Ruth Moose


fall 1973



current work



a note from the author


Ruth Moose is the 2013 winner of the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition. She won the PEN Award for Syndicated Fiction, the Robert Ruark Award for the Short Story, and the Sam Ragan Fine Arts Award. She has received three Pushcart nominations and a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship. She's published three collections of short stories and six collections of poetry. Having served in the Creative Writing faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for fifteen years, Moose received the Chapman Award for teaching. She lives in Pittsboro, North Carolina.

RuthMoose2013trainstation.jpg

Robert Morgan


2003


GRACE

"'I've seen snakes in weeds and snakes in leaves and snakes in foxholes,' he says. 'I've seen snakes in vines and snakes in tents and snakes in sleeping bags. Don't make the snakes come out of your eyes.'"

BY ROBERT MORGAN - FROM ROANOKE REVIEW, 2003

 

current work


THE JAGUAR  

When the war was over Nathaniel wasn’t sure where to go first. There was a girl in Virginia named Rebecca that he wanted to marry, if she would agree to marry him. The thought of her long red hair and lightly freckled cheeks had helped him through the long marches in mud and snow, in the cold nights with the Virginia militia. His company had been with General Morgan at Cowpens on January 17 and at Guilford Courthouse with General Green in March. They’d followed Cornwallis into Virginia, then returned to the Carolinas to join up with Lighthorse Harry Lee at Fort Ninety-Six or somewhere farther south. Then word reached them that the Virginia legislature had disbanded their unit. Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown on October 17. The colonel called them together and thanked them for their service and told them they’d be paid later with tracts of land. Now the state was broke and they were on their own.There was still some fighting farther south, but for them the war with the king was over.  

The obvious thing would be to return to Virginia and ask Rebecca to marry him. It would take about two weeks to reach Culpeper. But if he returned now he’d have nothing but his ragged clothes, a rifle, and one worn blanket. Not much to offer the prettiest girl in the county who had many beaux. He could only blame himself if she turned him down.  

Throughout the campaign Nathaniel had kept glancing at the chain of blue mountains to the west. They rose in soft and rumpled shapes out of the foothills and followed one another toward the southwest like a caravan of giant animals. In the foothills where the militia camped before and after the battle of Cowpens he saw deer and turkeys, the tracks of raccoons and foxes. On the morning of the battle there Tarleton’s army had driven deer and turkeys, foxes and a bear, and even a panther, before it onto the pasture which became the battlefield. If there was that much game in the foothills where the armies had been moving, it thrilled him to think how much more there might be higher in the mountains.  

Nathaniel knew the mountains were Cherokee country. But rumor was that the Cherokees had withdrawn much farther west across the mountains. Some Cherokees had fought for the British and would stay far from the patriots. It was said land in the mountains would be divided among those who’d fought against the Crown.  

As a boy Nathaniel had trapped mink and muskrats. He’d even caught four or five bobcats.He’d shot deer for their hides as well as for their meat. The wealth of the forest was in furs and hides and ginseng. With the war over there would be a market for furs again. Instead of returning to Culpeper and begging the beautiful and coy Rebecca to marry him, ragged and broke, he’d find a valley in the mountains and trap through the winter. By spring he’d have enough furs to sell to make Rebecca a respectable offer. She was not a girl who’d choose to live in poverty.  

A number of horses had been captured from the British and kept at the pasture called the Cowpens after the battle there. The colonel said each man could take one horse on condition he sign a note agreeing to pay the Continental government later. Also lead and powder, hatchets and knives, could be purchased from the supply wagons with the same kind of promissory note. Nathaniel chose a small, compact mount black as Bible leather, called Pearl. And he took from the wagon as much lead and powder as he could carry. A keg of rum was opened and the men drank to each other’s health, to their sweethearts, and to General Washington and the end of the war. Nathaniel slipped away early next morning while everyone but the sentry was still sleeping.  

Five miles north he came to the Broad River, and followed a trail along its western bank,through river birch and sycamores and past clumps of hazelnut bushes. It was late October and the trail was covered with new fallen leaves. Early sun shot through the trees in horizontal shafts,sparkling on the frosty edges of leaves.  

“Pearl, old girl,” he said to his mount, “we’re off to make our fortune.” Nathaniel hoped the trail would lead into the mountains and all he’d have to do would be to follow it. For two years he’d followed orders from the colonel, the captain, the sergeant. Now he’d have to make his own decisions. The thought both scared and thrilled him.  

Nathaniel came to a smaller river that plunged into the Broad, and had to make his first choice. The bigger stream came from the north, but the smaller river flowed from the northwest, directly out of the closest mountains, its water a clear green, as though issuing from a thousand mountain springs and branches. It was the kind of stream that would have many mink and muskrats along its banks. Maybe even otter. It must come out of remote valleys and hidden coves far back in the ridges. He longed to camp in a peaceful valley, far from the ugliness and filth of war, the dirt and endless boredom of the militia. He turned left to follow the smaller stream.  

The trail along the green river was hardly a trail at all. It skirted canebrakes and disappeared in meadows of grass and wild pea  vines. Sometimes a track veered away from the river, and ran higher on the side of a ridge. Then it dropped back into the mud near the water. There were tracks in the mud, deer tracks, raccoon tracks, possum tracks, fox tracks. And once Nathaniel saw what looked like a human track, with no heel mark, the print of a moccasin. Could there still be Indians on this side of the mountain? Of course there were white hunters and traders who dressed like Indians, wore moccasins like Indians.  

As Nathaniel continued up the stream he wondered if he’d imagined the moccasin track, for he didn’t see another, only sign of deer and other animals. Late in the day he came on a flock of turkeys among the vines by the river and shot one as it took flight. While it was still light he decided to camp beside a spring, and started a fire with his flint and steel. After dressing the turkey he roasted it over the fire, basting the body with its own grease caught on a piece of bark. The bird was so big all he could eat was one leg, relishing the dark meat. It was the best meal he’d had in weeks, in months. Then he lay on his blanket and looked up at the stars, and wondered where he would find steel-traps. Indians could catch mink and muskrats without metal traps. They used snares and dead-falls, but he never had. There were supposed to be trading posts all over the frontier. Surely there was a station somewhere in the region.  

Next day he followed the river higher into the hills. The stream that had been so smooth and easy between its banks ran louder as it struggled over rocks. Stretches of lullwater alternated with shoals of white water. Water tumbled and crashed over logs. He entered a gorge so deep there was no sunlight on the river until near the middle of the day. Everywhere he looked for moccasin tracks and wondered how he would acquire traps. The brush along the trail became so thick he dismounted and led Pearl around boulders and up steep inclines.  

It was near the end of the long ravine where he saw the red berries on stems near the ground.First he saw one plant and then others beyond. It was the first time he’d seen ginseng since he volunteered for the militia. Tying Pearl to a sapling, he got out his hunting knife, cleared away leaves and sticks, and dug up the bulging, fat roots. He’d never seen so much sang. People said a ginseng root was supposed to be shaped like a man, but Nathaniel had always thought of testicles when he saw a fresh root.  

Before it began to get dark he’d dug more than a dozen ginseng roots. That much would bring him several shillings or dollars if there was any place to trade. He washed the roots in the river and put them in one of his bags. When he reached a level place, a kind of plateau, he camped for the night. Taking the saddle and bridle off Pearl, he tethered her in a peavine meadow and started a fire near a spring.  

After eating more roast turkey he lay on his blanket and tried to recall the price of ginseng.Before the war roots had been worth more than shilling a pound. He had no way of knowing its value now. As he lay by the fire he heard a fox bark and another answer. Later he was awakened by an owl in the trees, and another owl that seemed to be down by the river. There was a howl like a wolf faraway on the ridge. When he woke and restarted the fire he wished he had some coffee. If he could find a trader’s store he’d trade the ginseng for traps and coffee. All he had now was more turkey meat.  

Nathaniel expected to hear Pearl cropping grass, but the meadow was silent. In the dim light he couldn’t see her. Had he forgotten where he tethered the horse? He grabbed his rifle and tiptoed along the edge of the clearing. The horse was gone. The animal calls in the night must have been Indians calling to each other as they approached his camp and untied the tether line from its stake. As it grew lighter he could see the tracks leading not up the river but up the side of the mountain.  

Without a horse to carry his baggage Nathaniel felt stranded. What he couldn’t carry in his bags he’d have to bury and come back for later, the saddle, some of the cooking utensils. He would not leave the cask of powder. All his plans had depended on a horse, to carry supplies, to pack furs and hides out of the mountains in the spring. Now all the had was shank’s mare. He could give up and hoof it back out of the mountains, or he could hoof it deeper into the mountains.  

Burying what he couldn’t carry, slinging bags of ginseng and shot over his shoulder, tying the cooking pot to his waist, he held the cask of power under one arm and carried the rifle in the other. He entered a kind of bowl, surrounded by mountains. The river was smaller now, really just a big creek, or run, as they’d call it in Virginia. In the distance he saw smoke, and when he crossed a rise a cabin came into view on a high bank above the stream. An Indian woman on her knees scraped a deer hide stretched on the ground and held by pegs.  

As he approached lugging his bags and the cask of powder, the woman looked up at him. She was younger than he expected, and plump. She wore a bright blue calico dress and had many strands of beads around her neck. She stared at Nathaniel for a moment without greeting him, and then returned to her work. Her black hair fell across her face as she scraped the hide.    

