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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Sandhills Boy

The Winding Trail of a Texas Writer

Elmer Kelton

Forge Books


Chapter One

Often when I look in the mirror, the face I see is my cowboy father's, the same pinched blue eyes, the same mouth and chin, the same ruddy complexion. Our destinies set us on different pathways. He spent his life within a radius of little more than two hundred miles. The farthest he ever traveled was one visit to his mother's childhood home in Georgia. I have spent time in countries he never saw and gone through experiences he could only imagine, like trudging through the final weeks of a war in Europe, or falling desperately in love with a blue-eyed Fräulein amid the magnificence of the Austrian Alps.

Yet in many ways his influence has continued to shape my life. Despite the long years since his death, he has never seemed far away. My hair is as thin and gray now as his ever was, but often I still pause and ask myself: "What would Dad think?" Usually I know, for his opinions were strong and generally predictable. Like anyone, he could sometimes be wrong, but within the limitations of his times and personal experience he had a good grasp of life's realities.

He never saw an automobile until he was five or six years old. He lived to watch on television as men walked on the moon.

Buck Kelton was a wage-working cowboy most of his life and a cattle owner in a modest way. Ranch-raised on open plains north of Midland, Texas, he came into maturity just in time to be blindsided by the Great Depression. It inflicted emotional wounds that never healed. The rest of his life he expected the next depression to start this afternoon, or tomorrow at the latest. The worst advice he ever gave me was after the war, when I contemplated buying a house. He said, "You'd better wait until they get cheaper."

I didn't, and they never did.

The best advice he ever gave me was to be wary of debt, for he had learned by bitter experience that it could be an intolerable master. He had owned cattle in a small way since he was fourteen. Like most cowboys, beginning with the first who ever raised his foot to a stirrup, he dreamed of having his own ranch. The goal was worthy, but the timing of his first big move could hardly have been worse.

In 1928, three years after marrying my mother, he borrowed money and bought a string of Hereford cows to graze on leased pasture. Prices were strong, and optimists were saying the cattle business would never see another poor day. After the crash of 1929 the cows were worth less than the amount he owed on them. The lender stayed with him, allowing him to hold on through the dark years of the Depression. Some lenders were not so understanding. Many a cattle owner went bankrupt in those bleak times.

During my boyhood, a major part of his hard-earned salary as cowboy and ranch foreman was earmarked toward paying down that debt. In West Texas, spare dollars were as scarce as rain. They were exceedingly rare in the Kelton house. Dad could squeeze a nickel until the Indian rode the buffalo. He had to. His unyielding Victorian sense of ethics told him that a debt had to be honored no matter the sacrifice.

He finally managed to pay off the note just at the brink of World War II. By then the original cows had grown old and had been replaced by their offspring. Fortunately the herd had increased in both numbers and value, finally reaching about five hundred head. The long struggle had been justified despite the pain.

It has been said that his was the last full-time horseback cowboy generation. My brothers and I are fortunate that as youngsters we lived through that era. We were witness to the twilight years of the old-time professional cowboys who lived and worked in much the style of open-range days. For better as well as for worse, we witnessed the slow transition into the mechanized, computerized, and increasingly regulated ranching industry of today.

Our sons and daughters missed most of that. Our grandchildren have missed it all.

Born in 1901, Buck Kelton was a third-generation cowboy. His paternal grandfather, Robert Kelton, moved from the East Texas piney woods to West Texas in 1878, bringing a covered wagon, a string of horses, and a young wife heavy with child. Settling on farm and pasture land in the Belle Plain community of Callahan County, they lived out of the wagon in the beginning, too busy or perhaps too nearly broke to build a house. As my great-grandmother approached her time for delivery, kindly Mrs. Sam Cutbirth offered the hospitality of her home until the baby arrived. Actually, she insisted. Otherwise, my grandfather Bill would have been born in that covered wagon, or beneath it. Instead, he was born in a log house.

