Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Paradise Lost

Richard and I were crawling along, inch by inch. Our hands and knees stirred up small puffs of fine dust that hovered in the stillness as we trailed the wounded buck. We blinked sweat from our eyes and felt it mix with dry, alkaline soil to paste our shirts, clammy and pungent, to the skin of our backs. Typical of mid-November weather in the Brush Country of deep South Texas, it could be hot as the gates to Hades one minute and freezing under the grip of a howling blue norther the next.

Flies worked at us with infinite patience, seeming to know that we were unable to swat them for fear of spooking the deer to whose spoor we clung so desperately. The undergrowth was thick, with rolling swells of hills covered in granheno, coyotillo, blackbrush, huisache and mesquite. Huge towering flats of prickly pear liberally covered the countryside. The cactus would rise six to eight feet in height, forming impenetrable barriers which one simply had to go around.

Blood sign became less frequent as the once-steady stream had tapered off to an occasional drop or a rare smear on a branch of the heavy brush. We were no longer able to stand, as thorn shrouded boughs bore down heavily on us from above. The path was difficult for an animal on all fours and impassable for an upright man. Wounded bucks usually head for the thickest, heaviest cover they can find, and this one was no exception.

Two blue quail darted across the path directly in front of us, disappearing into the maze of dried grass and brush. The air filled with the sound of beating wings as the rest of the covey flushed around us. I slowly released the breath that had caught in my throat.

Richard had assured me that this had been a tremendous buck. It had moved by so quickly and had been so big that he felt compelled to take a shot, rushed though it was. He had been certain of "hitting him hard," and knowing Richard I was sure it was so. He had seen many good bucks, and as he sat in the sendero describing this one with "horns everywhere," it became obvious that we would be tracking a very special animal.

At this point in our lives Richard Smith and I were 17 years of age. Our families had been close friends as far back as our memories reached. We had grown up together in the Brush Country of southern Jim Wells County in Texas. Our two families as well as four others now shared this hunting lease which sprawled over the boundaries of Webb and Zapata counties, reaching to the Mexican border.

Deer were not as numerous here as in some other areas of the state, but they were very heavy horned and large bodied. The ranch had a large javelina population along with a healthy sprinkling of bobcats and coyotes. At one point, we even had a pair of Mexican or mountain lions working the area. I became obsessed with getting a crack at one, but that notion dissolved when one screamed near where I was hunting.
I could only describe it as the cry of a woman terrified of losing her immortal soul. My own hide became a major concern at that point, and I immediately gave up all thoughts of stalking one of the big cats.

As boys, we all loved the joy to be experienced in hunting and fishing. When we were not actually involved in one of these pastimes, plans were being made for the next outing. Characters like Richard, Todo, Wayne, Charly, Clyde, Forrest, Rocky and others were always up to something. For now, it was just Richard and me.

Like exploding bellows in an old blacksmith's shop, a roar of sound erupted around and over us! The hair on the back of my neck went straight up. About 20 feet up the trail, a huge diamondback reared its ugly, angular head. It issued an enraged challenge to our right to share the same ground. The snake was big--and mad. Its slowly moving head--the size of a man's fist--and deadly myopic stare froze us completely. Its tongue flicked rapidly in and out of its venomous mouth. Its rattles were a shadowed blur of motion. The sharp, diamond etched pattern appeared on its skin as a greenish grey warning that was both brutal and direct.

I quickly backed into Richard's lap, and the two of us retreated together from that point. The snake crept slightly forward before recoiling and resuming its coil and ugly display of temper. Wits were slow to return, so great were our shock and the taste of fear in our mouths. I hastily pulled a 22-caliber pistol from the holster on my belt. I spewed hollow points in his direction until the eleven-shot clip was empty. The first two or three rounds ended the threat. The rest exorcised the surprise and fear he created in us. It had seventeen rattles to the point where they were worn or broken off.

The narrow path ahead grew more difficult, and we finally lost all sign of the buck's passing. Backtrailing and careful scanning bore no fruit, and with great regret, we gave him up for lost. Only someone who has endured this experience can know what a truly sad feeling this is. Losing an animal under such circumstances places a tragic sense of loss and waste in the heart of any hunter.

We finally broke free of heavy underbrush, emerging into the open sendero where Dad's old Ford pickup was parked. Rifles were unloaded, and we began the slow drive over swells, down ravines with a scramble back up the steep side and around rolling hills as we moved back toward camp. The various parts of that old truck groaned, cracked and squeaked every inch of the way.

Pulling through the main gate, we passed the ancient set of sun-bleached, stacked post working pens flanked by a squawking windmill pouring clear, sweet water into an aged concrete cistern. The cloud of dust churned up by our wheels and billowing into the air behind us caught up and rolled over us as we braked to a stop, adding to the already impressive layer of dirt coating us and the vehicle. We stepped out of and around the truck, slapping dust from ourselves and each other as we moved toward the house.

The smell of frying meat hung in the air just outside the house. Grinning, we elbowed each other through the closest of the five doors that granted access to the camp house. Richard's mother, Faye, shouted a greeting as we made our way to the stove top. We each snagged a plate from the stack on the corner of the dining table and heaped it with pinto beans, camp fried potatoes and deep fried venison backstrap. A generous blanket of mother Faye's thick, rich cream gravy covered everything on both plates. Dessert was Teresa Kelso's chocolate cake--she always seemed to have one in camp.

Dad asked what had kept us so long, and we related the morning's events. We ended the storytelling by dropping the rattles from the snake on the kitchen table. This act would have seen me banished from the dining room at home, but was perfectly natural here. Why couldn't we really live in hunting camp...?

Dad, T.C."Sleepy" Fine, Tommy Kelso and Richard's father "Smitty" were well into their next game of 42 as we finished lunch. I noticed Alston Brown with his chair leaned back into the wall in a corner. He was fast asleep with his characteristic "chaw" of tocacco in his cheek. Richard and I slipped out into the early afternoon heat, leaving the sounds of laughter and the clatter of dominoes behind us.

Clear, cool water from the concrete cistern by the stacked pens washed away the morning's grime and left us fresh and invigorated. We washed and wrung out our shirts, then draped them over the side of the old corrals to dry in the warmth of the mid-day breeze. We stretched out in the shade of a big mesquite and watched a solitary buzzard ride the updrafts with no visible effort of any kind. How the heck could it do that? Those fresh shirts were a luxury after the sun had dried us. A thin line of blue-grey clouds could be seen far away in the distant north. Richard looked at me with arched eyebrows at the sight.

As we re-entered the cabin, Alston's chair was still canted back firmly against the wall. We had been outside for at least 45 minutes, but Alston was still quite soundly asleep. The 42 game was in fill swing. I don't recall ever seeing Alston without a chew of tobacco, and this was no exception. Taking his arm and shaking it gently, I wondered if he needed to spit. His eyes rolled slowly into focus, recognition dawned and panic ensued as he bolted for the closest of the doors!

Winds from the southeast kicked up great clouds of dust as we moved into the yard a bit later to load up for the afternoon hunt. Sand devils, or whirlwinds, moved at random intervals across the range below camp. This was going to be an interesting afternoon. Vehicles coughed to life, and we all moved out toward our chosen locations.

A short time later, I backed into the secure cover of a large outgrowth of cactus near a fence row. A very active game trail passed under the fence some 150 yards distant. My rifle stock was wedged into the fork of a mesquite limb at rest, should the need for a shot arise. The heat persisted, and the wind blew, twisting the brush into weird, unnatural contortions in its fury. Unexpectedly, the wind laid just before dusk. An eerie setting sun bathed the world in a strange, golden light. Everything around me took on an odd, luminescent hue. Now, in the stillness, maybe something would move in the few fleeting moments of remaining daylight.

I had always been frustrated by evening hunts. They end in their own time, not one of my choosing. As I eased back into the pickup, I reflected on the fact that wildlife does not like high winds. Their senses are confused by it, and they become reluctant to move about. My mind wandered back to the buzzard riding gentle updrafts earlier in the afternoon. What had become of him? My best bet would have been a slow, steady stalk into the wind, hoping to find an old buck bedded down and waiting for things to ease up a bit. The whipping brush in that wind would have masked my movement, providing a much better chance of getting in close enough for a shot. However, the rattlesnake earlier in the day made me hesitant to follow that strategy in this heat. Snakes were numerous and aggressive in this country. I wasn't unduly afraid of them, but they did have my respect.

