Chapter 5:

The Wreck

 

 

The old Chevy was heavy and slow but amazingly resilient.

A lighter, lesser vehicle surely wouldnít have survived all the punishment we put it through.

An incident which is a good example of the treatment the truck endured began innocently enough one summer evening when Johnny decided to drive to a dance at the nearby VFW hall.

When morning dawned the next day there was no sign of him or his vehicle. Not wanting to excite my mother, who had not yet realized Johnny was missing, Dad secretly told me to go find him.

Gratified to be trusted with such a serious assignment, I hopped on my bicycle and struck out for the nearest of our remote pastures. Less than a mile down the lane from our house, this particular pasture was situated behind a locked gate which spanned the road on a long, steep grade. Beyond the gate the road led to a flat plain where our cattle pens and a series of feed troughs stood.

As I started down the grade I could see the truck below me at the gateÖor, in the gate. Actually, imbedded in the gate would be accurate.

Constructed of pipe and sucker rods and latched with heavy chain, the once square and plumb gate was now shaped like a big horseshoe into which the nose of the truck was tightly pinched.

My pulse involuntarily quickened, thinking perhaps Johnny was trapped inside, injured or maimed. As I slid up to the vehicle, fearing what I might see, I found the driverís door ajar and no one inside.

I noticed several empty beer bottles strewn about the cab. Several more decorated the ground around the wreck, apparently tossed out of the bed by the impact.

Employing detective skills learned from reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I quickly determined there were no traces of blood or hair. This, I surmised, was a good sign and was relieved by it. Still, I hadnít found Johnny.

After looking in and under the bushes on either side of the road, I returned to the truck and noticed boot prints leading through the fence and into the pasture. I lost the trail on the rocks but followed the road down to the pens. The cattle had congregated around the feeders. They evidently recognized the truck and were expecting someone to throw hay at them at any moment.

As I scoured the ground for more footprints I thought I heard a groaning noise mixed with the sounds of the cattle. It seemed to be coming from one of the troughs. As I approached the feeder, which was made of railroad crossties with wooden planks nailed to their sides, I saw the toes of Johnnyís boots sticking up.

There he lay in all his resplendent glory, flat on his back like a corpse in a coffin. The tails of his pearl-snapped western shirt were half in and half out of his Leviís, his fly yawned agape and his hat covered his face. A longneck bottle rested horizontally atop his chest, a swallow or two of its soapy liquid rolling around inside as he breathed and moaned.

"You look like hell," I said, leaning over him.

He jerked the hat away, squinted and shot me a red-faced stare of recognition. Then he moaned again as he let his head fall back against the trough and pulled the hat over his eyes again.

"I feel like hell," he said, "Go play with a rattlesnake or something. Leave me alone. Iím real sick."

"Musta been something you drank, huh?"

"I told you to git. Now git!" he growled.

"Canít do it. Daddy said I had to tell you to get your tail home," I replied.

"Daddy? He ainít here is he?" Johnny said, jerking himself upright and trying to look around.

After he stumbled about and straightened up a little he walked home and put in an appearance at the breakfast table so Mom could see him. Then, we returned to the scene of the crime and spent the rest of the day extricating the Chevy from the tangled remains of the gate.

Both headlights were shattered and some paint was scraped away. Otherwise, the old truck came through the incident in considerably better shape than my brother.

Johnny insisted the brakes had failed.

Unfortunately, Dad found the beer bottles we had slung out into the brushy thicket and drew another conclusion.

It was a long time before Johnny visited the VFW again.

 

Chapter Seven:

Worms, Floods and Cactus

 

 

 

 

Actually, the occasions whenever Johnny engaged in irresponsible foolishness were rare. Most of his time was spent trying to maintain and increase a scraggly herd of crossbreed cattle. His efforts were constantly challenged by fluctuating market prices, diseases, droughts, floods, lack of sufficient pasture and small working capital.

If my brother had ever labored under the impression that his life as a rancher was going to be mostly riding and roping and sitting around the campfire singing Marty Robbins ballads, then he was sadly mistaken.

