The following chapter is from “Rightful Place”, published by Texas Tech University Press.
He wears a sweat-stained silver-belly hat and six-year-old Tony Lama boots. His bowed legs are encased in faded Levi’s riding low on his hips. A dented thermos rides beside him in the seat year ‘round. His trailer rattles, and his pickup is held together with baling wire and cussedness.
He has ridden the same saddle for forty years. It was new when he left for the war. Still wearing his uniform, he pulled it from the rafters of his mama’s garage three years later. It was no longer shining with newness but caked with dust and cobwebs. The leather was dry-rotted and mice-chewed. In those first silent days he oiled every inch and replaced the crumbling latigos and stirrup leathers. He took it to the saddle shop on the square to be relined. His next stop was the bank where the G.I. Bill got him a loan to buy what his kids call “the home place.”
During the war, the cows in the sale rings were cheap with no young men left to work the big outfits. He remembers those first few weeks after he got out of the service as if he were standing on a ridge between heaven and hell. He surveyed his life and bid on the future. The first signs of hope for him were the saddle and the pretty girl he danced with in the Legion Hall. She makes good coffee.
He’s made their living tied to bank notes and weather and markets. In the good years he pastures cattle for other people along with his own cows. In the dry years he shuts the gates and watches the sky. He expanded the borders of the home place and for the past several years he has leased the three sections across the highway. He’s ridden every inch of fenceline more than once. He knows the inward workings of each windmill as intimately as he knows his wife’s body. Last year he shipped a broad-muzzled old tiger-striped cow. Old hussy had no business having a calf at her age. He sold the best horse he ever owned when the cow market was bad.
The only time his eyes fill with tears is when one of his children walks across the stage to receive a college degree. None of them will come back here to live and work. They’ll make their own way. This is his life, built with his hands, to his specifications. He stoops to unbuckle the worn Oscar Crockett spurs he bought off of the feed store wall forty years ago. When he isn’t horseback, they hang by their leathers from his saddle horn. His wife and children gave him a new pair of silver-mounted spurs for Christmas last year. They hang on the wall, the silver shiny under a thin layer of dust.
The smell of Cut-n-Heal mingles with the smell of dirt stirred up by the horses chewing grain as the horizon begins to show pink. A commotion at the far end of the bunk stirs up more dust. Even in the dark he knows that Keystone is the one causing the ruckus. The cowboy, leaning in the open door of the saddle house, wears a black felt hat with a taco crease. His Levi’s are tucked into tall boots with stovepipe tops and big-roweled gal-legs on the heels. When the horses finish eating, he catches the one named Bugger Red.
The sky is a washed-out blue as he tosses his handmade saddle on the horse’s back. It is completely rigged out with Pointer hardware, right down to the oxbows adorned with silver poinsettias with copper leaves. He chooses the Sprayberry bit, one of several bridles hanging on the wall. Bugger Red, hard-mouthed and aggravating as hell, wears a company brand on his shoulder that matches the one on the red trailer and the automatic feeder mounted on the flatbed of the pickup. It is echoed on the entrance to this camp and on the left hips of the cows he will prowl this morning. His paycheck bears the same brand.
He unrolled his bed at the Pitchfork wagon the day after he graduated from high school, and he’s been working on big outfits ever since. As a boy, he listened to the old men tell stories of the days when their only possessions were a change of clothes, a bedroll, and their kack, when they moved from bunkhouse to bunkhouse, lived from payday to payday, roped wild cattle out of the river breaks and never checked up. He got a small taste of that life in the beginning, though he owned a pickup and had to make a bigger circle. Still, he has some stories of his own now and has lived on some great camps.
The country he looks after isn’t his. He doesn’t choose the breed of cows that graze the pastures or the lineage of the horses he rides. He doesn’t choose when to pick up bulls or how many heifers to keep. He doesn’t choose the pickups he drives or the type of hay he feeds his horses. He doesn’t choose how much day help to hire or the shipping dates in the fall. He doesn’t fret about weights or numbers or the scheduling of trucks and vets.