At dark, Dad and I picked up Richard and Smitty, then coasted to a stop in front of the camp house under a clear, beautiful South Texas sky smeared with glistening stars. That distant ridge of clouds was much closer now, casting an ominous black pall over a full quarter of the glorious evening sky.

After supper we sprawled on our bunks, each relating their take on the day's events. Randy Kelso had taken a fine 11-point buck at daybreak. Richard still mourned the loss of his. We were all regretting that loss when a howling norther slammed into the cabin. A couple of doors were thrown shut when the first gusts struck. The wind carried grains of sand and other debris with it as it slashed through the room. The grainy wind stung our eyes and rasped against our skin as we rushed to secure other openings from its onslaught. The full force of its fury tore at the little house through much of the evening.

Particles of sand and grit continued to slip through cracks in the walls, mingling with the rich smell of burning mesquite smoke curling from the fireplace, which drew poorly, if at all. A bone chilling cold fought to penetrate our small refuge of warm, dancing flames fed by logs tossed into the fireplace over the course of the night.

From beneath a pile of quilts, I remember watching Sleepy staring into the flames from a chair placed carefully before the open hearth. The play of light danced on his face as he turned to smile at me. How had he known I was watching? Passing years had etched deep lines in his face that I had never really noticed before. As Chief of Police back home I knew he dealt with things I could only imagine. He had lost a daughter. "Bill," he said, "sometimes we are overly impressed with our own importance. The way we value things and ourselves can be so strange. When we experience the full force of an act of nature, we realize just how insignificant we really are. We can be so childish!" His eyes turned back to the flames. "Our Creator blessed us with life. He also gave us a sense of awareness... and a will. That's a blessing and a curse. It can get away from us sometimes. A man can be arrogant. He decides to bend nature and others to his will. That's how things good in man and nature get destroyed, get lost. Sometimes, forever."

He had gone outside only minutes earlier. I didn't know what time it was, only that everyone else seemed to be asleep. He smiled through a kind of sadness in his eyes. "It's faired off," he said. "Should be a fine hunt in the morning." He tousled my hair, then returned to his chair.

I was never sure what had stirred those thoughts in him. I just knew that as I watched him from beneath those quilts, when I finally drifted off to sleep, nothing truly existed then but me, and him and the wind...

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Magnificent Obsession

When you're 17, nothing is impossible. In Todo's mind, this was a firmly fixed fact. To him, it didn't seem at all outlandish to kill a javelina with only his hunting knife. We had discussed the prospect several times. I enjoyed playing Devil's advocate and describing, in graphic detail, the horrible possibilities that might be tied to the act. However, he stoutly maintained that the attempt was not only possible, but success was probable, if the approach and frame of mind were correctly coordinated. Todo Myane was my best friend and I loved him like a brother. He had the gift of being able to convince many of us that most anything was possible, although in this case I remained very skeptical of his theory.

We heatedly debated differing viewpoints as we rolled along the highway in his father's old faded green Chevrolet pickup truck. Joining in the discussion were two other friends, Paul Visel and Robert Garcia. The truck was moving northwest, away from the small South Texas town of Premont in the direction of the Hill Country and Mr. Myane's hunting lease near Uvalde.

Todo was, and remains, one of those individuals who finds it impossible to talk without using his hands. The truck would lurch to the left or right from time to time as he reinforced a particular point. As teenage boys, we had no real cares and found the ride and rollicking arguments great fun.

Embracing our impending manhood, Paul and I were chewing "Red Man" tobacco and gave every appearance of relishing the activity. Robert had never tried to chew, but found the opportunity and encouragement irresistible. He scooped a healthy knot from the offered pouch and worked the wad into his cheek with minimal skepticism. Things started out well enough, but in due course he had to spit. His eyes reflected desperation as he had no cup like Paul and I.

With a broad smile, I advised he use the passenger window, as he was riding shotgun. He stuck his head out to release the accumulation of juice. To our combined amazement, he spat directly into the wind! Needless to say, his problems had only begun. Robert immediately got horribly ill. I feel reasonably sure that he has not touched chewing tobacco to this day. We helped Robert off his knees from the shoulder of the road after a brief, but badly needed stop.

Later, his face still in the grip of a deathly pallor, Robert stepped from the truck to unlock the gate leading into the ranch. Our good natured ribbing did nothing to steady his wobbly legs or improve his disposition. It seemed he was going to hold a grudge awhile. We rolled to a stop in front of the camp house and hurriedly unpacked in the golden light of late afternoon.

At this time we made a grim discovery. None of us had brought any food! There was no meat, salt, potatoes, beans, sugar or coffee. Nothing. No supplies had been left in the house either. We grabbed rifles and rushed into the rapidly approaching dusk in hopes of getting something to eat . . . and we did.

A jackrabbit and a javelina.

Under a burgundy sky, fading into blackness, we pulled together the makings of a good campfire. Soon, javelina and jackrabbit were roasting over the flames on a sheet of tin. The results remain firmly fixed in my mind as the absolute worst meal I have ever endured in my life. Juices from the javelina ruined the rabbit, which was not fit for human consumption in the first place. Truly, it was a "just right" meal. If it had been any worse, we couldn'ta et it! Had it been any better, wed'a feed it to the dogs! Robert grinned at our discomfort as he still wasn't hungry anyway.

Our first night in camp was punctuated by a blend of growling stomachs and fitful snores.

As day broke, we stretched, stomped into our boots, then rode on into town for a few badly needed supplies. Our quality of life improved dramatically. Rich, strong black coffee with sugar! Bacon and eggs! Buttered toast! Life was good! The rest of the day was spent in a combination of hunting and exploring an interesting cave Todo knew of. He had stumbled onto its entrance on the side of a remote brushy hill.

The mouth was roughly four feet across and dropped away into a hole going down into the dark earth some 15 feet. We laid a cedar fence post over the opening and slid down a lariat to gain access, stirring up a colony of bats in the process. Guano was about a foot deep, and the array of stalagmites and stalactites was extremely beautiful. We spent several hours exploring the wonders held secret within the side of that hill.

After supper, we shook out blankets and stretched out on our backs, staring out into the matchless beauty of the Texas Hill Country night sky. We talked of the things men/boys do and kept a rough tally of the occasional falling star. Finally, clothes smelling of sweat and rich wood smoke, we rolled into our blankets and beside the embers of a fine campfire gave ourselves over to the embrace of a deep and dreamless sleep. The last thing I remembered hearing was Todo muttering that he would, at some point, kill that javelina with no more than a knife...

The searing hiss of bacon in a skillet--its unique aroma drifting gently on the morning breeze pulled me back from the other world of sleep. My eyes opened to the soft light of pre-dawn. I kicked out of my blankets and eased over to the freshly fed fire where Todo hovered over an old cast iron skillet of frying bacon. His face glowed red as he took a pull on his Travis Club cigar, a habit he retains to this day. He smiled that lop-sided, irresistible grin of his and said, "Bill, today I'm going to get that hog!" Our eyes were pulled to the amber glow of the eastern sky. I smiled at him and said, "We'll see who gets who."

He cracked eggs over the bacon and stirred them thoughtfully as I poured coffee. Paul and Robert were soon with us beside the fire, enjoying breakfast.

We had a brief morning hunt and returned to break camp for the return trip home. Todo had not gotten his hog. He seemed genuinely perplexed as we loaded our gear into the bed of the truck. "Bill, I just knew that this was the day..." he muttered.

"It ain't over yet," I responded.

The last thing loaded was Mr. Myane's oak water barrel. He took great pride in it and had asked that we bring it home rather than leaving it at the camp to dry out and possibly collapse since deer season was now over and the camp would not be used for several months. We piled into the truck and gripped the dashboard as it wound its way over gravel ruts, churning along toward the distant gate and highway.

Todo's thick black eyebrows would arch, then furrow as he repeated, "I can't understand it," he mused. "I was so sure! Bill, you know how sometimes a feeling is so strong, it's telling you ahead something's gonna happen. I was so sure...," he repeated again, gazing into the distance.

About half an hour later we came to the Frio River and decided to pull over for a quick bath. We sought the cover of a wooded bend in the rushing stream. This saved any innocent passerby the unwelcome shock of coming upon us frolicking in the river wearing nothing but our hats and grins.

Soon, we were underway again, our spirits lifted after the refreshing swim. Todo seemed more his old self again as the miles flew by.

That is, until Paul said, "Todo, there's a pack!"