“Anybody here?” Nathaniel called to the cabin. A bear hide was pegged on the side of the building and several rattlesnake skins hung from the eave. Two horses looked at him from a pen in the back. Steel-traps hung from the wall of a shed by the woodpile. A man with long gray hair and beard appeared in the cabin door.  

“I’m Nathaniel.”  

“McIver,” the man said and looked at the bags Nathaniel was carrying.  

“My horse was stole,” Nathaniel said.  

“So I see.”  

McIver ducked back into the cabin and reappeared with a jug. “Have a drink, stranger,” he said and handed the jug to Nathaniel. Holding the jug with his thumb and slinging it over his shoulder Nathaniel took a swallow. The corn liquor was so strong his throat burned and his eyes smarted.  

“Ain’t got no horse to sell,” McIver said. Nathaniel handed the jug back to him and the trader took a drink.  

“What I need is steel-traps,” Nathaniel said. “I have sang to trade.” He opened the leather bag and showed McIver the roots he’d dug.  

“Sang ain’t worth nothing because of the war. The harbors are blocked. Besides, that’s not even been dried.”  

“The war is over.”  

“I knowed the rebels would be defeated,” McIver said.  

“The rebels won. I was in the militia.”  

McIver looked at Nathaniel as if he suspected Nathaniel was lying. Like other Tories, he must have stayed back in the mountains while war raged in the piedmont. He shook his head and took another drink. The news seemed to make him look older.  

“I can give you one trap for them roots,” McIver said and squinted at Nathaniel.  

“For all this sang?”  

“Best I can do, take it or leave it.”  

Nathanie had no choice but to take it. As far as he knew there was not another trader within a hundred miles. Without traps he could catch no fur, and winter was about to set in. One trap was better than no trap. He handed the bag of ginseng to McIver and the trader called to the Indian woman and told her to take the bag to the shed out back. McIver offered Nathaniel another drink from the jug to seal the deal.

When the Indian woman brought the bag back to Nathaniel it felt a little heavier than an empty bag but Nathaniel didn’t mention it. The woman didn’t look at him, and returned to her work on the hide.    

“Cherokee?” Nathaniel asked.  

McIver shook his head. “Bought her from the Cherokees for a musket and a jug of applejack.”  

McIver said Nathaniel’s horse was likely stolen by the Cherokees. They’d been hunting in the region, but with winter near they’d returned to their villages over the mountains.  

“Might be a while before you see that horse again,” McIver said. From the wrinkles around his eyes Nathaniel guessed the trader was fifty or more.  

 

As Nathaniel headed up the river he found the path well marked around a canebrake and then below a laurel thicket. Horses had passed this way recently. Most of the tracks were made by unshod horses. But one had shoes the size of Pearl’s foot. Surely McIver must have seen his horse if they’d passed this way, yet he hadn’t said so.  

When Nathaniel stopped for the night he looked in the leather bag the Indian woman had handed him. There was a small steel trap in the bottom, just big enough to catch a muskrat. Now he had two traps, and it pleased Nathaniel to think the Indian woman had helped him. As he made a fire he tried to recall what the Indian woman had been wearing. It was a blue calico dress,and her leggings were buckskin with beads on them. Her skin was the color of new molasses. She’d not spoken to him nor looked him in the eye, but she’d given him the extra trap.  

That night as Nathaniel slept with his rifle at his side he dreamed about Rebecca. In the dream she stood beside a well and as he approached she drew a bucket from the well and with a dipper scooped fresh water from the bucket. If she offered the dipper to him that meant she would marry him. But as he got closer and waited for her to hold the dipper out to him he woke. Stars gleamed through the trees. A moon thin as a reaping hook hung straight above.  

All the next day Nathaniel followed the stream. There was no trail now, and boulders made the bank so difficult to follow he climbed up on the mountainside and skirted thickets of laurel. The river valley narrowed for several miles and the pinched stream tumbled and crashed on rocks.From the ridge he could see the mountains far ahead, lavender and brown now that the leaves had fallen, blue in the distance, then gray in the further distance where summits seemed almost to merge with the sky. Somewhere in those higher mountains he’d find the cove or hollow where he could camp and trap throughout the winter. With only two traps it would take him all winter to catch enough furs to ask for Rebecca’s hand.    

It was late the third day after he left McIver’s that he came to the headspring of the river. He’d followed the stream as it got smaller and smaller, and then he followed a branch to where a fountain came right out of the mountainside. Three or four inlets in the spring, like nostrils, made sand dance at the bottom of the pool. He cleaned leaves and sticks away from the basin and saw mica and quartz glittering in the sand. He drank from the spring, water that tasted like it had run through silver and emeralds deep in the earth. He’d never tasted water with exactly that flavor. He wondered what special mineral might be inside the mountain.  

With winter so near Nathaniel only had time to build a three-sided shelter called a half-face, a low cabin open on the side facing south where a fire would be kept burning. With the hatchet he’d bought from the militia it took him most of a day. He covered the structure with poplar bark spread on poles, then laid rocks and brush on the bark to hold it down. The half-face blended so well with the woods and thickets it would not be noticed from a distance.  

When the structure was done Nathaniel took his rifle to look for a turkey or squirrel. He would settle for a rabbit if he had to. As he crossed the branch below the spring he saw a large track in the sand, a cat track, much bigger than a bobcat’s, bigger than any panther track he’d ever seen in Virginia. It must be a panther track, and yet it didn’t look exactly like a panther track. If there was a cat that big in the area he’d have to take extra care, especially if he was out before sunrise or after sunset. Big cats usually did their stalking in the dark. He shot a turkey in a peavine meadow a little farther down the branch.  

With only two traps Nathaniel chose the sites to set them with great care, ranging downstream to places he found tracks of muskrat and mink in sand and mud. Traps had to be in water deep enough to drown the caught animal before it could gnaw its foot off to escape. If water was too deep over the trap the muskrat or mink would swim right over it. Best spots were near slides on the banks where the animals came down to the water. He caught two muskrats the first week, and a mink and three muskrats the second week. He stretched the hides on frames of sourwood sprouts to cure.  

It was in the third week when he saw the big cat. He’d killed a deer and dressed it and hung the meat from an oak limb out of reach of bears and wolves and other animals. It was just before dawn when he woke and was about to build up the fire. He reached for kindling wood at the entrance of the half-face and saw an animal standing under the deer carcass where it hung, about twenty paces away. He froze and watched. It was a big cat, but it had spots and looked heavier than a panther. And when it turned he saw its face was round with whiskers like a tiger, not a panther. But tigers he’d seen in pictures had stripes. He felt for his rifle beside the blanket. The big cat circled beneath the deer carcass, looked toward the half-face, sniffed the air, and then strolled away toward the branch.  

Nathaniel didn’t realize until the cat was gone that he’d been holding his breath. He gasped, and breathed out. If the big cat was not a panther, what was it?  Its face looked like a tiger but it had spots. Leopards had spots, but they were sleek and slim. This animal looked heavy and powerful. He’d been worried about bears and wolves and panthers, but who ever heard of a tiger in the Carolina mountains?  

By the time of the first snow Nathaniel had more than a dozen muskrat hides and two mink skins. He also had two deer hides he’d stretched on pegs on the sides of the half-face. Before the winter was over he was sure he’d be able to add a bear skin to his collection. Now bears had gone into caves or dens or hollow logs to sleep through cold weather. He could understand that tendency to sleep through winter. On the coldest days he didn’t go out to check his traps, but lay by the fire and dreamed about Virginia and Rebecca.  

He had the dream again of Rebecca standing by the well and holding out the dipper of water to him. Her red hair glistened in the sun. But when he got closer he saw her face was wrinkled. Instead of freckles there were warts, and when she opened her mouth gaps showed in her teeth. He recoiled in astonishment and then woke up. He blamed the bad dream on the greasy turkey meat he’d eaten.  

Later, in mid-winter, there was a thaw. Nathaniel decided to take the furs and deer hides he had to McIver’s for more traps, some corn meal, salt, and maybe coffee. He wrapped the furs in deer skins and tied them all in a bundle he would carry on his back. He calculated it would take him three days to reach the trader’s cabin. It made sense to go before he’d accumulated more furs than he could carry.  

He’d not traveled more than a mile downstream when he saw in the sand a large cat’s track. It looked even bigger than the ones the tiger cat had left near his camp in the fall. But perhaps he’d forgotten just how big those tracks were. The giant feline had not returned since it had tried to reach his deer meat. He knew panthers roved over wide circuits in their hunts. Maybe this cat did the same. That night Nathaniel kept his rifle close as he lay in a small clearing near the river.    

Two days later, as he approached McIver’s station, he saw several horses in the pen behind the cabin. One of them was black and looked a lot like his Pearl. He hurried to the house to ask who had brought the horse there. No one was outside and no one came to the door when he called.

“McIver,” he shouted and pushed open the door.   

It was so dark inside he saw nothing at first. Then he made out the Indian woman sitting by the fireplace sewing something from buckskin. Bolts of cloth lay on the shelves and steel-traps hung from pegs on the wall. Barrels and bins of corn meal, gunpowder, and whiskey lined the wall. McIver lay on a bunk bed with a bearskin over him.  

“What do you want?” the trader said.   

Nathaniel dropped the bundle of furs and hides to the floor. “I need more traps, some cornmeal, and my horse,” he said.  

“I’m sick,” McIver said. “The winter fever has got me.”  

“That black horse is the one stole from me,” Nathaniel said.  