Bill Kelton was the first of six children. In 1888, when he was only about ten, his father died suddenly of appendicitis. In rural West Texas, surgery was beyond reach. My grandfather had to drop out of school and work to help support his mother and five siblings. He cowboyed, broke horses and mules, plowed cotton, and did whatever else a youngster could to earn a dollar. As a teenager and young man he worked on ranches from the Pecos River to as far north as the XIT Ranch in the upper Texas Panhandle. He learned his cowboy craft from veterans of trail drives and open range. Later he taught it to my father, who passed it on to us Kelton boys, or in my case, tried to.

I still remember clearly what my grandfather looked like, for he lived until I was eighteen. His face leathery, he had the same blue eyes as my father, pinched by sun and wind. He wore his hat brim low and held his chin high to see out from under it. That gave him a proud and independent appearance. I always thought he looked a little like Will Rogers.

An oddity, which eventually had tragic consequences, was a black birthmark about the size of a quarter on the back of his neck. In time, it would become a lethal melanoma.

Granddad married and started a family, but times were hard in Callahan County in the early 1900s. He wanted to take his brood where he might find more work and opportunity. A younger brother, Frank, had drifted out to Pecos City on horseback about the turn of the century to work as a cowboy. He wrote home that ranch jobs were available there, so Granddad decided to move to the Pecos River. My grandmother had heard stories about the harshness of that dry country and the wildness of Pecos City, notorious for several shootings. She said she would move as far west as Midland, but no farther. Granddad insisted that they would go to Pecos.

My grandmother may have looked thin and frail, but she had a strong will. They went to Midland.

That was in 1906. My father was barely five years old.

Times were no easier around Midland than in Callahan County. Granddad reluctantly worked as a drayman, hauling freight to and from the railroad depot until a ranch job turned up north of town. By this time he and my grandmother had several young mouths to feed. It was customary that ranches furnish groceries for employees and their families in compensation for low wages. Granddad's family was more than the owner counted on. He let Granddad go, then hired him back with the provision that he feed his family himself. Jobs being scarce, Granddad had little choice.

In time he acquired two modest parcels of land a few miles apart. They were not large enough to support the family, which for some years lived on the northernmost place. Granddad worked wherever work was to be had and raised feed crops in a small dryland field. Home was a plain box-and-strip house like a thousand others on farms and ranches of the time. The siding was one-by-ten pine boards nailed upright against a simple box frame, with one-by-fours applied over the joins to prevent wind and rain from seeping in. As years passed the unpainted lumber would turn an ash gray and the joins would loosen. The only insulation was the wallpaper. Such a house could be miserably cold in winter and insufferably hot in summer. Even so, most people preferred it to the musty dugouts in which many settlers spent the early years. In many ways the dugout was more comfortable, but it was a point of pride to live above the ground rather than under it.

This home place was on a well-beaten trail that led from Midland north to Lamesa. Freighters camped their wagons in a hackberry grove beside a small playa lake east of the house. It would be their first or last night out from Midland, depending upon the direction they were traveling. The lake was brackish or dried up much of the time, so teamsters led their horses and mules up to the house to water them at Granddad's windmill. He would not accept payment, for the water belonged to the Lord. The windmill didn't, so most left hay or grain at the campground as a gesture of gratitude. Dad and his sisters would pull a small wagon down to the site and pick up the leavings to feed the family's own work stock.

Dad marveled at how well trained the freighters' horse and mule teams were. In the evening the harness would be dropped on the ground where the animals stood. The teams would be fed, either in portable wooden troughs or in morrals buckled over their heads. Afterward they would be tethered to a picket line. In the morning the teamster would pop a whip, and each animal would step into its proper place in the harness.

Those hackberry trees still stand, a modest landmark alongside a modern highway that follows the old freighter trail. The lake is still there too, though it rarely has water in it.

Granddad eventually became foreman of the Scharbauer Cattle Company's Five Wells Ranch east of Andrews. There my grandmother cooked for however many cowboys happened to be at headquarters on any given day. There might be one, or there might be a dozen. Many ranch foremen's wives endured this chore. It was an accepted custom of the times but usually carried no extra pay.