Todo immediately slammed the brake pedal to the floor, leaving twin strips of black skid marks as the truck fishtailed to a stop on the shoulder of the road.

Todo kicked open the driver's door, took a fix on the pack as he pumped his arms and legs in a wild sprint to the fence. He palmed the top of a cedar post and vaulted over the top of the wire. The rest of us assumed positions in the back if the cab along the headache rack for a better view and shouted encouragement.

"Further to your right," Paul yelled. Todo turned, stalking the perimeter of the small oak mott, jerking his well honed knife from its sheath. He worked his way around scrub oaks and cedar outgrowths in pursuit of the animals. We watched with glee and shouted encouragement until, finally, his shoulders seemed to slump and he dejectedly turned back toward the truck. He began to plow through the knee-deep grass and had only taken a few steps when Robert cupped a hand to his mouth and shouted, "Todo, to your the cedar bush!"

Todo spun around, eased over toward the bush and peered into the depths of its shadows. His eyebrows knitted into a frown. He slowly folded into a crouch, then dove right into the center of that cedar bush! Immediately, screams for help filled the air. "My God," he shouted! "Somebody help meeee!" he bellowed with more than a touch of shrillness in his voice.

We jumped from the truck bed and flew at the fence. Robert had the hardest time as he was rather portly at that time in his life. We all ran, side by side to the aid of our companion. I glanced over at Robert and saw his clothes in tatters. Blood flowed from a number of wounds inflicted as he dove through the barbed wire. He looked like he had been pulled through a cheese grater, but he never missed a step.

We slowed and cautiously approached the wildly gyrating cedar. Just beyond it, stood an outraged sow. Every coarse, hairlike spine on her body stood upright. Her substantial ivory tusks were clacking together fiercely and sounded like small limbs cracking under stress. Her beady eyes radiated pure hatred. She looked like a huge porcupine with a mouth full of razor sharp tusks! A half grown piglet stood beside her squealing hysterically, adding to the noise and confusion. This mother was ready to charge the cedar bush.

In the middle of that bush hunched Todo, pleading for help. His hands were firmly locked behind the ears of a second half grown pig. It was pinned to the ground between his knees. The knife lay forgotten on the ground at his side. The mother snorted, glared balefully at us, then broke and ran as we closed on the scene. Through huge eyes, Todo looked over his shoulder at me. "Bill, take it!" he demanded over the furious thrashing and snapping teeth of the creature beneath him.

"Pard, this has always been your quest, not mine," I retorted. "Want you to enjoy the full benefit of the experience," I added.

Todo's sense of humor seemed to be getting a little strained.

"The #@*&$^% thing will cut me to shreds!" he groaned.

"Please, guys. Get me something to put it in," he spat through clenched teeth.

Robert rolled his eyes and bolted back toward the truck. Paul and I watched as he again dove through the fence, inflicting more damage to himself.

Todo was in no mood for teasing, but this was just too good an opportunity to pass up. "Compadre, could I hand you your knife?" I offered. His eyes blazed, then gleamed with relief as Robert made his way back with a blanket.

To my horror, I recognized my treasured wool blanket. This stinking javelina would ruin it! There was no time, however, to debate the issue. The danger to Todo was too real.

We worked the blanket into place, then lifted the struggling bundle in its makeshift sack. Todo's relief was obvious and immediate. We laughed and pounded his back as we moved back to the truck, the squealing, squirming captive held at a very respectful distance.

Todo worried that we should not keep the pig. "Let's let it go, guys," he plead. "It'll be nothing but trouble." Todo had been involved in a minor misunderstanding with our local game warden and his dad a few weeks earlier and had found religion as far as state game laws were concerned. He just wasn't sure if we should keep the pig.

The issue was faced and addressed as we always did on any point of disagreement. We promptly took a vote. Three to one. We kept the hog.

Mr. Myane's water barrel was the only obvious means of containment for our new friend. Over Todo's objections, we dropped the nasty tempered little bugger through the lid into his small temporary prison. Though we hoped to tame him, his disposition seemed to get worse by the minute. We were soon on the road again.

The truck was low on gas as we pulled into the town of Benavides, and a stop was called for. As we climed from our seats and stretched, an old Mexican man approached to pump the gas. The scent of javelina hung over the bed of the truck as he slipped the gas nozzle into place. He peered into the bed of the truck, searching for the source of the odor. None was apparent, so he leaned against the side of the truck and hummed contentedly as he continued to pump the gas.

"WAANNKKK", came the sound from within the barrel. The old man's stooped shoulders came erect and he lifted his head, now fully alert.

"Que dice?" he asked. "Javelina?" he questioned.

"Si," I answered. "It is."

"Can I see heem?" he asked in his musical accent.

"Si, senior," I responded and nodded toward the barrel. With stiff joints, he shuffled over to the tailgate, hooked his ancient cane on its lip and gripping the top with gnarled leathery hands, pulled himself slowly upward toward the rim of the oaken barrel.

"WAANNKKK" came the soft sound from within the barrel once more.

With a smile on his face, he lifted the hinged lid and peered into the shadowed depths of the barrel. His smile turned into a look of shocked horror as he was greeted by a snarling mass of razor sharp tusks lurching desperately upward toward his face.

"Madre!" he exclaimed, falling backward off the rear bumper and landing with a sickening thud on the concrete beneath the truck.

He was up like a cricket, bouncing on his toes and gesturing with his cane excitedly. I had been sure that he had broken every bone in his body.

"Que bueno!" he laughed. "Will you sell heem?" he queried. "Cuantos?" he asked.

"He's not for sale," we insisted.

"What a fine leetle peeg," the old man mused.

Laughing, we bade him farewell. Todo still had not killed a javelina with a knife, but all in all, it had not been such a bad weekend...

I am often asked, after relating this story, what ever happened to the javelina? Well, he was just too large to ever truly tame. He would tolerate humans to a point. However, he was completely unpredictable and would turn on a person in a second. A few weeks after arriving on our farm, he escaped.

A neighboring rancher, Leamon Jones, saw him in his pasture and walked over to pick him up and return him to me. He nearly lost an arm. Showing a torn sleeve and a gashed forearm to Dad and me, he gestured in the general direction the animal had headed. Gazing into the distance, I decided it best to leave well enough alone. He was allowed to return to the wild.

To my knowledge, Todo never has killed a javelina with a knife, nor, after that episode expressed any further inclination to do so.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Fish Camp

My world was a suffusive, murky grey. I dared not breathe in the sullen stillness that surrounded me. My body floated effortlessly, completely submerged in the waters of Mathis Lake. I was held in place by several hooks on the trot line we had just been running and re-baiting. These malevolent hooks now pierced my jeans, shirt and the middle knuckle of my left hand. I was held quietly in place, unable to lunge toward the surface and the air that my lungs were desperately, silently screaming for. A hand descended and groped at my face from above. It gripped my hair and pulled me swiftly toward the surface. Through blinking eyes blurred from rivulets of water, the smiling face of my godfather materialized slowly. I inhaled a huge gulp of air deeply into my lungs. His face vanished as I plunged beneath the surface once again.

The morning had been a mirror image of many others as Dad, Sleepy and I shot across the silty water of Lagarto Creek to gather fish and re-bait our lines. The twenty-five horsepower Evinrude left a small rooster tail of a wake with our passing. The surface reflected fragmented morning sunlight appearing as countless golden coins dancing over the distance to the horizon. I smiled in contentment. Dad loved fishing, and I had grown very fond of it. Truth be told, I came to love the trips flying over the surface of the water more than the fishing itself. For me, the journey surpassed the destination.

A new dam had raised the level of the lake significantly, and huge, silent groves of live oak trees had been partially submerged as a result. Their slow death had created silent, stark forests through which our baited lines now wound. The barren branches had become home to a variety of nesting water fowl. Turtles sunned on the limbs slicing through the surface of the water. Snakes drowsed on the upper reaches as well. I had heard a story of a water moccasin dropping from a high branch into a boat driven by my uncle Whitey about dusk one fine summer day. Whitey dove into the water straight away, allowing that if that viper could steer the boat, he was welcome to it!

I had draped myself over the closed bow of the boat. Tepid water and moss dripped through my fingers as I hauled on the main line, dragging the boat slowly along. The wind had risen strongly out of the southeast, creating great rolling swells through which our boat rose and fell. The strain of holding the mainline had become tedious, so my toes were hooked over the starboard side of the bow to help my arms and shoulders pull against the strain the line exerted.

