shawnee Trail, and the Chisholm Trail before it was called that. His place was the next one east. They’d had a few pleasant conversations in passing on the road to town or in the hardware store. He seemed to be a decent fellow.
“What the hell’s goin’ on?” Murphy asked when he was within earshot. “I heard a .50-caliber boomin’ from the direction of your place.”
“You got a good ear, Paul.”
As he reined in and dismounted, Paul said, “I’s just about to put my horse in the barn, when I heard it, so I thought I’d ride over to your place and see if ever’thin’ was okay. Then I saw that big dapple gray runnin’ away and you chasin’ him, so I rode out to see if there’s anything I could do. Who the hell is he?” He nodded toward the man writhing on the ground.
Peter had gone silent and had his breathing somewhat under control. He kept his mouth shut, but watched closely.
“Peter somethin’er other.”
“Knight,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Name’s familiar,” Paul said.
“He’s a college boy. His folks own some property hereabouts. Seems he apparently don’t like me courtin’ a lady he knows an’ wanted ta show his displeasure from behind my barn. Blew big chunks outa my outhouse and a couple of my walls that I’ll have ta fix. Good thing he don’t shoot worth a damn.”
Paul’s eyebrows raised and his mouth made an O. He nodded sagely. “Looks like he got in a little over his head.”
“I’d say. Lucky he ain’t dead insteada’ just havin’ a broken leg.”
Paul pursed his lips and nodded. “I wouldn’t have blamed you. Anybody’d do it once might do it again.” He gave Dolly a look. “By the way, you ride bareback like a Comanche. I enjoyed watchin’ that.”
“Thought you must’ve shot him when I seen him come off his horse. Wondered why I didn’t hear the report. Guess your temper ain’t as bad as mine.”
Through this exchange Peter had been trying to tell Paul that he was only trying to scare George, but Paul ignored him. Peter finally commenced moaning pitifully. “Is anyone going to help me?”
George turned and looked at him. “Well, I sure as hell ain’t. Whether this gentleman is willin’, I can’t answer. You interrupted me takin’ a shit, so I reckon I’ll just go on back to that.”
Paul said to Peter, “I’ll think it over. I don’t care much for folks who try to murder my neighbors.” Then to George: “You want to turn him in? I’m your witness.”
George said in low voice Peter wouldn’t hear, “Naw. The lady would be brought into this, an’ she’s got enough problems already. Besides, I figger his folks could afford a good lawyer, meanin’ one who drinks with the judge, an’ he could probably fix it so’s he’d get off real light, see’n how he’s already sufferin’ fer his crime. That what you figger?”
Paul nodded. “Most likely.” He turned to Peter. “Reckon I’ll just help you get back on that stump-puller, and I reckon he can find his way home if you pass out a time or two.”
Peter was frantic and barely coherent. “No, no! Please, mister. Don’t you have a buckboard? You could take me to a doctor. Have you got some whiskey for the pain? I’m in agony. I can’t ride a horse like this. I’ll see you get paid for your trouble.”
Paul said, “If I take you in, the doctor will ask me what happened, and you don’t want that because I won’t lie for a louse like you. Then you’ll get arrested. How long you think you’d last in prison? I hear that some of those convicts think college boys with yellow hair look like pretty girls.” He surreptitiously winked at George. “Mr. Scott here don’t want this to come out, and neither do you. So why don’t you make up a good story to tell your pa, and I won’t say nothin’ unless you give me reason to correct your story. You understand me?”
Peter’s fury almost overcame his pain. He could only glare them and nod.
Paul retrieved Peter’s horse and led it into position. There were many oaths and screeches of pain as Peter was helped to his feet and then into the saddle, letting his right leg dangle. The ride home would be worse, with the foot flopping all the way. When finally he had the reins in hand, he was overcome by pain and exhaustion and slumped down against the gray’s neck. George had watched without helping, which had brought his temper down some.
Paul stood back from Peter and his horse. “You through with him?” he asked George.
“Yeah, let the little coward go.” As he turned away, Peter mumbled something. “What was that?” he asked.
The answer sounded like “Rose,” so he stepped closer.
“Tell her…” Peter was barely conscious.
“What, damn it?”
“I won’t…be giving her…any more money…”
George bristled. “You sonofabitch! Are you saying she takes money…”
Peter gasped out “…for the boy.”
“What boy? What’re you talkin’ about?”
Peter seemed cheered by this, even smiling a bit. “You don’t know, do you?”
“She has a son…Billie. Claims…it’s mine. Could be…anyone’s. But…I pay her so…she won’t…make accusations.” He was starting to hyperventilate again and couldn’t keep his eyes open.
“You rat bastard! You know goddamn well if she says it’s yours, it’s yours. I oughta go ahead and kill you now.” Eyes popping out, he thrust the barrel of his Winchester toward Peter.
Fear came back into Peter’s eyes. Paul put a hand on George’s shoulder and spoke softly into his ear. “Don’t make me have to decide whether to lie for you. You’re in the right. Keep it that way.”
George allowed Paul to gently pull him away and toward his own horse, but he looked back over his shoulder at Peter and said, “Not one word to anyone that you wouldn’t say to my face, you chickenshit bastard, or your life ain’t worth a plug nickel.”
Peter started to speak, but Paul reached over and slapped the big gray on the rump. It jerked into motion, bringing a howl of pain from Peter, and every step brought forth a moan. The two men watched in mute satisfaction for a moment.
Then George said to Paul, “Thanks, Paul. I might’ve put one between the little prick’s eyes just now to shut his filthy mouth.”
“What’re neighbors for?”
“You be careful. That kid’s a snake. He’ll do his damnedest to figger a way to get back at me, an’ her, an’ maybe even you.”
“Ah, he won’t. He’s a scared rabbit now.”
“Just the same.”
“You want that Sharps for anything?”
George looked across at it. “No, I wouldn’t want it found on my place and be accused of stealing it.”
“Well then, I think I’ll drop it off to the sheriff next time I go in, and just tell him I found it on the road near my place and that I don’t know who it belongs to. That’s true enough. He could have borrowed it from anybody. It sure as hell wasn’t his.”
George smiled grimly. “Wish I could be there when he tells his story, especially the part about what happened to the Sharps.”
They shook hands, George thanking him for being a good neighbor. Then Paul went to have dinner and George went home to finish what he’d started.
Rose had put on a simple, sky-blue, linen dress for dinner at the Madison House with George, made pretty by embroidery in a flower-and-leaf pattern on the sleeves and bodice, and around the waist and hem of the skirt. George wore his best suit of clothes. Their plates had been removed. George was drinking coffee and finishing a piece of cake. He’d made the date a few days before at the laundry, when she was busy and they hadn’t had time to talk. It had been a week since his run-in with Peter.
After remarking that she’d heard about it from a customer, she said, “Seems a little coincidental. Did you have anything to do with that?”
George sipped his coffee and placed the cup delicately in its saucer. “Maybe. But I didn’t mean to. Anyway, it was his own fault.”
She pursed her lips. “I don’t think I’m following you.”
“I only meant to knock him off his horse.”
“And why would you do that?”
“Because the only other way to stop him would’ve been to shoot him off it.”
She stirred her tea and looked exasperated. “Why don’t you just start from the beginning and tell me all of it.”
“All right then.” But first he rolled up a cigarette, and held it up with a questioning look.
“I don’t mind. Just get on with it.”
He struck a match, lit the cigarette, and began.
“I’d just gotten inta the privy when he blew a hole in the door with a buffalo rifle. If he was a better shot, that woulda been the end of it, but it missed my head by an inch or two.” Her eyes widened at this. “I quick ran into the house before he could reload so I could grab my rifle. Before I could get out the door again he’d blown a few more holes in my house. He took his last shot when I come runnin’ out, but missed again. He was behind the barn and took off on that big horse before I could get a shot at him. I chased him down, but by then I figgered killin’ him was more trouble than it was worth, so I thought I’d box his ears instead an’ teach him a lesson. Didn’t need to. He wouldn’t stop so I shoved him off his horse and he broke his leg in the fall. That seemed good enough, so I left it at that.” He took another pull on his cigarette, obviously done with the story.
“There’s more to the story than that.”
“Just details that ain’t worth the tellin’.”
“How did he get home?”
“My neighbor helped him mount his horse. I sure as hell wasn’t goin’ to.” There was an awkward silence as she sat looking at her hands in her lap. George, his hands on the table, looked at her as if willing her to speak. “Anything you want to say about that?”
When finally she met his eyes, she said, “I’m done with him for good, you know.”
“I figgered you were or you wouldn’ta come tonight. But I’m glad ta hear you say it.”
She nodded and then lapsed back into silently examining her hands. George continued looking at her. He looked away once, at the waiter in a clean white shirt folding napkins, and then shifted in his chair. Finally he spoke. “Ain’t there somethin’ else?”
Her head bobbed up. “I was getting ready to say it. It’s hard, you know?”
George leaned forward and rested on his forearms, speaking in low tones. “Look, Rose, you didn’t do nothin’ I ain’t done a hundred times or more, and you wouldn’ta done it all if that bastard hadn’t lied ta ya. I don’t fault’cha a bit, and I don’t hold it against ya that ya’ve got a son. I just want everything out on the table.”
Rose’s face showed her relief. “I appreciate you for making it easy. I didn’t know how to tell you about Billie.”
George nodded. “It’s all right. Now it’s said and done.”
“He’s a good boy, George. A real good boy.”
“I reckon he’s got a good mother.”
“Peter wants nothing to do with him.”
“That don’t surprise me. He don’t deserve to be his father anyway.”
They were silent for a moment, looking at each other.
“George, I don’t want you to think I’m…easy because of what’s happened. I was only fifteen, and…”
George held up his hand to stop her. “I don’t think that. The fault’s in him, not you.”
“…and I want you to understand I won’t make that mistake again. I want it to be right and proper the next time.”
George nodded and played with his fork. It was her turn to wait for him to meet her eyes. Eventually, Rose cleared her throat and it seemed to startle him slightly. After a few seconds more, he spoke.
“Look, Rose, I ain’t much good at talkin’. Ain’t much in my life that calls for it. But I want you to know that if we was ta…you know…ever be in that position, I’d do my best ta treat Billie like one of my own, I mean, if we was ta have others…” He got flustered and put his fork down sharply, looking off toward the window that had gone dark while they ate. “You know what I mean. I don’t know how I’d be but I’d do my best with him.”
Rose smiled sweetly and put her fingers on the back of his hand. George was furiously scanning the room in his discomfiture. “Look at me, George.” He sighed, visibly took charge of his demeanor, and looked her straight in the eye.
“That’s all I could ask, George. My parents are kind to him, but he’s an embarrassment to them. He needs a father. You could hardly do any worse than Peter has.”
He made a face of grim acceptance, and looked away again. She reached over the table and gently, with the tips of her fingers, pulled his head around to look at her.
“As to when we might ever be in that position, I think it’s time we discuss that, don’t you?”
He closed his eyes and nodded.
They strolled the streets of Georgetown out past the university and then back, looking in the windows of shops around Courthouse Square. George talked more than he had ever in his life, fairly chattering about how he wanted to start a cattle ranch of his own out in West Texas or New Mexico. He described the whole layout he saw in his mind’s eye, how the barn and house would look, how he’d put up fences and corrals and build a windmill and a storage tank and pipe water right into the kitchen and have indoor plumbing, the whole thing. He already had a good start on the herd, he had money in the bank, and all he needed was a woman who wanted the same kind of life. Because life would be hard at first, what with all the work to be done. And it got lonely miles from town with neighbors few and far between that they might not even like. But it would be a good life, no one getting in their business, and they’d see that the kids got to school.
“Whew! I’ve never heard you go on like that.” She looked up at his face, which was lit up in a way she hadn’t seen before. He was telling her his dream. Her own dream was gone. She’d never allowed herself to think that it might not come true, so there was nothing to replace it, only the same job that was grinding her down and would make an old woman of her before Billie was grown and gone.
“You make it all sound so…grand, George, settling down in a place with so much room to grow.”
He took her hand and stopped under a gas streetlight near her home. “So what about it, Rose? Are you willin’?”
She turned to him. “Is that a proposal, Mr. Scott?”
“It is. I’m askin’ you ta marry me.”
He looked down at her, this pretty woman thirteen years younger than he was, with a child of four and already wearing a look of resolution. Yet when she smiled, he could see what she must have been like before she met Peter, and mentally cursed him again.
Rose, looking up at him, wondered who would marry her if not George. She searched his eyes, hoping to see a sign of tenderness behind his leathery exterior. He would be a good provider, and stand between his family and the dangerous world, of that she was sure. But could he comfort a sick child? Could he understand that not everyone had his strength and his will? She wasn’t sure what to do.
George finally spoke. “And so?”
She offered a dubious smile. “And so you’ll come next Sunday to my home and get acquainted with my family. You’ll meet Billie and then we’ll take him to play on the lawn at the park. And if you like each other well enough, then I’d say we should start making plans. Because if you don’t, there’d be no point in going on, at least for me.”
“Fair enough.” He couldn’t help asking. “What color’s his hair?”
George nodded. “I’s afraid of that. But it ain’t his fault. I know that.”
At her door they kissed chastely. The evening would prove to be as romantic as things ever got for Rose and George, but then, romance wasn’t a high priority for either of them. Starting over was for both. Rose wanted to have Peter and Georgetown behind her. George had itchy feet.
He wore his good suit of clothes to have Sunday dinner with Rose’s family. The house was small and needed work but was as clean as it could be with so many kids running through it. Her parents welcomed George as the answer to their prayers, and could hardly resist saying as much. He learned at table that Rose’s full name was Mary Sophia Rose Ann Green.
“That’s quite a mouthful,” he said with his mouth full. Her sisters giggled and thought he was handsome, but rough. Her brothers thought he was rough and admired him for it. Billie, who was at that age when a boy really starts to need a father, immediately took to George. And for his part, George made a game effort to get along well with the boy. Though he had no experience with youngsters, he was doing his best to make a good impression, with Rose always watching them. Before the day was over, she had decided to cast her fate with George.
The following Sunday, George and Rose announced to her family their intent to be married. Everyone seemed appropriately pleased. The females cooed over the engagement ring that Rose and George had picked together. When she told them that she and Billie would be moving a few hundred miles west, the parents put on sad faces they didn’t really feel, because it meant their shame was leaving. Her brothers and sisters, though, were genuinely sad she was leaving. There was no talk of a big wedding; everyone assumed it would be a civil ceremony. No date was set; it would be “as soon as George can settle affairs here.” Neither of them ever mentioned love.
Mr. Watson expressed regret that George wouldn’t be renewing his lease for another year, but secretly was pleased because he could easily double the rent for the next tenant. “If you decide to vacate early I won’t hold you to the lease,” he said. “You’ve been real good for the place.”
“Thanks. I may take you up on that.” George had decided that with a wife to help out by driving the wagon he planned to buy for the move, he could take the cattle along. He had two dozen, and a few calves due in a couple of months, which would make an easy number to manage himself and a good start somewhere else.
He had decided they would head for Lubbock, a little town near the center of the Southern High Plains. He remembered it was great cattle country, much of it still open to grazing. From Lubbock they could explore the surrounding area, which included eastern New Mexico territory, to find the right place to put down stakes. He could homestead a hundred and sixty acres and run up to a hundred cattle if it had water.
For the journey he purchased an old but ruggedly-built farm wagon that was big enough for his needs, and priced right. Since he no longer had the equipment to do it himself, he had a local blacksmith repair the iron-rimmed wheels and make thick wire hoops to hold a canvas cover over the bed, and hoops to hold barrels along the sides. He had to buy the barrels at a hardware store, although they weren’t as good as he could’ve made himself. He bought two sets of traces, one for the unnamed mule and one for his horses to switch off wearing. The mule was good for fifteen miles a day pulling a wagon, but the horses weren’t built for that kind of work. They would switch off, half a day at a time, one pulling while the other was saddled to ride herd.
Several days went by before the wagon was ready. He went to town early to get it hitched up to the mule and Buster, and decided to do some shopping before going home. At Slauson’s Mercantile he was looking at heavy fleece-lined jackets and gloves for Rose like the ones he owned. Winters are hard on the high plains.
A middle-age, heavy-set, florid man in a good suit entered, giving George the impression of a hard man gone soft. He wasn’t wearing a hat, so you could see his once-yellow hair had turned white in most places, including his mutton-chop sideburns. The clerk, who had been attending to George, turned at the sound of the bell and said, “Good morning, Mr. Knight.” George’s ears pricked up.
“Yes, well, perhaps it will be if my hat has finally come in.” A man used to getting his way, George thought.
“The boy’s just unpacking a crate in the back. Let me see if it’s in there.” The clerk turned to George and said, “I won’t be long, Mr. Scott,” and went through an open door behind the counter.
Knight began staring at George, and kept it up until George noticed. George let himself sound irritated. “Somethin’ on your mind, mister?”
“Would you be the same Scott who’s taken up with Rose Green?”
“Why would that be any of your business?”
“Just being friendly.” Knight flashed an insincere smile of store-bought teeth.
George snorted, said “I’ll bet you are,” and turned back to the clothing.
Knight looked around, as if assuring their privacy. “I thought maybe you could use a word of warning.”
George dropped the sleeve of a jacket and turned to face Knight.
“And exactly what’re you gonna warn me about?” He was getting edgy now, feeling adrenaline start to tense his muscles.
“I thought you ought to know she’s been more or less blackmailing my son, my family really, for several years.”
“I get it. Your little bag of dogshit son has been telling you Billie ain’t his an’ you’re paying her off so she won’t ruin the family’s reputation. That it?” Knight started to protest, but George held up his hand, cocked his head angrily, and went on. “Well, maybe you ain’t seen Billie, but I have, and he’s the spittin’ image of your son. Matter of fact, he looks a lot like you, too, grandpa. If either of you had any decency, he’d’ve married her before the boy come along, or you’d’ve made him. Instead, she’s been doin’ other people’s laundry to make ends meet while he’s been makin’ promises he never planned to keep. I know, ‘cause I heard him. So the two of you can kiss my ass and go to hell.”
Knight’s face had gotten even redder during George’s tirade. “You listen to me, Scott. One more insult to my family and I’ll run you out of this town. Don’t you think I can’t!”
The clerk re-entered the room, saying “It’s not in yet, Mr. Knight,” when he noticed the two men nearly nose-to-nose. “Is everything all right, gentlemen?”
“Just a little friendly conversation,” George said without looking at him. To Knight he said, “You’d play hell tryin’ that, but it don’t matter because I’m leavin’ anyway, and she’s comin’ with me. Already stockin’ a wagon with supplies. We’ll be lookin’ for a place where there ain’t so many assholes.” His look dared Knight to start something.
Knight had noticed George’s sidearm. He refused to take the bait. “I wouldn’t let any grass grow under your feet, if I were you. You can take that as a warning.”
He turned to go.
Knight stopped and half turned back to George.
“If you really want to know how your boy got his leg broke, you might ask Paul Murphy next time you see him. He has the place next to mine out on Delta Road. Might tell you where you could find that old Sharps buffalo rifle too.” He grinned and returned to his shopping.
After he cooled off, George reflected on his conversation with Knight. In his anger, he’d said too much. The Sharps had seen a lot of use, and by the look of him, Knight might have skinned a lot of buffalo in his time. If so, he’d be a damned sight better shot than his son, which meant George would never see or hear the shot that killed him if Knight played it that way. George doubted he would, given what Paul knew, and Knight being a bastion of the community now. But all the same, now there was one more reason to head for Lubbock soon, while the spring grasses were still thick.
George bought the winter coat and gloves for Rose, then did some other shopping. He bought enough coffee, tea, salt pork, potatoes, rice, beans, and canned goods to last a month. He found Mr. Watson and said he’d be vacating before the first. He told him where he’d find the house key, and they shook hands.
On his way out of town, he delivered the clothes to Rose, and brought her up to date on his meeting with Knight. They made plans to see the Justice of the Peace the day after next. He spent the next day packing everything, including furniture and cooking utensils, into the wagon, leaving out only a pot of white beans and ham, half a loaf of sourdough bread, and some bedding. Then he swept the place and beat the rugs.
