Faith Lights a Flame - Next Chapter
Chapter 2 - March 28
The James Ranch, Texas
Fifty miles east near Dalhart, Texas, Walker Smythe’s eyes circled the ranch’s dining-room table. He itched to launch his cowboy life and avoided looking at the sofa on which Charlie had been laid out. After obeying each rule for twenty-two years, adrenaline surged. His adventure had arrived! Walker placed his used fork on the plate and shoved his chair without a sound. He followed the cowboys carrying his bag and guitar.
At the bottom of the steps, a rancher, the center of attention, spun a cigarette in his fingers. “Horrible winter. Five blizzards cost my brother and me the best family-owned ranch in these United States. Gov’nment and dadgum farmers plowed the healthy buffalo grass. Shot the coyotes—” He pointed a cigarette at Walker. “What’cha staring at, my redheaded stranger?”
“Hello, sir. Name is Walker Smythe from Indiana. Found an ad in Farm Journal magazine from a few years ago, so I came to work. I understand you’re Andy James.”
His hand hung clumsily in the air until several men shook it.
The man’s chuckle filled the porch. “A Hoosier, huh? ’Fraid you are a little late to work the best James Ranch ever, but you’re not a cripple, so we can use your help. Figure we’re branding about five hundred calves so we and the neighbors will be busy. ’Member everyone is awake at 3:30 that morning. Boys just have a few days to get things branding next week out on the prairie. Fixing to turn this Hoosier into a cowhand.” Pointing an entourage of men to the corral, he ground a cigarette under his boot.
Walker longed to join the cowboys whose palatable enthusiasm unified them.
“Name’s Andy, by the way. Andy James.”
Uncertain what to make of the slim, brash man, Walker waited for his lead.
With agility usually reserved for younger men, Andy mounted his horse. “Hoosier, you ride horses?”
Horseback was the only method of transportation on the farm back home. Dad’s Model T, purchased before Mum died, remained in pristine condition, reserved for special occasions.
Andy cleared his throat, bringing Walker to the present.
“Yes, sir.” Walker removed a carrot from the bag he’d packed with enthusiasm three days earlier. He rubbed the animal’s nose. The horse nickered appreciation. “Fine horse.”
“You need any questions answered, ask me. ’Course I have opinions but been here longer than anyone. Started branding our cattle to protect them from rustlers. It’s a mark of ownership; showing what’s yours until you sell it. Gotta castrate ’em cuz you don’t want to carry on bad genetics and dehorn, or you lose a lot of money trying to sell them. My brother, Robert and I landed here when the folks headed west after Granddaddy returned from the War of Northern Aggression.”
War of Northern Aggression? The fellow meant the devastating conflict, as a rule referred to as the War Between the States. It ended, what—he subtracted in his head—sixty-four years earlier.
“Where is your goldarned hat, boy? Cain’t survive Texas sun bareheaded. Clyde from Herzstein’s Haberdashery should still be in the house after Charlie’s funeral this morning.” Andy dismounted.
Walker followed Andy into the parlor, arguing with himself about wasting money on a hat. He intended saving for the next venture after he tired of ranch work, and before anyone betrayed his trust.
Walker glanced again in the front room where three men conversed: the mortician, Jess, the ranch owner’s son, and another carried a hatbox.
“Hoosier, what size are you?” Andy motioned to the man with a hatbox. “Clyde, measure this boy’s head, would ya?”
“Out in the car.”
After negotiation, Andy extended a new Stetson to Walker. “Hat should keep sun off your head. Make it easier to cowboy. You eyed the black hat…but only bandits and bootleggers wear black. Working men need light-colored hats to keep cool. If you work out through August, the hat is yours. If not, you owe me two five spots.”
Walker understood the meaning and value of two five-dollar notes with President Lincoln’s picture. “Thank you, sir.” He admired himself in a mirror. Effie, his one-time girlfriend, would have liked him in a fine Stetson. He shook his head to forget.
Andy jogged outside and patted his horse.
Adjusting the Stetson and grateful for shade, Walker followed, twisting the bill upward unsuccessfully.
“It’ll take a while for the hat to adjust to you.”
“What is the pay?”
“Around forty bucks a month with bed and board, if ya work hard, break nothing, and stay out of trouble.”
Not enough to develop wealth, but plenty to move closer to his commitment to Mum. He would finish college, eventually.
“City boys, like you, when they last, spend most of their pay in town for baths before the dance. Or stop in #126.”
The answer didn’t clarify. “What else should I know?”
“You ain’t been to this part of Texas, so here’s what to watch out for— rattlesnakes, lightning, and easy women, like them over at #126, the Yellow House.” Andy’s hearty laugh filled the air.
Walker concluded the number referred to a house of ill repute, which Mum had warned him about.
Andy patted his pocket, removed a cigarette from a pack and clenched it on one side of his mouth. He talked from the other side and leaned to block the wind as he struck a match. “Beside riding, what else you do?”