Sleepy was behind me and Dad was aft, each of them threading chunks of venison liver onto the sharp stainless steel hooks as we worked our way along. Dad was a big believer in venison liver, so we always saved it from the preceding winter hunting season. The catfish seemed to love it. They would congregate around the snags and stumps, and when conditions were right, we caught them in great quantities.

This being our first run since the previous weekend, there were no fish on the hooks. We rubbed away the accumulated muck to clean the lines and hooks as we baited them out, hoping for a good fish fry for supper.

Blue cats were the favorites, though yellows were also good eating. Mud or channel cats were the least desirable as they were mostly head, and developed a somewhat gristly texture as they grew larger. This did not complement the slightly muddy flavor that their meat always hinted of. Two- to five-pounders were the perfect size for frying, though we were always excited at the prospect of a larger fish to show off or brag over.

The morning grew quickly hotter and my attention started to wander as sweat dripped from my nose. Monotony had set in. I stared blankly at the reflected sunlight shimmering in the rippling surface of the water. The large swells rolled and the wind continued to push against us.

That was when Sleepy stood up in the boat.

His unexpected release of the line combined with the popping force of the southeast wind taking in slack with a fresh shove against the hull caused the bow to tilt. I felt myself sliding off into the water.

My instinct was to hold rather than release the main line. I did just that. In and under I went.

Now I found myself ensnared in a mass of lines and hooks. The one embedded in my knuckle made me extremely cautious about any sudden lunge back to the surface. Others had bitten into the fabric of my clothing, and I had no desire to redouble a problem that already seemed fairly significant.

Why had Sleepy let me go? Why didn't he pull me back up and into the boat? It had been only a few seconds, but it seemed an eternity and my lungs screamed for air. Again, I felt his fingers grasp my hair.

Water streamed from me as Sleepy hauled me up and over the side of the boat. I coughed and sputtered as various hooks were removed from my shirt and jeans. Deep breaths of clean, sweet air pumped life and energy back into my body. Looking down, I stared at the single hook embedded in my knuckle, then grasped it, tearing it free of my flesh.

It was not the smartest move I ever made. My head swam and my stomach knotted in nausea as blood poured from the torn flesh. Above all, I had to bear up in front of Sleepy and Dad. I looked accusingly at Sleepy and demanded to know why he had released me before pulling me back on board. "Was afraid my cigarettes would get wet," he replied. His laughter was nervous and infectious. I realized that he had also been caught by surprise, off balance and knowing that two of us treading water while entangled in trot lines would have only compounded the problem.

"You OK?" Dad asked.

"Yessir," I replied, trailing my injured hand over the side. I watched blood from the ragged wound drift away in the currents.

It took a few minutes for my head to quit swimming. Though forced at first, good humor soon relieved the tension of the situation. Dad's cloudy blue eyes focused on me, concern still showing in them. "Sure you're all right, son?" he asked.

"Yessir, I'm fine," I smiled.

"Then let's finish getting baited out," he replied.

By the time we worked through to the last of the hooks on our three trot lines, fish were already set on hooks that had been baited earlier. We made several passes up and down the lines, bringing in a fine catch that assured supper would be something special.

Easing back into the calm waters of our boat slip, we dragged the heavy stringer off the boat and into a wheelbarrow to ferry back to the fish camp to be cleaned. It was a really good feeling. I shucked the fish free of the stringer and lifted the slick, struggling body of a nice blue onto the cleaning table behind the boat shed in the back yard near the rear of the cabin. I remember looking up through the swaying limbs of the huge hackberry trees towering over our heads. The beams of the late afternoon sun sprayed through the shifting openings. The yard was an amazing play of amber and shadow as we cleaned those fish, sharing laughter.

Dad looked at my swollen finger and suggested I go in and get it cleaned up and wrapped. On the way in I noticed that I was reeking of muddy, pungent water. Stepping into the shower, I took one last deep, grateful breath before washing it away. Mother and Sleepy's wife, Phyllis took on over me shamelessly. A shower and clean, dry clothes had pretty well revived me.

That evening as I watched the grown-ups play dominoes in the cabin, there was an abundance of laughter. The smell of fresh fried catfish and cornbread floated in the air. I was grateful for that wonderful meal, the comfort of the cabin and the feeling of love and kinship we all enjoyed. As I turned, chewing a mouthful of fish, I gazed at my sister, Charlotte. She grinned, lowered her gaze and quickly turned away. After all, I was a major source of irritation in her life, but that was an older brother's job. We both had an image to maintain. I grinned at her and now admitted to myself and no one else that I loved her. After all, even that confession would not change the fact that she could be a real pain in the neck. The years have seen us drift apart, but the clarity of that special time and place still shines in my mind.

Staring at the wall over the smiling face of my father, I read, once again, a faded verse inscribed on an old plaque...

Sitting still and wishing
Makes no person great.
The good Lord sends the fishing-
But you must dig the bait!

That's a wealth of wisdom about living. What a grand gift life is; even more grand is the real living of it. I dozed off that marvelous night smiling and wondering if the fish would be biting tomorrow...

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Old Reb...

Bird dogs and wing shooting were always major elements in my youth. Quail provided the opportunity to pursue a pair of fine, matched dogs across pastures knee deep in dry, crackling grass layered in shimmering, delicate frost. In golden early morning sunlight, the dogs would work back and forth, in and out. One would suddenly freeze, muscles quivering on a point. The other would notice, and swap ends in a parody to imitate and honor the discovery of its companion. The dogs would leave an erratic wake in the frosted grass. On point, their heaving lungs sent roiling clouds of steamy vapor into the stillness of the brittle winter air.

Easing up to dogs on point was a nerve-wracking experience. I was fascinated by the delicate tendrils of wispy vapor rising from heat generated by their bodies. It formed a soft halo around them, like a ghostly shroud. Sights like these would always distract me slightly as the exploding sound of rapidly beating wings would scare a year's life out of me.

Dad always admonished me not to shoot at the entire covey at once. That was a natural reaction that guaranteed frustration and failure. The reliable tactic was to pick out a single bird and give it your full attention. The dogs would bound after and retrieve any downed birds, then begin to work the singles and doubles from the now scattered covey. Dad would never allow an entire covey to be shot out. Six to eight birds had to be left for seed stock. A bag limit was highly prized, but there was the future to think about. That included the next crop of hunters, dogs and birds.

Hunting doves and quail always took some adjustment, as the two were very different types of wing shooting. Doves would generally be longer shots. They had a tendency to bob, weave and dodge as they flew along.

The best form of concentration I ever found for dove shooting was to lock in on a mental image of trying to hit them with a water hose. Every child who has played in the yard with a hose can relate to this analogy. When a butterfly floats by and you want to give it a shower, you know that, over distance, the water travels in an arc and you must lead the flight pattern and account for the distance to intercept what you want to hit. A shotgun performs in much the same way. It is just a matter of remembering distance, arc and lead to be a fair shot when going after doves.

Quail are different. With dogs, you will often find yourself in the middle of a covey. The birds break so close and fast that the arc of your shot is not generally a factor. If a bird is rising, you usually want to shoot slightly over him. If it is dropping, shoot a bit below the bird. Put the pattern of your shot where the bird will be in the next instant, not where it is at present.

No more tips on wing shooting. Everyone has his or her own ideas anyway. Mine are probably no better, and maybe worse, than other advice one might hear, although they have worked pretty well for me over the course of my lifetime--that is, when I remember them in the heat and excitement of shooting!

I'm going to tell you about my "great uncle" L.V. 'Whitey' Wilkinson and 'Old Reb.'

Whitey was the best bird dog man I have ever seen. Hands down. He raised and trained some of the finest dogs in the country. Anyone who had him train and work their dogs, or bought one of them, praised his ability to the skies. He started with Jill, a German Shorthair. She was his first, and he loved her dearly. She had a wonderful nose and was one of the most intelligent dogs I have ever seen. She was almost human.

There were other great ones as well. Jack, the hard headed pointer. Freckles, a really talented English Setter. Pancho, an unbelievably gifted dog, with the foulest temper I have ever witnessed in a bird dog. Then, there were Doc and Sam, two outstanding Brittanys. These were the dogs with which Whitey booked hunts and formed the nucleus of his business.

My favorite, though, was a Dropper or crossbred dog named Reb. He was half-Pointer and half-Walker hound.