He was to meet Rose and her family at the courthouse in the morning, bringing Dolly and Buster with him. After the ceremony, they planned to have the noon meal at her folks’ place, then return to the ranch for the evening and leave town in the morning.
It was getting near sundown and the wind had come up a bit when his last-minute walk-through of the house was interrupted by the sound of a horse approaching. He went out on the porch, rifle in hand, but leaned it against the rail when he saw it was Paul Murphy. He went down the steps and greeted Paul as he dismounted. They shook hands. “Have a seat on the steps, Paul,” George said. “All the chairs is packed.”
They sat and exchanged pleasantries while they rolled cigarettes and lit them. Paul listened politely while George told him his plans with Rose.
Then they were silent for a few minutes, watching the sun go down, before Paul said, “I thought we were gonna keep quiet about what happened out here a few weeks ago, George.”
“I meant to, but I run into old man Knight yesterday mornin’ and he got me pretty pissed off, so I couldn’t help diggin’ him a bit. I take it he come to see ya.”
“Yesterday, while I guess you were still in town. I told him most of it, including where his Sharps is. He sure don’t like you much. Said you must’ve threatened his boy for him to try that.”
George grinned. “I did, but I only warned him ta stay away from Rose.”
Paul flicked his cigarette into the dirt, where it landed in a shower of sparks. “I think I figured out where his son got his sneaky streak.”
“Well, I got curious to see whether he went and got his Sharps from the sheriff, so I rode into town today for some supplies and stopped in to see. He’d been there, all right. He told the sheriff his son lost it when he was huntin’ with it and his horse reared at a shot and that’s how his leg got broken.”
“I figgered he’d say somethin’ like that. He sure wasn’t goin’ ta finger his son for attempted murder.”
“I told the sheriff it was a load of bullshit, but it was neither here nor there. We left it at that.”
“That was probably best.”
“Well, there’s more. The sheriff asked if I didn’t live close to you, and I said I did. He asked how well I knew you. I smelled a rat and just said not well, because I didn’t see you much, and then asked why he wanted to know. He told me that while he was getting’ the Sharps from the back room, Knight was apparently lookin’ at the wanted posters, and when the sheriff came out with his rifle, he pointed at an old one and said he thought he knew the fella. It was a drawing, not a photograph. I looked at it while we was talkin’ an’ it coulda been any young fella with a mustache, but his name was George, only with a different last name. Willis, I believe it was, outa San Antonio, wanted for murder. Anyway, the age and description were pretty close. Knight convinced him it could be you, just usin’ a new last name. Knight told him he’d heard you’d be at the courthouse within the week to get married, so the sheriff told the JP to send over a runner when you get there and he’ll just pick you up then. Figured it would be less likely you’d be armed and dangerous than if he came out to your place.”
George nodded. “I figured Knight was gonna pull somethin’. Ain’t nothin’ to it, but it’s aggravation I don’t need. Reckon I won’t be getting’ hitched in Georgetown after all. Thanks for all yer trouble, Paul. I won’t forget it.”
They talked a while. George told him he’d be leaving early in the morning to go fetch Rose, then they’d hitch up the team and be gone. They said their goodbyes, and Paul went on home. George sat on the steps until the light was gone and a sliver of moon showed where the sun had gone down.
In the morning he saddled both horses, mounted Buster, and led Dolly into town before dawn, avoiding the parts of town where he might be spotted by the sheriff or a deputy. The Greens’ house showed only one lighted window. It was Rose’s. She was up getting her things packed. He rapped on her window. When she opened it, he explained what had he’d heard from Paul.
“I hate like hell ta mess up our plans, but we need ta be a ways out of town before anyone knows we’re gone, or I’ll be behind bars until I can prove I ain’t this George Willis fella.”
“But I’m not ready, George. I still have things to pack.”
“Tell you what. I’ll take what you’ve got ready now, and leave Dolly for you. I’ll take Billie with me. You bring the rest out ta my place as soon as you can. By then I’ll have Buster and the mule all hitched up an’ ready ta roll. You ain’t bringin’ much, are ya?”
“No. Only our clothes and a few books and other things I need. But what about getting married?”
“Sweetheart, we’ll do it soon as we get ta Lubbock. In the meantime, I won’t lay a hand on ya, if that’s what ya want.”
She held his gaze until she was sure he meant it, and then nodded and went to fetch Billie from bed. The boy was still groggy, but brightened when he saw George. While the boy got dressed, the household began stirring, and before long Rose’s mother and father were asking what was going on. Rose told them she’d explain later, and dragged Billie, still buttoning his britches, out the back door, where George waited. With Rose helping, he hoisted Billie into the saddle behind him. Buster sensed the excitement and danced in place. Rose handed George a big carpet bag, which he placed in front of him. It was awkward, but would have to work.
George handed Dolly’s reins to Rose, then impulsively bent down and kissed her as her parents and two of her sisters crowded the door, watching. The girls giggled.
“Make it sooner than later,” George said.
“I won’t be long,” Rose said. “Billie, you mind George, hear me?”
The boy, excited and babbling questions, made no sign he had heard.
“Just hold on tight, boy. We can talk later,” George said. Then he wheeled Buster around and walked him until he was on the edge of town, where he nudged the horse into an easy jog trot. Billie thought they were having a big adventure, and was enjoying himself a great deal. George hoped nothing would happen to spoil it for him.
Rose was good for her word, and arrived at his place only half an hour after George. The sun was up and promising a warm day. He’d gotten the team hitched up, Buster unhappy about being in harness. He had sent Billie to check the house and barn for anything he’d forgotten so the boy would stay out of his hair. Rose had their clothing tied in a big bundle made from a blanket that she’d strung behind the saddle. She had another bag, heavy and with sharp corners pushing against the fabric, across her lap.
George helped her get everything into the wagon, and asked if she’d have any trouble driving it. She assured him she’d be all right. He told her to get Billie on board and double-check to be sure everything in the wagon was secure while he got the cattle out of the corral and heading in the right direction.
Then he let down Dolly’s stirrups, which she’d raised for herself, checked the cinch, and said, “All you got ta do then is follow me. We’ll be all right.”
To his surprise, Paul rode up before he even got to the corral, and said, “Thought you could use some help gettin’ them critters organized and movin’ the right direction before the sun gets high.”
George allowed a big smile. “You bet I could.” He briefly introduced Paul to Rose and Billie, and then they got to it. The two men and their horses worked together like old trail buddies getting the cattle out of the corral and into a loose line, all pointed in the right direction. Billie watched intently, fascinated by the whole procedure. They didn’t bother closing the corral gate. At one point when they crossed paths, Paul commented to George that Rose was a pretty girl who looked like she wasn’t afraid of a day’s work to boot. “I can testify to that,” George affirmed.
George had Rose point the wagon in the right direction out in front of the herd so the wagon would avoid the dust. It wasn’t long before the ranch was behind them. Paul stayed with the herd until they’d gotten a ways down the road, past the ranches and farms on the outskirts of Georgetown and into open country. Then he rode up to the wagon and tipped his hat to Rose and Billie before turning and joining up with George. He stopped alongside George on his right, their horses facing opposite directions.
“You’ll do all right from here, I reckon,” Paul said.
“I can’t thank you enough for all you done, Paul.” George held out his hand. Paul took it and they shook solemnly.
“Like I said, that’s what neighbors are for. Good luck to you and the new family. Ya’ll drop me a line after you get settled, and come see me if you’re back this way.”
“I’ll do that,” George said, and meant it.
Paul nudged his horse and set off for home at a canter. George twisted in his saddle and looked after him for a time, and then took a deep breath before turning to face west. Billie and Rose were looking back at him. He waved. Billie waved back. Rose smiled encouragingly and faced west once again. A calf bawled. Billie imitated it and grinned at George. He grinned back. It was April 28, 1900.
Georgetown to Lubbock
Thirty days on the trail can wear a good man down, yet Rose took it all without complaint. Hard though it was, she was free of that damnable laundry, free of the accusing looks of her father, and setting out on a new life where there’d be no one to judge her for her past. She felt good and clean, and optimistic for the first time in years.
The weather was fair, but with occasional thundershowers that came and went in a hurry. The grass was new and green, interspersed with patches of wildflowers. Some of the patches covered many acres. There were downy paintbrush, red-and-yellow Indian blanket, blue-star, prairie fleabane, and a hundred of other varieties enticing the bees and butterflies. The farther west they went, the more often they saw herds of antelope grazing up to their bellies in the lush growth. There was always fresh meat.
While they lurched along in the wagon, Rose drilled Billie in his ABC’s and his numbers, or let him get used to the feel of the reins. She would tell him what she knew about cattle and the wildlife and plants they saw about them, but it wasn’t much. When they stopped for the evening, George would school Billie in the things a man had to know, like building a good fire, caring for the livestock, saddling a horse, whittling without cutting off your thumb, and other essentials. She would often leave them together while they were busy to take a short ride for pleasure. Billie was learning to ride, bareback at first, the way George had, and took to it like a little Indian boy. In fact, with his body tanned brown as a nut, he looked like a blond-haired Indian. Rose had never seen him happier, at least most of the time.
George seemed to take little pleasure in his fatherly role. He was stern though usually patient with the boy, who couldn’t seem to do enough to please him. George never seemed to notice that Billie quickly came to idolize him. He rejected any show of affection by the boy with the statement that “that ain’t the way men act.” Billie was so desperately in need of a father figure that despite being wounded by these words, he soaked up all the attention George gave him, and tried harder to be a perfect son.
A week or so into the trip, they had a particularly difficult stream crossing, when the wagon got stuck midstream. George had to rig up Buster to help Molly and the mule, who were in harness, pull the wagon with Rose out front pulling Buster’s reins while he used the lever he’d brought along for that purpose to push from behind. When the wagon finally broke loose suddenly, George pitched face-forward into the water. It was a cool, breezy day, which left his soaked clothing wet for hours. He was in a foul mood the rest of the day.
That evening, when George rode up and dismounted after getting the cattle settled for the night, Billie, trying to be nonchalant, greeted him for the first time with “Hi, Pa,” spoken softly and tentatively. Up to that point, George had been “Mr. Scott.”
George gruffly responded with, “I ain’tcher pa.”
Rose, stirring a pot of beans over a campfire, hadn’t had a good day either, it being her time of the month. She couldn’t hold back. She whacked her spoon on the side of the pot to dislodge beans stuck to it. George’s head whipped around toward the sharp report. Rose’s voice dripped with sarcasm as she turned to him and said, “Then what’s he to call you? Is he always to call you ‘Mr. Scott’? Or just shorten it to ‘Mister’? How about if he just calls you ‘George’?” She brushed away a lock of hair falling over her eyes. “He’s a little boy. He looks up to you. Can’t you just let him call you Pa?”
Scowling, George busied himself unsaddling Dolly. He couldn’t come up with a reasonable response. “I guess it don’t matter to me,” he grumbled.
From then on, Billie called him “Pa,” which never sat well with George. Billie pretended not to notice. Rose could feel how badly Billie wanted to be closer to George. She tried to compensate by hugging him more often and telling him that George meant to be nicer but didn’t know how. It wasn’t enough, but it was all she could do.
After nearly a week on the trail, Rose was growing bored with sitting on the wagon, watching the horses’ butts all day. She was jealous of George ambling along on Dolly or Buster, depending on which one was in the traces. The wagon seat was hard and wasn’t helped much by covering it with a folded blanket. Tutoring Billie helped break the monotony, but a child of four has a short attention span, and soon his mind would wander. Even his mother can take only so much of a child’s chatter.
When they stopped for lunch, Rose said, “Why don’t you let me take a turn riding herd for a change?”
George was taken up short. “Why, because that’s a man’s work.”
“Why? You know I can ride as well as most men.”
“Well, suppose the cattle spooked and ran. What would ya do?”
“I’d ride ‘em down and turn ‘em, same as you would.”
“Well, right enough, but the doin’s not so easy. And what if ya had ta rope a stray?”
He had her there, and she knew it. “I suppose you’ll need to give me lessons, then. What if you got sick, and couldn’t sit a horse? What if you broke a leg or an arm, God forbid. What about when the herd gets bigger and you need a hand but can’t afford one?”
Now she had him, and knew it. He thought it over, and nodded. “Well then, we’ll begin stoppin’ for dinner a little earlier, an’ saddle both horses so’s I can school ya and see if ya got what it takes. When ya show ya can do it, I’ll let ya take Dolly for a few hours a day. Buster’s still a little too mean.”
He soon found out she did have what it takes. That evening, George demonstrated the moves horse and rider make in roping a cow. He explained that the horses were trained to slow down and stop once the lasso was around the cow’s neck, then back up as necessary to keep tension on the rope, which was affixed to the saddle horn, while the wayward cow calmed down. Only then did the rider lead it back to the herd. This, he explained, was a considerably simpler operation than roping a calf for branding, which she would learn when the time came.
Though George’s horses, particularly Dolly, knew far more than she did about what to do after a dogie was roped, learning to throw a lasso was up to her. George set up a barrel for a roping target. She practiced after until dark every evening, with Billie rooting for her. For two nights she threw the lasso while Dolly stood still. The lasso felt awkward in her hands, but she got used to the weight and the feel of it. The rope was much stiffer than the rope she was used to, and very rough on her hands. She began using the gloves George had bought her in Austin.
The third night she threw while Dolly walked, and progressed from there. She practiced relentlessly. In a week she could rope the barrel from a gallop three out of four times. George planned to take her to the next level by roping a cow and “towing” it behind Buster, starting slow and building up speed, so that Rose could practice roping a moving animal. Instead, the first time he was about to drop a noose over a cow’s neck for that purpose, Buster stumbled on a rock, snorting and lunging forward simultaneously as he tried to keep his balance, which startled the wary cow. She dashed away. When George started after it, Rose shouted, “Let me!” and urged Dolly to catch it. Dolly was anxious to oblige.
“By God, she’s goin’ ta do it!” George said to himself, and fell in behind her to back her up in case she missed. “Get closer! Get closer!” he hollered when she looked like she’d throw too soon. The cow was a fast one, but Dolly easily caught it. When finally Rose threw, the rope went cleanly around the cow’s neck, and Dolly took over, gradually slowing to a stop so that the cow wasn’t jerked off its feet, and it was done. The cow stood panting. Dolly and Buster were barely breathing hard from the short chase.
“How was that?” Rose asked. She was grinning proudly as she backed Dolly up and turned the cow toward camp.
Despite himself, George was proud of her too. “You did all right, girl. You did all right.”
When they had the cow back to the herd, Rose dismounted and retrieved her rope. Billie had been watching it all from the seat of the wagon. He stood up and clapped delightedly.
“You’re a cowboy, Momma!” he shouted. They all had a good laugh over it. For a moment Rose felt like they were a real family.
By that time they were only a little over halfway to Lubbock. George realized she’d learned much faster than he’d thought she would. He’d expected to be in Lubbock before she could be trusted to ride herd alone. Now George would be forced to take the reins of the wagon at least a few hours a day. He didn’t much care for the idea, which made him grouchier than usual.
Billie would sit beside him for a while, but George would lapse into long silences sometimes and ignore his questions. Billie usually would wind up playing under the wagon cover atop the furniture, or sometimes running alongside, throwing stones or shooting his imaginary rifle at imaginary Indians. And then one day the Indians were real.
It was late in the afternoon, the shadows getting long and the colors just beginning to deepen. They were on a wide plain with a few undulations. George was on Dolly riding herd, a decent piece of luck as it turned out. He spotted them coming out of the west, three bobbing heads silhouetted against the sky, over the crest of a rise a little to the south of their line of travel, maybe half a mile away. He pulled the binoculars out of the case strung on his saddle and brought them into focus. Even at that distance it was obvious they were Indians because they wore no hats. He watched as they changed direction toward his position, then, as calmly as he could, rode back to the wagon and drew up alongside.
“Rose,” he said, nodding toward the Indians, “We’re gonna have company soon. Just in case, I want ya ta take that little revolver I gave ya and hold it under yer apron. Don’t say nothin’, just be ready ta use it if anyone starts shootin’. If that happens, I’ll go for whichever one is the leader, and you start shootin’ at whichever of the other two is closest ta you. I want Billie ta get in the back, behind the table, where he’ll be safest.”
“Oh, God,” she said. Billie had come out to see what was happening. She snapped at him. “Billie, do as he says. Now!”
Billie’s eyes got big, and he scampered under the cover. George let the safety off his rifle and his sidearm, then took another look through the binoculars.
The Indians came ahead at a walk. Now he could see two were holding rifles across their laps, the third holding his vertically, the stock resting on his thigh. George could tell from their clothing, two in white tunics, one with a blue Army cavalry coat, and all wearing long buckskin boots, they were Apache, maybe Mescalero. That meant they were far from home. The Mescalero reservation was in northern New Mexico, which meant they were probably renegades. That was bad, because it probably meant trouble, but at least they were probably out by themselves. A hell of a lot of probably’s, he thought.
As they drew closer, he felt an unfamiliar tight knot of fear in his gut, and knew he had to think fast. There was little chance of a friendly encounter. Most Apache hated whites. George didn’t blame them, but it was a fact. Renegades were particularly brutal when they struck out at whites. Their atrocities were hideous. He literally shuddered at the thought of Rose and Billie being taken by Apaches. They were here because of him, and now protecting them was his highest duty.
Of course, there was the off chance that the Apache were friendly, but if he waited until they were close enough to find out, it might be too late. If there was bloodshed, he wanted to be the one who started it, because he’d need every advantage against skilled warriors with rifles.
He took another look through the field glasses, and what he saw convinced him he had to act. They were already starting to gradually spread out. He could only think of one reason for that.
“I’m goin’ out to meet them,” he said to Rose. “If they kill me and come for you, don’t pull the trigger until they’re too close to miss. And I mean as far as I am from you.”
Rose started to protest, but he nudged Dolly into an easy trot toward the Indians, waving and calling “hello!” as though he were happy to see them. As he’d hoped, this move confused them. He saw them stop briefly and look at one another, but then they came ahead at the same pace. He hoped they thought he was just a stupid white man, making it easy for them. As he trotted, he roughly calculated the distance between him and them. When he figured he’d gotten to around a hundred yards, he slowed to a walk and waved, shouting “hello!” again. Then he stopped abruptly as he simultaneously pulled the Winchester out of its scabbard.
He quickly leveled it at the Apache out in front and fired. Dolly, long since conditioned to gunfire, merely reflexively twitched. The Apache had seen George going for his rifle and the bullet caught him in his right side as he tried to twist his horse out of the line of fire. Before the first Apache hit the ground, George had levered in a new round in and aimed at the one on the right, who by now had gotten his rifle up and was taking aim at George. George squeezed the trigger just as the Apache fired. At the same instant, the Indian’s horse shifted position, causing them to miss each other. The Indian threw down his rifle and began charging George, bent low over the horse’s neck so that George couldn’t get a clear shot at him.
The third Apache, instead of firing, followed the actions of the second, and George could now see he had no rifle; rather he had a short lance or spear. The two would reach George in less than ten seconds. He shot the lead Apache’s horse in the point of its shoulder to be sure it went down. The rider curled into a ball as his horse crumpled beneath him, and rolled several times on the ground before landing on his feet running, coming at George almost as fast as the horse had, screaming Apache obscenities, a knife in his hand. George shot him in the chest and he went down in a heap.
Now the final Apache was almost upon him. If he got any closer, the lance would be better than a rifle. George shot the Apache’s horse out from under him only twenty yards away, and then his rifle jammed. He dropped it. The Indian hit the ground running at him and was about to throw the lance by the time George’s revolver cleared its holster. The Indian took a bullet through the chest and another took off the top of his head as he went down, his momentum carrying him face-first into the dirt as his lance made a short arc before embedding itself in the ground six feet in front of Dolly’s hooves.
George sat in a kind of shock for a few seconds, looking at the two bodies in front of him until the screaming of one of the horses hit him like a slap in the face. It was the first one he’d shot. George began shaking violently. He walked Dolly around the bodies of the Indians nearest him, in case either required a coup de grace. Both had taken his big slugs clear through their hearts, or close enough, and were rapidly bleeding out. Either of his shots would have killed the second one. They wouldn’t be moving again.