He does choose who makes his boots, spending long Saturday afternoons in the boot shop, poring over leather catalogs, drawing under-slung heels on brown paper, and making sure the boot maker knows exactly what he wants—French calf bottoms, colorful tall tops, tear-drop pull holes, stovepipe or scalloped, row after row of stitching in fancy patterns. He chooses the silver on his bits and spurs—a card hand, a rattlesnake, a simple flower with leaves, a steer skull, a brand, a gal’s leg with garter and high heels. He chooses the rowels, the shanks, the headstall buckles. He chooses the length of his chaps, the thickness of his saddle pad, the shape and color of his hat. He has a growing collection of bits made by a man named Klapper.
Last Sunday he sat and spit with a trading buddy over two piles of plunder, both piles growing and shrinking through the afternoon. His buddy’s dreams of owning his own place and being his own boss reminded him of a time seven or eight years ago when he and his wife stood at a crossroads. They questioned whether or not to look for a new ranch job or rent a trailer house and five acres on the edge of town. The second option meant day working, shoeing horses, and riding two-year-olds for other people, thirty days at a time. Or, if that didn’t bring in enough money, she mentioned that he could always go to work for the carbon black plant or train to be a guard at the prison. When this camp came open, he shook hands with the cow boss and made the deal. It took him two days to get this saddle house cleaned out and organized. It took him eight days to prowl every section of the country that goes with the camp. It took him thirty days to leg up his string of horses.
The sun is already hot, and the dew is beginning to dry on the grasses as he jumps his horse in the trailer and slams the gate shut.
Most people woke to the buzz of an alarm this morning. They put on suits and ties or heels and hose and drove through the rumble and exhaust of morning traffic to the tempo of stop lights and merging lanes. They punched a clock or said hello to secretaries in front of ringing phones. They shuffled papers, attended meetings, and composed emails about impending projects or seminars. They ate lunch at cluttered desks or worked out at the gym. They got their nails done or bought a new pager. They closed deals and used public restrooms and drank coffee out of cardboard cups. They were happy or sad or busy or bored.
This morning I woke with my head facing east before the sun came over the horizon. I put my tin pot full of water over last night’s coals and drank my coffee from an enamel mug. I started my day to the rhythm of the waking-up prairie while a few nosy clouds gave the sun’s location away. Their bottoms caught fire, and they dissolved while the red sun banished the shadows.
Today I hiked through sage and thistle and bear grass. I gathered dry cow patties for my evening fire. I squatted to pee in the dirt and rocks. I ate lunch in the sliver of shade still left beside the range tipi and watched the ants tote off my crumbs. I read my book. I wrote things down. I stood for long moments and looked off over the land under a sky so big it made my heart hurt. I sat on an upturned bucket and did nothing, thought nothing, said nothing. I read aloud to no one. I stepped on a tortoise that made a sound like a wet bath toy. I cut open a prickly pear with my knife. I ate a melted Hershey bar and wiped my hands on my jeans. I watched the clouds make shadows on the land. I sweated. I drank tepid sun tea because I had no ice. I stepped in yesterday’s footprints in the pasture road as I made my way to the windmill, noting that many of my tracks were already overlaid with those of birds, rabbits, mice, coyotes, and insects. I splashed in the water and brushed my teeth in the narrow stream coming out of the lead pipe. I floated on my back and let my hair drift around me. I walked back to camp slowly to keep from sweating. I cooked bacon and summer squash over hard-won coals. I drank red wine and watched a full moon rise. I apologized profusely to the tortoise, but he didn’t forgive me.
Tomorrow I return to alarm clocks, email, telephones, and demands. Everything I do will be in light of this time alone on the prairie, stolen away from the daily life of meals, kids, and chores. Everything I do is so that I might return to this place. Everything I do must be toward a handmade life, custom-building my days out of the fabrics of my choice.