Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Murder on the High Plains

Last time, we examined awards, photos and memorabilia on Calvin’s mantle in his Quien Sabe house. A floor lamp made from the skulls and racks of two large bucks locked in mortal combat served as a reading lamp by Calvin’s easy chair. The bucks could not disentangle themselves and died together. Calvin found them on the ranch. He said their last words were, “You can have her.”

Family photos lined the walls of the hall. Calvin pointed and named each, pausing to clear a catch in his throat when he pointed toward Billy, the son he lost to cancer at 28.  Billy was movie-star-handsome.  Calvin told me he had won all-around cowboy in the Amarillo Ranch Rodeo several times. 

As I looked at Billy’s picture, I thought of the poem I had recently read about mettle. Calvin’s mettle had been tested as mine never had. And he had passed. Instead of using crutches like alcohol to deal with a tragedy, he had propelled himself to be a better father, grandfather, husband, and manager of men.

Billy’s children, Zack and Zane, were still riding their father’s trophy saddles. Billy had his own string of horses and started branding them with a cross during the years he battled cancer.  His sons now jointly own his string of horses.  They have a ZZ brand of their own, but also kept the cross in honor of their father.   

The boys live in the ranch bunkhouse and make cowhands during the summer. I learned that one grandson had recently won a trophy buckle at a dummy roping in Amarillo. As we walked outside in the pre-dusk cool, the kids all carried chicken ropes (short ropes used for roping everything that moves and everything that doesn’t).  

As we watched Grandson Zack, sixteen and already six-four, work colts in a round pen, the subject of another classmate came up. I think there were only about twelve in our class and half were girls. One of the boys we’ll call Joe (not his real name). Joe took charge of the family farm for his mother after his father died when he was a sophomore in high school. Joe was a big guy at sixteen with huge hands. The story of Joe and his wife Mary that Calvin told is complex and almost unbelievable, so bear with me.

I had heard that Joe had been shot and killed by a ranch hand a few years before and that his wife Mary (not her name, either) was in prison for being involved, but I was not sure of the details.  Thinking of our old friend meeting a violent death and the shy girl we knew in high school in prison was incredible to me. 

Joe’s wife Mary was in the class below us.  Joe and Mary went steady all the time I knew them. They were model students and seemed mature beyond their years.  Several years after they were married and had a family of their own, Joe and Mary took in a problem teenager, grandson of a friend in Adrian.  Joe put him to work on the farm and was a pretty tough taskmaster.

But Mary and her eldest daughter admittedly allowed the boy to seduce them.  The assumption is that the boy grew afraid that Joe would find out and kill him. Most of Joe’s friends agreed that was a distinct possibility. One evening while Joe was reading the newspaper at his kitchen table, the troubled teen approached from behind and shot him in the back of the head. Joe was later pronounced dead at the scene.

When the teen killer was arrested, he implicated Mary in the planning of the murder.  She was accused of delaying her call to the police after the shooting, allowing the killer time to get away and possibly delaying life saving measures for Joe.  Mary and her teen lover were each sentenced to 35 yrs in prison. 

Calvin’s stepson Troy (Linda’s son by a previous marriage), married Joe and Mary’s daughter (let’s call her Jane). Jane subsequently divorced Troy but maintained a relationship with ex-in-laws Calvin and Linda.

In fact, Troy and Jane’s daughter was employed at the ranch doing housework.  More complications: The granddaughter’s son from a second husband was staying in the bunkhouse at the ranch—a testament, it seems to me, of the depth of Calvin’s and Linda’s kindness, forgiveness, and hospitality.

I had heard that the teen killer had recanted his assertion that Mary was involved. I leaned on the round pen and asked if Mary was still in prison. Calvin answered, “Joe’s still dead, ain’t he?”

Next time: An forgettable morning and day on a huge Texas ranch.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Visit to the Who Knows Ranch

About two years after reuniting with high school buddy Calvin in Abilene, I finished the sixth draft of my first novel, In the Rivers Flow. I had read enough books to learn that selling novels is a lot tougher than selling non-fiction. I decided to attend my first writers’ conference. Maybe talk to some real authors. My expectations were low, but I hoped to discover if what I had written was anything close to worthwhile.

An article in Writers Digest magazine drew me to the Panhandle Professional Writers Conference in Amarillo.  I was impressed by the line-up of speakers, especially Elmer Kelton, but I also wanted to drive out to the stomping grounds of my youth and to see the ranch Calvin managed. If the conference turned out to be a waste of time and money, at least I could rekindle a few old memories. Daddy had been gone for more than thirty years and Mother almost two. I felt a need to reconnect to the Panhandle farm we had left forty years earlier.   

When I traveled on business, I planned trips down to the last detail; every minute accounted for. Now, I had the freedom (and the determination) to be spontaneous. I had some vague ideas about what I might do in the Panhandle, but I left a day early and decided to just let things happen.

I was surprised at my spontaneity when I blew past Amarillo without stopping at a motel. I found myself in Channing (north and west of Amarillo) on a June day about quitting time. The town had not changed much since I played high school sports there. Calvin and I had attended school in Adrian (about an hour south). 

I found a small grocery store and asked if anyone knew Calvin. Of course, the owner and all the patrons did. I got directions to the Quien Sabe. I asked the proprietor where the ranch name came from. He told me about a Mexican who drove the ranch’s first herd of cattle to Texas. When asked the name of the unusual brand on the cattle, the Mexican replied, “Quien Sabe?”  (Who knows?).  The brand is two semi-circles and resembles an odd T to me.