He pointed Dolly toward the screaming horse before he realized she should not see what happened next. She was already spooked by the screaming. He dismounted, so week in the knees he could barely keep from falling off. He turned her away, facing the wagon, and hobbled her to be sure she wouldn’t bolt. He walked to the screaming horse while Dolly kept looking over her shoulder. He saw the pain and fear in the mare’s eye, and felt worse for her than the three men he’d just killed. He needed both hands to hold his gun steady enough to put a round behind her ear. The screaming stopped. He found blood running from the mouth of the other horse, a pretty pinto stallion. It was wheezing from a hole in its lung. Killing it was no easier than the first.
In a daze, he suddenly realized that he didn’t know how badly the Apache leader had been hit and that he might still be alive. He looked in that direction to see the Indian’s horse quietly grazing beside the body. He un-hobbled and mounted Dolly again and went out to look, revolver in hand. The Apache lay on his back, looking at George, breathing spasmodically and coughing up blood that looked almost black in the slanting light of the sun. Like his friends, his face was painted, although George knew that the paint was not necessarily war paint. George dismounted and stood over him. He was older than the other two, who were probably still in their teens. They’d probably been fired up by the stories of Geronimo, the Chiricahua Apache chief, who was now living on the Mescalero reservation.
The bullet had caught this one right where his liver ought to be, and gone on through, leaving a large, ragged hole slightly higher up on his left side. The wound was fatal, but the man would die very slowly. George had never been stared at so intently. The man’s jaw was locked hard, and he was nodding almost imperceptibly. His lips moved faintly but no sound emerged. He managed to bring his arm up and point his thumb at his own head. The meaning was plain. George’s duty was just as plain.
He gritted his teeth and pointed his revolver at the Apache’s head. The eyes never turned away, but bored steadily into his own. He shot the warrior between the eyes, which blew out the back of his skull. Then he turned away, put his hands on his knees, and puked his guts out.
He straightened up when he heard his name being called, turned, and saw Rose a hundred yards away coming at a run toward him, Billie trying hard to keep up. It seemed important that Billie not see the carnage. He held up his hand to stop then, but they kept coming. He holstered his Colt, walked back to Dolly, took hold of her reins, and walked her to meet his family. She was very skittish. Rose and Billie were both crying as they ran. Rose hit him like a thrown sandbag, causing him to stumble and nearly knocking him down, and threw her arms around him, hugging him fiercely. He dropped the reins. Then Billie hit him in the legs, and again he stumbled. George was too weak to hug them in return.
“Oh, God, George,” Rose finally breathed. “We’re alive. We’re all alive.”
They stayed that way for a while, Rose’s face buried in his chest, Billie wrapped around his leg, George staring off at the horizon without speaking. Finally he mustered the strength to pat their shoulders and say, “It’s all right now. It’s all right.” And then he held them while they said what people say when they have narrowly escaped a violent death.
After the initial shock had worn down some, George gently broke away and took the binoculars off Dolly. He said, “Billie, ya ‘member how ta use these binoculars?” Billie nodded. “Then I’ve got a very important job fer ya. I want’cha ta take ‘em up and sit on the seat of the wagon. Then you use those binoculars ta watch the horizon, ya know, where the sky comes down ta the land? An’ you keep lookin’ back an’ forth along the horizon from one side ta the other, an’ if ya see any more Indians, you holler right away. Can you do that?” Rose noticed that he had never spoken so tenderly to Billie before.
Billie nodded solemnly and wiped away his tears away. George handed him the binoculars. “You go and do that then. And mind you never take your eyes off that horizon.” He even patted Billie’s shoulder as he talked.
Billie ran off to the wagon. George turned to Rose. She saw he was very pale.
“That got awful goddamned messy,” he said, “and there’s nothin’ much we can do about it. There’s too many bodies to bury, so the buzzards will be showin’ up by the hundreds in the mornin’, pointin’ the way for anybody who might be lookin’ fer those men I shot.”
“What should we do?”
“I want you ta find my rifle. It’s over in front of those other two.” He pointed to where he had dropped it. “Take it back ta the wagon and reload the magazine, in case more Apaches come runnin’. It’ll only take four rounds. It’s jammed, so be careful. I’ll clear the jam an’ clean it when I get back. In the meantime I’m gonna see if their rifles are worth takin’. ”
He led Dolly toward the dead Indians, reloading his Colt from his pistol belt as he walked. His cattle were grazing as if nothing had happened. Life on the Chisholm trail had taught him to condition his cattle to gunfire just as he did his horses. That would not have been possible with a much larger herd.
He quickly found that both the Indians’ rifles were old .40-caliber single-shot breech-loaders, neither in great condition, but the owner of the unfired one had a few more bullets in a pouch around his waist. The other Indian had only one extra shell. Using the empty scabbard and his saddlebags, he took them all back to the wagon, along with their other weapons and the remaining Apache horse, which he’d decided to keep. He figured that if any other renegade Apaches spotted the wagon, they’d investigate, and the outcome would be the same whether he kept the horse or not.
Billie hadn’t seen any more Indians, and neither had Rose. Their faces were blank, as though in shock. They spoke little, and said nothing of what had just happened. George took the binoculars and checked for good measure, but saw nothing. He was becoming optimistic that there were no other warriors traveling behind the ones he’d shot. If there had been, they likely wouldn’t have been far behind and would have come to investigate the shooting by now. But if there had been women and children walking behind, as was the custom, they’d have turned back toward where they’d come from. There was no telling if or when retribution might come. He wanted to be a few miles away as soon as he could, and the sun was already near setting.
He tied the Apache horse to the back of the wagon, then quickly cleared the jam in his own rifle and cleaned it. He then cleaned and loaded the Apache rifles that had fallen into the dirt. They set off again, George riding herd and often scanning the horizon with the binoculars. Rose held the wagon reins, and Billie sat beside her, trying to look like a man. He had done all right for a little fellow.
They got two or three miles before only a grey light remained in the west. George left the cattle to graze. Rose got the horses and mule out of harness and hobbled them. Billie gave them water. George found a spot near a brushy draw a hundred yards from the wagon. He told Rose and Billie they’d have to make do with sleeping out there where they’d be hidden. It wasn’t likely any Apaches would be hunting them at night, but he wasn’t willing to bet all their lives on it. Tonight there’d be no fire and no lanterns. They ate bread and jerky in silence, then took all the guns and made their beds in the brush. They’d be on their way again at first light.
Billie, secure between them, was first to fall asleep. Rose couldn’t shut off her brain, and neither could George. They lay on their backs, staring up at the stars.
Rose whispered, “Why did you ride out there like that?”
George spoke softly, so as not to disturb Billie’s sleep. “It looked ta me like they were splittin’ up. I thought they all had rifles, but I couldn’t tell what kind. Could’a been repeaters. I figgered I had ta do somethin’ before they spread out and came at me at a gallop, shootin’ from three directions.”
“Weren’t you scared?”
“You’re sure they meant to hurt us?”
He hesitated. “Not entirely. But if I’d waited, we’d probably all be dead or worse. It was my best judgment at the time, an’ I’d do it again.”
“I hope you were right.” They watched a shooting star slice through the Milky Way. After a while she said, “But I’d do it again, too.”
There was another short silence, then George said, “I hope ta Christ I never live ta hear another horse screaming like that.”
“It was the worst thing I ever heard. I had to cover my ears. And then when I heard that last shot and saw you bent over like you were, I thought it was you who’d been shot and that you were about to die. I’ve never been so scared.”
He didn’t reply. After a minute or so, he said, “I never want ta talk about this again. You understand why?”
“I think so.”
“You tell Billie. It’s done an’ it’s no one else’s business. He’s to keep his mouth shut.”
They laid there until a three-quarter moon rose in the east. Watching it finally helped their thoughts subside and they fell asleep.
After what seemed like only moments of sleep, George suddenly awoke, his whole upper body suddenly pierced by a hundred painful stings. He bolted upright, throwing off his bedroll, and jumped to his feet with the sudden realization that he’d been lying on an anthill. Dancing like a wild man, he tore off his shirt and began slapping at himself, the reports like little gunshots in the stillness of the night, yelling, “Damnation! They’re eatin’ me alive!”
Rose was startled awake, and rolled to a sitting position. “George! What is it?”
“Ants!” he cried. “Goddamned ants!”
Rose got up, but it was too dark for her to help much.
By the time the sky was paling in the east, they had killed or picked off all the ants. George shook out his shirt and pants. Welts had formed where he’d been bitten.
“I reckon if there’s any Apache around you’d’ve heard ‘em laughin’ at me, but just the same, you stay down an’ try to sleep some more while I go make coffee.” he said to Rose, not looking at her. Billie had slept through it all. “Ain’t no use in you advertisin’ you’re there.”
George got dressed again, put on his gun belt, picked up his rifle, and walked over toward the wagon. He saw nothing to alarm him. The Apache’s horse was lying down while his horses and the mule grazed, apparently unaware of any danger. Some of the cattle were resting while the others grazed. There was nothing but the sound of his own footsteps. He stopped and relieved himself. The wind was light and coming from the west, so he felt safe getting a fire ready to make coffee and cook breakfast. As the sky lightened, a soft breeze brought the scent of wildflowers opening to the morning. Still there was nothing to warn of any danger, so he called out to Rose to come to the wagon when she felt like it. By the end of the day, fifteen or twenty miles from the gruesome scene they’d left behind, they began to relax.
The pressure inherent in being a young male had been growing on George. After the Apache incident he finally convinced Rose to satisfy his needs. She had done so by means short of actual intercourse. This relief helped matters somewhat, but George was anxious to get to Lubbock so they could marry and have normal relations. Though he understood that Rose did not want to repeat her experience with Peter Knight, the irony of the situation rankled him. On occasion he would let loose a sarcastic remark. Rose would be stung, but remained resolute.
On May 29, 1900, a Sunday, with a dry wind carrying the smell of prairie grasses and promising an early summer, George, Rose and Billie reached the outskirts of Lubbock, Texas after plodding through miles of quarter-section homestead farms and ranches. From a distance of half a mile or so, the town seemed to be a forest of whirling windmills. George left Rose to set up a camp and mind Billie and the cattle while he rode Buster into town with the mule to pick up supplies. He also intended to find a preacher or a justice of the peace to make things right with Rose.
The streets of Lubbock were unpaved and dusty, with nothing to distinguish the town from hundreds of other settlements dotting the high plains. There were no natural features to lend it beauty. The railroad was years away from coming to town. George doubted that more than five or six hundred souls called it home. It was a bleak place, only a stopover to him. They wouldn’t be staying long because he had seen that fences were going up fast, and close to town the grazing was already lean. He wanted to push on to New Mexico, where he could homestead his own hundred and sixty acres and there were few fences to interfere with grazing. The fences would come soon enough, but in the meantime he might acquire more homestead land with a little mostly-legal juggling.
While buying supplies he learned that the justice of the peace ran a little bar near the center of town. After he’d packed his supplies on the mule he led it to the bar. He found the justice of the peace serving drinks. The JP was a little fellow about sixty years old, clean-shaven except for a droopy mustache. George introduced himself and asked when the JP could perform the marriage.
“Why don’t we do it tomorrow about noon? That’s when I open up. I don’t cotton to drinkin’ in the morning. You got a witness?”
“Just her boy. He’s only four.”
“My wife can do it. She fills out the marriage certificate anyway. With the license and all, that’ll be three dollars, cash only. That all right?
“Suits me fine. I’ll see you then.”
The JP told him where he could buy a gold band. He picked one up on his way out of town, hoping the size would be all right.
It was close enough. On Monday, May 30, 1900, George and Rose were married. She wore the nicest dress she had and carried a corsage of white and red roses the JP’s wife had let Rose pick from her garden. That night, after Billie was asleep, they consummated the marriage. Rose wasn’t as eager or as frisky as Julie once was, George thought, but she got the job done.
The next day they were on the trail to Portales, New Mexico, where, George had heard, water came out of a rock wall.
Lacy, New Mexico
They moved their herd through town and alongside the stagecoach trail that led west. For nine days they traveled slowly to allow George time to reconnoiter and make sure he wasn’t missing a prime location for a homestead. They were about twenty miles from Portales in a flat, grassy area before George announced that it looked like a good spot for grazing. In the distance he could see buildings, and decided he’d ride ahead and investigate.
The settlement consisted of a crossroads with a blacksmith shop, a stable with a few horses in a corral, a farm-supply store with stacks of hay under a shelter, and a two-story building with a sign above the door that said “Bailey & Sons General Merchandise—Lacy, New Mexico.” A few houses were scattered nearby, a couple with windmills spinning.
George reined up at the general store, went in, and spent ten minutes or so talking to Mr. Bailey, who doubled as the postmaster. He came out with a bottle of whiskey for himself, some hard candies for Billie, some sugar and potatoes, a new sun bonnet for Rose, and a good idea where he might park the herd for the night on a piece of land that was open for a homestead claim.
The site proved to be as good as any other on this vast plain. It was half a mile west of the edge of the town site, with good open rangeland farther west. There they parked and set up a tent. George rode back to Lacy and told Mr. Bailey (“Call me John) that they’d be receiving mail there. He learned that there was an office in Portales where he could file his claim. He also learned that near Portales water actually came out of a rocky ledge, but not much of it, and the site was taken anyway. Portales, Spanish for “porch,” was so named because the ledge resembled a Spanish porch.
The next morning George rose before dawn and rode the twenty miles to Portales, moving at a good pace and keeping his eyes open for a piece of land that might change his mind about staying in Lacy. There was none; in fact, the closer you got to Portales the more homesteads he saw, which made it look a little crowded for ranching purposes. Sod houses were much more common than wood; there were no brick houses. It seemed they were mostly dry-land farms, raising pinto beans, sorghum, and wheat. Where he saw livestock, there were far more sheep than cattle. Range cattle wouldn’t be welcome, and grazing them would be harder. He filed his claim on the site near Lacy and made it back late that night. Rose awoke when he crawled in beside her and they celebrated their new home.
The first order of business was a house. The cheapest and fastest way to get a roof over their heads was to build a sod house, called a soddy. The next day he rode the mule in to see John at the general store and learned where he could rent a breaking plow. He would need this to cut strips of prairie sod about three inches thick and eighteen inches wide. These would be cut with a spade or corn knife into blocks about two feet long and used to make the walls.
John directed him to another homesteader named Wilhelm Gunderson, whose place was two miles from George’s. It was a fortunate referral, for not only did Wilhelm rent him the plow, he rented George the use of his twin sons, Otto and Olaf. They were big, husky Swedish boys with rosy cheeks who dwarfed George. They had plenty of experience in sod construction, there being a large, well-built house, a couple of outbuildings, and a barn, all of sod, on their property that the boys had helped build. All this would cost him a dollar a day, delivered on site.
George was able to direct the boys’ work and spend most of his time seeing to his cattle and the numerous other chores of establishing his homestead. The boys were very hard workers, and needed little direction. They were happy to wolf large bowls of beans and Rose’s excellent sourdough bread at noon every day without complaint. At the end of the day they went home farting and tussling, seeming as fresh as they’d been in the morning. All George had to do was purchase the wood, tarpaper and windows as the need arose and get them to the site. Wilhelm gave him the use of a small wagon for that purpose. Within a week, the Scotts were able to move into their sixteen-by-eighteen-foot soddy. The floors were dirt, but it had a watertight roof, windows, a fireplace, and a canvas liner suspended from the ceiling to catch dust falling from the sod roof. Over the years, George would plaster the walls and put in a plank floor, as well as make other improvements. For now, they had basic shelter into which they could empty most of the contents of the wagon.
With Wilhelm’s advice and tools, and the help of his sons, George got a well dug quickly, with a hand pump to draw water. Otto and Olaf were such good and skilled workers that George also had them help dig a pit and put up an outhouse over it. They even helped put in a small corral with a covered area so the horses and mule could get out of the sun. Later would come a windmill to pump more water with less labor, fences, and so on as his herd grew and he could afford them. For the time being, he had their basic needs met, and George could concentrate on making a living. He also put time into making a family.
Rose learned she was pregnant in July of 1900. A few days later, George and Ian, a hired hand, drove his cattle to higher ground on BLM land about forty miles west of Lacy, where grazing was allowed and the grass lasted into the fall. It was an exhausting three-day trip out. Ian was a fourteen-year-old boy, the son of a local widow who depended on boarders for her survival. He would help George set up a line camp and care for the cattle until George returned in the fall to bring the cattle home. Ian brought his own horse and a rifle. For his services he would receive fifty dollars and a yearling, which would provide milk for his family. George used the time on the drive to instruct Ian on managing his charges and how to find food to supplement the supply of flour, sugar, salt and beans he was left with. George threw in a box of shells for Ian’s rifle.
On March 26, 1901, a local midwife helped Rose deliver George Irvin Scott, who was called Scotty his entire life. George had made him a sturdy crib out of oak that would last through many children. Billie quickly became attached to Scotty and helped keep him occupied so that Rose could go about her chores. Billie never tired of playing with the baby. Meanwhile, Dolly and Buster produced a foal Rose named Nugget for its deep golden coat.
George built a chicken coop and purchased a number of chicks, mostly so they’d have eggs, but once they had enough chickens and a good rooster for a stable population, they became a steady source of meat. One of Billie’s chores was collecting the eggs. Rose was demonstrating the gathering procedure one cool fall morning when George came by. As George watched, Rose warned Billie sternly that he must always be careful of scorpions, which sometimes burrowed into the straw of the nests to stay warm on cold nights. George agreed. To illustrate her point, he found a scorpion in a pile of unused sod blocks and prodded it with a blade of saw grass to make it strike, instilling in Billie a healthy respect for scorpions that he never lost.
When a chicken had to be butchered, the task of dispatching it fell to George, because Rose refused to. The usual method of cutting their heads off with a hatchet did not appeal to George because a neighbor back in Wisconsin, while holding the chicken down, had cut his hand off when startled by something as he swung the hatchet. Instead, George would simply grasp the chicken’s head and neck in his fists, wring its neck and then pull the head off. He would drop the chicken, which would run around wildly flapping its wings while its severed neck spurted blood hither and yon until the bird collapsed. The head would be unceremoniously dropped in the dirt to be picked clean by its coop-mates.
Rose took it from there, plucking it, gutting it, cutting off the feet, and so on. Nothing was wasted. The feathers went into pillows, mattresses and quilts. George would eat every part of the chicken except the bones, and if they were big enough, he broke them open and sucked out the nutritious marrow. Fat and gristle all went the same way. The bones were tossed onto the soil.
They grew potatoes, carrots, corn and pinto beans in a big plot, and had a small garden for tomatoes and greens. They planted grape and raspberry vines, and assorted fruit trees. Rose was a good gardener, treating every plant as if it were her only one. All inedible waste went into a compost pile for the next year’s garden.
Lacking refrigeration, they did not often have beef. Necessity required the whole animal to be converted into useful products. The meet could be smoked once they were able to build a smokehouse, years later, but until then, there simply wasn’t time enough to turn a whole cow into jerky, and there was no other practical means of preserving the meat. Twice in the first few years George arranged to sell an unhealthy cow to a butcher in Portales, reserving some of the meat for his family. Otherwise, the family ate chicken and wild game. If the opportunity arose, George would take down an antelope, which was of a size that they could use completely. Unfortunately, each year, as the antelopes’ range continued to be intruded upon, there were fewer of them to hunt.
By New Year’s Day, 1904, George had taken advantage of various loopholes and special programs, and ignored certain requirements that were universally ignored, in order to acquire claims to two parcels contiguous to his first. He also had built a small barn and run a lot of fence. He had helped pay expenses and preserve his savings by taking whatever carpentry and blacksmithing jobs he could find time for, which helped a great deal over the years. He missed hunting, but there was no time for that.
A second child, Grant Imason Scott, called Brownie for his hair color at birth, was born on February 5, 1904. Billie was nearly eight, and was being home-schooled by Rose, there being no school near enough for him to attend. He had gotten big enough to enlarge the scope of his chores, and was riding quite well, taught mostly by his mother the last few years. Soon George could begin schooling him in roping and riding herd.
The older Billie got, the less interest George took in him. To be fair, he had so far taken little interest in his own firstborn, and Rose had no reason to expect him to feel any different about them when others came along. Still, he was unnecessarily hard on Billie. Billie desperately needed George to be the father he’d never had, but George never had time for him unless he was teaching him some new task or admonishing him for one he’d done incorrectly. Billie was a sweet, good-natured boy who continued doing his best to please George and meet his expectations.