Reb looked, for the most part, like a Pointer. His forehead was not quite as boxy or square as a true Pointer, but otherwise he looked the part of an honest-to-goodness bird dog. He was, too. A dog has never had a finer nose than Reb's. Sometimes, it seemed he could smell where quail were going, rather than where they were or where they had been. He was an equally fine retriever. He had a gentle mouth and was only too glad to bring in a downed bird. His biggest shortcoming, in my eyes, was his reluctance to work singles or doubles. When called on he would do it, but he much preferred to pursue the larger body of the covey.

My uncle could tolerate this shortcoming. However, the two things that really drove Whitey crazy seemed of little or no consequence to me.

Reb pointed with his tail curled down between his legs. Whitey worked tirelessly, attempting to get him to hold it high, curled over his back. When released, the tail would immediately curl under to hug his stomach once again.

I admit that it was a little odd to watch Reb on point or in the process of honoring one, as his was surely not the conventional style. However, he was never false on point, and he held beautifully.

His unforgivable sin, though, lay in the fact that when birds flushed, Reb would invariably respond to the hound genes coursing through his blood. He would break into the most beautiful baritone baying you ever heard. I can still hear my uncle screaming "No!" and jumping up and down on the hat he had thrown to the ground in frustration as Reb's melodious "aarouuu, aaroouuu" echoed in the air. Reb was a wonderful dog.

Although I never was told directly what became of him, one day he just disappeared. When I asked Whitey, he averted his eyes, cleared his throat and stared into the distance with a pained look on his face.

Instinctively, I knew Reb's fate but could never push the issue, knowing it hurt my uncle. Sometimes, life demands form or style over substance. Whitey had felt compelled to make a choice. His was a business. In my bed that evening, wiping tears from my eyes, I came to realize that life is not always fair. For a boy, that is a hard concept to accept. We feel that life should be fair, and expend a good deal of effort in the living of it to make it so. When we succeed and see right triumph, we make the world we live in a better place.

Reb had been special, but with dogs and people, sometimes... that is just not enough.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Learning To Drive

When I was a boy in my early teens, Dad decided that the time had come for me to learn to drive. Early one morning, he took me with him to the pasture that bordered our large, shallow lagoon on the east side of the farm. The lake had been created by one of the hurricanes that chose to descend on the south coast of Texas in the early sixties. The rains had come down so hard and fast that surrounding tanks and ponds had "gone 'round," or overflowed, taking large numbers of bass, perch and catfish in the turbulent flood waters that formed the lake, stocking it with fish at the same time.

Now, hundreds of ducks chattered and beat their wings in protest as we pulled up near the shore. The banks of an earthen dam rose from the depths, forming an island some 200 yards out in the water. My friends and I had enjoyed numerous campouts on that small knot of land. We gigged frogs, caught fish and basked under the moonlight and glimmering night sky dusted with countless stars. The smell of frying fish and frog legs swimming in butter in cast iron skillets would fill the air. After gorging ourselves, we would lie on our backs and gaze into that infinite sparkling sky, counting shooting stars and dreaming our dreams as only boys can do.

This morning, Dad eased the battered old blue Ford pickup to a stop. He showed me first, second, third gears and reverse. I had observed him driving and had some notion of how things should work with the gears. He removed the keys and tossed them into my lap as he stepped out into the lush coastal Bermuda pasture that sparkled with fresh morning dew. Wishing me luck, he slammed the door and moved away toward home, leaving a wake of green footsteps in the dazzling blanket of golden sunlight reflecting off that field of dew.

Sliding over under the wheel, I heard him rumble, "Boy your age oughta know how to drive."

"When do I need to be home?" I asked.

"When you know how to drive!" he shouted over his receding shoulder.

"Yessir!" I called out in response.

I slid over under the steering wheel and gripped it with suddenly sweaty palms. What was that sequence of gears he had shown me a minute ago? I watched Dad gain some more distance before deciding it was time to get things rolling. Shoving the key into the ignition, I gave it a twist.

The engine coughed, the truck lurched forward and my head bounced soundly off the window behind the seat. I had forgotten about the clutch! I tried to fill my mind with the things I needed to remember about driving. Realizing the truck had been left in first gear, I slid into neutral and tried again. The motor coughed to life and settled into a kind of clattering hum. Blue-grey smoke shrouded the cab in the early morning stillness. I revved the engine a time or two, eased the truck into gear, let out the clutch and held on tight as it lurched and died a second time. Feeling a bit more anxious, I bit my lip and steeled myself for the third attempt. The third time was the charm!

First gear was wonderful! I used it with a kind of desperate abandon for several minutes. I really hated the thought of leaving it for second. I knew first. I had a feel for it. Second was a great unknown. However, I finally skewered up my nerve, pounded down on the clutch and ground my way into second. The truck lurched again but didn't die like it had before.

Second was even better than first! I flew over the grass and felt the wheels slide slightly as I put her into a tight turn. Second was really fine! In fact, it seemed about all you could ask for in this pasture of some 60 odd acres. I did figure 8'S, donuts and a host of other equally destructive maneuvers, wreaking varying degrees of havoc on the quality of Dad's pasture.

Elation approached arrogance as I began to steer with one hand, resting the other with supreme confidence atop the back of the pickup seat. Minutes flew by as my sense of power and control approached godlike dimensions. The convulsive fear I had known moments earlier had faded into a distant memory.

"What about third?" I hadn't tried third!

The clutch slid to the floor. I slammed on the brake and slid the truck to a complete stop. My palms were no longer sweating. I was in control. Gunning the engine, I snapped into first gear. Gaining speed, I slid into second. Nothing to it! The motor howled as I punched third home and released the clutch. The speedometer rolled to 40,45,50 miles an hour. "Who said man wasn't meant to fly?"

It was about this time, somewhere just over 50 miles an hour that I hit the chug hole...

My head tried to force its way through the top of the truck's cab as I bounced from the seat. My vision blurred and the world tilted crazily as I swerved to narrowly miss one of the few large mesquite trees in the pasture.

Noting a new and distinct taste in my mouth, I realized that I had bitten through my tongue. Humility had returned. The heat indicator, a throbbing head and the taste in my mouth combined to turn my thoughts toward home. Presbyterians don't generally like to dwell on predestination, but fate was not yet through with me. My destiny was to center on the cedar corner post at the gap leading out of the pasture.

I had been considerably humbled. Extreme caution now dominated my actions once again.

Dad had invested heavily in an irrigation system for the farm. Our land was in an arid region near the coast of South Texas. That irrigation system meant a constant and reliable source of moisture for the farm's cattle and crops.

I faced a hard right-hand turn getting through the gap leaving the pasture. Panic set in! Through a culvert under the road ran the six-inch mainline for dad's irrigation system. From my perspective I had two choices, as the turn seemed too sharp and the road too narrow. I could either veer to the left and run over and crush the mainline or straddle the huge cedar corner post on the right... I chose the post! It bent over and snapped loudly under the onslaught of the speeding truck and my momentum almost let me clear it.

The truck died. I started it again and tried to pull forward off the shattered post. Didn't work. Resting my chin on my knuckles atop the steering wheel, I had a thought. I hadn't tried reverse today! I pushed in the clutch, feathered into reverse and popped that clutch, gunning the engine hard. The lurch backward wedged the broken post firmly in place and partially lifted the rear end of the pick up off the ground. One of the rear wheels now spun freely some four inches above the soil.

The palms of my hands were sweating again. What the hell was I going to do now? Dad would not take this well. I crept across the pasture to the tool shed situated behind the house and slipped out with a large double-bladed ax and slipped back away to the truck. Knowing I was probably done for, I crawled beneath the bed of the truck and began to chop fiercely at the post. Dad was going to kill me for sure, but I had to at least try.

My head was pounding, sweat ran into my eyes and my tongue was a source of pure agony. Sand slipped down my collar and chafed my back and shoulders as I swung that ax with all the will of my determination to live through the day. Things just could not get any worse.

A red ant had worked its way over my boot top and settled on the back of my thigh before deciding to give me a thorough going over. I scrambled to shuck my jeans, doing my level best to crush him in the process. Any of you who wear boots and jeans know just how hard it is to get out of your jeans without taking your boots off first. However, time was a significant factor here, and I was highly motivated!

Fear formed a hard knot in my throat as I heard my father's flat voice asking me what the problem was. As his face appeared beneath the running board of the truck, there must have been something in the expression on my face that softened the anger in his. I crawled from beneath the pickup and rushed through relating the series of events leading up to my decision to save the joint of his mainline pipe over the corner post.