“I bought that horse from an Indian,” McIver said. “You got no proof she was yorn.” His hand came out from under the bearskin holding a pistol.  

Nathaniel looked at the Indian woman, and then back at McIver. “I need five more steel-traps, some corn meal, and lead and powder,” he said.  

“Fur ain’t worth nothing now,” McIver said.  

“I have five mink here.”  

McIver spoke to the Indian woman in words Nathaniel didn’t recognize. She put her sewing down and stood up. With the pistol McIver pointed to the barrel of corn meal and the traps hanging on the wall. The woman handed Nathaniel two steel traps and scooped meal into a leather bag.  

“I need five traps,” Nathaniel said.  

“Two is all you get,” McIver said. He started coughing, a cough that sounded so deep it might have come from underground. He heaved and spat onto the floor. McIver’s face was flushed and he appeared to have lost a lot of weight. He coughed again, and spat again. “Take your stuff and go,” he said and pointed the pistol at the door.  

The Indian woman handed Nathaniel the bag of corn meal, a bag of shot, and a small cask of powder. She didn’t look at Nathaniel at first, and then she stared straight into his eyes. Her eyes were dark as chinquapins.  

“Be gone,” McIver said, and with the pistol motioned him toward the door.    

Outside Nathaniel tied the cask and bags together and slung them on his back. He glanced at the horse pen and saw Pearl watching him. It appeared McIver was dying of consumption, or something like consumption. Nathaniel wanted to pause and think about the best way to reclaim his horse. But he heard McIver shout again, telling him to get away. The Indian woman stood in the doorway staring at him.  

Nathaniel shouldered his burden, and holding the rifle in his right hand started up the trail. Once he got into the woods he had to stop and readjust the pack. The cask of powder kept slipping loose from the straps. He dropped to his knees and was retying the bundle when he heard steps behind him. When he turned he saw the Indian woman leading Pearl. Deerskin bags hung on either side of the horse. Nathaniel stood up and the woman handed him the reins of the bridle. She stared directly into his eyes and then looked away.  

“Do you mean I can take her?” he asked.  

The woman nodded and started back down the trail. He watched her blue calico dress disappear around a bend.  

Nathaniel wondered if this was a trick. Would McIver accuse him of stealing the horse? But McIver seemed too weak to even get out of bed and his hand had trembled when he held the pistol.  

The deerskin bags over Pearl’s back were big enough to hold all his baggage. Nathaniel packed everything, dividing the load between the two sides. Then he spoke to Pearl and caressed her nose. He imagined she remembered him, but couldn’t be sure. Taking up the reins he led her carefully up the trail, picking a way around boulders and over logs. Now that he had his horseback, he couldn’t risk her stumbling and breaking a leg. It seemed too good to be true that the Indian woman had given Pearl back to him.  

That night as he camped by the river, with Pearl tethered close by, he dreamed of Rebecca for the first time in weeks. It was the same dream as before, but as he approached her by the well and her face showed all the wrinkles of age, she began to laugh at him like he’d made a fool of himself. Instead of handing him the dipper, she flung the water in his face, and the water was not cool but scalding hot. He wiped it out of his eyes and then he woke up.

When Nathaniel looked through the trees the stars were gone. It had clouded up in the night,and gotten colder. Something faint as the breeze from a mosquito’s wing touched his lips and cheek. Then he felt the wetness and knew it was snowflakes. It was snowing in the silent woods and the thaw was over.  

Next day Nathaniel led Pearl through deepening snow along the river. In places it was hard to see ahead because of snow on limbs and brush. Once or twice on steep ground it looked as though Pearl was going to slide into the river. In some places it was easier to walk in the stream itself than to keep a footing on the bank. Once they passed the tracks of a large animal. But he couldn’t tell if it was a panther or the track of the other large cat because of the falling snow.  

At day’s end Nathaniel decided not to make a fire. He tied Pearl to a tree, and seated himself against an oak, blanket over his head and around his shoulders, rifle in his lap under the blanket to keep the powder dry. Snow continued to fall, whispering and ticking on branches, seething faintly as flakes meshed together. He chewed a piece of dried turkey, and melted snow in his mouth for something to drink. Pearl munched corn from a bag slung over her ears.  

Nathaniel was twice wakened as he leaned against the tree. Once he thought he heard an animal scream, a panther, and once a long note like a wolf or dog might make. But mostly it was the faint hiss of falling snow. Snow, especially snow in the darkness, created its own world, muffled ,cushioned, almost silent, almost beyond time. Deepening snow made you want to burrow under and sleep with the ground hogs and other animals, with the sap in maple roots, with the seeds, and salt in stones, and dream of spring.  

When he woke the blanket weighed on him. More than a foot of snow had fallen in the night. Snow had built on Pearl’s back but she’d shivered it off. Nathaniel knew he was only half a day’s walk from his camp, but in the deep snow it would take him most of the day to get there. And when he reached his camp before dark he saw tracks all around the half-face, wolf tracks, deer tracks, tracks of the big tiger cat. Something had climbed the oak tree and jumped down on the hanging deer carcass and eaten from it. He wasn’t sure what animal would have done that, a raccoon, a bobcat?  

It took him some effort to get a fire started at the entrance to the half-face. Snow had blown and drifted into the shelter and he had to clean the drift away from the circle of rocks. To find kindling he split some pine limbs to expose the resiny heartwood. He shaved curls and found a few dry leaves and twigs in the corner. With flint and steel he finally got a fire going and fed it carefully with shavings and pine splinters until the flames were hot enough to catch the larger sticks. In the deep snow his only choice was to break lower limbs off pines and knock the snow off and lay them one at a time on the fire.    

When he emptied the bags slung over Pearl’s back he found a bag of coffee beans. Whether it had been put there by mistake he couldn’t know. But gratefully he crushed some beans between two rocks and boiled coffee until it was black and strong and scalding. As he sipped the brew it warmed his belly and bowels, and sent a light out through his veins to the tips of his fingers and toes.  

As he drank the coffee and gnawed turkey meat and looked out at the snow beyond the fire, Nathaniel knew he had much work to do. He had to build a real cabin for himself, with four walls and a fireplace, and he had to make some kind of shelter for Pearl. She’d need a stall built of poles and logs. Pearl could not be left outside, tied to a tree all winter, as wolves and panthers,Indians and the tiger cat, came prowling

Nathaniel expected the snow to melt, but instead the weather grew colder, and more snow came. Snow and ice on the stream made it hard to find his old traps, much less set the new ones. Every day snow fell, and he cleared a yard around the half-face and shot turkeys and a deer that wandered near. He didn’t even have to go out into the woods to hunt. It was so cold turkeys died from suffocation as ice clogged their breathing holes. While the snow was so deep it was hard to get started cutting logs for a cabin and horse stall.    

One night in late winter he heard Pearl whinny and her whinny rose to a scream. Nathaniel grabbed his rifle and a blazing stick from the fire. Pearl was jumping and kicking and he saw something spotted on her back. The horse thrashed and reared and bucked, but the animal stuck to her back. It had to be the big tiger cat he’d seen before. The weeks of blizzard had made it desperate for a kill. He couldn’t raise the rifle while holding the burning stick.  

Pearl swung from side to side in terror and the giant cat gripped her flesh and bit her neck. Nathaniel stuck the burning stick into the snowbank where it blazed like a torch. He raised the rifle, but how was he to shoot in the flickering light without hitting Pearl? He had only one shot.If he missed, the tiger would kill Pearl before he could reload, and if he merely wounded the cat it might turn on him. With the end of the rifle barrel he followed the rising and falling, the lurch from side to side, of the horse and cat. It was too dangerous to risk the shot.  

Stepping closer, just a few feet from the horse, he pointed the barrel behind the cat’s shoulders and fired. Pearl wheeled away, jumped and bucked, kicked out behind, and swung out of the light. The tiger cat clung to her back and Nathaniel thought he’d missed. There was no time to reload. Raising the rifle by its barrel he clubbed the cat on the head. The head fell to the side, and slowly the spotted body slid off the horse into the snow. He pounded the head with the butt of the rifle and the big cat lay still.  

Blood seeped from the places on Pearl’s neck and back where the cat’s teeth and claws had ripped the flesh. He rubbed grease on the wounds, and whispered to the horse to calm her. He was trembling so he could hardly reload the rifle. Throwing more wood on the fire he made coffee and sat to calm himself until it was daylight.  

When he looked closely at the carcass of the tiger cat he saw the spots were in clusters of four,almost in circles, around a central spot, like the leaves of four-leaf clover or the petals of a flower. It was the most beautiful hide he’d ever seen. Nathaniel ran his fingers over the fine hair. He’d never touched anything like it. The cat must be an individual that had wandered into the mountains from far south or west.  

It took him most of the day to skin the big tiger cat. It was a male and must have weighed over two hundred pounds. The body was heavier and thicker than that of a panther, though not as long. He peeled the hide off with great care. No telling what he could get for such a skin, maybe enough for a new rifle, more traps, supplies for another season. When the big carcass was skinned he stretched the hide on the wall of the half-face with pegs stuck between the poles.  

Nathaniel dragged the carcass to the edge of his yard and left it there. He shot a wolf that came at dusk to eat the flesh. The next evening he killed a bear that came to feed there. But when buzzards arrived on the third day he let them peck their fill. It took about a week for the scavengers to pick the bones clean.  