Daisy Miller Kelton had never had an easy life. As a small girl she traveled to Texas with her family in a covered wagon. She lived long enough to fly to California in a jet plane to visit a brother.

My grandmother had one luxury at Five Wells and later at the Hackamore N, a party-line telephone. She could learn all the local news by listening in on neighbors' calls. Often she would break in and contribute to the conversation. Callers took for granted that nothing was private on a party line. The rural telephone wires were run above barbed-wire fences at about shoulder height to a man on horseback. A rider could search the line for breaks and repair them without getting out of the saddle.

She expected certain rules of meal-time etiquette to be observed by those who ate at her table, rules still widely observed in ranching country. Cowboys washed their hands and faces and combed their hair before entering the dining room, kitchen, or wherever the meal was to be served. They took off their hats at the door. They carried their plates and utensils to the kitchen cabinet or the sink when they finished eating. To do less was to risk being called sheepherders, an insult of considerable potency.

One did not want to offend the cook, whether male or female, for the penalty was likely to be burned biscuits and rocks in the beans until proper penance was paid.

The Five Wells Ranch was an example of the inaccuracy of local folklore. Old-timers, including my father and his brother Ben, said it acquired the name from an early settler named Wells who had five daughters. But the five wells were designated on Colonel Ranald Mackenzie's military map of 1872, at a time when Comanche and Kiowa still held the land. Indians dug shallow wells in the sand in search of water. Hence the name.

White settlement did not begin to any degree on the Texas plains until after Mackenzie's crushing Tule Canyon defeat of the horseback tribes in the fall of 1874. Only when hide hunters had eliminated most of the buffalo did cattlemen like Charles Goodnight start bringing in their herds and establishing residence.

Almost from the time he was big enough to sit in a saddle, Dad, like most ranch boys, was expected to pitch in and help the men, whether they were handling cattle on horseback, building fence, or pulling rods from a windmill. Learning the many facets of ranch work was considered as important to a boy's education as reading, writing, and arithmetic. Payment was seldom considered until a youngster was in his teens and ready to take a grown man's full part. In the meantime, the experience he gained was considered remuneration enough. It was a free education.

Most cowboys in those times grew up on a farm or ranch and from early boyhood were experienced in outdoor work, in handling cattle and horses. It was more difficult to train a town-raised boy who lacked that background and the instincts that came with it. Cowboy life entailed hardships and sacrifices most country boys took for granted. These were tough hills to climb for a youngster from a tamer environment, though many managed the transition.

The word "cowboy" has taken on negative connotations in recent times, usually denoting rashness and arrogance, especially in a political or military context. In ranch country, however, to be recognized as a cowboy rather than simply a ranch hand was and still is an honor which has to be earned. Hat and boots are not enough. Many a pretender never measures up.

By the time Dad finished the seventh grade in a country school at a now-vanished settlement known as Florey, he was ready to take up a man's load and earn a man's wage. Old photos show him to have grown almost as tall as his father. He day-worked on ranches in the Midland and Odessa area. It later was a point of pride with him that from the time he was seventeen until his mid-sixties, he was never out of a job more than three weeks altogether.

Years later, John D. Holleyman, who worked with him several years in the late 1930s and early 1940s, told me, "I never saw a man who liked hard work as much as Buck Kelton did. The trouble was that he always wanted me to be with him."

Dad's hard experience during the Depression years had much to do with that. He had a strong sense of the value of work and the security it could provide. From the time he took on his first paying job, he was loathe to give up one before he had a firm grip on another. He was hesitant to take a gamble that might bring more hardship to his family than they already had as a natural consequence of the times and his chosen occupation. He counseled that a sparrow in the hand was better than an eagle on the wing. He might reach for the eagle, but he did not turn loose of the sparrow. He could never forget those mortgaged cows that for so long bore down on his shoulders like the weight of the world.