Through my exaggerated gestures, I noticed that Dad was laughing. Tears streamed down his face. I was not going to die! With his arm on my shoulder we walked back to the house together and with the help of the Massey Ferguson tractor, soon had the truck free. Shortly afterward, the corner post had been replaced as well.

In spite of the pain and embarrassment I suffered that morning, or perhaps because of it, I learned the true meaning of redemption that fine day. In the living of his life, my Dad never forgot that he, too, had once been a boy.

I lost him on July 17th, almost three months ago, a little over an hour before daylight. The fabric of his life is so firmly woven into my world; he remains a living, viable, part of all that I see, hear and feel. He lived his life with great joy and simplicity. He was loyal, generous, trusting and giving to his friends and family. He believed in the basic goodness of people. He worked harder than any other man I've ever known. He loved without reservation. He was the kind of man that, as boys, we all knew we'd grow up to be... but didn't, quite.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Harvey's Chili

On a clear day, just at dusk, mountains in Mexico could be seen from the ranch. They stood far away on the distant, shimmering line of the western horizon. The brilliant light of the setting sun would burst forth in vivid hues of orange and burgundy as the sun touched, then sank into the ground behind, them. The play of golden light on high, feathered clouds was a miracle unfolding.

Memories from youth are poignant, vivid things. They become more precious with the passage of time. Many of mine center on time spent in and around an old hunting camp on the Martinez Ranch in far Southwest Texas. Those days are now well over forty years in my past.

The small ranch house was not that unusual at first glance. I knew that it had to be fairly ancient, as I had met the old Mexican ranch hand who told me that he had been born in it and spent his early childhood living there. His face was etched with lines that looked like tiny arroyos worn into the rugged land around him. His hands had the look and color of old saddle leather, fingers gnarled with age. Those hands were steady and sure as he trickled Kite tobacco onto a tiny sheet of translucent cigarette paper. He rolled the smoke deftly and brought the flaming end of a sulphur match or Lucifer, against the tip. Looking at me through the cloud of smoke shrouding his head, his clear, green eyes would shine as he told me stories about the land.

Looking more closely at the house, you could see that it actually was different from many others. There were no windows. Instead, there were five doors--two on the front, two on the back and one on the west end. The east end of the house was dominated by a huge fireplace. From inside, the face of the fireplace was enhanced by an ancient hearth whose surface had random, shallow, bowl shaped indentions worn into it from the vigorous grinding of dried corn into masa or meal for tortillas. Heavy, black soot covered the ceiling and walls, forming layered patterns on the face of the fireplace. The chimney drew poorly, if at all.

We were enjoying an early season deer hunt on the ranch, surrounded by family and friends. The sprawling, rambling acres of the land overlapped portions of the border separating Zapata and Webb counties in the heart of the South Texas brush country. This part of the state is also known as the Wild Horse Desert. There are rolling, rocky hills covered with ceniza or purple sage as well as black brush, huisache, mesquite and varieties of cactus. Numerous dry washes or arroyos cut through the surface of the land creating sheer, dry gullies that can flood quickly in a rare sudden downpour, carrying away everything in their path. Large rattlesnakes are numerous. There are also a sizable populations of javelina, white-tail deer, bobcats, coyotes and numerous other varmints.

Richard, Randy, Pee-Wee and Charly were the other boys in the group. We ranged from 13 to 17 years of age. One of the adults had shot a fine young buck for camp meat, and we were all grateful that fresh venison would soon dominate the menu.

It had settled into a lazy evening. Dominoes were clattering on the table in the house. Good natured exchanges floated back and forth between the men as they played. While the men played dominoes, we played cards on one of the bunks in the room. The afternoon had been hot and still, but that was about to change.

Sounding like shots, two of the open doors suddenly slammed shut! A third followed closely. We came straight up out of our bunks at the sound. Strong winds rolled over and tore at the old house, forcing groans, creaks and snaps from the walls. An updraft through the chimney created a mournful howl, sounding like some large, suffering living thing. The house had withstood many such blows, but the groans it conceded to this force sounded like brittle old bones cracking and about to break. A roaring blue norther had just blown in.

The temperature plummeted, and our chief concern quickly centered on the desire to stay warm as icy cold penetrated cracks in those old walls. T.C. "Sleepy" Fine and I made for the woodpile outside against the wall. We pulled a heavy canvas tarp back from the split mesquite cord wood and raked together several armloads to stack inside by the fireplace.

Huffing from the sudden exertion I looked up into Sleepy's face. His broad smile and enthusiasm wiped away years from that face. He goosed me in the ribs, then hugged me to him when I jumped. He was chief of police in my hometown of Premont and told the funniest, most wonderful stories I ever heard. He was also my godfather. I loved him fiercely. Life had hit Sleepy hard on more than one occasion, but he faced it without illusion. What really made me love him was the fact that he also faced life without disillusion. He absolutely relished the experience of living. Enabling me to grasp and accept this distinction was his greatest gift.

Soon, a roaring fire rose to confront the vicious cold. Smoke billowed into the room from the open hearth, as the chimney refused to draw. We wedged a couple of doors open slightly in an attempt to balance our desire for warmth with the need to breathe.

Al Nivens headed one of the families on the lease. His father-in-law Harvey was a guest on this hunt. Harvey had retired as a railroad engineer and still wore the pin-striped Big Smith coveralls and matching cap from his days on the rails. He was a portly gentleman with a round, ruddy face dominated by a huge, friendly smile. I discovered that he also made the best venison chili in the entire world.

This great old man had spent the early evening hours dicing the hindquarters of a deer into tiny cubes. Now he browned the meat in the cured embrace of a large dutch oven resting on a bed of coals pulled forward from the crackling fireplace. He added chopped onions, garlic, comino, tomatoes, chili powder, flour, water and whatever other exotic ingredients he had garnered into that simmering cauldron.

Harvey's efforts would provide lunch the next day, but later that night the aroma of that chili was the sole focus of everyone in the house. Alston Brown slipped over to give the bubbling pot a quick stir. It was no surprise that the ladle found its way to his mouth. His eyes rolled back. Harvey chuckled and encouraged the rest of us to have a sample. It was just plain great, and the longer it cooked, the better it got. To this day I still dream of that chili.

We had all settled into warm, blanket-shrouded bunks when Harvey felt the urge to visit the old outhouse in the side yard. Its predecessor had been a magnificent two-seater that had succumbed to the elements years before, becoming an interesting, but useless, pile of old lumber. Bundling up, Harvey lumbered out the door.

Suddenly, we heard a scream! It was an awful sound that would not stop. It got louder, if possible, overriding the other noises in the howling wind. As we ran through the house and spilled into the yard, the fractured beam of Harvey's flashlight spilled crazily through the cracks of the walls of the outhouse.

Was it a rattlesnake? As we moved forward cautiously, the door burst open and Harvey lurched out, huge overalls shackling his ankles. Wild-eyed, he stumbled three short steps and tumbled roughly to the ground. "It went right for me!" he yelled. He shook a hand behind him in the direction of the great black open maw of a door. We poured light into the opening, and eyes glowed like small coals back at us.

There, perched on the raised lid of the seat stood the most indignant woodpecker you ever saw! Head tilted to one side, it gave an angry squawk and burst over our heads to disappear into the welcome freedom of the boundless, windy night sky.

Harvey had totally lost his sense of humor, which, of course, made matters worse. Dad, Sleepy and Al were rolling on the ground beside Harvey, lost in convulsions of helpless laughter. Dad looked at me, tears streaming down his face, tried desperately to control himself, then lost it all again.

With what dignity he could muster, Harvey fought to his feet, got his overalls up from around his ankles, and stalked back toward the house. Richard and I were behind. "It sure was a big 'un, Harvey," Richard said in solemn tones. Harvey wheeled to face us. We watched that stern glare dissolve into laughter at the sight of our awkward grins. With twinkling eyes, his arms draped our shoulders, gathering us to him. We sat at the table inside and enjoyed one more cup of chili.

I think of Harvey often and remember him fondly. His are some of the memories I treasure most from the part of my life spent on that ranch in the old house with no windows, five doors and a chimney that wouldn't draw...