The ranch entrance was only a few miles out of Channing and not far from Old Tascosa, the home of Boys Ranch. Our family moved to the Panhandle when I was a boy and I often felt a strange feeling of déjà vu at certain places. The Matador Ranch was one such place, Old Tascosa was another.

From a scene in Rivers Ebb: Jake climbed the arena fence, sat on the top rail, and let that been-here-before feeling wash over him.

I felt that been-here-before feeling as I stopped at the railroad crossing leading to the ranch. From high school, I remembered that the railway was The Fort Worth and Denver and was called the Denver Road. It ran from Fort Worth through Wichita Falls, Childress, Amarillo, Dalhart, to Texline (another déjà vu place), where it connected with the Colorado and Southern.

Here’s Jake in Texline in Rivers Ebb: He stopped at the sidewalk and looked down the street.  A row of cottonwoods had been planted to separate the field crops on the east side of the street from the houses on the west.  A few scattered trees that looked distressed from lack of water dotted some yards, but the snow was falling on hard dirt, not grass lawns. A horse bowed-up against the blowing snow stood beside a small tin barn in the middle of the mostly-small, mostly-stucco houses.

I guess I expected to see an impressive entrance of some sort because I knew the ranch was big. But just north of the dirt road, only some letters on stone announced the Quien Sabe. As whirls of dust followed me down the road, I saw a more impressive sight.

Big evergreen shrubs lined the drive toward what looked like an oasis in the desert. Live Oaks, poplars, and other trees surrounded a compound sitting on a high spot.  There was a huge native stone house on the left with a stone fence around it. I later learned that this was the abode of ranch owner Joe Kirk Fulton, who inherited the ranch from his father. Joe Kirk chose to live in more hospitable Hill Country, but stayed in the big house when he visited the ranch. 

A smaller, but more than adequate brick house was on the right. Calvin was filling a cattle spray tank when I drove up. I am not the type to be a surprise guest, but my excuse for dropping in was just to find the place, maybe wangle an invitation to come back after the conference for a tour.

It had been two years since we met in Abilene for the first time in forty years, but Calvin showed no surprise at seeing me again, acting as if I dropped in frequently. A three-month-old colt kicked up his heels in the yard fenced with horse wire as I stepped out of my pickup. Calvin pointed toward the colt as he finished filling the spray tank. “His mama didn’t have any milk, so we’re bottle feeding him.”

“Got a name?” I asked.

“We named him Iffy, because he had such a rough start we didn’t think he’d make it.”

I apologized for just dropping by, explained my reason for coming to Amarillo, and asked if I might come back for a tour the day after the conference.

“You had your supper yet?”

Less than an hour later, I sat at a table covered with plates of fried buffalo (grown on the ranch) steaks, garden salad, fruit salad, cornbread, navy beans and ham, fried okra, corn, cake, Jell-o, and iced tea—all prepared by Calvin’s wife Linda.

Three grandchildren at the table were friendly and polite to this intruder, and I got the definite feeling that guests for supper were not uncommon. As we dug into the buffalo steaks, Calvin told me that he had lost thirty pounds on the Atkins Diet.  

After supper, he took me on a tour of his home. Tastefully furnished in Panhandle style, the walls were covered with photos and artwork by famous photographers and artists who had come to the ranch to capture a ranching lifestyle that is rare and disappearing. 

Remember Jay Dusard, the famous photographer who took the photo of Julie Hagen (“the old hag” on my horse packing trip to Wyoming)? He had been to the ranch for a photo shoot and his work was on the wall. There were also photos that had appeared in “Western Horseman” and other well-known magazines. I recognized R. W. Hampton, famous singer and poet, in lots of the pictures.  I was recently gifted with one of his CD’s and he mentions the Quien Sabe, calling it the “Kin Sabe”. I thought it was pronounced “Cane Sabby”. He had worked for Calvin several times. There was also one of Sam Brown, cowboy poet and author and a schoolmate of Calvin’s and mine. We always knew that Sam would be a working cowboy.It was in his genes.

I stopped at a photo of a huge rock with this crude carving—William Bonney—1881.  Calvin told me the rock was only a few miles from where we stood. Billy the Kid is known to have frequented nearby Tascosa, bringing in herds of stolen horses to sell.  He also frequented the bawdy houses. It is likely that someone carved his name there shortly after his death in 1881, but nobody knows for sure. Of course, it is possible that Billy was there that year and did the carving himself.  

On the mantle, Calvin’s own trophy buckle had a prominent place. He had won all around cowboy at the Coors Ranch Rodeo the previous year. Beside the buckle was a framed, moving tribute written to him by a woman who had observed him at the rodeo. She had not known him, but wanted to recognize his leadership of his rodeo team and the way he interacted with his wife, children and grandchildren.

Calvin was easy-going in high school and his charm and wit had mellowed him into a father and grandfather who displays gentle firmness in his interactions with all his family members.  I had noticed it at the supper table, but the tribute confirmed it.

Beside the woman’s tribute stood a framed essay written by a grandson about the most influential person in his life. The essay about Calvin had won them a trip to the Big Texan steakhouse in Amarillo.

Next time: A test of mettle on this great Texas ranch.