Rose wondered if he ever could. She did not mind so much that George was a hard man, and did not regret their marriage. There’d been no future for her in Georgetown, and if not for him, she might have run away with someone far worse, or been Peter’s whore until he tired of her. George was a good provider and protector. He worked long days to better their fortunes. The trouble was that she loved Billie twice as deeply as she might have if he’d had a father at home those first few years. Each time Billie flinched from one of George’s acerbic comments, it was like a knife to her heart. When Billie’s eight-year-old mind failed to comprehend George’s hasty instructions and slipped up, George was fond of saying, “Ya couldn’t pour piss out of a boot with the directions written on the heel,” though it was by no means his only demeaning comment. He also liked, “If yer brains was dynamite, ya couldn’t blow yer nose.” When she would ask him to go a little easier on the boy, he would claim to be only teasing him. “The boy needs to get thicker skin,” he’d say, and didn’t care whether Billie overheard. “He acts like a girl sometimes.”
“Give it time,” Rose thought. “He’s taking over another man’s son, and that can’t be easy for a man with so much pride.” Though somewhat gruff, he was mostly a good husband, so she would hold her tongue the best she could.
If you’d asked George, he’d have said all’s right with the world. He did heavy chores from dawn to dark nearly every day. After dark he would sharpen tools or repair a bridle or tinker with his operating budget, looking for a few extra dollars to invest in his cattle operation. There was always something that needed doing. His work showed in his ranch and his herd. By the spring of 1905, his herd had tripled from the number he’d brought to Lacy. Despite his side jobs, his expenses, including the wages he’d paid Ian each summer, had whittled down his savings until he had only a few hundred dollars remaining. It was time to take forty head to ship out of Amarillo, the nearest railroad depot. He hoped to return with close to two thousand dollars.
George had acquired an Australian shepherd pup a few years before. He had named it Whitey for its one blue eye that looked milky from a distance, as though it were blind in that eye. The other eye was brown. A keenly intelligent animal, Whitey learned to respond to mostly non-verbal cues, like whistles, clicks, and hand signs. George had trained him to become proficient at minding cattle and working with the horses. He was also a disciplined watchdog. Though Whitey loved the boys and they loved him, there was never any question whom he obeyed. Like everyone and everything on his property, except the baby, Whitey had to earn his keep. Given Whitey’s inexhaustible energy and well-trained horses, George could handle forty head alone.
George left Dolly, now grown too old for cutting cattle, for the family’s use, and said goodbye to Rose and the boys at sunup on a June day that promised to be warm and windy. They watched him, Buster and Whitey working as a team to get the herd on its way until they grew small in the distance, with Nugget, carrying a few provisions, trailing Buster on a lead rope. Then Billie and Rose returned to their morning chores as Scotty played in the dirt and baby Brownie crawled after him.
George returned from Amarillo in early July. Although prices had dipped slightly, the herd still fetched almost nineteen hundred dollars. Despite the infusion of cash, George was tense and wary, especially when he had to go into town for supplies. Although he’d always had his pistol or rifle close at hand, now he was never without one or the other, especially when he went to the outhouse. He slept with his pistol under his pillow and refused to discuss why being armed constantly suddenly seemed so important, besides saying that someone’s waiting under every rock to take what belongs to you.
A few weeks after his return from Amarillo, George asked Rose for a large needle and sturdy thread.
“What on earth for?” she asked.
“My tent’s developed some holes.”
“I’d be glad to do sew them up for you. I’m sure I could do it quicker and better than you. You have so much else to do.”
George waved her off irritably. “Never you mind. You’ve got plenty of your own chores. Just fish those out for me and let me get it done.”
He took the needle and thread out to the barn. Rose took the laundry outdoors to hang. She watched as he came out of the barn carrying his folded tent and a stool. He sat on the stool, unfolded the tent, pulled it over his lap, and went to work. Rose hung her wash and went indoors. Half an hour later she took out more wash to hang. George was still sewing. Rose wondered how his tent had acquired so many holes on one trip. In light of his recent mood, she decided not to ask.
The money might not have bought happiness, but it improved their financial situation a great deal. George was able to acquire fifty new calves, two horses, and a new saddle. Billie got George’s old one. George expanded their soddy and plastered the walls. They got a cast-iron stove, although like the fireplace, it had to use the most plentiful fuel around—dried cow chips. Rose got a pedal-powered sewing machine. The older boys got money when they went into town, along with admonitions about spending it wisely. The boys thought buying candy was spending it wisely. Rose bought them new shoes and denim pants. Life was a bit easier for the time being.
Rose was a very light sleeper. George, though, was a deep sleeper, but would come instantly awake at any sound out of the ordinary. By this time, he had added a separate bedroom to their soddy, with a window to the left of the only door to the outside. Brownie, the baby, slept in a crib in their room. The older boys shared a bedroom at the opposite end of the house. The outhouse was located to the right of the outside door, so that when the boys got up at night to pee, they did not have to pass by their parents’ bedroom window.
One night in early October, shortly after they’d all gone to bed, the temperature dropped below freezing and an early snowfall left an inch or two of snow on the ground. Around midnight, with the sky now clear and a quarter moon above, Billie got out of bed in his bare feet to use the outhouse, and was surprised to see the snow. Rather than find his shoes in the dark for the walk to the outhouse, he decided to dash a few feet from the door and simply pee on the snow. The crunching of his running footsteps caused George to start up from a deep sleep, pistol in hand. Rose was already awake.
“Someone’s outside!” George hoarsely whispered, and bolted out of bed in his long johns, heading for the door.
“George, wait!” Rose cried, but George was intent on a mission to confront the intruder.
He found the front door ajar, flung it open and saw an easy shot. A shadowy figure stood not thirty feet away, back to the house. “You!” George shouted, as though recognizing the person, and aimed the pistol at his center of mass.
Billie turned his head to look back over his shoulder and started to say something. He was interrupted by Rose’s voice screaming, “Don’t, George!” She rushed up behind George and pushed his pistol away just as he pulled the trigger. The flash briefly illuminated Billie’s frightened face.
“It’s just Billie getting up to pee!” she said.
George turned to look down at her, his face devoid of recognition. She immediately sensed that he had not yet disconnected from some dream in which the crunch of Billie’s footsteps in the snow had become those of an imaginary enemy. Ears ringing from the blast of the pistol, she took George’s gun hand in both of her own, and met his eyes. She spoke soothingly.
“Wake up, George. There’s no danger. It’s only Billie.”
“It’s only me,” Billie’s voice echoed.
George’s unfocused eyes slowly seemed to recognize his wife, and he lowered the pistol to his side. Billie was frantically finishing his business while he looked over his shoulder at the two of them, his eyes wide with fear.
“Can I come in?” Billie asked.
“I thought it was…” George began, but then the realization that he’d confused his dream with reality began to dawn on him, and he did not finish his sentence.
Now the two younger boys were awake. Brownie was crying, and she could hear Scotty calling, “Momma?”
“Hush, boys. It’s all right. I’ll be there in a minute. Billie, you come in now.” Rose led George back to the bedroom, where he sat on the bed, mumbling vaguely, and put his head in his hand, the other still holding the pistol.
“You go back to sleep,” she said to him. “I’ll see to the boys.”
She left the room to reassure the boys that everything was all right and get them back to bed. When she returned to her bedroom, George hadn’t moved. She gently took the gun from him and laid it on the floor. She turned back to him and urged him with gentle pressure on his shoulders to lie down and go back to sleep. “It was a bad dream, that’s all,” she said. George allowed himself to be pushed back into a reclining position. Rose rearranged the blankets and laid down beside him. She could hear the boys talking excitedly in the lowest voices they could manage under the circumstances, but knew they would soon fall asleep.
After the boys’ voices began to fade, she saw in the dim light that George’s eyes were still open.
“It’s all right now, George. Go to sleep.”
“I…I thought…” he began, but nothing else would come out, and after a time, they both fell asleep.
After a cold winter, Joe Sledge Scott was born on a lovely spring day, April 3, 1906. Rose had hoped for a girl, thinking George might soften to one. He had only grown tougher on the boys as they got older. Scotty was then old enough for a few chores, and was treated only marginally better than Billie for his mistakes. The two boys got at least some relief by attending the new one-room schoolhouse in Lacy, walking to school at seven in the morning and returning home at noon to do their chores. They were still close, and very alike in temperament, both being gentle and soft-hearted. Brownie was a rambunctious boy with a mischievous streak.
George was very anxious for the boys to do men’s work. He was now in control of three hundred and twenty acres with a good windmill pumping up enough water to slake the thirst of over a hundred cattle. Ian had recently filed on a homestead of his own and was working part time plowing fields, so he no longer had time to hire out to run the line camp and help with drives. It was hard finding even temporary help. Billie had to work harder, but Rose wouldn’t hear of him doing the cattle drive yet, much less mind the line camp in the fall. Besides, if he went, who would manage the livestock while he was gone?
George managed to find help in Henry, a rangy, muscular boy who had been shorted in the brains department but was a tireless worker and could sit a horse all right. The herd had increased enough that George needed help in his cattle drives. The spring that Joe was born he used Henry on the drive, but Henry wasn’t much of a cowboy. Worse, he hated being alone at the line camp, and after he returned from there in the fall of 1906, let George know he wouldn’t be willing to do it again.
Dolly died after the first snow of 1906. She was twenty-seven. George moped around for a week.
Against Rose’s wishes, in 1907, when Billie turned eleven, George left Henry to look after the place and took Billie with him on the spring drive. Billie did all right, though George was sparse with praise. That summer Billie did line camp duty, and though he hated it too, he had no choice. That arrangement lasted until the railroad finally came to Portales in 1909. From then on George could manage just with the help of his own boys, Billie being thirteen by then and Scotty, at age nine, fairly handy on horseback.
Rose finally got a daughter when Kitty Carol Scott was born on March 24, 1908. As she had hoped, George was quite taken with Kitty, although his affection for her did little to thaw his attitude with the boys. From the moment of her birth, Kitty could do no wrong and drew his admiration for her every accomplishment, from the first time she ate solid food to her first word and everything that followed. She was a precocious child, bright-eyed, smart, and possessed of an effervescent personality that affected others almost to the extent it did George. She became and remained everyone’s favorite.
Once passenger train service reached Portales, Rose announced that she wanted to see her family. She promptly demanded that George buy tickets for her and all the children to visit Georgetown. Their cattle operation had been doing well, and there was no shortage of money; in fact, he had just purchased the homestead next to theirs, bringing their holdings to four hundred and eighty acres, after the owners decided they’d had enough of dry-land farming and were moving to Ohio. The land had a proper house, consisting of a two-story frame building with a hand pump in the kitchen, two fireplaces, and separate privies for males and females. It even had a few trees big enough to provide some shade in the summer, and some fruit trees. George made a small fuss about the expense of sending all of them on the train and having to find help again. He quickly gave in under Rose’s withering stare, only insisting that she wait until the move was complete.
They were gone for nearly a month that summer, leaving George feeling as empty as their new house. It was not their companionship he missed, but rather the routine he had become used to, and the extra hands for the work to be done now that they had more land to fence and a big house to maintain. There was nothing to do but hire Henry back and throw himself into every task that presented itself to his critical eye as he assimilated his new surroundings.
After the family returned, life once again resumed its familiar routine. The herd grew to a size that allowed the family a comfortable living, and made them one of the most prosperous families in the Lacy area. That didn’t mean that they took vacations (at least George didn’t) or bought expensive things. They ate well and they had decent clothing. Animals and people got medical care when absolutely necessary, though it was taken for granted that childhood diseases like measles, mumps, chicken pox and even pneumonia were treated at home with remedies found in medical books rural folks routinely used.
Bethany Rose Scott was born July 20, 1910, and was practically ignored by George from then on. He simply didn’t take to her. He found her behavior irritating before she ever left the cradle, and his feelings never changed.
After Beth was born, and while she was still nursing, Rose again took her children to Georgetown. Based upon what she’d heard from Rose and the children in their two visits, Billie’s grandmother Green, who’d always had a soft spot for Billie, decided that her son-in-law was cruel to Billie. She convinced Rose that Billie would be better off to remain with them in Georgetown now that the scandal was nearly forgotten.
George was furious when Rose returned without Billie. He made no secret of the fact that his anger was mostly over the loss of free labor to run the ranch. The other boys were not enough, forcing George to utilize Henry once more. Rose held firmly to her decision, refusing to consider bringing Billie back to New Mexico.
“You told me before we married that you’d do the best you could for him, but if these ten years were the best you could do for him, I’d sooner have left him in Georgetown all along. You’ve held a grudge against Billie all that time, George Scott, for something that wasn’t his fault. He’s happy there and he’s staying.” Rose eventually came to regret her decision, and not only because she missed him terribly.
A drought had begun in 1909, and continued through 1912. Dependent upon rainfall for their crops, many farmers in the region began abandoning their homesteads. The former owner of their house had been one of the first to go. The population of Roosevelt County, in which Lacy and Portales were located, declined precipitously for several years. This meant more land for grazing during a time when grass was hard to find. The net effect to cattle ranchers was simply that their herds were somewhat leaner because they had to walk more to eat, and therefore fetched less at market. On the up side, most of the cattle and sheep ranchers were able to survive.
Francis Joy Scott was born July 2, 1912. His father had nothing to do with naming him. “I reckon I don’t much care,” he said. Perhaps the name was a way for Rose to needle him. He was a perfect baby to take care of, but so quiet that he often went unnoticed. He didn’t cry, he didn’t have tantrums, he didn’t have colic. He just got along.
George’s herd had done well, now numbering about a hundred and fifty, and he’d acquired a few more horses so everyone could ride when needed. The next winter was wetter than the previous two. He became optimistic enough that when the spring grass came in thick and rich, he bought a 1913 Model T Ford. He had seen a few of them in Portales, and, much as he loved horses, in automobiles he saw the future of transportation. His was the first horseless carriage owned by a resident of Lacy. Within months he had taken apart most of the car and put it back together. He became so fascinated with automobiles that he preferred to drive rather than ride if there was a road to follow, and often when there wasn’t.
The cattle operation continued to do well, but George’s relationship with his sons remained sour. In June, 1915, Scotty, the eldest son, finally decided he’d had enough of his treatment at George’s hands, and despite being called by George a traitor to his family, hired out for forty dollars a month as a ranch hand to a nearby cattle rancher. He had recently turned fourteen.
With Scotty gone, the duty of watching George’s cattle at the line camp fell to Brownie, who was eleven years old. He helped George, with Joe tagging along to learn the route, take the cattle to the camp in mid-August, to be brought back before the first snow. It was lonely duty, living out of a pup tent and having only Nugget, the big dirty-gold horse, for company.
By early October, after living for six weeks on a much leaner diet than his father had eaten many years before on his journey from Wisconsin to Texas, he was bored, lonesome, and dreaming of his mother’s home cooking. Even daily chores and going to school sounded better than line camp duty. He had kept track, and knew that in a few more days, his father would arrive to help him gather the herd and drive them back to the ranch. He had busied himself herding the cattle closer to camp to save as much time as possible when George finally arrived.
The eastern sky was growing pale that morning by the time he had finished his coffee and thrown the dregs into the campfire. He was saddling Nugget for a check on the herd when he looked up to see the sky darkening ominously in the west. Having lived in New Mexico all his life, he could recognize a snowstorm coming in, weeks earlier than usual.
The thought of being snowed in by a blizzard was frightening. His tent could be crushed by the weight of the snow. If it snowed for long, drifts could make escape impossible. He had a terrifying vision of freezing to death. He was nearly forty miles due west of home, but he could make it by nightfall if the storm wasn’t too fast in arriving or too brutal when it did. The cattle would have to fend for themselves in any case. He’d come back with his father in a few days.
After hastily throwing together a sack of dried meat and some fried bread he’d made the day before, he mounted Nugget and urged him into a lope, looking over his shoulder for a read on the advancing storm. He hoped to get to lower ground, at least, before it caught him. There was no shelter between him and home.
After a few hours, he could see that the storm would catch him soon. He pulled out his sack and ate it all without slowing their pace. He knew he would soon be very cold, and didn’t want to waste his energy later. Even maintaining a lope as long and often as Nugget could handle it, the storm caught them about noon, halfway home. Within minutes the world was uniformly white. He untied his bedroll and pulled it around himself and over his head. Nothing was visible but the ground immediately underfoot. Brownie knew that he could not trust his own sense of direction to find his way home.
Instead, he did what he had always been taught; he dropped the reins and left it up to Nugget. “Go home, Nugget. Go home,” he said, and thrust his hands under his arms to avoid frostbite. For hours more they continued at a steady, fast walk. Any faster pace would be too risky. All Brownie could do was hope Nugget got it right. When the light began fading, he became convinced that Nugget had gotten lost and that they were doomed. They should have been home by then, he was sure, but there was nothing to do but go on trusting the horse.
His hands were blue and his teeth were chattering uncontrollably when he recognized their windmill tower looming out of the dark and snow. He sobbed with relief. Nugget took him right to their door. The welcoming light from their windows was the loveliest thing he had ever seen, but he was so stiff from cold he was not sure he could dismount without help. He called out, “Mom! Dad!”
His mother burst out the door first, followed by Joe, the girls, and then George, who strode up, pulled him off Nugget, and threw him over his shoulder like a sack of grain. Within seconds, Brownie was inside the warmth of the house, his father asking, “Why the hell didn’t ya just stay put? I’d have been out to getcha as soon as the snow stopped.”
Rose told the girls to go and bring blankets, then angrily said, “Leave the boy be, George. He’s safe and that’s all that matters. I told you he was too young to be out there alone. Now why don’t you get Nugget into the barn and I’ll get him warmed up.”
George started to speak, but thought better of it. He turned and went out.
“Lord, I hope you don’t lose any fingers,” Rose said to herself, rubbing his blue hands, George now completely forgotten. “Kitty!” she yelled, “Put some water on to boil for coffee. And Beth, you put another log on the fire, then get me a blanket. We’ve got to warm his hands and feet slow.” An hour later Brownie had color back in his hands and feet, although both were painful still.
Brownie was fine after a good night’s rest. The sky cleared in the morning, leaving behind a foot of snow that began melting immediately. The morning after that, George and the boys went to gather the herd and bring them home. Only two or three were missing of the ones they’d left, an acceptable loss.
Lacy, New Mexico
Despite the loss of Scotty’s labor, the year 1915, in which he turned a five thousand dollar profit, had been George’s best ever. As a reward for all his hard work, he celebrated the new year by buying a 1916 Model T to impress his neighbors with his success.
Teddy R. Scott entered the world on January 10, 1916. A fussy and sickly baby, he became Rose’s favorite child, after Billie, for reasons known only to her. Perhaps she thought he would be her last. Perhaps he reminded her of Billie as a baby. Whatever the reason, Ted would remain tied to her apron strings until she died.
Despite President Wilson’s strong opposition, in 1916 the United States was rolling inexorably toward joining “the Great War” in Europe, roused by German atrocities in Belgium in 1914 and the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. George saw the war as his opportunity to make a fortune in the beef market. Demand by French and English forces would surely escalate prices. It appeared there was no end in sight for the war. When America entered the war, prices would skyrocket, George proclaimed. Encouraged by fifteen years of steady growth and, Rose would say, “full of himself,” George told her in the spring that he had decided to go for broke.
He planned to mortgage the ranch for the capital to finish fencing his property and acquire twelve hundred Hereford yearlings, disease-free and of healthy weight, that he’d been offered at a bargain price. Rose argued that if someone was willing to let go of that many whitefaces for such a low price, he must know something George didn’t about the future of cattle prices. George reasoned that there are many reasons why a man might need money fast, and stubbornly insisted on going ahead with the deal. And he did, despite the fact that Rose was furious over him risking everything on the war continuing.
His land was inadequate to support so many cattle, thus he had to borrow to feed them. He needed extra men to handle them all, so he had to borrow to cover their wages. But it all seemed worthwhile. George stood to make a small fortune if the market held. Meanwhile, his yearlings got good and fat on imported alfalfa hay.