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Dutchman

The mid morning sun burned brightly in a cobalt blue, cloudless sky. It was hot, as only the Texas brush country in August can be. Milling cattle raised a roiling cloud of dust that hung heavily in the air. It clung to the men and cattle in and around the corral--a thickening layer of tan powder. The sound of hoofs created a constant rumble as the stock bolted back and forth. Cattle bawled their displeasure at being crowded so. Cutting gates worked open and shut, separating yearlings and smaller calves from the larger herd for branding and castrating. Cowhands called to one another as they whistled at and cajoled the cattle. One man on horseback pushed and crowded the stock as necessary. His horse focused on the cattle, and occasionally huffed when a sudden burst of speed was needed.

The Dutchman was in the corral alongside the outer fence as the cattle milled and lowed. Rivulets of sweat rolled down his face, leaving dark tracks through the dust and dirt caked there. He tapped a sideboard of the outer fence, asking me to pass his stiff lariat through to him. He grabbed the rope in his left hand, built a small loop, and sailed it out just ahead of a yearling trotting quickly past him. The yearling's head passed into the loop as he moved forward. Johnny popped the rope to draw slack and tighten the loop securely around the animal's neck. Then he quickly dallied up on the short, upright steel bar he had welded to the left arm of his wheelchair. That done, he jerked the chair sideways and set himself against the coming instant when the slack in the rope would disappear, hoping to stop and turn the calf while a cowboy ran in to leg it over so it could be worked.

The rope snapped taut, pulling the chair over on its side with a sudden, irresistible force. The Dutchman wrapped his gloved hands into the coils of the lariat and held on as he was dragged through the corral, rolling wildly in the wake of the yearling as it lunged ahead against the weight and resistance it now pulled. His lower body was limp and useless, but Johnny held the rope with a fierce determination that amazed us all. Two of the hands ran to the animal in desperate, lunging strides. One, heading the calf off and the other legging him up and over, off his feet to be worked.

Uncle Johnny chuckled, despite what he had just been through as two men, one lifting under each shoulder, brought him up and back into his battered old chair. He thanked them for their help and turned his attention back to the work unfolding around him. His shouted instructions and encouragement soon had things flowing smoothly again.

Years earlier, Johnny had started the herd buying canners and cutters from some of the Jersey herds at dairies in the area. He had saved and bought fine Beefmaster bulls from the breed's foundation herd on the Miller ranch southwest of Falfurrias, Texas. Johnny Friesen had now bred up a bunch of cattle that were as fine as any to be found. He was proud of his cattle, and I was proud of him.

The Dutchman had been raised near Premont by a hard working family. His father was a truck farmer who raised tomatoes and other vegetables that he hauled to market in the larger surrounding cities.

As a young man, World War II pulled Johnny into its embrace with countless other young men of his generation. He joined the Navy and served in the Pacific as an ensign on a submarine. During the Battle of the Coral Sea, depth charges repeatedly rolled off the hull of their ship. He was infinitely proud of that service and time in the Navy. He once told me a story of being on leave in Honolulu during the war. He and some other crew members were celebrating in a local bar. A group of marines came in demanding space and attention. Johnny asked the men who they thought they were? "United Stated Marines," came the proud reply!
"Oh," Johnny smiled. "You mean the Third Marines," he exclaimed.
"Whaddaya mean, the third marines?" the rowdy asked.
"Well," Johnny mused. "The First Marines are the Submarines," he smiled. "The Second Marines are the Merchant Marines, and the Third Marines are the U.S. Marines!" He hooted! A grand fight ensued that he obviously still remembered fondly.

Johnny was injured just after the war and paralyzed from the chest down, but he never slowed down. He farmed, ranched and lived life fully, never conceding a thing to his injury. He irrigated crops, plowed, bailed hay, worked cattle and drove himself wherever he needed to go. He was a devoted husband and raised a fine family and had grandchildren whom he loved dearly. The Dutchman was one of the people who touched my boyhood in a profound way. Uncle Johnny was, and remains, larger than life in my world. He was a man confined to a wheelchair, but never, in any way, defined by it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Island

My summer days were marked by warm gulf breezes sliding under billowing cumulus clouds. Breezes that blew over freshly cut fields of cane hay drying in the shimmering heat of a sunny July afternoon. While curing before bailing, the crushed stems gave off a scent that made me hungry for its sweetness. It was not unusual to find me chewing on a freshly cut stalk as I wandered those fields enjoying the vibrant world around me.

The breezes also carried sounds of cattle lowing at their calves, keeping them from wandering too far afield. Mixed in as well, were the piping, brassy whistles of male Bob White Quail in the frenzy of their mating cycle. That summons was returned by the short, plaintive chirps of the hens. It was common to observe two or three of these small, fierce cocks descend on a lady to compete vigorously for her favor. Aggressive posturing and open combat were often the direct result of these confrontations.

I quickly learned to imitate the calls of both the cocks and hens and was able to call in a hen or a couple of frantic males who, upon seeing each other, would charge into fierce battle and seem to forget the fickle damsel that had brought them together in the first place.

Summer temperatures would often top 100 degrees. Air conditioning was still relatively rare in those days. The best way to escape the heat was to go swimming. My friends and I did this as often as possible. There were various ponds scattered on our place as well as on neighboring ranches. They were a necessity for anyone running cattle in the brush country. Dad had a 90 acre pasture he had cleared on the west side of the place we called the lagoon as it was low and would catch and retain water when we had a good rain. After clearing most of the brush, he had a large pond or tank dug out in the lowest spot in the pasture. It was stocked with large mouth bass and catfish. We often camped out and fished on its banks under the dark velvet canopy of a huge Texas sky dusted with stars.

Hurricane Beulah came through and transformed our tank and dam completely. It became a horseshoe shaped island in the middle of roughly half a section of water! The waters surrounding our island ranged from ankle to some six feet in depth. The boggy bottom gave the water a murky grey-brown texture and provided fodder for mud fights of huge proportions. The island became our base of operations through that wonderful lazy summer.

We structured a primitive raft from the ancient sideboard of an abandoned trailer. Flotation was made possible by lashing empty oil drums beneath each end of the vessel. It was a very unstable craft and would overturn with great frequency. This was no real problem as we loved being wet anyway. However, as we learn in life, trouble is always lurking around a dark corner.

An early rendezvous had been called early one Sunday morning. Slipping away from the house, I answered the roster in my church clothes. During the course of the meeting, a short voyage around the island was suggested and agreed upon. Wearing my dress clothes made me a bit hesitant to board, but a vote of all hands present and solemn assurances that great care would be observed overrode my concerns.

Todo, Grant and Buster were already on the deck and I soon joined them. The morning was beautiful. Several trees rose mutely from the surface, maintaining a lonely vigil over the surrounding waters. These reflected in the rippling, golden light of the newly risen sun dancing on its surface.

As we poled the raft through the glassy surface, a water moccasin glided across the bow with a graceful see-sawing motion, leaving a delicate rippling wake in its path. Buster rose from his kneeling position on the deck with a look of open wonder on his face. He extended his right arm, right hand and index finger shaking furiously, and shouted "Look," loud enough to raise the dead.

I noticed the even line of the horizon begin to shift. When it was closing on a forty-five degree angle, I realized that all hands had abandoned ship. As the raft continued to tilt, I sensed that she would soon complete her roll. I lunged at a nearby tree limb in a frantic, hopeless effort to stay dry.

I caught that limb and hung on for dear life! Within a few seconds my fingers were going numb and I realized that my legs were submerged to my knees. Resigned that there was no escape, I released my hold and slid beneath the surface to join my friends.

We caroused and played shamelessly for twenty minutes or so before the reality of my situation really set in. Emerging from the water, filled with remorse, I chastised Buster. He smiled and shrugged his shoulders. After all, he said fate had sent the snake to us and who could argue with fate?

I tried to be truly repentant in church that sultry Sunday morning. I knew that my mother's limits of patience had been severely tested once again. An occasional drop of sweat rolled down my neck into my collar. Hot air in the sanctuary recirculated around us through the constant hum of a large upright electric fan placed in the rear of the room. I noticed that folks smelled different in church clothes than they did in everyday ones, and I smiled at the memories of earlier that morning as the sermon droned on.

I recall the pastor saying, "The young pine knows the secrets of the ground. The old pine knows the stars." I retain no real memories of the rest of the sermon, but for some reason those words hung into me. I have thought of them from time to time over the years. I'm now long past those days of shuffling around with my hands crammed in my pockets and my shirt tail half out.

Reflecting on them now, I sometimes feel the reverse is true, at least where humans are concerned. As a boy, my child's eye would let me reach up, gathering in armfuls of those stars to sift through my fingers. That trick's not as easy to pull off as it once was.