In the first place our tiny little operation was too small to even be considered a ranch by the standards of the area. There were real ranches were all around us. These spreads had thousands of acres and hundreds of cattle. By contrast, all we had to work with were a few small pieces of land we struggled to keep under lease, upon which we usually ran slightly less than a hundred head of cattle.

The real ranches were big enough to support full time employees. Some supported several families and a few were sufficient in scope to employ professional cowboys who did very little except ride and rope and work cattle.

The big ranches relied heavily on illegal alien labor and private contractors to help with the mundane chores of keeping things going. Little guys like us could afford no such luxuries. As the old saying goes, Johnny was chief cook and bottle washer. He was basically responsible for everything. Dads was sort of the senior stockholder. His primary employment was in the oil field. The cattle ranching was always a side interest for him.

For Johnny, it was a vocation. Consequently, he had little time for anything except workÖhard workÖand plenty of it. Our family ranch may not have been big but it certainly was busy.

The pickup truck was as essential to the daily processes as were the ax, posthole diggers, fencing pliers, catch ropes, saddles, branding irons and other tools of the trade. Not only did it provide transportation, but it also hauled all the paraphernalia needed for the tasks of the moment.

One of the most familiar items in any stockmanís pickup in those days was screwworm medicine. It was a gummy, tar-like concoction which came in a small glass bottle equipped with an applicator like those used for shoe polish - a wire attached to the bottom of the lid with a fuzzy swab on the end.

Screwworms were a particularly dreaded pestilence. They infected

cattle and horses and, in some instances, even humans. These flesh-eating worms were actually the larvae of a particular species of fly. Animals were infested through wounds or openings in the skin into which the fly deposited eggs.

Once the worms reached a certain level of maturity they bore into the flesh like a self-propelled wood screw drilling its way inside. Any sort of cut or scratch made an animal vulnerable. Even the most insignificant wound quickly became life-threatening if it went untreated.

In a region where virtually everything has thorns or needles or barbs, this spelled big trouble. A constant vigil was essential. Livestock had to be seen every day, to assure that any wounds were detected and treated at the earliest opportunity.

The daily feeding of range cubes or hay served to get the cattle in the habit of coming to the same spot at roughly the same time every day, so a visual inspection and head count could take place. Otherwise, a whole pasture would have to be searched.

If a cow was expecting a calf, her progress could be checked. When birth appeared imminent, the cow would be held in a pen. But, often the arrival came early or the expectant cow would simply refuse to come to the feed. In such cases the calves were born far from a pen, in the thickest, thorniest undergrowth of brush and cactus the mother could find - it being the natural instinct of range animals to seek security from predators.

Newborns and mothers had to be located and attended promptly. It was not something that could be put off until tomorrow. Such animals were particularly susceptible to screwworms because flies naturally swarm navel cords and broken tissues. If the pickup truck or the saddlehorse couldnít take Johnny to them, he had to go afoot, carrying a bucket which contained range cubes, a catch rope and the worm medicine.

Depending on the disposition and personality of the particular mother cow, doctoring her and the calf could be a simple chore or a very dangerous task. A cooperative cow could be lured out of the thicket with the cubes, or led out with the catch rope. Sometimes both animals were doctored in place.

Some of our crossbeed cows, however, were about as friendly as horned grizzly bears immediately after a birth. On more than one occasion Johnny exited the thicket in a dead run with a newborn calf in his arms and a bellowing mother in hot pursuit. This work was not for the slow or faint of heart.

As serious and worrisome as screwworms were, they represented only one of a host of infirmities and misfortunes to which cattle seemed drawn like metal filings to a magnet. Every dawn seemed to bring new danger.

The native mesquite trees produced beans in the Spring. These slender green seed pods literally covered the ground around healthy trees and were like candy to our horses. They would eat mesquite beans until their bellies threatened to drag the ground, invariably causing them to develop colic.

The only sure cure for such an ailing animal was to clear his bowels. Since it isnít practical to feed a horse oat bran muffins and hot cappuccino coffee, more drastic measures are required.