“Milk cows, plow, harvest, slop hogs, feed chickens and slaughter, too. Outstanding marks in school. Finished three and a half years of college—”
“Got no use for college boys.”
Perhaps, going to Texas may have been a mistake.
Seeming to read his mind, Andy said, “Guess we’ve had worse. My brother’s wife in there, Ivy, a tiny lady with a big heart, takes care of business, likes book learning.” He peered across the fields. “Dadgum farmers. Plowing up land. How are we going to keep the rabbits under control?”
“Dad farms in Indiana.”
“As long as he stays back there.” He squinted at Walker. “Plan on farming here?”
“No, sir. Just work this summer. Then, off to see the world before I settle down.” He chuckled. “Can learn anything if someone shows me once.”
“We take men ’round here at face value—do the work, you’re okay; don’t, you’ll be encouraged to move on.” Andy exhaled smoke and filled his lungs again.
Walker frowned and his ears grew warm at the innuendo. “When I move on, it will be to experience new things. Missed out on the Great War.” He didn’t confess he’d spent his college money on Effie’s engagement ring.
After a moment’s silence, Andy’s jaw clenched as he stared at the wide-open pastures. “War’s not all that great to those who didn’t return and worse for some who did. Made millionaires outta farmers and poor men outta ranchers.” Heat rays rose from the horizon. “This here part of Texas…the best cattle country in the world. The James Ranch in the ad fell apart in 1919. Dad-blasted blizzards. You catch my story back there?” Without awaiting a response, he continued. “We borried…”
Walker smiled at the word for “borrow.”
“…two hundred thousand from the bank for feed. Never needed so much before. Thought we’d be profitable till the fifth blizzard hit, late April. Killed most of the cattle. We started over on ranches next to one another here in the Texas panhandle, like Granddaddy after the war. Don’t have the land or the cattle we once had, but we’ll keep you busy. Hope you like good food and hard work.”
Walker mopped his brow. “When does it cool off around here?”
“In good years, ’round about the end of October. Usually by Christmas. Good i-deer to drink lots of water any time of year. Supper at six.”
A petite woman stepped to the porch and extended her hand. “I’m Ivy.”
At her elegant movements, Walker almost kissed her hand, but she shook his instead.
Andy’s speech became subdued. “Miss Ivy’s got something for you before you head to the bunkhouse and corral.” He lifted his chin as Walker strode into a pile of manure. “Your first cow pie, Hoosier. Welcome to Texas!”
Walker wiped his boot in the grass until the foul refuse was almost gone.
Andy tipped his hat. “Missus Ivy, you need our college boy?”
She waved him into the house and opened a rolltop desk. “Walker, pull up a chair.”
He appreciated she used his given name instead of “Hoosier.” Her Ivory soap smell and struck him with melancholy because Mum had used such, but he turned away and eyed the ledgers, labeled from 1900.
Fondness turned her lips upward and she ran her finger along the binding of the oldest ledger. “Nineteen-aught-aught, the year Robert and I married. Children, we were, but learned so much along the way. Maintaining the books keeps the ranch running. Sad to lose poor Charlie.” She brushed a tear rushing toward her chin. “I need you to write the letter to his momma. Did you make it in time for his service here this morning?”
Yes, he’d had the misfortune of arriving moments before the funeral began.
Mrs. Ivy’s words brought him back to the task at hand. “Andy said you’d write with a masculine hand and good spelling.” She slid an embossed sheet of stationery, stamped with the ranch’s brand. “The cowboys gave me a few things to tell poor Charlie’s momma, but they agreed he was a good roper.”
Walker wiped his sweaty hands on his britches and dipped a fountain pen in the ink bottle, writing the date: March 28, 1929.
Mrs. Ivy dictated as he blotted the pen carefully, leaving an elegant letter which would have pleased his grammar schoolteachers. When he finished, he read aloud about Charlie’s humor, his strength, about how hard he worked to learn to rope. However, he questioned how difficult roping could be.
“Close with ‘Regards.’ Robert will sign his name.”
“Call me Ivy. You may need to change from dress clothes before doing cowhand work.”
The rough bunkhouse provided sleeping quarters for four men and excited Walker’s pioneer spirit. No carpet, painted walls, or fancy chairs. Few personal possessions decorated the rough bunks. Outside a window adorned with a frayed curtain, the outhouse was far enough to minimize smell and close enough for convenience, but a chamber pot and stove in one corner indicated frosty mornings to come…if he stayed until then. The potbelly stove contains no ashes, fresh or cold. He couldn’t fall asleep in a room with a live fire.
Beneath an empty bunk, Walker stuffed his new Dalhart Bank ledger from an account opened that morning into a bag and shoved it with his guitar case under the mattress.
Hanging a few clothes on an empty nail, he removed a knife, shells and a revolver, a Colt .45, gifts from his grandfather. After he rubbed fingers over his pocketknife engraving of a Bible verse about God being with him, he secured each in the blue denim trousers Levi Strauss called waist overalls. What had he gotten himself into?