In early March of 1917, the newspapers were suddenly full of articles about the deciphering of the coded Zimmerman telegram. German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann had sent it to the German Minister to Mexico, authorizing the offer of United States territory to Mexico in return for joining the German cause. Americans were incensed. There was no longer any doubt that the United States would wage war against Germany. Troops began boarding ships for Europe. George was sure the market would go crazy.
Unfortunately, George, and many other cattle ranchers, did not know that the “Big Five” packers—Armour, Swift, Wilson, Cudahy, and Morris—were working together and artificially holding down prices on the beef cattle they slaughtered and packed. Smaller ranchers with little bargaining power were forced to sell their cattle at a loss. To make matters worse, the military’s demand for all types of meat had also forced up the price of feed as feed became scarcer. The final blow came when French and English forces learned that Argentinian beef had become cheaper than American beef and began buying from Argentina. The demand for American beef fell off.
It was in the summer of 1917, shortly before George was ready to begin marketing his cattle, that the bottom dropped out of the beef market. Hundreds if not thousands of ranchers, including George, had no choice but to sell their beef cattle for half the 1916 price. George could not make the payments on his mortgage, which came due in September, or repay any of his other loans..
He managed to stall the bank and other creditors, and make a few small payments, but in January of 1918 the bank foreclosed on the ranch. George immediately filed for bankruptcy, which stopped the foreclosure and forced the bank and all his creditors to file their claims against the estate in the bankruptcy courts. He was stalling for time. The ranch was effectively gone.
George insisted to Rose that the disaster was another opportunity. He’d been trapped in one place too long, he said, and was tired of it anyway.
Rose knew she would never forgive him for taking the huge risk that had destroyed their relatively secure and stable lives. Life with George had never been easy. Over the years, whatever romantic feelings she’d had for him had been eroded by his increasing use of alcohol and tobacco. His breath could blister paint. He neither felt nor understood tender emotions. Now to hear him minimize the disaster and then talk about nearly twenty years of their lives as though they’d been nothing more than a diversion from his march toward a glorious future inflicted a deep wound on their relationship. She believed George would never understand how she felt, and it would have been pointless to try to discuss her feelings with him. His attitude about life was to quit complaining and get on with it.
The day he filed for bankruptcy, George moved his automobiles and some of his best breeding horses and cattle to Gunderson’s barn. There they would be safe from the bankruptcy auction that eventually would be held to split the proceeds pro rata among his creditors. Gunderson would take only a token payment for his help. He would ship whatever had to be left behind to wherever George landed. The family’s beloved horses, Nugget and Buster, were getting old and not worth shipping out west. Gunderson agreed to take them to avoid them winding up as horsemeat.
Lacy was the only home the kids had ever known, and all but Ted, who was too young to care, were conspicuously unhappy to be packing their things and leaving their home and school friends. They dragged their feet and whined until threatened with George’s backhand. “One more word outa you and you’ll be pickin’ yer teeth off the floor” always did the trick.
A few days before the bankruptcy auction, in a rare effort to cheer them up and forge some kind of bond with the oldest boys, George declared that it was time they learn to manage a Model T. He took them to Gunderson’s place. Grant and Joe were both strong boys, owing to the rigor of their ranch duties. They were used to cranking the Model T’s without breaking a wrist in case of backfire, but neither had been introduced to the intricacies of the remainder of the starting and driving duties.
Brownie, the eldest, was first to sit in the driver’s seat of the 1916 Ford, used because it was easiest to start. The Ford was parked in the driveway leading to the main road. George sat in the passenger seat feeling odd and out of place. He had never sat there before. Joe leaned over the driver’s door and looked in. Brownie sat rigidly clutching the steering wheel and staring ahead. He had broken a few horses in his life, but this iron beast seemed more likely to throw him. He hadn’t been more nervous since George had taught him to fire his Winchester.
“Ordinarily ya’d be doin’ the crankin’ by yerself, but so’s ya kin keep yer mind on what you don’t already know we’ll let Joe do that, then ya kin do it fer him.”
“Uh-huh,” was all Brownie could think to say.
“Now, the first thing ya got ta do is be sure your hand brake is pulled all the way back, which sets the brake and puts the transmission in the neutral position.” He leaned over toward Brownie and pointed at it. “Now you check it.” Brownie gripped the handle in his left hand and squeezed the handle, pulling back to be sure it would go back no further.
“Okay,” said George, “she’s set. Now check your spark advance lever right here ta be sure it’s all the way retarded.” George pointed out the lever and where it should go while Brownie worked the lever a few times to get the feel of it.
“Next thing ya do is look at yer throttle lever on this side and make sure it’s nearly at the top but not quite, so she’ll have enough gas to start.” Brownie did as told. “Now before Joe cranks ‘er, I wantcha ta remember that when she kicks over, yer gonna pull the spark advance lever down just till she runs smooth, then leave it be. Don’t touch the throttle yet. Got it?”
“I think so.”
“All right, Joe, yank that crank.”
Joe went around to the front and did as he was told. The engine caught on the second crank, shuddered and began running roughly. Brownie seemed startled and confused at which lever to pull until George reached over and tapped the spark advance. Brownie nervously yanked it too far down, whereupon the engine backfired and died. Flustered, he could only say, “I-I didn’t mean to…”
George started off with, “Well, ya knothead, I tol’ ya…,” but then remembered he was trying to forge a bond. He took a breath and said, “It’s all right, Brownie. We’ll try ‘er again, only this time pull that lever only an inch or so, an’ do it slow.”
They repeated the procedure, and this time Brownie got it idling fine. Joe came around to watch the next step.
“Now ta git her goin’ is simple. Ya put the hand brake lever straight up ta release the brake, so do that now.” Brownie followed instructions. “Now when ya wanta go forward, ya got ta stomp on the clutch pedal there on the left and hold ‘er down. That’s gonna put’cha in low gear. Ya have ta pull the throttle and the spark advance down just a bit at the same time, but keep yer hands on the wheel. We ain’t gonna go much faster than a walk. When ya wanta stop, yer gonna keep yer foot on the clutch and retard the spark and throttle. The engine will do most of the work. If ya need ta stop quicker, ya pump the foot brake there on the right, but slow, not fast. When she’s almost stopped, you pull back on the hand brake lever ta set the brake and put her in neutral, and you can take yer foot off the clutch. We’ll run through that a couple times before we try high gear. Ya ready?”
Brownie looked a bit uncertain, but he nodded.
“All right,” said George. “Now stomp down on that left pedal and pull them two levers down a little.”
Slack-jawed, Brownie followed instructions. The Ford lurched and stalled. “Dang it!” said Brownie, thumping the wheel with the palm of his hand.
George looked exasperated, but held his tongue. “A little too much throttle, but the spark advance was about right. You’ll get the hang of it. Now let’s run through the whole shebang again.”
On the fifth try, Brownie brought it all together, and they jerkily putt-putted down the driveway with Joe running alongside and yelling, “Give it hell, Brownie!” Midway to the road, George coached Brownie on the slowing and stopping procedure.
At rest near the end of the drive, George said, “Lemme get behind the wheel and back it up a bit. Reverse is a bit tricky, an’ we’ll save that for later.”
For the next ten minutes, George and Brownie repeated the exercise, then Brownie swapped places with Joe, whose learning curve was a bit faster from having closely observed Brownie’s lesson. Joe took to it eagerly and with confidence. George could see that Joe would make a good driver. Joe was a good horseman and generally good with his hands, but mechanical things were what really caught his interest.
After the two had mastered starting and stopping in low gear, George took them out on the main road and demonstrated how to smoothly accelerate from a stop to the point at which more speed would require shifting to high gear by pushing the hand brake lever all the way forward and releasing the clutch pedal. It was a relief to the boys to learn that once the vehicle was proceeding at a decent pace, the clutch pedal could be released, thereby relieving the growing strain on the left leg that holding down the clutch pedal produced. Though he was two years younger, and smaller than Brownie, Joe was already better behind the wheel.
Once the boys were comfortable with proceeding forward, George taught them to use reverse, which required pushing the tiny center pedal. There was barely room for a small shoe to fit between the two outside pedals. George commented that Henry Ford must have small feet to have thought a man wearing boots could ever hope to use reverse. After they were through for the day, George informed them they would take turns driving one of the Fords come moving day. Rose had refused to learn to drive. The boys knew that there’d have been no other solution, but having it made official that they would be sharing driving duties was cause for elation sufficient to make them anticipate leaving, despite their misgivings.
After the ranch was auctioned off in the spring, the family was given three days to remove personal possessions. George and the older boys retrieved the Fords from Gunderson’s barn and parked them in front of the house. They had already sorted through their possessions. There was little left to do but load them. Everything George figured would not fit into their Model T’s had already been stored in Gunderson’s barn for later shipment or was simply left behind as they set out for California. There were eight people to fit in the two cars, which didn’t leave room for much more than a few cans each of water and gasoline, their clothing and bedding, beans, potatoes, flour, rice, salt pork, coffee, tents, kitchen utensils and camping gear. A few chairs were strapped to the roof struts. Every nook and cranny was stuffed with something.
In addition, they packed several spare tires and inner tubes, a scissors jack for each car, a vulcanizing kit to fix flats, and a hand pump to inflate the tires to the sixty pounds of required pressure. They carried shovels to dig the cars out when they got stuck, as well as a sturdy, eight-foot length of four-by-four lumber as a lever useful for helping to rock the cars out when they became mired in soft dirt or mud. There were even scraps of canvas and wood to help furnish traction for the narrow tires when they lacked it. The dirt roads of the time had carried horse-drawn wagons and riders on horseback for decades before automobiles with their pneumatic tires began using them. Countless horseshoe nails and shards of broken whiskey bottles were waiting in the deep dust to pierce tender rubber tires. A man would be foolish to venture outside city limits without the equipment to repair or replace them.
At last, there was nothing left to do but crank up the Fords and climb aboard. After the children were settled in, Rose stood beside the car for a moment, looking back at the house, close to tears that she’d sworn she wouldn’t shed. The windmill creaked in the wind. Clouds were scudding by, throwing their racing shadows over what had been their home and land for many years. George fidgeted, anxious to go. The older children, boys in the front, girls in the back, waited in the other car. All the children watched their mother. Finally George grew impatient and said, “We’re wastin’ gas sittin’ here.”
Rose turned and scowled at him, took one last look, and got into the passenger seat. Teddy and Joy sat fidgeting in the back seat, crowded together by suitcases wedged against the doors. The cars sagged on their springs from the weight of it all. Every fender had something strapped to it and furniture hung by ropes from every anchor point available. The scene foreshadowed the migration of the Okies still a dozen years away.
George set off, with Brownie driving the other car close behind. Pots and pans rattled and banged over every rock and pothole in the road.
Little Teddy said, “’Bye, house,” and waved at it.
Joy said, “Are you sad, Mom?” She didn’t answer.
George said, “You boys leave yer mom alone for a while.”
In the other car, Joe was busy criticizing Brownie’s driving. “Ya’ve got too much spark, Brownie.”
“Shut up, Sledge,” Brownie came back, knowing how the hated name would irritate Joe.
Rose would speak to George only when necessary, usually to say the children needed a break to pee or it was time to eat. There was nothing else to say. A lifetime of hardship had forged her stoicism, robbed her of all romance, and dashed her hopes. The loss of her home, the fruit trees and the flower and vegetable garden that she, and later the girls, had tended and sewn for nearly two decades had left her as hollow and empty as the house they were leaving. They were busted, crapped out, at dead bottom, or so Rose thought.
She didn’t know it, but George had nearly a thousand dollars he’d saved from the loan he’d procured to buy the herd. He’d always believed in keeping an ace in the hole. As far as she knew, he had just enough to buy gasoline and a few provisions for the trip. But when the time came, he would have enough to start over. They would survive.
They found the old dirt road to Roswell, which took them the rest of the first day and the better part of the second. What with rutted dirt roads and having to stop to prepare meals and do their business, making forty or fifty miles in a day was good. At dusk they made camp outside of Roswell, not bothering to pitch tents because the night was mild. They cooked and ate by the light of a kerosene lamp. Early the next morning they picked up a wider dirt track incongruously called the Southern National Highway. By pushing hard and eating bread, cheese and jerky behind the wheel, they made it to Hondo in mid-afternoon. Thunderheads were dropping showers here and there over the dusty earth, but nary a drop ever touched them.
At Hondo they cut northwest and kept at it. At dusk they were running alongside a thundershower to the north with its front lit by the setting sun to a brilliant red, looking like a brush fire raging. They pulled into Carrizozo at nightfall. After two days, they’d had two flats and gotten stuck half a dozen times in deep dust like talcum powder, they were filthy and sore, and they were barely a hundred miles from Lacy, with more than five hundred to go. Their only comfort was that the summer heat had yet to come and the nights were mild.
The journey continued in this way for another twelve days. The weather got warmer as they went. It was fortunate that the Model T’s would burn kerosene, as several times they had used their reserves of gasoline without finding more available. Kerosene, however, was widely available at the general store in every little town that electricity had yet to reach, where kerosene still fueled the lanterns and stoves of the locals.
In the small towns along their route they heard the reports of the influenza epidemic which had been ravaging the nation and the world since early in the year. It was killing people by the millions. Particularly susceptible were young adults and pregnant women. For this reason George, who had survived a bout with the Russian flu in 1889 and was presumed immune, did almost all of the interaction with strangers. By the time they reached Phoenix, mass graves were being dug to accommodate the appalling number of bodies, which had overwhelmed the mortuaries. People no longer shook hands. Many went about their business wearing bandanas to cover their noses and mouths.
Shopkeepers often left hand-lettered signs in their windows and watched as customers read the instructions and slid their written orders under the door. The shopkeeper would put the goods in a basket and then shout the cost through the window. The customer would slide money under the door and back away. The shopkeeper would put the basket outside the door and retrieve it after the customer had put the goods in his own basket and gone. George wondered if it helped prevent infection. He doubted it.
After departing Phoenix, they began noticing columns of smoke like gigantic exclamation points scattered seemingly randomly around the horizon. They were puzzled.
The going was particularly rough on the trek from Maricopa to Wellton, where the sands were deep and the cars would bog down frequently. Their average speed was the slowest of the trip. Rose grouched that she’d rather have a wagon and a good team.
“We’d ha’ been lucky to make twenty miles a day with a team,” George responded sourly. “Would ya rather have spent five or six weeks on the road?”
“At least we wouldn’t have been fixing flats every five miles.”
They groused at each other if they talked at all. George knew he’d be in for it if California turned out to be a bust.
In the mid-afternoon of a grueling day on the road, the temperature well over a hundred degrees, the Scott party came to the top of the rocky road through Telegraph Pass in the Laguna Mountains about ten miles from the Colorado River. Through George’s binoculars, they could see Yuma, with its infamous prison, spread along its banks for about a mile. About a thousand hardy souls, not counting prisoners, called Yuma home. The only signs of cultivation were patches in several shades of green extending away from the river for a mile or two, mostly on the Arizona side. For hundreds of miles on either side were the plants and animals that had occupied the Sonoran Desert since the last ice age.
The dominant plants were creosote and ocotillo bushes, saguaro and cholla cacti, mesquite and palo verde trees, occasional patches of brittlebush, and tumbleweed. Living amongst them was a surprising variety of animal life, with cougars and grey wolves at the top of the food chain. Below them were badgers, coyotes, bobcats, great horned owls, diamondback rattlers, sidewinders, gila monsters, and several hawk species. The largest prey animals were mule deer, pronghorned antelopes, and javelinas. The small predators found plenty of ground squirrels, quail, kangaroo rats and lizards. Desert horned lizards, easily caught and passive, were the preferred pets of schoolboys.
From Telegraph Pass the family could see thick, black smoke roiling up into the sky from several fires along the river, and again wondered about them. They might have simply camped where they were, but there was enough light left to reach Yuma. Rose was anxious to rent a room where they could all wash away the dust and sweat that had turned to sticky grime over them all. They pushed on.
They reached Yuma at dusk and began looking for a room. There were few people on the streets. The ones they saw walked furtively and spoke with no one. So great was the fear of contagion that the hotels and boarding houses they found had all posted signs saying that no rooms were available until the epidemic passed. George bought a newspaper from a general store and checked the classified ads, in hopes of finding a boardinghouse willing to rent a room to travelers. There were none.
From the newspaper he learned that the fires they’d noticed had been lit to burn the many dead on Indian reservations across the state. Indians, he read, were dying at the rate of about forty percent of the afflicted, nearly twice that of whites. The rate of infection was also higher among Indians.
There was no point staying in Yuma. There was nowhere to set up camp this side of the river without going backwards out of Yuma, so they crossed the new automobile bridge over the Colorado River in the dark. The Yuma Indian Reservation was on the California side.
George decided that, despite the raging pandemic, they would ask to stay overnight on the reservation. Everyone was too hungry and exhausted to go on in the dark. They pulled into the reservation and stopped near the first dwelling, where two men sat smoking clay pipes before a fire. George dug around his car and found a bottle of whiskey to use as an offering.
The two men got up and came to meet them as the family got out. They declined to shake hands but accepted the bottle. The Yuma spoke enough English, augmented by hand signs, to make some conversation possible. The two Indians were dressed in white- man’s clothing. The huts around them were made of poles connected by sticks woven together and covered with mud. George noted that all the doors of the huts he could see opened to the south, presumably to keep out the summer sun and let in the winter sun. The men’s hair was long and tangled, but they appeared fairly clean and smelled no worse than George and his family. There were other Yuma nearby. Several strolled over out of curiosity, but kept their distance. About half were in native dress, wearing thick choker necklaces made of beads, and beads woven into dangling strands of hair. Some had painted their faces with vertical slashes under the eyes or along the nose. Most seemed friendly, the others merely indifferent.
The Scotts were shown an area where they could camp. George left the women and children to set up tents while he proceeded to drink with the Yuma men and politely listen to their stories into the night. He understood few of their words but got the gist by watching their hands and faces and paying close attention to their tone. From time to time he could hear the chilling wail of a woman lamenting the passing of a loved one. Twice that night he saw a body being carried to the nearest funeral pyre by chanting relatives, who remained near, still chanting, while the body was consumed by the flames. The fires were set downwind of their houses, but occasionally a whiff of the acrid smoke drifted to where George sat talking. He had smelled the same smell before in his travels. Fine tendrils of some greasy substance settled out of the smoke onto his clothing. Cremation, he was told, was the custom there, but no one could remember so many fires in such a short time. By midnight the bottle was empty and everyone went off to sleep.
The next morning, Beth and Kitty awoke with fever and headache. The first assumption was that they had come down with flu. Whatever it was, it was clear they would have to stay a while. The Indians graciously told them to stay as long as they needed. George offered to pay for their stay. The Indians politely declined money.
Rose had some medical books that might have helped the girls. They were packed among their many crates, but her searches were fruitless. Over the next few days, George and Rose took the girls to several doctors in Yuma, who differed over whether the girls had the flu or something else. At any rate, there was little the doctors could do. “What the hell am I paying you for?” George yelled at them. Rose had to drag him out of their offices for fear his anger would lead to bloodshed. She knew it was Kitty for whom George worried, not Beth. At last the whites of the girl’s eyes began to yellow, a clear symptom of malaria, known then as yellow jaundice. By then Joy and Ted had come down with it.
Word had spread through the little town of Yuma about the white family staying on the reservation. The news eventually reached a woman, Irma Valentine, who had been a neighbor in Lacy. She and her family had come west during the Southern Plains drought a few years before. Irma immediately took her horse and buggy across the river to the reservation and had a tearful reunion with Rose and the girls. She and her husband had survived malaria and fancied themselves immune. She insisted that Rose, Beth, Kitty, and their two younger brothers move into her home. Her children had moved away, she said, and they had plenty of room.
George and the older boys moved them and their things to Irma’s home. By then the girls were half out of their heads and close to death. Kitty’s eyes had sunken far back into her head. Beth had terrible pains in her groin. Quinine was the only effective treatment known, but the war had made it unavailable. There was nothing George and the older boys could do but set to work picking cotton to bring in money while Irma and Rose did their best to treat the children.