Equine enemas were the only answer. A six-foot length of garden hose and a bucket of soapy water saved more than one horse around our place.

Sporadic epidemics of blackleg, pink eye and other diseases struck the region causing costly and unexpected losses. Poisonous fungi formed on grasses during certain times of the year. If the cattle happened to be in the field at that moment they were in trouble.

There was always something different to worry about, it seemed.

Lactating cows often got fever in their bags. Older animals with badly-worn teeth were unable to chew certain feeds sufficiently to digest them. If they werenít attended to promptly they would simply lay down and die.

One summer a neighbor who had spent thousands of dollars having his land cleared and planted with Coastal Bermuda grass watched in stark horror as his seemingly healthy cattle keeled over one by one.

A veterinarian and the county agent were summoned and investigated. To everyoneís amazement, autopsies revealed the cows had died of acute mineral deficiency. It was determined that the lush, newly-introduced grasses lacked some essential elements the cattle had theretofore derived from native vegetation. The use of supplemental mineral blocks became common following this incident.

During dry times creeks and ponds receded and thirsty cattle often bogged down in the thick mud. If not promptly freed they became helpless prey for coyotes, panthers, wild hogs and vultures.

Three of our pastures were bordered by the Frio river. If the weather was dry enough, and it often was, the river became a narrow stream which the cattle could easily ford. When they strayed they had to be retrieved.

There were times when "dry as dust" was an understatement. Months passed with little or no rain. Grass died. We ran out of hay.

Things got tough.

When this happened we either had to sell the cattle before they starved or find something for them to eat. Thankfully, God knew such times were ahead and had provided for such contingencies. He had caused cactus.

"Well, I guess itís time you learned about burning pear, little brother," Johnny said one fateful day as we drove about surveying our parched pastures and stressed cattle.

I already knew everything I wanted to know about burning pear. I had watched it being done before and didnít look forward to having any part in the process.

Prickly pear cactus is a particularly hardy species which thrives when other vegetation has shriveled up and blown away. Although generally not a cowís favorite menu item, cactus can keep range animals alive indefinitely, if they can endure the thorns.

Cattle forced to eat raw prickly pear suffer to survive. Their noses and tongues and faces are like pincushions. Realizing this, ranchers learned to assist their cattle by burning the thorns off the cactus.

The best method of burning pear was to use a burner attached to a small propane bottle which you carried on a sling over your shoulder. The business end of the device produces a blue flame about six inches long which is waved up against the cactus, igniting the needles and burning them away.

Make no mistake. This is torturously hot, dreadful work. Each surface of each pad had to be washed over with the flame from the burner. The cactus plants were almost always surrounded by rat nests which almost always contained rattlesnakes. Everything was dry and brittle and ready to catch afire. Smoke blinded and choked you. Heat blistered your face. The catclaw brush surrounding the cactus tore your skin and clothes. The starving cattle, desperate to fill their empty bellies, would knock you down and stomp you flat if you werenít careful.

A day spent burning pear is about as close to hell on earth as I care to imagine. And, like I said, using a portable pear burner was the best way to do it. During the early 1960s we werenít that lucky. We didnít own a pear burner yet. We had to do it the old-fashioned way.

Johnny borrowed a flatbed trailer from somewhere. We hitched it to the Chevy and drove across the rough pasture to the where the cactus was most dense. There we dragged up all the dried, dead brush and fallen mesquite limbs we could find and made ourselves a large fire. We used machetes to hack the cactus plants down to their stumps. We then speared the fallen cactus branches with pitchforks, carried them over and held them one by one in the flames.

Our work was complicated by the fact that we were surrounded by twenty or more bawling, anxious-to-be-fed bovines. We served them first - tossing each one a smoking, singed cactus branch to keep them occupied while we chopped and burned more cactus to fill the trailer.

It took most of the morning to get a load. Once we finally had it, we hauled it to the next pasture, which contained very little cactus of its own, and fed the hungry horde which awaited us there. This process repeated itself daily for several weeks before rains finally came and the native grasses returned.