A few weeks later the rains started. Never had he seen it rain harder or longer. Hour after hour, day after day, the water came down like an ocean dropping out of the sky. The great drifts of snow turned sodden, gray, and drained away. The yard filled with water and mud. Water seeped into the half-face. The spring flooded as snow on the ridge above melted and poured downhill. The branch spread far beyond its banks.  

The corn meal he’d brought from McIver’s was ruined by water and had rotted. So had the turkey meat he’d dried over the fire. Water had gotten into his keg of powder. All he had left was the amount in his horn. With a piece of deerskin he rubbed water off the big cat hide. To cure it must be kept dry.  

It was only when the rain finally stopped that Nathaniel realized a terrible flood must have swept through the valley below. The melting snow and endless rain would have scoured the river valley. When he went to look for his two traps they were gone. He’d not been able to set the new traps because of the heavy snow. Now it was too late in the season to catch fur in its prime. Soon it would be spring.  

The only thing Nathaniel had to trade was the hide of the tiger cat. With so little powder left he had no choice but to go back to McIver’s to see what the trader would give him for the unusual hide. Folding the big skin, he tied it on Pearl’s back. As he led the horse down the valley he saw the effects of the flood. Trees had been torn out by the roots and piled up against other trees. Raw banks had been cut at the bends. The farther he traveled the more devastation he saw. Debris was left in meadows and trash caught in the tops of trees still standing. The flood had cut a swath up to the sides of the mountains.  

There was no path now. He had to find a way around heaped brush, uprooted trees, boulders washed out of the mountainside. Landslides had piled mud and dammed the stream in places. He slogged through mud up to his knees.  

It took Nathaniel four days to reach McIver’s station, and when he came into the clearing he saw everything was wrong. The cabin was not where it had been, but was turned sideways and leaning toward the river and the roof had fallen in. The fence of the horse pen was gone, and the horses were gone. The storage shed had been knocked over by the flood. Dead trees littered the yard.  

Something moved to his right, and he turned and saw the Indian woman digging on the hillside.Nathaniel led Pearl in that direction and noticed a body lying on the ground wrapped in a bearskin. It was McIver. As he approached, the Indian woman ignored him and kept digging. McIver’s face was white as wax, almost blue.  

“Can I help you with that?” Nathaniel said.  

There was a trail in the mud and grass where she’d dragged the body to the spot on the hill. She dug slowly, as though worn out.    

“Give me the shovel,” Nathaniel said. The Indian woman stopped digging and he took the shovel from her. Underneath the sod the dirt was red clay with only a few rocks and roots. He cut the corners of the grave hole square and carved the walls straight. Digging dirt was something Nathaniel had always been good at. Added strength always came to him when he cut into the earth. The Indian woman held Pearl while he worked. When the hole was deep enough they lowered the body into it.  

Standing at the end of the grave the Indian woman looked up at the sky and said some words Nathaniel didn’t understand. She reached out a hand toward the west, and then laid the hand over her heart. They both stood silent for a moment and then Nathaniel began shoveling red clay back into the grave.  

As they walked toward the tilted cabin Nathaniel said, “I see the flood was bad.”

 “Flood took everything,” she said. Her calico dress was smeared with mud and her moccasinsand leggings were muddy.  

Nathaniel looked into the leaning cabin and saw the barrels of meal and tobacco, gunpowder, whiskey, kegs of bear grease, had been broken open and ruined. A few traps hung on the wall, already beginning to rust.  

“Did McIver drown in the flood?” Nathaniel said.  

“McIver dead,” the woman said. She looked away toward the mountains.  

“What is your name?”  

“McIver call me Sarah.”  

“Are you a Catawba? Cherokee?”  

The woman turned and looked him in the eye. “Coosa,” she said.  

“Coosa?”  

The woman pointed toward the southwest. “Cherokee burn my village, take me, sell me to McIver.” She sounded sad but not angry. She stared at the tiger cat hide on Pearl’s back, and stepped closer to stroke the spotted skin. “Jaguar,” she said.  

“Jaguar?” It was a name Nathaniel had heard, but thought that animal belonged to the tropics.  

“Jaguar,” she said again, and it was clear she’d seen such a big cat before. Wherever she was from it must be far south where there were jaguars to hunt.  

“Where will you go now?” Nathaniel said.  

She looked away toward the mountains. “I go with you,” she said.  

Nathaniel was surprised. The death of McIver, the flood, the jaguar, had changed everything. Should he go back down to the foothills and head for Virginia? He had nothing but the jaguar hide to show for his winter’s work. Should he help the Indian woman rebuild McIver’s cabin? Should he send her down to the settlements?  

As he studied his options, the Indian woman stepped into the ruined cabin and came out with a dozen rusting steel-traps which she tied to Pearl’s back. Then she returned to the cabin and came back with a bundle of hunting knives and a leather bag of lead. On her next trip she brought several cooking pots and tied those to Pearl’s back also.  

“Did McIver have any money?” Nathaniel said.  

“Money wash away,” she said. Then she reached into a bag tied to her neck and took out three gold coins. “My money,” she said. Then she returned to the cabin and came back with a small cask of gunpowder.  

“Is the powder dry?” Nathaniel said.  

“Sealed with tar,” she said and showed him the seams filled with pitch.  

As he watched her lash the keg to Pearl’s back Nathaniel knew a decision had been made. She’d made the decision for him. Or he’d made the decision when he chose to return to McIver’s. Or the flood had made the decision.  

They started up the washed-out river valley by mid-afternoon, Nathaniel in front leading the horse, Sarah behind carrying a pack of muskrat hides and sewing things, beads and needles, knives and salt and herbs on her back. Redbud and sarvis were beginning to bloom. The scoured river banks were starting to dry.  

When they stopped for the night Sarah started a fire and put a pot of water on to boil for coffee.Then she took a fish hook and thread from her pack, found white grubs under a log for bait, and caught three trout in the river. For supper they ate fresh trout and drank strong coffee. After they ate Sarah bowed her head and said a prayer. She said missionaries had come to her village when she was little and taught her to pray after every meal. Then she washed the pot in the river and unrolled a bearskin on the ground.  

“I make you a coat,” she said and pointed to the jaguar hide.  

“A coat for me?” Nathaniel sat with his loaded rifle beside him. Bears, wolves, panthers, Cherokees, might be prowling in the woods. But because the woman was with him he felt more at ease, a confidence he hadn’t expected. With another person the woods seemed different.  

“I don’t know where we can sell furs now that McIver’s gone,” Nathaniel said.  

“McIver sell his furs to Davis,” she said and pointed to the east.  

“Maybe you can make a coat for yourself from the jaguar,” Nathaniel said.  

“No, for you,” she said and put a hand on his cheek.  

Later that night as he lay beside Sarah listening to the murmur of the river he thought of Rebecca and tried to recall her face, but couldn’t be sure he remembered any features except for the red hair.   


a note from the author

When I wrote "Grace" a few years ago I was especially interested in telling stories of conflict, suffering, grace, and redemption in contemporary life, in the Appalachian community where I had grown up in western North Carolina. The character in "Grace" is based on an actual relative who did indeed die of acute alcoholism in a small trailer, alone on a winter night. Over the years since I have become increasingly interested in examining and portraying issues in history, turning points in American history. "The Jaguar" was an attempt to tell of a humble event in the mountains of North Carolina in 1781-82, the story of one individual moving into the wilderness to trap and taking an Indian wife, suggesting the beginning of the vast westward expansion of the country once the Revolutionary war was over. I wanted to make it an adventure story, with just a hint of romance.


Carolyn Osborn

 

spring 1970


MY BROTHER IS A COWBOY

BY CAROLYN OSBORN - FROM ROANOKE REVIEW, SPRING 1970

 

current work


RANCHING ON DRY GROUND

On top of one of the mesas at the ranch at sunset while looking out above a valley toward other distant blue mesas, the view is a grandiose background for a western movie or a chorus singing, “Oh beautiful for spacious skies.” The chorus would be standing on dry ground.  

 This ranch I eventually inherited is, by Southwestern measures, a small one spreading over parts of Lampasas and Coryell counties in central Texas. Roughly arrow-shaped, it’s located in the northern-most hill country. From horseback in the spring the land resembles a large English park until you get down from the saddle and something bites or scratches you.  

There is no running water, not a single creek, on the place. The nearest river is about three miles distant. In order to water livestock, we use rain-fed “tanks,” as ponds are called here, windmills, and springs when we can find them. We need all these sources, as the average annual rainfall, supposedly 31 inches, is just a number we refer to ironically.  

When I first came to the state, I was 12, a city child who knew nothing about ranches. My stepmother began putting hers together in 1940 at the end of the Depression by buying a number of small places near Evant, her hometown, when land, which had been selling for $26 to $28 an acre, fell to $8 to $6 dollars an acre. Actually in 1942 she paid the smallest amount she would ever have to pay, only $5.76 an acre. Though prices slowly went up, she kept piecing small parcels together until she had enough to lease to her brother to run cattle on. After she married my father, he added 160 more acres Mother called “the G.I. pasture” since he bought it via the Texas Veterans’ Land Loan Program in 1957. With this addition, and 33 cares my husband, Joe, added using the same program, we thought the ranch was about 1400 acres.  