Unpacking crates at Irma’s home, Rose finally found her medical books. The recommended treatment included hop bitters, a patent medicine, “to stir the liver.” The girls were also given hot baths in an old washtub covered with quilts to hold in the steam, in the belief that, with the help of hop bitters, the poison would be sweated out. Whether these methods worked or the girls’ immune systems did the job, they survived. In turn, the boys were treated to the same regimen, and did not seem to suffer as badly as had the girls.
While the rest of the family dealt with malaria, George, Brownie and Joe continued picking cotton. It had become the primary crop of the area after construction of Laguna Dam nearby made irrigation possible. The Scotts were experienced at the difficult job of getting the cotton out of the bolls expeditiously from having harvested a crop left on land in New Mexico George had purchased. Within a few days they were able to pick nearly as much as the best pickers, who could bag two to three hundred pounds a day. Despite the low wages, the three were able to put away a fair amount of money. Their hands were constantly covered with cuts and scratches from the hard bolls and the spine inside each. In the little time they had to spare, they turned their tents into tent houses with scrap lumber they salvaged from abandoned buildings. At night the boys would play mumblety-peg with their pocket knives, or poker with a ragged deck, or watch the funeral pyres until exhaustion overcame them. George often spent his evenings drinking at a bar in Yuma run by a man who didn’t believe in microbes.
By mid-July, the four youngest were feeling better, but the oldest boys had been afflicted and were not yet well enough to put in a full day’s work. George and Rose had survived malaria years before, and suffered no relapse. Kitty, who was well by then, volunteered to help pick cotton to make up for the lost income, but George would not hear of it. For once, Rose agreed with him.
Then, amidst all that was going on, Rose learned she was pregnant. It was not welcome news. She had hoped Joy would be her last. Now she vowed this child would be. She was nearing thirty-nine, and she’d been raising children for over twenty-two years already. George would be fifty-two in the fall. It was a wonder he still wanted sex, but he did, and fairly often. She could tell when his horns were getting long and would urge him to take a bath first, but he was usually too impatient. The only thing she missed about Peter Knight was that he was always clean and well-groomed. George just didn’t think much about such things. It was ironic, Rose thought, that George, whose only basis for it was his constant readiness to perform, considered himself quite the lover. She did not agree. Still, she took some comfort in their coupling, because otherwise he never touched her.
As fall was setting in, Rose received a letting telling her that her birth family, the Greens, including Billie, had set out from Texas bound for a new life in Phoenix. They hoped the dry weather would cure Aunt Edna’s asthma. The Greens had decided to go the long way, through Denver, to visit family they might never see again. She received another letter in late November telling her that they’d been detained for over a month by flu in the Colorado side of the family and were setting out again. In early December she heard that heavy snow had caught her family in Craig, Colorado, and with the roads snowed under, they had settled in for the winter. Many people there, they said, had come down with the flu, but so far the Greens had been spared.
In mid-January, 1919, Rose was near term and still living with the four youngest children at Irma’s house. She was very large. Although George had finally taught her to drive to make family visits easier, managing the Model T had become nearly impossible for her. It seemed spring had come already. Winter had only touched Yuma with the usual cold desert nights and a few chilly days. Influenza seemed to be losing its grip. Some days there were no funeral pyres. Rose had not heard from her family in six weeks or more.
George always made a weekend trip across the bridge to Yuma, taking the older boys to visit with their mother and the younger children. During a visit toward the end of January, Rose persuaded George to take a weekday morning off to help her run errands in Yuma, including a trip to the post office. He picked her up on a Tuesday. While Rose waited in the car, George went inside the post office and checked with the general delivery clerk. There was a letter waiting from Rose’s youngest sister. George returned to the car and handed her the letter.
Her face softened with relief when she saw who it was from. Rose could hardly wait to tear open the envelope and read the letter. George stared out at the sky. The day was lovely at about seventy degrees, with a mild wind off the river, horses clopping and the rattle of buckboards on the dirt street, the clamor of a flivver or two, people entering and leaving the post office under the clear blue sky as she unfolded the letter.
“Dearest Rose; By the time you read this, what’s left of our family will be in Phoenix, staying with our old friends, the Stuart Phelps family, out on Buckeye Road. We hope you can visit us there soon.
“I don’t know how I can soften this blow. t is with the deepest regret and sorrow that I must tell you that many of our family came down with the influenza here in Craig, and among these, your son, Billie Knight, and our Uncle Harvey did not survive. They were laid to rest side by side.”
Rose got no further before dropping the letter into her lap. Her face contorted into an expression of wretchedness. Her chest heaved with soundless sobbing for several seconds until unearthly sounds tore from her throat that raised the hair on the back of George’s neck.
George, for one of the few times in his life, didn’t know what to do. His hands fluttered helplessly in midair, afraid to touch her for fear she was having some awful problem with the baby inside her. “Good Gawd, Rose, what’s wrong?”
She did not answer, but thrashed back and forth, tossing her head in anguish and emitting wracking sobs. George felt compelled to do something. He leaned across and took her by the shoulders to try to hold her still.
“What is it, Rose? What is it?”
Rose could not speak. She grabbed the letter in her lap and thrust it into his, then began crying and wailing, “Oh, God, no! Oh, God, no!”
George picked up the letter and read it silently. He could not seem to put it down, even as tears began to roll down his cheeks. People on the street first stared, then looked away in embarrassment.
“Rose. Oh, Rose. I’m awful sorry,” he finally said, shaking his head and laying the letter in her lap.
She met his eyes, and he knew that in that moment she hated him.
“Now you cry for him, but I had to send him away because you treated him so mean! I don’t want to hear you say you’re sorry! If he’d stayed with us, he’d be here today!” As she spoke, her voice had risen almost to a shriek.
George floundered in confusion. “Now, Rose, honey, ain’t no way of knowin’ that. He could just as easy have caught it here.”
The tears were streaking her face. She wiped them off with the apron she always wore over her long skirt.
“You’re damned right about that, George Scott! You bring us here to live with Indians who are dying at twice the rate of whites, instead of taking us where at least we’d be living like white people. It’s lucky the children only got malaria.”
“Rose, where else’d we’ve gone? The white was scared of us and wouldn’t take us in. Those folks have helped us get back on our feet, and never charged us a cent for rent. We should be thankful they’d have us.”
Rose withdrew a handkerchief from her bosom, blew her nose and composed herself somewhat before she answered bitterly. “That doesn’t really matter now. I know you like these people more than our own kind, and that’s all right. But the young ones need to be in a real house, and goin’ to school like they should.” George started to speak and Rose held up her hand for silence. “Let me speak now, George. We’ve about worn out our welcome with Irma, bless her heart, and I can’t face those tents across the river again. I want to go to Phoenix to grieve with my family and be near what’s left of them when the baby comes, and that’ll be soon. I’ve already thought it over. The young ones are well enough to travel, so I want you to put us on a train tomorrow. We’ll rent a place…”
George had been anxious to interrupt, and could stand it no longer. He blurted out, “But Rose, you ain’t never had ta pick a place fit for raising cattle! Why, there’s things you’d never think of, like…”
Up went Rose’s hand again. “George, I’ve been a ranch wife for nearly twenty years. I’d rather be on horseback than in the kitchen. You know that. I know damned well what kind of place cattle and chickens and horses need. You just hand over the money to get it done, and I’ll do the rest. As soon as you get ready to come, you send word to Gunderson to have the livestock shipped to Phoenix, and you and the boys can join us there. Now that’s how it has to be.”
“But damn it all, Rose…”
“No buts, George. I’ve been a good wife to you all these years, raising kids and making a good home, and never asked for anything except a new scrub board or broom. I’m going to Phoenix with the young ones if I have to get my folks to wire me the money. If you want to be there with me, you’ll do the rest.”
Rose blew her nose again, not looking at George, who took off his hat and rubbed the back of his neck while he looked everywhere but at Rose.
“Well,” he said at last, “I reckon you ain’t leavin’ me much choice, an’ I reckon Phoenix is as good a place as any for puttin’ down roots again. So you kin pack what you got at Irma’s place, an’ I’ll crate up all I’ve got that we can do without here and send it with you ta Phoenix. Me’n the boys will come along with the rest soon as cotton season’s over. Will that suit you?”
Rose finally looked at him square on, a grim set to her mouth. “That’ll suit me fine, George.”
They went straight to the train station and bought tickets for a train leaving in two days. Rose put a letter in the mail to alert her family that she and the young ones were coming to Phoenix to look for a place to live. Then George took her back to Irma’s place and she told the children about the death of their half-brother.
Kitty had been only two when Billie left their home, and Beth had never really known him, so they were less affected than Brownie and Joe, who idolized him. He’d been as much a full brother to them as they were to each other. In many ways, he had given them what George could or would not, and since he’d gone to Oklahoma they had missed him as much as Rose had. The boys were devastated, shedding unmanly tears and sitting numbly as Rose, her jaw locked in grim resolution, commenced packing things into the crates they had come in, tossing things in with no particular order. She ignored George until finally he took Brownie and Joe back across the river to crate up what they could.
Rose’s sister and a brother met her and the children at the Phoenix station and took them to a house the family had already rented. They had no sooner unpacked than Rose’s contractions began. Dallas Tee Scott was her last child and the only one born in a hospital, arriving on February 12, 1919.
Brownie and Joe kept their distance from George, both at home and in the fields, after Rose left. It simply wasn’t safe to be near him. Although saddened by Billie’s death, it was not for him such a personal tragedy. It was Rose’s departure that had left him in a foul mood. Even though she’d been at Irma’s place for quite a while, she’d cooked for them, keeping the older Ford to deliver meals across the river until she was too pregnant to drive. On Sundays, she’d have them over to Irma’s to feed them and do their washing. They hadn’t had a good meal since she’d gone, eating mostly jerky and beans and a food something like pemmican made by the Yuma women. Worst of all for George was that Rose had made him give in without a fight.
He was seated in the bar of the Lee Hotel in Yuma on a quiet Thursday night after the day’s work was done, nursing a tumbler of Scotch whiskey and grumbling to himself. There were only a few other drinkers in the bar. No piano, no poker game, only a murmur of quiet conversation. George had already put away one glass of Scotch and was feeling mean when half a dozen men talking in loud voices came through the door from the restaurant part of the building.
The center of attention was a burly fellow with a rosy complexion and handlebar mustache, a bit under six feet tall, who looked like he’d go about a hundred and ninety pounds. He was wearing a yellow plaid suit with a green felt vest and a grey fedora. George thought he looked like one of those clowns on a circus poster. There was a chubby fellow no taller than George, dressed in a conservative grey suit, clearing the way for the big one. The others looked like local gents. They all bellied up to the bar a couple of seats away from George and clustered around the big man. Like piglets fighting over a sow’s teats, George thought.
As near as he could figure, the big man was a boxer come to town for a match. His admirers were vying for his attention with comments on his knockout over so-and-so or questions on how he planned to upset his opponent in the upcoming match. George immediately took a dislike to the big man, who was all puffed up like the cock of the walk, basking in the attention as he talked about what he’d do to his opponent. George moved a couple more seats away. It didn’t help much; he still couldn’t think for the noise.
After a few minutes of trying to ignore the commotion, George gave up. He tossed back the remainder of his drink and slammed the glass down onto the bar with a report like a rifle shot. The bar went dead silent as George stood up and the crowd down the bar turned to stare at him. He ignored them and reached into his pocket for cash to pay for his drink.
The fellow in the clown suit pushed aside a couple of his sycophants and addressed George. “Have you got a problem, mister?”
George looked around the room, then at his interrogator. “Not since it finally got quiet in here. Maybe I’ll stay for another drink.”
The bigger man grinned at him. “You’re pretty cocky for a little old fella that’s seen better days.”
“You’re pretty cocky yourself for a man that probably ain’t ever been in a real fight.”
Now the smaller dude stepped in front of his bigger friend. “Do you know who you’re talking to, friend? This is Jim Jackson. I’m his manager. He’s seventeen-and-one and in the running for the cruiserweight crown. Two nights from now he’s fighting the number one contender.”
“I don’t give a shit if he’s the Sultan of Araby. It don’t give him the right to crow like a rooster while I’m tryin’ to have a peaceful drink.”
Jim Jackson said “Excuse me, Amos,” and pushed his manager out of his way. To George he said, “If you were anywhere near my size I’d shove those words right down your throat, old man.”
George smirked at him provocatively. “You might, if I fought by the Queensberry Rules. I don’t.”
Jackson adopted a smug expression and looked around at his friends. “I dare say I could whip you regardless of what rules you fight by.”
“Ain’t no rules in a real fight, son.”
Jackson spread his hands in a munificent gesture. “Fine. You fight any way you want, and I’ll stick to Queensberry Rules.” He looked around at his friends, a smirk on his face. “I promise not to hurt you bad.”
The bartender had been listening and finally leaned over the bar. “I don’t care how you do it, gents, but take it outside.”
George beckoned Jackson to take the lead, and followed him as they walked out of the bar. One of Jackson’s friends helped him off with his suit coat and took his hat as they walked.
Amos said, “I wish you wouldn’t do this, Jim. It looks bad, him being so much smaller than you.”
“He insulted me, Amos. I said I wouldn’t hurt him bad. Just enough to teach him some manners.”
By then they’d gone out through the back door, and found themselves in a small lot with a few parked cars. George took off his Stetson and gently laid it on the seat of the nearest Model T, which happened to be his. Then he dropped his pistol belt on the seat. No one noticed as he palmed a small penknife from his pocket and wrapped his right fist around it. A roll of dimes would have lent more power to his punches, but the penknife was handy. He turned around. Jackson stood a few feet away, grinning and puffing out his chest with fists clenched at his waist to best display his manly physique to his admirers.
“Whenever you’re ready,” Jackson said.
George walked right up to him, saying “We agreed there ain’t no rules for me, right?” as he simultaneously drove his right fist into Jackson’s nose. He’d meant to break it, but it hadn’t felt as though he had, although a satisfying gush of blood did result. Surprised, Jackson recoiled, even as George was already throwing his left fist into Jackson’s right eye and dancing back out of danger. The crowd roared at Jackson to kill George.
Jackson shook his head, throwing blood from his nostrils. He recovered quickly, his anger instantly flaring, just as George intended. An angry, wounded man throws caution to the wind and only thinks about smashing his opponent. As hoped, Jackson rushed at George, who slipped under the big right fist that came toward his head. He pivoted off to Jackson’s left and slammed his right fist into Jackson’s left kidney, then kicked him in the back of his knee.
Jackson almost went down when his knee gave way, but managed to stagger forward two steps to avoid a blow aimed at his other kidney. He stopped and swung around clockwise as he threw out his right arm like a backward hammer blow, hoping to catch George bearing down on him. George had anticipated the move and remained out of range as the arm swished by his face. Jackson was left facing him, off balance and open to the punches that connected with his right eye and chin before George skipped out of range. “Murder the little bastard!” someone yelled.
The pain in his kidney and nose were quickly tempering Jackson’s anger. Kidney pain is severe and causes involuntary flinching. He had to be cautious to buy time to recover. He went into a defensive stance. His eyes had begun to swell and blood ran down his face, spattering his clean, white shirt.
George knew he couldn’t penetrate the bigger man’s defensive stance, and waited for Jackson to come at him. Jackson wanted to rest a moment for the kidney pain to subside, but the crowd, incensed, was goading him into action. He knew the shame that would follow if he couldn’t dispatch the smaller man quickly.
Wincing with each step, he went flatfooted at George, who skipped away. Jackson was forced to follow, which kept the pain in his kidney alive. George stopped suddenly and feinted with his left at his advancing opponent. Jackson’s right arm came up to shield his face. George’s right came in under it with a blow to Jackson’s neck that might have crushed his trachea if George had been a bigger man, but still wobbled him. George weaved away from the straight left that came at his head and danced out of range again. He was enjoying this, and it showed on his face. The crowd was screaming wildly. Jackson hadn’t connected yet with a single blow.
George knew his luck wouldn’t hold forever. He resisted the temptation to end this fight with a solid kick to Jackson’s groin as the big man advanced again. He was afraid the crowd would mob him despite Jackson’s allowance that he could fight any way he wanted. Instead, he slipped every jab and roundhouse that came at him, contorting his upper body, bobbing, weaving, and dancing while sharpshooting Jackson’s head. He kept one shoulder or the other toward the big man to present as small a target as possible. Big men rarely know how hard it is to hit a small fighter who knows how to use his size to his advantage. But now the crowd was tightening its circle, limiting George’s ability to stay out of Jackson’s range.
George was backpedaling when one of Jackson’s fans came in from behind and shoved him hard. He staggered off balance toward Jackson. Jackson had seen the shove coming and was ready with a vicious right hand that glanced off George’s skull and would have knocked him out if George hadn’t managed to bob his head slightly as he stumbled forward. George took the second punch of a combination like the kick of a mule on his shoulder. The final blow had lost momentum but landed on the side of his head and sent him sprawling to his knees. The crowd opened up again, thinking that now Jackson would finish it.
But Jackson, still slowed by kidney pain, wasn’t fast enough. George scrambled to his feet and used the new-found space to stay out of reach while his head cleared. From then on George had to split his attention between watching the crowd and fighting Jackson, for fear someone might grab him and hold him for Jackson to maul.
There was no bell to end rounds, no time limit on the fight. George aimed to wear Jackson down with many blows and avoid being hit. Jackson had the power, but George had fast hands and fast reactions. Jackson was absorbing multiple left jabs and solid rights to his eyes and nose. George wondered, however, if he could ever knock Jackson out. Even when Jackson’s face was beginning to look like ground meat, he still had legs under him. Unless George could get a couple more good kidney punches in, Jackson could last a while. But Jackson was not about to let George get behind him again.
George continued to pepper Jackson’s head with blows, trying to make the eyes swell shut. The crowd pulled in tighter. The minutes wore on as Jackson tried to land something, anything, on George. All he managed to score were a few ineffective blows to the smaller man’s work-toughened shoulders and upper body. It was like slugging a pine knot. George’s head seemed never to remain where it had been when Jackson’s blow was aimed at it.
George was encouraged when the big man began having trouble seeing him due to the swelling of his eyes and the cuts in his eyebrows that were leaking blood into his eyes. George’s flurries of jabs had done their work. It’s a cakewalk now, George thought, if I don’t get mobbed.
“Stand still, you little sonofabitch!” Jackson screamed, flailing his arms. George responded by circling around and working Jackson’s sore kidneys, but he was too close and moving too fast to put much power in the punches. Jackson swung around to his right, his big fist narrowly missing George’s head. Completing a half circle, Jackson stepped forward, threw out his left fist, and brushed the side of George’s head as he backpedaled. Though George was unfazed, the crowd roared support for Jackson.
Jackson was staggering like a drunk, too blind to follow George’s movements. The crowd was yelling directions to Jackson, but George would not stay put. His blows to Jackson’s face made squishing sounds before he slipped away from Jackson’s blind counter-punches. The crowd went quiet and mean. The men were closing in to help Jackson out. If the circle narrowed enough, George would be finished. The man would maul him, and the crowd would probably help.
George felt fear creeping in. He hadn’t bargained on this. He watched Jackson pawing the air for a few seconds. The man was stone blind. George could easily walk behind him, kick his legs out from under him, and finish it. But the crowd would kill him. He had to act, and quickly. Devil take the hindmost, he thought.
He suddenly turned away from Jackson and stepped toward the crowd. “I won’t hit a man who can’t defend himself,” he announced.
He made as if to cut through the crowd. Several men blocked his way.
“What’s happening? What’s goin’ on?” Jackson asked the air.
“You ain’t done yet,” one man said, and shoved George back toward Jackson.
Out of nowhere Amos appeared and cut between them.
“Yes, he is. He’s right.”
“Whaddya mean, Amos? This ain’t over,” Jackson bawled.
With the crowd howling in protest, Amos said, “I’m his manager, and I decide. Jim’s done for tonight. He can barely see, and he can’t defend himself. I won’t have him hurt any more.”
That suit George. Even as Jackson was saying, “Lemme finish him, Amos,” George knew he was playing to the crowd to save what was left of his dignity.
George decided to get going while the going was good. “You heard the man,” he said. “His manager says he’s done.” He pushed through the crowd. A couple of men tried to hold him back, but most were busy trying to get Amos to let Jackson continue.