We were bumping along in the old Chevy, bone-weary and heading home after a long, smoke-filled day when Johnny turned to me and imparted a bit of wisdom.

He said, "I used to think Daddy had a screw loose whenever I heard him praying for rain. But, the more pear we burn, the more I think he ainít so dumb after all."

I didnít say anything.

I was too busy imploring the Almighty.

 

 

If diseases and droughts and misfortunes werenít enough to make a cattleman pay his preacher and bend his knees, once every two or three years a hurricane would blow in off the Gulf of Mexico and put the fear of God into every living creature, large and small.

Our place was far enough inland that we never really experienced the brunt of a hurricane, but we got enough action to know we didnít want more. Hurricanes were generally preceded and followed by torrential rainfall, hailstorms and tornadoes.

A tornado swooped down on a nearby ranch one Sunday afternoon, catching a whole herd of cattle in a pen, being readied for shipment. Seeing the ominous twister bearing down upon them, the rancher and his crew fled in haste, leaving the hapless animals to fend for themselves.

They returned a couple of hours later, once the storm had passed, to find the elaborate picket pens and working chutes gone without a trace. The cattle were still standing in the same spot, unharmed but bewildered.

Crops were often beaten flat in the fields by hailstones. Tin was ripped from barns by high winds and ruinous rains soaked hay and feeds. Lightning bolts struck unfortunate animals who were unable to find shelter. Others were trapped, drowned or washed away.

Mother Nature worked overtime reminding us of how little control we had over anything, it seemed. It would have been depressing and unbearable without a sense of humor. Johnny heard a song on the "Hee Haw" television program which became his theme.

"Doom, despair and misery on me. Deep dark depression, excessive misery. If it werenít for bad luck Iíd have no luck at all," he sang as he went about his labor.

It helped him cope.

Sometimes the odds were just too great against us. Nothing, except an unshakable faith in God, helped. One such occasion was when a flood completely emptied our most remote pasture.

The floods were the aftermath of a hurricane which had come ashore a hundred miles away, spawning rains which didnít seem to quit.

It was coming down in sheets, non-stop, for hours on end. The downpour was so heavy that the windshield wipers in Johnnyís truck had no discernible effect.

We were desperately trying to get to the livestock and move them to higher ground. Alas, Longhorn Creek - which normally was dry as grandmaís Garrett snuff - had become a gushing monster which roared across the tiny road between us and this particular pasture.

Determined, Johnny shifted into low low and we inched past the barricades. Fortunately, he lost his nerve when we heard the cascading waters slamming into the driverís door panel and felt their force begin to push the truck sideways.

The Chevy didnít fail. Although the engine was most certainly soaked it kept running as we beat a hasty retreat. Despite our efforts, we were unable to reach the livestock before the creek and the river converged, cutting off all escape. With nowhere to go, the frightened animals simply stood in place until they were swept away.

Johnny and I were on the bank of the river twelve miles downstream when more than a dozen cattle and several ponies came floating by in single file.

The river was swollen to more than a quarter mile in width. I was watching the animals through binoculars. Not realizing what I was seeing, I remarked, "Looky there. Some poor fool is losing all his cows and horses. Theyíre just washing away."

"Lemme see," Johnny said.

I handed him the glasses.

"Yep. Sure enough. Those are ours," he said.

The animals had instinctively filled their bellies with air to buoy them. They bobbed like huge inflatable pool toys as they hurtled along, holding their noses high, trying to keep their nostrils clear.

We were helpless as they were, unable to do anything except watch from a distance.

Once the storm was over Dad told us to count our blessings. Other people had lost homes, possessions and loved ones, he said. We were fortunate indeed.

Under clear skies it was easy to see it would take months to get things back in order. Buildings and fences and roads had to be repaired. Debris was everywhere. Sheets of tin and wire, fallen trees and junk of all sorts had to be gathered and hauled. Stuck things had to be pulled free. Leaning things had to be righted. Needed things had to be fetched.

It all required time and effort.

Cleaning up meant a lot of extra work for everyone, especially for Johnny and his truck.

Exit

Read Chapter 6