Then in 1992 the Texas Land Office made the most maddening discovery: we had, in legal terminology, a vacancy. Our ranch surrounded 33.22 acres belonging to the state. Exactly how this happened—careless surveyors, bad copyists, faulty corner marks—couldn’t possibly be traced. (One 1879 survey designated a corner using “a rock mound and a Spanish oak marked E.”) If land belongs to the state, the state can sell it to anyone. When Texas joined the union, it held title to all the land originally belonging to the Spanish king, then to Mexico. To us the Texas Land Office was acting like royalty about those acres in the midst of our west pasture, the one everybody used to enter the ranch.  It was as though an ancient quarrel between landlord and peasant surfaced: Mother had to purchase the state’s last hold on our land. After putting together so much cheap acreage earlier, she paid $300.00 an acre to buy the vacancy. It was about half of what my husband had to spend, but it wasn’t as dear since it was land locked.   

Our family never actually lived on the ranch. My parents’ house in Gatesville, thirty miles east, was our headquarters. The first Christmas in Texas, four months after moving there from Tennessee, my brother, Billy, 10, and I received matching boots, factory made with red leather longhorn heads outlined in front, and reminded we were to wear them at the ranch.   

We quickly learned the rules for avoiding rattlesnakes, native dwellers in our dry country; watch where you put your boots, and if you see a snake, run as fast as you can to the nearest grown-up. We spent a lot of time studying the ground. Billy threw rocks to kill rattlers. Fortunately I didn’t have to confront one until I was grown. The horse I rode, startled by a rattle, shied and without my reining him, found another path. Although the same rules applied to copperhead and coral snakes, I saw copperheads asleep on top of an old piece of metal only once. I never saw a live coral snake, the deadliest of all, though we learned the doggerel warning about its circular markings: “Red and yellow, kill a fellow. Red and black, venom lack.” Water moccasins lived in old tanks; we went swimming only in one new tank the first spring it was built, one of the few years we had ample rainfall. After Joe and I started running the ranch, we encouraged snake hunters to clear the rattlesnake dens in the mesas’ limestone rim rock. They misted the sleepy hibernating snakes with gasoline until they crawled out to escape the fumes. After collecting the snakes in tow sacks, hunters took them to rattlesnake round-ups, usually held in the spring in nearby counties. Mercifully I never had to attend one, but I’ve seen enough newspaper pictures to know men test their bravado by surrounding themselves with rattlesnakes, pushing them away with sticks, and doing other foolish things such as the a recent story of someone getting in a sleeping bag with one. The young snake, full of unused venom, bit the intruder’s foot, which had to be amputated to save the man’s life. Hunters sell their largest snakes to people who concoct anti-venom, the only useful thing except men’s hatbands resulting from rattlesnakes, as far as I’m concerned, although I do know they help reduce the rodent population. And I’m also aware ecologists believe the loss of rattlesnakes upsets nature’s balance. We find their dens are repopulated, if not every year, at least every other, rattlesnakes crawl back from our pastures to hibernate in the mesas’ caves. 

 Scorpions, we learned as children, usually travel in pairs, “like highway patrol men,” our mother said. She was a skillful driver but prone to speeding. The name “redbug” replaced our familiar “chigger” although the bite’s formidable itch was the same and they were just as unavoidable, or so we thought. Anti-bug sprays weren’t readily available in the forties and fifties. Sometime later we learned you could swallow or bathe in a medicinal looking concoction called “flowers of sulfur” that kept redbugs away. When you sweated it made you smell so sulfurous people kept away too.  

 Depending on spring rains, more vigorous in the forties before our approximately seven-year drought in the fifties—from 1950 till 1957 though creeping toward us as early as 1947—wildflowers filled the pastures. In over-lapping weeks we’d see bluebonnets, orange paintbrush, yellow and red Indian blankets, yellow Mexican hats with conical-shaped green or brown centers, lavender horsemint, dark purple and lavender bluebells, tight little bouquets of mountain pinks, a field of coreopsis among the profusion of yellow flowers—so many at once that most people forget their common names and say when asked, “Oh, those are yellow flowers.” Many other varieties of flowers bloomed, of course, enough to help fill two volumes of Wildflowers of Texas. Faced with this multitude, we half forgot the short, drab winters and the cruel sun we knew would soon dominate. By 2011 our temperatures varied from 100 to 106 degrees. Around here no one goes to the country to cool off.  

We can still pick Mexican plums in the early summer and gather native pecans in the fall. The tank we used for swimming the first year it was scooped out of the earth, and another for fishing, stocked with bass in the good years, dried to mud holes, then simply dried out last year. Clumps of gnarled live oak trees, post oaks, Spanish oaks, elms, walnuts, pecans, hackberries, and a dozen other varieties shade parts of pastures and despite sparse rainfall, fill ravines. For picnics in the forties, Mother favored a slope overlooking the new tank, where in the early spring or late fall she would build a small fire to heat the food, something too dangerous, and forbidden in these drought years when whole counties and those adjacent are under burn bans. On Sunday afternoons our father taught Billy how to shoot, a twenty-two, and later, a shotgun. I had no interest in shooting, or in my uncle’s steers. I’d walk in the opposite direction to find the bones of a herd of Angora goats that had died right after shearing on top of a mesa when a sudden northern blast killed them all, or to poke around the ruins of the one remaining house site and its defunct windmill in the same pasture, a perfect place for the curious to investigate. My searches yielded only old brown snuff bottles or clear sun-glazed bottles and I would wonder about the people who took the snuff, or used “Horlick’s Malted Milk Lunch Tablets,” or drank from a bottle impressed with the words, “YOU CAN’T BEAT IT,” some kind of whiskey I guessed. Did the crumbling ruin of an elevated stone cistern ever hold enough water for people to shower? Who used up all the ink in the empty inkbottle? Did anyone my age ever live there?    

As much as I might want a house of our own at the ranch, we had none. Neither had Thomas H. Williams, “an indigent Texas Revolutionary war veteran” living in 1881 in Matagorda County near the Texas Gulf Coast.  He was one of four veterans to acquire some of our land. Williams had to give the names of the captains he’d served under “in the year 1836 after the invasion” and prove he owned property worth $500 or less. On oath he swore he was “physically unable to support myself” and all he had was “1/2 of a 320 acre tract of land, 1 yoke of oxen, and 1 gun.” This, written in a beautiful flowing hand, just as everyone who was literate seemed to write then, on aging light brown paper, is all we know of Thomas H. Williams, for he apparently never lived on his land grant from the state; instead it was assigned to agents in Austin who sold the patent to Hyman Blum of Paris, France for an unknown price 45 years after the war with Mexico was over. Blum was evidently one of the many middle-men collecting veterans’ land certificates; he sold William’s reward for helping Texas win its revolution to local settlers for $1.00 an acre in 1901.   

Slightly earlier, in 1876, another veteran, a Confederate army survivor named George W. H. McMorris, came to stay on another part of the ranch: he homesteaded 160 acres near today’s ranch’s entrance. On a site overlooking a valley beside a live oak tree he built a 14 by 14 foot log cabin with a wild mixture of logs—oak, gum, cedar, whatever was long enough—which contained a loft, and a fireplace, where he and his his wife raised three children. How five people lived in such a small space, I don’t know, but I’ve always thought the children must have been told to play outside most of the day when they were small. We’ve located the spot near the cabin where McMorris dug a well, the only available water source for his family. Since homesteads required cultivation, when the children grew older they probably worked with their father within sight of the cabin in a flat rock-strewn field made richer by soil eroding off the nearby mesa. Before barbed wire, invented in 1873, arrived in our part of the country in the 1890s perhaps they helped gather the rocks for a now toppled stone fence, but what was grown there? I’m not sure though I know cotton was the main cash crop then. If McMorris raised cotton, he must have had better rainfall in the 1870s and 1880s than we have now. Partially tumbled down with a half caved-in roof by 1946, what was left of his cabin was used to store hay for winter cattle feeding.  

On a slight rise to the south of the log cabin stood the Binfords’ house, a little white wooden board and batten place probably built later by McMorris, where a family of cedar choppers, a tiny old woman and her three sons, lived. The sons were tall rangy men with weathered faces, men who seldom spoke, hired by Mother to hand chop cedar on the ranch with double-bladed axes. I didn’t fully understand their importance until my husband and I began running the ranch. In our area Ashe junipers, commonly called cedars, grow to tree size quickly and have practically no commercial value. Cattle won’t eat them and goats will nibble them away only while the trees are young. Impossible to eradicate—the seeds are continually spread by birds and animals—cedars are a water-depleting scourge as well. A 1997 A&M report shows 33.1 gallons of water per tree per day used by Ashe junipers in our area. That’s before our latest drought cycle. Many years after the Binfords’ time, Joe learned to cut down the small junipers with loppers or a chain saw, a recurrent necessity. He also continually fights mesquite, the thorny, invasive brush that thrives even more in drier south Texas. Though not as numerous as cedar here, mesquite are killed when young by spraying with a diesel-herbicide mixture in the hottest part of the summer, an extremely smelly, disagreeable task.   

 For the Binfords hard work with low pay was simply the cedar choppers’ lot even in earlier years when the wood was used for fence posts. Steel generally replaces cedar now, except for a few corner posts, and Anglo cedar choppers, a tribe of their own, are difficult to find; today Mexican-American crews with chain saws usually take their place.  

 In the forties and early fifties, I don’t know how the four Binfords all managed to live in a three-room plus screened-in back porch house with an outhouse, without electricity or plumbing except one pipe laid from the nearby windmill. The pipe bent at the house’s south wall and curled up over a windowsill to a sink. They must have had some sort of stove for heat and for Mrs. Binford to cook on. On our trips to the ranch while we were young, neither I, nor my brother were allowed to go near the house. It was off limits out of respect for the Binfords’ privacy according to our mother. I wasn’t even tempted to investigate; tall, silent red-faced men with axes were so unspeakably dangerous, they were best left alone. 