George figured it would be only seconds before the crowd reacted to his departure. He wasted no time walking to his car and slipping the penknife back into his pocket. He put on his hat and strapped his pistol belt back on. He hadn’t even finished before angry spectators began moving toward him, angrily yelling insults at him, calling him a cheater and worse. George put his hand on his pistol grip. He wished he’d ridden in on a horse, which wouldn’t have needed to be cranked before it would move and would put him above the crowd. The cold anger that had fueled him had subsided. He didn’t want to shoot anyone.
He was feeling ridiculous, leaning into the car, trying to set his spark and fuel levers with one hand still on his gun as Jackson’s fans moved in on him. They weren’t going to let him go. He remained grimly silent. Several men were getting too close for comfort. He turned toward them and pulled his gun halfway out.
“That’s close enough,” he said.
Amos suddenly pushed between the men in front and turned to face them. He held up his hands for silence.
When the crowd settled a little, he said, “Listen here, boys. Jim appreciates your support, but it’s time to quit before someone really gets hurt. He took a lickin’ because he offered to play by the rules when the other fellow didn’t have to, and he was man enough to keep his word. You may not like it, but it’s what he agreed to. He’s learned a lesson, and he won’t fight again until the rules are the same for everybody. He’s all right, just bruised a bit, so let’s all just go home now.” The crowd grumbled, but they’d lost momentum. “Go on now,” Amos said.
Amos stood watching as the crowd broke up, a few patting Jackson’s back in passing as he stood wiping blood from his face with a handkerchief. George relaxed his grip on his pistol. With both hands free, he set the spark and fuel levers, and was turning to go up front and crank it when Amos and walked over to him.
“Those boys wanted your blood,” he said.
“They’d have changed their minds once they saw how much it would cost.”
Amos smiled. “I guess we’ll never know.”
“I reckon I appreciate you steppin’ in that way.”
“Well, Jim didn’t need the publicity that he’d sure have gotten if you’d had to use that thing,” Amos said, indicating George’s pistol. “Bad enough he got his ass whipped by a fellow your size. The world don’t need to know.”
“You sayin’ if it hadn’t been for that you wouldn’t’ve stepped in?”
“No, just sayin’ it was best for everybody that I did. “Let me give you a hand.” Amos went to the front of the Model T. “You know you cost me a few hundred dollars tonight, don’t you?”
George climbed into the driver’s seat. “Why’s that?” He was watching out of the corner of his eye as Jackson and the last of his fans departed.
Amos cranked, but the engine didn’t catch. He stood back and looked up at George. “He’ll be pissing blood for three days and his eyes won’t heal in time. He won’t be fighting anyone else this week. I would’ve gotten a cut of the gate.”
“I regret that.”
Amos cranked again. The engine sputtered to life. He walked back to the driver’s door as George set the spark and fuel levers. “Jim stands to lose a lot more. Bet you don’t regret that.”
“No sir, I don’t.”
“Too bad I didn’t see you fight back when you were twenty. You could’ve been a lightweight contender.”
George grinned. “You think it’s too late?” Then he tipped his hat, put the Ford in gear, and drove away while Amos stood there chuckling.
When cotton picking season ended in the spring, George and the boys packed up the two Fords. They set off for Phoenix, where Rose had rented a house on 7th St. and Camelback near her folks’ place. He found that, despite her promise to rent a proper ranch, it was covered with orange and almond groves, completely unsuitable for cattle raising.
He was dumbfounded. “God damn it, Rose, this ain’t cattle property, an’ I ain’t no fruit farmer. I don’t know a damned thing about trees. Now what am I supposed to do?”
“It was the best place I could find in a hurry, George,” she said. She was folding clothes and didn’t want to look at him.
“Ya mean it was the closest place ta yer folks’ house, don’tcha? Why the hell d’ya go outa yer way ta cozy up ta them, when they didn’t visit ya once all the time we was in New Mexico?”
“Maybe that was because they couldn’t stand to watch you mistreat your own children like you did Billie. You’re awfully hard on those children. They deserve better from you.”
George stepped in and put his hand on hers to stop her folding the clothes and make her look at him. “What about you, Rose? D’ya think you deserve better from me? Do I mistreat you?”
She set her jaw stubbornly and stared him down. “Have you ever heard me complain? I work as hard as you and never expected to have an easy life. You took me with another man’s bastard child. I was in no position to ask for much. No, you don’t beat me and you don’t talk down to me. I just thought you’d be nicer to me and to him and to your own children.”
She pulled her hand away and continued folding. Their bitter arguing went on, and when it stopped it was replaced, as always, by silence.
George sent for his animals, while he and older boys went to work. They harvested all the fruit and nuts they could and sold it off before cutting down the trees. They split the wood, stacked it in cords, and sold it for firewood. Before long, Brownie was as big as his father, and Joe not far behind. The work made them all lean and well-muscled. They worked shirtless and turned brown above the waist, so that they looked comical when they bathed on Saturday night with their white butts and legs.
After most of the trees had been cut, George had Gunderson send the horses. When they arrived, they were hitched to a chain to pull the stumps of the trees. They also split those and sold them for firewood. The work took until the first week of June. By then George had learned that cotton was going for record prices, and decided to plant instead of raising cattle, at least for now. He kept three of the cattle for milking and sold the rest to buy seed and other things he’d need to raise cotton.
The first crop of cotton came in thick. They picked all winter, but that meant keeping the kids out of school for a second year. However, they made a hefty profit. In the early spring of 1920, after the picking was done, the owner of their house and land decided that since now the place was so profitable, he’d reclaim it and work it himself. George felt like shooting the bastard.
If he was to have crops to sell in the fall, George had to move fast. He hastily rented a farm at Camp Seven, ten miles west of Litchfield Park, and worked it through the fall. He raised summer crops of broccoli and cabbage instead of cotton because Rose insisted the children had to go back to school in the fall. The crops were small because the soil was too alkaline, and George decided there was no point in staying on there after the harvest was done.
With school already in session, they moved to Avondale and put the kids back in school. George planted winter crops of carrots, beets and turnips.
Brownie, who was sixteen by then, was tired of being dragged around the country and embarrassed at being so far behind the other kids his age. He refused to go to school, and instead took a job where he could learn to become a lathe operator and have some kind of future. With his first check, he moved to a boardinghouse a few miles away.
Joe stuck it out for the rest of the school year, but when school let out in the spring of 1921, he got a job swamping freight cars and left home too. He was fifteen, and had just completed eighth grade. He took a room in the same boardinghouse as Brownie. It was the first time in their lives they’d had rooms to themselves. They would spend most of their days off at their parents’ home, playing with the younger kids, helping around the place, and eating their mother’s cooking. Dallas was just two, but he was a pistol, George said, and became his favorite next to Kitty.
George didn’t get along with the landlord of the Avondale place, who kept coming around, trying to tell George how to raise crops. In the early spring of 1922, after he’d harvested the winter crops, he told the landlord that if he was such a good farmer, he could have the place back and grow his own.
George wanted to resume his love affair with cattle ranching. Now that the troops were home, the price of beef was creeping up from the low it had hit after the armistice was signed. “I’m no damned sodbuster,” he’d say to Rose when she asked why they didn’t stick with cash crops or cotton as long as the price held. “Beef is on its way up again. Them doughboys are settlin’ down and havin’ families. They’re gonna need meat, and lots of it. Besides, I got a deal too good to pass up.”
George had stumbled upon a fenced eighty-acre ranch halfway between Liberty and Buckeye already planted in alfalfa and stocked with about sixty Herefords. The rancher had broken his back, had no sons, and would never be able to sit a horse again. Desperately in need of cash, he was forced to sell out. George got the herd at a rock-bottom price, but it took nearly all he had or could borrow. He struck a deal to rent the house and land. The rent was a little steep, but the house was in decent shape, and finding land already planted in alfalfa was pure luck, worth every penny. Better yet, Rose was happy because the place was near a school.
As summer was turning into fall, the herd was looking good, fat and with plenty of healthy calves. In September, the price of beef slid down again. There was simply no predicting the goddamned market. Here he was, going on 56 years old, and still busting his ass to make a living. The frustration was enough to make a man weep. If things didn’t turn around by next spring, he’d be planting cotton again instead of alfalfa.
Most of the time George was in a foul mood and would take no kidding about it from anyone, except occasionally from Kitty. Kitty had turned fourteen in March of 1922. She was a slight girl, lightly freckled, and a bit of a tomboy, though pretty enough when she wanted to be. She’d inherited both her parents’ love of horses and spent as much time with them as she could. She rode them, groomed them, and fed them carrot tops and apples from the tree behind the house. She should have been born a boy but couldn’t change that. She’d have gladly done the same work as the boys if her parents hadn’t insisted she learn to cook and sew and help care for the younger children. Kitty knew she was the old man’s favorite. He talked to her more than to her mother or any of his other children. The boys had always said she had him wrapped around her little finger.
The day was hot and dry, the usual summer day in the Salt River Valley, the arid wind blowing just enough to dry your shirt if you stood in the shade a while. A week ago George had bought a two-year-old quarter horse at a good price, despite money being short, for no particular reason but that he wanted it. By the muscles of its hindquarters he’d known it would be a fast one. The only problem with this one, and the reason he’d gotten it cheap, was that it wasn’t much of a mind to be broken, but he knew that once it was, it would be a damned fine hoss. Trouble was, he was getting a little old, and his bones were too brittle for that kind of work if he could avoid it.
That job fell to Francis Joy, who was called Joy, at ten the oldest boy still at home since Scotty, Brownie and Joe had all flown the coop. Ted was barely six, and Dallas only three. Joe, who loved a good quarter horse like his dad and was good in the saddle, still lived nearby and might’ve done him the favor of breaking this one, but Joy had amused himself by calling the new horse “Bucky.” George felt maybe it was time he learn a lesson the hard way.
“That’s a good name for him,” George said. “And because you named him, you get to break him.”
George would never admit it to a living soul, but he was getting quite a kick out of watching Joy fly off Bucky and hit the dirt for about the fourth time. Joy had always been a momma’s boy. He sure didn’t get that sissy name from George, who had thrown up his hands when Rose insisted that’s what they should name him. He had to hand it to Joy, though. At least he’d busted a couple of noses when boys would kid him about it.
But now Joy was getting a little snot-nosed and whiny. His ass was sore from landing on it, and he was limping from coming down hard on one side.
Kitty, wearing an old white cotton school dress, had been watching through the kitchen window as Joy got thrown time after time. The poor kid was ready to burst into tears. It was no shame that he wasn’t man enough for a horse like Bucky. When she heard George say for the fifth or sixth time, “Git back up on that critter, Joy. Ya got ta show ‘im who’s boss,” she punched the bread she had been kneading, tore off her apron, and stormed out the back door to the corral, barely breaking stride as she threw open the gate.
She was on a mission, her bare feet kicking up dust, her face set in anger, her floury fists balled up like a man’s. By then, George had led Bucky over by the fence, and Joy was shakily climbing the fence to get back on while George held the reins in one hand.
George’s back was to the house. He never saw Kitty coming. Kitty held out her hands and steamed into him with her hands thrust out, knocking him off balance and leaving white handprints on the back of his shirt. He dropped the reins and stumbled away, nearly pitching face down into the dirt. Bucky recoiled. Grabbing the reins in one hand, Kitty ordered Joy, “Don’t you get on him.” She set her other hand on her hip and faced George down. Joy looked on, wincing as though he expected his father to knock her flat as he would have had one of the boys been in her place.
“What the hell…?” George sputtered while regaining his balance. He turned to her, his fist cocked. When he saw who it was, he relaxed his fist and said angrily, “That ain’t funny, Kitty.”
Kitty was livid with anger. “Neither is watching Joy get the stuffing knocked out of him. Why don’t you let him quit? Can’t you see he’s too little to break that horse?”
George clearly couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “First off, this ain’t yer business, missy. Second, size ain’t got nothin’ ta do with it.” He pointed at Joy as he walked toward her. “This boy’s got ta learn how ta…”
“He won’t learn anything if he gets his head kicked in, and Bucky’s just the one to do it! Joy isn’t big enough or experienced enough to handle him and you know it!”
George had advanced within striking distance of Kitty, and stuck his index finger under her nose. “Now you listen to me, Kitty. You’d best go back to the kitchen before I…”
“Before you what? Before you slap me down like you would one of the boys? Well you go ahead, mister. Show me what a big man you are.”
George lowered his finger, stuck his face close to hers, and said ominously, “Don’t you go tellin’ me how to raise my own boys, little girl. Now you do as I say.”
Kitty didn’t budge. Her little freckled face had lost none of the anger. “Oh, I reckon you know how to raise boys all right, if you call treating them like slaves raising them.”
George’s exasperation was evident. “What the hell’s got into you, Kitty?” He looked around as if the answer lay somewhere in the corral. “Yer soundin’ like yer mother when it’s her time o’ the month. By God, I got a ranch ta run. Everybody’s gotta pitch in. A few bruises never killed me an’ they won’t kill Joy. ”
Kitty would not relent. “Daddy, I can’t stand the way you do them any longer! You’re driving your boys away one by one as surely as if you’d taken after them with a bullwhip. And if you don’t start treating them like your own flesh and blood instead of a chain gang, I swear I’ll run off too.”
Flummoxed, George took off his Stetson and rubbed his head. “Is that some kinda threat?”
“Daddy, I promise you that if you make Joy get back on that devil, I will never speak to you again, and I will leave this house as soon as I can find someone who’ll give me room and board to be their housekeeper or a nanny to their babies. And I mean it.”
The set of her jaw reminded him that she could be as stubborn as he. He tried to stare her down, but she stared right back until he had to look away.
“Well, then, I reckon you oughta start askin’ around. This ain’t yer business.” With that, he jerked the reins from her hand and turned to Joy. “All right Joy, you’ve had a break. Now try’er again.”
Kitty was stunned. “Daddy?” She stood there, the tears starting to come. Joy, standing on a fence rail, his face showing his fear, swung his leg over and mounted Bucky. No sooner had he taken the reins than Bucky reared up, came down hard, went straight up from all fours, did a half twist, hit the ground and bucked Joy off, barely missing him with a kick as Joy hit the ground hard.
George shook his head in disgust. “I give up.” Leaving Kitty to see if Joy was all right, he led Bucky out of the corral and into the barn.
Rose was her usual taciturn self at the evening meal. Though barely into her forties, a hard life had hung extra years on her face. After twenty-two years of marriage, she and George rarely spoke more than everyday needs dictated. Their conversations seldom went farther than, “Better wash up for supper,” or “I’m fixin’ on goin’ ta town. Anythin’ you need?” Rose had never forgotten that George had treated Billie, now five years in the grave, even worse than he treated his own sons by her. She would sooner die herself than forgive him.
Kitty, however, usually chattered like two magpies fighting over a walnut, telling everyone about something cute little Dallas had done that day, or how she learned in school that everything—everything, mind you—is made up of things called atoms that are so small that even if you were as small as a germ and had a microscope they’d still be too small to see. (“How do they know that?” Beth would ask, and Kitty would condescendingly say “You’re too young to understand.”)
Today, though, her face was set like a statue, her mouth drawing a thin, straight line. She helped Rose serve without a word, spooning mashed potatoes on George’s plate so hard that flecks flew off and hit his shirt. The eyes of Beth, Joy, Ted and even little Dallas popped wide open. Ordinarily, this behavior would have earned Daddy’s pet at least a sharp rebuke and a threat that she wasn’t too old to spank, but tonight George’s reaction was oddly subdued. He merely grumbled something about slowing down before she missed someone’s plate altogether. The children wisely said nothing as George stared at his plate instead of instantly digging in as he usually did. Kitty dropped noisily into her chair and began picking at her food. Silence ensued as everyone else began eating, glancing now and then at Kitty or George. Everyone knew that George disapproved of talking at the table, and this was no time to test him.
Dallas, who was going on four, finally said. “Why’s Kitty mad?” Ted, the six-year-old, said, imitating his father, “Shut up an’ eat, Dal,” then giggled nervously and stuck a piece of bread into his mouth when George gave him a sharp look. Joy never spoke, just mechanically moved food from his plate into his mouth and drank his milk.
They were mostly finished eating by the time Kitty spoke. “If no one has any objection, I plan to ride Dobbs over to the Knudsen place tomorrow to ask whether they can use some help with the little ones in exchange for room and board and a little spending money.”
Rose set down her utensils, looking shocked. “Why, whatever in the world for?”
George didn’t look up from his plate.
“You know as well as I do,” Kitty answered, “that I have no way to go on to high school. Phoenix High School is too far and we can’t afford to board me there. I’m fourteen, and it’s just as well I start thinking about how to make my own way.”
George cleared his throat and wiped his mouth. “Well, honey, we still got plenty ta go around. We ain’t in the poorhouse yet.”
Kitty would not look at him, looking at her mother instead. “It’s not just that. They’re church-going people, and I’d go to church with them. I have to think about finding a husband someday. That’s the only way I’m likely to do it, since we don’t attend church and I won’t in school. So I might as well get on with it.”
Rose said, “Kitty, you’re still just a girl. You need to put on a couple of years and a few pounds before you go thinkin’ about marriage. Take it from me.” She glanced at George.
“I can tend the young ones, wash and clean as well as you, and cook near as well, Momma, and that’s what I’m suited for, so why don’t I just get started?”
“We’ll talk about this tomorrow. There’s things you need to know before you get to thinkin’ you’re all grown up.”
The rest of the meal passed in silence. As usual, the boys wolfed their food and then asked to be excused to do their chores. Neither George nor Kitty had eaten much. Rose finished her food and stood, saying, “Kitty, if you’re not going to eat what’s in front of you, get busy and help me with these dishes.”
Kitty obeyed. As she stood up, Beth said quickly, “If you’re leavin’, can I have your bed?”
“Hush now,” said Rose. “She’s not leavin’. Now finish eating and do your chores.”
The last sunlight of the day was turning the combs and wattles of the white leghorn hens in the yard a glowing red that made them seem to be aflame as they pecked at the dirt for the last bits of grain or a wandering sow bug. Two Australian shepherds were chasing each other and roughhousing in the dirt. Joy was in the barn, walking stiffly and seeing to the horses. The sun slanting in through the big door made the straw in the horses’ mouths shine like spun gold. Beth was in the henhouse primly collecting eggs in her apron. Joy was of the opinion that she’d been reading too much Dickens, notably The Old Curiosity Shop, which had drawn Beth into seeing herself as its main character, Little Nell. Beth and Joy were dreamy children, inclined to dawdle if they weren’t pushed. Rose was upstairs, getting Ted and Dallas ready for bed.
Kitty had hurried through finishing up the dishes, then sorting and covering pinto beans in water to soak overnight. She was now was in the upstairs bedroom she shared with Beth, reading a dog-eared copy of Little House on the Prairie as she leaned back on her pillow. Her knees were drawn up, holding the book. The window was open and a slight breeze ruffled the linen curtains the sun had turned orange. A single bare bulb swung in the breeze from a fat black wire over her bed, but she hadn’t bothered yet to turn it on.
She could hear George clumping up the stairs, and then he was leaning on the doorjamb looking down at her, a hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his mouth. She pretended not to notice.
“Kitty, can I talk to you?”
“I can’t stop you talking.”
George crossed the room and looked out the window, hands in pockets. “You ain’t really serious about movin’ out just ‘cuz I was a little harsh on Joy, are ya?”
Kitty didn’t look up. “I told you I would and I meant it.”
George flipped his cigarette out the window and turned back into the room. “Honey, it’s different for women. Can’tcha see that a man’s gotta learn he can never give an inch or the world’s gonna slap him down ever’ time?” He slapped the back of one hand down into the palm of the other to make his point.
She put her book down and swung her legs off the bed to face him, frowning, getting angry again, the speech already rehearsed in her mind a hundred times since the afternoon. “Daddy, Joy isn’t a man. He’s a ten-year-old boy. Oh, but he’s always tried to be a man, just like Scottie and Brownie and Joe did. And Billie too, I suppose. For you. For you!” She pointed at him for emphasis. “Because you’re his father, and he worships you. But what he does is never good enough for you.”
George tried to speak. She cut him off.