Dad was not a tall man, only about five-eight, but from his twenties through most of his life he carried a lot of weight. He was a hearty eater. He insisted on fresh biscuits, fried steak, and fried potatoes, or at least red beans and corn bread. He loved pies and cakes. In their absence he made his own dessert by pouring a generous amount of blackstrap molasses onto his plate, mixing a glob of butter in it, and swabbing it all up with hot biscuits.

He had worked on ranches where the food was good and on some where it bordered on awful. When he was foreman and later general manager of the McElroy Ranch, he never let his frugal nature affect the buying of groceries for the cowboys. He said workingmen deserved to be fed well, and he saw to it that they were.

He was an early riser. As he left for the milk pen in the dark of the morning, he let the screen door slam hard enough to shake the house. That was a signal for everyone else to get up. Often he led us on horseback to the far side of a pasture long before daybreak. There we waited until it became light enough to see cattle. I thought we could have spent that extra hour or so in bed, but Dad never let daylight catch him asleep. He said he acquired his work habits on ranches where a lantern was of more use than a bed.

He was a year too young for service in World War I. In late fall of 1918 he was cowboying for the Scharbauer family, who had ranched in Midland County since 1887. He was among several hands driving a string of horses about a hundred miles southwestward to a ranch in Pecos County. The wagon boss, Billy Peays, had just received his draft notice. This would be his last ride before he reported for duty. Everyone knew about the horrors of trench warfare, and he deeply dreaded going to France.

The horses were about halfway between Midland and Odessa when some people came along in a touring car and asked if the cowboys had heard the news. An armistice had been signed.

"Billy Peays was the happiest man I ever saw," Dad remembered.

They finished the drive in an early snowstorm, wet and chilled to the bone. The disastrous Spanish influenza epidemic was at its peak. Dad and another cowboy came down with the flu. Clarence Scharbauer Sr. hauled them back to Midland in his car and placed them in the care of Dr. Ed Calloway. The good doctor managed to pull Dad and the other cowboy through, but he lost a rancher who came in shortly after them.

I have often thought on how differently things might have turned out if Scharbauer had not been at the ranch with his car. The trip to Midland would have taken three or four days by wagon, and possibly more because of the snow.

Dad valued physical labor but distrusted indoor work. He did not acknowledge that anyone sitting at a desk was actually working. He liked to see some tangible end product of labor, whether it be cattle for the market, a crop of cotton, a straight fence, a meal on the table, or even a proper shine on a pair of boots. A pile of papers did not count, for these could not be eaten, worn, ridden, or driven.

I often imagined him questioning if the writing I did was really tangible, if the hours I spent at a desk were in any way comparable to a day in the saddle or in a field. What came of it was but words on paper. I always fell short of his expectations as a cowboy. What was to become of a ranch boy who could not rope for sour apples and could not stay aboard a pitching horse past the second jump?

J. R. Williams used to draw a daily syndicated cartoon called Out Our Way. One that has stayed with me for sixty years shows a ranch boy in his teens unpacking a typewriter while his rancher father looks on in disgust and says, "A writer? I thought I brought you up better than that." Williams dedicated it to old-time pulp writer Walt Coburn, but it could have been about me.

I can still hear what Dad said when I told him at age sixteen that I wanted to become a writer. He declared, "That's the way with you kids nowadays, you all want to make a living without working for it."

We once passed the Odessa country club, and Dad saw men playing golf on a weekday afternoon. Told that they were there for the exercise, he snorted that if they truly worked they would not need it. "Let them come to the ranch," he said. "I'll show them exercise."

Even after I became a published writer and had steady employment as an agricultural reporter, I felt that he did not trust my choice of occupation. He was all too aware of my limitations as a ranch hand. That gave him reason to be afraid I had other shortcomings that could eventually bring my little make-believe world crashing down around me.

Sometimes when I see Dad in the mirror I wonder about that myself.

Copyright © 2007 by Elmer Kelton. All rights reserved.