Finally the Binfords drifted off, perhaps to better accommodations, or perhaps the men joined the army. My father, a World War II veteran who’d served in the Field Artillery, doubted the latter as he thought no matter how dangerous the Binford boys might have looked, they were not bright enough for service.  

Billy, by the time he decided to take up ranching about 1963, moved into the Binfords’ house while retreating to Gatesville on some weekends, particularly when he needed his washing done. He was a young man at odds with formal education, an ex- paratrooper, ex-vet’s assistant, ex-livestock auction worker, ex-rodeo bull-rider. Our parents let him use the ranch lease free, but there wasn’t enough land or water to carry enough cattle and goats to make much of a profit. Gradually he would lease other places. 

His years at Mother’s ranch, before he died at 36 in a one pickup wreck in 1973, were full of what seemed to me grubby necessities, but to him, they were, I think now, like the recurrent years of drought, simply part of a rancher’s life. When he hired illegal Mexican workers, as many other ranchers did in order to get by, he generally ate whatever they cooked, mostly pinto beans and rice with chilies added for flavor; some days meat from rabbits or armadillos was added. He showered by attaching a piece of hose to a spigot on the windmill, mended barbed wire wire fences broken by deer that hadn’t jumped quite high enough, learned to build new fences on rocky ground—another continual necessity—rode pastures checking on and doctoring cattle, designed and helped build a new corral, shored up the pole barn once again, drove to auctions to buy or sell livestock.  Windmills, one of our main defenses against drought, habitually need repair. One on top of a mesa was knocked over and totally dismantled by a tornado that left the tower still standing with its fan’s blades, partially overgrown with weeds on the ground, a reason Billy often searched for springs. He discovered the best spring on the ranch at the far north end underneath a big hackberry and two large cedar elms where he found a trickle of water and piped it to run steadily to a trough connected to a another trough, connected to a third trough, all of them sitting at odd angles to each other. The trees’ trunks and limbs, metal troughs, concrete blocks, pipes and supporting wires all jumbled together, look like a working model of a contemporary art installation. It is an art to somehow manage to weave three awkward six-foot long straight troughs through three trees to make a useful watering place. Just moving those empty troughs to the site was a problem.  

  The spring is not easily visible from the mesa above. It’s hidden within shear rock walls and was found either by prying open a seldom-used wire gate at the northernmost corner of the ranch and hiking up to the site, or by clambering down over rocks and weeds on one side of the wall. To move the troughs in, Billy had to pry open the gate, another difficulty since it hadn’t been used for years and was so rusted he probably cut it apart and rebuilt it later.  

I’m not sure exactly how he found the spring. I imagine him tying his horse to a tree on top then half-sliding, half-climbing down, as we do now, to reach the mossy wet rocks below. He could have heard tales about the spring from people in Evant, the nearest town, population 550 at its height, withered to 379 in 2010. Supposedly during the Depression, an old man lived in a tent on the mesa and used the spring below as his only water source. In our dry country, springs are to most people such a mysterious gift they incite stories. I can’t help but wonder how the old man made it through a hard winter in his tent when the wind blew down from the north so fast the temperature could drop to freezing in an hour. 

  

After the loss of my father in 1968 and my brother in 1973, my husband and I decided to venture into a cattle partnership with my mother. For me it was a real venture since I’d never really learned much about ranching. As we grew older, the ranch definitely became my brother’s territory and I didn’t interfere. I knew, however, it was important to keep Mother occupied: she was spending too much time driving from Gatesville to visit my father’s and brother’s graves in a little country cemetery near Evant. And I slowly became more curious about how something so remote from my experience might be done. I was already involved in teaching English part time at the University of Texas in Austin, looking after three children, and writing when I could while my husband was practicing law in downtown Austin. We lived ninety miles south of the ranch. To him, an hour and a half’s drive wasn’t too far; to me the more we discussed the possibility, the more it appealed.  

Joe, because he grew up on a stock farm in the Texas Panhandle, was familiar with cattle. I had it all to learn, even the basic language like cow-calf operation, which had no medical connotation: it just meant we would own cows nursing their calves approximately eight months before they were weaned and sold. The next part of the cycle was stockers, those weaned calves that were matured on wheat or grass pastures at other people’s ranches. They could be slaughtered after six or eight months producing grass-fed beef, but the majority generally moved to the feeder stage to be fattened usually in a feedlot for their last six months. My uncle and brother ran stockers, buying each fall and selling each spring. My mother, Joe, and I chose the cow-calf stage since there was less risk. The volatile beef market could leave a stocker broke if it was low at the time one had to sell. If this happened to us, we might have to take a loss on calves, but we’d still own the cows to produce more offspring another year, an optimistic view of motherhood, I decided. First we had to find the cows, but there were no herds readily available in the country nearby, and once we’d made the decision, we were in a hurry to restock.  

 Despite Joe’s background and familiarity with cattle, together we made one of the worst mistakes we could have; we went to south Texas to buy cows. I thought earlier it might have been a pleasure simply to leave the ranch empty of everything except wildlife, but I knew Mother wouldn’t hear of it. Unused acres are too great a luxury to those who’ve struggled to buy them and the idea of putting land to work was deeply ingrained in her generation. Joe reminded me, owners need the tax break given to agriculture use, and vacant land has its own set of problems including being a continual fire hazard. We knew how frightening a fire on dry land could be. Late one hot summer afternoon just as we drove from the ranch to the highway we saw smoke curling on the horizon. Mother, apparently intuitively aware her place was burning, led the way to the threatening gray signal, set we supposed, by the magnifying effects of sun on broken glass. With the help of the Evant Fire Department, it was quickly contained before it reached gullies covered with cedar. Because of the explosive effect of fire on the oily cedar, a disastrous spread via sparks would have been inevitable. Indians, Comanches probably, purposefully set dry grass on fire in order to attract more buffalo who preferred to eat the new green shoots; Indians obviously had neither fences to burn nor neighbors to consider. And did the cycles of drought we’ve known exist in Indian days?  

We drove down to Uvalde on the border to meet a cattle owner and his agent, two men called Shirley and Carol. We already knew men called June and Francis, so in our experience the custom of giving boys girls’ names wasn’t novel, we’d just never met two of them together. Our foreman, we’d noticed, customarily named bulls after the men who sold them to us. This time we somehow forgot the sellers’ names.    

After inspecting cattle from the front seat of Shirley’s pickup, we bought two bulls, a hundred mother cows, and their calves for $525.00 a pair, Herefords with Charolais-Hereford calves, some showing a bit of Brahma mix in the pointed tips of their ears. All of them looked good in their part of the country. We didn’t object to the mixture since, in theory, hybrid vigor results from crossing. They arrived at our place in three double-decker trucks, were unloaded, and driven to the nearest tank. It had been a good spring and all the tanks were full. I thought the windmill was working; its fan’s blades were creaking in the wind, but I soon realized no water was being pumped; the fan was simply running free while the water remained underground, my first lesson in the obduracy of windmills. First you have to know what a sucker rod is; then check closely to see if it’s moving. It’s as if windmills are made to fool anyone watching. Halfway up the tower a scissortail flycatcher, her salmon pink sides barely showing, sat on her nest, her long tail shooting west and her head turned east. Another bird’s nest was built beneath the point where the fan joined the tower. It blew to the ground as I watched, and inside I found one mottled green egg. The same day I saw two pair of quail strutting in the yard of the Binfords’ old house; soon after we jumped three jackrabbits and two cottontails; an armadillo, in its half-blind way, ambled across a corner of the pasture. Mother pointed to a horned toad sunning itself near the road, and a neighbor told us a flock of wild turkeys roosted on the east side of one of the mesas. I remembered my father hunted dove and quail on the place every fall. Since the last of Billy’s stock was removed, it seemed we’d been running a wildlife refuge. We’d spent a previous morning riding the perimeter fences of the ranch horseback and found a fawn, its spots showing in the sunlight while the doe ran off, supposedly tempting us to follow her and a female quail used the same tactic, dragging one wing on the ground to lead us away from her nest, both obeying the instinctive urge to protect their young. I leaned down by my borrowed horse’s sweaty neck to watch the almost invisible quail moving noiselessly through the grasses. On a later early morning ride we saw two bobcats bounding across a pasture. We didn’t see coyotes although we could hear them howling at night. 

I would have liked to spend days riding around the ranch exploring, but we had to find a windmill man, a fast fading livelihood since submersible electric pumps are now more widely used. Floyd and Frances Parr, our new foreman and his wife, the two most indispensible people we’d found, directed us to Mr. Perkins who lived near them in Evant. Without contact with people in the area who’d lived there for years, we knew it would be impossible to run a ranch from Austin.  Floyd and Frances had been raised on ranches, owned a small ranch themselves, and were willing guides. 

Mr. Perkins lived in a house with a porch facing U.S. 281, the highway running from north to south through the state. First we needed to speak through the screen door to Mrs. Perkins who didn’t understand what place we were talking about.  

We’d always called it “the ranch,” a futile description I soon realized, so I stated the whole connection, “I’m Mabel Winters Culbert’s daughter, Billy Culbert’s sister.” 

“Oh it’s the Billy Culbert place.” 

