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Hope Lights a Flame

By

Loni Kemper Moore


“ Faith does not quench desire but inflames it.”

Thomas Aquinas


Chapter 1 - February 24, 1929

Dalhart, Texas

Walker stepped from the train in Dalhart, Texas searching for adventure. He shielded his eyes and, once again, scanned the Farm Journal advertisement, although he’d committed each word to memory.


HELP WANTED. Strong, healthy, unattached men to work as cowhands near Dalhart, Texas. Good pay for hard work. The James Ranch. Ask for Andy.


The Zane Grey book, he read but left on his dresser back home in haste, came to life. Around him, men wore guns, hats, and high-heeled boots covered in fine dust, so different from lush soil of his Indiana home. Horses, tethered to railings before each newly painted building, flipped tails to intimidate flies. Here and there, a sapling struggled to survive. Where were the mountains? Occasionally, a blue flower popped from the ground. Was that one of the blue bonnets he’d read of? Perhaps Mr. Grey’s descriptions of the landscape were imaginary since novelists often exaggerate.


When Dalhart Building and Loan appeared on his left, he entered a dimly-lighted office. “May I open an account?”


The manager drawled and eyed him with suspicion. “Where you from, stranger?”


“Indiana, but I’ll be working at the James Brothers Ranch.” He hoped that was true.


The man’s demeanor changed. “With Robert and Andy?”


Nodding, Walker removed the few remaining dollar notes from his bag and soon left the establishment with a paper booklet listing his total deposit.


“Appreciate your business. If you ever need a loan, think of us. Any questions?”


“Know where Andy might be?”


“May have walked right past him. Prob’ly the train station. Fancies himself our own Will Rogers.”


Smiling at the reference to the well-known, outspoken Oklahoma actor, Walker’s anticipation rose with his heartrate as he approached the train station counter. He was an excellent student and farmer, and with hard work, he’d become a decent rancher. “Is Mister Andy James here?”


The station master eyed a group of men. “Andy? The blue shirt, over there, talking.”

Walker heard Andy before he saw his face and noticed his cadence, in fact, resemble Will Rogers, the Oklahoma actor the banker mentioned. For the briefest instant, he wished a friend were with him to experience the scene. When he compared the difference between his and the cowboys’ clothing, he pondered, as he had the entire three-day train trip, whether he had what it took to be a rancher.


The loquacious fellow held a light gray cowboy hat curved up on each side of a sweat-stained band. His tapered shirt emphasized broad shoulders with worn Levi’s and scuffed boots. Leathered facial skin spoke of time spent outside the confining comforts of home.


Walker stood on the edge of a circle of men without interrupting.


Andy said, “Winter so horrible five blizzards cost my brother and me the best family-owned ranch in these United States. Gov’nment and dadgum farmers plowed up the healthy buffalo grass—” He seemed to notice Walker for the first time. “What ’cha staring at, my red-headed stranger?”


Walker set his bag on the ground before he extended his hand. “Hello, sir. The 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 are Andy James.” His hand hung clumsily in the air until several men shook it.


Andy’s laughter filled the station as he looked Walker over. “A Hoosier, huh? ‘Fraid you are a few years late to work the best James Ranch ever, but you are not a cripple and as of this morning, I’m short a hand. Branding’s s’pposed to start tomorrow at my brother’s ranch. Where are your belongings?” Walking outside, he ground a cigarette under his boot.


Uncertain what to make of the slight, brash man, Walker lifted his belongings.


“Boys, I will catch you next time. Fixing to turn this Hoosier into a cowboy.” Andy mounted his horse as the group of men guffawed. “Joe.” He called inside to one man. “I am gonna borry Blackie to get this boy to the ranch. Bring ‘im back tomorrow.”


Walker frowned for the meaning of “borry,” but when Andy patted the rump of a black stallion, he concluded it meant to borrow.


“Hoosier, you know how to ride?”


Having only ridden horses on the farm back home, how else would he get anywhere? Pa’s words full of British slang rang in his ears, “Model T’s features such as the large boot in the back make it the most reliable vehicle, and you don’t need to splash out to buy it.” The car, purchased before Mum died, remained in pristine condition, reserved for special occasions, and would belong to him if he kept his promise. “Fine horse.”


Andy cleared his throat, bringing Walker to the present.


“Yes, sir.” Walker secured his bag in the saddlebag and rubbed the animal’s nose. Reaching into his case, he removed the last carrot from the lunch his father’s wife packed three days earlier.


The horse nickered thanks for the carrot.


Andy explained each building as they rode through town. “You need to know anything, ask me. ‘Course I have opinions but been here longer than nearly anyone. The folks headed west after he returned from the War of Northern Aggression. My brother, Robert and I landed here after that.”


War of Northern Aggression? The fellow must mean the devastating conflict more commonly referred to as the Civil War which ended, what—he calculated in his head—64 years earlier? Walker nodded and tried to keep up with Andy’s horse and lecture. The town boasted all it needed with fair grounds on one end, and stores lining the main street. A theater’s marquee announced The Hunchback of Notre Dame which Walker had seen in Indianapolis during the previous college Christmas break. Several churches circled the tallest building, the newly built Dallam County Courthouse. His mother advised him churches are the best place to make friends in a new town, but he had no need for friends, unless they were more reliable than those left behind.


“I came in looking for a hand. Where is your goldarned hat, boy? Cain’t survive this sun without one.” He guided his horse to a store with a suited manikin and hats made by Stetson in one window. Large letters painted on the glass announced “Herzstein’s Haberdashery.”


Walker dismounted, secured the reins, and followed Andy. He winced at the prices, intending to save money for the next adventure after he tired of ranch work and before anyone who claimed to be friend or family betrayed his trust. A hat would cost him the remainder of his funds.


“Hoosier, what size are you?” Andy motioned to the cashier. “Clyde, measure this boy’s head, would ya?”


After a few minutes of negotiation, Andy handed a Stetson hat to Walker. “You eyed the black hat…but only bandits wear that color. Working men need light-colored to keep cool. If you work out through August, the hat is yours. If not, you owe me two Lincolns.”


Two five-dollar notes with Abraham Lincoln’s picture. “Thank you, sir.” Walker admired himself wearing the hat in the mirror. How Effie at one time would have liked to see him in a fine Stetson. Reading the words on the shoe brush the clerk gave him, he smiled. “If it’s from Herzstein’s, it’s correct.”


“Hat should keep sun off your head and make it easier to cowboy,” Andy said while mounting his horse.


Adjusting the Stetson, grateful for shade, Walker twisted the bill upward. “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 save and move him closer to his commitment to Mum that he’d finish college.


“City boys, when they last, spend most of that going into town for baths before the dance. Or to stop in #126.” Andy motioned.


He frowned.


“Phone number.”


The answer didn’t clarify the reference. “What else should I know?”

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©2020 by Author Loni Moore.