“Wait, Daddy. You need to hear this.” She was surprised when he clapped his mouth shut. “You never pat the boys on the back and tell them they gave it a good try, much less say they did a good job. You barely speak with them at all. You don’t care what they think or how they feel. You’re never even nice to them. And God forbid you should ever put your arm around their shoulders to show they mean more to you than your horses. Oh, no! Somebody might think the King of the Cowboys is getting soft. Finally they all get tired of trying to be the kind of sons you want and just go away.” She turned to look out the window. “I’m tired of watching you be mean to them Daddy, so I’m going away too.”
George hooked his thumbs in his belt and considered how to respond. “You don’t understand what it takes ta make a man, Kitty. I ain’t here ta be their pal. Coddlin’ ‘em don’t prepare ‘em for what life throws at ‘em. My job is ta see they’re ready for it when they leave home.”
She stood up, now really warming to her subject. “Daddy, you’re the one who doesn’t understand. Being nice to them isn’t coddling them. How can treating them like slaves make them better men? All it does is either break them or make them mean like you. Is that what you want? You treat your dogs better. At least you pet them now and again, and say “good boy” when they do something right. Just once could you tell those boys you’re proud of them? Or care what how they feel? Your sons are your own flesh and blood, just like me. You love me, don’t you?” He started to speak but she bore on. “Daddy, how can you not love them?”
He couldn’t look her in the eye, looking instead out the window at the setting sun as he softly replied, “Oh, I love ‘em right enough.”
Kitty resolutely crossed her arms as if to bar him from her heart. “Well, if you do, you’d best think of a way to show it if you don’t want to wind up a mean, lonesome old man who’s never met his grandchildren. I for one will be damned if I’ll bring you a boy child so you can try to turn him into a man before he’s old enough to shave!”
He turned to look at her then, and there were tears rolling down his cheeks. “Honey, don’t talk that way. I can’t stand ta hear you talk that way.”
She had promised herself that she wouldn’t cry, but now her heart melted. She had never seen him like this. She put her arms around him and laid her head on his chest, tears rolling down her cheeks now. “Oh, Daddy. Oh, Daddy. You’ve got to do better by those boys. Promise me you’ll do better.”
He put his arms around her and found he could not speak; could only nod his head for a long moment until he finally whispered, “I’ll try, Kitty. I will.”
They stood there like that until the room suddenly dimmed as the sun slipped out of sight. Then George sniffed, sighed, patted her back, and turned to go, but stopped at the door and looked back.
“Are you still…?
Kitty wrung her hands and looked at the floor. “I don’t know, Daddy. I don’t know.”
Utterly bereft, George looked this way and that, then nodded before walking softly away and down the stairs.
Kitty did not leave home for good, although she did begin working days, helping out with the housework and minding the children of a nice family living in a big house nearby. The man of the house was a doctor. He worked out of an office at his home. His wife helped him in his practice. They paid Kitty fair wages and made her feel like one of the family. She rode a mare over after she’d helped Rose with breakfast, took her other meals at the doctor’s home, and rode home after cleaning up after the evening meal.
By the early fall of 1923, George had come to the conclusion that all landlords are sons of bitches. Their current one had decided that since George was so comfortable in the place, he should raise the rent twenty percent. George was shocked that a virtually helpless cripple would stick his neck out so far. The rent was already too high, and he said so. The son of a bitch wouldn’t back down. George told him to go to hell; he didn’t mind moving. George derived a good deal of satisfaction when the place stayed vacant for a year and went to seed.
Moving turned out to be a good thing. He found an even better place for raising cattle and horses, and at a better price. He took a three-year lease on that parcel of land about three miles south of Chandler called the Frank Reid Sanders place. He uprooted the family once again, and moved his herd there. Now fifty-seven, he had only two boys left who were old enough to help work the place.
Despite his promise to Kitty, he hadn’t gotten much kinder to them, if at all. He had, however, persuaded Joe to finish breaking Bucky on one of his visits home, but only after Brownie kidded Joe that he didn’t have any balls if wouldn’t do it. Even Joe had a hard time of it, getting thrown twice before he managed to ride Bucky down. Since then, Bucky had become a damned fine cow horse.
There was a hell of a lot of work to be done if George was to get back on top before he was too old, and he meant to do just that. The boys might miss a lot of school, but he’d done all right without it, and so could they. They’d have to.
In the spring of 1924, just after Kitty turned sixteen, she was introduced by the doctor’s wife to Frank Wing, twelve years her senior. Frank had a crippled right hand and a decent job as a brake inspector for the railroad. Frank came calling and was not well received by either Rose or George because of Frank’s age (despite or perhaps because of their own age gap) and disability. At Kitty’s insistence, they allowed the relationship to continue, but with strict chaperoning.
Frank proposed to Kitty as the summer heat was becoming nearly unbearable. Kitty demurred; it was too soon, she said. Frank continued courting her. In November, he asked again, and this time she accepted. They were married in March of 1925.
Kitty’s departure put George in a sour mood. She didn’t come home often even though she lived only a few miles away. His constant surliness tipped Rose over the edge. She gave up on her marriage and told George she wanted a divorce, which he said was fine with him. Saying he didn’t care for the glare of the electric lights in the big house anyway, he let her stay in the big house with the kids. He built a little cabin on the far side of the property for himself. Rose allowed Beth to do most of his cooking and Ted to help around the farm, but would threaten to cut off their help if George was mean to them or overworked them. Their divorce was quickly finalized.
George made inquiries and learned that Julie still lived in Austin, had married and divorced without ever having children. They struck up a correspondence. In 1926 Julie moved to Phoenix and rented a place near George’s property. They saw each other often, frequently spending nights together, but they never discussed marriage or even living together. She was not easy to get along with. Childlessness had turned her into a cantankerous woman looking older than her years who frightened the children by poking at them with a corncob pipe she smoked constantly while warning them to leave her alone or she’d get after them. She wore old-fashioned ankle-length cotton dresses and never came out of her house without a sun bonnet that kept her face in shadow. She had given up riding years before. No one understood what George and Julie saw in each other, unless it was their devotion to tobacco and alcohol. Both drank straight whiskey chased with beer, smoked and chewed tobacco, and dipped snuff.
Meanwhile, Rose and George continued a relationship that was a bit more cordial than it had been before they separated, and even slept together occasionally. Living without George seemed to suit Rose. Her twenty-five years of marriage to him had left her personality more like his than she would ever admit, even to herself.
Over the years, George ran fewer and fewer cattle for beef, instead raising dairy cows. Every couple of years one of his remaining children left home, until finally, in 1935, his youngest, Dallas, moved out and went to work on a road crew. The Phoenix area was growing rapidly and the land required for cattle was growing more expensive to rent. With fewer cattle to graze, he eventually sublet most of his land to a cotton farmer.
Over the course of the 1930’s, he settled into a small dairy-farm operation. He would milk the cows each day and collect their milk into five-gallon galvanized metal cans, which he would then take, unrefrigerated, to a local dairy in the bed of a 1922 Ford pickup he’d bought for ranch use.
George developed a case of pyorrhea in the early 1930’s, but delayed seeing a dentist until it had become acute. At that time, the less-reputable dentists often recommended extraction of all remaining teeth as the only sure cure. George’s teeth were not in the best of shape anyway, and he had nearly constant pain from cavities left untreated, so he went with the drastic treatment and had full plates made. Once his gums had healed, he found that being free of dental pain markedly improved his mood. He wore his ill-fitting dentures only to eat or on “dates” with one of the women in his life.
As his grandchildren began appearing occasionally on his property, George surprised everyone by expressing a delight in their company that he had never shown his own children. He began keeping hard candies to give them, over their parents’ protests, and roughhousing with them, girls and boys alike.
In her late fifties, Rose abandoned the big house and went to live with her newly-widowed sister, who still lived in Phoenix. George moved back into the big house. Now that his eyes were getting bad, he found that the electric bulbs didn’t bother him so much anymore. Julie by then had exhausted her finances and accepted George’s offer to move into the little shack George had vacated. She spent most of her days rocking on the porch and smoking her corncob pipe.
For the next fifteen years, George stayed put. He spent most days plowing eight acres with a plow pulled by a big mule to raise alfalfa for his dairy cows. He loved the fragrance of the blossoms. He hated cooking for himself, and lived on a diet of figs from the ancient tree beside the house, peanut butter mixed with honey from a hive on his property, and a disgusting blend of greens and raw beef that he put through a hand grinder and washed down with fresh, warm buttermilk. Each evening he had a glass of whiskey and a good chew while smoking a Camel cigarette.
Now nearly bald, he began applying iodine to his head and covering it with a piece of old silk hosiery, knotted at the top, in the belief acquired many years before that this prevented headaches. Since he had had only a few headaches in his life not associated with alcohol or illness, his motivation was obscure.
He never quit working for even a day. Idleness wasn’t in him. After he passed eighty, though, he’d quit a little earlier and sit a while on his porch in an old straight-backed wooden rocking chair, smoking and staring out over his eight acres. Sometimes Julie would join him, or he would join her. He didn’t think much about the past. He often thought of the life he’d made for himself. Despite all the hard times, it seemed like a good one to him.
Even when he was nearing the end of his life, the fear remained with him that someone, perhaps Peter Knight, or a relative of one of the rustlers or Apaches he’d killed in cold blood, was still gunning for him. From the time Peter Knight had tried to kill him until he day his lifeless body was carried out on stretcher, he never left his house without his Winchester lever-action in his hand. It was propped against the wall by his bed the morning Julie found him lying there, his mouth open, his false teeth in a glass of water on the nightstand.
My parents were living in Phoenix when I was born the fourth of four children, fifteen months behind my only brother. My sisters were nine and eleven. We were renting a house near my grandfather’s farm. I was born on his seventy-ninth birthday. This happy accident immediately made me his favorite grandchild.
Joe, my dad, hadn’t worked in a long time. He was fixing up an old house trailer so we’d have a place to live after the money ran out and we’d have to leave our rented house. When I was a few months old, he packed us all into the trailer and moved us to El Centro, California, where he had been promised a job. It didn’t last long. Nine months later we moved back to Phoenix. We rented a space for our little house trailer at Cunningham Court on Buckeye Road near Grandpa’s place. All I remember of the trailer is my mother bathing me in the kitchen sink while I watched red-and-white gingham curtains blowing above me in the breeze.
My first memory involving my grandfather is set on the screened back porch of his house, where he kept five-gallon galvanized cans for the milk he sold to local dairies. I was between fifteen and eighteen months old. The cans were about my height. I was carrying a baby doll half my size that, years later, my mother told me I carried everywhere. I was running in that unbalanced way infants do when I ran headlong into a full can of milk, bumping my head hard and splitting the doll’s head open. I remember that I was wailing, both from the bump on my head and believing that the doll must be “dead” because her head was cracked down the middle. That’s where my memory ceases, but I can imagine the scene:
George followed the sound of crying and found Larry, the baby, standing by a milk can rubbing his head and bawling pitifully, and knew he must have run into it. The boy would rather run than walk. The doll’s head was split wide open. George bent down and picked the boy up, which stopped his crying for a moment, but then the boy looked at his doll’s head. His eyes went wide, he dropped the doll as if it frightened him, and started up crying again at a higher volume.
George decided that the doll meant entirely too much to the boy. He bounced the boy gently and said, “C’mon now. It cain’t be all that bad.”
Just then Larry’s mother, Gertrude, ran in from the front porch and said, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong is he was carryin’ that damned doll when he ran into a milk can. He’s all right.”
Gertrude held out her arms to take the boy, but he clung to his grandfather.
“What the hell’s he doin’ draggin’ around a doll anyways? Next thing ya know he’ll be wearin’ a skirt!”
Stung by the gibe and feeling useless, Gertrude leaned on a door jamb and said, “He loves that thing. I don’t know why.”
“Well he don’t love it now. Once he saw that head split open, he dropped it like a hot potato.” By then the baby had stopped crying and was sniffling. George said to him, “C’mon, boy. We’ll go out back an’ I’ll show you how to piss like a man so you can get out of those goddamned sissy diapers.”
George pushed open the screen door and disappeared down the steps with Larry on his shoulder.
There was a heavy wool blanket on his bed, a deep red one with a jagged black stripe at each end. It was permeated with the smells of him and his women that had collected on it for half a century or more. It was one of the few things that wound up in my father’s hands after the old man died. For many years after, I saw my grandfather’s face every time I smelled it, and always wished I’d inherited it when my father died. I don’t know what became of it.
To his grandchildren, at least to my brother and myself, my grandfather was nothing like the unyielding tyrant my father and his brothers described. He seems to cackle toothlessly in my every memory of him, bouncing us off the huge rolls of chicken wire he kept, or holding up a quarter at shoulder level that we had to jump for until he finally relented and lowered his arm enough for us to grab it, or squirting us with milk directly from the udder as he gave us milking lessons. While I sat on his milking stool, with the unexpectedly firm feel of the cow’s warm nipples in my hands, Grandpa would say, “No, you got to really yank it! Them calves ain’t gentle on it. Yank it!”
When I was three, my father moved us to Yuma, where he had taken a job at Yuma Air Base. We saw my grandfather only a few times after that.
On a Sunday a few months before his death, my brother and I were in the back seat of my father’s 1940 Ford coupe, dressed in our matching Sunday shirts and pants as my father turned into Grandpa’s driveway. John and I were always ecstatic to see him, because it always meant, in addition to the great pleasure of his company, a quarter for each of us. In those days two bits would buy a six-pack of Coke or five huge candy bars or two water pistols and a candy bar.
The flathead V8 of my father’s car made a distinctive bass note that alerted Grandpa of our arrival. As we got near the house, he stepped out of his door onto the elevated porch, all 125 pounds of him in his stocking cap, sinewy and full of piss and vinegar, as my father would say, holding his Winchester rifle. He was dressed in his usual attire of bib overalls without another stitch of clothing except clodhopper boots. (My mother told me once that when he bent over, the bib part of the overalls was so loose you could see all the way down to his dangling member. She claimed he was well aware of this, and that he thought it was funny to embarrass her half to death. She thought Joe should have said something to his father, but it amused him too.)
I remember being in the backseat behind my mother, frantic to see Grandpa and get my quarter. When Dad stopped the car about thirty feet away from the porch, I was already pushing at Mom’s seatback to be let out of the car. Such behavior would have rated a slap from my father. All Mother did was say, as she bent over to let the seat fold forward, “All right, all right! Let me get the door open!”
As soon as it opened, I flew out of the car, my brother right behind me. After two strides, I skidded to a stop, my brother bumping into me from behind, to avoid running over a large snake, black with white speckles, crawling slowly along in the dirt at a right angle to our path. My mother had already closed her door so that she could fix her hair before getting out. John and I scrambled back onto the running board in our fright, holding on to the window ledge, pointing and yelling “Snake!”
Grandpa erupted in his cackling laugh. We could not yet distinguish between a rattler and a harmless king snake, which this snake happened to be. Ranchers generally tolerate king snakes because they eat baby rattlers. They also love eggs, and once they find a steady supply, they become pests. This one was coming from the henhouse with an egg making a huge bulge in its midsection and slowing it down considerably in its slithering. The “egg” turned out to be a darning egg meant to be put inside a sock while one darns the holes in the sock. Darning eggs were often used by farmers to replace a real egg under a chicken in order to catch thieving snakes such as this one.
The chicken is too stupid to know the difference, and so is the snake. The snake frightens off the chicken, swallows the egg whole, and expects its muscular ribs to crush the egg so it can make a quick escape. The farmer is alerted by the squawking of the chickens and investigates. Of course, the darning egg is not crushed, but instead gives the snake a terrible stomach ache. The wooden egg in its gut also slows the snake considerably and makes it far easier to catch. It is then killed, usually with a hatchet stroke. If the farmer doesn’t catch and kill the snake, he will probably never recover the darning egg, which will make his wife very unhappy, even though the snake dies either way.
In this case, George had no hatchet. He did have his Winchester lever-action rifle in his right hand. Still laughing, he nonchalantly snapped his rifle toward the snake as if he were pointing with a cane. The rifle cracked and the snake’s head simultaneously exploded in a cloud of blood, shredded flesh, and bone. If we had blinked, we’d have missed the whole show.
My grandfather cackled even more heartily at the expressions on our faces as drops of blood and pieces of the snakes head plopped into the dirt. It was the most amazing demonstration of shooting skill I had ever seen, or ever would, and it came from a toothless, bald octogenarian in baggy overalls with a silk stocking over his iodine-covered head. My brother and I stared in awe, speechless until we could draw out the word, “Wow!” in unison. Our quarters were forgotten until Grandpa finally leaned his rifle on the porch rail, clomped down the steps, and drew them out of his pocket, grinning, as though nothing had happened. In the face of all that money, the snake was forgotten as we jumped to grab our prizes.
My father and mother got out of the car, and walking into the house, my father said, “That reminds me, Gertrude, I’ve got a couple of socks that need darning. Would you mind cuttin’ that wooden egg outa the snake?” My mother shuddered and made that low, whinnying sound that usually goes along with a shudder, and my father chuckled all the way into the house.
That day, or perhaps some other, George took my brother and me aside. From the bureau in his bedroom he drew out the little carved figure of the man in the barrel that had so amused the Indian boys so long ago. We were just as amused. He warned us not to tell my mother about it.
George died on April 5, 1950, two days after my father’s forty-fourth birthday. The evening before, George had gone out to the chicken coop, looking to find an egg or two for dinner. Apparently he forgot what he’d known all his life and taught all his children: never reach under a sitting chicken for her egg. As he did just that, a little brown scorpion struck his middle finger.
He jerked his hand back instinctively, sending the chicken flapping and squawking, and yelled “Damn!” He did his best to squeeze and suck out some of the venom, but got little. The scorpion was still in the nest, its tail curled for another strike. George used a piece of straw to flip the scorpion out of the nest and onto the floor, where he stomped it and ground it into a grease spot, saying “What’s the matter, you dirty little bastard. Don’tcha like leather?”
He got the rest of his eggs a little more cautiously, shaking his hand as if the pain might fly off into space, but ignored the swelling that was already beginning. He’d been struck a few times before, back when he was sleeping on the ground and making a warm spot scorpions love to find on a cool night. Besides being sore as a boil for a few days, the strikes didn’t amount to much.
But that was thirty years ago or more. His heart was younger then. The pain was worse this time, but George wasn’t one to go whining to a doctor. He ate the eggs with his dinner and went to bed. Sometime in the night his heart stopped. Julie found him the next day when she came over looking for coffee. No one was sure whether he’d died before midnight, thus his date of death went down for that morning, April 5, 1950.
Before George was in the ground, someone looted George’s unlocked house, taking his guns, his sturdy, handmade furniture, his 1938 Packard that was rarely driven, whatever cash he had on hand, and everything else of value except that smelly old blanket that was my father’s only inheritance. My father always told me he was sure Ted and Joy, both of whom were alcoholic ne’er-do-wells, were the culprits, but there was no proof.
Few details of Grandpa’s funeral remain with me. He lay in state in some mortuary. Rose and all her children, my aunts and uncles, were there. I only know that because they all posed for a picture later, my father’s head looking over the shoulders of his sisters. I don’t recall whether Julie, or anyone else outside the family, came.
A phonograph played “You’ll Never Walk Alone” through a big speaker on the wall as the viewing commenced. My father held me under the arms and raised me up so that I could see my beloved Grandpa, wearing his black suit and his dentures, in his casket. Having his dentures in place filled out his face and made him look like a younger man I’d never known. “Is he asleep?” I asked.
My mother, standing beside us, said, “No, honey. He’s gone to heaven now.”
She put me back down on the floor. The thought for some reason made me grouchy. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, even after everyone had gone to Rose’s sister’s house and eaten cold ham and potato salad, and told stories about Grandpa and said good-bye, promising to have a real reunion soon that they never would.
In the backseat of our Ford on the way home, I finally decided that, judging from what I‘d heard of it, heaven would bore Grandpa so much he’d rather go to hell anyway.
George E. Scott
Mary Rose Ann Green
Mary Rose Ann Green with sister, Minerva
Clockwise from top: Scotty, Joe, Kit and Brownie,
Clockwise from top: Joe, Beth, Ted, Joy, Kitty
George E. Scott, with Joe’s wife, Trudy
Rose Green Scott with unknown babies
Top: Joe, Ted, Kitty, Beth, Scotty, Rose, Joy;
Bottom: Brownie, Dallas
On or about April 10, 1950
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