Country people have their own place designations. They forgot, or perhaps never knew, it was Mother’s ranch. Legal definitions of ownership aren’t important; who runs it is. Once this was established, Mrs. Perkins became helpful; she called around to locate Mr. Perkins while we admired her enormous vegetable garden from the front porch. The only seat was a claw-footed bathtub painted yellow, one side cut away revealing a lank cushion about six inches above the floor. In drought-ridden country, it seemed a perfect statement of décor. 

 Mr. Perkins, himself, looked a bit like an elf; he was a small wiry man dressed in dark green work clothes. He sat on a step, I sat next to him, and Joe hunkered on the ground. No one tried to sit in the bathtub. We soon discovered Mr. Perkins had been my mother’s student when she taught at a country school near Evant in the twenties. We often ran into someone who’d known Mother, had built a corral for my brother, worked for my uncle.  

To Mr. Perkins we spoke of various windmills on the ranch and springs. 

“I’d rather have a good spring than a windmill any day,” he said.  

Since then I’ve heard the exact opposite said by other windmill men. Depending on their experience, they thought either a windmill or a spring tended to dry up when most needed. Now I think both do. 

Mr. Perkins got our windmill running again. Just as the rest of his dwindling tribe would do in the future, he attempted to explain its inner workings including brass valves, leathers made of cowhide about the size of tablespoons to scoop up the water, and a series of long, long pipes going down to the water’s surface a hundred and ten feet below. I understood about half of what he was saying, but I did find, in the years to come, that leathers constantly wear out in our gritty limestone suffused water and require replacement, but only the windmill man seems to know exactly when. Other parts need oiling once a year at least, and the odd looking metal box covering the gears near the top is called a bonnet because of its resemblance to a woman’s old-fashioned sunbonnet, the kind my Texas grandmother had worn. 

Mr. Perkins gave me two used brass valves, “to make a candlestick with,” he said.  

I wondered silently how many candlesticks Mrs. Perkins had.  

Shortly after the windmill was repaired and the cattle began to fill out a little, we discovered, unfortunately, some of the cows had developed a taste for prickly pear, the cactus, which grows in great numbers in south Texas and, though not quite so numerous on the ranch, is also a large problem in central Texas. Once cows eat pear with thorns burned off by flame-throwers during droughts, as south Texas ranchers often did, they can become seriously addicted to eating un-prickly pear, so will continue eating them even with thorns on. I’d been told sheep were so dumb they could smother each other to death by huddling too close together in freezing weather, but the “pear-eaters,” as Floyd called them, were I was sure, the dumb half of the dumb cow insult.  

Reading information published by Texas A&M, we found prickly pear defies destruction except by the use of gallons of chemical spray or a controlled burn, illegal in a drought. The spray required a license, so we got a license and did a bit of spraying before we found we lacked enough hours to do as much as needed. And even if the burn were legal, we don’t trust the concept especially since it kills the plant only for a limited time. Now, as it threatens to overtake some pastures, we pay someone to spray prickly pear with the newest A&M recommended poison. As much as we dislike using poison, we’ll use it to save a pasture.  

The pear-eaters we first bought naturally went on eating it and damaged their stomachs. Soon after we discovered some of them had a peculiar tick borne disease called anaplasmosis, which caused them to abort their calves. Trying to understand it, I read a ranchers’ magazine listing 21 ways a cow could abort; the 21st item was simply called “more.” Even when vaccinated against the disease, cows remained carriers. We eventually sold all of ours to packers, a business that “slaughtered, processed, and packed livestock into meat, meat products and by-products.” This is one of those dictionary definitions telling you less than you need to know. In the case of our cows, I suppose packers also sterilized the anaplasmosis diseased carcasses before turning them into dog food, one of the “by-products.”  

We learned from Floyd and our vet that anaplasmosis existed in herds nearby, exactly whose we didn’t know, so we discovered also that ranchers can be secretive about causes of their cows’ deaths. 

We began again after requesting help from the nearest U.S. Department of Agriculture office, the bank that loaned us enough money to buy more cows, and my mother who grew up helping her father ranch and was familiar with the multiple risks of raising cows and calves. This time we waited until we could buy stock from reliable local ranchers.  

Touring the ranch later with one of the USDA agents, we realized our pastures were over-grazed. In this part of the country a cow and calf together require approximately 23 acres to thrive through dry and wet years. We had a horror of over-grazing. Too often we’d heard of cattlemen over-stocking a place thereby reducing the native grasses. The ranch has numerous species of grass, however our cattle principally graze buffalograss, rescuegrass, and  blue grama. Unfortunately we knew we were seeing a lot of inedible broom weed, those dainty yellow flowers coloring pastures in the fall, a sure sign of over-grazed land. Because the main product of ranch land is grass, we had to save it.  

We’d already finished a brush-clearing program on the G.I. land; the Binfords’ cedar chopping years didn’t include it. Our son’s three hundred Angora goats and my own multi-colored Spanish goats—at least a hundred of them—were turned loose there to eat the cedar down. Both types of goats were dual purpose; the Spanish goats’ kids were sold for meat, mainly to Chinese, Arab, and other immigrant markets while the Angora goats produced enough mohair—augmented by a generous government support price— to pay for our son’s college tuition. Unfortunately we discovered when the goats moved to other pastures in the winter they chose to eat grasses needed for cattle since the green shoots of brush they preferred were dormant. We sold all the goats. And we reduced the cow numbers from a hundred to sixty. The pastures began recovering.  

In the meantime, Joe became interested in the original tall grasses grazed almost to extinction. With whatever help available, and most times alone, in McMorris’ old field he sowed Indian grass, big and little bluestem, and switch grass. We were rewarded when in the fall bluestem and Indian grass stood more than seven feet tall. Because we cut down our stock numbers, the long suppressed tall grasses, especially the little bluestem, also emerged in other parts of the ranch.  My mother, who died in 1994, did not live to see the tall grasses. I’m sure she would have approved just as she approved of the log cabin restoration, the well we had drilled—run by a dependable submersible pump—and the ranch house we built with her in 1974 on the site McMorris once homesteaded. 


The 12 months from October 2010 through September 2011 were the driest for that 12 month period in Texas since 1895, when the state began keeping rainfall records.
— Austin American Statesman

This was the worst drought we’d had since Joe and I began ranching in 1973. Without spring and summer rains, grasses in our pastures weren’t growing sufficient forage, and we were running low on stock water. By 2013 we’d culled the cattle down to 52. Cows need approximately ten gallons of water a day, more or less depending on the day’s and size of the animal; bulls and cows nursing calves need more. In drought years the tanks generally dry out first, then the weak springs quit running.  To compound the problem, that year our one working windmill broke, and the people we relied on for repairs proved unreliable. We’d drive up from Austin, stop in Lampasas on the way to the ranch, and confront the placid looking woman who tried to soothe us. 

First: “We’ve had to order a part.” 

Second: “The man who usually does this kind of work is sick.” 

Third: “We’re overcome with people needing help.” 

At last, after much discussion, especially since the Lampasas workers had dismantled and hauled the mill to their shop, we hired someone else to truck the broken windmill to another repair place in another county.  

In 2011 our son William decided to improve a spring, one Billy had already tried to extend. Where water first seeped, as usual below a mesa’s rocks, Billy had set a pipe leading to a large concrete trough, which was generally over-flowing. To capture the over-flow, William’s workers designed an addition, a long curving native limestone wall to contain the water. From the south side the wall looked like stonework on a medieval castle. In some seasons it contained enough water to form a pond reaching to the west and spilling over in a small waterfall to the ravine below. In the driest part of the drought, all that water retreated to the old concrete trough. 

To find out the volume of water in the other spring Billy discovered in the GI pasture, I held an empty quart measure under the first pipe while Joe kept his eyes on his watch. The per quart average was 32 seconds, which is 128 seconds per gallon. There are 86,400 seconds in a 24 hour day, so 86,400 divided by 128 equals 675 gallons of water per day from that spring, enough to water 67 cows a year during the worst drought we’d ever experienced. 

Our only problem: There wasn’t enough grass in that small pasture to support even ten cows.  Leaving the gate open wouldn’t work either because the spring was too remote from the other pastures. Salt and other minerals are easily delivered as is additional feed, but the necessity of a nearby water supply is primary.  

 Floyd’s spring, one he discovered in a larger pasture, and yet another spring above a pecan grove—each measuring about 474 gallons per day— have carried us through the drought so far. But for the first time since we began ranching, we are worrying about having enough water for the cattle.  Drought has ruled so long we must drill another well and raise another windmill. Obviously we have spring water, however, exactly how plentiful water collected in various springs is we don’t know. All of our springs are on or near tops of mesas; according to our son’s knowledge of geology, we have typical “perched aquifers” which are trapped between a thin layer of limestone and dolomite, but these have little stored reserves unless replenished by rain. Nor do we know exactly how many others depend on the Trinity aquifer, the underground water formation in our area. 