I may not have known redemption that sultry Sunday morning, but there was an aura of contentment with me on that hard oak pew. Keeping it company was my mother's reproving glance, an occasional lopsided grin of my father's and the faint scent of moss and stagnant mud from the waters surrounding "The Island."

Friday, September 12, 2008

A Noise From The Basement

Dad and I had been left to our own devices... As was sometimes the case, the absence of my mother's mitigating influence allowed an interesting situation to evolve that would never have had a snowball's chance in her presence. Thinking back, it's amazing that she left Dad and I alone as often as she did.

Mother and little sister had driven from the farm to the city of Corpus Christi, Texas. They had a doctor's appointment and planned to use the balance of the day shopping for a new outfit or two.

After lunch, I was sprawled on the side porch of the house, gouging seeds from a slice of cool watermelon. Closing my eyes, I can still almost taste the icy sweetness of that melon from so many years ago, its juice trickling down my chin and being wiped away on the damp sleeve of my shirt, leaving a sticky film in its place.

Dad was gathering tools and supplies that were tossed in the back of his old Ford pick up truck to repair fences damaged by a yearling calf overcome by wanderlust. Alston Brown pulled up through the ruts leading to the house and braked. As he stopped a plume of caliche dust rolled over and past his truck. It was soon swept away in the strong, warm, coastal breeze. Alston owned the local hardware in town and contracted plumbing and electrical work for people in and around the nearby town of Premont.

His truck was a source of ongoing wonder to me. It was filled with a large variety of interesting things. Plumbing and electrical supplies were tossed randomly into the bed of the pick up. There were numerous tools, a lariat rope, a shotgun, magazines, a partial case of Mail Pouch chewing tobacco and countless other items of general interest as they might prove useful or of some value at some point in the future. I loved that truck, and busied myself taking inventory of new or previously overlooked items as he and Dad greeted each other.

Some time had passed before I noticed the two of them grinning, nodding and looking my way, knowingly. Dad gestured with a wave of his arm that I should join them. I bailed out of the bed of the truck and trotted over to find out what was up. I wasn't disappointed as Alston told me that he had come into possession of an extremely fine specimen of a young Javelina, or peccary.

These are small hog-like animals native to the dry, brushy coastal regions of South Texas.They also range into West Texas, Southern New Mexico and the desserts of Arizona. In the wild their diet consists of the roots of various cactus, snakes, insects and careless small rodents. They are very social and roam in groups or "packs" that range in number from three or four to twenty or so. Their sense of smell and hearing are excellent. The major handicap they live with is that of being extremely near-sighted. When a young javelina is captured, they tame very quickly and make excellent pets. A small one will readily adopt a human as its parent and become extremely affectionate and protective in their presence. However, they are also apt to inflict serious injury to any other animal or person perceived as a threat to their adopted parent or themselves.

It was Alston's judgment, with Dad's consent, that I would be the perfect choice to rear this little pig. I never understood how he convinced Dad that his choice was logical as well. All I knew was that he had been successful, and my boy's gratitude knew no bounds. We went into town, stopped at Alston's house and claimed my new pet. I was thrilled to see that the small female was quite gentle and instantly responded to my caresses and scratching on her stomach and behind her ears. We were inseparable from the first. Dad and I began to ponder where we could keep her on the way home. There was no suitable pen or enclosure for her.

We finally came up with an obvious, if temporary, solution. The farmhouse had a basement. It was nothing fancy, you understand. It had an earthen floor and was, for all practical purposes, largely unfinished. We both knew and agreed that Mother would never approve of this choice on a permanent basis, but that it should be alright as we expected to have a pen prepared tomorrow anyway. Surely, we could get away with it for one night.

Exchanging knowing glances, we realized the value of silence in this particular situation. Just for tonight, mum was the word! Pulling up to the house, we carried my new friend into the cellar and brought down the watermelon I had been working on earlier. She relished it hugely. It looked like this was all going to work out fine after all.

Swinging the cellar doors back into place, we saw Mom and sister return home within a very few minutes. Relieved that we had not been caught in the act, we followed the women into the house, and Mother began recanting events from the day as she prepared supper. She loved her trips to Corpus.

Somewhat later, the meal being set, we gathered around the table, and followed Dad's lead. Clasping hands and bowing our heads, Dad began to give thanks. In the middle of his first sentence a distinct sound rose, then faded slowly away. "Waaaaaank," it resounded. I cautiously cracked an eye open, glanced at Pop and saw his knuckles go white.

His eyes opened slightly and rolled in my direction. "What was that sound?" Mother asked. "Something outside, I guess," was my nervous reply. Dad, much to his credit, smiled, closed his eyes, and tried to continue. The sound rose again. "Waaaaaank," it reverberated!

Mother sat up very straight and slapped her palms loudly, flat down on the table top! As she rose, I could see the small veins protruding on her forehead. A muscle worked strongly in her firmly set jaw. I looked at Dad with wide eyes. This was going to be very bad.

"There's a #%$&*%! HOG in MY house!", She bellowed. I felt the blood drain from my face. I had never heard Mother curse before. It was no small surprise to discover that she could do a really bang up job of it! Glancing once again at Dad, I saw his left eye twitch slightly. Outrage was a woefully inadequate word to describe Mom's level of distress.

We finished supper in an aura of stony silence. Dad and I went through the mechanics of finishing a meal that we no longer had any appetite for. This was one time I was grateful not to be an adult.

In later years we would come to recall that evening to the sounds of laughter and good natured kidding. It was a time, however brief, that my mother lost her religion...and I discovered mine.

I did get to keep the pig...

Friday, September 5, 2008


I'm not sure just how old the farm house really is. Dad put its true age at somewhere over 75 years, but that was some 45 years ago.

We moved to the farm from the small coastal Texas plains town of Premont when I was three years old. Memories of living in town are few and, for the most part, indistinct. They consist mainly of pinching ripe, sweet strawberries from the yard of our neighbors, Wilmer and Estelle Schneider.

I had a pet Boston bull dog, Fritz. We got caught under the tool shed sharing a bone in the cool, damp soil in the crawlspace. Mother could see our eyes shining in the dark recesses beneath the floor as we took turns gnawing on the bone. No amount of threats or cajoling would get either of us to budge. A good scolding was one thing, but even at this early age I could appreciate a strategic advantage. I was not about to give up a secure hiding place and expose myself to the distinct possibility of having my bottom dusted. Fritz and I couldn't figure out just what was wrong with Mother, anyway.

My horizons expanded considerably with our move to the country.

I was a child used to struggling to escape the confines of a chain link fence around a small city lot. The farm presented infinite possibilities.

Dad had stopped plowing and stepped down from his tractor to visit with a friend in the heat of a lazy summer afternoon. I worked my way over to the tractor while he and Alston Brown exchanged greetings. Even then, I had come to love the rich smell of freshly turned earth, watching the roil of soil play out behind the plow. As Dad settled into his conversation with Alston, I crept beneath the huge wheels, pulled myself aboard, ground into first gear and headed for the back forty, leaving an erratic set of wonderful rich smelling furrows in my wake. I was a real farmer! Dad kept a much closer eye on me and the key to the tractor in his pocket after that.

With the passage of a few years, I came to accept the constraints of public school with some degree of resignation. When the final bell rang to free us for the balance of the Fall afternoons, those hours were filled in the pursuit of jackrabbits or quail with an old Remington single shot 22 that Dad had passed on to me from his boyhood. He had first hunted with it as a boy in 1927.

Various friends would accompany me on these outings, and it is a great source of pleasure that most of us are still in contact with each other despite the passage of considerable time. I was no more or less bloodthirsty than the boys I grew up with and we all dearly loved hunting and anything to do with the outdoors. It is a passion that I retain to this day.

One of my favorite quarries in those days happened to be rattlesnakes. They were plentiful, and the chance of an encounter with one was a constant possibility. I was always bringing snakes home. I would skin them and salt the hides. After curing, I would work Neetsfoot oil into the brittle, salty skins and sell them for belts and hat bands.

My interest in wildlife went well beyond simple hunting. I wanted to learn all I could about the variety of creatures inhabiting the world of my youth. As a result of that curiosity, I came to rear and possess a menagerie of animals. These included raccoons,deer, cottontail rabbits and javelina. The latter got me into, by far, my most serious fall from grace, in the eyes of my mother, that I was to experience for many years to come.

You know, that might be as good a place to start fanning these embers as any. You will see that I had a pretty fine childhood.
I hope I never grow out of it...