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...