We do know more houses are being built; consequently more wells are drilled and reports from the Texas Water Development Board state the fact that pumping from the aquifer “far exceeds recharge.” So on this small ranch in Central Texas, our need for stock water from tanks, windmills, and springs continues, and our concern about climate change grows. Inflation and recreational value have driven up the price since my mother’s first purchase. What my father used to call “goat acres” in a faintly derisive tone, and where he used to hunt dove and quail, is now also valuable for deer hunting. We see few of these birds now, and like most other ranchers, are worrying about what is happening to them. Drought, disease, and the invasion of fire ants, since quail nest on the ground are the prevalent answers. On the other hand, after being hunted to extinction by original settlers by the 1890s, whitetail deer began to drift back to our country from the south. In 1967 my father happened on a deer bed, wild gasses and small plants pressed in an oval shape under one of the native pecan trees. Forty-five years later a seasonal lease can bring as much as $1500.00 per hunter. We never lease. Even in the midst of a record drought, we still have too many deer, hunted only by our family and friends and Frances and Floyd’s two sons. Perhaps this is a landowner’s unique form of selfishness, but it’s also a way of preventing wild shots from strangers’ guns hitting our cows and calves. 

Like everyone else who owns land, we know we are only caretakers, but our ancient right to choose who will set foot on the ground remains. The old furious forms of admonition still hold: “Get out of our house! Get out of our yard! Get off our land!” We may forgive those who trespass against us, yet we state, “No trespassing.” Though the ranch is often dry, difficult to profit from, and expensive to maintain properly, it remains ours to look after until we pass the privilege to the next generation. And, unless there is a formidable climate change including far more rainfall, they will also inherit all the land’s limitations. 

 

a note from the author

In 1970, “My Brother is a Cowboy” was my 7th published short story. My first one came out in a local magazine in 1962. I established working hours, from 9:00 a.m. till 12:00 or 1:00 p.m. when working on my M.A. degree in creative writing and tend to use those same hours now. I don’t find it any easier to get a story published now than I did then. Competition is fierce. There are many excellent story writers in the U.S. Persistence is a major virtue in this field. 

 

I wrote on a typewriter before computers arrived, so had to learn how to use one, but I still write all first drafts by hand. There is some sort of magic happening between the hand and eye and the story. I don’t question this; it simply works best for me.

 

When I wrote “My Brother is a Cowboy” I was teaching part-time in the English Department at the University of Texas at Austin. The course I taught most often was called “The Modern Short Story” and began with Chekhov’s work, followed by Kafka's, Joyce's, Hemingway's, and Faulkner's plus various admirable women writers such as Porter, Welty, O’Conner, and a great many others. It was a course in comprehension, not creative writing. I learned a lot from all of them as well as from my students. I was also, with the help of my husband, raising three children, and learning how to be a rancher although we lived in Austin. In 1978, after ten years, I quit teaching in order to give more time to my own work. 

 

As I’ve grown older, I’ve turned to writing essays, another form though kin to the short-story. After all the short story evolved from the essay. I began writing at a homemade table in our bedroom, but I told myself I should be able to write anywhere including the quiet local library, rented rooms, the children’s dentist’s waiting room. Now I have an office above our garage.


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Carolyn Osborn graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a B.J. degree in 1955, and an M.A. in l959. She has won awards from P.E.N., the Texas Institute of Letters, and a Distinguished Prose Award from The Antioch Review (2003). In 2009, she received the Lon Tinkle Lifetime Achievement Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. Her stories have been included in The O. Henry Awards (Doubleday 1990) and Lone Star Literature (Norton, 2003), among numerous other anthologies. She is the author of two novels, Contrary People (Wings Press, 2012) and Uncertain Ground (Wings Press, 2009),and  and four collections of short stories, including A Horse of Another Color (University of Illinois Press, 1977), The Fields of Memory (Shearer Publishing, 1984), Warriors and Maidens (Texas Christian University Press, 1991) and Where We Are Now (Wings Press, 2014). The Book Club of Texas published an illustrated, specially bound edition of her story, The Grands (l990). Her most recent book is Durations, A Memoir and Personal Essays     

(Wings Press 2017).

Frederick C. Wilbur

 

fall 1968


AUCTION

"I saw the black cattle / as the wind whistled through my beard."

By Frederick C. Wilbur - from Roanoke Review, Fall 1968


current work


A ROOTS READING

 

Two mulberry trees grew entwined 

and by the time we bought this place 

they were more than a hug around: 

trumpet vines had laced them together, 

robin-crafted nests were badges, east and west. 

Within a dozen years, they were dying, 

shedding twigs and shards of bark, 

so I had a local man come to cut them down 

and I have burned them in the stove for a dozen more.   

He left the two stumps, seemingly one, 

a foot or so above the placid lawn 

as if he thought I’d place a cement lantern 

or a painted angel there to overlook the highway 

as a warning for the curve ahead and I could have: 

the stumps refuse to disappear and remain  

odd keepsakes in our yard. 

 

Now, to ready the property for sale, 

I dig out those cuddling stumps, 

begin with the offerings gathered to them 

of broken iron and petals of painted porcelain. 

I do not mistake my labor for indifference, 

but decode their root language, their dialect, 

the way they feel themselves around rocks, 

the hole growing larger like the loss of life’s detail, 

but I understand the burden of ancestors, 

the hidden sorrows of fathers and mothers 

so I cut the stump a foot or so below ground level 

and I borrow three or four loads of dirt 

from the woods nearby to fill  

the missing hearts, to mound a slight memorial  

for the acceptance to settle in. 

 

a note from the author

“Auction” was one of my first published poems outside school literary magazines. As an apprentice poet, I was exploring voice and tone. It derives from personal experience growing up in a small town and portrays the life of the surrounding countryside (near Waynesboro, Virginia). It is light hearted with a few cynical twinges, a comment on the commercial and social aspects of such ‘household’ auctions.

“A Roots Reading” is set as well in a small town/country setting, but is a little more first person voice. My attempt has always been to ground abstracts in the mundane to afford a ‘literal surface’ while at the same time using language to its fullest connotation. I want my work to be compelling even as it may seem understated. Hopefully, this is achieved by provoking the reader to question the ‘mystery’ of the piece. Although this piece is in free verse, I frequently write in conventional forms.


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Frederick C. Wilbur's work has appeared in many literary journals including: Shenandoah, The Lyric, The South Carolina Review, Cold Mountain Review, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Southern Poetry Review, The Atlanta Review, The Chariton Review, Roanoke Review, Able Muse, Poetry Quarterly, Greensboro Review, Slant, Appalachian Heritage, Plainsongs, Snowy Egret, POEM, and online, Verse-Virtual, Rotary Dial, and Silver Birch Press. His fourth book, a collection of poetry, As Pus Floats the Splinter Out, is to be published in 2018 by Kelsay Books. He is an architectural woodcarver and has authored three dozen articles and three books on architectural and decorative woodcarving (Guild of Master Craftsman Publications, Lewes, UK). He received a BA degree from the University of Virginia and an MA degree from the University of Vermont. He lives with my wife and family in the Blue Ridge Mountains of central Virginia.

Margaret Gibson


spring 1968


RIDING WESTWARD, EARLY MORNING

My eyes / are creased and folded like a map.
 By Margaret Gibson- From Roanoke Review, Spring 1968

By Margaret Gibson- From Roanoke Review, Spring 1968

 

current work


PASSAGE

 

And then a bird flew into my body and nested in the cuff of my shoulder.

This is the mystery of pain — it can sing.

 

I hear the wind differently now. I breathe, and my ribs are the cirrus of clouds.

There’s a river in my wrist. Daily I practice

 

eclipse, although ordinary loss will do. At night I ripen beneath a hush of stars.


a note from the author

The title of the early poem tells me I’d been reading John Donne’s "Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward.’’ Riding west, the speaker’s thoughts bend east to dwell on suffering he imagines he’d feel were he to see "flesh . . . worn by God, for his apparel, rag’d and torn." Like Donne’s speaker, mine also rides westward. I was living in Charlottesville, Virginia, and commuting over the mountains to Madison College, my first teaching job. Winding along curving roads and within a private agony, the Blue Ridge mountains seem to revolve, and I see the sun rise, "a bloodied eye." The speaker, the imagery tells us in its fraught way, is wounded and taking measure of herself. Reading the poem now, I wince at the tortured imagery. In the last lines of stanza 1 and stanza 3, I can barely make out what I mean to say. The only clear and heart rending line in the poem is interrogative: "How can love be firm/when sun is not." I was twenty-three, married too early, unable to love fully, dimly aware of needing to atone. Donne is more direct. He needs to "receive correction." He wants to be worth God’s anger and energy. In my poem the penultimate statement, "I died last spring and sent my blood into the earth," does not convince. It overreaches.  

In a more recent poem, the title "Passage" implies a sense of movement, but here the movement is an internal one, not from place to place, but from one state of being to another. Also a poem about suffering, "Passage" relies on images of the natural world as well. (Some things don’t change.) The speaker is not, however, a spectator; the pain enters her, and she does not distance it. The speaker has, by accepting pain itself, become no other than the world. There is no boundary between them. The bird flies into her body, and it sings; there’s a river in her wrist. We know it’s a poem about loss; but what has been gained by loss is a fullness of being, a transformed being. The poem is one from my latest collection of poems, slated for publication in 2018—Not Hearing the Wood Thrush. In neither of the two poems of mine printed here is there an appeal to a Christian God. In "Passage," the road the speaker is on is the eight-fold path, the middle way.  I travel it still.


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Margaret Gibson is the author of ten books of poems and one prose memoir. Her newest book of poems, Not Hearing the Wood Thrush, will be published by LSU Press in the fall of 2018. A native of Virginia, now a resident of Preston, Connecticut, she is a nationally and internationally recognized poet. She has received numerous honors, including the Connecticut Book Award and the Melville Kane Award, and her collection The Vigil was a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry.